Monday, April 29, 2019

Treasures from the vault: d20 magic items

Before the pale folk of Beshara conquered the world and brought it under the true light of The Lord, there was an age of darkness. It was an age of tyrant rulers whose cruel rituals edified false deities, the traitor archons who spurned their duty to the eternal kingdom of grace so that they could rule their own domains. All the people of the world suffered in slavery, the goods of their labor were squandered, and all kingdoms were set against each other in bloody struggles for power.

Despite the sorry state of civilization, there was light in this age too. Antiquity has produced some of the most ingenious and wondrous items known on earth, which wizard-artificers in our current age cannot equal. Some of these marvels have been recovered and preserved, while others await discovery in the desert. So come, open the vault and feast your eyes on the treasures of the past which lay within.

Ruins of Balbeck, Miner Kilbourne Kellogg, 1844

1. Cups of Judgment: A silver goblet with the name of a crime engraved on the bowl. Any person who drinks from the cup and has committed the crime written on it is struck dead as soon as the liquid passes their lips. The cup is obviously magical and has a judgmental aura. The cup has a conservative disposition and there are rumors that a ritual exists which can change the crime written on the cup. Most cups have one of these crimes written on them to begin with:
1. Murder
2. Adultery
3. Treason
4. Blasphemy
5. Corruption
6. Lechery
7. Cowardice
8. Arson
9. Theft
10. Immodesty

2. The Book of Denial: A book with a perfect black cover and 2d10 perfect black pages. If a secret, an idea, or a spell which nobody else knows is written on one of the pages and the page is destroyed, the idea/secret/spell is annihilated from the universe. It cannot be discovered or otherwise generated again. If multiple people know the piece of information you want to annihilate, they all must sign the page before it is destroyed.

3. Eternal Ice: A ball of ice about the size of a fist that never melts. Aristocrats would carry these to keep cool on hot, dry days. One ball of eternal ice can keep a small room refrigerated.

4. Perfect Nails: Long, thin nails of an unknown material. They were once used to hold together effigies of tyrant kings and false gods. Any two things connected by the nails cannot be separated without first removing the nails.

5. Gardener's Locket: Scholars speculate that the Lord used this to make all the oddest things on earth. A simple locket of silver and dark green stone. One half is styled as a sprouting seed, the other as an embryo. If the fruit or seeds of two different plants are placed together in the locket, it can turn them into a hybrid with the characteristics of both species.
d20 sample characteristics:
1. Cactus spines, the plant can be used as a weapon
2. Aloe oil, the plant's juices can heal burns
3. Ironwood bark, the plant is very durable and a good construction material
4. Bamboo metabolism, the plant grows very quickly
5. Nightshade poison, the plant induces vomiting if ingested
6. Corpse Flower perfume, the plant has an odor which animals dislike
7. Pine resilience, the plant can grow in very cold climates
8. Potato's root, the plant produces edible tubers
9. Fey pollen, the plant's pollen causes drowsiness and memory loss in some cases
10. Coconut seeds, the plant produces very durable seeds
11. Grass roots, the plant has deep roots that can hold any soil together
12. Paradisaical fruit, eating one of the plant's fruits restores 1 hp
13. Thistle's itch, contact with the plant makes people start itching themselves frantically
14. Starfruit magic, eating a diet composed mostly of the plant's fruits grants long life
15. Joshua tree resilience, the plant can survive in dry and hot environments
16. Barley hardiness, the plant can grow in poor soils and could be a staple crop if widely cultivated
17. Sandalwood scent, the plant has a lovely fragrance and burning it draws supernatural beings
18. Morning Glory blooms, the undead cannot pass strings of the plant's blooming flowers
19. Mangrove resilience, the plant can grow in swamps and salt water
20. Tobacco resilience, the plant is almost immune to insect infestations

6. Merciful Linen: A fine white cloth which no dirt, no oil, and no blood can stain. It was woven by a priestess on her wedding night. She smothered her husband with it the next day. Wounds inflected by weapons wrapped in the cloth cause no pain.

7. Turtle Lamp: An oil lamp made from a turtle's shell embellished with gold leaf and a copper handle. Spells cannot be cast in the light of the lamp and it burns away illusions.

