Archive for the RPGs Category

Review of “Better than Any Man” and Mercenary Group Recruitment

Posted in RPGs with tags , , , on June 19, 2013 by Jeff Russell

So, after my enthusiastic blurb the other day, I figured “Better than Any Man” warranted a full review after I finished reading it last night. So, here that review is.


First off, for those that might not know, what is “Better than Any Man” (hereafter referred to as BTAM)?  BTAM is a meaty adventure/mini-sandbox written by James Raggi for his Lamentations of the Flame Princess Adventures line and specifically for “Free RPG Day 2013”.  It intentionally flies in the face of the Free RPG Day guidelines, and is about 1000 times better on account of it.

For those odd few not familiar with Raggi, he does a better job establishing what he’s about than I ever could, so allow me to quote from his “Author’s Notes” to set the tone:

“Welcome to LotFP’s Free RPG Day adventure! It isn’t what it is supposed to be. 

We were told “Include quickstarter rules!” We were advised to create a short introductory/teaser adventure.  We were warned to make it suitable for all audiences.

We didn’t do that. You know why?


That is the amount of fucks we give about what we’re supposed to do.”

I was glad to have made the drive to the Friendly Not-Quite Local Game Store to pick this up after having read just that.

Now, before I get into the adventure itself, let me clarify my relationship as a referee to Raggi’s work.  Honestly, I find most of his stuff too weird/horrific/game-changing to want to include it in my regular campaign as is.  That being said, I’d say that his published adventures are possibly the most useful I’ve bought because they force me to think in different ways and expose me to fantastically weird ideas I would never have on my own. Also, Raggi’s style of adventures and excellent referee advice in Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying (LotFP) have helped me develop the crucial referee skill of not softballing my players.  Sometimes you gotta pull the trigger, and sometimes that trigger is a save or die trap.  While I’ve wholesale lifted more material from adventures by others (Gygax, Matt Finch, and so forth), Raggi’s stuff has done far more to push me out of my referee comfort zone, and that’s all to the good.

With all that out of the way, let’s talk about BTAM itself, cos that’s why you’re here, right? As mentioned, this thing is big.  96 pages in an A5 format, with teeny double column text, so there’s a lot of content there.  A lot a lot of content.  New monsters, spells, some seriously creepy NPCs, a fully statted out town, half a dozen sketched out towns, each with something of interest mentioned, something like 5 mapped and keyed adventure locations, even some surprisingly compact and functional firearms rules squeezed into a box in a corner. Oh yeah, and one hell of a time pressure creator in the form of the Swedish Army behind King Gustavus Adolphus.


If you haven’t been checking out Raggi’s recent stuff, this whole “Swedish” and “Firearms” business is probably freaking you out.  From the get go, LotFP has had a decidedly early modern flavor, but Raggi’s been pushing it even more recently, and has even taken to writing most of his material for the real world.  Initially I found this extremely off-putting.  Like, “why would I even buy that?” off-putting. After reading some positive reviews, and thinking about, and letting an extant interest in the early modern period percolate some more, though, I’ve come around.  Here’s the rationale: A) It’s super easy to translate real-world stuff into fantasy equivalents if you want to, since that’s where about 90% of fantasy content comes from anyway, B) as a game with a horror focus, it is a cheap but super effective short cut to create the necessary “grounding” to contrast with the real horror, C) All of that boring background and setting detailing is totally already done and available and D) It turns out the early modern period is a pretty good fit for standard D&D assumptions: lots of war, small, scattered states, superstition and magic, vast unexplored tracts of land peopled by dangerous intelligent humanoids (in this case actual humans), and even professional adventurers who do nothing but travel the world looking for ways to get valuable through violence and craft.

Basically, I’ve gone from finding the idea of a historical early modern game of D&D completely awful to finding it extremely compelling.  I’m way more likely to incorporate early modern elements into some other fantasy world, but I would actually consider running a historical game at this point. BTAM is the product that actually convinced me of it.

Speaking of which, good Lord am I talking about a lot of tangential stuff and not the adventure itself.  So, the cover of the adventure is not attached, and inside of it is a lovely color map showing the keyed locations and the surrounding terrain.  It depicts a part of Lower Franconia (Holy Roman Empire = crazy confusing.  Just think “basically Germany” for now) that may or may not be geographically accurate, I don’t know.  But there’s plenty or space to wander around in, some really high quality random wilderness encounters, and the seeds of ideas for some of the less-detailed towns.  The adventure has a fair number of these “you make it up, you’re the referee!” which I think is pretty great.  I mean, I’m so unlikely to run the adventure “straight” as is, that the prospect of embellishing some other things on my own is no big deal.

The items and spells have the typical Raggi flavor of “serious consequences for magic use”.  I found more of these to be potentially actually useful rather than straight up “you are screwed for even considering using magic, dummy”, which some of the magic items I’ve seen in his adventures previously come across as (I’m looking at you, everything from Devan’ku). In this adventure, I think the consequences are either rare enough or live-withable enough to instead present a compelling picture of “magic has a cost, but it works”.  There’s still the odd screw job to remind players that it really is kind of shitty to rob graves and callously kill everybody and steal things, but overall, it’s a little more adventure and a little less “we’re here to see how much awful stuff you will do/put up with”.

BTAM also does an admirable job of setting up a few “reveals” without having a “plot” per se.  This is done by seeding bits of information in different locations, such that no matter how you approach them, you’ll get a slowly growing picture of what’s going on, rather than requiring specific clues or investigative techniques.

Finally, BTAM possesses a quality I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and that is modularity.  Now, I don’t mean in the sense that the whole adventure is a module you can drop in to any campaign world with minimal fuss (though it’s pretty decent for that too, if you can substitute in an appropriate invading army).  What I mean is that each element is highly useful by itself.  The elements fit together into an interesting and flavorful whole, with lots of links, but you don’t have to use all of them to use any of them.  The spells given could be found in any suitably creepy wizard’s spellbook.  The Shrine to the Insect God could go just about anywhere, the town of Karlstadt and its unique rulership could be dropped into most places, the monsters could appear on their own, et cetera.  So BTAM, besides being an interesting and well done adventure is also a pretty jam-packed toolkit.  I would venture that just about any referee/GM/DM/whatever will find at least one thing they would like to use in their game unchanged, and at least a dozen more that might take some minor tweaking, and who knows how much that serves as rough inspiration for something pretty different.

Long story short: if you weren’t lucky enough to get a backer copy for kickstarting this (like me) or to pick one up at Free RPG Day (unlike me) totally buy the PDF when it comes out.  Raggi has mentioned on Google+ that it will feature some upgrades (more printer and e-reader friendly, “loosened up” layout, stuff like that).  And don’t forget that the complete LotFP rules are available without art for free from RPGNow.  Even if you aren’t into the weird fantasy/horrific angle, they’re a pretty robust version of D&D with some good encumbrance and wilderness/overseas travel rules.

