Saturday, December 19, 2015

Mini Adventure -- A Knight to Remember

I ran this melancholic adventure many times this year and each time found it to be a poignant and memorable experience. "A Knight to Remember" can be set in almost any isolated setting, be it the vast plains of Nova Vaasa, the merciless deserts of Athas, or the untamed wilderness of the American Frontier. Presently, I'd like to set it in a generic gothic fantasy setting for ease of adaptation.

A Place of Desolation
The PCs are sent by their patron to take care of "some problem" in one of his poorest, most distant holdings. He provides no further information on account of caring very little for the area, its people, or the PCs.
When the PCs come to the village, they find a parched and desolate town that reeks of apathy and ignorance. The locals are rude and unpleasant, but most are not overtly violent due to an overwhelming air of lethargy. The landscape is one of barren plains dotted with sickly grass as far as the eyes can see under a sky that promises rain, but delivers nothing but oppressive humidity.
The only landmarks are a church that hasn't seen a priest for so long that even the most pious elders no longer care that kids use it to play hide and seek, and a tavern where brooding local thugs drink in silence. The latter are always looking to pick up a fight, but will not dare to attack a group of well-armed or magical strangers. A lone stranger, however, can easily find himself in a fistfight that will soon turn into a knife fight. The meanest men present are two aging scumniks named Ed and Fred (Rogue 4 & Fighter 2), and their pack of younger bullies.
The owner of the tavern is a friendly woman named Arshavarat (Ranger 3), the only half-elf in town. A widow in her fifties (although appearing much younger), she is unusually erudite and elegant for this no horse town. Children love her because she is full of fascinating stories from across the plains and adults love her because she doesn't mind looking after the kids while the parents are working their stony fields. She is obviously not local. If questioned, she will say she was adopted by a pair of local rangers who found her in a cave. Both her adoptive parents have since died.
Outside, a young woman named Sarah (Commoner 1) tries to hint to the PCs that she'd like to speak with them. She is eager and anxious, but will not speak unless she is sure no one is eavesdropping or if the PCs take her under their wing. If the PCs manage to dub Sarah, she tells them that Jake (Commoner 1), her child, has been taken three days ago by an insane rider wearing the armor of a knight of the realm. Since taking her child, the rider has just been circling the village. Every night, Sarah hears her child crying and this is driving her insane. The men of her family tried fighting the rider, but were no match to his superior arms and skill. She knows exactly the course taken by the rider and can show the PCs the way.
Everyone else in town treats the PCs as a nuisance and denies the village has any problems. It's a dump and that's just the way they like it. If they bring up the mysterious rider, locals emphatically suggest the PCs mind their own damn business.

Misplaced Faith
The rider's name is Sir William (see below). He is not harming the child, but the poor boy will die of thirst or hunger unless released within two days. Men have tried to reason with the rider or to stop him by force, but to no avail. He is convinced he's rescuing a girl named Arshavarat from local bandits and will stick to this version of the story, treating any facts indicating otherwise as good-natured practical jokes. The crying and protestations of the child (a boy name Jake) are simply ignored and the tracks indicating he's been riding around the town in circles for days are ignored as well.
Sir William is no coward, but will only fight to defend himself or "Arshavarat." He is, after all, a just and noble paladin. If attacked or believing the child is threatened (such as by PCs offering him food or drink), William attempts to chase away rather than kill the PCs. However, during the fight, half a dozen skeletal children (see below) will rise from the ground and spend one round crying about how hungry and thirsty they are, before trying to eat the PCs. The knight seems oblivious to the children as well.
While powerful, Sir William is not invincible and can be defeated. However, he reforms after an hour and tries to kidnap a new child. The skeletons, however, remain destroyed forever.
During the fight, even cursory examination of the knight will reveal that he is quite dead.

A Senseless Murder
The knight was killed by Ed and Fred in a tavern brawl, defending the chastity of a patron's daughter. At the time of his death, William was a young paladin on his first quest – rescue a half-elf girl named Arshavarat from local bandits. She was a young child back then. She is a mature woman now – the owner of the tavern.
William is buried in the village cemetery. His tombstone doesn't have a name, only an epitaph:

"We didn't know his name, but we knew his honor."

Under the epitaph there is an image identical to the one adoring William's shield.

Each sabbatical year, William manifests on the edge of the town and "rescues" a child, riding around the town in circles until the child dies. Ed and Fred believe he is a plains god and that these children are sacrifices that ensure prosperity. Through a combination of intimidation and dumb conviction, they managed to convince most of the village to go along with their belief. In practice, it is Ed and Fred's wickedness and the ongoing injustice of dying children that keeps the land barren and the beasts weak.

