Monday, December 26, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Door to Saturn

I learned of Clark Ashton Smith relatively recently—around the time I discovered the OSR. I just read The Door to Saturn. What a fun story!

UPDATE: Black Gate magazine posted surveys of Smith's Averoigne, Hyperborea, and Zothique story cycles. The essays are worth a read if you'd like an overview of his work.

And this is just awesome:

...Malygris, who lay dead for years while men believed him living; who, lying thus, still uttered potent spells and dire oracles with decaying lips.*

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I've been sick

I've been sick, but I'm on the mend now. I have a lot of work to catch up on, so posting will probably be light through the new year.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ditlana and dungeon architecture

Thanks to everyone who commented on Wednesday's post! I'm only the most casual of tourists to Tékumel, I'm afraid, and have never read beyond the 1975 EPT book. Rob L's comment from yesterday had me wondering if ditlána was the default origin of dungeons in EPT. Some of the quotations in my previous post undoubtedly focus on the ditlána of the city of Jakálla, but Professor Barker leaves plenty of latitude for a variety of underworld origins:

Scattered over Tékumel are innumerable half-buried, half-forgotten ruins. There are fragments dating back to the prehuman ages, when the Ssú and the Hlýss vied with one another for control; there are tunnels of melted rock and steel constructed during the days of man's first glory; there are jumbled heaps destroyed by the cataclysms which rent Tékumel when the planet was cast into outer dimensional darkness; there are catacombs and subterranean labyrinths dating from more recent empires, cities, temples, pyramids, and fortresses dedicated to the lost and unremembered gods of half a hundred kingdoms. Another factor is the custom of Ditlána, the ceremonial "renewing" of many cities every 500 years: cellars and foundations of an old city are filled in and roofed over, upper floors are razed, and then new and more splendid edifices are built upon this foundation. Such earlier buried habitations are now full of burrows and tunnels built by humans, half-humans, nonhumans, and the many parasites and predators of Tékumel who subsist upon man's leavings.

This reminds me of How to Host a Dungeon.

As I currently see it, there are three major aspects of big-picture dungeon architecture:

  • the physical origin of the space: natural caves, mines, nonhuman excavations, ditlána, etc.
  • the spacial relation of levels in terms of number, depth, and interconnectedness
  • the configuration and type of areas or neighborhoods within a single level (randomly generated interstices, Saturday Night Specials, scenario/faction areas, empty regions, etc.)

Just as in How to Host a Dungeon, each of these will be modified over time, by nature and with use. Natural caves will be expanded and adapted for habitation. Commercial mines will be abandoned, and later repurposed. New connections will be tunneled between levels. Geological evens will reshape sections.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tekumel-style underworlds

While doing some megadungeon research, I re-read a couple of Planet Algol posts about Saturday night specials (1, 2) that include this EPT quotation:

"Here too, the role of the "Saturday Night Special" cannot be overemphasized. Aside from the deliberately or randomly determined "normal" contents of Underworld areas, it is interesting to develop large complexes inhabited by special beings. These should have special histories, and players should hear legends of their existence on the surface. Their abilities and treasures should be individually devised, since these add interest and spice to the game."

So, I dug into the Petal Throne PDF, and found this:

An Underworld should consist of a number of levels of passageways, rooms, catacombs, shrines, tombs, etc., etc. Each level is drawn on a sheet of graph paper (10 squares to the inch provides sufficient room to develop large temple or tomb complexes). Levels are interconnected by stairways, sloping passages, chutes, vertical shafts with or without ladders—etc. Levels need not be exactly one on top of the other, nor need they all join neatly: i.e. one may have a level off to one side which is approachable only by a stairway down from some upper level and which is not connected to any further upper or lower levels, Thus, the Underworld of Jakalla has a very extensive first level, drawn on a 17" x 22" graph paper. Stairways and other types of passage lead downwards from this to other levels, but those levels themselves are only occasionally interconnected. Certain passages branch off to tie in with still other Underworld complexes; some of these connector tunnels run for miles, being survivals from the ancient pre-cataclysm underground transport system.

And this:

It is much more realistic and desirable to have an Underworld developed upon logical, "scenario" lines, with large complexes of tombs, temples or other contents carefully worked out. These can be cut off from one another, of course, by empty labyrinth areas or by randomly selected regions.

Further, about scenarios:

Countries, parties, Temple factions, nonhuman races, etc., etc., all will have objectives of some sort, and the referee should sketch these in... Thus, players will encounter members of different factions within the Imperium, various foreign agents with schemes of their own, individuals with a variety of plans and goals, nonhumans, and other beings.

This makes a Tekumel underworld sound very different structurally than an OD&D dungeon (or, at any rate, an OSR megadungeon):

  • a HUGE first level—drawing on 17" x 22" graph of 10 squares per inch
  • a limited number of lower levels
  • most lower levels connect directly to the huge first level, with only limited connections to each other
  • long "trunk" connections to a network of other dungeons

More interesting to me is the classification and arrangement of different types of spaces within a single level:

  • Saturday Night Specials, which consist of:
    • rumors or legends the characters hear before finding the special
    • a unique monster or monster type
    • a large complex
    • unique treasures with a history
  • Scenario areas (where factions pursue their goals)
  • randomly generated or empty areas that divide the Specials and Scenario areas

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Belladonna and Wolfsbane

While perusing the S&W Whitebox rules today, I noticed that the Adventuring Gear section lists both belladonna and wolfsbane. Neither item is described, nor does the lycanthropes section mention either herb. In fact, the rule book never mentions either herb again.

So, I surveyed our family of rules to get a consensus on belladonna and wolfsbane.

Swords & Wizardry Core doesn't mention belladonna. Core's equipment description for wolfsbane says it will "often keep werewolves at bay... temporarily." The monster entry for werewolves says, "wolvesbane keeps them at bay." The lycanthropes entry in the Monster Book doesn't mention either plant.

(Incidentally, I haven't spent much time with the 4th printing of Core, but I like what I see. It's an improvement over the third printing.)

Labyrinth Lord (and OEC) lists wolfsbane, but not belladonna. It's noted as a ward against all lycanthropes ("the lycanthrope must succeed in a saving throw versus poison or free out of fear"). LL Advanced Edition includes belladonna, but only as an herb "used to relieve aches and pains, reduce inflammation, relieve coughs or used as an anesthetic."

Holmes includes wolvesbane in the equipment list, although makes no mention of how it affects were-sharks and other lycanthropes.

Moldvay lists only wolfsbane. The lycanthrope entry says, "if a lycanthrope is hit by wolfsbane, it must save vs. Poison or run away in fear. The sprig of wolfsbane must be swung or thrown as a weapon, using normal combat procedures." Moldvay doesn't mention any curative properties for those infected by lycanthropy.

