Friday, December 30, 2011

Player Characters Always See Secret Doors

Confession: I nearly always tip my players off to the presence of a secret door, even if the dice say otherwise. Secret doors that remain secret are boring -- they add no value to the narrative and provide no suspense. But I use them often. Why? Because they evoke a sense of mystery and suspense when they're found. As I've opined about traps in a recent post, I also feel that DMs who focus on the mechanical value of secret doors are missing the point. The point of a secret door as a dungeon element is as a road sign that someone wants something to remain hidden. It's a chance to pause at the threshold and wonder what's so important behind there that it merits concealment. It gets interesting when you open it. 

The only time I make a secret door hard to find is when the players have been tipped off to look for one. Then you can make finding it (and possibly unlocking it) a part of the narrative. Case in point: in an adventure I'm writing, the PCs are told that in a certain room there's a secret door that will allow them to sneak into the bad guys' lair. The adventure becomes about figuring out how the door is concealed and how to open it, rather than a matter of rolling dice until it's revealed. The best kind of secret door is like the Gate of Moria, when you know where it is, but have to sweat a little before you open it, and hey, what are those ripples coming from the pond?

Thursday, December 29, 2011


I've been working on a DungeonTeller campaign, as I've mentioned before, and my favorite lil' gamer is getting into the act. Feel free to run this as an adventure or expand it. Some questions that remain: What killed the giant? Who was the big feast for? What's down that really, really long hallway -- should I check for secret doors?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

[Flavah Menu] Why You're in The Tavern

1. You're on the run from the law, and you figure the town watch isn't going to follow you into a dungeon just to arrest you for shoplifting.
2. You're desperate to strike it rich to save your family from financial ruin and prove you're not the ne'er-do-well they say you are.
3. Your beloved aunt or uncle disappeared into a nearby dungeon and you want to find him or her.
4. You helped a crazy old galoot across the street and he gave you a treasure map to this place in return.
5. You believe you're the rightful heir to a fortune said to be hidden in the dungeon and you have an heirloom to prove it.
6. You believe a fugitive responsible for the death of a family member is hiding in the dungeon.
7. You're working for a wizard who is paying you to recover a lost artifact.
8. Buy me a drink and I'll follow you anywhere.
9. Your best friend here [pick another motive from this list] and if that's what he wants to do, that's good enough for me, too. We're a team.
10. See this scar? I'm going to get the villain who gave that to me when I was a lad.
11. Exterminate the brutes. Every last one of them.
12. If I bring back the trinket for them, they'll let my family go free.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

[Bump] DungeonTeller Ruleset

Still free. Still PDF. Get this and start telling your dungeon story now. A kid-friendly rule set. Old school charm, newfangled game engine, no purple prose.

DungeonTeller V1

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

[Inspirations] The Concept Art of Justin Sweet

I love this guy's artwork. I won't reproduce his work here out of respect for artists' rights, but do yourself a favor and take a look if you're feeling short on inspiration.


Friday, December 9, 2011

[Pantheon-in-an-Altoids-box] Metal Gods

Judas Priest fan as I am, I was just over at Rob Halford's web site, where he bills himself as the "God of Metal", and who am I to differ, considering his near-immortality and superhuman vocal prowess? Well, it got me thinking about what a pantheon of "metal gods" would look like in a D&D game. My first thought is that you'd have two opposing sides: one, the chaotic Metal Gods, who exist "to rock", and the lawful Authorities, who oppose "rocking." To make it interesting, the metal gods would include both good and evil chaotic beings, while the Authorities would be strictly lawful neutral.

Two New Monsters: Crypt Worms and Deaths-Head Moths


A giant caterpillar that attacks by surprise.
Luck 10                  
Armor 0
Move 4                      climb, dig
Battle 6                      bite                  
Muscle 5                     
Notice 5                     
Resist 3
Sneak 5

Powers                     Ambush

Crypt worms are bloated, ivory-colored caterpillars about 6 feet long, with charcoal-gray heads and black legs. They tunnel through graveyards and catacombs, looking for recently-buried bodies. They often compete with ghouls and tend to attack them on sight. They attack living prey, too, preferring to strike out at passing targets from a hole or crevice. They can spin a line of strong silk from their abdomen to dangle from a ceiling or tunnel opening, ready to drop on unsuspecting prey.

If a crypt worm makes a successful Sneak roll against its target’s Notice roll, it can immediately make a Battle roll with 4 bonus dice, like a rogue’s ambush power.

