Fantasy Timekeeping without the Sun

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A while ago, a friend was talking about running an Underdark-style campaign in a world of his own creation, and was stuck on how people would tell time and handle scheduling/logistics without the sun. The official Underdark uses various forms of magic for this purpose, and it was clear that he wanted something similar that made sense in his campaign. But I reached a different conclusion:

What if societies living underground didn’t actually keep careful track of time?

In the real world, humans deprived of time indicators will usually settle on a circadian rhythm of a little more than a day, but the exact amount varies from person to person. Fantasy races, particularly the long-lived elves and dwarves so common in stocking local underworlds, might have an even longer one. Deprived of an external conception of a day, does a dwarf sleep the same number of times as a human in a given lifespan, the dwarf’s days just longer?

From day to day, in pre-industrial societies, loose timekeeping by the sun has a lot to do with just making maximum use of the sunlight. You don’t want to be caught hunting far from the village when it gets dark, or fail to get vital chores done around the farm that you can’t do in the dark and which won’t keep until tomorrow. But if your fantasy underworld already supposes some form of chemical or magical artificial light, the actual time of “day” doesn’t make much difference to your ability to function.

Longer-form timekeeping is mostly for tracking the seasons, primarily for food production and preparing for winter. But, again, presumably whatever climate and food sources prevail underground don’t really vary that much over the course of a “year.” You only really care how long things take if you’re reliant on shipments from outside your locale, and I argue that you can just as easily judge those by consumption as on time (e.g., “We usually put in a new order for grain from the surfacers when the silos are about half empty, and it winds up showing up in time.”). Rules of thumb based on travel can also emerge (“The regional peddler usually has done three circuits through his territory by the time the grain shipment comes in, and he’s done four so it’s well late.”).

At the very least, a campaign predicated on fuzzy timekeeping would be an interesting head trip. GMs would have to revise their descriptive language. Instead of, “it takes you until noon to get to the ruins,” you say, “it takes you a little while to get there, and you’re starting to get hungry.” You have to track sleeps instead of days and distances traveled instead of hours. I suspect the feel of the campaign could become rather dreamlike, particularly in long journeys through the dark that take as long as they take.

It could also result in some interesting fodder for worldbuilding:

  • Chaotic societies are always awake. Each individual sleeps when his or her own circadian rhythm calls for it, resulting in a haphazard rotating schedule. Canny adventurers can wait for an opportunity when most of the guards happen to sync up their sleep and the fortress is understaffed.
  • Lawful societies are regimented by the ruler’s preferred rhythms, employing loud bells and civil employees to wake the populace with their leaders, and trying to regiment the day as best as possible. Without access to a true mechanical clock, however, it’s all guesswork leading to a layer of frustration and sleep deprivation among many.
  • Crafters, particularly high-end ones, will complete your item at some arbitrary point in the future but can’t give you any specifics. Dwarves are especially likely to zone out on a job: the item you ordered is twice as good as you expected, but showed up excessively long after you needed it.
  • Time varies drastically from region to region, even in lawful societies, as it’s hard to maintain any kind of regularity across distance. Passage from place to place is a strange dream where it’s never the time you expected when you return.

Ultimately, I think it would be an interesting experiment in making the Underdark feel truly alien to the surface world. You go beneath the world and lose time upon your return… not from any faerie magic, but just because of your own untrustworthy internal clock.

Mages of the Hedge

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This is a writeup for Harbinger’s Blog Carnival. It’s how I’ve taken some of the implied setting from Beyond the Wall and further embellished it for my The Hedge setting.

The wise of the Order have long espoused a simple rubric for categorizing magic. They talk of the arts of the sky and the secrets of the earth, of the truths of fire and the mysteries of water, and of the derivations of science and the intuitions of nature. Unfortunately for their desire to categorize, magic is not so easily divided. Some rituals reward those with a keen intellect, while others work better for those that are more intuitive and wise, but any mage willing to risk failure can easily learn magic outside of her natural inclinations. In the heights of their frustrations trying to get it all to make sense, many young initiates have just thrown up their hands and decided that any laws of magic may be beyond mortal comprehension.

Perhaps if there was a central conclave of the wise, they could compare notes and proclivities, finally narrowing down the differences in their styles. But even the “Order” is, at best, a loose confederation of lone practitioners that have seen some small benefit in presenting a unified front in the halls of mundane power. In truth, there are few magi at large, and their services are needed far and wide; though they are often quite willing to share their learning, they have little opportunity to congregate. While magic can ensure a clear day, a magical steed, and hardiness against the other dangers of travel, it seems to present few options for quickly crossing large distances. The patrons of the wise keep them busy at home such that long journeys along monster-haunted roads are not a regular enough occurrence to truly generate a magical society.