The AD&D PHB lists wolvesbane and belladona [sic] in the equipment lists. The DMG says that when a character who has been bitten by a lycanthrope "eats any belladonna within an hour after being bitten, there is a 25% chance the disease will not manifest itself". The Monster Manual lycanthrope entry reiterates that. The only DMG mention of wolfsbane is as a treatment of last resort along with belladonna:

If the adventurer decides to be cured and the methods mentioned thus far have been unsuccessful, he or she may take refuge in a holy/unholy place such as a monastery or an abbey. There the clerics can administer to the afflicted one holy/unholy water laced with a goodly amount of wolfsbane and belladonna prepared by the spiritual methods of that particular religion. This potation is to be consumed by the victim at least twice a day from a silver chalice. No adventuring may be done by the character while he or she is being treated by the clerics. After a month or more (depending upon how advanced the disease is) the player character should be cured and somewhat poorer in the purse, as this procedure is very costly.

OSRIC doesn't include belladonna or wolfsbane in its equipment list, but the lycanthropes entry says: "if a victim ingests belladonna within one hour after the attack there is a 25% chance the disease will be cured." It makes no mention of wolfsbane.

Men & Magic lists wolvesbane and belladona [sic] in the equipment lists, but the lycanthropes entry in Monsters & Treasure mentions neither. The supplements don't mention either plant.

The d20 SDR says that a character afflicted by lycanthropy "who eats a sprig of belladonna (also called wolfsbane) within 1 hour of a lycanthrope’s attack can attempt a DC 20 Fortitude save to shake off the affliction."

Outside the game, wolfsbane is properly known as Aconitum, a genus of pretty flowers in the buttercup family. Atropa belladonna is a flowering shrub from the nightshade family. Though unrelated, both wolfsbane and belladonna are toxic---the roots in the case of wolfsbane, and the leaves and berries in the case of belladonna---and both have medical uses.

My very cursory research didn't reveal any strong folkloric associations of either plant with lycanthropy apart from twentieth century pop culture. (Flying ointment and twilight sleep are interesting.)

So, depending on your rules and your referee, wolfsbane might drive away lycanthropes, and belladonna might cure a character infected by lycanthropy if administered within an hour of infection. But they might not do anything. I sort of like that uncertainty, and I'm inclined to let the efficacy of belladonna and wolfsbane remain uncertain for players and their characters.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fonts for your PDF's

Even though a content creator has a valid license for a font, that license may not allow embedding the font in a PDF document for commercial sale or even non-commercial public distribution. The issue is ambiguous, but of sufficient concern that Pat suspended PDF sales of Anomolous Subsurface Environment.

I did a little research, and the key phrase seems to be "free for commercial use". The following links offer more than two dozen high quality fonts that can be freely embedded and redistributed, even for commercial use.

This font embedding license gotcha is another reason I'm happy with LaTeX.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Kindle Fire

I'm posting this from my new Kindle Fire. There are a few rough edges, but it's a great value for the money. It'll be handy at the game table, although ezPDF is a must-have upgrade from the built-in reader.

Monday, November 14, 2011

SCIENCE! Specimen 632

Burg "Sawmill" Houri discovered specimen 632 in one of the deeper chambers east of the Pits of the Rapacious Uberbeast.

The device's suitcase-sized voice controller connects wirelessly (via the controller's extensible "rabbit ear" antennae) to its pink-bubbling-nuclear-fluid-filled transparent, cylindrical power unit (12-ounce capacity). During operation, the controller makes "boop, boop... boop, boop..." noises, and the power supply sprays glowing dust into the air. The dust smells faintly of strawberries (long-term exposure not recommended).

Given a properly specified voice instruction, the devices alters two discrete events that occurred within the last 24 hours by switching two of the involved persons. Everyone remembers the events as they originally occurred, except for the two swapped individuals.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Villagers with torches

I thought you might enjoy this pick of actual villagers with torches at the annual bonfire celebration in Lewes.

[via Age of Uncertainty]

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Awesome OD&D poster

This OD&D wandering monster poster from Blog of Holding is pretty great.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Languages and aliens

FrDave at Blood of Prokopius posted about the importance of languages in his games, and this paragraph particularly resonated with me:

In LL and B/X, demi-humans begin with the ability to speak several languages. One of the interesting consequences of this in my own game is that the demi-humans have become essential for interpreting the languages of monsters who occupy the ruins. To my mind, this does a nice job of re-enforcing the alien-ness of the demi-humans. It suggests that they are closer to monsters because they can converse with them, as opposed to the human characters which do not begin the game with the same kind of linguistic ability.

I'd like to "re-enforcing the alien-ness of demi-humans," but haven't done much with it rules-wise. I'll be writing up FrDave's idea for my game.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Modular D&D platform (request for comments)

Zak posted about D&D as a modular platform, which is alway how I've viewed it.

Half the time you see a new table or chart on this blog it's because I went "Ok, for my next session I'll need a fortress--hey why don't I spend the amount of time I'd spend designing that fortress adventure making a little subsystem to generate fortresses." This isn't always the best approach but when I do it that way it generally works out--the brainstorming I do to get the entire table might give me ideas I wouldn't have thought of if I'd just been focused on building one location. And, naturally, it saves a lot of time down the road.

Computer programming nerds call this "writing reusable code."

The quirky little subsystems are one of the things I love best about OD&D. Unfortunately, few of those subsystems survived to later editions and the retro-clones.

I'd love to see an anthology called Quirky Little Subsystems. Start with Swords & Wizardry Whitebox or Labyrinth Lord: Original Edition Characters as the platform. The book, then, would contain dozens of modular subsystems by various contributors. Individual referees could stick them together or adapt them as desired.

This isn't quite a call for contributions, but I'd enjoy editing and typesetting Quirky Little Subsystems. Is there any interest in such a project? Please comment.

Friday, October 7, 2011


The Hack & Slash post On the Creative Crocodile Conundrum nicely formulates some points against skill checks and for letting players play.

In a couple of weeks, I should have the time to resume regular posting here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

OSR Oktoberfeast

I'm still swamped at work, or else I'd be all over Sword & Shield's OSR Oktoberfeast—a Halloween advent calendar with 31 single-evening old-school adventures. Fenway5 is looking for adventure writers and artists.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I've been busy at work (and will be for a couple more weeks), but I did have time to read Nathan's post about the Monster Manual entry for Men. Men types underpin much of OD&D, and Nathan's post makes me realize that I haven't given them enough thought.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Awesome Stefan Poag art

I've started commissioning art for my house rules booklets, and thought I'd share this excellent piece Stefan Poag drew for me.

If you're looking for an artist, by the way, I can tell you that Mr. Poag has been a pleasure to work with.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What rules do you play, and why?

If you don't care about other referee's naval gazing about rule sets, skip this lengthy and somewhat rambling post. Fair warning....

