Monday, March 31, 2014

Magic Items from the Dictionary

I am always on the lookout for inspiration for magic items and found some cool ideas from a combination of "word of the day" and Wikipedia. I haven't priced these out for my game, or balanced them, but maybe you will find the ideas helpful in some way.

Senescent Glasses

-These well worn, wooden framed glasses have incredibly thick and heavy lenses. While wearing them, you noticeably age to look and feel ancient. Your physical abilities suffer, but you gain a small boon to your mental abilities. Taking off the glasses will vivify you back to your normal age at a rate one year each minute.

Sword of Damocles

This tiny replica sword is still incredibly sharp. In order to be used, you must tie the sword by its handle to a finger while pointing at your desired victim. A phantasmal sword will appear to hang by a thread over your victim's head, and is only visible to your victim. If the victim does not take action to avoid the sword, the thread holding the sword will weaken and split, eventually falling if enough cumulative time is spent not actively working to avoid the sword. When it falls, the sword deals a great amount of damage. Beware prolonged use of the Sword of Damocles, for tyrants will find the sword hanging above their own head.

The Dagger Deferred

Made of shadowy, swirling metal, this blackened dagger seems to shift and squirm. When it cuts into a living creature with a shadow, the wielder can choose to delay the effects of that strike up to one half minute. When the magic is released, the wound passes from the shadow of the creature into the creature's flesh. To notice the shadow damage before it sinks in requires a difficult perception check. As a throwing weapon, this dagger shifts and warps back to its owners hand. 

Noetic Nuts

Chewing these otherwise normal, walnut sized kernel from a rare tree from the Astral plane will open your mind to the possibilities. Upon chewing a Noetic Nut, the player will receive a great insight, mediocre vision, misleading intuition, or a dose of insanity (30%,40%,20%,10%; respectively). 

Gorgon Chalk

Fine marble sticks carved from the victims of a gorgon are useful as both a material component to spells of paralyzation and as a great deterrent against teleportation. Any teleportation on the material plane that passes through a line drawn with this chalk must save or be petrified.

Adscititious Alms

Left by a mischievous, but kind-hearted trickster god, these coins reveal themselves when given away as alms or charity. They are rumored to be the souls of kind animals, children, and other free-spirited and generous souls. When donated out of kindness, this coin will create many coins for the needy and sneakily return to the pockets of the charitable. Used in any other way, they act as normal coins that will slink away from large hoards of coins to work their way back into the hands of the charitable souls.

Friday, March 28, 2014


How the encounter button works is that it will roll for the type of encounter, and then fill out that encounter using a number of other methods. The odds for the encounter types, out of a d20 roll, are: 1-9 empty, 10-15 monster, 16-17 monster with treasure, 18 treasure, 19 trick, 20 special. Empty encounter types only have a location description. Monster type encounters have a location descriptor and a monster, with associated difficulty, archetype, morale, purpose, reaction, and some junk. Monster with treasure encounters have a location, monster, and a hoard of treasure. Treasure encounters are simply a location with a hoard of treasure. Trick encounters are puzzles or intrigue in a location. Special encounters rounds out the types by drawing from a list of specific, odd, and/or random dungeon occurrences. Each of these locations have a chance to have the signs of a trap 20% of the time, with only a quarter of those trap signs being related to an actual trap (when outdoors, the "trap" is split 50-50 with natural hazards).

To give a better idea of this program in use, I will generate some encounter rolls and show how I weave them into a cohesive encounter.

1. Level 1, 4 players, outdoors

Location] Roadside.
[Monster] Level 1 undead {Morale: zealous  Purpose: alliance  Reaction: evaluate, defensively
[Junk] Chickens (0.6)
-In marching through the wilderness, you stumble on a haphazard dirt road. The road weaves out of sight into the underbrush in both directions. 

