Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Slime Molds

This is an idea that is very visual, so I've included a bunch of pictures.

D&D has long thrived on the ideas of slimes, molds, oozes and jellies. After listing monsters taken mainly from fantasy fiction, folklore and myth, OD&D finished off with the "clean-up crew," the famous infinitely dividing black pudding, deadly green slime, spore-bearing yellow mold, and the big amoeboid horrors like ochre jelly and gray ooze.

Slime molds are a great template for creating your own variations on the clean-up crew. They're an excellent fit for dungeons because their natural habitat is anywhere that is dark and moist, preferably with excess organic matter (like dung or carrion) for them to grow on. They share a life cycle where a fluid mass consumes what it needs before turning into a fruiting body, which then lets off spores that will start the process again. You usually don't see it until it gets into this later stage. Some of them almost form a slug-like body while moving toward better locations for feeding.

The varieties of these life forms are pretty impressive. They were often confused with fungi, which some of them superficially resemble, but they are not such. Visually the slime molds are often quite colorful; several of the most common such molds are obnoxiously yellow in color, but some are actually iridescent. Their bodies sometimes resemble vomit, or other times are distinct fungoid objects. It can be totally unsuspected, and easily confused for something harmless - or harmful - depending upon the referee's wish.

Slime molds are great because they can have all of the qualities of your classic clean-up crew; poison, acid, paralysis, and other similar nasty effects can all readily result from contact. Depending on the coloration they can be a nasty surprise when PCs step on them. But they have one characteristic that makes them endlessly fascinating: they're not readily killed. Slime molds often come out in moist weather, and go away when it dries up, but there is no real "thing" to kill. Hacking them apart will, at best, get spores on you.

There is something weirdly inhuman, almost Lovecraftian, about the way that slime molds spread ooze-like from place to place and are totally immune to most of the things that PCs would use to destroy monsters. The potential for molds to lay spores that sit dormant, whether in a backpack or article of clothing or similar place, that will grow back and return relentlessly. There are shades of "The Colour Out of Space" if the spores spread and are seen by a farmer who thinks they're nothing more offensive than dog vomit ...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Worldbuilding and the Reference Problem

A well-known episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, "Darmok," uses the concept of a race of aliens that eludes the Trek convention of a universal translator because they speak in metaphorical references to their history and mythology. Picard doesn't understand what they are talking about until the myth about uniting against a common foe is explained to him.

This closely resembles a problem that worlds built for fantasy roleplaying will naturally have. Unless the referee invents an elaborate cultural history and the players study it, there are very few ways to create symbols, signs or references that the players can put together on their own initiative. For instance, most people reading this would recognize the symbolism of a white rabbit, a mad hatter or the Red Queen, because Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are part of our shared cultural history. Puzzles, riddles or clues based on Carroll's Alice novels are something that a referee can use and reasonably expect players to figure out what they are doing. But not so for an arbitrary fantasy equivalent of the white rabbit.

One way around the problem is what I'll call the Tékumel solution. In the original Empire of the Petal Throne game, the assumption was that the players start off as outland barbarians entering into Jakálla for the first time. The elaborate culture only had to be detailed in broad strokes; specifics would be learned later in the campaign. Generally this works by having an elaborate history that exists, but is not known by the players or their characters. But until a substantial amount of information is revealed to the players, references are not something we can rely upon as drivers for puzzles and clues.

A second solution is to set everything on a fantasy Earth. Lamentations of the Flame Princess has chosen this approach; the game is now set in 17th century Europe, leaving it ripe for reference to real-world literature, myth and superstition. This solution works, but sharply limits the amount of worldbuilding we are able to do. You get Earth and all the baggage that comes with it, good and bad.

But I do see a middle ground that still allows players to understand references without resorting to either fantasy Earth or barbarians in Jakálla solutions — what I'll call the Deities & Demigods method. D&DG, like its predecessor Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, was not an encyclopedia of original deities, but rather a listing of real-world mythological beings, mixed with a smattering of common fantasy pantheons (Hyboria, Nehwon, and in early printings, Cthulhu and Melniboné) that referees could incorporate into their own campaigns. Inserting them into a fantasy world allows you to have real heroes, legends and deities accessible, and the attendant literary references.

None of this precludes having fantasy religion in the campaign as well. Real-world religions can be one pantheon among others, and it can also be incorporated in a way that's entirely appropriate to D&D: just like in the real-world middle ages, ancient paganism can be a thing of the distant past, that is nevertheless known as history to the characters. This is a good way of making it so that the PCs have about the same level of knowledge about your mythic references as the players do.

