Tarots are incredibly fascinating. A tapestry of life, art bringing knowledge, hidden behind symbolism.
I do not know about you, but I love the metaphor of us going through our life journey beginning as Fools, in the hope of becoming whole with the World. The whole thing is definitely not linear, and at times it loops and folds, and it’s never quite clear where we are in the journey at a given time.
It is our life quest. It is pain, it is joy, it is mystery, confusion and clarity, loneliness and companionship, death and survival, creation and loss. The Tale of Tarot is the iridescent weave of our lives, the Arcana our warp and weft.
I’ve always been fascinated with Tarot cards, and have been reading them on and off for about 18 years, beginning soon after I moved to Scotland. Much has gone by since then, the relationship between me and the transcendental waxing and waning several times. Last year, though, I had the luck of falling in love with a witch, a spark that made me reconnect with the occult. The fire is blazing again.
This little project started an afternoon doing watercolours together. I had no idea what to do, and drew a thing, and then drew the Tower over it. And, while painting, the writing appeared spontaneously. A little setup, and number of questions, mostly aimed at the persona of a young wizard, initially nothing more. A system-neutral journaling game, a reverse tarot reading, using the cards not as events, but as explanations querying you for the event.
But it’s not only a game. It’s also an introspective tool, ready to ask questions when you need to give answers from yourself. It will work, whether you believe or not.
So, here we are, making clumsy, little watercolours, and writing some questions, vibing.
Let’s see the Tower. The most cursed card, the scariest, say some people. For me it’s not scary: the Tower is the collapse bringing freedom from ignorance, is the catastrophe resetting the situation to a more sustainable baseline, is the letdown bringing you down to Earth.
The Tower is, crucially, the break-up that came ten days after it was painted.
XVI – The Tower
How did it feel, how did it feel reaching for the sky? Upward! Upward! Ever upward! Light headed, merry, intoxicated by the rush? No more! You are now falling, screaming, broken, free.
What made you so optimist? What was the brilliant plan? What made you blind? What was the lightning bringing the downfall?
And now, falling:
what are you screaming? what is your pain? what is your shame?
This post was originally written for Knock #3, and it’s been amended somewhat. It’s also part of the Dawn of New Thaumaturgy series of posts, which is taking literal years because most of its posts are unfinished drafts.
Classic Dungeons & Dragons is a game with a lot of very abstract rules. Combat is resolved with one attack roll per round, and success deals damage. Finding secret doors takes one turn and succeeds 1-in-6 times. Spells are cast spending their slot and performing the rite. All these mechanics are fairly high level, easy to resolve, and while there might be some modifiers they are very granular and ignore lower-level choices. This is not an oversight, but deliberate: the game is not about combat, or finding that secret door, or casting that spell, but about having an adventure. The rules do not care about any finer detail: choosing to strike the enemy at the legs to slow it down, carefully using a candle to verify if that crack in the wall hides a passage, or harvesting the mistletoe with a golden sickle do not have a direct impact on the outcomes, but are abstracted away.
The issue, though, is that these details are abstracted away: the details to support the narration at the table are absent. One way to solve this is to have more complex game mechanics, but it makes the game experience slower, more cumbersome, and rewards system expertise: I love GURPS, but it’s often too much. Where are we left? An option is to add some narrative flourish, for example how in combat we might say “the bravo swiftly steps to your left to avoid your shield and slashes at your shoulder, 4 damage” rather than just “4 damage from the thug”. Another to zoom in to a puzzle of sorts, like we often do to find secret doors and traps by deliberately poking and pulling things. Both are approaches that help push the game narrative forward and enrich our experience.
For magic, the situation is different. Spells have a greater impact and their slots are scarce, so they already have bigger chances to be momentous. The issue with spells though is that most D&D spells are both abstract and dry as hell: in the Theatre of the Mind, abstraction dries passion, and does not help with meaningful stories.
Concrete Magic: the Passwall-Maxilor index
Does anyone remember Passwall? Straight from fantasy fiction, the spell creates a magic passage in a wall. You can go through it. It’s really helpful to delve deeper, bypass a door, escape a situation, provide tactical opportunities. If the spell ends whoever is left inside the passage is crushed (or spit out, depending on the edition). It’s a good, useful spell that some GM hate because bypassing encounters is “bad”, while I think bypassing problems is great.
The Spell of the Subterranean Gullets (by Brendan S., published in Wonder & Wickedness) is an invocation to the great chthonic god Maxilor. All subterranean cavities, tunnels, and pits are his mouths, throats, and visceral cavities. This spell (or perhaps prayer?) compels Maxilor to open one such opening in stone. At the end of the spell the passage closes; whoever is still there is lost, probably devoured by the god.
The two spells are mechanically the same. They have the same effect on the game world.
Yet, one is barely a sleight of hand involving a wall, while the other is an awesome experience stepping in the moist, holy maws of a greater god, and possibly being eaten alive. The spell achieves this by virtue of being concrete: it starts with an invocation to a god, and the god has a very clear and relevant context (the subterranean gullets). The chance of becoming a tasty morsel provides some emotional colour, and also ties the spell to the Classical tradition of offering buried sacrifices to chthonic gods*.
