Friday, November 28, 2008

Joseph Pillsbury

When gamers get together to reminisce about poor old defunct Dragon Magazine, the tide of conversation eventually turns towards the shores of the magazine’s long tradition of supplementing its usual useful gaming articles with a bevy of entertaining cartoons and comic strips. Depending on the ages of those gamers, certain titles are bound to come up. Older readers will voice their love for “Finieous Fingers”, “Wormy”, “What’s New with Phil and Dixie”, or even “Talanalan”. Later initiates have fond memories of “Snarfquest”, “The Twilight Empire”, “Knights of the Dinner Table”, “Nodwick”, “Dork Tower” and “The Order of the Stick”. The names of artists like Tramp, Phil Foglio, J.D. Webster, Larry Elmore, Aaron Williams, Jolly R. Blackburn, and Rich Burlew get bandied about, with debates as to who was a better artist soon following. One name that often gets left out of these discussions is that of Joseph Pillsbury.

Joseph Pillsbury never had an ongoing, multi-panel comic series in Dragon, but the man certainly made his mark. He was a frequent contributor to Dragonmirth, providing us with single panel jokes that often blurred the line between the worlds of fantasy and everyday life. A quick glance through the Dragon Magazine Archive tells me that Joseph made his first contribution in issue #90 with this piece:

While I don’t have access to my own later issues of Dragon, I know his work was still making appearances as the published run of the magazine was winding down. That’s quite a legacy of grin-making.

I like Pillsbury’s work for a few reasons, but largely I love the way he depicts his “heroic” adventurers. They are not participants in world-changing events or of fantasy of the highest caliber. Instead, his world is inhabited by working-class schlubs who seem to have gotten into their careers by way of rotten advice from their guidance counselors. You can almost picture them punching a time clock before each adventure.

Pillsbury also excels at the skill that all good one-panel cartoonists need, which is to imply the funny, rather than show it. More often than not, the humor in Pillsbury’s work comes from what the reader knows is going to happen next, or what occurred just prior to the reader joining the action. Pillsbury allows the audience to fill in the blanks, which is a strength in single-panel comics, not a weakness.

My favorite Pillsbury piece is one that displays both of these talents. It appeared in Dragon #171:

I love this one so much I’ve had it blown up and have displayed it both at home and at the office. We join this trio of siege engineers in media res, and are left to imagine just how exactly this situation came to be, as well as the possible consequences if their superior hadn’t stepped in at this exact moment. The look on the cow’s face just slays me. It is one of equal parts puzzlement and acceptance.

Pillsbury had a love for siege warfare, which would be a strange thing to enjoy had he not been so adept at portraying the humorous side of it. A collection of some of his comics involving siege weaponry can be found here. For a look at one of his “regular Joe” adventurers, consider this guy and his backpack.

Joseph Pillsbury is still drawing comics; although it seems that he’s take a break from the worlds of swords and spells. His most recent project has been Bogworld, an online series of cartoons of a more political nature. Hopefully he hasn’t left the bizarre world of sword-wielders and spell-slingers for good. I could do with some more cows in catapults to make it through the day.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Few More Maps

As I spend the first full day of my 36th year contemplating my navel and my place in the cosmos, please accept these maps from my commonplace books as gestures of goodwill, and a reminder that we never know what's out there until we venture forth for ourselves.

North of Xultvar This area lies several leagues north of the Xultvar, the City Resilient, which serves as my stand-in for Lankhmar, Greyhawk, Waterdeep, etc. Part of the Eastern Reaches of the old empire, the area has descended into a collection of city-states and independent towns held loosely together by the traditions of the once-mighty empire. If you cut a left through the Zephyr Pass, you'll end up in the territory where Ol' Nameless is placed.

Vakaros - City of Mists Behold Varkarös, "The City of Mists". Varkarös is located on a stub of land down in the southern jungle continent, wherein lies the remenants of Xoryphaal - kin to our Atlantis here on Earth. Varkarös is part ancient city filled with strange architecture and part Port Royal, Jamaica, inhabited by free-booters and scoundrels. Go deep enough into the jungles and you might find The Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

Unnamed VillageAn unnamed village that I sketched out in an attempt to create a settlement that remained somewhat realistic. I again employed the old trick of drawing a place I'd like to live. Those marks just south of the hill by the river indicate where the teenagers of the village go to race their fathers' horses and indulge in the past times of youth.

Tinfi Run The quiet town of Tinfi Run. The closest settlement to nearby Dead Ox, and gateway to Zephyr Pass. Ever since the mountain giants took out the bridge in Rushscar, Tinfi Run has seen a influx of traffic coming up the old road to the southeast. Damn mountain giants and their drinking binges of fermented giant goat milk...

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Megadungeon c.1745

A comment on one of the posts over at Greyhawk Grognard dislodged a memory of mine from my college years. During my undergrad career, I chanced upon a reproduction of an Italian artist’s etching that featured a vast underground location. The piece depicted a large space adorned with chains and strange statuary, cloaked in an atmosphere of smoke and despair. I was captivated by that piece, and remember thinking that it would be a great dungeon setting. (Sometimes it’s hard to shut off the internal DM Machine.) But as time went on, I forgot about the piece and eventually shuffled out of the hobby for awhile.

Thanks to the comment by Eli Elder, I was reminded of that artist and his work. The piece was by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 -1778), an artist who was known for his etchings and engravings that depicted the ancient edifices of Rome. In addition to those works, Piranesi produced a series of sixteen prints known as Carceri d'invenzione (“Prisons of Imagination”). These etchings were untitled, but have since acquired names referring to the scenes they depict. Piranesi’s prison is a gloomy, forbidding locale, and would influence the Surrealism school of art that arose during the early 20th century. His use of staircases and hanging galleries seems to have inspired the works of the Dutch artist, M.C. Escher.