For the last couple of months, I've played ad hoc rules while trying to decide between totally custom house rules (based on Torch and Sword), pure 1974 LBB OD&D, pure Labyrinth Lord, OEC Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Core Swords & Wizardry, or Whitebox Swords & Wizardry. I know that the choice of rule system matters surprisingly little during actual play, but for some reason it's something I think about a lot. I established these criteria:

  • A living rule set relatively free of intellectual property entanglements, which unfortunately rules-out OD&D
  • Something that looks more like LBB OD&D than any other edition, which eliminates OSRIC (with which I've been increasingly impressed), Labyrinth Lord, and (to some extent) Core S&W
  • Something I can tell people I play by name, without having to qualify with a million house rules

I'm looking forward to Delving Deeper and Champions of ZED, but for the time being the above criteria directed me to Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. Labyrinth Lord Original Edition Characters was also in the running at that point, but I chose Whitebox because I like many of the new rules like AAC, and Whitebox leaves more room for referee rulings (compare the spell descriptions, for example). The only problems I have with Whitebox:

  • The 6x9" format of the PDF is great for Lulu, but makes it hard to print a quick copy on 8.5x11" (or 4.25x5.5")
  • Marv's prose style is slightly too conversational and verbose to suit my idiosyncratic minimalist preferences. That's nothing against his great work, it's just my Strunk-n-White-ish bias.

I took the Whitebox RTF and created a LaTeX document that gives me tremendous flexibility in output format—I can easily output an 8.5x11", half-page booklet, or whatever other format I want. It also lets me split the rules into as many booklets as I want; I decided on a player booklet and a referee booklet. I made some minor edits that satisfy my stylistic leanings without modifying any rules.

I still want to make a lot of house rules, but I've decided that I'll isolate those changes to the referee book. Amazingly, I only felt compelled to make a couple of minor changes to the player booklet.

"Languages: For campaigns that give each race its own dialect, Dwarves should be able to speak with gnomes, goblins, orcs, and kobolds."

I changed to:

"Dwarves speak the dwarf, gnome, goblin, and kobold languages."

"Languages: For campaigns that give each race its own dialect, Elves should be able to speak with gnolls, goblins, orcs, and hobgoblins."

I changed to:

"Elves speak the elf, gnoll, hobgoblin, and orc languages."

Those are the only actual rules changes to the player rules. The next most dramatic change was to the wording for alignment.

"Alignments in the game are described as Law, Chaos, and Neutrality. In general, Law also corresponds to being “good,” Chaos corresponds to being “evil,” and Neutrality simply means that the character is indifferent between the two moral polarities. It is quite possible for the Referee to make the alignment system more complex: perhaps Lawful only means that you are in favor of centralized hierarchies in society, in which case you could actually be Lawful Evil as well as Lawful Good. It is a matter of preference if you want to make the alignment system more complex."


"Choose an Alignments: Law, Chaos, or Neutrality. Law promotes the order of human civilization, while Chaos favors a world beyond human reason."

Everything else in the player rules is very minor grammar/style stuff. The changes to the referee booklet will be more dramatic.

In short, you could sit down and play with me using the stock S&W Whitebox rule book without any problem, and I can publish stuff without having to explain or standardize a bunch of house rules.

The only thing that would be better would be if I could distribute my house rules with art (although I understand why Matt put that stipulation in the license). I'd love to commission or license a few pieces from Peter Mullen, Stefan Poag, and John Larrey.

If anyone wants the LaTeX files or PDF sans art, just let me know. Most likely, I'll publish the referee stuff that deviates from stock Whitebook here in the coming weeks.

UPDATE: Here's a ZIP file of the PDF and LaTeX files for my house rules player booklet.

Monday, August 22, 2011

GM merit badges

Stuart made GM merit badges. I awarded myself PC Death Is Likely, "Rule Zero" Is in Effect, I Mirror Back Player Ideas, Focus on Exploration & Mystery, Prepare to Run!, Rules Tinker, and Player Skill badges.

I'd like to earn the Roll in the Open, Tactics, and Gonzo badges.

I almost never fudge results these days, but I still roll behind a screen—mainly because it's a convenient place to hang my reference charts, and rolling in front of it would mean standing up. Maybe I need a smaller screen or some way to do without one.

I appreciate the importance of tactics, but I don't feel like they figure significantly enough in my games to justify the badge. That's partially me and partially my players. I need to include more affordances for tactical play, particularly exploitable environments.

Gonzo. I have pretty strong gonzo tendencies, but don't give them much play in my current game. That's largely because I'm running Stonehell for the first time, and want to see what it's like before drastically altering its tone. The campaign I'm writing myself has a significantly higher quotient of gorilla kings, robots, and masked aliens. When I get around to running that, I'll feel better about earning the Gonzo Badge.

Thanks, Stuart. The GM badges provide a good vehicle for self evaluation.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Building a better GM

On Hill Cantons, ckutalik asked GM's to list their three best practices, techniques, or tricks used at the table.

I don't claim to be an exemplary referee. After all, it was only a year ago that I started playing again and discovered the OSR. However, I've found the following techniques help me at the table:

  • Always say "yes" to players.
  • If the players, in their deliberations at the table, theorize about something more interesting than what you actually planned, drop your plans and use the more interesting idea.
  • Never keep the players waiting—not even for 30 seconds—while you look up something in a rule book. Just make a plausible ruling and move on. You can check the rulebook after the session.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Death or dismemberment

This is a house rule I recently created to replace critical hits. If a character would be killed or rendered unconscious by an attack, the player can instead opt for the character to survive with one hit point and roll on the following table.

Elective Dismemberment (2d6)

2. Arm severed at shoulder
3. Arm severed at elbow
4. Hand severed
5. Eye plucked out
6. Ear lopped off
7. Lost a finger
8. Ear chopped off
9. Nose cut off
10. Foot severed
11. Leg severed at knee
12. Leg severed at hip

Re-roll if the character can not be further dismembered in the way described (e.g.—both legs already lost).

One of the characters in my game is already down a hand. The blacksmith made him a little something for his stump.

Friday, August 19, 2011

First Fantasy Campaign on incentivizing carousing

From page 50 of Dave Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign:

"Many characters wonder what they should spend their money on and what it will get for them in exchange. [...] Wealth: Merely the stockpiling of Gold, Silver and similar items of value by the player. If these items are stolen, the player loses full value immediately upon discovery and may lose levels as a result."

That will only happen once or twice before reluctant players take advantage of the carousing rules!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trimming the spell lists

Roger of Roles, Rules and Rolls asked what the magic-user spell list should include if limited to six first level spells and three spells of higher levels. I made my picks, and I think you could have an interesting game within these constraints.

1st Level:
1. Charm Person
2. Detect Magic
3. Hold Portal
4. Light
5. Shield
6. Sleep

2nd Level:
1. ESP
2. Invisibility
3. Knock

3rd Level:
1. Dispel Magic
2. Fireball
3. Fly

4th Level:
1. Charm Monster
2. Polymorph Other
3. Remove Curse

5th Level:
1. Animate Dead
2. Contact Other Plane
3. Teleport

6th Level:
1. Geas
2. Enchant Item
2. Reincarnation or Stone to Flesh

7th Level
1. Cacodemon
2. Limited Wish
3. Simulacrum

8th Level
1. Mass Charm
2. Permanency
3. Symbol

9th Level
1. Prismatic Sphere
2. Shape Change
3. Time Stop

Friday, August 12, 2011

Speculation about Gary's Greyhawk

I think all of us who have seen this picture of Gary Gygax running Greyhawk have spent a few minutes speculating about it.

Since Evan at In Places Deep asked about the map key...

A cursory count puts the number of rooms in the neighborhood of 120. Gary's key has 18 numbered lines. Additionally, there are two color codings (pink and green).