If the player should try to follow the road through the underbrush, they will find a freshly turned pair of human zombies as they lunge out for a bite. The zombies seem well fed and are quicker and tougher than normal zombies (I choose to ignore the purpose since I have decided that they are mindless undead). Looking through the underbrush will reveal a number of mostly empty, bloodied chicken cages. A few terrified chickens are still alive. Players could choose to scan the underbrush before following the road, which would mean not being surprised by the undead. They could also choose to ignore the road and go around it.

2. Level 1, 4 players, outdoors

[Location] Small thicket.
[Hazard] 1. Weird precipitation 2.Weird precipitation 3.Dark clouds:
Walking through the forest, the players encounter a pretty thick area of undergrowth and nettles that covers most of the path forward. Despite a lack of rain recently, the thicket is very wet and the soil is a deep black from water. The clouds overhead have darkened noticeably. 

Now, none of these signs relates to any actual hazard and ignoring them means nothing in this case, as does asking about what they mean. If asked about any of these more specifically, I would inquire of the players if they want to try and recall some lore (with a roll if they cannot relate it to a character trait or skill) or examine the area, both options can cost time and  run a risk of a random encounters and wasting time. I would reveal then that the signs are simply a coincidence of a localized rain cloud or nearby spring.

3. Level 3, 5 players, indoors

[Location] Waiting room
Stepping into this room from the stone hallway, you find a pleasant room. Well lit by torches placed along the wall, this room holds a few small wooden seats, a couch, and an empty bookcase.

This room is just an empty room, but could very easily contain something. Having empty rooms forces the players out of the lazy habit of assuming every room has something important, they have to be more scrupulous with their time. Asking about specific items in this room can quickly reveal that nothing particular is happening in this room. More thorough searching counts against them in terms of wandering monster rolls and time. 

4. Level 3, 3 players, indoors

[Location] Empty room
[Monster] Level 9 plant acting oddly {Morale: fanatical  Purpose: travel  Reaction: evaluate, defensively
[Junk] 50 SP (5.0)
                  -Doublet (0.0)
                  -Writ of Passage (5.0)
[Treasure] Sturdy wood chest
                  -1 zoological text (2651.0)
             Steel war chest
                  -Box (2651.0)
                  -Hemp (40.0)
             Ceramic urn
                  -Polished goblet (2651.0)
This glass sliding door opens up into a dank, dark room that is empty except for black marks on the floor and wall in the corner. 

Players investigating this room or the black marks are attacked by a very deadly cave vine that has disguised itself with stone camouflage. The black marks are part of its camouflage, but investigating where it was hiding will reveal a small cache hiding the treasure listed. The treasure is a small wood chest containing a zoological text of the surrounding wildlife created by a recent explorer, with hand-drawn pictures in the text. It also has a small, locked, steel war-chest with a jeweled ivory ring-box with some hemp for packaging. Lastly, a ceramic urn contains a polished goblet of a fine make. (I chose to ignore the purpose and reaction for this plant, but travel could be an interesting purpose for a plant to have...) Asking about the black marks from a distance ( a wise move as it could easily be the signs of a flame trap) will reveal that it the marks are odd and allow a roll against seeing the assassin vine. The immobile vine will be much easier to deal with or ignore if the players are cautious in their approach.

5. Level 10, 6 players, outdoors

[Location] Lost homestead.
[Hazard] 1.Dark clouds:
               A deadly sulfur geyser threatens this location
Pushing aside some underbrush, you see a small homestead. Rusted tools litter the dried earth around the home, with even weeds struggling to survive. The door hangs off kilter, while thick clouds linger overhead.

This lost homestead was abandoned when the ground started spewing out sulfur at intermittent intervals. The furniture and goods not already removed are heavily damaged. Asking about the clouds reveals that they hang particularly low and are yellowish in tint. Going near or into the homestead exposes players to the highly sulfuric air and geysers of sulfur as their weight disturbs the grounds. With the right means, this could be a good source of sulfur for an enterprising player.

