A Snake and a Rose

Totally random thought of the day:

Could you run a D&D campaign set in fantasy wilderness inspired by the style and themes of Metal Gear Solid?

As absurd as it first seems, I think this might actually work really well. Snake is an extraordinary warrior and thief who ends up in remote desolate places where evil madmen with their quirky superhuman henchmen prepare their villain lairs for devastating attacks with mad superscience. Make the big bads sorcerers and the weird gadgets into magic artifacts and it all should work just as well in an Iron Age tech fantasy world.

I think the best thing about MGS that makes it such an amazing series are the characters, especially the villain’s henchmen.Every single one of them is completely fucked up in the head, but occasionally sympathetic and even reluctant to help the villain. I think that would make for excelent NPCs in an open ended adventure with a lot of potential for really unexpected turns. And what player wouldn’t love to deal with an antagonist like Ocelot? That’s a guy you just have to love to hate. And then there’s also the betrayal by friends who don’t want to see you harmed but have other greater loyalties. Not being able to tell friend from foe (even after they’ve shown their cards) and conflicting loyalties from NPCs who are carrying various personal burdens is just the stuff behind ideas like Against the Wicked City and Blue Rose.

Speaking of Blue Rose, the pdf of the new second edition has just been released. Didn’t get it yet but really looking forward to seeing what they did with it.

But back to Metal Gear Solid antagonists. Another great aspect of them is that every single one of them is a completely different type of opponent with unique abilities and powers. Not just unique within the respective game, but unique within the world of the series. In Dungeons & Dragons there’s always the common tendency to make opponents based on the rules for making PCs. They tend to have classes, levels, and spells that are all available to the players as well. And for a great number of NPCs that works perfectly well. But I am a fan of mythic fantasy and the otherworldly and in such a campaign there is no need to have the main NPCs be ordinary people who have trained their skills. Making a decent number of opponents completely unique entities with distinguishing powers might do a great deal to make the world seem more magical.

I just started my three weeks off from work and plan to really throw myself into working on the Forest of High Adventure sandbox. Thinking of the main dungeons as Metal Gear Solid lairs is already getting my imagination bubbling.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

When I start preparing a new campaign I like to first think about what kind of role “adventurers” are going to play within the fictional society and what motivates them to do all these suicidal things that PCs tend to do. The easiest way is of course to say “Duh, it’s a game. This is what PCs do.”, which get’s us the classic murderhobos. Looting for the sake of looting and because there’s not really anything else they could do instead. Which is too simplistic for my taste.
On the other end are the designated chosen ones who go on adventure because they are heroes and it’s the heroic thing to do. Which also doesn’t feel terribly interesting because it makes everything in the campaign predictable by everyone following an unwritten but implicit script.

Then you can also have the whole party be members of an organization who believe in the organization’s goals and ideals. Which I find to usually work quite well, but it’s the GM deciding what the campaign will be about and also requires some preparation of specifc antagonists to oppose the goals of the party. I don’t find it ideal for a campaign that is more open world and about exploring strange underground environments.

One idea I had for my last campaign was to tell the players that their characters have been send out into the world to search for magic and knowledge that would benefit the people back home, with completely free rein on where to go and what to do. I quite liked that approach as a servicable compromise between player choice and giving guidance through motivation, but I think it can still be improved upon.

So I’ve been looking at some of my favorite fantasy protagonists who go on dangerous adventures and they are not risking their lives over and over for either gold or the desire to rescue people in danger. They do it because they are driven by restlessness and an obsession to learn about things that normal people don’t want anything to do with. They are compelled to keep searching for whatever holds the world together in its innermost folds.

A great example would be good old Conan. He is not after wealth and doesn’t do anything to keep the gold he gets his hands on. Usually it’s also not out of compassion for people in need of help but because the challenge intrigues him. And most of the time there is nothing to stop him from just turning around and leave with his life, but he always has to keep pushing forward to see how things will turn out. With Fafhrd and Gray Mouser (who I don’t like, but anyway) it’s usually a combination of being curious and not bright enough to understand the danger. And while Kane usually goes on adventures because he can’t take the boredom anymore, he keeps going ahead in the face of danger because he’s obsessed with overcoming any worthy challenge of his great power. Even Elric, who is playing out his destiny as a chosen one, keeps on fighting because he has to know if there’s a meaning to all of it.