Anagnorisis and Catharsis
Jake can be rescued by force, but this only proves a temporary solution as the knight will soon snatch another kid, as ignorant of his condition as ever. To lay the knight to rest, it is not enough to enlighten or destroy him, a true catharsis must be offered. There are several ways to do it:

1) Arshavarat confronts the knight and tells him that she is happy, her kidnappers are dead and that he is free of his quest to save her.
2) William sees his own dead body in the shadow of his tombstone. He will not willingly follow the PCs to the graveyard, but a clever group can lure him there by a series of attacks and retreats.
3) Fred and Ed are killed in fair combat against William. This will likely require an elaborate ruse or magical coercion, since the two are more likely to fall on their knees and cry for mercy than fight a knight in the field. Stabbing naïve young men in the back is more their style.

Regardless of the method used, once made aware of his condition, William starts sobbing, finally realizing of the enormity of his delusional actions. As he sinks to his knees, a woman in white shrouds steps from the mists and says that he is forgiven and that she is ready to receive him. William thanks the PCs, asks them to take his equipment and rides with her into the mists. If they still exist, the undead children rise in their normal form, part with their crying parents and follow the knight into the mists as well.

The very next day, the weather improves and vitality seems to flow back to the village.

Stats and Numbers
When running the adventure, I usually use D&D 5e third level characters. William's reward includes the following items, all of masterwork quality when applicable: a lance, a +1 shield, a full plate, and a holy symbol

William is knight (pp. 347, but with undead traits), his horse is a skeletal horse (pp. 273) and the children are skeletons (pp. 272).

Friday, October 30, 2015

Mini Adventure -- Lover of the Dead

"Lover of the Dead" is a D&D 3e horror adventure suitable for a group of four 3rd level characters. It can be set in any urban setting and can be easily adapted for any system because it is combat-light.
In this macabre story, the PCs are hired by an evil and not terribly bright serial killer Cleric to protect him from what he thinks is the angry ghost of one of his victims. Will the PCs unmask the madman and bring calm to the streets, or will they unknowingly aid a maniac in his twisted game?

Despite its light tone, this adventure has some very dark elements and is absolutely not suitable for children.

Since early age, the Nerull-worshipping Lorel Kooter found the company of dead women far more pleasant then that of the living. You don’t have to take them to the theater or to fancy restaurants, you don’t have to be sensitive to their needs or even speak with them – all you have to do is to strangle them and then cast animate dead on their cold, lovely bodies.
Of course, Lorel’s lifestyle did have a few major drawbacks; first and foremost him being a Nerull-worshipper, a necrophile and a murderer made him a sure candidate for a paladin's blade or a hangman’s noose. Secondly, contrary to popular belief, dead women sometimes do fight back.
But Lorel was careful, he murdered only homeless girls who would not be missed and made sure to dispose of the bodies at the local cemetery once they began to rot. To his few friends, Lorel was nothing more than a short, stocky and unassuming bureaucrat who spent his days laboring over an endless volume of financial documents at the local tax collector’s office.
One day, however, everything went terribly wrong.
Lorel returned home late in the evening and was surprised to find a dead woman waiting for him, not a mute and passive zombie, but an intelligent and attractive undead of a type that our hero did not recognize.
At first Lorel was happy about the strange visitor and he decided it was a gift from Nerull for Lorel’s devotion. After a few nights, however, the cleric angrily realized that the undead, who claimed her name was lady Beten Homed, had needs and desires, just like a living woman. Furious, he destroyed the undead and went to bed mumbling blasphemies into his pillow. However, when he woke up in the morning, he found Beten sleeping by his side, with absolutely no recollection of her destruction, but with a thousand new complaints. No matter how many times he would destroy the strange undead, it would always return, making his life unbearable.
Whether due to countless sleepless nights or simply for lack of intelligence, Lorel went out and did something incredibly stupid – he decided to hire a group of adventurers to solve his problems…

The adventure starts as the PCs are approached by Lorel, who claims his house is haunted by an unknown type of undead monster. Even superficial examination of the house, however, reveals that Lorel is not the innocent victim he claims to be. Interaction with Betern will reveal her to be a unique undead whose purpose is to punish Lorel for his atrocious crimes in the ironic way favored by the Dark Powers. The adventure ends when the PCs finely confront Lorel in the local cemetery and either slay him or hand him over to the authorities.

