Faction Friday: Anne Arundel’s Cotton Knitwear of Doom

'Knit scarf macro' by m01229 on Flickr

‘Knit scarf macro’ by m01229 on Flickr

Who can truly predict popularity?

Certain bright, patchy-patterned scarves, vests, and other knitwear have become hugely popular of late. Everyone knows they’re knitted by the innumerable women who form the loose coalition known as Anne Arundel’s Cotton Knitwear.

AACK, as it’s more commonly known, formed around the prodigious knitted output of its eponymous founder. Anne is a near-legendary figure of benevolence and industry, who recruited dozens, then hundreds of other women to knit caps, scarves, gloves, and other items of clothing in distinctive patterns, with a small but significant profit making its way back to Anne herself, of course.

It’s been a boon to many a struggling farmer’s purse, though some grumble that they’re encouraged to overwork themselves by overly-aggressive members of the organization.

And the knitwear produced by these women have indeed found widespread popularity. They just seem to keep you warm (optionally granting +2 on Constitution or Wisdom (Survival) checks to resist natural cold effects).

As a friendly faction, AACK grew out of unexpected popularity, and has suffered all the growing pains of a grassroots organization. It doesn’t extort money from its members, but some of its representatives can be overly enthusiastic and run their knitting circles like factories.

Members can be found in all but the tiniest villages, and frequently need someone to check on a caravan or tinker that’s on its way with a shipment of particular yarn or dyes.

As a foe faction, AACK’s members are unwittingly part of a very large, secret plot. Anne Arundel is secretly a hag, and each piece of knitwear forms a thread in the massive tapestry of a spell that will make her a demigod. When the ritual activates, it will steal life essence from anyone wearing the clothing.

Anne keeps the equipment for this ritual in a secret chamber in the sewers underneath the major city that serves as AACK’s headquarters. She keeps a few high-ranking members of AACK as bodyguards, who will defend her to the death in her sewer hideout before she transforms and uses all of her hag spells against the party.

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Character Creation using the Inverse Barker Mechanic

'A Taste of Africa' by DaPuglet on Flickr

‘A Taste of Africa’ by DaPuglet on Flickr

As I’ve been thinking about how to use the Inverse Barker Mechanic (roll d100 in any difficult situation; higher is better), I think there are (at least!) 2 immediate problems to solve:

  1. How do you create characters that are “balanced?” That is, how do you keep one player from just having maximum stats in everything?
  2. How does the GM officiate an interesting story with this system?

I have two answers to the first problem.

Solution 1: Let the GM Figure It Out

If the GM builds characters ahead of time, or at least defines the majority of each character’s abilities, then he or she can ensure balance.

This isn’t as weird as it may at first appear. A lot of LARPs and story games use pre-gens, as did the earliest tabletop RPGs like Braustein.

You can also divide the character sheets into skills and personality, letting a player choose a predetermined skill set, but defining whatever personality he or she wants.

Think of playbooks in Powered by the Apocalypse games: picking a playbook defines a large majority of your character, and the game generally works better when each player uses a different playbook.

Solution 2: Point-Buy, a la GURPS

I know, some people really dislike GURPS. We’re not using the system here, though; we’re using the approach.

Imagine this: The GM (and/or the group) defines the abilities, powers, attributes, and such that may come into play in the game. For each “universal” attribute in the game (like strength), each player gets 50 character creation points, and for each “uncommon” attribute in the game (like paranormal investigation), each player gets 25 character creation points. Players then distribute these points among the game’s abilities, powers, attributes, etc., where each can be between 0 and 100. For traits that are either on or off, you let each character have, say, one of these.

With this solution, you still don’t necessarily use those numbers directly in the game, trying to roll over/under those numbers (though you could certainly apply the unmodified Barker Mechanic to do so). While you could, you quickly run into questions about overlapping abilities. This is just to establish relative ability.


Now, figuring out how to help a GM run a cool story with a relatively loose system like this is a very big task, and one for which I don’t have a great process. I think it would involve the basic stuff: create antagonists with strong goals, put them directly in the PCs’ paths, etc.

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Faction Friday: Sir Jon Emberfall

Sir Jon Emberfall is one of the city’s more wealthy nobles. He’s used his wealth wisely, spending extra on public works while ensuring his wealth continues to grow. Never married, without an obvious protege, and definitely on the far side of middle age, some have started to wonder aloud what will happen to his money when he passes on.

