Friday, December 27, 2019

Working with hexcrawls

(Crosspost from something I wrote on Reddit: how I designed my most recent hexcrawl.)
Next quest in my home game is the perils of glamping - a hexcrawl. I figured I would share some of the design stuff that went into it so far.
First off - mad props to which is just what I needed to make a quick and dirty reference map.
The printer was mostly out of ink, so I printed off the map for the players, hand-colored it, then figured I would distress it since I was already putting work into it (not pictured: the map owner's grocery list with related sidequest hook on reverse side):
Post image
nice paper, some tea, some crumpling, some burning, kablam.
Then I needed a second copy for my personal reference:
Post image
fixed some of the missing ink with art pencils, then fixed some of the hard to see hex reference numbers
Ultimately, this is a ~48x90 mile section of coastline with the players starting at a city at the top and working down south to find a missing noble, a missing nobody, and a missing book.

While all this was going on, I've also built a list of people they might encounter, random hazard tables, and did a bunch of hex stocking related activities. Here are some blog articles I used to design the crawl:
The random hazard tables are based off these articles:
The people list is my own brew, and deserves a post of it's own.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Horn spells

Jacob Ram skull
4 delicious horn-themed spells for your bard, noise cleric, storm druid, or musically talented generic spellcaster. Levels are rough estimates as I've not tested these for balance.

Grow Clarion
Duration: Instant / Permanent
Range: Self
Casting Time: 1 Minute
Components: V, S

Caster concentrates and grows a single keratin horn from any convenient body part from a tiny sliver to a full 16" horn. When the horn finishes growing, the caster can keep it or snap it off at will to produce a fully-functional wind instrument. If the caster doesn't concentrate for the full minute, the horn remains partially grown and is not suitable as a wind instrument. Horns produced by this spell are not useful in combat and simply snap off when placed under any notable stress.

Some casters have special skill when producing these horns and can produce horns with colors, curves, and unique patterns.

Clarion Call
Level 3
Duration: 1 Round
Range: Self
Casting Time: 1 Action
Components: V, S, Focus: Music horn or trumpet

Caster uses a horn to produce a clear, mighty note of sound audible at a distance of 6 miles. Anyone within 100' who is concentrating on a spell (including the caster) must make a DC 10 Con save to maintain concentration on the spell. Anyone within 30' attempting to cast a spell during the spell's effect must make a Con save vs the caster's save DC or be unable to cast their spell this round. Deaf creatures or creatures wearing hearing protection are immune to this effect. Using this spell is liable to provoke wandering monster checks, dislodge unstable masonry, cause avalanches, or other side effects.

Image from page 212 of "Delightful stories; or, Home talks out of the Wonderful book.." (1888)
Peal of Powder
Level 4
Duration: Instant
Range: 90' Cone
Casting Time: 1 Action
Components: V, S, Focus: Music horn or trumpet

Caster produced a series of pinging notes from a horn that rattle teeth and windows. Reduce a 90' cone of biological material to dust as long as the material is dead (not undead) and not held or worn. Magical items get a saving throw. What counts for this spell?
  • Tapestries - yes
  • Clothing - not if worn, yes if unattended.
  • Wood chests, doors, and critical support beams - yes
  • Rocks, dirt, and living bugs - no
  • Food - yes, unless alive
  • Tree roots - no, unless dead
  • Ghosts and animated skeletons - no, spell does not effect undead
  • Inanimate skeletons - yes
  • Log cabins and stockades - yes
Alphonse Lévy [Public domain]
Level 1
Duration: Instant
Range: 30' Cone
Casting Time: 1 Action
Components: V, S, Focus: Music horn or trumpet

Using the horn, the caster blows several notes outside the range of humanoid hearing while also looking through the horn. The caster learns the contents of 2 horizontal bands in the cone that could be perceived with blindsight by rolling on the below table twice and rerolling duplicates:
1) 5'
2) 10'
3) 15'
4) 20'
5) 25'
6) 30'

The bands are always horizontal / perpendicular to the orientation of the cone / spell emanation.

The noise emitted as part of this spell is not audible to humanoids, but is audible to any plausibly aware creature, such as bats, whales, or creatures with hearing-based blindsight.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Rolling Stats for Doctors of Lisbon

In my Doctors of Lisbon home game, I built a complicated but fair ability score generation procedure. Maybe it has the sorts of advantages you are looking for in your home games?