As a referee, especially one currently involved in the crafting of a megadungeon, I find these pieces to be rich fodder for the imagination. All too often, we think of the dungeon as a cramped space. Piranesi shows that this need not be the case. Of course, Piranesi didn’t have to worry about setting his etchings down on graph paper, or consider the possibilities of movement and range during combat. To duplicate some of his works directly into a dungeon setting would require that the referee be willing to make considerations outside the pale of normal dungeon design. The end results would be more than worth the effort, however.

Since I’m approaching a point where I need to pause in the design process of Ol’ Nameless, I think I might consider using at least one of these pieces as a location within the dungeon. I could work some of the dungeon around this set piece, and take the needed time to compose an encounter that takes advantage of this zowie! In the meanwhile, please peruse the selected images below for your own inspiration and enjoyment. The complete series is available here.

The Round Tower

The Smoking Fire

The Pier with a Lamp

The Well

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Week Ahead

This is just a general note regarding the upcoming week's entries.

There will be posts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as normal. However, these posts will be of the brief variety. Tuesday marks the 36th anniversary of my appearance on the third stone from the Sun, so I intend to take it easy that day, work willing. Of course, Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States, so I'm anticipating the usual results of serotonin being metabolised into melatonin by the pineal gland, namely "Post Turkey Narcolepsy", resulting in the urge for sloth defeating the urge to compose at length. Next week will see a return to business as usual.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Commonplace Book

Every referee worth his or her salt probably keeps one of these. For many years, I referred to the set that I keep as my “dump books”, but having learned the proper term for them, I now prefer the more elegant-sounding “commonplace books”.

A commonplace book, traditionally, is a personal journal where quotable passages, notes, prayers, recipes, comments, etc. are kept for later consultation. Each becomes a scrapbook that reflects the personality and interests of its author. The concept of the commonplace book dates back to the 15th century, a time when writing paper became easily affordable to most. While the commonplace book is usually associated with authors, it’s no surprise that many referees, some of whom are aspiring authors, keep them as well.

A referee’s commonplace book can take many forms: a journal, a word document, index cards, a PDA, a blog, a wiki, or what have you. Personally, since I’ve always preferred the heft and substance of an actual book, I keep several commonplace notebooks in which to stash ideas until they grow to maturity. I have an artist’s sketchbook, which is the oldest of them, three regular marble composition notebooks, and soft cover 3.25” x4.5” marble memo book, which fits easily into my back pocket. Over the years, these books have followed me from dorm rooms, to apartments, to weekend getaways, to bars, to motel rooms, to trips into the mountains and to the beach, and from nightstand to nightstand. In that time, they’ve gathered quite a collection of sketches, maps, names, adventure seeds, world-building entries, monsters, magic items, historical anecdotes, and other ideas that have struck my fancy. Some of those ideas will never see the light of day in actual play, while others are just waiting for the proper time to take the stage.

I’m getting close to reaching a point of pause in the Dungeon Not Yet Named™, so I’m beginning to think about larger things than just the halls of that dungeon. To prepare for this, I’ve gone through my commonplace books looking for old ideas that I might want to include in the surface world to help flesh things out for when the adventurers are breathing fresh air again. Mostly I’ve been looking at maps and town set-dressing, but I’ve run across a few things that I’ve forgotten about over the years. They’re what would be considered “fluff” – a term I very much dislike – rather than “crunch”, but they amuse me and I’d thought I’d share a few of them. They’d appreciate the opportunity of getting out for a change, rather than moldering amongst the pages as usual. Consider them a cross-section of my commonplace books. Chances are that you’ve got some similar gems of your own.

Atrocious Drawings

As an artist, my skills ceased developing somewhere around the stick figure. I’ve tried to improve them from time to time, but I’m convinced that I lack the proper genes and talent to ever get anywhere near where I’d like to be. I’ve accepted this fact and moved on, but it doesn’t stop me from trying from time to time. I stick to still-life though.

A sketch of a Sweet Bog Berry. Inspired by my childhood love of beach plum jelly.

Itch Leaf sketch. Also inspired by my childhood, mostly from my yearly run-ins with poison ivy.
This is an unnamed plant I took to doodling one day. I'm not quite sure what it is or what its properties might be, but the presence of the little berries probably indicates that it can be used in either herbalistic healing or general cooking.

Proverbs, Sayings, and Literary Quotes

I stole this device shamelessly from Ed Greenwood’s tendency to start chapters in his novels with quotes from various plays and books that exist in the Forgotten Realms. I like this literary device, despite the slings and arrows that have been hurled at old Ed. I much prefer it to a similar device that R.A. Salvatore tends to use in the Drizz’t novels, wherein he separates sections of the book with essays and journal entries penned by a certain drow. At best, those seem to go against the old adage of “show, don’t tell.” At worst, they resemble the MySpace entries of some emo kid.

These short sayings remind me that there is more going on in my campaign world than high adventure and nation-shaking events. I’ve always envisioned adventurers as more “working-class heroes” than superheroes, and little things like this these help keep me grounded in that territory.

“What be stronger: teeth or tongue? Often the tongue destroys that which the teeth could never hope to chew.” - Dwarven proverb

“Buridrin awoke, sighed, stood up, and went to work.” – First line of the Dwarven account of the world’s creation.

Dwarves have always struck me a being very pragmatic folks, yet still possessing a sort of Zen-like wisdom. I think these two quotes sums that up.
Thief Proverbs:
1) If the chicken keeps laying rubies, you don’t kill the hen.
2) The quickest way to grow more daggers is to start planting them in backs.
3) A smart man learns of his lord’s orchard, and only harvests the trees allowed.

Thieves would have accumulated quite a few proverbs regarding their trade, given its long history.

