Monday, January 30, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 4

Continuing a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

Wow, sucks to be that guy.
So, he's obviously infested with some sort of flesh-eating worm or parasite - apparently not deadly enough to kill him outright. (The players should soon after run the risk of becoming infested with the same parasites!)
More worrying are the large centipedes (carrion crawlers?) writhing from the darkness on either side. Are they poisonous? (I recall that in early editions of D&D giant centipede poison was save-or-die, and that carrion crawlers had paralyzing antennae/tentacles.)
Why haven't they devoured the prisoner yet, though? How has he kept them away? (Will he share the secret with the players if freed?)
Why was the prisoner manacled to the wall in the first place? Common criminal? Political agitator? Practitioner of forbidden arts?

There is a small man, looking at the grey night sky, or perhaps the withered tree.
Why does his head glow? In ancient and medieval iconography, a glow about the head meant the subject was a saint. Is this man a saint? (of what god?) Or, is he Enlightened? What arts and talents does he possess?
My imagination places a burrow within the roots of the bending tree. Does the man live in the burrow, like a hermit or sage of old?
What would he say to the players? Would he tell of the plague of the coming age?

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:

So, obviously there is some sort of necromancer, stealing the souls from an ancient battlefield. (Somehow the flesh of the dead has rotted, but not the wood of the spears? It's POSSIBLE, I guess.)
It looks like he is doing something very bad. Are the souls being used to summon or feed some extradimensional horror?
What will he do when the players arrive? Return the souls to their crumbling skeletons, creating an animate army of undead warriors? Send the souls to harm the players directly, as a wailing torrent of chilling malice? Use his arcane magics to toss broken spears and splintered bone in a hail of pointy death? Complete a summoning ritual, and bring forth from the extradimensional void a world-ending menace?
(My eye is drawn to a single sword in the foreground, which has avoided both notching and rust. Is it magical? Is it powerful? What would it accomplish in the hands of a player?)

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)

Previous volumes:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3

Friday, January 27, 2017

"d100 Dungeon Master Tips" Critiqued - Volume 3: #s 53, 32, 34

We continue riffing off "d100 Dungeon Master Tips" by Mike Shea, as featured in Dragon+. Three tips critiqued, every Friday!

#53: "Name every villain the characters face."

Yeah, do that. Don't tell the players that the villagers want the PCs to go deal with "a fearsome orc chieftan." Rather they need to go deal with "Grognor Dripping-Fang, Scourge of the Weald." When they get to them, Grognor threatens to "tear your throat from your neck and drink your blood as from the fountain of a fallen city!" (...depending on how fluent your orcs are in Common or whatever language the PCs speak. Mileage may vary.)

#32: "Describe histories and storylines in small slices discovered by the characters as they explore the world around them."

Definitely yes. It's important to avoid large "info-dumps," as the proportion of information retained by a player decreases as the amount of information increases. SMALL pieces are important.

On the other hand, it's also important to make sure the lore you reveal is "grabby" and clearly interrelated, as players easily lose track of which pieces fit with which and are unable to assemble a clear picture of the story or world you're trying to describe. Make your lore reveals punchy and memorable: use brevity and flavor to accomplish this.

#34: "Learn your players' birthdays and celebrate them with an adventure focused on their character's goals. Who is the next player with a birthday coming up?"

Um, ALL adventures should be focused on character goals. That needs to be gotten out of the way first. (If your players are lame and don't have clear goals, then your adventures must force themselves on the characters and essentially MAKE THEMSELVES goals.)

But okay, sure, IF your players are all able to make it on a day, and IF that day is a player's birthday, give that player a chance to shine.

Overall I feel like this tip is geared more towards teenagers or younger people, but personally I DM for adults with busy lives, and that kind of flexibility is hard to come by. (And birthdays mean less the older you get.) So, might be fun, but this tip is FAR from important.

Previous volumes:
Volume 1
Volume 2

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Diseases Are Demons

In some of the more liberal branches of Christian theology (and the theologies of other religions, for all I know), it is often thought that the appearances of demons in the Scriptures should not be taken literally - that is, the liberal theologian often disbelieves in personal, sapient spirits of malevolence and rebellion.

So, what IS the interpretation of references to demons, if not literal demons?


The liberal theologian sees Scriptural references to demons as actually referring to diseases - sometimes physical, but often mental: diseases like epilepsy, schizophrenia, or depression. And if a person is healed of that disease, the "demon" has been "cast out."

Now, that's coming from a modernist worldview that is seeking to reduce pre-modern conceptions to merely "natural" (rather than "supernatural") explanations (and some liberal theologies do away with the notion of a personal, sapient God, too!). BUT, since we're interested in playing tabletop RPGs where magic and the supernatural commonly appear, we aren't interested in this approach. In fact, we can SUBVERT it, and REVERSE it.