Just add Concrete Sauce
How do we make magic more concrete? My suggestion is to write concrete spells and use those, or rewrite spells in a more concrete way. That can be a whole lot of work, possibly left only for folks as obsessed as the author (or anyone writing in KNOCK!, I would add. — Eric). The other option is to make blanket changes in how magic works: it’s more effective effort-wise, but might require more finangling later. We are introducing meaningful elements so we can have more opportunities for interesting play.
This segues into another advantage of concrete magic: as we can make more sense of the causes and effects, adjudication in complicated situations becomes a source of shenanigans, the dream fuel of OSR-style emergent play.
Here are a few ways in which you can pour concreteness into your magic. They are mostly inspired by historical European and Mediterranean esoterica, and they do blend into each other, so I strongly recommend to mix them for full potency. Find in these proposals what makes sense in your worlds and brings meaning to the table.
1. Natural Magic: the natural world has intrinsic magic qualities ready to be exploited. For example, a tree stuck by lightning makes excellent wands to cast Lightning bolt: nature (or the god of thunder) chose it for reasons that we do not understand, but we can exploit its cozy relationship with lightning nonetheless. The easy way to make this work is to add more meaningful components – verbal, somatic, material – to spells. Fly is useful, but what if you whooshed through the skies propelled by feathered fans? Web is great, but it would be much better if you needed to draw extra eyes on your face and eat a bag of flies before you can spit out strands of sticky silk from your nose? Tenser’s Transformation turns you into a fighting machine, but what if it required you to don the skin of a ritually slain bear and tear into your flesh with your nails to become a beast? Suggestion is great at convincing people to go away, but it would be even better if it was a funny limerick about that lad from Bonnyridge who jumped off the bridge (of course you’d need to come up for a rhyme that works for your circumstances). Fear is a powerful spell, but what if you cast it shouting, while drumming on cymbals?
Strive for iconic and meaningful: without going in details about sympathetic magic, use mimicry, metaphors, and similes as components. It’s not a lot of effort: it adds a note of colour to spells. It also paves the way for small adventures when gathering components. Do not make simple components hard to find, maybe just inconvenient! (Like head feathers from a dire swan, for example.) However if your wizard wants their spells a bit stronger there are plenty of adventures looking for griffon or phoenix feathers for their fans, or drums made with wolf-skin or tiger-skin or tyrannosaurus-skin.
2. Emanations & Alignment: The influence of stars and planets is an excellent source of magic. These are somehow completely absent in D&D, their role taken by alignments, planes, and gods. True to its heritage of a game created in a strongly aligned world on the brink of mutually assured nuclear annihilation (the 1970s were a fun time), D&D pits the conflicting structures of reality of Law & Chaos and Good & Evil against each other in a struggle neverending.
Let me spell one important thing out: I’m not a fan of alignments as moral compass, and moral relativism is something that many of us take for granted. This is not how the premodern mind works, though. Most of humanity in history knew gods and demons and their powers were real, exactly as we know nuclear missiles and their programmed holocaust to be real. They bow to their gods, as most of our world bowed to one or the other side during the Cold War.
The biggest direct evidence for this is that Dungeons & Dragons is a game with an in-world literal moral compass: the Great Wheel is real, the moral compass pointed by scores of Gods Enthroned. Them, and the myriads of demons, and angels, and chaos frogs dancing for them are all real as the screen you are reading on. Good and Evil and Chaos and Law are, in the game, immanent.
PCs can avoid the struggle, stay Neutral, and have their spell election reduced, or join the struggle and become aligned, therefore gaining access to aligned magic, better suited to eternal war. I believe any other use of alignments in D&D is source of much wailing and gnashing of teeth at your table. I also only use Chaos and Law.
This gives a huge opportunity to ground spells. D&D’s Un/Holy Word is a good example: spelling out the pure truth of divinity is harmful to the uninitiated exposed to it (the differently aligned), certainly too much for their heathen souls, hurting them possibly to the point of death, as clearly shown in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Turning Undead is another very good example, but limited by the history of the first D&D cleric being a vampire-hunter. Turn Undead is an exorcism, and humans through millennia cast exorcism on many, many things beside the living dead: demons, diseases, spirits, ill luck, feral beasts, the evil eye, possibly even invaders, certainly bad intentions. It’s easy to make exorcisms more diverse, more relevant to alignment, and available to aligned casters, or swap them for other rites. The key here is to find the mood or objective of the alignment and have the exorcism/rite work toward that. Also, it would maybe be possible to grant a small boon to those of the same alignment present during the rite, maybe a small bonus, or a bit of healing, or advantage on a roll.
Aligning spells might make them concrete enough, or they might require some minor alteration. A low hanging fruit is clear from the examples above: aligned magic can tell apart friends and foes. As a matter of fact, the caster won’t be able to stop it from doing so, and the issue here is that the friend-or-foe identification is not decided by the wizard, but by the spell. The wizard trades power for agency, becoming stronger but more of a conduit, a tool instrumental to an end, as the stronger-willed spells make decisions for them. And if you think the struggle is only a concern for casters, do not forget that the best D&D magic swords are aligned too, sharp gears of war eager to enroll worthy fighters into the deadly struggle, and take over their agency too.
This kind of approach can also be used with other “factions”: it works perfectly for a struggle between the four elemental-aligned factions (you might have heard of a cartoon stushie involving firebenders). One last thing: unfortunately in vanilla D&D this kind of emanations are oppositional, but they do not need to be! Maybe in your world there is space for a mingling of the opposites that does not result in permanent cosmic war?
