Sunday, December 31, 2023

Year of the Dungeon

2023 was the year of the dungeon. 

For me, at least. But 
among the blogs I've read this year that seems to be the case for many others.

I am not just referring to Dungeon23, where participants construct a dungeon over the course of the year by writing one room per day. I didn't participate, and haven't really followed the projects of those who have. Though I thought it was a splendid idea, I was already underway on a giant dungeon project when Sean McCoy issued his fateful challenge. Alas.

From the end of last year to now, the end of 2023, I have created and am in the process of running a megadungeon, with as much attention to developing a "full" dungeon campaign experience as possible. I'm talking about sublevels, secrets, lore, weirdo NPCs, and as many opportunities for the coveted "emergent narrative" as I could manage.

Pedro Correa

Despite playing D&D on and off since I was but a lad in the 3.5 era, this is the first time I've ever sat down to make a full campaign-scale dungeon. My desire was to create as faithful an approximation as I could to a true old-school style megadungeon, which meant adhering closely to the foundational assumptions of D&D while straying where necessary (ie frequently) for the sake of practicality, cohesion, and personal preference. So there are orcs and pit traps and stuck doors but also enough outside material that certain points might struggle to be recognized as classic D&D fantasy. Turns out, when you work on a creative endeavor long enough your individual tastes sneak in whether you want them to or not. 

Obviously, given that what everyone is doing here can in some way be traced back to a game with "Dungeon" in the title, dungeons are a regular topic of conversation. But instead of merely discussing particulars or sharing inspiration, there was starting in about early/mid-2022 a surge of excellent posts about that raw and elemental process of turning a blank set of rooms into a vivid and textured underworld. 

Emil Nilsson

It started in the Spriggan's Den back in 2022, with Monsters and Treasures in the B/X Dungeon. Yora identifies the golden ratio of BX dungeon design, figuring a platonic 18-room dungeon with additional thoughts on treasure placement and experience. The act of turning the probabilities of dungeon rooms in BX into a statistically average dungeon is a simple transformation on the surface, but offers a novel perspective on creating dungeons that is arguably easier to build around than the stocking procedure from the book. 

In Bite-Sized Dungeons, Marcia B. at Traverse Fantasy adapts the statistically average dungeon to OD&D, and then distills it into a 6-room dungeon experience, complete with layout, which in a perfect world would replace all references to the 5-room dungeon. While nothing about these dungeons are "mega," this is the formula I have taken to following for secret levels and monster lairs. 

Phlox at Whose Measure God Could Not Take elevated Yora's already-lofty 18-room dungeon with 20-Block Dungeon Stocking, adding incisive and well-reasoned notes on crucial dungeon elements not covered by stocking procedures. The post goes above and beyond basic room stocking to articulate the actual utility and intention behind each step of the dungeon-designing process. The list of recommended dungeon features, added with the platonic dungeon block, should be recognized as a more specific and utilitarian version of the indispensable Dungeon Checklist

Warren D. of the I Cast Light blog has been doing a sensational job getting gritty and granular on room stocking principles. EMPTY BUT NOT NOTHING: Thoughts on Actionable Empty Rooms is a quick, clear, and concise write-up on just how exactly to use "empty" rooms to contribute to the larger dungeon experience. I know there's that other guide on empty rooms, and as a resource for random tables and lists it's still great, but Warren's post packs more value word-for-word and I find it to be overall more practical. 

Vile Cult of Shapes delivered a one-two punch directly to my frontal lobe with How to start adventuring and dungeon generator, two posts that explain both writing a campaign from zero and also just the entire creative process in uncomplicated terms. No, I haven't actually followed the procedures, and no, I didn't need a blog post to tell me that I can watch movies or go for a walk if I need inspiration, but that's beside the point—these methods shows us a way to make wondrous and meaningful campaigns with as little mental clutter as possible. 

Miranda of In Places Deep revealed her Stocking Procedure, offering a straightforward method of building out dungeon floors accounting for monster placement and treasure distribution that is sensible and conducive to good internal cohesion without compromising on organizational ease. Miranda is a veteran blogger whose work I really admire, and reading her describe the basic blueprints with which she builds her dungeons is like hearing some sort of artist master describe their process and thinking "hey I can do that too."