As a character motivation I find this search for answers marvelous. It’s very open ended, does not pigeonhole PCs into any stereotypes, and has plenty of precedents in fiction. And it’s also exactly the same thing that drives most players to return to the table for every new session. Particularly when you’re running an oldschool game, player’s aren’t playing for the mental exercise of tactical combat and they are not playing to unlock new extras for their characters. They are playing because they are fascinated for what they might find lying ahead, either in a dungeon or an unfolding story.

I think as a GM, particularly with new players, I think it should really help to tell the player that they are going on a hunt to uncover the mysteries of the world when they are creating their characters. It provides some kind of purpose and very open objective in an open world campaign, instead of leaving the players floundering around trying to figure out what they are supposed to do.

Now how a GM can actually present a world that makes a quest to know the unknowable worthwhile is a different question to which I don’t have any good answers yet, but I think it’s one that is very much worth pursuing further.

Forest of High Adventure sandbox campaign

The Forgotten Realms were my first campaign setting back when I first got into RPGs and while I eventually got put off by its kitchen sink approach I still have some fondness for The North. The North is maybe 5% of the area of Faerûn but can stand as a complete setting on its own. The Sword Coast has become the default region for Forgotten Realms material and I believe the de facto officially supported region in 5th Edition for good reasons. While I don’t have a strong yearning to revisit this setting, I am still very fond of the High Forest in particular. I really got into RPGs when I played on a Neverwinter Nights server set on the eastern edge of the High Forest and eventually became one of the GMs and senior level designers. And my first steps into worldbuilding began with an attempt to take the hinted at past of this region and expand it into a proper playable setting. Eventually I dropped the connection to the Forgotten Realms entirely and now over a decade later it led to the Ancient Lands in its current state. But I always was a bit disappointed that I never got to run a campaign that goes really deep inside the forest and has the players explore its ancient mysteries.

I had planned to start a new Ancient Lands campaign next winter, but by now “next winter” has become “this winter” and its going to be delayed until next spring. And with still a good amount of time ahead, I still have not entirely commited to what I am going to run. Earlier this week I read a great recent post by the Angry GM about making wilderness travel more fun. And though I had last planned to do something simple and episodic, it put the sandbox bug back into my ear. I had written about a workable travel system for pointcrawling in the wilderness a while back which is quite similar, but as usual Angry made a great improvement over it by making it work without prepared precise maps. A pointmap was to be a compromise over a hexmap, but being able to track travel times and random encounters without a highly detailed map is even better. And unlike with a pointmap it’s really easy to handle a party getting lost.

In previous attempts to make a sandbox I found it very efficient to simply grab a bunch of old modules that fit the theme and put them all together on a map. One that came to mind was Hellgate Keep, which is set on the edge of the High Forest. And that got me the idea to use the whole High Forest chapter from The Savage Frontier as the base for my sandbox. It’s the original inspiration for my Ancient Lands setting and as such pretty much everything from it fits perfectly into it. While the North in later publications is a nice place, I think the original version from The Savage Frontier is by far the coolest. It’s classic 80s Jaquays goodness that still has a nice lingering Judges Guild smell. I am not exactly sure why, but the next time the region was described all the best places where destroyed and the most interesting characters dead. And a lot of it is great sandbox material:

    • Hellgate Keep: An old elven fortress city overrun by demons and their half-demon and undead minions. It’s not just a dungeon but a city, and one way too powerful to assault head on. Not really suited for a dungeon crawl but in a sandbox it can get a lot more interesting to visit.
    • Nameless Dungeon: This ruin of an underground stronghold has been closed off and put under heavy guard by elves after adventurers found some magic weapons and armor there. Later books provided an explanation for this odd behavior by making it the long forgotten prison of elven sorcerers who had consorted with demons to usurp the throne of an ancient realm. And now they are waking up and some have already escaped into the forest. I really quite like this one.
    • Blue Bear Tribe: This barbarian tribe has fallen under the control of their evil shaman who is a disguised hag in league with the demons of Hellgate Keep. They were banished from their ancestral shrine by its spirits for their evil ways and are unable to find it again.
    • Tree Ghost Tribe and Grandfather Tree: Some of the Blue Bear tribesmen have split of from their kin and renounced their evil ways. They hope to become worthy again in the eyes of the spirits and rediscover the location of the giant magical tree that they worship.
    • Star Mounts, Endless Caverns, and Stronghold of the Nine: The Star Mounts are a mountain range of incredible hight and somewhere below them are the Endless Caverns that lead into the Underdark and hold the bones of a huge dragon whose treasures have never been found. Not far away is the Stronghold of the Nine, the base of a group of famous heroe who have been turned mad by an evil artifact they discovered and begun to turn the castle into a battlefield fighting each other.
    • Citadel of the Mist: A magic castle that is home to a powerful sorcerer who is one of the main opponents of Hellgate Keep and ally of the treants that live in the nearby forests.
    • Lost Peaks: Mountains that are said to hold the Fountains of Memory that show visions of the past.
    • Dire Woods: A strange part of the forest that is much larger on the inside than the outside and somewhere near its center lies the ancient city Karse, which holds the giant undead heart of a demigod sorcerer.
    • Ruins of Decanter: An old mine that is crawling with monsters created by sorcerers of old and left to their own devices, but recently an illithid known as the Beast Lord is bringing them under his control.

There are also some other places in the Savage Frontier that can easily be transported into the High Forest and fit very well into it.

  • Cave of the Great Worm: This huge cave is home to a tribe of barbarians who are led by an ancient benevolent giant reptile. Would fit well into the Star Mounts.
  • Gauntlgrym: An ancient dwarven city that was famous for its wealth but was lost for unknown reasons. It supposedly can be reached from the Cave of the Great Worm and would be well placed under the Star Mounts so it can be reached through the Endless Caverns as well. I say its mysterious fate is something inspired by the Dead Trenches from Dragon Age and Dead Space!
  • Lonely Tower: A tall tower with no visible doors and windows standing in a huge circular clearing in which no plants grow. It’s the home of a alchemist sorcerer from another world.

That’s a lot of great sandbox material, but to make my work easier I also want to add some classic modules that make for great additions.

  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God: I’ll make it Against the Cult of the Succubus Princess and it should provide a great introduction for the demonic forces of Hellgate Keep.
  • Hellgate Keep: This module describes the keep after its destruction but provides a lot of information on how it looked and what was going on when it was still there. It includes the half-demons Kaanyr Vhok, Aliisza, and Sarya Dlardrageth, who all could be interesting NPCs.
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun: I love this thing. I’ve wanted to run this for a long time and always felt that it would work best if the players have no idea what kind of crazy awaits them beyond the empty gate of this black ziggurat. It’s perfect as a random location that is spotted in the distance as the party is travelling through the wilderness on their way to somewhere.
  • Rahasia: This one lends itself very well to be adapted to tie in with the Nameless Dungeon. Instead of a chaotic priest randomly finding the spirits of three elven witches in a temple, it can be one escaped half-demon from the Nameless Dungeon trying to resurrect his daughters who were killed in the uprising and whose spirits he stored in the basement of his mansion before he was captured and imprisoned. Or he’s a loyal minion who is resurrecting his mistresses who had a somewhat flawed plan to avoid falling into the hands of the attacking elves.
  • Escape from Meenlock Prison: I had so much fun the first time I ran it and meenlocks make for great creepy fey monsters.
  • Sons of Gruumsh: A straightforward but interestingly build dungeon that is occupied by three warlords believed to be blessed by their god. Would make great opponents for the tanarruk of Hellgate Keep.

Additional ideas include making Gauntlgrym inhabited by derro who are descendants of the original inhabitants and making the local orc tribes enemies of Hellgate Keep who want to take revenge for their people being taken to create the demonic tanarruk. Good factions are the key to a great sandbox and there are already a good dozen of them with none of them necessarily attacking the party on sight but all of them having lots of enemies and potential allies.

So much material and I’ve not really lifted a finger yet. This is about four hours of thinking what existing material I can use to make my own sandbox. I am still going to make this an Ancient Lands campaign, but I think most changes will be primarily cosmetic. There are different gods and races aren’t exactly the same, but overall I think it will be still very recognizably the High Forest.

Quick and Dirty Slow Casting Magic System for LotFP

A simple and completely untested variant system for casting spells in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It should also work with other OSR games, but LotFP allows mages to wear armor and use weapons, which makes a severe toning down of spellcasting much less disruptive for players.

Spells work pretty much the same way under this system except that you don’t need to prepare spells in advance and all casting times are at least 1 minute (10 rounds) long. You still need to have spell slots available which are used up for the day when a spell is cast. The effect is that spellcasters become much more flexible in picking their spells when the situation comes up but at the same time lose the ability to quickly intervene with spells in the middle of a fight. All magic requires at least a bit of time to prepare during which the spellcaster can easily be interrupted by any hostile creatures or violent environment conditions.

Many spells need to be cast from hiding, either in cover or in plain sight, to be of any use. I think that I would rule that it’s sufficient for a spellcaster to stand or sit and do nothing and quietly recite the magical incantations at low volume. It would be easy to spot by people who are standing close enough to the caster to hear the magic words or who are keeping an eye on him. Loud background noise or some kind of distraction would be necessary to cast a spell unnoticed while in a crowd. The changes also make a good number of spells effectively useless. The following spells I’d remove from the game. (Fireball and lightning bolt are already not part of the LotFP rules.)

Cleric Spells

  • Command
  • Heat Metal
  • Protection from Evil
  • Protection from Evil, 10′ Radius
  • Remove Fear
  • Sanctuary
  • Silence

Magic-User Spells

  • Army of One
  • Chaos
  • Confusion
  • Death Spell
  • Faithful Hound (if the duration is indeed correct)
  • Feather Fall
  • Globe of Invulnerability (Greater and Lesser)
  • Grasping Hand
  • Haste
  • Hold Person/Monster
  • Interposing Hand
  • Lucubration
  • Magic Missile
  • Magic Sword
  • Maze
  • Mirror Image
  • Mnemonic Enhancer
  • Power Word Kill
  • Power Word Stun
  • Prismatic Spray
  • Ray of Enfeeblement
  • Spell Turning
  • Witchlamp Aura

Modified Spells

  • Charm Person/Monster: The target makes a saving throw at the start of the casting of the spell. If it fails it will simply listen to the casters words and not take any action unless the casting is interrupted by an outside source. The caster of the spell does not look like he is casting a spell on the target but has to keep talking for the entire casting time and observers might notice something strange going on with the target.
  • Enthrall: The crowd starts listening to the caster immediately but can only be persuaded to do something after at least a minute of talking to them has passed.
  • Polymorph Others: The target of the spell slowly begins to change during the casting time but reverts to its original form if the spell is interrupted in any way.
  • Sacrifice: The caster has to be in contact for the entire casting time of the spell, usually making it necessary to restrain the target.
  • Suggestion: The target makes a saving throw at the start of the casting of the spell. If it fails it will simply listen to the casters words and not take any action unless the casting is interrupted by an outside source. The caster of the spell does not look like he is casting a spell on the target but has to keep talking for the entire casting time and observers might notice something strange going on with the target.

A hazy idea for a new OSR magic system

Work hours have been a bit chaotic this month, with frequent evening hours and weekend workdays, so I have not really spend much of the long hours of tinkering with ideas that usually lead to me writing things. But all the overtime hours will get me a lot of shorter workdays after Christmas and there’s not really much to do in a gardening store in January anyway. There’s a lot of ideas floating in my mind that I want to pursue further on lazy afternoons and loudly proclaim my conclusions.

