Friday, October 31, 2008

Treasure Type: Geek

Gamers possess a form of insanity that is shared with the collectors of old books. In the book trade, this mania is referred to as “the gentle madness.” It’s a subtle form of dementia which turns objects of paper, ink, cardstock and thread in fetishes worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. It is this psychosis that drives eBay auctions and causes locked cases to be installed at hobby shops.

Like many, I suffer from this gentle madness, albeit not as severely as some of my fellow gamers. I prowl the boxes at my local hobby shop, seeking out monochrome versions of classic modules. I cannot pass over a copy of Deities & Demigods without peeking inside to see if it’s one of the rare editions with the gods both Lovecraftian and Menibonéan. One of these days, when fun funds allow, I’ll pick up a copy of Outdoor Survival, just to replace the version I once owned and put it to the recommended use (my birthday’s late November…)

It is with little wonder then that, of all my gaming books, the one that I cherish the most is this one:

According to The Acaeum, it’s a 7th printing of the Player’s Handbook. Not exceedingly rare, but it still bears the classic Trampier cover and the wizard logo. For a book that seen heavy use, it’s in pretty good shape for something almost thirty years old.

This one is my prize simply because it is mine. It’s the first hardcover AD&D book I ever bought, not a replacement or a winning bid at auction. It has survived not only time, but several moves, two cross-country relocations, numerous dorm rooms and apartments, vindictive ex-girlfriends, flood, plague, and Acts of God. It has witnessed innumerable characters and campaigns, bad puns, spilled drinks, wildly spinning dice, and the insides of countless backpacks, satchels, boxes and car trunks.

The pages within are marked with pencil and pen, charts and tables have been underlined, an inventory of magical treasures has been written on the inside front cover in orange crayon of all things, and the stats for a monk have been scrawled in pencil on the inside back cover. The edges of the pages have been worn down with so much use that they feel like soft velvet, rather than wood and cloth pulp.

Yes sir, that’s my baby.

All of that history, wear and tear, and good memories are enough to have changed this one copy of a book printed by the thousands into a personal fetish. If it stopped at that, this would still be a book that I hope accompanies me throughout my remaining years. But it has one last alteration that places this codex head and shoulders above its bookshelf companions:

That was the only time I ever met Gary. I-Con VIII would have been sometime in the spring of 1989. I’m sorry to say that I don’t really remember much about that meeting. I remember standing on line with my friend, Pete, who had brought his Monster Manual to be signed. I remember that Gary seemed to be happy to meet with the fans and talk with them. He didn’t seem to phoning his appearance in. I seem to remember that he was wearing some sort of hideously ugly Hawaiian shirt, but that memory is suspect, as I’ve seen pictures of him at more recent conventions dressed as such, so I might be confusing the details. I am sure that he asked me what my favorite class to play was, and I’m pretty certain I told him either thieves or magic-users. But that’s about all I can recall of that one moment almost twenty years later.

It still seems strange that he’s gone and that whole generations of gamers will never have a moment like that. Of course, even if they had the chance, the emotional impact might be different. I’m sure that for some gamers, the chance to meet R.A. Salvatore might be their shining memory of game-related brushes with greatness.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about Gary over the years, some quite humorous, some not-so flattering. I’m sure that there are truths to most of them. He was human and possessed a wide variety of character strengths and flaws. But he was the Dungeon Master and he signed my Players Handbook, and that still means something to me. There are probably hundreds of other copies of books out there that bear the inscription “Mike – Magicks!” (or “Mark – Magicks!” or “Matt – Magicks!” or what-have-you), but none of those are mine. Those copies may have similar stories of adventure and great times associated with them. In fact, you might have one yourself. But there’s only one copy that sits on my shelf, asks me to come open it again, and to venture off to places undreamt of by most.

Holiday Wishes & Announcement

For all of you partaking in “Goth Xmas” today: have fun, be safe, and keep an eye out for the little ones as you’re driving.

As a special post-Halloween treat, there will be five days of posts next week. That’s right, FIVE full days of The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope. I’ve got a big piece that I’ve put together and will be publishing it in five sections between November 3rd and 7th. I’ve got to take care of some non-blog related business and need a week to recharge my batteries a bit as well, so enjoy a post a day until I get back. Comments will, of course, be accepted and I’ll be poking my nose in from time to time to make sure the gelatinous cube is cleaning up any messes left behind.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Have you ever gotten a word or a phrase stuck in your head? One embedded so deeply that no matter what lengths you go to; it still remains there, just below the surface, waiting to escape into conversation?

That was my week.

At the risk of sounding snobbish, I don’t watch a lot of random television. I’m more prone to pursue other activities to kill time rather than to channel-surf and hope that something half-way decent is on to pass the time. Most of my T.V. watching is “destination programming,” or shows that I make a specific effort to catch a few times a week. Like with my reading habits, as I get older I find that most of the television I watch has some educational merit, usually being programs shown on History or the Discovery Channel. This is where my problem began this week.

I’m a fan of the Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters.” It’s the kind of edutainment programming that meets my need to walk away from a show with some new fact in my head AND tends to feature a lot of explosions. The dichotomy of human nature: the elevation of the spirit and the satiation of the animal.

This past episode featured an examination of the “hwacha,” a medieval Korean siege weapon that functioned by firing 200 rocket-powered arrows that detonated on impact. In other words, a very impressive piece of war machinery. Take a look:

Pretty neat, right?

The thing is that despite the utter coolness of the hwacha, it was the word “hwacha” that got me. It’s one of those words that you can just savor. A word that begs to be dropped into any conversation, relevant or not to the discussion on hand. A word to be completely over-used until your friends and acquaintances threaten bodily harm until you stop with the “hwacha!”

Go on. Say it. Nobody’s looking.

It’s a good one, no?

On Saturday night, I simply could not stop using this one. First, I had to make sure that I mentioned the episode of “Mythbusters” at least three times, just to ease it into conversation. Quite easy to do, as our gaming group seems to have a fixation with siege weapons after The Ballista Incident. Then it progressed to my general battle-cry during combat. Finally, it suffered a definition-shift to now mean “to attack stealthily from behind,” as in: “Mike, what does Zoltan do?” “I’m going to hwacha those two goblins!” By Sunday afternoon, “hwacha” had become the name of a game played on a trampoline. One that involved many rubber balls and sneak attacks by people lurking underneath the trampoline.

What can I say? It just wouldn’t let go of my brain.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that hwacha is going to continue to live a very long life deep within the bowel of the Dungeon Not Yet Named™. I’m not quite sure yet how, but rest assured it’ll be there. Perhaps as the actual device itself (consider this fair warning, would-be adventurers), or maybe as my own personal version of “Bree-yark!” One way or another, it’s too fun of a word to let slip to the wayside.

Or at least I think so. My fellow gaming group members may be of another frame of mind.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sublime Intervention

Should you ever find yourself wandering the lands of R’Nis, take these words of warning: the gods here suck.

Not quality-wise, mind you (I hope), but in terms of divine power. Some sages and world-walkers report that on other planes of existence, the natives there enjoy the benefits of omnipresent and omnipotent divine guidance. Alas, such is not the case here.

I’ve always been fascinated by mythology and religion, extending this interest to earn a minor is Religious Studies during my undergraduate college career. Whatever one’s belief in the existence of some higher power in the universe, you have to admit that the sheer variety of belief systems on this planet is quite amazing.

Because of this personal interest, I tend to have a lot of gods, religious systems, cults, idolaters, philosophers, mystics, shamans, and the like running about the canvas of my world. I was greatly influenced during my formative years by a love for the old Savage Sword of Conan comic, in which that friendly Cimmerian seemed to run into yet another strange cult every month. It’s no surprise then that when it comes down to world-building, there’s a lot that old time religion going around.

The problem for me back then was: with so many gods about, who has the final say in matters of divine influence? Is magic firmly under the control of one god or goddess and all other gods of magic just pretenders getting by on the isolated faith of their worshipers? Or are the individual gods of the various races just many aspects of the same deity? Maybe there is an all-powerful being in charge of the whole works and the gods are just different faces of the same.

Originally, I went with the “many aspects to individual gods” approach. The elven god of healing was just another incarnation of the human god of healing, which was an aspect of the dwarven goddess of healing, etc. It was workable, but not completely rewarding to me personally. I still felt a little restrained by this approach, being more inclined towards lots of gods, great and small. But now that I’m revamping things for the classic dungeon, I wanted something more satisfying. I found my solution in Fritz Leiber.