At least some keys correspond to multiple rooms. It looks like seven or more rooms are labelled "2".

If we imagine that each key corresponds to seven rooms, that accounts for every room on the map. (I doubt that's actually the case, and clearly some rooms are unkeyed.)

Even if only one key corresponds to one room, that would be about one in six rooms keyed. If each key corresponds to 2-3 rooms with non-keyed rooms empty, that's close to U&WA ratio of empty to non-empty rooms.

Cyclopeatron's observations about running Arneson's Blackmoor Dungeons may be instructive:

"[...] the keys have virtually no information beyond what treasure and/or monsters might be in a given room [...] the generally empty nature of the dungeon causes an interesting tension to build. Empty... Empty... Empty... Empty... Screaming, confusion, blood, fire."

I don't see anything to make me think the page in the picture is not the complete key for the facing map, particularly if checks for wandering monsters happen every turn.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Appendix N electronic book availability

I got a new Kindle, so.... Of those books and writers mentioned in the DMG appendix N, the following are available electronically—many for free.

Most of the above works also appear in Moldvay's Basic reading list, but the following are in addition to those listed in the DMG.

UPDATE: I don't know how I overlooked William Hope Hodgson, but thanks to Scott for noticing.

* As these works may still be under protection in parts of the world with copyright terms as insane as those of the United States, it would be naughty of you to read them for free in such a jurisdiction. I couldn't possibly recommend it.

** I suspect many of C.A. Smith's works are now in the public domain, though Smith's estate and Arkham House claim otherwise.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Observations about Judges Guild map 1 from JG17

In 1976, Judges Guild released a pack of four dungeon level maps (JG17). I believe the maps were originally from the Thunderhold installment. I spent a few minutes last night making notes about the characteristics of the first map, with an eye to producing original maps with similar features.

  • No closed doors near starting area
  • Early & obvious descent to level 2
  • Access to various deeper levels
  • A couple of very large rooms
  • Environment hazards (slippery bank)
  • Notes written directly on map
  • Dimensions noted on map (no counting squares)
  • Blank lines for color key (used how?)
  • Sounds noted on map (buzz, grunt, etc.)
  • Smells (stinky) noted
  • Curved & diagonal passages
  • Multiple pit traps
  • Peanty of odd shaped rooms—almost a third
  • A couple of dead ends
  • Blank lines for revisions (used how?)
  • What goes on the first set of broken lines/labels? A dungeon complex and level number?
  • Water feature
  • Statue
  • Mix of rough (cave?) & regular/constructed rooms
  • Some dimension not evenly divisible by 5 or 10—especially the rough/cave areas (108', 62', etc.)
  • 34 rooms total

A PDF of the four maps is available from RPGnow.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stone coins

I know some of you like to play with currency in your milieux—silver standard rather than gold, etc.—so you might find something of interest in this history of what happened when an outsider expoited the giant stone coin based economy of the island Yap.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Stonehell session report 1

Slim Charles the Medium, Rabbi Spellberg, and MacDougal the Veteran arrived in the town of Halesnug. At the Wayward Slough Tavern, they hired the men-at-arms Gilgrim (a black market dealer), Colwin (with a vendetta against orcs), Durdoon (a peasant), and the linkboy Darric. After bargain hunting for rumors (you get what you pay for!) from the bartender Martin Knockteeth, they set off for their first foray into Stonehell.

Across the Fathomless Nerb River, they guided their mule to the canyon mouth, and paused to read graffiti before hurrying past the gatehouse. They explored several small cave systems opening onto the canyon. They put to rest several animated skeletons, narrowly avoided an evil magical trap, and discovered an unusual piece of sparkly chalk-like material. (The wall of cave 4 may or may not bear the magical or invisible message "Slim Charles is a badass"). Darric the linkboy was wounded in the melee with the skeletons, but was later cheered to find a pack of playing cards with naked ladies printed on them.

Descending down, down, down to the prison proper, the party met a group of unusual beings.

These short, round, furry ewok-like creatures have scaly yellow noses, huge yellow pointy ears, tiny red eyes, and row upon row of serrated shark-like teeth. They wear too small Errol-Flynn-Robin-Hood-style hats and boots and belts (but no pants).

Despite their strange appearance, the creatures claimed they were "just collectin' da guano, boss" and left the party in peace.

After their efforts to explore an old well proved inconclusive because the too short rope left linkboy Darric dangling, the party pushed somewhat recklessly though a series of increasingly deadly encounters.

Giant centipedes took MacDougal's life—a fitting end for the amateur entomologist. Slim Charles cast sleep on creepy crawlies, and dispatched one in a such a manner as to leave it suitable for mounting. The magic-user plans to honor the fighting-man's memory by sending the specimen to the MacDougal clan along with his body.

Rabbi Spellberg was crushed by a giant stone block. His body could not be recovered. As Slim Charles crawled around the floor collecting those silver pieces not crushed with the cleric, a pair of brigands attacked.

Slim Charles and the henchmen defeated the brigands, but it was such a near thing that Slim Charles declared an end to this first expedition.

Climbing up, up, up from the bowels of the vast stony Hell, they discovered the mule—left tied-up in the canyon—had disappeared, only its halter remaining. Slim Charles stowed the halter in his backpack with care, and led the wounded hirelings back to Halesnug in silence.

The dice favored the party—particularly in the sparseness of wandering monsters. Even so, they cleared a lot of rooms for one delve. I don't feel bad about killing two of the three PC's. MacDougal was a little unlucky with the centipedes, but Rabbi Spellberg would still be alive if he'd taken a few minutes to scrutinize his environment. That all the henchmen survived is remarkable. It was a good session. Stonehell is fun to run, and I'm looking forward to next time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reference Numbers

Zak said:

(Reference Numbers: I do this "You find a scroll of unknown origin, write #68 on your page" then when they use it I can look it up and don't have to remember from nowhere which mystery scroll Satine found at the bottom of a well a year ago based on a hasty transcription of an ad hoc description)

Thanks, Zak. I'll start using something like this immediately.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Foldable dodecahedron!

Perhaps I'm the only LaTeX junkie in the OSR. I understand that it's harder than MS Word or Pagemaker, but it's free, flexible, and beautiful. Just look at this foldable dodecahedron package! Surely we can put this to use.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Lesser Gods of Oerth and sweaty pseudopods

I never ran or played in a Greyhawk campaign, but I did get the 1983 boxed set as a kid. Reading it today for the first time in many years, this passage caught my attention:

The people of Oerth worship many gods. Only deities of the central Flanaess are detailed here, and of those, only the lesser gods (in most cases) have been detailed. In general, the greater gods are too far removed from the world to have much to do with humanity, and while they are worshiped, few people hold them as patrons.

These deities have been known to intercede directly in the affairs of men... a demi-god and a godling might well become embroiled in human affairs...

In my games, the gods—big or small—remain distant, their existence implied only by the granting of cleric spells, which is strange, since my imaginings about such things were founded on youthful readings about Homer's compulsively meddling, all too relatable pantheon. Maybe that one DM who used an uber-powerful archmage to lead our characters by their noses through his epic Lord of the Rings knock-off made me over-vigilant.