In the meantime, he’s showed an interest in magic and the occult. He hires adventurers to collect rare magic items.

As a friendly faction, Emberfall’s a decent man with a natural head for investing and a curiosity about magic. Collecting rare magic items (particularly those forest-related) is an idle hobby, and he’ll hire the PCs to retrieve several, and he pays well.

He does have an ulterior motive, though: he’s looking for an heir. If any of the PCs particularly impress him, he will approach him or her privately and ask after their affairs. If he passes away in the game, that PC will find him- or herself heir to the Emberfall fortune. This may bring more problems than the PC expects.

As a foe faction, Emberfall’s secretly become indoctrinated in the Brothers of Talos, a dark cult. He uses his publicly-known artifact collection partially as cover; every fourth or so item he has collected is actually part of a ritual aimed at summoning and controlling a powerful demon.

Emberfall’s gothic manor consists of four levels, of which the fourth contains his most prized items. PCs attempting to raid it will have to contend with his dozen or so goblin servants and about half a dozen gargoyles and animated statues set up at key points in the manor’s layout. Google a manor layout that you like and just introduce goblins or gargoyles at reasonable points as the PCs explore.

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Running a D&D Game with 1 Player

Sometimes, you only have one player available to play. Sometimes, one player in your campaign wants to split off and pursue his or her own goals for a while.

Can you run a D&D game for one player? Sure. Do you have to do it differently? Yes.

However, here’s the good news: it’s 95% the same as running for a group.

First off, ask the player what he or she wants to accomplish during his or her session. Depending on the player, you can focus this conversation on actions or goals. Some players will tell you that they want to kick some butt in combat and maybe have a little role-playing; others will list one or two objectives they want to mark off.

Second, build the session around the player’s character. Look at the PC’s character sheet, and make a quick list (in your head or written down) of the character’s specific abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Then tailor the session’s scenario to the character, also keeping in mind what the player told you.

For example, a utility character with high bonuses in Investigation and Survival may not get much of a chance to use those skills in a combat-heavy group, but can really come into its own in a session built around a mystery or exploring a remote area.

Third, build combat encounters with only 1-2 enemies. The action economy will destroy a lone PC targeted by multiple creatures, so it’s best to keep encounters small. This actually works really well in a solo session, as the player can really focus on a single monster and make it special.

Finally, build and offer 1-2 player-directed NPCs, but don’t insist on them. These NPCs can go along with the PC and assist him or her, acting as extra “party members.” Offering helpers can reassure a player who’s nervous about heading out alone, but can feel like a crutch to others. So, don’t force the players to use them. Build your encounters for solo PC combat, but also such that you can add a few enemies to challenge a PC accompanied by one or two helpers.

And when you go into the session, have fun! Solo sessions tend to be much more dramatic and feel a lot more like a book or movie than a typical D&D session. Savor the opportunity to tell a very directed story about a single hero!

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Monster Monday: The Tricaput

In a more sane world, the Tricaput would be one of those calm herbivores that mostly gets out of humans’ way.

Instead, the Tricaput — all six tons of it — chooses a mile-wide area of land as its territory and defends it viciously against anything larger than a dog, flying into rages at the most innocent passer-through. It first charges its enemy, then uses all three heads to bite with sharp, rending teeth.

Tricaput nests include distinctively dark green, almost spherical eggs, and are made of twigs and leaves the parent chews into a sort of mash. If you see one, get out of there as quickly as you can.


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Faction Friday: Elesantra’s Dungeon of Wonder and Goblins

Creating a Dungeon by Noah Bradley

Creating a Dungeon by Noah Bradley

Elesantra, an adventurous elf, followed the classic adventurer career: She spent years delving into dungeons, collecting various items of power, then eventually retired very comfortably. Having developed a taste for city life, she put her money in charge of a local banker, bought a small mansion, and placed her collection of magic items in a dungeon she’d helped clear some distance away. She even hired an enterprising band of goblins to rig a series of traps and generally guard the place.

As upright and generous as Elesantra is, she has one flaw: she couldn’t stop mentioning her private dungeon at the many society parties she frequented. Fortunately, the aristocracy with which she associates know better than to steal from her; she’s far too well-known. Instead, the idea of dungeon-delving intrigued them, and they asked to see it. Surprised, Elesantra agreed and led a few friends on a tour, disarming traps and generally hamming it up. She even gave each of them a small coin once they reached her inner sanctum.

