Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tolno - The sea is wide and the priests are far away

Big ups to C at Hack n' Slash for helping me organize the right stuff.

Tolno is a relatively large town on the southern tip of Choula Island. Its inhabitants rarely find themselves caught in schemes of emperors or decrees of high priests, so over the centuries they have had plenty of time to get caught in schemes against each other. The House Tir and the House Mordine are currently the town's most powerful merchant families. It's hard to find a part of town where they haven't stuck their fingers.
Like this, but with ships bearing the sails of countless nations.

Adventurers exploring the Damned City or plundering the Holy Mountain can spend their entire careers in this town. But anyone who makes a name for themselves is drawn into some family's intrigue, knowingly or unknowingly. They must also bear the scorn of common folk, who have tolerated their behavior for generations in order to profit from the all gold they carry back from adventures.

Tolno's citizens are almost entirely human, although a handful of gold-hungry dwarf clans have trickled in over the years. Members of other races rarely stay because most find the town's merchant culture distasteful and absurd. An exception is the elf philosopher Noom, who has spent a century composing a condescending treatise on the nature of humans. He may know more about the town than anyone alive, and offers information and the occasional magic lore in exchange for odd favors.

Pulcher the Vulture
The Fishwife's Lament is a common haunt for rough types. The hot braised fish is the best and cheapest in town, and there's always a good strip show on the weekends. The owner, a failed wizard named Pulcher the Vulture, is a member of an alchemy smuggling ring. His den lies beneath the tavern. It includes a few bizarrely altered creatures as well as typical traps and thugs. In his downtime, Pulcher tinkers with possible methods of communication with cuttlefish, creatures he believes to be highly intelligent.

Anyone staying long becomes familiar with the two big families. Clamath Tir heads the House Tir. He is missing his right arm at the shoulder because of a whale attack. He has a good sense of humor about it and doesn't bear a grudge against the whale at all. He is Tolno's most respected gourmand. His wife Marisole is astonishingly arrogant, and has, with a few careless words, undone her husband's best efforts more than once. They occupy the town's largest mansion and display the fabled armor of Prince Traan the Sharkbane in their parlor. Clamath regales guests with tales of how his great-great grandfather retrieved it from a sea dragon's horde. Noom will tell you his venerable ancestor liberated from the back of a dead comrade during a expedition into the Damned City.

Esmerelda Mordine
Anselma Mordine inherited the House Mordine from her late husband. Their blood is ancient, and is weathering bad fortunes now as well as it has in the past. Anselma is pragmatic and unforgiving in her personal and professional lives. It is rumored that she has a torture chamber in her cellar, which is false - it's beneath the garden. Neither of her twin children are business material. Her son, Emil, is an inoffensive lump who would rather be a cheesemaker. Her daughter, Esmeralda, is the baddest kid in town. Her expertise at dueling with tongue and rapier are beyond her seventeen years. She raises hell in Tolno's streets after dark, always accompanied by a posse of 3d4 hoodlums. It's rumored that Anselma's aging brother-in-laws are plotting to assassinate her and inherit the House by force.

Lizardfolk are not allowed behind the city walls. Still, the mutated traders from a degenerate jungle tribe meet with peddlers outside the gates every month. They dole out their relics for steel tools, weapons, liquor and opium. Adventurers hoping to reach the Damned City or Holy Mountain are advised to parley with these traders before striking out into the jungle. Local lizardfolk have no qualms about hunting and eating smooth-skinned, no-account interlopers.

Monday, March 26, 2012

New Spell: Serpent Limb

Serpent Limb
Level: 2 Magic-User
Duration: Caster level +d4 rounds
Range: 0

This spell, common among lizardfolk sorcerers, transforms a random limb into a hissing python. If an arm is altered, the caster cannot hold anything with the transformed hand. If a leg is affected, the caster's speed is cut in half. The serpent limb strikes with a venomous bite as a fighter of the same caster level of the magic-user. The bite deals d4+1 damage and inflicts poison. The severity of the poison depends on the magic user's level.