Crypt worms are the larval form of death’s-head moths, which are described under their own entry. They build a hard cocoon out of silk and human bones , and emerge in their adult moth form after a period of a few weeks.



A giant flying insect that is attracted to lanterns and other light sources.
Luck 8
Armor 0
Move 2         climb 2, fly 8
Battle 4        bite                  
Muscle 3       +3 when sucking blood from a victim
Notice 5                     
Resist 2
Sneak 6

Powers                     Luck Drain 1/turn

Death’s-head moths are the adult form of crypt worms, which are described elsewhere. They have bodies about two feet long, and a wingspan of nearly four feet. These giant flying insects are a constant nuisance to underground exploration, because they are attracted to artificial light sources like lanterns, torches, and the powers starlight and will o’ the wisp. They tend to drop from ceilings and swarm around the lights, searching for live prey. Their proboscis is modified to suck blood, and once attached, will drain one Luck from the victim each turn until the moth is slain or else pulled off with one or more successes on a Muscle roll.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

[World Design] Portmanteau, Literal, or Gibberish?

Televangelist, turducken, skyjack...
The Rocky Mountains, bluefish, White Sands...
Haagen Dazs, Cthulhu, Tarzan...

When you're naming something, there are three ways to go.
You can cram two existing words together to create a portmanteau word.
You can literally describe the thing you're naming, or at least an aspect of it.
You can make up gibberish.

I don't do gibberish, because it doesn't evoke anything in the players' minds unless you explain that "A'Sharz-go" means "Desert of Glass Shards" in the Hiza tongue, Hiza meaning "footsore wanderers", and so on. Tolkien was a philologist and beautifully realized invented languages were a big part (in fact the original impetus) of his legendarium. I, on the other hand, am not a philologist. It's really hard to do invented language right, so I stay away.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

[Map] How I do Maps

This schematic represents the DungeonTeller campaign world I've been working on. The starting city, Stormgate, is at the lower left. Blue lines mean sea routes, and brown lines mean land routes. The color of each zone indicates its relative level of challenge. Green is safe even for starting characters; yellow a little challenging; orange quite challenging; and red is nasty indeed.

I have been mapping this way for years, rather than with the usual method of drawing a continent and then filling in all the bits. I don't make a traditional Tolkien-esque map until the end of the design process, and that's mostly as a prop for the players, not for me. 
I see each zone as a room in a dungeon, with one or more exits, and a list of contents, including monsters, NPCs, and locations. Often I'll rate a zone with a number that indicates how many days' travel it takes to cross it. Some places (and exits) might require the equivalent of a Spot check to find -- this makes rangers VERY useful during overland travel.
A big time sink.
Of course, schematic maps are of no use for adjudicating hex-crawling wilderness travel -- but that has never worked for me as a DM. I remember buying the Judges Guild Campaign Hexagon System booklet (1977) and then literally getting bogged down drawing tiny swamp/marsh symbols, making sure streams didn't flow uphill, carefully lining up the details in adjacent hexes... None of that made any difference to my players, but the rallying cry of the day was "realism!", whatever that was supposed to mean in the context of a fantasy game, and golly, if I just drew my maps down to the smallest detail, then my campaign would have the ring of truth.

So here's my process in more detail, in case you want to try it, after the jump:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Don't Check for Traps

Traps, you are unsatisfying for players and provide no drama, just non-sequiteur moments of grief. This is how traps seem to function in most dungeon games:
  1. Hit-Point Tax: You're walking down a corridor and thwack a blade drops down from the ceiling and robs you of 1d6 hit points. Not meant to kill or disable you, but to wear you down, maybe force you to use magic or a potion to get those hp back. Might also slow the game down in case D&D is too fast-paced for you, as players begin to check laboriously for traps every 5 feet.
  2. Saving Throw-away: The floor drops out from under you and you will either leap to safety or plunge into a pit, depending on the result of a die roll. No drama here, cause there's no choice to be made on the part of the player. It's truth or consequences.
  3. Red Wire or Blue Wire?: You're presented with a choice, with no clue as to which is the correct one. One chest will open to reveal a 10-pound bag of sugar. The other chest is filled with giant wasps. Will tweaking the living statue's nipple clockwise deactivate it or put it into Berzerk mode? Again, no drama, because there's no real choice. 
  4. This way to the Boss: Enough of this aimless wandering through my dungeon. I have placed this slide trap here to deliver you into my lair half-stunned, on your ass, and unprepared. I had thought of putting the trap just inside the front gate, but I thought it was best to let you go up against some of my weaker minions and do a little plundering first just to warm up for me.
So what are some features of a trap element that contributes to the narrative?
  1. Eluctable at a price of your choosing. Sure, you can grab on to the edge of the pit. Do you want to drop your sword, shield, or both? You're falling into a hedge of punji sticks coated with orc droppings. Think quickly! I cast wall of ice  to cover up the sharp spikes!
  2. Makes its presence known, but not its solution. A wall of fire? How could we get past it? (Players suggest various solutions, all of which will probably work, but when they get through alive, they have OWNED that trap).
  3. Actually traps you. A trap, as the name implies, should trap you. The real drama starts when the boss's minions arrive to see what the Have-a-Heart in Sector Three has caught this time.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