Well, that little party came back and told all their friends, and suddenly “delving” into Elesantra’s dungeon was the Thing To Do. She was quickly overwhelmed with requests, and politely declined for a few months while she redirected the goblins’ efforts. Then, she made a big announcement.

The dungeon was now open to anyone who wanted to delve into it; they didn’t need her. All the traps were now non-lethal, and the goblins instructed to lob sacks of paint instead of arrows and flee if anyone got within arm’s reach. At the end lies a “treasure room” filled with inexpensive wood and tin trinkets in the shape of swords and wands; those who reach it are expected to take only one item each.

Elesantra still keeps her actual adventuring treasure in a whole other level beneath the public one, and that one’s full of real, deadly traps.

As a friendly faction, the PCs will likely first encounter Elesantra as a source of information. She’s very well-connected among the local aristocracy, about a third of which have at least attempted her dungeon. Her elven memory allows her to remember exactly who said what to whom.

She also frequently acquires special, particularly devious traps that are built into other dungeons in the area; she will hire adventuring parties to clear out the dungeon so she can send in engineers to remove the trap, reduce its lethality, and install it in her own complex.

As a foe faction, Elesantra’s dungeon is a cover for a much more nefarious operation. She belongs to a degraded cult, which uses her actual dungeon to torture unfortunate souls into madness. The aristocratic adventuring parties above assume that the distant screams are part of the place’s ambience, faked by Elesantra.

PCs planning to stop this (or rescue a prisoner) will have to first go through the public dungeon, consisting of very simple and annoying traps: tripwires that dump sacks of flour on them, pressure plates firing darts that deal 1 HP of damage, a riddle carved into a doorway which must be opened with a key inscribed with a missing word in the riddle, and so forth. Goblins will harass the PCs from a distance (and if the PCs attack the goblins with actual martial weapons, the latter will immediately run towards the lower level and fortify it).

The treasure room contains a secret entrance downwards (and the PCs’ patron will likely have told them how to find and open it), leading into a level filled with very dangerous traps. These should be solvable but tricky and painful. Meanwhile, the goblins will keep their distance, firing ranged weapons and triggering traps where possible. These goblins are smart and have had many months to develop a defensive strategy.

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Monster Monday: Skullspiders

Skullspider by Brent P. Newhall

Skullspider by Brent P. Newhall; CC-BY-3.0

Spawned in abandoned graveyards and poorly maintained battlefields, skullspiders are large, venomous predators about the size of a cat. Unlike the single web of a typical spider, each skullspider will spread several thick webs over graves, crypts, bushes, and trees and feed indiscriminately on anything that gets caught there. They are also viciously territorial and will attack any creature that breaks any of their webs.

When attacking, a skullspider emits a high-pitched shriek and rattles its skull-shaped head. Any creatures seeing and hearing this must make an appropriate Fright check or become stunned for one round after the attack. If successfully bitten, the skullspider’s poison slows the target, then immobilizes it.

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Faction Friday: Gus’s Goblins

'Goblin Caravan 1991' by steve

‘Goblin Caravan 1991’ by steve

Life’s tough for goblins who try to be good. Many of them turn to the merchant life as peddlers and gypsies, turning their natural eye for trinkets into a shrewd judge of value. Still, they take quite a while to earn the locals’ trust.

Enter Gus, a minor half-elf spell-caster who never seemed to find success, leaving behind him disappointed parents, dissatisfied lovers, and frustrated adventurers, until he came upon a tribe of goblins that fell in love with him.

This might have something to do with the crystal necklace he wears, which a certain Rakshasa named Paharu desperately wants to find.

In any event, Gus’s Goblins have expanded from a simple caravan to a small carnival. They roll into a village, half set up booths selling trinkets (particularly noise-makers, fans, and other items useful for an audience), and half put on a show that night. Combining their racial agility with a few spells Gus taught them, they perform some impressive acrobatic stunts, and one old goblin, Sharik, has even proved an immersive story-teller.