I will be doing a few more of these for the other buttons I use the most often, to give you an idea of how this program can be a useful tool for your game.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The DMScreen

Here's a program that I have spent a good amount of time working on. I am still fine tuning and adding new features. Although I will never feel that it is really ready to open up to others, I want to share it and get some feedback. It is generally built around how I DM and designed for D&D Next, but should be general enough to be usable for any fantasy themed game. It is not intended to stand alone and requires a good amount of creativity to fill in the blanks.

Download version 3.2.2.

How To Use the DMScreen

Running the .exe file will open up the main screen, which focuses on the adventuring tab. This will be the main tab that you will end up using. This tab can generate encounters, treasure, monsters, tricks, traps, special encounters, and a room description. The bottom inputs are for the number of players in the game, their average level, and whether the encounter is going to be indoors or outdoors. These inputs are used to scale the level and quality of the items, monsters, etc. These randomly generated items allow a quicker response  to the players' actions without having to create an exhaustive list of details surrounding every action the players might take (and without having to hold pages of tables to roll on). 


This button will generate an encounter, but not in the usual sense. The "encounter" will be based on a ratio of empty rooms/areas, monsters, monsters with treasure, treasure, tricks, traps, and special encounters. The empty rooms/areas, which are for indoors/outdoors respectively, will simply list the [Location] with a chance for something of note to also be in that location. These empty rooms exist to ensure that players cannot simply respond to everything of note that the DM mentions with intense suspicion and hostility, else they risk wasting time and random encounter rolls.

When the encounter is not empty, the [Location] will also be joined by the other information for the encounter, such as the type of monster and its difficulty, the type and amount of treasure in the encounter, the junk that a monster is carrying, etc. These details, combined with the location can be linked together by a DM into a more cohesive and interesting encounter. Treasure types include a wide variety of goods, weapons, magic items, furniture, clothing, maps, secrets, deeds, and much more. Tricks and traps will give a list of a number of details that could give away the nature or existence of tricks/traps as well as the nature of the trick or trap. Traps can occur with any other encounter type. These details can often be a false flag, ensuring that the players cannot instantly assume that the presence of such details means the presence of a trap and requires player diligence without requiring that players read the mind of the DM. Hack & Slash is much more eloquent on how this can work than I could ever be.


This tab is useful for when players interact with NPC's. There are buttons for quickly generating the reaction and morale of non-player characters/monsters, for those that use such things. There are also buttons for problems ( which create a quick, but abstract quest), rumors, obtuse (which will list why an NPC is difficult or annoying), and other (which generates names, towns, shops, roads, etc.).


 The MISC tab has a collection of other buttons that I could not find a good place for. This includes mutations, which I adapted from a number of gaming blogs I read (go check them out, they have some good stuff there!), magic items, non-magic items, junk, area descriptors, and item quality. The different type of magic items and non-magic items can be selected from the drop down menu. These items, however, are not based at all on character level, unlike the treasure for encounters, and will simply return a random item based on a randomly generated value (which tend to be of lower value).


The last tab in the DMScreen is a text box that holds all of the previous results that have been generated in the current session. This is useful when multiple results need to be generated and held.

I am skimming over many of the finer details, and I intend to cover in more detail each type of encounter and how they are generated. Please give the DMScreen a try, and let me know how it works for you. If you find any bugs or have suggestions for future features please feel free to comment here or email me!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Running a Hex Crawl (Part II)

How could I run a Hex Crawl? (Continued)

3. Kicking hornets't nests.

Players will spend their time sticking their nose into other people's business, mucking up plans, and generally being a nuisance to the established order. If you want this to truly be a sandbox, make sure their are plenty of places they could and would spend their time. Their choice to go hunt and kill a dragon will be made all more interesting if they are turning down a guild invitation, neglecting a cry for help from a small town, and marching past a lucrative dungeon. I try to create a whole bunch of half-baked ideas of what can be or is happening in the world around the players and sew them into the random encounters or the narrative of the things my players choose to pursue.

