Sunday, June 30, 2024

Cleft in twain

Next session from the Flying Island adventure. Continued from here.

The rest of the party, elsewhere in the temple, had been poking around a sparse room with cloudstuff in place of floor—it felt like stepping on cotton candy. They pass time discovering where the safe spots were amid patches of cloud too insubstantial to hold weight, and otherwise pondering what their next move should be and how long to wait for Hawthorne before heading onward. Suddenly, the temple begins to shake. Streams of dust pour from the ceiling. From outside, sounds of fierce gale and a great winged beast, punctuated by whoops and shouts of frenzied tengu-men. It was decided unanimously among the party that whatever had happened, their absent comrade was to blame. 

Meanwhile, knocked on his ass but otherwise unharmed, Hawthorne the cleric felt he had done enough for the time being and decided to rejoin the party. As the temple quaked around him, he made his way back to where he initially split and stood before the passageway everyone else opted to take. It was a covered walk, exposed to the outside. Dragon sounds and angry tengu flapping past made it clear there was some risk to crossing. But luck was in his favor, and the party once more was whole. 

Cosimo Galluzzi

Traveling north, the party enters a storage/maintenance room. The chamber was secure enough that the room barely trembled, yet a flurry of stirges (wouldn't be a 1st level OSR adventure without them) nonetheless were agitated by the commotion and rushes at the PCs. A few quick and dirty combat rounds follow, during which time Gront the fighter catches not one but two of flying menaces and stuffs them in a sack. Some blood was lost but otherwise the party was fine, the living trophies a boost to their resolve. It was then that a PC noticed a porthole-style window on the far end of the room, through which all that could be seen was a giant red eye peering back. Slit pupil dilates in a moment of recognition—and then the dragon flies off. No hiding from it now; the great beast knows of the party.  

Undaunted, the PCs thoroughly search the workroom. Slyq the thief discovers a big key and three potions: stinking cloud, ooze formand liquid sword. [Three might have been excessive but I had just finished compiling a d100 list and was eager to put it to use.] Someone pockets a chisel and other stone-working tools and the group moves on.

The tallest tower of the temple lies to the east, where presumably waits the Mistral Horn, but getting there requires crossing a courtyard and climbing a staircase fully exposed to the wind, dragon, and tengu-men, and so was out of the question. Instead, players opt to descend the altar room staircase to see what more the undercroft holds. 

Darting past the stone guardian again (No time to shed tears over Berda's still-bleeding corpse) and crawling over a giant stuck fan in a stagnant circulation vent, the party finds themselves in the tomb of some kind of high priest. A grand sarcophagus covered in fine etchings sits atop a dias, flanked by two statues of armored warriors, oversized halberds gripped in menacing anticipation. 

Dear readers, believe me when I tell you this trap was given ample warning. All but a sign saying something like "the statues will swing at you if you lift the sarcophagus lid without disarming the trigger latch." Maybe I could have made the latch more obvious and threw in a corpse or two but alas I felt it fair enough as it was. 

And here is where poor Hawthorne's luck ran out: with the aid of Gront the fighter, the two PCs throw care to the wind and lift the sarcophagus' lid. The rest of the party stands by watching, deciding it best to just let their two headstrong companions do their thing. Just as the faintest glimmer of treasure could be spied within the casket, the mechanized statues click to action and swing their fearsome weapons. Saves are rolled; Gront dodges just in time to avoid the worst of the blow, earning a clean cut to the arm. But, regaining his bearing, he hears the cries of shock and dismay of the rest of the party. His deceased comrade was split in two, twain halves cleft by the now-dormant statuary. 

Friday, May 31, 2024

The Walled Gardens of Nisk

I've been experimenting with writing city adventure locations with minimum-necessary detail for gameplay. The intention is to have the foundation of a place made and ready to go, so that when a "go to x location and accomplish y task" adventure is called for the x part is ready and accounted for above and beyond what is necessary for the y. 