See, I titled this post "Diseases Are Demons," not "Demons Are Diseases." What if we conceptualize the diseases and maladies in fantasy game settings not as pathogens or psychoses as we moderns understand them, but as actual, personal, sapient spirits of malevolence and illness? That schizophrenic over there? His psyche is regularly invaded by a demon. That epileptic? she's assaulted by malign spirits. That leper? A devil dwells within his flesh, rendering it dead and white.

Deicide - In the Minds of Evil

Given that assumption, it makes a GREAT explanation to how healing magic in RPGs work. See, it's often divine magic - channeling the power of a deity to cure disease and illness. But, if diseases are demons, what's actually happening is an EXORCISM. This is COOL!

So, next time your party comes across an individual suffering from "scurvy," emphasize that she is suffering from Scurvy - an infamous demon who emerges from the deeps of the ocean and drains the vitality of its victims! Watch your players start trying to exorcise it with salt, holy water - and perhaps limes!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 3

Continuing a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

Great surreal atmosphere on this one, with the red sky and blue ice. (Why is the sky red? The smoke of distant fires? The aurora borealis? The setting sun struggling to pierce clouds of ash and gas?)
Man, that ice looks lethal, though. Don't slip. (So, the terrain functions as a trap, where clumsy characters fall and take piercing damage.)
On the left, a strange, strange city. Notice the ice encroaching upon it - was this area once warm and habitable,  but now being threatened by glaciers and the long winter?
The city itself is kind of how I imagine Charn to look. What magics and treasures may be found in its ruinous mazes?
On the right, some black silhouettes on a hill above the ice. (My imagination immediately pictures them as ants on an anthill.) Do they live underground for shelter now? Are they former inhabitants of the city, or new arrivals on the wings of winter? Are they hostile or neutral?
There really is a story behind this scene. But it's up to you to tell it.

"The tree is withered; its roots are rotted and weak -
they grow through the skulls and the ribs of the children murdered at its feet!"

This has a BEAUTIFULLY psychedelic atmosphere. It's tough to tell whether the location is underground or merely in a deep, dank wood - though I lean toward the latter. (It reminds me of the Weald locations from Darkest Dungeon - a HIGHLY recommended game, BTW.)
Obviously this is a very old, very autotrophic forest - one that has even gained the malevolence to feed upon civilization and its denizens. What magics or supernatural forces have given it such ravenous life?
I shudder to think that the skull on the upper right might speak. What would it say to a party of adventurers?
(The album itself is also highly recommended - it was in my top 3 albums from 2015!)

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:

DEPRIVE (Disfiguring the Goddess)
So, obviously this could be the object of a "go kill this quest," which would work fine. To slay this... THING, you'd need to destroy or disable those spires or pylons on either side, which are obviously feeding some sort of energy to the... THING. (And then, probably venture WITHIN its maw and KILL IT DEAD from there.)
What would be even COOLER is if that maw were actually a gateway or an entrance to some deeper, darker region - then, player options would include: 1) killing the... THING as normal, 2) negotiating with it (in which safe passage would be accomplished by... bringing it something it wishes to devour? Accomplishing a task beyond the reach of its writhing tentacles?) or 3) running REALLY fast past those spiky tentacles and massive teeth!
It's worth considering what this area looked like BEFORE the... THING grew or emerged or otherwise got there. Those curving objects in the foreground seem to be warped and ruined pillars or totem-poles, and some of the objects in the background could be massive dead trees. Was this once a mighty forest? Did the... THING poison the earth and blacken the sky with dark energies? Did devour until it could move no more? WHAT LIES BELOW?

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)

Previous volumes:
Volume 1
Volume 2

Sunday, January 22, 2017

One Month of Ars Magisterii

Well, it looks like I made the first post on Ars Magisterii a month ago!

A recap of where it's been, and where it's going:

This is a blog about running (and playing) tabletop RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons being perhaps the most notable example). It also incorporates influences from history, philosophy, theology, and death metal - especially death metal, as evidenced by my ongoing Metal Monster Manual Monday series!

Speaking of series, I have two ongoing, and several more floating around in my brainspace to either replace or supplement what I have going now.

Currently, Metal Monster Manual Monday updates every Monday (obviously), and is an experiment in drawing inspiration from album covers (mostly from death metal) in crafting encounters and scenes for a tabletop RPG.
"d100 Dungeon Master Tips" Critiqued is my other ongoing series, in which I sample a couple of tips every Friday from "d100 Dungeon Master Tips" by Mike Shea (as featured in Dragon+) and use them as a springboard into discussion as to the tips' value and related issues. (Essentially, a couple of mini-rants - but better!)

