Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Dragon reviews everything: Digital books 2023 - part 1

I got on a Speculative Fiction kick this year, so I caught up on some classics and some modern tomes - I'll review them soon. Outside of Spec Fic I explored some miscellany:

What If? 2 - Randall Monroe (pop science non-fiction)

"Fall in love with working things out - all over again"

Comedy is underestimated as an educational tool, and Monroe is an expert in the craft. I think the first What If? was better, but this one had insightful, hilarious anecdotes even so. "Can we make a garbage mountain to space?" "Can you squeeze light?" "Are there enough bananas to fill all the churches?" These are more thought-provoking questions than might first appear.

Summer Knight - Jim Butcher (Urban fantasy fiction, maybe explicit?)

"Harry Dresden and the elf sadists"

This is the third in Butcher's Dresden Files series, which is mildly explicit IIRC. I got a bit fatigued in the first two books when Butcher had bad guys not just busting through the doors but instead swarming in through every bloody crevice. The pacing on this one felt smoother, less frenetic, so I enjoyed it more.

Butcher sort of half-baked/plot-holed the fairy logic on this one. There are lots of examples of fairies being moved emotionally, but it's specifically canon that they don't parse human emotion.

Bonus alternative recommendation: Lords and Ladies - Terry Pratchett
“… people didn't seem to be able to remember what it was like with the elves around. Life was certainly more interesting then, but usually because it was shorter. And it was more colorful, if you liked the color of blood.”
― Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis (comedy fiction)

"This would be a fantastic screenplay"

Recommended by Noisms (Monsters and Manuals). Thought-provoking 1954 comedy about life in academia at a British redbrick university. Humor and I struggle sometimes when I'm uncertain if it's actually supposed to be funny, and this is roughly a 70 year-old book, so it didn't quite land with me, but it did get me thinking about the philosophy of romance leading into marriage, which isn't something I've dwelled on much. How much should one be selfish/selfless when selecting a spouse?

A Good Man Is Hard To Find - Flannery O'Connor (short fiction)

"Ah yes, child neglect and suicide does indeed make me feel sad - can I leave now?"

Blech, the only book I gave up on this year. I'm not sure I can see how my life is enriched by these stories and I like horror occasionally. Feels sad-artsy in a way that doesn't translate for me.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Oh no, not the hooch! - Monsters that steal/break your stuff

Partially inspired by my rust monster post and partially inspired by Noisms' post on constrained monster design from last year, here are 3 novel monsters that attack your party's travel resources.

I dunno where this is from and I can't read the artist's signature :(
Sand Sprites
You can hear sand sprites before you see them - the plip-plip-plip of thousands of tiny pad
ded metatarsals like a sudden gush of rain as they explode at speed out of the nearest sand dune or rocky steppe. Each sand sprite has the capacity to absorb 4 times its body weight in water and moves unerringly to the nearest source of water when dry. Once they consume every last drop of water, they flee to their underground burrows. There, they disgorge their precious supply into a communal spawning pool, allowing the twin queens the sustenance they need to continue birthing more sprites.

Tiny Insect Swarm
AC: 12 HP: 22 Speed 40', Burrow 20'
Damage Resistance Bludgeoning, Piercing, Slashing
Condition Immunities: Charmed, Frightened, Grappled, Paralyzed, Petrified, Prone, Restrained, Stunned
Blindsight 10 Ft.
Perception +3
Pinch Attack (at or above half health) +4 / 2d4 Piercing + 1d4 days' water rations
Pinch Attack (below half health) +4 / 1d4 Piercing + 1d2 days' water rations

  • These are the sort of nuisance that could be combined with other creatures without causing a TPK, at least, immediately..
  • Just because the Sand sprites took off with your water doesn't mean you can't get it back, you just have to follow them underground. This might result in discovering buried treasure or a new dungeon complex if you get lucky.
  • I imagine these guys swelling up with water, then when they get killed they burst like an overfed cockroach unless you take extra care to wring the water out first.
  • Dragon, give us the spoor details! Okay okay, here:
    • Dried mud wallow / mud crater directly above burrow where sand sprites with wet feet enter and leave - also serves as handy rainwater collection basin.
    • Plip-plip-plip from underground headed to another target
    • Curled, dusty sand sprite husks left from thirsty predators - sand sprites aren't worth eating, but they provide a critical source of hydration for a variety of predators.

not brown but still swole
These chestnut brown birds nest in cliff faces, treetops, and similar dangerous locales. Each bird weighs a few ounces when passive, but if threatened it puffs up its tiny feathered chest and gains 150 lbs. If a predator is noticed near a nest, the lodesparrows will land on the predator and lend the weight to the predator. This can pin it down, cause it to lose it's balance, or break the terrain beneath it. Some Lodesparrows are territorial and take offense to anything larger than themselves bumbling around near their nests. The eggs have distinctive lead shells.