It's not too difficult to come up with a bespoke location for an adventure, but for a city game where players are more free to wander around wherever they want it's useful to have locations that can be run on their own without the players having a specific impetus to be there. The party might journey to the Place of Masks to steal a mcguffin but if they just stumble upon it I want there to be enough material for spontaneous adventure. And if down the line when the PCs need a disguise or something and one goes "what about that costumer we ran into in that mask place?" then everything worked as intended.

All that's needed at the preliminary stage is a concept, an encounter table, factions, and a couple points of interest. My goal is to have the whole location fit on a two-page spread, maybe not including stat blocks if I'm being generous to myself. 

The following example took me about two days to finish between work and other commitments to finish. If I start with ~10 and build more as necessary, the city would exist as a fully operational ecosystem of adventure locales that could be run indefinitely. Hopefully. This might become a monumental amount of work that I'll shamefully abandon but we'll see how it goes. 

The Walled Gardens of Nisk

Since before anyone can remember, the wondrous pleasure gardens were tended to by the Greenskeeper clan, an insular group whose self-seclusion gave rise to all manner of strange customs and practices. At one time the gardens were the pride of the city, but since the coming of the Overlord few dare to walk its tangled paths. 

Michael Hutter

Encounters (d20)

1-2 3d4 Greenskeeper clan soldiers led by a 3 HD captain [patrolling | hunting sectids | resting] 

3-4 2d6 Greenskeeper clan botanists [planting, 25% are keeping watch | transporting valuable plants, soils, or seeds worth sp equal to 100x no. encountered; accompanied by 1 clan soldier for every 4 botanists | fighting a monster plant (8 HD)] 

5 Greenskeeper clan hivemaster accompanied by 2d6 apiarists  

6-7 1d4 Decorative fauna [grooming | feeding | slowly being consumed by a monster plant]

8-9 Monster plant

10-11 2d6 Sectid skirmishers [emerging from the ground | tearing down trees | consuming deceased sectids]

12 1d100 Sectid scavengers [devouring plant matter | dehydrating flower plots | shedding old carapaces] 

13-14 2d8 Touring nobles, accompanied by 2 guards per person. 

15 Clan ceremony procession. 3d20 Greenskeepers in full regalia chanting, spreading seeds, and holding tall flowers like military standards.

16-17 1d8 Thieves [stashing treasure | meeting a contact | getting loaded]

18 Dryad, cut off from her world, filled with remarkable sorrow and loneliness. The melancholy beauty of the plants blooming around her would make anyone’s heart ache. 

19-20 2d6 Plant poachers employed by an alchemist house [creeping around looking for vulnerable plants | harvesting, disguised as botanists | running from a squad clan soldiers]

Set dressing/points of interest (d20)

1 Observation tower with an immaculate view 

2 Bridge over gentle stream 

3 Overgrown pergola/pavilion/gazebo

4 Sculpture park

5 Topiary scene 

6 Defaced nymphaeum

7 Mossy fountain

8 Stone amphitheater 

9 Reflecting pool

10 Rickety bandstand

11 Menagerie prison, with 1d6 captives (50% agents of alchemist houses, 50% random plant poachers or interlopers) held in ornate verdigris-covered cages. The animals have been cleared out long ago. The Greenskeeper clan use the now use it to incarcerate captive poachers.

12 Fish pond, stepping stone bridge

13 Area razed by sectids. Desiccated ash fills the gaps in the cobblestone path. Rows of garden plots reduced to nothing but dust. Even the air feels dry. 

14 Bell tower

15 Telescope tower

16 Lens tower. Giant magnifying glass on top floor focuses sunlight to create a devastating heat beam. One of many hidden defensive structures from a bygone era. Operation without a key requires a successful disarm trap roll. Once activated it operates for 2d6 rounds before shutting down. Targets save vs. death ray or take 2d20 damage, half on success. Each round the beam can either sweep in a 60' line or target a single individual, imposing -4 to their save. 

17 Greenskeeper clan residential building. Short hexagonal tower overgrown with vines and ivy, meant to blend with the surrounding follies. Off limits to everyone, even nobility. Guarded by d6+6 soldiers at all times. 

18 Apiary. Rare imported bees tended to by 1d12+2 clan beekeepers and 1 hivemaster at a given time. Four clan soldiers stand guard after sundown.  Rare honeys worth 2d10x10 sp can be extracted from the hives, but protective equipment is required. 

19 Dueling grounds (40% chance it will be in use; two nobles dueling, their seconds, and a crowd of non-combatant spectators) 

20 Greenhouse. Guarded by 1d6+1 soldiers and operated by three times as many horticulturalists. Among cultivating all manner of plants, greenhouses are where clan horticulturalists research and conduct radical plant experiments. 

    Plant types (d6)

    1 Valuable, 1d6x1000 sp.

    2 Reagents, 1d6x100 sp for spell research and potion-making costs. 

    3 Poison, 2d8 doses, save vs. death when imbibed. 50 sp per dose on the black market. 

    4 Monster plants, 1d6 4 HD of the same type. 

    5 Beautiful but extremely fragile, will shrivel immediately after leaving the greenhouse. 

    6 Extremely noxious, unless wearing face covering save vs. poison or pass out, -4 to everything on success.

Sample NPCs

1 Mila Stenot; clan horticulturist. Proud and passionate. Loves the gardens above everything else. The rest of the city could burn for all she cares. Distrustful of outsiders. 

2 Abel Halict; clan botanist. Frequent jokes poorly mask his many anxieties. Sells plants on the black market (or to anyone else willing to buy) to pay off his immense gambling debts. 

3 Diedrik Andren; commander of the clan soldiers. Sharp but getting up there in the years. Convinced the alchemist houses are behind the sectid infestation and it’s driving him mad. 

4 Nora Collet; hivemaster of Apiary IX. Hyper-rational scientist-type. Secretly keeps a brood of sectid hatchlings in an abandoned shed to study their habits. She won’t admit she’s growing too attached. 

5 Dominicus Glyth; nobleman and garden enthusiast. Tranquil but a little spacey. Spends more time in the gardens than anyone else outside the clan, and knows more than he lets on about what goes on there. 

6 Faine Hisembol; alchemist house aspirant. Young, headstrong, takes himself too seriously. Poaches plants in the hopes of getting accepted in an alchemist houses.

Quick stats

Greenskeeper clan botanist/horticulturalist/apiarist 

Smart cloaks, utility coveralls, badges denoting rank and station

HD 1 AC 7 Att. dagger 1d4 (horticulturist+apiarist) or short sword 1d6 (botanist) Mv. 120'(40') Ml. 7

    Botanists and horticulturists have whistles that will hail 2d6 soldiers in 1d6 rounds. 

    Apiarists each have a jar of bees they can throw for self-defense. 

Greenskeeper clan soldier

Grass-stained uniforms, cumbersome sallets

HD 1+1 AC 5 Att. polearm 1d10 Mv. 90'(30') Ml 9

Greenskeeper clan hivemaster

Wicker bee-mask, bulky protective gear, constant sound of buzzing

HD 3 AC 5 Att. battle axe 1d8 Mv. 90'(30') Ml 9

    Always encountered with 2 swarms of bees under their control.

Sectid skirmisher

Chittering kobold-like locusts. Origins are a mystery.

HD 1/2 AC 7 Att. claw 1d6 Mv. 120'(40') Ml 7

Sectid scavenger 

Smaller kobold-like locusts. Origins are a mystery.

HD 0 (1 hp) AC 7 Att. slam 1 dmg Mv. 150' (50') Ml 7

Decorative fauna 

Beautiful flightless birds and ruminant mammals, bred or imported, decorate the gardens and feed carnivorous plants. The remains of such creatures are valuable—worth 100 sp to a dressmaker, taxidermist, etc. 

HD 2 AC 9 Mv. 120' (40') noncombatant, will run away if attacked

Thieves and poachers

As bandits

Nobles, dryads, bee swarms, etc.

As per system

Monster plants

Swollen shoots, Dagger-like thorns, immoderate blooms in garish colors.