  • Everyone at the table gets a character with a total number of ability score points that matches everyone else. This means that the characters are roughly equal in power, since power increases and decreases linearly with higher and lower ability scores.
  • The stats generated are mostly random. It is my hypothesis that stats generated semi-randomly make characters that interest 'concept-first' players and also 'numbers-first' players when generating characters. Players that like to start with a concept and roll dice don't like it when their character concept isn't possible, and players that like to start with numbers first don't like it when the numbers are too flexibly arranged (I think of this as a choice-paralysis problem).
  • You get to roll your dice instead of just assigning numbers.
  • Every character has slightly inoptimal stats, but not painfully inoptimal.
  • It is complicated compared to other methods. This is a pain. If I thought about the math some more I might be able to make it less complicated while still accomplishing the same goal.
  • You only get to roll 1d6 at a time.
  • All characters are roughly equal in power. I'm willing to take this disadvantage in my game.
  • You don't get stunningly inept characters. This will be a problem if you are running a game set in a crapsack world. I'm willing to take this disadvantage in this specific campaign.

Custom Stat Generation Rules
This weird stat generation trick gets everyone fair stats, but it has more randomness than point-buy or fixed array. My apologies for the complexity. Your average stat is still a 13, same as the traditional 4d6 drop lowest.

Roll on this table 12 times and count the number of times you land on each value:


If you land on one of these values more than 5 times while rolling your twelve times, reroll that time until you get a different value - these rerolls don’t count against the 12 original rolls.

After these rolls, you should have a little table of numbers showing 0-5 for each stat like this:
Str: 2
Dex: 2
Con: 2
Int: 0
Wis: 5
Cha: 1

Subtract 1 from each stat - it should look like this:
Str: 1
Dex: 1
Con: 1
Int: -1
Wis: 4
Cha: 0

Now the tricky part - convert these to the even stats that represent these as if they were modifiers according to normal D&D stats like this:
Str: 12
Dex: 12
Con: 12
Int: 8
Wis: 18
Cha: 10

These are the stats for your character before racial adjustments.

OPTIONAL: You may choose any 1 set of 2 stats and swap them. Here I swap Dex and Wis:
Str: 12
Dex: 18
Con: 12
Int: 8
Wis: 12
Cha: 10

OPTIONAL: If your Con stat is 8, you may choose to subtract 2 from either your highest stat or your second highest stat and add it to Con to increase it to 10.

Last Step! Roll on this table until you get 3 unique stats, then add +1 to each of your stats that correspond to the table. Reroll any values that would push you over 18 in any one stat.


My example stats are:
Str: 12
Dex: 18
Con: 12
Int: 8
Wis: 12
Cha: 10

I roll a 1, a 4, and a 4, so I roll again and get a 6. I increase my stats like this:
Str: 13
Dex: 18
Con: 12
Int: 9
Wis: 12
Cha: 11

Friday, August 30, 2019

Doctors of Lisbon - Campaign Intro

When I start DMing a new game, I always write a little intro blurb so I don't have to repeat myself over and over. Here is the intro blurb for our current campaign.
Doctors of Lisbon
It's 1488 and everybody is sick, their lives are dull, and their food is bland. Happily for the wealthy upper crust of Portugal, certain agencies exist that specialize in procuring the rarest of spices and finest of medicines. The brave men and women of the adventuring corps risk life and limb for immense wealth in the tiniest packages - assuming they make it back hale in body and mind.

Are you up to the challenge that these adventurers face? Creep across enemy lines for Coriander, brave the temples of Brazil for certified pure Mummy dust, and acquire ethically sourced organic bezoars from disreputable farmers as you quest on behalf of the doctors of Lisbon!

The Setting

DoL is based on 15th century earth, but I'm taking a lot of liberties with the history. The fantastic is never far away, but don't assume that you already know the tropes.

I'm specifically focusing on Portugal and the empire of Portugal, which was the second largest empire at the time. Portugal occupied Brazil at this time and had a strong influence in the spice trade.