Leiber is the most influential author to me when it comes down to the flavor that I prefer in a D&D game. It wasn’t until college that I finally managed to read the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales – for some reason my college library had the entire” Swords Against” books in its collection – but even the entries in Deities and Demi-gods had me enamored of Nehwon long before I read the source material. When I read “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” I found myself thinking that if I ever ran a AD&D game again, I’d want to do something similar to the way that Leiber portrays the gods in that story: limited of influence and their power waxes and wanes with their believers. I filed that notion away for future consideration.

When I started putting Ol’ Nameless together, I chanced upon a used copy of TSR’s Lankhmar: City of Adventure (1985) at my local hobby shop. Being a fan of the source material, I purchased it and spent some time looking it over. Fittingly enough, Chapter Six of that books deals with the gods of Nehwon and their abilities. In that chapter, I found that a lot of my work was already done for me.

I didn’t lift the rules whole-cloth from the book, but I did decide that a few of the limitations work quite well for what I wanted to do. In the end, my plethora of pantheons shares the following traits with the gods of Nehwon:

1 – The gods can see, or hear (or any other sense) into any single place in the world.
2 – They can understand any language spoken.
3 – They may alter any one object, condition, or creature anywhere in their influence.
4 – They may create any object, condition, or creature anywhere in their influence.
5 – They can only see (or any other sense) one place at a time.
6 – They cannot change an area outside of their influence.

The key words here are “one” and “influence.”

The gods are not omnipresent; they simply cannot be. If you need your patron deity to intervene on your behalf, you’d better make a production of it. The religious ceremonies of my world are lavish affairs, done not so much to appease the gods, but more because they’re the theological equivalent to firing off a signal flare that says, “Oh divine being, please pay attention to us over HERE!”

In many house-ruled games, clerics do not have to choose their spells at the start of the day, the DM allowing them to call upon the divine fountain-head for specific spells as needed. This is not the case in R’Nis. A cleric had better plan ahead and ask the divine for any spells they foresee themselves needing during the coming day while he and his patron are having their daily one-on-one time during prayers. There’s always a chance their deity might be paying attention to them when they need help, but the odds are not in their favor (I don’t have a copy of D&DG available, but if I remember correctly that chance is no greater than 1 or 2%). The patriarchs of religion of course explain that the gods want their worshippers to fulfill their potential as divine creations, aspiring to the godhood within, but then they tend to mumble and wave their hands a little if the issue is pressed.

With their powers limited to areas and individuals directly under their influence, the gods are very anxious to have their tenets spread across the land. Thus, wandering priests and holy prophets are common encounters. Clerics, both PC and NPC, who wish to keep their deity in the “big leagues” had better engage in acts of conversions and spreading the word. With influence limited, many gods of the same portfolio exist, often stepping on one another’s toes in the process and generating bad blood between each other and their followers. The only thing that tends to get them to work together is the threat of some upstart godling and his cult muscling in on the action.

As beings with limited power, the door to mortal apotheosis via usurpation is always open. While I don’t foresee this being a common occurrence, it’s nice to have that option available should either I or one of my players decide to go that route.

This is definitely more of the flavor that I was looking for. Not only does it appeal to me personally, but it adheres to the core rules of AD&D in regards to clerical spell-casting, preserving the flavor I’m looking for. It’s much more classic “sword & sorcery” and more pulpy and gritty, which are the spices that I enjoy cooking with.

Friday, October 24, 2008

“Five minutes to curtain, Mr. Vargouille.”

I’m a big fan of the custom random encounter table. I think p. 138 from the Monster Manual II pretty much makes the book worth owning even if you never use any creature from within its pages. Using a d8 + d12 to generate a bell-curve distribution of results allows the DM to add some pretty weird and/or massively over-powered creatures to the random table without worrying about threatening the party’s over-all chances of survival at every turn. Plus, this method can be easily modified for other uses.

Without giving too much away, below in the Wandering Monster Table for Level Three of Ol’ Nameless. I’ve removed any indication of “# appearing,” so potential adventurers will have no idea whether they may run into 1d4 of these creatures or 2d20 of them. The monsters on the list comprise both creatures that have lairs on Level Three, as well as nomadic wanderers and visitors from other levels and sub-levels.

2 – Special
3 – Necrophidius
4 – Zombie, Juju
5 – Devil, Lemure
6 – Cyclopskin
7 – Ochre Jelly
8 – Snake, constrictor
9 – Ogre
10 – Bugbear
11 – Spider, Huge/Large
12 – Ghoul
13 – Toad, Poisonous
14 – Lizard, giant
15 – Gelatinous Cube
16 – Troglodyte
17 – Land Urchin
18 – Vargouille
19 – Heucuva
20 – Iron Cobra

I’d like to say that there’s a method to the madness behind all the weird choices on the list, but there’s not. Not to all of them, anyway. Some appear because of features of the level, but many show up because I have a fondness for them and “I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the dungeon.”


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

He Do the Police in Different Voices

I can’t help notice that my bad habits are creeping up on me again. I have this tendency to start sprinting before I get the basics of walking down. That’s happening again. I’ve been spending a little too much time concentrating on grander plans than The Dungeon Not Yet Named™ and that needs to be checked before it gets out of hand. Look for a little more emphasis on the dungeon and house-rules concerning getting the beginning characters started in the near future. At least until I finish up Level Two and its associated sub-levels. Yes, there are sub-levels.

Some time ago, I was musing about the changes that I’m likely to incorporate in the experience point system for the hapless adventurers. I’d concluded that treasure=experience is a good thing, and that spending treasure for experience, while having its place in certain games, is not a viable system for what I have planned.

This leaves me with one last decision to be made: experience as role-playing awards.

By nature, I’m a role-player. I like the funny voices, the grand gestures, and the wearing of odd hats. For many years, I was right there in the battle of ROLE-playing vs. ROLL-playing, reading the ever-present missives to Dragon’s “Forum” pages regarding that fight with great interest. I saw the introduction of awarding experience points for good role-playing to be a long overdue correction to the rules of many role-playing games. After all, if you weren’t role-playing your character, you had no business being in this hobby. Dice-tossers and hacker/slashers need not apply.

In retrospect, there is a part of me that believes the entire Role vs. Roll-playing argument was detrimental to the hobby, or at least to the gamers that I knew personally. I, of course, include myself in that number. This was a battle engaged over just half of the definition of our hobby of choice. Where was the faction crying out, “It’s a role-playing GAME!”? Arguably, one can say that was what the roll-players were trying to remind us of. True to a certain extent, but I know a fair share of dice-tossers, hack/slashers, min-maxers, and munchkins who took the fate of their character just as seriously, if not more so, than the worst community theatre-reject role-player.

It’s a game! Game, people! This is not Art, as much as Mark Rein dot Hagen might have us believe otherwise. What we do around a table does not leave the world a better place than it was before we sat down. I’ll grant that being a good DM is more of an art than a science, but that’s little “a” art, not big “A” Art. Somewhere along the line we lost focus that this is a recreational activity, not high drama.

It is within this light that I feel I would be remiss if I started doling out bonus experience points for “good role-playing.”

Firstly, I feel that “role-playing properly” is too vague a criteria for the awarding of experience points. While it may at first seem to be a relatively easy thing to judge, I’m reminded of an event that occurred some many years ago in one of my games. For many, many sessions, I was less than impressed by the way one of my players was running his character. This was still during my “serious role-players only” period, mind you. He seemed to lack any interest in the events occurring around his character, especially during frantic moments when the guns were blazing and the bodies were dropping all about him. As such, poor Kit never got the extra-special bonus round role-playing experience award at the end of a session. It wasn’t until several months into the game that it came to light, not only to me but to the rest of the players as well, that Kit’s character has a Self-Control rating (we were playing V:tM) that was through the roof! The penny finally dropped and we all realized that he had been role-playing his character exactly how he had pictured him THE ENTIRE CAMAPIGN. Because he was choosing to emphasize an aspect of the character’s personality that wasn’t very overt or flashy, he’d not been fairly rewarded for his efforts. Granted, I should have been more aware of his character’s traits, but even had I been, the way that the player pictures his character and the way the referee sees him are often two different beasts.

