Tuesday, September 1, 2015

How and Why to Make PCs Suffer

This weekend I'll be playtesting a couple games I've been working on. If all goes well, there should be some interesting post material gained from that. And if all doesn't go well.

In the meantime, here's a table that's common to both of the games I'll be playtesting, as well as pretty much any game I run in the future.

It's six ways that you can make people suffer. This is good. You want to make your PCs suffer for their commitments—to people, to institutions, to ideas, to their own flaws, to ambitions—and see if they change.

WILLIAM BLAKE, illustration of the book of Job
(Man, Job is ripped in that pic. Must have had the juice hookup in the land of Uz.)

SIX WAYS TO MAKE THEM SUFFER (actually or potentially)

  1. harm (physical, emotional)
  2. isolation (social, physical)
  3. dissonance (they see something that contradicts what they believe)
  4. betrayal 
  5. loss (of goods, relationships, status)
  6. humiliation
Example: Bard Wants to Train Under the Master
Our bard wants to take it to the next level. Everyone knows the only way to do that is to learn from the hand of Master Hovenbeet. But every time our bard seems to make progress in his lessons, he suffers for it:
  1. rival students threaten to beat him up (threatened harm)
  2. rival students actually beat him up (actual harm)
  3. the master insults him before the whole class for making a single mistake, says he'll never be able to make it (humiliation)
  4. one morning he finds himself unable to play the simplest tune (dissonance)
  5. one evening he hears the master himself playing, but as many notes are off as on (dissonance)
  6. rival punches him in throat; he can't sing for the recital (harm, loss)
  7. master breaks the bard's mandolin (humiliation, loss)
  8. none of the other students sit with him at mess (isolation), even his friend (betrayal)
Will he keep it up, or will he break, or will he decide that he was wrong to want this in the first place? 

How will he react? Why?

That's what we want to find out. 

That's where the story is. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Just a reminder

fighter (battle master) Geth one-shotting down a staircase
In case you didn't know, I've started a podcast of our actual play sessions of Princes of the Apocalypse (and other stuff later): gg no re. We're on iTunes as well.

The latest episode is here:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Elemental, I choose you!

source unknown

I think it'd be pretty cool if you're fighting an elemental, and, instead of killing it, you throw a pokéball at it and capture it. Then you treat it like a pet and toss it out to fight for you. 

(I've been thinking about elementals a lot because I'm running Princes of the Apocalypse; listen to our campaign over at gg no re: http://ggnorecast.blogspot.com.) I'm thinking of putting these in our game. If you use them, let me know. 

Table of contents:

  1. Using them
  2. Creating them
  3. Generalizing the concept, for full on pokemans: TERATOSPHERES
  4. A class: the KETCHUM
You must attune to the ball in order to use it. if you're not using D&D 5e, you can't use more than 2 other serious magic items while you're using a stoichesphere. Magical interference or something. 

While you hold it against your skin and consider an elemental creature, the stoichesphere haptically alerts you to the current strength of the elemental's coherence. This means that, If it's below half hp, the GM will tell you exactly how much hp the creature has left. 

Toss it at an elemental creature within 30'.  

The elemental makes an hp save vs the sphere's DC. Making an hp save means rolling a d20 and adding the creature's current hp to the roll.  

If the creature makes its save, the spell flares out of the sphere, but the creature is yet too coherent to be contained. The spell fails, and the ball is now inert until dawn.  

If the creatures fails its save, you caught it. 

If the creature hits 0 hp before you catch it, sorry! OR: you get one shot this round or the next to catch it before it fully dissipates.


You must be attuned to the ball in order to use its creature in combat. 

Name the captured creature in order to use it in battle. 

To make it fight for you, toss the ball within 30' of you and say earnestly, "[creature name], I choose you!" It fights as a normal creature and recovers hp in exactly the same way PCs do in your campaign. 

The ball flies back to the caster's hand. The caster now controls the creature.  

It shares your turn and will do whatever you say, but it will do nothing unless you issue a command properly: "[creature name], [command]!" Don't forget the exclamation mark when you say it. It doesn't really have an action economy, per se. You get one command per turn (just based on the six second round, and how much time you have to talk), and it does whatever is necessary and possible to complete it. So you don't have to command it separately to move and attack. Just tell it to attack or come back to you or whatever, and it'll do its best.

If the creature goes to 0 hp, it dies, and its ball shatters. Perhaps it looks at you with big sad eyes. 

You can recall the creature by command. 


When an elemental creature dies, it leaves behind an elemental mote that remains for an hour unless stored properly, e.g., in a stoppered glass vial. They are subtle and easy to miss unless you're looking for them. These are the components of the ritual to create a sphere. Note the HD of the creature that left the mote behind. This is the potency of the mote.

In order to be able to create stoichespheres at all, you must know the ritual. These are contained in schemata that the GM will place as treasure (or in shops possibly; see below). The schemata detail how to make the sphere and the spell required to imbue it with the relevant magic. 

Any blacksmith can look at the schema and can create the object with a gold and a day, and any arcane caster can learn the ritual. 

You need a suitable lab or arcane study. Surround / immerse it with the proper elements (burning fires, troughs of water, a dozen servants waving fans—the DM will tell you what). 

Then decide which of your motes you will use as components. This determines the save DC of the sphere. 

You must also expend a number of spell slot levels equal to the potency of the strongest mote used. Multiple casters can help to share the spell slot expense load. 

The base DC is equal to:

caster's proficiency bonus* (x2 if all motes used are of the same element)
potency of strongest mote used

Thus a level 1 caster (prof bonus +2) who is performing the ritual with only an HD 5 elemental creature's mote will create a sphere with a save DC of 4 (prof bonus of 2, x2 since all motes are of the same element) + 5 = 9. The caster would need to expend 5 levels of spell slots, split up however: 2 level 2s and a level 1, for instance. 

To increase the save DC beyond the base, you can add additional motes. Total the potencies of the lesser motes you are combining and divide by the potency of the greatest mote, rounding down. Add the result to the DC. You can't add more than 5 to the DC this way. 

Example 1: You have 4 motes, each of potency 5 (these were 5 HD fire elementals). The greatest mote is set aside (since they're all the same, it doesn't matter which one we choose). This means, with our example above, we have a base DC of 9. But now we have 3 "lesser" motes to add into the mix. We sum their potencies and get 15 (5 + 5 + 5). We divide 15 by the potency of our "greatest" mote (5) and get 3. That's what's added to the DC for a total DC of 12. 

Example 2: a level 1 caster (prof bonus 2) is going to create a stoichesphere using a greatest mote of potency 6. Base DC = 6 + 2 = 8. Caster has 5 other motes, of potencies 2, 3, 3, 4, and 5. These motes are a mix of fire, water, air, and earth. Summing those together we get 17. 17 divided by 6 (the potency of our greatest mote) gets us 2, rounded down. So probably the caster will want to reserve her potency-5 mote for later so as not to lose it to rounding. Removing that, we have a lesser total of 12, divided by 6, equaling 2 on the dot. We add that to the base DC of 8 for 10, again. Note that, because we used motes of different elements, we don't double the proficiency bonus when calculating DC.


If you can buy magic items in your game, these would be considered common to rare, depending on how plentiful and strong elementals are in your setting. Maybe 50g per point of DC. Schematics cost a flat 1000g.

You might also find elemental motes for sale. I'd say maybe 50s per HD, times the proficiency bonusof the creature. I don't know. That number is mostly made up off the top of my head.


Elemental cults will have them, as will wizards and magic merchants. Ruins of old cities, especially underdark cities would have them, as well, more rarely, schematics for them.


It should be reasonably clear how to turn this into all the way pokemans:

  • elemental mote > most iconic piece of carcass
  • "elemental" > creature type 
For instance, say you find the schema for creating a goblin-ball. This will capture goblinoids (goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, bugbears, orogs, ogres maybe). Their "mote" is the liver, maybe, or the stomach, or the eyes. Try to find something evocative. Maybe goblins are iconic for their greed in your campaign. Then choose the part that most represents that: the eyes maybe, or the stomach. Then that's what the schema tells you that you need to grab. If you use all goblin eyes, then double your prof bonus, and the ball works only on goblins (or, don't double your bonus and have it usable against orcs too). 

If you're using generalized balls, maybe call them TERATOSPHERES.

This is just the skeleton of the class; I don't really care to go into the fine details now.

  • HD as wizard
  • no armor
  • +1/12 of XP needed for next level when you catch a new monster and add it to your teratotome (see below); this is the small quest XP award in the 5e DMG if you just want to use the chart
  • simple weapons like slingshots and sticks and stuff you might find at a disused park or an old shack
  • when you do damage, your dice is of the same size as your HD
  • no multiclassing
  • primary stat: charisma
  • good saves: charisma, wisdom
  • survival, nature, perception
  • goal: wants to catch them all and be recognized as the best
  • flaw: gotta catch em all
  • flaw: attracts rivals who try to foil plans, steal teratospheres, and show the ketchum up; the ketchum must save or try to do the same
  • bond: Magister X, who gave you your first teratosphere, containing your first monster
  • bond: your first monster
  • bond: your rival
  • bond: your first teammate
  • item: your teratotome, which has the notes from all the monsters you've caught; if you actually keep a physical teratotome with you and updated, gain +1 HP / level. 
  • teratospheres don't count against attunement limit
  • can be attuned to a maximum of [proficiency bonus] spheres at once
  • your sphere DC is 8 + Charisma mod plus proficiency bonus; this puts a floor on the sphere DC of spheres you use; the save DC can never be lower than your personal DC
  • starts with 1 sphere and 1 creature, HD 1 probably, name it
  • your creatures don't die when reduced to 0 hp, and your spheres don't shatter; instead, the creature returns to the sphere and is exhausted and can't be roused until dawn
  • however, if the teratosphere is destroyed, your creature is too; the sphere is just as strong as the material it's made out of; give it an appropriate AC value + 5.
  • you don't need schemata; you got this naturally
  • you don't need to spend spell slots (you don't have them and can't gain them) to enchant pokeballs; you are born with THE TOUCH and simply hold the ball in one hand and the motes you wish to use in the other, and wham, there's your teratosphere
  • EVOLVE: your monsters level with you. 
    • They get the same XP you do as long as they participated 
    • They level by the same scheme as you, where HD = level
    • When they level, they get another HD (and thus more hp)
    • When they level, you learn something about them that you write in your teratotome
      • this is an opportunity to come up with something smaller that's still fun: 
        • it's tougher than it appears because X: +1 AC
        • it's stronger than you'd think: +size to damage die
      • you can only make such a discovery once about a creature
    • When its proficiency bonus increases, the creature evolves
      • you learn a big feature about it: multiattack, elemental damage, etc. 
      • you give this evolution of it a particular name

* 1 + # of caster's HD / 4, rounded up

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Shrine of the Water Archomental

Princes of the Apocalypse has 4 main villains, each with a backstory that, let's be real, will never be communicated. (Edit: a summary backstory of the earth prophet is revealed in room M10 of the Sacred Stone Monastery, but it's not personal history.)

But it would be nice if they could get a hold of that information. Maybe it will prove useful to them when they encounter the prophet. 

Here's one way to do that. 

Seed the hexmap with 4 shrines: one for each element. 

When they pass through the closest hex with a town, give them a rumor about the shrine. It's just a local curiosity to the folks. 

These shrines are dedicated to the good archomentals (the counterpart of the big bads summoned at the end). 

Present each shrine with some being or creature or effect that asks for a particular offering. In exchange, the shrine offers information about the prophet of its archomental's hated counterpart. 

For this example, the shrine of water, it eats the essences of earth and reveals the history of the water prophet. 

The shrines require offerings as follows:

Water shrine: earth essence
Earth shrine: fire essence
Fire shrine: air essence
Air shrine: water essence

I leave the other shrines as exercises for the reader. 

Obviously you can adapt this method of content surfacing to other campaigns. 

I've got more to say about the good archomentals, which will make some of these associations clearer, but that will have to wait for now. 

Shrine of the Water Archomental
north of the stone bridge

The greenest hill, as tall as a horse. 
A waterfall splashing into a clear pool.
A pink and purple sea anemone 
reaches up from within.


When they slay an elemental monster, they find an ELEMENTAL MOTE, the elemental essence. 

Perhaps they find these also sometimes as treasure. Perhaps there are other uses, consumable enchantments. 

When they feed one (or whatever other rare thing they manage to think up that would qualify) to the creature, 
     it reaches and grasps the cranium and communicates in visionary flashes 
          the history of Gar Shatterkeel, prophet of Olhydra, enemy of Ben-hadar (Princes of the Apocalypse, p. 209)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ryuken: a D&D Race-Class


3 moves:
Dragon uppercut
Hurricane kick

You have to shout the names of the moves when you use them. 

When you level, get more hp as usual. Also, increase your damage. If your level mod to damage is less than 3, increase it by 1. If it's already 3, reset it to 0 and add another damage die instead. Like this:

Level 1: 1d6 + 0 + ability mod
Level 2: 1d6 + 1 + ability mod
Level 3: 1d6 + 2 + ability mod
Level 4: 1d6 + 3 + ability mod
Level 5: 2d6 + 0 + ability mod
Level 6: 2d6 + 1 + ability mod
Level 7: 2d6 + 2 + ability mod 
Level 8: 2d6 + 3 + ability mod
Level 9: 3d6 + 0 + ability mod

Your hit die is a d6. This is also your damage die size. 

Your moves all do the same damage: damage dice + ability score mod + level mod (if any)

You wear no armor, only a sweet cutoff gi. Headband optional. 

Palette swap: pick the color of your sweet cutoff gi and hair. Headband optional. 

Your relevant ability score is strength. 

You can't multiclass. No feats. 

Your class skills are athletics and acrobatics but not stealth and deception and slight of hand. You are a ninja but not that kind. 

You are proficient in Str, Dex, and Con saves. 

You're a human but you get no feats. 

You get 1 attack at 1st level and another  every 4 levels after (= prof bonus - 1, see)

If you use the same move twice in a row, you grant your opponent a +2 cheese bonus to AC vs your move, cumulative over the round. 

Using hurricane kick, jump and start kicking. You can kick anyone next to you, then move 5' in the air and kick anyone next to you now that you haven't kicked already. 

Dragon uppercut makes you jump real high and makes prone and knocks back. You move forward 5' and your extended legs are ability score off ground. 

Hadouken is a fireball, man. Range = double your move. Force damage?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Transmutaton of Treasure Table Fluff Into Crunch

I just finished rolling up some treasure off of tables (in 5e, but the experience holds across editions).

It's slow.

It's a bit boring, a bit okay.

But, really, players don't care about much of the fluff there.

B/X is nice in this regard. It just tells you how much the gems are worth, how much money there is, and what magic there is.

That's all the players really care about anyway, and all they really should care about.

That vase? Sure gonna make a fine 50 gp after I unload it in the nearest city.

AD&DI-V makes sure to tell you what kind of gems you have, as if the players will react like, "Banded agate!?!?!! Are you kidding me!?!?!"

When really it's, "Okay, how many gp?"

We're at a fork in the road.

Question: Do You Have the Energy To Care About This? 

If no, then just cash them out and be on your way. Else, if this is you:

Then let's do this. 

We'll do this categorically. Keep the gp value of course, and tell them. That's for selling in any reasonable town, no hassle, just get these off my sheet kind of deal.


Alright, five options here, all compatible.

1 Jewel Mongers
Big cities always have a jewel monger that pays d20% more than list price. Name that monger. Will continue to pay that much for the given jewels as they are locally in demand. Shouldn't be more than a few of these per metropolis.

2 Fashion Industry
As jewel mongers, but the reason is a fashion trend. If you instead of selling the gems wear them as dictated by the fashion in demand, you'll get a categorically better reception at places where fashion matters.

3 drugs drugs drugs
Grind them things and snort them. As jewel mongers, but shady folks want them (introduce this by having a shady person approach the PCs on the way to a jewel monger, having let's say off-camera visited a few with insufficient funds to deal) to grind into snortables. Determine the importance of the shady guy's people with a reaction roll. Neutral, and he makes a hard sell with indirect threats. Positive, and he makes threats and will carry them out. Next encounter in a city will be with muscle from the drug kingpin trying to rob you of the diamonds: hand them over, and there'll be minimal trouble.

Sell for d100% of the list price, or get them ground yourself for negligible cost and snort them.

The drugs work as drugs from your favored drug table, or have them mimic a potion, Con saving throw vs addiction.

Keep track of what gems have what potion effect. Should be randomized such that less valuable gems might have more potent snorted effects. You might over time increase the sell price of that gem accordingly.

4 Alchemy
As jewel mongers but alchemists also want them as the key ingredient in some alchemical mixture. Characters trained in alchemy know this and can brew the potion with negligible cost, providing sufficient lab / ritual space. Increase prices over time as desired.

5 Armor & Weapon Augments
A fancy smith can take gem powder and enhance gear with it. 

The augment score is equal to a tenth of gem's value (e.g., 50 gp gem has augment score of 5). 

Augmenting gear changes the color of the gear to match the color of the gem. 

The gem may apply special effects. Augmenting a helmet with tiger's eye may grant proficiency bonus to spotting predators; augmenting with fire agate may provide double the damage reduction vs fire. A dagger augmented with fire agate does double the augment damage against foes vulnerable to fire. 

When the augment score is 0, the remaining gem dust poofs away, leaving the gear merely stained. 

Armor: when augmented, spend augment points 1:1 to reduce damage taken from attacks vs AC. The max you can spend vs one attack roll is = your proficiency bonus. If not proficient in the armor, the most you can spend is 1 + any magical pluses the armor has. 

Weapons: as armor, but add augment to damage. 

Jewelry & Art Objects

Jewelry is art; so let's collapse the categories.

1 It Belongs in a Museum
If you're in a city, a proper city, or in a 1-in-escalating-from-d4-die-size-chance-settlement, there's a museum that will buy your dungeon jewelry.

They want it because it:

  1. belongs to some niche-famous historical figure
  2. belongs to a historical figure everyone knows about
  3. belongs to a mythological figure
  4. "exemplifies material practices from which our vulgar overculture can learn a great deal"
Or whatever. 

You get the default gold for it, but you get the added benefit: make a reaction roll, and a locally powerful person of the degree indicated by the roll now has a favorable opinion of you, trusts you, and will seek your good. 

Also someone at the museum probably thinks you're dreamy.

2 Family Heirloom / Religious Relic / National Treasure
When you bring it to sell, someone recognizes it: they will pay double if the town makes that plausible, or they will pay standard and be in your debt or pay little to nothing and be tremendously in your debt. Make a reaction roll to see how important the person is. The more important, the more dicey the consequences of refusing a transaction with them. 


Either way, you win. 

You either get, "Okay, sweet, 10 gp for banded agate," or you get "Sweet, banded agate! We can snort this and float!" or "Sweet, a genuine von Kibblesworth! The baron will probably let us borrow his horses."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Princes of the Apocalypse Tactics: Black Earth Priest

I've learned the hard way from DMing Princes of the Apocalypse for my podcast gg no re how NOT to run a black earth priest (p195-6). Let my humiliation teach you how to TPK.

The two places I know of that you will run a black earth priest are:

  • Levels 1-3: Tomb of Moving Stones (p153, area 9, Larrakh)
  • Levels 3+: Sacred Stone Monastery (p59, area 6/9, Qarbo)

Here's what you should do:

  • First: cast spider climb and get up on the ceiling
  • Thereafter:
    • cast shatter at the highest level you can, doing up to 4d8 in 10' radius, save 1/2
    • if you're hit, use your reaction to cast shield
    • if you need to jet, cast expeditious retreat and hit them the next day
It's very simple, but listen closely: slow is a trap. Each time I've led with that, and each time I've been disappointed. Even if everyone fails the save, they get to make new saves at the end of each of their turns, and your save DC is only 13. And generally your black earth priest isn't going to be leading a bunch of hard hitters who would benefit from the support.

Trust me: shatter them repeatedly and without remorse while you're running around on the walls and ceiling.