Honorable mention goes to the honorable Nick LS Whelan, whose post Two Week Megadungeon will, I predict, be instrumental in the creation of thousands of megadungeons in the near future. Like a blade through fine fabric Nick cuts down the myth that making a campaign-scale dungeon has to be a huge undertaking, and that all it takes is clear goals and a couple working sessions. The reason this is an honorable mention is purely because I had already largely wrapped up my megadungeon prep by the time the post hit the feed—turns out my approach to making a dungeon is strikingly similar to this one, except that I took like a year instead of two weeks and my maps are handmade but still kind of garbaggio. Oh well. Next time I get the urge to pull out the notebook and start a new megadungeon, whenever that may be, I will by hook or crook finish it in two weeks because of this post.  

There are probably a bunch of relevant posts I forgot about or haven't read. If you know of one or even wrote one yourself, please send it my way. Maybe even drop it in the comments for others to see. 

Anyway, the true lesson I got from all this, one of those things that you understood intellectually but don't truly grasp until you come out the other side, is that all these procedures and methods and best practices are but means to the end of creating a fulfilling and engaging experience at the table. What this means is, in a sense it doesn't always matter if one floor of the dungeon has four special rooms instead of three, but more importantly, you should find or develop a procedure that you know you can trust to deliver those meaningful game experiences. Once you do, you can sit back and let the system of generation work on its own, and you get to have the experience of dungeon crafting be just as much about discovery and exploration for you as crawling is for the players. 

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Chaos are the bad guys

"A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners... many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.” Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“'Those two worlds — and many more for all I know — are in some way the same. The same fight was being waged, here the Nazis and there the Middle World; but in both places, Chaos against Law, something old and wild and blind at war with man and the works of man. In both worlds it was the time of need for Denmark and France.'” Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions

“Brigands are loosely organized outlaws and renegade mercenaries who live by raiding towns and robbing caravans and travelers.” Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Expert Rulebook

A big reason why some elfgamers reject alignment is that they feel it's limiting. I disagree. Alignment can be a generative force in a campaign, because at its core it's about conflict

Frankly, D&D shat the bed on alignment when good and evil were added, and shat it again when articulating alignment as personal morals instead of distinct factions, or whatever was going on in OD&D. A lot of people recognize instinctively that these are overly simplistic ways to frame personal ethics (and if you don't, here is a solid summary), but alas we persist in the shadow of this twice-shat bed. With that being said, I'm going to be a shooter for Gygax et. al for a second and explain why the classic perspective of alignment-as-ideology is actually (kinda) an effective formulation of the central tension of D&D's implied setting, working backwards from the assumptions the game gives us. 

There's a lot of talk about what's "implied" about the world in old school D&D editions but tiptoeing dancer-like around the discussion of to what extent D&D can be perceived as colonialist fantasy etc. predicated on assumptions of untamed wilderness and savage others etc. and to what extent this is problematic etc. the most compelling interpretation of D&D's implied setting (meaning what is communicated through the descriptions of monsters, wilderness, and so on) is not some new-world myth of untrammeled wilderness, as many presume, but rather a post-collapse dark age—hence all the dungeons and bizarre magic and treasure for us to find. The dangers that lurk outside of the little bastions of civilization are a direct result of overlapping cultural, economic, and infrastructural breakdowns of a past supercivilization.

Some historians say the fall of the Roman Empire was such a catastrophe that archaeological evidence suggests people in Britain lost the ability to make wheel-thrown pottery. The scale of catastrophe would be indistinguishable from a slow apocalypse to the people living through it. Total bummer when it happens in real life, but ripe territory for D&D: imagine a Mad-Max-style landscape of lawless territories and hard-bitten settlements, with roving warbands of ruthless warriors bearing a motley patchwork of armor and weaponry salvaged from a lost civilization. But in a fantasy setting: less football pads and flamethrowers and more gothic plate mail and halberds (and also maybe flamethrowers).

Where does alignment come in? It's deciding what to do now that the old world has ended. Law and Chaos are not (solely) found in the quasi-religious spiritualism of Moorcock's or Warhammer's cosmic conflict, but in the choices people are confronted with when humanity is driven to the edge. Does one try to preserve what is left and rebuild amongst the ruins, or do take what they can and burn the rest? Both endeavors have their appeal, and more importantly, both have their place within a campaign world. But when perceived through the framework the game offers us, chaos is the anti-human impulse. 