Secondly, “role-playing awards” provide entry for a creeping experience point imbalance that I’d rather avoid. In my current game as a player, we are awarded extra xps for role-playing. More times than not, I find that I’m leading the pack in total experience earned at the end of the session, and this is even taking into account that as a veteran of the hobby, my bonus awards are smaller than those that are awarded to less experienced players. This even caused a slight kerfuffle some months back, and while the matter has been settled somewhat, it’s not territory that I want to explore when I’m on the other side of the screen.

Thirdly, but most importantly, I feel that awarding experience for role-playing is tantamount to requiring role-playing, whether or not one feels the desire to engage in such a thing. This, more than anything, has become very much a concern for me as of late. It’s a marked departure from my earlier holier-than-thou stance on role-players.

The reason for the sea-change is firmly set in a lot of my real life experiences over the last few years. Grudgingly, despite my mantra of “we all have to grow older, but we don’t always have to grow up,” I’ve become a little wiser and a little more laid-back, especially when it comes to the activities that I engage in for recreation. If someone wants to sit down at the table and play the game, that’s all I require from them. If they’re having fun playing as “themselves, only shorter” or any other permutation of a less than completely immersive gaming session, I’m not going to punish them experience-wise for not wanting to talk in funny voices.

What it comes down to is this: if you like getting deep into character, you’re doing so because it’s rewarding to you and you enjoy it. As such, no additional incentive is needed. If you don’t care for this level of immersion, and to do so would detract from your enjoyment, I’m not going to let you lag behind the group because of it. So no experience point bonuses for role-playing when I’m on the side of the screen with the most numbers written on it.

However, this doesn’t mean that I won’t reward players who take a great interest in their characters and my campaign setting. It just won’t be with experience points.

Anyone who provides a contribution to the game that goes abovemere regular attendance will see some sort of tangible reward for going the extra step. I feel this is a better way to encourage active participation in the game than the narrow confines of extra experience for role-playing. It gives the players a greater choice of how they wish to contribute to the overall setting, rather than just by encouraging role-playing, and allows for players who might be gifted in areas other than their acting ability to gain the benefits of bringing more than just their presence to the table.

Contributions like a painted miniature of your character, an illustration of a party member/notable NPC, a website recommendation useful to the group, homemade “period” snacks, a song or poem about in-game events, and the like would all be rewarded in some way. Right now I’m considering awarding some sort of “marker” that could be cashed in for a tangible in-game result, be it a re-roll or invoking Jeff Rients’ “Thirty-Sided Die Rule.” I’m also partial to “controlled collaboration” in my games, so a marker could be burned to allow the player to insert a useful bit of lore in the game that assists the party somehow. The details are still vague, but I feel that a system like this, derivative of other gaming systems out there, is a better solution than bonus experience points. The effects are short-term and don’t upset the overall experience climb.

Monday, October 20, 2008

From the Grand Archive of Tvar v Tvarax

This is the first of an occasional series of posts detailing the true history of writing and books, and how that real world history can be used to add depth and inspiration to a fantasy campaign. Further installments will appear as time and interest allows. As with all good things, we shall begin at the beginning.

Treasure is not always measured in gold, jewels or magic. For the priest and sage, wise man and wizard, knowledge often has more value than the largest of gems. Ancient writings and lost repositories of knowledge serve as launching pads for adventure, both in and out of game. From the historical - the Library of Alexandria or the Voynich Manuscript, to the fictional – The Book of Skelos, The Necronomicon, and The Book of Infinite Spells, there is something about cryptic writings and ancients texts that fire the imagination.

Like many DMs, I find that reality is often the best place to root the fantastic. From this fertile soil, one can elaborate, mutate, and exaggerate the everyday into creations suitable for any fantasy game. As an archivist and special collections librarian, I have a fondness for old writings, maps, and artifacts. Because of this predilection and the experience I’ve accumulated during my career, I thought that I might provide a primer of sorts on the history of writing and printing with an eye turned towards how this rich history can be in utilized a role-playing campaign. What follows is not an exhaustive treatise on the topic by any means. It is meant more to give the average DM some background and to provide ideas to fire the imagination and use as seeds for adventures of one’s own devising. I’ll provide some links and suggestions for those interested in pursuing the topic in more depth, but they are not required reading to use the information presented here. It is my hope that these articles will stand on their own as a reference source for referees looking for add a bit more depth to their games.

The Beginning of Writing

As far as we can tell from the archeological record, writing originated with the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia sometime shortly before 3000 B.C.E. It is possible that earlier societies had developed a form of writing prior to this age, but if so, their records were most likely kept in a format that has not survived to the common era.

The lands of Mesopotamia were gifted with good clay and reeds that grew in abundance in the marshes, providing the Sumerians with the tools needed to preserve their records for posterity. Reeds were cut into styli, which when pressed into wet clay, left wedge-shaped markings. We know this language as “cuneiform,” from the Latin for wedge. The clay was shaped into rough rectangular tablets or conical shapes, then either baked in kilns or left to dry in the sun. Because clay only hardens when exposed to heat, the bane of so many later forms of writing, fire, served to actually help preserve these ancient documents rather than destroy them.

We know from some of the surviving accession records that clay tablets and cones were not the sole materials used in writing. Wooden boards have been mentioned, but none survive to this day. It is quite possible that wax tablets, much like the ones which would see later use by the Greeks and Romans, may have been employed as well.

Cuneiform began as a pictographic form of writing, meaning that initially symbols were used to refer to concrete objects or action. Cuneiform would evolve into an ideographic writing over time, which allowed the recording of abstract concepts related to the subject of the symbol, then finally become a phonographic form of writing, where symbols represented syllables rather than objects themselves. This style of writing was a complicated arrangement than required extensive study to learn. As such, literacy in the Fertile Crescent was limited to professional scribes, priest, and in some cases, rulers.

Although complex, cuneiform was proficient at what it did and would be assimilated by the Akkadians when they conquered the Sumerians in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. and later adapted by the Babylonians and Assyrians.

Organizing Information

The Sumerians established the first archives and proto-libraries. Initially, cuneiform was used to record the day-to-day operations of the state. It was a form of primitive bookkeeping; the archeological finds from this era are listings of commodities – animals, jars, baskets, crops, etc. Over time, the records become more complex, being the first known example of governmental “red tape.” Court judgments, marriage contracts, loans, divorce settlements, inventories, bills and the like have all been found preserved for posterity on these clay tablets. Since the temples managed the economic matters of ancient Sumer and the health of the cities and their rulers where firmly intertwined with the will of the gods, it wasn’t long before religious matters were recorded as well. Records of hymns, prayers and incantations have been discovered at archeological digs in Mesopotamia.

The Sumerians recorded information so that it could be referenced again by later generations, thus ensuring the continued welfare of the civilization. It was because of this forethought that we know as much as we do about their culture. To protect these records, the tablets were placed in secure storerooms, often chambers without door and accessible only by ladders inserted through the ceiling. The tablets were stored on wooden shelves, in reed baskets, or in brick receptacles. Each container was labeled with a clay tablet that listed the contents of that receptacle.

In addition, the tablets themselves often sported some form of cataloguing information. In ancient Mesopotamia, books did not have titles. Instead an incipit (the first few words of text) was used to identify individual tablets, much like untitled poems are identified in modern anthologies. When writings occupied more than a single tablet, each carried an incipit or catchword at its end to indicate the successive tablet in the series. Colophons were used as well to identify a specific work. A colophon is one or more lines of text written on the back of a tablet following the end of the writing. It serves the purpose that a title page does in modern publication. Examples of some of these found colophons are:

Eighth tablet of the Dupaduparsa Festival, words of Silalluhi and Kuwatalla, the temple-priestess. Written by the hand of Lu, son of Nugissar, in the presence of Anuwanza, the overseer.

Third tablet of Kuwastalla, temple-priestess. Not the end. “When I treat a man according to the great ritual.”
[this is an example of an incipit]
Colophons and incipits were vital to keeping writings that spanned multiple tablets together. Since tablets could not be bound like books, at best they could only be shelved together, either one atop the other or side-by-side. As such, it wasn’t uncommon for individual tablets to become lost or misplaced.

By the thirteenth century B.C.E., catalogues of these repository collections had become more advanced. Listings that provided more bibliographic information have been discovered dating from this time. Rather than simply listing the works found in individual receptacles, whole collections have been detailed and described with information pertaining to subject matter, number of volumes and status of the collection. Examples from these early catalogues are:

Three tablets on the spring festival of the city of Hurma. How the presiding official celebrates the festival. First and second tablets missing.

