Faction Friday: The Desert Crypt of the Goblins

Art from Magic: The Gathering

Art from Magic: The Gathering

Some days, you want a complex, multi-faceted faction. Instead, today we have a classic force of what appear to be bad guys, but you can twist into good guys if desired.

Caravans traveling through the region complain of goblins skulking around their camps. They’ve been easy to identify because each goblin wears a black headband. While they haven’t attacked anyone yet, they’re sure to be a problem eventually. Trillian Godshand, an ex-paladin in charge of security for the caravans, tasks the PCs with tracking the goblins down. You can play him as either dismissively casual about wiping about the goblins, or genuinely curious about their behavior and asking the PCs to investigate and resolve rather than destroy with extreme prejudice.

Even cursory investigation will reveal tracks leading to a large stone door sunk into the desert sands/jungle marsh/forest floor, which leads down into the complex below. The goblins live here.

As a friendly faction, the Fleetfoot Tribe was an average band of several dozen goblins until a few weeks ago, when their prior leader got them into a skirmish with a nearby tribe of orcs. The skirmish escalated into a massacre, and only a dozen goblins survived. They escaped, and while running stumbled across this sunken door.

They entered and found themselves in an abandoned shrine and retreat for worshippers of Zattora, a benevolent goddess of wisdom. The goblins found themselves drawn into the inner sanctum (room 1 on the map), where an icon of Zattora shone brightly and a voice called out to them. The surviving goblins, in a moment of awe and humility, threw themselves at the feet of the icon and begged for guidance.

Zattora responded, curious at the openness of these normally evil creatures. Over the past weeks, she has been teaching them methods of hunting and gathering that will not put them at odds with the more civilized races, and their investigation of the caravans were intended to scope out the caravans’ resources and attitude, to see if they might be open to trading with the Fleetfoots once they gather enough tradeable goods.

As such, the goblins will actually offer a peace branch to the PCs, explain the situation, and ask if they would work as emissaries for the Fleetfoots, trading goods with others and driving off more powerful enemies in their area (like that tribe of orcs).

As a foe faction, the Fleetfoot Tribe similarly ran from a massacre by the orcs into this temple, but instead of a temple, this is the map of a large crypt. The goblins found themselves drawn to the inner crypt in room 1, where the spirit of Zattora the Spiteful rose from a sarcophagus, and the door to the room shut. The goblins fell to their knees, and the spirit ordered them to pledge their eternal servitude. They readily agreed.

Zattora was bound here some centuries ago. Most creatures avoid the crypt, so the goblins’ entry was a stroke of luck: they might be able to find enough spell components to free Zattora’s spirit. The ghost has been actively directing and training the goblins into an effective fighting force; they are unusually attentive and relatively bright.

As such, an assault on the crypt will be a much more serious challenge than just clearing out a few goblins. Each goblin will have noticeably higher attack bonuses, and the ghost will be no joke to defeat. Also, several parts of the floors in rooms 2, 3, and 4 have been inscribed with magical runes that grant +2 AC to defenders and -2 AC to attackers.

Categories: Faction | Leave a comment

200 Word RPG of the Week: Normaleware

A lot of 200 Word RPGs lack useful randomization mechanics. You may roll a die, but even there, the result is a normal pass/fail. Today’s RPG, Nathan Knaack‘s Normaleware, is an exception.

To start, I love that this game about androids infiltrating humanity not only includes Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but it condenses them while keeping their clarity. I also love that character creation — rolling on two tables — doesn’t just happen once. Both are re-used later in the game, one to resolve risky actions and another if your android is discovered.

But more importantly, this game executes on its premise. Your android has an objective, but every objective is very human: love, respect, fame, trust. You also have access to certain programs, but in risky situations the dice may make you do something different. After all, you’re not human; maybe you mis-read the situation.

Here’s what really impresses me: if you roll poorly and the dice point you to a different course of action, you can accept that action with its consequences and earn data (free re-rolls on later risky actions). You can also choose to just fail.

Why am I so impressed by this? You never reach that situation so common in RPGs, where you’re trying to bash down a door, and you simply fail to bash it down. The game’s always suggesting another course of action, which keeps the story moving.

Even more interesting: probability tells us that you have only one in three chance of succeeding in risky actions. This will drive you to avoid risk, despite the inherent riskiness of infiltrating humanity and accomplishing very human goals.