Rating: 5/5 – Enthusiastic Recommendation, especially if you don’t think you’d like it

Recruiting Groups of Mercenaries for an expedition

This is the first installment (well, second if you count the mass combat rules) of the modular rules I’m developing for an adventuring company expedition set of rules.  The idea is that you can plug it into a lot of different systems, or use the whole thing as its own setting/game variant.

When you hire a group of otherwise nondescript mercenaries for an expedition, you can use one of the following options:

1) Randomly generate each and every individual and keep track of them as separate hirelings, as you would for any standard adventure. This works best with normal sized expeditions (say, no more than 1o or 12, and when a high level of detail in play is desired) where all players are together, so that a lot of detail isn’t leaving anybody out.

2) Treat the group of hirelings/mercenaries as one “individual”.  For the sake of ease, every ability score is equal to 8+1d4 (these are thoroughly average people), but randomly determine one ability and add 1d6 to it for every 6 members of the group (there’s one exceptional individual).  HP are equal to the number of members’ HD, and all members must be equipped identically.  If using a skill system of some sort, give the group one advance past starting, but otherwise consider it to have default levels.  Additional advances can be bought using whatever system is appropriate.

3) Use a skirmish rules system of your choice to keep track of groups of mercenaries/hirelings (Mordheim is a natural choice as it was a large inspiration for these rules in the first place)


Free RPG Day

Posted in RPGs on June 16, 2013 by Jeff Russell

So, yesterday was “Free RPG Day”.  For those of you who don’t know, participating game stores buy boxes from the Free RPG Day organizers which are chock full of free game material.  Usually this consists of one-off adventures, quick start versions of rules, that kind of thing.  And for Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, that is precisely what I got (there were some others, but I didn’t want to grab stuff just for the sake of grabbing stuff when other people might get more use out of it).  But this year had the totally awesome not-quick-start, not-all-ages-appropriate “Better than Any Man” by James Raggi from his own Lamentations of the Flame Princess line of adventures.  It’s like a mini-campaign setting (Lower Franconia being invaded by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus – yes, it is a historical setting, just like “The God That Crawls”).  I’m about halfway through reading it now, and it is awesome.  Tons of disturbing content, chock full of Raggi’s signature “not just kill your characters, but fundamentally alter them and/or the world” spells and encounters.  Much like “The God That Crawls” I will personally most likely not follow Raggi’s advice from the referee book in the Grindhouse edition of LotFP – which is to make only the tweaks necessary to make an adventure fit in your world and then nothing else – because, well, I’m just not that mean.   But I like to include some of his stuff to force myself to play for keeps.


If you were not lucky enough to have a participating local game store, or to make it to one, Mr. Raggi plans to have a few leftovers available for cheap from the online store soon.  Or you could talk to some people who maybe did get their hands on one.  And once the exclusivity of getting one at Free RPG Day wears off, I think he’s talked about making a PDF version available for sale.  If so, I super recommend you get it. Really just ridiculous how much good stuff is packed in there for free.  It’s bigger than all previous LotFP adventures, so it’s easily worth 15-20 bucks print and 5-10 pdf.  And that’s a low-ball.  He could probably ask for more and it’d be worth it.  So, sorry to gush, but it’s good, it’s exciting, and you should try to find it.

Fellhold Session 32 and 33 Recap and Quick and Dirty Mass Combat Rules

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, New Rules, RPGs on June 11, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Session 32 started out with a lot of technical issues for everyone participating.  I suspect it had to do with the changes Google had just made to the hangouts/video chat format.  Speaking of which, I miss my posts about hangouts displaying the name of the video chat, because that was the primary way I reminded myself what session number we were on for the blog.  Oh well, being able to count should be good enough for the most part.

The player characters decided to spend the night in Bjergby and then ask the priests about using their library in the morning.  They want to learn more about the history of Gurgu and confirm or reject some of the rumors they picked up in Mickleheim.  Their sleep was interrupted by the innkeeper pounding on their door, however.  Priests had run down from the temple to fetch the adventurers because they remembered Yllgrad the dwarf’s boasting about killing many foul beasts, and their temple was under attack.

Now, this set up *smacks* of being set up for the PCs benefits, right in the same vein as “then ninjas pop out!”, but here’s the God’s honest truth: okay, yes, having an attack from monsters from outside was thought up to make the location more of an “adventure”, and only came up because the players ended up visiting this place, so in that sense it’s “plotted”. But after deciding that bugbears from the deep would be an adventure element, their actions have been determined either independently or in reaction to the players.  I randomly determined a number of days until the bugbears planned to attack, and then decided that they had a spy on the island, and if the players said or did certain things in front of the spy, they would push their timetable up.  Turns out their scheduled attack was at 5:00 in the morning of this day.


Thanks Tony Diterlizzi

So, the players decided that if they help out the priests, maybe they’ll give them access to the temple in gratitude, and they occasionally have vague senses of doing the right thing.  When they show up, they are lead to the bottom two floors of the temple, and they are attacked with crossbow bolts out of patches of unnatural darkness! Yllgrad’s faithful hireling Nyllan is struck and falls headlong into the lava, bringing with him most of Yllgrad’s adventuring gear besides his armor and weapon! The adventurers charge into the darkness and find themselves fighting blind against trollkin (a bugbear and his hobgoblin slaves).

They manage to dispatch the hobgoblins pretty quickly, with the help of Sir Braxton, Caleb’s dog, and a few lucky critical hits.  The bugbear takes some serious damage and decides to flee.  The party presses on to fight another similar group with similar results, except this bugbear throws sleep gas grenades before fleeing (thanks to a suggestion on Google+ for the idea for using noxious fumes, which lead to the sleep gas grenade idea).  It puts Sir Braxton, a hireling, and Caleb to sleep, along with the lone surviving hobgoblin slave.  The party ties him up for questioning before moving on to the large melee.

See, as all of this has been going on, the main force of Bugbears, Hobgoblins, Trolls, and lightning lizards have been facing off against the priests and their summoned elemental.  Then they also summoned the avatar of Gurgu, and it pretty much went against the bugbears and their slaves after that.  The players’ ranged characters and henchmen contributed by picking off some leadership and killing two of the lightning lizards.  Being hard pressed, the bugbears retreated, leaving the enraged trolls and lightning lizards fighting. They threw sleep grenades, which promptly knocked out every single priest.  Fortunately, the elemental did not go out of control and kept the trolls busy, but Gurgu just stood there without direction from the priests.