[Flavah Menu] Elf my Elf

As I'm developing my blue box, I'm thinking about what resources I'd include for worldbuilding. When you work within a framework of generic high fantasy, you can bet there will be elves, for example. But whose elves? Use this handy menu to elf your elfin' elves to your heart's content. Pick one or more options from each section:

Origins: Elves are:
  • An elder race, superior to humans in many ways, but less ambitious and impulsive.
  • Very minor deities entrusted with protecting and sustaining the natural world.
  • Refugees from a divine realm adjacent to our own that has since fallen into evil.
  • Transhumans who represent a physical and spiritual evolution beyond humankind.
  • Descendants of the neutral angels who sided neither with god nor the devil.
Relations with Humans: Elves find humans:
  • A loutish, inferior brood worthy of contempt.
  • Fascinatingly unpredictable.
  • Well-meaning but ultimately destructive, wasteful, and foolish.
  • The enemy.
  • Pitiable for their brief lives and lack of mindfulness.
Banes: Elves can't abide:
  • Iron.
  • Fire.
  • Sunlight.
  • Domesticated animals, especially dogs and cats.
Temptations: Elves can't resist:
  • Music.
  • The urge to complete a rhyme.
  • Silver.
  • The sight of the sea.
Future: Elves believe they are destined to: 
  • Dwindle and fade as the younger races flourish.
  • Perish in a final conflict with humans.
  • Gradually interbreed with humans until they are absorbed.
  • Return to a promised land across the sea/in the sky/beneath the earth.
  • Forever serve their current role in the world with little change.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Wendigo. Pencil, 2004.

Weapons with Provenance

Hrunting, Sting, Anduril, Excalibur, Grayswandir, Green Destiny... magic weapons in fantasy fiction are unique items with a history. In D&D, magic weapons tend to be generic types. This irks me, especially when having a +1 longsword by the time you're second level is pretty standard in most campaigns.

Honestly, how many lost magic swords do you think should be floating around in a campaign to await discovery? I bet I could keep player interest if they knew that there were no more than half a dozen truly magical blades in the world that had been lost, and no more... and that only one or two smiths in the world knew how to make such weapons.

I'm hardly the first to suggest that RPGs are too generous in this regard, with their gross deflation in the value and scarcity of magic weapons. But how would you actually make this work in-game?

My thoughts follow after the break...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Monday, October 17, 2011

Key to Stormgate Map

As promised, here's a succinctly written key to the city map I've been working on. I'm using it as a setting for my current campaign -- a jumping-off point/home base for the PCs, who are assumed to be recent arrivals on the island.

More after the jump...

Monday, October 10, 2011

[Map] Stormgate Map

This is a schematic of a city I'm designing to be a default starting point for the DungeonTeller RPG world. Stormgate is a jumping-off point for adventure within the city itself, or in The Marches beyond. I picture it as the last foothold of human civilization upon a large offshore island that was once the colony of an empire from the mainland. Since its heyday, the island has slowly fallen under the sway of the monstrous humanoids and evil magic users who had dominated the place before the empire drove them into hiding. Adventurers still come to Stormgate from the mainland to explore the many ruins beyond the North Gate. I'll write up a gazetteer that describes the various districts and post it here.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

You See a Pile of Skeletons...

A truly chilling life-size resin cast of skeletons unearthed at Herculaneum.

2d6 and 2dTricks

Saw the "A Day in Pompeii" exhibit at the Museum of Science today. Among the treasures were 2d6 (foreground, smaller) and two hollow dice that could be loaded with lead weights.

Monday, September 19, 2011


The Villain-o-Matic Villain Designer. Choose one from each category:
What you crave
The source of your power
Your leadership style
Your domain
Your weakness
and, voila, instant villain!

