Monday, December 30, 2019

Garm Bays Loudly

I'm happy to announce the release of a new scenario for my old Norse magic trpg: Beyond the Fence, Below the Grave. Garm Bays Loudly focuses on a Norse community on the edge of the arctic as they struggle with winter, Viking age economics, and (as usual) the supernatural.

For the first month, Garm Bays Loudly will be pay what you can. Also, Fall at Old Uppsala will be pay what you can for the next week.

I'm excited to hear what you think of the new scenario!

This post is dedicated to Johan Turi 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Avalon Campaign Post Mortem

Image result for ballad of tamlin

At the request of Fiona Geist, I've taken some time to go over the campaign I've been running recently. This is a good excuse, I think, to talk about what I tried, what worked, and what didn't.
I've alluded to this game before in my last post and my knight table was based on a simpler version I use at the table for random encounters. So this was the pitch: original GLoG rules, British fairy tale/history pastiche setting. So it was founded: The mighty kingdom of Avalon (yes, I know), caught somewhere between Arthurian feudalism and the grasping rise of early modernity. The land is being enclosed, the work houses are going up, but the knight in arms still practices his chivalry.

I started by running Patrick Stuart's Sun Princess mystery and then stapled together other adventurers as we moved forward. My plan was to do as little prep as possible. I gave myself 1 hour a week to get the session ready and I mostly kept to my pledge. My memory is spotty but I promise that I will play the hits, and there are many.

So the heroes sally forth, the pickpocket (thief) Penny, the nanny (barbarian) Svetlana, and the chimney sweep (acrobat) Ishmael to save the Sun Princess' skin. They follow the clues, investigate the suspects (Lord Bluebeard and the Witch of the Black Woods absent at once? What!?), and from the churls on the street learn how to summon the Master Thief. He swindles them but shows them the way to the Goblin Market. The party, keenly, suspect the Princess' monkey is to blame.

At the market, the party solve the goblin riddles and acquire some trinkets at the expense of having to kiss goblins. They make their way to the Auction of Things that Cannot be Sold. They become acquainted with the guests and find their way to a secret chamber, the home of the Millipede King. The King's grubs are being held hostage in the pastoral pocket dimension of the mysterious event organizer, which the party punctures by disguise. Unfortunately, Ishmael is killed by the invisible guard dog. With the grubs safe, the millipedes are free to take the auction house back from the beetles who have captured it. Ishmael is luckily replaced by a chimney sweep named Queeqag (yes, I know). A scuffle ensues for the Princesses' skin as it goes up for auction and the millipede soldiers storm in. The Grand Vizier is killed by the Dry Necromancer, who is killed by the Executioner. Svetlana is captured in Queen Mab's amber bead as she rages, Queeqag is turned into a pig by the Witch of the Blackwoods as the party flees with the skin.

The campaign begins in earnest, and what a start! There are lots of threads to pull on. A angry Bluebeard, a loose Executioner, a party member imprisoned!

We abandon the original GLoG classes. So the next party members are Nicolai the Spider Boy (son of Svetlana) and some kind of odd cleric. With the Sun Princess' gratitude, they head to the Night School of Lord Stodore (from the Demon Collective) to save an estranged friend. After sneaking in and breaking out of the Night School several times, getting captured and escaping, the party finds the enclave of children hiding in the library and is able to organize a revolt against the teachers. Something like 1/3 of the children die, including the cleric, but the result is freedom. The hulking, monstrous Registrar is left alone in the abandoned school with one book, chosen by the party: The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (oh no). We also rule that saving 1 child's life is worth 100 xp. The child whom they were after has a wealthy uncle who awards the party with a fine dueling cane.

The latest party member is a former student from the night school and literally a giant spider. The party goes off in search of a new hermit for King Gloom's garden. The old one lost his mind and fled. Through some investigating, the party discovers that the hermit had discovered the workings of the Gardens of Ynn (which needs no introduction) and that someone who matches the description of the Executioner was spotted on the castle grounds. They recover a tooth that can bite anything from the Garden and make their way to Tintern Abbey's ruins, where they stand a good chance of finding a new beggar to promote to official garden hermit. They experience a quadruple success: the former hermit, the Executioner, a new hermit, and the romantic poet William Wordsworth are all at the abbey. William tries to explain the power of nature to renovate the human mind and the devastating effect of the enclosure movement. The party decides they could use an adviser. All of them, minus the old, mutated hermit make their way back to the castle.

Image result for al annuri

Immediately, the Executioner is thrown into the dungeon at the request Al Annuri, ally to King Gloom in his war against the Spanish, for being an Abbasid spy. The party then heads north to assist the Laird o' Roxburgh in his hunt of Puck, servant of Queen Mab. Through this business they intend to discover the fate of Svetlana. They are thrown from their course when they encounter the Knight Tamlin on the road. He shares his tale of woe with them. Tamlin was kidnapped by Mab years ago and he can only be free if his true love, Janet, who carries his child, grabs him from his saddle on the night that he is to be sacrificed to the Devil as Mab's tithe to the kingdom of hell. The Laird o' Murray is Janet's father and just after the party shows up so to does Lord Bluebeard to seek Janet's hand in marriage.

As they plan for the eventful night, the party gets distracted by a haunting. The ghost of the Witch Agatha, sister of the Witch of the Black Woods, has been hunting children in Murray. Simply put, they decide to fight the ghost. They manage to drive off the spirit temporarily, but the spider-child (not the Spider Boy!) is killed and Penny develops several new organs. Luckily, a local book witch is able to join the party's quest. The next day, the party go to raid the witch's old cottage. They sneak around the cottage, steal valuables, and encounter Agatha's roommate: a young fiddler who is really the Devil. After gathering a posse in town, the party returns to the cottage to burn it to the ground. Some trapped children may have been killed but the party is able find the rest of the witch's money and smash the enchanted lantern which kept her spirit in this world. Casually, the Devil challenges the party to a fiddling/story telling contest. By revealing the Devil's true identity in the middle of the performance, the party turns the audience against the performer and win the contest.

Now, the party can return to the task at hand. They dress Janet in all the armor they can find: oven mits, heavy robes, pillows lashed to her. Tamlin has given them permission to enter the autumnal realm of Queen Mab: Carterhaugh. All but Penny enter, for she is known by name to Mab. They view the procession of Eldritch Knights and all the Lord and Ladies of Carterhuagh. There is Tamlin on the white steed! Janet, awkwardly armored, pulls him down. Mab, with a squeal of  displeasure, bays her court not lay a finger on her enemies. She instead calls upon her champion: none other than Svetlana (gasps from the table!). As Mab works her magic, turning Tamlin into dreadful animal shapes to make Janet drop him, Nicolai tries to reason with his mother and stop her from killing him. The party buys time, Janet keeps her hold of her love, Svetlana's old self flickers in her eyes. But once the curse on Tamlin is broken, Mab needs another tithe to hell! So she grabs Svetlana as she rides on her charger towards a gaping, blazing barrow mound. The party snatches Svetlana back and feeds her a rose which once belonged to Tamlin, which frees her of her own spell. But the tithe is still not paid! Someone says: "I give her William Wordsworth!" Indeed, she accepts. Betrayed, William cries out: "Oh will I never gaze upon the sylvan wye, never lay my eyes upon the face of Coleridge, my dear dear friend?" It is of no use! Mab throws him down, down, down into the pit.