By the time the players got there, the trolls had fled in the face of so much non-regenerating damage, and they helped Bjergmund clear the whole complex, thereby getting something of a tour.  During this clearing, they found a collapsed newly dug tunnel that was the apparent retreat point of the Bugbears and their forces.  Bjergmund also answered some questions about the temple and Gurgu, confirming that the temple was built by a wizard before Gurgu was worshipped, and that he selected it so that his library of clay tablets would be in hot, dry air.  For their help in defending the temple, the PCs were all offered free lifetime access to the baths, the chest containing the offerings  of the faithful, and a chest with fancy vestements, which the party gratefully accepted.  We had to end somewhat early due to a number of early appointments, and the party decided that next time they will seek out any alternative landing places on the island to confirm that the monsters really did come from deep under the earth and to go through the library to research Gurgu. If they complete that, they will return to Mickleheim to sell some loot and refit for future adventures.


Quick and Dirty Mass Combat Rules

Alternative 1 (slightly more concrete): Treat each side as a “character”.  Assign AC, HD, HP and morale based on the overall characteristics of the side (something like 1 HP per 1 HD monster/character is probably reasonable).  When players are not involved, each side fights as if a one on one fight.  Determine initiative normally and go from there.  If players get involved, have them make attacks on the side as if against a single character if they’re indiscriminate, or if they target someone in particular (like a leader) “zoom in” and alter the side’s “character” appropriately.  For example, if they kill a 3HD leader guy, deduct 3 HP from the side as a whole, and maybe test morale. Without other special circumstances (leaders killed, horrifying magic, et cetera) start testing morale after ¼ or ½ HP damage are taken.

Alternative 2 (more abstract and potentially more swingy): Assign each side a base morale value and a morale bonus or penalty.  Each combat round, roll a d20 for each side, and the higher roll wins that round.  Deduct a point from the losing side’s morale bonus (or increase the penalty by 1).  Test morale every round.  When one side fails a morale check, it flees.  Alter the morale modifiers appropriately for character actions (deduct points when they kill leaders or big monsters, add points when they rally the troops or lead a charge, whatever). This tends to assume fairly evenly matched forces, but if you want one side to have way better fighting ability, you can always modify the vs. d20 roll, or use Alternative 1 above.

Alternative 3 (most concrete): Roll up lots of creatures/characters.  Roll initiative.  Have a big ass fight with the normal rules.  Take careful notes to avoid going insane.  Budget a lot of time.

Morale Rolls: For these rules, a morale roll of 2d6 attempting  to roll under modified morale score is assumed.  Morale scores range from 2 (totally cowardly) to 12 (fanatically loyal).  Basic humans/humanoids with a normal stake in a fight can be assumed to be morale 7. A natural 2 always passes, and a natural 12 always fails.  Note that a modifier of +3 or greater will almost guarantee passing these rolls for Morale of 7 or greater.  If you have a different preferred morale system, go with that, but a 2 or more dice roll is recommended, so that you will have a normal distribution with most results clustering around the average (7) +/- 1 or 2.

RPG May Blog Carnival: Campaigns I’d Like to Run

Posted in RPGs with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by Jeff Russell

First Time Blog Carnival Participation!

By way of participating in the RPG Blog Carnival for May, I thought I’d jump in with talking about campaigns I’d like to run, and man, are there a lot.  Unfortunately, probably a lot more than I’ll ever get to, but that’s just the way of things.  So, to impose some structure on my excessive campaign desires, I am going to give an example for each suggested facet of the topic from the introductory post to this Month’s carnival.  Let’s get to it, shall we?


Specific Campaign Pitches: Okay, first of all, this is a game that I probably want to play in more than I want to run it, but I’ll take what I can get.  I was recently reading the archives at Monsters & Manuals and saw this post talking about Conquistador companies and it reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about for a while, probably originally inspired by Penny Arcade’s Acquisitions Incorporated.  I want a game with a fairly advanced, slightly cosmopolitan setting, more late medieval to early renaissance than my usual preferred early dark ages.  Something more like Warhammer’s Old World (especially Marienburg) or Waterdeep.  But this is not a game of citycrawling or courtly intrigue.  Oh no.  This is a game of expeditions into dangerous wilderness and ruins for glory and wealth.  Mostly wealth.  There’s something interesting to me in the idea of taking an explicitly anachronistic, even banal attitude to a fantasy world.  So, adventurers would actually be professional adventurers, formed into companies with shares spelled out in contracts, clauses regarding funeral arrangements, business plans, et cetera.  I wouldn’t want to tip entirely into parody, but something about the inherent irony of the juxtaposition of real world, modern approaches to fantastical, mythical things would be fun.  In the background would be a “kitchen sink” fantasy setting with the cliché elves and dwarves and halflings and humans and whoever living in one multicultural empire, “magic as technology” would make an appearance despite (because of?) my usual distaste for it, and many of the ridiculous rationalizing of D&D tropes that occurred in late 2E would be fully embraced.  To balance this, the actual expeditions would be insanely, nightmarishly lethal, and the only viable option for success would be thorough preparation and lateral thinking.  I think a DCCRPG style funnel approach would be especially fitting, and would make sense with players in the role of “expedition managers” with a stable of recruits.  All of this is even more amusing to me now that I’m in business school.


Systems or Settings of Interest: I really want to run Burning Wheel some time.  Reading the rules got me all hot and bothered, and the emotional mechanics for elves and dwarves just really *get* Tolkien style elves and dwarves in a way that I would love to see in action. I don’t know if they lead to those characterizations working in play, but reading them definitely conjures up exactly the right feel.  At one point I actually said “If I ever run D&D again, I want to do it with Burning Wheel.”  Obviously I was foolish and wrong, but I would amend that to “If I ever want to run a high-drama epic fantasy game focused on character motivations, I want to run Burning Wheel.”  But secretly, I might want to play Burning Wheel even more than I want to run it.


Gamemastered in a Particular Style: So, obviously I’d really like to run my own damn game “Book of Threes”.  A few things have held this up: getting more into “Old School” gaming than indie gaming recently, having an actual game to play instead of just amusing myself with design, and stalling out on what exactly the point of play for this game is.  So, I’ve got a great idea of the ‘feel’ I want to go for, and some notions I’ve borrowed from indie games on how to set up tense interpersonal relationships, but I feel like the game lacks a driving “this is what you do in this game” impetus for players to fall back on.  I need to figure that out, and then figure out how to tweak the game mastering rules (which are mostly a modification of the Apocalypse World game master rules) to reflect that. And since I’ve been so focused on Fellhold, that’s been way on the backburner for awhile.  But I’d still like to work it out and get that game finished.


Dream Team: Hahah, just kidding

For Particular Groups: I lucked out and got most of my RPG group “dream team” into the Fellhold game.  That being said, I have a few friends that I would specifically like to get together for some hippie indie gaming with themes and shit. And some other friends I’d like to play something openly competitive and tactical.  There’s some overlap there, of course, but I know some play styles and games just aren’t gonna do much for some people.