,em>One tablet. Words of Annana, the old woman. When one supplicates the Storm-God. Not the end.

One tablet, the end, on the purification of a murder. When the exorcist-priest treats a city for murder. Words of Erija.

Two tablets. When the king, queen, and princes give substitute-figures to the Sun-Goddess of the Earth. The end. However we have not found the first tablet belonging to it.
In addition to noting missing tablets, catalogue entries also sometimes provide shelving information, such as “they do not stand upright,” indicating that the tablets in question were to be found lying horizontally on the shelves.

Protecting the Collections

Like modern librarians, the priests of Mesopotamia had to protect their collections against loss, damage, and theft. We find evidence of these ills included in the colophons of tablets. Unlike the modern system of fines, the cost of misusing the works of a Mesopotamian collection was often paid to a higher power. These warnings run the gamut from the vague - as in the case of this tablet: “He who fears Anu, Enlil, and Ea will return it [the tablet] to the owner’s house the same day,” or in another case, “He who fears Marduk and Sarpanitum will not entrust it to [others’] hands. He who entrusts it to [others’] hands, may all the gods who are found in Babylon curse him!” - to the very descriptive: “He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognize it [and] cannot make it be understood, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar, Bel, Nergal, Ishtar of Nineveh, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of heaven and earth and the gods of Assyria, may all these curse him with a curse which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth!”

More mundane efforts were used to protect these works, of course. A text in the collection of Ashurbanipal indicates that the person consulting this work, “a tablet of the king,” do so in the presence of a royal official.

Ashurbanipal’s Library

If there was a forefather to the Library of Alexandria, the archive created by the last important ruler of Assyria, Ashurbanipal (685 – ca. 627 B.C.E) is probably it. Noted as having achieved “the highest level in the scribal art,” Ashurbanipal assembled the largest known collection of written works during this era. From this collection, located in the city of Nineveh, archeologists have unearthed more than one hundred examples of various types of professional writings. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Epic of Creation, and most other noted works from the ancient Near East world that we possess today were found in this collection.

The collection consists of the usual archival documents regarding the daily running of the state mixed in with library material. Out of the library material, the largest portion of it is comprised of text regarding omens and the interpretations of such. The next largest were technical religious works – rituals, incantations, prayers, means of warding off evil spirits or invoking divine aid. The third largest portion was scholarly texts, being glossaries of cuneiform symbols, lists of words and names, gazetteers, and dictionaries for translating Sumerian into Akkadian. The literary works of this era that we’re familiar with comprised only a small portion of the library’s texts, being less than 5% of the total collection.

It has been estimated that the collection of Ashurbanipal’s library totaled some 1,500 titles. Since many of the titles existed as multiple copies, the number of tablets contained within this collection would have been far greater.

Putting This to Use

Now that we’ve explored the history of the origins of writing, let’s look at how we could use this information in our games. I’m sure that by now a few ideas might be brewing in the reader’s mind, but let’s lay out some ideas built on the proceeding information.

1 - It’d be quite reasonable to assume that any civilization in one’s home campaign might have invented writing in a similar manner to the Sumerians. Perhaps an ancient human civilization also used clay tablets and pictographic writing to record the knowledge of their grand era. Like cuneiform, these records would be durable, easily surviving more than five millennium to fall into the hands of adventurers, sages, mages, and priests. Any sort of information from the dim past could be provided to the players by having their characters discover a cache of these tablets. While carvings in stone would also have an equally prolonged durability, provided that the stone was shielded from the elements in some manner, clay tablets are portable and could be found almost anywhere.

Speaking of stone, the developers of such a form of writing need not be human. Dwarves might have produced a similar method of record keeping, utilizing the rich clay found in their ancient delves imprinted with a rigid stylus crafted from a subterranean fungus. Or perhaps you’d prefer for them to stay true to their traditional role as master stoneworkers, allowing them to have developed a method of fashioning slim tablets from living stone that are still durable enough to be carved on. Thin metal sheets that are etched with acid could be another stand-in for cuneiform in your campaign.

2 – The presence of colophons on tablets and the bibliographic information found in Mesopotamian catalogues can be used to as a method to get the party involved in tracking down whatever MacGuffin the DM wants to use as basis for an adventure. If the party discovers a tablet whose colophon indicates that it is just one of three tablets and the information that the party needs is not recorded on that tablet, the next logical step would be to track down the remaining two. Depending on the DM, the information might be found on just one of those tablets or require all three to decipher properly. In a similar manner, having the party discover the catalogue of some ancient archive gives them a chance to see if any of the titles listed might be of interest to them. By using this as an adventure hook, the DM can gauge the interest of the party before undertaking the task of fleshing out an entire adventure surrounding a lost collection of ancient texts. While an undiscovered collection of text might seem more tailored to the magic-users in the party, adding to the catalogue an entry about a title that details the successful military campaign against an ancient foe might pique the fighter’s mind, and the memoirs of the Grand Thief of Axhabil might lure those of a more avaricious nature.

3 – Suppose the party has been hired by a sage or wizard to recover a certain text from an ancient library. After overcoming great peril and adversity, the party finally reaches their goal and unearths the tablets that they’ve been charged to recover. As they prepare to return with the texts, they discover that whomever removes the tablets from their proper location faces the wrath of the gods and a horrific fate. Is this just mere superstition used by the library’s ancient curators to protect their collection or is there truth behind these words? The party faces an interesting dilemma, especially if the wizard who hired them promises a dire reward for failure…

4 – The lure of ancient library or archive is almost too much for some classes to resist. If that repository is known to have a sizable collection of tablets that contain rituals, incantations, and prayers, all forgotten by modern spell casters, both the party’s cleric and magic-user will most likely drive the rest of the party straight for wherever such a storehouse is rumored to lie.

Hopefully this will serve as an interesting reference source for the reader. While time and the need for brevity have forced me to abbreviate the subject matter, I hope that there is enough useful tidbits of history enclosed within to allow the DM to run with what is provided and craft his own material for his campaign. When interest and time allows, I intend to examine other periods of history and the evolution of writing and books in a similar manner.

Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2001
The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative
Lerner, Fred. The Story of Libraries. The Continuum Publishing Company: New York, NY, 1999

Friday, October 17, 2008

Megadungeon Mania

It seems that the “blognards” are all feeling the megadungeon vibe this week. Sham’s been cutting and pasting his notes here, here, and here. Jeff’s posted a retrospective of his Dungeon of Doom, and James has announced the back story of his megadungeon. Must be something in the air. Perhaps October is the time when a young man’s fancy turns to thought of dank, filthy holes, deep within the earth.

Since I’m still operating under a self-imposed media blackout, I’m keeping my cards close to my chest. I offered a little glimpse at what awaits down on level two on Wednesday, and my winning entry from one of the Grognard’s Challenges is available for public viewing. I really don’t want to show more than I should before any unwitting characters encounter things firsthand.

But being the good sport that I am, I will part with another little glimpse at what lurks beneath Mosshurn Keep. Below is the “boxed text” description I prepared in my notes back before I wised up and ditched boxed text. No game notes accompany it. I call it “The Play Set”:

An unexpected sight fills your eyes as you view the cavern before you. A rustic village done in miniature is laid out on the cavern floor. Rows of quarter-sized homes, each roughly twice the size of a man square and rising head-high, fill the right side of the cave. The double storied homes are of timber and plaster construction with tiny tiled roofs. Small doors and windows pierce the walls, showing gloom within. A wider house, perhaps twice the size of the others, is situated against the right-hand wall of the cavern.

On the left side of the cavern sits an ornate manor house, also constructed at ¼ scale. A low porch leads up to its miniature double doors. Arched windows adorn the façade and crenellated battlements line the edge of the roof. Directly to the left of the building, in the near left-hand corner of the cave lays a narrow, but long pool of water. The water ripples as small fish dart about beneath its surface.

