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.
In the past few months me and the Glasgow OG have started playing again. I’ve been wanting to restart the Khosura campaign for a while, and I wanted to experiment a bit with dungeoneering.
Your busy roads Roiling with merchants Shunned
The first idea was to find Ubar, a dead city lost in the desert, to find out both what happened to it and to recover whatever was salvageable.
Your garden towers Laughing with birdsong Fell
I devised the cataclysm that befell the city (the land is dead), a curse making life there completely unbearable (the rocky desert becoming even more treacherous to navigate), and a forward base of adventuring compatible with both. A wizard built a magic garden that survived the cataclysm, which became home to those unlucky to get lost in the desert and lucky to find it.
Your welcoming courtyards Tiled with our songs Dust
Then I built a small, simple mausoleum for the group to explore, at the beginning at random, repeatedly improved as I found out the correct way to go.
Your ample schools Bursting with students Void
We are used to “lost cities” dungeons that are still populated, but Ubar was to be completely bereft of life. After the cataclysm, as the land died, the survivors left. “Dungeons” were only the province of the non-alive: undead, constructs, bound spirits.
Your hearty kitchens Forges of nostalgia and friendships Hush
Wizards tend to pick up a bunch of garbage nobody should touch. They do not destroy it because they see the potential offensive value. So they build vaults to keep nasty stuff in. Adventurers love breaking in those vaults. The game became to break in the fantasy equivalent of breaking in an SCP foundation facility.
I cry homecoming But there’s no home to cometo None
This year has been full of feels. In addition to catching Covid, I recently naturalized British, and both missed and was worried by what was going on in Italy, my first homeland. My parents live in Milan, which for a long while was where most Covid deaths happened. I worried the fuck out of this, for months and months. Together with being so far away and unable to do much heavily pushed my head down. I wanted to visit them but, beside being illegal, the last thing I want is to go back home and risk infecting friends and family.
As winter came and I missed my traditional descent into southern Europe for the first time I was to spend the holidays here. As much as I really feel Glasgwegian and at home in Scotland, homecoming to Milan for Saturnalia/Christmas/Hogmanay is the hinge of my year. Nostalgia struck.
Nost-algia literally means homecoming pain (nostos+algos), and in a way I hope most of you can deeply understand, the adjective form of nostos νόστιμος (nostimos) means “delicious” in Greek. It’s a hell of a feeling, especially if felt for things that are still there, reachable, yet unreachable.
The game changed in one simple way: players are Ubarites who, after generations of diaspora in the neighbouring lands, feel that maybe there is a way back.
Maybe in those vaults there is something that can break the curse, something that can heal the land, something to rebuild home with.
Oh, one last thing. Ubarites are all animal people. Cat people, bat people, horse people, cow people, frog people, whatever animal, about 4 feet tall. Mixed couples are the norm, and kids can look like either parent or like someone from previous generations.
I’m not sure if it will ever be done as a book, but I’m enjoying playing it, and I’ll be sharing maps and adventures here as we go through it.
Do you want obscure tomes, eldritch lore, enchanted items, watering a rose briar with your blood, and adorable animal wizard friends holding hands? Get Hamsterish Hoard of Hexes!
Taichara (historic blog, new blog, twitter) has been writing spells and magic items for years, and I’ve always been a fan. We joined forces to make a new spellbook, collecting her best and most colorful spells and magic, and illustrated by Alex Damaceno.
The content is split in two parts: eight magic tomes; and an item catalogue. The tomes are:
Principia Primordia, and its powerful channeling spells and plants
Least Book of Serpentarius, teaching the secrets of harnessing star power
Roseate Codex, a magic handbook about why feeding roses with your blood is clearly the only rational choice
Collected Wisdoms, holding the keys to wisdom, denial, and dowsing.