There are still challenges, such as the fact that the putative language the PCs are speaking is not really English and real English puns and jokes shouldn't work, but this is at least a framework I think can be useful for incorporating real-world mythology and creating puzzles, riddles, and other references that make sense to the players and their characters alike.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Monumental Chamber

The size of the Son Doong cave, in Vietnam near the border with Laos, is massive. Its largest chamber is 5 kilometers long and 150 meters wide. It has massive stalagmites 70 meters tall. Almost 500' wide and over 16,000' deep is almost unfathomable. But it makes me think about huge underground areas. (Technically Son Doong is not all underground; a hole has burst through its roof and there are plants growing in parts of it.)

There are two parts to what I'm going to define as a monumental chamber. First: a person standing at one point and using a torch cannot see the edges of the area. A torch occupies a circle 30' in radius, or about 2827 square feet. A 60'x60' room is the smallest such monumental area; at 3600 square feet it has around 1.5 times the square footage of an average house. The second criterion is that the monumental room has multiple entries in the dungeon key. A room that is huge but empty doesn't count.

A monumental chamber is a gripping idea to me, mainly because of its sheer scale. Frequently they will be much more than the average 10' high, and as often as not will have some support, whether in columns or through a stable structure like a dome. Vast caverns can shift elevation even within a single room; a manmade version of such might have several platforms linked by stairs. The monumental room is open to pedestals, megaliths, gaping chasms, cliffs, lakes, rivers, waterfalls – any of the geographical features you've always wanted to use in a dungeon but can't fit without making the room humongous.

Inhabitants, too, need not be single. Sure, you could fit an entire orc tribe inside of a sufficiently large chamber. But a truly large room could be home to multiple entities, particularly if it has niches, alcoves or other defensible areas. Perhaps humanoids come out to harvest mushrooms, or crystals, or some metal, while other creatures live in a secluded area. This is particularly potent if the chamber is very high and has multiple effective levels. Bats and stirges, among other types of flying things, are prone to live in the upper reaches. One idea I've always relished is giant bees with a hive up at the top of a chamber at least 50' high. Lower levels, a sub-floor or a body of water all create other natural divisions for multiple encounter types. The sheer size can encourage a whole miniature ecology.

Huge rooms can house multiple wonders as well. Natural features can be spectacular, as can megalithic sculpture and large-scale architectural designs. At the same time, you have some interesting options. If you've ever been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, you may have seen the Temple of Dendur – an Egyptian temple inside the museum. There's likewise a small Japanese temple in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Massive caverns can logically have multiple sub-caverns. A monumental chamber can be a dungeon room with other rooms inside it.

The monumental chamber is also a great way to link several different levels together. Entrances can be at multiple heights; a chute from one level, a landing leading down from another, a third on the same level as the floor, or a fourth with a chute or stairs leading down to a deeper level. They make great "crossways" of the dungeon where wandering monsters can come from a variety of original dungeon levels as well.

I feel that I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that dragons are naturals in such areas. A truly massive hoard needs a massive room to fit in. But generally I think that, especially in megadungeons, it pays to think big. (No, bigger than that.)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Ready Reference: Mix-and-Match Humanoids

I've gone back and forth a lot about humanoids in D&D. The cursus honorum of kobolds, goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls and bugbears is a tired set of clichés. On the other hand, D&D has a lot of resources dedicated to them and they are an archetypal part of the game. Demihuman bonus languages are based on the whole list of humanoids, and default encounter charts pretty much assume them. AD&D makes it even more severe; not having the humanoids basically eliminates the ranger's biggest bonus.

But they are still entirely too predictable. In the interest of alleviating that, here's a table that can give them a bit of variety. Any time there is a need for a low hit dice human-shaped creature in your games, use the table below to create a quick, appropriate humanoid.

1d6 HD AC Move Morale Language Height Damage Special
1 1/2 7 60' 6 Kobold 3' Weapon-1 Small; hate gnomes
2 1-1 6 60' 7 Goblin 4' 6" Weapon -1 to hit in daylight
3 1 6 120' 8 Orc 6' Weapon -1 to hit in daylight
4 1+1 5 90' 8 Hobgoblin 6' 6" Weapon +1 to hit if chief present
5 2 5 90' 8 Gnoll 7' Weapon+1 Wield 2-handed weapons
6 3 5 90' 9 Bugbear 8' Weapon+1 Surprise on 1-3

The table above might produce odd results if you run too literally with it; you could easily have a 1/2 HD creature 8' tall. This would probably be a thin, wispy type of humanoid. Likewise, a 3' type with 3 HD could be stocky almost to the point of being barrel-shaped.