Fin. Janet and Tamlin have fled but the rest of the party, now including Svetlana (kitted out with Elf  magic), are still in Carterhaugh. Now, there are different rules in this place. They are simple. To enter you need permission and to leave you need permission. Only the courtiers of Mab, who the party saw in the procession, can grant leave. Mab herself, King Oberon, the King of Birds, the Lord of Gnomes, the Laird o' Goblinkind, Morgan la Fey, and the Alder King all have this right. But Morgan is a witch and a witch is in the party, so they seek her. They discover that in Carterhaugh they do not have hit points, rather their sense of self decreases when they are hurt or when they go a day without eating food from their own world. After days of marching and tangling with fey nonsense they find Morgan's cottage. She is old and regretful that she has left witchery in such a poor state. She will free the party if they check in on her apprentices to make sure they have not turned to wickedness. Cat Leon, the book witch, pretends to be organizing a witch union to gain the trust of the other witches. They meet both the Alder King, who wants the party to dance with his daughters, and the Lord of Gnomes, who's geode heart was stolen by Mab.

I'll level with you. Most of what was in Carterhuagh was based directly on Over the Garden Wall. Morgan's two apprentices are Adelaide of the Pasture and Auntie Whispers. The party determined that, because she stabbed Cat Leon in the brain with a knitting needle, Adelaide was probably wicked. Whispers was a tougher nut for the party to crack. While staking out her cottage, they realized that their senses of self  were awfully low. They had only one source of food. It was pork. Yes, Queeqag. With heavy hearts they butchered the former human being. They snuck into the cottage and determined that Whispers was not yet wicked. Though there was a veritable mausoleum under her estate and she seemed to be keeping a child slave, it was all with good intentions. Happily, the party returned to Morgan and gained her blessing. They saw Mab one final time as they crossed the border again. They found time had passed them by, Penny was no where to be found! Months? Years? Days? I hope they'll find out soon.

Ah, and there the story closes. If I've learned two things from this it's that meaningless character deaths suck, that adding historical figures to games is good, and thirdly 1 hour is enough time to prep a good session. Let's go over those. When characters died in my campaign, it was often due to 'bad play' (for instance, just going to fight a ghost without any preparation). But these deaths didn't have any weight, they just felt empty. Secondly, using parts of real history or literature helped my players understand more quickly what was going on in the world. Queen Mab is instantly recognizable like 'vampire' is. Players automatically have an idea of what to expect. Finally, I've got much better at prep just from relying more on pre-published material and forcing myself into a time limit.

Image result for william wordsworth

Who else could this post be dedicated to but William Wordsworth?

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Revisiting the Original GLoG

Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth by Erol Otus

For the last few months, I’ve been running GLoG. Not rat on a stick edition or Mimics and Miscreants, but the original Goblin Laws of Gaming published in the halcyon days of 2016. Since then a tremendous number of GLoG hacks have been written and each has decided to carry forward or abandon elements from Arnold K’s original ruleset. For me it’s been valuable to experience the original rules first hand and see how my players, all new to the OSR, reacted to them. I hope to share what I’ve noticed and bring some less copied parts of the rules into the light of the GLoG-osphere again.

The Numbers

GLoG’s stat generation and its use of stealth and movement stats are used to make the game riskier in specific ways. Rolling 4d4, instead of 3d6, to generate stats lowers the maximum stat one can roll to 16, raises the minimum to 4, and makes it more likely for any stat to be roughly 10. This is a break from tradition but it works well with the roll under rules. Characters with an 18 strength have a slim chance of ever failing a strength roll made on a d20. But characters with 16 strength are still strong but doubly likely to miss their target number. The new equation for deriving stat bonuses has a similar effect, but the calculation is so fiddly that I’d much rather have a table with the values of each stat.

Stealth and movement are also not usually carried into GLoG hacks. They seem a bit redundant, many GMs would much rather have players roll dex. But GLoG wants most characters to be equally good at running away and for the odds of escape to be likely, so the base movement is 12. The same is true of stealth, but the system would prefer players to run instead of hiding, so the base stealth is 9.
Rolling the dice in GLoG is always risky to encourage players to avoid doing so. But the system’s numbers want to make certain actions riskier than others. Making ability rolls should always carry significant risk of failure, but fleeing should naturally be a little more likely to result in success.


I feel like convictions are a good idea but not a great tool. The way Arnold intends them to be used in the original rules makes sense. He wants to encourage more risk taking and role playing, but the application of the rule feels very narrow. Players, in my experience, won’t go very far out of their way to take risks and the conviction system doesn’t do much to help that. The design feels very carrot and stick, it tries to manipulate player psychology without adding much to play. I think I’d like convictions more if there was a table of them so at least players always started with a sense of what motivated their character from the get-go.

In play, I’ve found that convictions are more interesting if they’re used more like inspiration from 5e. If the parameters of what counts as acting to your conviction is broader then players are more interested in looking for opportunities to earn their conviction point. Personally, I like the idea of inspiration being tied more strongly to a particular character motivation instead of being nebulously awarded for good role playing. I, however, see how this approach doesn’t work for every GM’s style.

Illithid, Erol Otus, 1980


The skill system is another clever idea but a poor tool to use at the table. The 2d12 skill rolls and skill progression are interesting but they don’t get a lot of attention in play. The amount of complexity they introduce feels unwarranted.  I’m also not sure about what sort of things skills should cover. The vagueness is freeing, yes, but the guidelines in the rules only tell me what skills should not be, not what they should be. A lot of refereeing for GLoG comes down to enforcing the philosophy behind the rules but there’s almost nothing to go off of here. As a GM, the skill guidelines empower me to say ‘no’ but not ‘yes’ to player suggestions.


GLoG class design has changed drastically from the original Goblin Guts classes. In my experience, the original classes are a mixed bag. I love the barbarian, whose powers are all unique and uniquely useful, but the acrobat gets a hodgepodge of situational advantages which are nowhere near as interesting. Perhaps it was just my players, but nobody seemed particularly enthusiastic to play any of the original classes. The ingenuity of players is supposed to be more important than the power of their characters and so the classes take a back seat, seem less appealing. I’m perfectly ok with this, but I feel like the classes could use more energy, more interesting tools to use from 1st level. In my game, we started choosing classes randomly from the complete table of GLoG classes, which improved the game noticeably.