I'm changing-up to radically familiar gods in my new campaign. These minor deities have only a handful of spell-casting clerics, and they appear personally to replenish spells.

Imagine: you're a cleric, sleeping after an exciting adventure that exhausted you and all your spells. At some point in the night, your god—with his sweaty hands (or pseudopods or whatever) and coffee breath—shakes you awake and whispers divine revelations in your ear. Sort of like Santa Claus or your creepy uncle.

Well, maybe...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Origin of names in Harry Potter

I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan, but character names are something I always notice. I saw this Wordnik post about language in Harry Potter on Kottke, and though it worth reposting.

Characters’ names are often also common words. A dumbledore is a bumblebee. Snape is a ship-building term that means “to bevel the end of (a timber or plank) so that it will fit accurately upon an inclined surface.” Hagrid is the past participle of hagride, which means “to harass or torment by dread or nightmares.” Skeeter is a term for an annoying pest, and not just Rita Skeeter, blood-sucking journalist. Mundungus is “waste animal product” or “poor-quality tobacco with a foul, rancid, or putrid smell,” a good name for a sneaky thief.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Torch & Sword Beta 1

My 0e/LBB retro-clone Torch & Sword is nearly complete. Since I'll be taking a little break from it to work on my new campaign, I decided to release this beta version (PDF, LaTeX source files).

In a few months, I'll give it a final edit and add one or two bits and bobs, but it's now pretty close to a complete implementation of the original rules. I also added some art.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Castle Owners & Their Principal Retainers (d8)

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I'll use this custom table to stock the castles in my new campaign rather than the standard table in U&WA.

  1. Amorphous Tentacled Horror
    1. Dimensional Shamblers (d8) 7 HD
    2. Hunting Horrors (d6) 8 HD CC
    3. Polypous Horrors (d10) 6 HD RCC
    4. Shoggoths (d8) 7 HD RCC
  2. Ancient Idol-God
    1. Basilisks (d6)
    2. Druids (d8) 7HD
    3. Medusae (d12)
    4. Oozing Guardians (d12) 5 HD RCC
  3. Evil Hight Priest
    1. Hell Hounds (d8) 7 HD
    2. Spectres (d10) 6 HD
    3. Vampires (d8) 7 HD
    4. White Apes (d12) 5 HD (Barsoomian)
  4. Gorilla King
    1. Gargoyles (d12)
    2. Hounds of Tindalos (d12) 5 HD RCC
    3. Robots (d8) 7 HD
    4. Weretigers (d12)
  5. Masked Humanoid Alien
    1. Reflection from Another World (d8) 7 HD
    2. Dopplegangers (d12)
    3. Serpent People (d10) 6 HD RCC
    4. Star Vampires (d8) 7 HD
  6. Patriarch
    1. Blink dogs (d20)
    2. Ents (d6)
    3. Hippogriffs ridden by Heroes (d4)
    4. Werebears (d10)
  7. Ruthless Overlord
    1. Giants (d4)
    2. Ogres (d12)
    3. Rocs ridden by Heroes (d4)
    4. Wereboars (d12)
  8. Wizard
    1. Avergnoids (d8) 7 HD
    2. Balrogs (d4)
    3. Basilisks (d6)
    4. Chimerae (d4)
    5. Dragons (d4)
    6. Manticores (d6)
    7. Robots (d8) 7 HD
    8. Wyverns (d4)

Castle owners are either hostile (1--3 on d6) or neutral (4--6 on d6) towards player characters.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Google Plus

I'm not much of a social networks guy, but as Stuart says Google Plus might be good for gaming. Comment if you need an invitation.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

OD&D-style castle occupants

Inspired by Scott's recent work on the Castles of Dwarf-land, I decided to start work on my new campaign by making a custom table to stock castles. To get a base-line for my custom table, I pulled some averages from the Type of Guards/Retainers in Castle table on p. 15 of U&WA:

                    Castle Owners
    Owner Min HD    Owner Mean HD    Owner Max HD
    ------------    -------------    ------------
         8                9               11

                  Principal Retainers
Min HD    Mean HD    Max HD    Min #    Mean #    Max #
------    -------    ------    -----    ------    -----
 3+1        6+3         9        1        4.6       20

Based on those numbers, I can pick suitable retainers and the quantities thereof:

Hit Dice456789

I plan to finish and post my custom castle occupants table later this week.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Hit Dice: 4+1
Armor Class: 6
Move: 90'
Treasure: 2d4 x 100 gp in assorted coins & 15% chance of one non-weapon magic item
Alignment: See below
XP: 417

Like a lich, a strigoi (f. strigoaică) is a normal man transformed by magic. Unlike a lich, men can become strigoi either in death or while still living. Strigoi haunt the place they lived as men. They often try to maintain relationships they had while human—particularly romantic relationships—but their twisted efforts frighten those who knew them as men.

Lawful men transform into Neutral strigoi, while Neutral men become Chaotic strigoi.

Scholars differ regarding what causes a man to become a strigoi. These are some of the theories:

  1. A bad love affair
  2. A non-fatal bite from a strigoi
  3. Breathing bad air from graveyards or crypts
  4. Birth defect of the head or face
  5. Corpse walked-over by a cat
  6. Cursed by a witch
  7. Died unmarried
  8. Frequent (perhaps intimate) contact with goblins
  9. Infectious disease
  10. Left to sleep alone beneath the moon as an infant
  11. Met a squinting man at dawn
  12. One parent was a strigoi
  13. Possession by an evil spirit
  14. Saw a crone on New Year's morning

Any given strigoi possesses three of the following powers:

  1. Can remotely possess one person between dusk and dawn
  2. Invisibility
  3. Never ages
  4. Only harmed by fire
  5. Only killed by beheading
  6. Only killed by stake through the heart
  7. Shape-changes into a cat
  8. Shape-changes into an owl
  9. Shape-changes into a snake
  10. Shape-changes into a wolf

A strigoi suffers three of the following weaknesses:

  1. Become trapped by confusion if lured to a crossroad
  2. Can not abide the smell of burning hemp
  3. Can not abide presence of garlic
  4. Die if it holds a candle
  5. Discomfort in daylight (-2 to hit and save)
  6. Drinking alcohol causes complete amnesia
  7. May not approach within 10' of a straw broom
  8. Must drink blood from a living human weekly
  9. Paralyzed if pierced by a sowing needle
  10. Paralyzed by the cries of an infant

I, Paul Gorman, created this text about the folkloric strigoi based on material in the public domain, and in turn release this strigoi text and its presentation into the public domain. Use it as you wish.

This bugs me too.

Monday, July 4, 2011

History of Cartography free PDF's

The first two volumes of The History of Cartography are available as free downloads. I wish the images were scanned at higher resolution, but there's still lots of inspiring material.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tithes, chaos, and soforth

This passage from page 16 of U&WA confuses me:

Clerics will require passersby to give a tithe (10%) of all their money and jewels. If there is no payment possible the Cleric will send the adventurers on some form of Lawful or Chaotic task, under Quest. Generally Evil High Priests will simple [sic] slay Lawful or Neutral passersby who fail to pay their tithes.

