Displacer Cube

The displacer cube was the simple result of a common observation that both the displacer beast and the gelatinous cube are annoying bastards to deal with. By combining the two creatures I would be able to both have an iconic monster for newer players to fight, a familiar face for older players, and most importantly an entirely new bag of tricks for the munchkins to smack their head on. Granted I think the cube or the beast are awesome enough monsters on their own, and dealing with one should be a daunting prospect. But in a hobby where so many devotees can tell you a gelcube’s HD off the top of their head, a little novelty goes a long way.

So yeah, I put together a displacer cube. My reasoning ecologically went something like this: A) if one creature developed such a beneficial mutation as the beast’s, another might as well, B) especially if this particular sub-species evolved to hunt the beasts on their own terms, C) and let’s not rule out the essence of faeriekind infusing the creature’s gelatinous mass, having a direct mutagenic effect on its offspring/spawn/mitosis/whatever. It would live in whatever areas in one’s game world were infested with fey creatures, since these tactics would be effective against similarly elusive creatures like gnomes. It would basically lie in wait in a high traffic area (clearing, jungle growth, lakeside, temple full of cultist idiots) and set on its prey before it could get away. Like the beast, it would have long reaching tentacles capable of inflicting about 2d6 acid damage, so it could sweep a large area in pursuit of its favored meal.

Obviously, if a dwarf or a sparrow or a kobold or whatever wandered into its vicinity, hey, a meal’s a meal, and the cube has to warn off such interlopers who might scare away its preferred cuisine. The very idea of a gelatinous cube struck me as preposterous but then I likened it to certain anemones, which are just as effectively mindless and respond to specific impulses…displacer beasts and things vaguely beastly or beast shaped or beast weight would simply be a big ol’ dinner bell, while other impulses would be more muted. The crown of thorns starfish was also an inspiration…it’s basically just a mouth, and, sure, it could eat lots of things, but it gets around well enough and when given the option goes after one thing more than any other.

I already had a lot of creatures in my campaign that had taken some ideas from the regular GC but the displacer cube made me re-examine those as well, and incorporate them as a more vital element of the ecosystem.

When I actually got around to using him  he ended up as the centerpiece in a dungeon, an abandoned monastery carved into the temple. Rumors suggested the monks had gone mad and begun worshiping Orcus or some other dark power. There was indeed a monster at the middle of their labyrinth but it was no dark god but the cube, and the monks were indeed mad but in a different manner from that which was rumored, owing to a particularly troublesome artifact that the PCs (again rolling on a rumor table I had made) thought was the key to slaying “Orcus.”

Between the displacer cube and the artifact it was a harrowing encounter to the point where, even after escaping immediate peril, the party chose to stay in the labyrinth and survive on rats while they stalked the cube, hoping to finish it off. No arch villain or dragon or Lovecraftian thing has inspired as many memorable moments on their own, nor engendered such player hatred, without even killing a single party member. Part of it helped, too, that I didn’t explain the creature. Knowledge checks revealed nothing. The creature was entirely alien. I obviously never called it a DC in my session.

Right now I’m in a contest on the D&D website. The winner gets their monster actually statted up in an upcoming release. To avoid any complication should I be fortunate enough to win, I’ll refrain from putting up my stats for the cubes  here (I have OSRIC stats, Pathfinder, and D&D4e) until after things have been decided one way or another. Watch this space.

Until then, I post this as evidence that GMs, at least the good ones (which I’m not but which I aspire to be) do a heckuva  lot of work and devote an awful lot of thought even to the things their players might consider extraneous or stupid. Especially to those things, really. It’s always some minor thing that wasn’t worth their time that bites them in the ass, in the end, and that never gets old as a GM or a player, and I speak from experience on both.


Court Archives

Regarding this:

The Court Archives is essentially one giant wood-and-paper Da-Vinci-inspired golem, an entire room set into the castle where the golem’s “skeleton,” the shelves, the floor, all of it, is carved out of one contiguous piece of wood with wooden peg joints and such. Different parts of the archive’s body hang limp until the golem moves its “head” onto another rail and assumes control of its segments. The golem/archive is protected with a Curse of Cold Cinders (trying to burn anything in the room confers an equal amount of cold damage on the caster +2d4). It ‘speaks’ using a method where the PCs blow into a hollow flute that runs through the creature and creates a rustling sibilance that its responses flutter out of.

(For Vornheim and Zak’s stuff I guess replace all the paper components with a room densely cobwebbed with snakeskin, nearly petrified, where each skin has a summoning spell that conjures the snake-book or artifact the skin pertains to into the roll-top-desk-of-holding.)