You can also ignore all of the above, and add planets and moons: their phases affecting their spells’ effects. While you are at it, introduce star signs and give each character a random, situational, and really quirky modifier.
3. Animism: instead of channeling power to affect reality directly, you beg or summon a god, spirit, or daemon (a servant spirit) to do the job for you; for all intents and purposes these beings all lie in a continuum of increased power and crotchetiness. To start summoning daemons in your games the easy way is simply to get the spell list and associate some (or each!) spell to daemons. The daemon could be summoned either in normal casting time (to get the standard spell effect) or as a longer ritual spell, in case the summoner require the daemon do to something more involved, like teach their arts, give advice, or craft something. If you want a good example, the Ars Goetia in the Little Key of Solomon lists scores of daemons, along with aspects, personalities, competencies, a personality, and a whole lot of knowledge.
The hard part is to actually get the daemon to do your bidding (as games folk, we want to compensate for the increased flexibility). Try a reaction roll every time you make a demand: a positive result means compliance, a negative one snubbing or worse, a neutral one a delay, as the spirit demands something in return. Of course daemons would be more cooperative when it comes to carrying out tasks that please them, and sacrifices and other appeasement might make them more pliable, giving permanent reaction bonuses. You might also threaten them into compliance: in this case roll again, but at the price of a permanent negative modifier. And if the roll is particularly bad the daemon might decide to not go away, and possibly haunt the caster. Banishing it becomes the next adventure goal!
Another approach is to require spiritual intercession: for example to cast elemental spells, you need to ask an elemental spirit. This means bringing with you a live fire to cast Fireball.
* Puppies at crossroads for Hekate, or so they say.
The wizard took so many cuts and bruises, yet did not care. If there was still a scrap of life left, that’s all that matters. One more damage and the wizard died, thus concluding the match of Magic: the Gathering.
The joke in MtG is that all hit points are irrelevant. except the last one. The game can be seen as a race to achieve victory before your life runs out. Often this entails directly attacking the opponent’s life total, some other times it’s way more complicated.
D&D feels sort of the same, sometimes. The narrative of HPs is that they are not simply wounds, but a mixture of stamina, bruises, tenderness, encroaching disabling pain, and real wounds. And until they all are gone characters can perform.
Perform normally? Probably not. Truth is, humans can take stupid amount of damage before stopping. I walked a week on a broken leg. A few years later, while bouldering, I had a bad fall and broke two ribs, yet I kept on climbing, even if in pain. I discovered my ribs were broken only weeks later, when I went to the hospital as the pain was still intense. I was informed that my lungs were not collapsed, which is great because it happens quite often when you break your ribs. No, most people do not notice. And these experiences are completely normal. I might say they are even quite mild.
Probably at that last HP you can hear your heart pumping like crazy, you are gnashing your teeth to avoid screaming in pain, and you might be about to faint, Still, you are holding on to dear life, trying to keep stabby sharp metal away from your body, running even if your legs are burning and your lungs have given up, in the hope that you’ll make another day. Because that is the kind of otherwise insanetenacity dying people routinely display. They will keep on going until they collapse, are overwhelmed by pain, their limbs give up, or their morale breaks. If they do not, and are in a dangerous situation like a melee, falling down, or slowing down, or routing is as good as dead.
There are ways to get better at this. The little martial arts I’ve done (some karate, a few months of HEMA, and an exercise routine that often was “20km on the bike and then punch the sack 600 times because I cannot punch bullies”) seems to point in the direction of familiarizing yourself with pain, and normalizing it. At some point you give up not being in pain when you exercise or when you spar. It’s in a way similar to the typical workout soredness, and similarly you learn to push through it, but the kind of it’s sharper, longer, and for what I’m concerned entirely different in its essence. That kind of pain is just in the nature of spending time being in fights: you train to fight and get covered in bruises while doing so, and then train covered in bruises. Sparring is soaking in pain: fighting will be carried out in pain too.
And this is why fighters have more hit points, by the way. They are just used to having the living crap beaten out of them, can stab you even when stabbed, and are less overwhelmed by the terrifying taint of approaching death.
Ok, now some rules on HPs that I have been using for the past 5 years or so. They give the player the certainty that they are really out of everything and the next blow is going to put them down:
You can perform normally even at 0 HP. If you were to go under 0, if the blow was hella mighty you just die, otherwise you stay at 0 HP.
At 0 HP, however, you know another wound will be your end. If you are hit at 0 HP you will definitely die, or if you are lucky you will collapse and/or be mutilated. In the latter case, use this table.
I’ve got a couple of saucy updates, plus necropants:
The Book of Gaub kickstarter is going well, with about 48 hours to go! Production is ahead of schedule and and we are about to achieve the last two stretch goals: a soundtrack by the amazing Zoey McCullough and releasing the book as Creative Commons.
Zoey has already done a couple of tracks for Gaub, here’s a study on the antimemetic Finger that is Not There.
A finger trails the letters across a dusty tome. A finger points the way down a dark haunted alley. A finger feels for the pulse of life on a long decayed corpse. A finger scratches the floorboards beneath your feet. A finger chewed down to a white bone. A finger that is not there. A finger catches a shed tear and slides it into a bottle. These are the Seven Fingers of the Hand of Gaub.