This passage could be read in a number of ways. I find the most likely reading is that lawful clerics assign Lawful quests to lawful or neutral indigents, while chaotic clerics (EHP's) assign Chaotic quests to chaotic passersby and kill those of other alignments.

That leaves unanswered the question of what lawful clerics do with chaotic passersby who are unable to pay. Any guesses? Or is there a better reading of the text?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Göbekli Tepe

A site in Turkey called Göbekli Tepe, built much earlier than Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid, has caused some mystification in archeological circles, as it seems to show that at least one particular group of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers constructed advanced stone monuments. Check out the photo gallery for inspiration.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monster fingers, Lovecraftian aedicula, and a frog prison

The often interesting book blog The Age of Uncertainty posted about a trip to France. Drop these into your game:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Crossroads, boggles, and an exemplary map

Tim at Gothridge Manor posted a nice list of random encounters for crossroads. I'm a sucker for local legends. Tim's post caused me to grab one of my favorite inspirational references, The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, which relates this:
The boggle infecting Bringham Lane end, where four roads meet, is a white dog, known as Willie Sled's dog. Willie Sled used to attend to those who came to Bringham sand-pit; and as nearly every pit in Riding has its goblin, this one is named after him...

Boggles are, of course, shape-shifting bogey beasts that haunt places of transition, like crossroads and streams. They're prone to play (sometimes deadly) tricks on passersby.

While I had the book open, I noticed this map and key:

The key would be a good basis for a series of random tables to spice-up a hex map.

  1. Churches & holy places
  2. Devils & demons
  3. Ghosts, apparitions & screaming skulls
  4. Giants
  5. Heroes & villains
  6. Hidden treasure
  7. Humorous tales
  8. Legendary beasts
  9. Local landmarks
  10. Phantom beasts
  11. Place-name stories
  12. Prehistoric remains
  13. Royalty
  14. Sunken cities
  15. Witches & wizards

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fun play situations

I playtested A Stranger Storm, the starter module included in LotFP: Grindhouse Edition. During play, I wrote myself this note: "it's not that the premise is so original (it's not), but that the ideas make for fun play situations. Start adventure design with a situation and work backwards?"

In retrospect, that's close but not precisely on point. James' most recent post exposes the core lesson—giving players meaningful choices leads to fun play situations.

LotFP does a better job than most rule books of encouraging design with meaningful choices, so painting it as didactic nihilism... well, you can't preach both meaningful choice and nihilism. What's the alternative, really? A game based on predestination? Isn't that the sort of pre-scripted story-based play we've been trying to escape?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Consolidated surprise roll

In OD&D, a 1-2 result on a d6 indicates surprise. A second d6 roll indicates the distance at which the surprised group becomes aware of the other party: 1-2 means 10' distant, 3-4 means 20' distant, and 5-6 means 30' distant.

I thought of an alternative method that's nearly equivalent and slightly faster.

Roll a d8 to check for surprise. A result of 1-3 indicates surprise. Multiply that same roll by 10 to get the encounter distance in feet. Since the non-surprise encounter distance is 40-80', that same roll is still good for the encounter distance if there's no surprise.

Using that method, the chance of surprise increases 4%, and the average non-surprise encounter distance goes from 50' to 60'. I think it's close enough to be worthwhile.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Art in Dungeon Crawl Classics: Wow!

Since I saw Peter Mullen's art a few years ago, he's been one of my favorite fantasy artists, but I always liked his color work better than his black & white stuff.

His new B&W pieces in Dungeon Crawl Classics, though, are inspiring. He's really taken his craft to a new level of excellence. Top notch!

Stefan Poag has some great pieces in DCC too. I particularly like his freewheeling panorama spread across a couple of pages in the wizard spells section.

Some of the other artists' illustrations don't hit my personal sweet spot as hard as Mullen and Poag, but the quality is generally high.

Small text for a small complaint....

The only thing I can point to as a problem (and I only mention it because feedback is the point of a beta release) is that the scans of certain pieces make the inking look unnecessarily sloppy. The issue doesn't stand-out if your monitor is calibrated to a more sane level of gamma than mine.

Not that the above detail looks "sloppy"—I was just trying to show that not all the blacks reproduce quite a blackly as might be desirable, and the lines that you definitely want black and crisp may look a little fuzzy printed at that color depth and resolution.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

When magical research fails

In original D&D, as described on page 34 of Men & Magic, magic-users and clerics can conduct magical research to invent new spells.

The player proposes a new spell, and the referee assigns it a spell level. The character must conduct research for a number of weeks equal to that spell level, and spend a minimum amount of gold pieces based on the spell level.

Spell LevelResearch WeeksMin. Cost
1st1 week2000 GP
2nd2 weeks4000 GP
3rd3 weeks8000 GP
4th4 weeks16,000 GP
5th5 weeks32,000 GP
6th6 weeks64,000 GP

At the end of the research period, there's a 20% chance of success. The player can spend more money to increase the odds, gaining an additional 20% for each multiple of the minimum cost spent.

What happens if that roll fails? Men & Magic doesn't say, so roll d6:

  1. Review previously collected research data for another week to correct a flaw in your calculations. It's unnecessary to expend further research funds, but the odds of success will be the same as before.
  2. This line of research hit a dead end, but you've narrowed the possibilities. After d6 weeks of additional research, your odds of success increase by 20%.
  3. You nearly found the answer, but your laboratory lacks the proper equipment to conclude the research. Spend an amount equal to the minimum research cost to purchase the new gear, and you will have the answer within a day. Of course, someone could liberate the equipment from the laboratory of a rival spell caster....
  4. The problem is more obscure than you anticipated. Spend the minimum cost in gold and weeks again. Your chance of success increases by 20%.
  5. Your hypothesis is flawed. Modify the spell description, and start from scratch.
  6. You will never succeed researching this spell without further experience. Try again after gaining a level.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The bricked-up wall

Kiltedyaksman of Discourse & Dragons posted about including bricked-up doorways in dungeons. It's an excellent idea—one I'd thought of before, but keep forgetting to use.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Art in gaming products (as landmarks)

Today, I read a bunch of posts about art in gaming products. Stephan Poag often writes thoughtfully on the subject. As one might expect from an artist, he is firmly in the pro-art camp. James Maliszewski tolerates art in moderation. A minority actively dislike art as "a very superficial unthinking gloss for fantasies," but they are asses.

One thing about gaming art that I haven't seen mentioned—perhaps because it's so obvious—is its practical value as an aid to navigating texts. I tend to mentally index gaming books by their images, even when the content of the images doesn't directly illustrate nearby text. It's just a lot faster flipping through a book to recognize a picture than to recognize a block of text.

I suspect that's also why new editions with replaced or rearranged art are so jarring—they disrupt that pattern recognition.

This is not to say that I think of art as a merely a superficial unthinking gloss.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My (incomplete) OD&D retro clone available for free download

Remember when I quit working on my retro-clone, Torch & Sword? I might as well release the completed portion. Here's the PDF, and here are the LaTeX source files. I may or may not finish it some day, but one or two of you may find bits of it useful now.