Normaleware by Nathan Knaack:

You’re an android infiltrating humanity, but you must obey Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
1. Don’t let humans get hurt
2. Obey humans unless it breaks the first law
3. Defend yourself unless it breaks the other laws
Roll for your directive. You win when all androids achieve their objectives. The narrator determines success criteria.
1. Love
2. Respect
3. Wealth
4. Fame
5. Power
6. Trust
You have six programs in your matrix. Circle one from each category. After each scene you can change one.
1. Empathize, Seduce, Coerce
2. Build, Repair, Design
3. Steal, Cheat, Bargain
4. Perform, Gossip, Boast
5. Pander, Blame, Promise
6. Lie, Mitigate, Confide
For risky actions, roll twice on your program matrix. If either result supports your intent, you succeed. If neither does, but you accept the consequences, you earn data. You can also just fail. Roll thrice with advantage, once with disadvantage.
Data is used for rerolls. You can also reroll by giving the narrator bugs, used to make you reroll something. You start with 3 data and can store up to 10. You can give data to other androids.
If anyone discovers what you are, lose all data and reroll objective.


Categories: RPG Reviews | Leave a comment

Semi-Monthly Map: The Secret Storerooms

This shrine buried deep in the jungle once held a secret, long since revealed by looters after the shrine was abandoned in a war some decades ago.

Until then, most only knew of the two chambers that made up the shrine itself: the foyer where worshippers lit incense in small alcoves on either side — still visible today — and the large inner chamber, where a shrine attendant burned sacrifices on a large altar.

After the war, looters broke into secret doors in the back and side of the inner chamber to reveal passages leading down into an extensive complex of store rooms. This easily defensible dungeon has since trade ownership many times between various monstrous tribes who would drive out squatters, only to be driven out by another tribe.

This map can easily be stocked by any monster tribe you desire. Any given room might contain treasure from past inhabitants or spoils from raids by the current owners. Rooms 5, 6, and 12 make for good treasure rooms, and the tribe’s elite will typically stay in rooms 8 through 12.

The Secret Storerooms - keyed


Categories: Maps | Leave a comment

How do you house rule death?

'Montecassino Abbey - Cassino, Italy - Black and white street photography' by Giuseppe Milo

‘Montecassino Abbey – Cassino, Italy – Black and white street photography’ by Giuseppe Milo

The one aspect of RPGs that I’ve seen most house-ruled are death rules.

For example, in the last few editions of Dungeons & Dragons, a character that drops to 0 HP or less makes death saving throws unless stabilized or healed, and if the character fails three rolls, they die. A lot of groups nerf that.

My group house rules as follows: If you fail three death saving rolls, you fall completely unconscious–attempts to stabilize or heal you fail outright–but you do wake up after combat ends. If the entire party is knocked unconscious, they all die.

This is a big change from our previous campaign, where player-character death was flat out impossible.

Now, I play with a group of players who care deeply about developing their characters over time, so losing one a few sessions in–or even many sessions in–isn’t fun for them. They find the plot twist of PC death less interesting than a PC changing an opinion or an aspect of their personality.

On the other hand, de-fanged death drains combat of its emotional power. PCs can throw themselves at crazy enemies, because failure lacks serious consequence. It just means your character misses a few minutes of events, which the other characters will describe anyway.

Some groups play with immediate death: if your PC drops to 0 health, the PC immediately dies.

I’ve heard of groups where dropping to 0 health triggers the possibility of death: the player decides, in that moment, whether this is the right time for the PC to die. It causes a conscious, thoughtful decision by the player.

And, of course, there are games where PC death is common and expected, as in Dread, or ones where it’s practically impossible, as in Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. I’m talking about a more standard, long-running RPG.

I don’t have a good answer for this. Would my players ultimately have a better/more powerful/more impactful/more emotional time if they did fear for their characters’ death? Are any of those goals more important than the others?

Categories: Role-playing | 1 Comment

Monster Monday: Great Owl

Sure, sure, there’s a giant owl in the Monster Manual. But all it does is swoop and attack with claws. Let’s make something scary, like the Great Owl from The Secret of NIMH.

To me, the scary thing about a giant owl would be its silence and its rending beak. You don’t hear the owl coming up to you, and if you get into its beak, it’ll rip your arm off.

So, let’s turn the Great Owl into a grab-and-attack creature, and give it the ability to approach silently from the air. It’ll be on a group of adventurers before they know it.

But what’s the extra challenge of a Great Owl fight, and what’s reward? Owls tend to nest in forests, so let’s say that Great Owls generally nest in dense parts of forests where movement is limited. Let’s further say that Great Owl feathers and eggs are extremely valuable.

And now we have our Great Owl.


