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 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 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

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Random Events

A random event or “random” is an idea I’m borrowing from the MMORPG RuneScape, although it may exist in other contexts or games also. I thought I’d see what I can learn from the design of RuneScape generally, and this is where I’m starting.

What is a Random Event?

RuneScape is an MMO with heavy repetitive elements. Where there’s repetition, there’s the opportunity to automate, so pretty quickly it was overrun with bot accounts farming resources, getting in the way of other players, and distorting the economy. Random events were an early anti-bot measure: whenever you’re doing stuff, there’s a chance that something strange happens. For example, if you’re chopping down a tree, maybe that tree is actually an ent right now, and if you keep chopping it will break your axe.

Maybe you were just running around, and a talking cat (“Evil Bob”) imprisoned you and asked you to play a minigame for your freedom. Sometimes a drunk dwarf appears and wants to share his kebab with you, but if you ignore him too long he’ll start attacking. You might find when you’re burying bones, that you disturb some existing grave site, and a shade attacks you.

These events were removed from the game as more effective anti-bot strategies were devised. However, a fork of RuneScape (Old School RuneScape, or OSRS) only includes updates that are voted on by the community, and after some revision, random events are still a significant part of that game.

My working definition of a random event will be: “a specific, rare, and unforeseen event that has some chance of resulting from a routine activity, and which demands immediate attention.”

“A specific…”
Random events are pre-defined. This could be considered a limitation of a computer game because it’s common enough to improvise exact rare circumstances in tabletop games. But the limited stable of random events means they have a different feel.

“rare and unforeseen event…”
A random event has to be rare enough that you can’t “farm” it or plan around it. Sometimes you can get a message in a bottle while fishing, but you don’t go fishing for one. Explosive gas might damage your pickaxe, but not often enough to bring two pickaxes.

“…that has some chance…”
My intuition is that they should not be more common than critical hits/failures (5%), and should probably be less common.

“…of resulting from a routine activity…”
In their current state in OSRS, most random events are truly random. They just happen whenever or wherever you are. This is something that computers can do great, but in a tabletop game, it would be tedious to check every combat round (say), for a range of infinitesimal chances that something utterly unexpected might happen. So we will use the older model of random event that happens when you are doing some specific, usually repetitive task.

“…and which demands immediate attention.”
A rainbow is not a random event. If we are going to go through all the work of checking for randoms, we’re going to make them impactful. In RuneScape, this is either because the event will cause you harm, grant you a reward, or literally remove you from your previous situation.

Random Events in D&D

In many ways, random events already exist in D&D. Consider random encounters while travelling: they may not strictly meet the definition above, but they come close. Critical successes might also come close, especially with some sets of house rules, but again fall a little short.

I think the closest thing to them in D&D “canon” as I know it is probably the divine interventions in Deities & Demigods. If you’ve never had the pleasure, Deities & Demigods is a mess of a book. Its purpose is unclear, it has questionable ties to its source material, and the information in it isn’t organized in any meaningful or useful way. Maybe it says something though, that I got rid of my AD&D core books, but never parted with this one.

These are the most promising random events I could find in it:

Action Chance Result God (page)
A believer is reanimated. 2% per level of deceased Arawn appears and fights against the reanimation (75%) or offers a substitute dead person (25%). Arawn (p. 26)
An original composition is sung during battle.1 5% The singer is granted a bonus level for the duration of combat. Brigit (p. 27)
A believer flees from battle. 0.5% The deserter is struck dead. Morrigan (p. 29)
An original composition is performed/spread by others. 1%/5% Great wealth is given to the creator by the lord of the hold, in the form of gold. Oghma (p. 29)
An evil act affects more than 500 people. 0.05% The evildoer is given a disease-causing gift. Lu Yueh (p. 40)
Hastur’s name is spoken. 25% Hastur sends 1-4 byakhee to slay the speaker. Hastur (p. 45)
A tomb with Anubis’ image/consecration is robbed. 5%/10% Anubis appears to kill the robbers. Anubis (p. 50)
A cat is killed. 0.1% Bast either kills the slayer or demands half of their remaining life in devotion. Bast (p. 50)
A character takes a great risk. 5% The gambler is gifted a luck stone. Bes (p. 51)
A good person seeks righteous revenge. 5% All of the avenger’s ability scores are increased to 19 until the deed is done. Horus (p. 51-52)
Someone creates a new magic spell or item. 5% Isis gives the creator a charm to resist the effects of one spell. Isis (p. 52)
Someone/a worshipper/a cleric creates a device that is highly useful. 5%/10%/15% Ptah gives the creator a Thet, an amulet that either allows you to become ethereal once/week, or acts as a one-way anti-magic shell. Ptah (p. 53)
Dryads are in danger/Men are attacking the forest. 1%/5% Mielikki appears to aid her dryads/attack the woodcutters. Mielikki (p. 60)
A believer is reanimated. 1% Tuoni comes to reclaim the resurrected soul. Tuoni (p. 61)
Someone accomplishes a particularly difficult task. 5% Epimetheus gives the person a ball of magic clay that can form itself into any 4th-level creature. The creature then fights the person (60%) or serves loyally until death (40%). Epimetheus (p. 68)
Hermetic arbiters accept a bribe or graft. 15% Hermes punishes the corrupt arbiter. Hermes (p. 71)
A lawful-aligned person breaks an oath. 1% per level of oathbreaker Varuna causes them to be punished. Varuna (p. 79)
A being takes an unusual and great risk (in combat). 2% The gambler makes all their saves and attack rolls for the combat. Kishijoten (p. 82-83)
Beings that are neither lawful nor chaotic dig deeper than 100 ft. 5% Darnizhaan attacks the diggers. Darnizhaan (p. 88)

New Random Events

The interventions in Deities & Demigods are interesting, but mostly still fall short of our definition. For example, many of the activities are not “routine”, and many of the effects are still left up to the GM. So if we want to make our own randoms, let’s start with “routine” activities in D&D (assuming 5e). Skill checks come to mind first,2 so for each skill, we’ll define one event that could happen whenever that skill is tested.

Now you’ve done it. Whether through quick motion or tense concentration, you’ve slipped into the plane of shadow. You can exit anywhere you like, but the further you go the less accurate your exit will be.

Animal Handling
The king of the cockroaches is impressed by your empathic abilities. Would you be so gracious as to carry him and his retinue back to the outdoors or into the nearest structure? For this noble service, the king will grant you a knighthood! Knighthoods from the king of the cockroaches are not worth much, but are technically valid. Should you kill the king of the cockroaches, insectoid assassins will be sent for 1d6 nights following, but the new king does not bear a grudge.

That thing you never quite figured out, you know the one? It just clicked. If you can find writing tools and drop everything you’re doing for the next 10 minutes, you can create a spell scroll of a random spell.

Koroibos appears in a flash of lightning! Nude, oiled, muscular, he challenges you to a footrace. If you accept he insists on racing right now on the nearest suitable course (a hallway, for example). He wins and loses graciously, but gives one who defeats him an olive branch. When broken, the branch summons him to assist in one task (during which he automatically succeeds on any Athletics checks). In any case, he leaves in a similar flash of lightning.

I knew it, and this confirms it! Thou art that same villain! I demand satisfaction immediately! Whatever deception was just practiced, the duelist now believes that the character is responsible for the death of one of his twins, and fights to the death.

Whatever knowledge you called forth was an affront to the dead. They demand you retract any statement made, or fight to the death (again). If beaten, the answer to one historical question can be extracted. Nobody else can see the shade in question.

You understand the true nature of all things, and it is as though space and time stand still. Except for you, and if this was an opposed roll, the opposition. You both have enough time to speak a few sentences or take some decisive action (one “combat” round) before the rest of the world catches up, and after, nobody else will know.

You’ve caught the eye of Maxavogg, a lesser devil. He thinks you’ve got potential, kid. But you gotta learn the basics, review the fundamentals. Tell you what, he’s got a free seminar on the subject, take this card and burn it if you want to try. The seminar is 24 hours, but you’ll come back proficient in Intimidation if you weren’t already, and you’ll be known to a handful of [falling] stars in the infernal org chart. He won’t leave until he’s shaken everyone’s hand. (Thanks, Ancalgon_TB.)