When the brigands take up arms and raid the village, they are not doing so out of any specific malice to the townsfolk but rather pure self-interest and a straightforward disregard for the wellbeing of those they deem lesser. Chaos is the rule of might making right, it's the sentiment that the world can burn as long as I get mine. When you understand chaos through such a lens it makes a lot more sense why Poul Anderson identified fascism as an ideology at odds with the works of mankind in Three Hearts and Three Lions, the book that gave alignment to D&D. In terms of societal structure, alignment can be looked at as the difference between relational and coercive hierarchy. Lawful societies may be strict and repressive, but chaotic societies are ruled purely through the use of force and subjugation. Skulls for the skull throne. 

I am sympathetic to attempts at rehabilitating chaos. The instinct to invert the conventional morality of law and chaos is an understandable one, especially considering how many real-world institutions of authority benefit a privileged few at the expense of everyone else. But while this approach offers a compelling alternate perspective on chaos as a defiant and liberatory counterpoint to law's oppressive authoritarianism, it relegates chaos to that of a response to a status quo; any competing viewpoint is secondary to resistance against the current thing. Instead, I feel that alignment offers more when law and chaos represent their own sets of opposing principles that are in dynamic competition with one another. Of course, this ultimately comes down to personal preference and what kind of narrative you want to engage with.

In this way, the lens of alignment-as-ideology can also be applied to orcs and the age-old issue of "evil" races. Forget about trying to untangle the fraught presumption of monstrous humanoids being objectively evil—they are just in competition with everyone else. And they're doing well enough to pose an existential threat to humanity. Our peak has come and gone. Now it's their turn. Gothmog put it best: "The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come." 

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Juiblex and the One Flesh



The only constant, such as it is, is change. All that exists can be altered. Not even the gods are spared from change.  

In many cases, the act of change is a subtractive one. Entropy is wrought upon the subject through the chaos of transformation. Objects break down, ideas lose meaning—each alteration, in some small way, breaks down what was hard, certain, and true into that which is soft, malleable, and uncertain. And at the end of it all is a great formless mass; an ever-flowing, ever-shifting soup incomprehensible in size and scale of all things altered beyond the boundaries of form and reason. This is Juiblex, the Faceless God, and by its will the world will melt. 



Structure and individuation are untenable to Juiblex. Each step toward the complete dissolution of such things brings an object or idea closer to perfection. No distinction need be drawn between metamorphosis and decay; in the doctrine of Juiblex they are one in the same. 

Within the purview of the Faceless God are the aspects of mutation, transience, amalgamation, and deliquescence. 

It is known as the chaos lord of oozes and slimes, and indeed such beings are the burbling, quivering children of the Great Glistener. All oozes that lurk in the dark and forgotten places under the earth trace their origin to the ichorous discharges of Juiblex that it ejects into the cosmos. The most sacred of all its children is green slime, the loathsome substance that devours any metal and organic material it comes in contact with and instantly converts it into more of itself. 

The most deranged of scholars and radical of heretics believe that Juiblex is the dream of an unborn being. Something as yet unformed yearns for the convergence of all living matter on earth to form a single, perfect organism—the Faceless God itself. 


The followers of Juiblex are identified by outsiders as less a formal religious order and more a collection of desires and observed phenomenon, referred to loosely as the One Flesh. It can be found in any settlement of sufficient size, or anywhere where large quantities of diverse people groups gather. Most followers are unaware of who or what they follow—while they may not have a name for their god or conceptualize it as a distinct entity, they act on its behalf without heed of who or what they do it for.

There is a formal form of worship, though it has no name. The ritual involves members of the One Flesh congregating in abandoned or decrepit areas and engaging in vigorous, violent bacchanal, bolstered by heavy use of psychoactive substances. Some would say that this is merely a practice of hedonistic revelry, but in truth the purposes of the ritual extend far beyond the scope of personal pleasure. Observers have described horrifying scenes of men and women  of all ages and even animals fornicating, fighting, and writhing together in an anonymous mass of bodies; of bodily fluids of all sorts spilled, mixed, rubbed upon each other, bathed in, and imbibed in various ways. Most haunting of all, some have even claimed to witness people seem to melt into one another, as though freed from their anatomical constraints.  