HD 1d6+2 AC 1d4+2 Att. Thrashing Vines x4 (variable, 20’ range)+see below Mv. 0’ 

Vine attack type (1d8)

1-2 Razor sharp. 1d10 damage

3-4 Constricting. 1d6, repeated each round + target immobilized unless vines are hacked away with a slashing weapon

5-6 Whipping tendrils. 1d8, 6 attacks per round

7 Bloodsucking. 1d4, repeated each round until vines are torn off, plant heals 1 hp each time vines deal damage

8 No vines but instead thick burled branches. 2d6, 3 attacks per round

Additional features (1d8)

1 Regenerating. 1d4 hp/round

2 Parasitized. 1d4 parasites emerge when killed, stats as giant centipedes 

3 Ambulatory. Move speed 20’

4 Thorn tangle. 20’ radius around plant, starting your round in the radius causes a save vs. paralysis or become immobilized; spend your attack and take 1d4 damage to break free. Radius increases 10’ every round in combat

5 Chemical release. Triggers every 3 rounds; everyone in a 60’ radius saves vs. poison or becomes confused for 2d6 rounds 

6 Snapping maw. Additional attack, 2d8, exceeding AC by 5+ means target is swallowed. Digesting enzymes deal 1d4 damage/round; creature breaks free if at least 6 slashing damage is dealt to the plant in a round

7 Thick mucilage. Save vs. paralysis on hitting or being hit by the plant in melee or be covered in glue; half movement and -2 to attacks until cleaned off.

8 Swarm attractor. When reduced to half hp, the plant releases compounds that attract 1d4+1 swarms of bees to harry attackers. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

High times on the Flying Island

A bunch of new players joined our game recently, and I wanted a brief starter adventure to get everyone on board and teach them how to crawl before they're left to fend for themselves in the big scary world. The previous players are already very new so this would be a good time for everyone. 

The ideal starting adventure is of course:

  • vanilla fantasy enough that embellishments can be made without disruption and everyone more or less understands what's going on without having to wrap their head around any oddball setting details
  • ...but not so generic that my friends check out and lose interest.
  • appropriate for level 1 but reasonably epic and high-stakes. Rats in the basement fuck off. 
  • mechanical gimmicks and special rules kept at a minimum. Manually tracking inventory is already the most daunting game-related task anyone here has ever done before; no need to pile on more things things. 
Now given that the number of starter adventures is probably in the high thousands and more are being produced every day, I'm sure there are hundreds of suitable modules that fit the bill but shopping around for modules is uninteresting to me and I was unemployed when I was first planning this out so time was no issue. 

The adventure I envisioned would serve as a little intro so we wouldn't have a flock of new players just show up in the middle of the in-progress dungeon excursion returning players are currently embroiled in. 

The trickiest part is being vanilla but not too vanilla. Once the feel is figured out, everything falls in from there. There are probably a lot of ways to triangulate the appropriate setting vibe and thread the needle between familiar and new but the easiest one I know of is to put familiar things in unfamiliar contexts.

So what I did was take a generic D&D sandbox and put it IN THE SKY.

Flying island. Sandbox. Maybe its from seeing Castle in the Sky at an early age but the concept of a landmass floating above the earth is like a shortcut for my brain to think "this is great!"

Anyway, the adventure I banged out has an inciting incident, time pressure, a starting town with well-meaning yet down-on-their-luck villagers, a wizard of dubious intentions, humanoid mooks, peculiar treasures, a dungeon, and a dragon. Everything you need for a balanced D&D.

Session 1: The characters all awaken in a giant nest, surrounded by eggs the size of carriages. The last thing they each remember was going about their days as normal when, all the sudden, the sky went dark as a giant bird blocked the sun and plucked them from their terrestrial trappings to soar off into the clouds. 

They messed around the nest a bit, gathering equipment from corpses old and new and trying to get their bearings. A couple PCs found a rocky outcropping on the far end of the nest they could climb to get a lay of the land. To the left: the edge of whatever landmass they're on and then ocean hundreds of yards below, the sun slowly descending toward the blue horizon. To the right: windswept fields, hardscrabble farmsteads, and low-drifting clouds casting long shadows along the ground. 