Tjehenet, a papyrus filled with shiny and glittery magic
Ex Sanguinis, and its crimson sorcery of emotion and blood
The Manual, that famous tradecraft grimoire
Book of the White Cat, teaching the icy mystery of the Queen of Clowders
As for the content, the spells are much different in tone from the ones in W&W and M&M in a few ways: first, HHH has more explicitly combat spells, but most importantly these spells were written for low-level D&D play, and have been subsequently adapted to be without level.
An example, straight out of the Roseate Codex:
Iron Briar Embrace Range: 50′, Duration: 6 rounds
This spell creates a tangle of coiling, clawing metallic black briars studded with fanglike thorns. The briars erupt from the ground beneath the target and wrapping around them. The vines inflict 1d6 damage per round as the thorns drain blood (or other fluids), and block the victim on the spot if they fail to save. Targets trapped in the briars may be cut free in 1d4 rounds.
Something different about the content is that, as previously mentioned, the content is split in books. As in, those are books to be found in game, each containing the appropriate spells, a list of useful paraphernalia (for starting items or to fill the jank drawer of a wizard kitchen), and most importantly some important esoteric knowledge that goes beyond spellcasting. For example, the extra content from the Least Book of Serpentarius:
The books ends with a catalogue of 24 magic items: useful automata, lenses and powerstones and jewels, some weapons, and many more, with a section of colorful Ephemera, minor one-use items that are surely useful and treasured enough for low-level adventurers. Amongst them, of course, a chicken automaton built to correct your spelling mistakes, the SPELLCHICK.
I’m a big fan of Joe McCullogh’s Frostgrave. I haven’t played as much as I wanted to (mostly because 2020 is a mess), but it’s a fun, swingy skirmish game about wizards getting magic treasures. Have I mentioned it’s about wizards? It also has spells and magic items. And Wizards.
The only issue I found is that during setup and between games the band’s roster changes, and that involves writing the stats of the new members on the army list. My great-grandfather used to say that a lazy person is more industrious than an orchestra director: it goes without saying that to avoid writing soldier stats again and again I made soldier cards.
The PDF has a soldier card per page, following the handbook order. Page 1 is the thug, 2 the thief, etc. The last page is blank, to be filled.
To have a roster page like the one in the photo you need to print pages 1,1,2,2,7,7,3,12 (corresponding to thug, thug, thief, thief, archer, archer, war hound, templar), and print 8 pages in 1.
When you build a new campaign in a different game world you should write a completely new spell selection that lets players use magic in novel ways, or else you are still in Greyhawk (or wherever the magic from your game handbook comes from). It’s hard work but it’s also a great payoff. I’ve done the redevelopment a few times, and I hope this small series of posts might help you in similar endeavours.
Magic is one of the big pillars on which fantasy is built, as it does most of the work to make the fantastic behave differently from our world of internal combustion engines, banking, and health & safety guidelines. Different kinds of magic will make the fantastic behave differently: magic goes beyond the physical mundane by using metaphysics, and different magic will go to different fantasy in different ways.
More specifically: spells and magic items in fantasy games are an integral part of the setting, and the main affordance players have on what makes it go beyond the mundane. Players use spells and magic items as tools to exploit and explore the supernatural.
However, when Game Masters develop campaign settings for play or publication for a game already in print, they rarely consider changing magic. Why?
Too many words
Mostly, it’s an awful lot of work. To give some perspective, let’s consider page count. It’s not a perfect metric, and page count certainly does not measure importance in the game, and the measures are rough. Still, page count is a metric for game material that would be re-developed:
Rules Cyclopedia, 257 pages: 30 pages for spells, 28 for magic items, 5 pages for Immortals and their mystic quests, 3 pages for multiverse, plus tidbits like rules for energy drains and the like. Roughly 25%
D&D 5e, roughly 900 pages: 28 pages of multiverse, 96 pages of magic items, 86 pages of spellcasting and spells, 29 pages for arcane/divine class features. 26%.
For games where recovering lost magic is not a core concern drifting toward obsession, I picked two at random:
WHFRP 4e, 350 pages: 26 for religion and belief and cults, 28 for magic. 15%, without counting spellcasters and their feats.