Participating in such an orgy is the first and only step in joining the One Flesh. After an aspirant engages in the ritual, they will immediately feel an empathic bond to all other followers of Juiblex, and slowly lose their sense of personhood in favor of the collective identity of the One Flesh. When that occurs, new urges and desires will emerge in their minds—these are the whims of Juiblex, which its strange followers are compelled to obey. 

Operations of the One Flesh are erratic and hard to predict due to its diffuse organization. They include the contamination of water supplies; the gestation and delivery of chimerical monstrosities; the defacement of monuments, landmarks, and historical records; mutagens; experimental surgeries; radical alchemy; and unstable amalgamations. The primary goal of all their strange undertakings is to bring more individuals into the warm, viscid folds of the One Flesh. Often, this is done through promoting feelings of disillusionment and isolation among a populace. Social pariahs and disaffected outcasts are the most likely to join the One Flesh, both for the promise of connection and the disregard they may have for their own personhood. 

Devotees of the Faceless God may ambush a traveling caravan, slaughter its guards, and induce a deep, narcotic coma in the noncombatant travelers. Then, after inflicting severe-yet-non debilitating disfigurements upon them, the devotees will sort the travelers into small groups (taking care not to pair individuals with too many similar characteristics together), take their money and valuables, and spirit them to nearby cities where they will be deposited in slums and other poor areas with little memory of who they are or how they got there. When each person experiences the peak of their alienation, they are most susceptible to the burblings of Juiblex that invite them to take part in the One Flesh ritual. Eventually, a new chapter is born. 


Should enough people take part in the orgy, the true ritual transformation begins. Bodies release their physical forms and merge into one another to form a great tumorous mass of living matter as big as a house. Looks like a giant knotty ball of melting fat and throbbing viscera shot through with multijointed limbs; smells like intense body odor, nose-burning bile, and meat on the verge of going rancid. Winking ventricles open and close between blobbly layers of slick meat, oozing mucus and smelling the air for organic material that bloated elephantine pseudopods in horrid approximations of various limbs sprout forth to claw it toward. Great swollen flesh sacs burble out from the mound like bubbles rising to the surface, from which burst expanding masses of viscous bile that collapse into sizzling puddles to digest the matter around them such that it can be consumed and anabolized by the ever-growing flesh mound. The mound continues expanding in this way until no more viable material is left to consume or it collapses under its own weight, at which point it sheds sheets of flesh that slough off its sides as they melt into green slime. As it does so, the mound releases waves of mutational impulses like radiation, inviting nearby creatures to take part in a new incarnation of the One Flesh. 


Fighting one of those big blobby things: It's a bad idea. By the time one appears in an adventure, it's probably already veered into fail-state territory. But given how that's not always an unlikely outcome, here are the stats. 

One Flesh Bloom
HD: 20 (90 hp) AC: 9 Move: 20' Morale: 12 Attack: Elephantine pseudopod (2d8, save vs. paralysis or be subsumed by the blob) x 4 
Immune to acid, poison, and psychic attacks.
  • Subsume: if the bloom moves into a creature's space or attacks with a pseudopod, the target must save vs. paralysis or become engulfed. On a success, the creature is harmless knocked back 10'. On a failure, the creature pulled into the blob takes 1d10 damage each round from being crushed+digested, and can only be pulled out by a combined strength score of 17. Engulfed creatures can damage the bloom using small weapons without needing to make an attack roll. 
  • Digestive Bile: Creatures in melee range save vs. breath weapon each round or take 2d6 acid damage.
  • The bloom reduces incoming damage by 3, unless the damage source is fire, cold, or holy in nature. 
  • The bloom gains 1d8 hp each round, capable of exceeding its hp maximum.  For every 30 hp the bloom has over 100, it gains another attack and 10' of move speed. 
  • If the bloom is reduced to 0 hp OR reaches 500 hp, it can no longer sustain itself and collapses into 20 HD worth of green slime. Everyone in a 120' radius must save vs. wands or mutate, and everyone in a 15-mile radius must save vs. spells at +4 or become compelled to join the One Flesh.

Joining the One Flesh:
After taking part in the One Flesh ritual, make a Wisdom test with a -2 penalty. You can willingly choose to fail the roll. On a failure, you join the One Flesh, your alignment becomes Chaotic, and you lose 2 points of Charisma due to depersonalization. In exchange you can transmit empathic messages with others of the One Flesh, who you recognize at a glance. Slimes and oozes no longer attack you. You can speak with them freely, but they typically don't have much to say. You can command ooze once per day, affecting a number of HD of ooze equal to your level.