The players decide to get a move on when one of the eggs starts to tremble. Wandering down from the giant nest, the party came across a little ranch where a bushy man tends to a herd of giant pill bugs.

Introductions are made, but cut short when the ground begins to shake and the wind picks up. The man urgently rushes everyone into his hovel. Peering through the rough planks of the ceiling, the PCs see a freak storm roll in, rapidly accompanied by a giant winged serpentine shape flitting in and out of view above them. "Was it the thing that brought us here?" they wondered. No, that's no bird—for each PC, it was their first time seeing a dragon.

The dragon flew off as night descended on the island. Spending some time around the little hamlet of past bird-survivors, the party learns the following:
  • They're on an island flying high above the earth
  • The island is watched over by something they refer to as the Ancient. Normally it stays around the island, but recently it fell into its centennial slumber and drifted to the upper firmament. 
  • Since it has departed, a malevolent dragon has made its way to the island and lairs in the Sky Temple. A bunch of other probably related bullshit has been going on, namely the tengu-men native to the island have gotten dramatically more hostile, people have been disappearing in clouds of ghostly fog, and freak weather patterns are causing chunks of the island to break off.
  • Pillbug milk is thin and grassy.
And so the PCs are beseeched to travel to the SKY TEMPLE, brave its perils, and blow the MISTRAL HORN to awaken the ANCIENT so that it may set things right once more—and hopefully get them off the island. 

They also broke up a bar fight, befriended the strange alewife lady and received a gift in her secret makeshift alchemy lab, learned of a mysterious fellow with an ape-like henchman who also recently stopped by the hamlet (everyone's first thought was "wizard," which goes to show how strong genre conventions can be even for non-fantasy people), and charmed the town bully into journeying with them. He died by crossbow bolt not more than several miles outside of town during an encounter with a pack of recently marooned sky pirates. But dead follower be damned, the encounter ended happily with a delegate from the party and the pirate captain getting drunk together.

This is what sky pirates look like.

Session 2: After the engagement with the pirates, the party got a rude map of local area and was informed of some of the dangers surrounding the temple. They also heard that the pirates recently espied a strangely dressed fellow wandering around near the temple with his ape-like follower. 

After traversing through ruined gardens and terraced fields the party finds a floating tower like a column of purple obsidian hanging in the air, tethered to the ground by a long thin chain. Near the foot of the chain is a small tent with the remains of a campfire outside and a hunched figure sitting in the grass. Immediately all interest the players' have in their current goal is supplanted by urge to partake in the venerated tradition of plundering a wizard's tower. 

I was almost certain the party would pounce on the unsuspecting henchman and climb blades-in-teeth up the chain to take a crack at what lies within the mysterious hovering tower on the mysterious hovering island but they in fact did not—the more diplomatic voices of the group won out, the henchman was consorted with (reaction role dictated he was overwhelmingly happy to see the party) and some info was learned about this wizard who's been looming in the margins of the adventure.

The party makes it to the temple, skirted some tengu-men sentries guarding the main entrance by traverse-climbing dangling roots and vines to get to a wide crack in the side of the lower temple structure leading to the undercroft. From there the party navigated the temple complex, avoiding unquiet spirits, toppling a stone guardian through the nimble maneuvering of a 10'-foot pole, beheld some ancient murals, and messed around with a strange altar until it granted them a magic prayer flag that makes weightless whatever it is tied to. Poor Berda the torchbearer was brained by the stone guardian but otherwise setbacks were navigated and morale was high.

All throughout the interior parts of the temple complex, the party noticed a strange chlorine-like acridity in the air and massive claw-marks on the walls, shattered masonry all strewn about. While the rest of the party decides to move on after they were done investigating murals and playing with the altar, one PC splits off and heads in the opposite direction, eventually leading to the main entrance chamber. It looked like a bomb went off inside—big enough at least to blow the roof off and collapse most of the floor. 