The stacking template bonuses are also an interesting feature which has become less popular. Original GLoG characters are supposed to get numerically better in many ways as they level up, their save rises, their attack rises, and another number on their character sheet usually increases as well. There’s a general consensus, I feel, that a broader toolbox is a better reward for leveling up than numerical increases but I feel there’s a good balance to be struck in the middle.

From all this, I think I understand much better why certain parts of the original GLoG rules have not been widely adopted by hacks. Maybe there’s a campaign out there where the original rules all make perfect sense - a game with plenty of temptations for convictions and high risk dungeon crawling – but it is not the game I run. Still, there are parts of the original rules which remain valuable or interesting and have not been translated into hacks.

This post is dedicated to Sam Vimes

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Knights of the d50 Table

I am Sir Launcelot du Lake, King Ban's son of Benwick, N. C. Wyeth, 1922

Arms and Amores! The two hearts of Chivalry, the code of the chevalier. The knight with a right hand raised to do good, a soul bemoaning the wounds of Christ and delighting in the joys of Mary! Passionate for the pontiff, loyal at the side of his liege, conquering while on campaign, most faithful to his fair maiden! But no body can fit two hearts. Lust overflows the limits of Christianity. The bloodrush of violence makes courtliness shrink in fear. To kiss and to kill. To be like an animal on the hunt and a saint in a fine lady's chamber. The knight contorts in the confusion, being pulled in each direction, only held together by the knot of the virtue that binds him.

Don't pity the horseman. His literature paints him too well. He's a marauder, a politician, a lord of land. He brings entrails to his mouth with his left hand. Just the word of him, the lais and prose, is a poison that felled Paolo and Francesca. A high-class thug half-saved by a faith half-sincere.

And a word for the faris, a southern equal to the northerly knight. He knows no French so his code is adab, the courtly refinement of a foreign land. His way is older but just bold as the upstart virtue of the Christian kind. Like cavalier he kills, like courtier he spies, engages in intrigue, and lies. No less an angel, no less a foe, he and the knight go toe to toe.

Galahad Discovers the Grail, Edwin Austin Abbey, 1895

50 Chevaliers
Call a known rider from the list below, or bring a composite knight into existence.

1. Sir Gawain: A brilliant shield, Pentangle emblazoned. Armor as shiny as virtue.
Seeks: The Green Chapel, where he is to be decapitated, but he seems lost…
Wields: A green girdle that prevents dismemberment.
2. Sir Patrick Spens: Dripping wet, drowned. Admirably dressed as admiralty.
 Seeks: Revenge on the king who ordered him out to sea in the season of storms.
Wields: Ghost sailor boy, climbs high in the sky to survey the land, sees bad weather and omens.
3. The Bacheler: Despondent, desperate, disheveled. He’s out of his depth.
 Seeks: The answer to a question: What do women most desire?
Wields: A letter of high authority ordering execution, no victim’s name yet written.
4. The Knight with the Rowan Shield: Deeply wounded, rides with hawk and hound at heel.
Seeks: The lake of the witch who can clean and heal his wound.
Wields: A golden rod. When immersed in a river or lake, it summons the water spirits.
5. Herr Olof: Courtly garments, a beautiful saddle. Dripping and drowned from the mermaid’s lair. Seeks: His wedding. He got lost on the way there. Has it really been so long?
Wields: A fine goblet, a gift from a maiden. Drinking from it makes you forget yourself.
6. Herr Holger: Wealthy, thin, ghoulish in aspect. His head has been stitched back on.
 Seeks: To warn mortals of the torments of hell, to make thieves and tax collectors repent.
Wields: A sack of gold coins from hell’s coffers. Each can pay a devil to do an evil deed.
7. Sir Tamlin: Misty in figure, too human to be fairy. Yearns to return to our world.
Seeks: To keep trespassers from the fey places, to punish them if they do pass.
Wields: A pure rose, eating it will purge the body of all curses, illness, pregnancies.
 8. Redcrosse Knight: Heavily armed, the crimson cross on his breast. A dragon killer.
Seeks: The castle of Arthur, where his wedding will be held.
Wields: His wife-to-be, the maiden matchless in virtue, Una.
9. Sir Bedivere: Beyond distraught, weeping as he rides. He is lost without his liege. One handed. Seeks: The lake where he might let go the royal blade and fulfil his king’s last wish
Wields: Excalibur, the mighty brand of Arthur.
10. The Green Knight: Entirely Emerald Green from forehead to foot. Carries a heavy axe.
Seeks: To challenge the virtue of proud nobility by beating them in a beheading contest.
Wields: His own head. If deprived of it, he’d do a lot to get it back.
11. Sir Guiomar: Prefers talking to fighting, struggles with his lust.
Seeks: To protect a newborn child delivered to his care. It may have a great destiny.
Wields: A token of love from a fairy most high.
12. Sir Britomart: A lady-knight of perfect chastity. Fair and courteous and a lover of jousts.
Seeks: Her destiny, a man worthy of her hand in marriage.
Wields: An enchanted promise ring. The wearer must keep the bond their swear on it.
13. Sir Bors the Younger: A scar on his forehead marks him. Takes his chastity most seriously.
Seeks: The way home. He has fulfilled his quest and lived.
Wields: A communion wafer, consecrated at the mass of the holy Grail.
14. Sir Brunor: An upstart, his coat covered in ghastly gore. Very used to being laughed at.
Seeks: Revenge for his father’s death.
Wields: A heart shaped stone. Beats violently when a murderer is near.
15. Sir Satyrane: Strangely chivalrous for a hairy, lusty satyr. Prone to wildness.
Seeks: An instructor, preferably a fair maiden, to teach him better chivalry
Wields: The girdle of a notable lady, how did he get that?
16. Sir Marinell: A watery, slippery, amphibian fellow. Fears women because one is fated to kill him.
Seeks: He’s trying to drown himself, a wizard has convinced him to, but it doesn’t work.
Wields: A string of sea-pearls. Each can be turned into a large, rubbery, floating bubble.
17. Sir Artegall: A sore loser, a great champion. Dressed in the armor Achilles wore, how old school. Seeks: To resolve conflicts between arguing parties fairly and justly.
Wields: A blade that can cut through any material.
18. Sir Pelleas: A stammering, pathetic young knight. Gentle and undeceiving.
Seeks: Solace from his grief, his one true love has slept with another knight.
Wields: A beautiful gold arm ring. It is worth a lot. How hard would it be to take?
19. Sir Sagramore: Hot tempered and good. Prone to fits.
Seeks: To find a quest worthy of his knighthood, to prove himself.
Wields: A deed to land in a faraway kingdom.
20. Sir Galehaut: Gigantic heritage. Appears fierce at first but hides a most honorable soul.
Seeks: To rescue his dearest friend, captured nearby.
Wields: A turbid, passionate letter of love to an unnamed beloved.
 21. Sir Dinadan: An extrovert of cynical humor. He smiles, he cajoles, he coaxes.
Seeks: A bard who is willing to play an insulting ballad in the king’s court.
Wields: A most slanderous tract, a fantastic insult written on parchment.
22. Sir Perceval: Ignorant of the world, he wants to fit in, he wants to do his best.
Seeks: The unicorn. He doesn’t know if he should kill it.
Wields: A witch’s token of affection. If people turn jealous of the wielder, they become frogs.
23. Sir Kay: A mocking, opportunistic, mean knight. He doesn’t realize the harm he does.
Seeks: A tournament worthy of his knightly prowess.
Wields: A sharp squire, the best one could hope for. Loyal and clever and perfect in measure.
 24. Sir Lionel: A vengeful character, eager to resent. He’s constantly preening his mustache.
 Seeks: A huge wild boar which killed the family of a noble lady.
 Wields: A fine hunting hound, with a top-notch sense of smell and greater speed.
25. Sir Turquine: Obviously villainous, roughish, uncourtly and cruel.
Seeks: To delight his appetite for torture, to cause pain in others and pleasure in himself.
Wields: A whip of brairs. Does little damage but strings like no tomorrow.

