Apr 23, 2017

Bonus Grubbing in Into the Depths

For new readers, Into the Depths is a one-page D&D-like inspired by Searchers of the Unknown that I wrote over Christmas break. It's compatible with most Swords and Wizardry material. You can download it for free here. I'm going to eventually write a magic supplement for it, but in the mean time I'm using Wonder and Wickedness as the spell system.

Into the Depths uses a fairly simple skill system. Any time you try to do something with a risk of failure and a consequence for failing, you roll a d6 and try to get a result of 5 or higher. If someone helps you, you roll a d8. If you're "Good At" doing the thing in question, you add +2 to your roll. If a group is doing something that they all succeed or fail on together, then they nominate someone to roll on their behalf.

The "5 or higher" is basically a DC (a "difficulty class" from d20) and can be adjusted up or down as you desire. I mostly only adjust it up, while things that make the task easier add bonuses to the PCs' rolls, simply to keep it all as simple addition. Most equipment typically doesn't add bonuses, it either allows you to do things you couldn't otherwise or allows you to avoid having to make rolls by automatically allowing you to succeed (a few pieces allow you reroll a failed roll).

One of the things this system is intended to do is to give the PCs kind of a crappy initial chance to do anything (unless it's an area of core expertise) and so encourage them to grub around for bonuses to their rolls. Here are some of the ways that I let them do so, that you might want to try in turn.

+1 to rolls for:

Taking double the usual time to complete the task
Having a clue, secret, or other inobvious but relevant information
Someone else has done the hardest part of the task
Having a specialised piece of equipment (Specialised equipment should only apply to a small set of predefined situations)
Magical assistance, including blessings
Executing a plausible, well-described plan of action

+1 to the DC for:

Each person past the first two in a group where one person is rolling on behalf of the group
Rushing (1/2 normal time or less)
Crappy equipment
Plans relying on seriously flawed or incorrect assumptions
Magical interference
Difficult environmental conditions

These lists aren't meant to be exhaustive, they're just prompts to get referees and PCs alike thinking about how they can fiddle with the difficulty of any given challenge.

Apr 22, 2017

Feuerberg: The Basics

The two mountains are "Feuerberg" and "Vogelberg". The town nearby is "Hoch", a bustling town of about 5,000. The dragon is called "Vorkallian". There is a cult that worships the dragon in town, but they are quite open, and common belief is that their worship keeps the dragon from harming the residents of Hoch (they're wrong).

I'm busy keying the Salt Catacombs, the starting section of Feuerberg, having already mapped them, so here's some starter stuff to tide folks over in the meantime.

Recent events:

The dragon's eggs are supposed to have started hatching a century ago. But instead of the rapturous cataclysm that would bring, each baby dragon appears to die during hatching. The Church of Vorkallian blames a necromancer who moved to the area at about the same time, and wants adventurers to hunt him down and slay him. They also want several of the fouler caves, catacombs, ruins and dungeons cleared out, in case they are polluting the dragon's nest. They're paying good money for it.

About a month ago, a group of noble knights, priests and adventurers from afar rode in on griffons to slay the red dragon. Their vanguard vanished into a cloud that rained blood, while others were slain or injured by bolts of lightning. Whoever survived has gone to ground on the mountains. The locals are split over whether to find them and kill them while they're weak, or to plead with them to leave Feuerberg alone. People suspect they're probably hiding with some of the hermits in the Forest of Woe.

An old diviner who lived in the trash dump at the edge of town was driven out for blaspheming against the dragon two weeks ago. He used to trade strange artifacts he found in the cursed inhuman ruins on the far side of Feuerberg, but something he found there convinced him that the dragon needed to be destroyed.

The goatmen were peaceful until a few years ago, but they've become violent raiders since then. Now all they jabber about is a serving a purple light that no one's heard of before. They're also digging all over Feuerberg and Vogelberg, though no one knows why.


Vogelburg is believed to contain the secret of immortality if you can scale to the temple at the peak and convince the guardians there that you are worthy.

