Sunday, August 25, 2019

Procedural Generation Demonstration - The Manse's Underdark Ocean Island Generator

Cacklecharm from The Manse wrote a series of random tables to generate islands on an Underdark ocean. These tables work together quickly, and I had little trouble assembling the pieces into a narratively coherent whole in a matter of minutes. So instead of my usual two, let's generate three!

Underdark Ocean Island Generator by Cacklecharm

1 - Tusk Island
Rolls: 4, 2, 4, 9, 7, 5

Tusk Island rises like a tooth from the sea. The pale stone island is a great stalagmite, pregnant with calcite and riddled with cavities. The water around it glows pink from the luminescent red algae that clings to the island's base, just beneath the waves, feasting on the rich magnesium oxides that burble up from a vent at the island's base.

The Tusk has a large central cave, just off the most obvious landing site. Its floor is flat, carpeted with soft layers of lichen and mushrooms. These grow in ring formations; a few circles are clear, making ideal spots for fire-building; one large ring is especially lush, an inviting place to sleep. Tooth-fairies lurk in the hollows of this cave. They attack sleeping adventurers, stealing teeth from their mouths, clothes, books, and other symbols of civilization.

Most of the other caves on Tusk Island are inhabited by olms, blind, white salamander people. The tooth fairies are slowly domesticating them, filling their mouths with human teeth, supplying them with stolen supplies, and relentlessly tormenting them to enact parodies of human behavior. They will eagerly trade for information about human customs, along with corpses, and literally any possessions the adventurers are willing to barter.

Though most of the olms' belongings are worthless - saturated with seawater and humidity and fluids from the olms' own hygroscopic bodies - they currently own a quiver of magnesium arrows that burn brightly (though without heat) for an hour, from the moment they're exposed to the air, and continue burning even underwater.

The olm are also tormented by "the dragon" a giant of their own species, a mutant olm twice the height of any other, tattooed with arcane sigils, able to breathe fire. It subsists on a diet of olm-flesh and fairies.
2 - Cackle-harm's Glacier
Rolls: 3, 6, 5, 2, 2, 2

It would be easy to run aground against the black glacier. The island is made of black ice, almost invisible against the background. The waters around it are filled with carnivorous black seaweed that grasps at the hulls of ships, and pulls anyone who falls overboard deep below to drown them. Chill winds blow down off the glacier at unpredictable times, always preceded by the sound of laughter, dealing 1d6 frost damage to anyone unprotected by shelter.

A wrecked dwarven ship is tangled in the weeds just off the coast of the glacier. Seven dwarven prospectors have a makeshift camp. Their mining company will pay handsomely for them to be returned to dwarven civilization. These seven are the survivors of a much larger expedition, but their numbers have been much reduced by the wreck, the seaweed, the cold, and the depredations of an invisible menace.

The dread goblin Cackle-harm lives on the glacier, his hideous laughter echoes across the whole island just before the chill wind blows. A marauder and brigand, Cackle-harm and his pirates robbed elven merchants for years before they caught him, and tried to execute him - but the magic in the elf-rope noose they hanged him with malfunctioned, making him invisible and invulnerable. He'll be happy to tell you his story ... right before he kills you. The only way to kill him is to remove the rope. The unbreakable elf-rope is Cackle-harm's only treasure - everything else he steals he throws in the sea, unreachable beneath the black seaweed garden.

3 - The Sleeping Giant
Rolls: 6, 5, 2, 4, 4, 7*
(Note: The Manse recommends rolling d6 to determine inhabitants, but also suggests the island might be uninhabited, so I rolled a d10, and I'm interpreting results 7-10 as uninhabited.)

It's impossible to miss the Sleeping Giant. It's a giant olm, an albino salamander the size of a mountain, trapped in magical slumber.

The waters surrounding the island are filled with flags and warning buoys written in dozens of languages. Shipcatching nets are set out to prevent any vessel larger than a lifeboat from approaching the island directly. A lighthouse sits atop an promontory stone, positioned so shadows prevent its light from hitting the slumbering giant's sleeping eyes. The everburning flame of the lighthouse is a trapped fire elemental, magically bound to the tower.

Hidden in the crevices and folds of the giant's skin are dozens of pest-traps. By now, about half have been triggered and hold the skeletons of various underworld vermin. The rest remain a hazard to adventures. Each deals 1d4 damage and requires an exploration turn for two people to remove.