Lists: Monastic warriors; Sikhs; Desert Nomads; Djinn; Mongols; Rakhshasas; Sinbad; Sorcerors; Islands; Gnolls; Pirate Kings; Junks; Fishmen; Dagon; Garuda; Lizardmen; Dinosaurs; Wandering Judges; Factions


Pretty Much Like This

And for something completely different, a mash up of Gonzo D&D flavored Cartoons, but with taking themselves entirely seriously, and without the G/PG gloves on: Thundarr the Barbarian; He-Man and the Masters of the Universe; Thundercats; Pirates of Dark Water

 Vancian Supplement cover copy

This Guy Makes Awesome Supplements

How You Pitch That Campaign: I dream about producing a small, attractive supplement with quality art and layout that strikes *exactly* the right balance between interesting ideas to steal for your game and not being an overly wordy poor attempt at pseudo-fiction.  I envision the meat of it being tools to make homebrewing easier and better, and then some ingredients to include in your brew if you want (specific locations, cultures, et cetera).  Kinda like Vornheim, but for whole setting creation. I’m sure I’m the umpteenth person to have and express this wish, and someone has probably already made it and made it good.  But yeah, that would be the ultimate “pitch” to me.


Genres that Lure You: There’s just something about that Grim Darkness of the Far Future Where There is Only War that feels like it ought to make a hell of an RPG with the right treatment. But the published 40k games leave me cold.  Actually “leave me cold” is not fair.  It’s more like “make me want to smash the book into my face and wonder why, oh God why was this written this way?!” That being said, I’d like to run something like Dark Heresy with a different ruleset (my last thinking was a hack of Apocalypse World, but when I came to that decision, I thought everything should be a hack of Apocalypse World.  If I start considering it more seriously, I will probably be more amenable to other ways of doing things).  My histrionics aside, there are some really cool rules in the Fantasy Flight 40k games (well, in Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, the two I have) – things like corruption as well as insanity, the rogue trader profit/purchasing system is a really cool way to easily simulate a large business empire in a way that drives play, that sort of thing.


Okay, and maybe a Sultan from Geek Chic

Using Interesting Tools: The sad thing is that the “interesting tools” I most yearn for right now are the oldies but goodies – I would love to be able to play a game at a table, with physical paper maps, hand written props, et cetera.  Sometimes I fantasize about using miniatures and making some cool dungeon terrain and the like, but mostly I just don’t want the artificial constraints imposed by playing online.  I feel like a lot of the old school stuff I want to make a focus (player mapping, creative combat without relying on fancy rules, et cetera) loses usefulness in a Google+ Hangout.  Don’t get me wrong, the ability to play a weekly game with good friends scattered across the country far outweighs all the downsides, but at the end of the day, it’s still an acceptable substitute, not the real thing.


Campaigns Avoiding Certain Problems: This may be cheating and falling back on setting of particular interest, but Torchbearer looks like it handles the resource management issues of D&D not by abstracting them away, but by making them the focus of the game.  I sometimes feel like the nasty, brutish, and short phase of low-level old school D&D is the part I like the most, and it sure sounds like Torchbearer delivers on that, but I haven’t gotten a full copy of the rules yet, and I certainly haven’t played, so who knows?  It might go too far into “focused design” to make for good sustained play, and it might be too similar to D&D for “taking a break” from an ongoing D&D campaign, but that’s okay.  If nothing else, hopefully there will be some tools to rip off for future homebrewing.


Fellhold Session 31 Recap (and rules for clerics of Hrokr)

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, RPGs with tags , , , on May 22, 2013 by Jeff Russell

This will be a fairly bare bones recap, as I’ve been busier than anticipated this week.

Yllgrad managed to escape the temple, and he even did so without murdering the initiates that he held hostage.  Of course, shortly after leaving, they told the high priest what had happened, and the priesthood of Gurgu decided to pursue the crazed dwarf.  When the characters who had undergone the initiation into the belief of Gurgu reached the shrine again, they found the priests and initiates looking agitated.  They disavowed knowing the dwarf well, claiming he had only just joined them on the voyage, and they agreed to help search him out.

When they reached the town, Varian slipped away to try to warn Yllgrad, but Yllgrad’s player had concocted a devious plan after his first reaction, which was to suit up in his armor and get ready for a fight.  Instead, he went out openly to the crowd and claimed that he had been overtaken by a madness, the same madness which had brought him to seek out the healing power of Gurgu.  The priests believed him, and agreed to perform a ritual to cleanse him of his madness, assuming he agreed to profess his faith in Gurgu and to be confined until the ritual was complete (for his own safety and that of everyone else, of course).  While they wait out the night, Dag (Bryni’s henchman and former bandit sergeant) and Kieghl (fighter belonging to a new addition to the play group) stumble down some stairs under the semi-plausible excuse of looking for towels after bathing.  When they start finding fancy statues and floors, they head back before running into trouble.

So they lock him in the very same robe closet from which he stole an oversized robe earlier in the day, and say that they will hold him until dawn to perform the ritual, as that is a time especially holy to Gurgu.  The rest of the party, having admitted to knowing him somewhat, are allowed to stay at the temple and to participate in the ritual to cleanse him.  Yllgrad is admitted into the faith by the same ritual undergone by the other characters previously.  After being initiated into the faith, the whole group (and a number of priests/initiates) were led to the lowest level of the temple in the volcano for the summoning of the avatar of Gurgu.


Gurgu looked something like this, but made of lava

With everyone’s head bowed, Bjergmund retrieves the Heart of the Mountain from a secret room, and it really is a giant ruby, as big as two fists held together.  He tosses it into the lava and the imposing but passive figure of Gurgu rises from the magma.  Seeing the form, and hearing the priest talking about “cleansing this” and “power that”, Yllgrad decides to flee. The priests, initiates, and other PCs all go to tackle him so that the ritual can go forward.  Kieghl succeeds (with a critical) and Yllgrad is handily wrestled down to the ground and returned to the ritual.  Bjergmund beseeches Gurgu to outstretch his hand, take away the madness, and return to the fiery heart of the world to burn it away, and sure enough, Gurgu stretches out one hand (burning Bjergmund and Yllgrad from his proximity), and then returns into the magma.  After sinking back into the lava, the Heart of the Mountain pops back out onto the platform.  Yllgrad is declared healed, and everyone is asked to leave.

The party agrees and heads back to town, though now they’re wondering why Gurgu didn’t notice the lack of any real madness, and why he appeared so passive in the face of someone who was faking belief in him.  Back in the inn, they decided to investigate more and try to find their way to the temple’s library to learn more about Gurgu and the volcano, and that’s where we left them.