Level 3: Onset 2d4 rounds. 10 damage. Save damage 0.
Level 5: Onset d6 rounds. 15 damage. Save damage 0.
Level 8: Onset d6 rounds. 15 damage. Save damage 5.
Level 11+: Onset immediate. 20 damage. Save damage 10.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

First G+ Session

I finally got to enjoy my first FLAILSNAILS game. Ian from 3d6 in a row ran us through the Houses of Stone, a vast dungeon in an alt-universe medieval Zimbabwe filled with keypads, elevators, ape men and huge anthills. I played a Moorish cleric, Kareem ibn Jamul. One cool thing about playing a Muslim cleric is that you don't need a holy symbol.

Some highlights:
-Learned about construction in sub-Saharan Africa. Zimbabwe's masons were not stone carvers. They instead heated blocks of granite until they fractured, and fitted the split stones together without mortar.
-The mighty pugilist Rubro defeated a patrol of ape men with only his fists and feet. He lost a toe when an ape man somehow cleaved a bolt midair and the point bounced back to hit his foot. Other than that, he emerged unscathed.
-Senor Silver turned a battle against giant ants into a rodeo. He somehow made a makeshift bridle from his tabbard and mounted an ant mid-battle. He actually managed to ride it around the room until he tried to stop it. The ant flung him off and ducked back into the hole. He tried to strike a dashing pose as he landed, and fell face-first in the mud.
-Kareem, in a heroic effort to free Rubro from a carnivorous vine using a torch, got really thick smoke in his eyes and had to sit out the battle.
-Discovered a copper pot containing two magical stones after the ant rodeo shenanigans. One rock gave its holder a feeling of euphoria, and the other gave its holder a desire to explore the depths of the Earth. Rubro claimed the stones for himself and challenged any objectors to a duel. Senor Silver, his devoted wife Mrs. Silver, and Tobias the local magician took him up on his offer. The duel began. Kareem, out of humility or cowardice, slipped away with a gold-filled sack and a potion that "made men like spiders".
-Kareem got away before the duel somehow escalated into a gunpowder explosion that killed everyone.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lizardfolk of Ecshal

Humans, dwarves and elves are the most prolific races across the Isles. But they are far from being the island's original inhabitants.

Abilities: +2 Constitution, -2 to random ability (see below)

Lizardfolk are the degenerate descendants of the Children of the Sun. The Children of the Sun held an empire that spanned the Ecshal Isles centuries before the arrival of the mammalian races. From what scraps of knowledge survive, they were believed to be the world's most advanced alchemists and machinists. They could harness the power of volcanoes to light their homes, run their forges and destroy their enemies. They altered animals and plants to suit their whims, and their sorcerer-kings led fanatical brainwashed drone armies against one another. All of this, of course, led to their collapse. By the time the first humans arrived, most lizardfolk existed either as slaves or as outlaws sulking in the island's endless caves and jungles. Today the temples and palaces are overgrown, crumbling and filled with their ancestors mummies. Those brave enough to delve into the crypts can hear them whisper of ages past.

This Child of the Sun, allegedly the sorcerer-king Chog'Xo, lives on as a conversation piece in the Defiant Palace.
Lizardfolk revere their dead even more than other races because they have they all have the ability to speak with their deceased as long as the bodies are properly mummified. Since everyone has a direct line to the afterlife, they think little of clerics or religion.

Lizardfolk are genetically unstable after generations of exposure to alchemy. They have a -2 penalty to a random ability, determined by rolling a d6. They also roll d4-1 times on this random mutation table (2d20):