The goatmen are bewitched by the necromancer. The purple light is just a spell he's using.

If a baby dragon isn't born soon, Vorkallian will abandon the nest, blowing the mountain apart and killing everyone in Hoch.

They dumped the dead from the last plague in the old abandoned salt mine, but they're not resting easy in there.

If you spend too long in the petrified forest, you turn to stone yourself.

Lizardmen still live under the mountains, and are plotting to bring a powerful demon back to life.

Feuerberg is steeper, but Vogelberg's faces are less stable.

The cursed city on the far side of Feuerberg wasn't built by human hands - or even mortal ones.

This whole area was once ruled by a vampire, and he's buried somewhere around here.

The stone circles and monoliths actually keep the dragon bound in the mountain. If they were ever damaged, it would escape and destroy everyone.

The crows around Vogelberg are immortal. They've been there longer than mankind has existed.

Some of the ancient caves on Feuerberg have art that shows lizardmen, snakemen and birdmen worshipping strange gods.

Apr 20, 2017

Feuerberg: First Steps Planning

I plotted out the local area around Feuerberg using a simple overhead diagram with a hex grid underlay. There's Feuerberg, its companion mountain, the local town, and the road that passes the town and then through the valley between the two mountains. I'm thinking each cell of the grid will be 1 km across. I've begun drawing up ideas on post-its and sticking them on the cells. Bright yellow post-its are sites, orange are danger. Eventually there will be a finer level of colour discrimination between post-its, probably green, yellow and red for terrain (indicating its relative ease of transit vs. danger and risk), blue for aboveground sites, and purple for entrances to the subsurface of the mountain. (This is all using Realtimeboard)

Last night, I broke each mountain's surface into four faces, and then decided that there would be one signature dungeon or challenge per face to begin, plus one at the peak of each. Only some of these zones would lead below the surface. I decided to err on the side making the mountain less easily transited rather than more, in order to encourage the use of the subsurface zones (which will extend vertically up and down) to move past them.

An image of what the above process looks like

I'm feeling my creative juices flow on this project like they weren't on some of my other recent ones. I think I've got some solid ideas for landmarks - a ruined city of the ancients partly buried in lava; the rotting carcass of a headless male dragon that the female decapitated after mating that now lays draped over the side of the caldera, a meteoric lake filled with tiny mollusk-philosophers; an old town that fell into a chasm and now lays scattered amongst beams of light at the bottom; a cave that's Lascaux by way of the Mountains of Madness, etc.

The mountain is one of the paradigmatic examples of the sublime, and this will be an affect I'm going to try to play extensively with in this. I want expressions of deep time and vertigo to undergird much of how of the pieces fit together.

The giant is both dead and not dead. Really, the giant isn't a thing that can be dead, because that would imply it was alive. The giant is an elemental force, just as the dragon is (the dragon is weaker, closer to a living thing, but more active). Its brain is made of obsidian that when chipped becomes humanoids. Its heart is molten gold. Its breath causes either death or immortality, unpredictably, if you can make it breathe again. You might think it's human-shaped, but it predates humanoids, who are shaped roughly like it. The other mountain is a musical instrument it was building, though what exactly it wanted to play (or why) is unknown.
Detail of the area surrounding the caldera

Apr 19, 2017

Megadungeon Idea: Feuerberg

I'm not exactly the next Picasso, I'll admit
I was thinking about a megadungeon set in and on a giant that fell asleep for countless aeons and became a mountain, with dungeon levels being each of the various chunks of the mountain's surface (canyons and gullies and cliffs forming "rooms") and then the various caves, mines, and excavations into it (and eventually, into the giant itself still sleeping under all that dirt). The end boss is a giant red dragon who has dug into the top of the mountain to build its nest, and is currently laying eggs in the brain of the giant. Because of the red dragon, the giant's mountain has become a volcano and threatens everyone around. Your job is to get the dragon out of there so it stops being a volcano, or at least get rich enough to get away from the eventual eruption (a continent or two should do). Add some wizard towers, goatmen forts, etc. and other tough foes who control the major approaches, a forest full of people who've been hung and come back as undead, ice elves, obsidian men made from shards of the giant's brain, a major trading route that passes beside the mountain, and a small town of locals who profit from that trade, and I think you've got enough for a full megadungeon plus surrounds. Anyhow, I'm tentatively titling it "Feuerberg" ("Fire Mountain").