Adventure Hooks
Below are two ways to start the adventure, one mundane and one more dramatic:

1. "You see, I have this problem…"
The PCs are sitting in the tavern or are strolling about the town when they are approached by Lorel:
A fat little man approaches you and gazes at you through thick, hopelessly unfashionable glasses. His attire is clean and orderly but lacks taste or style. His tired face is completely generic, the kind that you forget after a few seconds. You are quite sure that unless he had alerted you to his presence, you would not have noticed him. He licks his lips nervously and says: “Excuse, but do you happen to be adventurers?”

Lorel tells the PCs that his home became haunted with a strange female undead that would not go away. He claims that the local priest tried to turn it but it just laughed in his face and chased him out of the house. This is a lie, Lorel never approached the priest with his problem. Lorel offers the PCs 400 gp if they clean his house. If they agree he happily hands them over the keys and asks them not to touch anything. If offered to accompany the PCs Lorel will politely refuse, claiming that he is no combatant. A successful Sense Motive check, or an interview of the local priest (a rather difficult task since he is out-of-town at the moment) will expose that Lorel has not been entirely honest with the PCs.
Lorel will schedule a meeting with the PCs at sundown near the temple of Pelor. His plan is to lure them into the cemetery, find out if they know too much and murder them with the aid of the walking dead, in case they do.

2. What the hell is going on there?
As the PCs are walking the streets late at night, they suddenly witness the following scene:
The moon shines high in the night sky, painting the grey streets in a sickly yellow color. All windows are shut. Except for the low murmur of cicadas and the rare bark or fit of drunken laughter, the streets are quite. You hear a loud fight between a man and a woman, you don’t understand what they are saying but the tones are extremely harsh.
Looking for the source of the fight you notice a lone lit faraway window where two dark silhouettes seem to be in the middle of a fierce argument, suddenly the masculine silhouette makes hits the feminine silhouette with what appears to be an axe and she disappears.
The streets are quite once again.

If the PCs come to investigate they will encounter Lorel dragging out the mutilated corpse of a young woman. If questioned by the PCs, Lorel will claim that his house is haunted and ask for the PCs’ assistance (see previous hook for details) in cleansing his home.

The House of Corpses
If the PCs accept Lorel’s offer to investigate his home either because they honestly want to help him or because they want to check what’s really going on, read the following:

Just like its owner, the house can be best describes as “unassuming”. It is a modest two story brick building with a flat roof and a blank oak door. There is a feint odor of rot coming from the house.

All doors and locks in the house are of good quality.

1. Living room
Lorel’s living room is spacious and well-furnished but suffers from negligence. The big fluffy sofas and dining table are covered in dust and the large carpet on the floor is soiled by some dark brown substance. There is a large oven in the room but it seems to be rarely used.
In the corner of the room there are spiral stairs leading both up into the bedroom and down into the basement.

This room is in a rather sorry state as Lorel spends all his afterwork hours having fun with his latest victim in the basement, reading in his bedroom, or praying to Nerull in his makeshift shrine.

Clues: A careful examination of the musty carpet will reveal that objects where dragged not only from the house but also to the house (specifically to the bedroom) and that the substance that soils the carpet is blood and viscera. Magical examination will reveal the blood to be human and elven.

2. Bedroom (EL 4)
The bedroom is small and mostly bare. It is governed by a large and tidy bed. On a nearby stool there is a glass of brandy, an open book and a gore-smeared cleaver. An open closet reveals a dozen identical suits and tens of old and timeworn books.
A young woman with slightly pointed ears sits on the table by the bed and weeps. She wears a white burial gown with some blood stains. Her pale skin is covered in a web of bruises and bluish veins.

The book on the stool is a religious treatise on Nerull written by Nolar Sokler, high priest of Pelor. The cleaver is smeared in Beten’s brain matter, its blade is notched by many unspeakable acts. There are many tomes in the closet, most of them are pornographic novels or popular history, but three of them are rare and expensive tomes that deal with the occult and the necromantic arts.
Lorel is not a complete idiot and cleaned his bedroom before inviting the PCs, so the PCs are not going to find corpses in the closet or blood stains on the bed. However, he did not remove the greatest piece of evidence of his monstrous deeds – Beten.

Creatures: The moment the PCs enter the room Beten storms at them screaming: “Where is Lorel? What did you do to him, you thugs!” She will not fight unless physically attacked. If the PCs act friendly towards her, she will calm down tell them that Lorel is her husband and will complain that he loves his stupid job more than he loves her. She will answer honestly and to the best of her ability to the PCs’ questions if treated with the respect due to a member of the junior aristocracy. Under no circumstances however, she will accept the fact that she is dead. She will shrug of any evidence, no matter how convincing by saying, "there's magic in the world. Crazier things have happened."
Beten is described in detail in the end of the adventure.