For rules, I’m going to have to cop out and just post the new spell lists I came up with for Clerics of Hrokr (trickster god of magic and hospitality and such like).  The main thing is that even though I left cure light wounds (mostly cos we had already used that a lot), clerics of Hrokr aren’ t so good at healing later on.  But they get some magic user spells, and they get to learn runes by prayer (instead of study).  So hopefully this will help to differentiate the from Clerics of Dwyn (our other cleric in the party is a cleric of Dwyn) who have some druid type spells.  I’ll post that another time.

Cleric of Hrokr


Level 1

1.     Cure Light Wounds

2.     Detect Chaos (Law)

3.     Detect Magic

4.     Light (Dark)

5.     Protection from Chaos

6.     Purify Food and Drink

Level 2

1.     Bless (Curse)

2.     Find Traps

3.     Hold Person

4.     Speak with Animals

Level 3

1.     Detect Invisibility

2.     Light (Dark), Continual

3.     Locate Object

4.     Mirror Image

5.     Read Languages

6.     Remove Curse

Level 4

1.     Invisibility

2.     Neutralize Poison

3.     Phantasmal Force

4.     Protection from Chaos, 10 ft Radius

5.     Sticks to Snakes

Level 5

1.     Commune

2.     Confusion

3.     Create Food and Drink

4.     Dispel Chaos

5.     Suggestion

Level 6

1.     Charm Monster

2.     Confusion

3.     Hallucinatory Terrain

4.     Massmorph

5.     Polymorph

6.     Wizard Eye


Whenever a Cleric of Hrokr gains a new spell “slot”, he may opt to pray to Hrokr to teach him a new rune.  Once a rune is learned in this fashion, it permanently takes up one spell slot of any level (make a note on your character sheet what level slot the rune replaced). For example, a cleric of Hrokr advances to 4th level, and opts to learn a rune.  He decides to replace one of his two 1st level slots with a rune.  He survives many adventures and reaches 9th level. At this point, he will have 2 level one spells available, because one of the 3 listed is still taken up by a rune. If a cleric learns a rune through study or a tutor, it does not take up a spell slot.

When a cleric of Hrokr gains a rune through prayer, he will receive one randomly determined rune.  Roll on the following table.  If the character already possesses the rune rolled, he gains special insight into his god’s secrets, and may instead choose freely.

1.     Victory Rune

2.     Opening Rune

3.     Ale Rune

4.     Wave Rune

5.     Heal Rune

6.     Curse Rune

7.     Ward Rune

8.     Fear Rune

9.     Berserk Rune

10.  Fire Rune

11.  Dead Rune

12.  Disease Rune

13.  Strength Rune

14.  Water Rune

15.  Earth Rune

16.  Air Rune

17.  Iron Can’t Bite Rune

18.  Fortune Rune

19.  Shield Rune

20.  Sealing Rune



Runic Magic in Fellhold

Posted in Fellhold Campaign, New Rules, RPGs with tags , , , on May 17, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Nota Bene: Pretty much this entire post is rules, but I’ve maintained the convention of bold italic type so that it will stand out if you’re scrolling up or down the page only looking for the useful stuff. 

Runes1 (1)

I’ve been wanting to come add magic runes to the Fellhold campaign for a while now, to get that delicious Viking flavor.  I contemplated a cool combinatory system with very modular runes, kinda inspired by sygalldry in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle books, but I decided that a) that would be a whole lot of work, and b) it would clash with the overall Vancian magical flavor of D&D the campaign has mostly relied on.  That being said, I’m a huge fan of different rule systems for Magic, and I fully plan on creating such a system for a campaign where it would fit better.  I also have an idea on doing something based off the way semitic languages have vowel roots and apply consonants in forms with loose semantic meanings to get words, but that’s way outside the scope of this here post.

So, I checked out the AD&D 2nd Edition Viking Campaign sourcebook, the Realms of Sorcery supplement for WFRP 2nd Edition, and wikipedia articles on runes mentioned in the Poetic Edda and sagas, and on Icelandic ‘Staves’.  Though I initially had high hopes for the WFRP runes, they were almost all blandly combat stat buffs.  Which is useful, of course, but not as flavorful as what I wanted.  WFRP’s heavily skill and talent based approach was also not the right answer for mechanical implementation.

I ended up drawing a lot more from the historical Viking Campaign sourcebook than I expected to on my first read through.  There were actually some kind of cool concepts about shaping the rune each and every time, because the nature of the thing inscribed and the specific circumstance and so forth all combined to give the rune a unique physical expression every time, and it had to be imbued with power.  So I took a little bit of that for my own so that just knowing how to scratch the symbol doesn’t give you crazy powers (even if I suspect that the historical basis for “magic runes” is at least a little tied up in illiterate people being impressed by literacy and what you could do with it – this is D&D, damnit, not a historical exercise).

I had a few basic concepts I thought would make runes interestingly flexible and open ended (the sort of magic I find coolest for games).  First, I struck on the notion that the permanence of the runes effect is related to the permanence of how it is inscribed.  Rather than flat out stating “runes must be carved into something”, I wanted there to be the option to hastily scrawl something with your own blood on an improvised surface, but it won’t last very long and it won’t be very powerful compared to a purpose made rune imbued with great power and cast into an armband as it is made.  Next, the power of the rune is effected by the quality and permanence of the item.  Both of these are for thematic as well as gameplay reasons.  Thematically, it makes magical thinking sense if more purposefully and permanently doing something to a thing of greater value gets you greater effects.  Gameplay wise, I don’t want players just chalking exploding runes onto every which surface they find willy nilly.  Which ties into another thing I knew I wanted to do with runes: make them not fire and forget.  You know a rune, or you don’t.  So the resource management aspect has to come in somewhere else than “times a day you can use them”.  You have to manage physical components, time to shape, et cetera.  Also, runes are heavily front loaded resource-wise.  You have to either spend a lot of time and money studying one, or else you have to give up a spell slot permanently.  The final thing I knew about runes going in was that I wanted them to be flexible and open ended and able to be combined by clever players (even if I ditched the idea of modular ‘programming’ style runes for build your own magic items).


Which is where I ran into some troubles.  See, the uber-specific rules given in the 2E viking campaign book left me cold, and they were largely written as a low-magic replacement for traditional D&D Vancian magic users for the purposes of genre emulation, rather than as a supplement to that system that provided different tactical, strategic, and logistical choices.  I was also running up against a time constraint, because my clerics were about to level up, and I wanted to fundamentally tweak their options based on their patron before they got too high in level and locked into the pseudo-Christian crusader baked into the cleric class as written.  So I ended up copping out a little bit.  I just gave the runes brief, qualitative descriptions, and figure I’ll adjudicate rules for individual uses on the fly.  Hopefully this vagueness will lead to creative and cunning uses devised by players and a lack of restriction on my part, but I worry that they will be so vague as to lose out in comparison to known goods like healing spells and the like.