Right now I am occupying my free periods during the day with thinking about adapting my new idea for a magic system to an OSR rules system. Which actually turned out a bit more tricky than I thought.

The main concept is that all characters have an amount of spellpower that is calculated by adding the modifier from Wisdom to the number of levels in the mage class. A 4th level mage with a Wisdom of 16 would have a spellpower of 6 (4+2). Any time a spell is cast or a ritual performed, there is a chance for a missfire based on the character’s current spellpower score. At the end of the casting the spellpower score is reduced by a certain number. Dabblers in magic have a high chance of misfires when performing rituals (which does not require any specific character class) but so do even experienced mages who have already cast several spells that day. I like the concept but don’t have any good idea for how to calculate the chance of failure and how to make a die roll to check for a missfire.

I also think about having three categories of magic. Spells, which take one round to cas; incantations, which take 1 minute to cast; and rituals, which take 1 hour to cast. Only characters of the mage class can learn spells and incantations of limited numbers, but rituals are open to anyone who gets his hands on the instructions. However, I found that I have really very few ideas for traditional spells that would fit with my image of how magic performs in action.

One interesting oddity I noticed a few days ago is that all the effects I wanted my old magic system to do no longer fit with the new system. And a good number of things I deliberately chose to exclude seem highly appropriate for the new system. (Except teleportation, which is still out.) My old approach was highly inspired by Star Wars and Avatar, which spells being extensions of the body and mind. Now I feel much stronger drawn to witchcraft and sorcery that focus on dealing with external supernatural beings. Having just read Hellboy again (a review is one of the things I want to write) probably had a huge impact on that change of mind.

Background Lore is Secondary Stories

A good number of fantasy works, and in some cases science-fiction, have accumulated a huge corpus of background information that is not directly part of the plot or even relevant to it but still a source of endless fascination to dedicated fans. This isn’t new and has been a big thing in RPGs since the 90s. But it has gained an increased prominence in longer running videogame series and some of them, like The Elder Scrolls as perhaps the most famous example, deliberately focus a considerable amount of the development work on this aspect. And huge numbers of fans love it and enjoy going hunting for clues and trying to figure out the connections between seemingly unrelated bits and pieces of information.

I’ve long been wondering how this stuff really works and how one could deliberatey build it into the worldbuilding for books and RPGs as well. And I believe what’s really going on with all this lore information is that the creators are telling secondary stories within the gaps of the main stories. It’s not uncommon for writers to overdo it with the worldbuilding and tell the audience about things that are ultimately irrelevant and don’t connect to anything else in meaningful ways. But bodies of lore are different. The small pieces of information that are scattered around to be discovered do not stand by themselves for their own sake. They are puzzle pieces for the audience to collect and assemble into more or less complete stories. Often very small stories with very simplistic plots, but it’s the act of finding the pieces and interpreting them that makes these background stories interesting and compelling for the audience.

An extreme case are the Dark Souls games, in which the lore of past events is all the story the players get. The actions of the player character are really insignificant to the story and the hero has absolutely no agency to influence anything. In Dark Souls games the whole story has already happened. What the player does is playing with fun combat mechanics and discovering the backstory, which really is the main plot. The actions of the player character are only a minor footnote or an epilog to the story.

When writing books or creating s world for an RPG with the desire to give the audience lots of background lore to discover (as the A Song of Ice and Fire books do very well), I think it is probably best to focus on content that constitutes stories. People are unlikely to care much about manufacturing, agriculture, or the legal system of a fantastic world. People respond primarily to stories snd stories are also the most suitable content for letting people fill in the blanks with their imagination or deduct the missing pieces from details that are already known.

If you want to create a world with interesting background lore that draws the audience in, focus on stories that happened in the past.