A few hundred square miles is all they need to piss off a dragon, get embroiled in rebellion plots, attract the attention of an orc with a demon pact, and bankroll a new town.

4. Avoiding burnout

Building a sandbox can be an incredible task and it often gets taken to mean that everything has to be built up from scratch. I have seen many games, including my own, fail as the dungeon master lacks the time to create everything and loses interest as their players do not see and appreciate every delicate detail the DM invested their time in. What I found helps is that I invest my time in making a skeleton: I draw a basic world map, name some power players in this world and region, I create a local hex map with some generic but interesting icons that can mean something specific or be left open to interpretation, and I write down a quick outline of "how this world works". I will then add flesh to that skeleton as needed, starting radially out from where the players start and following where they travel and spend their time. I write down my plot ideas and nefarious dungeons, but start skeletal, adding meat as the ideas starts to see some interest from players, in the worst case I just reuse that content somewhere else, later. Above all, remember that this is a collaborative world. No one will remember the intricate plot intrigue that was planned, but the half-paranoid plot connections that the players made to account for the events in the game. The battle with custom monsters will be forgotten, but the shenanigans concocted to escape will not be. I try to have just enough ready off-stage so that my players can never tell what was just a random encounter and what I planned.

If anyone is interested, I can do a post about the program I use for mapping and how I use it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Running a Hex Crawl (Part I)

So why would you ever want to run a hex crawl?

 Hex crawls allow a relatively robust system for modeling the larger world, outside of the dusty forts, moldy dungeons, and big cities of role playing games. Hexes give a useful way to reveal terrain as it is explored and provide an easy measurement of distance for the players' reference. It makes your job easier as a Dungeon Master, in that it does not require meticulously drawn maps of many different scales, you do not have to guesstimate distances for player travels, and more easily track the hazards and threats of long distance travel to inject tension and fun into traveling. For players, it is easier to see how far you can travel in a hex map, what the terrain risks might be on the way, and draw you own map for a reference.
Sure you are, Ooze #11.

How could I run a Hex Crawl?

1. Make sure the players understand what a hex crawl entails and its ground rules.

My hexes are generally six mile hexes [~10km]. Human walking speed works out to about 3 miles per hour [~5km/hr] or ~1 hex for every 2 hours walking at a brisk hiking pace. Each hex is one terrain type, such as plains, hills, forest, mountains. In most circumstances, players can only see the terrain of their hex and the adjacent hexes. Moving through hexes can mean random encounters, which I generate with my DMTools program which uses a Gygaxian formula for "empty", "monster", "treasure", "trick", "trap", or "special"  in 1/3 of the hexes for new hexes and 1/6 of already explored hexes. An adventurer's day only has 8 hours of actual adventuring, the rest is spent camping, sleeping, doing maintenance, and meditating. Players choose how quickly, carefully, and meticulously they explore the wilderness. Their choice to sneak or explore more thoroughly will halve their speed, while hustling and riding mounts will double their speed. Exploring more slowly will ensure that they discover anything hidden in that hex, where marching straight through may mean missing those secrets. Having a cart or vehicle can help the characters do some of their non-adventuring activities while traveling, increasing the amount of time they can spend each day traveling. I treat any cave delving, going to town, or other location exploration as taking a minimum of 1 hour. The terrain itself can hinder or slow down players, with the presence of roads improves the terrain by one category. Other concerns take note too, such as needing a ration and water-skin for each party member each day, setting up camp, and not getting lost in featureless terrain.

2. Keep the realism fun.

You do not need to micromanage every meal they take or every step they march to add a cost to travelling. Tension will naturally arise from having a limited amount of playing time, the consequences of the world not pausing for the players, and having to choose what goals to pursue. I find that a general system for overland travel adds some cost to travel to help keep player travel choices meaningful, but balanced. Adding this cost system also offers more opportunity for unique rewards, such as magical mounts that are even faster than horses, an enchanted tent the sets itself up readily, scouting binoculars for increased sight-lines, and much more. This system also allows there to always be some mystery in the hills, they may stumble on some hidden trapdoor to a long buried keep in the woods or find a kindly old witch who makes them stew when they stop by. It allows the players real choices that may end up burning down entire hexes of forests, or see previously safe hexes become dangerous due to their negligence. Above all, remember that even the time they spend traveling is irrelevant if the world stops moving when they are gone.