Of course, older D&D never had monster types without some kind of leaders. Only 3 HD humanoids should be considered truly independent. For the remainder, the following chart should be used.

1d4 Leader Bodyguards
1 9 HP / 2 hit dice 1-6: 6 HP / 1+1 hit dice
2 15 HP / 4 hit dice, +2 to damage 1/group: 8 HP, +1 to damage
3 22 HP / 5 hit dice, +2 to damage 1-4: 3d6 HP / 4 hit dice
4 16 HP / 3 hit dice N/A

If the above tables give "bodyguards" more powerful than the leader, this may call for a "Klingon promotion" for one of them.

Because I like you, here's another chart to determine how your new humanoids look.

1d6 Skin Pattern Coloration Head Shape
1 Smooth skin Solid (1 color) Red Human
2 Hairy skin Striped (2 colors) Orange Canine
3 Completely furred Mottled (2 colors) Yellow Feline
4 Scaled Different torso (2 colors) Green Porcine
5 Feathered Multi-hued (3 colors) Brown Serpentine
6 Exoskeleton Iridescent (2 colors) Grey Avian

So there you have it: quick replacements for humanoids that still fit in most OD&D, classic and advanced old-school games.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dark and Ancient Groves

The only temples in Germany were dark and ancient groves, consecrated by the reverence of succeeding generations. Their secret gloom, the imagined residence of an invisible power, by presenting no distinct object of fear or worship, impressed the mind with a still deeper sense of religious horror; and the priests, rude and illiterate as they were, had been taught by experience the use of every artifice that could preserve and fortify impressions so well suited to their own interest.
Anyone studying late Roman and Byzantine history has to come in contact with Edward Gibbon's epic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whether or not you actually agree with its basic premises. Despite some faults in his analysis, Gibbon was generally a remarkable writer and created some vivid pictures.

Gibbon's picture of the Germanic religion draws mostly on Tacitus, who of course was writing not as a disinterested observer but as a partisan for Rome. But the description strikes me as excellent fodder for a type of hexcrawl location. This was doubly confirmed when the picture I found when poking around for a good illustration was one of St. Boniface – the "Apostle of the Germans" – hacking down a tree dedicated to Donar or Thor (actually recorded as "Jove" but theorized as one or the other according to the interpretatio romana).

I generally see pagan religions as sitting outside of the cosmic conflict of law and chaos. The powers worshipped are ancient but are deeply of this earth. This fits squarely into the picture that we see of these "invisible powers" that were the residents of the Germanic groves. Gods of this world, as opposed to the cosmic deities, are similar to the chthonic deities of ancient Greek paganism, earthly deities, frequently associated with snakes and the underworld.

D&D does have one type of forest spirit associated with it, in the dryad. This is quite possibly going to lead to a PC being Charmed and led off from the party, never to return from the forest. I have rarely or never seen referees using this sort of encounter, but to me it strikes a tone of mystery and danger that is something a bit more than just damage. And it is fitting that dryads sit solely in the Neutral column of OD&D's alignment chart.

None of this is to say that forest spirits can't possess the threat of physical violence, but I really love the theme of losing a PC not just physically but spiritually to the forest. It's a fascinating way to make PC loss much more than something easily remedied by a Raise Dead spell (though other spells such as Wish may suffice). Perhaps the central tree of a sacred grove has such powers, and can ensorcel unwitting PCs – unless a Lawful cleric comes along and plays the role of St. Boniface.

What I find most important in this location is the way that they instantly convey a sense of dread by virtue of lacking a central cultic focus. Nature religion was generally not a hippie celebration of the earth, but a fearful and tentative glimpse of the supernatural. We see elements of this in the strange vision scenes of the History series Vikings, where characters often have powerful, even terrifying glimpses of the future. This kind of atmosphere should be fair game if PCs spend time in the groves, including weird and possibly unreal encounters with animals laden with symbolism and the like.

The fear that Gibbon saw at the core of ancient paganism is something that so often feels lacking in D&D's take on religion. These locations are excellent ways to change that.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Signs and Symbols

Recently I've taken to using the eight-pointed star as an explicit symbol of Chaos in my games. It fits very well with the idea that Chaos is an explicit "side" that you can be explicitly for or against, in a broad cosmic war of which factions in the campaign world are just general reflections. Chaos, as I use it, is a powerful force led by many demonic and strange Chaos lords, who are as often as not at cross purposes with one another, as symbolized by the eight directions of the Chaos arrows. It's good and Moorcockian and flavorful. I've had NPCs use it for decoration, including unholy symbols and tattoos.