“When I was young, I dreamt of magic, fine drink, and caressing arms as I lay awake at night. Now, I would trade my spells, my treasures, and all my days of pleasure for one dreamless night in a warm, soft bed.” – Rual Sytrik, Pages from the Trail

“Some wise and happy men choose to fill their days by collecting baubles they find comely. I have met a wheelwright who collects tiny forest animals carved from stone. I know of a noble lady who filled her court with birds of bright plumage, and a child who sought out the hair of elves. These little bits of joy help them when the skies are grey and the winter winds blow against the door. I am not a wise, nor a happy man, for I chose to collect problems.”
I like these two quotes the most. They capture the melancholy two older adventurers might feel upon looking back on their lives. The first is from a more successful mage, one who is entering his twilight years. The second is from a grizzled, grey-bearded soul whose still in the game but rethinking the choices he made in his youth. They reflect my own thoughts as I get older.

"Zaltz! Klaublumfun!” – Sign posted at the edge of a gnomish minefield.

My gnomes speak a sort of fantastical pseudo-German. This was my attempt to capture what that language might look like in the written form.


R’Nis is a patchwork world. I’ve got an overall map of the major continent sketched out, but much of it lacks detail. From time to time, I imagine what parts of that map looks like on a smaller scale and try to sketch out the details. The end result is intricate areas of fine design separated by vast areas of vague canvas. I supplement the map by writing adventures in areas that I haven’t yet detailed, which forces me to zoom in on that section of the world and flesh it out. I sketched this region out while sitting in a bar with a pitcher of beer and a handful of colored pencils. I just started doodling and coloring, achieving this as the end result. I've not placed any adventures in this area, but the little bits of local color like "The Tribe of the Dog" have seen use in other places.

I have a simple trick for when I draw maps of little towns and villages: I think "would I like to live there?" With that I mind, I start putting down features that I would enjoy passing on my day-to-day activities, or places that I would have liked to play as a child. It keeps my interest and breathes life into this little hamlets.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Un-living Icon

or “Things to Do in Greyhawk When You’re Dead”

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham had interesting ideas when it came to the dead. In his unpublished treatise “Auto-Icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living”, Bentham posed that people, if they be willing, should find uses for their mortal remains after they had shuffled off the mortal coil. He pictured a world where preserved corpses might one day replace the stone or marble statues that adorned churches, or –with a good coat of copal varnish as weatherproofing – take the place of trees that line the driveways to lavish country estates.

The thrust of the treatise was that dead bodies could be used for the edification and enjoyment of the living, and that corpses should be preserved for the benefit of future generations. He outlined eleven categories in which the dead could find use: “moral, political, honorific, dehonorific, money-saving, money-getting, commemorative, genealogical, architectural, theatrical, and phrenological.” Bentham suggested some uses for the Auto-Icon: collateral for loans; theatrical stage props; aesthetical decoration, such as statuary in the homes of the well-to-do; as subjects for public lectures on human anatomy. He proposed that the church might exhibit Auto-Icons in religious services during holidays, accompanied by rousing and uplifting music. Temples dedicated to famous and infamous characters could be erected, replacing the wax figures in such venues as Madam Tussauds with actual corpses. Auto-Icons could even be used for advertising purposes. Why stop with a simple barber’s pole when “a pair of fashionably-dressed ladies” could serve instead?

Bentham, lest it be said he was less than serious about this idea, wanted his own corpse to be used in instructing anatomy, hoping that it would teach scientists “curious, interesting and highly important knowledge” and that it would “show that the primitive horror at dissection originates in ignorance and is kept up by misconception and that the human body is as much more beautiful than any other piece of mechanism as it is more curious and wonderful.” Bentham got his wish, too.

Jeremy Bentham: Auto-IconThree days after his demise, a trusted friend and doctor delivered an anatomical lecture with Bentham’s corpse accompanying him. In attendance were friends and supporters of Bentham. The lecture was cut short when a violent thunderstorm struck the area, unnerving even the prosaic doctor. Following the lecture, Bentham’s body was preserved in effigy. His flesh was removed and his skeleton hinged together. His head was preserved, but the results were less than expected. The process employed to remove the fluids from that extremity left Bentham’s head “as hard as the skulls of New Zealanders…all the expression was of course gone.” A wax head was constructed to replace the stony-faced original. His skeleton was stuffed with straw, hay, and wool, dressed in the philosopher’s clothes, seated in a chair with his favorite cane, and displayed in a mahogany-and-glass case. Bentham was ultimately donated to the Anatomical Museum at University College London.

At the college, his body was shuffled about from place to place, residing for a time in a museum, a library, and a faculty office at the college. His real head was stored on a ledge over a door, but was stolen by students from rival King’s College in the 1960s and held for ransom to generate funds for charity. It was returned in exchange for the college not alerting the authorities to its theft. The head is now under lock and key.

Unsurprisingly, several legends have sprung up surrounding Bentham’s remains. One states that his spirit haunts the halls of the building he resides in. At night, the sound of his cane is heard tapping in the corridors as Bentham walks about the building. Another legend, while amusing but untrue, is that Bentham is wheeled into meetings of the college council to sit alongside the staff. His attendance is recorded in the minutes as “present but not voting.”

You can probably guess where I’m going with all this.

I’ve long subscribed to the belief that the strangest fruit grows from the soil of reality. Turn over enough rocks strewn along the path of human history, and you’re bound to uncover some very strange anecdotes and events that, if magnified and expanded upon, can make interesting situations within your fantasy campaign. Bentham’s treatise and real-life case is ample fodder for the imagination.

Adventurers can be rather blasé when it comes to the dead. A lifetime of looting corpses encourages a cavalier attitude regarding the recently deceased. It usually takes the undead to get them sweating, and even then, unless the undead is one of the level-draining varieties, they tend to take them in stride. In order to unnerve the players at the table, and thereby their adventuring alter-egos, creativity and unaccustomed thinking is required.

Bentham’s case serves as a springboard for diving into uncharted waters of the imagination. If his ultimate fate is not interesting enough, the world he pictures in his treatise certainly is. All that’s required of the referee is to gently steer the players into that territory and see how they react.