Instead, the craft is often a simple master-student relationship. When a child demonstrates a knack, if there is a nearby mage capable of taking on an apprentice, then that child may gain a teacher. Yet, doing so seems to be optional: many mages, if cornered, admit that they were able to assemble their praxis from the odd book, fae bargain, whisperings of old gods, or simple intuition. There are few mages in the world, and those born with the talent for it will inevitably find a way to express that talent. Those without a mentor may have rougher edges on their capabilities, but are no less powerful in the long term.

This capacity to intuitively begin evoking the supernatural could be dangerous for a young child in superstitious lands, and there are, indeed, rumors of distant places where witches are burned. But the lands of the old empires have a deep memory, if only in the form of stories and institutional pragmatism. They understand that most mages will never have more than a handful of tricks, useful but rarely terrifying. A small smattering of locals that can help with the weather, ward off supernatural threats, and confirm whether an odd relic is magical are worth the occasional misfire of a hex or angry blast of fire. Those that become skilled enough to evoke more awe-inspiring powers are deeply enmeshed in their communities by that time. For sure, one does not cross the village’s old witch for fear of the many things she could do in retribution… but also because she’s a local fixture with many friends, and no reason to cause harm to those that give her the respect she’s due.

As always, this is with a caveat that what works in the ancient lands near the Hedge may not be true in the lands settled by the encroaching northern Empire. While their diplomats speak honeyed words about tolerance of diverse views, those who have had opportunity to truly study the writings of their Church of the New Dawn have reason to doubt their benevolence. While outwardly loving, their monotheistic scripture draws lines separating magic in service of their god and magic in service of chaos. Many of the wise outside the Empire fear that their praxis could easily be labeled as falling on the side of chaos, once the Empire fully takes hold. Their words are well-meaning, seeking to morally justify unprovoked attacks on dangerous supernatural beings, but the definition of a “dangerous supernatural being” could some day encompass witches as easily as demons.

Ultimately, while they don’t have a true hierarchy, there are five rough ways to group the wise, and learn something useful about any given mage:

  • Many mages consider themselves scholars, even wizards. The most commonly represented in the Order and in the courts of the nobility, these mages put a higher premium on recording their secrets and reading the wisdom of others. Bookishness breeds an interest in formal philosophy, so they are very likely to try to work out the scientific and mathematical underpinnings of their powers. None have succeeded in a grand unifying theory, but they tend to specialize in spells and rituals with enough similarities to one another to hint at a shared origin.
  • Those who learn in the small villages along the Hedge could be considered witches, and some storytellers speak of an ancient tradition of druids whose teachings still resonate in modern arts. Many have little power beyond a trick or two to help out around the farmstead, but those truly dedicated can become just as powerful as scholars. While most rely on intuition and semi-formalized superstitions, some few claim to have heard the voices and teachings of the old gods directly.
  • The fae are natural mages, and those that share a bloodline with them often have strange powers that can blossom into full magic. Even those without a blood tie to the fae may learn tricks from them, if their whimsy puts them in a teaching mood. Few mortals become full mages from fae study, but the high sidhe themselves evoke a melange of arts that seem distinct from those of scholars or witches.
  • The imperial Church of the New Dawn views its magically-capable priests as clerics or templars, depending on martial bent. They are encouraged to focus on magic that protects and strengthens the virtuous and binds and destroys the wicked. Of course, most arts that can destroy the wicked leave a lot of discretion to the caster as to which individuals are subject to their god’s wrath.
  • Even less a unified group than the others, any mage can become an apostate, often through diabolism or necromancy. Treating with demons for increased power is a steep and slippery slope, and few are moral enough to learn the magics of undeath without the dark arts consuming them. Other mages are quick to disavow those that start down these dark paths, as they can become a greater danger to civilization than the worst beasts that slink out of the Hedge.

Humans as Anchor Race

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There is a long history in D&D (and other games with multiple races/species) of treating humans as the vanilla race, into which new flavors could be mixed to produce other races.

In the early days, humans literally got nothing: other races got bonuses and hopefully flaws that cancelled them out (realistically, this meant that there was probably at least one race that was better than humans for any build; the build could use that race’s bonus but mostly ignore the flaw).

These days, it’s common to try to give them some kind of versatility advantage (e.g., a choice of trait bonus, feat/edge, etc.). That’s mechanically better (there are now often builds for which human is only slightly weaker than the best choice race), but it’s still treating humans as vanilla: there’s nothing much about their racial traits that says anything about them. Every other race is more or less a pre-specialized human, so anything that applied to humans would apply to other races by thematic inheritance.

I’ve noticed some interesting memes over the course of the last couple of years that aim to fix that: what if human capabilities are not universal? Rather than being a chassis onto which other race options add, humans have special abilities that are implicitly removed from other races. If humans are the toughest race in space, what does it mean that every other race is less durable than humans? If they’re the most loyal, what does that say about other races’ social dynamics?

