What’s up with these undead?

I’ve been running Barrowmaze with one of my groups recently; they’re venturing into its depths looking for a cache of Elven Spell Gems needed to use a magical portal, but I wonder if they’ll want to leave even after finding that cache considering all the treasure they’ve found so far.

This module is really good, and it mostly contains everything you need to run it. I’ve been making use of my recent Spicing up Randomness rules for random encounters, but even with foreshadowing there are still a lot of encounters with “generic” undead in the catacombs (especially considering how thorough and noisy my players are), and I wanted to use something simple to spice up some of the “1D6 zombies” encounters. Thus, I’ve created the table below. The way I use it is to roll a D30 on it, with 13-30 meaning nothing out of the ordinary, but that’s really just a matter of taste.

Some of these refer to rules here on the blog (such as the “treat as Lung Sickness” bit) but they are probably fairly self-explanatory and you should probably be able to make a ruling on the fly.

1 An Enchanted Weapon is either (mindless) stuck in or (intelligent) wielded by one of the creatures (GM’s choice what weapon).
2 The creatures are Armored, or more heavily armored than usual if they normally wear protection. Treat their AC as two steps better. The actual armor is rusted, rotted or worn and can be of any specific type.
3 The creatures are stalked by an entourage of 3D6 Giant Rats that devour the scraps they leave behind. They will fall upon and devour any fallen PC’s, and possibly attack the party after combat if the PC’s appear sufficiently weakened.
4 A Lesser Demon is bound in one of the creatures (quite visibly, the creature has a large red pentagram painted on its chest). If the pentagram is disturbed, such as by slaying the creature (except perhaps using called shots or similar), the demon (6 HD, AC 15, 2@+6,D8, Fire Breath 3/day, 20’ cone for 2D8 dmg, save for half) will be released into this plane. Roll Reaction at -4. An intelligent creature marked in this way will use it to threaten the party and attempt to make them release the demon, and then flee to escape its wrath.
5 The creatures are dressed in Clerical Robes and wear gilded holy symbols of an appropriate lawful deity. They possess no special powers. Each holy symbol is worth 50 SP.
6 A number (2D4) of Giant Centipedes live on or in the creatures in a symbiotic relationship. These centipedes will remain on the creatures until brought into melee range, and will then attempt to scurry onto opponents and paralyze them with their venom.
7 One of the creatures has an Arrow of Dragonslaying stuck in it.
8 The creatures are, for some reason, chained together. They make a lot of noise while moving around, they move slower than normal and the chain can possibly cause them any number of practical problems. Intelligent undead will know to minimize these problems, and perhaps even use the chain to their advantage.
9 The creatures are dragging a small cart along. Mindless undead will simply drag it behind them, set on some ancient task now probably pointless. Intelligent undead will use it as a mobile food supply, and in it can be found random valuables worth 500 SP along with a lot of bones and disgusting bits. The cart itself is rickety and worn, but functional.
10 One of the creatures is exceptionally large, at least 7’ tall if the beings are of human size. This creature is hung with decorative bone jewellery, and automatically has maximum HP.
11 The creatures carry a Fungal Infection which has covered them in strange growths. This has granted them an extra HD each. Spores release in a 5’ radius cloud on a successful hit which causes physical damage (i.e. not fire, cold or the like). Those caught in a spore cloud must make a Fortitude save (one per round) or begin to choke (-4 to all activity for a Turn) and become infected with a Fungal Rot (treat as Lung Sickness, but accompanied by growths which spread infectious spores as per above).
12 Someone has hung a string of bells on one of the creatures. Mindless undead will announce their approach from far off and cannot surprise anything. Intelligent undead will attempt a diversion, hiding in ambush while one of them skulks around in a room while wearing the bells.


In Sickness

I’ve created a quick document for my current campaign which details a number of generic diseases; I love the basic D&D approach which usually boils down to “will be fatal in X days”, but I also like a bit more flavor both to the mechanics and the descriptions of the disease’s progress.

The basic concepts are that the GM determines which type of disease to use and its severity, although this should be fairly evident depending on the source (Giant Rats feels like the Raging Disease (which is always Deadly), whereas the Heucuva of the Barrowmaze my PCs are about to encounter cause Severe Infectious Rot).