8. Tyrant's Seat: A fine pillow embroidered with gold thread. It is a supremely comfy pillow, anybody who sits on it will find themselves unable to rise from it without succeeding a saving throw.

9. Vessel of Alliances: A bronze bowl engraved with pagan figures, one side shows a city at war and another shows it at peace. The metal of the bowl is corroded, gone all green and black. If two people mix their blood or spit in the bowl they cannot lie to each other and can't knowingly betray each other (i.e reveal their location to an enemy, lead them into an ambush, kill them in a 'hunting accident', ect)

10. Great Drake's Teeth: A bag of black fangs ripped from the mouth of an unfortunate monster a long time ago. Planting the teeth in the ground like seeds will cause them to sprout into tall, strong people with skin the color of gold, bushy black hair, and eyes like a cat. They will obey whoever sowed them but are extremely warlike and will constantly petition their rulers to resort to violence. Once properly equipped, there are few forces in the world who could defeat these people in battle.

Illustration by Jesse Balmer, 2019

11. Composite Creature: An enchanted construct, or perhaps a gift from a forgotten deity. This creature can shape shift into kind of mundane animal at the whim of its master. It is easily frightened and has a particular fear of open flames. If the composite creature panics, it turns into a (roll 1d6) 1. Elephant 2. Tiger 3. Mouse 4. Songbird 5. Horse 6. Viper and can't transform again if it is not calmed down.

12. Infinite Mint: A device that spelled the eventual financial ruin of a whole empire. It looks like a mortar and pestle but is much heavier, a strong horse is needed to transport it. When a coin is ground in the mint, it divides into 3 coins. The copies are almost undetectable but evaporate in 1d6 months. The copy coins cannot be further split by the mint.

13. Spell Cuirass: An iron cuirass styled to look like a lithe torso. It is decorated with intricate lapis lazuli patterns and bits of metal from a meteorite. A magic user can sync themselves to the armor by sleeping in it for a night. Whenever the synced magic user casts a spell, a copy of the spell is cast on the wearer of the cuirass. If the spell is an area of effect spell, the area is centered on the cuirass wearer. Spells can't be copied this way unless the cuirass has a living wearer, their vital force is required to completes the mystical circuit.

14. Golem Stamp: A fine stamp with pagan writing on it. Stamping an object with the stamp causes it to become animate for 1d6 days. The animate object can be given a single command which it will try to fulfill for the duration of its life. The object becomes inanimate if the stamp is wiped off.

15. Flood Jewel: A dark blue gem set into a dull silver ring. It sounds like the ocean when shaken.  If the gem is broken, water gushes out. The gem contains enough water to flood a whole village for a few days or submerge an entire level of a dungeon.

16. Surgeon-Priest's Blade: A strange combination between a knife and a saw. The handle is bone and engraved with pictographs of burial rituals. Limbs chopped off by the blade remain alive and can hop/crawl around for directed by the will of the limb's original owner. After 1d8 days pass, the limb must be reattached or it dies.

17. Drum of the Revel: A huge drum made from the hide of a sacred ox. People who hear the drum beats cannot help but start dancing and singing. The revel can only end when the drummer faints from exhaustion as they too are compelled to keep beating the drum.

18. City in a Jar: A perfect, tiny city, in a glass jar. It once sat in the crown of a powerful queen and survived the fall with only a single crack running down the side. The people in the city are quadrupedal, have aquamarine skin, and do everything with their dry, dexterous tongues. The city itself is in perfect order and harmony. All of its institutions are moral and incorruptible, all its inhabitants are kind, and everything is in perfect repair. You can enter the city by running your hand along the crack in the jar and slipping inside. By resting a day in the city, you'll be restored to full hp +1d4 extra. If outsiders stay in the city any longer their influence will cause it to fall into chaos.

19. Keystone of Ur: A huge carved stone plated with copper. A building or wall that incorporates the keystone into one of its arches cannot be leveled until the keystone is removed.

20. Spying Bowl: A well polished silver bowl, the bottom has a mirror-like quality. If you slosh the blood, hair, or skin of a person along with some water in the bowl the mirrored bottom with reveal that person's deepest fears and anxieties.