What you crave:
Depravity: You enjoy doing bad things for their own sake. 
Justification: "I follow my desires, and do not accept arbitrary limits upon my freedom imposed by weaklings."
Revenge: You're driven by a thirst for revenge against those who did you wrong.
Justification: "I seek only justice for those who have harmed me."
Power: You want to rule the world.
Justification: "If only I were in charge, the world would be a better place."
Orthodoxy: Your schemes are driven by extreme, rigid beliefs or principles that do not allow you to make any exceptions to the rule.
Justification: "I am saving the souls of those who worship false idols or follow foolish ideas."
Riches: You want gold, silver, and jewels.
Justification: "Those who can't hold onto their treasure, don't deserve it."
Respect: You want to show the world that you are someone to be reckoned with.
Justification: "I deserve the recognition that my detractors have denied me."
Chaos: You want to see the world in flames -- the very idea of a peaceful, orderly world arouses your hatred and spite.
"If I can't be happy, then no one will be."
Immortality: Death might be ok for ordinary folk, but not for you.
Justification: "When I have secured immortality, I can rule forever without worrying about what will happen in my absence."

The source of your power is:
Arcane Knowledge: You're a high-level spell-caster of some kind.
Posession: You're possessed or controlled by an extraplanar creature, like a demon or evil deity.
Monstrous: You are a dragon,a powerful undead, or some other inherently formidable type of creature.
An Artifact: You owe it all to an ancient artifact or extremely powerful magic item.
Armed Might: You are a supremely powerful warrior to the point of being nearly invincible.
Pure Charisma: Regardless of your actual power or ability, you have the gift of leadership, and have always been able to attract devoted followers.
Connections: You are a master at networking, building a web of powerful allies who provide you with support as needed.
Inherited: You were lucky enough to be born into a powerful family, and have used your legacy to further your evil ends.

Your leadership style is:
Whimsical:You make life-and-death decisions on the spur of the moment, as the mood strikes you.
Methodical: You weigh all options carefully before choosing the most promising one.
Paranoiac: You imagine plots and enemies everywhere -- your decisions are rooted in fear, distrust, and suspicion, even of your closest advisors.
Remote: You are a mystery to all but your top henchmen.

Your domain is:
Concentrated: You rule over a particular area, large or small, according to your stature as a villain. It could be a tower, a city, or an entire kingdom, but outside that area, your power is limited.
Distributed: You have many nodes of power, spread over a wide area, but do not overtly rule anything.
Proximate: Wherever you are, that's where your power is greatest, and when you leave, things go back to normal.
Thematic: Your domain is tied to a particular concept, like shadow, flame, or storm. You can manifest your power anywhere tied to your theme.

Your weakness is:
A bad temper: When you get angry, you make poor decisions.
A dependent: Despite your wickedness, there is still one person whom you truly love and care for, and when they are threatened, you forget about your schemes and devote your energy to removing this person from harm.
An artifact: Somewhere out there is a weapon or other artifact that can stop you in your tracks, should it ever be found.
Addiction: There's something you've just gotta have, and when it's in short supply, you're not at your best. 
A fragile ego: Despite your obvious success in the business of being bad, you still feel vulnerable and easily threatened. When your supremacy is challenged, you overreact.
Complacency: You've been on top so long that you have grown overly comfortable and secure. You tend to ignore warning signs that perhaps you may not be invulnerable after all.
A prophecy: Someone foretold your doom ages ago, and it will come about if certain conditions are met.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Roper Next Door

On Hurricane Sunday, just as I was drifting off to sleep, we heard a prolonged cracking, rending noise coming from outside the house. An ancient maple tree had succumbed to the storm, cracking in two, to reveal a hollow interior big enough to accommodate many cookie-making elves.
At least, I thought it was a maple tree. Look familiar?
Just a friendly old maple tree...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

[Actual Play] Spiders and Orcs

The hurricane kept us at inside today -- so we continued our DungeonTeller campaign, while the wind whistled outside and the lights flickered.

Rosima the elf sorceress continued her quest to discover who was using the fabled Staff of Monsters to send monsters forth from the underground to abduct human victims. With her went Sir Oxblood, a warrior assigned to protect Rosima; Jenny, a paladin; and Ironbones, a dwarf whom they had rescued from ogres previously. Also with the party are Lucky the pony and Milo, Rosima's cat familiar. (No kid's campaign is complete without cute animals).

The party was faced with the challenge of crossing a pit by walking along a log spanning the gap. A giant spider had strung a web across the mouth of the pit about 10 feet down. The elf tossed her fog cloud potion into the pit to confuse the spider. The warrior and the dwarf fell in and got caught in the web. Lucky the pony refused the elf's encouragements to cross on the log. At last, the warrior jumped on the spider's back, and the spider rent a hole in the web to escape by a single web-strand to the bottom of the pit. The elf snapped the spider's lifeline with a lucky arrow shot, and sent it plunging to the bottom, while the warrior made a grab for the loose strands of the web and managed to hang on.