Hawthorne, the level 1 chaos cleric with barely an experience point to his name, examines more cryptic murals before peering into the hole in the floor. Far down below, he sees the form of a fearsome dragon sleeping atop a gleaming hill of gold. At that moment, something primordial gripped poor Hawthorne's player: the atavistic drive, known well to generations of D&D players since the hobby's dawn, to do something really stupid just to see what happens. Reaching into his meager coin purse, perhaps still transfixed by the dragon's majesty, Hawthorne withdrew a single silver piece and let it fall into the chasm. 

I ruled there was a chance the dragon would stay asleep—normally I apply Smaug logic, where a dragon can sense even the faintest manipulation of its treasure horde while laying atop it, but there may have been enough complicating factors that consulting the dice would be appropriate. Nevertheless, said dice dictated the dragon was roused. Seconds after the faint tinkling of the dropped silver piece met Hawthorne's ears, a rumble shook the room and the dragon burst forth from the pit, driving upward out of the absent ceiling and into the open air above. 


So the party is entered the temple, won some treasure, lost a couple followers, and now has a menacing dragon on their hands. Fortunately for the party, there are enough nooks and crannies in the temple that they can hide from the searching dragon, but many dangers are still as yet undiscovered. 

A lesson I learned with this group is that a lot of these new players, and new players in general I guess, are more turned off by the sort of boring, neutral things that can happen in sessions than their seasoned counterparts. Where experienced players may have more practiced patience to apply to internalizing whatever framing information may prove useful later, even slight bits of expository background info were causing these newbies' eyes to glaze over and hands to reach for snacks in the hopes that chewing and swallowing would provide enough stimulation to make the passing moments more bearable. Just more reason to leave the slow stuff to the side and keep the action front and center.

But I love playing with this group. New players who don't immediately lose interest always prove how the way the game is played is a function of what make its a good time. People want to push and prod and mess around not just because it's what you're supposed to do in the game but because it's fun. Everything the players come across is something new to latch onto—is that guy in the distance friendly or hostile? Will these pirates choose booze over treasure? Will flipping this switch open a door or blow my head off? Every problem, every challenge, every ambiguity is begging to be resolved or understood because the act of doing so is in itself engaging. 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

This is level 1

People have some differing thoughts on what exactly 1st level PCs are in the game world and what distinguishes them from an average person. However helpful they may seem, level titles are big source of the confusion. Here is how I interpret 1st level PCs in the games I run.


What differentiates 1st level fighters from laymen and 0 level men-at-arms is that fighters fought in and survived a conflict where others like them perished. Could be anything from fighting in a war to fending off a pack of wolves. What's important is that fighters went through the crucible of lethal combat and emerged more alive than before. First level fighters are called VETERANS. 


Beginning magic-users have studied in the ways of the sorcerers of ancient Zenon, where it is said all secrets of magic were known. Through rigorous cultivation, a magic-user's mind is prepared to serve as an intermediary between this world and the unseen realms from which magic is derived. First level magic-users are known as MEDIUMS.


Anyone can slink in the dark and steal an exposed coin purse but a real thief is something more. To move in true silence, vanish in shadows, scale sheer surfaces without aid, intuit the precise workings of a complex mechanism and the vulnerabilities of an unsuspecting target—all are feats that exceed the capability of mundane folk. But it's hard to learn these things on your own, so it is assumed thieves start as inductees in the mysterious thieves' guild or some other branch of the organized crime network. First level thieves are APPRENTICES. 


Clerics are closely tied to their alignment. Beyond conventional worshipers, clerics are the earthly champions of Law and Chaos, and are granted numinous powers for their devotion. While some clerics may follow a specific patron deity, all clerics of the same alignment are more or less part of the same faith. Newly initiated clerics must still prove their worth, and so are relegated to executing their function without the use of spells. First level clerics are called ACOLYTES. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Place-names: the naming convention

A name is almost always the first thing a person learns about a place, so it carries a lot of weight. An evocative name has the capacity to convey the "feel" of a place in a way that a bland or more rotely descriptive name does not. To paraphrase Mark Twain, "the difference between the almost right name and the right name is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." 