Apr 18, 2017


There's been another kerfuffle about copyright in the OSR. So, to reiterate and clarify: Everything on this blog is done under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license. So are all documents that I've produced and linked to via it unless they have another explicit notice on them (the OGL or something) or are work for hire. You can read up on what a "CC BY-NC" license means here.

If you want to use something I wrote for commercial purposes (or hire me for stuff), shoot me an email at johnbell17 at Google's email service, and we can work something out. My main concern is not to scab on other people by replacing their paid work (or realistic possibility thereof) with free stuff, so bear that in mind.

Apr 16, 2017

A Few Traps

Traps and curses are some of my favourite parts of dungeoncrawling. Here are a few I've been thinking of. I don't claim to have invented any of these (though I can't remember where I found the original inspiration for any of them). My memory of these has been prompted by rereading Grimtooth's Traps.

1) A chest in the centre of a room is bolted to the floor, with a clearly steel cable running from its lid into the ceiling. Opening the lid of the chest or cutting the cable causes the floor to drop and steel shutters to drop over the entrances- only a few feet down and with the doors only partially shut if the lid is merely opened, but far enough to take falling damage and completely seal the entrances if the cable is severed. Either way, the dropping floor should reveal vents by which some noxious or dangerous substance enters - poison gas, acid, yellow mold, green slime, or even merely large amounts of water.

PCs could know there will be trouble if they strummed or tapped the cable, which would cause the metal parts to rattle up above, if they checked the door arches after opening them to spot the shutters, or closely inspected the floor for seams, which would tell them parts of the floor were not connected to others. The trap could be reset by two strong people closing the lid's chest if the cable wasn't cut, or by stringing a new cable through the gearing up above and reattaching it to the lid below (a few hours work for an engineer if the materials are on hand, plus the same two strong people).

A diagram
2) A floor with a slight depression forming a lip from nearby rooms. The floor is covered in metal marbles / ball bearings floating in oil. The walls are made of porous stone (pumice or the like) and weep small amounts of oil in over time to replace the stuff that dries out. Slow movement across the room is easy, but anyone trying to run will inevitably fall. If they carry a light source, it will start a raging inferno when it strikes the oil. Touching a wall to steady yourself is fine, but catching yourself before a fall is forceful enough to cause it to crumble slightly and increase the rate of oil flowing into the room. After three crumbles, the oil is ankle deep, after five it is up to the knees, and so on. The more oil, the more risk of a fire and the more damage it deals.

This trap should be fairly obvious, and is meant to signal an area as dangerous. It could be reset simply by refilling the reservoir of oil near the top. I think it works best in rooms with multiple entrances leading off into looping corridors, to increase the risk of a wandering monster chasing the PCs back through it. You could make this more difficult by adding a second trap (blowpipes in the walls firing knock-out darts or something) but that makes it even more likely to be a TPK.

3) Slats in the floor are actually triangular wedges that rotate freely but only in one direction. Stepping carelessly traps the foot and deals mild damage. It's possible to free someone without dealing more damage to their leg, but this is a noisy and slow affair, taking 1d4 turns of dismantling the slats, easing the foot out, etc. Each turn requires a wandering monster check. Wrenching the leg out will cause significantly more damage, possibly even crippling it until healing magic or surgery can restore it.

This trap can be noticed if the PCs are checking the floors, since the long thin slats made of metal should be distinct from other types of floors. The trap can be reset simply by rotating the triangular wedges back to being flat once the obstructions are removed. To make the trap nastier, you might want the space below the slats to be filled with serpents or green slime or another threat. I've found that acid and lava tend to make the trap too boring, since they either kill the PC right away from damage, or burn off the leg quickly enough to make the entrapment irrelevant.