Two bundles wrapped up in the web proved to be dead orcs.
"Orcs! I hate those guys," said the dwarf. "There are sure to be more around."

Lucky finally made it across the pit, and the party moved on.

Spider pit is black square near top.
Sure enough, they found the orcs' lair, protected by a portcullis, but they managed to coax out a few orcs and ambush them. It was a fierce fight at close quarters. The other orcs were trapped in their lair after the elf used her rust spell to disable the chain on the portcullis. (Brilliant suggestion on the paladin's part to allow the party to finish the orcs piecemeal). We stopped with the rest of the orcs struggling to raise the portcullis by brute strength, while the party finished the ambush. Everyone's getting low on Luck, and won't have a chance to rest much. Might be time to break out the healing potions!

Friday, August 26, 2011

[My Take On]... Wyverns

Wyvern. Pencil, 2011.
Wyverns look like dragons, with some key differences. They have one pair of hind claws, one pair of wings, and no fore claws. The barbed tail can deliver a powerful poison. Unlike dragons, wyverns cannot talk or use magic.

Wyverns live in mountainous places. They usually make a lair in a cave or ledge that is inaccessible to foot travel, reachable only by air. Usually either a young adult is encountered singly, or else a brooding pair, which may have one to four eggs or young. A hatchling usually imprints on the first person it sees, and may be raised as a flying mount.

A wyvern prefers to swoop down and snatch its prey in his claws, then sting it. On a successful Battle roll with its tail, the wyvern poisons its victim rather than removing Luck. The target can use a Muscle roll to remove successes from the tail attack. If one or more success remains, the target loses three dice from all action rolls until the end of the action scene. A paladin’s antidote spell can counter the poison.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

[Actual Play] Make your own Stuff

A six-year-old's stuff card, written on a 3 x 5 card.
In my game, we use a kid-friendly method of keeping an inventory. There's a stack of blank 3 x 5 cards on the table, and when your PC finds something or buys something in-game, the player gets to make a card for it. (Artwork is optional). If you don't have the card in your hand, your PC doesn't have it!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

[Flavah Menu] Dungeon Raisons d'etre

Today's flavor menu is a quick little crib you can use to justify the existence of an underground complex in your campaign. When I'm writing an adventure, I often start with one of these to focus my dungeon design -- once you have the motive, it becomes much easier to plan the dungeon.

  • Catacomb: The dungeon was built to house the remains of the followers of an ancient cult. The tunnels are haphazardly planned, because they were added to at need, rather than according to a grand design. Levels are often connected by narrow shafts or pits, because they were not built for frequent use. The ruins may contain chapels and other chambers where the Mysteries of the cult were performed to initiate new members.
  • Refuge: The dungeon was built as a retreat for an entire village or community during times of war, or because the locals were the target of frequent raids from neighboring cultures or monsters. Because life has to go on, the dungeon is designed as an underground city-in-miniature, with residences, markets, storage areas, wells, bakeries, armories, and other specialized structures, both private and shared. Gaining entrance is often difficult, via a disguised or well-hidden portal, but once inside, navigation through the public areas is relatively easy. Some areas may resemble courtyards, open to the sky. The city of Petra in Jordan and the hidden city of Cappadocia in Turkey are classical examples.
  • Mine: The dungeon was excavated to extract a valuable resource, either metal ore, a valuable gem, or the buried treasures of an older civilization. Each level may contain many galleries, that either follow a vein of ore in twisted fashion, or else are dug in a regular pattern, like a grid. Each level will most likely be connected by vertical shafts that are (or were) served by elevators or large baskets on a winch system. As lower levels are reached, water features and flooded areas become more common, and throughout is the possibility that the mine will breach natural features like limestone caves. The mine entrance will usually be easy to discover, because of the mounds of slag and other rubble stacked nearby.
  • VIP tomb: The dungeon was built to house the body of an important person: a monarch, high priest, wizard, or hero. Repeated attempts by tomb robbers may have led to the more accessible parts being looted, but other areas remain intact, hidden by secret doors and the like. Monsters may be of the immortal guardian sort, like golems, along with strays that have moved in since. Lots of traps and false passages too.
  • Prison: Like a VIP tomb, except designed to keep whatever's inside from getting out. Extremely difficult to enter, exit, or navigate, but time's heavy hand may have caused some of the defenses to crumble, making it easier to access. Whatever's in there was worth building a complex prison for that would last for centuries -- so tread lightly. Any monsters are either cell mates of the prisoner, or guardians set to prevent anyone from getting in or out. 
  • Sunken City: An entire city that has since been buried underground, either by subsequent layers of occupation, or by a mudslide, sandstorm, or volcanic eruption. The old city may have been entirely cased in mud or ash, and subsequently hollowed out again by deliberate mining, occasional flooding, or the mindless burrowing of underground creatures. All is preserved as it was the moment the city was entombed, including its many treasures, which await those with enough patience or courage to recover them. Think Pompei or Herculaneum, or the Seattle Underground.

[My Take On]... Cockatrices

Cockatrices are created by wizards to serve as monstrous guardians. A cockatrice is made by coaxing a hen to brood on a basilisk’s egg. When the egg hatches, a cockatrice chick emerges. The first living person it sees will become its master. It takes about a year to reach its full size – about five feet tall. It does not lay eggs or produce any offspring.
A cockatrice is alert and fast moving. It crows loudly when strangers come near. It may make several false charges to scare off intruders before darting at them with its forked tongue, which can turn a person to stone at a touch. Anyone sneaking up from the side or rear of a cockatrice can be hit by its spurred claws and scaly, lashing tail. The tail does not remove Luck but scores a knockback similar to the warrior power of the same name.

If the cockatrice scores one or more successes with its tongue attack, you must make a Resist roll and score at least an equal number of successes to avoid being turned to stone. An undo magic or restore spell will return a victim to normal – but be quick about it, because cockatrices peck away at their victims and consume them one grain of stone at a time. (The first indication a cockatrice is near may be the sound of its beak chiseling away at a petrified victim).

Story ideas:
Egg Run: stealing an egg from a basilisk is a challenge in itself. Wizards pay top gold for these eggs, and may hire adventurers to get them from a wild basilisk so that a cockatrice can be created.

Loyal Beyond the Grave: A cockatrice is very long-lived, like many reptiles. It may outlive its master by a century or more. Adventurers may find one guarding its master’s tomb or tower, long after the wizard who created it has passed away.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

[Flavah Menu] Goblins

Sticking to the goblin theme, here's a flavor menu for goblins in your campaign. One or more of these items might be true for your campaign, while others might simply be rumors.
  • Goblins can't abide rhymes -- hearing verse drives them mad.
  • Goblins drink a liqueur made from the rotting innards of large spiders. The spiders are captured in nets, force-fed a mixture of disgusting ingredients, and then hung up to ferment. The goblins then drink directly from the bloated abdomens of the dead spiders.
  • Goblins have a nose for iron -- not only can they sniff out the presence of iron ore, but they can track adventurers by the smell of their iron or steel weapons and armor. 
  • Goblin young are so ill-tempered that they are raised in iron birdcages that dangle from the roof of the goblin's lair, and will attack anything on sight until tamed by their parents with extremely harsh discipline.
  • Goblins raise many specialized breeds of giant rat to serve as sentinels, trackers, food animals, and pets. Popular breeds include the brindled dungheap, the midnight sneak, the hairless roaster, and the evergnawing digmaster. Proud owners like to stage fights between their rats and those of other goblins, akin to cock-fights.
  • Goblins are skilled fire-starters, and are said to carry live coals in tiny braziers with them to kindle fires at need in place of flint and steel. 
  • Goblins can cough out a cloud of coal dust that can screen their hasty retreat, much as a squid produces a cloud of ink.
  • All goblin musical instruments do double-duty as weapons or armor. They include the gong-shield, the musical saw-sword, the mace-maraca, and the helmet drum.

Monday, August 15, 2011

[My Take On...] Goblins

What do you like to see in the text description for a monster? 

I think the 1e MM had it just about right. You get a summary of the monster's appearance, organization, habitat, weaponry, and modus operandi, and not much more. When I write descriptive text for a monster, I try not to write more than a GM could read in 60 seconds. 

Here's my entry for "Goblin" in the DungeonTeller RPG:

Goblins are malicious, unruly, underground folk. They live in bands of 20 to 200 individuals, occupying a central, well-hidden cave and any number of surrounding mining tunnels. For every 10 goblins, one will be a “boss” who acts as an overseer. The bosses, in turn, report to the band’s king or queen. Occasionally a successful king or queen will rule over several bands. Each band also has its own hobgoblin wizard – it’s a rare goblin who can cast magic spells! (Hobgoblins receive their own entry in this book). Goblins mine metal ores as well as the coal they need to smelt the ores. They also raid dwarf mines for cartloads of ore and for prisoners they can use as slaves. When the ore in one area is exhausted, after a period of years or decades, the goblin band will move on to new grounds, leaving their cave and tunnels behind, often to become occupied by other underground monsters. Much of the underworld was carved out in this manner, making goblins an important part of the deep ecosystem and economy.

Goblins typically carry hammers and picks scaled to their size, and a bag of stones for shooting at enemies with a slingshot. They love cacophonous music, and sometimes throw wild revels accompanied by banging drums, rattles, and horns. These revels can be heard for miles underground and are sometimes the first sign that a goblin band is near. On the prowl, however, goblins are extremely stealthy and like to surprise their enemies with overwhelming force in terrain that favors their position.

In the 2e Monstrous Manual and certainly by the 3e MM, the descriptions became longer and more technical, two qualities that I find toxic to my sense of wonder. As one of my professors often said, "Evoke, don't describe." I like to leave enough unsaid so that I'm not imposing my goblins on your game. I think this principle may also illuminate why David Sutherland was perhaps the ideal illustrator for D&D. When I see a Sutherland illustration, especially, I feel I'm looking at an adventurer's impression of a monster, rather than a literal depiction of it, like something a PC might sketch out on a napkin in the tavern after returning from the dungeon.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

[Illustration] Warrior with Kite-shaped Shield.

Here's a sketch of a warrior from a few years back.

Character Sheets

Here are PDFs of the six basic DungeonTeller roles:






Feel free to print them out to speed up your setup time.

Free PDF of DungeonTeller Monsters

As a companion to the ruleset, here's a monster manual of sorts, with dozens of creatures in it. Enjoy responsibly!

Free PDF of BlueBoxer DungeonTeller Ruleset

Here for your enjoyment is a PDF of the ruleset I've been using. It has streamlined play with an old-school feel. Hope you like it!
DungeonTeller V1

Friday, July 15, 2011

[Sketch] Towering City

Sometimes I survive long meetings by bringing a clipboard with some drawing paper and an HB pencil, and letting loose. I'd love to know where this city is. I was thinking about Kafka's castle and about Gormenghast when I was developing this. I think there's a mastermind or demigod up at the top, and people ascend the city to seek his favor. There's also a great Neil Gaiman story in Miracleman: Book Four about some mortals climbing MM's pyramid to ask him for help with various crises in their lives.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Underdarkchocolate Realm

My spouse and daughter are planning an awesome birthday present for me in May. They're designing a dungeon module to run me through and they will have chocolate and other goodies hidden in various rooms for me/my PC to find. I did this for friends' birthdays when I was a lad -- we were pretty strict about not letting the birthday boy open a real present until he had found its simulacrum in the dungeon.
Anyone else ever have a dungeon-themed birthday party?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

[illustration] Urzen

Yet another alien species, the Urzen. I remember that they communicated with each other by scent. They were psionically sensitive to living things, and acted as guardians of nature.

[Illustration] Ferrec

A ferrec.
Another sketch from my Earthlaw campaign sketchbook. This is a ferrec, one of the cute, ruthless aliens I mentioned in my previous post. As god is my witness, I have no idea why there's a ball hovering over her head. It may have been a psychic artifact, or something akin to an Ioun stone.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

[Campaign Graveyard] Earthlaw: AD&D 2e Science Fantasy

My closet is a graveyard of old RPG campaigns -- I was reminded of one in particular this morning when I was cleaning out my file drawer and came across some illustrations in an old sketchbook for a fun little campaign I had entirely forgotten about.
I called it "Earthlaw", referring to the part of the galaxy under Earth's jurisdiction in the far future setting of the campaign. It was a 1000-points-of-light setting before that term was coined -- with a tired, decadent human civilization in retreat, leaving lots of struggling planets outside the Earthlaw facing increasing threats from the monstrous Old Ones who had been driven to the far side of the galaxy eons earlier. Only the jedi, I mean, the Paladins, an ancient order of mystic warriors, could stem the resurgence of the Old Ones.
I tend to dislike SF settings with zillions of alien species -- give me something more like Star Frontiers, with a limited number of well-realized and distinct races. Earthlaw only had about 5 intelligent races:

Humans, of course.
Elders, who were basically immortal space elves who predated humanity, and had been all but destroyed by the Old Ones in an eons-ago battle.
Podians, who looked like floating cuttlefish.
Ferrec, adorable fox-like creatures who maintained a ruthless criminal network across the galaxy.
Urzen, nature-loving bearlike critters.
Chiba, bug like creatures with a single mind distributed among several bodies, each with a specialized function.

We used AD&D 2e rules, modified as little as possible. A hard-drive crash years ago wiped out any files I might have had, although as I go through my spring-cleaning, I'm optomistic I can find my campaign binder.

Here's a picture of a Podian, from my sketchbook, c. 2000.
Podian. Their head-shells were hydrogen-filled chambers

that alowed them to hover in the air. Pencil, c. 2000.

[Illustration] Kat's Hand Crossbow

Someone go build this, kk? Pencil, c. 2003.
I loved Kat's character so much that I thought of doing a comic book about her for a while. I even made detailed sketches of her hand crossbows, and wondered how a repeating model might look (the boxy one at the top).

[Illustration] Look Out Below!

Kat leaps from a building. Pencil, c. 2003.
This is Kat(erina), a rogue PC of mine. She started out as a rogue in 3e, later gained levels as a thief-acrobat. Her backstory was that she was a rich brat who snuck out of her room at night to work the streets of the city of Gravesend as a petty thief. She carried a short sword and two hand crossbows. In this sketch she's wearing a cats-eye, which is a monocle made by dwarves IMC to allow surface dwellers limited night vision.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

[Design] Replacing Abilities with Actions

Hi, my name is Doug, and I must confess that I don't like ability scores. They always seem to require a set of skills, bonuses, or derived stats to mechanically translate their numerical value into something immediate and useful. They are cozy and familiar and I know how to parse out their mechanical influence on what a character does in-game, but when I step outside that, and try to explain what they mean to a new player, especially one of perhaps six or seven winters, it gets confusing fast.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

[Illustration] Sea Devil

I drew this in 2005 for a Northern Crown adventure module called Isle of the Judge that was never published. It was a mix of Salem Witch Trials and HPL goodness. Think: Shadowe over Innsmouthe.

I still like the illustration, though. This was done with black and blue colored pencils and a bit of watercolor. When I'm drawing something that's going to be reproduced in grayscale, I often go the monochrome route, but the originals still have a cool vibe of their own -- it all hangs together coherently.

Monday, March 21, 2011

[Un-assuming Monsters] Orcs are Devils

Lets play with some assumptions about orcs.

Holmes doesn't say anything about their origin or their appearance, only that they are organized by uncooperative tribes or nations. 

Orc waits to be classified. Pencil, 2011.
Let's pretend I've never read LOTR. What the hell are orcs? What would be the most promising origin for these dungeon staples?

Are they just big goblins? As I see it, goblins are fairies, manifestations of darkness perhaps, but essentially of the earth and not inimical to it. Orcs, on the other hand, enjoy trampling pretty flowers, building fiendish machines, and generally making a slag-heap of things. They have un-nature in them. So they're definitely not fey creatures.

Where do we usually find them? As minions of a BBEG or else as AWOL troops of same. Where do they come from? Are they just another mundane humanoid race, which is what they were watered down to by the 3e era? I've never been happy with the idea of orc families, with little orc babies running around. Orcs shouldn't have dependents cramping their style. They have a certain standard to maintain.

My answer is that they are created (or summoned) servants of evil. In my campaign, orcs are the foot soldiers of the devil, brought to earth by evil wizards' summon orc spells to serve in their usual roles as minions, guards, and troops. And they're pretty bad-ass. I see them as rawhide-tough, brutal fighters who might live centuries on earth once they're summoned, long outliving their original masters. And yeah, maybe they take earthly mates but they don't hang around to drive their half-orc spawn to archery practice.

Here's my working description of them for my blue box set:


An infernal soldier who is summoned by magic to serve its master.

Orcs are generally human in shape, short and broad, powerfully muscled, with long arms, short legs, pointy ears, bulbous eyes, and sharp teeth. Their skin is a livid red color. They carry heavy curved swords, long-bladed spears, and short, powerful curved bows. They are brutally disciplined soldiers, strong and tireless, and follow orders faithfully, but not mindlessly.

Orcs are native to the infernal lands and only appear on earth after having been summoned by magic. They most often encountered as the soldiers or sentries of malicious wizards. See the spell Summon Orc for details.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I Open the Blue Box and Fail my Save against Enchantment

A few times in your life, you're lucky enough to stumble on the very thing you didn't know you were looking for. Marriage, teaching, fatherhood, and a really good cup of Darjeeling are on my list for sure. But the first time, it was a revelation in a cardboard box...