You find a tiny blue cog. These things just turn up sometimes and nobody knows why. Still, rich people collect them.

Look, Ariel the djinn really meant to study for their mortal anatomy class, but they just didn’t get to it. If you could answer a few questions for them, they could definitely do quick favor for you, say a quick spell or sow some confusion somewhere. The questions are bizarre, but simple enough to answer. If Ariel is ignored, they might steal something shiny before disappearing.

Isn’t there a children’s rhyme about that lichen over there? “Purple fur and orange leaves / Death the drinker’s soul recieves” Maybe that wasn’t it, but you certainly recognize it. Given 10 minutes’ uninterrupted work, you could probably get a useful dose of poison from it.

One of the fair folk is hiding a cache. If you stand perfectly still and silent for the next 10 minutes, they won’t notice you’ve seen them and you can retrieve it after they leave.

A talent agent was in the audience (in the shadows if necessary), and would like to offer you a considerable advance. If you accept, 1d4 fiendish lawyers attack the next time you perform the same song again.

An impressionable dandy is not only persuaded by your arguments, but by your very lifestyle! They loyally follow you around, loudly agreeing and generally being obnoxious. If any sort of combat breaks out they throw one attack at random before fleeing. Left outside of your powerful presence, they quickly grow bored and disappear.

Clarence, a neophyte angel, needs to help some more good people before he’s allowed into the choir. Will the characters swear they’re really very pure of heart? (Clarence trusts them if they do.) That’s just great, is there anything he can do for them that doesn’t involve direct or indirect harm? Oh, uh, maybe not that big. Huh. Maybe like, he can carry a message or something? When this negotiation is finished, Clarence carries out the task unfailingly, but if no task can be settled on, he’s quite huffy and the character takes disadvantage on their next roll.

Sleight of Hand
No trickery escapes the watchful eye of Constable Dogberry, and that certainly looked like trickery. If you agree to cooperate he’ll issue you a very official looking, if incomprehensible … ticket? Court summons? It’s hard to say. But he’ll be detaining you for the next 10 minutes at least while he writes it up. Put up a fight and well, … Dogberry will probably flee after any amount of damage is dealt.

You’re so sneaky! You’re practically invisible! Recall though, that Invisibility has duration of 1 hour. Good luck!

The hunter has become the hunted! For the next 24 hours, King Herla will hunt the character (sans the entire wild hunt, this is his day off). He can be defeated in single combat, or dissuaded by a boring hunt, but if a quarry evades him for the duration, he gifts them an antler. When broken, the antler summons him to assist in one task (during which he automatically succeeds on any Survival or Nature checks).


Tying randoms to skill checks has a lot of potential. Whenever a player goes to roll, they roll a d% alongside, and on a 000, the random event happens. Only rolling when there’s a risk of failure prevents “farming” the events, and rolling multiple dice adds excitement.

Special consideration should be given to group checks. As they exist in D&D now, each member makes the check. To keep randoms rare, they should only be checked on individual tests, or alternative rules for group checks should be used. Similarly, they shouldn’t occur on passive checks.3

Because these events are so rare, they must be applied consistently. Even if the athletics check happens in an anti-magic field, the laws of the universe governing Koroibos’ appearance allow him in and out regardless. Religion checks don’t involve any action on the character’s part, but they can still attract Clarence.

These definitely aren’t ready to use as-is. Adversaries need stats, chases need rules, quizzes need questions, and wishes need limits. In the spirit of the original random events, the difficulty of any challenge should probably be scaled to the character that caused it, so that the event is always “relevant”.


The events I sketched out here would fit a high-magic gonzo setting, but I do think some version of the mechanic could be worked into other settings. Even though they occur rarely, they define a setting by the types of unexpected things that occur. And because they have a chance of occurring to anyone, you can lean on them elsewhere in the setting. The cockroach court can be involved in unrelated intrigues, and the impressionable dandy might show up later following some NPC.