2) Reeking glands. Impossible to hide from or surprise anything with a sense of smell.
3) Stunted. +1 to attacks against large opponents, but -1 to melee damage.
4) Huge. +2 to damage, but -1 penalty to AC.
5) Albino. -1 penalty to all rolls made in daylight.
6) Hunchbacked. Speed reduced by 1/4.
7) Extra limb. 50% chance it's functional.
8) Tail. Can't be tripped, knocked prone or fall easily. Re-roll any failed rolls relating to these things once.
9) Bottomless stomach. Must consume 4x necessary food and water daily or begin to starve.
10) Pain insensitivity. Player does not know current hit points.
11) Pain sensitivity. Takes +2 damage from all attacks.
12) Double-headed. Makes two sensory checks when searching or avoiding surprise.
13) Tentacles and squid-like beak instead of a proper mouth. On two successful attacks with tentacles, can grapple and bite for d6 damage.
14) Multiple personalities. Every d6+1 days, 10% chance of alignment change.
15) Blood hardens quickly into wicked scabs. +2 bonus to armor class when reduced to 1/2 hp.
16) Blind (50%) or deaf (50%).
17) Quadruped. Double carrying weight, increase speed by 1/4, but -1 penalty to AC.
18) Fast metabolism. Healing rate doubled, as is necessary food consumption.
19) Feathers instead of scales.
20) Crocodilian skin. +2 bonus to armor class
21) Psychic. Gain random 1st level spell that can be used once per day.
22) Spiny. Unarmed attacks deal d4 damage, and anything trying to grapple or swallow you takes d4 damage.
23) Extra eye. Determine its ability by rolling d6. (1 = infravision; 2 = blind, no ability; 3 = can see spirits; 4 = visual hallucinations; 5 = can cast fear 1/day; 6 = keen, roll perception checks twice)
24) Hears voices. Fails all perception rolls, 1/4 chance of fatigue after a night's sleep.
25) Brittle skeleton. Double damage from all crushing damage, including falls.
26) Venomous. Gains a bite attack that does d4 damage and inflicts a random poison.
27) Echolocation. Can sense locations in darkness as long as hearing is possible.
28) Claws. Gain 2 attacks that deal d4 damage, but take -2 penalty to all weapon attacks.
29) Gills. Can breathe underwater.
30) Chameleon scales. When still, 5/6 chance of hiding in wilderness.
31) Weak-willed. Automatically fails saves against mind control or manipulation.
32) Long legs. Movement increased by 1/4.
33) Photosynthetic. Gains energy by soaking in the sun instead of eating. Movement decreased by 1/2.
34) Thin-skinned. -1 penalty to armor class.
35) Projectile tongue. Range 10', d4 damage, grappling.
36) Corpulent. +2 to hit points per level.
37) Gaunt. -2 to hit points per level, minimum 1.
38) Elaborate head crest marks you as a descendant of sorcerer-kings. +2 bonus to reaction rolls among lizardfolk.
39) Bloodlust. As long as there's someone left to fight, remain conscious until hit points reach a negative number equal to current level.
40) Schizophrenic. -4 to all mental abilities, and you live in your own bizarre world.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

M.A.R. Barker Has Passed

You probably know that Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman (M.A.R.) Barker, the creator of the world of Tekumel, passed on.

I didn't grow up familiar with Tekumel. I've barely scratched the surface of his works, but they have already challenged me to step outside my creative boundaries and to appreciate the fantastic. 

Barker should not just be remembered as a fantasy visionary, but as a lover of the world. His world-class credentials come from immersing himself in the cultures of rural India, Pakistan and the Klamath Indians to study their languages. And if he could, he would certainly give the same attention to the lost Meso-American cultures that inspired Tekumel. His enthusiasm and respect for all the world's people comes through in the exhaustive details he gives his creation. 

He inspires me to find greater appreciation for the people in China, and to find joy and purpose in creativity.

Please visit the Tekumel Foundation.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

DIY Democracy: The Fighter

Before coming to China, I played a modified Labyrinth Lord campaign with a few good friends. All of them started playing D&D in 3rd Edition and some had gone on to play 4th. Even though they loved the deadly, fast-paced, open-ended old school play, they missed a lot of the options and advancements from later editions.

We turned the campaign into kind of a collaborative project where we constantly modified the rules for classes and mechanics until we created a whole new monster. Yeah, yeah, I'm too democratic for my own good...