This is a neat way to go, and immediately more interesting than vanilla humans, but it can result in some weirdness. If you give humans a couple of things that they’re paragons at, you can limit your race design conceptually. In particular, while the “humans as space orcs” meme is very neat, it means you can’t make actual space orcs; all your proud warrior race guys wind up squishier than humans (admittedly, Farscape did interesting things with this with the Luxans’ difficulty clotting and Sebaceans’ difficulty regulating body temperature).

And, at its core, the whole thing goes back to roleplaying hooks: turning pieces of the human experience into special abilities is a mechanical way to make players portraying non-humans think of their characters as not humans in funny prosthetics. It’s a piece of your lived experience that you can’t just take for granted for your character.

It also has a neat effect on the overall thematic space of the campaign/setting: by designating a human trait as significant enough to qualify as a racial advantage, you’re saying that trait or its absence is meaningful world context. If humans are extremely loyal, and other races are not, that’s an immediate crux around which to pivot your politics and societies.

I think it’s possible to split the difference between vanilla and paragon and still get a good result.

The trick is to call out 3-5 racial advantages for humans. Near-human races swap out one or two of those advantages for something else. Strange races swap out nearly all of them (but likely keep one just for the ability to run mirror-darkly stories around the one similarity highlighting the differences).

For example, in a D&D 5e game based on the same strengths in the linked memes, I might do something like this (I don’t know if these racial benefits are remotely balanced for 5e; they’re mostly set as illustrations of the concept):

Human Traits

Humans bond deeply to companions, including animals and even inanimate objects, and are happy to risk their own lives to protect these others. But this risk is less than that of many other races: they shake off injuries that would permanently cripple others, and recover quickly (even if the scar tissue isn’t always pretty). The coupling of their short lifespans and bonding results in multiple very different cultures, and mixed parentage that means any human might be born with a natural talent for any given pursuit.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As a bonus action, designate a named target (including inanimate objects) that you have spent enough time with to feel loyal to (GM’s discretion as to how much time this takes). You gain Advantage on attack rolls against subjects that are directly threatening your target and on ability checks made to directly rescue the target from harm (again, GM’s discretion on what “directly” means). You may use the Protection fighting style to benefit your target, even if you are not wielding a shield. While active, you are overly focused on protecting your target and thus have Disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws and all attacks against you are made with Advantage. You can deactivate this or switch targets as another bonus action, and it ends automatically when you are rendered unconscious. You may only maintain one target at a time.
  • Bent but Not Broken: Any time you would be Charmed, Frightened, or Stunned, you may take a level of Exhaustion instead (this requires your reaction). You gain advantage on saving throws against any effect that would apply Poisoned. You gain Advantage on all saving throws if your current hit points are less than half your maximum hit points.
  • Life is Too Short: Any time you would recover hit points, recover +1 HP per die of healing rolled. You recover an additional level of Exhaustion per long rest. If you are suffering from any other detrimental effect that persists through a long rest, you recover from it at twice the normal rate.
  • Endless Variety: You gain two languages of your choices in addition to Common. Increase any ability score by +1, or choose an extra skill proficiency. Increase any ability score (except one you chose to raise by +1) by +2, or choose an extra Feat. (The options in this feat may be pre-selected by particular subrace/culture options.)

Dwarf Traits

Due to their long lives, dwarves do not share the rapid recovery of humans nor the cultural variety: they are more set in their ways, prone to long consideration, and find it hard to adapt their politics to new ideas. However, they do have a similar ability to bond to others (but are more likely to use it on close family than on friends) and an even more significant case of stubborn refusal to submit to injury.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As the Human trait; Dwarves are most likely to use this on family/clan members and on inanimate objects that they consider sacred.
  • Bent but Not Broken: As the Human trait; Dwarves are, if anything, more stubborn than Humans.
  • Deep Dweller: Accustomed to living underground, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions; within sixty feet of you, treat the lighting condition as one step brighter (but, when treating darkness as dim light, you can only see in black and white). Additionally, whenever you make an Intelligence (History) check related to the origin of stonework, you are considered proficient in the History skill and add double your proficiency bonus to the check (instead of your normal proficiency bonus).
  • Children of the Smith: Increase your Constitution score by 2 and your Strength or Wisdom score by 1. You have proficiency in all axe and hammer weapons and with one set of artisan’s tools of your choice.

Elf Traits

Elves live extremely long lives, and value their own very highly. They do not share the strong bonds of humans; it takes a long time to gain the full love and trust of an elf, and even then it is hard for her to risk her own life to save yours. Neither do they share the resilience and recovery of the shorter-lived; elves make it a point to use grace, wit, and craft to avoid being injured at all, for wounds may stick with them for uncomfortably long periods. Strangely, they do share in the variety of humanity, seeming to possess a natural tendency to adapt to the environments.