Treasure: Under the bed there is a small locked chest where Lorel keeps his money and souvenirs from the girls he's killed. Those include cheap rings, necklaces and bracelets and some small articles of clothing like gloves or scarves. The chest is protected by a glyph of warding (inflict serious wounds for 3d8+5 damage) which is activated if the opener doesn’t say “Zalanalaika” while opening the box with both hands. The trophies in the box are worth 144 gp. The occult books in the closet could be sold for 120 gp apiece to a serious book collector. While not strictly illegal, openly dealing in such books is likely to attract the attention of overzealous clerics and paladins.

3. Basement (EL 4)
Except for a box with a few bottles of brandy, two large cheese rolls, and a large collection of gardening tools, this dunk and filthy basement is empty.

Clues: There is a small opening filled with loose bricks behind the brandy box. It leads to the shrine. If the box is moved then the opening can be uncovered with a DC 17 Search checks.

Traps: If anyone tries to pass through the opening without saying “Zalanalaika,” they triggers a glyph of warding that summons 1d3 large fiendish monstrous centipedes that fight the PCs for 5 rounds and then disappear.

Treasure: The gardening tools include a masterwork scythe, because of the many dark deeds in which the scythe was involved, it radiates feint evil.

4. Shrine (EL 4)
The small opening reveals an evil-looking shrine, decorated with blasphemous signs of death and decay. It is the sort of location you'd expect to find in an evil dungeon, not in a posh neighborhood of a sleepy town.
A dead woman stands on each side of the shrine. One is relatively fresh, with greenish skin and bloated features. The other is almost completely decayed, revealing more bones than flesh. The smell of death in the room is nauseating.

Loral worships his vile god and animates the women he murders in this room.

Creatures: As long as the shrine is whole, the zombies (Lorel’s latest victims) receive the following bonuses: -6 profane penalty on turning checks, +2 profane bonus on attack rolls, damage rolls and saving throws and +4 hp [incorporated into the stats]. Additionally, all Good and Life spells are cast with a -1 level penalty.

Zombies (2): hp 21, 18; Monster Manual 265.

Traps: The stench of death in the room is so overpowering that anyone entering must make a Fortitude save (DC 15) or be nauseated for 1d3 minutes.

Treasure: The shrine is worth 100 gp to the right buyer; however it is extremely unlikely that the PCs will ever have peaceful dealings with that sort of people. Furthermore, owning such an item, is in and of itself, a very serious crime that can land them in a world of trouble with both secular and religious authorities.
Source: Xiwik

The Madman’s Demise
After exploring Lorel’s home there are two paths that the PCs are likely to follow; they may go directly to the authorities with the evidence they have collected in Lorel’s home or they may confront the killer themselves. That former will trigger an immediate manhunt that will result in the death of three city guards and Lorel’s escape from the city. The second, more heroic, path will lead to a life-and-death encounter in the cemetery. 

Battle at the Cemetery (EL 8)
At their meeting, Lorel tries to lure the PCs into the cemetery claiming he found the reason his home became haunted. If the PCs show no signs of knowing his true identity and bring him some sort of a proof that Beten is truly dead, Lorel will thank them, pay them the promised 400 gp and go back to his home. If the PCs accuse him of any crimes or start asking uncomfortable questions, Lorel summons 4 zombies he buried in advance and attacks.
Stats for Lorel can be found in the end of the adventure. 
Zombies (4): hp 19, 16, 15, 13; Monster Manual 265.

Development: If the PCs shout for help, four temple guards (warrior 1) will arrive within 3d6 rounds and aid the PCs.

Ad Hoc XP Adjustment: If the PCs discovered Lorel’s true identity award them XP as if for CR 4. If the group is mainly lawful, award them XP as if for CR 2 if they hand Lorel over to the authorities instead of simply slaying him.