This post is dedicated to Shiduri, the wise tavern keeper

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Mechanics for a Viking Campaign

I've decided that my Viking Campaign (better name tbd) will be set in the same world as the Meager Country. The setting was originally inspired by Ahmad ibn Fadlan's account of his chance encounter with a group of Rus merchants on the Volga river. It's unknown if these merchants were actually from Scandinavia, but I think it's natural to approach the setting from the perspective of the other group involved in Fadlan's encounter. Naturally, there will be more places to explore than the Meager Country proper, and that part of the world will seem a lot less meager when approached from the north rather than the south.

Something very like the Viking age is going on in a place not quite unlike early medieval Scandinavia a few dozen years before any Besharan diplomat would step foot in the Meager Country to parley with tattooed Rowing People or plunder the tombs of Seluk Khagans. But put a pin in that, the precise details are to come.

Burial of a Varangian Chieftain, Henryk Siemiradzki, 1883
Siemiradzki's image of a viking funeral is also inspired by ibn Fadlan's account

Last time, I wrote about the characteristics a Viking campaign's setting should have, now I'll spend some time talking about how I plan to evoke the period mechanically and handle some important Viking activities in the game.

I've decided to use GLOG as base system for the campaign, mostly because of the huge amount of class options written for it and how easy it is to hack in good bits from other old school games. Particularly, I'll be taking a lot of inspiration from The Nightmares Underneath  and also some of the rules from Lukomorye.

Classes and Leveling up
In Viking age Scandinavia, the intuitions which controlled power in the medieval period (e.g the Church) were yet to be fully adopted and local institutions (such as the numerous local legal assemblies called 'Things') had less power than the structures which would come later. Power was held more by persons than by structures.

 So, instead of being the member of a class or calling to gain new abilities, you must find a person to instruct you in that class who is a higher level than you. To get fighter 3, you need a mentor who's Fighter 3 already and he can't teach you Fighter 4. Leveling up will probably take a week to a month of training, double that if you're picking up a new class. At home, there will probably be only 3-4 classes available. To find more, you'll need to venture out and interact with the other peoples of the world and find mentors among them. Some classes may be unique, mastered by 1 individual who will not be interested in sharing their knowledge without good reason. Also, having to spend a long time abroad may make achieving mastery of your class difficult. You may find yourself in a place where you are the only Fighter may have to adopt a local tradition if you want to benefit from a level up.

Gaining Experience
Gold for XP makes a lot of sense to use for a Viking campaign, but I think more could be done. For instance, it might be best to give xp when goods are exchanged for precious metals so furs and other valuables can be used to gain levels. Also, I may consider implementing non-combat xp awards so journeys which are commercial failures still have some value to players.

Death, Dismemberment, Retirement 
I'd like characters to retire semi-regularly so that players could try playing the new kinds of people and the new classes they'd discovered on their adventures. Vanilla GLOG usually maims characters instead of killing them, I might move the needle closer to kill or make getting dismembered more debilitating to encourage retirement. Also there should probably be a benefit for retiring characters. Maybe they'll be allowed to level up while retired, manage domains, and return to the game at a later date.

Most medieval fantasy rpgs assume a decidedly late medieval or early modern level of technology. There's usually a lot of pole arms, sometimes basic gunpowder weaponry, and abundant plate armor. I'd like to keep things  earl medieval, especially in the arms and armor department. 

These will probably be the only weapons: Sling, bow, knife, long knife (basically a short sword), axe, spear, battle axe, sword (a rare status symbol)

In terms of armor, the shield will be the most important piece. It should be subject to breaking frequently too. Body armor, such as the classic leather and chain varieties, should be pretty rare. Most armor will be assembled piecemeal (I'll probably be drawing heavily from Lukomorye's body armor and accessories system). 

Here's some other notes: there is no glass, potions come in waterskins or ceramic jars. There are no lanterns. Your torch creates lots of dirty smoke, candles don't produce much light either. Everything and everyone is generally covered in mud and soot. People live in houses made of mud and straw. In Scandinavia they mixed it up and put the mud on the roof instead to invent the glorious turf roofed house.

