Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Curses and Shrines

A small update for missing details.

  • Updated encounter tables to split low-level 1-12, high-level 13-20, merged in psionic encounters.
  • Curses. Following d20 SRD’s model of very simple curses, because I can’t figure out how to table-ize more complex curses.
  • Radiation area of effect
  • Finished mutations. Egg-Laying clones should be played like Gremlins from the movies, or Miji’s clones in Dark Legacy comics.
  • Shrines. There’s always a balance with religions between putting wealth & power in the hands of possible allies, and tempting murderhobo players to sack the temple.

Doomed

You may be feeling a little down right now. It can always be worse.

  • Black Sun Deathcrawl

    Nameless husks fleeing downwards in dungeons forever, watch everyone you ever meet die. Is this any worse than normal D&D? No more pretense of heroism or money-grubbing, the only excuse for levelling is escaping death a little longer.

    you are the Cursed, remnants
    of life in a universe of decay
    cannibalistic parasites you
    suck a meager existence from
    the corpse of a long dead reality
    once you had nations, races, goals
    now you are one, united at last
    in the unending struggle for
    survival in a reality that abhors you
    once you had love and happiness and light
    now there is only the crawl
    
  • Qelong

    Scavenging a lost weapon from the sidelines of a massive war you cannot understand or affect, doing nothing but spreading more misery among people you’ve decided are less important than your own profit.

  • Deep Carbon Observatory

    After natural disaster, and unnatural pollution and predation, you travel through an increasingly horrifying world and fail to prevent worse disasters, before plunging into darkness and horror forever.

  • Death Frost Doom

    A forbiddingly large graveyard, a creepy cabin on a mountain, a book of dead names. And a dungeon, there’s always a dungeon. Anything you disturb may be hard to put back down. What is it about these things that’s so hard to resist?

  • S1 Tomb of Horrors

    A tomb of an ancient wizard, full of death and just enough rewards to be worth going in, right? At one time, you could be that delusional. But you know now what it is, everyone in gaming’s heard enough about old Acererak’s lair. It’s in Ready Player One, it can’t be that scary. And still you’ll lose if you go in, and you have to go in.

I don’t usually run these kind of adventures, except at the end of a campaign when it seems like attention is flagging. But they’re among my favorite to read, and contemplate running, and steal bits of. The Crow siblings from Deep Carbon Observatory are of course to be found somewhere.

Life in Stone Halls & Serpent Men

A rather long time since the last post, which wasn’t even on-topic. I was working, made some web-based CRPGs as well as updating my iPhone games. But I’ve also done some gaming, and wrote a ton in SH&SM.

The what’s new for this update is very long. Some of it’s tested. The psionics & mutations have been used very lightly, so I’m sure they’re unbalanced, but do accomplish their goal, giving high-level abilities at high risk. The random dungeon/community tools are well-tested, but by their nature can produce surprising results.

I’ve decided that my older fantasy RPG projects should be mostly scavenged for material for SH&SM, so a bunch of that went into this update, and more will be added later. I still don’t love the d20 mechanics, but I love how Professions have made character creation fast and flexible, and my style of swords & sorcery fits.

What’s New:

  • How to Play the Game
  • Characters:
    • Beastmaster
    • Psionic
    • Hero brought in line with Prestige Professions
  • Social Status
  • Equipment:
    • Material & Repair
    • Lifestyle & Maintenance
    • Dwarf tech
  • Combat:
    • Slight increase to Untrained combat table at mid levels
    • Swimming & Underwater
    • Throwing flasks & grenades
  • Psionics
  • Radiation & Mutation
  • Bestiary:
    • Changed Incorporeal to Ethereal, for consistent mechanics
    • Added Faerie trait
    • Ape-Man
    • Crab, Giant
    • Dolphin
    • Eel, Giant
    • Elemental
    • Elf, Sea
    • Golem (Theurgist ability)
    • Homonculous (Alchemist ability)
    • Imp
    • Intellect Devourer
    • Medusa
    • Merfolk
    • Nymph
    • Octopus, Giant
    • Phase Spider
    • Psychic Parasite
    • Sea Devil
    • Sea Monster
    • Shark
    • Sprite
    • Squid, Giant
    • Star-Hound
    • Star-Spawn
    • Whale
    • Wolf reduced to Normal (but tougher than average)
    • Wolf, Dire
  • Treasure:
    • Trade Goods
    • Treasure Maps
  • Referee’s Tools:
    • Escaping the Underworld
    • Fortune Cards: TODO: find inspiration article
    • Wilderness Features
      • Chamber
      • Trap
      • Trash
      • Campsite
      • Tomb
      • Castle
        • Very simple siege mechanics
      • Community