We are making a new spellbook, written by a team of seven authors, filled with magic and microfiction.
It is creepy, it is uneasy, it is woven with a warp of screaming nightmares and a weft of sheer terror. It’s cobwebs in your face and nails on a blackboard, it’s getting lost and getting hungry, it’s the attic you want to forget and the basement you locked up, it’s Babadook, it’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it’s Misery and The Shining.
My games do not have clerics. They do have clergy, and the mystic warrior archetype is fulfilled by Mageblades: if you need healing or other things that clerics do (like removing curses or diseases) you go to a witch or wizard and hope that they can help you.
Why? Why not? D&D has been a trendsetter in wizards not being able to heal, and pretty much any other RPG not inspired by D&D (especially early ones) has healing wizards. From B/X onward I never understood why the jock wizard that is less good at magic gets to heal and the weakling nerd wizard that is better at magic do not. Or why healing is divine and fireballs are not: why do healing requires divine allegiance?
The answer: the biblical Jesus was a wandering preaching healer, and a whole lot of clerical spells derive from biblical miracles. The Bible has also a lot of bad stuff to say about wizards, of course, so that’s probably the reason of the split between Jesus magic and wizard magic. Similarly Christianity preaches that true healing comes only through the divine, so I guess that helps.
Unless you are writing a Christian game, tho, there is no reason to split magic this way. I’m not against splitting magic amongst classes or schools of course, and for example both the three Moon-influenced schools of Dragonlance and the easy/difficult magic of Arcana Unearthed are great: the first has the right wizard schools split across three magic guilds that really do not like each other, while in the latter all casters cast the easy spells, and the hard spells are reserved to various subclasses (fire witch gets fire magic, etc). What I’m saying is: restricting healing to armoured faith healers baffles me. Why is this the limit?
This is exactly the logic behind Marvels & Malisons. Of the 5 disciplines within, 2 are the basis of cleric replacement: Apotropaism and Healing.
Apotropaism is, literally, turning stuff away. Bad stuff. Amongst the spells there are replacements for warding spells, remove curse, spirit binding, exorcism against demons and undead, and of course a spell that turns the next malison aimed at you you onto your goat. Excluding the goat, this is all traditional cleric fare, but this magic work, also in the real world, has not been confined to clergy or the divine. Including similar stuff involving goats cast out of cities.
Healing has healing spells. A few of them cure some condition (for example poison). with the extra effect of curing HPs. These spells were interesting to write: some are clearly more effective at low levels and some at higher levels. This was done to provide players with a panoply of effects, curing HPs only one of many: naturally there is also value in having all of them, for those who really care about healing. As a side, in my games there is mana points but no memorization, with the downside that casting the same spell twice in a day is complicated: extra spells doing similar effects are much valuable.
Curiously, the most effective healing spells at level 1 is Seven Steeped Stones, from the Cunning Folk discipline. The spell enchants seven one-use sigils stones that can be used as magic sling stones or to heal 1 hp each. Alternatively it’s possible to keep on boiling the stones in milk (do not ask me! the spell, like most of the book, is inspired by real world magic) and then drink it to get an extra save against a curse or illness. So, yes, it cures 7 hp at level 1, but it takes 7 rounds, and the stones must be cooked in milk in advance. It’s work! It also fills a gap in the design space: a sigil healing spell that can be cast in advance and consumed later, also doubling as last ditch magic weapon. It’s also a healing spell in a non-healing school.
At any rate, casters seem pleased by the increased choice of magic, yet at the table do not feel pressured to actually pursue healing magic: a lot of our parties do not have healers, and get by with herbalism, potions and surgery. Some players tho really double down and play herbalist healers surgeons with port-a-stills. As for myself, I normally play exorcist healer girls trying to capture demons in brass lanterns, who occasionally might throw a fireball or lightning bolt. Those who want to play a jock caster have fun with Mageblades.
Regardless: how much should spells heal in a spell-without-levels paradigm?
Should spell damage be more or less than spell healing, per slot? Combat economy suggests damage should be higher to avoid healing dragging out combats, but healing also allows a longer exploration phase (as opposed to a downtime phase), and that is welcome. So for the purpose of this post I’ll strike a balance and call a healing spell baseline as 2d6, exactly as a maleficence. As maleficence can be cast on an area, healing could be the same: maleficence can blast an entire melee, friends and foes alike, and because of that i have it rately seen used in melee. Right before melee, tho, when the enemy group is at a good distance, I see it used all the time.
So healing 2d6 on a melee would also be interesting: while it would see a lot of use after combat, you could also cast it during combat, albeit healing some of your foes too. Maybe that would be the beginning act of parlay?
Maybe there is another way tho: make healing a class power, like maleficence and magic shield (also from Wonder & Wickedness). This would make all sorcerers heal 2d6 as much as they can blast 2d6 or raise a magic shield. This is probably not a bad use of mana, and allows more casters to share the burden of healing, while leaving healing spells still very useful as they also treat other illnesses.
The bad side of giving healing to all sorcerers is that by giving more powers to all sorcerers all sorcerers become more similar. As each sorcerer now shares the power (and responsibility) of healing, sorcerers become less diverse. I’m not super keen on this.