Random events speak to a kind of story-telling that is rarer in 5e, but more common in OSR games, where the story is largely emergent. Even given some larger plot, a random encounter or roll on a table can recontextualize elements of it unexpectedly. These “story wrenches” still appear in 5e, but the reaction to them is largely negative from what I can tell (consider the wild magic sorcerer, for example).

At the same time, tying them to skill checks is a type of rules maximalism that the OSR does not usually go for. It would be easy to forget to check for these events, especially if there are any quantity of these always-in-play-but-seldom-relevant rules. One possible “clean” solution might be to hook them into a VTT, owning the video-game roots of the idea.

Personally, I think these challenges will stop me from using the idea in its current form, but it was a fun thought experiment, and I think the seed of the idea could be useful.

1 As written, the player needs to sing an original composition for the whole of combat. Like I said, it’s a weird book.back

2 Cantrips come to mind second, which could be a different, but promising avenue to explore.back

3 I’d have to remember to use passive checks more often, to avoid perception having all the fun (or not).back

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Palace Semi-Infinite

The implicit setting of PALACE RUN. The palace is richly-appointed, labyrinthine, and endless. Some would say “infinite”, but it is surely partly bounded as it has relatively easy access to the outside. The format is from Jack Shear, although I’m sure I haven’t done it justice.


  • Whole rooms of one color or material, tables set for hundreds, imperial staircases, gilt-framed family portraits, exotic tributes and gifts, the slow approach to the throne.
  • Scaffolding for renovation and construction; kitchens so large they have their own weather systems; secret doors, passageways, and whole hidden complexes for servants.
  • Vast unread libraries, dusty rooms of unknown purpose, sacred crypts and chapels, a lonely child exploring.


This is an RPG and not a fable. These are ideas to be interrogated, not morals to be enforced.

  • “The rich are different from you and me.”
  • Hierarchy scales poorly. Bureaucracy fills the gaps.
  • Systems are people. Ritual, habit, and operational discipline hold them together.


The core of PALACE RUN does provide some rough motivations (“Enrich”, “Entertain”, “Escape”, “Ingratiate”, “Investigate”, and “Overthrow”), but these hooks have a little more meat and should work in a more traditional set-up.

  • The Duchess of the North Wing is to be wed this week, but the baker’s union is striking for better working conditions after a recent outbreak of “doughlung.” She will pay handsomely for a cake, but the provider risks being marked a scab.
  • The palace is of such scale that at any given time, some portion is on fire. The palace bucket brigade does what it can, but after the fire passes through, there’s always work to be done. An imperial magistrate had to abandon their staff of office while escaping, and will pay handsomely for its return. What else might be found if you can beat the recovery crews?
  • The youngest prince of the Southwest Expansion has gone missing! He’s only seven and he was last seen in the Bronze Armory, fiddling with a strange gauntlet.

Designer’s Notes

The first thoughts I had of the Palace Semi-Infinite were merely “what if the adventure site were so fabulously wealthy that it really stopped mattering?” But in the years that it’s stewed since, I think it’s gotten significantly weirder, and hopefully better.


Monday, August 31, 2020


Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective was released in 1982, apparently to great critical acclaim. I’ve been thinking about it recently because while I play it cooperatively, I think it would be a fine solo game, and solo gaming is having a bit of a moment. It’s also inspired many imitators.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (SHCD)

The game itself is very simple once you get the hang of it, and it only has a few components:

  1. A case book, which has the initial details of the case in read-aloud short story form. Then, it has details of what you find at every relevant address in the city, sorted by address (you aren’t meant to just read this part).
  2. A directory. Functionally, it’s like a phone book for addresses: you look up a name and find an “address” to follow-up in the case book. You can also look up businesses by type. (Because there are fewer locations than names and businesses, what is at a given address can change from case to case.) There are some Easter eggs in the names, so you can, for example, drop in on Charles Dodgson and see what he's up to.
  3. A newspaper “archive”. Largely for flavor, but the newspaper will give you some other leads to follow-up on or side-mysteries to solve. Older newspapers stay available and relevant as you go to later cases, so you can spot patterns in them.
  4. A list of “regulars”, addresses you can always try if you’re lost or stuck.
  5. A solution book. For each case, this booklet will have a “quiz” section, but you don’t know the questions until you think you’re ready to attempt it. There are some number of bonus questions in each case also, which can include unrelated mysteries, subtler details, or loose ends from previous cases. Finally, it will tell you how Sherlock solved the mystery in very few steps, typically by following huge unexpected leaps of logic like “obviously our killer was born, so we start at the registry of births and deaths…”).
  6. A map. Theoretically, every address can be found on the map, and travel times between them computed (to reconstruct the movements of a suspect, for example). However, this is not usually worthwhile.

Nominally there is some kind of scoring and a competitive element. None of this is necessary in practice because most of the fun is simply in interacting with the game.

The game spawned several expansions and many fan-made cases (largely in French and Italian). These used to be hard to track down, but Space Cowboys has been doing really nice slipcase collections of the original cases, the expansions, and some new cases (they’re all standalone, so you can start with any particular box). They have a free case available online, and the fan-made cases all seem to be available on BoardGameGeek. Some blessed obsessives have sorted all the cases they could find into a huge spreadsheet.


The original authors of SCHD also made a noir game set in 1940’s San Francisco. I haven’t played this and it’s hard to find, but from what I can tell it adds some kind of fingerprinting mechanic and instead of a series of loosely linked cases it’s only one big case that takes multiple sessions to solve.

The Martian Investigations

A fan of the original SHCD wrote their own from scratch, in the form of a pair of investigations in a Martian mining colony. They’re a couple bucks as print-and-play and skillfully executed. We had fun with them.

Arkham Investigator/Mythos Tales

The obligatory Lovecraft adaptation, Arkham Investigator, was initially released as a pair of free print-and-play cases (the downloads don’t seem to work anymore). Later there was obviously a crowdfunding campaign to expand this to ~10 cases and the name changed to Mythos Tales. These are pretty fun though, and they introduce a few new mechanics:

  • Time tracking. Each clue you follow up on takes a chunk of time, and you can find different things at the same address depending on time of day. For example, you won’t find a vampire during the day. There’s also a time-limit before bad things happen.
  • Inventory. Some locations will give you an “item card”, and then later locations will rely on that item. This is a rudimentary way to ensure you don’t accidentally solve a mystery by going to the right location for the “wrong” reason.
  • Choose-your-own-adventure elements. Sometimes you will have to decide (for example) to pursue a suspect or not after you find them. On the one hand, this can yield further clues, but on the other hand, you can “lose” if you wander blindly into danger.

It’s fun to see variations on the form, but on the whole I think they feel like attempts to reign in the emergent chaos of the original SHCD and discourage exploration and hunches.

NCIS: The Board Game, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Game, T.I.M.E. Stories

People looking for similar games are often recommended these. I don’t think any of them plays exactly the same as SHCD, but they clearly all share a lot of DNA. T.I.M.E. Stories in particular is also from Space Cowboys.

Video Games

When playing any Sherlockalike, I am frequently impressed by how much it feels like playing an open-world video game, but a full decade before such a thing could even have been be attempted. It even has the same failure modes! In 1991, someone ported the game to a computer with live-action acting, and apparently this also has been well-received. Somewhat more mystifyingly, someone has ported Arkham Investigator to Tabletop Simulator (I guess so you can all see the same books?).


Many people have attempted to write their own mysteries in the same vein as SHCD, and it’s easy to see the appeal. How might we go about doing this?

First, we can see what people have done before. There is advice on the construction of a mystery from the writer of some official cases and also from the writer of a notable fan case.

The community around the game has collected some tools you can use to set your mystery in the London of SHCD, like a reverse-engineered directory. And while the domain has lapsed, the Internet Archive has captured the remains of a community collection of other settings and scenarios.