> ## Great Owl
>*Large beast, natural*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 12
> – **Hit Points** 19 (3d10 + 3)
> – **Speed** 15 ft., fly 60 ft.
>|13 (+1)|15 (+2)|12 (+1)|8 (-1)|13 (+1)|10 (+0)|
> – **Skills** Perception +5, Stealth +4
> – **Senses** darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 15
> – **Languages** Giant Owl, understands Common, Elvish, and Sylvan but can’t speak them
> – **Challenge** 1 (200 XP)
> ___
> ***Flyby.*** The owl doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks when it flies out of an enemy’s reach.
> ***Silent Approach.*** If the owl is surprising an enemy, the enemy has Disadvantage on its Wisdom (Perception) checks to determine surprise.
> ***Keen Hearing and Sight.*** The owl has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on hearing or sight.
> ### Actions
> ***Talons.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. *Hit:* 8 (2d6 + 1) slashing damage, and target is *grappled*.
> ***Beak.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +7 to hit, reach 5 ft., one grappled target. *Hit:* 8 (1d8 + 4) slashing damage and 4 (1d8) bludgeoning damage.

Categories: Monsters | Leave a comment

Faction Friday: The Weretiger Merchants

Weretiger by Jennette Brown

Weretiger by Jennette Brown

Normally solitary creatures, weretigers do occasionally mate and form families, though they normally scatter once the litter grows to maturity.

Jax and Thessia Ironsky are different. Very much in love with each other, unusually fertile, and free from the territoriality so common in their race, they built a large family of over a dozen weretigers (some of them now grandchildren). Needing some stability to raise her litters, they established themselves as spice merchants.

This has not gone without trouble. Several of their children chafe under the burden of running the business, since most of them hunt in the wilderness for rare roots and tree bark. Several have threatened to take a large chunk of the Ironsky’s considerable savings and run off to start their own lives. None have yet followed through, perhaps recognizing Jax and Thessia’s shrewd business acumen.

Meanwhile, although the Ironsky family has managed to keep their true nature secret from the rest of the world, which believes they are simply an extended family of human spice merchants, their true natures occasionally slip. The younger members of the family prefer to hunt in animal and even hybrid form, and rumors of lycanthropes running through the wilderness spread daily.

As a friendly faction, Jax and Thessia are simply trying to make their way in the world and keep their family together. Either Jax or Thessia approach the PCs about the rumors spreading, and ask the PCs to scare Ari, one of the younger Ironskies who often hunts in his hybrid form. They want the PCs to attack him and beat him to unconsciousness, then tie him up and bring him back to the family manor house. Consider adding a complication in the form of a city patrol who are extremely suspicious of a group of adventurers carrying an unconscious, tied-up member of a well-known merchant family into the city.

As a foe faction, the Ironskies are vicious predators who use their merchant prowess as a convenient cover for murder. Twice a year they capture a humanoid, release it deep into the woods, and hunt it for sport. The city watch task the PCs with investigating these vanished humanoids, who trace it to the family. The PCs must confront the family in their home, and Ironsky Manor turns into a death trap. Worse, the PCs will never catch the entire family home at once, so at least some members will escape to become recurring villains.

Grab maps of Ironsky Manor here.

Categories: Faction | Leave a comment

200 Word RPG of the Week: Kataware Doki, the Game of Body Swapping

Joseph Le May‘s Kataware Doki is a 2-player LARP heavily inspired by a Japanese anime film, Makoto Shinkai’s amazingly successful Your Name.

The game just directly tells you to play out the central conceit, of two characters switching bodies. There are no mechanics in the game, just things you’re supposed to do at different times. (That’s okay; RPGs can do that.) You play the game over the course of four body swaps.

Interestingly, in the first three swaps, each player simply describes the other character’s life. Players cannot interact with the characters in the other person’s life; just ask and answer questions. This part of the game would feel stronger with some kind of time limit, I feel, like 5 minutes per player per swap.

During the fourth body swap, you play a particular piece of music, and this time you must look directly in each other’s eyes, and you may physically touch each other. During this phase, you must tell each other something “both true and beautiful” about the other person’s life.

I love this, because as the players ask and answer questions throughout the game, they’ll be looking for something true and beautiful about the other player’s life. That’s the core beauty of this game: The players must pay attention to each others’ lives.

Categories: RPG Reviews | Leave a comment

Where is the Story Load in your game mechanic?

'water drops' by Vanesser III

‘water drops’ by Vanesser III

You roll dice to find out what happens, right?

OK, how do you determine the parameters for “what happens?”