  • Endless Variety: As the Human trait; Elves are particularly likely to have these choices pre-selected by a subrace.
  • Superior Training: Due to your long life, you’ve picked up several tricks. You have proficiency in the Perception skill and with four martial weapons. Additionally, gain a cantrip or some other special lore (such as increased speed and hiding ability in the wilderness). These choices are likely to be pre-selected by a subrace.
  • Blood of the Ancients: Accustomed to twilit forests and the night sky, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions; within sixty feet of you, treat the lighting condition as one step brighter (but, when treating darkness as dim light, you can only see in black and white). Additionally, you have advantages on saving throws against being charmed. Magic cannot put you to sleep, and instead of sleeping you enter a meditative trance for four hours a day (gaining the same benefits that a Human does from eight hours of sleep).
  • Subrace: You have a tightly knit family that favors you above outsiders; gain advantage on all Charisma (Persuasion) and Wisdom (Insight) checks when dealing with other members of your subrace. Your particular subrace provides suggested choices for your Endless Variety and Superior Training traits.

Halfling Traits

Halflings are, in many ways, humans writ small. They share many things in common with their bigger cousins, except for their particular indomitable ruggedness in the face of injury. Instead, they possess their own form of courage and luck.

  • Recklessly Loyal: As the Human trait; Halflings are less likely to protect inanimate objects, and more likely to protect dear friends.
  • Life is Too Short: As the Human trait; though they are slightly longer-lived than Humans, Halflings still recover from injury much more quickly than the elder races.
  • Endless Variety: As the Human trait; Halflings tend to favor Dexterity more highly than Humans, but otherwise have nearly as much variety.
  • Small Body, Giant Heart: You are Small, and your base walking speed is 25 feet, but you may move through the space of any creature that is of a size larger than yours. The courage and luck of larger folk are concentrated within you: you have advantage on saving throws against being frightened, and can reroll any attack roll, ability check, or saving throw when you roll a 1.

Monster Hunter Hack

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I finally burned through enough of my TV backlog to start watching Supernatural from the beginning. One of the interesting things about the show setup is that most monsters seem more than a match for even the most elite of humans (at least in season 1; I’ve heard there may be a bit of power creep later). Even the guy with the best combat training in the world is screwed going up against any monster, if he doesn’t have tools to exploit their weaknesses. The monster hunters that scare the things that go bump in the night don’t do so because they’re inherently badass, and able to win a straight fight. Instead, competence is defined by knowledge of monster weaknesses, skill at exploiting them, access to materials and rituals, and ability to track them while remaining off the grid.

This is not typical for RPGs.

Normal character advancement, particularly in level-based games but even in skill-based ones, allows an ongoing ramping of combat capability. Something that is a tough fight when you start out becomes a speedbump later on, just based on sheer defense and offense.

This rules hack looks to move the cheese a bit: combat capability becomes directly tied to knowledge of creature weaknesses and ability to exploit them. Importantly, even a highly trained hunter isn’t able to mow through a squad of cops or soldiers, and is also vulnerable to unexpected or unknown monstrous threats. Your power is highly invested in your ability to cheat against the supernatural, not in becoming superhuman yourself.

The system is phrased generically, for a skill-based game with a fairly linear progression of trait ratings to power level. It probably works directly with something like Storyteller or Unisystem, but needs some additional hacking for other systems with different ways of expressing competence. It’s also deliberately simple, so it’s easy to make threats on the fly. If you prize more simulationist outputs, it makes sense to move the benefits into specific things like damage and damage resistance.

Core System Elements

  • Supernatural creatures generally have combat dice pools beyond the maximum available to even highly-trained mortals. In a stand-up fight, even the weakest creature has an advantage against a mortal with maxed-out combat traits. The most powerful creatures have somewhere around double the trait total available to mortals (e.g., in Storyteller, creatures generally have combat pools from 11-20).
  • Characters can buy Lore skills for different creature types. These are fairly granular by type: knowing how to fight vampires doesn’t help against witches or ghosts, and may not even help against ghouls. The GM should create these skills based on similarities of in-setting combat capabilities and weaknesses. For things that are similar, but not totally similar, you might allow the player to apply the similar lore at a penalty, or just roll things up into hierarchical groups (e.g., having good ratings in Vampire, Ghoul, and Zombie lore also buys up a Corporeal Undead catchall that applies to a newly encountered undead monster).
  • Characters can also buy gear access traits, which represent having reliable, fast, cheap sources for custom weaponry, ritual components, and other monster-hunting tools. These are broken up by rough classification as makes sense to the GM (e.g., Custom Metal Weapons, Herbs and Oils, Unusual Ammunition, Ritual Tools, etc.; basically anything you might be like, “I know somebody that can probably get us…”). Improving these specific gear access traits should also gradually improve a Standard Loadout trait that represents common monster-hunting tools easy to hand; high ratings represent having highly-customized weapons good against a wide range of threats, and other gear that’s been extremely efficiently arranged to be quick and easy to hand. You might make these a shared expenditure for the whole party.
  • Experience pricing should make it cheap enough to have an extensive assortment of Lores and Gear traits by the end of the campaign, along with a moderate improvement in non-hunting traits.

Fighting Monsters

  • If you are blindsided by a monster and you can barely figure out what you’re dealing with, your combat total is your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout if that’s smaller than your normal combat total. For example, if you’re jumped by a vampire, your normal Dex + Melee 7 is superseded by your Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 4. Monsters go through highly trained combatants with no monster lore just as easily as total bystanders, because they’re all basically limited to trait 0s due to their lack of lore and gear.
  • If you’re going on the offensive with a solid idea of what the target is weak to (or at least have time to set up an intentional defensible position) you can instead add your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout to your total. In the original example, Dex + Melee + Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 11 is used to attack vampires on purpose.
  • If you have a lot of time to prepare, you can replace everyone you equip’s Standard Loadout with a higher total based on acquiring customized exploits (the rolls and costs involved left as an exercise for the GM, based on the world simulation and how a monster’s specific weaknesses work; you may need to combine weapons, ammo, herbs, etc. to get the right mix of exploits).
  • Even neophyte hunters/interested bystanders/potential victims with Lore 0 can be included in the second and third point with a briefing by a character with the right Lore. A non-superstitious combat badass might go down as easily to a vampire as anyone else when blindsided, but becomes a big asset when told, “Those were vampires. Here are the things you need in order to kill them…” (Lore remains relevant, as it covers knowing a lot of very specific tricks and maneuvers beyond just a general weakness overview.)

Other Considerations

For the full Supernatural feel, it’s also worth emphasizing investigative traits and things that let you escape from danger and remain hidden from organized foes until you’re ready to strike. Even a totally clued-in master hunter would prefer to attack from surprise rather than being ambushed.

Beyond the Wall: The Hedge

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I got delayed on rules content by Father’s Day festivities, so this week some more setting background: this time from my Beyond the Wall campaign.

The Hedge

The Hedge has loomed outside of town for as long as anyone can remember. The old folks tell stories passed down from their own grandparents of a time when the land to the south was a vast kingdom, not an impenetrable forest of thorns. But those are just faerie stories. The vast wall of brambles extends as far as anyone from town has traveled to the east and to the west, and all along its borders are villages, like yours, that make their living from the imposing boundary.

Thorns as big as a hand grow from vines as thick as an arm, twisted together so that even a small man can’t crawl very far (and the children that try… they mostly come back with bad cuts and a new appreciation for the warnings of their elders). Fire can gain no purchase on the living wall, and the thick vines are difficult to clear cut. Those that have tried to cut a swath into the borders find their work vanished overnight. The vines don’t seem to want to grow further afield, but they can move remarkably quickly to seal up holes.

There are many uses for flame-retardant plants with large cutting thorns. Many villagers carefully harvest the vine as their profession. The larger thorns become knives and stakes while the smaller become needles and nails. The bark of the vines can be made into clothing and tarps that resist water and fire. The meat of the vines makes baskets and, if sliced thinly enough, can even be woven into fabric. You never eat it though; even the desperately hungry never make that mistake twice, after the terrible cramps and nightmares visited upon those who try.

A fieldstone wall travels the length of the boundary, a stone’s throw clear cut between wall and Hedge. It’s as high as a tall man’s head with a strong gate at each village so the workers can get to their task by day. But, by night, the gate remains closed and, if they can be spared, watchers squint into the gloom. For, sometimes, things emerge from the darkness of the Hedge. Often, it’s just a hungry wolf or other predator, easily deterred by the wall. But sometimes it’s a malformed monster of vaguely human shape, with the hands and feet to climb. The field and the wall hopefully give the village time to ready itself, archers time to loose, before such a beast makes its way into the town for its inevitably sinister purposes.

None know how these creatures navigate the tangle that is impenetrable to men, or from whence they come. But the workers of late have claimed that the Hedge is thinning, even receding. Is this an opportunity to finally find and destroy the nests of these fearful beasts… or will it unleash them when previously only their most nimble could escape?