House of the Blooded, 430 pages: 17 for sorcery, 24 for the Suaven. 10%
It’s a whole lot of vision, design, and development work.
(note: this might be seen as an indictment of overly long games. There are many perfectly valid small games! However, the latter do not have much material: if you want much varied magic, the size of your text will grow. Unless you use generative systems, which is also entirely doable, but those have other cognitive issues)
Second, it strongly changes the nature of the world. There would be a lot to discuss here but, to keep it concise, I propose a thought experiment: imagine to rotate the magic in the three games above:
D&D with House of the Blooded magic and Suaven changes completely: what the game concerns itself with is much different.
House of the Blooded with WHFRP magic and gods becomes a completely new kind of nasty, with our nobles doing their usual shenanigans but with a godly struggle behind, and CHAOS.
WHFRP with D&D magic gets back to its origins as the non-grim D&D campaign of Pelinore, the setting published on Imagine, the magazine published by TSR UK. All of a sudden you do not have to worry about wizardry & warpstone. Skaven stop being their usual festering nightmare to become the fuzzy cuddly kobolds.
These changes are massive, and that’s precisely the reason why you want to change magic when you change world. There is no need to change magic system (although that would also help) but we do want to change magic so that magic does different things.
So many ways to pet a cat
This is a lot of work, and there are many approaches to it. As games are fun for many reasons, I suggest to approach the work from many angles, possibly all the angles relevant to the game you intend to create.
There are many ways to proceed: I’ll be making light references to D&D game mechanics (like level, and learning spells) for ease of communication, but keep in mind all of these apply to also other games, and to games with no spells per se.
What’s the simplest approach? Babysteps!
You can just begin writing spells, and stop when you decide you are done. When you run out of spells, write more. You can also start with a handful of low level spells, and let each spellcaster player create a new spell, and establish a consensus regarding power level and effects. Do the same each time they gain a level, or every other level if that’s too much. Over the course of the campaign you have a new grimoire.
This is similar to the process often done to create a total new monster selection: each adventure the GM writes up the creatures that are in the adventure, and in the process of playing the campaign eventually write a bestiary of sorts. This is how the Fiend Folio came to be: collating monsters from Imagine magazine. And of course you can try to run a campaign using only creatures from the Fiend Folio, eschewing other bestiaries (I’ve done it, and it’s weird, and I loved it).
The issue is that you risk having no structure at all to your magic. It’s monster-of-the-week in its approach, and this can be a good or a bad thing. However, many people that write a lot of spells often have this approach. It works. It’s simple. It is very economical in effort, as it’s on-demand. Its’s fine to write a handful of spells every week as you need them.
Top Down or Bottom Up?
(do not report me to the game design police for any top-down vs bottom-up discourse, please)
The piecemeal approach can also be used to start with a bottom-up design, and progressively give it structure as a bigger picture appears and we want to make the whole meaningful. Bottom-up is more exploratory, as we are not sure where we will end up and the end of the design, but the point is to find meaning in the forests by looking at the trees: not in isolation, but as an ecosystem.
The opposite approach is to start top-down: begin with an idea of what you want, decide its structure, and proceed by progressive detailing. For example, we decide that we want 7 disciplines of magic, one discipline for each type of energy emanating from each of the seven magic stars, and each discipline concerning itself with a different type of game mechanic applied to a different section of the game. Then we proceed to establish what kind of effects we want, how the effects interact in the magic ecosystem (for example what protection magic is available for specific noxious magic), and so on up to the point where we “only” have to write, more or less, three spells per level for each discipline.
It’s also possible to combine and alternate the two approaches: maybe decide that there are three types of wizards casting with different mechanics, and the five Creation Gods made the 5 soul crystals radiating the ten songs of creation, then write maybe one or two spells for each, or none if no player is interested. Or maybe design the 6 colleges of magic and their teachings, start writing some spells for a college, which informs design for other colleges’ spells, which refines the college design, etc.
