Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Magic Pyramid: A Tarot Card Generator for Creating Monsters


If an adventure is a wheel, the monster is the hub (whose actions and motives form the core of the adventure), the encounters are the spokes (the interactive elements that put the party in danger), and the map is the rim (the space through which the party moves). It’s essential, then, to have a good monster at the core of your adventure to set off the action and get your sessions rolling. While there are a number of monster generators out there that I love dearly (especially the Random Esoteric Creature Generator by James Raggi IV), my goal with this tarot card generator was a structure that leant itself to monsters less chimeric and more cohesive. The tarot card generator I will be describing is designed to create complex monsters around which you can create an adventure.

Using The Magic Generator

Deal ten cards in a pyramid shape as shown in this illustration:

  1. The Form

The card at the top of the pyramid dictates your monster’s physical form. In general, the court cards (i.e. pages/princesses, knights, queens, and kings) are monsters which take on a more or less human form such as vampires or zombies, minor arcana (the cards with numbers on them such as “ten of coins”) tend to be monsters that swarm in large numbers such as orcs or goblins, and the major arcana tend to be more exotic. Of course, this will all vary based on your mood and your deck.

  1. The Human

The left card on the second row of the pyramid is called “The Human.” I would argue that the appeal of creating a paper avatar to fight horrible monsters is not to fight the evil without, but to confront the monster within. I’m not sure I can think of a good monster design that does not have some element of humanity, whether that is in its behavior, the personification of an abstract human trait, or even just its form. The card in this position contributes the human element to your monster. In general, court cards tend to signify an element of the monster’s form, minor arcana some aspect of human behavior, and major arcana a bit of both...but of course this will again vary.

  1. The Inhuman

The right card in the second row of the pyramid is called “The Inhuman.” In order for the monster to evoke feelings of the weird, it must be at the very least supernatural—meaning a transgression of the natural order. The story goes that each morning a farmer comes and gives a group of chickens their feed for the day. The chickens all decide that the farmer is a benevolent deity and that this morning feeding ritual is simply part of the natural cycle of life that will never change... until the day comes when the farmer does not bring feed, but an ax. The monster is the ax in this scenario. The card in this position signifies the aspect of the monster that is utterly inhuman.

  1. The Cycle 

The three cards in the third row are called “The Cycle.” The idea for this generator came to me while reading Junji Ito’s Tomie. I was struck by the manga’s interesting structure—the work is composed of a number of discrete stories which are stitched together by the common thread of the book’s titular monster, Tomie herself. I wouldn’t dare spoil the manga, but each of the stories contained within Tomie follow a similar pattern, with much of the interest in the book coming from the variations on this central theme. Monster stories are frequently built this way— stories containing vampires, for example, have many of the same broad plot points, but are still interesting because of the infinite possible variations within that theme. The three central cards of the layout are meant to generate this central theme around which the players can create their variation during play. 

The three cards are read left to right individually, each forming a sequential part of the monster’s story. Again, this is meant to be a broad and loose scenario, not a series of sharply defined plot points lest the referee inadvertently commit the cardinal sin of railroading. Each of the cards are individually named after the stages of an insect’s life cycle like so:

  1. The Larva 

The leftmost card of the third row is called “The Larva” and represents how the monster first presents itself to the party. While this can be dramatic, it is more often subtle, with the party initially only encountering the secondary effects of the monster’s presence. The card usually designates a sign of the monster’s presence, an adventure hook, or a mystery.

  1. The Pupa

The middle card of the third row is called “The Pupa.” This is when the monster first starts to exercise its power over the party. This phase of the adventure tends to be more investigative as the party pieces together the whys and wherefores of the situation caused by the monster. The card tends to designate a special ability by the monster, some kind of complication it causes, or an event that deepens the party’s involvement in the scenario.

  1. The Imago

The rightmost card of the third row is called “The Imago.” This card represents the monster at its full, climactic power. Since this card tends to designate the monster’s ultimate goal, it is sometimes best to read this card first and work backwards towards The Larva.

  1. The Encounters

Thinking about some encounters at this stage will usher you into the next stage of the adventure writing process—the drawing and keying in of maps. After all, it's difficult to create a realistic place without knowing the kinds of things that can happen within it. When using tarot cards to create encounters, I like to read them in “clumps” or groups of three cards, taking an element from each card to create a single encounter. The top three cards can be read as one encounter, the three cards on the bottom right as another encounter, and the cards on the bottom left as a third encounter. 