The elders caution prudence, and to not hare off after rumors and supposition, but the brave youths of the town sense danger and adventure in the offing…

The Empire and the Empire

“Now let me tell you first what I know for a fact,” the Witch said, the tapped keg of Imperial Ale putting her in a storytelling mood but fixing her attention on where it came from, “or at least near to a fact. I had it from my grandmother, who had it from hers, that the Hedge had stood as long as anyone remembered. I know you children are thinking it: even things I remember firsthand seem pretty old to you, so my own twice-great grandmother must have come from ancient times indeed.

“It’s true enough, I’m nearing the end of my days, and women in my family aren’t known to start bearing as soon as they can. I’d place my grandmother’s childhood at over a century ago, and her own grandmother’s at near to two. Back then, we weren’t exactly a literate folk. I know the Baron’s made an effort to see that all of you know your letters and the value of record-keeping, so you might be surprised at how little was written down back in those days. I just want to head off any complaints that nobody wrote down the exact dates the Hedge sprung up. Suffice it to say, if you believe the faeries, there was good reason for everyone to be distracted.

“Now, the fae are well known to speak only truth. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t shifty little buggers, loathe to part with actual information without firm repayment. And they often tell things in a way that seems straight while you’re hearing it, and it’s only later that you realize words might have had different meanings, and two sentences seemed like cause and effect but might have been completely unrelated. So when I tell you I’ve assembled this story from years of talking to the sidhe that are old enough to remember it, I don’t want you to think that I believe it’s completely true. Even I could have been misled by their tricks.

“What I have from them is that the Hedge covers what was once a mighty Empire. Not the one to the north of us; I’ll get to that. But an even mightier one to the south. All the lands we know were merely the most distant fringes of an oversized kingdom with cities a size that we couldn’t even comprehend. They had magics long lost to us, technologies we’re only just beginning to rediscover, and written histories going back generations. But they also had powerful enemies.

“The more mundane of these enemies was what we now think of as the Empire: a rival oversized kingdom to their north. Two growing world powers began to overlap their spheres of influence around here, and began to fight. Though you know it not, many of you probably have blood going back to generals that settled here when they were done fighting, and even today we still sometimes find the detritus of a battlefield when someone goes to plow. What I have from the fae is that the southern Empire defeated the northern one soundly. Defeated them so completely that they are only now, centuries later, beginning to rebuild. I’ll tell you how they disagree in a moment.

“But some enemies bring weapons of magic, not arms. The fae guard closely the secret of who unleashed the Hedge. My suspicion is that they had a hand in it, and don’t want to admit it. They won’t even say why, other than that the Empire angered someone powerfully enough to unleash its doom. The Hedge was planted in the heart of the Empire, and in a single night it grew to encompass countless miles. Who knows how many lives were trapped? Who knows how our own ancestors reacted to their trade partners and lawgivers suddenly disappearing beneath a blanket of thorns? They had more to worry about than writing it all down, clearly. It’s a wonder they held onto what order and culture they did.

“That’s what the fae have told me. What I’ve heard from the folk of the northern Empire I credit less, apologies to those of you that have kin from there. Their tales don’t seem any more consistent than ours. They barely credit a southern Empire at all, and claim they smote it with the Hedge if they do mention it. What I think, and don’t none of you go tattling to Imperial soldiers, is that they’re barely related to the old Empire of the north. From what little I’ve seen of the ruined watchtower nearby, and what I’ve heard of buildings in similar repair, I think the southern Empire ruined the northern one completely, breaking its power all the way back to its core. The Empire of today is like a hermit crab growing into a shell it found on the beach: new folk that found the old ruins a good foothold, and the old Empire a good excuse for trying to enforce their will on those of us whose blood has watered this soil for aeons.

“Now someone get me another mug. Whatever their origins, they make good ale.”

The Forsaken Village

Every generation of parents has tried to keep their own children unaware of the forsaken village, and every generation of children has passed the story amongst themselves. The bravest and most foolhardy want to see the truth of the rumors.

It’s distressingly easy: a few hours walk, an hour or so past the next town to the east, Kyllburg, there is a gap in the Hedge. Most just travel within the cleared space between Hedge and wall, because the Kyllburgers will try to stop you from your exploration. The gap is perhaps a mile wide and almost that as deep, an area where nothing grows, even the thorns. In the center of it all is the ruins of an old village. And there, the dead walk.

Since the parents try not to discuss it at all, for fear their children will venture there, there are nearly as many explanations for the place as there are children in town. There are a few that are the most popular: that it was the site of a titanic and bloody battle between the two old empires, that it was once a great cemetery and the curse of the Hedge set its residents to walking, or that strange dark magics lie hidden under the town for explorers to find.

Whatever the case, none are known to have truly braved more than the fringes of the ruins. During the day, even under the bright sun, skeletal figures go about strange mockeries of village life. Some pantomime their former professions in the foundations of their old workshops. Some till fields in which nothing will ever grow. They move slowly, uncertainly, and will pause in their reenactments to shamble after interlopers.