The Story

All the characters are part of an adventuring franchise corporation or soon to join - You get contracts, choose contracts, accomplish the objectives, bring back the loot, and get paid.

The Flavor

I think of DoL as fusion cuisine - you take old stuff and mix it with modern stuff to make something with the best of both worlds. If you are new, it is important to know its going to be different than many D&D games, but if you are familiar you are going to get a different vibe depending on the version of the game you play. It's easier than 1st edition D&D, but harder than 3rd, 4th, or 5th edition.

For players who want to play ‘hardcore’:
CAUTION: In my role as DM, I might kill or maim your character, but I might also reward your characters with immense wealth. This game is high risk, high reward. :)

For players who want to play ‘softcore’:
CAUTION: In my role as DM, I might incapacitate or maim your character, but I might also reward your characters with immense wealth. This game is high risk, high reward. :)

The Players

This game is played ‘West Marches’ style - basically, I have 4-5 open slots at the table and the first people to jump on board get to play. If you miss the call, you get top priority on the next game.

Q & A

Virtual tabletop or face to face?

Face to face

How do we get started?

Read the Houserules, maybe reference the races doc, and then build a character as if you would in D&D 5e with the houserules in the houserules doc taking priority over the rules in the book. Glance over the social contract if you want.

IF YOU ARE NEW, you don’t have to do this alone - chat with me or another player to talk over getting started.

But I don’t have a copy of the D&D 5e rulebook!

Thats no problem - here is a free, legal PDF version: It doesn’t have all the rules in it, so we can make up some more. If you want to be a crossbow herbomancer or a faithful hound dog we can work something out - just talk to me about it. I’m very flexible about ‘homebrew’ rules.

Ok, I made a character, what do I do next?

Tell me about your character, and let me know when you are ready to play. I’ll include you when I notify everyone of the next game!

Accolades from the Dungeon Terrier: Hack & Slash

When I wrote the mysterious Quest for the Dungeon Terrier, I leaned on the resources, tricks, and techniques of my fellow OSR geeks. One of my favorite OSR luminaries is Courtney C of Hack & Slash.

Oh man, Hack and Slash is how I found the OSR, I think. One of my favorite blogging DMs, Courtney's content is top notch and has deeply influenced how I run games.

When writing dungeons, I'm always consulting reference works for inspiration and to help me work my way through sticky problems. Courtney has published two critical reference works for dungeon design:

Tricks, Empty Rooms, and Basic Trap Design
This vital work describes a practical methodology for dungeon design taken from the ODND DMG, then builds tables and categories of rooms, curiosities, and hazards. I love this book for the tables of rooms alone. I wish the hazards got a bit more airtime, but what is there is a great jumping off point, and getting too far into traps gets into the whole 'skill subsystem' issue.

Now published as part of Blog Compendium II, Treasure almost completely solves the boring loot problem. As a bit of a 'Monty Haul' DM, I love treasure and seeing the players figure it out. I don't think I've given the players a single +1 sword or bag of unnamed gemstones since getting this book.

Finally, Courtney is writing something new! As I write this, he is at 20x his funding goal on a Kickstarter campaign for his next work: On Downtime and DemesnesI'm backed, the work is promising to be great, and I can't wait to see Courney's future success!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Subverting the Rust Monster

Oh Rust Monster, I love you. You're classic, friendly, cute in that insectoid way, practical, and thematically appropriate for dungeons everywhere.

You have a lovely history and long, spindly whiskers, capturing the hearts of artists everywhere.
But what if you were different?

Rust Walker

Perhaps like this but musclebound and with an underturret

A squat, brick-red beast the size of a carriage stomps over the horizon - below it's mighty set of 3 legs, a biological cannon dips and twists, seeking prey. The whiskers surrounding the cannon constantly dart through the air looking for the nearest delicious morsel of metal (favorite food: artisanally-seasoned portcullises).

What if a rust monster was a long-range threat?
AC 14
HP 40
Speed 40'
Stomp Attack +4 2d6 bludgeoning
Cannon Attack +6 Range 150/600 1 Acid + Pus Splash

Pus Splash
As your system's rust monster rust attack - but at range! Lets say it spews a silvery glob of pus that crackles and pops on contact with air. It's like meat tenderizer or saliva, but for metal.