Concerns and Approaches: Many & Conflicting
Games are complicated artifacts, with strong tensions in them. Good games are fun, meaningful, interesting to explore, simple to learn, et cetera. I could be here all day. The idea is to gather all these concerns and express them in the form of questions, and answer them in a sort of dialectical approach to investigate, as a sounding board, with yourself or your development team.
These questions can be answered in any order, and without full commitment: answering other questions will help you tighten the design. Some of these questions might not be answered, maybe because we do not know the answer, or simply because we do not care about giving an answer.
I’m going to start with a few questions that can be easily sorted in distance order, from game-y and social to diegetic and magical.
What is the role of the caster player at the table?
What is the meaning and role we give to the caster in the game world or story, from our human point of view?
What is the role of casters in the game, from a game design and internal game ecology point of view?
What do casters do in the fantasy world? if and how do they learn magic, socialize, work, what is their place in society?
How does magic work in the fantasy world? how are spells cast? what affects spells?
Why is there magic? how does it happen? how does it behave and interact with the rest of the universe? is it unique? coherent?
More questions about Magic itself
Then there are a few more questions about what magic can do and how:
what can magic do?
what are the game affordances magic makes available?
what kind of magic is available?
what can magic not do?
why is it limited?
is magic limited for a game design reason, for example to limit its effects?
is magic limited because knowledge is lost? can it be recovered?
is magic limited by the metaphysics? or some other condition?
is magic waning or waxing?
FRUITFUL VOIDS ARE SUPER IMPORTANT HERE
How many different magic praxes are available? (A praxis is a way of doing magic, for example: wizards memorize their spells and unleash them, warlocks receive powers from their patron, clerics turn undead and channel their god power, or whatever it is they do in a specific edition)
how do they differ?
do different praxes provide access to different magic?
why are there different praxes?
what’s their distribution?
what’s their accessibility?
How many different “colours” of magic are available?
are they based on different principles and powers?
what are their concerns?
how are they divided?
by culture (eg. there are many necromancy schools to learn necromancy from)
by magic energy or phenomena employed
can colours be blended? how?
how do colours combine with different praxes?
Next posts, we’ll work out an example and see a couple of development templates.
PS: yeah, I know, I haven’t posted in a while. The twitter game design discourse is terrible, and I miss google plus. Game production is proceeding tho! updates soon.
The cast of thousands that make your campaign alive don’t all need stat blocks. When they do, the usual way to handle it is to have a number of stock of level 1 characters, and improvise starting from those. But sometimes you do not need a whole stat block, and not every character has an character class.
The alternative is the Simple NPC with a Thousand Faces. The idea is that each person is sort of average, but they have both a Flaw and a Perk, and this lets you flesh them out a bit in the maybe twelve seconds they appear in your game.
The Perk is what they are good at, where they apply the proficiency bonus (or Focus) based on their level, with an additional +1. For example a construction worker is good at building things, demolishing things, and operate heavy machinery: if they are a level 1 character, they get a +3 on those rolls. In general, this is not limited to job skills: it should apply to all they are good at! They should also be good at something completely unrelated to their trade, like a hobby, craft, sport, baking, ikebana, massage, etc.
The Flaw is something negative about them. Determine an ability at random by rolling 1d6, and come up with a negative trait associated to that ability. A Strength Flaw might point to a small build, or a physical impairment like chronic pain, and a low wisdom might suggest someone falling for all jokes, a conspiracy theorist, or someone easily swayed. The Flaw does not imply they have a low stat, but they might if you need them to.
Cyberpunk is a very 1980s genre, and in hindsight was camp as heck. Cyberpunk was also 100% right in its view of the future. Its narratives are incredibly relevant and real to 2019, even if Cyberpunk is incredibly camp, and looks like a complete wack-job made by a fashion designer that was told to staple electrical waste to a bin of goth and raver clothes. This is because we focus on cyberpunk aesthetics, and not on its essence.