Finally, we can take tools from mystery writing in other contexts, especially RPGs, to be sure we cover every angle. Fate reminds us that every suspect should have both a motive and an alibi. And the three-clue rule is pretty good for free-form RPG investigations, but it’s perfect for building the more constrained scenario of a Sherlockalike.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Links, Aug 2020



On The Media

OTM recently “rebroadcast” a past favorite episode of mine about post-apocalyptic literature. Interviews are with Jeff Vandermeer, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Kim Stanley Robinson discussing the nature of horror.

Here Be Monsters

An endless source of mood pieces and ruminations, HBM is parting ways with KCRW and seeking alternative funding. While they acknowledge this could mean a Patreon, they’re trying to get listeners to sponsor the podcast first. So that’s a potential avenue for promotions, shout-outs, or stranger ideas if you’re interested.

The Dungeon Economic Model

I heavily favor shorter podcasts, and these 10-minute faux PSAs about dungeon ecology with inexplicable running gags are really working for me.

Dead Club Podcast

Tunng is a long-time favorite band of mine and they’re releasing a podcast to accompany their new album.


Game Jams has a big problem with navigability. Some kind soul has made a dynamic page that lists all ongoing physical game jams. So if you’re in a slump, maybe try one of these.

Understanding Monsters

Dan at Throne of Salt, my unrequited blogging rival, has a really good post on monsters. It neatly articulated some ideas I hadn’t been able to pin down, and I know I’ll be referring back to it.

Drawing Maps

Anne at DIY & Dragons has done another comprehensive dive into a single game mechanic, this time examining map-drawing-for-advancement. It’s really good and thought provoking, and might give you ideas about “fixing” the ranger class or running more cut-throat rivals.

Sword Ferns & Salmon Flesh

Linden at Lapidary Ossuary reached out to me a while ago about hacking PALACE RUN for their own ends1, and now has a more finished game to show for it. I’ve really enjoyed seeing what elements they chose to keep and scrap, and what elements were added to the game (it has a lot more now). I’m eager to hear how it plays some time.

There is no logic to these images, the post just felt naked.

1 Please do! You don’t need my permission (writing on this blog is CC-BY-SA 4.0 and the 200 word RPG entries are all CC-BY 4.0), but you have it.back

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Automatic Tables

In 2012, I was (and still am) fascinated by the random table. A random table presents an exponential number of ideas in a linear space. Recombinant elements play in the gap between improv and rationalization, making each idea potentially unique and interesting. At the same time, raw probability can be leveraged against this massive scale to emphasize recurring themes or elements, building up a world solely through repeated use and implication.

So I took this fascination and built a bunch of tables that required rolling lots of dice to arrive at vaguely “fine?” results (if we’re feeling generous). Now I have the technology to easily automate these things, and I have done so. They might be more useful this way but mostly it was just fun to revisit them.

Snake Oil

“Doc, get me some more of that bottle…”

Sage Names

“All this we know from the writings of…”

Pulp Materials

“You’ll never stop it! It’s made of solid…”

Pub Names

“Not here! Meet me at…”

Holiday Crises

“I’ve called you all here because the holiday season is under threat!”

Monday, August 3, 2020

Notes on Three Systems

I’ve had the pleasure to run three new systems in the last year or so, and I’ve collected some notes here.


Mothership is a Science Fiction horror game in the vein of Alien or Event Horizon. The Player's Survival Guide is available from Tuesday Knight Games in print or from DriveThruRPG as a free PDF.

  • Character creation is as easy as the character sheet makes it look. It was great for new players and they picked up the percentile system quickly.
  • It is much harder to GM than it looks and I don’t think I did it justice. Coming from dungeon crawling games, I made a few mistakes:
    • You can’t foreshadow every encounter. Combat can start before players have a chance to run, without them necessarily doing anything “wrong”.
    • Remember to ask for saves. In a “normal” game, the players find a body and roll for loot. In Mothership they find a body and roll a save.
    • Familiarize yourself with the players’ tools or be ready to improvise. When players scan behind for signs of life, do undead show up? Do androids? Insects? Big insects? In D&D, I’m familiar enough to know what detect magic can and can’t do (or I can look it up for a whole page of detail depending on edition), but Mothership suffers doubly from being a genre I’m less familiar with and from still having such a brief rulebook.
    • The game has no “fallback” mechanic. If an action isn’t covered by stats, saves, or skills, then you have to come up with a consistent resolution on your own, and it’s just light enough that this is likely. If a character hides, you can have a negotiation about it or roll under the enemy’s instinct stat, but it would be nice if the game gave you some guidance.1
  • Make snacks. Figs can be quartered with a honey sauce to make xenomorph eggs, and green jalapeño jelly on chèvre looks “biological”. We had some more mundane snacks also, and for dessert, a chocolate olive oil cake with green matcha frosting.
  • Impromptu reviews of Oneohtrixpointnever included “I feel like the music is attacking me.” Ambient sounds were more constructive.

The players all said they had fun, so I’d try it again, but it definitely still feels like it’s in beta.


Troika! is some weird shit. You can get it from a few places, and there is also a free "demo" PDF on (it does not include the sample adventure Blancmange & Thistle).

  • Character creation is quick, but some players were a little miffed at their backgrounds. (We had to really emphasize that gremlins are purely malicious.)
  • Free form skills are a lot of fun, because they encourage players to really try anything and not worry about what they’re “good” at. Skills learned in the first session included jar fighting and high-fiving.
  • Free form skills also distract from existing skills that players might not know about. For example, none of the players had etiquette already, so it didn’t occur to them that they could rely on the skill instead of their role-playing when they were stuck. A list of skills can equally serve as a generator for ideas and a limitation.
  • Blancmange & Thistle is a nice little adventure that showcases Troika! very well, but the direction is loose. My players ascended the hotel and heard some calls to adventure at the rooftop feast, but there’s not a lot of momentum towards any of them.
  • Troikan initiative is a lot of fun in practice. For playing online, there is Dave Schiuridan’s tool and a Discord bot, or you can list the initiative tokens in a numbered list and roll an arbitrary die (shrinking it by one side after every roll).

D&D 5e

Dungeons & Dragons is a BFD. The fifth edition has a few starting points, but weirdly, it doesn’t look like you can buy the Player’s Handbook as a PDF.

Fifth edition is the easiest game to get a group together for. Because of this exposure, I’m sure I won’t say anything groundbreaking here.

  • If you don’t limit character choices before players start making characters then they will use anything they can find, and they can find a lot. Our party has a warforged, a tabaxi, and an artificer, so I'm mostly just letting them tell me how their characters work. The artificer was difficult because it's not always clear to a new player when things you find online are homebrew.
  • I had been warned about the power level and amount of magic, and while these things are higher than previous editions, I don’t think they’re game-breaking. It just gives everyone lots of different tools to interact with the environment and stronger assurances that they probably won’t die.
  • Some things that make sense to me (coming from older editions), and look fine at first glance, do not make sense at all to new players:
    • The step-by-step “building a character” section only works for that character. For more complicated characters, you will need to do the steps out-of-order and jump back and forth and add steps. When you’re finished, only about half the character sheet has been filled-in.
    • A lot of terminology is not explained. An “ability modifier” does not modify your ability score, but a “racial modifier” does, and then can indirectly change your “ability modifier”. When I write sixth edition, I will call the modifier a “bonus”, and scrap the score altogether.
    • Similarly, levels and spell levels have always been confusing. It’s not helped by every class having its own casting rules. I will call them “spell circles” when I am benevolent dictator of the next edition, as in “magic missile is a first-circle spell”.
  • The index is awful. In the space that it takes for “temporary hit points” to direct me to “hit points, temporary”, it could have given me the page number. The whole thing is like someone copied the style of an index without understanding it.
  • I think the GM tools are probably lacking, but I borrow liberally from everywhere, so it’s hard for me to judge.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with 5e, but I’m never sure how much is just the inherent fun of RPGs. Still, I think it’s got an undeserved reputation in some places.

1 There is a Warden’s (GM’s) guide planned, in the future. I hold out hope that book does for the GM what the survival guide does for players, but I’m less sure given the Twitter thread. There was definitely room to own that some parts of the rules were just less finished than others, but also everyone says dumb stuff on Twitter.back