Creating a sample monster

This generator probably requires more of an explanation than the other generators I’ve posted, so I wanted to create a sample monster as a demonstration of this method. I am creating this monster as I write this post, so I have no clue how well this monster will turn out. I will try my best to describe my thought process with each card, but chances are good that if you were looking at the same combination of cards, you would devise a monster completely different than what I created. I know very little about reading Tarot to be honest—most of what I learned I got from Italo Calvino’s novel Castle of Crossed Destinies, but it’s enough for me to get by. I am playing a second edition game with a party who are currently adventuring in Quercu Silvam, a forest filled with crumbling Roman-inspired ruins, abandoned statuary, and trees that are perfectly evenly spaced apart. I know that I want to create a monster involving an abandoned fountain of some sort, but beyond that, I don’t have any ideas for what kind of monster inhabits this fountain or what its deal is. I shuffle up my deck and deal out ten cards like so:

[insert image here]

  • The form: The card I have drawn to devise a form for my monster from is “The World.” My eyes are immediately drawn to the animals in the four corners (which my religious upbringing tells me probably represent the four gospels). I like the religious imagery of the card, so I decide to make a monster with the body of a woman dressed in a flowing white robe with four faces, the face of a woman in the front, eagle on the left, cow in the back, and lioness on the right.

  • The human: The card I drew for the human element is “The Emperor.” When I look at the card with its regal bearing, I feel that our multi-faced monster fancies herself a ruler of some sort. The rams on the card indicate that our monster is hard hearded--she has a goal of some kind, and will not be deterred, no matter the cost. The image I have in my head is our monster seated on a throne in the fountain, jets of water and mist obscuring sight of her.

  • The inhuman: The card I drew for the inhuman element is “Page of Wands.” The page on the guard regards the top of his staff with a curious wonder, something I’d like to somehow incorporate in our monster design—a gaze attack. Since our monster has four faces, it might be interesting if she could rotate her head on her neck as needed to deliver different gaze attacks:

    • The human face: All agreements made within her gaze must be kept to their fullest extent.

    • The Eagle Face: Target must make save or turn into a mouse

    • The Cow Face: Permanently lose -1 strength every round the monster holds her gaze on the target.

    • Lioness Face: Rooted in place as long as the monster holds her gaze on the target.

  • The Cycle: The three cards I drew for the cycle are “Justice,” “9 of Pentacles,” and “The Magician.” Since we know the monster thinks of herself as a ruler, “Justice” indicates that she holds court from her fountain, passing unfair judgement on her victims.

The power the figure in “9 of pentacles” holds over the hooded falcon is similar to the dynamic the monster holds over those whom she holds her judgement. I like the vineyard depicted on the card and decide that her kingdom is an overgrown garden with her fountain in the middle. She uses her quest spell to force her victims to work in her garden if they do not pass her judgement. 

Finally, the table on “The Magician” card feels like a sacrificial altar. Additionally, the magician’s pose on the card indicates a spiritual transcendence. The rose depicted on the card also stands out as a detail I want to incorporate. Building on this, our monster’s final goal is to become a goddess by growing a magnificent jeweled rose--a rose requiring the blood of numerous living beings to cultivate, but whose hips are said to grant immortality if consumed.

  • The Encounters: Now we have our monster: a woman with four faces and a head that she can rotate to deliver different gaze attacks. She lives in a fountain, and uses her gaze attack to force victims to work in her garden or sacrifice themselves to her rose bush under the guise of justice. I like her; let’s call her Sabine. The last step is to create three encounters using Sabine.

    • Encounter 1 [The World, The Emperor, Page of Wands]: A band of merchants headed by Julius, a young brash entrepreneur with a personality similar to the figure depicted on the Page of Wands, is travelling to Sabine’s fountain with a sack of gold with the aim of procuring cuttings and seeds from her much famed garden to create his own plants. He is accompanied by a gruff, bearded fighter (as The Emperor card), and a young illusionist (as The World card).

    • Encounter 2 [Justice, The Star, Eight of Cups]: Sabine’s sister, named Octavia, is sneaking into the Sabine’s fountain to steal the rose bush (like the sneaky figure on the 8 of cups card). Octavia discovered the rose’s seeds in an antediluvian pool (a different part of my campaign—it’s a long story, but it fits with The Star card), and was keeping them safe until they were stolen by Sabine. Octavia wants to steal the plant back as revenge (as per the Justice card).