UPDATE: the beta version is now available.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Monuments from the future

If you run a scifi game, take a look at these real but improbably futuristic Yugoslavian monuments.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Summon Library

I love reading the gaming ideas on OSR blogs, but among the many fine ideas presented only a few immediately strike me as something I know I will use in my games. Telecanter posted such an idea today: Summon Library.

A magician casts a spell that summons something bulky, awkward, and incredibly useful at that precise moment. What things would you want to summon? An alchemical lab, a troupe of actors, a font, a barge, a forge?

Monday, May 16, 2011

One page dungeons

Behold: the One Page Dungeon Contest winners. Congratulations, winners! Perhaps I'll have my crap together enough to enter next year.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Today's delivery from LotFP

These books make a very good impression in person. The Vornheim experience in particular is far better on paper than as a PDF.

Friday, May 6, 2011

My payment to you (gift culture in the OSR)

Mythmere's post about blog popularity, the comments to that post, and Matthew Schmeer's related post about free vs fee content deserve consideration by members of the OSR community.

I have no problem with people who charge money for their work—particularly when the prices are reasonable. Even Lamentations of the Flame Princes, which I consider something of a luxury brand* by OSR standards, offers good value in terms of creative inspiration.

For me, though, it's not about popularity or money or the (low) number of comments on my posts. I view the OSR as primarily a gift culture, wherein any individual who freely releases their work increases the wealth of every other member of the community.

The content I've already read on your blogs and PDF's is the reward I want. The content I produce and distribute (and I think this applies for free or fee content given the total revenue of the OSR) is my payment to the community.

For example, I read every one of Dyson Logo's posts. I rarely comment on his posts, but I value them enough that I released a few pages of geomorphs myself.

What the hell is the point of this community if not to inspire each other?

* Although my perception of LofFP as a luxury brand may partially be driven by exchange rates and the cost of overseas shipping.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A-M of the A-Z challenge

Hmm... I guess I failed to cross the finish line on the A-Z challenge, but I congratulate everyone who did finish. Carter Soles summed-up his experience, pointed-out some of his favorite A-Z winners.

Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for Mascaron

The middle of the alphabet is rich in architectural dungeony things. There are almost as many good M's as L's, like Madhouse, Malt House, Mall, Mantel, Martyrium, Mastaba, Mausoleum, and Maze.

Mascarons are stone carvings of grotesque faces—some human, some beasts, and most a mix of the two. The majority of mascarons in a dungeon are ordinary (if unusual looking) stone carvings, but some are magical.

This mascaron's eyes rove continually, wildly, and not in the same direction. It will jibber and try to bite anyone or anything that comes close:

This one truthfully answers one question posed by any Lawful character:

This one tries to loudly spit on anyone passing below (then look innocent):

Animal noises emanate from this one, although it never moves:

This one hurls foul insults (in a long-forgotten language) at anyone who passes. If the PC's somehow manage to communicate with it in its own tongue, it will reveal the location of treasure in exchange for the PC's telling it salacious stories. When it doesn't know any more real treasure locations, it will invent treasures to keep the PC's interest. It leers, and ogles any female party members regardless of their charisma.

The Creative Commons images above were created by wallyg, takomabibelot, Landahlauts, and Xavier de Jaureguiberry.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Library

There are so many great L things that I could almost do a whole month of them: Laboratory, Labyrinth, Lamp-Post, Lantern of the Dead, Laundry, Lavatoire, Letterbox, Lich Gate, Lighthouse, Loculus, Lookout, and Lunatic Asylum.

I've tried to pick lesser-known architectural features in previous entries, but today it's Library. I'll take this opportunity to compose a table I've been meaning to write for a long time: random generation of library books for inquisitive PC's.

Optional supertitle:

  1. History of
  2. Natural History of
  3. Encounters with
  4. Mother's
  5. Some Observations on
  6. Encyclopedia of
  7. Dictionary of
  8. Illustrated
  9. The Truth About
  10. First-Hand Accounts of
  11. The King's
  12. The New
  13. Jokes for
  14. Almanac of
  15. Back to Basics
  16. A Lady's
  17. A Gentleman's
  18. Diary of
  19. The Big Book of
  20. The Art of

Part the earlier:

  1. Northern
  2. Southern
  3. Eastern
  4. Western
  5. Misleading
  6. Revised
  7. Condensed
  8. Elritch
  9. Night
  10. Collegiate
  11. Rapid
  12. Surefire
  13. Zero Tolerance
  14. Preventing
  15. Foundational
  16. Childhood
  17. Equestrian
  18. Naval
  19. Incomplete
  20. Culinary

Part the latter:

  1. Wars
  2. Birds
  3. Stars
  4. Apprentices
  5. Navigation
  6. Bottling
  7. Brewing
  8. Grammar
  9. Sewing
  10. Worthies
  11. Rules
  12. Anecdotes
  13. Test Preparation
  14. Success
  15. Etiquette
  16. Mating
  17. Travels
  18. Cities
  19. Flowers
  20. Faith

Optional subtitle:

  1. Explained
  2. (A Life)
  3. For Beginners
  4. Yearbook
  5. In Conversation
  6. In Style
  7. For Little Ones
  8. In Brief
  9. And Other Adventures
  10. A Structural Analysis
  11. And Other Secrets
  12. Avoid The Pitfalls
  13. Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible
  14. Bilingual Edition
  15. On Parade!
  16. In 24 Hours
  17. Making It Pay
  18. A Journey of the Spirit
  19. A Space Odyssey
  20. Like A Pro

Find more lists in my forthcoming book Jokes for Northern Wars.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for Kura

A kura is a Japanese storehouse for valuable things, built to be fireproof. Mundane things like rakes and bicycles would be stored elsewhere. Japanese homes have limited storage, so things that aren't used everyday—prized items like wedding china or family photo albums—go in the kura.

That's a position that makes a kura somewhat interesting when transposed to a fantasy setting. Perhaps the orcs in your dungeon live on a subsistence level, owning barely enough to survive. They wouldn't have to worry about precious keepsakes. But maybe they're a few steps above subsistence.

What can the PC's find in the monsters' kura?

  1. Stone box adorned with narrative carvings
  2. Urn filled with ash
  3. Garishly colored robes
  4. Ancestral weapon (broken, unmendable)
  5. Religious icon
  6. Locks of hair tied in silk ribbons
  7. Sacred wine
  8. Skulls of enemies
  9. Porcelain vases
  10. Festival masks
  11. Delicate, impractical furniture
  12. Small box containing a fine brush, a small glass bottle of dried-up ink, and a block of sealing wax

The photo in this post was dedicated to the Creative Commons by Kenchikuben.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

J is for Jacquemart

A jacquemart (also spelled without the "c") is a brass figure that moves by clockwork. Typically these figures appear in pairs—one on either side of a bell, which they strike with hammers.

If one was of a mind to put jacquemarts in one's dungeon, the obvious thing would be to make them some sort of golems or ambulatory automatons to attack the PC's. That's a bit too obvious. More interesting would be for the players to see without being able to immediately reach one or more jacquemarts. Soon after first seeing them, the players discover or deduce their terrible mechanical function.