A draft for a magic system for stories

After quite some time I am finding myself drawn back to writing and one thing I quickly noticed when going over my notes again was that my ideas for magic were really not that interesting. I’ve been reading Elric and Hellboy and played a lot of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and one thing I really like about all of them is how the magical elements in them are windows into a much larger reality of alien weirdness and religion. I also think that the only topics worth writing and reading about are the basic existential questions of what you want, what you should do, and who you ultimately want to be. In a world dominated by immortal spirits that inhabit and empower nature and a single force that is both the source of light and magic, these two fields lend themselves to blending seamlessly together. To decide what you want to do and to be, you need to understand how you are connected to the rest of the world around you. And there really isn’t a lot to explore with a magic system in which sorcerers replace the natural instincts of animals and tendencies of plants and the elements with their own stronger will. It’s easy, practical, and reliable and doesn’t overlap in meaningful ways with philosophy and cosmology. There is nothing mythic about it.

So I went back to the drawing board to take the ideas about what magic can do that I already had and weave them into a more metaphysical framework of spirits and reality. The end result was a magic system with no spells. Elric and Hellboy have no spells where someone waves a hand and says a magic word and a bolt of lightning shots out or someone turns into a chicken. There aren’t spells in Kane or Thief, nor in Indiana Jones, and very few in Conan. Yet they are all full of magic. Slow magic and indirect magic, that often is tied to objects or spirits and doesn’t just jump out from a sorcerer’s mind.

The basic idea for magic is that all things in the world have energy, which is the source for both life and also magic. The most simple form of magic, if it can even be called that, is Alchemy. Everyone can do it if the right ingredients are known and properly used without any special power required. Alchemy is not just the brewing of potions but also the making and wearing of amulets that ward off various spirits simply because they are made of substances that these spirits avoid. Alchemy is the secret knowledge of substances that can be used to do miraculous things. There is no real line between occult alchemy and commonly known herbalism.

Life force and magical energy is in everything and connects everything, making the whole world with all its creatures, spirits, and landscapes into one. Spirits are automatically aware of these infinite connections but people can also learn to sense their presence. Through this awareness they gain moderate abilities of telepathy and precognition and a stronger ability of persuasion and dominance over others. How strong these powers of Perception and Persuasion are depends on the Personal Power of the person. Partly it is confidence, but since all things and beings are connected through their life force “power resides where men believe it resides”. Overpowering an opponent through combat, cunning, or any other display draws some of the opponents power to the victor and he gains even more power if his accomplishments are recognized by many people. But not only people can gain power. Beasts can too, as well as objects. Relics or the weapons of great heroes become powerful themselves and add their power to whoever is wielding them. Both those who lead and those who use magic greatly seek these Items of Power.

While these things and abilities are magical, the highest form of mortal magic is Summoning. Those who practice this high art are known as witches, shamans, and sorcerers. To summon a spirit, a person has to draw its attention through the use of alchemical substances and sacrifices and mentally calling out to it. Often considerable personal power is required to make a spirit come, and even greater power to subjugate it to ones will. Anyone can perform a summoning but the risk is great for those who lack the power and knowledge of alchemy to controll them. Spirits can be made to perform services for the summoner, but they also can do much more than that.

Once summoned, a spirit can grant a summoner its powers through Possession. Anyone lacking sufficient power and experience with spirits can easily fall under the complete control of the spirits they summoned. But those who are experienced and strong enough can control the spirit inside them and use its powers for themselves. The most commonly summoned spirits for possession are minor elementals that allow a summoner to breath fire, survive at the bottom of the sea, or open the ground beneath the feet of their enemies. Experienced summoners can summon such minor elementals in a matter of seconds and then release them again, but it’s always a considerabe risk and an exhausting battle of wills. Beast spirits can be summoned to allow a summoner to change his shape into that of the beast, but this can also be used against enemies who lack sufficient power to control the spirits and become permanent thralls to them, cursed to remain beasts forever.