The last thing I ended up stumbling into with runes as I was writing the rules for learning them was the decision that anyone can learn them.  I just a) let priests of Hrokr get them by prayer (but then its random), and b) made it so that Magic Users learn them faster by study than do others (studying arcane things to unlock their use is sort of their entire job).  But if Clerics want a specific rune, or if fighting men want to stray into more mythic archetypal territory, they have the option if they throw down a lot of time and (presumably) money.

Runic Magic

Runes can be granted to clerics of Hrokr through prayer, or they may be learned through intense study of from a talented teacher.  A rune is not merely a symbol with magical properties.  Rather, it is a physical distillation of the true nature of a thing in relation to the world.  So, a berserk rune will vary depending upon what surface and for what warrior it is crafted, and understanding the forces necessary to apply this to any object is a matter of some insight.

Runes impart abilities to the objects on which they are inscribed or to their bearers.  Usually, merely writing or painting a rune is insufficient to unite the energies of the rune with the item upon which it is placed, but some runes can grant a limited or weak effect when so temporarily marked.  There is a direct relationship between the permanence and craft of the object and the method of inscription to the power of the rune.  Thus, a sword crafted by a master smith, with the runes worked into the blade as it is forged and quenched will be a far more potent item with more permanent powers than a dagger with a rune hastily scratched into its hilt. 

Sometimes the release of the energies of a rune will damage or destroy the item upon which it is placed, and this is more likely the more hastily crafted the rune is.

Learning Runes

A cleric of Hrokr can learn a rune whenever he gains a new spell slot.  If he chooses to do so, he automatically learns a randomly determined rune and it permanently replaces one of his spell slots.  He may choose which spell slot, and it need not be the newly acquired slot.  Once chosen, it may not be moved to a different spell slot.  To randomly determine what rune is learned, roll 1d20 and consult the list below.  If the result is a rune already known to the cleric, he may instead choose freely, as he has been granted particular insight by Hrokr.

Any character may attempt to learn a rune through study if he has access to obscure runic lore, or to a tutor (these will probably take some finding!).  These sources will have information on only a few, specific runes, and access to them will probably not be cheap.  If the referee has not established which runes the source can teach, and he can’t decide, he may randomly roll 1d4 runes from the list below. Learning a rune from pure study (no tutor) takes 20 – the character’s level in weeks if he is a magic user, and 20 – half the character’s level (rounded down) if he is a fighting man or cleric. A tutor will reduce this time by 5 weeks.  The minimum time to learn a rune is 1 week.  However much time it takes, it is a period of intense study, and the character is considered to do nothing else of consequence during this time.  If there are any interruptions, he must start over and take the full amount of time.  At the end of the period, the character attempts to roll under his intelligence.  If he fails, he may retest in another week.  Continue retesting once a week until the character gives up or succeeds.  

List of Runes

  1. Victory Rune
  2. Opening Rune
  3. Ale Rune
  4. Wave Rune
  5. Heal Rune
  6. Curse Rune
  7. Ward Rune
  8. Fear Rune
  9. Berserk Rune
  10. Fire Rune
  11. Dead Rune
  12. Disease Rune
  13. Strength Rune
  14. Water Rune
  15. Earth Rune
  16. Air Rune
  17. Iron Can’t Bite Rune
  18. Fortune Rune
  19. Shield Rune
  20. Sealing Rune 


These descriptions are purposefully left vague in order to facilitate their creative application.  Referees should make rulings on their use based on the desired level of fantasticness and power they want runes to bring to their games.  Just remember the guidelines: the more permanent the inscription, the more powerful the effect, the higher quality and more permanent the material, the stronger the effect, the more temporary, the more likely the rune will damage or destroy the object inscribed, and the rune must be crafted by the casters own hand.

  • Victory Rune – Improves a weapons chance to hit and imbues it with magic
  • Opening Rune – Causes a locked or sealed portal to be opened – doors, windows, et cetera.
  • Ale Rune ­– Will destroy a vessel that holds poisoned food or drink
  • Wave Rune – Improves the handling and speed of a ship
  • Heal Rune ­– Increases a specified target’s ability to heal
  • Curse Rune – Inflicts a curse on a specified target
  • Ward Rune – Protects against spells and curses
  • Fear Rune – Causes fear in the enemies of the bearer
  • Berserk Rune – Causes the bearer to become a berserker
  • Fire Rune – Brings about fire in the thing inscribed or protects against fire
  • Dead Rune – Summons a spirit of the dead to answer questions
  • Disease Rune – Causes disease on a specified target
  • Strength Rune – Grants great strength to the bearer
  • Water Rune – Provides protection against water
  • Earth Rune – Imbues an item with the nature of the earth
  • Air Rune – Imbues an item with the nature of air
  • Iron Can’t Bite Rune – Reduces damage to the bearer
  • Fortune Rune – Allows the divination of a specified targets fortune
  • Shield Rune – Makes an item or its bearer more resistant to ill effects
  • Sealing Rune – Seals a portal of some sort



How to Make Sweet D100 Tables for Fun and Profit

Posted in New Rules, RPGs with tags , , on May 16, 2013 by Jeff Russell

Or: The FINGER system of faux-creativity

So, I’ve got a terrible confession to make.  As a self-described GM/Referee and creative person, I’m not actually that good at coming up with wacky creative ideas out of thin air.  I read stuff by Greg Gorgonmilk and Zak S. and Jeff Rients and so forth, and I’m always astounded by the raw awesome they seem to be able to pull out of the ether, and I greedily appropriate it for my own game.

On the other hand, what I am good at, if I may say so myself, is in selectively recombining things to get something new(ish) with a coherent feel.  So, a pastiche artist, if you will.  This used to drive me into fits of self-questioning angst, or launch me into pretentious justification of the inherent creativity of fitting together other’s works, but now I just accept it and try to have fun with it.  And keep my ideas for Thing A + Thing B but in Place C fantasy/sci-fi novels/comics/movies to myself (or realize the setting would be better for games anyway).


You know, this sort of thing

Recently, this tendency has been combined with my immersion into the Old School Renaissance/DIY D&D/whatever you want to call it.  I’ve always liked to tinker and house rule and design games, but specifically the habit of reading gaming material with an eye to ruthlessly tear out, appropriate, and modify any rules that I find useful is one that I’ve developed to a higher degree the last few months than ever before.  I initially got a bunch of retroclones and versions of D&D with the idea of soberly comparing, weighing strengths and weaknesses, and then selecting the one I liked best.  But now I look at all of them with the dispassionate eye of a black market organ harvester.  One of these days, DCC RPG is going to wake up in a bathtub full of ice, missing its zero level “funnel” character creation rules.