The exact nature of that function is up to you. Perhaps some twirly-mustached villain has bound the princess helplessly to the bell, soon to be pulverized by a dumb jacquemart hammer unless the PC's reach the works in time. Or perhaps the clockwork has been in motion for centuries, slowly chipping away at the lock imprisoning a Great Eldritch Horror.

Though the players can see the inexorable, pitiless progress of the clockwork from some distance, it will take them time to fight their way up the mountain or across the gorge. Melodramatic? Yes, but it might be fun.

The above photo was dedicated to the Creative Commons by Jean-Louis Zimmermann.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Infirmary

In the most general sense, an infirmary is a place for the sick, but a dungeon infirmary bears little resemblance to a modern hospital.

Creatures without a society, or whose existence in the dungeon is mostly solitary, may simply crawl into a crevice or little-used corridor to sicken and die.* To social monsters (or, if not social per se, then those who tend to horde together in some numbers) sickness presents a different challenge. Those intelligent enough to understand the dangers of infectious disease kill or isolate the victims. Such infirmaries are more oubliette than hospital ward.

Adventuring parties stumbling across dungeon areas that appear significantly less traveled than neighboring areas—particularly sub-levels distinguished by bricked-up portals and unburied bodies—should exercise caution.

  1. Fungal infection†
  2. The Rots†
  3. Bubbling boils†
  4. It itches!†
  5. More of them grow than the normal/original number†
  6. Insect bites transmit it, then bleeding fissures—ouch†

* The carcass remains infectious for 1d6 weeks after death.

† Symptoms manifest in 1d6 hours; death occurs in 1d6 days.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for Hearse

I admit that my selection for H is driven more by etymological interest than utility in a dungeon, but a hearse is a fine thing still.

Hearse originally meant just an iron grating, such as any gate or portcullis. The word comes from the Old French herce (a rake or harrow) because of the spiky ironwork. Eventually, the meaning narrowed to refer to a fence around a tomb or a temporary iron triumphal arc erected over a coffin, usually draped in banners and affixed with candles.

Our contemporary sense of the word dates to the seventeenth century.

(Incidentally the Old French herce might be traced back to the Latin hirpus for wolf, because of the resemblance to sharp teeth. I think it's a nice poetical image—the coffin resting inside a wolf's maw.)

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

G is for Ghat

A ghat is a kind of quay or landing found along rivers in the East, particularly India. Unlike a Western pier, a ghat is a long set of steps that extend into the water, usually with a fortification-like buildings at their head. They're used for arrivals and departures for water travel and cargo, and as community gathering spots.

Imagine a long ghat flanking the underground river in your dungeon.

McKay Savage licensed the above photo under the Creative Commons.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

F is for Favissa

Cults of many ancient cultures, including the Syrians, Phoenicians, Israelites, Greeks, and Romans, disposed of their sacred sundries in Favissae. A favissa is a cellar or pit beneath a temple, in which cultists dispose of votive offerings and worn-out ritual objects like broken clay figurines. Often objects that had fulfilled their ritual purpose would be intentionally broken before being discarded in the favissa. Discarded figures are believed to represent the deity associated with the cult. Archeological evidence suggests that such practices date far back into the neolithic period.

[...] archaeological finds reflect three major types of figurines that appear simultaneously in all assemblages, just as we have seen at Dor: an adult male, represented as a king sitting on a throne or standing, or as a warrior on a horse; a fertility goddess holding her breasts or a child and sometimes pregnant; and young boys.

Occasionally, a find will point to a particular cult practice. For example, from Greek sources we know that the Phoenician cult practiced sacred prostitution. In the first Dor favissa, we found an almost intact figurine of a naked woman with swollen belly and drooping breasts, seated with legs apart and smiling. This figurine is unique in Palestine, although two similar, but not identical, figurines have been found in Kharayeb, farther north on the Phoenician coast. In the Kharayeb examples, the woman sits with her legs apart, one hand on her knee and the other pointing to her genitals.

What we have been describing might be called the official cult, associated with sanctuaries where priests doubtless officiated. But side by side with this official cult was a popular religion or “popular cult” [...] Archaeological remains from this popular religion include such items as demonic figurines and masks [...]*

So, add a favissa to the temples in your game, and stock it with broken ritual objects—objects which could provide information for the characters and flavor for the game.

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Big Maps

The big map blog has some great historical maps, and it looks like they're available for download at fairly high resolution.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E is for Excubitorium

"Opposite the front of S. Crisogono, standing a little way back from the street, are the remains of a very interesting excubitorium (50 c.), to which a flight of about 30 steps descends. The floor of the court is covered with black and white mosaics of marine monsters, a polypus, and other animals, surrounded by the sea. Each of the centaurs holds a torch, one of which is alight, the other spent—supposed to indicate the firemen on and off duty. [...] In the cenre is a six-sided cistern. On the right is a species of temple or lararium, richly decorated in moulded terra-cotta, once picked out with coulour. At its entrance are Corinthian pilasters, with entablature and pediment; the painted walls are covered with graffiti; and in the apse is a marble statuette of Mercury. On the opposite side of the court are the guardrooms, sleeping apartments, kitchen offices, and a well; and on a pier to the left are graffiti of greater importance (cir. 225), showing that the edifice, once a private 2nd century house, had been let or sold to serve as an outpost (excubitorium) for a detachment of the 7th cohort of the Roman vigiles."

Most definitions on the web, and even in a couple of architectural dictionaries, say that an excubitorium is sleeping quarters for city guards, but in actual use it seems to always refer to a firehouse. Fire may not be a major problem in a stone dungeon [see Richard's comment below!], but it was a significant concern for the occupants of Rome, and would also be a major hazard for most ancient/medieval fantasy cities. Roman vigiles kept watch from numerous excubitoria located throughout the city, where they would respond to fires with buckets and axes. They couldn't do much to extinguish a raging fire, so the vigiles focused on early detection and prevention; they were empowered to break into any private property if they suspected a fire hazard.

I think these Flickr photos show the excubitorium described above as it appears today.

The quotation comes from the 1899 A Handbook of Rome and the Campagna, which incidentally has some nice maps in it:

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

D is for Door Knocker

Door knockers have been popular since antiquity. Some have abstract or purely functional designs, but many are figurative.

Common motifs include foxes, fish, lions, or fantastical beasts. Lion door knockers typically hold a ring in their mouths, with the mouth used as a hinge, and the ring striking against a plate in the door.

Somewhere deep in the dungeon is a door that can't be opened by any obvious mundane or magical means. The door bears the figurative brass head of a beast with a gaping mouth.

The door will only open if its matching brass ring (hidden elsewhere in the dungeon) is inserted into the beast's mouth, and used to knock on the door.

The thing on the other side of the door is the reason someone went to the trouble of removing the brass ring and locking the door in this manner. Beware!

(This is for the A-Z Blogger Challenge.)

Thanks to Richard Kelland, Tim Whitlow, and Ilaria Caterina for creating the Creative Commons photos used in this post.