There is an easy way out tho. We could make powers tied to magic disciplines, requiring familiarity with its spells in order to master it (2 or 3 spells would be adequate, while in Mageblade it would be tied to a perk). Studying Cure could eventually unlock the power of Healing. Maleficence blast (the melee-wide attack) could be unlocked by studying elementalism, maleficence ray (single target) for necromancy, magic shield for apotropaism, wizard eyes for spiritualism, turn/control undead for necromancy, tame beasts for vivimancy, esp for psychomancy, and never be freaked out by spiders for arachnomorphosys. I’m not sure about the other disciplines but something could be worked out.
Spells as Ingredients to Craft Beings – Evlyn describes how to create constructs and other beings in possibly the best magic procedure content I read in ages. Does what it says on the tin. Recommended.
Applied Fantastically: unknown tables – I’m not sure if this was spurred by an April writing prompt, but it’s an hilarious collection of wonky making items, encounters, rejections, and more, including two lookalikes having a fistfight, actually two drunk doppelgangers deciding who gets to steal the identity of their victim. Who might not be dead yet. A must read.
Productive Scab-picking: On Oppressive Themes in Gaming – from Humza’s Legacy of the Bieth. Why and how do we include or not oppressive themes in our games? Also, the Hugboxing-Scabpicking Spectrum and what happened to the (excellent) Attack Helicopter novelette and its author.
Gygax 75 – Also on Legacy of the Bieth I found a link to this inspiring workbook on how to put together your campaign, based on a 46 years old Gygax article. It will hold your hand on a five weeks trip, guiding you out of the Perilous Badlands of Campaign Creation, the horrible place where so many young enterprising campaign ideas go on adventure and get lost forever. Gygax was a bit of a self aggrandizing graphomaniac with uneven results, but amongst that unevenness there is some seriously good stuff: the original article, attached at the end of the workbook, shows how the sausage is made, and also reveals some details about Castle Greyhawk (feat. a level with 30-50 wild hogs).
68 pages, A4 black and white, written and illustrated by Jonathan Newell of bearded-devil.com, with cover art by Bronwyn McIvor. Available on DrivethruRPG in print and PDF.
Genial Jack is a campaign setting about the eponymous God-Whale, the city built on and in him, and its inhabitants. The second issue is dedicated to Jack’s Entrails, “a living maze of darkness and fear, but also of ancient wonders”.
Yes, it’s very gross. And, yes, of course you too can drink the blood of the Whale God. Here’s the Questing Beast review.
Built for the fifth edition but filled with OSR sensibilities, volume 2 covers adventure hooks, special equipment for entrails delving, its special unique magic items, the druidic Gutgardeners (the micro-biota of the Whale God are not micro- at all), and three adventuring sections: the Small and Large Intestine (rendered as dungeons) and the city of Hernaheim, at the same time a forlorn place populated by offcasts, wanderers, and criminals running from the law and possibly the safest place in the Entrails. The volume is completed by a a chapter devoted to the creatures inhabiting the Entrails, from thrushspawn zombies to the Teratomental.
65 pages, A5 black and white, written by Eric Nieudan with cover art by Didier Balicevic and interior illustrations by Eric Nieudan, Russ Nicholson, Guillaume Jentey, Jonathan Newell, Luigi Castellani, John Grümph, Luka Rejec, Clare Foley, Bronwin McIvor, Didier Balicevic, Chrissy Stanley, and Jops. This translation is by Cédric Ferrand, editing by Michaël Croitoriu. Available on DrivethruRPG in print and PDF.
Eric Nieudan’s Macchiato Monsters is famous for brewing shared worldbuilding into an OSR cup. The game finally finally sees a French edition: now you can delve into the Donjonverse of your own making in French! We particularly want to thank Cédric Ferrand and Michaël Croitoriu for translating and editing.
GRAB YOUR AXE, GO TO THE WEIRD WOODLANDS, AND MAKE A NAME FOR YOURSELF!
47 pages, A5 black and white, written by Erik Jensen (and family!) and interior illustrations by Alex Damaceno. Available on DrivethruRPG in print and PDF, and on itch.io in PDF.
Lumberlands is the first installment in a series of travel guides for Wampus Country, detailing huge magic forests and inhabitants. Inside you’ll find details on how to play a Lumberjill or Lumberjack, the various factions in the woods, its strange inhabitants from Sasquatch to Squirrels, and a more than forty events, from encounters with the flora or fauna to those special sightseeing places you all wanted to visit, with the occasional portal-land disturbance phenomena.
The books is concluded by a section of special familiars and some henchpeople, including the perfectly adequate Medium Berta, and Flippy, the Handsome Marmot, depicted above in all his majestic beauty.
A DIEGETIC SETTING OF WIZARD SCHOOL ADVENTURES IN THE MYTHIC UNDERWORLD
192 pages, A5 black and white, written by Paolo Greco with Chrissy Stanley, cover by Claire Maclean, and interior art by Chrissy Stanley. Available on DrivethruRPG in print and PDF.
Want to play a wizards-only campaign? Want to play a student at a magic academy, surviving uncaring professors, drunken student life, mysteric cults, and the devouring idols? Want a campaign setting inspired by Mediterranean religion and magic? Want to tap the unlimited power of mana tar, the black gold oozing from the ground? Want to steal the good stuff from the school pharmacy?