In the future, I hope to present a series on my previous campaign, which inspired Metal Monster Manual Monday, in which all the scenes the players encountered WERE album covers. (It was a successful experiment, by the way. More detail to come.)
I also am considering providing updates on my current campaign - although, truth be told, I find campaign bulletins to be fairly uninteresting (they often end up being "you had to be there"),  but I'd do my best to do it well if there was demand.
Finally, I have plenty of material on creating and evaluating house rules - probably enough for its own series.

In addition to my Monday and Friday serial posts, I will continue to deliver a miscellaneous (but AWESOME) post every Wednesday. Stay tuned ("follow" this blog to make it simple)!

Oh, and one more goal - get someone to actually comment on one of my posts, haha. (Here's a try: let me know in the comment section what you'd like to see more of from this blog!)

Friday, January 20, 2017

"d100 Dungeon Master Tips" Critiqued - Volume 2: #s 62, 48, 07

We continue riffing off "d100 Dungeon Master Tips" by Mike Shea, as featured in Dragon+. Three tips critiqued, every Friday!

#62: "Give monsters an interesting array of weaponry. They don't all fight with the same short sword."

This is actually useful. See, ideally, different weapons promote different tactics, and an encounter group of enemies with varied tactics and roles can be an engaging challenge. Don't bother simply throwing in a couple of extra weapon types for flavor - all you're doing is changing a couple of damage dice here and there for no appreciable benefit. Think how a club-wielding goblin might behave differently than a spear-wielding goblin, and don't be afraid to adjust stats, HP, and other pieces of equipment (armor, shields, loot, etc) accordingly.

In fact, you might just be best off coming up with a couple of different stat blocks to cover that variety. I recently built a goblin encounter from a mix of "goblin bashers" (club and shield), "goblin slashers" (dual sabers), "gobin throwers" (javelins), and "goblin shamans" (alchemy and a couple spells) - each had stats, abilities, and descriptions built around different combat rolls. (The Angry GM goes way more in-depth here if you're down for a long read.)

#48: "If your adventure had a sensationalist newspaper headline, how would it read?"


Personally I tend to DM more sand-box-oriented campaigns, but if I had to come up with "a sensationalist newspaper headline" for my current one, it would be: "King Othric Opens Westlands to Settlement - Scum and Villainy Take Advantage of Royal Pardon and Depart for the Frontier!" (More on my current campaign in not too long.)

#07: "Spend a few minutes thinking about the strength of each of the characters and build interesting situations that help them show off those abilities."

...Maybe? It depends on the group you're playing with, perhaps. If they're just in it to feel powerful and spotlit, sure, toss them some bones. Me? I like (both giving and receiving) challenges with no straightforward solution that require thought and creativity (so - NOT "oh, one of my players has a cleric PC with Turn Undead, so I'll just have a scene with like ten mookish skeletons so she can go crazy and turn them all and save the day just like that"). In my method, GMs should create challenges for story and flavor reasons, and then watch as player creativity organically solves those challenges. You usually don't need to know HOW they'll do it - just watch it happen. (And make sure the "challenge" isn't just a slug-it-out fight-to-the-death with no retreat possible. Give 'em a chance to run, rendezvous, recover, and return with plans and tactics in hand.)

In short, MY advice is that you throw players bones if that's what they get off to, but aim for a more mature group that relishes complex problems with no obvious solutions.

Previous volumes:
Volume 1

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Dungeon Ecology

You all know the image (if you play tabletop RPGs, at least): a group of like four or five murderous weirdos descend into the chthonic depths of the earth in order to haul out chestfulls of gold (and maybe a princess here and there, too).

But, like, how do all these dank underground spaces GET there?

Who makes dungeons?

(from here)

I'm not really talking about literal dungeons - crappy little spaces with bars and chains to hold prisoners in some castle's basement. Those are usually pretty tiny, modest affairs, nothing like the labyrinthine, multi-level complexes of cave and tunnel that tabletop RPGs so often feature.

I ask who makes dungeons because they're so rare in real life. (Y'know, our actual world.) The reason for this is usually that it's dang hard to dig meandering tunnels and subterranean rooms through earth and rock. Dirt constantly wants to collapse on you (necessitating EXTENSIVE systems of support), and stone, in ADDITION to the danger of cave-ins, is simply a tough substance to break. And THEN you have to haul out all the material you create ALL THE WAY TO THE SURFACE (which, obviously, is farther away the bigger of an excavation you're creating).

All this explains why human-made underground spaces are so rare. In ancient and medieval times, really the only reasons to dig underground were 1) to make a stable foundation for large, expensive buildings, and 2) mining. (We STILL mostly follow these trends, by the way.) It's just not worth the effort to dig out any kind of structure underground, because it's always easier to build (and maintain) (and access) (and use) conventional aboveground buildings.