And then, last week, just as I was going to stat up some simple hydra teeth that turn into skeleton warriors, or a goat-legged Cyclops or something, I had a revelation.  I was reading the synopsis of “7th Voyage of Sinbad” and I realized how insanely D&D it was.  I checked other Harryhausen synopses and found that while the Sinbad movies were far and away the most D&D, everything had some stuff that was usable.  And I realized that I had started applying the pitiless scalpel of game material selection to creative stuff, fluff if you will, as well as to mechanics.  And the d100 table of random Harryhausenisms was born (by far my highest traffic post so far, so thanks folks).

I was thinking about it, and I realized that the actual procedure I used is replicable, and is in fact quite simple.  And that if you’re willing to be a little pastichey, you can cover a lot of setting ground with it.  This one’s going to be a little long, but you can probably get most of what’s here with the following list and the two examples at the end. Without further ado:

Jeff’s Guide to Making a Dwhatever Map Stocking Chart for Fun and Profit

(Okay, more likely just fun, but let me know if you figure out the profit part)

  1. 1.     Find an inspiring piece of media
  2. 2.     Identify the cool stuff in it
  3. 3.     Noun that stuff
  4. 4.     Genericize those nouns
  5. 5.     Expand their uses
  6. 6.     Ready your chart

(I figured out I could get a cute acronym about halfway through).

Step One – Find an Inspiring Piece of Media

Select a piece of media that gets your motor going or that fits with the milieu you’re shooting for.  Alternatively, if you’re looking to spice things up, purposely select something *outside* of your usual genre/world tropes, but that is still inspiring to you.  That’s the main thing.  You think it’s cool, and it’s something creative.  This is easiest to do with things that tell stories: books, movies, comics.  But you can do it with pictures or music or whatever as well.  I’ve started using heavy metal song lyrics all the time.  Examples to follow the explanation.

Step Two – Identify Cool Stuff in It

Go through this inspiring piece of media, and look for the cool stuff.  The easiest way to do this is to go to Wikipedia and read the plot synopsis (that’s what I did for the Harryhausen table), as this will by definition hit the highlights and moments of drama.  You could use back of book blurbs, internet reviews, whatever.  Or if you *really* like something, you can read through the actual source material and take notes or highlight or whatever.  Find the things that most scream “Gameable” and  “Awesome” to you. 

Step Three – Noun that Stuff

Once you’ve identified elements from your source material that are cool, you want to Noun them.  This is the opposite of Verbing things.  You see, verbs are the province of Plot.  Plot is not what we want here, because we’re all good sandboxy/player agency oriented referees, right?  Notice that’s big “P” Plot.  Yes, you can have a lovely picaresque plot emerge from the processes of play, and it probably will.  That’s in the future.  Because for our purposes, verbs are what *player characters* do.  Sometimes NPCs get to do verbs in *reaction* to player characters or because of some internal game world logic, but that’s not what our stocking table is for.  If you have a bunch of verbs on your list, then you either have to run an entire clockwork world in the background, for which there are better tools, or else have the artificialness that the zany, interesting action the players just walked up on just so happens to be going on right as the players find it, no matter when or under what circumstances they roll up. 

That’s why you don’t want to put the action in there, you want a person, a place, or a thing.  Maybe a scene or tableau if you want to push it.  The key here is that you present an element of the world, just like any other, that the players can act on and react to.  Making the scene into a noun makes it make more sense as a static feature, or even if it is a “this happens as you come upon it” (sometimes fun to include, I’ll admit) it doesn’t presume the player characters’ involvement.  It’s just there for them to interact with. None of this is to say that these nouns shouldn’t be ready to spring into appropriate action once the player characters poke it, just try to avoid things that are the other way around (that’s what random encounters are for).

Step Four – Genericize those Nouns

Now, here’s the tricky part, but the part that will help you find way more ideas: you want to take the cool nouned elements from your inspiring piece of media, and then you want to file off the serial numbers.  Got a reference to Mentok the Mindtaker? Turn that into “an evil mentalist”.  There’s a balance to be struck here: too generic and stuff isn’t cool or gameable. Too specific and your table becomes less useful to others, and also less useful to you.  If you want to use a cool specific guy or monster, don’t put it in a stocking table! Put it where you want it in your world, or else on a random encounter table.  The only thing gained by putting a specific person or thing in a stocking table is you don’t know where he or she or it will end up, and you can just do that by rolling once for the thing. 

Likewise, don’t get hung up on trappings or genre stuff too much.  For the Harryhausen table I made, even though most of the table came from the overtly fantasy Sinbad movies and Clash of the Titans, something like a quarter to a third of the entries (don’t quote me on that) are from movies set in modern America with fantastic elements (even aliens).  So, when you spot an evil wizard, consider thinking of him as just “an evil powerful guy” or “an evil guy with secret knowledge”.  Or if you find a story about hackers jacking some stuff in cyberspace (like the kids do), you can genericize it into “A highly skilled group of rogues pulls off an impressive heist.”  The key is not to lose the “character” of the person or thing you identify and make it so generic as to be boring, but to make it broadly useful and able to fit into whatever sort of world (unless the whole point is to introduce some gonzo weirdness or subvert genre tropes, in which case, have at it).

A variation of this if you’re only concerned with your own campaign world is to ‘reskin’ rather than genericize.  That’s basically what I did with the Harryhausen results from the 20th century America movies (and even the caveman movie) – I recast it in D&D terms (science becomes magic, aliens become generic invaders, et cetera).  Again, try to keep what was cool or striking about the thing, the underlying reason it will be a potential source of danger or excitement, but then make it so you can recombine it with any other damn thing.

Step 5 – Expand their Uses

Okay, I started stretching the names a little bit at this part so that I could make the acronym FINGER.  What I mean by “expand their uses” could also be described as analysis (from the Greek for “to chop up”, more or less).  So, you’ve got a cool thing, you’ve made sure it’s a noun, and you’ve made it so you can drop it into multiple places and situations in your world. You want to make sure that one entry on your chart isn’t being too greedy.  One of the chief values of charts is that like our old favorite sexual reproduction, you can recombine elements in novel and unexpected ways, and the end result might be a better fit for your environment than something you would have expected of planned.  The way to maximize the recombinatory potential of your chart is to try to make sure each entry is just “one thing”.  The way you get each entry to be “one thing” is to chop up an element you stole from your source.  So, if you find an awesome fight scene where a guy fights a wizard’s guard dragon by jerry rigging a ballista, and then the dragon falls on the wizard and kills him, you can turn that into 1) A wizard with a guard dragon, 2) A jerry rigged siege weapon, 3) A beast that kills its own master (that last one is a little verby, but hey). 

Step 6 – Ready your Chart!