The only treasure on the island is a spellbook, Ø ōōōō ō Øōōō ØØØ ØØØ ØōØ ØØØ ōōØō Øōōō ōō Øō Øōō ōō Øō ØØō, the Book of Binding, which is locked to a chain, the chain wrapped around the giant olm's neck like a collar. The book is written in a kind of braille, legible to the sightless hands of the original spellcasters. The book contains only two spells - one to put the olm back to sleep if it begins to wake, another to bind the elemental to its lighthouse prison. Any spellcaster intelligent enough to translate the spells from their time-forgotten original language is also skilled enough to reverse them to awaken the giant or free the fire.

(Also note: I just used Morse Code to write the book title. If you decide to use this island, consider making a "book" out of three notecards folded in half. Use a hole-puncher for the dashses and poke a smaller hole with a pen-tip for the dots. The spells can just be called "sleep" and "bind" for simplicity's sake.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Reverse Engineering Random Tables - Campaign Events & Minor Magical Items

Two of my favorite random tables are Dreams in the Lich House's Campaign Events for the Black City and Dungeon of Signs' Starting Minor Magical Items for Darkly Haunted Noble Characters.

I like them so much, in fact, that I want to learn how to write my own tables like them. And the way to do that, I think, is to take them apart and see how they work. Having done that, I should be able to put my own lists together in the same way to achieve a similar effect.
Let's start with the campaign events. I've found that having something happen "in town" during the player characters' downtime expands the scope of the game a little bit and makes the campaign world feel "alive" - and by extension, when I've run ongoing campaigns without events, it can start to feel a bit too much like the characters are the only people in the world. (I mean, they sort of ARE, but you don't necessarily want it to FEEL like that. Suffocating claustrophobia is fine INSIDE the dungeon, but you want the outside world to feel more open.)

Lately I've come to appreciate that running a sandbox game requires giving players a surfeit of choice. If you want your players to choose their own goals and objectives, then you have to offer them a longer list of ideas to narrow down from. You need a map that shows them places they could go, you need a basic concept (at least!) of what each of those places is like, and you need to populate your world not just with monsters, but with people, with factions and NPCs who have names and personalities and agendas of their own.

And random events help with all that, because they mimic the unpredictability of a world where things happen because other people make them happen. I've used the Dreams in the Lich House random event list before, and liked it, so let's see what John Arendt is doing with this list:

1-2 Astral Conjunction
3-4 Bad Weather
5-6 Beached Whale
7-8 Bear Attack
9-11 Blood Feud *
12-14 Bragging Rights *
15-16 Dire Omens
17-18 Disappearance
19-20 Favor of the Gods
21-23 False Identity *
24-26 Fire *
27-28 Food Shortage
29-30 Foreigners!
31-32 Gold Rush
33-34 Great Weather
35-36 Herd of Caribou
37-39 Inflation *
40-41 It Came from the Ice
42-43 Long Live the King
44-46 Marvel Team-Up *
47-48 Massacre
49-50 Meteor
51-52 Missionary
53-54 New Sub Level
55-56 New Trade Route
57-58 New Trade Town
59-60 Pod of Whales
61-62 Population Change
63-64 Prize Fishing
65-66 Rampaging Monster Back Home
67-69 Rescue Mission *
70-71 Rival Wizard
72-74 Robbery *
75-76 Ship Lost at Sea
77-78 Sickness
79-80 Skilled Laborer
81-82 Stolen Map
83-84 Stormy Seas
85-86 Supply Problems
87-88 The Enemy Among Us
89-90 Vermin
91-92 Visiting Ship
93-94 Wandering Monster
95-96 Wars and Rumors of Wars
97-98 Where's the Wizard
99-100 Whirlpool

There are 46 events on there, most with a 2% chance of showing up, a couple with a 3% chance. I've marked the more-common events with stars. Reading through each entry, I tried to group them in a way that I think makes sense of what each event is doing for the game. With a very small amount of rounding, we get this:

10%  - positive event
10% - rival NPC interactions
20% - faction event
30% - sidequest opportunity
30%  - negative event

The specific events that make up those categories go a long way toward defining the environment. If you wanted to set your campaign somewhere that wasn't a Viking outpost beside an alien city, then you'd want to alter or reskin the individual entries. But the overall proportions are what interests me here.