So, we're stuck with a convention in fantasy gaming that doesn't hold true in real life. (What a surprise.) We can do two things: toss out the convention and only create adventures in above-ground locations (and the occasional mine or basement) OR explain how dungeons still manage to arise in our gameworlds.

I've done the former fairly often, but in this post, I want to explore a possibility for the latter option!

Namely, trees. (And shrubs and weeds and shrooms and squirrels and other stuff that dies, decomposes and forms soil.)

Frekkin' TREES (from album artwork of Warforged - Essence of the Land)
Let me elaborate.

So, y'all know how dirt is made, right? It's mostly smashed-up rock (with particle sizes ranging from sand to clay) mixed with bits of dead stuff (mostly plants). This dead stuff we call "humus" (no, not "hummus," that gross stuff that stereotypical veg(etari)ans eat), and is really great for making fertile, arable soil rich in nutrients that plants need to grow (because it's mostly made of plants that DID grow there a while back).

Now, soil does build up over time as rock is weathered and plants die, but at slow rates that are often countered by erosion, compaction, or formation of sedimentary rock.

Now, since we're talking about FANTASY worlds, let's make it a bit more, well, fantastic.

Say, for instance, that in your gameworld, foliage (and maybe other forms of life, too) grow WAY faster than we're used to.

Like, we're talking about WAY faster than normal. Imagine ^this^ all over. (From the album artwork of Robert Rich - Somnium)
(You don't even need to put much effort into WHY this would be. Just wave your hand and intone something about "natural magic," "atmospheric composition," or (gods forbid) "druids.")

Fast-growing flora (and maybe fauna) would explain a lot of things. Here's a couple I thought of:
1) Why the gameworld is full of so much untamed wilderness - it just grows TOO FAST to keep most of it clear-cut!
2) Why acreage of farmland is so small compared to the gameworld population - crops grow fast and fruitful!
3) Why those infamously-large elf-infested trees get so huge!
4) Why monsters in the wild are so big!
5) Why the abundance of predatory species can possibly have enough prey to feed upon!
6) Why bandits are everywhere? (are they affected by the wild growthspeed, too?)
7) Why so many underground structures ("dungeons") exist!

Wait, what? Why 7)?

If there's a ton of plant matter constantly growing and dying, the buildup of soil will be SIGNIFICANTLY faster than we're used to. Maybe fast enough that abandoned buildings only a century (or so) old would be buried by fresh dirt.


You see? Civilizations build towns, fortresses, keeps, halls, and whatever else - and if they are ravaged or abandoned, they are soon BURIED (and perhaps re-inhabited by the denizens of the subterranean world!) These tunnels you're walking through? They were once the hallways of a monastery. This cavernous room? Once the cupola of a temple's dome. This vertical shaft? Once the top of a well.

Certain features common among above-ground buildings would still be discernible, of course. Former windows allowing dirt and dense roots to poke in. Skylights, perhaps still open to the sky (even as the rest of the structure is buried). Former ceilings, buried, then collapsed, forming a cavernous space roofed only by roots and densely-packed soil.

Now, when your players ask you why there are all these well-cut, firmly-laid stone blocks in a massive underground complex that would've taken unimaginable efforts to dig and bolster, you can smile knowingly and start planting a clue every session or two. (A window to... dirt? A skylight with no sky? And, wait, how long ago did we plant this large tree? And, my, Fido has grown...)

In this gameworld, Civilization has a tomb of its own: the ever-grasping clutches of mighty Nature. (Album artwork from Halgrath - Out of Time)

Monday, January 16, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 2

Continuing a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

Can you say "adventure location"?
Anyway, there's a ton of interesting things going on here!
In the far background, there are several pyramids, temples, and/or fortresses, some looking like they were built BEFORE the water entered this area (i.e. their foundations are submerged, and their depths likely drowned). What civilization built such wonders? When (and WHY) did the water come to wash it all away? What now lurks on the lightless, airless depths of these structures?
In the middle background, there is a broken bridge and a large, stair-encumbered building with a MASSIVE MALEVOLENT TREE growing on and over it. What caused this HUGE, MALICIOUS vegetable to grow there? (Is it itself SENTIENT? What does it want? Why does it reach for the sun as if to devour it? What does it guard in the large building's depths? What would it do to a party of humanoids that approach it?) Secondly, that broken bridge would be an AWESOME scene for a battle, full of peril from falling over its low-railed sides or crumbling through its precarious masonry. (What horrors might crawl from that pyramid on the left to confront a party of passing adventurers as they struggle over the treacherous bridge?)
In the near background, there's another bridge (with a claw-like structure similar to the ones festooning the former on its gatehouse) and a surprisingly-intact squarish temple merging with the jungle. Which was first, the jungle or the temple? Has the jungle won its way INSIDE, and what has it spawned in the numinous dark of the religious structure?
Finally, in the foreground, is an AWESOME-LOOKING sarcophagus made of some sort of glass or crystal (stahlrim?). What lies within? (Or, perhaps, what LIVES within?) What would happen were the sarcophagus cracked or opened? (CAN it even be cracked or opened by mundane means?)
Anyway, ohmygosh, you could totally run a short campaign with JUST THIS ONE IMAGE. Seriously, it's LOADED.
(Check out the band itself, too. Rivers of Nihil has been doing some cool stuff lately.)