The floor of the cavern is covered with fine brown sand, crisscrossed by pathways of crushed white gravel that form the village streets. The cavern ceiling rises high overhead. Flecked with chips of mica, it glitters like a night sky keeping watch over this sleeping village.
As to what might lay in store for the adventurers should they decide to explore this tiny village, I won’t say. Maybe a strange clan of Halflings who’ve shunned the surface world? Perhaps viscous cannibalistic children, escaped from a Tennessee William’s play? I’m not telling. But if there are any survivors, perhaps they will…

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Look Behind the Screen

Supposedly, the purpose behind this blog is to document my return to my gaming roots through the process of designing a classic megadungeon. I’ve tried to stay true to that goal, even though the path leading there may seemingly wander through strange territory every so often. The notes on poisons and the new spell were laid out so that by the time we got to the random trap table, things would be clear as to what those entries were.

The biggest obstacle in sharing the design process is that some of the folks who stop by here from time to time, have a better than even chance of being the first people to venture through the doors of Ol’ Nameless. As such, I find that I have to limit myself as to what I post here. At least until the initial forays are over. It’s not that I don’t trust these people with the ability to separate in- and out-of-game knowledge, but why ruin the surprise if I don’t have to?

While this would be fine if I was keeping this blog on a private level, it’s poor form to keep everyone out of the loop, seeing as how most of them will never set foot in the place. I’ve been looking for a happy middle ground to appease both camps, and recently, I believe that I might be able to serve two masters. Let me give you a glimpse at what goes on behind the screen during my design phase. I’ve alluded to the process in the past, but never fully described it. Since a lot can change from my initial maps to what appears in the end result, I’ll show a small tease from a section of Level 2 to accompany the process.

The way that I go about setting up each level usually begins with a rough map. Since the goal was to create a pseudo-medieval version of the Winchester Mystery House, I decided that for the initial levels I’d be employing a modified version of the Random Dungeon Generator from the DMG. It’d give me a layout that mimicked the random and illogical nature of the Winchester House.

Level 2 Tease The rough draft of the map is done on a piece of 11” x 17” graph paper on a 4 squares/inch scale. I picked up a tablet of the stuff from an Office Max awhile back, and while I wish the scale was a little smaller, the paper is big enough to suit my purposes. After the dice fall where they may, sometimes requiring that the map be continued on one or more pieces of paper, I have my initial design.

I usually have an idea as to what purpose the level served in the overall design of the initial complex, so at this point, I begin to see which of my randomly generated rooms most look like the chambers that would fit the level’s scheme. I write down the room’s original purpose on the map, using it as a reference when fleshing out the level in my notes.

Sometimes, however, the rooms seem to serve no easily settled upon function within the level. It’s at that time that I pull out my “Wandering Chamber Table” and start rolling the bones again. Usually, I only need to use this table a few times before the design logjam breaks and the map starts filling itself in again. As before, I make notes on the map itself as to what these rooms once were.

Once I have the original functions of the rooms, I start thinking about where I’m going to place my “set piece” encounters. These can be the special tricks or traps that I have in mind, or they can be the lairs of specific monsters that I want to include on the level in question. Tricks and traps usually end up getting placed in rooms that seem odd for one reason or another. Monster lairs get placed in rooms or areas that would seem to be most conducive to long term inhabitation; being close to a water source or food supply, or being easily defendable against outsiders. Again, these notes are included on the rough map.

Once this is all done, I make any alterations to the rough map that I feel are necessary for the level. Rooms are added or erased; doors are placed or removed, etc. When I’m finally comfortable with the rough design, I begin fleshing out the dungeon in my notes. The set piece rooms are stocked and described, the tricks and traps are given stats and descriptions, and the treasure I want included is placed.

This leaves me with just the unoccupied areas of the map. These rooms I fill in via the method described in Vol. 3 and in Moldvay/Cook Basic. Instead of using the generic wandering monster table from those books, I create a custom chart for each level. This table is composed of monsters already placed, as well as critters that could find a home on the level, based on power and survivability. Unguarded treasure is secured and random tricks are brainstormed. Any traps are diced for on the Random Trap Table.

At this point, I’ve got myself a dungeon level. Depending on what else might be lurking on that level, I go back into my notes and change descriptions to refer to these late additions. As an example, if the level has some sort of low intelligent creature in it, the party might find some of the smarter monsters using it as a food source. I’ll change the description of their lair to include the bones of the first monster, or perhaps put a boiling cauldron of centipede stew on the oven in their kitchen.

As the final step, I now redraw the map of the level onto regular 8” x 11” graph paper with a 10 squares/inch scale. This is so that the maps will fit into a regular notebook along with the level notes. In the redrawing process, I blow up the scale to 5’ a square from the standard 10’ square. I’ll add symbols to represent the locations of any objects that might be important during play during this stage as well. I use sheet protectors for these maps. Experience has taught me the need for protecting important game notes from the all-too common spilled beverage.

That’s it. Hardly rocket science or something revolutionary. Referees who’ve not stepped away from the game as I have will probably find this old hat. But for me, it was a process that I had to rediscover upon my return and it took me some time to remember how to do it correctly.

I will explain my reliance on random charts for much of the process. While some might find the use of such things a crutch, to me they are part of the fun of the design process. Using random tables engages my creative energy. When I look at the result, it’s up to me to make sense of it within the overall scheme of the dungeon. The weirder the result, the more creative that I have to get. It’s easy enough to leave the critter/trap/trick in play without explaining it. In many cases, the party will never see the reasoning behind it. But personally, I get a real charge out of coming up with a logical excuse for its presence, based on what I know about the dungeon. And that, for me, is one of the many reasons that I love this game.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Links Part 5

Between the perfect storm of Yom Kippur, Columbus Day, and the fact that the Presidential Debate is being held at my place of employment, I've had a few free days to get caught up with some more blogs. Two more for the list:

Lamentations of the Flame Princess: James Raggi has the DIY principle deeply embedded in his psyche. Creator of a role-playing supplement entirely too long to name here, he published it out of pocket and continues to do design work, creating the type of product that he wants to see. He reminds me a very much of my very metal role-playing buddys from college. Check him out and plumb the mystery behind the righteous name.

Sham's Grog 'n Blog: Sham aka Dave is an AD&D player who made the jump back to OD&D and provides a very persuasive argument why others should do so. In addition, he's been working on a megadungeon that sounds very cool. His trials with that sound very similar to my own ears. Plus, he has excellent musical taste.


I’ve been trying to catch up on my reading of other blogs out there that share focus with this one. In the very near future, I’ll have two more to add to the list.

As with the others, the reason that these blogs have kept my attention is that they are the work of enthusiastic fans of this hobby that have a real drive to share their creations and thoughts with others. In this Time of Now, it is very easy to have a blog whose sole purpose is to engage in edition-bashing and pointing out the sheer superiority of the blogger’s preferred form of the game. To merely be a stone upon which to stand while spitting vitriol down on others too foolish to accept their declarations as the One True Way.

You may have noticed that I engage in very little edition bashing around here. It’s simply not something that I have the time, patience, or desire to engage in. I’ve never been much for orators, although I can appreciate a well-crafted speech and/or argument. I subscribe more to Mark Twain’s statement that "Thunder is good, thunder is impressive. But lightning does the work." And from what I can see, I’m not the only one who believes this.

It is for this reason that I feel the “old-school renaissance,” or whatever one wishes to call it, has a better chance at achieving its aims than many other movements. It is a revival effort that is composed mostly of people who spend more time doing than inspiring others to do the “doing” for them. An effort driven by people who know that the best way to attract people to its banner is not by cajoling them or attacking the things that they hold dear, but to present their love of the old game through example and creative efforts. To produce, rather than reduce.

Like any social movement - and I use “movement” rather loosely, as our aims, while noble, are nowhere near the level of such true movements as those for civil rights or women’s independence - there is always a need for outspoken advocates. We have those here, but even the most vocal are backing their statements with creations to supplement their words. I’m grateful for their presence, since I myself have neither the desire nor skill to fulfill that role.
Instead, I do what many of the other bloggers listed over to the right do: create and share my love for the game. Any time that I spent trying to assail the towers of Edition X, Y, or perhaps someday, Z, is time better spent on providing my own contributions to supporting the older ways of the hobby through my own creative efforts.

When I think about the old-school renaissance, the analogy that most often pops into my head is that of a potluck dinner. We’re a group of individuals gathering around a common table. The price of admission to this gathering is that we all have to bring something to the event. It’s alright if you don’t always have something to bring since there’s plenty to go around, but if you really want to make the party better, you’ll make a point of bringing something in the future.

To continue the analogy, I didn’t even know that these potluck dinners were being held until I happened to wander by and catch the smell of cooking I hadn’t eaten in years. After getting drawn in through the door and having the chance to sample from the table, I remembered how good these dinners were and how great the food was. I decided that I’d make it a regular habit of attending these dinners, but only if I could bring something to the table myself.