About 10% of the time there's an event with a positive impact. Most of these are for one session only, a couple are ongoing. Notably a couple of these look like NPC events, but the effect is primarily an improvement of conditions, like when a skilled laborer opens a new shop in town, or when a new trade route adds a whole menu of foreign luxuries to the shopping list.

About 10% of the time, the player characters are forced into an interaction with some rival NPCs. These interactions can pose an immediate problem (like when the NPCs accuse the player characters of a crime and demand redress) or they can provide an opportunity for exploration (like when the NPCs offer to join the PCs on a joint mission, providing the personnel to do something more dangerous than usual) or they can just be a goad to spur the players to action (like when the NPCs are bragging about their own exploits). Regardless, this sets up a session where the players can do a bit more roleplaying. It also requires you to invent, or have on hand, some NPCs capable of serving as rival adventurers.

Roughly 20% of the time, there's a faction-level event happening. Unlike their rival NPCs, the player characters aren't necessarily forced into getting involved in whatever's happening - but it will change the social environment of the town going forward. Maybe one faction leaves town, maybe a new faction arrives (or a whole second town springs up!), or maybe there's conflict between two or more of the existing factions. The players could try to ignore that, offer to mediate it, or join one side against the other. For this to work, each faction needs a somewhat distinctive identity, and probably a couple representative NPC members. Because none of these events involve the player characters directly, they get more freedom to decide how to interact with what's going on. As Necropraxis suggests, let the players decide who their enemies are.

Roughly 30% of the random events are opportunities to go on a sidequest. (The default main quest being looting the megadungeon ruins of the alien city.) Most of these involve the temporary appearance of a new adventuring site or a new quest activity - check out that meteor crater! or catch that whale! Some of these seem like negative events, but the effect of them turns out to be a chance at redress, rather than a reduction in the living standard. You might try to investigate what happened to someone who's lost (and rescue them, if possible) or make a plan to kill a monster who's built a nearby lair. What defines these events is the opportunity to go on a mission that varies your routine, whereas the negative events generally don't open up new venues for play.

The final 30% of events impose some kind of negative impact. Again, most of these are single-session events, but a few present an ongoing problem that doesn't necessarily have a solution. Some of the negative events target the player characters directly (like if their campsite is robbed or catches fire), while others are of a more general nature. The key here is variety. I love that good weather provides the opportunity to narratively describe the setting a little differently - and makes travel and digging harder because of the mud. Some problems, like pests or disease, help contribute to the hardscrabble feeling of the environment. Others - like price increases, goods shortages, or offshore weather that makes leaving the island impossible - emphasize the isolation from society. A couple problems are magical, but most of them are mundane, quotidian. They're the kind of problems that remind the players why their characters took up the adventuring lifestyle in the first place - to get away from the poverty and filth of a mundane world that dirty and broken.

I don't know if I ever would have hit on this 10-10-20-30-30 distribution of events if I were making my own list, (I'm certain that I WOULDN'T have attempted a 3-to-1 ratio of negative events to positive, left to my own devices), but I've used this one, and it seems to work well in practice. It requires pretty minimal bookkeeping to run, and still allows the players to impact the game world, by deciding how their characters will react to events not of their own making. More complicated, and deserving of a post of its own sometime, would be the task having dynamic lists so that the frequency and severity of negative events responds to character actions. But as I said, that's for another time, so for now let's turn our sights to something else, instead.
Specifically, let's refocus our attention on the enjoyable task of handing out treasure to the player characters. What Gus L has written is a table of treasures. He intends to give them to starting characters from aristocratic families, to give those characters a sense of inheriting heirlooms from their noble house. I really like this idea, and it certainly fits with Metal Earth's advice to make starting characters special right out the gate. You could also use a table like this to award treasure during play.

There are a couple reasons to use treasure tables instead of inventing what kind of treasure is found on the spot. The first to maintain a sense of fairness and to avoid the appearance of favoritism when handing out treasure. You, the referee, aren't letting your personal feelings about the players determine what treasure they get, you're letting the dice decide, and your campaign is better for it. The second reason, though, is that it can be difficult to imagine treasures, especially new magic items, right there on the spot. A key reason to plan anything in advance is to end up with something better than you'd get from inventing it in the moment at the table.

Anyway, as with Dreams in the Lich House's random events, my sense is that Dungeon of Signs's starting treasures offer a nice mix in a good balance, and that I could learn something by looking closer at it. So let's do that:

1 Jewel Moth Robe
2 Distilled Chanteuse
3 Dueling Cane
4 Butler's Fork
5 House Sword
6 Healthful Wand
7 Fanged Idol
8 Masquerade Helmet
9 Simian Automaton
10 Vestarch's Crest
11 Remonstrator
12 Ring of Hate
13 True Liturgy
14 Uhlan's Armor
15 Sack of Coinage
16 Seraphim's Pinion
17 Revivifying Tipple
18 Parfume d'Maudlum
19 Porcelain Steed
20 Magister's Snuff Box

Again, it's worth noting that the treasure table, like the random event table, is a good place to do some worldbuilding for your campaign. The names, the style of language, the imagery all help to establish what sort of place these treasures come from, and I think just looking at both lists, you can see how different the two campaigns are from one another. The baroque, decadent flavor is obvious from the names alone. As before, I'd like to try putting these into categories:

20% weapon
15% combat trick
25% armor
25% tool
10% retainer
5% cash

4-in-20 of the treasures here are weapons. We get a good variety - a sword, a club, a wand, and a point for a spear.

Another 3-in-20 are combat tricks that provide some kind of advantage. Again, we get a good variety - one facilitates escape, one temporarily incapacitates your enemies, one reduces their initiative and gives a penalty to their attacks.

5-in-20 of the treasures are armors or protective items. We get a robe, a ring, a helmet, a suit of plate armor, and a talisman. Some improve AC, one improves saving throws, a couple offer protection against specific types of damage. One of the items also grants an additional benefit besides protection, and another imposes a penalty.

5-in-20 treasures are what I'm calling "tools" - they're all items that mimic the effect of a specific spell and provide a utilitarian benefit. We get a lockpick, a divination device, a healing potion, a scroll to turn undead, and a blood-drinking idol that lets you re-cast an already-used-up spell. Like the combat tricks, the healing potion has a limited number of uses; the scroll, I think, can only be used once; and the lockpick, like one of the weapons, has a chance to become useless until next session. The idol can be used freely, but imposes a price in hit-points for each use. A variety of restrictions, alongside a variety of functions, makes each item feel distinct from the others.

2-in-10 of the items are retainers. One is a monkey butler that can't be used for combat, the other is a magical horse (also blood drinking, a repetition that contributes to a sense that these items come from similar sources).

And finally 1-in-20 treasures are just cash money. The amount is enough to buy a magic item if a market were available, so presumably you could substitute another "magic currency", like Eberron's dragonshard crystals or Black Powder Black Magic's demon ore, to achieve a similar effect.

With both the lists here, the point is not necessarily to become beholden to someone else's design decisions, but rather to better understand what those design decisions actually were so that you can make better-informed decisions of your own. As I said, it wouldn't have occurred to me to make so many campaign events negative, but looking at the list, I can see the logic. I also don't know if I'd have thought to make so many tools, and I know I wouldn't have thought about combat tricks, if I hadn't been looking at this treasure table.

A huge percentage of the events on Dreams in the Lich House's list are goads to spur the players to leave town and go explore, whether it's something negative that pushes them out or something positive that pulls them. These aren't just random events with no impact on play, they're events that make one session feel different from the rest, and continuously open up new possibilities for adventure. Even if you don't want the "dung ages" feel of rats and pestilence in your setting, it's good to think of ways to remind your players that their characters aren't homebodies, they're meant to get out there and do things.

Another sizable portion of the events entangle the player characters in the affairs of NPCs. Populating your game world with other people and giving your players reasons to interact with them prevents their dungeoneering from feeling like a totally solipsistic activity.

The entries on Dungeon of Signs's treasure list are all quite different from each other. There's no "ho hum, just another magic sword" or "great, another unidentified mystery potion" here.

They're also all items that are meant to be used during play. There's no incentive to hoard these items, you'll want to use them, even if it means using them up. Half the items have some impact on combat, where you'll be willing to use them just to stay alive. Most of the others have an obvious use in a common situation where using the item prevents hitting a frustrating dead-end. Others are "always on" or have more open-ended applications.

The fact that many of the items do have limitations also helps prevent a handful of early treasures from totally dominating the rest of the campaign. You're not going to stop adventuring because you've already found as much as you could ever carry, and you're not going to turn up your nose at later treasures because they're inferior to what you already own. If you really like an item, even finding another that has the same effect with a different restriction would be a boon. At the same time, only one item is a "one and done" so you do get some sense that your character is defined by the things they've found so far, just not to the extent that you are only defined by what you've already found.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

5e Characters I Want to Play - School of Red Magic Wizard Archetype


Red Mages are polymaths and dilettantes. They try to bridge the divides between martial prowess and magical insight, between the "white magic" of healing and the "black magic" of war. They study widely and attempt to unify separated schools of thought into a monist personal philosophy. 

They reject boundaries and borders and often violate laws and prohibitions meant to enforce separations or prevent the "mixing" of unlike peoples and things. They are fiercely loyal comrades, striving for oneness with their friends and unity within any group they join.

Red Mages' understanding of magic tends to be more lyrical and mystical than other wizards'. They see occult symbolism in colors and forms, write their own spells in allegory and verse, and embellish their spellbooks with calligraphy, marginalia, and iconography.

Red Mages are often drawn from the ranks of acolytes and hermits, folk heroes and soldiers. Because they strive to balance the competing influences of white and black magic, red mages are often neutral in alignment.
Red Mage from Final Fantasy XI

Beginning at 2nd level, you begin blending white and black magic in your casting. Your training makes you much more versatile than those who specialize in a single domain of white magic or a single school of black magic.

You gain proficiency with all simple weapons.

Immediately replace one of the wizard cantrips you know with a cantrip from the cleric spell list. Then erase one 1st level wizard spell from your spellbook and replace it with a 1st level spell from the cleric spell list.

From now on, whenever you prepare the list of spells that is available for you to cast after you finish a long rest, you must prepare at least one wizard spell and at least one cleric spell for each spell level on your list.

Starting at 6th level, your study of white magic teaches you to better protect yourself and others.

You gain proficiency with light armor.

You have a limited well of white magical energy you can draw on heal injuries. On your turn, you can use a bonus action to regain hit points equal to 1d6 + ½ your wizard level; or you can use a bonus action to touch another willing character to heal hit points equal to 1d6 + ½ your wizard level. Once a character has benefited from this feature, they must finish a short or long rest before they can be healed by it again.

Beginning at 10th level, your study of the principles of black magic trains you to fight more dangerously and opens new avenues of attack.

You gain proficiency with all martial weapons.

On your turn, you can take one additional action on top of your regular action and a possible bonus action. You can use this additional action to attack after casting a spell, or to cast a spell after attacking, but you cannot make two attacks or cast two spells using this feature. Once you use this feature, you must finish a short or long rest before you can use it again.

Starting at 14th level, you perfect the ultimate blending of white and black magic, allowing you to release both arcane and divine energy with each spell you cast.

You gain proficiency with medium armor and with shields.

Whenever you cast a spell from the cleric spell list, as a bonus action, you may make a melee or missile attack to strike a creature within 30 feet with pure necrotic energy. This attack deals damage equal to the spell level.

Whenever you cast a spell from the wizard spell list, as a bonus action, you may choose a willing character within 30 feet to infuse with pure radiant energy. This infusion heals hit points equal to the spell level.

Red Mage from Final Fantasy XIV

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Book Cover Trends - The Occupationist's Female Relative

The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter by Arielle North Olson, 1970
Ronia, The Robber's Daughter by Astrid Lindgren, 1985
The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan, 1991
The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich, 1998
The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan, 2001
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, 2003
The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards, 2005
The Traitor's Wife by Susan Higginbotham, 2005
The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea, 2006
The Zookeeper's Wife by Daine Ackerman, 2007
The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent, 2008
The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter by Lenore Skomal, 2010
The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch, 2010
The Witch's Daughter by Paula Brackston, 2011
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, 2011
The Traitor's Wife by Kathleen Kent, 2011
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, 2012
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki, 2014
The Liar's Wife by Mary Gordon, 2015
The Stargazer's Sister by Carrie Brown, 2016
The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse, 2016
The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown, 2017
The Light-Keeper's Daughter by Jean E Pendziwol, 2017
The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton, 2018
The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter by Hazel Gaynor, 2018