Cyberpunk streets look like neon lights, rain, and elective cyberware. Those things are not in our streets. Our streets look like the 1970s but with better haircuts, bigger cars, and a marginal improvement in fashion and storefront design. The only neon left is in Japanese alleyways, climate disaster is making the weather crazy, and prostheses can be made by kids with 3d printers.
Like Steampunk is not about brass cogs and leather corsets, but about class war, Cyberpunk is not about its aesthetics. Cyberpunk is about fear.
Cyberpunk is a very 1980s genre about the fear of the future in America.
Mostly fear about corporate lack of accountability, technology making us less human and less humane, and a more unequal society where megacorporation people get richer and everyone else gets poorer. If we told 1980s people what Facebook and Cambridge Analytica does with our data, how much we are relient on Internet and our mobile phones in every aspect of your lives, and the Great Recession and rampant growth in inequality it accompained, they would be terrified.
But that’s not what Cyberpunk looks like. Cyberpunk visuals are stuck in the ’80s, nobody has smartphones, virtual reality is awesome but the internet is somehow less fundamental to our human endeavours compared to the Internet of 2019, and, I’m willing to bet, we all still love paper books, which are suspiciously scarce in the genre. So, they completely missed the 2020 aesthetic, but as for societal evolution I’m afraid they got more right than wrong.
“But Paolo”, you must be thinking, “you write spells about goats. Why this?”, and then you probably thought “I want spells about puking a spray of eels that chase and latch onto the throat and face of my enemies, and possibly their crotch too. Please deliver”.
Well. Stuff happened. More specifically, an AI researcher at a university hired me to write a role-playing game about AI and predictive powers. We wanted a game where players get to see the future before it happens, have an impact on game causality, and steer the narrative in a different way. So we came up with The Future We Saw.
(Yes, I’m aware that this is quite a 21st century thing.)
The Future We Saw is set in 2020. It’s a 5e-based game of politics conducted through other means. Blackmail. Kompromat. Murder. Hacking. Infiltration. Corruption. The kind of fiction that you wish fake news sites authors would write about, if they could write. Players are agents for one of many organizations, and work behind the scenes, as fixers and thugs. The Future We Saw is about current politics, seen through cyberpunk concerns and fear.
What makes it weirder, and probably a Lost Pages book, is that you can play a Seer, and see the future. Seers can either glimpse or gaze into the future.
Glimpses make you see the future of what you perceive. Like a skilled player knows what the game is gong to be, you know that in 5 seconds that guard is going to pull their gun. Or maybe you have a feeling that someone might die in the next minute. Or maybe you know how a conversation is going to unfold after exchanging but a few words. This is why seers go on dangerous operations: to support the real professionals, doing what they can’t.
Needless to say the game design to make this work has not been easy, especially from a usability standpoint. It’s probably been the hardest work I’ve ever done.
Gazes let you see what happens at a campaign level. This can range from “what happens if we blackmail the CEO of WeYu Corp” to “given what we know, what do we need to do in order for WeYu to entirely give up asteroid mining business”.
This might seem like basic strategizing. However, since seers are uncannily good at seeing the future, this is what it’s going to happen, unless someone decides to do something against it seers were not aware of. In game campaign terms, this means players know what is going to happen in the campaign, and are in a position where they can do something about it.
The plan is to have The Future We Saw out as a beta this December, collect feedback from players, and release the final game next year.
PS: yeah, I know it’s been a while. I got busy elsewhere, like on lasagna.social, and writing spells, and now I’m freelancing only and might start a patreon. I’ll be at Dragonmeet 2019, and hope to have 3 new books on the table there.
PPS: Fear not, I’ll give you eelvomit magic, it’s in the spellbook after the next. FYI development names are Gaia’s Grimoire (cover: a roly-poly) and Tyrian Text (cover: a murex shell).