The first time you take part in the ritual, take 1d6 damage and save vs. poison or contract a disease (puts you out of commission; save again every week, three successes means you survive, three failures means you die). If you avoid contracting a disease, you still suffer a -2 penalty to all rolls the next day as you recover.  

Once joined, you must take part in the ritual whenever you spend at least a month on downtime (ie not going on adventures). The ritual still deals 1d6 damage, but you are no longer in danger of contracting a disease and receive a +1 bonus to all rolls the next day as you bask in putrescent afterglow. 

Treasures valued by devotees of Juiblex:

1 Mixed potions (roll twice on the potion list and once on the miscibility table, ignoring the instant explosion result)

2 Expensive alchemy equipment

3 Green slime kept in all manner of vessels

4 Melted ingots

5 Opalized ooze 

6 Oozified opal (wax-sealed in long vials, looks like a lava lamp)

7 Pearlescent polyps

8 Jade amphoras

9 Rare and expensive oils

10 Royal jellies

11 Squishy globules containing hallucinogenic, corrosive, or soporific gases  

12 Imperfect attempts at the universal solvent: liquids that completely dissolve only one type of material (wood, stone, metal, etc.) 

Powers granted to those chosen as champions of the Faceless God:

1 Oil-slick skinfilm

2 Acid excretion

3 Rapid regeneration

4 Self-mutate/cause mutation 

5 Amorphous form

6 Lashing tendrils 

7 Malleable body

8 Command ooze

9 Cling to sheer surfaces

10 Chameleon skin

11 Induce intoxication 

12 Projectile vomit on demand


Clerics and acolytes of Juiblex can spew out 1 HD of green slime per day. The substance doubles as their unholy symbol, which is why many keep a small vial on their person, careful to hide it away lest it dissolve in the sun. 


Groups of 3–10 acolytes can merge to become a single fleshy monstrosity, pooling their HD and hp totals and getting a number of attacks equal to the amount of acolytes merged. This is an excruciating process and usually done as a last resort

Allied monsters:

1 Oozes, slimes, and jellies of all types

2 Mutants and mutated versions of local fauna 

3 Ropers

4 Otyughs

5 Giant slugs, leeches, and other slimy mollusks

6 Chimeras

7 Doppelgängers 

8 Flesh golems

9 Trolls

10 Gibbering mouthers

11 Malformed lycanthropes

12 Abominations augmented through fleshcrafting


Traps and hazards found in their pustulant lairs:

1 Camouflaged pits

2 Mutagens and flesh-warping parasites

3 Noxious miasmas

4 Quicksand-like sucking floors

5 Melting chambers; collapsing ceilings

6 Oozes, lurking or disguised

7 Seemingly mundane objects that fuse to the skin

8 Mysterious pools

9 Experimental gene-splicing machines 

10 Slippery floors. Slippery stairs. Slippery walls. Slippery everything. 

11 Birthing sacs and spawning vats 

12 Volatile alchemical experiments 


Saturday, September 30, 2023

Probably the meanest cursed sword I can think of

It looks like a normal sword, of course. Doesn't detect as magic, immune to remove curse, dispel evil, etc. etc. 

When a PC picks it up, tell the player to pick another player at the table. Don't give them any context—just tell them to choose. They cannot choose themselves. 

An unsightly black mark forms on the forehead of the chosen player's character. The mark gives the character -1 to attack and damage rolls, and the bearer of the sword gets +1 to both. Additionally, 10% of all xp the marked character were to earn goes to the bearer. 

If the character who bears the sword were to die, the marked character dies instead. 

When this happens, the player whose character holds the sword chooses a player again. Both that player's character and the previously chosen player's new character receives a mark and penalty, and the bonus to the bearer increases to +2. The same player can be chosen again, meaning their character gains an additional mark and a cumulative penalty. If the bearer of the sword were to die and more than one character is marked, the player chooses which one dies instead.

