Fantastic: Assumption or exception?

3 July, 2010 at 9:16 pm (definition, game design, roleplaying, rpg theory) (, , , )

In most roleplaying settings there is something I call here fantastic: Something the players are not familiar with.


Lovecraft mythos, sword and sorcery, horror in general, LotFP’s products (this post of mister Raggi inspired my post), stories where characters discover that they (and nearly only they) have some strange powers, Stalker and Praedor.

Most of the setting is normal, non-fantastic, and typically draws heavily from the real world (present state, history, or low-key scifi). There fantastic is something that breaks the normal setting – it works with completely different principles, if any.


Glorantha, Zelazy’s Amber, Nobilis, Carcosa, Tékumel.

These settings are fundamentally different from our reality. They work by different principles, and what is exotic and fantastic to us might be common and usual for residents of these worlds, and vice versa.

Why bother?

A setting where the fantastic is assumed can be explored to find out how it works, and supposing the setting has sufficiently interesting premises, this can be good play. A roleplaying game is a good medium for such an exploration because it allows many people to contribute and further allows several issues to be explored.

Settings with fantastic principles can also make certain dramatic issues very explicit and easy to treat via gaming. Sibling rivalry and broken families are good subjects behind any game set in Zelazny’s Amber where the amberites are played, as almost everything that happens can be traced back to some family member (at least by the first five books). This is also the justification for fantasy and science fiction as vessels of serious literature.

Settings where the fantastic is something exceptional are usually easy to understand (of equal difficulty to relevant setting minus the fantastic, assuming the fantastic is not the player characters, in which case there is more complexity). Unnatural makes sense as a concept. The fantastic creates interesting situations (in both senses mentioned above).

For short I would recommend a setting that is not entirely fantastic, simply to make learning it not a problem. A setting common to everyone would of course work, too.

The third way

There are also so-called fantasy settings where the assumptions are like those of the real world and yet where there is little uncanny even to the residents of the setting. This is the vanilla fantasy setting, which to me has no value – fantasy without the fantastic has no reason, no justification, and provides no interest. I’d love to hear from anyone who disagrees, since I almost certainly am missing something.


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17 October, 2008 at 5:59 pm (Burning Wheel, dungeon crawling, game element) (, , , , )

A take on goblins as actual monsters, not a race of ugly and evil and small people. Inspired by a blog post by Jeff Rients and some reviews of Changeling: the Lost.

I will further write mechanical implementations or sketches thereof to some goblin spells, especially for my dungeoncrawling game. Also, I hereby release the rules of the dungeoncrawling game (particularly their presentation) into public domain.

Born of fear and mud

Should it be so that some dark corner, or alley, or woods, or perhaps even cave is feared and dark rumours abound, there will, sooner or later, be a goblin there. Maybe goblins are born of these rumours, or maybe the rumours of the goblins.

Once born, goblins will do as their nature makes them to: Cruel tricks and stealing people, particularly children, is their calling and source of mirth. Should a number of goblins live together for a while, a shaman will emerge and a pit of mud will be constructed, if suitable one does not exist yet.

Captured children are thrown into the pit, only to emerge as ugly goblins, much like those who created them. Captured adults are cast in and emerge as ogres, deformed monsters and mockeries of their former selves, small-minded, aggressive and brutish.

Goblin magic

Goblins are demonic, or feyish, in nature, and some have sorcerous abilities. Not all do, and they are not equally adept at their use. Shamans are naturally the undisputed masters of these arts.


Goblins are born of fear and can use it against their foes. A goblin can, in lieu of surprise attack, (attempt to) scare its foes. Everyone surprised by the goblin must resist it; those that fail are affected as though affected by normal fear effects. If any opponent succeeds, the goblin is also affected by a fear effect as though victim to its own power.

Boo! does not work in proper daylight or lighting of equivalent quality. Other goblins can hear one yelling Boo! over great distances, and they are curious creatures…


For my dungeoncrawly game: Roll magic versus magic, each target resist individually, effect as though the fear spell. Typically a number of goblins equal to magic result of the one invoking Boo! come to investigate at their leisure.

Burning Wheel: Will versus will, with steel test being the fear effect.

D&D 3rd: Will save DC 10 + 1/2 HD + charisma modifier of the goblin saying Boo!, failure means being frightened for d6 rounds. Shaken if you want the goblins to not be infuriating opponents. Either way, if anyone succeeds, the goblin is frightened. Spell-like ability, takes a standard action.

Goblin doors

Goblins can open doors from and to dark places, partially disregarding the distance between such places. They are so small that adults must grouch or even crawl to enter one and look like poorly made. There is typically a short winding tunnel after such a door, containing at least one corner such that it is impossible to see the entry and exit points of the tunnel at the same time. At the end of the tunnel there is another similar door, which opens somewhere else. Typical goblin door disappears once closed or left unattended and further it is impossible to turn around after losing sight of the entry door (going back is the same thing as going forward).

When opening a door one must imagine the location where the other side is supposed to be (and tell it to the GM, if appropriate). Most of the time the door opens to the desired location or at least to that direction; sometimes the unexpected happens, for which is the following random chart. Roll a suitable die.

  1. Oops: The other side of the door is the spawning place of the goblin this sorcery was used or taught by.
  2. Long ways to go: Traversing the tunnel takes d6 hours.
  3. Goblins: d4 goblins are lurking within the tunnel, just in case you would happen to wander through.
  4. Horror: An undead, demon, spirit, or some shadowy beast is lurking within the tunnel, preying upon unwary passengers.
  5. Shadows: Travellers are cursed to see everything as though it was night at all times. No light is bright enough, no colours distinct.
  6. Shadowy sight: Travellers can henceforth see in dim light as well as cats.
  7. Reduction: Travellers are gradually turned to size of the goblinkin.
  8. Permanency: The doors and the tunnel is permanent.
  9. U-turn: The exit point of the door is the same as the entry point.
  10. Scared: When leaving the tunnel the one who opened the door casts Boo! on the others who are treated as surprised.
  11. Infused: When leaving the tunnel one character with little magical or mental ability acquires some and can henceforth open a goblin door at will.
  12. Roll twice, apply both results if possible, else use the nastier one.


Dungeoncrawling game: After having entered the tunnel and moved so that returning is no longer a possibility, roll magic; on roll of anything but 1, the maximum distance the tunnel can cover is 20 metres multiplied by magic roll; on roll of 1, game master rolls a d12 and consults the chart. (Reduction is likely to reduce might of the character to around half; infusion gives +1 magic and goblin door at will to one character with lowest magic attribute.)

Burning Wheel: Roll will, count successes, no successes is botch, otherwise distance covered is in the ballpark of 20 metres per success. Becoming smaller reduces power by 1 and gives power cap of 6. Being infused gives a character with lowest will some custom trait that goblins have and access to goblin door. Else treat goblin door as a natural magic skill related to will.

D&D 3rd: Wisdom check DC 5 to avoid mishap, 1 is always a mishap, otherwise distance traveled equals 10 metres * check result. Shadows and shadowy sight mean dim light and low-light vision, respectively. Reduction as though being reduced to small size. Neutralise with any spell that can remove curses. Infusion gives/increases inherent bonus to charisma by 1 and gives goblin doors at will. To determine who it affects, take the highest mental score of the characters and then take the lowest of these. That’s the character you are looking for. Spell-like ability, but full-round action to open the door.

Goblin trader

Goblins are vile monsters, but also willing to help humans and others, for a price. Here’s a list of services they might grant and of prices they might ask. They are not very reliable trading partners, either, and will weasel out of an agreement if able to. Goblin traders are typically shamans out of favour within a nearby settlement.

  • Equipment the goblin happens to have, typically of poor quality – As much coins as they think you have; you would not be dealing with them if you had good choices, so better milk the situation for all it is worth.
  • Training against opponents the goblins are threatened by (say, kobolds) – Beard of a dwarf or delicious, fresh ears of an elf, or something similar.
  • Boo! at will – One live adult, subdued.
  • Goblin door at will – One live child, subdued.

Goblin magic is, I feel, suited for old school play. I doubt it would work very well with encounter-based D&D play, for example, being utterly broken and too unpredictable.

I’d love to add stats for older editions of D&D, but I don’t have the rules for any.


Everything not keyed to rules of BW or D&D is released into public domain. The intro text is not, though.

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Of dungeons and crawling therein

20 September, 2008 at 11:21 am (actual play, dungeon crawling, game mastering) (, , , , , )

Previous Wednesday, me, ksym and wgaztari did some old-fashioned dungeoncrawling. I was the GM. A dungeon was one I had designed some years ago after having read about megadungeon mapping and map design. I had basically designed enough of it to keep running the game for several sessions. There is no map except the one drawn in play, partially be me, partially by the players.

The rules can be found in a wiki:

Style of play

A sandbox world; surface destroyed, players play a bunch of survivors trying to survive within a vast network of caves, or more precisely a small portion thereof. There are a total of 26 survivors (25 originally, one more joined in game), 5+1 of them somewhere around 1 or 2nd level in power if converted to D&D3rd, 10 1st level NPC or PC class, 10 first level commoners. Players can play any number of these at once, as suits the situation and their preferences.

The philosophy of play is adapted from a document called quick primer for old school gaming. Another influence is an old forum thread called megadungeon mapping.


This gaming is all about exploration. There were only two combats total in the first session, which was something of an introduction.

The shape of the dungeon and terrain it has are of great importance; they are the arena of play. Large rocks to hide behind as a small kobold warband chases after hooded and cloaked creatures, rocky terrain where centipedes have easy time moving and hiding, while people less so, a deep pond for a crocodile to wait in. And the player characters must divide their forces to watch all entrances they want to hold secure, which means that the activity level of different entrances is an interesting factor.

Random encounters are paramount, not only to keep the PCs threatened, but further to create cause and effect. Kobolds discovered the band of humans, so I will adjust the random encounter tables to reflect that; a much greater chance of kobold warband appearing, particularly. Not all random encounters are threats; rarely there will be a lone survivor who is only glad to find more people (the previous such survivor was mute, though).

It is all about resource management; right now, hit points, people, spells, alchemical ingrdients and torches are all pretty big deal. There is sufficient water, but food may become a problem.

Play summary

I started the game when scouts discover a place that looks promising; there is life and water. So, basically no option to choose another starting location. It is a large cavern with water, bugs, moss and mushrooms. There’s four exits plus the one they came from. Careful investigation, less careful investigation, a crocodile performing a surprise attack, soon dispatched (armoured monsters can take a few hits). One entrance is explored, some centipedes are fought, one character is reduced to 0 hp by poison, none killed. Main group arrives. An alchemist starts brewing poison, the wounded are resting.

The alchemist has completed the venom, which is fed to the centipedes using part of the dead crocodile as a bait. While the poison is (hopefully) taking effect another cave is explored; there are two skulls on wooden poles on the entrance. The maze-like location is explored a little, sounds of marching foodsteps heard, retreat made, whispers heard, kobolds shooting at small escaping hooded figures noticed, kobold party avoided.

Things to improve

Measuring time is difficult due to no sun. I’ll need to make random encounters less frequent and build the time economy more heavily around them. A chance of encounter per four hours, maybe.

Better random encounter tables. Just adding an option for wandering monster, which will include such fabulous beasts as minotaurs, rust monsters, orcish rampagers, giant scorpions, elementals, cave-dwelling versions of boars and big cats and wolves and bears and so on might do the trick. The cave is far too tame as of yet, and it is a place where there is water, so encounters ought to be varied and frequent.

Tools of the trade

Simple googling reveals any number of random dungeon generators, which are fun enough as toys. There’s How to host a dungeon by Tony Dowler, including a free version, which is basically a toy for generating dungeons.

Resources that give random room descriptions would be useful. Not that I would use them as such, but they would be good for inspiration. Do any suitable generators exist?

Another useful thing would be wandering/random monster/encounter tables. I can’t be the only one using them, and creating a wiki or something for them would be of little effort. Are there any such tables online?

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A small idea: Scope of effect

9 May, 2008 at 5:54 pm (game design) (, )

This is rules design idea, untested.

Assume a game where characters have some mystic powers, like, say, ability to breath fire or cast a magic missile twice a day or such. All roleplaying games I can name out of hand that try to simulate the setting handle these very much on the personal scale: A mage can cast 3 first level spells a day, or such. This is because most such games are focused on the achievements, triumphs and defeats of a single person or few people.

The problem

This approach works fine until someone starts building a world and thinks about what the magic would do on large scale. The costs are often personal; D&D is a very bad offender due to making magic essentially a renewable resource.

This results in magic-as-technology settings, like Eberron, or ignoring and handwaving it all, like many settings that look like historical settings with few individuals who are mages or priests here and there. Personally, I find magic-rich settings to be aesthetically unpleasing (YMMV). The second option is unsatisfying in games that happen on larger scale.

The solution

(Other solutions: Magic with price, unpredictable magic, bizarre cultures that burn all mystic, …)

One way to deal with the problem is to realise that even if people have no problem, say, running a short distance quite fast, doing the same for long distance is much harder. Likewise: Even if a character may be able to make a field of grain grow at double the speed for a month, there may be reasons for this not working properly if the character is doing it for every field in riding distance.

The idea itself: Instead of hardcoding these limitations into the specific mystical tricks, which means something will be forgotten, create entirely separate rules for larger scale magics. The benefit is twofold: First, the large-scale effects of personal-level magic can be ignored. Second: People who are not interested on the large scale need not worry about arbitrary restrictions and rules bloat on the level that matters to them.


There’s a bunch of miners trying to create a tunnel to a valley on the other side of the mountain. There’s a mage who can bolster, say, their strength, stamina and speed. How large an effect can the mage have? This is quite hard to judge. (Try judging it in D&D, where profession (miner) is a wisdom-based skill.)

Were I running or designing such a game I would instead create a spell that specifically makes miners more effective through physical enhancements; it would be a long and arduous ritual to cast, but would have duration to the effect of “until the mountain is breached”. And as a bonus the mage can fight random stone giants who awaken due to the loud mining with no concern of “how many times have a cast haste today”.

In other words: Make the ritual an adventure, if desired, then stop bothering about random details and get to the good stuff the play is about, be that politics or giant-slaying.

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Setting element: Body, dream, mind

30 March, 2008 at 2:30 pm (Dragongame, game element) (, , , , )

There is a philosophical problem called the mind-body problem. Basically, it is about the nature of human mind: Is it physical, emergent from what is physical, or entirely separate? If separate, how does it connect to the body? This piece of setting metaphysics is somewhat influenced by that problem.

Originally I developed these as a metaphysical structure for my traditional fantasy setting, the current form of which is not written down anywhere. Some assumptions: Certain sorts of magic are at least possible. There are spirits everywhere; that is, animism is correct. Dragons are the most mighty creature there is by their nature.

The three realms

The reality is neatly divided into three level, or dimensions, or planes, realms, or whatever name is desired for them. Some creatures only exist on specific levels, others are defined as the places where the levels interact.


The physical level, realm of body, is much like the physical world around us. The world may be a planet, or a disc riding atop elephants riding on a turtle swimming around space, or the world may be an infinite plane, or whatever. The physical realm is associated with persistency and stability; if something exists on the level of body, removing it without a trace is difficult.


The realm of dream is where emotions, ambitions, inspiration and dreaming happen. It is an ever-changing realm where distance is determined by familiarity and will; know something and it is easy to find, and it will have easy time finding you. Those with strong will can mold the dreaming with little trouble. Spirits, fey, demons and angels (all are the same thing) are creatures of the dreaming. All emotions and feelings live in the dreaming, and like attracts like; if one sleeps and is afraid, something that lives off, enjoys, or is fear may be attracted.

One moves in the dreaming by wanting to be somewhere. Walking, closing one’s eyes, or other such gesture often helps travelling; people are not used to their environment changing with little warning, and being panicked in the realm of fae is a definite risk; those attracted by panic tend to not be friendly and helpful. A person is sad when the region around the person contains much sadness; likewise, the surroundings of a sad person will become sad. The power of these interactions is determined by the strength of will of those involved.


The mental level, realm of mind, is where all knowledge and experience is. It is an immense, mayhaps infinite, collection of knowledge. When person thinks something, he is in the corresponding part of the realm of mind. Learning something means finding, or building, quick paths and ways between regions of the mental realm. One can likewise construct barriers and drive entities away from certain regions, though they are by no means simple tasks.

The human nature

Humans are creatures that connect all the three realms, yet have difficulty focusing on more than one at a time. Human presence drifts between the three realms. When the presence is in the physical realm, humans can be skilled athletes, precise craftsmen, or careful observers. When the presence is elsewhere, body does what it should be doing; keeps walking, is inactive, remains in one place, relaxes, is paralysed.

One’s presence is on the level of dream if one is feeling a strong emotion or sleeping. One who is friendly inspires others around him to act in a friendly way; one who is depressed provokes negative reactions. The confidence of a leader makes those around her confident of their abilities. Persuading or threatening someone means pushing one’s will and dreams against theirs until they give up. Intimidation is the brute force version; persuasion means emphasising their emotions that already agree with out while dampening the parts that do not. People in shock cut the dreaming away from themselves so as to not feel the pain. So do those who deny some emotionally powerful thing.

Presence in the mental realm indicates deep thought, perhaps solving a problem, trying to remember something, learning or communicating. Recalling means trying to find the lost pathway, while learning and solving problems is the process of discoring or constructing new ways, respectively. Communication is trying to describe some landmarks and guidelines so that the other person might find a way to the desired region of the mental level. Person who is quick-witted has fast methods of getting to the desired place. Someone who is intelligent can has discovered powerful methods of finding new paths. People who know a lot have mapped large areas of the realm. When one’s presence is not on the level of mind, deep thought does not happen.

Other beings

Inanimate objects have a very alien presence on the mental realm (some would say very limited), to such extent that communication with them is next to impossible. Their emotional presence can be strong. Old forests are peaceful, because the trees are calm; at night they can be menacing, for the trees do not enjoy the fire in their midst. The sense of wonderment that natural wonders can evoke is another effect of their significant emotional presence.

Most animal, likewise, have fairly strange ways of thinking. Many mammals are so alike people that rudimentary communication, or at least one-way understanding, is possible.

Stranger things

The denizens of dreaming are known by many names: Angels, demons, spirits, fey. Their physical presence varies from none through normal everyday object and animals to unique forms. Their mental presence likewise varies from sapient to mere instincts that the nameless spirits have. Even the least of feykind can mold the dreaming wtih great ability; the most pitiful imp has little trouble tricking an average dreamer (that’s why nightmares are common). The powerful lords of the dreaming can incite bloody rebellions or even wars with their mere presence.

Dragons are unique in that their presence never really leaves any realm. Dragon does not merely wonder about your name; its mental presence makes you want to say it out loud and when you do, it is already listening at you. Dragon does not merely try to eat you; when it bites at you, you willingly jump into its mouth and it has additionally determined your possible reactions, as well as how it will respond to each. An angry dragon flying overhead creates a storm by provoking the spirits of clouds and air; people will flee, faint, or kill each other. (Younger dragons are less powerful, but only in scope and force of the effect.)

Design notes

The original setting metaphysics were a mess similar to Platon’s ideas. It did not work well because there existed a god of fire, of mountains, of a vulcano, of lava, of heat, … Most of them were mere disembodied spirits, some were dragons, the most powerful actual gods. It became too much of a mess to understand.

That there are three realms is a matter of design history; the original had at least dreaming and physical world. Neither of those worked like deep thinking does, so I decided for it to be the third one. This is somewhat similar to BESM, actually, which I disliked way back then because it had only three stats (all strong people are also dexterous, for example).

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