Here's what our fighter class looks like after a few months of democracy in action:

From Underworld Ink. All their stuff looks this bad ass.
Requirements: None
Hit dice: d10
-All the races
-All the weapons
-All the armor

A fighter who strikes down an enemy in melee can transfer excess damage dealt to another enemy in melee range. So if Tandoro swings his sword and deals 6 damage to an orc with only 4 hit points, he also deals 2 damage to the orc's buddy.

Weapon expertise
Fighters get the most out of their weapons. Depending on what kind of weapon they wield, they receive bonuses. These bonuses only work against monsters of equal or less hit dice than the fighter.
Axes: +1d6 base damage added to a critical hit
Bludgeons: On a maximum damage roll, the target is stunned an cannot act for a single round. If the target is helmeted or otherwise thick-headed, the target gets -2 penalty to attacks and AC for a single round.
Polearms: Fighter automatically wins initiative against enemies that do not have polearms, ranged weapons or reach.
Swords:  Inflict critical hits on a natural 19 or 20. But a roll of 19 is not an auto-hit like a roll of 20.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tripping on Angler Fish

Olhydra, princess of drowning waters, thinks little of the Ecshal islanders even as they whisper her name in awe and terror. As long as the appropriate sacrifices appear during the appropriate tides and captains ward their ships from her many eyes, she has few reasons to concern herself with anything above the waves.

It's all so clear now
Of course, this isn't what her priests tell their flocks. Islanders can expect seasonal or annual "sacred decrees" from their temples on top of the customary sacrifices. Most of the time, these decrees are not simple power or greed trips. Many are inspired by divinations. Priests of Olhydra commune with their goddess by ritualistically dining on her angler fish spawn. In the days following the rituals, priests stumble around a beach while experiencing psychedelic fugues and visions. The weirdness is possibly a result of being tapping into the goddess's alien desires. If the priests reach a consensus on what an experience means, they form and issue a sacred decree. Most are taken quite seriously.

A few half-baked angler fish trip interpretations with adventure hook potential:

1) Olhydra fears her rival, the invisible prince of thunder and lightning. She desires a listening post on Mount Zolom, the Ecshal Isles' highest peak. Adventurers needed to evict a tribe of bat men and maybe a roc or two.

2) Every man, woman and child in the village of Elgi must take a weekly hike to the top of nearby Spine Hill until the find the boulder that will be the capstone for a new sunken temple. Adventurers must make sure the local jackal men don't kill them all.

3) An idol to an usurper god is to blame for the city of Isbar's birth defect epidemic. According to a vision, it lies in a crystal-walled labyrinth beneath the Defiant Palace itself! Nobody has heard of a single crystal wall in Defiant Palace, let alone a labyrinth.

4) Once again, the rules for sacred trials by combat have changed. They now require the participation of terrestrial jellyfish, considered to be the world's least duplicitous creatures. They are believed to be extinct on all but one of the isles.

5) The mummies left by the isle's previous inhabitants, ignorant of the new goddess, are sending blasphemous dreams to the Olhydra-fearing islanders. A young priest wishes to proselytize to them and convince them to change their ways. The only remaining mummies are tucked away in remote, demon-infested crypts.

6) In the last troll war, a huge black pearl known as the Princess's Gift was lost during the sacking of the Most Sunken Temple. According to a new revelation, the pearl is actually the immortal form of Cerpin Taxt, a brilliant prophet who ate so much angler fish that he walked straight into the ocean and never returned. He must be rescued!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Mermaids are infamous for drawing men into the water and keeping them as mates. Their less-romanticized brothers, the merrow, are similar in that they drag women into their lairs. But merrow are as monstrous as mermaids are beautiful. Their tactics rely on brutality, not charm.

HD 5 + 5
AC 5 (or 15 if you drive on that side of the street)
4 attacks (2 claws d6, bite d6, tail d4)
Movement 120' in water, 60' on land
Save F5
Below average intelligence (20% chance of understanding/speaking common)

Merrow lurk in places mermaids shun - swamps, stagnant pools, slow murky rivers. They are solitary, although during "mating" season they form small bands and raid settlements.