The optional “infectious” rules would mean those who travel with an infected person might be forced to Save at the same time they do, or contract the disease. This can quickly lead to disaster for a team of adventurers, of course, and might also mean a bit more of a hassle than it’s worth. I don’t think I’d apply it except in special cases.

Have a look at the document here, or download it from the Library.


Spicing up randomness

I do love random encounters, for the same reasons I love location based adventures; they let me be the voice for a narrative told by the dice, they surprise me, they supply flavor to a location and they serve to enforce time as a limited resource better than anything else.

That being said, the classic D6 or D8 table with X number of entries is a bit boring. I’ve devised a fairly simple way to spice it up a bit, but without having to rewrite the table or add any complex mechanisms beyond making some notes (on a paper or in the book/adventure itself, as per preference). It does delay the encounters a bit, but at least for me that is as intended; it’s meant to serve as foreshadowing of what roams the dungeon and to give the players a greater sense of dread and urgency as they feel they are being stalked by more and more creatures (which, in a sense, they are) as they rummage through the tunnels and make ever more noise and leave more tracks.

The system amounts to the following:

  1. Instead of rolling just one of the specified dice, roll two.
  2. If you roll two different results, check to see if you’ve rolled any of them before.
    1. If not, make a mark on the highest rolled entry, and foreshadow it.
    2. If yes, then the PCs encounter the highest rolled encounter which has previously been foreshadowed.
  3. If you roll doubles, that encounter happens immediately (regardless of whether it has previously been foreshadowed).

Source: http://recedingrules.blogspot.se/2010/08/art.html

So, how do you “foreshadow” an encounter? I usually just do it by improvisation; tracks, droppings, the remains of a meal, the corpse of a dead creature, a strange smell in the air, scribblings on the wall – the possibilities are endless, and I think most GMs get excited rather than pressed when asked to do this. What I basically aim for is to convey both hints on the nature of the creature and it’s general power level if possible – it’s great if clever players can use this foreshadowing to plan their delve and make preparations.

If I’m lazy or tired, I usually just roll 1D6 on this ready-made table. It’s simple, but it’s easy enough to pad the result.

  1. Droppings, tracks, dropped item
  2. Remains of meal/victim
  3. Sounds in the distance
  4. Remains of one of the creatures OR signs of a battle
  5. Message (territorial markings, scribbles etc)
  6. A glimpse

I usually allow these foreshadowings to “reset” as the PCs leave a dungeon, in order to camp or resupply. The players soon learn how the systems works, which is as intended, as they realize that they will be in more and more danger the more time they spend in the same area.

Where there be monsters?

On alignments in my Early Modern game.

There have always been monsters. In the earlier ages they were many, and men worshiped them – generally to appease them, since most were best left alone or kept calm, but some were willing to communicate with and trade secrets with men. The mages of old Hyborea were masters of this, and even learnt the secrets of the Old Ones from the Serpent Men and mastered sorcery, the channeling of the hidden powers of Monsters. Later, the civilizations of the Crescent, the far East, the Romans  and the Germanic tribes worshiped other monsters, fickle and cruel masters who toyed with their subjects.


Monsters are creatures of Chaos, and of Magic. Serving them turns man into a mutant, and mastering them makes her a sorcerer or magus. The Magic they supply is powerful but fickle, primal and very dangerous – it is given freely to those who know how and who to ask, but few can handle it. Monsters care little for Man and gain little by associating with her as other than prey or plaything.

There has always been Law, but its creatures are subtle. Modern man allied with Law; so did men who came before – the Chinese and their Celestial Bureaucracy, for example. Law is a harsh master, controlling and domineering even in the slightest details, but in return it supplies safety, continuity and certainty. Law needs man desperately; like a cart needs a horse. Without the fallible nature of man to create tension, friction and movement Law does nothing, but in that tension it thrives and feeds on imposed Order. Whether Man truly benefits from the relationship is not as clear.


Angels and the Divine are creatures of Law. Serving them turns a man into a puppet; mastering them makes you holy but it is hard to tell the difference. They supply Magic just like Monsters do, and in the same way, although men call them Miracles. These secrets are useful, sane, dependable and predictable, but they come with innumerable strings attached and accepting them binds you to the Divine.

The Divine have long been in ascendancy, and masters of men of the Modern world.