That’s been my unofficial mantra and the agreement that I made with myself before I started this blog. The day that I feel that I’ve nothing more to share than my presence, is the day I shut this whole thing down. I know that not everything I bring to the potluck is going to be a winner. Some of it will be overcooked, some of it half-baked, and others will simply not be to everyone’s liking. I’m fine with that. I can always replace last week’s Three Bean casserole with this week’s German potato salad. Maybe that’ll go over better. The point is that I’m not arriving empty-handed and trying, in my own little way, to make things better than they would be without my presence.

In closing, I’d just like to say that I wish that I had known about these dinners a little sooner. Although I’m a relatively late-comer to the table, the reception that I’ve received from those here before me has been both kind and encouraging, and I hope to extend that warmth to those who come in after me.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Don't Touch That

“The fear of "death", its risk each time, is one of the most stimulating parts of the game. It therefore behooves the campaign referee to include as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistent with a reasonable chance for survival (remembering that the monster population already threatens this survival). For example, there is no question that a player's character could easily be killed by falling into a pit thirty feet deep or into a shallow pit filled with poisoned spikes, and this is quite undesirable in most instances.”
-Dungeons & Dragons Vol. 3 p. 6

I’ve never been a big fan of traps of the “save or die” variety. They have their place but shouldn’t be encountered regularly or randomly. At the same time, I do believe that a dungeon without traps is like a house without books: it’s missing its soul.

To work out a middle-ground, I put together a list of random traps to use in the course of stocking Ol’ Nameless. None of the traps on the list are straight-out killers, but depending on the luck of the dice, the preventive measures of the party and the poor sucker standing in the cross-hairs when it goes off, some of these could conceivably shuffle an unfortunate character off to 10’ Pole Hill. I’ve been using the list to give me a sort of “plausible deniability” in the case one takes out one of the party. After all, there was just as good a chance that a lesser trap might have been in its place. Blame the dice, man.

Random Trap Tables: Levels 1-3

Level 1
  1. Gas Trap – Roll on Poison sub-table

  2. Volley of Darts – 1d4 darts, 25% chance of poison [attack as 1st level Fighter, 1d3 points of damage]

  3. Ekim’s Minor Warding Web: Sleep

  4. Gas Trap – Roll on Poison sub-table

  5. Ekim’s Minor Warding Web: Shocking Grasp [1d8+6]

  6. Spring-loaded Blade – 1d8 points of damage

  7. Leomund’s Trap

  8. Poison Needle – Roll on Poison sub-table

  9. Glyph of Warding: Righteous Shout – Deafened for 2d6 rounds & 1d6 points of damage. Successful save halves duration of deafness and no damage taken

  10. Contact poison on container or treasure – Roll on Poison sub-table

  11. Glyph of Warding: Holy Light – Save or blinded for 2d6 rounds

  12. Quarrel Trap – Single crossbow quarrel, 25% chance of poison [attacks as 1st level Fighter, 1d4+1 damage]
Level 2
  1. Roll on Level 1 Table

  2. Pit Trap – 10’ deep, 25% chance of spikes

  3. Falling Bricks – 2d6 points of damage to a 10’ square area. Save for ½ damage

  4. Fire Trap - 1d4+8 points of damage. Save for ½ damage

  5. Ekim’s Minor Warding Web: Magic missile [three missiles 1d4+1 damage]

  6. “The Contraptionist’s Hedgehog” (volley of needles) – 2d4 points of damage to 10’ square area. Save for ½ damage. 50% chance of poison

  7. Glyph of Warding: Quail before the Divine – Paralyzed for 12 rounds. Save for ½ duration

  8. Poison Needle – Roll on Poison Sub-table

  9. Spear Trap – 1-3 spears doing (# of spears) 1d6 points of damage. Save to avoid

  10. Gas Trap – Roll on Poison sub-table

  11. Scything Blade – 2d4 points of damage, 25% chance of poison. Save for no damage
  12. Roll on Level 3 Table
Level 3
  1. Roll on Level 2 Table

  2. Contact Poison on treasure or container – Roll on sub-table

  3. “Old 33” (rolling rock) – 3d4 points of damage, save to avoid

  4. Glyph of Warding: Astra’s Touch – 12 points of electrical damage. Save for 1/2 damage

  5. Door of Doom – Door rigged to fall inward/outward. 1d10 points of damage. Save to avoid

  6. Portcullis Trap – Concealed portcullis drops. 3d6 points of damage, save to avoid. Party possible separated

  7. Explosive Runes – 6d4+6 points of damage to reader. All within 10’ radius save for ½ damage

  8. Ekim’s Minor Warding Web: Mel’s Acid Arrow- Hits as 6th level Fighter. 2d4 damage per round for three rounds. Splash damage and item saving throws apply

  9. Poison Arrow – 1d6 points of damage + roll on Poison sub-table. Hits as 3rd level fighter

  10. Spring-loaded Blades (2) – 2d8 points of damage + 50% chance of poison

  11. Pit trap – 20’ deep, 50% chance of spikes

  12. Volley of Darts – 1d4+1 darts, 50% chance of poison [Hits as a 3rd level Fighter. 1-3 points of damage each]
Poison Sub-table

Die Roll

Gas (1d4)

Contact (1d4)

Insinuative (1d6)



Generic Debilitative

Dormorum’s Tears


Generic Debilitative

Numb Limb

Nox Slap


Trog Musk

Fool’s Gold, Lesser





Generic Type AA




Distillate of Sculuxpendi giganti








Generic Type B





Friday, October 10, 2008

Back to the Cupboard

Since the response was positive to the insinuative-type poisons, I’ve decided to post the second half of my big list of poisons. Below you will find toxins of a gaseous and contact nature. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly after reading.

Gaseous and Contact Poisons

Unlike the more common forms of insinuative and ingestive poisons, toxins dispensed in a gaseous or contact form are of only two intensities: debilitative and deadly. This is due to the increased chance of accidental exposure to both of these forms of poison. By creating a minor toxin that is easily survivable, yet still powerful enough to be used as a deterrent, the chance of inadvertently killing an overcurious visitor is avoided. In the case where the poison-user is determined or paranoid enough to protect his treasures at all costs, the unintended loss of life is not a concern. Such is the cost of security.

As with insinuative poisons, the format here is the poison’s name followed by brackets. The information within the brackets is laid out with damage being represented by two values separated by a slash. Values preceding the slash is the damage taken if a save against poison is failed. The value after the slash is damage taken if the save is successful. After damage, an onset time is listed. This is the amount of time that passes before the victim begins to feel the effects of the poison. This type of information comes in handy when determining how long the party’s cleric has to drop a neutralize or slow poison spell on the victim. In the case of gaseous poisons, a third entry lists the duration of a poisonous cloud when dispensed in its 20’ x 20’ x 20’ form. Spells such as gust of wind and the like will reduce this duration as the DM desires. Poisonous gas dispensed in a 5’ x 5’ x 5’ cloud rarely last longer than a few moments.

Gaseous Poisons

Gas-based poisons are quick-acting toxins that are either dispensed in small puffs of vapor intended to affect only one or two individuals; usually those attempting to gain access to a locked container, or in large clouds designed to affect as many people as possible, such as when employed as a room trap. For simplicity sake, assume that a trapped container produces a 5’ x 5’ x 5’ cloud directly in front of the trap and that a room-based gas trap produces a 20’ x 20’ x 20’ cloud. Anyone caught within the cloud initially must make a save against poison to avoid the effects of the gas. If a person willfully enters an area occupied by a poison gas cloud, he or she may be granted a +4 to their saving throw based on the assumption that they’re aware of the gas’ presence and are taking appropriate measures to protect themselves (i.e. holding their breath, covering their mouth, etc.).

Debilitative Gases – These toxins are most commonly used by those who wish to protect themselves and their possessions without causing the loss of life. These poisons are designed to incapacitate or assist in the apprehension of intruders. Because of their non-lethal nature, most of these poisons may be used by characters of Good alignment, excepting paladins.