Imagine the party coming upon a small town during their travels, only to find that the streets and shops are adorned with the shellacked remains of the departed. The preserved corpses of former merchants advertise their successors’ goods and services, or perhaps serve as signpost to direct customers towards the right streets. A memorial in the town common, dedicated to the town founders, is composed of those self-same founders posed to convey a noble visage. As the party stands gobsmacked by this weird vista, they witness a lively funeral procession departing the local house of worship, bearing the deceased on their shoulders and heading towards a burbling cauldron of resin.

If the players are like most of their kind, it won’t be too long before the detect evil spells start flying and they begin looking over their shoulders, awaiting the imminent arrival of the necromantic cabal that has this poor settlement in thrall. That is if they’re not too busy fleeing for their presumed lives, convinced that a diabolic cult lurks behind the villagers’ welcoming faces.

Of course, you and I know that there is nothing nefarious lurking behind the scenes. This just happens to be the quaint custom of this village for dealing with the deceased. But it’s going to unsettle the players something fierce. Things could get more interesting if the party has arrived in town in need of the divine powers of the local clergy and must confront this custom head on. How tolerant can the party be, especially clerics and paladins of rival faiths, when witnessing this uncouth handling of mortal remains?

The above scenario takes place in the bright, sunlit lands of the surface world and is unsettling even there. The effects of encountering the preserved dead in the dank dungeon halls will only be multiplied. Any gamer whose spent some time around the table is bound to have encountered the obligatory “statue garden” that medusas seem fond of cultivating. A collection of lifelike statues, usually found in positions of fear or surprise, is a sure indicator that death by petrifaction is just around the bend. What will the adventurers think when they find a similar garden composed of the un-putrefying dead? Do they face some strange new monster created by the referee? Or is this just another indicator that the dungeon’s creator is horribly and incurably mad, and eager to add them to his collection? Either way, they’re bound to start jumping at shadows.

Before we close the door on this macabre source of inspiration, let’s turn the weirdness dial up one more notch. In the fantastical worlds that adventurers pursue wealth and glory in, the presence of magical communication with the dead is possible, if not common. It is also a world where the demise of a good and beloved ruler has more than once led the way for the ascendance of a cruel and incompetent replacement. What if a city, or even an entire nation, took steps to ensure that they never lose their beloved ruler to the grave?

The party learns that a mighty king is in need of the services of brave adventurers. When they arrive at that king’s seat of power, however, they are shocked to discover that the king has been dead for some two hundred years. Dead, but not out of the loop, politically. His earthly remains, now perfectly preserved and revered by the populace, still sit atop the throne. The daily functions of the nation are attended to by his regent, the fourth person in that position since the king’s death, but when it comes to the big decisions, it is the deceased king’s shade that is consulted by arcane or divine means. It is his court priest or magus who conveys the king’s need to the party, while his silent form sits watching. Of course, with the decrees of the throne coming from a living mouthpiece, can the party truly trust that they are fulfilling the desires of the deceased monarch, or are they merely cat’s-paws for another hidden agenda?

The idea of a preserved noble need not be confined to grand schemes and nation-shaking events. Adventures of a smaller scale could be livened up with the use of a preserved corpse. The classical cliché of the abducted princess in need of rescue gets new life breathed into it when the princess is dead, and it is her preserved remains, much beloved by her grief-stricken father, that needs rescuing. Caution should be taken if the referee goes this route, however, as the inclination for Weekend at Bernie’s-type shenanigans might ensue.

After running through an adventure or two that feature the presence of an Auto-Icon, the party might have a new sense of respect, or at least some interesting tales to tell, when it comes to cavorting with corpses.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Two Quick & Dirty Tables

Adventurers share a common trait with rats, mice, and ants: they get into everything. This tendency often forces the referee to quickly determine what the party discovers when rooting through the set dressings of the dungeon in search of loot. Most times, this is not a problem for a referee on his or her toes. They can quickly rattle off a few items with the caveat that they are “worthless/ruined/of no practical use”. But sometimes inspiration fails the referee, and the answer the players receive is “you find nothing.”

Having run into this situation myself over the years, I sometimes like to prepare a few quick & dirty tables to randomly roll on for the next time the adventurers are poking around off the beaten treasure trail. Below are two of those tables, one for when the party starts searching through kitchen cupboards or pantries, the other for crates in a warehouse or storeroom associated with smugglers and thieves. The purpose of posting these is two-fold. On one hand, I’m hoping that these might be of use to another harried referee in need of quick answers. On the other hand, I’m still locked in vicious hand-to-hand combat with using tables in Blogger. I’ve gotten a bit better at it, thanks to some helpful suggestions from you folks, but I’m not 100% satisfied. Considering I’d like to use tables with a few projects I have planned for the future, I figured I better get in some more practice with them. Please excuse the mess in the event that I’m still encountering difficulty with them.

Random Pantry/Kitchen Table

D20 Roll

Item Found






Orange Cookies


Turkey Jerky


Jars of Tea


Olive Oil


Lemon Peel


Pickled Herring




Hummus and Pita Bread


Mint Leaves




Mouse Droppings


Hard Candies


Dried Peas


Pistachio Nuts


Coffee Beans


Jar of Jelly





The following table was originally created for an adventure involving a smuggling cartel, but it would work for any warehouse with connections to the thieves guild or gangs.

Random Crate Table (Crime Syndicate)

D20 Roll

Item Found


Carved Wooden Stools (2d4) packed in straw – worth 2 sp each


Saddle and harness, tooled leather – worth 100 gp


Statuette of medusa, carved from marble – 145 lbs. weight, worth 140 gp


Copperware (2d6 pieces: bowls, trays, pots, tea service, etc.) – worth 5 gp each


Furs and skins (1d12) wrapped and bundled – d20 x 10 gp each


2d10 5 lbs. bags of seeds – edible, planting, etc.