Chthonic Codex is a book describing the Schools of Magic of the Hypogea, their relics and rituals, students and shenanigans. The setting is presented in a diegetic way, narrating the world from the inside, written by its characters. The Codex itself exists both in our world and in the game world, to be found by students PCs as they try to survive magic college and, despite an utterly contemptuous lack of support from the teaching staff, graduate. Each creature is described in the book as a diegetic fragment, as part of a lecture, discussion, text. There is also a short poem about carnivorous reality bending axolotls, and a cautionary tale about not messing up with wizard kids:
The book itself is built around ten schools of magic and a spell selection of more than a hundred spells, designed to be used as a replacement to the usual spell assortment, but can also be used with your other games. Most spells come with either an Alteration or a Dispensation: Alterations are different ways to cast the same spell, and Dispensations are conditions and tricks to cast the spell without spending mana. Oh, yes, there is a new spellcasting system using mana points. Here are simple examples of Alteration and Dispensation, from the Sufi-inspired Circle of Fire Dervishes:
Other sources of inspiration are classic Greek magic, western occultism, Orthodox Christianity, those Greek myths too bizarre to have broad appeal, and my terrible year of postgraduate school at Glasgow University. The rest of the book is devoted to adventure hooks, two types of magic research, herbalism, dozens of new monsters, a couple of magic systems, a mythic underworld generator, an 11-step mysteric initiation quest generator, a bevy of magic items. Also, to make character generation faster, students get a standard endowment of equipment from their school, plus some absolutely useless magic items from a d666 table, as you can see below:
Here’s a review of the boxed set edition by Questing Beast. The Omnibus edition is a single book version of the 2016 edition: it has some extra material compared with the boxed set, but otherwise the text is the same.
Chthonic Codex stat blocks are presented for both B/X and for Adventure Fantasy Game, which is now available as Pay What You Want. AFG has a bunch of extra spells that you can use in Chthonic Codex or other other campaigns and games, a simple skill system, and also accomplishment mechanics to do away with experience points.
This is all for now. This post should have been at least two posts. The past two months have seen a lot of changes, including finding a new Lost Pages headquarters, moving twice, realizing that twitter is pretty much hopeless as discussion platform and return to blogging, starting to design and write Lost Ubar, new long-term debilitating injuries, re-evaluating attitude to life, playing Factorio Space Exploration, cats, and so on.
My goblins are dirty, My goblins are goons, My goblins are many Their smell makes you swoon
My goblins are daft, My goblins are dank. My goblins eat boogers And pull some mad pranks
I never have humanoids in my fantasy RPGs. Humans run the gamut of all possible morality and roles, and deliberate homicide feels quite different to… hetericide? If you want murder and betrayal and evil, don’t be shy; kill, backstab, and hurt fellow men.
Goblins, tho. Goblins are different.
Goblins are dirty feral kids. Goblins are grotesque, both in a literal sense of cave-dwelling troglodytes, and in a more meaningful sense of odd, off, weird, and a chonk more than “a bit wonky”. Petty, greedy, prone to deformity, displaying undecipherable gender dymorphism and not caring about it, goblins have the class-less, level-less, hyper-violent society you’d expect after an unsupervised mid-morning primary school recess lasting three weeks. For goblins, Lord of the Flies is a dreamworld utopia with a bad ending. Or rather: it would, if they could be bothered to read.
Goblins form gaggles, and are as prone to violence as amoral unsocialized primary school kids with wonky sharp teeth. Goblins wander both the wild and tunnels looking for cake and a better weapon than the chair leg they are currently wielding two-handed. Goblins are all different, mismatched in attire and shape and eye-colour, all squeaky voices and craven laughs, enjoying both frantically petting rabbits and playing football using a small tied-up goblin in lieu of a ball, often at the same time.
Goblins encounters should always include some occasion for shenanigans, some mutated goblin, and some weird set up: this can be either straight slice-of-life in a grotesque location or a ridiculous event but completely out of place. Goblins don’t have an odd thing or two to spice them up: instead they fell in the weirdo-saucepan as kids, and when trying to get out they fell in again, and then the pot tipped and flipped over the goblins trapping them underneath. When playing the inevitable melee, each attack should be different: a goblin swings at you with a pillowcase filled with rocks, another jumps and bites your calf, another climbs over you to stab the back of your neck like you were a Colossus, yet another singes you with his laser eyes.
Oh, yeah, mutations. I hate mutations, but goblins just wallow in teratogenic gunk all day. And this, in fact, is where it all started, ten years ago: one of my first and still favourite pieces of tabletop development was a d30 tables of mutations for the first Secret Santicore, which you’ll find here accompanied by more, probably stupider, tables. Jez was so impressed by the wart goblin he immediately drew it in its all lumpy grossness. At any rate, when encountering a gaggle include a handful of mutated goblins, and maybe give them an extra level or two and good kit so they can survive enough to do their crazy stupid shenanigans for longer.
One last thing: goblins are always, always hilarious. Even in death, play it for laughs. No tragedy! Goblins are slapstick, goblins are farce, goblins are low comedy, goblins are snark. Leave no room for anything sad: all goblins want to die like they lived, cackling gingerly. A word of warning: don’t attempt to play them seriously, or they might become regular children.
d30 Mutations and Other Goblin Weirdness
Very furry. Better defence and protected from cold.
Horribly fat, the goblin is fed by its tribe to be slain and eaten during periods when food is scarce. Double hits, can’t run.
The goblin has a skin membrane between arms and legs, allowing her to glide. It makes impossible to wear armour tho.
Can make any noise through vocalization. Will make any noise through vocalisation. Repeatedly.
Horribly strong. Ridiculously buff. His biceps have biceps. Deals at least double damage in melee and throws objects at three times the normal distance. The goblin body can’t quite cope with so much awesome, tho, taking damage when such huge strength is abused.
Pea green, photosynthetic goblin can survive on water and sunlight. Shame that goblins hate sunlight.
Uncannily warty, if still and crouched is easily mistaken for a pile of rotting garbage.
Very sticky and strong. Grapples like an ogre and can easily climb walls and steal garbage.
Mostly glabrous, pink and swollen, the goblin looks exactly like a perfectly healthy human blond kid.
Really big, strong and burly. In combat, treat as ogre, except for morale purposes.
Immortal and unable to reproduce. This goblin might have died hundred of times, often in embarrassing ways, but might be very far from realizing it. Regenerates 1hit/turn.
Flexible bones. Can squeeze through a hole the size of a tennis ball and takes no damage from falls and blunt trauma. Wobbles.
Feels no pain. Doesn’t understand it either. When it should be collapsing or dying, instead every round try to Save to stave off the condition for another day.
1d6 arms. 1d6 legs, 1d6 heads, eyes, ears, noses. Still a single goblin brain to run all of them, sadly.
Can shadow-step once a day, and reappear within a shadow in a range of one mile. However this happens only when frightened, and can’t be activated deliberately.
The goblin has a big, swollen skull, looks a bit stupid and can’t talk. Unbeknown to any the goblin is able to plant ideas and beliefs in other goblin minds (three times a day, save to resist).
Smells like freshly baked bread instead of reeking like a normal goblin. Tastes like freshly baked bread too. Until the day this goblin is eaten they will benefit from advantage in reaction rolls.
This comically hairy goblin with a roguish smile is, in fact, a were-worg.
Very sexy. For Anything. Of any gender and sexual preference. Gan get laid with not much effort. Probably due to goblin pheromones or something.
Three eyes. Can see radioactivity, magic, and other normally invisible emissions and auras, and also particularly elusive phenomena like the flight of invisible herons, and other people’s problems. For some reason other goblins find this mutation particularly funny.
Freakingly long and slender hands. Imagine a human child with a 5 feet long hand.
No head. A mouth is where the neck should be. Has 10 little eyes on fingertips.
Metal bones. Double HPs, +6 AC, fists like hammers, sinks like a stone, if held up by a rope points north.
Can breath in a lot, distend, and become a goblin balloon. If warmed up with a fire or by sunlight will rise to the sky. Often chased downhill for sport.
Silicon compatible body chemistry. Can survive on water, rocks and soil. Resistant to electricity, additional damage from fire. Shiny as hell.
Self-fecundating. Had 5d30 identical but sterile daughters, in addition to 2d30 offsprings due to more traditional mating practices, if you are willing to entertain the idea of “goblin traditional mating practices”. Ugh.
Really, really, really loud voice. Can be heard from far, far away. Can’t speak at less than “full blast” volume tho, and also does not understand the concept of inside voice. Only coping strategy: breaking into song.
This goblin does not need a potty, but oozes an oily substance (about a pint a day if properly fed), that can be collected and used for lubricant, burning oil, and even food. If one can get over the complex bouquet of lemon flower, camphor, goblin armpit, and waste engine oil.
This goblin is, in fact, a changeling left there by a very, very intoxicated faerie queen on a three-years-long bender. Nobody ever realized this.
Unexpected Goblin Location
a butcher, with odd cuts of strange meat hanging from hooks, and entrails from any and all D&D monsters scattered all around.
a salon, with plush, really dirty furniture and cheap hooch aplenty
a device room, containing an engine or a pump or a printing press or something similar, in overlapping states of disrepair but still operated by the goblin crew.
A goblin creche, with 6d20 extra goblins.
The “Graffiti & Chill room”, where goblins hang out to watch graffiti and then… chill.
the Goblin Great Poo Room.
the goblin mechanical workshop, where nothing works reliably. Yes, even things that elsewhere work fine, magic wobbles into catastrophe, and even artefacts and holy relics can literally fall apart.
a pottery workshop and kiln, where goblins make really wonky pottery, glaze it with the most eager colours and patterns a kindergarden could collectively imagine, and fill them with whatever they find.
Utterly Inexplicable Goblin Situation
Goblins petting white rabbits, nervously stopping and putting the rabbits down as soon as the PCs notice them. If inquired, they will vigorously deny petting rabbits.
goblins strutting on giant wargeese (stats as ogres)
goblins wearing shiny armours and being honourable knights and failing in the most goblin way.
A lonely goblin mounting guard, accompanied by their bear plushie Patchington roleplaying to be World Emperor
Goblins are playing football. Er, footgoblin: the ball is a live, shrieking tiny goblin, tied and bound in a lumpy, angry, bitey ball.
goblins are carrying a mutant goblin on a palanquin and nobody knows where they are going.
goblin diplomats, throwing a barrage of carefully weaponized insults to a delegation of another faction. (See the Monster Train later)
Goblins are tunnelling and expanding the dungeon or doing construction work in ways so risky the mind boggles
The Great Goblin Medical Experiment, attempt 472
the Goblin Game, where all participants slap each other and swap possessions following incredibly complex rules (can’t counter a double slap on saturday while stealing a broken tool, unless straddling rules are in effect). Obviously it’s completely and utterly inappropriate for the PCs to not join in.