Generic Debilitative [Damage: Unable to perform any actions for 2-5 rounds/no effect. Onset time: Immediate. Duration of cloud: 10 rounds] – This blue gas smells of sulfur and fecal matter. While of mundane origin, the gas works as if it were a stinking cloud spell. Anyone caught in the initial cloud is only affected for 2-5 rounds, even if the cloud has yet to disperse at that time. It is assumed that the gas has become diluted enough that the victim’s body has acclimated to the toxin. An individual entering the cloud for the first time after it has been triggered, but before the cloud’s ten-minute duration has expired, must save as usual – with a possible bonus (see above).

Lungburn [Damage: -1 penalty to AC and -2 to hit per round exposed to the gas/no effect. Onset time: Immediate. Duration of cloud: 20 rounds] – This grey gas smells of ammonia and attacks the victim’s lungs, causing hacking, coughing and vomiting. For each round the victim is caught within the cloud, he or she suffers a cumulative penalty to Armor Class and attack rolls. The effects of the gas last for a full turn after the victim escapes the cloud.

Tell-tale [Damage: Blinded for 2-5 rounds & stealth penalties/no effect. Onset time: Immediate. Duration of cloud: 10 rounds] - Not so much a cloud as an explosion of reflective particles, this gas appears as a shower of tiny glittering flakes – gold, silver and mica being the most common. The glittering particles cause blindness to anyone who fails their saving throw while engulfed in the cloud. Additionally, these flakes are highly adhesive and will cling to clothing, armor, hair and skin. Any invisible creature caught within the cloud will instantly become visible as they are coated with glittering color. The flakes are very difficult to remove once they’ve attached themselves. Simple soap and water will not suffice. The adhesive that holds the flakes in place is alcohol-soluble and washing oneself in strong spirits is enough to remove the glittering particles for good. During the time the flakes are attached to the individual, he or she can only surprise opponents that use sight as a primary detection sense on a roll of a 1 and thieves incur a -40% penalty to any attempts at Hiding in Shadows while sparkly.

Trog Musk [Damage: Lose 1 Strength point per round/no effect. Onset time: Immediate. Duration of cloud: 10 rounds] – This sour, brown gas is derived from the musk produced by troglodytes and acts as if the victim had been exposed to those nauseous creatures. The victim loses 1 point of Strength per round for 1-6 rounds, cumulative. This penalty remains in effect for ten rounds after the final point of Strength has been lost.

Andula [Damage: 1d6 h.p. per round/no effect. Onset time: Immediate. Duration of cloud: 30 rounds] – This red cloud smells acidic and affects the blood of the victim. Each round the victim is within the cloud, he must save against poison or lose 1d6 hit points as he begins to bleed out of his bodily orifices. Andula is the sole debilitative poisonous gas that inflicts actual damage. Its origins lay back in the final days of Xoryphaal, so adventurers exploring the ruins dating from those shadowy years are advised to beware.

Deadly Gases – These poisons are meant to kill anyone careless enough to trigger them. These toxins are used by those who are either determined enough or cavalier enough to risk the accidental death of others in order to protect their goods and holdings. These poisons are fast-acting and rarely anything less than fatal to anyone unlucky enough to catch the full brunt of them.

Generic Deadly [Damage: Death/0 hp. Onset time: 1-6 rounds with unconsciousness immediately following exposure. Duration of cloud: 10 rounds] – This green gas smells of bleach and is the most common of deadly gases. Anyone exposed to this gas immediately loses consciousness and will die within 1-6 rounds.

Gorgon’s Breath [Damage: Turn to Stone/0 hp. Onset time: 1-2 rounds. Duration of cloud: 1d4 rounds] – Whether or not this poison is the same as that produced by the legendary iron bull is up to debate. What is not disputed is the effects of the gas. Like the breath weapon of the gorgon, anyone who fails a save against poison when exposed to this white, rust-smelling vapor is almost immediately petrified. At that point, a neutralize poison spell is no longer effected to ward off the poison. Only a stone to flesh spell will suffice.

Nan-vyl-nah [Damage: 1d4 hp of damage per spell level memorized/1 hp of damage per spell level memorized. Onset time: 1-4 rounds. Duration of cloud: 5 rounds] – This purple cloud smells of a spring forest and is initially quite pleasing to the nose. That pleasure ends 1-4 rounds later if the victim is a spell-caster. This magically-created toxin reacts with the stored spell energy of any memorized incantations or prayers possessed by a spell-caster, causing an internal eruption of mystical energy that incinerates the victim from within. For every individual level of spells currently memorized, the caster takes 1d4 points of damage. Thus a 5th level magic-user with a full allotment of four 1st level spells, two 2nd level spells and a single 3rd level spell would suffer 11d4 points of damage on a failed saving throw. Should the spell-caster survive this internal inferno of spell energy, he will find that he has lost any and all memorized spells in the conflagration. On a successful save, the caster still suffers damage, but it is limited to a single point of damage per level of memorized spells and he retains them in his memory. The mage in the above example would take 11 points of damage and still have access to his full collection of spells had he made his save. This nasty toxin affects only spell-casters and a DM may rule that clerics, druids and paladins are immune to the effects at his discretion. This gas is believed to be a creation of the Unseelie Court of the Kind Ones; created in jealousy of Man’s mastery of magic.

Yellow Mold Spores [Damage: Death/no effect. Onset time: Immediate. Duration of cloud: 1 minute] – This cloud is nothing more than the spores of the ubiquitous dungeon-dwelling yellow mold preserved by artificial methods. When triggered, the gas acts just as if the victim had been exposed to yellow mold: save against poison or die. In the case of death, both a cure disease and a resurrection spell are required within 24 hours to resuscitate the character.

Contact Poisons

These potent poisons work through mere skin contact and, like gas poisons, run a high risk of accidental exposure. Because of this risk, contact poisons are manufactured with either an eye towards dissuading the curious from handling things that don’t rightfully belong to them, or mercilessly slaying any who’d even entertain the idea of robbing the rightful owner. In most cases, contact poison can be avoided simply by wearing gloves when handling an object smeared with the substance. A few of the more dangerous contact poisons, nevertheless, eat through any material protecting the skin and exposing the wearer to the poison’s full effects.

Debilitative Contact Poisons – Like their airborne cousins, debilitative contact poisons are designed to dissuade or incapacitate those who are exposed to them. Many a less-than patient or trusting noble or mage has utilized debilitative contact poisons to keep the help and their students from touching valuable heirlooms and potent magical items. Most contact poisons are a clear liquid, oil or gel, making them blend in with the item that they coat but not rendering them completely invisible. Due to the slightly reflective nature of these poisons, anyone taking the time to examine an item coated with a debilitative contact poison has a 50% chance to notice that something seems odd about the item. Common signs that an item bears a contact poison are slight discoloration, a seemingly wet sheen to the item, a faint out-of-place odor, or a mottled pattern of dust clinging to the item’s surface.

Generic Debilitative [Damage: Paralysis for 2-8 turns/no effect. Onset time: 1-2 rounds] – This poison bears a faint aroma of apples to it, so those with a keen sense of smell may be alerted to its presence.

Fool’s Gold, Lesser [Damage: Sleep for 7-12 turns/no effect. Onset time: 1 round] – Commonly used to either protect objects crafted from gold or to turn worthless objects into a tempting prize, fool’s gold is a gleaming, golden paint-like poison that fully coats the object. When used on an item made of gold, the chance to detect its presence is a mere 20% due to its close similarity to actual gold. If placed upon an object made of other than gold, the standard chance to detect its presence apply.

Numb Limb [Damage: Incapacitates victim’s limb(s)/no effect. Onset time: 1-6 rounds] - This odorless poison acts as a powerful anesthetic, rendering the limb or limbs that touch it unusable for 2-24 hours. In the case of the victim’s arm being rendered numb, he accrues a -4 penalty to all attacks made with his off-hand, may not use two-handed weapons (including bows) and may not use a shield. Spell-casters attempting to use spells that require a somatic component are either unable to do so or suffer a 50% chance of spell failure – DM’s prerogative. If the limb affected is a leg, the victim’s movement rate is reduced by half. If the victim somehow manages to affect his head with this substance, he’s struck unconscious for the duration of the toxin.

Screecher [Damage: Uncontrollable screaming/no effect. Onset time: Immediate] – This musty-smelling poison causes the victim to go into an uncontrollable screaming fit that lasts for 1-4 rounds. The victim is unable to stop himself and the violent convulsions that accompany this fit make it impossible for him to stifle his screams on his own. These screams will alert any nearby creatures to the victim’s presence. In dungeon situations, the screams act like the effects of a shrieker; increasing the chance of a wandering monster encounter to 50% for each round the screaming occurs.