Tolkien & The Old Gods

An entertaining theory:

The Hobbit is a great book; a quick adventure through a sketched-out world with a lot of monsters and clever puzzles, a battle that doesn’t drag on forever, and a satisfying end. The Lord of the Rings is the evil opposite, the result of an academic allowed to write without an editor, with obsessive world-building supporting a feeble thread of a story, vaporous non-characters, and little action for endless thousands of pages before collapsing in an anticlimax. The Silmarillion is literally the Bible of Middle Earth: It is a fiction anthology fabricated long afterwards to support someone’s religion, and bears almost no resemblance to actual facts on the ground.

However, the one Hobbit-like part of LotR was Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Downs. For one moment, there’s an adventure in a spooky world, monsters, and inexplicable magic. Naturally the kind of humorless wankers who like the endless tedium of Lord of the Rings hate it, and that jackass Jackson cut Bombadil in the movies, which means you get an hour more walking scenes instead of a dungeon adventure.

Real primitive societies develop religions, make up dozens or hundreds of gods, and spend serious effort on ritual and sacrifices even without a trace of evidence. But Tolkien’s Catholic lunacy meant he couldn’t acknowledge other gods, even in fiction, and so there’s this bizarre hybrid of a singing god and angelic and demonic beings, and then things he wanted to borrow from mythology which only make sense with pantheons of gods, and since he couldn’t commit blasphemy nobody bothers to worship any of them.

My take has always been that Bombadil is one of the Old Gods, one of three known to exist in Middle Earth (himself, Ungoliant, and maybe Morgoth?), even though nobody worships them, and the hobbits who live a day’s travel away mostly don’t know Bombadil. Seen as one of the Old Gods, a meddler like Loki but with less range, Bombadil’s behavior is perfectly typical: He lets you get in trouble, saves you so you owe him, and sends you off with more power to do his dirty work of killing Morgoth’s pet Sauron.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Mountebanks & White Mages

What’s new:

A few more setting notes, and level guides for each region.

After another playtest run, thieves needed help. So now Assassins are more effective, Hunters can use Stealth without being Assassins, and I added the Mountebank profession as an endgame crime lord equivalent to Knight, Alchemist, and Theurgist.

White Mages were also desperately sad, so boosting healing items and adding more spells fixed that. The spells are a mix of Cleric and Druid spells from the D20 SRD, though several got moved up or down level or totally redesigned for old-school balance.

While I was at it, a few more Black Magic spells were needed, so now both lists go to 9.

Upgraded the equipment list, so it’s not just dungeon-crawling gear.

Added Celestials, the Lawful opposite of Demons. I take my “Angels” from comics like Hellblazer and movies like The Prophecy; they’re as bad as Demons, just on the other side.

D&D 5E SRD OGL Acronym Soup

Hasbro of the Coast finally released the D&D 5E SRD!

(SRD = Systems Reference Document, the genericized version of the rules you can use to publish adventures or supplements; OGL = Open Gaming License, which makes all this not-quite-D&D stuff legally possible)

I plan to give this a good going thru, and see if I’d want to update Stone Halls & Serpent Men to be based on this instead of the D20 3.x SRD. I never did get around to a full review of D&D 5E Basic when it was coming out, and frankly it just bored me to death; it’s not liveliest awfulness like 4E, and not a hot mess of incoherent rules like 3.x or Pathfinder, so… snooze. They can’t have my money for 5E until they put out PDFs, which I guess now I don’t need. Cash being left on the table, Hasbros.

The one big change I see is that instead of 1d20 + stat (bonus) + Level rolls, D&D 5E uses 1d20 + bonus + Proficiency Bonus, and P.B. ranges from +2 at Level 1, to +6 at Level 20; this makes higher levels more playable, but everyone kinda sucks equally. Fighters don’t hit any better than Wizards, and nobody can hit an AC 30 monster. I’d rather have the game be a race to competence at Level 9 and near-godhood at Level 20.

P.S. Testing out the 2016 WP theme. I like seeing date & comment links up by the top of a post.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men Setting & Maps

A good start to the setting in this update, all the major areas of Western Hyperborea, some basics of Eastern Hyperborea, just stubs for the other 4 lands. During play, I’d drill down into each area as players go there. I’m nearly done!

The maps came out even better than I’d thought, what I’ve got now is a nice microformat that generates tilemaps from an HTML element. So others can play with this, I’ve included an HTML version of the book, and put tilemap.js under the open MIT license.

World of Stone Halls & Serpent Men

I did very little game writing over the holidays. One thing I have done is start writing up the setting I use, a sandbox world I can drop adventures into. This is a pastiche of a bunch of my previous GMing notes, but focusing more on the swords & sorcery and open-ended ideas, instead of the claustrophobic medieval horror I often go for.

Mapping is always a difficulty. I’ve previously used map editing software, and written my own, and never liked the results. So instead I’m doing it the software over-engineering way: Writing a little Javascript library that scans a page and turns preformatted ASCII-art maps into tile maps, mostly from David Gervais’ set which I used in Perilar. I thought about doing hex maps or an isometric view, but that takes more math and art resources, and I grew up with Ultimas and JRPGs, so I think of the world as a brightly-colored tile grid. I can hear the chiptune music now.

iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii
pi~~~~~~~iippppppppi
~~~~~~~~~~ptttttttpp
~~~~~~~~~~t~tttt~tt~
++~~~~~~~~~~~1~~~~~~
5~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~333
++~~~~~~~~~~222~~~~3
~~+~~~~~~~~2~~~2~~33
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~3
~~~~~~~~~~~44444444~

CtCCLCCCAC
tSttMttDCC
ttttM,,,ht
ttHhZ,,R^h
hhhMh.Th^~
bhhM..hh^~
bW.MG++vv~
~~~M+~~~V~
~~~~++~~~~
tilemap

The Hyperborea map details that one door/skull tile on the world map, and I’ll make wilderness maps at 10km scale for each grid players enter. I still need to put labels and grid coords on these, likely to do that today.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Giant Monsters and Vorpal Daggers

Updated Stone Halls & Serpent Men.

Got some good feedback from Joshua Lyle in the original post.

Bestiary: Added SIZ stat to monsters, mostly to resolve grappling. The Gygaxian way would be to also use this to alter the damage of some weapons against Large or Giant monsters, but I leave that kind of detail up to the Referee.


Horse stats were missing, which made my playtest joust between Knights difficult. Bugbears were missing, and I explain Greyhawk’s pumpkin-head image in my own way. Kobolds were missing; I treat them like a cross between German myth and little evil Dwarfs. Nothing’s funnier as a Referee than seeing a party pick a fight with the little guys and it all goes Fantasy Fucking Vietnam (see also rpg.net, Hill Cantons, and The Black Company), or like Tucker’s Kobolds.

Added TR stat to monsters, which I’d planned but forgot to put in. Complex treasure type tables can make more consistent treasures by monster type, but I think players and Referees prefer more variety.

Magic Items: In fantasy literature, magic weapons are rarely just “plus one”, they have unique traits and a name. Fred Saberhagen’s “Books of Swords” are always good for crazy weapon ideas. In white box rules, all magic swords and only swords have intelligence, and the power tables are full of non-standard powers.

The Stone Halls & Serpent Men way is to simplify that down to a few basic ideas. Holy weapons used to be an anti-magic field, which is insane, even aside from the +5 bonus; changing that to a saving throw bonus and a second power is more fitting. Did you know Swords of Sharpness and Vorpal used to be Holy, too? Crazy. Vorpal is easy since I have hit locations already. Rune swords replace the old intelligent swords, and just cast spells.

Future thoughts:

Working Table of Contents and Index. So the way I write: I write my original in MultiMarkdown, in BBEdit. Then I generate HTML with a script. Then I print that from Safari into PDF. Rube Goldberg would be proud, but it works great for my writing process. The TOC links work in HTML, but PDF apparently doesn’t like anchors? Anyway, the longer-term solution as I approach a printable version is to generate LaTeX and get it to make page references, or… ugh… do it by hand? At least you get to see the outline for now.

Aerial and underwater combat are useful things to have, I need to think about how to minimize those rules.

Land warfare and naval combat I think I can resolve in a narrative table fashion, rather than with specific rules.

Strongholds, dominion management, and trade are way out of scope.

Asian professions and customized martial arts, like Oriental Adventures without a giant hardcover tome of rules. I grew up watching a lot of kung fu and jidaigeki, so they fit in my own settings, even though few modules ever used anything from OA. Blackmoor Monks are such a weird grab-bag of skills, they’re not Shaolin or Shaw brothers.

Technology, whether post-apocalypse, alien, magi-tech, gadgeteering, or urban fantasy.

Ghosts as the high-end incorporeal undead. D&D Ghosts are so broken, they can demolish a party unless you have the right spell and then they’re nothing. A Frighteners-like Ghost should be more interesting.