4) More of a puzzle, but one I've used several times to good effect. The PCs are faced with three colour-coded racks of containers of goop (I once made these the coloured brain-jellies of ritual sacrifices, with the victims' skulls for the containers). One rack is blue, one red, and one yellow. Alongside the rack are four pillars, one orange, one purple, one green and one brown. Alongside the rack is a small basin for mixing them together. The primary-colour coded chemicals smell sour and taste bad, but don't actually have any effects on their own when drunk individually.

The orange pillar shows a man bleeding from numerous spear wounds. The green shows a man smiling as waves of energy radiate from him. The purple shows a man vomiting. The brown pillar shows a man holding his arms up to heaven, smiling as he flies upwards.

Mixing the correct colour combinations of the primary-coloured goop produces potions. Only colours matter, not proportions (brown is produced either by mixing all three primaries, or by mixing any two differently-coloured secondary-colour potions). Orange produces potions of Cure Light Wounds, green produces hallucinatory potions of light (you glow, attracting more wandering monsters and being unable to sneak, while also tripping balls), purple produces emetic potions of Neutralise Poison. Brown produces instant death unless a save is made.

I recommend limiting the number of doses of each gunk to prevent the PCs from making off with hundreds of potions of Cure Light Wounds once they figure it out. I haven't experimented with this variation yet, but I think it might be fun to make the baseline potions weak (i.e. Slow Poison instead of Neutralise Poison for purple) and then require multiple doses of the same potion to be crafted and combined to get the stronger effects (so two doses of orange becomes a Cure Moderate Wounds potion, etc.). I also find the more happy you describe the green and brown pillars, and the less happy you describe the purple and orange ones, the more likely the PCs are to poison themselves. If you have cautious PCs, it might help to make the goop into incense, and the basin a brazier that fills the room with smoke that affects all of them at once.

Anyhow, enjoy!

Apr 9, 2017

Into the Depths: Update

A new, updated version of Into the Depths.

I added a clarification of how you sneak, changed being good at something to giving you a +2 instead of just increasing your die type (so you can both apply it potentially to saving throws or attacks, as well as allowing you to stack it with someone helping you), changed how surprise works (each side now rolls to surprise the other), and I updated the wandering monster table slightly to match the current categories I use. I say I did this, but really I just came up with the rules and C Huth did all the hard work of laying them out.

Anyhow, enjoy.

Apr 5, 2017

Generating Paths in Hexes

I can't remember if I invented this technique or read it somewhere else. My apologies if someone else invented it and I'm not crediting you.

I run many overland hexcrawls and use a standard procedure for doing so. Step 1 is "Determine the weather and any paths." I've already mentioned how I determine the weather, but I don't think I've ever discussed how I determine paths.

My procedure is fairly simple. I find this fast enough to use at the table, and will often have the players execute it directly instead of rolling for them, though they may have to search first. Most of the time, paths save you travel time but aren't required for movement into adjacent hexes. Occasionally, in very difficult terrain, following a path is required to move from hex to hex.

The procedure:

Paths go from the midpoint of one hex to the midpoint of another.

Start at the midpoint of the hex the PCs are in. Roll 1d4-1 and note the directions of the points of the d4's base. The value of the roll is the number of paths exiting the hex.

The points of the d4's base will roughly point to surrounding hexes. If there's ambiguity, feel free to adjust the die 's physical position slightly. Draw paths to the midpoints of the surrounding hexes, starting with the point on the d4's base that has the lowest value and ascending until 1d4-1 paths are drawn.

If the die points in a direction where there's already a path, rotate clockwise to the first hex face without one.


The result of the d4 roll here is 3 (4-1) so we draw three paths

The PCs choose to move along the northwestern path.

Here the die result is 1 (2-1) so we draw one pathway.

Repeat each time the PCs move.
The first option already has a path, so we move clockwise to the next face.