8 Stages of the Chansom de Roland, Simon Marmion, 15th century

26. Sir Daniel: Determined beyond sense, unable to surrender.
Seeks: An enemy king, with an inventible army of giants and mechanical horrors, to slay.
Wields: An enchanted net that can be thrown far, a magic sword, a camel.
27. Sir Moriaen: A dark skinned knight in Moorish attire. Dispossessed, needing allies.
Seeks: To be reunited with his father and reclaim his mother’s lands.
Wields: A round shield, perfectly black. It absorbs light like nothing else.
28. Sir Palamedes: Not a knight but a faris, converted and comedic.
Seeks: A way to his homeland, to visit his family.
Wields: A finest raiment of foreign fashion, a trained singing bird that can talk like a child.
29. Sir Tor: Born as shepherd, revealed to have courtly blood. No manners but a good heart.
Seeks: A strange dog, a hound mysteriously, purely white.
Wields: A fine shepherd’s crook, it won’t let go what it latches.
 30. Sir Calogrenant: Eloquent beyond measure, courtly as ever.
Seeks: To escape a rogue knight, who is chasing him down.
Wields: A bladder of water from an enchanted spring, pouring it out will summon a rainstorm.
31. Sir Roland: A haughty paladin. His head is very clearly exploded. Yet he continues on.
Seeks: The gate of heaven, which he so rightly deserves to enter.
Wields: A frightfully loud war horn. Its sound resounds across plains and valleys.
32. Sir Oliver: A calculating, wise paladin. How surprising.
Seeks: A true emperor who can unite the world.
Wields: A holy of holies, a relic most dear. Should he keep it for himself or return it?
33. Sir Fierabras: A gigantic faris. He seems imposing but weak willed, easily convinced.
Seeks: Temples to wreck, clergy to kill, reliquaries to pillage.
Wields: A huge riding horse. It could carry 4 riders in heavy arms, tons of baggage.
34. The Fause Knight: Armor forehead to foot, the Devil riding is dis-guise.
Seeks: To web fools in words. Turn your back and you’re done for. Stand and answer to survive. Wields: A satanic fiddle. Its sound drive mortals to mad dancing.
35. Sir Hoel: Virtuous and far seeing, a saint in the making.
Seeks: A cure to the poison coursing through his veins, a bane to his bane.
Wields: A bottle of fine wine that never empties.
36. Sir Launfal: A generous, jolly knight. He loves to host and adores a good boast.
Seeks: A new court to call home. He’s lost favor, been ejected, from his old castle.
Wields: An invisible butler. It serves its master perfectly but cannot commit violence.
37. Sir Astolfo: An experienced knight wielding sorcerous powers. A bit wooden due to a curse. Seeks: A chariot that can carry him to the moon, where the wits of his comrade are hidden
Wields: A magic lance which throws opponents with the slightest touch.
38. Sir Ruggiero: A conflicted soul, torn between two faiths, between two bloods in his veins.
Seeks: An oracle who will tell him his destiny. Surely he will find two conflicting fates.
Wields: A mighty hippogriff from far off lands.
39. Sir Lancelot: Handsome, high status, high stature, a heroic kind. A love like no other lurks inside. Seeks: A shoulder to cry on, he was tricked into sleeping with a maid who is not his true love. Wields: A stone from a holy grave, it repels the undead and devils from the holder.
40. Sir Ganelon: His pride leads easily to treachery, his worst crimes are committed already.
Seeks: To find a place to hide, to lay low for a time or forever, whichever comes first.
Wields: Thirty pieces of silver, which the devil can smell, track perfectly.
41. Sir Renaud: Haphazard and foolish. Beloved by his brothers, unfortunately separated.
Seeks: To avoid punishment for a murder he accidentally committed.
Wields: The last dregs of a love potion soaked into his kerchief, dripping til tis drunk.
42. Sir Galahad: Most perfect, most pure, as if a halo surrounds him. He fights, he wins, he spares. Seeks: The Holy Grail.
Wields: Nothing but what chivalry demands.
43. Sir Dagonet: A hilarious jester but an unrepentant coward. He’s a buffoon but he’s kept around. Seeks: To convince someone that he’s prevailed in a fight, he’s even battered his own shield.
Wields: A magic sword. It’s not actually magic, someone was just humoring this knight.
44. Sir Pellinore: An aged old man who rambles easily. Strokes his beard and gazes off into space. Seeks: The Questing Beast, which he is destined to chase but never catch.
Wields: A sword that will break any blade it crosses it with.
45. Sir Erec: He’s getting older, the hair turning grey. Yearns for domestic life, the little things.
Seeks: To court the maid he has fallen for, however he is neglecting an important quest.
Wields: A sack of infinite silver coins. If he tells of the sack’s magic, it will cease to work.
46. Herr Karl: A clever young man, he yearns badly to get his way.
Seeks: To free his true love from a covenant, he plans to fake his own death.
Wields: A most elegant burial shroud, a tray of fine funeral meats.
47. Sir Aldingar: A cagey character, histories of mistakes trial behind.
 Seeks: A cure for the leprosy which has afflicted him as punishment for his sins.
Wields: A curative ointment, it eases pain incredibly but does nothing more.
48. Sir Cawline: Proud but he can back it up, boasts but he can prove it.
Seeks: To slay the Elven King, a deed to win his lady’s love.
Wields: A giant’s thigh bone, an unbreakable beater, a bludgeon bar-none.
49. Herr Peder: An expert evader, honest to none. He looks disheveled, unraveled.
Seeks: A soul to confess his sins to. He has done disgusting things, but can he admit it?
Wields: A charter from the highest authority, to force any captain to make any journey.
50. Sir Gornemant: He’s seen many a squire grow to a good knight, hopeful at heart.
Seeks: A squire with potential to tutor in proper chivalry.
Wields: Almace, a time-honored blade. Totally mundane, but its name is feared.