This process repeats until every character at the table is marked save for the bearer, or a total of six marks have been distributed. The next time a situation were to occur where a PC would be chosen to gain a mark, tell the player to pick another player at the table as normal. When a new player is chosen, all pre-existing marks disappear. The sword immediately transfers to the chosen player's character, and a mark forms on the forehead of the previous bearer. The process begins anew, with the previous bearer being the first marked character. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Notes on OSR-style social challenges

We know that rolling ability tests or skill checks for social situations is an ill-considered way to resolve social situations because it stops players from thinking—it turns a strategic challenge into a dice roll.

That being said, having no procedure for dealing with social challenges could lead to a lot of circuitous and time-consuming back-and-forthing between the players and the DM until it is decided that the situation is resolved either favorably or unfavorably for the players. Relying on DM fiat is fine in a lot of circumstances but too much can lead to decisions that feel arbitrary—the DM either lets the players do what they want, in which case they can feel like they are getting away with something, or not, in which case they can feel like the DM is being hard and punitive. 

The reaction roll does a good job of providing a simple mechanic for social challenges. The offer refused+lowered standing/offer refused/unsure/offer accepted/offer accepted+added benefit dynamic complements the 2d6 probability spread well. 

But what about the actual challenge? 

The obvious answer: PCs should to be able to do something gain additional bonuses to the roll. What Arnold K. brought up some months back in his post on parleying can be applied to all forms of social interaction where the desires of the PCs and the NPCs are different. Adding a goal, value, or motivation to an otherwise one-note NPC not only makes the world seem more vivid etc. but more importantly gives the character something the PCs can latch on to and use in negotiation. 

I'd only want to do this if the players are going to want something from an NPC that they are not necessarily willing to offer. You don't want to add texture to every NPC for the same reason you wouldn't want every supporting character in a book or movie to have a full backstory and character arc—it adds a lot of extraneous detail that pulls focus away the important parts.

The game turns into a playacting slogathon if every pre-dungeon supply run involves stilted RP with a shopkeeper. Feeling like you need to fully roleplay every conversation the PCs have is a mistake a lot of newer DMs run into, but really you only need to zoom in on the things that actually provide engaging gameplay. 

If, for example, the PCs have a fake gem or conspicuous stolen art piece they are trying to dupe someone into buying, considering the identity of the NPC and what they value suddenly becomes more important. Are they religious, and thus more willing to trust people of similar faith? Do they like to drink perhaps a bit too much, and thus  inclined to be genial with someone who takes them out for a beer? Instead of just having a flat chance of the object getting identified, there is now a way for the players to strategize a method of maximizing their chances for the shopkeeper in question to agree to buy the thing. 

Of course, these features would need to be telegraphed. The shopkeeper has to be seen displaying a holy symbol or acting a bit buzzed before the players can know how to game them. 

This is the kernel of a social challenge: the PCs want something from an NPC; the NPC in the way of what they want has a discernible characteristic, and it's up to the players to identify and exploit that characteristic to gain the NPC's favor. Bonuses to the reaction roll could range from +1 to +3 depending on how much the players invest into their efforts.

Brainstorming a couple NPC values + ways to telegraph them:

1. Romance. Flirts unabashedly with the prettiest member of the party. 

2. Kindness. Mopey and dejected. Perks up at the slightest compliment.

3. Booze. Heavy eyelids, slurred speech, periodically pulls from a flask.

4. Faith. Casually recites lines of scripture. Wears a holy symbol and/or has one prominently displayed somewhere. 

5. Flattery. Loud and boastful. Demands to be called "sir" or "madam" or by some other official-sounding title. 

6. Status. Snooty social climber. Gaudy clothes, always gossiping, directs attention to the most important-seeming person in the room.  

7. Company. Quiet and sullen at first, but will launch into an animated conversation at first opportunity.  

8. Niche interest. Conspicuously displays their fixation (garish hats, porcelain dolls, painted tortoises, etc.).  

9. Process. Surrounded by piles of forms and paperwork; constantly refers to various rules and regulations; fervent adherence to the strictures of exhaustive bureaucracy. 

10. Relief. Currently burdened by some misfortune like a stolen heirloom, sullied reputation, blood feud, weird curse, etc. made obvious to the PCs.

Obviously not an exhaustive list. The point is to give something the players can see that makes them think "hmm maybe that's something we can exploit." 

These sorts of desires/values can stay general or become really specific as the situation demands. More challenging social challenges would necessitate more specific values. Perhaps the only thing the high slayer of the headsman's guild values more than duty is his beloved golden python he keeps as a pet, hidden somewhere in his watchtower lair. Good luck figuring that one out.  