Tiny Animal
AC: 12 HP: 1 Speed 10', Fly 50'
Perception +3
Beak Attack +4 / 1 Piercing

Overlode: As an action, the lodesparrow grabs onto a target and lends 150 lbs to the target's carried inventory. This can have a variety of negative effects, especially if a target is climbing a rope, dead tree, or rickety ladder.

  • A druid could command these en masse
  • What happens if many lodesparrows land on a cart in muddy terrain and someone says 'Shoo!' a little too forcefully?
  • Can one train a lodesparrow as a pet and carry it around in a cage?
  • What happens if you get an infestation of them in a barn or tower?
    • It collapses from the weight as soon as one too many predators appear.
  • What sort of spoor would lodesparrows leave?
    • Heavy droppings might pockmark terrain
    • Crushed bones of seahawks
    • Corpses with falling damage below a nest

Riesling Scorpion
An opaque, amber glass scorpion delicately clinks out of a mouse-hole into the alley. Moments later, an anguished shriek echoes from the darkness within the building - the brewer's painstaking work has been decimated.

These tiny scorpions metabolize alcohol in a baffling way - by absorbing it from the area around them. Academic dissection reveals no clues: the fragile creatures appear to have no mouth-parts or esophagus. Even more curiously, they seem to have this capacity even while apparently dead - any corpses of an infestation must immediately be whisked away or risk tainting any alcohol nearby further with each passing moment.

Riesling scorpions are made of glass and thus have no conventional predators, but they flee from the sound of sheaves of paper rustling. Any desert trader would be well advised to hang a few old books from his wagon to catch the breeze and thwart these 
bibulous predators.

Tiny Animal
AC: 12 HP: 1 Speed 20', Burrow 10'
Stealth +6
Beak Attack +4 / 1 Piercing + DC 14 Con save vs drunkenness (see below)

Drunkenness: Use whatever rules you have for being drunk and treat as a sudden serious onset rather than just lightly sloshed, or just deal 1d4 temporary wisdom damage and gain 2 levels of exhaustion.

Bibulous Aura (30'): Any alcohol that stays within 30' of a Riesling Scorpion gradually denatures along the following track:
  • After 1 hour alcohol tastes watered down.
  • For each subsequent day alcohol is one level of quality weakened (vintage wine becomes good wine, good wine becomes table wine, table wine becomes gutrot, gutrot becomes denatured alcohol (AKA methylated spirits).
  • Once alcohol becomes denatured alcohol, it is now toxic to consume and is of minimal value (perhaps to a tannery?). Consuming denatured alcohol is effectively consuming a weak poison, causing inconvenient mid-combat stomach cramps and loose bowels.
This aura continues whether the scorpion is alive or dead; unless it is melted, shattered, or otherwise totally destroyed.

  • Squeaky sound of nails on glass as a possum, bird, or other conventional predator tries to taste the scorpion. This might result in encountering a super drunk minor predator.
  • Books, fliers, old scrolls and bits of paper hung on poles and strings to catch the breeze indicate that there were Riesling Scorpions here once..
  • "Does this beer taste bad to you?" "How dare you- you mumblecrust! That's my mother's prize-winning stout!"

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Lovely game inspirations from Atlas Obscura

I use an RSS reader to scrub articles from half the internet for my nefarious gamification exploits, soaking up ideas like a thirsty sponge soaks up spilt grape soda. One source constantly inspiring me for new game content is Atlas Obscura. Check out these great articles and game ideas:

Bolton Strid, a killer creek
"Indeed while there do not seem to be any hard numbers about exactly how many people have perished in the Strid, the local legend is that no one who has dared enter the waters has ever made it out alive. The caves and naturally carved traps laying just under the surface of the photo ready river have been claiming lives for centuries."

What a place for a mythic underworld entrance! Consider:
  • "My daughter Lady Celeste was pushed into the creek of death and vanished. I will pay her dowry* to any man brave enough to recover her body."*
* A sackful of scallions (it's a tradition, don't ask) and also a valuable silver puzzle box containing high thread-count sheets 
  • "My ancestor, the mad hermit of Lagrange, once stole a crown off the head of a duke and dove into the bloody brook head-first to escape, never to be seen again, except once a month at the pub for a quiet pint. We never saw the crown again."