...Resulting in this

Apr 1, 2017

Places to Go, Things to Kill: The Kingdoms of the Saved

A group of fractious theocracies so quarrelsome that even the Association of Useful Citizens doesn't claim them, the Kingdoms of the Saved are where you go to ask your preferred Irrelevant God to absolve you of whatever sin is keeping you out of its heaven. Sometimes, it even works, or so the prophets, holy men, abbesses and wonderworkers claim. Thanks to AUC's absence, the Kingdoms of the Saved are also prime territory for schemes that would get you killed anywhere else. Bulk-selling illegal ooze goods? Running soteriological ponzi schemes based on organ harvesting? Using scab labour to mine uranium? Chances are there's a local priest who'll be happy to explain to his followers how your scheme is fully sanctioned by the Big Fire / the Oozing Mind-Lords of Braemon / Vra-Krakorn, He Who Consumes the Works of Man / Lutheranism in exchange for a suitably generous donation to the church.

Places to Go

The Labyrinth of Ignorance

The Killbot Prophets spread the joys of release from the Necrocarcerus Program to all who submit to their gracious deathrays and blessed poison gas. But some can only find the truth of oblivion by wandering through the labyrinth of ignorance first. The Killbot Prophets have gathered the vast donations of their (former) followers, and minus a small handling fee, placed this wealth in the midst of a vast labyrinth, along with many jars of nepenthe, several lost magical tomes, artifacts of great power and various other lures to suit all tastes. Along with the treasure, the Killbot Prophets have placed many vile beasts, cunning traps, and deathly curses in order to slay those who enter as swiftly and assuredly as possible without removing all hope. Entry is open to all, and the Killbots themselves pipe in encouraging commentary and inspiring quotations from their sutras as treasure seekers are torn apart, poisoned, shriveled to ash, eaten, and otherwise granted the benediction of nonexistence. The Killbot Prophets will provide a variety of trinkets to anyone who thinks they can best the labyrinth, including "maps", flashlights, and cyanide pills.

The Holy Ylim

A sprawling monastery-city covering hundreds of square kilometres, the Holy Ylim is contested ground, constantly being taken and retaken by different factions struggling with one another for its sanctums and vestiaries. Layers upon layers of crumbling architecture and tattered paraphernalia from forgotten religions are heaped atop one another, in a vast palimpsest of devotion rich with the lost knowledge of the aeon. The Holy Ylim is one of the richest sites of pre-Incident artifacts in all of Necrocarcerus, and an expedition into its depths has made the fortune of more than one bravo or demonic cultist. Cavernous galleries echo with the hymns of undead monks while relic-thieves and bandits duel one another in the crypts for scraps of high technology. The current rulers are the Integral Order, a group of psionic monks who have managed to hold onto the place by psychically converting everyone who's come to take it, while the lower levels are home to both the Perspicacious Devotees of L'ghash and the Invidious Temple of L'ghash, two nearly-identical shadow-god cults engaged in a genocidal dispute over what kinds of sacrifices and sins the eponymous divine shadow likes best.

The Blessed Bazaar

Need a brand-name personal nuclear weapon? The souls of twelve damned children who all drowned on the same day in different bodies of water? One of the divine testicles of Vra-Krakorn, He-Who-Consumes-the-Works-of-Man? Holy water and other chemical weapons? Chances are if it's for sale anywhere, it's for sale at the Blessed Bazaar, Necrocarcerus's biggest, and least-regulated, open-air marketplace. Run by the Underlords, the largest criminal syndicate in Necrocarcerus, the Blessed Bazaar is frequented by unscrupulous mercenaries looking for exotic gear, reliquarians serving mad arch-wizards, criminals looking to dump peculiar loot, and even projectors, who have lately started to over-run the place. Payment is obols on the barrelhead, though the Bank of Necrocarcerus does a brisk business laundering funds through exotic investment schemes banned in all civilised lands.