This post from Was It Likely? provides another great option (by way of this post from To Distant Lands)  for creating NPCs with motives and desires that have fuck-all to do with the PCs. Allow them to permeate and enrich your mental ecosystem. 

What are social challenges for?

Like traps, puzzles, and monsters, social challenges should act as an obstacle between the PCs and their goal (which is in most cases treasure, but y'know not always). Social challenges fit nicely in areas where traps and monsters aren't appropriate, like in settlements, or when you want to add more variety to an otherwise challenge-rich environment.

While combat and puzzles can contribute to the adventuresome spirit of the game, social challenges are in many cases better suited for practicality. When the players want something that shouldn't be too easy to accomplish, popping in an NPC that tells them "no" can often be all you need in the way of an obstacle.

Of course, the PCs could always just choose not to engage and just be like "Hey, you should let us pass we're friendly and you can trust us," in which case just a flat reaction roll would work. But an additional dimension to an NPC opens up new avenues for the players, similar to how more detailed and interactive elements in a combat encounter give the PCs more things to play around with. Not to mention they could always resort to violence or magic or whatever. 

I find that players are less like to take the mercenary/murderhobo approach to dealing with NPCs when they are given another option to deal with them. Like Arnold's example in the post linked above, it's no wonder players would default to killing every guard that gets in their way if every one is perfectly disciplined and unable to be bribed, intimidated, or otherwise convinced. But give a PC a reason to get shitfaced with one and they'll take it, 9 times out of 10. 

Art by Max Ernst, an eminently D&Dable surrealist.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Baroque ancient airship wreckages

The boat was abandoned and empty. Its motors sent up slow violet motes through a rift in the deck: small worms of light that clung to the metal surfaces, fastened on Hornwrack’s mail shirt, and clustered round the steel fillet which bound back his hair. Further in, navigation instruments ticked and sang; he could hear them. It was thick with dust in there. 

-from A Storm of Wings, by M. John Harrison


Forget steampunky dirigibles. These are the grand antediluvian sky-vessels constructed and used by the long-lost, far-advanced ancient civilization that casts its shadow over your setting. 

Cost 10 times that of a seafaring vessel of comparable size. Cannot be bought; instead, must be built. Blueprints are required for construction, the rarity of which are comparable to treasure maps and high-level spell scrolls. 

An airship takes one week to build per 1000 gp of its base price. Given the strange and at times inscrutable workings of ancient airships, construction can regularly run into setbacks and mishaps. Each week of construction, there is a 1:6 chance of an issue occurring, necessitating another week and another 1000 gp before the project can be completed. The chance of failure can be mitigated for each piece harvested from a crashed airship (see below)—every curio salvaged ensures a week where no mishap occurs. 

Alternatively, if the PCs have enough clout with dwarves, they can be deployed to work on an airship using the Dwarf Science procedure. 

Prices and times can further be reduced if an intact airship is refurbished.

Airship wreckage salvaging procedure

Put an airship wreckage or several somewhere out of the way on your map. Good fodder for rumors, treasure maps, random hex map stocking, and so on. 

Everyone attempting to salvage an airship ruin makes a search roll every hour. Search rolls here are the same for ones in dungeons—roll 1d6 and on a 1 you find something, 1-2 if you're an elf or dwarf. On a success, they roll on the table below. There are 3d6 total items that can be salvaged from an airship wreck, rolled in advance.