Wilderness exploration has always been difficult to do well in D&D. The space it takes place in is too abstract, too large, for the usual techniques which make dungeon level exploration work to be successful. There can still be wilderness dungeons which exist on a slightly larger scale than is typical, but trekking through the wilderness should be done differently. I may just rule that the party will need a guide, or perhaps learn the route from another source, to start out on a journey into the mostly unexplored wilderness with random encounters along the way. Still, I'd like the player's to have some freedom in deciding where to go, some chance to stumble across unexpected locations in the wild. 

Exploration by sea will also have to be accounted for. Sailing isn't very interesting by itself, but there should be encounters at sea. I think I'll need pretty robust rules for ships getting damaged and repaired, fighting on deck, and also rules for calculating how much cargo a ship can hold.

Raids and Skirmishes
Raids involve a lot of moving parts. A team of raiders, a settlement with a bunch of buildings, hundreds of inhabitants, a defense force quickly mobilizing, the actually party itself, and a whole lot of chaos. Big skirmishes with 20-50 on each side and pitched battles are not represented well at the scale of D&D combat. Good raiders will avoid this kind of battle, but they still may happen regardless. The whole raid should probably run more like a dungeon, at the scale of 10 minute turns, with the actions of raiders away from the party abstracted to a single dice roll (i.e do they succeed in doing X in the turn) 

A raid may last for hours and see the players going after large objectives, temples, places where goods are stored/produced, treasuries, the homes of the rich, while their team tries to scatter the defending forces and extract valuables from the populace. 

The party may also end up occupying settlements for days, maybe months to continue finding loot or in an attempt to establish the settlement as a beachhead for further raiding and eventual conquest. This will eventually lead to a pitched battle with a larger force of defenders brought in from the surrounding region, the only question is how long it will take for such a force to be assembled. 

In any case, exploration and raiding should make use of a morale system, I'll be using Luke Gearing's. I also need to figure out how xp and gold are distributed among all the members of the raiding party. 

The last time I visited the Meager Country, the different peoples of the Meager Country gained different bonuses from their spirit guardians while the Besharans were divided by religious practice and belief. I'm considering blending these systems together for this campaign.

 For belonging to a certain ethnocultural group you'd get a small bonus but have to abide by certain group practices. For the example, you couldn't continue to be one of the Untamo after violating the sanctity of the sauna, the heart of spiritual life for this particular tribe. Players would usually have no qualms about killing a person in a sauna. They're naked and not on guard, it's a perfect plan. If the violation of a taboo is involved though, and the loss of a mechanical advantage, it may give the players pause. Of course, if we've established that violating the sauna is a grave crime they may exhibit the same pause, but I think using mechanics to underline the importance of these taboos and habits can help get players into the setting. 

I don't have enough time to do extensive research into the exact value of silver in the Viking age economy and compile accurate price lists. However, I think I'll be able to get away with stealing the great item lists from the Lukomroye player's guide. I'll probably be awarding precious metal by
 weight rather than in coin values at first and use some of the information from Nightmares Underneath to figure the exact value of a gram of silver. I'll also probably be using the inflation rules from Nightmares and the item availability ones from Lukomorye. I may also increase the price of arms and armor by a few fold.  

Institutions are a great place for players to invest money from Nightmares Underneath and would make perfect sense for a Viking age inspired campaign. Though, I will probably have to write more setting appropriate institution types. I think the institutions can also be easily folded into domain play. Here are some more appropriate Viking age institutions. 

Temples, Trade routes (mostly building trading posts), Fortifications (for protecting the trade routes and securing domains), Blacksmiths (for arming large contingents of soldiers), Great halls (for receiving guests and drawing fame), Shipbuilders.

There should probably other institutions which you can learn about abroad (i.e the capital C Church)

I'd like there to be a lot of downtime between expeditions. Winter is long, the season for exploration is short. What happens during downtime will probably be most determined by whether the players are more focused on the world abroad or that at home. There will be feasts and festivals to attend, assemblies and trials to see, and perhaps battles between factions to win or lose. Ships will also have to be resupplied, information about newly discovered routes will need to be acquired, fresh rowers and raiders will need to be recruited.

So that's the rough outline for my campaign, at least mechanically. I'd love to get some other perspectives on what I've presented here, especially the part on tribes.

This post is dedicated to Lawspeaker Torgny, who brought peace with his great harangue