This one is easy and was mostly in order to get the full acronym.  Just take your entries and arrange them into a chart.  Usually you’ll do this as you go, and the fact that, say, you only have 89 will spur you to find those last 11 so you can make a d100.  And you’re done! 

Well, you’re done with this chart.  But as mentioned before, unless your only goal is to make something for other people, or a crutch to fall back on in some indeterminate future, the process of making this chart could just as easily have been used to think up a setting.  Zak S. talks about this in his thoughts on types of random generators.  What we have above is kind of an incomplete results generator to spur creativity, but by itself that’s not very useful to you, since you made the chart yourself.  So, unless going through and making the table was a useful exercise for you creatively, or you just want to have on hand stuff that will surprise even you when the players go somewhere new, you need a little more to make your new chart super awesome.  For that recombinatory goodness, you could make a second chart, and make any locations of interest be Chart 1 + Chart 2 (a mutational generator, to use the terminology from the above link).  Or you could just make a d1000 chart or some other madness, so that you end up with things you stole from the Poetic Edda rubbing shoulders with things you stole from a Dethklok album which are a few days voyage from things you yoinked from Hellboy.

Connections are another good one: randomly determine two of the things you’ve placed on the map, and then make a connection.  You can either use a connection suggested by the nature of each entry, or you could randomize it.  Do enough of this, and there’s a lot of latent connections throughout your map that players can stumble across, and if you do need to do some background verbs, you know what they’ll be.  I think coming up with a good system to find relations between placed sites of interest is going to be my next big rules project after this one.

For bonus points, you can put your new chart in Abulafia and combine it with the work of others and save yourself time all at once.

With all that said, let’s do some examples! I probably should have just made the whole thing examples, but I’m a very verbal, explainy person, so there you go.

Example #1 – Wikipedia Plot Synopsis


I could just recap what I did with the Harryhausen movies, but that would be cheating, and I want to test out my method as explained.  So instead, let’s pick something else inspirational for D&D type stuff and go with everyone’s favorite hardass puritan, Solomon Kane! Let’s go with “Hills of the Dead” by Robert E. Howard.  Wikipedia has the following blurb:

“First published in Weird Tales, August 1930.  In Africa again, Kane’s old friend N’Longa (the witch doctor from “Red Shadows”) gives the Puritan a magic wooden staff, the Staff of Solomon, which will protect him in his travels.  Kane enters the jungle and finds a city of vampires.”

Step 1) Find an Inspiring Piece of Media: Was pretty easily accomplished by finding an awesome story by Robert E. Howard.

Step 2) Identify the Cool Stuff: is also not too hard, because REH stories are dripping with D&Dable material, even when summarized in two sentences: Solomon Kane, The Hills of the Dead, Africa, N’Longa the witch doctor, the Staff of Solomon, a jungle, and a city of vampires.

Step 3) Noun that Stuff: I kind of went ahead and identified the nouns in the process above, but if we had a more detailed synopsis and I wanted to pull an element out of a cool fight scene with the vampires in their city, this is where I would do it.

Step 4) Genericize those Nouns: To genericize this stuff, we could turn Africa into “a mysterious continent” or “an unfamiliar land” or whatever.  The idea is to get at what made Africa an exciting place to set a story to a 1930’s Texan writing about a 17th century puritan and pull it out for D&D (exotic, unexplored, dangerous creatures, magic, unfamiliar cultures, “savagery”, et cetera).  The Hills of the Dead is a nicely evocative name that you can lift and then decide what it means.  It could be a place full of barrows, the burial grounds of ancient dynasties, a hell on earth ruled by the undead, whatever.  Sometimes you get generic by taking a specific cool name and then making its use generic, rather than stripping the name off of a specific cool thing.  Make N’Longa just “A witch doctor”, make the Staff of Solomon “A Powerful Magical staff” or even just “An ancient artifact”.

Step 5) Expand their Uses: Expanding/analyzing isn’t super necessary for most of these elements, but here’s a couple of examples: take N’Longa giving Kane the staff and change that into “A witch doctor with a useful magical item” and into “A powerful artifact from ancient times”.  Or take the city of vampires in the jungle and break it out into “A City of vampires” and “An ancient city in the jungle”.

Step 6) Ready your Chart! :Take that cool stuff and slap it into a table! Here’s a lame tiny table smaller than is really worthwhile to make:

  1. A wandering religious warrior
  2. An exotic, unexplored land
  3. An old friend from a foreign land
  4. A witch doctor with a useful item
  5. A powerful artifact from ancient times
  6. An ancient city in the jungle
  7. A city of vampires
  8. The Hills of the Dead

Example #2 – Cover to Hellboy: Conqueror Worm

Rather than go the easy route and use a plot synopsis of this comic, let’s just look at the artwork for inspiration (okay, I’m gonna probably rely on some of my Hellboy knowledge here to provide context, but that’s only because Hellboy is so awesome).

Step 1) Find an Inspiring Piece of Media: This picture:


Step 2 Identify the Cool Stuff: Hellboy, gasmask guy, Lobster Johnson, giant worm, floating flame, golem, head in a jar, a saint, some skulls, the name “Conqueror Worm”

Step 3) Noun that Stuff: A lot easier with a ‘posed’ picture, so not much to do here.

Step 4) Genericize those Nouns: Hellboy becomes a half demon, or an investigator, or a hero fighting monsters (or in the next step, all of these).  Gasmask guy becomes the footsoldier of an evil regime.  The golem can stay a golem, the head in a jar can become a mad scientist, or an evil wizard, or a head in a jar, or a demi-lich, the conqueror worm can be a mundane giant worm, or a summoning gone wrong, or the avatar of an inhuman god, Lobster Johnson can be a vigilante, or a skilled warrior, or a man seeking revenge, the saint can be any old saint, or a painting of a saint, or the shrine to a saint.

Step 5) Expand their Uses: As mentioned above, Hellboy alone can give us three different people, and that’s without him even having any action to draw off of in this picture.  If we dig a little we can also say: the son of a witch, the possessor of a magical weapon, an artifact that is the key to the end of the world.  Our gasmask guy can be an evil footsoldier, undead menace, a faceless servant of darkness, a bug eyed, long snouted creature, whatever.  Sometimes you don’t necessarily want to completely parse out every aspect, or you’ll lose some of what makes that element cool to drop in.  You might prefer to have “a half demon who struggles to be good” rather than “a half demon” and “a warrior who struggles to do the right thing”.

Step 6) Ready your Chart! :So, let’s do another d8 weak sauce table:

  1. A half demon son of a witch
  2. The incarnation of an alien god
  3. The head of an evil wizard kept alive in a jar of fluid
  4. Faceless shock troops of an evil regime
  5. A vigilante that leaves his mark on his victims
  6. The defiled shrine of a saint
  7. A golem with a sense of self
  8. An enormous, disgusting wormbeast