  1. A sail or tarp covering. Completely frictionless on one side. 1. 5x5 2. 10x5 3. 10x10 4. 10x20 
  2. A cloudy flexible tube, 1d10+10 feet long. Nearly indestructible, invulnerable to corrosion, and completely nonconductive to heat or cold. 
  3. A set of 1d6 gears of variable size made out of iridescent metal. Fitting them next to each other causes them to spin on their own. The gears range from the size of a coin to the size of a wagon wheel. 
  4. A translucent cobalt-blue crystal shard. Floats in the air as though unaffected by the earth’s gravity. 
  5. 1d4 gasbags filled with luminiferous aether. Opening one fills a 30x30’ area with opaque, shimmering fog that casts light in an additional 30’ radius and dissipates in one turn. Inhaling it makes you giddy and lightheaded. 
  6. 1d10x10 yards of string-like filament made from alchemical glass. Nearly invisible and tough to cut through, but can be shattered with only a bit of blunt force. 
  7. Hollow mithril rods from the ship’s frame. Each as strong as a crowbar but as light as a feather. 
  8. 1d4+1 black metal disks each roughly the size of a plate. They act as powerful magnets, but only attract and repel each other. 
  9. A peculiar, oversized astrolabe covered in verdigris. A dried crust has formed around where the sections of the mechanisms meet, marking where some internal fluid vital to the operation of the device escaped. 
  10. Shards of the ship’s crystalline hull; complicated shatter patterns suggest a crystal structure found nowhere in nature. 
  11. The ships’s machine brain, the size of a large crate thoroughly greebled with esoteric mechanical components. Clings to a form of artificial sentience already alien to us, made even more so by the senescence of untold centuries. Yellow light pours out fitfully from cracks in its warbling chassis. Very cumbersome, but mitigates the chance of setbacks for three weeks instead of one if used for airship construction. 
  12. A volatile engine core encased in a cage of faulty stabilizers. Angrily spews fast-moving sparks when jostled, each one flitting about urgently before popping in a burst of light and heat. Sufficient impact causes it to combust in an explosion equivalent to a fireball dealing 6 dice of damage. 
  13. A finial kite, smelling of ozone. Standing near it makes your mouth taste copper and your hair stand on end. Attracts all lightning and electrical discharge in a wide area. 
  14. A long pinion with a sabrelike edge. Completely rigid when cutting against wind, otherwise as flexible as a length of fabric.
  15. A plate-sized gyroscope contraption, flat on the top, with a long needle protruding from a central gap on the bottom. The contraption will always stay upright and balanced as long as it is placed on its needle tip, regardless of if it is moved or if any weight is placed atop it. 
  16. Spigotted keg filled with a heavy orange gas. The gas is almost as dense as water, and can easily support anything buoyant as long as the weight is evenly distributed. The keg holds 15 “gallons” of gas. 
  17. An energy cannon charge; looks like a long crystal cylinder housing a lightning bolt, shifting and wavering in slow-motion. Can function as a wand of lightning bolts usable by anyone, but has a 1:4 chance of exploding each time it's used. 
  18. Six plate-sized golden rings joined together to form a cube, within which is housed a delicate assemblage of wires, gears, and springs of various materials. 
  19. Pressurized tank filled with quicksilver lubricant, dented on one side. Despite being toxic, the lubricant can extinguish fires, melt ice, and prevent metal from degrading. 
  20. Intact crystal navigation pane provides a real-time heads-up display of altitude, direction, bearing, and other navigational measurements, all in the severe lettering of the ancients.
Among the other things searchers may find are cracked quartz displays, acid-chewed structural panels, dust-choked machinery, crushed fuselage, charred casings, shattered instruments, rotting metal, and everything else too broken to salvage. 

It’s almost certainly the case that there are other important and valuable ship components present in the ruins that the PCs may pass over simply by not being able to recognize what exactly they are, or too buried to find or too dirty to recognize. The parts listed here are merely the things that they may find that might provide some immediate curiosity or have some readily apparent use or value.

Airships wreckages are, predictably, dangerous to explore. When a character rolls a 6 on their search roll, a complication occurs.
  1. Chemical spray. Save vs. breath or take 1d8 damage and be blinded for that many hours. 
  2. Ooze leakage. Green slime spews from a wall or ceiling. 
  3. Radiation wave. Save vs. poison or lose 1d3 points of Constitution immediately and again each week, unless treated with a Neutralize Poison spell. 
  4. Electricity arc. Save vs. wands or take 1d8 damage. Characters wearing metal armor take double damage, half on a successful save. 
  5. Fume miasma. Save vs. spells or be put to sleep for 2d6 hours, dreaming fitfully of frenzied lights filling a night sky and crumbling cities falling eternally into an endless void. 
  6. Structural failure. Save vs. paralysis or take 1d10 damage from a falling bit of hull. On taking 6 or more damage, the character is pinned, and can only be released by a combined strength score of 18 or more. 
  7. Combustion. As per a Fireball cast by a MU of 8th level. The number of salvageable items remaining in the wreck is reduced by 1d4. 
  8. Something else is creeping around here. Roll on the local encounter table.