This table would not have been possible without the code written by Betty of Paper Elemental

The Arming and Departure of the Knights, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and John Henry Dearle,  19th cent

Further Reading
Though all the figures on this list are drawn from real traditions of poetry, prose, and balladry I have not been completely faithful to my sources. This is some of the fun of the chivalric romance. All the authors writing in the genre love to tweak it and remold it. Familiar characters emerge, evolve, and merge. These are my knights, but consider reading the works below to learn what deviations I've made.

The works of Thomas Malory
Gawain and the Green Knight (this is the best chivalric poem, read it.)
Orlando Innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo
Orlando Furioso
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer
The works of Chrétien de Troyes
The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
Chanson de Roland
Don Quixote by Cervantes
The Child Ballads (particularly 3, 39, 58, and 61)
Swedish Ballads (particularly Herr Holger, Herr Olof, Herr Karl, and Herr Peder)

This post is dedicated to the Pearl Poet

Monday, October 7, 2019

Adulterated Lineages of the Primordial Flesh

Breeding Pit, Anson Maddocks, 1994

The moon shone that night, its disk complete, like polished horn or dulled ivory. There Marwan stood. He was one of the pale people, tall and gaunt, and so the fullmoon rays shone through him, revealing the contours of his bones, the colour of his liver and kidneys. But more was unveiled. The new lobes bulged, beating as hearts in the old flesh of Marwan. From them flowed ichors, hormones, and types of cells found in no being born from a womb. These too were made brilliant in the silver light. The bodies shuddered, they convulsed. They squirmed with their strength and lent it to their host.

Marwan leaped from roof to roof like a cat. His pursuers tried to follow suit, making fools of themselves in the process. He turned to laugh at his enemies fumbling over themselves. Seeing Marwan pause, Yasmin raised her arms to cast a harmless light charm. Marwan felt a sudden tightening of all the muscles in his body. His implanted organs failed for a second. He lost his balance. His feet slipped from the lip of a roof. His skull cracked open when he struck the earth.

The Anatomy of the eye according to Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, from 13th century manuscript

A History
From the Primordial Flesh, from some unknown source in antiquity, came Exquisite Organs and surgeons who know how to bind them in new flesh. They kept the old flesh too, they preserved it, they cherished it. But the mind is eager to tinker, even with perfection. The flesh was mingled with geomancy and devilry and alchemy and necromancy and the blood of rulers. 

Make Me One With Unclean Meat
The new lineages are much blunter, cleverer tools. The organs are distinctive, active. They will slip into any gaping wound and integrate themselves, no surgeon required. They are eccentric, each lineage blessed and cursed with a particular side effect. How they reproduce is largely mysterious but they can be found in just about the same situations as normal Exquisite Organs. 

Organ Spells:  Found in dubious medical treatises and scrolls of made of skin

Birth Organ, R: 15ft  T: A Living Body D: Permanent 
You cause an organ of a random adulterated lineage to be born in a body. The target may attempt a Con save to stop the birth. Normally, the organs produced by this spell provide no stat bonuses but if you expend 500GP in alchemical regeants and sacrifice an animal while casting the spell, the organ provides +1d6 to a random ability score. 

Emergency Transplant, R: Touch T: 2 Organs in Bodies D: Permanent 
You touch 2 bodies and select 2 organs within them. The organs flow through you, swapping hosts. Each target body may make a Con save to resist this effect. 

20 Corrupt Lineages
All organs give a permanent bonus to a stat, usually +2 or greater

1. Strength - Increased Muscle Mass, Tertiary Lung, Increased Adrenaline
2. Dexterity - Improved Neural Sheathing, Faster Metabolism, Improved Fine Motor Skills
3. Constitution - Secondary Liver, Secondary Heart, Increased Bone Mass
4. Intelligence - Secondary Hippocampus, Increased Neural Density (not always in the brain)
5. Wisdom - Improved Vision, Increased Neural Plasticity
6. Charisma - Pheromone Glands, Improved Social Awareness

1. Lineage of the Esoteric Tongue
Organs of this lineage are incredibly light, almost weightless, and a light blue or turquoise color.
Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, you develop an allergy to magic. You get an itch when in the presence of magical places or beings. Whenever a spell is cast within 60ft of you, you undergo a spasm and drop what you're holding. You cannot wield or wear magical equipment, you burst out in hives if you try.

2.  Linage of the Midnight Lodge
Organs of this lineage are dark in color, produce a pitch black oily substance, and are prone to failure. If you roll a 1 on a check or save associated with the organ, it fails completely, you lose the stat bonus the organs provides and you will go into septic shock and die in 1d10 days if the organ is not removed. The defective organ can be made into a potent poison by a chemist.

3. Lineage of the Blood of the Warping Wood
Organs of this lineage look a fetus gestated in a tree stump, they have sightless eyes wound with thin roots, little arms with woody talons. Once implanted with an organ of this linage, you develop a terrible bloodlust. When you see and smell fresh blood, you are driven into a frenzy like a barbarian's rage. The rage can only be ended if you ingest a pound of blood and flesh.

4. Lineage of the Chthonic Star
Organs of this lineage are bulbous and rubbery, like big water balloons full of slushy ice, and highly bioluminescent. When you are in darkness, the organ glows a pale red in your body. Without taking major measures to hide your luminescence, you cannot hide in darkness.

6. Lineage of the Archon's Sons
Organs of this lineage are a dull yellow color and produce fluids that look like mercury but are sour to the tongue. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage you lose the ability to lie, directly and indirectly. You cannot lie by omission or even refuse to answers questions directed at you.

7. Lineage of the Limestone Shaws
Organs of this lineage are always warm and have cracks in them like a heated coal. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage your body temperature rises greatly as if you have a bad fever. If you overheat any further, perhaps because of being in a hot climate or wearing heavy clothing in sunny weather, you will fall unconscious from heat stroke.

8. Lineage of the Hive Lords
Organs of this lineage look like bits of white chewing gum, all chewed up and spat out. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, all your pores begin to produce a sticky mucus. It takes double the amount of time for you to remove equipped armor or drop held items.

9. Lineage of the Tide Walker
Organs of this lineage have a tough exterior that looks like mother of pearl. Interfacing tubes poke through cracks in the shell. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, you become slightly amphibian. If you don't keep your skin moist you begin to wither. You constitution score lowers by 1 for each day you go without moistening, you die when it reaches 0.