Three main things arrest my interest in this cover.
1) The aurora itself, obviously. It's got people in it. So, in your game world, WHO manifests in the aurora? Noble saints? Ghosts of the departed? Angels? Demons? Dancing gods? A celestial hunting party? Incorporate the aurora (and its denizens) into at least one religion in your game world!
2) That bell. Like, seriously, massive hunks of shaped metal don't just TURN UP on random frozen shores. Is the building that the bell from behind the viewer's perspective? Did it sink beneath the waves? (Why didn't the bell suffer the same fate? Is it MAGICAL? What strange properties does it possess? What otherworldly effects manifest when it is rung?)
3) There's a strange-looking geographical feature on the far side of that bay or fjord - it looks like a hole. Or a massive eye. (If a hole, where does it lead? What lies beneath the glacial ridge in the background? If an eye, WHAT IS LOOKING AT YOU?)

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:

PUTRID CROWN (Parasitic Extirpation)
Ohmygosh, this thing looks COOL. (Also drop-dead lethal. But COOL.)
So, what is it? It looks vaguely vegetable, from the thorns, bark-like texture, and verdant color. (Skyrim spriggan?) Is it some vengeful, bloodthirsty nature spirit? Or, a blighted tree that has gained sentience and now desires only to destroy?
Taking a cue from the album title, it seems to be wearing a crown. Did the crown warp this creature into its current state? Who made the crown? What would it do to a player character who decides to wear it?
What's with the spackling and blurring at its edges? Is it somehow coming apart? Or spewing spores or insectile assailants? (In tactical terms, that's an area effect that either inflicts direct damage or a malevolent status effect!)
Why is it chained? (I mean, besides the fact that it's OBVIOUSLY DANGEROUS?) Like, why would something want to keep this around? Is it a prisoner? A guardian? (Probably a guardian. Guarding that cave off to the left of the image.)
Why does it collect skulls? (Intimidation? Currency? Source of power? Or, was it directed to by something... else?)
If this is what you find OUTSIDE the dungeon (cave), what the jank kind of madness will you find INSIDE?

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)

Previous volumes:
Volume 1

Friday, January 13, 2017

"d100 Dungeon Master Tips" Critiqued - Volume 1: #s 18, 27, 37

In a moment of profound boredom, I was exploring Dragon+, WotC's digital "magazine" (which is mostly them pimping their latest adventure or tie-in product, but hey). One of their more recent issues (the one with an Acquisitions Incorporated cartoon on the cover) contained an article called "d100 Dungeon Master Tips" (tabletop gamers and their d100 tables!) by one Mike Shea. I skimmed through a fair chunk of the tips: a few were helpful, some were drop-dead obvious, and many were off-base.

But, what matters for our purposes is not whether they're "good" or not, but that they give me a springboard to talk about a fair spread of concepts that matter in a concise format!

So, we're gonna try rolling up three of these "tips" every Friday at 5 and see what there is to be said. Here goes!

#18: "Before you begin adding or modifying your own rules, try running the rules as written to get a strong feel for them. Ask yourself if a particular house rule would really make the game more fun."

This is actually fairly solid advice. Bolting on half-baked house rules to a system that you don't understand is a good way to wreck yourself. (Not that I haven't tried - and sometimes succeeded!) It is also worth emphasizing that house rules shouldn't  be added just for increased realism or broadened options UNLESS this causes increased fun.

#27: "Even for combat-heavy game sessions, insert interesting pieces of history, rumors, or secrets that the characters can learn."

Understand your game world, O GM. If you have a good handle on what's going on beyond the scope of the players' narrow spotlight, it makes it easy to introduce broader bits of lore to your players and enrich their understanding of the setting. If your group gets off to that sort of thing. (I know not all do.)

#37: "Even something as simple as a quick sketch can help players understand the nuances of a combat encounter."

Ehh, not WRONG, but not a HELPFUL tip, either. Honestly, if you're running the kind of game where a player has to have a firm grasp of the relative positions of each and every combatant, you might be spending more time counting squares and gnawing nails over opportunity attacks than you need to. Combat should be as fast and fluid as you can manage, with considerations like terrain and positioning being simple and clear-cut enough to enrich the experience without needing much of a cognitive load. I usually find visual portrayals of an encounter to be extraneous, but mileage may vary for you and your group.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Atheist Cultists

Many of you have at least HEARD of the Church of Satan, or of the Satanic Temple. (Different organizations, by the way. The Satanic Temple, in particular, has been making waves in America in the past few years in its challenges to a perceived governmental bias toward Christianity, but that is neither here nor there for our purposes.)