Five turbans, each in a different color and set with non-precious stones


Bronze sundial – 25 gp


10 gnomish firefly lanterns – missing fireflies, worth 9 sp each


15 lounging robes, assorted sizes – worth 5-8 gp each


Glass jugs (1d10) packed in straw


Human corpse, wrapped in linen for burial


Ceramic tiles, glazed and painted with colorful designs (1d4 x 100) – worth 2 cp each


Four small bales of narcotic resin sealed in wax – worth 100 gp each


Stuffed moose head, mounted on walnut plaque


Velvet-lined box holding a crystal sphere that glows a bright lavender


A longsword with obsidian blade and a plain brass scabbard


Thief-warded lace window curtains (protects window with alarm spell) – 1d10 sets


Rocking horse in the shape of a sea horse – 5 gp


5’ tall wall mirror, oval – 25 gp

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Half-Dozen Doors

It should come as no surprise that I spend a lot of time thinking about the dungeon. As my attempts to fully document that which lies within the halls of the Dungeon Still Not Named™ continue, it’s quite easy to tread upon imaginative ground that I’ve already worn into a muddy rut. The challenge is to keep adding things that are fresh and interesting to the party, rather than Storeroom #47b located behind Iron-bound Door #277.

I’m beginning to see why the classic megadungeon complexes dating from the wild and woolly days of D&D were of the “funhouse” variety; a style of dungeon that is often maligned by post-modern gamers. It’s quite easy to design a “realistic” dungeon when you’re confining yourself to only a level or two and intend it to be ventured into but a single time. When you’re looking at a much more massive construction, one that will fill ten levels at the minimum and clock-in at over 1000 rooms, it’s quite a different story. It would be very easy to attempt to maintain a realistic approach to the design, but in shackling oneself with the restraints of realism and rationality, you’re also running a high-risk of your players growing bored with the whole thing very quickly. The only rational counter-measure to this is to embrace the irrational from time to time. It has taken me a bit of time and effort to break my ingrained habit of kowtowing to realism. I’m not quite free from that habit yet, but I’m getting there. And to be quite honest, I’m having much more fun reveling in the freedom that that has allowed me.

It is with this new-found sense of irrational creative energy that I present six unusual doors for inspiration or outright theft for your own dungeons. They sure as heck beat yet another stuck wooden door for your players to run across.

1) The Storm Door – This door appears to be of incredibly odd construction. Either made from or sheathed in copper, the surface of this door is covered with a jumbled mass of tubes, metal wires, crystals, unrecognizable stone, and box-like protrusions. Four thick metal bolts keep the door tightly fastened. There appears to be no keyhole or lock visible if examined.

This door is actually a bizarre techno-magical construction. It allows access to the rooms beyond it only when the magical battery encased in its surface is fully powered. Once the battery is at full charge, the four bolts shoot open and the door swings in on its hinges. When found, the battery in the door is dead and requires the application of electricity to function. If the referee is feeling generous, it may require only a single jolt of juice, such as that produced by a shocking grasp. For doors that guard more substantial rewards, the battery might require a much higher voltage of power before it becomes operational. This could range from anywhere between 5 dice of electrical energy (like that generated by a 5th level magic-user’s lightning bolt) to 30+ dice of electrical energy (which would require multiple applications of spells or magic wands to generate). The party will of course not know how much energy is required before the door opens. The referee might also decide that the magical battery can only contain so much electrical power before discharging the excess in a 20’ radius, or perhaps exploding in an electrical conflagration that destroys both the door and those standing too close to it.

2) The Door that is a Jar – This door appears to be an immensely secure portal, bound in iron and secured by many locks and bolts. Just by looking at it, the party can guess that it’s going to be a chore for even the strongest of men to pry open. A knock spell has no effect upon this mighty barrier.

This is because this door is a fake. It is set firmly into the wall and provides no access to the rooms beyond. The purpose of the door is to delay any attempted trespassers and to cause them to exhaust their magic and resources in attempting to open it.

The real door to the room beyond is a simple barrel, urn, large amphora or similar container, which is usually hidden in plain sight amongst others of its ilk in the room. That container is enchanted with a permanent version of dimension door that functions like the nature ability of a boggle (q.v.). Anyone entering through the open mouth of the container finds themselves exiting a similar container located on the other side of the false door, granting them free access to the room or rooms resting there. The container will radiate a magical aura of alteration magic if detect magic is cast, but other than this there are no obvious clues to how to breach this massive portal.

3) Door of the Dead – Created from some flat black metal, this door is cold to the touch and hangs from bone-white hinges. It often bears bas-relief decorations of skulls, bones or funerary rites on its surface. There is no visible lock or means of securing the door shut. A simple handle of carved bone is attached to the face of the door.

This door is secure against most attempts to open it by the living. It cannot be forced or broken down. A knock spell will function as normal and incorporeal creatures may pass through it easily. The only relatively easy way to open this portal is to have the dead do it for you. The door swings open easily and silently if any undead creature places its hand upon the handle. For most parties, circumventing this door would require the presence of an animated skeleton or zombie under their control. The referee may opt to make the door slightly more passable for a low-level group of adventurers. In this case, even the touch of a dead humanoid’s hand – say one hacked from a recently slain goblin – would allow the party to pass through.

4) Painted Door – This is a secret door and must be found accordingly. The door is in a wall that has been partially covered by an unfinished mural or fresco. This door is located in a part of the wall where the painting has yet to be completed, although the areas nearby have been decorated with images. The only mundane way to pass through this portal is to finish the mural over the space where the door is located. Once the painting is completed, the door swings open to reveal that which lies beyond it.

Depending on the referee, the party might find the tools and materials needed to complete the painting in the same room or in another section of the dungeon. He might alternately rule that the painting supplies are not available within the complex and must be purchased back in town. Once the party has the means to finish the painting, they must do so in a manner that meets the aesthetical standards of the original artist. There are few ways of determining if the party has the artful skills needed to finish the painting.

The referee might rule that anyone possessing the Secondary Skill: Limner/painter can successfully finish the mural, or if using proficiency rules, has the Artistic Ability non-weapon proficiency. Another option would be to allow one character to make a modified ability check. I’d recommend using the character’s (Wisdom + Dexterity/2) to represent their talent with paint and brush. A third, and more interesting solution, would be to provide the players with an unfinished drawing – perhaps a simple line sketch found on the Internet with part of it erased in a paint application – and have one of them actually finish the drawing. This might give a player who has some actual artistic skill a chance to shine at the table. Of course, the referee will have to make a qualitative judgment of the player’s artistic skill to determine their success or failure and some referees might not be comfortable in doing such.

5) Puzzle Door – The puzzle door, if found unassembled is nothing more than a doorframe embedded into the stones of a wall. It leads only to blank stone an inch beyond the frame. It might initially be misidentified as a bricked-up doorway. Nothing can be detected on the other side of the brickwork by either magical or mundane means. This doorframe has a matching door that fits within its confines and allows access to the extra-dimensional space that lies beyond. The problem is that the door lies in several pieces and has been secreted in other parts of the dungeon. If all the pieces of the door are found and reassembled within the doorframe, the door glows briefly with a white-red light, then swings open to reveal a 10’ x 10’ x 10’ extra-dimensional room. The door remains intact as long as it is left open, but once closed, it separates into its multiple parts again.

The smallest number of door pieces on record is three, the largest twenty-seven. The pieces are often of odd shapes and angles and require some thought and practice to assemble correctly. A referee with a penchant for props might wish to construct a miniature door from cardboard, styrofoam or wood, and then cut the door into multiple pieces with an x-acto knife or jigsaw. He may then distribute the pieces to the players as they are discovered during the exploration of the dungeon. Once they are able to reassemble the door, they are able to use it in the doorframe.

Since the door returns to its separate parts once closed, it is possible to trap a creature within the extra-dimensional space if the door is closed with them still inside. In most cases, this dooms the creature to a slow death by dehydration and starvation. Not all creatures are subject to such a fate, however, and the party who assembles a puzzle door might discover something on the other side of it that has been imprisoned for a long, long time…

6) The Repulsive Door – This appears to be a simple wooden door, having only a handle and latch and no lock. It is never locked, barred, or otherwise secured, and could normally be opened without effort. However, there’s more to this door than meets the eye.

A repulsive door possesses some sort of rudimentary intelligence, imparted upon it during its arcane creation. The door can read the thoughts of creatures within 30’ of it as if it was employing the 2nd level magic-user spell ESP. As long as no creature wishes to go through the portal, it simply stands in its frame, content with its simple existence. Should a creature wish to pass beyond it and moves towards it, however, the door protects itself with a repulsion field that mimics the 6th level magic-user spell repulsion. The door ceases the field as soon as the creature stops attempting to approach it with an intent to open or pass through it. The door can generate this field an unlimited amount of times each day, so bypassing it will be problematic. A knock spell will cause the door to open, but attempting to pass through the portal will cause the door to slam shut and activate the repulsion field.

The only way to bypass a repulsion door is to shield one’s mind from the door as outlined in the spell description for ESP, to possess the key for the door, which negates the effects of the field, or to pass through the door unwittingly. This third method is difficult to do, but circumstances might occur that allows this to happen. An example would be using telekinesis on an unsuspecting creature and hurling them at the door. If struck hard enough, that creature might serve as a living battering ram and bash the door open. A repulsive door that has been successfully open by physically touching it is unable to generate a repulsion field until it is closed again. The door must also be located within its doorframe to function. If removed from its frame in some manner, it loses all of its enchantments and special abilities.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Wolves & Jackals

I’m one of those people who enjoy games within my games. I trace this strange quirk back to purchase of the 1979 edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide. In that book, along with a plethora of other useful odds and ends, I discovered Appendix F: Gambling. It was only a matter of time then before my players found themselves settling down to a game of Zowie Slot Variant or the like in between dungeon crawls. (It is with sudden clarity that I now realize where I got the term “zowie!” from. I’ve used it as short-hand for describing anything really bizarre or grandiose in my dungeons for years, but it isn’t until right now that I see where I got this term from.)

In the years since then, I’ve added some more in-game games to my campaign. I got a lot of miles out of the adventure, “At the Spottle Parlor” from Dungeon #12, adding Spottle as a common game of chance in the major cities of the Eastern Reaches. I own a copy of Three-Dragon Ante, but haven’t had a chance to implement it yet, although I see the possibilities in it. The second level of Ol’ Nameless has a wheel of fortune waiting in a decaying game den. I’ve even mulled over purchasing the Ravenloft Forgotten Lore boxed set just to get my hands on the divination cards and dice that are included in it. I enjoy those kinds of props in my games.

Just about a year ago, during the course of adventuring in my Saturday night game, we came across a copy of the game “Wolves & Jackals” while exploring a crumbling tower. Due to events that occurred during that exploration, the party fled from the tower extremely short-handed in terms of treasure. By which I mean that the only thing we escaped with was a copy of “Wolves & Jackals.” Being our sole gain from the excursion, the game served as a running jokes for a few sessions, one of the highlights being our druid and sorcerer attempting to teach the druid’s two orc henchmen how to play the game – “I bet I can fit more of these little wolves in my mouth that you can!”

The game was obviously just a bit of campaign-color, not intended for anything more than perhaps a few sheckles if sold back in town. But being the frustrated, non-designing guy I was at the time, I got the idea of coming up how the game would actually be played. A few days later, I had cranked out the rules to "Wolves & Jackals." Those rules are presented below.

If you’re like me; the kind of person who gets giggly over the metageekery of playing games within games (those you who spend too much time fishing in World of Warcraft know what I’m talking about), maybe you’ll find some inspiration in this. Referees looking for a way to kill time before the rest of the players show up may get some brief enjoyment out of these rules as well.

Wolves & Jackals

The game:
Packs of Wolves and Jackals are hungry, wishing to bring down prey. A game for two players, Wolves & Jackals combines all the elements of Chess, Checkers, Poker, strategy, and luck.

Playing Pieces:

  1. A standard chess board.
  2. 19 playing pieces. 8 light, 8 dark, and one circular chip to represent the Prey.
  3. Two 10-sided dice (known as “Teeth”) of two different colors.
As indicated below, Jackals are placed on dark squares along the two left-side rows and Wolves are placed on light squares on the two right-side rows. The circular chip (“The Prey”) is placed in the exact center of the board.

    Wolves & Jackals Board Set-up Players next ante their initial bets. Traditionally, 30 coins of a single denomination are used, their value agreed upon by both players. Each player antes 15 coins apiece and these are placed in the area labeled “The Mouth.”

    Beginning Play:

    Each player rolls one D10. The player with the highest number goes first. In the case of a tie, both players re-roll until a clear winner is decided.


    On his or her turn, a player may move one piece and one piece only. Initially, players may only move their pieces diagonally or in a straight line. Zigzagging is not allowed during the same turn. A player can move his piece either one or two squares. Players may not move a piece through a square currently occupied by another playing piece (either one of their own or their opponents). If their piece ends its movement next to a square not occupied by either an opponent’s piece or the Prey piece, his turn is over. If his piece’s move does end next to an opponent’s piece or the Prey, either diagonally or adjacent, he has the option to either end his turn with no further action, or to attack (or “Go for the Throat”) the adjacent piece.

    If a player begins his turn with an opponent’s piece adjacent to one of his, he may choose to “Go for the Throat” of that piece as detailed below. The only difference is if a player’s piece successfully Throat’s another piece before he makes any movement, his turn does not end as normal. In fact, in some situations, a player might be able to Throat one piece, make a move if the Throat was successful, and position himself for a second Throat attempt all in the same turn. Even if the attacker fails his Throat attempt, he may then move as normal, escaping from a subsequent Throat attempt by his opponent.

    Attacking – “Going for the Throat”:

    If a player chooses to “Go for the Throat,” both he and his opponent each roll one D10. The player’s whose turn it currently is, is considered the attacker. Both die rolls are compared and the player with the highest roll is the winner. If the attacker has the highest roll, he immediately moves the attacking piece into the defender’s square. The attacker may now either dispatch the losing piece to The Cave, or attempt to drag it back to The Den. In either case, if the attacker has already moved this round, his turn ends after choosing which result he wishes. If the attacker successful performs a “Go for the Throat,” but has not moved yet this turn, he may either dispatch the losing piece to the cave and then move as normal or attempt to drag the losing piece back to the Den. If the defender has the highest roll, the attack is considered a failure, both pieces remain where they are, and the attacking player’s turn ends.

    Resolving Combat

    Dispatching to the Cave:

    If the attacking player wins, he may decide to dispatch the losing piece to the area marked “The Cave.” The losing piece is immediately removed from play and placed in The Cave area next to the board. Any piece dispatched to the Cave remains there until A) the game ends, or B) a piece of the same side reaches any opponent’s space on the far end of the board (think like making a king in checkers). Upon doing so, the player may remove any one piece from the Cave and place it in any vacant starting square on his side of the board. The player’s turn then ends, but he may move the rescued piece as normal the following turn.

    Dragging Back to the Den:

    If the attacking player wins, he may decide to drag the losing piece back to his or her Den. The defeated piece remains in the attacker’s square and will move with the dragging piece each turn. If the player chooses this option, and has not yet moved this turn, the piece dragging the defeated piece may move back towards the Den. Otherwise, he must wait until his following turn to begin the drag. A Wolf or Jackal dragging either a defeated piece or the Prey may only move one space per turn. Additionally, the dragging piece may only move either horizontally or vertically. Diagonal moves are not allowed. The dragging piece may also not initiate an attack, but may defend itself if attacked. If the dragging piece reaches any of the three squares adjacent to the Den, the defeated piece is removed from play permanently. It cannot be reintroduced into play by any means.

    Should a dragging piece be attacked before it reaches the Den, determine the outcome as usual. If the dragging piece is defeated, the dragged piece is immediately dispatched to the Cave, and the winner may decide to either dispatch the dragging piece to the Cave as well, or attempt to drag it back to the Den. In either case, play continues as above.


    In the case of a tie, the attacker may choose to continue the attempt at the Throat. In order to do so, he must ante up a new bet into the Mouth. The defending player may now match the new ante, match and raise the bet, or concede defeat. If the defender concedes, play continues as if the attacker won. If the defender matches the bet, the dice are rolled again, with the highest roll winning the Throat attempt. If the defender matches and raises, the attacker must now either meet the raise, meet and raise again, or concede defeat. Raises can continue back and forth until one side either meets the final raise or concedes defeat. If the second dice roll results in another tie, the process begins anew.

    Bringing down the Prey:

    One of the two victory conditions of Wolves and Jackals is to successfully drag the Prey piece back to your Den. In order to do this, you must first bring down the Prey. Bringing down the Prey requires you to have two of your own pieces adjacent to the Prey piece.

    Any of the above diagrams are examples of “adjacent” pieces to determine if the Prey can be brought down. A player MUST have two pieces adjacent to the Prey in order to try and take it down.

    Once a player has moved a second piece adjacent to the Prey, he may immediately attempt to bring down the Prey. This is a static roll. The player rolls both dice and must roll a combined total of 12 or higher. In the event of an 11 or less, the attempt fails and the player’s turn ends. If the result is 12 or higher, the Player must announce which piece will be attempting to drag the Prey back to the Den. The Prey chip is then placed under the dragging piece and his turn then ends.

    On his next turn, the player may attempt to drag the Prey back to the Den. This is done exactly the same way as dragging an opposing piece back to the Den. The dragging piece may only move one space per turn, and only in a horizontal or vertical manner.