The archive contains all kinds of important records including a royal lineage that goes back two ages (not just for the king’s line but also for a hundred dukes and a thousand lords), various treaties and compacts, records of dowries, and items pertaining to disputes the king himself has heard and settled.

The golem dutifully transcribes (clones?) original records every five years, maintaining the ancient language and idioms and script and even mistakes present in the originals. A PC attempting to read such a record should roll a d6 to see how much of the archaic ante-lingo they can decipher, with the DM interpreting the comments with the appropriate level of confusion:

1-Understand perfectly
2-Verbs and tenses are weird and confused
3-Get the gist of it but miss specifics and finer details
4-Comprehend a line here and there
5-Comprehend a word here and there
6-Entirely inscrutable

Should the PCs attempt to search the archival artifacts rather than records roll 1d20

1-Half a baby (d4; top half on evens, bottom half on odds)
2-The Dancing Tapestry
3-Royal chastity belt (out of fashion but somewhat sacred and priceless)
4-Sword of Tears
5-Hilt of Fathers (used by king to personally execute traitors by bludgeoning them to death with it)
6-Original wooden-and-lily-leaved crown worn by the first lord of the realm
7-Old throne cleaved in twain (the best way to cleave things)
8-Long-abandoned signet (different from current seal but still retains authority and could topple the empire or start a war)
9-The fifty-years-missing six year old prince of a nearby rival kingdom
10-Sack of salt marked with a red cross
11-Bag of figs and dates whose true magic powers are lost to time and rumor
12-Cursed ballgown made from ashes
13-Blood-stained sheets
14-Chest full of gold (spending a single piece breaks a horrible curse and summons an army of 100 banshee)
15-Randy poem
16-The Woeful Wax
17-Mithril cobra whose bite revives the dead
18-Proof king’s father is not only still alive but 600 years old
19-Thumbscrews with the number 4 written on them
20-The Jester’s Curtain

MSH and Initiative

So I’m learning the rules for the TSR MSH and gearing up to run at the store. The biggest problem I’m having is the initiative method they use. Every round, we 1) declare a full round of actions for each character, 2) roll initiative with mods, 3) determine whether anybody wants to try to change their action or whether any actions have been rendered invalid, 4) declare the new actions they hope to be able to make, 5) make an Agility FEAT roll with any appropriate column shifts for each such character to see if they can react in time to change their minds, 6) and finally of course make sure everybody is shuffled to the right order or action.

I have to do this every round?

My playtesters do not like this and neither do I. We’re just not getting it and we’re spending more time talking about what hurdles we have to jump to get to the actual fun part of doing things…..than we are doing things.

This all makes sense logically but it’s making play less dynamic. What I’m probably going to do is jettison this in favor of simple initiative, drop the pre-round declarations, and give the side of the equation that loses initiative an extra Dodge roll.

So, you act first, you dictate the course of battle and shape the encounter to suit you. You act second, you’re still able to react to changing conditions (and can even leverage your opponents’ strengths against them if you’re clever) but it does require strategy and, yes, cooperation, since you have to discuss which one PC gets the bonus Dodge according to what is best for the group and who needs it the most.

This does also necessitate reappraising the Dodge since as-is the mechanic rests on the concept of pre-declaration, but there’s enough here to work with. If you are attacked, you can choose to Dodge but you forfeit either your action or your movement that round. If you try to do both on your turn, you have to make a roll for multiple combat actions.

The Seal of Sorba

Sorba was a weaver with knowledge of the arcane. He provided magical cloth to certain sorcerers, finely woven with a single special thread woven into the seam. He found, however, that his wares rarely made it to his customers or to market and in fact those wearing them tended to not live so long, despite the clothing’s enchantments. The reason for this was simple: brigands, armies, and the odd unscrupulous expedition would waylay these valuable, powerful goods and make off with them. Sorba hears similar mutterings from dwarves who forged arcane steel and elves who strung enchanted bowstrings and so forth.

Sorba’s solution was a special series of arcane sigils that could be arranged just so in order to make a magical item’s magic properties specific to one user. The seal was stitched or inscribed or smelted onto the object while it was worn by or in the possession of its new Sole Owner, who would speak a specific phrase upon completion. Thence forward, the cloak or sword or staff or whatever would only ever share its magic with them. This was very popular for merchants but even more popular for cults and the like, because who wants to forge the darkest weapons in an age if there’s a chance the elf prince and his band can turn those same weapons against you someday?

The Seal of Sorba is a ritual that takes a day to complete and has a variable cost depending on the type of item and the type of enchantments that are being so sealed. From a practical GM perspective, this is a handy way to use magical weapons and armor against your PCs that they cannot then use. Fair’s fair, PCs deserve loot, but when they clear a temple and come away with five magic swords and eleven magic capes that’s just silliness. So, reward them appropriately with potions and gold and even weapons and armor and scrolls BUT cut them off after a while.

Sealed items are not worthless, either; they still fetch more than a mundane item of the same kind would, partly due to a collector’s market and partly due to a black market specializing in unsealed magic merch eliminating readily available competing products.

Fabric of Fear

Even before coming to the hobby you heard about things like Ravenloft and Tomb of Horrors. Usually, somebody said the phrase “like Tomb of Horrors or…” they usually mentioned the Fabric of Fear. I’m not huge on Tomb but Fabric was loads of fun.

This module put a lot of emphasis on variable experience and the very first table in the book is a d20 Fear Table full of things like spiders, shadows, banshee and bats, things like thats. The idea was to roll once for each player to “weave the fabric of fear itself.”

The setup went that there was this cave, sort of a combination of a door-to-the-underworld like in Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern mythology and that “only what you take with you” cave that Luke entered on Dagobah, with the end result being oddly similar to Galaxy of Terror (released later that year) in some respects. Anyway, to enter the cave was to swim in the very primodrial shadow of Creation from which all fear and horror issued, a pocket-hell. If one entered and allowed himself to become afraid then the creatures therein would destroy him. If he survived long enough to reach the innermost depths he would face a grim mockery of himself that bore evidence of every sin, evil thought and misdeed he had ever committed in life. Every wound he had ever received would still ooze. Total Dorian Gray territory, then. So at the end of it the party fights themselves.

The point of all of this is to kill some necromancer who specializes in terror magic, holding a valley in his thrall, uses the sweat of terrified men to power his infernal altar to Orcus, etc. I found this to be the most pedestrian part of the module, so I usually gloss over it.

Fabric of Fear did three awesome things:

  • The table at the beginning of the module represented a suite of rooms. The DM would choose from those rooms, stringing them together with dream logic. You had to have at least 1 room associated with each element you rolled on the Fear Table, but you could have any number of them and scale it according to party size; I played with 5 players so I had 25 rooms.
  • You had to defeat your ‘dark mirror’ to emerge back to the surface, but during the encounter if you controlled Arcus the Elf, you sort of controlled AN Arcus the Elf, and if you didn’t save against confusing spell effects, the player could be running Evil Arcus from the time they left the cave until they faced off against the necromancer, at which point the DM flips the script and either takes control of the PC or instructs the player to just be evil now. Never had a problem getting players to just kill their friends once they find out they were dead anyway.
  • The Necromancer was feared for the ability to summon a horrible beast whose exact nature was not entirely known, what with people not surviving and all. So what you got when you talked to NPCs or gathered clues in the fabric of fear was Blind-Men-And-The-Elephant hints about *aspects* of the creature.It’s a horrible giant snake. It’s a furious feral wolf. It’s an ungulating mass of blood. And of course the exact creature is some indescribable mass of all of these. I really liked that the players just got this compoundingly-horrible image in their head as time went on, building up the payoff, but, for reasons Zak has gone into before, the actual creature, while effective, lacked the oomph other parts of the module did because I suspect everybody was picturing a different critter.

I think it read better than it played but then I only ran it once. I’m sure that with some different configurations, or a little hacking (further customizing some rooms, making the necromancer more interesting) it could be a little bit more than just a spooky-dungeon-digression. Still, when I’m looking at modules at all, I could do a lot worse than a cave full of skeletons and banshee and worm-eaten doppelgangers.

Special Edition

As someone who came to the hobby only a couple of years ago, I never understood edition wars. I come from comics, where I like rudimentary Golden Age Superman, Silver Age goofy Superman, Pre-Crisis godlike Supes, Post-Crisis Supey, Elseworld versions of Big Blue, John Byrne’s Man of Steel and Grant Morrison’s Man of Tomorrow, out of continuity Superman, and even freestyle what-is-it-to-be-Superman like It’s A Bird… or Secret Identity.

For that matter, I absolutely adore Samaritan, the original Squadron Supreme maxi-series, everything I’ve read of Supreme and, yes, even Marvel’s original Sentry mini-series and Age of the Sentry. I enjoyed Superduperman and the Clark Kent analog in the Tick. I dig Bill Murray as Superman on Saturday Night and even Tim Daly’s performance in the Superman cartoon. And I really feel like any argument about what is or can be the only true Superman to not only be a colossal waste of time but insultingly narrow-visioned and short-sighted. Strict Constructionism of the Superman Constitution means virtually no Superman.