What makes them interesting for OUR purposes is that they are both metaphysically atheist. That is, neither believes in an actual Satan, or in any other supernatural deity. Any worship or veneration is properly directed toward oneself, with belief in a traditional divinity being passed off as mere "projection."

Atheist cultists, eh? Who woulda thunk.

Cultist!, Kvltist, rather.
Lemme tell you, in tabletop RPGs like D&D, the gameworld is absolutely RIFE with evil cults and their followers. It's ridiculous - there almost seem to be more cultists than worshipers of "accepted" religion (much like bandits compared to law-abiding citizens). Not really sure how a fiend-worshiping cultist expects to come out ahead, anyway - damnation doesn't seem like a very attractive price to pay no matter how much power you get out of the bargain.

But, what if at least some of these cultists aren't what we normally think of as cultists - what if some are ATHEIST, worshiping demons or devils not as objectively real persons, but as symbols? We already know that even in RPGs, not all magical power derived from belief requires the belief to be well-founded - "monks" often eschew personal deities, embracing philosophies or esoterics instead, and paladins often gain their powers from the strength of their oath itself - not necessarily from any deity named as witness thereof. Atheist cultists could maintain all of their magical powers, simply through the strength of the SYMBOLS they embrace. And the gameworld would be more interesting, and perhaps even more understandable, if there are cultists whose fate ISN'T eternal damnation in their patron's specific hellhole, haha.

(What do the figures below SYMBOLIZE? Who would claim such symbols as central to an atheistic cult? What would be their goals, and their methods in pursuing them?)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Metal Monster Manual Monday - Volume 1

Starting a weekly series of posts wherein I share several album covers (mostly by death metal bands!) as brainfood for encounters in your tabletop RPG. Expect this every Monday!

Some brief background: I have actually run an entire 8-week campaign based entirely around this. Pop an album cover up on a screen, "this is what you see," give some details on the action and atmosphere of the scene, see what the players do. Probably my most successful (and dark!) campaigns yet, and something I'll definitely do again sometime (with a different group of players - it's probably a trick best pulled once!).

Anyway, what you've all been waiting for (click to enlarge!):

First of all, dat's menacing.
Now, let's break it down: what's going on here?
First, this guy (yes, GUY, look at his, er, crotch) has a BELLY MOUTH. Extra bite attack? "Ingest" ability?
Second, look at his left arm - that's clearly made for grappling. He's got a strong grapple attack, probably for pulling you into his belly mouth, haha.
Third, look at all those exposed veins - is he weak to slashing damage? Does he take increased bleed damage?
 Fourth, his drool is a weird color - the same color as the liquid flowing into this lair. Is it acid? Poison? Magical? Can he spit it as an attack? (YOU BET HE CAN!)
Alright, and what's going on with that giant eye up top? Is it this dude's master? Will he do anything to protect it? What magical powers does IT have? (It probably enslaves creatures as protectors, and, whether due to its malign influence or the toxic cave environment, these protectors eventually mutate into gross beasts like this guy.)
Finally, look at the tactical challenges and opportunities that the environment provides! Can you hide behind stalagmites? You bet! Can you knock stalactites down onto this guy? You bet! Should you DEFINITELY avoid stepping in the red-orange slime flowing from the walls? You bet!

Can you say "adventure location?"
First of all, what's this place made of? Basalt? Enchanted black ice? Layer upon layer of cobweb? Then, WHO MADE IT like that? Who crafts structures from BLACK ICE or SPIDERWEBS?
What was it made for? Temple? Fortress? Cathedral? Mansion?  Palace?
Where's the door, anyway? Do you need a key, a password, or a very hefty warhammer to get in?
(Also, note the graveyard edging into the foreground. Definitely some sort of dank encounter is gonna pop up from beneath those tombstones the moment the party starts tromping through them.)

Right, so, obviously some dank wizards of some type here. Very magical, and very grim.
But, what's the dude on the left holding? A spellcasting orb? An egg? (Of what creature?) A large snowball? You decide!
Are those masks, or faces? If masks, what kind of face do they hide?
And look at what the stars are doing! They're spiraling before your eyes! Obviously these dudes are TIME WIZARDS or something. Imagine the party's surprise to head home after this encounter, only to find that WEEKS have passed in their absence! How do they wield their unearthly powers, should this encounter come to blows? What do they even want (which is, by the way, the first thing you should ask when the party encounters ANY creature)?