Concluding the Adventure
If everything went well for the PCs and they managed to see through Lorel’s deception and defeat him in combat, then they are hailed as heroes, rewarded with the Medal of the Vigilant Citizen by the mayor. For the next week or so, their names never leave the local newspaper and job offers come flowing
On the other hand, if the PCs allowed Lorel to escape, either because they failed to slay him or let the local watch handle the case, they have gained a terrible enemy. Lorel will never confront the PCs personally, but he will hurt their loved ones, burn their homes and soil their reputation. Finding him will be extremely difficult. Only the gods knows how many friends, relatives or loved ones will the PCs encounter as shambling zombies before their nightmare will be finely over.
If the PCs failed to uncover Lorel’s true identity, simply “killed” Beten and accepted the payment, then they will soon learn that the man who hired them suddenly left town, claiming that his house was haunted and that he couldn’t live like this.
Whether Beten is tied to Lorel’s house or will follow him wherever he goes, constantly complaining about the poor travel conditions and that she doesn’t receive enough attention is up to the DM.
If you feel particularly sadistic you may have Beten “attached” to one of the PCs instead of just disappearing upon Lorel’s death or arrest. In that case the PCs will have to somehow divine the cause of her manifestation and set it right. Possible options include:
  • bringing to justice her murderous husband, now a powerful robber baron enjoying the full defense of the law
  • saving her young sister from being spoiled by her parents just like Beten was 
  • finding someone who would actually enjoy her company.
New Feat: Necrophile (general)
You are attracted to corpses and lesser undead. Not only you don’t find the dead repulsive you actually enjoy their presence. 
Prerequisite: Any non-good alignment. 
Benefit: Continuous association with the dead has its benefits – firstly you gain a +4 circumstance bonus on saving throws against poison and disease as your body becomes more and more accustomed to poor sanitary conditions and constant contact with diseased tissues. Secondly, you gain a +2 circumstance bonus on Diplomacy and Turn checks made against lesser undead, as they find your company more pleasant than that of normal mortals.

Beten Homed, Female Unique Undead Aristocrat 2: CR 3; Medium undead (augmented human); HD 2d12; hp 13; Init +6; Spd 30 ft; AC 12; touch 12, flat-footed 10, Base Atk +1; Grp +0; Atk or Full Atk +0 melee (1d4-1/19-20, dagger) or +3 ranged (1d4/19-20, dagger) SQ turn immunity, undead traits, rejuvenation; AL CN; SV Fort +0, Ref +2, Will +7; Str 9, Dex 14, Con –, Int 11, Wis 15, Cha 13. 
Rejuvenation: As a ghost, except that Beten automatically reappears in Lorel's bedroom in 2d4 hours as long as Lorel is alive, having no recollection of any of her deaths. 
Turn Immunity: Beten may not be turned by any means. 
Skills: Bluff +6, Knowladge (history) +5, Knowledge (Nobility) +5, Perform +6, Sense Motive +7 
Feats: Acrobatic, Iron Will 

Notes: Beten is not a mean person, but she is unbelievably annoying. She could start a sobbing and screaming over literally any issue. She demands constant attention and her thankfulness is almost as cloying as her anger. As a child, she was a spoiled brat who made her noble parents’ life miserable by her constant barrage of unrealistic demands and terrible tantrums. Their response was to marry her, as soon as law permitted, to a young rural knight who made a fortune out of raiding orc raiders on their way back to the camp. The said knight, a man only slightly more civilized than an orc, strangled Beten in a fit of rage only a few months after the wedding.
Now, some unknown force has animated the annoying girl without her previous memories but with all her charming personality. She woke up in Lorel’s bedroom and quickly reached to the conclusion that she is his wife and that she must have suffered some kind of a head injury or illness that resulted in amnesia. The fact that she never feels neither hunger nor cold or that no matter how hard she tries, she can’t leave Lorel’s bedroom, do little to dissuade her. 

Lorel Kooter, Male human Rogue 2/ Cleric 5: CR 7; Medium humanoid (human): HD 2d6+2 plus 5d8+5; hp 42; Init +7; Spd 30 ft; AC 18; touch 13, flat-footed 15, Base Atk +4; Grp +7; Atk or Full Atk +8 melee (2d4+4/X4, +1 scythe) or +8 ranged (1d8/19-20, quiver) SA sneak attack +1d6, spells; SQ evasion, trapfinding; AL CE; SV Fort +5, Ref +6, Will +6; Str 16, Dex 16, Con 13, Int 7, Wis 15, Cha 10. 
Skills: Bluff +10, Concentration +11, Heal +12, Hide +13, Move Silently +13, 
Feats: Improved Initiative, Necrophile, Martial Weapon proficiency (scythe), Combat Casting 
Cleric Spells Known (CL 5):0 – cure minor wounds (2), detect magic, detect poison, light; 1st – cause fear D (DC 13), cure light wounds, divine favor, magic weapon, shield of faith; 2nd – aid, desecrate, hold person (DC 14), invisibility D; 3rd – animate dead D, cure serious wounds 
D: Domain spell; Domains: Death, Trickery 
Possessions: +1 chain shirt, masterwork scythe, masterwork light crossbow with 40 quivers, gauntlets of ogre power*, 2 potions of cure moderate wounds, bone holy symbol, black cloak, 3 vials of carrion crawler brain juice poison** 
*The bonus from the gauntlets of ogre power is already incorporated into Lorel’s stats.
**Contact DC 13, initial damage: paralysis, secondary damage: none. 