As a friendly faction, Gus just wants to do a little good in the world. He procured (read: stole) a mesmerizing crystal from Prahana, then stumbled on a small tribe of orcs. Instead of killing them or running away, he decided to turn them into a positive force in the world. The crystal makes the goblins treat Gus as an ally, and his natural enthusiasm combined with these golbins’ fascination with magic has turned him into the tribe’s leader. And now that the goblins spend every night with full bellies, they’d die for him.

That said, goblins aren’t exactly loved everywhere in the world, so the caravan struggles to find certain essentials, particularly supplies for their performances. A group of adventurers who happen to be in a village at the same time as Gus’s Goblins will likely find themselves approached by a goblin–or even Gus himself–and offer a reward for procuring juggling sticks (or some similar piece of equipment) from a purveyor of such things in a nearby city. Of course, that purveyor will be under attack from thugs when the PCs arrive.

As a foe faction, Gus uses the goblins to hide from Paharu. Gus actually polymorphs into a gaudily-dressed goblin when in public (and during performances, where he acts as ringleader), but his wagon is much larger than the others and sized for his natural dimensions.

The goblins are also less than noble. Every time they travel through a village, something goes missing. It’s rarely big enough to cause a serious fuss, and the goblins are smart enough to target the more senile or junior members of the village, but the average farm family can ill afford to lose any of their possessions.

Worse, Gus is up to something; they’re stealing items that match a pattern, such as components for a powerful spell or parts for a construct. Somebody will eventually notice this and ask the PCs to investigate.

The goblins will fight anyone who attempts to investigate their caravan, but will surrender if they realize they’re about to be killed.

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The Inverse Barker Mechanic: d100 for Everything

'Dice' by James Bowe on Flickr

‘Dice’ by James Bowe on Flickr11-10-09: Dice

I’ve probably written about this on Google+ a few times, but I wanted to document it in full.

Apparently, M.A.R. Barker, creator of the early RPG Empire of the Petal Throne, after decades of role-playing settled on a very simple system:

The GM takes the PCs’ character description into account when describing NPC reactions, so if you’re very strong, you don’t need to roll to push open a stuck door. However, if a situation is in doubt, the GM rolls d100, where a lower roll is better. The GM still keeps the PCs’ character description in mind here; a low roll for a high-speed character will work out differently than one with low speed.

That’s it.

You’re not trying to roll over or under a number. You’re just…rolling the dice. Combat operates at a higher level than typical blow-by-blow D&D encounters; you roll to see who gets injured, knocked out, etc. It can be just as cinematic as you want; you just have to be more clear about what you’re doing.

Now, this puts a lot more pressure on the GM to build and run a fair, interesting session. But I feel like we have many of those tools already. Anyvay, it’s something to think about.

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Monster Monday: Painsoppers

Today’s monster is converted from the “hexmute” found in GURPS: Creatures of the Night by Scott Paul Maykrantz.

Painsoppers are strange humanoids who live on pain. Usually encountered in groups of 3 to 10, they are indistinguishable from normal humans except for their irises, which are pure black, and the fact that they never speak. They always wear nondescript clothes, and often hang around at public executions, hospitals, and car accidents, but disperse as soon as authorities arrive. Some do strange, depraved things while draining their victims, such as drool, smile widely, kiss each other, or even rub themselves.

However, painsoppers are natural bottom-feeders, and almost never engage in combat. If approached, they run. Moreover, they can magically merge with shadows and move invisibly to re-emerge up to 500 yards away, and can do this as often as they wish.

A painsopper will die if he or she does not spend at least one hour per week in the presence of a sapient humanoid who is in mortal or near-mortal pain. While a nearby humanoid is in serious pain, any painsopper nearby regains half as many Hit Points (or appropriate Health score) as the humanoid loses. However, every painsopper loses one tenth of his or her Hit Points per day. To increase its feeding times, it will magically stave off death in its victim; each victim reduced to 0 HP may make a Constitution check (or other appropriate roll) to stay conscious at 1 HP, and makes death saving throws at +2.

Painsoppers normally live as transients on the far outskirts of society. Thanks to their shadow step, they have no need to stay within civilization; instead, they will create the barest semblance of a homeless commune in an out-of-the-way spot and stay there between “feedings.” Nobody knows what they get up to there; anyone approaching will prompt the painsoppers to flee.

Legends say that anyone who spends inordinate amounts of time near a place of many deaths, like a battlefield or a hospital, eventually becomes a painsopper. Others claim it’s a curse, or even the effects of a drug. Nobody can say for sure.

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