Lençóis Maranhenses, a swamped desert
"Strong winds and rain transform the land as rainwater fills the valleys between the dunes, creating a surreal lacework of thousands of seemingly miraculous lagoons between ribbons of sand."

This locale looks like an intriguing travel obstacle. Imagine the problems with encountering this on a hex - if you are riding by pack animal or wheeled cart, you have to make an exhausting series of river fords. If you are traveling by boat, it's completely impassible by turns, as if it was a river.

Wait, did someone say random encounters?
  1. Spiky tumbleweed the size of a barn ponderously rolls with the wind
  2. Mummified water hag sleeps in her tomb until the water comes, then spends her days farming algae and perfecting indigo dyes. Hates the color red.
  3. Giant enemy crab - but camouflaged under a sand dune this time
  4. The last of the migrating dune spiders - car sized, fast as an antelope, wants to get away from all this wretched wetness and does so with careful hops and leaps
  5. Crew of halfling travelers paddling light canoes - searching for the blue mummy (#2) to trade for dyes and will exchange map notes
  6. Several huge lush cacti surrounded by rotting corpses (mostly birds) in the middle of a lagoon - these are dune tanglers (stats as roper) and might have some loot.

'Legging' a narrowboat through a tunnel for hours
"This was a time when engineless narrowboats—pulled by horses that walked along a canal’s towpaths—transported mass quantities of goods like coal, iron, and pottery along a “super highway” of inland waterways and their locks, tunnels, and aqueducts throughout Great Britain [..]"

These tunnels could be longer than 3 miles and were a major source of revenue for wealthy coal purveyors. Any problem in a commercially used canal can be assumed to have the financial interest of significant merchant traders. (Imagine the opportunity cost to businesses if a commercial highway was closed for a week)

What if:
  • Traffic backed up due to distant screams of unknown provenance
  • Coal barge caught on fire mid-tunnel and needs to be cleared (water breathing might help with the lack of oxygen here)
  • Party asked to assist with legging a barge through, emerges in glittering outer space on the other side
  • Barge is floating tavern/hotel - while moving through a tunnel, a legger breaks through into a new dungeon complex (perhaps filled with giant green ants or hobo wraiths)
  • Prisoner transport vessel taken over by convicts in tunnel, hostages taken, party deputized to assist with breaking siege (perhaps by drilling through the top)
  • Similar to the first idea, this classified, high-security tunnel is actually effectively a wormhole to another location behind enemy lines. This is used for furtive spy activity and economic destabilization - with the right documents, a small group could sneak through posing as a barge team and use the rapid travel to their own ends.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

4 Magic blades and 1 magic club

In the grand tradition of OSR blogs, its magic sword time! Come for the blades, stay for the fictional worker's comp lawsuit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Dragon reviews everything: Video Games

I own a bunch of video games on the Epic Games Store and even more on the UPlay and Origin stores, but they don't really have good review engines, so I'm reviewing them here. Normally I would review these things on Steam instead. Note: I'm writing these reviews for family audiences that don't all play video games.

Audience: children 0 and up
Try before you buy

This game is bonkers fun in multiplayer. Its like QWOP, but in 3D with packages to deliver. I think of this as one of those games where you 'get it' or you don't - you run around with your mates and laugh at each other's pratfalls and mistakes. I give it a solid 8/10 funny dice in multiplayer, but don't bother playing by yourself. A good game for a couple of friends over for a video game night, but an even better game with children or young friends!

Epic Games Store: Enter the Gungeon

Audience: masochists 10 and up
Watch someone play or try before you buy

Another game that's good in co-op, this is a 'bullet hell' 'rogue-like-like' game that you could play with your tween or your patient ten year old. Bullet hell and roguelikes are games for people who are willing to put up with losing lots of progress in the short term but gaining progress in the long term - you have to be a special sort of patient and determined to enjoy these, but the feeling of success from mastering these is a special sort of joy.

Epic Games Store: The Talos Principle

Audience: Natural philosophers ages 12-13 and up
Watch someone play and watch an official trailer before you buy

Not a co-op game, this excellent single player puzzle game is non-violent, a thinking man's game. The puzzles are well designed, with a challenging but not impossible difficulty curve. While the game is rated Everyone 10+ in America, I think the conceptual questions and narrative philosophy are something that might make parents question the rating. Expect to entertain questions like 'what is the purpose of human life?' and 'why the heck are there 4 sockets but only 2 plugs??'. Seems to capture the interest of small children in a soothing, Mr. Rogers or Bob Ross sort of way.

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 http://hextml.playest.net/ 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.