10. Lineage of the Grey-Bearded Emperors
Organs of this lineage are slightly hairy, sometimes fine as dander or bristly as a bear. Organs of this lineage have latent personalities trapped inside them, such as a (1. Bigoted Senator 2.  Blustering Sophist 3. Brilliant Sycophant 4. Beautiful Courtesan 5. Bold Tactician 6. Bespoken Politician 7. Bashful Priest 8. Beneficent Governor). The personality is confused, a pagan, and used to being extremely privileged. The personality has a 1 in 8 chance of asserting itself over yours when you wake from sleep or any other unconsciousness. Increase this chance to 6 in 8 if you are under the effect of mind altering drugs.

Organic Landscape 3, Igor Vitkovskiy, (Source)

11. Linage of the Eternal Academy of the Love of Understanding
Organs of this lineage are pocked like meteors and porous as a sponge. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, your body begins to slowly turn to marble. You will be completely immobilized in 2d6 months. You get +4 to your AC and you speed is divided in half when your are halfway to being fully frozen. Basilisk stomach acid is one of the compounds which can reverse this effect.

12. Lineage of the Divided King
Organs of this lineage are desiccated, deposits of salt and calcium cling to them. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, you begin to mummify. After 1d4 weeks you will be technically dead but cling to unholy life until you are destroyed or the organ is removed. In this state, you are vulnerable to water. For every round you are in contact with water, you take 1d8 damage.

13. Lineage of the Twisting Hermit
Organs of this lineage look like crushed beer cans but darker, more muscled. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, your limbs become incredibly easy to slice. Whenever you are hit by a slicing attack, there is a 1 in 8 chance that one of your limbs will be severed from your body.

14. Lineage of the Sun Horned Bull
Organs of this lineage are a rich orange, like a brilliant egg yolk, and almost perfectly, uncomfortably, round. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, you must wake and sleep with the sun. When the sun sets you fall to sleep and when it rises you awake.

15. Lineage of the Unfortunate Weaver
Organs of this lineage are dark purple, web-like threads hang from them. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, you become a locus for evil, as if tied to it by invisible threads. The Undead, devils, demons, and all other abominations and ne'er do wells can detect your presence up to 6 miles away. They will be drawn to you.

16. Lineage of the Angelic Viscera
Organs of this lineage sprout thorn-like spikes, make a dull moaning sound, and have a sense of moral duty. If an organ of this lineage is in the presence of a subject who acts more righteously than its current host, it will bust from the host's body and implant itself in the new subject.

17. Lineage of the Reborn Garden of Paradise
Organs of this lineage have a pair of small wings sprouting from them, always flashy with gorgeous feathers. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, your body begins to weight much less. Strong gusts of wind will lift you off your feet unless you are weighted down.

18. Lineage of the Triumphant Temple
Organs of this lineage are slightly architectural. Cartilage structures like roofs, columns. Arteries like elaborate doorways. They also smell like incense. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, you become the seed of a dungeon. Whenever you level up, you have a level in 20 chance of running off into the wilderness and assuming the fetal position. You sink into the earth, you expand, you deepen, monsters are drawn to you. Once the process is fully completed you are a dungeon with a number of floors equal to your level. The hazards and creatures have personalities similar to yours. Your own treasure and items and more can be retrieved from within.

19. Lineage of the Barren Legion
Organs of this lineage have a metallic smell. They are covered in lesions the shape of a shield boss.
Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, you cannot help but stand at attention when you hear trumpets, drums, or any other bombastic martial instruments being played.

20. Lineage of the Tyrant's Banquet
Organs of this lineage are covered with little lips, closed tight. From a few of them beaks poke out. Once implanted with an organ of this lineage, you develop strange cravings. Each week you crave (1. Fine Olive Oil 2. Caviar 3. Mollusks 4. Honey 5. Quail Eggs 6. Spiced Dates 7. Oranges 8. Sheep Eyes 9. Crow Guts 10. Octopus). If you cannot satisfy your craving within the week, the organ dies. You lose the stat bonus the organs provides and you will go into septic shock and die in 1d10 days if the organ is not removed.

This post is dedicated to Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, the falasuf and physician

Monday, September 30, 2019

12 Marvels of Science

Illustration from a transcript of Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi's book Al-mâ' al-waraqî (The Silvery Water)

Count yourself lucky to live in this day and age. In antiquity there were many marvels, but much was  lost. There was great glory, but it faded and fell away. There was much knowledge, but it was mixed with falsehood. Today we have the Way. As we step from the past into the future, we search for what embers of the old are worth salvaging. 

In 690, following the civil war, ancient treatises on light and the shape of the world and the workings of the organs were brought to the court of the Successor. 719 saw the secret of glass working rediscovered, recovered from the Women who protected it. Now, the Pale Folk study their bodies under the light of the full moon. Blood vessels and nerve endings are mapped, like rivers in a foreign country. Every city has a new hospital and every governor is advised by astronomers and mathematicians, whose fields did not exist a few decades before. Engineers invent luxurious fountains and pump black oil from the earth. The chemists distill tinctures or serums and pass them to physicians for experimentation. Just last year, a cataract was plucked from an old woman's eye, as if by magic. Today I saw a man with an astrolabe, and he taught me to understand the sky. 

There is light and conversation and music in the Successor's house. In libraries and schools creed and sect mean nothing, as all are brought together in the pursuit of what is good and what is true. Barren hills become observations, opening the pages of the heavens. The scribes labor over books and copies of books. They translate from papyrus to paper, from the old languages to the tongue of today. But don't just take my word for it, take a closer look.

 Linger after prayers, hear the dialogue among the congregants. They talk of infinity and space, eternal or finite. Buy sherbet and flavored ice in the market. It is sweet and cold and your tongue has never known its like. And look at these, 12 marvels of our modern knowledge, each an ingenious and extraordinary fruit, plucked from the orchard of the Way, growing in antique soil. 

Each would make a splendid gift, each would fetch a mighty price, each is unlikely to be found or even understood outside the Successor's domain. 

A illustration of al-Jazari's perpetual flute from his Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices

1. The Spy Glass: A brass tube with several lenses fitted inside. The tube is beautifully engraved with images of (1. Birds 2. Stars 3. Flowers 4. Horses). When held to the eye, the Spy Glass makes far away objects appear closer. The lenses can be removed and used as magnifying glasses.

2. The Water Clock: An unwieldy brass and lacquered wood box with the numbers 1-12 written on it and a small arm set into it. When water is poured into a spout in top of the clock, the arm moves across the face of the clock, from one numeral to the next in the course of an hour, resetting to 1 once reaching 12. The clock must be refilled and recalibrated once a month and can’t function in the cold.

3. The Hydraulic Servant: A small metal automaton dressed like a nomad from the north. It has a control panel on its back and is powered by water. The automaton can be programmed to do simple tasks, such as carrying things, opening doors, or grabbing things but it can only be programmed to do one task at a time. A liter of water is enough to power the automaton for a day, it cannot be operated in the cold. Secretly, the automaton has a little magic within, it cannot be detected as magical but will be effected by dispel magic, anti-magic zones, ect.

