Thursday, July 29, 2010

New Races for Fantasy RPGs

I was thinking how much of a game-changer it would be to throw out the "traditional" non-human races of most fantasy rpgs and replace them with a whole new "core set". Think how this might change the history of the campaign setting. No more eldritch elven forests, now you have the sunken, swampy, pyramid-filled ruins of the lost Lizardmen civilization. Instead of lost dwarven mines, the colorful crystalline manors of the Oni. Inns filled with drunken and carousing Imps, wheeling through the smoky air, instead of hairy-footed hobbits?

Some ideas:


I've often included lizardmen in my more sword-and-sorcery influenced games. Something about this savage remnant of a once-proud race - from the Silurians of Doctor Who to the disk-throwing reptilians of Elric's ancestral home this is an ancient race still clinging in pockets here and there. Perhaps not all have descended into savagery, lurking in mounds outside of borderland keeps, perhaps some still cling to the "old ways" - performing dark rituals at bloodstained altars, weaving dark webs of forgotten sorceries, or simply trying to co-exist as well as possible in the great fleshpots of humanity.

Lizardmen receive a +1 bonus to Dexterity for their sinuous nature, and a -1 penalty to Wisdom as they are easily led astray and misguided. They have a natural AC equivalent to Studded Leather. They may be Fighting Men (to a maximum of 8th level) or Thieves (unlimited), and a rare few become Magic Users (maximum 9th level) or Clerics (Max 5th level).


I also have thought the Oni, or Ogre Magi, would make for a good PC race. Obviously, they cannot just be taken out of the Monster Manual as-is - they would be too overpowered compared to the other races. So we must assume the "standard" Oni in the manual is the apex of the Oni, as it appears after a lifetime of experience and training. Our Player Character Oni starts as a simple 1st level wimp, and slowly gains the abilities of the traditional Ogre Magi as they progress.

Oni are 7'-9' tall, with various shades of green, blue, or red skin, black or white hair. Some possess an unearthly beauty, and most have gleaming white tusks which lend them a savage mien. While many are perceived as being evil, this is simply due to their alien nature and the fact that their objectives are often at odds with those of humanity. No few Oni lurk among humanity though, and many have an artistic, literary, or historical interest to explore. Oni receive a +1 bonus to strength due to their great stature, but have a -2 penalty to charisma due to their inhuman nature (this does not apply when dealing with other Oni). They typically advance equally as Fighters and Magic Users (I recommend as the B/X Elf class), though a few become Thieves and Assassins as well. Oni can appear as human at will, though they have their own particular look as opposed to mimicking a specific individual - this illusion disappears when they are sleeping or unconscious. A 3rd level, the Oni can become invisible at will, at 5th level, the Oni can cast Darkness at will, at 7th level, the Oni can assume gaseous form once per day, and at 9th level, the Oni can cast Cone of Cold once per day.


The Imp as a player race is not the Diabolical creature, but rather a less-powerful earthly version, though the two appear similar and share several personality traits, such as mischievousness and a sometimes cruel sense of humor. Popular mythology has the Imp as an offshoot of the Diabolical Imp that were abandoned after a war with hell. Imps are typically between one and three feet tall, have skin in various shades of red, orange, yellow, and green, are gangly limbed, horned, and have weak but functional wings.

Imps receive a +2 bonus to Dexterity, but suffer a -2 penalty to Strength due to their diminutive size. Imps typically progress as Thieves, Magic Users (max 7th level), or a combination of both. They can fly for a number of turns equal to their level, but then must rest for an equal number of turns. Imps are disturbingly observant - they notice every detail! They detect traps and secret doors on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6, and can detect magic as per the magic user spell, at will.


The Unliving were once mortal men and women of a bygone age, but their god was slain in combat with a rival deity, and their souls were denied access to the Underworld as a result. While you would expect them to be dour and brooding do to their unnatural state, they are actually quite hedonistic, and love to indulge as much as possible. Their appearance is often gray or pallid, and a faint stink may linger in the air, but they often take great lengths to keep themselves as clean and fresh as possible, and make liberal use of cosmetics, herbs, lotions, and stimulants to increase their "lifelike" look.

Unliving receive no bonuses or penalties to their abilities, which remain the same as when they died. Though Unliving appear anywhere from child-age to elderly, they are all mostly about 200 years old at this point. They are immune to poison, cold, and disease, but take an extra point of damage per die from fire and are harmed rather than helped by clerical healing (potions work normally though). Unliving actually regenerate at a rate of 1hp per hour so long as there is a brain to will it to happen. Unliving may advance as any class, and can see into the infra-red spectrum for up to 120' provided there is no other light source to spoil it. They do not need to eat or drink (and in fact they cannot digest it) but love to do so nonetheless, discreetly vomiting up the meal later so it does not rot in their bellies.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Friday, July 23, 2010

Speaking of Sci-Fi...

I absolutely loved this movie when I was a kid. This is, hands down, as gonzo as it gets, folks. I'll take unabashed, unashamed, over-the-top melting-pot phantasmagorical wonderland space-opera sci-fi over black-leather-and-sunglasses-clad 3D HD brooding machine-gun computer-animated angsty politically-correct political-agenda sci-fi any day.

Yeah, its bad. But its soooo good at the same time!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lazy Blog Post - Monster / Sc-Fi Models

I always loved models like this when I was a kid - I built several, though none survive today, due to a combination of firework mishaps, rough battles, and parental meddling.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Some Adventure Record Love

Don't you just want to fill this in over the course of three or four awesome sessions? Disguises? Debts incurred? Monsters Overcome? Comrades Lost? Gotta love this Adventure Record sheet!

Good stuff, courtesy of the Mad Irishman.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Alignment as Allegiance

Alignment as Allegiance

While pondering the idiosyncrasies of Alignment in the Sword & Sorcery realm, I suggested that alignment, as a code of ethics or behavior, was somewhat counter-intuitive to a true, pulpy, Sword & Sorcery setting. The concepts implied by Allegiances, rather than those implied by Alignments (or at least what they seem to be commonly viewed), would seem to be more in line with fantasy gaming inspired by Howard, Leiber, Vance, or Moorcock.

But in a universe where 99% or so of adventurers (or "freebooters", as I like to think of them) would most rightly be considered "Neutral", how best to differentiate those who have thrown in their lot with "Law" or "Chaos"?

In Sword & Sorcery genre terms, the motivations for an individual to pledge themselves may be primarily class-based. A sorcerer, I would assume, would be most likely to pledge himself to Chaos so that he or she could more easily become a more powerful sorcerer. A cleric may pledge him or herself to Law to become a more powerful cleric and therefore more easily impose order on a world that has committed some perceived injustice. There must be some tangible benefit for a character to formally declare an allegiance with one side or the other. With the benefit must come some great penalty for failing to honor that allegiance. The penalties must be terrible to contemplate!

One possible way to handle this could be something like this:

Allegiance to Law or Chaos:
A character of at least 2nd level formally declares his or her intention to obey and further the ends of either Chaos or Law. The exact process necessary to make this formal declaration is up to the referee - perhaps a period of vigil and fasting, perhaps a terrible sacrifice or ritual, perhaps merely uttering a terrible oath following some personal tragedy. The character then gains a particular class-based advantage, provided that character remains faithful to his or her chosen cause and commits no great infraction. If such a character should fail to do so, he or she immediately loses any benefits of the allegiance, loses 1d2 levels of experience, and must roll on the dire consequences chart below.

Choosing an allegiance to Law or Chaos provides two important benefits. One is a supernatural enhancement to the character's effectiveness. This enhancement is typically class-based, and may vary depending on the character's goals or desires. Magic-Users and Clerics typically receive the benefit of functioning as a caster of one level higher than their current level of experience (i.e. a 6th level magic user would gain extra spells as a 7th level character, and spells would function at 7th level). Fighting Men typically receive bonus hit points equal to an extra HD at maximum potential, a +3 bonus to-hit and damage against foes of an oppositional power, and a +1 bonus to-hit and damage against all other foes. The second benefit of Allegiance is that all other true believers are sworn to assist the character in any way possible when that character is engaged upon an errand to further the ends of that power (this of course does not prevent treachery or infighting once that errand is satisfactorily completed.

The most favored servants of Law and Chaos have been known to cheat death if their patrons have further use for them. In situations where the aligned character has been killed, or faces certain death, their is a percentile chance of 5% per level of experience of divine intervention. This intervention may be expressed in different ways, from miraculous healing, to sending an ally, or whatever the referee feels is appropriate to the situation.

Dire Consequences:
When an aligned character fails their patron or power in some inexcusable fashion, he or she immediately loses all allegiance benefits, loses a level of experience, and must roll on the chart below (d20):
1 - Character is visited by patron, and killed in some horrific fashion.
2 - Appearance is forever cursed, suffer a loss of 3d6 points of charisma (to a minimum Cha of 3).
3 - Health is forever cursed, suffer a loss of 3d6 points of constitution (to a minimum Con of 3).
4 - Vision is cursed, permanent blindness.
5 - Future is cursed, permanent penalty of -20% to experience point gain.
6 - Performance is cursed, permanent penalty of -1 to all attack, damage, and saving throw rolls.
7 - Referee's Choice, or invent a new, appropriate penalty.
8-18 - No further penalty.
19 - Patron shows gratitude for character's past service by waiving the normal level loss.
20 - Character is forgiven, patron restores all benefits and gives character one more chance.

What about the Neutral guys?
All that excitement above may seem like an impossible lure to players, which could potentially defeat the whole purpose of making changes to the alignment system - creating a world where most adventurers are Neutral. So maybe a couple of simple, but not terribly unbalancing, benefits are appropriate for those who hold the honorable character trait of Selfishness on its proper high pedestal, such as a +5% bonus to xp and the option to re-roll one failed saving throw a day.

This is all just brain-storming, of course, but seems like it could be an entertaining alternative to the "traditional" system of alignment.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

House Rule - Ritual Spell Casting

House Rule - Ritual Spell Casting

Preparation - When a Magic User or Cleric prepares their spells for the day, they may opt to leave one or more spell slots "empty". The magic user or cleric may then employ Ritual Spell Casting later that day.

Ritual Spell Casting (Magic User) - The Magic User may cast any spell in his spellbook, provided he has his spellbook with him, possesses the necessary components, and has an "empty" spell slot of the appropriate level. Ritual Spell Casting takes a minimum of one turn per level of the spell being cast, and may not be performed under duress or during combat.

Ritual Spell Casting (Cleric) - The Cleric may cast any spell allowed by his deity, provided he has his holy symbol with him, possesses any necessary components, and has an "empty" spell slot of the appropriate level. The necessary prayers to perform the Ritual must be performed in a consecrated area (such as a temple of that deity), otherwise the area must be consecrated, which requires a vial of holy (or unholy) water, incense, and takes a minimum of one turn per level of the spell being cast.

Why use this houserule? I think it gives spell-casters a little more flexibility - Vancian casting is all about preparedness and making good choices, and Ritual spell casting allows them to take this a step further and decide between filling their slots with spells that can be cast at a moment's notice in the heat of combat or some other challenging situation, or leaving a "reserve" of energy for those times when facing the unexpected becomes necessary - one never knows when one of the more obscure non-combative spells like speak with dead or know alignment may prove helpful. There's also the risk to consider of lugging your precious spellbooks into the hazardous environments adventurers frequent - those books are damned expensive to replace!

I like the Sword & Sorcery flavor of this houserule, too. Priests of dark gods muttering foul incantations over corpses chained to altars, old wizards absentmindedly rattling off spell after spell from their tomes as they pursue some inscrutable arcane goal in their laboratories, etc. As a referee, I think it also lets the players more fully explore the complex realm I've taken the time to create for them, as there may not be a steady supply of divination or exploratory scrolls available in a low-magic setting.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Red Crystal Caverns - A Megadungeon Sublevel

Red Crystal Caverns is available for free download here.

Its a sublevel designed to be dropped into any megadungeon, though I suppose it could be used as a stand-alone, one-level dungeon as well. Its primarily "funhouse" style, but there is a bit of a theme for players to discover as they explore as well. Its best for characters of 5-10th level, but lower level parties could be amusing for the referee:) It was made with a little help from the random charts in the BtBG 2009 Compendium.

For more on Megadungeons, check the Megadungeon Resources page.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Get off my lawn(revised)!

Whew, for a moment there I forgot my own advice to stay out of these things. BtBG will now be returning to its neutrally-zoned megadungeon beneath the Swiss alps because a) as I said, the folks involved can take care of themselves, and b) I feel a little like Michael Moore picking on poor old senile Charlton Heston.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Hmm... What's this?

Hey, what's this crammed in between all those Big Name RPGs at my local Borders Bookstore?

Why, its the deliciously old-school book The Dungeon Alphabet!

How cool is that?

Kudos to Michael for taking the OSR to the "mainstream" stores, and kudos to Goodman Games for putting it in such a cool package. I'm especially happy to see this particular book on shelves - you probably don't know it, but I'm to blame for some of the art in that book, in a roundabout sorta way. Its a neat story I'll save for a future blog post.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

OSR Logo

My version, concurrent thanks and apologies to Atom Kid.

Alignment in the Sword & Sorcery Realm

I've been pondering the question of alignment for the last few days. The AD&D-style alignment system (LG, LN, LE, etc) is very much related to morals and values. Under this system, the player selects a moral code, such as Chaotic Good, and is expected to adhere by the tenets of that code or suffer various penalties, such as losing levels or certain class-based abilities. This is so far removed from the realm of "adventurous behavior" exhibited in Sword & Sorcery literature, that I marvel that the concept was included in D&D at all (more about that below).

The typical Sword & Sorcery protagonist ("hero" doesn't really seem to fit), exhibits behavioral and moral examples of all alignments. Revenge, greed, passion, honor, mercy, anger, pity, murderous rage, melancholy, curiosity, mischief, and so on and so on. In fact, it would be fair to say each Sword & Sorcery protagonist often has their own unique alignment. That moral ambiguity is often part of their attraction - they are wholly unpredictable, capable of great deeds of kindness one day and of shocking violence the next. Anything is possible. Does the Sword & Sorcery protagonist rescue the maiden from the arms of the ravisher to protect her honor, or because he wants her for himself? You have to finish the story to find out.

As to its inclusion in D&D, I suspect there was quite a bit of evolution involved. First there was Law and Chaos, and Neutrality. Given that the roots of these alignments are in Moorcock's works of the Eternal Champion, these "alignments" would have been more aptly termed "allegiances" or "obligations". As presented in Moorcock's world, Law and Chaos were forces you served, and in return your patrons gave you favors (if they were feeling whimsical or bored enough). Yet in D&D, Law and Chaos would come to mean Good and Evil, respectively. Elric of Melnibone, as a highly favored servant of Chaos, could no more have been considered wholly good or wholly evil than Conan or the Gray Mouser.

In a sense, the alignment system seems doomed to failure when applied to a Sword & Sorcery setting (and quite possibly other fantasy genres as well). It is an attempt to impose absolutes on an environment where anything should be possible. The ability for an adventurer to be capable of great charity one moment and great treachery the next should be celebrated, not penalized. As the character develops, so too does their own unique moral code. If there are obligations to be honored in return for power, such as those of the cleric or paladin, focusing on a generic alignment rather than a unique code of ethics seems to be a great waste of potential. Can one not obey the specifics of chivalry and still be twisted and resentful inside? Imagine the possibilities when the DM or player is free to disregard the restrictions of an arbitrary alignment system when developing a cleric's set of holy tenets!

To better reflect what I think "alignment" should be, in my future campaigns all characters would start as "Neutral" (or, perhaps more appropriately, "unaligned") with the possibility of taking on allegiances to Law and Chaos as the character develops (such as when that cleric gets their first spell at level 2, or the magic user gets that imp familiar). Whether there is an obligation to a higher power or not (with the accompanying risk of retribution for perceived offense), players will be encouraged to forge their own codes of ethics, just as they forge their own destinies.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Imp of Glory

"The imp commanding the demons ate its way out from its woven cocoon of human hair and scrambled, claws skittering, on all fours down the south tower's spiral staircase. Nostrils flaring at the sweet scent of horse and human meat, it clacked its teeth in hungry anticipation. Shin-high, the creature wore a tiny hauberk of scaled armor, a belted sword at its hip not longer than a bear's canine and nearly as dull. Its head was bare, victim to vanity, permitting its bright stiff shock of white hair to stand fully upright. Its eyes, a lurid yellow, flared with excitement."
- Swords & Dark Magic, "Goats of Glory", Steven Erikson

HD5; hp22; AC2; atk spell or tiny sword; dmg 1d3+2; spells sleep, hypnotism, spider climb, invisibility, stinking cloud, protection from good 10' radius, dispel magic; special control demons; equipment tiny scale mail +2, tiny longsword +2


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