This Chaos symbol comes from the influence of Swords & Wizardry, even though ultimately it's Moorcock's. S&W also has a circle for Law, which is different from Moorcock who used a single straight arrow. I like the circle, though, because it's an easy graffito. A Law circle can be drawn around the Chaos arrows, like the three downward-pointing arrows of the Eiserne Front were designed to counter Nazi swastikas.

I don't have a symbol for Neutrality that I like. Two wide horizontal bars might work for people who are "actively neutral" (that is, opposed to both Law and Chaos). The thing is, Neutrality in many ways is sort of a catch-all of unaligned, selfish, people aligned to the Earth, people who want a balance, and animals that don't have the intelligence to have an alignment.

But using the circle and the eight-pointed star has had me thinking about other symbols with clear resonances. The Elder Sign, whether it is the pentagram of Derleth or Lovecraft's "tree branch" that has five tines pointing off of a central line, is a classic symbol to ward off things that are not from this world. The Yellow Sign is a classic sigil that is immediately ominous. And I think players might revolt if they saw the Duvan'ku Dead Sign from Death Frost Doom. Or at least, if they know what it means.

The World of Greyhawk has some good entrance runes, if a bit unique to its setting. But on a similar vein I think it would be really fun to start using the classic hobo signs around a megadungeon or wilderness sandbox type environment; obviously the railroad-related ones are no good but most of them would be an interesting way to make the PCs seem more like they're part of a larger world where they aren't the only adventurers about. Simple trail signs can also serve a similar purpose, though they're more likely in the wilderness.

Signs and symbols are also a great way to introduce a mystery into the campaign. Just throw an unknown sigil at the characters, and they will naturally investigate it – whether through a sage, or asking around, or what have you. These kinds of things are a good way to pique the curiosity of players.

I'd be curious about signs and symbols people have used in their own campaigns, and what the impact has been.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Better Living Through Clones: The Silver Standard

Dungeons & Dragons, if you follow its basic logic, assumes lots and lots of gold is present in the world. No, more than that. Nope, higher. Gold coins are the basic economic unit, and weigh 1/10th of a pound (45.4 grams). Think of a silver dollar, which is 1 troy ounce (31.1 grams). Now, add 50% more weight and make it 3/4ths as thick, due to the relative density of gold and silver. That's the D&D gold piece.

Most clones don't fiddle much with the basic monetary system. Adventurer Conqueror King makes the gold piece 1/1000th of 1 stone. This is actually a bit light in "real" stone (14 lbs), but because ACKS assumes 1 stone is roughly equal to 10 lbs, this gives 4.54 grams per gold piece. That's equal to the Roman denarii pictured above, or the late Roman solidus that was the basis for gold coins for most of the Middle Ages. But it's still a gold-based economy, even if the gold requirements are significantly lower.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess switches to a silver standard, and gives 1 XP per silver piece. Silver pieces are 1/50th of a gold piece, which is probably a better approximation than 1/10th or 1/20th, although prices fluctuated drastically in history. It also eschews odd metals like platinum and electrum, to its credit. But it doesn't get weight very precise; the encumbrance system is kind of abstract, and 100 coins are an encumbrance unit. I would still

LotFP's silver standard has a lot of appeal for me, because it makes a chest of gold absolutely phenomenal. 40 GP? In a gold standard that's a rounding error, but in LotFP it's enough to get a fighter to second level. Even a few gold pieces are worth a lot more risk relative to the reward.

And at the same time I like to geek out a bit over ancient silver coins, which is heavily supported by a silver standard. They aren't just an encumbrance penalty to the PCs who have to haul them back, or loose change that get stuck between the couch cushions, but the basic unit of economic value that the PCs have to deal with. Even copper pieces aren't worthless: the infamous 2000 CP of Dwimmermount are worth 200 XP in LotFP.

By making gold extremely valuable and rare, the silver standard also lets you use different metals, like bronze or brass, and have some interesting variables in your coinage. Relative values can be fixed at various rates. Electrum (a gold/silver alloy) coinage was extremely rare, and platinum as a metal was unheard of until the 1500s. Billon was frequently used, famously in the gradual debasement of Roman silver coinage to bronze (the antoninianus or "double denarius" was the coin most associated with this).

Overall, I think that a hybrid of the ideas that find expression in LotFP and ACKS provide the best solution for coinage: the values from LotFP (1 GP = 50 SP = 500 CP) and the weights from ACKS (100 coins = 1 pound). It makes the denarius the model coin, as it should be.