Notes: If Lorel has a chance to prepare for combat he cast the following spells on himself: shield of faith, aid and divine favor (in that order), he also casts magic weapon on his scythe and desecrate on the battlefield.
These spells adjust his statistics as follows: hp 51; AC 20; touch 15, flat-footed 17, Base Atk +7; Grp +10; Atk or Full Atk +11 melee (2d4+7/X4, scythe) or +11 ranged (1d8+2/19-20, quiver). In the desecrated area, the PCs suffer a -3 profane penalty on turning checks and Lorel’s zombies gain a +1 profane bonus on attack rolls, damage rolls and saving throws and +2 hp each.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Reason We Kill

In order for a game to work smoothly GMs must be as involved in character generation as they are in designing adventures. Nevertheless, many GMs labor under the misapprehension that their responsibility starts with the first encounter, leaving the players to their own devices up until this point. This may occasionally prove to be ruinous for an otherwise good game, just like skipping the prologue and going straight to Chapter 1 may ruin an otherwise good book.
If you let players create whatever characters they want and assume they will suit the sort of adventure you’ve planned, there’s a good chance you’ll force people to either break character or break the game. Even very young players can feel that a certain job is just not right for their characters due to safety, morality or simply personal preferences. Contrary to popular jokes, not everyone is motivated purely by XP and treasure. If a PC accepts a job simply to stay with the party or because they feel that this is what the GM wants, that is a serious problem.
The easiest and bluntest way to achieve group cohesion is to be upfront with the players about the kind of adventures you want to run and help them make characters with suitable motivation and abilities. It’s important for characters to not only accept the initial hook, but also suit the genre you have in mind. Fantasy is not a genre, it’s a setting. Genre can be dungeon crawling, mystical investigation, drama and so forth. Even if you’re running a sandbox game, you’re still likely to have some genre preference. Hell, even if you have nothing planned at all, the PCs still need reasons to go about doing dangerous stuff and not stay home or retire as soon as they get their first decent payment.
Character motivations should be logical and compatible. If you allow senseless or unsuitable motivations, you might find yourself dealing with a less functional group than one with no motivation at all.
As a side note, I consider a good motivation a line or two on why a character does what it doe. Long-winded character histories are very rarely useful and almost always fall into the realm of tedious fan fiction that is more fun to write than to read.
Variations of the old “my village was destroyed by orcs so now I’m an adventurer” is the most common and least reasonable motivation used by both kids and adults. Not only is it more background than motivation, it is also the backdrop of a refugee, not of a hero. A game about refugees can be fascinating, but the motivation of refugees is usually safety and (less commonly) vengeance. They are not looking to get in further trouble. There’s a plethora of further reasons why this background/ motivation is terrible, but they are outside the scope of this article. Suffice is to say that logically, a person with this sort of motivation alone, will not answer an ad calling for heroes to slay a dragon terrorizing a foreign kingdom.
Motivations that include personal quests that may not interest the whole group are flat-out useless. Unless all PCs are siblings, “I am on a quest to find the man who killed my father,” is as good as having no motivation at all.
Perhaps not to best choice for a church intrigue game...
Source: Red Wombat
Okay. Enough talk about terrible motivations and tired tropes. Let’s talk about motivations that work.
Even such a banal motivation as “I like killing things that are bigger than me” would be better than either of the above. In fact, if your game is about killing monsters and looting lairs, it’s actually not a bad motivation. However, it might create a bit of undue tension if another character’s motivation is “I want to make a better world because the government won’t.” While the eternal refugee is a less likely candidate, he may become quite suitable if what has destroyed his village was not orcs but that particular dragon.