Banner Moth

A ruddy squealing terror of the skies as big as a man, the banner moth leads a cloud of frenzied lesser moths to battle against anything made of cloth or flexible natural fibers (favorite food: ethically-sourced sweater vests).

What if a rust monster ate something else important instead, like scrolls or magic robes?
Size Large (treat as Swarm)
AC 12
HP 40
Speed 40' Flying
Bite Attack +3 2d6 piercing + Ripping
Swarm Attack +5 reach 30' 1d12 piercing + Ripping


As your system's rust monster rust attack - but against cloth instead! A horde of moths squeal, rip, and tear at your clothes, your blankets, your hair!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Two new races: Satyrs and Variant Kenku

In Doctors of Lisbon, I run a game set in alternate-history 16th century Portugal. Despite the surplus actual history kicking around, I still manage to wedge in the fantasy pretty hard. Here are two new races I built for the game using the various race balancing tools available on the internet for D&D 5E. Disclaimer: I wrote the variant Kenku independently of the Xanthar's guide version - I do not own a copy of that book.

Fauns / Satyrs

Rowdy, loud, boisterous. Fauns are known for intense drunken revelry at all ages. Native to Brazil, grow horns and cultivate decorative moss on their clothes and skin. Fauns can cooperate in forest magic rituals to attain new, higher states of altered consciousness.

Satyr Racial Traits

Ability Score Increase. +2 Con
Fleet of Foot. Satyr base movement is 35 feet.
Horizon Mind. Satyr familiarity with the edges of consciousness grants psychic damage resistance.
Skill Proficiency. Satyrs are preternaturally gifted performers - they are taught a perform proficiency prior to their rite of passage.
Satyr Weapon Proficiency. Satyrs are trained in the scimitar, trident, handaxe, and battleaxe.
Satyr Shield Proficiency. Saytrs culturally recognize the shield and train shield tactics.

Subraces: Coarse Satyr

Ability Score Increase. +1 Cha
Addictive Personality. Coarse Satyrs function better when indulging in a substance, such as alcohol, snuff, gum, caffeine, or tobacco. If you are indulging, your need to eat and drink halves. You also gain advantage on one of the following saving throws: int, wis, or cha. You can change your chosen save when you change your chosen substance.
Night Fright. Advantage on intimidation when in dim or no illumination.

(While researching this race, I ran into this post over at Pitfalls and Pixies, for another take on the same idea: Faun race)


Bird people native to the Americas - something like the Aztecs or the Mayans as anthropomorphic ravens.

Kenku Racial Traits

Small Size.
Ability Score Increase. +2 Dex
Skill Proficiency. The Kenku deeply respect history and gain Knowledge (History) proficiency.
Death Omen. Kenku have resistance to necrotic damage.
Pack Tactics. If at least one non-incapacitated ally is within 5 feet of a creature you are attacking, you gain Advantage on attack rolls against that creature.

Subraces: Hooded Kenku

Ability Score Increase. +1 Wis
Loremaster. A Hooded Kenku can use one of his own feathers and merely 50 sp in pearl to identify a magic item as the spell once per day.
Natural Appraiser. Hooded Kenku can estimate the value of items with exceptional skill - take advantage on intelligence checks to appraise value.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Accolades from the Dungeon Terrier: Dyson

When I wrote the spine-chilling Quest for the Dungeon Terrier, I leaned on the resources, tricks, and techniques of my fellow OSR geeks. I want to spotlight the excellent Dyson Logos in this post.

Dyson Logos

A true gem in the OSR blog-o-drome, Dyson endlessly churns out gorgeous maps faster than a caffeinated modron! He very kindly shares selections of his work under commercial licenses and works in a variety of themes, but mostly fantasy. I'm inspired with every map.

Here are some of my favorites.

Wharton Mine

A cozy map, suitable for perhaps a pygmy dragon or some crazed halfling skalds.

The Oracle's Grotto

I think this is a perfect map for a city-based entrance to the mythic underworld.

The Bottomless Tombs
A great excuse for a monster zoo, this map reminds me of Gandalf visiting the tombs of the kings of men from the first recent hobbit movie. I'm still struggling with what to put at the bottom of the tomb-tomb though.

If you want to learn to Dysonize your own dungeons, he wrote about that too: