Tuesday, February 9, 2021


Construction on York Minster Cathedral was finished in 1472, having begun c. 1220. For two-hundred and fifty years, the unfinished cathedral was a part of the city, an ongoing project longer than the life of any one person. In that time it brought in specialists and materials from far away and gave work and benefit to the locals.1


This toolbox is intended to quickly sketch a settlement defined by its largest ongoing project. The locals are building something massive, and this is hopefully a shortcut to intrigue and conflict.

What is it? (1d20)

  1. Amphitheater
  2. Bridge
  3. Canal
  4. Casino
  5. Cathedral
  6. Fortress
  7. Greenhouse
  8. Lighthouse (warning, beacon)
  9. Necropolis
  10. Observatory (telescope, supercollider, lookout)
  11. Palace
  12. Power Plant (wind, solar, nuclear, hydro)
  13. Pyramid
  14. Reservoir
  15. Roads
  16. Ship
  17. Stepwell
  18. Tower
  19. Tunnel
  20. Wall

How far along is it?2 (1d12)

  1. Design
  2. Surveying
  3. Permitting
  4. Site Clearance
  5. Excavation
  6. Foundations
  7. Rough Structure
  8. Exteriors
  9. Interiors
  10. Finishing
  11. Cleanup
  12. Warranty Period

What's the hold-up? (1d10)

  1. Beasts
  2. Beaurocrats
  3. Errors
  4. Funding
  5. Holidays
  6. Ill Omen
  7. Labor (shortage, strike)
  8. Materials (quality, supply)
  9. Plague
  10. Vandals

Why build this? (1d8)

  1. Convenience
  2. Defense
  3. Memorial
  4. Religion
  5. Research
  6. Spite
  7. Tourism
  8. Vanity

Who's building it? (1d6)

  1. Condemned Criminals
  2. Locals
  3. Military
  4. Refugees
  5. Slaves
  6. Sleepwalkers

Secret (1d4)

  1. Corruption in sourcing or labor
  2. Design is of occult significance
  3. Roll a second, hidden purpose (1d8)
  4. None

Thanks to David Macaulay.

1 I assume some of this, but it seems reasonable.back

2 Following the example of a cathedral, the barest functional parts may or may not be completed already.back

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Quest World™ and The Uncanny Hinterlands

Quest World™ is my entry into The Great Troika! Pocket Sphere Jam. For the unfamiliar, a pocketmod is a small booklet folded from a single sheet of paper, and a “sphere” is Troika’s rough equivalent of a plane or a planet. Quest World™ is one part of a stew I’ve had simmering for the better part of a year now, which I call the Uncanny Hinterlands.

The Uncanny Hinterlands

The first ingredient in the Uncanny Hinterlands was the Mothership adventure Hideo’s World, in which the characters enter a decaying virtual world in the mind of a genius game designer (a “slickworld”). It plays with the narrative frames in some interesting ways, for example you can order a coke in the virtual world, delivered to your physical location by drone. It’s also an “excuse” to explore a different set of tropes and aesthetics while keeping it grounded in a larger setting.

The second ingredient was Jared Sinclair’s Prismot zine, which expanded the idea from “I should run Hideo’s World” to “I should convert Hideo’s World to Troika!” I liked the idea of a world like Hideo’s, but that you could also travel to physically,1 a digitally constructed artificial realm of adventure.

That was on 11 March 2020, and on 16 March 2020 I started working from home in relative isolation. Eventually, I picked up RuneScape (OSRS) again, and that influence created the Uncanny Hinterlands, a larger, stranger setting.2 With my notes becoming too unwieldy to usefully think about, the game jam gave me the opportunity to ladle out a manageable portion to share with others.

Quest World™

Quest World™ is most heavily inspired by MMORPGs. I’m fascinated by the morality of RuneScape, where advancement may force you to compromise your morals. In general, there are many one-off or narrow solutions that could not reasonably exist in a normal TTRPG. Debates about violence in D&D and coverage of The Last of Us 2 put the term “ludonarrative dissonance” in my head, which seemed like a natural exploration inside these more complicated narrative frames.

I haven't got to play it yet, but I also wanted to shout out PAGAN: Autogeny as apparently having a similar concept (abandoned MMORPG), although I'm sure there are others.

Kill Arena

The next area of the uncanny hinterlands that I’d like to explore is the Kill Arena: a sphere inspired by classic FPS games. I especially always loved the way that physics glitches become core parts of gameplay or entirely different ways to play. I don’t know if this exploration will be coherent enough to share, but I offer it as an example of other spheres in the Uncanny Hinterlands.

Making the Pocketmod

I composed my first pocketmod at A7 page size, because an A4 pocketmod printed on US letter paper will still fold correctly (the reverse is not true). This time, I did not remember that and started writing at ⅛-size US letter paper. Fortunately, I gave myself 0.25” margins, so I was able to adjust the margins and paper size at the same time for the A4 version.

I used pdfjam for the final layout, which was pretty straightforward. My distribution (Mageia) provides it in the package “texlive-collection-basic” and the command to assemble the US letter-size pocketmod was:
$ pdfjam --angle 180 -o /dev/stdout qw.pdf '1,8,7,6' | pdfjam --nup 4x2 --landscape --paper letter -o qw-us.pdf qw.pdf '2-5' /dev/stdin
where “qw.pdf” is the 8-page ⅛-size US letter layout and “qw-us.pdf” is the pocketmod output. Similarly, the A4 pocketmod was assembled by:
$ pdfjam --angle 180 -o /dev/stdout qw-a7.pdf '1,8,7,6' | pdfjam --nup 4x2 --landscape --paper a4paper -o qw-a4.pdf qw-a7.pdf '2-5' /dev/stdin

I used LibreOffice for writing and layout, GIMP for image editing, Kolourpaint for rough image sizing and cropping, and Pixel Studio on an Android tablet for original art.

I made liberal use of the free resources on itch.io. I used the fonts Nicer Nightie, Silver, and Fool, and I used free 1-bit fantasy sprites and pixel portraits.

I also used several sets of glitch brushes and textures by dataerase. It’s a bit of a hack, but this is how I made them work in GIMP:

  1. Copy the .abr files to ~/.config/GIMP/2.10/brushes (you can leave them in subdirectories).
  2. Copy the folders of patterns from the CSP brushes to ~/.config/GIMP/2.10/patterns (you can leave them in subdirectories and also leave them as pngs).
  3. Using the clone tool, select "Pattern" as the source and select one of the glitch patterns. You can use any brush, but the new brushes will be square.

These aren’t true brushes: the pattern doesn’t scale with brush size, nor does the current foreground color matter, but for painting on pixel-scales in black & white, it worked very well.

Into the Uncanny Hinterlands

There is a lot more in the uncanny hinterlands, so I’m collecting some of the other ideas that inform them here for reference.

1 While some inhabitants of the Uncanny Hinterlands are there via neural uplink, some are using PC terminals, astral projection, or spaceships. Some could be considered “native,” even. back

2 I still have not lost track of my other OSRS-inspired projects, as they are tending in a different direction. back

Monday, December 28, 2020

Crisis on Christmas: Coin Hunt

I’ve enjoyed hearing how people have made use of Crisis on Christmas Prime in the last few weeks. I hope that by providing a brief sample adventure it might be more approachable. I rolled “Rag-tag adventurers are buying up candy!” on the crisis table, so that was the starting point.


Ol’ Gran Yule has realized that Santa’s bag is a few thousand chocolate coins short. Can you find some before he leaves tomorrow?


Loosely, here are some places around town that players might think to look for coins:

  • Pharmacy: none stocked, busy.
  • Rabbi: has a few hundred, will play dreidel for them if you have the time.
  • Candy store: none stocked, bored.
  • Chocolate factory: out of coins, suspicious of anyone who might be an inspector.

All the coins were bought up by three people. Clues given by people who are out of coins:

  • They were all bundled up like they’d trekked in from out of town.
  • They were dirty like they’d been digging or playing in dirt.
  • They paid with palm-sized coins.

These clues should point to the giant-barrows outside town.

Other information available:

  • There were three of them, one blind. They talked about a fourth person too.
  • They were all squinting and smelled burnt.
  • You shoulda seen the shooting star last week!

Getting to the Barrows

This is an opportunity to check for random encounters, and to make sure everyone has taken precautions against the cold. Checking for encounters here reinforces the sense of distance between the town and the mountain, but I didn’t come up with a good table. Aeval and Valmr are out finding supplies and leads, so they might be encountered on the road.

The Giant Barrows


A - Entrance

Hewn into mountain base. Checking under snow on wall reveals a carving of a balance with a cross-legged figure on each side.

B - Cold Chamber

Drafty, tall, light filters in through natural chimney above. Snow and ice on the ground, large boulder in middle of room next to a chain extending from the floor to a massive wooden beam protruding from the wall on the right and leaning downwards. (Strength to move boulder.)

C - Warm Chamber

Mirror image of B, except with light filtering up from a large hole in the ground and no opening in the ceiling. (Chain and beam are too high up to be visible.)

D - The Last Giant

Jorg is still meditating very hard and will attempt to ignore all disturbances (damage will rouse him). Some large coins and religious texts free for taking.

E - Order of the Blue Lantern

A band of adventurers between expeditions recuperate in the cave with their new pet, Shiny. Shyren is here, lounging and playing with it, and Istwell is meditating. Remaining coins needed are here. They know they are the mirror of whatever group of misfits finds them, and do not trust them. They would like Shiny to go to a good home, but currently could not lose it if they wanted to. Will not give up the coins until a suitable replacement foodstuff is discovered. All have stats as Knight of the Road. (Names are from The Black Hack.)

Shyren (Thief)

Despite the fur trim, her winter clothes are wildly impractical. Likes Shiny most of all the order, and is trying to teach it tricks.

Istwell (Cleric)

Dressed in Saffron robes, meditating. Can be distracted by the religious texts in D or meeting Jorg. Believes that Shiny cannot see him because he is free from the cycle of birth and redeath, but in fact it is because he is blind (and sees only with his second sight). Knows Coal Resolve, Peace, and Zed.

Aeval (Wizard)

Jumpy, tattooed, elfin. Knows Open, Thunder, and Undo.

Valmr (Fighter)

Bored, aggressive, bearded. Speaks with a heavy, archaic accent.


A blinding pinprick of light dropped by the comet last week (Jeffry’s Comet). Its nature is unclear this young, but it could grow up to be another comet, a star, a galaxy, a nebula, or a whole new sphere. Shiny wants food and company. It has only a loose understanding of the people around it, but does try not to hurt anyone.


Shiny will consume any metal or alloy with a melting point below 700°C and be frustrated by metals it is not yet hot enough to consume.


Shiny can only see people whose eyes its light can reach, and will try not to be left alone.

The Barrows’ Gimmick

The construction is a giant scale, currently weighted down by the boulder in B. If the boulder is moved, D is uncovered, and if a weight is added to the other side (in the warm room), E can be covered. It can be used as a trebuchet.

Ancilimander of Argon

A mad marble astrologer in an observatory atop the mountain (“So close to the North Pole, the stars barely wobble at all!”). Everyone in town knows he’s there, but the Blue Lantern and Jorg do not. He can provide the following information:

  • Shiny can likely find its way home if you can get it up past the atmosphere.
  • Melting points of any metal.
  • Jeffry’s Comet passed last week, has been erratic since.


Ideally, Gran Yule would have a unique gift for each of the characters. Recommend using Oddmas Oddities from The Hunt for the Great Goose.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Containment Spheres

Until tomorow (22 Dec 2020), the Mothership Discord server is hosting the 20x20 Jam. Make a piece of Mothership content (any sort) in Playscii in 20x20 format, and upload a png to the server. Winner gets a shirt?

I entered this thing, “Containment Sphere 5”.

20x20 is just too dense to be easily digestible, so I thought I’d expand some of it here (the submission itself is still only the image).

  • The map is the net of a regular icosahedron (d20). The repeated letters at the top and bottom are the same room with connecting hallways doubled. The map wraps at the edges of the screen.
  • There is an energy management game implied: it costs 2◆ to pressurize a room and 1◆ to open a door (hallways all have heavy blast doors and fail closed).
  • Additionally some amount of energy is taken each “turn” by “anomaly containment”. The intent is that the +- value is a projection of the next turn’s consumption. (There is already some risk in the present configuration.)
  • What happens when there isn’t enough power for anomaly containment will depend on the anomaly, but it might be related to VENT.
  • WOOD is intentionally weird and vague. It’s a leftover from the derelict generation tables in Dead Planet.
  • I opted not to use any of the available CRT effects. Instead, I drew on my real-life experiences designing operator interfaces for modern LCD monitors using tools from 10-20 years earlier that only go up to 640x480 anyway. The CRT effects all look “fake” to me, but the weird muted colors look very real.
  • Possible missions on the containment sphere might include evacuation, recovery, restoration of power generation, or anything anomaly-related.

I kept thinking about usability, so after I entered I kept tweaking it. I re-keyed all the rooms so that rooms on opposite corners are in the same row as each other in the key. This might be useful if I made an interactive version, because it would aid memory if you rotated the map.

Finally, I wanted a way to communicate the “wrapping” nature of the map. Without making it interactive, animating it seemed to be the way to go. Ultimately I think it hurt the usability too much, but it was an interesting experiment.

Anyway, Playscii is fun and if you’ve got a bit of time today, you can still get your entry into the game jam. Good luck!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Crisis on Christmas Prime!

Last year I put together a little seasonal Troika! supplement and put it up for free on itch.io. This year I’ve reworked the whole thing, and I made it pay-what-you-want. Briefly, it has eighteen backgrounds, six spells, twelve adversaries, miscellaneous tables, and a sketch of the land of Arctica. It’s 48 pages of A5, all black-and-white.

Please don’t let the pay-what-you-want feature discourage you from downloading it. If you like, consider it my gift to you. Some people last year had difficulty with the itch.io interface, so there’s a copy here also.

It’s been a long, weird year, and I hope that this brings you some joy.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Tomb of the Serpent Kings (Review)

The adventure I spent the most time with this year was Skerples’ Tomb of the Serpent Kings (TotSK), running it for a group of 5e players. I also made good use of Itai Assaf Raizman-Greif’s 5e conversion notes. There’s more of the dungeon to explore, but I’m reviewing what we’ve had the chance to play so far. Spoilers etc. below.

For the unacquainted, TotSK is a “learning” dungeon designed to ease new players into a classical, more lateral mode of dungeon exploration. It doesn’t have a gimmick, it’s not a full campaign, and it’s not a single-page blank slate. Instead it’s intended to be a mid-sized dungeon that’s simple to run and fun to play, and which is full of “lessons.” The lessons aren’t explicit, but they’re called out for the GM (for example, “valuables sometimes take unconventional forms” or “traps repeat”).

The plan for session one was simple: finish rolling characters and then play through the “false tomb” level to familiarize everyone with the rhythm of the game. The false tomb level works well for this: the players learned the patterns of the dungeon, exercised some creative problem solving, and won some small treasures. The draw of a low-level, “half-session,” discrete amount of dungeon motivated me to try the adventure in the first place.

We spent the better part of the year in the dungeon (and surrounds), and while we’re not done yet, we’re on hiatus for the moment. The players haven’t encountered Baltoplat or Xiximanter, but have met the goblins and explored most of the upper levels.

What Didn't Work

I’d read the hammer trap a dozen times and thought I’d figured it out. But as soon as I tried to run it, it escaped me, my descriptions were inadequate, and the players spent more time being frustrated than they should have. It really wants a rough diagram and just a couple clarifications (which way do the doors open, which side are the hinges on, that type of thing).

There’s a hidden room behind a statue, following the established pattern of hidden rooms behind statues. Two characters noticed that the statue was misaligned (they didn’t tell each other), but having only one other example to work from, and switching contexts, they left it alone. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it’s not the clear-cut “lesson” the text suggests.

The 5e rules and playstyle also undermine some of the “lessons” in the dungeon, namely that combat isn’t always necessary. The players saw the Stone Cobra Guardian as a “boss fight” and proceeded to demolish it. The same thing happened to the basilisk. I hope they don’t try to kill the lich, but I'm not even sure they couldn’t.1

In the 5e stat block for the Stone Cobra Guardian, it’s easy to miss the AC bonus from the shield attack. I’d put a reminder in parens after it, but I don’t think it ultimately mattered much.

For all the logic of the dungeon, some of the traps still feel a little fun-house, which leaves me walking an awkward line between the hammer trap (traps will be signposted, avoidable, interactive, etc.) and the stair trap (trust nothing, everything is dangerous, search everything, etc.). I don’t think my players noticed any incongruity, but I wonder what “lessons” they’ve actually learned about exploring a dungeon.

I used the “strange dreams” hook to get the party together because I had no idea what kind of characters people would be bringing to the table.2 I’ve loosely worked out how the dreams work, but the players with the most elaborate backstories are dissatisfied that they’ve been delving so long and neither dreams nor backstory have been relevant yet. (I do have designs to tie it all together, but the characters just keep going the other direction.)

Part of the issue is that 5e combat is not only more likely, but also a bit of a slog. When the players fight the guardian, for example, that's going to take most of that session. So a lot of time is spent fighting, searching, detecting, and prodding which makes the dungeon feel less engaging than it might otherwise.

To help fix this, the 5e adaptation added “Smee,” a friendly goblin, who I ignored entirely. Eventually the players will meet other non-player characters and have the opportunity to roleplay (in the dungeon), but if I were to start again, I would give them that chance earlier.

What Worked

That said, it’s generally been fun,3 and a lot of things have worked really well:

  • The sarcophagus of Franbinzar containing both a foul shifting liquid and also the glint of treasure caused much confusion, as the players dropped the lid back in place before getting a better look.
  • The players have made full use of the unfinished room for stashing supplies and resting. It’s just a good feature.
  • The players do not like the abyss, and take winding paths to avoid it.
  • Killing the guardian means there are now wandering monsters throughout the dungeon, and it also affected the regional encounter table. I don’t know if the players will notice, but it’s satisfying to run.
  • Unlike the hammer trap, the blade hallway was very well received. “That felt very D&D,” to paraphrase our rogue.
  • As we left it, the goblins have just crowned their new king, and there are only three weeks to the next full moon. (The players know what happens then, but the goblins wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.)


After the players killed the Stone Cobra Guardian, the artificer wanted to search the remains for parts. Between sessions I took the opportunity to think of possible finds:

  1. Ornate gearbox. Runs perpetually, but ticks loudly, giving away your position.
  2. Glowing emerald golem-brain. Evil, but powerless to act.
  3. [Bulky] spur gear, a map etched into it.4
  4. Internal repair sub-golem. Repairs other structures, but rebuilds the original golem if left unattended.
  5. Incredibly articulated hand. Easily used as a prosthetic.
  6. Parabolic golem-eye. Focuses surrounding magical energy like a 4-D camera obscura.
  7. [Bulky] flywheel. Frictionless while spinning.

The characters ended up with the emerald golem-brain, discovered its nature, and proceeded to devise elaborate ways to dispose of it permanently. (They feared that destroying it would free the spirit in it, and that sending it too far away, for example into the abyss, would invite someone to recreate the golem.)

1 Part of the issue is that there’s six of them, and they’re going to be level three next time we start. I decided to start with the milestone XP option, with each “cleared” dungeon level counting as a character level. This worked really well for the first level-up at least, and quickly gave the new players a feel for advancement. I had some other thoughts on 5e here.back

2 It turns out sleeping is less universal than you think once there are elves and warforged in the mix.back

3 Going back to my revolutionary theory that “games are fun.”back

4 I’ve never cared to track encumbrance, but when I have to, I like Electric Bastionland’s system. Roughly, you can carry two [Bulky] items: one in your hands and one on your back.back

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Two Flavors of Horror and Six Anomalous Media

Flavors of Horror

I’ve been thinking recently about why the early episodes of the Magnus Archives hooked me so immediately. In addition to solid storytelling, I think it’s down to the blending of two “flavors” of horror that I’m a bit of a sucker for, which I’m calling1 skeptical horror and conspiratorial horror. Both of these also work well with the conceits that some information has been withheld or redacted and that ominous but vague warnings have been issued, but I don’t think those factors rise to the level of their own “flavors”.

Skeptical Horror

In skeptical horror, the supernatural elements may or may not be real at all, but people react to them as though they are, and that creates the horror. Often the audience will know if the elements are “real” or not but it hardly matters. It is not necessarily a one-to-one mapping onto “the real monster is man”, but the overlap definitely exists.

Examples include The Wicker Man (1973) and The Lovecraft Investigations.

Conspiratorial Horror

In conspiratorial horror, the supernatural elements are known to the characters and believed to be controllable. The illusion of control can only be maintained for so long, or the audience will lose interest. This lends itself well to tragedies.

Examples include Oculus and Cabin in the Woods. I would also consider SCP to be an example that’s too “static”: I like reading individual entries, but eventually I want more to happen (although it’s been quite a while since I actually engaged with it).

Anomalous Media

With this in mind, I read Dan’s Anomalous Media, and then Semiurge’s Additional Anomalous Media, and I thought to myself, “sure, why not?”

I. The Adiloim Broadcasts

First heard at sunset on September 30th, 1925 in Stuart Australia (now Alice Springs), and heard every two years thereafter, seven days after the Autumnal equinox, broadcasting on AM 950 kHz. For five minutes an androgynous voice repeats a string of seven syllables, then follows 2-3 minutes of glosslalia or gibberish, and finally the word “adiloim” is read by the first voice. The syllables are from no single known language and are different each time. The gibberish is always spoken by 5-7 different speakers, overlapping. Recordings exist of the broadcast from 1957 onwards, excepting 1973.

II. Mandarin is Easy!

A set of six language-learning casette tapes for the Mandarin language. On side A of each casette a woman’s voice reads aloud phrases in English and Mandarin, with pauses for the student to repeat. Side B of each casette consists of “quizzes”: a phrase from any of the previous casettes in either language, a pause for the student to translate, and then the answer. Casettes 1-4 cover everyday pleasantries, food and eating, navigation, and basic technical and scientific terms. Casette 5A covers religious and spiritual aphorisms. The quiz of 5B includes calmly-read pleas to spare the student’s life, interspersed throughout phrases from previous casettes. Casette 6 is lost, but the accompanying booklet indicates it would have covered common allusions to classical literature.

III. 1972 All-Star Series (Full Set)

A full set of heavily-damaged Topps-brand baseball cards from the 1972 All-Star Game. Regardless of the card, each one pictures Rookie of the Year Carlton Fisk in a different uniform and pose. All the eyes have been drawn over with blue ballpoint pen.

IV. Tim’s Root Floppy

A 3.5" floppy disk that appears blank and copy-protected when inserted in a running machine. When booted from, it exactly and correctly diagnoses any hardware problems in a curses-style display or printout, regardless of hardware. Any data on the machine will be lost. The label reads “Tim’s Floppy — DO NOT FEED”.

V. World of The Lost

An early MMORPG, discs can still be found at yard sales, online auctions, etc. The servers are long since offline, but a software patch on several onion sites will allow the game to apparently run without an internet connection (despite its small size). When running in this way there are no other players, and NPCs speak only in rhyming couplets. Most “quests” are inaccessible (due to dialog limitations), but a new quest called “Opening the Way” is available.

VI. Vision of Hades

Oil on canvas, Unknown Belgian, c.1620

A martian landscape, exactly as captured by the curiosity rover’s famous “selfie”, complete with lens distortions. Where the rover would be, a nude man kneels, weeping into his hands.

1 I’m sure “horror theorists” exist and have better names and definitions, and I apologize.back