To help the players design the right characters, don’t say, “Design heroes in a fantasy world.” Say, “Design characters interested in killing dragons.” There’s no reason to hold your cards close to your chest since the hook will be revealed in the very first scene of the game in any case. Just like a synopsis may “spoil” the first few chapters of a book, your announcement may “spoil” the first few minutes of a game. Unless you have a concrete reason to keep the players in the dark regarding the sort of game you are planning – reveal the hook, setting and genre in advance. In fact, if you’re running a short adventure, it’s perfectly alright to start in medias res after the characters have already accepted the quest. The feeble illusion of choice created by role playing a job interview for a job you can’t reject without running the game for everyone is honestly not worth your time or effort. It’s railroading of the worst kind. If you don’t have a plan for player refusal, don’t give them fake freedom.
Now, going back to our three characters, all three will probably accept a job to kill a dragon that has kidnapped the King’s only daughter. It’s big and powerful, it’s an enemy of the people, and you have a score to settle with it, so why not? However, while the suicidal hunter, the noble hero and the vengeful refugee will all agree to go on this mission, they are likely to get into a colossal fight when it turns out that the dragon and the supposedly kidnapped princess are actually lovers skimming a devoted, but close-minded king.
If you’re running a stand-alone adventure about prejudice, this may be a very rewarding and emotional finale. If it’s an adventure in an ongoing campaign about cleansing the kingdom of monsters, it may lead to irreconcilable differences in the group and cause it to eventually break apart. These are the kind of things that you have to consider in advance during character generation and when deciding whether to approve a certain motivation or not.
The actual races and classes of the group are not less important than motivation from a story point of view, since they not only define the characters’ powers and weakness, but also their interaction with the world. For example, if your setting has no tieflings in it, it’s worth letting the players know about this, especially if they’re playing a very social character. If the King is heavily bigoted against dragonborn, this is another hot plate you better get off the table in the very start. If the orcs in your setting are a race of poets and philosophers, than a stereotypical orc barbarian better have a damn good excuse for his terrible manners. You wouldn’t want a barbarian with only nature-based skills in a purely urban adventure and you wouldn’t want an assassin in a game about reconciling a powerful merchant with his estranged paladin son. Remember, as a GM you can’t and shouldn’t accommodate all possible characters and it’s perfectly within your right to deny certain motivations and character that don’t fit into your artistic vision.
That happens...
Returning yet again to our romantic dragon adventure, a good intro would look like this:
Motivation: You’ve been hired by the King of Genericburg to kill the Dragon Ironicus and rescue the Princess. You may play mercenaries motivated by monetary reward, members of the Good Faith tasked with killing powerful non-humans to prove the superiority of the humanoid races, relatives or friends of the King or the Princess, or enemies of the dragon looking to settle old scores.
Classes: You may play all classes. However, arcane magic is punishable by death by the Good Faith, so arcane spellcasters must hide their identity. The adventure is going to be combat-heavy so make characters capable of defending themselves. Most of the adventure is going to take place in the wilderness and offer little interaction with technology or large communities.
Races: No dragonborn or tieflings, as they are killed on sight by the Good Faith. All races other than humans, elves and dwarves suffer from harsh discrimination. Unless you’re one of the former, then you’re a foreigner hired by the King.
Alignment: Any except chaotic evil, as long as you’re willing to kill a dragon and will get along with other members of the party. Members of the Good Faith must be Lawful. The Good Faith is evil (what a surprise!) but you don't have to be.