At night it gets worse. The dead move faster, with more purpose, and their former warriors patrol the town. It’s said that if they get you, you join them forever more. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, these warriors go ranging, attempting to sack the towns they can reach within a night’s travel. Towns like yours.

Strangely, Kyllburg doesn’t seem to have nearly the problems yours does with these raids. They come sparingly, there. And, when asked in whispers when the kids aren’t listening, they don’t seem to have the other problem: sometimes your town’s dead get up of their own accord, and wander off to the forsaken village to join them.

Group Skill Checks as Dice Pool

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I tried something at my weekend Beyond the Wall game that may need to have a few more iterations before I’m totally happy with it, but seemed to work well enough to mention here.

I’ve never been a fan of using margin of success in D20. For one thing, it makes skills work differently than the other reasons you roll a d20 in the system. When you attack or save, you care about whether you met the target number or not, and often what number the die displays (for auto-miss or crit), but you don’t typically get any benefit from rolling significantly better than the target number. So having to track how much your result exceeded the DC for increased success immediately makes the skill system feel bolted on, like it came from another game.

And, in general, those other games that use margin of success for skill results have some kind of weighting to the roll, such as a dice pool or adding together multiple dice. In those systems, there is usually one level of success that’s much more likely than the others based on how the dice are weighted (e.g., in Fate, you’re very likely to get a margin of success equal to how much your skill exceeds the target, and much less likely to get four higher or four lower than that). But when you use a d20, there’s a 20-point range of margins of success that are equally likely. Particularly for non-iterated checks (like most Knowledge checks), the results can wind up feeling very swingy (e.g., “Sorry, you missed out on getting really useful clues because you rolled low and only just made the DC; you would have gotten much more information if you’d rolled higher.”).

So I was very interested when I noticed (via Shieldhaven using it in his game) that 5e had added* the concept of the group skill check. In the base rules, it’s something you can do when the whole group is trying to accomplish the same thing that requires a skill (e.g., stealth, climbing, etc.). If at least half the party succeeds, everyone succeeds (the higher-skilled individuals are assumed to cover for the lower-skilled).

As written, this is a useful addition that solves a lot of standard issues (such as always having to leave the armor-wearers behind when trying to sneak around). But the variation I tried goes even further:

  • Virtually anything that the whole group could work together on can be a group skill check (e.g., perception, knowledge, persuasion, etc.).
  • Instead of rolling, a character can Help another character, and share the results of that success or failure (in BtW, helping is a specific action that can only be done if you have the skill or spend a Fortune Point, but I don’t think it would break anything if you allowed your D20 variant of choice’s version of helping). You can’t combine helping in this way (i.e., you can’t pile help on the person with the highest skill check to push her to no chance of failure; at least half the party needs to actually roll).
  • Instead of requiring a simple pass/fail based on party size, before the roll the GM has in mind the general spectrum of what it means if no one is successful up to everyone being successful. Very difficult results may require the whole party, easy ones may only require one success, and more successes might grant a better result over the minimum pass.

This essentially winds up splitting the difference between a dice pool roll and a 4e skill challenge. And it allows the GM to give out better results for more successful rolls without any actual roll caring about anything other than pass/fail (and maybe crits, if you use skill crits). Importantly, it doesn’t incentivize low-skill players to avoid participating the way 4e skill challenges did (because each player only gets one roll, so you can’t sit out to let someone else go multiple times, and because helping is as good as succeeding yourself). My players seemed to dig it, so I’ll probably keep experimenting with it. I welcome thoughts on possible improvements in the comments.

* This is the first place I saw it; apologies if it originated somewhere else.

Minor Miscellaneous Items and Fortune-Binding

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This post is especially tailored to Beyond the Wall, and may be less useful if you’re using 5e or Pathfinder. It also starts with an aside to bring in a variation of attunement to the system, to keep characters from hanging on to every single minor miscellaneous item in case it ever proves useful.

Fortune-Binding

Many magic items are “fortune-bound,” and do little or nothing unless the bearer chooses to make them a temporary part of her legend. The bearer must spend a fortune point for one to become tied to her fate (assumed to be spent automatically if kept between adventures, without reducing starting fortune for the next adventure). Each character may only sustain a number of fortune-bound items equal to her maximum fortune points; binding a new item past this limit requires letting another become unbound and inactive.

Certain powerful fortune-bound items may automatically bind to the wielder, forcing lesser items to unbind if it pushes the wielder over the limit, and may even take up more than one “slot” of fortune points. If you put on the One Ring, it’s not going to wait for you to willingly bind it first. But at least they don’t cost fortune points to bind.

Binding an item typically unbinds it to its previous owner, though not in all cases (particularly for powerful items).

In general, weapons, armor, and other such functional items are rarely fortune-bound, but some of their more esoteric abilities might be. Likewise, potions, scrolls, and such consumables also do not require binding: their magic is self-contained and consumed by use. Ultimately, most fortune-bound items are those that provide some kind of selective and intuitive ability: being bound to a wielder’s fortune not only sustains their magic, but allows them to function at the appropriate time (i.e., automatically when the player wants the bonus).

Characters may also take the following new trait:

Signature Item: You have made an item fully part of your own legend. If it is fortune-bound, it does not count against your fortune points (i.e., it’s an “extra” fortune-bound item). If it is lost, it will always find its way back to you. If it is given away, lost without hope of recovery, or broken beyond repair, a replacement of similar utility will eventually make its way to you.

Example Items

Unless otherwise noted:

  • All items below are fortune-bound and charged.
  • The term “reroll” is shorthand for “expend a charge to reroll a failed roll that you just made.”
  • Powers can be activated as a free action when they are appropriate.

The most minor versions of the item can hold one charge, and you can make more powerful versions by allowing them to have more charges. By default, charged items regain all their charges overnight, and may also be recharged by the wielder spending a Fortune Point. Items may, of course, instead regain charges by any mechanism that suits the GM’s whimsy (e.g., a charm of Protection that is only recharged when the wielder suffers the full effects of a critical hit).

The items are presented as form-agnostic powers: since they’re limited to 3-5 per character, body slots don’t particularly matter. If the rogue wants to wear five rings, each with a different power, she should feel free to do so.

  • Animal Friendship: Reroll a Charisma check involving animals and other beasts of limited intelligence.
  • Biting: Expend one or more charges to increase the damage you deal with an attack or spell by +2 per charge (after rolling damage); this can at most double the damage dealt.
  • Blinking: Expend one or more charges as an action. You disappear from this reality into a nearby one. You cannot act while out of reality, but very few things can target you. You return to reality at the start of your turn after a number of turns equal to the charges expended.
  • Cantrips: Reroll a check involving activating a cantrip.
  • Crafting: Reroll a check involving crafting an item.
  • Deception: Reroll a check involving telling a lie, maintaining a disguise, or sneaking.
  • Health: Reroll a saving throw involving resisting a disease.
  • Hunting: Reroll a check involving following tracks, noticing things in the wilderness, surviving in the wilderness, or finding game animals.
  • Leadership: Reroll a Charisma check involving commanding or persuading followers.
  • Manners: Reroll a Charisma check involving etiquette, politics, or otherwise fitting in (either at court or on the streets).
  • Mind Shielding: Automatically expend a charge whenever subjected to a magical effect that would read your mind. That particular instance has no effect on you (e.g., if a spell, it would not work even with a long duration, but could be cast again).
  • Natural Armor: Expend one or more charges as an action (or as a free action simultaneous with taking your first action after the start of a combat). Increase your AC by an amount equal to the expended charges for the next ten minutes.
  • Perception: Reroll a Wisdom check involving noticing sensory data (actively or passively).
  • Persuasion: Reroll a Charisma check involving persuading, intimidating, or seducing an intelligent being.
  • Precision: Expend one or more charges immediately before making an attack roll to increase your result by +2 per charge expended.
  • Presentation: Reroll a check involving a performance.
  • Protection: Expend a charge to step down the success of an attack roll against you by one step (before damage is rolled) or step up the success of a saving throw you’ve made by one step (before the effects are declared) similar to the rules for sacrificing a shield.
  • Recall: Reroll an Intelligence check involving a lore or knowledge.
  • Regeneration: Expend a charge on your turn (maximum of one charge per turn) to heal hit points equal to your total level/hit dice.
  • Resistance, [Energy Type]: Expend a charge to halve a single instance of damage you’re about to take of the particular type, after damage is declared.
  • Rituals: Reroll a check involving casting a ritual.
  • Seeing: Expend a charge to detect all hidden, illusionary, invisible, or out-of-phase things within a 100 square foot area within viewing range (it lasts for a turn and that’s enough for a careful scan of such an area). Depending on the form-factor of the item, this may require looking through it.
  • Springing: Expend a charge to double the height and distance of a single jump.
  • Stoneskin: Activate this item as an action. While active, each time you take damage, halve it and expend a charge. Deactivate the item as a free action on your turn (it deactivates automatically when all charges are expended).
  • Striding: Expend a charge to double the distance you can move in a turn.
  • Sustenance: Expend a charge to act as if you had a single nourishing meal (3 charges/day to go completely without food and water).
  • Thievery: Reroll a Dexterity check involving locks, traps, sleight-of-hand, or sneaking.
  • Vigor: Reroll a Strength or Constitution check involving athleticism or raw physical potence.
  • Warmth: Expend a charge to ignore a single instance of damage to you from cold weather.

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