As magic systems go, this one is pretty fuzzy and it is so by design. Mechanics and rules are not something I am interested in and it’s also a magic that is not intended for magical battles. Witches, shamans, and sorcerers are not people who throw around spells when convenient but are defined by their occult knowledge of the supernatural realm and mostly practice their magic in consulting spirits in hidden seclusion. It’s not what you’d usually come up with for a game, but for stories I find it much more interesting.

5th Edition Sword & Sorcery

With the basic framework for my next Ancient Lands campaign in place and wanting to use the opportunity to give the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons a try, I’ve sat down to think about ways to give the sandbox a proper Sword & Sorcery feel. Here are my general ideas for running a D&D campaign to go adventuring like Conan, Elric, Jirel, and Kane:

Maximum Level

I think that the higher level spells of D&D don’t fit with Sword & Sorcery. There are two options to deal with that. Either cap all PCs and NPCs at 10th level and allow no further progress, or if you want to run a longer campaign with even more powerful PCs remove all the spells from 6th to 9th level from the spell lists. Since many spells can be used to greater effect with higher level slots, spellcasters above 10th level still increase their magic power and of course also the amount of spells per day. (You could also put the cap at 8th/4th level or 12th/6th level if you want the cutoff point higher or lower.)

Giant Animals

Even though they are not terribly common in most stories, few things scream Sword & Sorcery to me like giant reptiles and giant insects. Probably because they are mostly unheared of in other types of fantasy. Huge bears, tigers, and apes are also great and similarly rare in other fantasy. In addition to giant sized normal animals, 5th edition also has ankhegs, behirs, bullets, carrion crawlers, owlbears, remorhazes, and wyverns which are also all very nice fits.

Monstrous Humanoids

There are good number of really bestial humanoids in the monster manual like ettercaps, ghouls, gnolls, harpies, hags, minotaurs, yuan-ti, and also grimlocks. I would mostly rely on these for humanoid opponents instead of the usual goblins and orcs which are still very humanlike in both appearance and behavior.

Dens of Debauchery

I think for Sword & Sorcery the taverns need to have a strong character and be given a good amount of detail that goes beyond “table, beds, barkeeper”. Taverns are were a great amount or even majority of social interactions will take place and are the best location to show off the rowdy life of adventurers and scoundrels. Taverns or the halls of kings and warlords should be presented as loud and crowded and stuff should be happening there. NPCs spying on the party or trying to steal from them or attempt assasinations, and of course the occasional bar fight. Taverns should not feel like the game menu screen.

Carousing and Long Rests

I got this great idea from Beleriphon at the Giant in the Playground Forum: The Dungeon Master’s Guide has an optional table for carousing and waking up the next morning with possibly interesting results. In the spirit of Conan, Fafhrd, and Gray Mouser, carousing is the perfect situation for the characters to level up at the end of an adventure. They are back at their current place and are enjoying the spoils of their exploits. I would even go a step further and make it mandatory for characters to go carousing to gain the benefits of a long rest from a night of sleep. Or a late morning and noon of sleep. Even with a bad headache, the heroes are then back to their full strength.

Inspiration

Sword & Sorcery games are exactly the type of campaign for which Inspiration exists. The DMG recommends aiming at giving each character inspiration once per play session but I think that’s severely underusing it and making the whole mechanic superflous. It only grants advantage on a single roll. That’s really not much. You can give characters inspiration much more than that. And in Sword & Sorcery you should!

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When a player does something balls to the wall awesome that is daring and reckless but sounds really cool, give the character inspiration to one of the dice rolls involved in that action. Don’t be stingy. In a Sword & Sorcery campaign you want the players to try crazy cool stuff as often as possible.

Weird Dungeon Architecture

Almost all dungeons I’ve seen in fantasy RPGs feel very much like being either castles, abandoned basements, or military bases with natural cave walls. For Sword & Sorcery this is not enough. Sometimes the adventure does lead the party into a normal castle or a well maintained prison, but most of the time, dungeons in Sword & Sorcery are magical and unnatural places that have only passing resemblance to the normal world outside. Even when they are small they are Mythic Underworlds. In my own campaign, which is a very animistic world with lots of spirits, I actually make the entrances to these dungeons portals into the Spiritworld.