Keep playing awesome games my friends, and may your table be as calm as your games exciting.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Mini Adventure -- Mad Max

I ran this 90 minute game inspired by Mad Max a few times this year with folks of various ages and every time it was a whole lot of fun, so I thought I'd share it with my two or three readers. The mechanics are a simplified version of my RATS! game and the setting is a generic post-apocalyptic desert with a tip of the hat to Mad Max. Due to its simplicity, this game requires no prior knowledge or any experience in gaming.

Source: Blitz Cadet

Character Generation

1) Player distributes 10 points between four abilities.
Ferocity: use this ability whenever you're trying to damage someone or something.
Examples: Kick someone off your truck, intimidate a foe, force open a door.
Survival: use this ability whenever you're trying to avoid being damaged.
Examples: Keep on walking despite thirst and exhaustion, stay on your feet after being pushed.
Cunning: use this ability whenever you're trying to fix, understand or interact with something.
Examples: Repair a faulty engine, understand the meaning of tracks in the desert, treat wounds.
Serendipity: use this ability whenever you have no idea what you're doing.
Examples: open a random box and hope to find something good there, avoid random bandit ambush.

2) Player distributes 10 points between any number of skills they want. Skills include, but are not limited to.
Jumpin': move between moving vehicles. Difficulty is function of distance and relative speed.
Drivin': Ramming, dodging and controlling the vehicle. Difficulty is function of terrain and absolute speed.
Bossin': Allow allies to ignore pain, allow them to act on your turn, boost friendly actions.
Tinkerin': Repair and improve vehicle in motion. Difficulty is function of task and speed.
Healin': Restore ability and skill points lost during the game. Each two wins restore on ability or two skills.
Shootin': All ranged attacks. Difficulty is function of distance and relative speed.
Beatin': All melee attacks. Difficulty is function of target's Survival.
Knowin': All theoretical brainy stuff. Difficulty is function of GM's whims.


Any test is a combination of an ability and a skill as determined by the GM. Roll one die per point. Rolls of 5-6 count as wins. If you've scored as many, or more, wins than the target difficulty or the wins rolled by the opposition, the test is successful. Rolls of 1 count as fails. If you have no wins and some fails than the test backfires in a manner determined by the GM based on how many fails you have.
A boosted test scores wins on rolls of 4-6. A hindered test scores wins on rolls of 6.
Regardless of success or failure, any test reduces the skill used by 1 point until rested or restored through bossin'.

Basic difficulties ranged from 1 to 5 and are modified by the relative speed of actor and target and the roughness of the terrain. As a rule of thumb, increase Difficulty by 1 for every 20 kmph of relative speed, by 1 for uneven terrain and by 2-3 for very rough terrain.


Whenever a creature or vehicle are damaged they remove a number of ability points spread among as many abilities as they like. Vehicles are considered to have only two abilities -- hull and gear. Each time a point of gear is reduced, the vehicle loses one speed category.
For example, a car has six gears (R/20/40/60/80/100). If it loses one gear point, roll a 1d6 to determine which speed category it loses. On a roll of 4, for instance, it will lose the ability to go at 41-60 kmph.


Any character can move six squares and act, or run twelve squares and take no further actions. Vehicle velocity is divided into gears. The higher the gear, the quicker the vehicles moves, but also the more difficult all actions on it become. See "Starting Vehicles" below for the difficultly of controlling different vehicles at different speeds.
Source: Sandara

Starting Equipment

  • The players divide the following items between their characters however they see fit. Asterisks show how many shots/ charges the items has.
  • Shotgun *** (Short distance, damage 4+leftover wins)
  • Sniper Rifle * (Long distance, damage 6+leftover wins, armor piercing)
  • Grenades x 3 (Short distance, damage 6+leftover wins to everyone in short distance)
  • Stim shots ** (restore 4 ability points)
  • Pistol ****** (Short distance, damage 2+leftover wins)
  • Kevlar x 2 (negate 2 hits)
  • Smartphone (3 calls/ data searches)

Also, everyone has a sword, a knife and a rope.

Starting Vehicles

The group starts the game with the following vehicles:

  • Truck (10 hp 20(+0)/40(+1)/60(+2)/80(+3)/100(+4))
  • 2 Bikes (3 hp 20(-1)/60(+0)/80(+1)/100(+2)/140(+3))


Your community is under attack by mutant fanatics who want to take your gasoline. Your allies across the desert have powerful war machines, but no fuel to power them. You are to drive a truck with gasoline to the camp of your allies. You must reach them within 90 minutes or your community will be overrun.


  • 4 mutant fanatics (2 in all skills and abilities) and 1 ogre mutant (same as fanatic only Ferocity and Survival are 5) climb the truck as you break through the blockade and try to get to the steering wheel.
  • 4 spiked cars (5 hp 30(+0)/50(+1)/70(+2)/90(+3)/110(+4)) driven by evil communists. They try to ram your truck and destroy your wheels. Roll 1d6 on the start of each car's turn. On a roll of 1, it loses one gear and is forced to reduce its speed.
  • A wide creek. You can either drive around it, wasting time and risking a bandit ambush, or jump over it, risking falling down to your death. Some kids also tried quickly building a bridge from the cannibalized remains of enemy vehicles and various elements of the surrounding nature.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Hollow Mountain Revisited

In 2010, I wrote a horror dungeon crawl called the Hollow Mountain about an evil tree that is changing nature around it to fit its notion of how things should be, which is pretty alien and horrifying. It had a tribe of twisted elves worshiping the Tree That Sees even as it changed them into crazy mutants, tons of plant monsters and killer fungi, some subtle Lovecraft references and was a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately, due to a miscommunication between myself and the publisher, there was an discrepancy between the maps and the text.

To put this behind me once and for all, I thought I'd post the corrected maps. In case anyone would like to give this one a shot, use these maps. Not to blow my own trumpet, but I think it's the best dungeon crawl I ever designed.

Level 1:

Level 2: