Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sinister Sorceries: Xaltotun's Smoking Doom

"I have taught you too much," he said calmly, pointing a finger like an index of doom at Orastes. And before any could move, he had cast a handful of dust on the floor near the feet of the priest, who stood like a man turned to marble. It flamed, smoldered; a blue serpentine of smoke rose and swayed upward about Orastes in a slender spiral. And when it had risen above his shoulders it curled about his neck with a whipping suddenness like the stroke of a snake. Orastes' scream was choked to a gurgle. His hands flew to his neck, his eyes were distended, his tongue protruded. The smoke was like a blue rope about his neck; then it faded and was gone, and Orastes slumped to the floor a dead man.
-- Robert E. Howard, Hour of the Dragon

Xaltotun's Smoking Doom
Level: 5
Duration: 1 round / level
Range: 30'

The caster tosses a handful of dust on the floor near the intended victim which will immediately begin to coalesce into a serpent of semi-solid smoke. This coalescence will take 1d3 rounds. Once complete, if the victim is still in range they must make an immediate savings throw versus death. If they succeed, they have managed to avoid the serpent's grasp this round. Failure indicates that the victim will perish in a number of rounds equal to their HD or level (will only affect creatures up to 8 HD). During strangulation the victim may neither speak or act, capable only of flailing wildly.

The serpent of smoke will continue to strike every round for the period of its duration, at which time it dissipates. If the victim moves out of range, the serpent will coil in wait, striking again at the first opportunity. The serpent cannot be attacked except by magical means. It has an AC of 9 and an equal number of hit points to its caster.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Murderous Menagerie: The Beast

Now, as I passed among the ancient trees that tower thickly, growing toward the postern, I thought that Ibeheld a light from one of the abbey windows and was much cheered thereby. But, going on, I saw that the light was near at hand, beneath a lowering bough beside my path; and moreover, it moved as with the flitting of a restless fenfire, and was wholly dissimilar to the honest glow of a lamp, lantern or taper. And the light was of changeable color, being pale as a corposant, or ruddy as new-spilled blood, or green as the poisonous distillation that surrounds the moon.

Then, with ineffable terror, I beheld the thing to which the light clung like a hellish nimbus, moving as it moved, and revealing dimly the black abomination of head and limbs that were not those of any creature wrought by God. The horror stood erect, rising to the height of a tall man, and it moved with the swaying of a great serpent, and its members undulated as if they were boneless. The round black head, having no visible ears or hair, was thrust forward on a neck of snakish length. Two eyes, small and lidless, glowing hotly as coals from a wizard's brazier, were set low and near together in the noseless face above the serrate gleaming of bat-like teeth.

This much I saw, and no more, ere the thing went past me with the strange nimbus flaring from venomous green to a wrathful red. Of its actual shape, and the number of its limbs, I could form no just notion. It uttered no sound, and its motion was altogether silent. Running and slithering rapidly it disappeared in the bough-black night, among the antique oaks; and I saw the hellish light no more.
-- Clark Ashton Smith, "The Beast of Averoigne" 

The Beast revealed!

The Beast

Certain individuals are born with a latent psychic abilities which allow them to glimpse briefly beyond the limits of the physical into the Overworld, a dimension unlike our own in form and aspect yet which exists parallel to our own. A few of these individuals manage to join the ranks of magic-users, but most simply experience particularly powerful dreams and flashes of insight. Unfortunately for these untrained individuals which stand at the edge of the unknown, they are particularly susceptible to the depredations of the predators of the Overworld.

One of these predators is the Beast, a psychic parasite which invades the mind of one of these so-called 'sensitives' and thus uses the brain of its unwilling host as a conduit through which it can manifest in our world. By employing the sensitive as a 'back door' through which it can slip through the gulf between worlds, the Beast comes to feed upon man. In particular, the Beast has a insatiable desire for bone marrow and spinal fluid; some sages have posited that it is through this method that the Beast may devour the very 'essence' or 'soul' of man.

Few sane men choose such an unequal partnership, but some sadists and power-mongers come to enjoy the benefits of such an arrangement. For the rest, it is a curse they must bear for the Beast will not ease its grip until the moment of death.

Psychic manifestation of the Beast

"Makes me think of something I heard somebody say about hoodoo folks," she said. "How the hoodoo folks sometimes put a stuff out, mostly in dark rooms. And it's part of them, but it takes the shape and mind of another person--once in a while, the shape and mind of an animal."

"Shoo," I said again, "now you mention it, I've heard the same thing. It might explain those Louisiana stories about werewolves."

"Shape and mind of an animal," she repeated herself. "Maybe the shape and mind of a bird. And they call it echo - no, ecto--ecto--"

"Ectoplasm," I remembered. "That's right. I've even seen pictures they say were taken of such stuff. It seems to live--it'll yell, if you grab it or hit it or stab it."
-- Manly Wade Wellman, "Oh, Ugly Bird!"

No. Enc: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Hoard Class: XVIII

 Human Form

Movement: 90' (30')
Armor Class: 8
Hit Dice: 1 - 1
Attacks: 1
Damage: per weapon
Save: F1
Morale: 6

Beast Form

Movement: 150' (50')
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice:   8
Attacks: 2 or more (see below)
Damage: 1d6/1d6 (claws)
Save: F9
Morale: 9

A sensitive enjoying the fringe benefits of being host to the Beast

When encountered in its human aspect, the Beast appears to be a normal person, although weak and sickly. They are not defenseless, however, as the Beast gifts their 'partner' with a number of psychic gifts. Once per day, they may cast Cause Fear, Hold Person, and Suggestion.

However, it is when the Beast manifests on our plane that it becomes truly terrifying. This manifestation is actually an ectoplasmic projection of the Beast into our world, which gives the creature a shimmering, multi-colored aura and a semi-transparent aspect. The Beast may appear as a sort of 'shell' or armor which encases their partner or as a separate creature altogether.

The actual physical form and abilities of the Beast can vary, although they generally manifest within our world as a bizarre mockery of animal life, being some combination or distortion thereof. To determine the exact abilities of the Beast, roll twice on the following chart:

1. Vulture: Gain a fly speed of 120' (40')
2. Wolf: Gains an additional bite attack of 1d10
3. Serpent: On an attack roll of 19 or 20 the Beast will coil itself around the victim, automatically doing 1d6 damage a round until a Save vs. Paralysis is made
4. Spider: Can cast Web once per day, can climb sheer surfaces as movement speed.
5. Bull: Gets an additional gore attack at 1d8, can charge for one round to do x2 damage.
6. Man: Can use tools and weapons.

Note: If the same result is rolled twice, the creature gains no special abilities but instead earns one additional HD.

DMs are encouraged to dream up the most nightmarish and distorted combination determined.

Despite its ferocious aspect, the Beast has a singular weakness to silver and will do everything within its power to avoid the hated substance. In both human and Beast form, any contact with a silver object (even a coin) will do 1d6 damage, and silver weapons will do 2x damage.

Should the Beast's ectoplasmic form be destroyed, their host must make an immediate savings throw versus death. Failure indicates that the sensitive is slain by a psychic backlash and the Beast is denied access to our dimension. If the save is successful, the Beast survives but will not manifest for 1d3 weeks. Should such a Beast survive, it will inevitably seek bloody vengeance on those that threatened it.

Postscript: I recently started reading the Silver John stories of Manly Wade Wellman and was struck by the similarity of "Oh, Ugly Bird!" to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Beast of Averoigne", which I had interpreted as ectoplasmic manifestation for some time. Moreover, both displayed mind control powers, a reinterpretation of the werewolf myth, and sickly 'partners' to the actual monster. This is my attempt to synthesize the two.

The table above is fairly lazy, and crafty DMs will create different animal aspects with which to personalize Beasts that occur in their campaign.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Murderous Menagerie: The Pool of Life

"At the center of the gorge, ringed by faintly glowing radioactive rocks, lay a sunken pool twenty yards across. But it was not a pool of water, but of life! 

A great, twitching, crawling mass of jelly-like life, heaving and sucking beneath the light of the flaring nebula-sky.

The final horror assaulted Gordon's reeling mind. For now he saw the things around the edges of the pool.

Little jelly-like things like miniature human bodies budded out of that mass of viscous life! Some were attached to the main mass by mere threads. One broke free in that moment and came walking uncertainly up the bank.

-- Edmond Hamilton, The Star Kings

Pools of Life

No. Enc.: 1
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 20' (5')
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 5-15
Attacks: 1 per 3 HD
Damage: 1d6+2 (pseudopods)
Save: F7
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: XVII
5HD: 330
6HD: 530
7HD: 805
8HD: 1225
9HD: 1840
10HD: 2650
11HD:   3730
12HD: 3810
13HD: 5120
14HD: 5210
15HD: 6750

One of the many remnants of the Ex Nihilo project, Pools of Life are lakes of plastic flesh which birth humanoid "children" that range across the wastes, seeking men to drag back to the ravenous mass.

A Pool of Life will produce a number of children (referred to as 'melters') equal to twice their number of HD, and can birth one melter a round if not otherwise engaged. If involved in combat or absorbing new flesh, the Pool of Life will produce one melter every two rounds.
The Pool of Life defends itself with pseudopods which strike bluntly or, on a roll of 19 or 20, will entangle a victim. Once entangled, the victim has one round before being dragged into the mass. Pseudopods have a number of hit points equal to their HD.

The greatest danger posed by the Pool of Life, however, is their ability to absorb flesh. Should a victim be submerged into the Pool they must make an immediate savings throw versus death. Failure means instant death as the victim is broken down into its component parts and becomes part of the teeming mass of life. When a victim is absorbed, the Pool gains a number of hit points equal to the character's level. For every 5 hit points gained in this fashion the Pool gains another hit dice with all attendant benefits (pseudopods, melters, etc).

Children of the Pool of Life

No. Enc.: 5-15
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 120' (40')
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 1+1 HD
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d6 or grapple
Save: F1
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: None
XP: -

Melters are dripping, rubbery mockeries of men with grossly distorted features. Their smooth, vinyl-like skin hangs loosely when fully formed, and they are in a constant state of flux, with liquid flesh flowing across their bodies as they constantly rearrange themselves.

Melters have no will of their own, being only part of the collective mass of the Pool of Life. They exist only to meet the needs of the Pool and primarily are used to drag prey to be absorbed into the Pool. A full half of the Melters employed by a Pool will be ranging at any given time, although they stay relatively close to their 'mother mass' for quick reabsorption.

When in combat, a Melter will attempt to club foes into unconsciousness with their fists or will swarm over a foe to overwhelm them. Melters attempting to overpower an enemy roll to hit as normal with a 'to hit' result indicating they have latched onto their foe. Each Melter has a STR of 10, with every additional Melter adding +2 to this STR total. If this number is greater than the victim they have them successfully pinned and will drag the character back to the Pool of Life for absorption. Victims can attempt a save versus Paralysis to escape with a -1 to the roll for every two STR points above their own.

The most remarkable feature of the Melters, however, is their unique defense in combat. If struck for even a single point of contact, the Melter will dissolve into a pile of protoplasmic ooze which quickly slithers away from combat. While in this protoplasmic form, the Melter will avoid all combat and heads straight for the Pool of Life. Once this protoplasm has been reabsorbed, the Pool will produce an exact replica on the following combat round except that it will be restored to full health. If a Melter is destroyed before being reabsorbed, however, the Pool will lose 3 hit points.

Because of their semi-solid nature, Melters are immune to weapons which inflict blunt damage.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sons of the Toad (A Character Class for LL)

Sons of the Toad

From hearing the hideous rumors and legends whose nature I have already outlined, I was prepared for something out of the ordinary in the way of criminal personality. But even at first sight, when I watched him as he was borne to prison through a moiling crowd, Knygathin Zhaum surpassed the most sinister and disagreeable anticipations. He was naked to the waist, and wore the fulvous hide of some long-haired animal which hung in filthy tatters to his knees. Such details, however, contributed little to those elements in his appearance which revolted and even shocked me. His limbs, his body, his lineaments were outwardly formed like those of aboriginal man; and one might even have allowed for his utter hairlessness, in which there was a remote and blasphemously caricatural suggestion of the shaven priest; and even the broad, formless mottling of his skin, like that of a huge boa, might somehow have been glossed over as a rather extravagant peculiarity of pigmentation. It was something else, it was the unctuous, verminous ease, the undulant litheness and fluidity of his every movement, seeming to hint a an inner structure and vertebration that were less than human - or, one might almost have said, a sub-ophidian lack of all bony frame-work - which made me view the captive, and also my incumbent task, with an unparallelable distaste. He seemed to slither rather than walk; and the very fashion of his jointure, the placing of knees, hips, elbows and shoulders, appeared arbitrary and factitious. One felt that the outward semblance of humanity was a mere concession to anatomical convention; and that his corporeal formation might easily have assumed - and might still consume at any instant - the unheard-of outlines and concept-defying dimensions that prevail in trans-galactic worlds.  
-- "The Testament of Athammaus", Clark Ashton Smith

We are thus introduced to one of Smith's most memorable characters, Knygathim Zhaum, whose lineage can be traced back to both the proto-human Voormis and the toad god Tsathoggua. Although singularly powerful, Zhaum was not the only one of his kind as Tsathoggua has ranged far and wide, from Earth to Saturn and beyond. The children of the batrachian deity often are feared and shunned both for their power and their inhuman appearance. Many opt for the life of a lawless adventurer.

Sons of the Toad
 Requirements: CON 15, STR 12, CHA >12
Prime Requisite: CON
Hit Dice: 1d6
Maximum Level: 12

Experience Level Breath Attacks Poison or Death Petrify or Paralyze Wands Spells or Spell-like Devices

0 1 15 12 14 13 16
2735 2 15 12 14 13 16
5465 3 15 12 14 13 16
11025 4 13 10 12 11 14
20251 5 13 10 12 11 14
42501 6 13 10 12 11 14
90001 7 9 8 10 9 12
170001 8 9 8 10 9 12
340001 9 9 8 10 9 12
560001 10 7 6 8 7 10
780001 11 7 6 8 7 10
1000001 12 7 6 8 7 10

The Sons of the Toad are descendants of the toad god Tsathoggua and are thus exceedingly rare. Although they possess the general shape of a man, they could no way be construed as human as they possess rubbery skin, often of a greenish-black cast or brightly spotted like a jungle toad or snake. Unless they take pains to hide their appearance, many people will react with fear or revulsion.

Sons of the Toad are natural warriors, forced to defend for themselves at any early age. As such, they may use any weapons or armor. Their greatest defense, however, and the parting gift of their father is that they are remarkably difficult to kill.

Whenever a Son of the Toad would normally be struck dead (but not disintegrated), they must make a savings throw versus death. Should they fail, they permanently perish. Should they succeed, however, the Son of the Toad will be able to regenerate from the mortal wound in 1d3 days. Once per level, when the Son of the Toad dies and successfully returns they may roll on the following mutation chart as their body undergoes a metamorphosis while in a comatose state.

Roll 1d6 with a bonus equal to the number of times the character has previously died:
1: Infravision, 60': You gain golden reptile eyes which glow in the dark.
2: Slick: A thick mucous covers your body, allowing you to make a savings throw versus paralysis to escape grapples and bonds.
3: Camouflage: Your spotted skin can adapt to your surroundings in one turn, giving you a +2 to surprise.
4: Prehensile Tongue: A ropy, muscular tongue develops. It may reach up to 5' and can be used as an extra hand, but cannot hold a weapon larger than a dagger.
5: Leaping: Your legs and feet reshape, allowing superhuman leaping capability. You can leap up to 20' in length or 10' in height.
6: Amphibious: Large air sacs develop in your neck. You may hold your breath underwater for one minute / lvl + CON modifier.
7: Snake Arms: Instead of regular arms, you now have two boa snakes for arms. You don't have any hands, sadly, but you may bite with each hand for 1d4 damage. If you have the mutation Poison Bite each arm gains an additional poisonous bite.
8: Hypnotism: The penetrating gaze of your cobra eyes allow you to cast Hypnotism once per day.
9: Tail: A thick, ridged tail extends from your lower back to the ground. It may be used as an extra hand to hold a shield or a torch or can provide an extra attack for 1d6 damage.
10: Armor Scales: You've grown thick bony plates like an Ankylosaurus. Treat as plate mail.
11: Three Heads: The villagers are definitely going to burn you now. Three frog/snake heads (your choice) extend from your shoulders. If you've got a Prehensile Tongue, Hypnotism, or a Poison Bite, you get two more of these to play with.
12: Poison Bite: You've developed long fangs which can inflict a poisonous bite. On a successful attack, the enemy takes 1d3 damage and must save vs death or perish. This may be used twice per day.
13:  Elongation: Your flexible mass can actually stretch up to a length of 20', with individual limbs reaching up to 10'.
14: Growth: You've grown into a hulking monstrosity, now towering 10 to 12 feet in height. Add +4 to STR and CON.
15: Swallow Whole: Your maw is able to greatly distend, allowing you to swallow man-sized prey whole. If you roll a 19 or 20 on an attack roll, you may choose to swallow your enemy, who will suffer 1d8 hit points of damage every round until one of you dies. Enemies may attempt to dig their way out of your massively distended belly, but may only do so with small weapons and a -4 penalty. After swallowing prey you cannot walk and will require 2d4 turns before digestion is complete.
16: Formless Spawn: Undergoing a terrible mutation that takes one full turn as your body liquifies, you are able to transform into a thick, viscous pool of living black fluid. While in this form you may easily pass through cracks, escape bonds, etc. Moreover, you take no damage from normal weapons and may strike with tendrils for 2d4 damage. This is an extremely draining ability, however, and may only be maintain for a number of rounds equal to your level. At the end of this period you become an inert mass, requiring another full turn to reconstitute yourself.
17: Always Comes Back: Like Knygathin Zhaum, you simply cannot be killed. Unless completely disintegrated, you will return from the dead in 24 hours with no savings throw required.

This horrific process changes the character into an increasingly inhuman monster. As such, they will lose 1 CHA each time they mutate.

As mentioned above, a Son of the Toad may only gain one mutation per level. Should the character die a second (or third, etc.) time per level, they do not gain another mutation. Although hardy, the process of returning from death's door is extremely taxing. If the Son of the Toad dies more than once per level, they lose a level, returning to the base XP of their previous level. Please note that this process cannot be gamed to get more mutations by 'repeating' the same level over and over.


Gathkyn Umahz dies at level 2 but makes a successful savings throw, gaining a prehensile tongue for his troubles. The next session, Umahz dies again before reaching level 3. As he had previously died at level 2, he returns to 0 XP and must wait until 3rd level before he can mutate again.



-6 -5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
1 to 2 20 20 20 20 20 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10
3 20 20 20 20 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9
4 20 20 20 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8
5 20 20 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7
6 20 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6
7 to 8 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5
9 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4
10 to 11 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3
12 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

World Engines Part One

Today I want to talk about a fuzzy goal that I've had for some time but which has continued to elude me: the world engine.

What is a world engine?

Word engines are systems designed by the referee that encourage a mechanistic sandbox, where the referee allows the dice to make decisions about what happens in their world, rather than simply dictating all decisions. World engines allow for an unpredictability at the table where the DM is as surprised as the players at the developments.

In the majority of games which I have encountered the game world is either a relatively static sandbox where the passive world is reactive to the players, only coming alive when directly interacted with, or a grand railroad where the world changes according to a pre-set schedule dictated by the referee. Only rarely have I seen anything which steps outside of this either/or proposition.

Easily the best example is Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons, which I have been lucky to be a part of for over a year now. As the exemplar of dynamic sandbox play, I am going to spend some time looking at what makes the Cantons tick as I scratch around the edges of a 'worldengine' which can bring the sandbox alive.

In the Cantons the world can change in startling ways that neither PC nor DM can predict or altogether control. This dynamic approach to the sandbox has created some of the most memorable sessions I have ever had the pleasure of playing.

Although Chris keeps his cards relatively close to the vest, what I have gleaned from our after-game bull sessions have hinted at techniques which he employs:

Rising Tide of Chaos: The true nature of these charts remains a mystery to the players, but I understand they are related to the Engle Matrix Method and the article "Believe it or not, Fantasy has reality" from Dragon Magazine #40. What little is known is that there is a slider that moves along a track of Law and Chaos, indicating the relative stability of the Borderlands that sit on the edge of civilization and the weird. As the slider moves based on events which occur in the Cantons, they in turn change the landscape in a number of ways, such as revolts, passing of severe laws, monster incursions, etc. Not only all these events necessarily occur, however. Instead, there is an increasing chance of stranger and more dangerous events occurring as the slider moves deeper into chaos.

Triggers: Modifying the rolls above are player triggers which can greatly change the results. A number of these triggers are pre-built into the setting, where player actions in the dungeon can create cascades of unforeseen events. Two memorable example spring to mind:

The Golden Barge: A crashed bio-organic ship of Eld design, this immobile video/pleasure-dome was the tentpole dungeon for much of the beginning of the campaign. Once we actually reached the control console, however, the dice turned against us. When we next returned the barge had been retrieved by the Eld who towed it away with a cigar-shaped space ship. While the party was certainly discouraged by this development, it was also a revelation - this was a world that did not exist simply for us to plunder it, but one which reacted dynamically to our actions.

The Sleeping God: More recently we have spent quite a bit of time in Kezmarok, which he discusses at length in a series of posts on his blog. In essence, the decadent capital of a fallen empire is besieged by an army of extradimensional invaders and which is host to a vast undercity. While exploring one of the dungeons of the undercity we came across a perfectly preserved old man which could not be awakened. What we did not expect was that this dude was not only undergoing a transformation into godhood, but was at least partially responsible for keeping the invaders out of the city.

Dragging him back to town triggered some real danger as the invaders would become restless. Coupled with a few extreme dice rolls, the army at the edge of the city began to make a major push. Out of nowhere, our long-time home town suddenly faced complete collapse.

Now here is the important part: neither the players nor the DM could have predicted this turn of events, nor was there any certainty about how it would turn out. This was not a pre-scripted, Dragonlance-esque "epic", but rather the results of random rolls. Everything was at stake, and no one had any idea about how it would turn out.

In the end, our party managed to gather a wide range of allies from the powers-that-be and led an army which has managed to stem the tide of the invasion. While the enemy has not been routed, we have managed to return things to the status quo.

Again, it is important to understand that this was by no means guaranteed, and our complete failure (and the destruction of the city) seemed extremely likely. It was only through player ingenuity and stupid luck that Chris didn't blow up his own campaign setting by simply allowing the dice to dictate events. This essential unpredictability has enriched the game tremendously, as not only do our choices matter but the world itself develops in an organic manner.

Next I will discuss two other examples of world engines for dynamic sandboxes: play-by-post games of the '80s and Crusader Kings before outlining a few models I have been tinkering with.
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