    • Encounter 3 [The Magician, Five of Cups, 6 of pentacles]: The garden is home to many strange plants, one of which is the dream lilly (using the illustration of the lilly from The Magician card) which has the ability to induce a trance in which you can see one of you most likely causes of death. Unfortunately, use of the lilly is quite addictive (five of cups is giving me the vibe of “too much of a good thing” here). Two addicted thieves (much like the two figures depicted on the 6 of pentacles) have entered the garden and are trying to steal the Lilly, but their bumbling ineptitude is likely to get themselves (and the party) caught.

Some Concluding Remarks:

I have to admit that a weakness to using Tarot cards as generators is that they require so much creativity to read that it can feel like you may as well not even bother. In my adventure writing, I have tried both with and without tarot, and I prefer to use tarot simply because the cards constrain and focus your creative energy. I have used this method several times for creating monsters and each time I feel like the monster I create is more vivid than one I would have made just on my own.

But the monster is just one aspect of the overall adventure. Once your monster is made you can use this method to create the rest of the adventure… or whatever other method you fancy. Please feel free to drop me a line if you use this method to create your own monsters! I would love to hear about your results.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Saying good bye to a trusty notebook

 My orange-colored Poluma notebook has seen a lot of use starting around November of last year. Just in the last week it got completely filled up. I realize that seven-ish months is actually a long time to finish a notebook, but I am slow writer—this is probably the fastest I've ever gone through a whole notebook! I've got a few more detailed posts in the pipeline, but I thought I would go ahead and take you down a whirlwind tour of my old notebook before I put the finishing touches on those other posts.

The vast, vast majority of the pages in my notebook are just pure garbage and really only meant as a place to work out ideas and experiment. The pages scanned below are the ones that I think are the most interesting, but the ideas here are of course still pretty rough. That said, it can be fun to page through an old book and see what ideas got fleshed out and which languished, forgotten. In any case, here's to many more notebooks and many more years of blogging!

Page 1

I never finished this piece, which is a bit sad, because it's a really fun idea. In any case, it was very good cross-hatching practice. This is a map of a fantasy city that was originally going to be a backdrop for running the "Big Puppet" module from LotFP with lots of extra content. The "alien" writing there is a type of code known as "Elian." Elian is a very interesting code that was originally intended as a way to create eastern-style calligraphy in English, so it can be made very aesthetically pleasing. The idea was to create a single map written in a code that only I could read—that way I could share the map with players, without giving away any secrets. In the end, writing in Elian got to be too cumbersome, so I abandoned the piece.

The city itself was created using the rules outlined in "Electric Bastionland," a book definitely worth getting your hands on if only for the magic items and some of the essays in the back.

Page 2
I've shared this drawing before, but I liked it enough that I thought I would go ahead and share it again. The idea here was to create a dungeon where the players are right-side up, but the dungeon and the majority of its denizens are upside-down. An interesting concept, but the dungeon didn't really work out  because it none of the challenges in the dungeon really take advantage of the fact that the dungeon is upside down. The post is here though if you wanted to take a look at it, although I have to warn you that it really isn't very good.

Page 3

When the coronavirus ramped up, I started to get very interesting in trying to become a better artist. Here I'm doing a little drawing of one of my daughter's favorite stuffed animals, Purple Penguin. I was trying to practice making different textures and tones using pen and ink. This drawing was done with Micron fine liners if I recall correctly, but On the right side, my daughter drew her most favorite stuffed animal, a unicorn named Parties.

Page 4
By the time I drew this, I was ankle-deep in a brand new AD&D 2e campaign. I love 2e very much—it has become, in direct opposition to the rest of the OSR—my most favorite official TSR ruleset.

This dungeon in particular was a very memorable one. The ghost of a teenage boy, Brian, was lured by a demon into sacrificing himself to himself to become a Lich of great power. What Brian didn't count on was that, when he died, his psyche split into two ghosts--one with a red heart, and one with a blue heart. The party ended up restoring the hearts to the ghosts and putting Brian's spirit to rest.

Room 20 is not described on the page, because at the time I was unsure what should be inside it. The answer came to me in meditation--6 pillars, each containing an exact, but seemingly ancient clone of the party members themselves! Great fun was had, and the ramifications of this adventure is still being felt by the party.

Page 5

One of my favorite brain-storming exercises is to draw three tarot cards and try to come up with an encounter based around them. I repeat the process repeatedly until I run through the entire Tarot deck or I become bored. There quite a few sessions of me going through this in my notebook, but this particular page produced some interesting results. At the time, I was listening to Mark Fisher's book, "The Weird and the Eerie," which seems to have seeped into some of these results.

Page 6

I've made quite a few Tarot card idea generators and posted them to my blog, but this one is by far my favorite. Most of the adventures I make start with a graph like the one above using the Magic Tree method. I don't want to bore everyone with page after page of loose and scribbly graphs, but I thought I would share this one because it ended up becoming the basis for the "She who is a Fortress in Dark Water" adventure I posted a few weeks ago.

Page 7

When my group played through this one, they got as far as the second room where the elongated man killed their cleric! The whole rest of the dungeon was not used. I can't be that mad that it was never used—prepping stuff rooms, encounters, or even whole dungeons is all part of the path of OSR.

Page 8
Here is the very first draft of what would become the primary dungeon of She who is a Fortress in Dark Water. I had originally written it as an entry for the Garycon dungeon writing contest. I have to admit, it was a blow to my pride (and a testament to how awesome the Garycon crowd is!) when the adventure didn't even win an honorable mention at the contest. I still had an absolute blast at the convention, though. After the con, I took another look at what I had written and realized why it didn't win anything--the whole thing was mess! I spent a lot more work on it and ended up re-writing most of it before posting it on the blog. I'm very glad I did, because the work ended up much, much better.

Page 9

Here are a few towns and their encounters for my campaign. The inn at St. Gerald's ford ended up being a good one-shot, but I had to improvise a lot of it. Since my cursive is a little hard to read, her is my translation:

• St. Gerald's Ford
     -Inn run by Amelia Sardano. Middle-aged, kindly woman.
     -Ghosts in the mirror try to send messages
          -"Help us" written on napkins and such
          - Amelia will refuse to acknowledge even these notes existence.
          -At night, she stared, wide-eyed, in the darkness.

When I ran this for my group, the party found Amelia's "husband" in the basement, a portly gentleman with eight arms who clings to the walls and can only barely speak coherently. Amelia was a high powered magic-user, who kept ghosts in the mirror above the mantlepiece. Good times.

Page 10

The city encounters on the right side of the page are fine, but I mostly wanted to post the left side of the page, which ended up turning out really well. A lot of fun to draw! At the time, I was listening to William S. Burroughs "Cities of the Red Night." A wild book whose uncomfortable energy ended up infusing itself in the piece.

Page 11
Here is the final little doodle I wanted to share. The rest of the notebook mostly pertains to those other posts that I'm planning on finishing up and sharing in a more polished format.

It's always a lot of fun to flip through an old notebook. So many forgotten memories in these pages which at least I find interesting. If you keep a notebook, I would love to see anything you'd like to share!

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water

 I made a thing! In the past I've shared adventures to this blog, but they tended to be more like GM's notes than actual adventures. This was challenge to myself to create something closer to an actual adventure. This adventure has:

  • A boy with a key for a spine
  • A magic thread
  • A giant crocodile named "Cynthia."
  • Small creatures born from intestinal distress
  • and so much more!

All for the low, low cost of free. Click the picture below to download.

Edit: Bryce Lynch at tenfootpole rated this adventure a "no regerts!" Check out his review here:

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Big Puppet Review

 Let's not bury the lede. "Big Puppet" by Aeron Alfrey and Alucard Finch is amazing. The best OSR product of 2020 that I've read. It's everything that attracted me to the OSR in the first place—completely unique, obssesively useable, unflinchingly adult, hilariously gross, Cronenbergian (or, maybe more accurately, William S. Burroughs-ian), and uncomprimising in its artistic vision. So there's my review; the rest is fluff. 

On flipping through the book, Aeron Alfrey's art immediately stands out. Aeron has a playful collage style that transforms the horrible things that happen in the module into something wickedly funny. This playfulness in the face of horror perfectly encapsulates the feel of the module—there really couldn't have been a better artist to pair with this book. The art doesn't just sit on the page, though; it actively supports and enhances the text. A good module has to straddle the line between technical writing and artistic writing. The prose of the Alucard Finch's text (credited on the cover as A. Finch—the nom de Plume is a possible reference to Atticus Finch?) is very clear and workmanlike like a good piece of technical writing. Aeron's art takes that clear text, amplifying and complimenting the dark humor of the subtext. The illustrations of each of the NPC has so much life that it is instantly obvious how the character moves and reacts without even having to read the descriptions—an immense aid to the GM running the module.

The book itself is, as per LotFP standards, a very well made A5 hardcover with stitch binding. The paper used is a glossy paper that very well compliments the art. Clearly a lot of care was taken with the layout by Alex Mayo, with all the information sitting very neatly on the page—even with small details like the endpapers. Lamentations is famous for including vital information (such as maps or summaries) for the GM on the endpapers. Quite notably, this module instead has a fleshy pink muscle pattern on the endpapers. I'm not sure whose idea this was, but the decision is brilliant given a recurring theme of the module—information stored on something biological. When you open the book and look at that fleshy endpaper, it gives you the impression that the whole module is writ on a slab of meat, It's subtle, but totally inspired.

From here on in, there's spoilers ahoy. If there's any chance you're going to be a player in this, please turn away. In fact, even if you are thinking of purchasing this module to run it, you may choose to avoid spoilers to give yourself the full pleasure of reading it.

The module starts with a description of its primary foils: a group of interdimensional beings who are able to remotely inhabit our world via biocontrol units made of the rare element Duonium. With these biocontrol units, they can shape organic matter however they please—most choose more or less human bodies, but some of the aliens have shaped for themselves bizarre and terrifying forms. They are a cool, utterly alien species with a five-fold mind that can control five bodies at once via these biocontrol units. Since they come from a different dimension, they don't view our world as real and treat it like a video game. Their only goal is to obtain more duonium so that they can bring in more "players." The easiest (and, for them, the most amusing) way to obtain the rare duonium is by harvesting the trace amounts of the element from human bodies (more on that later).

The module describes four of these five-fold entities, color coded for ease of reference. Each alien has five bodies, called "Avatars" or "puppets" in the module. The appearance and mannerisms of the puppets are well described, with each given a paragraph or so and an illustration. Many of them also have some interesting combat tactic. My personal favorite is Marienne. Often found knitting some amorphous baby clothes, if provoked she gives birth to baby bat-shaped drones that fly around and wreak havok. Some of them are really quite gross in a body-horror/Cronenburg/over-the-top sort of way that you will either find amusing, juevenile, or just plain disgusting depending on the kind of person that you are. As a thoroughly twisted individual, I found myself laughing out loud several times while reading this section.

The other important faction described in the module is the brilliant, but insane Pierre DuPont. He has taken over an old bookstore and turned it into a base of operation. He knows about the aliens and their plot, but of course no one believes him. He uses his chemical knowledge to produce drugs both to fund his operation and to addict a small army of "agents" to his cause. His goal is to stop these aliens at any cost.

The second part of the module is a detailed seven-day calendar of events. Modules with event sequences have to be handled carefully—if it is too detailed, the module runs the risk of railroading the whole adventure. Luckily, the event sequence in this module actually encourages sandbox play by providing several ways to interact with factions and a definite, "ticking clock" end point—when Pierre flies his balloon over the theatre where the aliens have based themselves and burns the whole place down with explosives.

This section also describes the aliens' plan in more details. They need to harvest bodies for duonium, but how to access the bodies without raising suspicion? The aliens have started a theatre company called "The Grand Guignol" (which, despite four years of French class, I literally just learned means "Big Puppet" while researching for this very review) that has been modeled after the real-life Parisian Grand Guignol theatre from the early 20th century. The aliens bring volunteers up on the stage and murder them in elaborately gore-tastic ways. The theatre-goers assume it's all just part of the show, since the volunteers are returned back to society quite unharmed. What the theatre-goers don't know, is that the volunteers really are brutally murdered and replaced by genetically engineered simulacra. These simulacra are dependent on a certain nutrient that the aliens use to control these simulacra and convert to their will. The English major in me can't help but point out that mistaking something very real as a harmless illusion is another recurring theme of the module—the aliens perceive our world as a game just like the theatre-goers perceive the dismemberment of their fellow villagers as a mere play.

By far the most striking piece of art in the module is the series of 2-page spreads in the center of the book illustrating this scene. The art piece is a bit interactive. It starts with full page of just an empty stage. A greasy bloodstain peers out from behind the curtain, parted very slightly—the show is about to start. Turn the page, and it's spread after spread of completely violent and gruesome dismemberment with a charming little rhyming couplet to accompany it. At the show's end, there is another full-page illustration of the back of the theatre to close out the piece. The elaborate deaths are just wonderfully over-the-top. You know that moment in a horror film  where a character dies in a wonderfully horrible way and you just turn to your friend and laugh (this mostly happens in older horror films as gorey fantastic deaths sadly seem to be a lost art in horror cinema)? This piece embodies that emotion hard. The art here transforms this whole section into something very special.

The module then provides a few dungeons that players might run into. Overall these are quite serviceable dungeons, especially the theatre itself, which has a few body-horror tricks up its sleeve. If I had one criticism of the module, it would be that I could have used one more dungeon. If I run this myself, I had an idea of turning my favorite scene from the Cronenburg film eXistenZ into a dungeon of sorts—a restaurant run by the aliens with genetically modified chickens whose bones can be assembled into firearms...

The module closes with some very nice items. Each item gets its own illustration. This is probably the most universally useful section of the module if you are running anything with body horror and need some inspiration for great items to use. Some of these are only barely mentioned in the module itself, but could really change how the game runs if a player gets their hot little hands on them.

This module fulfills LotFP's "weird fantasy roleplaying" tagline. If you are at all a Cronenburg, Clive Barker, Junji Ito, or William S Burroughs fan, this module is an insta-buy. That said, it may not be for everyone—it fits a weird niche of being both artsy and low-brow. I would highly encourage you to give this module a try.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The weird prison

The chamber

This chamber contains 6 alcoves, with three on each side of the room. Each alcove is large enough to fit a person. Each alcove has a disgusted-looking gargoyle face with a look of disgust carved above it. A mirror covers each alcove, preventing anyone on the outside from seeing the inside of the alcove. The mirror is only about six inches above the ground. There is also a small fountain of a rococo design in the center of the room.

In the mouth of each gargoyle there is a small hole, this is where food can enter the alcove. The hole also allows the occupant of each alcove to talk to the party.

The mirrors are designed so that they can be easily broken from the outside, but not from the inside. In my game, the prisoners were put here by a sleeping god--imprisoned for daring to enter her moving castle. In your game, the prisoners could have fallen victim to a dungeon trap, political prisoners of a mad king, or whatever you desire.

The fountain in the center of the room spawns cockroaches that climb out of the fountain and through the mouths of the gargoyles. The cockroaches are specifically engineered to be highly nutritious food for the prisoners. Perhaps a tribe of goblins might wander through from time to time for a free treat from the fountain.

The Prisoners

— Mandoline — 2nd level fighter 

    Mandoline not a terrible sort... for a grave robber. She is straight-forward in her dealings and a bit curt in conversations. She knows that one of her fellow prisoners is a demon based on the screams she hears at night, and suspects either Timothy or Khard.

Mandoline wants the party to break her out of the alcove and promises to offer her services to any who do so.

— The-one-who-screams-through-blood-stained-teeth (A.K.A Little Timothy Van der Kamp) — 5 HD demon

     He says that he is the son of the Van der Kamp family, cruelly kidnapped and imprisoned here (in actuality, The-one-who-screams-through-blood-stained teeth ate Timothy Van der Kamp about a decade ago). Says that there is no demon and calls Mandoline a liar. He is bound in the alcove by a silver chain worth 700 sp. His teeth are intricately carved and have magic effects if extracted (each tooth takes a turn and a successful bushcraft check to extract):

•Chess pawn--this tooth looks like an ordinary white chess pawn, but whoever plays the white pieces with this pawn on the board can never lose a game of chess.

•Tusk—the carvings on this tusk depict a drunken man staring at a scowling sun. Whoever gets drunk off mead served in the tusk can not tell lies

• Elephant—this tooth has been carved into the shape of a miniature elephant. If crushed into dust and mixed with mud, the mixture will shape itself into a huge and powerful elephant. The elephant can carry huge loads and travel far distances, but each day it requires an increasing amount of human blood. If the quota cannot be met, the elephant will attack the party.

• A key—In a city a few hexes away, a middle-class woman noticed a horrible door in her cell that wasn't there before. There is a humming noise coming from behind the door that gives the residents of the home terrible headaches and nightmares. This key opens that door.

The-one-who-screams-through-bloodstained-teeth desperately wants to a) escape and b) eat the party and all the other prisoners alive. It can cast illusion  

— Khard—3rd level fighter

    As the party approaches, Khard tells them NOT to look at the mirror that covers his cell. If any do, they must save or lose their ability to speak their primary language. Khard is known as the great envoy of the Kharzan. In my game, Khard had the entire history of the Kharzan empire tattooed on his skin (or at least one version of it), and was therefore very valuable to certain people looking for information on the forgotten kingdom half-lost in the fog of dreams and time. Being that Khard was so inherently valuable, his wardens felt that he warranted the extra security of the trapped mirror. In your game, Khard could have the map to a valuable treasure tattooed on his skin, his tattoo could function as a spell scroll (when the spell is consumed, his skin dissipates as per a normal spell scroll), or it could be a kind of sentient virus that spreads from person to person.

   Khard just wants to be left alone after a lifetime of persecution for the value of his tattoo and will say whatever is necessary to get the party to go away. He doesn't want anyone to 

— Dr. Emeritus—0 level fighter

   Claims to be an expert medical professional and historian. His credentials are dubious at best and almost all information he provides is dead wrong. Agrees that there is a demon, but thinks it's probably Mandoline.

 Dr. Emeritus wants to be freed, but also wants to be acknowledged as a genius. Says that, if freed, he can brew for them a great and potent potion that extends life (the potion's primary ingrediant is mercury and has no other effects).

— Dijon the Great—3rd level magic-user

    Dijon is a habitual liar. He lies just to sow chaos. He wants nothing more than to get the party killed or confused for the simple reason that it amuses him. He knows that "little Timothy" is the monster, but just wants to cause as much trouble as possible. Will say that either there is no demon, or that Timothy is actually an angel and not a demon at all, that the party should free Trevina (who will then instantly try to free the demon) because there is a great treasure stowed her alcove. Dijon will change his story and mood to whatever suits the moment.

—Trevina—1st level fighter 

   Each night, The-one-who-screams-through-blood-stained-teeth spits forth a blue butterfly that worms its way into Trevina's ear while she sleeps, sending her horrible dreams. Trevina is now quite insane. She knows that "little Timothy" is the demon and wants him to be freed. If questioned, she will say that she is the demon. 1d10 of the blue butterflies still flutter about in her alcove. If you whisper a name of a sleeping person to the butterfly, it will flutter to the desired person (less than one mile away) and send them a dream of your choice.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Robert Aikman-style Encounters

I only have one book of Robert Aikman's stories, but this is a shortcoming I'm going to have to correct. The back of my book has a great blurb from Neil Gaiman that I think captures Aikman's style beautifully: "Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I'm not even sure what the trick was."

Aikman stories are decidedly on the supernatural scale, but they emerge out of the characters neuroses. One of my favorites is The School Friend—the main character meets up with a friend of hers from school whom she remembers as being quite brilliant, but is surprised to find how much she has changed. The more the character investigates, the greater the wrongness grows, with the supernatural only emerging at the end of the story. 

If neuroses is one side of the Aikman equation, mystery is the other. A secret can be put into words. A secret can be shared. A mystery is metaphore of the truth—it is the truth, but one step removed. It can only be experience or felt intuitively and can't be put into words. The trick as a GM is not to make things so surreal that players have no agency. Even though the supernatural doesn't follow natural law, players should (hopefully) be able to feel the supernatural intuitively and be able to make decisions around their feelings.

Here are two ideas for encounters inspired by that Aikman-esque mix of neuroses and mystery (at least I hope so):

1. The door

The party is hired to guard a particular door and told they must never open it. The owner of the building is a fat man who surrounds himself with books. Each night, soft noises can be heard from within. The noises grow louder and more troubling with each night. If the door is opened before the third night, the room is empty. The owner of the building will be able to tell immediately, demanding double the wages he paid the previous nights. 

If the door is not opened by the third night, the noises become a loud pounding and the door bursts open, a skeletal parade storming out and filling the whole building with eerie, discordant music. They march up to the owners room as he screams "you came! you came!" He is bound by the skeletons and dragged down through the door.

2. The cane

The GM casually mentions an old man with a ornate cane sitting in the corner of each inn the party stops at. When the party finally speaks to him he says nothing, only smiles and nods his head. If the party asks anyone else about him, they won't be able to even see him.

At the next inn, the man won't be there, but his cane will be. The cane is monogramed, so the party might be able to track down a possible owner to a crumbling estate. The last owner, a confirmed bachelor on the brink of bankruptcy will instantly recognize the cane as belonging to his uncle, now passed. The last owner hated the old man and refuses to talk about him. The uncle's grave is out back. It appears to have been recently dug up. Inside the uncle's coffin are a colony of teeming worms and a medalion worth 700 sp. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Jack-O'-Dungeons: The Black Mold Castle

 Day 5 of the Jack-O'-Pumpkins blog a day challenge. I had the idea of this one from the "Sprout Stachybotris" spell from yesterday, but it ended up being its own thing. Some of the ideas came together nicely for this one, although I would have liked more time to expand on somethings and improve others.

Unfortunately, more terrible art by me

The Black Mold Castle


1. Lord Saer

Around his neck, Lord Saer wears a beautiful glass medalion (300 sp), unspotted and gleaming with white light. The rest of his tattered purple clothes are spotted with dark spots of mold. The flesh of his face and hands have been completely overtaken by the mold, his bones poking through at sharp angles. Lord Saer is overtaken by lethargy and can barely walk on his thin, frail legs. Although he lives in squallor he is massively wealthy and only desires more wealth. AC 9 HD 4 Attacks: Sword made of Sharpened Ivory d8 Special: Can cast Sprout Stachybotris, Stinking Cloud, and Suggestion

2. Clouds of Spores. Make a Save vs. Breath or become infected with mold. -1 Constitution per day.

3. Servants.

Their powdered wigs have turned gray with black spots. Their faces are pale and they cough constantly. While they will fit intruders, they aren't immune to even small bribes. The head servant, Wilver, is a fat man with wooden teeth willing to do anything for money except work for it. Currently in the employ of the woman in the walls (room 2), he has a small bottle of rose-water scented poison he is planning to use on Lord Saer tonight. AC 12 HD 1 Attacks Pistol d8

4. 2d3 Accountants

They are wrapped in accounts like mummies. Receipts and bills, promisary notes and useless bonds. They lunge at the party like they want to engulf them. When they die, the notes blow away, revealing there was nothing underneath. AC 14 HD 2 Attacks: Engulf d6


1. Entrance hall

Peeling frescoes line the walls. There are chairs for lounging, but the seats have fallen through and the legs are coming off. There is a large statue in the center of the room, with its eyes missing (see room 6). If the red eye is put in the left socket and the blue eye in the right socket, the statue's mouth opens and all those in a ten foot range make a save versus breath or become incinerated. If the red eye is put in the right socket and the blue eye put in the left socket, the statue pivots away leading down to a chamber thick and slimy. In a small reliquary covered with gold and azure rests the finger of the anti-saint Bernholm (the church wants it, but cannot pay any money for it, as doing so would be heretical. They may be willing to grant a boon in exchange for the finger).

2. Empty Room

The room itself is quite empty, but skittering and scratching can be heard in the walls. Lord Saer boarded up his mother in the walls, where she lives to this day, peering through the small cracks in the walls of this room. She has a weird sense of humor and laughs at inappropriate times. She wants to kill Lord Saer. She knows the correct order of the eyes in room 1. No one in the castle, not even the woman herself, can remember her name.

3. Art Gallery

The art in the room is a preceless collection. Too bad its been utterly ruined by the damp conditions and squalid atmosphere. Some of the frames are quite valuable— d6 can be recovered for 100 sp each. Only one painting is salvageable, a striking painting of a young woman gazing out the window. The woman is still alive—she lives a few kingdoms away. She is old now, but rich. She will greatly appreciate the painting if brought to her (2000 sp).

4. The dining room

A long, square table dominates the room. The table has a build in trench to catch the enormous slabs of meat, reeking and covered with black mold, that are occasionally brought in by servants. There are 5 silver candlesticks on the table worth about 20 sp each. There are five minor lords in the room gulping the raw meat with gusto. They will refer to the party as servants.

5. The throne room

The throne stands in a pool of filthy, stagnant water. 3-in-6 chance Lord Saer can be found here. The "court jester" splashes about in the water, a cruel abomination that wraps its tentacles around intruders and drags them under the water to drown. AC 15 HD 5 Attacks: Grapple one round and then drown the next, dealing d8 damage

Behind the throne there is an ornate ceremonial sword. When it is floating in water, it will point to the location of the last place it killed someone. If brought in to the local town for appraisal, the anitques dealer, Selena, has an old book hinting that the last person the sword killed was a guard in Prester John's hidden empire.

6. The eyes of the judge

A tangled mound of rats that have fused together into a not. Its eyes glimmer in the darkness, one red, one blue (see room 1). The rat demands that you call it "your honor" and will hold the party accountable for an endless series of crimes. It will give its eyes to a party that can outwit it. AC 14 HD 4 Attacks: 5 x bites d4