I used to struggle so hard with names it became a genuine non-navigable impediment to my game prep—if I couldn't find the right name for a place, I would rapidly lose interest in the idea and it die on the vine. Eventually though I came to a solution: offload my place-naming to a naming convention. 

Every time I needed a new region or settlement, I used the name of a fabric type. For a stretch of years, my players sought mythic treasure in the island of Cottondor, fought witches in the blighted lands of Woolovia, explored among the ancient trees of the Gabardine Forest, and partied and schemed their way through the bustling city-state of Corduroy. I called the setting "Fabricant."

Most of the locations in my game were conceived as me thinking "I need a place for x" and then looking at a big list of fabric names, letting whatever jumped out at me guide the look and feel of the place. The trick I found was that having the name first and working backward to the details of the place is far easier than the opposite approach. You're using a name to evoke somewhere that largely doesn't exist yet, as opposed to making a place and then struggling to find a phrase or collection of syllables that truly captures it.

And even when you do have a pretty clear idea for a place, a naming convention expedites the naming process by giving some guardrails to work within.    

Why fabric types? There are a lot of them, they're usually short and easy to remember, and they often have a good sound to them. Also helps that textiles come from all over the world so there are names for all kinds of eras and cultures.

One might worry that fabric names are already known as such by the players and that repurposing them as place-names might limit their ability to buy in to the fantasy of the world. That wasn't an issue for me: what I observed is that once the players heard the names in the context of the game world, they were able to form a sort of subconscious line in their mind that delineated the fabric names from the place names. My friend Mike only came to realize the whole fabric thing six whole months into the campaign. C'est la différance.

The naming convention did run me into another issue though, and it was a rather predictable one: after a while I started to feel pigeonholed. Even with a wealth of fabric name options available, I started to feel a bit listless about the whole thing. I never broke the naming convention, but after the campaign ran its course, I never since went back to a naming convention. But the one I had was substantially useful to me for quite some time, and I would still consider using one for shorter adventures or campaigns.  

Here's the shortlist of fabrics I compiled for place-naming. A good amount of them had use in my old game, but most of them were kept in reserve, only loosely sketched out with a handful of notes based on what the word sounded like to me. See what sort of places the fabric names evoke in your mind:

Saga Nishiki

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Overloading the search die

The overloaded encounter die is OVER in 2024. A monster will appear at the same time your light source goes out while you need to rest and you will LIKE IT.

But the idea of streamlining procedures by keying each result on a die is a good one, if streamlining procedures is your aim. 

As far as I'm concerned BX D&D and its derivatives are as close as you can get to the platonic ideal of dungeon crawlers, but, and I say this with head bowed in humility, the assumptions baked into the game's design do not necessarily apply to the contemporary elfgamer's table. It's the iPhone era, after all.  

The victim of this post is the BX search procedure, the rules of which are as follows:
  • Characters can listen at a door for passing monsters, or spend a turn examining a 10'x10' area for room traps or a 10' section of wall for secret doors. 
  • Each action has a 1:6 chance of success, modified by certain race/class abilities. If there is nothing to be found in the area the character is searching, no roll is made.
  • Each character can only listen at a door or search a given 10' wall/area once. 

This can be boiled down to "PCs get one chance to search X to find Y, rolling a d6 and succeeding on a 1 or sometimes 2." As an aside, I like how each search action has a specific noun its looking for: monsters, room traps, or secret doors for listening, searching an an area, or inspecting a wall, respectively. This is one of those board-gamey elements of BX that show it was designed in part to be a closed system, but with rules and mechanics robust enough to be applied to all manner of other scenarios.

For instance, if a PC wanted to rifle through a cluttered desk to find a specific document, there's no reason why a search roll wouldn't be appropriate even if that situation wasn't outlined in the rules. It shows a design philosophy distinct from that of most contemporary games—instead of describing mechanics expansively with general terms, old school D&D defines its mechanics through specific instances which invite players to extrapolate how else they may be used. Saving throw names are another good example of this.

Anyway, the old OSR maxim goes that players should mostly be describing their character's actions instead of rolling dice, but the dice system still has its place for searching. In my games, if the actions a player describes would reveal something hidden I give it to them without any rolling, but if they just want to do a general search I roll to see if they find whatever noodly detail is hidden there, if any. This works reasonably well from a game flow perspective, but the problem is that 1- or even 2-in-6 chance is punishingly low for smaller groups, especially when abiding by 10' space increments and the one-chance-per-character rule. Sure, traps and secret doors should be telegraphed, but telegraphing all of them all the time removes those moments of random danger and discovery that contribute so positively to the game.  

My solution is to OVERLOAD the SEARCH DIE.

Here are the rules: When a player wishes to search a room, they can choose to specify which actions their character takes or opt instead to conduct a general search, which takes one turn. During a general search, the character attempts to find secret doors, concealed traps, monster spoor, and other obscured features. When a general search is made, the DM or player rolls a d6 to determine the outcome. A character may spend as many turns as they wish searching until a 6 is rolled or they get the same number over two consecutive turns, indicating they have exhausted their faculties and can no longer comb the room until their next dungeon excursion. Demihumans roll a d8 instead of d6. Big rooms can be broken up into halves or quadrants per the DM. 

Search results
  1. Discover secret (if any)
  2. Discover secret (if any)
  3. Encounter omen
  4. Scavenge goods
  5. Dungeon insight
  6. Setback
  7. [Demihuman only] Discover secret (if any)
  8. [Demihuman only] Encounter omen
Discover secret
Identify the location of one secret door, concealed room trap, or other important but not-obvious feature of the room if there is one to be found. 

Encounter omen
Find evidence of other nearby dungeon inhabitants. 

This result accounts for both hearing noises in adjacent rooms or corridors, like the original listen-at-doors roll, as well as general clues regarding the next encounter. If there are no creatures keyed nearby that the character could hear, the DM rolls for the next encounter and provides a hint or detail as to its nature.

Scavenge goods
Uncover a random item. A character can only find one item in a room per dungeon excursion—if this result is rolled again during the same excursion, the character finds nothing this turn.

This is where I tell you that if you don’t already have a d100 list of junk lying around your dungeon, get one now, and trust me when I say it’s worth it. I recommend The Dungeon Dozen and d4 caltrops blogs for inspiration. Trick out your list with unique and specialized entries and it becomes another avenue to convey the dungeon’s lore. Anyway, this result implies that the item was not immediately visible upon entering the room—there are situations I foresee where this could be contrived but generally unless your dungeon rooms are empty cubes it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a little hiding spot for that left boot a character just found.

Dungeon insight
While the characters might not find anything in particular, their search may yield some fact or detail about the room, level, or dungeon as a whole. A character can only find glean one insight from a room per dungeon excursion—if this result is rolled again during the same excursion, the character finds nothing this turn.

Dungeon insights could be something that indicates the room's original purpose, the behavior of the former or current inhabitants, a hint regarding a special set piece somewhere else in the dungeon, or even just a curiosity that contributes to the wonder and strangeness of the mythic underworld.

The character didn't find anything, and an additional complication occurs. 

This can be a direct result of the searching, such as the character springing a trap or dropping something that makes a loud noise, but the setback can also be an anomalous hazard the dungeon throws at unwelcome interlopers: a flagstone launches itself at the character, a ration-rotting miasma billows from a grate in the floor, or a ghoulish hand yanks at a piece of gear from a gap in the wall.


Here's why the overloaded search die works: it does away with the null results of classic search rolls, so even if characters don't find any secrets the find something else worthwhile or get into some trouble. Upping the success rate while introducing an element of danger makes searching more exciting, and the option to burn turns to continue searching introduces a compelling risk/reward challenge. If you love your hazard system/overloaded encounter die/event die/whatever else it's called but you're not overloading your search dice, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.