Insane Secret Goblin Warfare Techniques
Goblin Pot Airmail: trebuchet shooting goblins in clay pots. The pots smash at landing dealing 1d6 damage, but goblins always survive landing unscathed.
Goblin Monster Train: a goblin diplomat chased by a random mob of hostiles it harassed, trying to run toward the enemy to unleash the mob on them
Operation FIREWOLF: goblins riding wolves, close in melee with the enemy, as they are about to die immolate with firebombs.
Slime Squad: goblins with buckets of oozes and slimes go close to the enemy, throw them the buckets and run away.
GIANT GOBLIN ROBOT: treat as a mountain giant, but every round of operation there’s a 10% chance of shutting down for 1d2 rounds, and a 20% chance of catching fire.
Goblin Morale: this group is positively the most cowardly goblin group ever, and will always fail morale rolls, and has learnt to embrace their propensity for self-preservation into their tactics. They start pelting the opposition with arrows and stones until melee starts, when they will route and flee. They will rally a few minutes later, return shooting at the enemy, again and again and again, in an neverending cycle.
Saint Sebastian spooks the plague away Saint Sebastian spooks demons away Saint Sebastian spooks the dead away City by city and house by house Onto our torments its arrows souse
In the past years, going to a client site, I often walked in front of the Saint Sebastian temple in Milan. Part Catholic church, part civic temple; it was built as a votive offering toward Saint Sebastian Martyr, after a plague in the 16th century. Designed as a circular civic building in a very small plot of land, is styled after pagan temples like the Pantheon in Rome. This of course pissed off the Archbishop; the temple is still owned by the City of Milan rather than by the Church, and if you are there you should visit it because it’s dope. Saint Sebastian managed to survive martyrdom by archery: the Golden Legend of Jacopo da Varagine describes him as peppered by arrows “like a hedgehog”, and because of the relative nudity of the to-be-saint, this was quite a common subject in art.
The Order of Saint Sebastian has been part of my games for a couple of years, since before the pandemic, and now that I’m playing a follower of Saint Sebastian (Doctor Luke has just set foot in Ravenloft and totally hates it!) I’m in the headspace for writing some more material about it. This is what the real temple looks like, the interior all dark grey and gold.
Saint Sebastian (the fantasy one) was a traveling medic, faith healer, and exorcist. He became famous not only because he kept on stubbornly bringing relief to the cities most hit by plagues, demons, and undead hordes, but also because being remarkably popular after bringing relief to cities would cause much chagrin of local potentates, big and small alike. Often, after the emergency, the city population would spontaneously erect small civic temples to commemorate his help, normally as small chonky towers with no windows in the lower floors; Saint Sebastian likes small round temples and thought they could be useful also as traditional fortification to defend the population in times of crisis. Over the door, always, a bas-relief of a sheaf of six arrows, to symbolize the Arrows of Saint Sebastian, the magic practices he developed. Sebastian himself was keen on the metaphor of healing and deliverance being as effective in struggles as offense: he was not otherwise especially keen on archery.
Its life was so inspiring that he attracted a crowd: rather than going around with him, they scattered, bringing relief to more and more places. After his death, and over several years, his followers formed small academies in his temples, to teach both medicine and the Arrows of Saint Sebastian. As time went by, some academies have been built as seals over evil crypts and other greater evils that the Order has not managed to dispatch: while some ails can’t be healed, their harm can at least be contained.
You can use the Arrows in your game in the following ways:
as level-less spells, a-la Wonder & Wickedness/Marvels & Malisons
as replacements for Turn Undead
as Mageblade blademagic
The Six Arrows of Saint Sebastian
Arrow against Torment: the Caster asperses blessed water on small location, like a hut or a room, to deliver it from demons and the baleful dead. All demons and undead in the area, if their current HP are less than 1d6 HP per Caster level, are compelled to leave the area. The effect lasts until sunset.
Arrow againstMisfortune: the Caster, once per day, can reroll any roll affecting them. For example a failed save, a hitroll or damage roll either toward or against them, a skill check, etc. In Mageblade this is a Perk.
Arrow againstPain: over the course of ten minutes, as the Caster tends the wounds of a small group of people (1 person per Caster level), they all are cured 1d6 HP, plus they all enjoy the effect of a successful Medicine check (if you do not have skills, heals 4 additional HP).
Arrow against Illness: over the course of ten minutes, as the Caster administers mundane treatment and a very limited amount of poultices and other remedies to a small group of people (1 person per Caster level), they are cured from a disease afflicting them.
Arrow Against Demons: striking terror on abject failures of creation, the vengeful strikes of the Caster terrorize devils, demons, and other fiends alike. Until the next sunset, when the Caster strikes a demon, devil, or fiend in melee, all such creatures nearby will be terrorized. This terror both gives them disadvantage in all hostile actions and gives the victims of their spells advantage to their saves until the next round of the Caster.
Arrow Against the Dead: the Caster strikes utterly demolish the living dead. The Caster melee damage against undead is doubled until the next sunset.