The Sublimation of the Capabilities of the D&D Caster

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Dry ice doesn’t melt, going directly from solid to gas. The powers of D&D casters, similarly, sublimate. One day they have no access to a spell. The next, its casting becomes commonplace. This is most obvious with the spells that drastically change the capabilities available to the party: Fly, Teleport, major Divinations, the Wall spells, Stone Shape/Move Earth, Fabricate, etc. However, many other spells roll in with each level that are a sea change beyond what was capable before. A single level’s difference frequently makes a huge difference to how a party will tackle any given threat, unless arbitrary and obvious countermagics are built into the scenario precisely to make spells useless that could circumvent the design.

But the problem is not that casters dramatically increase in power with each spell level so much as it is that this shift is not at all gradual. Between spell level 4 and 5, a party with a wizard can change their expectations between taking weeks to reach far-flung allies to popping in to visit them every day via Teleport. Between 2 and 3, challenges with a Z-axis go from a big deal to negligible with the addition of Fly. The issue is that, if a caster can cast a spell at all, he or she can likely cast the spell multiple times per day, every day. The impossible becomes commonplace with no transitory state.

The simplest solution to this is to give out more scrolls of higher-level spells, but this has some drawbacks. Primarily, a scroll isn’t just an ability to cast a higher-level spell, it’s adding the spell to the caster’s repertoire whenever it’s needed. Unless scrolls are arbitrarily given out knowing they’ll be needed in the scenario soon, the GM risks a player hoarding them and unloading them all at once to trivialize content, rather than to instill the desired sense of growing power.

Another solution is to create a mechanic whereby casters can ritualize certain spells that they ordinarily are too low-level to cast by expending several spell slots, additional time, and some form of non-expendable spell scroll. But, again, this may require very careful playtesting to find out what’s unbalanced. Some higher level spells may be so good that casters will regularly take the extra time and slots to use them as rituals, thus not really solving the problem.

The best solution, for the purpose of creating a “liquid” state of new spells may be to create a rote mechanic whereby newly learned spells cannot be fully utilized until they are gradually improved. This might mean that, for example, Teleport has a cooldown and/or a distance limit that is gradually expanded to its normal numbers as it is used. However, this solution is, unarguably, a nerf to casters, and would likely need some kind of commensurate bonus to account for it.

Fortress of the Stone Giants, Part 5

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Secrets of the Therassic Monastery

…and enter a partially worked room, somewhere between cave and dungeon hall. The walls are covered with paintings of the hunt; they shift menacingly out of the corners of the eyes. What seemed to be a section of wall covered in furs moves to reveal an ancient stone giantess, whose gaze seems to recognize them, “You are the ones who put down Hook Mountain, yes? I saw you in the stones. Do you come to slay Mokmurian?”

With some trepidation, the party admits that is their goal, and the giantess, Conna, admits that they are allies in this. She then regales them with details about the giant runt exiled for wizardry who returned with ancient powers to throw down the stone giant clans and reforge them in his own mad scheme. She fears that he is being driven by the powers that had enslaved the giant races aeons ago, and his plans of war and greed are utterly against the best interests of the clans. But, until he is slain, there is little chance for the traditionalists to regain control of the giants.

She suggests that the party pass the guardian of the Black Tower and go by secret ways deep into the structure beneath, heading directly for Mokmurian. She can tell them little of the guardian, other than that the giants are frightened of it, and that Mokmurian himself is also a powerful wizard. She suggests that, if possible, they lure him into the library, which she has heard is warded against dimensional travel; this will prevent him escaping. However, the library itself is warded against entry without his key, and they will have to determine if there is some kind of password to lower its defenses long enough to force their way in.

After resting for the evening in her room due to her assurances that the other denizens fear the place, Conna goes off to stage a distraction and allow the party to gain access to the Black Tower. Inside, they find a mostly empty structure, its interior rooms long decayed, the entire insides rimed in frost. Without much effort, they find a trap door hidden within the drops down a shaft to a room below. All enter cautiously, finding a place of numbing cold lit by an unearthly glow, at its center a sarcophagus. As they step forward, the casket opens, and a man wrapped in black, decayed bandages floats free, bearing an ornate scroll case. He steps down to the floor and glares, challenging them.

Balekh confronts the creature in Thassilonian, and it tells them that they must pass its challenge. It sets down the scroll case and descends into a fighting stance that Haggor recognizes as eerily similar to his own. He suggests that the rest of the party step back and moves forward to begin the battle. The fight itself is eerily fast, each trading an avalanche of blows upon one another amidst attempts to grapple. As Haggor begins a particularly brutal flurry, the creature backs up and asks him to stop. When he does, the Black Monk, translated by Balekh, briefly discusses Haggor’s history of fighting, and the lack of any other practitioners of the style other than his own mentor. The Black Monk suggests that Haggor may be the last, and, as if weary from his long vigil, hands over the scroll case and sinks back into his coffin, naming Haggor the new guardian of the Therrassic Order. A gem on the case shatters, and within the coffin, all that remains is dust and the creature’s magic items. A password in Thassilonian flashes across the back wall, and, once Balekh utters it, the wall slides open to reveal stairs down.

They descend for some distance before reaching what appears to be another secret door. Beyond, they can make out giants arguing. Bursting in, they see two stone giants forcing another into a great black cauldron billowing with necrotic smoke. Haggor and Taeva enter without seeming ill effect, quickly putting down the two giants, but as Veshenga enters she is overwhelmed by blindness and nausea and is forced to retreat back into the corridor. As she does, the giant that appeared to have been killed by the cauldron surges out of it, destroyed flesh and bone instantly reknitting and growing into a freakishly huge giant covered in plates of stone. It begins to swat at the heroes, and they are forced to put the foul creature down. As it is destroyed, it returns to the soup that spawned it.

Once the smoke is completely cleared and Veshenga recovers, they set out through the door of the room that seems like it would have been too small for the rune giant, hoping that it was ultimately intended to be sent out. And, indeed, this door leads to a short corridor that empties upon a much larger one. The hallway runs up to an ancient bronze door bearing the Sihedron Rune, and the hallways itself is covered in prayers designed to calm petitioners before entry. Balekh, significantly calmed by the effect, is eventually coaxed into trying the password and mystically opening the door. This appears to be successful, and the door rolls aside.

Within is a huge library, well lit by magical lights and seemingly unaffected by the millenia. However, it looks like patrons were expected to fly to reach the shelves, as they climb up the outer walls and down along the walls of a deep pit in the center of the room. A strange, clockwork golem offers, in Thassilonian, to assist them, and they begin exploring the library for quite a while before realizing that there is no immediate help to defeat Mokmurian within. Believing him to be in a room behind one of the other doors in the hallway, they hatch a plan to lure him inside.

Minutes later, Mokmurian finishes buffing after his magical alarms alerted him to intruders, only to spy a strange half-orc entering his room. The hero seems far dumber than he had expected from those that had been thwarting his plans, and the monk has the gall to run. Not expecting a trap, the giant flies after the half-orc, chasing him towards the library, little realizing that his key had been stolen by a hiding gnome outside the door. The giant necromancer is smart enough to avoid entering the library, and dimension doors in front of the fleeing Haggor, only to find himself shoved bodily into the room, where the rest of the party begins attacking as Taeva sprints down the hallway to lock him in.

Initially, the fight looks grim, as the giant is ready for a battle, including numerous protections against attacks. He flies above the room and reverses gravity along the front of the library where all the heroes are standing, hoping to make them helpless. However, Balekh is able to kick off a wall and cast flight upon Haggor, while Taeva uses her magic armor to fly as well; she starts the door closing and she and Haggor soar up to engage Mokmurian. Veshenga pushes away from the wall as well, vaulting down out of the area of reversed gravity and beginning to pepper the giant with arrows which shatter off large chunks of his magical stoneskin. Again and again, Mokmurian attempts to escape the melee combatants and deal with Veshenga, his biggest threat at the moment, but Haggor and Taeva keep him pinned down, grappling and stabbing him as the rest of the party launches attack after attack. Finally, missing with his final swing of a spell-imbued club, Mokmurian falls unconscious and then splatters upon the floor a hundred feet below.

Exhausted from their victory, the party rests in the library, little aware of the sudden battle between the traditionalists and those loyal to Mokmurian above. Yet, when they emerge, all is eerily silent, and, free from the dimensional barriers, a voice echoes in Thassilonian from the captured Sihedron Amulets worn by Taeva and Veshenga, very similar to the one they heard long ago in Thistletop’s doomsday recording:

“So these are the heroes of the age. More like gasping worms to me, soon to be crushed back into the earth when I awaken the armies of Xin-Shalast, when the name Karzoug is again spoken with fear and awe. Know that the deaths of those marked by the Sihedron—the giants you have so conveniently slain for me—hasten my return, just as yours soon will. Fools, all of you. Is this all you could manage in ten thousand years?”

The All-Bard Party

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After watching a bunch of Van Canto videos and thinking about the archetypal five-man band, it seems like an all-bard party might be a lot of fun for a fantasy game. Particularly, it might be ridiculously fun in a video game: imagine a party-based RPG like Dragon Age or even Dungeon Siege, but with Rock Band-style mechanics to layer in vocals and keep everyone in harmony, with the effects reflected in the music tracks played. But even without that level of awesome, there’s a lot of room to implement this in D&D. While a single bard is often considered borderline useless in a party for its lack of specialization, in a full party of bards they might display the kind of synergy of all-defender teams in City of Heroes. The real limitation is that Inspire Courage doesn’t stack with itself. Hence, the following optional rules:

Bardic music is often a solitary pursuit, but some bards manage to work with others frequently enough to learn to harmonize successfully, taking on a particular role in a song to elevate the music to previously unmatched levels. Only one member of a troupe can typically make use of any individual feat below at a given time without invalidating the entire troupe’s feats: there cannot be two leads, for example. Only one of the feats below can be used at a time by any given bard (e.g., even a character with both Beat and Bass must choose which one is used on a given turn where both qualify).

Performance Specialization: Beat

When maintaining the percussion for a bardic ensemble troupe, keeping everyone in time, your music adds to the effects of the group.

Prerequisite: Bardic performance class feature.

Benefit: Whenever you attack an enemy and hit with all of your attacks, until the end of your next turn your Bardic Performance bonuses count as untyped and stack with any typed bonuses.

Normal: Bardic Performances of the same type produce typed bonuses that do not stack.

Performance Specialization: Bass

When playing bass for a bardic ensemble troupe, maintaining the link between beat and rhythm, your music adds to the effects of the group.

Prerequisite: Bardic performance class feature.

Benefit: Whenever you attack an enemy that was targeted by a character using Performance Specialization: Beat or cast a support spell that affects a character using Performance Specialization: Rhythm, until the end of your next turn your Bardic Performance bonuses count as untyped and stack with any typed bonuses.

Normal: Bardic Performances of the same type produce typed bonuses that do not stack.

Performance Specialization: Rhythm

When producing rhythm for a bardic ensemble troupe, creating the major chords and sense of movement upon which the singers will build, your music adds to the effects of the group.

Prerequisite: Bardic performance class feature.

Benefit: Whenever you cast a spell that affects the speed of yourself an ally or you both move and attack an enemy (with weapon or spell), until the end of your next turn your Bardic Performance bonuses count as untyped and stack with any typed bonuses.

Normal: Bardic Performances of the same type produce typed bonuses that do not stack.

Performance Specialization: Melody

When singing melody for a bardic ensemble troupe, building on the efforts of the rhythm and supporting the lead, your music adds to the effects of the group.

Prerequisite: Bardic performance class feature.

Benefit: Whenever you perform the same action (casting the same spell or attacking the same target) as a character using Performance Specialization: Rhythm or cast a support spell that affects a character using Performance Specialization: Lead, until the end of your next turn your Bardic Performance bonuses count as untyped and stack with any typed bonuses.

Normal: Bardic Performances of the same type produce typed bonuses that do not stack.

Performance Specialization: Lead

When performing the main vocals for a bardic ensemble troupe, producing the most noticeable music of the song, your music adds to the effects of the group.

Prerequisite: Bardic performance class feature.

Benefit: Whenever you make a full attack against an enemy that attacked you this round, until the end of your next turn your Bardic Performance bonuses count as untyped and stack with any typed bonuses.

Normal: Bardic Performances of the same type produce typed bonuses that do not stack.

Fortress of the Stone Giants, Part 4

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Into the Fortress

The party surveys the immense valley beneath them, dominated by the massive fortress of the stone giants, Jorgenfist. It is little more than a massive curtain wall anchored by siege towers, but one of the towers is foreboding and unspeakably ancient, hinting at, perhaps, hidden secrets beneath. Around this massive fort, armies of giants camp, clearly building for a massive war. Massive.

As the sun lowers, Balekh casts a series of spells, giving himself a few minutes to fly, silently and invisibly, over the area. He takes a long pass in an elliptical over the valley, noting cliffside caves that might lead into the structure beneath the fort, another massive cave overlooking the valley, and counting the armies and structures within and without the fortress. He lands and shares his information with the party.

After some debate, they decide that the cave overlooking the valley would be the easiest to investigate first, so they wait for nightfall and then take a long walk along the fringes of the valley confident that, barring scouts, the giants’ reliance on darkvision makes them safe at a distance from the armies. The trek is long and anxious, but they reach the base of the mountain where Balekh saw the cave with no incidents. With some additional magics to make climbing possible, they all pile into the cave. Inside, they find what is clearly the abandoned treasure of a dragon, likely the one they killed in Sandpoint. Mountains of (mostly low-value) coins surround a few more pricey treasures, including two interesting pieces of art. The first is a tapestry that depicts monks practicing outside of the black tower in the valley (but without the walls of the fort incorporated); surprisingly, they seem to be using the same style as is used by Haggor, though he had never met anyone other than his mentor who fought in that style. The second is a statuette of precious metals, included in a set of other figures it doesn’t truly match, of a man wielding a polearm; he looks shockingly similar to the holographic image they saw long ago at Thistletop, a recording from the doomed Thassilonian empire.

They camp for the night within the cave, and are awakened early the next morning by faint alarms within the fortress. Clearly, their massacres upon the plateau have finally been reported. A scouting party makes its way out to almost directly beneath them (as they watch, as hidden as possible, from the cave mouth), but passes by without attempting to climb up and search. Nonetheless, they decide they are likely not safe here for long. They rest for the remainder of the day, then fly out that evening to the caves beneath the fortress, overlooking the river below.

The first cave turns out to be a roost for wyverns, stirring as they wake for the evening, and the party decides to attack rather than risk that the creatures smelled them and would give chase. In a short and surprisingly quiet fight, the scaly beasts are put down without anyone getting poisoned. Amongst the treasure in the cave, Balekh finds a potent staff that had obviously been carried by one of their past victims.

With a few moments of magical flight left, the party decides to enter the second cave. Within, they find it covered in webs and crawling with insects and other bugs. Shayliss, almost without thinking, fireballs the back of the cave and then dodges onto the lip of the entrance. There is a terrible screaming within, and as the rest of the party is swarmed by fleeing lesser insects, in the light of the burning webs they can make out two immense arachnid forms beginning to struggle forward. They charge these foul beasts, and discover that they appear to be not just massive spiders, but undead constructs, as each of Haggor’s blows crunches into necrotic chitin and ichor. The beasts were caught off guard by the fireball, and are unable to bring their more disgusting weapons to bear before they are put down by the party.

This fight was not so quiet, and Shayliss darts back into the cave as she sees giants looking over the edge of the cliff. Searching frantically, the party finds a hidden door at the rear of the cave, and enters ahead of giant investigators. Within is a series of mostly natural caves that ultimately lead them to a room that appears to be within the fortress. With trepidation about what they might find, but hoping that the guards are focused outside for now, they step through…

Rolling without Reason: Gamism vs. Narrativism

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I’ve been speeding up my Rise of the Runelords game in order to finish before a player has to move away. This involves a lot of going through the remaining modules and figuring out what I can skip with minimal impact on the story but a lot of time savings at the table. While I’m mostly cutting whole side quests and such that are interesting but mostly thematic filler, another thing I’m noticing a lot more is rolls for no reason. The two examples I noticed in particular are one where Will saves are necessary to force though a set of magical barriers and one where Climb checks are needed to get up oversized stairs. In neither of these cases in there likely to be any time pressure or other consequence for failure: the players will just keep rolling until they get it.

Many modern games, particularly ones with a strong narrative focus, explicitly recommend that GMs not call for rolls unless there is an interesting result for both success and failure. If that’s not the case, the GM is encouraged to simply narrate the result, taking into account the character’s skills. But this method seems at odds with the intuition of a gamist.

This conflict is, in my experience, most evident in the use of the Perception skill (or whatever it’s called in a particular game). Many GMs I’ve gamed with have an innate response of “roll Perception” to most queries for information from the players, even if there is no real time pressure and the GM wants the players to have the information. Conversely, at least for my players, “I search…” statements are automatically followed by lifting a die to prepare for a roll, and they often seem disappointed when I just give them the information (usually, “there’s nothing here to find, don’t bother rolling”).

Put simply, many players and GMs seem to have the core notion that a result isn’t meaningful unless it comes from a die roll. Narrating a result strips out the notion of success against difficult odds. In the RotR examples, even though there’s nothing interesting, narrative-wise, about rolling until you succeed, for the gamist, rolling to see who climbs to the top the fastest is a meaningful difference (even if the disparity in Climb skills makes it obvious who will win). Similarly, some Skill Challenges in D&D 4e seem set up so the adventure can grind to a halt if not successful.

At root, this all comes down to the growing attempt by tabletop games to create mechanics for everything else that are as robust and enjoyable as the mechanics for combat. In many games, but D&D in particular, there’s often very little chance that the PCs won’t win any given fight (unless they jumped something they shouldn’t have jumped). However, the results of combat are granular enough that there are clear gradations of winning: did the party make it through without a scratch or did they get injured? How many limited resources were expended for the win? So far, that experience has not been replicated in the non-combat parts of games (though many systems try with social conflict, to greater or lesser success). It seems to me that, with rolling outside of combat and with Skill Challenges in particular, the goal is to capture the fun of combat in the rest of the game, but, without creating a game with as detailed a list of options and resources for everything as for fighting, this isn’t really possible.

Ultimately, the converse might be easier: simplifying combat so much that it doesn’t differ so drastically from every other skill roll in the game. Would a game where combat was resolved as simply as anything else ultimately streamline the desire to roll for situations without interesting consequences? Or would it just make for a boring game?

Fortress of the Stone Giants, Part 3

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Signs of War

The party sets out to the Storval Plateau a couple of days later, after they have finished recovering from the attack on Sandpoint. Hemlock has them sign affidavits so the city can prosecute the Scarnettis in their absence. After debating taking a boat to Riddleport before going overland, or perhaps even climbing the dam and hitting the giants from behind, they eventually decide to just ride straight up the Lost Coast Road, retracing Veshenga’s steps from the Summer.

Uncertain how they would manage their horses in hostile territory, much less get them up the Storval Stairs, Balekh instead summons mystical mounts for each of them, each steed a strangely monochromatic and soulless construct. The set out on a fine morning that has not yet fallen out of Summer, and make their way north.

It isn’t long before the Saviors of Sandpoint begin to see signs of the unheralded invasion of giants. A smashed caravan sits near a crossroads, all of its goods stolen. Huge campsites linger like scars on the plains, each absolutely scoured for valuables before being abandoned. Worst of all is the town of Wolf’s Ear, situated at the only natural crossing of the Lampblack River between the Storval Stairs and Sandpoint: the small village is now a demolished ruin, looted corpses lining the streets full of smashed and robbed houses.

With some effort, the group finds survivors that hid in the woods, and tell them a terrible tale of a squad of giants smashing through the town and its hasty Magnimarian guards like they were barely there, laughing at the villagers as they killed them. The people remember Veshenga’s visit, and were as prepared as they could be, to absolutely no avail. The party gives the survivors some gold and sends them south to Galduria, hoping they will be safer there, then takes a day to build a giant pyre for the corpses.

The signs of giants grow stronger as the party heads further north, and though many villages that aren’t directly in their path still stand, they are locked down in fear. Despite their questions, the party receives little help and advice on the plateau, and eventually decides to make due with the original plan: flying to the top of the cliff with Balekh’s magics. Despite a close call on the part of the theurge himself, the party makes it safely to the top of the plateau without alerting any of the sentries, and begins sneaking towards Jorgenfist.

Despite Veshenga and Taeva’s excellent leadership at stealth, the party is twice caught out in the open in the face of oncoming patrols of stone giants and dire bears. Both times, the groups fall almost before they are even aware they are under attack, with Balekh and Shayliss combining silence and fire to reduce the chance of being heard. However, the party saw more patrols that they did not interrupt heading away from the fortress. As they walk into the shadow of Jorgenfist, they can only hope that they have time before a returning patrol finds the scenes of carnage they have left behind and raises the alarm.

Elements of Terror

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I found some research notes from when I was concepting out a horror video game a few years ago. With a little bit of work, they are probably helpful to tabletop or LARP games as well.

To maintain a consistent terminology, the four levels of scare mentioned are:

  • Shock: A sudden or violent disturbance of the mind, emotions, or sensibilities
  • Fear: A distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined
  • Terror: Intense, sharp, overmastering fear
  • Horror: An overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear

In general, each of those scares is successively more appreciated and memorable.

Shock, or “Boo,” scares tend to release the current tension level, and may be considered cheap if they are not well executed. They are best used after ramping up the tension level, either to pay off the horror in the current situation, or to defuse it in order to bring in a new scare that the subject isn’t prepared for. For example, in the first use, a subject wandering through a room full of cadavers may suddenly have a zombie fall from the ceiling right in front of him, and give chase. In the second use, a subject wandering through the same room may see the body fall suddenly, but it’s just a corpse; however, while the subject was looking at the corpse, several of the cadavers sat up behind him and starting approaching.

Fear is that state that should be the base level of existence in the horror scenario. It is a proscriptive emotion; as long as the user can avoid the source of the fear, it is not especially intense. Fear is present when the subject is walking carefully, examining shadows, and opening doors slowly, prepared to run, but it is passive in these cases, simply building tension to be released later. Fear becomes a more active emotion when the subject is forced to choose between two unwelcome situations (e.g., venture into the dark room or stay in the hall waiting to find out what the increasingly loud growling sound is). Almost all situations in the scenario should be intending to at least minimally add to fear, preparing it to be unleashed into one of the other emotions.

Terror is mostly a completely active version of fear. The source of fear that has scared the subject is so great, that caution is abandoned in order to simply get away from the source of fear. Genuine terror is difficult to manufacture reliably, and will vary greatly from subject to subject. Individual phobias are probably the best triggers, and those are hard to use on an unknown subject (though it may be possible to create systems to figure out the user’s phobias in advance in order to trigger them later). The closest approximation to terror that may be reliably activated is certain death. A crushing ceiling, horde of zombies, or wave of vermin is likely to cause anyone to run, and it may invoke terror if enough fear has been built in advance.

Horror is supported by fear, but is largely different. Subjects can be horrified by something that they do not fear, and afraid of something that is not horrifying. Horror is best caused by situations completely out of the subject’s experience in a negative way; decomposing corpses, erratically moving zombies, and alien-looking creatures are all tried and true sources of horror. The best horror comes with the subject is allowed to use imagination rather than being shown; an opportunity to see something brings it further within the subject’s experience, and less horrible. The anticipation of something alien is often more horrifying than the horror itself. The elements of the scenario that are truly meant to cause horror should be given out in flashes and glimpses after being built up by text props, atmosphere, and noises. Only in extreme situations should they be seen long enough to quantify.

In general, within a horror scenario, the best scares will be accomplished by setting the user’s imagination against itself. The scares that the users will take away will be ones that wake them up in the middle of the night, or make them afraid to undertake previously unexceptional activities without leaving all the lights on. Years after Psycho, many people are still wary of letting their guards down completely in the shower. If one can accomplish a similar feat of making the ordinary seem dangerous, the scenario will be remembered and successful.


The following are based on common scares and phobias:

  • Acrophobia: A convincingly rendered virtual height can be almost as vertigo-inducing as in the real world. Traveling along a cliff or the edge of a tall building would inspire the fear of heights. Seemingly bottomless pits might be more or less effective.
  • Claustrophobia: Being in a tight place works very well in real haunted houses, and could work in a virtual one as well. Care would have to be taken to make the camera work correctly in third-person view.
  • Vermin-related Phobias: Insects, snakes, mice, and especially spiders can all be placed in the game as isolated objects or moving carpets of vermin. The X-Files trick of animating a roach crawling across the screen during these sequences is purely optional.
  • Autophobia and Nyctohylophobia: Being alone in the forest at night is a big fear for a surprising number of people. Again, this is something that is hard to replicate in a physical haunted attraction but no problem in a virtual world.
  • Brontophobia: This fear does not involve dinosaurs, it’s about thunder. A persistent external storm sound look with loud thunder crashes at significant moments could worry a large portion of the audience.
  • Trypanophobia: The fear of injections can be compounded with other piercing, painful items such as fishhooks and barbed wire. I’ve found my most successful scares in running RPGs involves a nightmare creature made of barbed wire and hooks with syringes for fangs.
  • Shock scares: Typically referred to as “boo” scares, all mediums make use of situations where the audience is suddenly accosted with loud noises and/or rapidly approaching threats. Care must be taken with these scares: if they are used with no build-up, they simply startle and seem cheap, while if they are used after build-up, they can deflate carefully built tension if done improperly.
  • Apparitions: In haunted houses, “haunted” would seem to be the operative word. Apparitions that move at the corners of vision or appear suddenly around corners then disappear can be very effective tensionbuilders or shock scares.
  • Frying Pan and Fire: A particularly fearsome scare pops up on one side, causing the user to run into an apparent escape route. Unfortunately, the escape route ends on an even scarier scene.
  • Static: A TV switches on to static, no matter how many times the user turns it off. Ultimately, this is a distraction from the real scare that is appearing behind the avatar.
  • Creepy Kids: Kids that don’t act like kids are scary. Spectral kids are even scarier.
  • The Uncanny Valley: Some of the most horrifying creatures are those that look and move almost, but not quite, like humans. Zombies, stutter-stepping ghosts, and twitching crazy people can all fall into this valley.
  • Creepy Dolls: An easy way to trigger the uncanny valley is with inhuman looking toys, particularly in partial lighting.
  • Torture Horrors: Many types of torture and murder involve mutilation. A quick road to horror is to show human bodies being mutilated in horrible and painful manners. Partial lighting with disgusting sound effects can make these tortures severely horrifying without involving full out disgusting images; the subject’s imagination can easily conceive of the pain of lacerations, bites, or contusions.

Fortress of the Stone Giants, Part 2

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Panic on the Streets of Sandpoint

From out of the swarming darkness above the city, a rush of wings and the sound of a bonfire dopplers across the sky. Trailing an inferno down its length, the saviors of Sandpoint look up, making out flashes of wing and scale, a long sinuous body sliding through the very air and bearing down upon them. As it swoops across the party square, they make it out more completely, a crimson shadow of destruction come to the town. With a negligent twist of a wing it turns and breathes fire down upon the garrison as it wheels past.

Balekh is uncertain what it plans to do next, and would rather it come to face them than visit any more harm upon the homes of the villagers. Summoning up his magic, he unleashes a storm of ice over the dragon, pelting the creature of fire with hailstones and sleet. As Shayliss races for a higher vantage, the dragon roars at the affront and blasts towards the wizard with his back to the cathedral, slamming into the ground behind a wall of seething flame that smashes into the two casters, scorching the wall of the church and blistering skin. Balekh takes the brunt of the attack, his wife being protected from flame and shielded such that most of her pain is shunted to the theurge. He grits his teeth as the rest of the party races back up the hill to the cathedral, casting a spell that turns him into living fog, hoping that will save him.

The young wyrm is not dissuaded, and stalks forward to snap at the Shoanti, tearing out a gout of mist and breathing again into the wound. Balekh’s silent screams emerge as steam from his mouth, and he begins trying to escape, drifting slowly through the air as his friends finally crest the ridge and begin to attack the dragon. The beast turns into Veshenga’s hail of arrowfire, not quite aware of the threat posed by the half-orc and gnome moving with practiced ease to either side of it. It soon learns, and then learns no more, as a brutal cavalcade of attacks rips it to shreds within seconds with little of its own fury visited against them in payback.

But the creature served as a distraction if not a serious threat, for as they stand over the corpse, through the heat haze of the lizard’s attacks and steaming blood, they see more giants racing across the city. Haggor grabs Veshenga and Taeva again as he starts to sprint after these new guests. Balekh frantically heals himself while he waits for Shayliss to return from her vantage atop the cathedral.

Dodging through alleys and down main roads, Haggor constantly glimpses the three stone giants moving at a full run down parallel streets, rushing towards the northwest end of town. He turns down the city’s central street when he thinks he’s close enough, staring past the still molten garrison at the strangely purposeful attackers. Two break off from the trio and run north to meet them. Haggor thinks about continuing to pursue the third, but decides to deal with the present threat. The giants and heroes clash in front of the town hall, and Balekh grabs his bride and warps across the intervening space to stare down from atop its roof. One giant goes down to focused fire in moments, and the other has the good sense to surrender at the puissant display. Realizing that these were certainly a distraction, Haggor grabs the beast’s club and tells it to leave and never come back.

The party faintly makes out the sound of more giants at the opposite end of town shouting for beer from the brewery. Though an attack on the source of the town’s alcohol fills Veshenga with rage, they all decide that the nearer threat merits more attention. Again, they race northwest, realizing that the giant’s only destination must be the Old Light. As Haggor races with his half-elven and gnomish cargo to close the distance, Balekh again warps himself and Shayliss to a point on the Thassilonian structure that he believes to be stable and provide a good vantage. From a hundred feet up, they make out a more thoroughly-outfitted giant, swinging an enormous mattock, moving towards the ruin. The two unleash sorcerous attacks at the seeming giant leader, and are greeted by a pair of head-sized boulders in return, cracking ribs and nearly knocking them free of the precarious position.

However, the ranged duel swiftly shifts tempo as the other three heroes leave behind the last row of houses and begin bearing down on the light. The giant rethinks his position, picking his way easily through the treacherous rubble surrounding the tower, grabbing pieces of the building, presumably for more ammo, and moving to a place that the casters cannot see him from their vantage. Haggor and Taeva are on him in moments, Veshenga racing up from behind while firing arrows into the great brute. He lays about with his enormous trenching tool, leaving a pair of terrible wounds in the rogue and causing her to curse the time pressure that kept her from donning her new armor.

Balekh taps into some of the last of his magic and begins to fly, drifting down and emitting a burst of mystical speed to hasten his friends’ attacks. With furious abandon, they tear into the leader, reducing him to a bleeding wreck before he can harm them further. Still hearing shouts at the brewery, the group has only a moment to consider the plan of this stone general before again racing off; this time, Haggor and his cargo move at an even more blinding speed thanks to Balekh’s magic. The theurge himself flies up to grab his wife, then begins to fly across town after them.

In less than twenty seconds, the trio clears the entire width and breadth of the town. As they pass near her house, Veshenga is only half surprised to see Madame Mvashti calmly waiting at the edge of the road in a dressing gown, holding out the ranger’s new magic bow. She grabs it as they race past, thanking the old Varisian seer. In moments, Haggor skids to a stop in an alley overlooking the water, right next to the brewery. He sets the girls down and waits for them to move quietly into position: Veshenga slips into a nearby doorway while Taeva moves like little more than a shadow into the midst of the two giants who are laughing and drinking from two open casks of beer. One giant is decapitated in less than a second by the grinning, beer-soaked gnome hiding in his drinking cask. The other has only a moment to appreciate his friend’s death before he notices the fiery, holy light from a nearby doorway: it will be the last sight he sees before a barrage of searing arrows blast through his chest.

Balekh can barely make out the fall of the giants across the way, and sets Shayliss down, hoping that it’s time to wrap up. Instead, he notices a glow to the south that was not present before; the others notice it, too. One of the mansions on the southern spur of the town is alight; Balekh thinks it seems to be coming from the Scarnettis’ house, so shrugs and grabs Shayliss again, mostly to put out the fire before it spreads. The trio begins the longer route of taking the bridge while Balekh drifts out above the harbor.

With their preternatural speed exhausted, it takes it takes a bit longer to make the journey than it took to cross the entire town, and as they race up the hill to the noble neighborhood, Haggor, Veshenga, and Taeva are met by a trio of giants, swarming into view at the edge of darkvision, dragging an immense wagon of spoils behind them. With the inertia of the previous few minutes of carnage behind them, the escaping thieves are barely a speedbump. Before Balekh has even made it across the harbor, he sees that the situation is in hand and moves to have Shayliss use her magic to put out the fires of the mansion. Veshenga stabilizes a single giant to question later, and, hearing no more sounds of battle or giants, the three lean wearily against the giant-sized cart and relax.

As Taeva lounges atop a pile of Scarnetti tapestries and rugs, she notices that a very nicely-crafted desk shares the cart. With a practiced eye, and an unhurried nosiness, she very quickly discovers a hidden compartment and opens it. Inside, she finds letters addressed to Jameson Scarnetti, the young patriarch of the family, implicating him in a series of terrible deeds. If the letters are to be believed, most of the threats they dealt with during their vacation in Sandpoint were the result of a Scarnetti bid to replace Kendra Deverin as mayor: poisoning the Valdemars chief among them, but not discounting culpability in introducing the town’s businesses to the trick locks Taeva found months previous as a payment to the Sczarni that made the wyvern-venom candles possible.

Once the Sheriff has gotten the town reduced from sheer panic to organized fear, he visits the heroes, thanking them for yet another save and finding out what exactly just happened. They show him the letter as something he’d be interested in, and hand over the unconscious giant to be guarded for the rest of the night.

Late the next morning, they rouse the captive and start the interrogation with Shayliss’ mental sorcery, ensuring the villain will answer every question. What they find is troubling: a great giant wizard named Mokmurian has organized the tribes of giants atop the plateau from a fortress called Jorgenfist, and soon plans to wage war against the entirety of Varisia. Wielding Thassilonian secrets, possibly a remnant of Thassilon himself, the giant elder has fed the greed of each of his subjects and they wear the Sihedron rune as his mark. This was just a scouting raid, probably looking for some Thassilonian secret in the Old Light, and hundreds more giants can soon move backed by potent magics. If the party’s suspicions about the meaning of the rune are correct, even defeating the oncoming giant horde will be dangerous, due to the greedy souls being fed to the dark eminence behind the recent woes.

They begin to assemble their things for an immediate trip to the Storval Plateau, hoping that they have not delayed too long to take out this giant uprising in a way that doesn’t spell doom for Golarion.

The Technocracy as Failed Heroes


This report was prepared for the executive committee and summarizes the current state of our organization.


The Dream: We hoped to create a better humanity, propagating cures for disease and better health and longevity for all, deliverable in commodity form. Our vision was of mankind, free from illness, standing tall against death, feasting upon abundant crops.

The Reality: Despite initial success in promoting hygiene and cures for many crippling diseases, the last century has been brutal to our goals. The concept of eugenic improvement to mankind was co-opted and destroyed by a dictator, millions live in starvation, and several terrifying diseases resist mass-market cures. Mankind has developed dozens of new and deadly vices to compensate for all the ills that they were trained to avoid. Lifespans are greatly increased, but much of the span suffers deteriorating health that reduces the net gain in years. Many even resist the very basics of education required to understand our science, favoring, instead, superstitious creation myths.

New World Order

The Dream: We wanted to create a world where every man and woman could meet as equals, and only one’s drive and ambition would be responsible for success. In our vision, the greatest lights of humanity climbed to the pinnacle of their capabilities with no regard for race, gender, creed, or other peculiarities. Disagreements would be solved by words, not wars.

The Reality: Slavery is nearly nonexistent, women are legally the equals of men in much of the world, and war is no longer the first resort of nations. However, hate and prejudice still run rampant. Everywhere, people cling to disagreements based on creed and politics. Grand social experiments like Communism were terribly mismanaged by those left in charge. The two default states are to trust one’s leaders blindly or assume they tell nothing but lies. Whole countries have, if anything, grown less enlightened than they were centuries ago.


The Dream: Capitalism would guide the world where social engineering could not. By the invisible hand of the markets, every individual would grow steadily in wealth while being protected from the greed of others by their own interests. Each worker would be free to claim the value due his or her own talent, and everywhere the quality of life would be driven by the understanding of mutually beneficial trade.

The Reality: The standard of living steadily rises in first world countries, and, even in developing nations, many have wealth to spend on goods far better than those owned by kings of old. But the invisible hand increasingly fails to defend against human greed, and politics and the realities of transport limit the pure ability of workers to seek their highest wage. The recent crisis is merely a tragic symptom of an economy that can be abused in ways never intended.

Iteration X

The Dream: Humanity is meant to develop the tools that would let it subjugate the terrors of the world and drive back the boundaries of ignorance. Each individual would wield items of science to rival the foci of the greatest wizards of old, using them to learn and to build. Owners of these tools would know them as they knew themselves, transcending simple humanity and reaching an inevitable singularity where they became so much more.

The Reality: While seemingly the most wildly successful of the conventions, we have faced increasing apathy from the user base. Few have maintained any kind of capacity to even perform the bare minimum of service of their tools. The entire breadth of human knowledge will soon be available on the Internet, but most of humanity is still disconnected, while most of those that are treat it as a toy. Increasingly complex circuitry faces greater and greater difficulty existing in the world, and Moore’s Law may soon reach a plateau. The singularity is as far away as it ever was.

Void Engineers

The Dream: By rolling back ignorance of the world, we would defeat the great horrors that lurk in the shadows and the void. We would order the cosmos into something that did not need the hands of immortal beings to remain in motion. We would push back the sky until each incarna was revealed to be merely a floating rock or massive ball of fire. Humanity would see that there was hope in the darkness, and there would be nothing to fear in the night.

The Reality: We reached the moon by mortal means and have filled the sky with satellites that watch the ground and allow global communication and travel. But we have not returned to the moon in decades, much less pushed further into the darkness, and even the oceans remain full of darkness. Not far past the orbit of Luna, space remains nothing but a single perception of the vast umbrae, too dangerous for mortal travelers. Mankind simply does not seem to have the will to expand its horizons further.


While it is tempting to blame our woes upon the mystical terrorist network called the Traditions, all evidence points to them being as weakened by the modern malaise as are we. Instead, it may be simply stated that we were too successful: we created a world of order and presented it to mankind on a silver platter. Like so many things, it was taken for granted. And perhaps humanity as a whole was not ready for our grand experiment, still weak to the temptations long inculcated by worship-seeking spirits and power-mad wizard kings. In another few centuries, perhaps we can quietly breed out some of these tendencies towards apathy and contrariness.

But if the walls of the world continue to be tested by the dark things beyond, we may not have centuries. We may require a solution to break humanity of its apathy before it is once again plunged into shadow and our dream shattered back into another dark age. If this threat is true, then it may behoove us to seek aid amongst the least of the evils available to us, and find a way to work with those willworkers that have noble, if obsolete, intentions.