Most of Man has always been Unaligned, but in earlier times this has been a choice of necessity, an unwillingness to bind oneself as a slave to the forces or Law or subject oneself to the fickle demands of Chaos. In Modern times, however, some men have found the strength of Enlightenment.

Enlightenment is about the empowerment of man. Of reason, of learning and knowing and of harnessing both Law and Chaos and taking control. It supplies no powers beyond those which can be found within, but demands no great tribute. It’s essence is the potential for Man to harness her own destiny, for better or worse. Monsters AND the Divine hate Enlightenment equally. It lessens their influence over Man, but also the world she increasingly controls.


(Enlightenment is not an alignment per se, just a consequence of Neutrality turning into something other than not making a choice. It is also NOT the “good guy option”. It will fuel colonialism, slavery and many more atrocities in eras to come. Man is capable of very dark things entirely on her own…)

Lindrain, a Windfare Dale adventure

I’ve been too busy to write anything for a long time, but I finally managed to finish a short interlude adventure and location description for my campaign; Lindrain Fortress.

This module describes an old elven ruin, currently inhabited by a gang of bandits called the “Blackfeet” which have featured heavily in my campaign so far. It is also the site of a hidden outpost of the fallen Elven Empire, with several very deadly traps and a portal to the fabled Teliandrin where the three fallen High Elven Houses once dwelled. The portal could really lead anywhere, though… into the belly of a megadungeon, to another planet or campaign setting perhaps (Carcosa springs to mind). Thus, I decided to put the adventure out here; it could be a nice start if you want to run a campaign where the characters are transported far from home for some reason.

This adventure really lacks hooks, but I doubt anyone who wants to use it will have trouble supplying their own. It should be said that I have provided no leads in the location for how to access the underground areas; in my own game, the players have already found this information elsewhere and will be heading here primarily to find the portal. They have already found one elven Spell Gem (out of the three needed) for the portal, and they have scried out the location of the ruin, but they have also enlisted the aid of an elven ambassador who knows the pass phrase and is backing their attempts to find the necessary keys. The presence of the Blackfeet is what will surprise them. Other possibilities might be to have the bandits possess information on the portal, but either be too afraid to use it or perhaps awaiting some sort of magical assistance after having lost one or more men to the traps below.

The adventure includes an Elven Spell Gem; you can read more about those here on the blog.

The maps for the adventure were made by the incomparable Dyson Logos. You can download the adventure here, or in the Library.

Top Ten Troll Questions, Pt II

I normally just read these things, but something with these questions got me thinking, and then gave me the urge to actually answer them. It’s a great collection of thoughts on what is the “core” of Old School D&D to me; this isn’t about whether it’s for you, but just how much of a fundamentalist you are… 

Here goes!

(1). Should energy drain take away one level of experience points from the character? Yes or No? If no, what should level drain do?

Currently, I play that way, but I do allow a saving throw to avoid that level loss. This one is hard, though… it’s severe. In many ways more severe than killing the character off, actually, so I might change this one around.

(2). Should the oil used in lanterns do significant damage (more than 1 hp in damage) if thrown on an opponent and set on fire? Yes or No? If yes, how much damage should it do?

Definitely! LotFP uses D4, with a 4 causing lasting burn, but I usually go much further and use D6 damage with a save to avoid damage for one more round.

(3). Should poison give a save or die roll, with a fail rolled indicating instant death? Yes or No? If no, how should game mechanics relating to poison work?

Yes! Ish… fail the save and you’re out, and probably dead, but Slow Poison gives another save and Neutralize Poison saves you, provided they are used within 1 Turn. That’s for a lethal poison, of course – they can also paralyze, cause blindness, make you mad or what have you.

(4). Do characters die when they reach 0 hit points? Yes or No? If no, then at what point is a character dead?

No… that’s too harsh for me. They drop unconscious at between 0 and -2 HP, with no further danger. If they reach -3 or below, they will start to bleed 1 point per round, and even if brought above -3 they must roll a save to survive, and will suffer a loss of D3 points to a random attribute (the player him/herself makes up the injury/scar to explain the loss).

(5). Does the primary spell mechanic for a magic user consist of a “memorize and forget system” (aka Vancian)? Yes or No? If no, what alternative do you use?

For a Magic User, yes, but I do allow for a “Weird Magic” spell retention system to keep cast spells in memory, based on a saving throw and nasty side effects if the roll is low. Clerics have spell slots, but choose which spell to cast with them at the point of casting.

(6). Should all weapons do 1d6 damage or should different weapons have varying dice (1d4, 1d8, etc…) for damage?

Nope, I do the usual spread of D4-D10 for different sizes – pretty much exactly as in LotFP. I don’t have a strong preference either way though.

(7). Should a character that has a high ability score in their prime requisite receive an experience point bonus? Yes or No?

Nah… they will fare better on adventures and thus have a greater chance to get that gold, and thus that XP. That’s enough of a bonus. LotFP does give meaningful bonuses beyond an XP bonus for high attributes, though.

(8). Should a character with an strength of 18 constitution get a +3 bonus to hit points, or a +2 bonus to hit points, or a +1 bonus to hit points or no bonus to hit points? And should other ability scores grant similar bonuses to other game mechanics?

I use LotFP’s normal bonuses, since I enjoy the variation between characters. (13-15, +1; 16-17, +2; 18, +4). They affect game mechanics, but not in dramatic ways (Str affects To Hit, but not damage, for example).

(9). Should a character have 1 unified saving throw number, or 3 saving throw types based on ability scores (reflex, fortitude, will), or 5 types based on potential game effects (magic wand, poison attacks)? or something else?

I currently use the 5 “old classics”, but I will switch to the 3 Ref/Fort/Will saves as soon as possible; they are less Old School but make so much more sense. I will keep the LotFP way of having Int affect saves vs magic and Wis affect saves vs everything else, though, with the saves being class-based beyond that.

(10). Should a cleric get (A) 1 spell at 1st level  (B) no spells at 1st level (C) more than 1 spell at 1st level?

I do 1 spell at first level. In LotFP Turn Undead is a spell, though, so it evens things out a bit. No bonus spells, though; my bonus for clerics is that they choose which spell they want to cast upon casting.

Reactions and Interactions

My latest project, slowed down by summer vacation, has been to examine types of encounters and try to open up the interaction between me and the players with regards to the Reaction Roll, the setup of an encounter and the PC’s options, Parley is an option chosen rarely in D&D as far as I’ve found, and I think that’s regrettable.

One major concern for me is that the Reaction roll would somehow be rolled in secret and it would be for the players to determine if parley is an option. With most groups of players you end up with a situation where attacking instantly to have a chance to perhaps surprise your opponent, or at least not cede any tactical advantage, seems the most prudent choice.

Gustave_dore_crusades_mourzoufle_parleying_with_dandoloMy first step in this process was picking up the excellent On the Non-player Character by Courtney Campbell of Hack & Slash. It’s a very ambitious system for putting these sorts of interactions into a framework, and though I’ve wound up using only the basic bits of it myself I can’t recommend it enough as a starting point if you’re thinking about these kinds of things.

I wound up with a system which basically opens up the Reaction Roll to the players, making them participate and if they so want make that roll themselves. The Reaction Roll also further defines how much the characters can interact with an NPC or a monster before the encounter ends or dissolves into a fight; the guidelines are very basic, and the actions the party can take are broad and subject to some modification on the spot. Generally speaking, the characters can attempt one interaction for each point on the modified Reaction Roll, typically around 5-9 or so depending on the situation. Some of these will call for rolls, possibly further modifying Reaction, while others are automatic or have other interesting circumstances.

It does suit my GM’ing style perfectly though! We usually play along through an encounter naturally, and I sometimes stop and point out that the characters have used up an interaction, that the NPC’s seem to change their attitude or that a roll would be called for if the players press on. So far, I’m very happy with it.

Since I don’t want to leave you empty-handed, I’ll share a single-page handout I prepared based on my thoughts and the lists from On the Non-player Character. You can download it here or in the Library.

The dice tell the Story

Last session, I took one final plunge when it comes to die rolling – I thought it would be a big one, but actually it felt completely natural.

Since about a year I’ve begun rolling almost all rolls in the open; not only does it prevent me from fudging rolls, which I had vowed to stop but found extremely hard after having done so for far too long, but it is also a godsend in a deadly game such as mine. It clearly shows the players that I’m not killing their characters; monsters, traps and a cruel world is.

I held on to three rolls, however – search rolls (which I will keep for mechanical reasons), random encounter checks and rolling to determine which random encounter occurred. All of these still make my “fudging nerve” tickle though; they have a huge effect on game play and pacing. I do everything I can, but those random encounter checks when the party is leaving a dungeon and badly beaten or when we’re close to calling it a night; too hard.

duvanku_diceThe easy solution; open them up. I now simply tell the players it’s time for a check, and have them roll. Normally, they roll one die and the chance for an encounter is 1-in-6; if anything is different, I let them know before the roll. Instead of telling them the risk is greater than 1-in-6, I have them roll more dice; I have some beautiful dice with ornamental “ones” which work great in this situation (next session, the players will learn to fear the dreaded Duvan’Ku Dead Sign since my LotFP dice arrived!). I still determine what the encounter is and how it happens, but they know something is coming (or not, as some random encounters will flee the party, or perhaps just stalk them and wait for them to make camp, which adds even more to the tension).

It felt like a weight off my back. I really can’t recommend open die rolling enough – to everyone.

Miracles big and small

I’ve always liked Clerics. I think part of it is how I was first introduced to non-Swedish RPG:s – it was 2nd Ed AD&D, and I was a complete rookie. I came from the established swedish “It system” which was based on Basic Roleplaying, and concepts such as AC, THAC0 and Saving Throws were completely new to me. I was also new to a lot of the more powerful D&D tropes; the healing cleric, the “thief”, scrolls, trolls… I could make this list as long as my arm. I paid the price gladly, dying and trying again, and I learned pretty quickly. Soon, my own system of choice was AD&D.

The warrior-priest wielding divine spells and wearing heavy armor just stuck with me. It feels like the kind of person you’d want in a gloomy dungeon where death is all around.

With my recent return to my “roots” (not really, I’m going further back, but hey) I’ve started thinking about the cleric class and their brand of magic. One thing I find is that I actually miss the channeling rules from 3rd Ed and onward, which actually made clerics cast something other than healing spells. The other is how ill-suited I think the Vancian system is to clerical magic. Why would a cleric pray each morning and ask for specific “miracles” from his/her deity? The reasonable thing to expect would be that aid is asked and given on the spot. “The foul undead approach! I call upon Spindleman the Preserver to ward them off.” (Turn Undead is a spell in LotFP)

I’m thus going to introduce the following rules in my campaign, on a trial basis:

  1. Clerics do not need to prepare spells; they are able to cast a number of spells per day and per spell level as specified in the Rulebook, but may choose which spells to cast when casting.
    1. A slot for a higher level spell may be used to instead cast a lower level spell, but the “excess” is lost
    2. The spell to be cast must still be specified at the start of a combat round
  2. Clerics must still pray in the morning, in order to restore their faith and ask penance from their deity for wielding its power. The time spent is determined by the spells cast the previous day.
  3. Clerics must use the powers of their deity with scrutiny and care; they are not employing their own power (or at least, they do not believe they are, depending on your take on clerics). When praying for new spells, roll 3D6 + the highest level spell slot used the previous day – Wis modifier and check the table below.
    1. The player of the Cleric may choose to apply a modifier of -1 to this roll if he/she considers the use of holy magic the previous day especially justified, such as being used to destroy the undead if worshipping a God of Light or to slaughter elven babies if worshipping the Vile Deity.
    2. The DM may choose to do the same, making the total modifier up to -2.

The table below will probably need some tweaks after I’ve seen it in action, but I think it has about the severity I’m looking for; something that might be an annoyance if spells are used carelessly, but rarely something that spells disaster.


Prayer effect


Succor; all non-withheld spell slots regained


1st level spell slot withheld; roll again


2nd level (or highest) spell slot withheld; roll again


3rd level (or highest) spell slot withheld; roll again


Highest level spell slot withheld; roll again


Penance; all spell slots withheld

What’s in your mind?

Meet the Cerebrix. It’s actually not larger than four inches or so, but that probably feels like a lot when it’s fully grown and nesting inside your brain case.


Who would let this thing inside their skull? Why, a Magic-User, of course! You just have to spice up the offer with some arcane secrets and watch them debate who’s most worthy.

Touching on my post about Specialists from earlier this week, I present the Secrets of the Cerebrix.