When you roll dice in a tabletop RPG, you’re generally comparing the roll to one of three things:

  1. A target difficulty number that varies according to either the rules or the GM’s decision during play (as in D&D, where the DM decides that a particular trap requires a Dexterity roll of 12 to disarm, or you roll against a monster’s Armor Class of 15).
  2. A static number defined by the rules (as in Apocalypse World, where 6 or less is always a miss, 7-9 is a weak hit, and 10+ is a strong hit)
  3. A character statistic (as in GURPS, where you roll 3d6 and if you roll less than your character’s most relevant attribute, you succeed)

Each of these has different, subtle effects on play.

If you roll against a target difficulty number, someone has to think about all of the situation’s parameters ahead of the roll. This not only informs the roll; it can lead players to define the situation too rigidly. If you decide on everything that goes into the roll, you can then imagine what both success and failure will look like.

Rolling against a static number or a character statistics alleviates this problem. While you do have to decide on the modifiers that may apply, you don’t have to define the problem in as much detail. This frees you to make the roll and then interpret its results.

In other words, using a target difficulty number tends to pre-determine the outcome: You end up defining what success and failure will look like, because you have to take those into account when choosing the difficult number. Using a static number or character attribute simplifies the roll, which lets you think about what success or failure look like after you know whether you succeed or fail.

The latter approach feels to me like a more elegant way to weave story into dice rolling.

Categories: GM Advice | Leave a comment

True Tiles: Next Generation Terrain?

I own a fair amount of “standard” dungeon terrain, the kind with 1″ squares and walls appropriately sized for standard D&D minis.

I break it out most days, and players “ooh” and “ahh,” and then after a little while, something happens:

They start to forget where things are.

I deploy terrain precisely so that players won’t forget where things are. What’s happening? I studied my players’ actions with all the focus of a biologist, and then I noticed something:

A mini in the middle of a hallway, with walls just on either side of the mini, is only visible if you’re standing up.

Inevitably, a player will sit down. And then he or she can only see about a quarter of the lovely dungeon I’ve spent lots of time and money on.

How to solve that? With True Tiles.

These are 3D printable files, so you can print them yourselves, or have them printed and shipped to you with services like 3D Hubs and Shapeways. Not only are they nicely designed, they have two key features:

1) They keep each wall short, only about 1/4″ tall. That means you can sit down and still see the entire map, while preserving the topography of the dungeon.

This also means you can place dungeon features literally on top of the walls: doors and hazards sit atop of the walls, held in place with tabs on either side of the walls. This also makes it easy to re-arrange the position of doors, windows, and other features while you’re laying out the dungeon.

2) All squares, even those next to a wall, are large enough to fit a 1″ mini, while each square is, well, square (2.5″ wide). So all your tiles will fit next to each other–no more “I’d like to put this here but that wall juts out enough to create a dead space”–and you can always fit a mini on each square. Very cool.

Now, granted, most of the files are in downloadable packs that cost USD $9 each. However, you get quite a few tiles in each pack, and the designer’s provided a free sample set of basic tiles for you to download and print.

I’ve been using these for some time and they work very well. My players like them, too.

(And in case you’re wondering: I wasn’t paid for this. I just like them.)

Categories: Cool Utilities | Leave a comment

Monster Monday: Agents of the Library of Time

Yomiko Readman and Nancy from 'Read or Die'

Yomiko Readman and Nancy from ‘Read or Die’

Time travel is messy, and it always rewrites history. Someone has to keep track of all those changes.

And so, the Library of Time serves as a collection of books about history, all history, including the histories that no longer happened.

However, a book that tells of an alternate timeline can be a powerful weapon in the wrong person’s hands. The very existence of a book like that warps reality around it. As such, the library sends out Agents constantly in search of these books in the wild, books which they call “Rogues.”

To create an Agent, take your favorite assassin-style monster, and add the following abilities:

  • When in a library, book store, or other paper-heavy environment, an Agent can misty step at will.
  • An Agent holding a Rogue Book can cast one spell appropriate to that book for free, as an action. For example, an Agent holding a Rogue that’s about Benjamin Franklin might be able to cast lightning bolt. The Agent can only use this power once per book.
  • Every Agent wears a chronoporter, a watch-like device that allows them to teleport up to 10 miles away to a pre-determined location. This is used to extract an Agent to a safer spot once a Rogue is recovered, or to get the Agent to a book that would otherwise be difficult to get to. However, the chronoporter has three primary limitations: It takes 4 hours to recharge, several seconds to activate, and anything (and anyone) touching the Agent when the choronporter activates comes with them.
Categories: Monsters | Leave a comment