You could opt to just have the being on the right be the encounter, but personally, I'd have the players walk up to the scene exactly as pictured, including the two figures on the left.
First, what's with Big Bird? Spirit of the Wilds? A dwindling Old God? Is it hungry? Lonely? Loving? Bitter?
Second, what are the two on the left doing? They look like just children to me. Do they come here often? Are they friends with Big Bird? How has that affected them?
(This is a great candidate for an encounter that doesn't end up with combat. Wannabe-thespians, rejoice!)

Alright, time for the BOSS BATTLE:
So, obviously this massive tentacled heart lures and feeds upon unfortunates that come across it (perhaps including the party!) Like, it's literally devouring souls. Bad news. (Is this what they players came to destroy, given the recent disappearances in the next town over?) Watch out for magic soul-eating attacks, grabby spiky tentacles, and raging enslaved half-undead servitors!
How did this heart get here? Does it normally exist in a form like this? Or, perhaps it is trying to amass enough soul-nourishment to become something... bigger. (Or, perhaps this heart is all that REMAINS of something bigger! What creature would leave behind such a large, malevolent heart?)

How would YOU use any/all of these monsters, encounters, and scenes in your game, Reader?
(Let me know how it goes if you do!)

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Social Beast: Choosing a Table

I consider myself to be a successful DM. I could spend my time expounding upon why I think that, but the more important question is what actually makes my campaigns successful. If I had to choose one thing, it definitely wouldn't be my impeccable planning, my massive amount of effort, my unshakeable charisma, or my top-notch minis and props. (I have none of the above, haha.)

The single most important thing I do to make my games successful is choosing players.

I know many GMs advise prioritizing an open and welcoming table that anyone can join - and there's definitely something to that. A friendly and welcoming atmosphere IS important - which is why it's important who's at the table, who creates the atmosphere. A GM has a DUTY to be selective as to his or her players, as it is a vital factor in determining how fun the game actually is, which is, of course, the POINT of these games. To be fun.

I'm gonna try to give a brief rundown of what to look for (and what to look OUT for) in potential players, but the truth of the matter is, I choose players mostly by feel. It works really well (after years of DMing, I've NEVER had a player leave from strife or even lack of interest), but just makes it hard to quantify in a blog post - but here it goes anyway.

Things to Look For:

1) Rock-solid reliables. People who aren't afraid to make commitments, and who stick by them. It's key for any long-running campaign (weekly, monthly, whatever) that a consistent group of players be able to get together at fairly regular intervals. Long lulls and interludes dull interest and engagement, and missing party members tug at the fabric of the story. When you invite prospective players to your table, try to stick to people who can plan on being there regularly.

2) Imaginers. You want people who do more with their minds than browse social media, watch sports, and get wasted. Not that there's necessarily anything WRONG with the above - just that a person who doesn't bother engaging their imagination on a regular basis won't get much out of a tabletop RPG, for reasons that I hope are obvious. Look for people who read a lot, who discuss unusual topics, who have a variety of free-time activities.

3) The shy. I might be exceeding my self-mandate here - to give you guidelines for assembling the best table you can - but there might be something important here. I've seen tons of people normally thought of as "shy" or "friendless" really find their place at a gaming table. It makes social interaction easy, because it removes the sometimes-crippling focus on YOU as a person. You aren't YOU anymore - you're Bugaboo the Ranger, or Smervia the Bard, or whatever. People with social insecurity and anxiety often make really great players, because the game gives them an opportunity to be part of a group without regard for their appearance, race, occupation, sexuality, mannerisms, or fears. Some people really need that in their lives, and it might be something you can offer. (Still, take the following section into account, too.)

Things to Look OUT For:

1) Controllers. Players who constantly criticize the decisions of the GM (or worse, other players), just because they would've done differently. The core of tabletop RPGs is the making of meaningful choices in a shared fictional setting, and a player who acts as if the choices of others must conform to their own eats at the very core of the game.

2) Attention whores. Anyone who's always fishing for attention or causing drama in the social world has no place at a gaming table. If all they want is always to be at the center of the action, it will make it difficult for more self-controlled players to participate in the common game. Worse, attention whores will often CREATE conflict just for the spotlight-time it brings. You don't need that at your table, or in your life.

3) Lone wolves. By this I don't mean your garden-variety loner, who merely prefers to keep his or her own company much of the time. I mean the kind of person who doesn't give two farts about cooperation or common goals, but just wants to generally exercise their fictional freedom without regard for its place in a group context.

...) It would be a waste of your (and my) time to go through the more obvious warning signs in prospective players (verbally abusive, chronic anger issues, antagony with an existing group member...), so I'll just say: don't invite anyone to your gaming table who you wouldn't invite to your dinner table.

Reader: tell me about the best person, and/or the worst person, you've ever had in your gaming group. What was (or should've been) the clue as to how they'd do at the table?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


"Ghosts are, of course, those spirits whose bodies have died but who remain to trouble us. Vampires are the opposite: their souls have long since been taken or destroyed, but their bodies remain, stalking this earth as predators, seeking blood of the living."