Merrow have the ability to stun with a gaze attack once per day. Targets who fail a save are paralyzed in fear for 2d4 rounds. In groups of at least four, they can chant a hideous dirge that acts as a doom spell to anyone unfortunate enough to hear it.

A fresh dose of merrow saliva grants the ability to breathe underwater for an hour. Unless preserved by alchemy, the saliva is only good for up to one hour after a merrow's death.

Women kidnapped by merrow gradually transform into large catfish. Merrow lose interest in their mates and set them free when they lose their human features, which usually happens after about a year. This is why pious fishermen release any catfish that get caught in their nets.

Hooks (d6)
1) Merrow have wormed their way into the local cenote, and are stinking up the water and snatching girls. Adventurers needed to locate the unconsecrated tunnel they are using and escort priest to consecrate site.
2) Clever daughter of a local lord escapes merrow captivity halfway through her transformation into a catfish. Her father offers a fat bag of gold to anyone who can cure her condition, especially if it's found before she lays eggs...
3) An unusually intelligent merrow has claimed a stretch of river. He is peaceful, and attempts to trade with travelers. He offers pearls for very specific items.
4) Alchemist seeks live merrow for its saliva.
5) Merrow flukes have been flashing in the harbor water by moonlight. No women have gone missing, but many suspect they have something to do with the sudden disappearance of a city councilman.
6) An old dwarf, deep in the cups, tells a nostalgic yarn about how in his youth he dived for pearls the size of a baby's fist. The place he describes is now a merrow-haunted backwater.

Dark Crystal Concept Art

I watched the Dark Crystal for the first time in forever and I still love it. The ambient forest scene that depicts a fantasy ecosystem via animatronics impresses me more than any set piece from the LoTR movies.

I didn't appreciate how finely crafted and hilarious the Skeksies were when I was a kid. Even the minor ones reveal lots of character through movements, dress, bits of speech and mannerisms. Their feast scene is great. One nibbles daintily with a silver fork while another slurps straight from a soup pot. And they are all so decadent and petty that I can't help but laugh at them. They're a handful of ancients clinging to obsolete titles and rituals as they jockey for dominance over a wasteland and some hapless tree-dwellers, for crying out loud.

Check out this concept art:
The Worm Woods


table-breaking awe

Sunday, March 11, 2012

On Ice

Finished the worst stretch of my work week. For some reason I'm still wound up. I could be downtown, but it's cold as hell, I just broke the bank buying a ticket to Vietnam, and the taxi drivers are assholes on Sunday nights.

A teacher who left last week took this picture of me on a bench made of frozen industrial waste/maybe some water.
Wonder why she wanted to leave.
I might be making too much of this, but whatever. Back home, rivers never froze this much. This ice is thick. On foot, you're probably better off walking across the river itself than trying a bridge because the drivers never give a shit about almost killing everyone else on the road. To give you an idea of how safe I felt in this picture, Changchun's river ice is dotted with honest-to-God remnants of fire pits. None of them even seem to dent the stuff.

I like to imagine the fires were made by teenagers sneaking out to smoke their dads' cigarettes, drink stolen beer and brag about how they totally licked a girl's belly button. But from what I understand, Chinese boys can buy cigarettes and beer anywhere, and they're possibly asexual until they leave high school.

In a good Dungeons & Dragons setting, ice this thick might be the result of a frost hag's curse, inflicted over an insult forgotten by all but the most venerable mortals. There plenty of reasons why a frozen river would suck. It might be a community's only source of water, link to the world beyond, etc. And ice is a perfect bridge for invaders.

In the setting I'm half-baking, the Isles of Ecshal lie in a subtropical climate. Most of the isles' inhabitants pay tribute to the local elemental bad ass Olhydra, princess of drowning waters. Cold and ice are reviled because solid water is an abomination in the many eyes of their goddess. So the fact that an entire estuary on the remote corner of an island has been freezing solid for thirty winters is horrifying. Ever winter, the freeze drives the swamp's dreaded nixies, merrow, ghouls and walkodiles into civilized lands.