So if I’m wearing chainmail, in a dungeon, fighting a dragon, am an elf, know what dual-classing is, and my hand is full of polyhedrons, as far as I and the other 99.999% of the world are concerned who even know what D&D is….I am playing D&D. And everything beyond that, race-as-class or THAC0 or level adjustments or skill challenges and so on, is just so much frigging tinsel to me.

And yes, the above description could apply to non-D&D fantasy table-top games but again, the world at large is not entirely aware that these exist. Even for those who are aware that RPG and D&D are not synonyms, they don’t know the difference.

Nobody demands that you support a game, or an edition of a game, just as nobody demands that you buy Superman or even a particular issue of Superman. But to come to this hobby and people discount 4e, or 3.5, or in extreme cases anything that came after the most basic D&D rules were released, as not D&D because they don’t think they’re necessary or don’t like the art….I don’t know, to me that’s as if someone asked about a Superman comic you were reading and, because it’s a rebooted Superman you don’t like, you say it’s not the real Superman. At best, this would be followed with “So..it’s an evil twin, or something?” but most likely you’d get a blank state. Of course that’s the real Superman, because I can see Superman right there and that’s what Superman looks like and he’s flying and you are clearly a crazy person who thinks he’s on a date with Marie Curie and it’s a wonder the hospital staff wrestled you into a pair of pants before you managed to break out and run free.

I get not liking an edition, preferring one over the other, and even having very valid reasons why you prefer something to be one way vs. another way. But the idea of complaining that 4e or 3.5 or 2 or whatever is not real D&D or not GOOD because it doesn’t work exactly like a particular edition you favor sounds like lunacy. Of course 4e plays differently from 0e or 2e. It’s not 0e or 2e. I don’t especially like cats, but my reasons aren’t because they’re NOT dogs or cacti.

I’ve played everything but 2e myself and have had a damn good time doing all of it. I’ve run 4e, 0e, and a session of 3.5 and had fun doing that, too. I understand nobody is trying to force me not to like them just as nobody is being forced to play them, I just don’t understand the bitterness and vitriol that fanaticism brings out in people in general. It’s something I don’t possess, being more of an omnivore (I’m not even that big a Superman fan for example). It’s just a little exhausting to struggle against human nature, my own as much as or more than that of those around me, in so many facets of my life and then have to deal with this kind of tribalism when I’m trying to unwind just because I was so CLASSLESS as to say “Man, I sure enjoyed the latest issue of Superman!”

(Not that I can afford to buy Superman right now in order to find out…)

‘Dungeon’ Descriptions

I had a habit when running a game. It could be a tasteful corporate lobby or a buried temple full of ghosts but my general description would go something like this…

“You are in a room, about 20×14. You see three pedestals, each containing some bauble or trinket. There is an exit to your left and a collapsed doorway straight ahead. It doesn’t look like anybody has been in here in a while. There is some crud on the floor, random detritus from who knows how many years of disuse.”

This was me operating on the assumption that if my players wanted me to describe the baubles on the pedestals, they would ask. If they wanted to search for traps or secret passages, they would ask. If they wanted to know the furnishings, whether there were tapestries, what was on them, whether this one room was oddly art deco in defiance of the surrounding style, they would ask for more information.

And THAT’S all well and good. But there are some important things I haven’t been considering. Light, for starters. A lot of games spend a lot of times on rules, feats, special situations and such for light conditions, including items and spells that give off light in some form. I don’t have players who really give a crap about stealth gameplay (they’re more run-and-gun) so it’s not something I feel like tracking and mapping in minor detail. Which is BAD because if it’s presented as an option or even a possibility a player will try it just for the hell of it, or to see what happens.

So I present it as an option. Whether it has any mechanical effect or not it has to at least be atmospheric. But for that matter there’s a lot I can be doing to help inject atmosphere. I could be injecting all kinds of little extraneous details that the players could obsess over and spin the adventure into a new area. Runes, a particular painting the party has seen before, stuffed animals, rare poisonous flowers…things anybody could base a whole adventure around. Allowing me to shift gears and incorporate that stuff or let it drop according to player interest.

So here’s how I’m planning dungeons now: I keep using my regular methods to determine say monsters and traps and stuff but I also have to describe each room in the dungeon as if I were describing a furnished apartment listed on craigslist. I don’t worry about listing doorways and room size because that certainly is something the players will ask about if they’re interested. Instead, every room comes with this questionnaire:

  • Does this room have an obvious purpose?
  • Is it well appointed for this purpose?
  • In what manner?
  • How new are the decorations and furnishings?
  • What is the most unusual element in the room?
  • The most common?
  • Have I included at least one thing that the players can get sidetracked by?

…because honestly why just do a secret passage when you could go full-on eye-holes-in-the-painting secret passage and change the adventure entirely?