"Why blood, you ask? As any learned man knows, the life is in the blood. The soul and spirit is in the blood. Drain any of the other humors - black bile, yellow bile, or phlegm - and the subject is discomfited, but recovers. Drain the blood, and the subject perishes without fail."

"A vampire, having no soul, no true life, has an insatiable hunger for blood, the life that they lack. And so, they glut themselves on the blood of the living, devouring their soul, but never able to recover what they so hunger for. And their victim, blood drained and soul stolen, becomes a vampire like their tormentor. There are, of course, other means of becoming a vampire: the blackest hexes may damn souls on the spot, and there are always mad hellions who sell their souls to the ENEMY, thinking they somehow gain in the exchange. But there is only loss."

"Alas, the loss of soul has grave repercussions. Lost with their soul is their reason, their morality, and even their mortality, though these losses may take years or more to manifest. They say the most aged vampires, bodies still youthful as the day they died, have long since lost their ability to control their wicked impulses, grasp abstract concepts, or even use language, becoming mere beasts in all but form."

"The cleansing purity of Sun's fire, or, lacking that, a mundane blaze or blade of silver (both of which carry a glimmer of the True Fire of the Heaven in their form), is all that may rid our world of these abominations. Otherwise, any possibility of these creatures' deaths departed with any remnant of life."

- From the writings of Erbius the Lorekeeper, Magus of the Fifth Order

Monday, January 2, 2017

Headless Hunter (monster, system-neutral)

No one knows whence the first headless hunter came, nor how many there are. Several incidents have occurred over a few decades in Knuthe and the sleepy hollows north of the Inner Six, tales of shambling, headless bodies wandering the woods as if searching for something.

Furthermore, no one knows what to make of the cases following these incidents in which a member of  a nearby village or community seems to grow taller or shorter, or to gain or lose mass, as if overnight. (And, it may be added, to gain a proclivity for high collars or fluffy ruffs.)

Headless Hunter (system-neutral):
Physical stats (including movement, HP, attacks) as a bipedal, sapient creature of your choice (often human, but an ogre would be a challenge, and a halfling would be hilarious!).
Mental stats nil (so no spellcasting), but any saving throws or resistances remain identical to the template creature.
Furthermore, it is immune to fear, charms, or other effects to alter its relentless drive to tear the head from another bipedal, sapient creature and attach it to its body. It may, however, be turned as an undead.
It has blindsense/tremorsense out to 20ft, beyond which it seems only to be able to feel out the general direction of a creature if it moves. Perhaps the deprivation of most if its senses has left its sense of touch extremely sensitive, and it is able to detect the slightest tremors in the earth or floor.

Headtaker: if the headless hunter reduces a target to 0hp, they immediately tear off (or cleave off, if a weapon is at hand) the target's head and place it upon their own suppurating stump, whereupon it binds with the body within a round (creating a ring of messy scar tissue). The original target finds itself in control of this new body, complete with its basic physical attributes and HP total (including any wounds), while it maintains its original mental stats, knowledge, and skills. The target's headless, bloodied body flees the scene, becoming a fresh headless hunter. Only miraculous resurrective magic can restore the target's head to its original body.

Relentless: if the headless hunter is reduced to 0hp, it does not perish; instead, one of its limbs is destroyed beyond recovery (roll 1d4 to determine which), and it loses a HD/level (but its HP count rises to half its maximum).
If an arm is destroyed, its attacks are usually impaired (exact mechanics vary based on the body template you're using, and the game system in general, but may include losing a multiattack, losing an attack bonus, losing a damage die, etc.).
If a leg is destroyed, the hunter may only locomote by crawling.
This effect may recur until no limbs remain to be lost, at which point the headless hunter is finally destroyed.
(If you're using a ruleset that awards XP based on slaying foes, it's recommended to award XP when "relentless" first triggers, and not force players to continue to brutalize this suffering creature any further just for the sake of the XP. The headless hunter is worth 1.25x as much XP as the base creature it was created from, at the GM's discretion; for example, a headless hunter created from a wizard or other spellcasting creature may be worth less, due to a significant loss in its original ability.)

Enjoy! If you use this, tell me how your players react!

(I had to try really hard not to just name this creature a "headhunter," haha.)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Vile Sacrament

Coagula, from Boston, have recently emerged with a wonderful breed of good ol' fashioned crusty death metal. The production is just gritty enough for the genre without being unbalanced or unpleasant, and the riffage is a pounding groove rich with d-beats. I'm a sucker for d-beats. (I swear that phrase isn't as dirty as it sounds.)

Anyway, Coagula is highly recommended for: trench warfare, sitting in a dimly-lit room reading blogs, and fleeing a ravening swarm of undead.