Things to Kill

Snodgrath, Blooddrinker and Woe-to-Man LLP's Infernal Offices

Necrocarcerus's premiere credit rating agency, sub-prime mortgage lender, and the keeper of the master alignment records for citizens of AUC (thanks an unforeseen consequence of outsourcing and subcontracting). SBW's offices are atop a giant bipedal hell-engine that marches across the Kingdoms of the Saved crushing all in its path and dispensing expert on-site credit reporting and auditing services. In a recent dispute over the alignment & credit rating of the Reformed Druidic Order (Orthodox), the devil partners of the firm were all slain, and the control codes to direct the gigantomorph lost. After an emergency envisioning session by the Business Development division of SBW, it was decided to stop the engine's progress by siphoning off its power to open a portal to the impossible realms of Hell.

The area around the titanic but now-immobile hell-engine has been flooded with demonic work-seekers, more than can be expeditiously processed by the Demonic Resources department into suitable employment. The Roman Catholic Church, under the leadership of the Post-Anti-Pope John XXIII, have raised a crusade to convert or slay the demonic migrants and destroy the hell-engine, with rich rewards for any who participate. Their ardour threatens to undermine Necrocarcerus's entire credit rating and alignment system.

The Knights of Torren

The Knights of Torren come from one of the living worlds where the Necrocarcerus-based arch-necromancer Thazul's undead legions are conducting a war of genocide against the living. They believe they are guarding the very gates of Hell, preventing the incomprehensible dead (aka the citizens of Necrocarcerus) from breaking into their homeland. In reality, they have managed to set up well-defended fortresses at several reliable portals to their world, assisted by the fact that Thazul is distracted elsewhere and has not actually paid attention to their homeworld for several centuries. As noble paladins in the service of a holy cause, the knights frequently harass and annoy the various peddlers, utility company employees, mendicant pilgrims, relic salespeople and other wanderers who stray too near to their iron-walled fortresses, proclaiming them undead abominations and even killing a few of the less cautious.

The knights are a particular thorn in the side of Necrotel, as their towers amplify the wireless-signal-disrupting properties of portals, creating large blackout zones in which cellular reception degrades beyond acceptable service levels. The local barons of Necrotel have been ordered to wipe out the Knights of Torren wherever they're found. They are not above promising the mercenaries who do it the right to use the portal to escape Necrocarcerus before they close it off for the sake of telephony.

The Sacred Sodality of Orthodox Engineers
A golemonormative organisation of magical engineers, artificers, tinkers and programmers who seek to prevent certain heterodox variations on golemic gender and family combinations from becoming more common than they already are. Golems have traditionally had two genders - producers and assemblers - and formed binary couples to produce more golems at the behest of the financialised ruling class and/or evil wizards in need of cheap labour. Thanks to a century-long advocacy campaign and the fact that golems comprise the vast majority of the working class required to keep Necrocarcerus functioning, AUC has recently recognised the rights of both golems who produce parts for new golems and assemble these parts themselves, and those golems who do neither. The Sacred Sodality is up in arms about the recent decision (the crustier and more conservative members claim to even remember a time when golems weren't even considered people), and has begun assembling the components of a powerful magical ritual to reprogram all golems in Necrocarcerus to fit back within golemonormativity.

Accomplishing this requires a great deal of research to ensure the ritual affects all golems. To this end, they have sent several remote teams out across Necrocarcerus on missions ranging from the cruel to the merely bizarre. One group is kidnapping and experimenting on innocent golems in the Rail Lands, determining how they can be converted back to "normal". Another is attempting to examine the reproductive system of the buried Mega-Golem in the Far Lands. A third is busy attempting to assassinate prominent golemic activists, ranging from the infamous Conductor J of NecroRail to the venerable #5, now quietly retired as a statue in the Far Hells. But the bulk of the organisation, including its leadership, is camped out in the Holy Ylim, where they have seized Electro-Castle (formerly the holy temple of an obscure storm god) and are preparing for a massive siege by the golems of Necrocarcerus once their plans become public knowledge.