4. The Perpetual Flute: A contraption powered by water consisting of two flutes, two water reservoirs, and a tilting pipe into which water is poured. The flue can be programmed to play any tune or even make sounds like speech but quickly repeats itself. A liter of water is enough power the flute for a day, it cannot operate in the cold.

5. The King’s Water: An incredible acid which can dissolve anything but glass. A vial of the King’s Water can dissolve a 5x5ft cube of material over the course of 30 minutes.

6. The Hurricane Lantern: An oil burning lantern made of a wick held in a brass body protected by a glass dome. Its flame cannot be extinguished by winds and it trims its own wick via an ingenious mechanism.

7. The Nostril of Bahamut: A heavy weapon that uses a handpump and tube to cover enemies in sticky, burning oil. The Nostril’s maximum range is 20ft. The oil burns for 2d4 damage a round and cannot be extinguished by water. A burning target can smother the flames by taking a round to stop, drop, and roll. If the Nostril’s pilot wick is not ignited before being fired, it just covers targets in oil. Liquids other than oil can be propelled using the Nostril.

8. 1d6 Naptha Pots: Clay jars full of oil, sulphur, and nitrates plugged with a wick. Several seconds after ignition, the jars explode, dealing 2d8 damage to everything within 10ft of it.

9. The Compass: A magnetized piece of metal suspended in water and laid over the four cardinal directions. It always points north.

10. Physician’s Kit: A box the size of a suitcase containing the latest innovations in medicine. It is full of herbs to treat different ailments and infirmities, smelling salts, acid for cleaning wounds, and soap for cleanliness. A kit has 2d4 charges. Each charge can be used to restore 1 point to a damaged ability score, let a person reroll a save against disease, or restore a creature to consciousness. Additionally, the kit’s charges may have other uses. The herbs are good for cooking, for example.

11. 1d6 Lightning Bombs: Like a naptha pot but filled with pyrotechnic compounds. Explodes in a blinding flash which disorients sighted beings within 10ft of it.

12. The Hollow Needle: A metal tube with a plunger at the back and a sharp piecing tip. The needle creates suction. It can be used to carefully and precisely extract fluids or small objects, such as parasites or contaminants, from the body or just suck up liquid. The effects of potions administered via the needle last 2 rounds longer.

Further Reading: This post is inspired by the Golden Age of Science in the Islamic world, but the inventions on this list are not all accurate to the period. The telescope, for example, was invented in the 17th century in the Netherlands. If you'd like to know more about this period, I'd suggest watching Jim al Khalili's Science in a Golden Age series or just reading "List of inventions in the medieval Islamic world" on wikipedia as a start.

This post is dedicated to Kallinikos, the petroleum consultant 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Ibn Fadlan is Not an Adventurer: XP Rules for Travelers and Diplomats

The world according to Ibn Sahl al Balkhi, 9th century

So, I've been reading Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness again and thinking more about what an adventurer is exactly. Adventurers acquire things, that's how they level up in traditional D&D, but Ibn Fadlan starts with wealth and loses it. The basic pattern of the D&D adventuring life, starting with not much and working your way up, doesn't fit. Though Ibn Fadlan and Abu Hamid's accounts have been held up as great resources for RPGs, I haven't heard of any other attempts to make campaigns based on their journeys. This is probably because they just aren't adventurers. They are diplomats, travelers. They witness and negotiate and educate instead of taking, overcoming, and ruling.

I don't just want to run a game in a setting inspired by the sources in The Land of Darkness. I want players to act like Ibn Fadlan and Abu Hamid, to be driven to see things and meet people. To that end, I've written new xp rules for travelers instead of adventurers. The rules make a lot of assumptions about the party and their loyalties, but I think that goes hand in hand with the subject matter.

The Arrival of Ibn Fadlan in Bulgary, Urmanche Baky, 1973

To level up, the party must collect Marks equal to their current level + 1. When you level up, the party’s Marks are erased and you start again from zero.

You get Marks for 3 activities: finding wonders, uncovering information which is useful to the postal agency/intelligence service, and diplomacy.

Wonders: The world is full of wonders, aja’ib, mirabilia. Indeed, the stars themselves are wondrous, proof of the infinite variability and glory of the Lord’s creation. There is always a great thirst in court and in houses of learning to hear of new wonders from abroad. We live in age of reason, all wonders must be verified by proper methods. Each wonder found and verified is worth one Mark.

Places: Strange locations in the natural world or significant ruins left by antique civilizations. To verify your discovery, you must determine its exact position and relation to other landmarks using astronomical tools.

Examples: An island inhabited entirely by snakes, a huge dome of lead constructed by giants, an enchanted temple which no mortal can enter, a cave where ice turns to crystal, a sea of pure darkness

Creatures: Unusual or rare animals. To verify your find, you must be able to accurately measure the animal (preferably in cubits) and describe its features in detail from a living or dead specimen. Demons, the undead, and other abominations do not count as wonders. People are also not wonders.

Examples: Mundane animals of unusual size, a hypnotic lizard with crystal flesh, a furry rhino with a huge horn, chimeras of all sorts, huge oozes which blend into the water, ravens with iron talons

Phenomenon: Inexplicable and recurring events which dazzle the mind. To verify your discovery, you must witness the phenomenon thrice in full with your own eyes.

Examples: Armies of jinn who fight in the night sky, a river that turns bright blue when the moon is full, stone elephant tusks that grow in the earth, a huge fish that beaches itself to be eaten daily

Spying: These are uncertain times and eyes loyal to the court are always needed in places far from the Commander of the Faithful’s influence. You must gather information, on both the Successorate's subjects and potential allies.

Governors, Shaws, Amirs: Power must be delegated to keep the Successorate running, but those trusted with that power often have their own ends in mind.

The party will gain a Mark for discovering that:
  • A Governor, Shaw, or Amir practices a heretical religion 
  • A Governor, Shaw, or Amir has committed an act of treason or plans to (e.g. failing to recite the Successor’s name in communal prayers, failing to enforce the Successor’s edicts, or working with her enemies)
  • A group of rebels operates in the territory of a Governor, Shaw, or Amir

Major Factions: Not every tribe of idolaters is of interest to the Commander of the Faithful. Major factions control trade routes, cities, or have access to important trade goods. Be warned, khagans are not above misrepresenting their influence to win foreign favor.

The party will gain a Mark for discovering that:
  • A major faction is trading with a rival of the Successorate (Whose goods do they have?)
  • A major faction has adopted a religion which rivals the Besharan Way (Who advises them, where do they pray?)

Diplomacy: The party represents the Successorate, the Commander of the Faithful, and Besharan Way itself. Adopting the faith and forming an alliance with the Successorate are inextricably linked. Keep in mind that all reasoning creatures, not just people, can follow The Way and may be converted.