One of my house rules documents . Overland Travel House Rules

It also has some stuff for social encounters that I have adapted from Courtney C. Campbell's 'On the Non-Player Character' . (great e-book that talks about some great ways to model NPC's in a standard way, similar to how combat has standard tactics and weak-points).

Link to a blank hex map originally from Power Frame. Blank Hex Map

I would link to the original site I got it from, but the website seems to be down. Power Frame Hex Map

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Stop Printing Copper Pieces!

In the current economy, the typical copper piece will cost a Dungeon Master ~1.21 - 1.54 copper pieces to forge! Bending down to pick up a copper piece is not worth the free action it costs! The copper piece and to a lesser extent the silver piece often go underutilized in games of Dungeons and Dragons. The copper piece is useful in showing just how poor the peasants are, buying livestock, and purchasing some starting equipment. However, after just a few levels, the players never look twice at just how many copper pieces they have. They sky-rocket into many hundreds and thousands of gold pieces. Beyond 2nd or 3rd level it takes massive piles of copper pieces to be worth noting. No-one should be able to carry that much copper or would bother except to melt down into copper for building constructs, or as make-shift sling bullets. Silver pieces quickly follow the same fate as player wealth rises exponentially. By all means, the players should feel powerful and wealthy, but I have always felt that adventuring was just too good of a gig in regards to a return on investment. If you can strap a shield on and wield a sword to survive one dungeon, you can walk away with hundreds or thousands of gold pieces.
Treasure! Too bad it is 40,853 CP and 6,498 SP, just look at the last guy that tried to carry it out of here.

I eliminated the copper piece from my game. I rounded up every value to the nearest silver piece, for some items it was better to sell them in a group at 1 SP. Then, I demoted all values down one tier, except for labor costs and the wealth cap for cities. Everything previously valued in silver is now copper, gold is now silver, platinum is now gold, and tens of platinum coins are the new platinum. In this brave new world of a silver piece standard, adventuring costs and ratios of wealth to magic items stay the same while normal labor and skilled trades earn ten times more. Taking up the sword and the staff is less of a sure thing, and adventurers really become the risky and crazy folk, so desperate for glory and wealth, that reputable folk poke fun at.  A secondary benefit of this change is that players have one less coin tier below them and an additional tier above them. For the first few levels they will deal in copper pieces and silver. A few more levels beyond that and they start to accumulate large sums of gold and a few platinum. If you add in astral diamonds, worth ten to one hundred platinum pieces, the players can strive even higher in their single-minded pursuit of wealth.

A quick guide to how currency might be used in this system:
Copper is for peasants, tavern drinks, cheap tavern stays, small livestock, and making change.
Silver is for skilled workers, town merchants, moderate taverns, medium livestock, and green adventurers.
Gold is for experts, merchants, minor nobles, expensive inns, large livestock, and mid-level adventurers.
Platinum is for nobles, rich merchants, higher level adventurers, and magic artisans.
Astral Diamond is for wealthy kings, exceptional magic artisans, outsiders, and epic adventurers.

If you should decide to make the switch, your players will not see any change to their relative buying power. The gear they normally buy will scale with their lessened buying power but if they are looking for cows and chickens they might be disappointed to find them more expensive. Within this relative earning/wealth disparity, it makes more sense for a small town to be able to pay early adventurers, or a lord-ling to bank-roll higher level adventurers. At 10% of their former, relative wealth, players can more easily fit into the local economy and can bend down to pick up that copper piece without feeling ashamed.

What do you think of this house rule? If you use this house rule or something similar, how does it work out for you and your group?