Struck-dumb [Damage: Mute/no effect. Onset time: 2-4 rounds] – Devised to inhibit spell-casting, anyone who touches struck-dumb and fails their saving throw will find that they are unable to utter a single word. This makes the casting of any spell with a V component impossible, as well as creating communication issues within the party. This lemony-scented poison remains in effect until a neutralize poison is cast upon the victim.

Deadly Contact Poisons – These vicious poisons are the product of both alchemy and magic, creating a nasty brew. Because of their partly mystical origins, a detect magic spell will reveal a faint magical aura surrounding any object that has been coated with these poisons. This could lead to some interesting false conclusions on the part of the adventurers. Like debilitative contact poisons, deadly poisons might be noticeable by someone taking the time to inspect a treated item before handling. However, in the case of deadly contact poisons, the chance to notice something amiss is only 25%.

Generic Deadly [Damage: Death/6-48 hp. Onset time: 1-2 rounds] – This poison is crafted from the natural venom of sea-dwelling spiny fish and amplified through sorcery. A faint odor of fish and salt-water accompanies the poison. A successful check to notice the poison will reveal that the object has a slightly-incandescent rainbow hue.

Devil’s Hand [Damage: (Constitution)d10 hp/ ½ damage. Onset time: 1-2 round] – This toxin ignites when it comes into contact with exposed flesh. Once burning, this cinnamon-scented poison begins feeding on the victim’s health, turning his body into a living wick. The victim suffers damage equal to his Constitution score in 10-sided dice. The healthier the victim is, the more fuel is available to feed the flames. The fire is considered magical for determining the value of various fire protections and cannot be extinguished through normal methods. However, a feign death spell will suppress the victim’s health to a point that the flames cannot gain purchase. Should the victim survive the flames, he will be horribly scarred from the encounter, resulting in a loss of 1d6 points of Charisma.

Fool’s Gold, Greater [As generic deadly contact] – Like its less-deadly sibling, greater fool’s gold is used to protect items made from gold or a bait for thieves. When applied to gold items the chance to detect its presence is a mere 10%. Otherwise, standard detection chances apply.

Nefrusobek’s Curse [Damage: As mummy rot/0 hp. Onset time: 1d4 days] – Perfected by the necromancer Nefrusobek, this toxin replicates the effects of a mummy’s touch. Anyone failing their save against poison will die in 1-6 months and for each month the rot progresses, the victim loses 2 points of Charisma. In addition, the rot negates all cure wounds spells and slows natural healing to 10% its normal rate. Like the normal version, this condition requires a cure disease spell to remove. The poison has the slight odor of dust and spices surrounding it.

Sloughflesh [Damage: 3-24 hp per round/ ½ damage. Onset time: 1 or more rounds] – This poison smells a bit like rotted meat and for good reason. Exposed flesh coming in contact with this toxin begins to putrefy and drop off the bones of the victim, inflicting 3d8 points of damage each round it is in effect. This poison is so acidic that it will instantly eat through cloth or leather gloves. It will dissolve metal protection in 1 round plus one round for each +1 magical enchantment the metal might possess. A neutralize poison spell will stop the damage, but until a heal spell is cast on the victim, he cannot regain any lost hit points. Should the victim die from the effects of this poison, all that remains of them is a faint jelly-like smear on the ground. Nothing short of a wish spell can raise them back to life.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Spell and a Bag

It can easily be argued that there is no need to create any new spells, monsters or magic items for use in a D&D campaign. Between the various sourcebooks, modules, supplements and Dragon magazine articles, one could play a lifetime and never use the same thing twice.

That being said, there’s still a great deal of joy waiting for the DM who sits down to create something new to perplex, challenge or reward their players. There’s nothing like the shocked look on your most jaded dungeon delver’s face when he discovers that the magic item he was sure were gauntlets of ogre power turn out to be something completely different. Why else are there so many magic items in the DMG that resemble one thing but turn out to be a cursed version of the same?

For me, creating new things for the game also allows me to justify the things I spring on my players. While I can say that "the statue turns you all into 3’ tall green dancing crayfish" and wave it off as "DM Magic," it’s much more satisfying to have the spell written out that does such a thing. Like the old days of The Dragon, if it appears in print, it must be street legal.

It also inspires the players to seek out copies of these spells or to research their own versions. An interesting and yet never-before-seen magical item in the hands of an enemy can inspire more desire to thwart and defeat that enemy than a castle full of kidnapped princesses ever could.

Pursuing that vein of thought, I present to you a new spell and a new magical item. One is most definitely for use by the DM, although many a magic-user who has grown tired of the party’s thief might desire to get a copy for their spellbook. The other is a minor magical item; one interesting enough that it might cause some head-scratching before the players puzzle it out, but not so overwhelming to be kept out of the hands of low-level adventurers.

Whether or not these items might be found within the depth of the Dungeon Not Yet Named™ is something I’ll leave up to the adventurers to discover…

Ekim’s Minor Ingenious Warding Web (Alteration)

Level : 3 (Magic-user)
Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent until discharged
Area of Effect : Object touched
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 3 rounds
Saving Throw: None

Ekim was a magic-user of minor repute who had grown weary of paying expensive trap-crafters to protect his valuables. Never being one to employ fire spells, Ekim sought an alternative to the common fire trap spell. After much experimentation and research, he created a spell that would allow him to delay the effects of certain low level spells by placing them within a cocoon of magic energy. Only when that cocoon was disturbed would the spell placed within it be triggered.

In order to use Ekim’s minor ingenious warding web effectively, the spell must first be cast upon an object. Immediately thereafter, the magic-user must cast one of the following first- or second-level spells: burning hands, magic missile, shocking grasp, sleep, ray of enfeeblement or stinking cloud. That spell then lies dormant within the ingenious warding web. Once the warding web is disturbed – usually by touching, opening or moving the object on which it is cast – the spell within the web is immediately discharged upon the person disturbing the object. In the case of spells with an area of effect, the spell’s center is the object in question. Other similar first- and second-level spells may be substituted at the DM’s discretion.

The person disturbing the object is affected as if the magic-user had cast the dormant spell directly upon him, including damage, duration and saving throws. Bystanders caught within the effects of an area of effect or cone also suffer the effects of the spell as normal.

The warding web may only protect objects that are directly interacted with. An open archway could not be protected by this spell as the archway itself is not directly disturbed by someone passing through it. Also, because the warding web requires some of the magic-user’s personal spell energy to maintain itself, a magic-user may only have one warding web in place for each three levels of experience he or she possesses, rounded down. Thus a 5th level magic user could only have one warding web active at any time while an 18th level magic-user could have up to six. Because the warding web employs the magic-user’s personal energy, he or she will be aware when one of the webs is triggered if on the same plane of existence at that time. In the case of multiple active warding webs he will not know which warding web was triggered, only that one of them has been.

The material components for this spell is 250 g.p. worth of powered gems, as well as any material components required for the cocooned spell.

Based on the name of the spell, it is possible that Ekim perfected a more potent version of this spell; one that allows higher-level spells to be cocooned within a greater ingenious warding web.

Ekim’s Bag of Bones

Experience Point Value: 1,250
Gold Piece Value: 7,500

This magical item appears to be a large draw-string canvas sack. When found, the bag contains the skeletal remains of one medium sized humanoid creature. If the bones are removed piece by piece, nothing amazing occurs. The bones simply seem to be the clean and complete skeleton of some creature. If the contents of the bag are dumped out all at once, the bones neatly assemble themselves into a skeleton (AC-7 HD-1 #Attacks-1 Damage-1d6). The skeleton will obey the commands of the person who emptied the bag as if he or she had animated it. The skeleton can be commanded back into the bag at any time and recreated at a later date. The skeleton does not repair itself or regain any lost hit points while within the confines of the sack and may be destroyed as normal, either in combat or by a cleric’s turning power. The destruction of the skeleton does not affect the magic of the bag. In fact, should the original skeleton be destroyed, the owner of the bag may replace it by refilling the bag with the complete clean skeleton of another creature. Attempts to replace the skeleton with an incomplete one, or with an only partially decomposed corpse will either fail or result in some other event of the DM's choosing. The bag can only hold one creature at any given time and the skeleton must be that of a M-sized creature or smaller for the magic to affect it.