The party will receive a Mark for:
  • Opening formal diplomatic relations with a faction and inviting their conversion to the Besharan Way, they will expect gifts from Beshara
  • Correcting the practice of converts to the Besharan Way, converts often continue to practice idolatry
The party will receive two Marks for:
  • Converting a faction's leaders the Besharan Way, they will expect a large gift from the Successor himself, but a lesser religious figurehead can be petitioned to provide the gift

Mark Bounties: Certain objectives have Mark bounties assigned to them, which the party will be made aware of at the start of their journey. Here are some examples:
  • There is a reliable rumor that a Governor has secretly claimed the title of Successor, finding out who will be rewarded with 3 Marks
  • Finding the Iron Wall of The Two Horned Shaw is worth 4 Marks 

Relevant Setting Information

What is the Successorate and the Besharan Way?

The greatest state under heaven. Ruled by the Successor of the Prophetess' favorite assistant, Idris. Rashida adopted Idris into the Besharan people and named him the Commander of the Faithful before she ascended the sacred mountain. For three centuries Idris dwelt in occultation before reemerging to unite the followers of the Way and restore the faith to its roots, founding the tradition we know as the Besharan Way. All the Successor's have been descendants of Idris. The current dynasty are the Nourids, the family of Idris' middle daughter. 

Who opposes the Successorate? (the following list is not exhaustive)

The False Successorate: A rogue faction of Besharan nobility who lay claim to the titles of Idris. They control most of Tamania, but the true Successor maintains rule west of them.

The Way-Universal: A tradition of the Way founded by the Prophetess' favorite companion, Hallaj. There are many streams of the Hallajite tradition, but none is as powerful as the Way-Universal. It is probably headed by the Pontifex Maximus in the Eternal City, or perhaps by the Basilinna in the City of the Constant Emperors. Many kings and rulers follow the Way-Universal and oppose the Besharan Way. Many are interested in the Meager Country.

The Cult of Fire: A left over religion from antiquity. Their practice is not banned but it is heavily discouraged. Lingering loyalty to this old tradition sometimes grips of hearts of non-Besharan Shaws and Governors and its dying influence is still enough to spark troublesome rebellions.

This post is dedicated to Oghuz Khagan

Monday, August 19, 2019

Pipedream Review

In my last post, I mentioned that I wanted to review Pipedream, an investigative roleplaying game written by Kai Poh for the Dream Jam on The game is a hack of Cthulhu Dark and inspired by my own investigative ttrpg, Beyond the Fence, Below the Grave. Right now, Pipedream is still in beta but I find that's often the most helpful time to get critical feedback. Let's get into the reviewing.

Pipedream is about a party of Wisefellows, Halfling community problem solvers who smoke copious amounts of the mind altering Elder Weed. Sometimes the Wisefellows just get up to mischief and other times they actually have to stop dark forces from causing trouble or settle disputes within their community. No matter what, they always get high. The world the Wisefellows inhabit is a cross between Tolkien's Middle Earth and the ancient Near East. Irisfields, the setting's take on Hobbiton, is essentially the marshier parts of Mesopotamia. Half of Pipedream is rules for playing as the Wisefellows while the other half is setting information and other tools for generating mysteries to solve and challenges to face.

Mechanically, Pipedream is mostly Cthulhu Dark with extra systems, such as rules for magic, attached. Like in Cthulhu Dark, players try to accumulate advantages and risk their minds to add more d6s to their rolls. Dark's sanity stat is replaced by dream, a measure of how much a Wisefellow's mind has been expanded by their smoking and exposure to the wider world. Dream is cleverly woven nicely into the game's other systems. As your dream increases you get closer to losing your character but you gain benefits from the blend of Elder Weed you smoke and can scupper the investigation to try and reduce your dream as well.

The game is also adamant that Wisefellows cannot fight the larger people and creatures who they encounter without being killed. I think this is a fine choice that puts the emphasis of the game in the right place: on hiding, running, outsmarting. Still, I think this strong mechanical choice can be leveraged better. Knowing that the outcome of an action is death is a lot more powerful if you have a reason to do it anyway. I can imagine that if fighting, though deadly, could provide a brief distraction or something similar you could generate a lot of dramatic moments. Selfless sacrifices, in the vein of 'You shall not pass', do go together with Pipedream's Tolkienian inspiration.

I like Pipedream's character creation too. Players choose character flaws, background information, items, and special abilities all at once. Building an inventory and a character are tied together, as personality details are as likely as equipment to be helpful in getting more dice for action rolls. It's an elegant little system that gives players a lot of freedom and room to express their characters.

My last note on the mechanics is that I find the rules for blending elder weed to be a little too fiddly for such a usually rules light game. I'd be inclined leave rulings about blending the weeds up to a referee instead of writing it into the game, though planting the idea that the weeds can be mixed in the players' heads is a good move.

Irisfields is fascinating in the ways it tries to emulate and undermine Tolkien's own secondary world. Irisfields is more morally gray, light and dark alignments are not guarantees of good or bad behavior. The community the small folk live in is far from an innocent and idyllic Hobbition. Instead, Irisfields is full of greedy landlords, untrustworthy sheriffs, and unreliable Wisefellows. All this, of course, makes the setting a much more interesting place to solve a mystery in. This social dysfunction is probably what is borrowed most from Beyond the Fence. Though both games feature communities beset by dangerous outside forces, those communities were already full of their own problems in the first place.

Though I like a lot of the referee facing tools, I feel like some things are missing. The bestiary is great, all the entries feel mundane and fantastic at once, like they're all part of an ecology but still tinged with magic. The adventure seeds for each region of Irisfields are simple and effective little mysteries or dilemmas, I'd just like to see more of them. There's lots of information on the kinds of big folk in the world but there's no suggestions for why any of them would be in Irisfields, beyond the few big folk mentioned in the adventure seeds.

 What seems to be really missing is a table to cover the non-investigative half of Pipedream: causing mischief. Here's a good suggestion from earlier in the document: "Let’s say you actually want to solve a case instead of, say, trying to squeeze as many goats as possible into the Mayor’s bedchambers before he awakens." I would love to see a table of similar gambits, pranks, wagers for Wisefellows to busy themselves with.

Lastly, my art gripe. The public domain art in Pipedream is nice but a lot of the images look like they're drawn on paper.

This lovely drawing of a pipe shows up several times in the document and it is always surrounded by this papery shadow which is just sightly different from the background. Here is a tutorial for fixing this issue using photoshop, and here's one for inkarnate.

Overall, Pipedream is a game with a simple, smart set of mechanics, great character creation, and a fascinating setting to explore. I'd say it's main strength is how the carefree whimsy of the Wisefellows and their adventurers can turn so quickly grim in the face of malevolent outsiders and internal conflict. The game is narrow in the sense that it is about a few very specific people in a very specific place, but the range of tones it wants to convey is excitingly broad. It could still use a bit more development, but I'm sure that development will come. You can buy Pipedream on

This post is dedicated to the Niflungs