There’s probably a huge range of options to do that which someone could write a book about. (Note to self.)

Uncertain Outer Planes

Even though Planescape is great and could be seen as Sword & Sorcery in its own quirky way, I think the standard outer planes of D&D don’t really work with a more mainstream kind of Sword & Sorcery, particularly the good planes. Everything from Pandemonium to Gehenna could work really well, but being able to open a gate and walk among the gods and angels in Elysium and Celestia just doesn’t fit a Sword & Sorcery game.
One approach that I could see working quite well would be to have Heaven and the Hells to be very different in nature and not be analogous and matching opposites of each other. Heaven can be an unknown place unreachable by mortal magic while the hells are open to visitors and demons very willing to answer mortals and listen to their offers of bargains. Or if you want to go down that route, there could be no Heaven, only numerous Hells.
In my campaign the only two other planes are the Spiritworld (Feywild) and the Void (Astral), which can not be visited but is the home of demons.

Few Magic Items

Sword & Sorcery heroes rarely carry more than one or two magical items with them and often don’t have any enchanted weapons or armor at all. If they have something it’s usually protective items that directly counter specific abilities of magical creatures. And alchemy. Lots of alchemy. If you want to give players a good amount of magical help in a Sword & Sorcery campaign, go nuts with potions.

Quick and Dirty Fishtank

A fishtank is very much like a sandbox, but instead of large map with numerous dungeon at the center it’s all about a cast of interesting NPCs and competing factions for the players to clash with. In a way, this is more challenging for a GM as a dungeon with a vague origin and original purpose is muc easier done than a handful of NPCs with interesting goals and motivations. And you still have to build lairs and strongholds for them anyway.

While working on my own plans for a new fishtank campaign this winter, I noticed that I’ve actually taken a very convenient shortcut. Following the great advice of “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”, the entire main framework of my fishtank is simply the old D&D adventures Against the Cult of the Reptile God and The Elfwhisper and the excellent storyline of the Bloody Baron from The Witchet 3 all set in the same town.

All three adventures are pretty linear designs, but at the core they really are starting situations with a problem that the players are supposed to fix somehow. The D&D adventures expect the players to go to the lair and kill everything, but the videogame at least offers a good range of different linear paths to chose from. (Which only shows how bad even most better published adventures are. This is the one aspects in which videogames can not come close to the potential of RPGs.) There are really quite a lot of adventures for D&D and Pathfinder that have some really cool setups at the start. Even with a typical dull Pathfinder railroad, the initial setup is often very much salvageable and usually the best part of the adventure.

If you want to set up a small fishtank, simply grab three or two adventures that you think look cool and take the NPCs with their goals and motivations and the dungeon floorplans and put them all down on the same map. And all the heavy lifting i basically done with that. To make things a bit more interesting and complex, think a bit about how those important NPCs might know each other and how their plans might put them into conflict. Maybe add some embellishments here and there, create a handful of new NPCs and minor dungeons, and you get a decent fishtank pretty quickly.

5th Edition Spell Lists for the Ancient Lands

This is a continuation from my last post on houserules on D&D 5th Edition for the Ancient Lands setting. It’s something of a draft as I am still not completely happy with it, particularly the witch spell list being much longer than the shaman spell list. But I think overall this is pretty much what I’ll be going with to give the game a try in my setting.

Ranger Spells

The ranger spells are largely based on the standard ranger spell list but I removed a number of spells that seemed to flashy to me.

1st level

Alarm
Animal Friendship
Cure Wounds
Detect Magic
Detect Poison and Disease
Fog Cloud
Hunter’s Mark
Jump
Longstrider
Speak with Animals

2nd level

Animal Messenger
Barkskin
Beast Sense
Darkvision
Lesser Restoration
Pass without Trace
Protection from Poison
Spike Growth

3rd level

Conjure Animals
Plant Growth
Protection from Energy
Speak with Plants
Water Breathing
Water Walk
Wind Wall

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