Most place blame on a mysterious cult known as the Disciples of the Dark Thirteen. They are believed to congregate in the ruins of an abbey near the estuary. The abbey was dedicated to a god who had a large flock before Olhydra and the other elemental princes appeared on the material plane and drove mankind's distant, mysterious deities into irrelevance. Orkandu, High Inquisitor of the Sunken Temples, currently offers 10,000 gp to whomever breaks the curse.

The twist is that (highlight to reveal spoiler) while the Disciples of the Dark Thirteen freeze the estuary every winter using ancient relics, they do so to prevent an abomination called Ineffable from emerging from a portal. Should Ineffable rise, it will turn the island's unborn into hideous monsters. The Disciples are a splinter group of the cult that tried to bring the abomination into the world, and are open to alternative solutions to stop Ineffable should any arise. Members of the original cult still linger, perhaps in high places...

Friday, March 9, 2012

Stuck in Weirdness

This is going to be an OSR/open edition gaming blog, but I'll also include details about living and working in China as a laowei (which means round-eyes, I think).

I've been living in Changchun, China for more than two months now. Changchun is the capitol of the Jilin province, which is kind of close to more interesting places like Beijing, Harbin and Dalian. I've been teaching the language that I love and enriching young lives. More importantly, I'm far, far away from the Midwest.

Pictures? Well, my camera broke during the 8,000 mile journey to this cold, ass-backward corner of China. But here's a rundown: Identical six-story, tile-covered apartment buildings from the 80's spread for miles. Vehicles of every type and quality, all driven by psychopaths, barrel down the avenues. Nobody speaks English. From October to March, it might get above freezing once or twice a month. Everything is built on a scale that makes you feel insignificant. They give their shopping centers names like "World Mall" and "Eurasian Mall" because they're the only things comparable to the size of these fucking buildings. Shopping is the national pastime. They put Americans to shame. A single mall might have acres of necklaces, tennis equipment and jackets and still have room for some "5-D" cinema that shows last year's American blockbusters for $20 a seat and a bullshit amusement park that nobody uses. People spit everywhere all the time. No bathrooms have toilet paper.

DM Exercise: Create a dungeon room based off this picture.
Content? OK, I've been inspired to create a setting dominated by the Princes of Elemental Evil and their followers. I read Jeff's folian mythos and Zak's Fiend Folio re-skin project and realized they could be a bad ass turnaround from the more humanistic gods I've been using for twelve years.

Elemental Princes live in the physical world and form the center of major religions. They are terrible and arbitrary, but can be powerful benefactors to those who cater to their whims and appetites. "Good guy" deities still exit, but they dwell on higher planes, and each has 99 problems of their own. They won't exactly stick their necks out for every peasant's prayer, but they might be bothered to grant boons to a few devoted clerics.

First up: Olhydra, Princess of the Drowning Waters.

Drawing by Zak S. You already know that.
Olhydra drifts and feeds endlessly in the oceans' darkest corners. Her home is the Drowning Basin. Its depth is so great that the sheer force of its gravity has been known to drag vessels beneath the surf. The Ecshal Isles, her cult's stronghold, form a ring around this basin. The islands are famous for their cenotes. Her faithful dutifully drown any infidel who challenges their goddess, but they harbor special loathing for the followers of Cyronax, the prince of freezing blood and shattering ice because of a prophecy that he will freeze the Drowning Basin solid.

Cenotes are always connected to vast underwater caverns that lead to the sea, which rules. 
Olhydra's clerics are the sea's best navigators. Before an ocean voyage, her clerics can spend a day summoning an angler fish, her hideous spawn, and ritually dining on it. For 50 gp + 5 gp for every expected day at sea in seasonings, side dishes and table settings, the clerics are granted unnatural knowledge of the currents, weather and creatures of the deep. This grants a substantial navigation bonus. Side effects include mind-fucking sea-related nightmares and awful seafood farts, which combined incur a penalty to Charisma checks for the duration of the effects.

This thing exists in every ocean and it's called "the wonderfish".