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