    Attacking a Piece Dragging Prey:

    An opposing piece may attempt to Go for the Throat of a piece dragging the Prey. This is resolved in exactly the same manner as Going for the Throat of an unburdened piece, with one exception. If the attacker successfully Throats the dragging piece, the Prey chip remains in the space occupied by the dragging piece and the defeated piece may either be dispatched to the Cave or dragged back to the Den. The attacking piece, however, remains in its own square and does not move into the defeated piece’s square as normal. The Prey chip is considered free and can only be brought down as detailed above (moving a second friendly piece into an adjacent square.

    Winning the game

    Wolves and Jackals may be won by either two ways:

    1) By successfully dragging the Prey back to your Den, or
    2) By being the last player with pieces remaining on the board. NOTE: to speed play, it’s considered good sportsmanship to concede the game if your last piece remaining is being dragged by your opponent.

    The winning player collects whatever bets have been placed in the Mouth, and should another game be played, has the option of going first in that game.


    In some regions, Wolves and Jackals is played somewhat differently. Variants differ from region-to-region, so it’s a good idea to understand any variant rules before sitting down to play in a strange town.
    1. Card Variant: In some places, cards are used to modify the results of the game. Some cards include:

      • The Ranger – Your opponent loses a turn as The Ranger enters the forest, looking to hunt.
      • Forest Fire – All pieces currently in play must return to their starting positions as a forest fire sweeps through the area.
      • Loose Bite – A piece being dragged may immediately escape from the dragging piece and move as normal.
      • The White Stag – The Prey is the mythical White Stag, requiring a roll of 16 or better to be successfully brought down.

    2. Larger Teeth: Some regions use d12s or D20s instead of the traditional ten-sided “Teeth.” The roll needed to bring down the Prey is modified accordingly.
    3. No Cave: All pieces must be dragged back to the Den.
    4. No Dragging: All pieces are merely dispatched, with the exception of the Prey.

    Monday, November 10, 2008

    A Sword and a Whatchamacallit

    The Broadsword of Comedy and Mirth

    Description: This blade is a 4’ long broadsword of seemingly expert construction. The blade is marked by whorls of black embedded in the steel. The grip of the sword is wrapped with worn and stained leather banding. The pommel of the weapon is decorated with a stylized depiction of a jester’s head wearing a five-pointed cap ’n’ bells. It is unaccompanied by a scabbard or baldric.

    History: Little is known about this weapon prior to its first appearance in the hands of Grϋntre, the barbarian companion of Justin Darkcloud – the man who now holds the Seat of Thorn in the Invisible College. As both men are known world-walkers, the origins of the blade perhaps lie on some world unknown to both sages and wizards. The circumstances of its forging will most likely never be revealed.

    What is known is that prior to Darkcloud’s ascension to the Invisible College, he and Grϋntre had a parting of ways. Grϋntre headed to the northeast, where he sought employment as a sword-for-hire in the lands of Cochlerin, a land known for its appreciation of good viska and a hearty joke. It is said that Grϋntre served under several of the local chieftains in that region, working as a bodyguard and war-master during the seasonal skirmishes along the Dak-Rom border. It was during that time that the special property of the sword was first witnessed and entered into songs sung by the bards of Cochlerin.

    In 1588, Grϋntre learned of the devastation being wrought by the green wyrm Razor’s Kiss of Heath and Holly on settlements along the Douwell Freshet. Emboldened by a great volume of viska and ale, Grϋntre left the town of Karin’s Knee and vanished into the Superstition Wilderness. This was to be the last time Grϋntre was seen alive. Some speculate that, once the quantity of spirits that the barbarian had consumed wore off, he collected his wits and sought employment in other lands. Companions-in-arms of the well-liked off-worlder maintain that, drunk or sober, Grϋntre would never abandon a task he’d set out to do. These men then shake their heads sadly and conclude that Grϋntre’s bones lay somewhere in the Superstition Wilderness and that the Broadsword of Comedy and Mirth is now part of the dragon’s hoard.

    Game Notes: The Broadsword of Comedy and Mirth is a +1 broadsword that sheds no illumination. In addition, it possesses one special power, usable once per day. Prior to striking an opponent, the wielder may speak the command word, “Quip” aloud. If the sword successfully strikes its target, both the person struck by the sword and all foes within 10’ of the wielder must save vs. spells or be affected as if the victims of Tasha’s uncontrollable hideous laughter (incapable of action the following round, minuses to Strength or hit/damage rolls for the successive two rounds; normal Intelligence modifiers to saving throw apply). If the sword misses its opponent, no effect occurs and the wielder may not invoke the sword’s power until the following day.

    Experience Point Value: 500
    Gold Piece Value: 2,500

    Note for the referee: Depending on the type of campaign one runs and/or the personalities and likes of your players, you could replace the need for speaking the command word aloud by having the wielder speak a short (extremely short!) joke in place of it. Another option would be that the wielder must make a Schwarzenegger -esque “witty” remark – i.e. “Nice to slay you,” or “I’ll get hack to you in a minute” – in order to invoke the sword’s power. I accept no responsibility should you go down that path, however.

    Ekim’s Long-burning Torch Sconce

    This odd-looking device appears to be a round, blunt iron sheath of some type, measuring 6” long. Two wing-nut screws are present in the sides of the sheath and may be adjusted to tightly hold whatever is placed within the sheath. It radiates a form of alteration magic.

    The sconce does nothing unless the handle of a torch is placed within the round sheath and the screws are tightened into place. Once a torch is held in the sconce, it will burn as normal –shedding light and burning that which comes into contact with it. However, the duration of the torch will be noticeably longer, lasting a full 36 turns instead of the normal six. After the 36 turns have elapsed, the torch burns out as normal. The sconce remains cool to the touch and may be carried easily, providing no more encumbrance or inconvenience than is normally accrued by bearing a torch.

    Ekim always enjoyed the benefits of having a open flame available during his dungeon-delving career, but was always bothered by a torch’s short duration and sheer number needed for lengthy exploration. He created these sconces as a solution to that problem and shared several copies of the original with fellow adventurers prior to his retirement.

    Experience Point Value: 100
    Gold Piece Value: 500