Monday, March 22, 2021

The Off-Season in Acmori

In the Acmori campaign paradigm, player characters go on adventurous expeditions during the winter, and in the off-months they participate in the affairs of their island realm, whatever those are. This is done with a simplified Birthright domain system that creates space for adventure while proceeding quickly when needed.

  1. The DM rolls for a "realm event," a large happening that colors the entire year, and privately decides when between early Spring and late Autumn it becomes apparent to the PCs.
  2. Everyone (who isn't a golem, gnome, or locust) solemnly adds 1 to their characters' age. If this exceeds their average lifespan, they roll a d20 and add 1 for every year above the average. On a 1 or higher, lose 1 point in any primary attribute. On a 20 or higher, they are in poor health and will die in 1d8 months. They have a general sense of this, in-character.
    1. The average lifespan of short-lived folk, like hobbits and elves, is 40 years.
      1. Elves don't die of old age so much as a disease called Tumors. The ancestral solution to this is to make yourself immune to disease through pacts with demons.
    2. The average lifespan of long-lived folk, like humans and preskeletons, is 60 years.
    3. Locusts are only awake one year in eight. If you choose to stay awake for another year, reduce your LORE by 1d6 and gain another primary attribute called MADNESS, equal to the points lost. The DM will let you use this on certain niche occasions. 
    4. Some aging folk live far longer than 80 years. This is achievable, but will not happen by accident.
  3. Each player character can perform minor actions over the year, but those leading a household, temple, guild, or other domain perform "realm actions." They can initiate one each season: Spring, Summer, and Autumn.
    1. Example realm actions: woo a lover, get married, conceive a child, go adventuring, visit another island whose location you know, spread rumors, build some holding, ply your trade for coins, muster soldiers, make gifts, invite guests to spend time in your home, making friends, conduct research, or train.
      1. The common actions to take when you don't feel like you have anything to do are plying your trade, wooing lovers, making friends, and spreading rumors. Socu-worshippers also like to invite guests over. Dodkulists also like to visit islands in pilgrimage.
      2. Short-lived folk are mature enough to be considered independent characters at 5 years old.
      3. Long-live folk are mature enough to be considered independent characters at 15 years old.
  4. Player characters who don't perform realm actions can do one a year of their own accord, and may be the agents of their friends' actions.
  5. Significant NPCs can take similar actions. In general, things tend towards poverty and stupid conflicts.
  6. At the end of the Autumn, the party decides where to go next for this year's expedition. The island's economy probably depends on this, so if none of the PCs actually want to leave the island, someone else will need to. Generate new PCs and add them to the stable of characters. You can still play your original PCs when Spring comes, and this is a valid way to play.
    1. Traditionally, this is not the season for realm actions, but some can be attempted with a penalty. The only actions with no penalty are religiously approved actions, like hosting guests for Socu-Worshippers or going on pilgrimage for Dodkulists.

Acmori Route Maps

In my previous article, I laid out a proposal for a campaign heavily dependent on "Route Maps" (or "treasure maps.") These are ways for the player characters to choose which islands to explore and give them a rough idea of how far they'll have to walk along an icy sea to get there.

Art by Blake Rottinger

I. Basic Example

Ideally, this will feel like the Odyssey, or a Redwall adventure. Characters will contend with a variety of strange encounters as well as the weather. To facilitate quick generation of these routes, I'm working on several tables. Currently, a GM might generate something like this:

Towards the Malodorous Ruins

  • Head North-north-west
  • Keep going after descending the frozen wave
  • Keep going at the desert island
  • (encounter roll)
  • (encounter roll)
  • Turn right at the desert island
  • (encounter roll)
  • (encounter roll)
  • Turn left in the fields of jagged ice
  • (encounter roll)
  • And then you’ve arrived

Location: a single, large verdant island with no mortal inhabitants.
A rare resource: wood of healing.

In this ecosystem, almost all creatures are flying
The most prominent are:

  • tree claw predator (HD 0)
  • shrub shell centauroid (HD 1)
  • nest den liquid (HD 1)
  • genital cave aven (HD 2)
  • frill burrowing predator (HD 4)
The first part is a simple title to differentiate maps. The intriguing title is probably enough for a map found in an old buried chest, but player characters will want to ask questions of a merchant selling the map, and there should be some information available in that case. More on that in a bit.

The next part is the route itself, mostly divided between landmarks and (encounter rolls). Landmarks will have more details as the DM improvises or plans them, but can just be a 30-second stop to show that the party is orienting itself on this journey. The encounter roll is a 50% chance of a normal wilderness encounter, otherwise a minor weather complication. Obviously the PCs won't know exactly how often they'll run into something on the way there, but I think it's fine to let the players know, and understand this as an abstract measure of distance and time. If the DM has the time, they can preroll all of this and tweak it to their desire, but I want it to be easily designed that they won't have to do so, since the party may be choosing to follow only one of several maps they find.

The location and resource section tell us why the destination is desirable. Many will have settlements whose trade will directly impact the economic and political reality of the PC's home islands. All islands worth mapping a route to will also have a rare resource, something you can only be certain to find there. The "wood of healing" in this case might be mundane or magical, the source of a balm, oil, charm, blessing. It's a neat trick to make the resource static on the island, such that PCs might need to visit the island again later.

The ecosystem section informs us of the dangers at the destination. If there were inhabitants on this island, we will try to come up with three ways they're adapted to the place where they live. If all creatures fly here, maybe they have wide thorny hats to prevent them from being dived at by predators. Maybe they make a pomade from seawater that wards off the "genital cave avens." Maybe they just stick slivers from the wood of healing in their wounds and shrug off all attack.

Art by Leon Tukker
II. Characterized Example

Let's generate another example, and characterize the destination, its ecosystem, and its landmarks:

Towards the Hideous Ruins
  • Head North-west
  • (encounter roll)
  • Keep going at the desert island
  • (encounter roll)
  • Keep going at the hermitage
  • (encounter roll)
  • (encounter roll)
  • And then you’ve arrived
Location: three tunnel-tossed islands with no mortal inhabitants.
A rare resource: liquid of bane to evil.
In this ecosystem, almost all creatures are hibernating
The most prominent are:
  • jaw slimy tetrapod (HD 0)
  • crest nocturnal fungus (HD 1)
  • waist glowing detritavore (HD 1)
  • beach leg liquid (HD 2)
  • nest neck aven (HD 4)
Okay, so I imagine three islands connected by tunnels, maybe the former sewers of a former civilization. This dungeon-like environment would be a great place to put something valuable, so the "liquid of bane to evil" is obviously at the center of it. Perhaps some unknown property causes this thin condensation in the low places of the islands, calming evil hearts.

This is why the creatures are hibernating. They're not normal nocturnations but the imposed rest of the liquid, sometimes washed away by a major storm. The "jaw slimy tetrapods" are not aggressive enough to be sent to sleep. They swim in the liquid and track it around, leaving strange marks for adventurers to pick up. 

Perhaps the "crest nocturnal fungus" is ambulatory, and will infest the party's camp during the night, their blue crests giving off spores that increase aggression, in turn causing their victims to slumber, making an easy target for other creatures to turn them to fertilizer. Perhaps this is what the "waist glowing detritavores" do. They might also be reptiles with glowing bands around their midsection, performing defensive shimmers to confuse predators. 

The "beach leg liquid" must exist at the edges of the islands, where the pacifying liquid is less strong. They wrap around the fins of fish or the legs of terrestrial creatures, searing them. 

The "nest neck avens" are perhaps the apex predators, roosting far from the liquid in the spires of old towers and stone pillars, reaching down with long necks to swallow those who near their nests.

I can imagine adventuring here! Since I suggested there was once a civilization here, I should think about how they were adapted to life on this island, and what remains of those adaptions. If hunting is untenable, perhaps PCs will find rows of flat land that was once used to raise grains. I imagine this civilization using stilts and raised docks near the beaches to avoid the "beach leg liquid." (Presumably they had better names for these creatures.) I can also see them carrying around the "waste glowing detritivores" strapped to their arms to warn of approaching predators and light their way.

That leaves the two landmarks on the way to the Hideous Ruins, the desert island and the hermitage. These don't need to be directly related, but they could be. I like the idea of the desert island at one time holding an offshoot of the ruined civilization, long-since overtaken by violent neighbors. Now all that remains on the island is some shrines, remnants of their writing, and the occasional pirate cache. As for the hermitage, I'd want it to be a more thematic connection, perhaps to do with hibernation. The hermit, Sansus, watches over the stony, sleeping giant Iamrand, and will sell barnacles from off the giant's back. Sucking on such a barnacle is said to give you the dreams of others.

Art by Amarynceus
III. Fully Pre-rolled Example

Here, we do as example II, except we also roll for the encounters.

Towards the Hated Tower
  • Head East
  • Encounter: apparition expedition.
  • Turn right at the shrine
  • Encounter: rain that freezes on all it touches, like frozen shells pulling the expedition into the ice.
  • Keep going at the sea-stack
  • Keep going at the shrine
  • Encounter: those without snow shoes are mired in snow.
  • Encounter: those without snow shoes are mired in snow.
  • Encounter: giant pike and a large stone.
  • And then you’ve arrived

Location: several small pulsating islands with some structures but no current inhabitants.
A rare resource: wood of earth.

In this ecosystem, almost all creatures are lactating
  • The most prominent are:
  • nose tree fungus (HD 0)
  • nest waist fish (HD 1)
  • den egg reptile (HD 1)
  • poisonous cold-blooded bird (HD 2)
  • furry mobbing reptile (HD 4)
Lactating, huh? Gross. I imagine the Hated Tower as some kind of magical experiment in farming, the "Wood of Earth" is a kind of tree which decomposes easily into a rich fertilizer, and the various milks on tap have varied mystical effects.

So, the "nose tree fungus" preys on the trees, and also infests other climes. It seems like a grey fuzz with nostrils oozing fluid, but all of this melts into the same milk in a warm hand. Contact with the milk provokes a save versus Nerve Emersonia

The "nest waist fish" fires milk to cloud the water, or to harden into a nest. This can be harvested as glue. 

The "den egg reptile" is of human size. Its eggs float on the water, filled with buoyant milk. These are used as bobbers to notify the reptiles of passing fish, which they hunt. The eggs are harder than you would think, but the adults have a strong instinct to attack anything that disturbs them. 

In the heated spine of the Hated Tower, the "poisonous cold-blooded bird" waits. Perhaps they are motley-colored to warn of their poison. Perhaps they are relatives of the den egg reptiles. 

The apex creature here is the "furry mobbing reptile." These aren't always predators, and from what we've established these could be the livestock of the island's original inhabitants, big furry lizards that tend to pile up against the things that scare them. They are frightened of sudden sounds.

A reasonable adaption for the previous settlement here might simply have been that the tower was once sealed, admitting no wildlife. To assure the "furry mobbing reptiles," the farm-mancers might have worn bells so as not to sneak up on them. Perhaps riverside folks use poles with bright feathers to distract the "den egg reptiles" when an egg needs to be scooched aside. We can imagine also all kinds of rare items and devices in the Hated Tower, the purview of a full adventure.

Coincidentally, it seems most of our random encounters are environmental. That makes me want to make the two shrines sort of a big deal. Let's make them large and active shrines, with followers in opposition over which has purview over the sea-stack, a tall pillar of rocks where Dodkulists say the Precepor sheltered and were shown a secret storeroom in a vision, and where Socu Worshippers say the Priestess Uden expounded against the twin impostors, compassion and cruelty. By the time the party passes by it, the stack is almost a warzone. 

The first encounter of the journey is an "apparition expedition," surely a procession of ghosts. Given the theme of the destination, it might be good to introduce a score-score, the heroic ghosts of cattle war guerrillas, or some other portent. 

The odd encounter of "giant pike and a large stone" is the last encounter before arriving, so I think I'm going to have a giant fish choking on one of the hard, floating eggs of the island. As the players approach, the egg cracks open and an over-developed reptile emerges, dying in the cold.

Art by Rainman Page
IV. Example Prophecy

This is as above, prerolling and tweaking everything except it is no longer a simple map, it is a prophecy. The PCs can essentially treat every "random" encounter as a landmark telling them they're going in the right direction, because they have prior knowledge that they will encounter such things. We as DMs are less constrained by plausibility, but should be careful to phrase prophecies in ways that don't assure a character will successfully reach their destination, merely what is there to be met. 

(The truth of prophecy is a potent tool, but you have to be bold and clever. Don't give out prophecies which can be interpreted to mean anything. Say "the queen of Eulif will die in one week" and mean it. Warn players that if their characters ask a seer when they will die and the answer is "one week," they have no recourse. Be warned, a PC who is certain they won't die for a week is a dangerous thing.)

Towards the Hideous Palace
  • Head North
  • Encounter: Snow-blinding angler fish, with a parasitic mate, which is a potent mage and useful in magical rituals.
  • Encounter: Ice-fishing vultures. A large, white-tusked thing with a strange form.
  • Keep going at the desert island
  • Encounter: The Devil leading an expedition of slaves.
  • Encounter: Those without stocks feel cracking beneath as they wander onto uncertain ground.
  • Turn right at the frozen whirlpool
  • Encounter: Those without stocks feel cracking beneath as they wander onto uncertain ground.
  • Encounter: Noble thought dead, disguised. Leads an expedition of mutinously tired rangers.
  • Encounter: Those without snow shoes are mired in snow.
  • Turn left at the sea-stack
  • Encounter: Those without stocks feel cracking beneath as they wander onto uncertain ground.
  • Encounter: Those without snow shoes are mired in snow.
  • And then you’ve arrived

Location: several small boggy islands supporting several Nasjicu-speaking elf farms and a town center, with worship centered around a temple of Dodkul. Among them is a eunuch of great renown.
A rare resource: metal of bane to evil.

In this ecosystem, almost all creatures are flying
The most prominent are:
  • den spongey herbivore (HD 0)
  • pouch fin detritavore (HD 1)
  • belly crest tetrapod (HD 1)
  • nocturnal shrub fish (HD 2)
  • nest long humanoid (HD 4)
Coincidentally, this is the first route we generated that has significant inhabitants, a community of Dodkulist elf farms led by a prominent eunuch. Apparently these are elf farms OF PROPHECY.

A hideous palace rises from the wind-wracked marshes, formed from dozens of long, leaning poles rising from diverse islands to form a wooden syzygy of stakes and hidden recesses. It is the mausoleum of the town, Rovak-Porsus, for the swampy ground swallows any bodies interred, and the Dodkulists prefer to let them rest in good conditions until they wake and speak secret lore. 

Perhaps this is why the journey to Rovak-Porsus is prophesied-- there is much providence in the pole-sage dead of Rovak-Porsus, and an important event is about to happen there. They also collect Penous Alloy, a kind of tin that rises up from the bog. It is a strong weapon against the calm, forgiving, and craven, and although it is not otherwise much more potent than normal tin once forged into a blade, it is carried by warriors who wish to signal their virtue.

Crusty sponge creatures make their home in the mausoleum, as well as the surrounding trees. They float in great clumps on the wind to migrate and to escape the "pouch fin detritavores" that scrape the trees for food. These, too, float, inflating a central pouch and deflating it to leap long distances. 

The "belly crest tetrapod" floats upside-down on the water, where its crest acts as a sail, darting in and out of bushes which are, in truth, "nocturnal shrub fish," which absorb sunlight and water over the day before sloshing into a flapping, net-like fight to hunt bugs and the pouch fin detritavores. 

Finally, we have to imagine the concerning combination of a 4 HD "nest long humanoid." Perhaps these are responsible for the amazingly long poles that make up the mausoleum, tending marsh trees to form bars and traps running under the water's surface. These are essentially like if you stuffed a human in an aquatic snake and gave it the instincts of a beaver.

In a bog, it always sucks to have to walk through the murk and the grime. I think the farmers make frequent use of coracles to avoid it, and when walking over uncovered land they're liable to wear reed mesh to prevent the den spongey herbivores from filling the creases of their clothes. Perhaps a pole or spike-stock would not go awry here either.

The landmarks on the way to the boggy islands are a desert island, a frozen whirl-pool, and a sea-stack. For these, we want to thematically tie back to the hideous palace, and we're not constrained by plausibility, since this is all prophesied. The desert island is home to Dwi, a warrior who seeks to forge a Penuous spear to depose her mother. She was zoa-wrecked here after a late-Autumn storm in which the crew sighted a giant eye floating in the rain. Now that winter has come, she has prepared to wander out, but lacks the proper supplies. 

The frozen whirl-pool is bereft of much of note, save the barely-visible bodies of the ice-drowned dead embedded deep within it. 

Camping besides the sea-stack is Pursuant Chinyere, who was rejected by the Righteous Dead for his unnatural calmness. If told that the party is approaching the Hideous Palace, he will claim that the dead there have become affected by some curse, and try to enlist the party in helping him fell the supports that hold the palace up. 

These encounters with Dwi and Chinyere will likely be significant, and I want the prophesied random encounters to emphasize them. Before the party meets Dwi, they will encounter the snow-blinding angler-fish and ice-fishing vultures. Normally, I would imagine the angler as merely blinding, but what if this blindness contains some ultrawhite vision, some further foreshadowing? Those afflicted see a scene played out in retinal burns, a knot of wood (the hideous palace) torn from its moorings and sinking into mud, pale faces submerged forever. 

Perhaps the ice-fishing vulture perches on an overturned rowboat, the escape vessel of Dwi's zoa. Within are two bodies, picked clean, one clutching a tablet from a Guian epistle against tyrants and the other leaning over a pole, the polished dragonblood-wood haft of what would have been Dwi's great motherbane.

The encounters between the island and the sea-stack include two environmental issues (cracking ice). This is good, because if the party has brought Dwi with them they will have to outfit or assist her-- she lacks an ice-stock. If we wanted to tweak this prophecy, we would maybe change it up so that there's one instance of cracking ice and another hazard, but this is fine as well. 

The other two encounters here are the Devil leading an expedition of slaves, and a disguised noble. This part of the journey must be crossing a commonly-used route, to see two expeditions so close together. The devil is currently near the apex of his power-- he can't be slain with spears at the moment, and I imagine the issue in meeting him isn't that he wants to attack you, but that he can act with relative impunity. If asked, he will say he's taking slaves to King Tavresh to sell them for animating golem-spirits. This is a lie.

Since this is a prophecy, we can explicitly charge the player characters with tasks to continue, and I think this is a good spot for it. Let's say that the Devil knows the way to the next leg of the journey, and the party is told they need to get it out of him. We can imagine that he might give them the information in exchange a favor, or in exchange for the life of one of the party. Any player worth their salt will dread both, and may freely try to trade something else or trick the Devil. If Dwi is here, we can also have a ticking clock where the party needs to come up with an alternate solution while urging her patience in accepting the Devil's bargain.

If the party chooses to continue without knowing where to go, there should be some significant diversion. Perhaps cracking ice worsens and swallows them into a mystical dungeon they must pass through to carry on.

Otherwise, the next encounter would be a disguised noble and their mutinous crew. Since we're not afraid of coincidence, we can say noble, Indah, is from the PCs' island, and may be one of their cousin or whatever. Her odyssey to return home has been stymied for years by the god Dodkul, whose reasons for cursing her probably differ based on the practices of the PCs' home. In any case, either she is eager to help and her crew will betray her at some point near the Hideous Palace, or her crew is eager to help and she will try to countermand them later in the adventure. Her expedition is one of those "more trouble than they're worth" deals. Those are a good way to make the default outcome of a scenario, where the players accept all offers and do what is most straightforward, a failing outcome, forcing players to do something creative or excellent.

The final encounters after potentially meetings Chinyere are environmental. These are great opportunity if the party is accompanied by anyone, since there will likely be some scrambling to make sure everyone is on a line and safe despite lacking supplies. If Chinyere is with them, we might add a screeching wind that seems to try to keep him back, and upon finally making it to the destination, have the expedition see a grim omen-- a large floating eye staring down at them from just above the trees, fortelling that something terrible will happen here.

All that remains now is the prophecy itself. In this case, I like the idea that it was sent in writing from a somnesite seer, someone afflicted by an STI that makes them a remote-viewing genderless cocoon. This means that after the adventure, the party can consider why this NPC had sent the prophecy, and spark further adventures.

Now, there's nothing wrong with just laying out the summary of what we saw here, but for the sake of fun I will write it out fully:

"In a grave above the ground,
the souls who have gone on are there!
they utter lies but show the truth
that will undo the doom of [PCs' home name]
Walk north in the first week of freeze.
Beware! Though light may show a sight
of what may be, (but may be only)
proceed, past shaft and tusk and wing
and when a warrior is met
whose measure mothers cannot make
go on, behold the adverse face
of him who long in darkness dwelt
and shall in darkness soon return
(for o, the time of days is brief)
and win from him the bearing of
the way to walk to reach the isles.
The ground will crack, the ground will turn.
(Water wears conviction once,
a season and dissolves again)
When the sea shall turn, turn to the right
and see the face of she once mourned
you know her but you know her not.
On the left-hand face of a tower rock
a man of orders, left of hands
plans Dodkul's virtue at Dodkul's cost
Where this priest remains, turn to the left
and brave the ice to reach the place
where your home's salvation is proclaimed.
(A hall of stakes, above-ground grave
where gone-on souls go in!)"

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

How I Make and Run Hexcrawls

Most hexcrawl procedures are too complicated for me. I think many rulesets strive to make travel an interesting challenge, while I would rather serve other ends. I want it to be easy to cross a map, but likewise easy to get distracted. Every hex should have effluvia, marginalia, phantasmagoria, anything that provokes the visceral joy of travel through strange places.

The Steps:

0. Come up with a concept and 3-4 themes

  • A strong concept is beyond the scope of my ability to briefly explain here, but you do want conflict.
  • For Okucenza, the themes were "disquieted local spirits", "the aftereffects of war," and "community-building." Notably, these were the themes for the campaign as well, and everything from the starting classes to additional rules played into this.

1. Get a big hexmap.

  • I use a chromebook for my role-play work, so most of my image manipulation is with google drawing. I found a very large hex grid, lettered and numbered online. They come in a variety of comely sizes, or you can make your own.
2. Throw up some coastline and major geography
  • One "hex" in my method is 12 miles across, for reference. I don't bother drawing small features like hills or woods. Mostly just rivers, mountains, and notes about settlements I already know I want to include. Without a hexmap, you can show the players something like this:

3. Separate the map into different regions.
  • Exaggerate the differences between different parts of the map. In the top-left corner, I imagine a land of holy radiation and devastation. The bottom-left, a depopulated coastal metropolis.
  • These regions should be compact enough that you can get a good zoomed-in picture of the region for reference later. But! Don't make more regions than you have good, distinct ideas of what they feel like.
4. Each region has two terrain types that make up their hexes.
  • Another rule of thumb! Don't assign these to each hex yet, but come up with them now to help you brainstorm later. So the top left is primarily "petrified trees" and "goodlands"-- like badlands but sanctified. Whereas the bottom left is "thick forests" and "ruins." There will be exceptions, like the occasional mountain or bog. That's fine.
5. Make a million hex descriptions— settlements, landmarks, odd residents. Just a big list based on your themes.
  • Make more than you think you need. Your first 200 ideas are not your best 200 ideas.
  • These should be settled (not likely to leave the hex), specific (Brief! Key details to distinguish one landmark from a similar one elsewhere), and salient (players will have some feeling about the contents)
  • Some examples: 
    • Luanist monastery, dedicated to chiseling copies of the Salvation of the World (settled spot, containing servants of a particular faith. They can be helpful, they might be opposed to the party, etc.)
    • Abbey served by religious laypeople (social dynamic at play here. Two groups that might have different goals.)
    • Xaptian utopia ruins (worth exploring? If the party knows what the Xaptians were like, they might better judge whether to enter. Is there a dungeon entrance?)
    • A jade-hilted knife that curses with weapon blindness (This description didn't give context so we can refer to our previous work-- the themes. Maybe it's wielded by some weapon-blind warrior who wants to restart the last war, or it has corrupted a local spirit.)
    • In the hollow of a great fallen tree, a witch vivisects a spirit. (Maybe she can hide it from the party? Maybe they want to learn about her findings?)
    • In the middle of a clearing, a box shrine to Xapt with prayers stuck inside. (Who left this here? There's probably a mundane solution. It could be a five-minute mystery, and you shouldn't underestimate a succession of fulfilled minor mysteries.)
    • Moaning well overlooked by grey myconids (What happens when you drink from it? What are these "myconids" like?)
  • Notice how all of these have some evocative image, or convey some mood. This is by design, and when you know what you're going for you will birth a thousand strangenesses.
6. Assign these descriptions to each hex, aiming for variety. 
  • Key these by region.
  • This is when you assign terrain types to each hex as well. Since you know what the hex descriptions are, you can massage the direct composition. Maybe you had more goodlands hex descriptions than petrified forest descriptions.
  • Each region should have multiple meaty hexes and multiple mostly-just-evocative ones. Keep in mind how many hexes contain civilized elements, and any other density issues that should stay aligned with your themes.
  • Example:

7. Each region gets its own random encounter table, mostly creatures but also signature traders, mundane wildlife, and weather. 
  • For Okucenza, I roll a d20. 1-8 are unique to the region, 9-10 are general, 11-15 are no event but with signs or spoor of 1-8, 16-17 are local wildlife, 18 is a travelling merchant, 19 is notable weather like rainstorms or radiation,  and 20 is "pursuers catch up."
  • Example: 
    Notes: number 7's bazaar refers to a janky market system I use. Number 8 is a link to a random spirit creature from Magic: the Gathering.
  • Travelling merchants are based on PKdragon's merchant system, where strange travelers offer a small amount of heroically-relevant goods. Each region has two different merchants, and most merchants can be found in two or more regions.
  • Every time the party leaves a situation unfinished, where someone might follow or run into them again, I add them to a list called "Pursuers." Then, when I roll a "pursuers catch up roll," I re-introduce an NPC off this list.

You've made your hexmap. Add whatever processes you need to fulfill your campaign.

Running my Hexcrawls

  • You travel through one hex per day on land usually. Half- or quarter-speed along mountains, twice as fast on a river barge, five times as fast on the open ocean.
  • Every day of travel, I roll for a random encounter. 
    • About 40% of the time there is none, but some are very minor, like seeing an animal. 
    • The table also generates an alignment, regardless of event, so that the same hex feels a little different each time. The axes are constructive vs destructive and concord vs discord. So constructive concord with a panther encounter might just be that the normal inhabitants are building something or observing a peaceful ceremony, or that the panther is non-aggressive and happens to be useful.
  • You don't heal from resting unless you take a day off travelling. I don't make you track how you get food, but you need to take time or money to acquire rations if you want them to heal you.
  • I think that's literally the whole system? It doesn't lack for much.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Campaign Pitch: Acmori

"Ere he had fallen to the depths, and died a victim for mortalkind

A strange being, who has no body nor mind.

Dodkul, the master of the dead, gives life to the dead, and death to the aspirant.

A new god of the land. His name is Tyrant. 

He commands a group of powerful creatures, called The Judges of All Vice. 

They hold dominion over all the ice."

- from the Chelonian Fragment of I AM VERGAR

Faith, by Arnaud Pheu

Character Generation

You can make any number of PCs, that's fine.

PCs are baseline characters in your GLoGhack of choice, except they start with snow shoes, straps and leads, and a spiked ice-stock. You speak mundane languages like Acmor, Low Dialect, Nasjicu, Sanx, Semaphore, or some provincial tongue. You also know Trade Sign, a full-body sign language used to communicate with almost anyone one the sea. You may speak esoteric languages like the Dog language, Aurora, in Beard Knots, Binary, or Trepaniat, the language of the trepanned.

You will also work together with your DM to establish some facts about your home island: whether it sustains a city or is totally rural, what religious sect is primary, what your first mundane language should be, and the character and creatures of the island.


Your characters are leaders in the island's community, the sort of people who are trusted to go on the winter expeditions to find new routes to other islands, to brave strange events on the ice and strange wildlife, and to act as representatives of your island's interests. You will be spending these winters on expeditions, and the rest of the year will be spent in "down-time," where you buy and sell routes, supplies, and treasures as you pursue your own goals, start a family, and deal with events,

Route maps (and treasure maps) will show you some landmarks, and give you an idea of how many encounters you may expect on your way to your destination. When on expeditions, expect to randomly encounter nautical or arctic oddities. You will also frequently face trouble if you are not properly equipped for the ice, but you already start with what you need; snow shoes, straps and leads, and a spiked ice-stock. Upon reaching your destination, you will find a unique and dangerous ecosystem and will face trouble for as long as you are not properly equipped for it. You won't necessarily know what you need, but anyone who lives there might.

Berg Strider, by Filip Burburan

Mystic Floes

This premise bounds a location-based adventure structure with domain play from the get-go, and can easily accommodate many dungeons. This exists against a conflict-creating background. Before the ice came to Acmori, it was the domain of Socu worshipers, who practice a faith of hospitality and pastoral isolation, visiting their neighbors with boats or zoa, giant floating organisms. With the ice came the Dodkulists, the servants of a dead god and His righteous dead servants. These newcomers of the past centuries are here on pilgrimage, and seek to perform rites of rebirth at the graves of all, creating instant tension throughout the sea. Giants stead the sea floor, strange lights fill the sky, and seers presage utter destruction of all by fire. 

The campaign's structure allows very easily for modules in the form of route maps. As a DM, you can preroll a route and take additional time tying the elements together. You can also repurpose the route map generator as a Redwall-style prophecy, prerolling the encounters on the ice as well and tweaking those to match a broader theme. In the next few weeks, I am going to demonstrate these techniques and thereby create modular expeditions.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The FRoGs (Carthago Delenda Est)

(Let's see. How to write up a module? No time for playtesting, or any visual aids whatsoever. Better do what I always do, and make vague, evocative historical and mythological reference-- make the readers imagine their own module. Throw in some topical references for flavor. If these plebs had taste they wouldn't be reading the blog anyway.) 

When the Romans defeated the Carthaginians, when they ruined their capitol enslaved the people and salted the Earth and declared that it had been destroyed utterly, this was not a full truth. While the imperial power of Carthage was destroyed and the twilit-aura of its power swept away, the city was inhabited by some scant survivors.

Until the city was re√ęstablished as a Roman colony, it was kept in ruins. I guess they just liked it that way.


Your city-state has lost its way, and become wayward. They argue among themselves and refuse to unite against real threats. They are quick to vengeance and slow to mercy. They favor the army over the navy, and eat their bread butter-side-down.

You could not convince them. Instead you entreated the gods, and have been granted a favor-- you may bring any one inhabitant of the city of Carthage back with you, and they will tell the stories that inflame the passions and conjure the character of your home.

You've just gotten off the boat. The skeletal boatman sneers down as you disembark-- he spent the whole time over here complaining about having to tip people, what a total Karen-- and waits for you to return with your one hope.

When you want to convince someone to let you Bring them Back, they might require a task of you:

1. Steal a treasure from another random citizen of Carthage.
2. Retrieve the Charging Stallion Chakram from the Mystic Hunter.
3. Get one of the Neglegentsia to send out a particular ping spell
4. Escort them to another random citizen of Carthage, to see if you have their approval.

The City of Carthage

In the south are the harbors, burned. To the west, hermits have made caves and pillars. To the north are the temples. To the east are the tombs. In the center, the shell of the senate stays. 

The whole place smells of chalk, dead fish, old oil, and the vines which choke the cyclopean stone. Doors are hewn of rough diftwood, where there are doors at all. A curse of no known origin haunts the place-- every twilight of every Sunday, a plague of frogs fills the streets, their croaking "brekekekex" deafening all.

Random Encounters

1. Swarm of Frogs, cutting off the way forward. May fill up your inventory slots until you unpack and repack everything.
2. Swarm of Frogs, keen to berate and debate and possibly attack. Really just won't shut up. One carries a bouquet of phloxes.
3. 3d4 Baboons/Monkeys/whatevers. Cargo cult. Wary and curious in equal measure. 
4. Gretchling. Piteous and wretched.
5. 2d4 Retro-Clones, travelers shipwrecked in time, named for the temporal cyclones that brought them here. If one of them is Brought Back, they will institute earnestly-admired rules that they don't actually have the context to understand.
6. Rival Adventuring Party. Seeks to Bring Back the perfect person for their slight-more-prosperous city-state. Even when hostile, will try to not kill the party.
7. Foolish godling and their more intelligent slave, 50% chance disguised as each other. If the godling is Brought Back, they will institute bacchanals, preferring wine and wit over sword and strength in all things. The slave cannot be Brought Back unless they die in battle, according to the caprice of the boatman-Karen.
8. Froghemoth, with rock-shattering strength and terrible clumsiness.

South: Harbors (weenie: leaning cranes)

Shattered stalls in wrecked-up rows, laid along the wharfs where warships once were. One metal-wrapped ship sits at the bottom of the harbor.

Off the delta, the shepherd Samuel tends his flock of squid-sheep. Will speak companionably about random encounters while trying to herd his flock around. If Brought Back, will get caught in a narrow hole under an abandoned mansion and suffocate.

Among the reeds and bracken, a kingfisher peers out at the party. He will tell them (for lo, he's a talking kingfisher) that he once was the quartermaster for the bounty hunter Zuckuss on the Mist Hunter, and in fact can grant them access to it even thought it's at the bottom of the harbor, if they pay him a shiny treasure.This secret method of access is a pipeline, hidden in the reeds, allowing someone to slide down to access the sunken ship. If the Kingfisher is Brought Back, he will revel in authority for a while before leading an expedition to recover the Mist Hunter and polish up good as new.

The Mist Hunter, a sunken metal ship, remains untouched at the bottom of the harbor. It is accessed either by the kingfisher's pipeline or swimming straight down and locating a pool entrance at the underside of the craft. Once the unassailable home of the bounty hunter Zuckuss (from Star Wars), the hold now contains only some technical junk, a deactivated murder-robot, a hostile animated sock puppet, a sack full of blue snakes, and a small fortune in royalty checks. Additionally, by the helm is the Chakram of the Appaloosa, a potent magical throwing disc with a horse carved into it. This +1 chakram reverberates with crackling energy, and grants the wielder +1 to hit when throwing it for each round spent spewing invective or aggressive debate. Along the inside of the disc is written in small script "Banish all Liars from Polite Society Forever".

West: Hermitages (weenie: cut-up hills)

Quarries quarried-out, leaving quick redoubts for quick-thinking doubters, flaunters of virtue, and finery-flouters.

In a cave, a master-singer sits, perfecting the many drafts of his saga. He is deliberately obscure, a mystick with only a small gibbon for companionship. If Brought Back, will sing a song with the "shame of shame," shocking the city-state into an intellectual revolution before he abandons the city forever.

Beneath a fruit tree, an orb-tender sits in contemplation of the tools and traumas that make great adventurers who they are. Technically worked as a plumber in the great House of Moloch, or something. values simplicity, and the orb is the mostly simple possible thing to them. If Brought Back, they will craft a cosmic, totally accurate orrery among 2d4 other wonders.

In the shadow of a great hill, a giantess slumbers. They say she will wake up a the end of days, and that she will usher in a paradise, either by revolutionizing the way we think about our place in society and not just talking about the oppressed slightly more, or else by just talking about the oppressed slightly more. A dreamer (or anyone else who can enter dreams) will find that she dreams of beautifully wrought swords, meant to be used in exhibition of mastery rather than swung in anger. If she is Brought Back, somehow awake, your city-state becomes a paradise on Earth.

There is a camp on the edge even of the hermitages, where retired adventurers and young firebrands mention that they are preparing to walk from Carthage, on a pilgrimage to find a secret haven among the vaporous vagaries of fate.

North: Temples (weenie: cupolas with sphere-topped spires)

Heaps of hollow, hallowed, houses. A brazen furnace-god busted up and half-melted. City blocks flattened to make easy rows for dragging away clerical loot.

In an ossuary with broken idols, where widows tarry to wail, the god Bael sits, crafting strange devices from the bodies of the dead. If he is Brought Back, he will abolish mortality but not the other follies of young humanity.

In the civil courtroom, the goddess of chaos Dis stays, a golden woman with a Mosin-Nagant and a collection of rat attendants. She carries a golden apple inscribed "To The Fairest." When thrown to two or more people, the most just and fair between them will inerrantly pick it up. If she is Brought Back, she will flush out those in power and show the common folk how to seize control for themselves.

In the martial courtroom stays the Demiurge, an imperfect semi-divine craftsman, working through his creative impulses by fashioning row after row of tables, attended by his varied archons. Shavings and splinters are scattered across his station. If he is Brought Back, he will create wondrous architectural structures and ignore crumbling social structures.

East: Tombs (weenie: smoke from rubbish fires)

These might have been ruined before the rest of the city? idk

Picking through piles of shattered urns in the shadow of the obelisks, the sculpture seller, a golem, sings a working song. He can heal wounds, filling them with healthy and hale clay. If he is Brought Back, his sculptures will come to life, bringing a new and dignified perspective that shakes up social malaise.

Perched over a hot drink, an old crow looks down on a trash fire. They have traveled far and wide, and tell of the many adventures of their companions over mountains and across fields of mud. If Brought Back, the crow will deduce where the item is that will restore the city-state, and lead an expedition to attain it.

Reading through the rolls of an over-filled mausoleum, a mercenary-historian rambles as they study these rare Primary Documents. If Brought Back, there's a 50% chance they'll lead a successful military campaign and a 50% chance they'll revolutionize the study of history. (Roll separately for each.)

In a dried out baptismal basin, a dog-sized spider studies the tablets of ancient mythology. He knows much of the hidden places of the city, and gives good directions if you can answer his esoteric questions like "what kinds of soul are there?" or "why does the sun go away at night?" He may also lend you his pile of caltrops, which someone apparently took the time to enchant-- they're +1 weapons, and anyone stepping on them is throw up ten feet into the air. The spider uses this to deliver his prey into a web on ceilings. If Brought Back, the spider will write a series of complicated laws which, nevertheless, function as intended, establishing an equilibrium between the agricultural, the urban, the priestly, and the nobility.

Center: Senate (weenie: wooden effigy of Gyges)

The main entrance to the senate is guarded by the Gatekeeper, a fighter 7/thief 9/bard 4. He's got a mace of disruption, a bag of holding, and a portable hole, (don't ask why). That's right, he's got infravision, and he will suffer no one to pass unless they answer his riddles!

Gatekeeper Riddles

1. What is Gygax's first name? (answer: Edward)
2. What does THACO stand for? (answer: "To Hit Armor Class Zero")
3. What hit die does a Rogue get in 1st Edition? (answer: trick question, they're called thieves, kid)

If you answer two of three, he lets you pass. If you give two wrong answers answer, he rolls his eyes and attacks. If you stump the Gatekeeper somehow, he explodes. If he is Brought Back, he will ban from public spaces anyone who uses the term "first edition D&D" without clarifying what particular product they mean.

Within the senate, polyhedronal-shaped creatures wander to and fro. These are the Neglegentsia, the city's lawyers reduced to idleness in a city without laws. Currently, they are debating among themselves as to who is the greater aesthete between two choices:

Old Kay, a biologist with a gretchling assistant, a vial of punch, and the credibility/panache of a California zip code. He is laid back, fond of mutants, and you better believe he can get it. If Brought Back, he will show up every few months with a creature or organic byproduct to revolutionize society.

Securpules, an academic with a lucky coin, a scroll of skim text, and an old ceremonial warhammer. He is an expert in feudal law. Fresh from his expeditions in the depths of the earth, he tells of strange societies among the molefolk. If Brought Back, he will write a revolutionary treatise before reading every book he can find.

The Neglegentisa specialize in three spells:

1. Freeze (immobilize [highest]-sixths of a target for [dice] minutes. )
2. Ping (send a telepathic message to all within [sum]x100 feet. Parties that don't care about the message have a [lowest]-in-six chance of becoming hostile.)
3. Argue With Birds (learn the bird languages temporarily. Take ten minutes to be corrected on [dice] confident statements about the area.)

Bringing the Game Together

Look, it's simple. If you actually want to run something like this, you roll reaction rolls for everything, you show the players everything the area and signpost the other areas (use the weenies), and you create problems-- structure it like sitcom with a short attention span and a long memory. If things start to slow down, roll a random encounter or something. If things get too serious in the first half of things, have someone pee themselves or make a modern reference.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Location: The Secret Library of the Apostalic Archons

Made in collaboration with purplecthulhu of Velvet Inks and Crystal Fires.

art by Eelis Kyttanen

In the mystic holy city where the gilded temples slouch, 

where the miter-mounted masters mete caprice from silken couch,

the holy hierarch maintains a library so vast

that the secrets yet-enduring stored serve harrowing holdfast

and the words the gods reserved for last shall wait to sound at last.

Find the dungeon >> HERE <<


  • a cramped dungeon area representing an ancient, secret library
  • mechanisms powered by bound archons, major spirits
  • magical items, spirit servants, treasure
  • a vault containing many things the church prefers hidden
  • random encounters with librarian-monks, damned penitents, dire mousers, and ink elementals
  • d20 private religious texts

Monday, March 1, 2021

The School of Evocation: conveying compelling and complete worlds through implication

The question: how do you construct a world that is compelling and complete through implication?
The other question: how do you convey that in the game?

I. Man by his Speech/ is Known to Men

First you find your mandate, the themes of the system/dungeon/whatever, and get every element supporting that mandate. Build to a handful of purposes. Write out, like, three to six. For my ongoing Okucenza game, the themes might be something like:

  • disquieted local spirits
  • the aftereffects of war
  • community-building

This is a game with dungeons, and each centralizes one of these themes with frequent reference to the other two, like a military monastery-hospital, a well containing a fatted angel of death, or a cthonic nexus for bugbear society. It's a hexcrawl as well, and the ephemera filling these hexes include haunted shrines, abandoned trenches, and detailed towns. 

Mechanically, chasing your mandate means having all the systems which contribute to your aims and none of the systems that detract from your aims. If you have a favorite rule system, reconsider each part of it before a new campaign. I was doing XP-for-gold, but in Okucenza you also get XP for investing gold in allied settlements. I rewrote every class so that at higher levels you acquired special ways to interact with the community-level domain rules, and introduced classes based in the themes I listed out.

In worldbuilding the history of your setting, you can establish a central historical event and have very direct causes from that one event, and as long as don't explicitly state an authoritative version of events it will feel all mysterious and vast. To make an example of a game whose mysteries are already unraveled, many setting details in my Holy Selmat campaign revolved around a particular god literally holding the world together under the city of Gath. In the very first session I mentioned that the inhabitants of Gath claimed this was true, but it still took a campaign's-worth of angels stating that they hadn't seen that god in a long time, documents about the fascination of prophets with that city, and commandments written by that god while holding the world together for every detail to come into focus for the PCs. A mystery should be mysterious not because the core of it is complicated but because there's a lot of cruft built up around its core.

II. Neither Breath nor Wit nor Life Hue/ nor Manner nor Good Looks

As a corollary to staying laser-focused on your mandate, you should also focus on specificity. "Sandstone" is better than "stone." A "cutlass" is better than a "sword." A strong noun is better than a weak noun, or a weak noun with a weak adjective. This goes double for anything that people are trained by video games not to think about. 

Your sandstone wall feels substantial when you point out a buttress is supporting the wall to allow it to be built higher, because it reminds people that the world isn't made of floating Minecraft blocks. (This is important even when you're in a magic realm made of floating Minecraft blocks.) Your cutlass will feel substantial when an NPC oils theirs, or when your spear-wielding hireling needs you to lead the way through the jungle, since they can't cut away the brush. 

It is this substantial feeling that makes a game compelling, compelling like running your hand through a jar of mismatched coins is compelling but the phrase "20 gp" isn't; compelling like playing charades with an NPC whose language you lack is compelling but saying "I speak Halfling, what did she say?" isn't; compelling like catching the inconsistency in a spy's alibi is compelling but making a sense motive check isn't.

Remembering the mandate of this article, know that details for their own sake is not the goal of specificity. we want to convey a world that's compelling and complete, and we therefore want to be specific about the sensory and abstract details we find compelling.

III. I Know much Lore, yet See even More/ of Ragnarok and the Powerful Victory

As a corollary to specificity, you should give yourself space for evocative names, iconography, and phrases. Use deliberate symbolism and lean on Earth history or myths. Give major people and places multiple epithets, and etymologies. In Okucenza, amber is used as a symbol of the destruction of war, literalizing the sense of being stuck in the past. Each faith has defined symbols that are integrated in their architecture, art, and sigils. 

Without even trying hard, in a dungeon game rulebook, you have space for evocation of this type in: the name of the game, the title page, all art pieces (especially a cover), layout, quotations, the name of player roles (e.g. Dungeon Master vs. referee), the name of primary attributes, the name of secondary attributes, the name of character options (e.g. race and class vs. folk and lot), the names of specific abilities, the names of spells, the selection of items, any allusions to monstrous creatures, explicit setting sections, the kinds of languages, a mediography (i.e. appendix N), and hopefully an example adventure. My advice would be to use literally all of these opportunities, although good use of an opportunity will usually be subtle, like deciding that you're going to keep calling HP HP.

You can hopefully see how Vain the Sword tries to leverage all of these opportunities towards the wild, folkloric, and mythic. A poetic sense of naming is a useful skill here, and it can be supplemented with study, a good thesaurus, writing advice, strong poetry, etymology blogs, and if all else fails a reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European roots.

Listed Assumptions as Dungeon Characterization


More of this! (from Vayra's Rat Warrens)

You can do a lot to make a space feel authentic with some sensory specificity. When writing up, say, a dungeon, it  pays off to list out some specific assumptions about what the space looks like. Even though it takes literally a minute, actually listing it ensures you actually remember tactical concerns, like lighting, and evocative concerns, like the gym sock smell of the Liche's Twisted Undercroft.

An example from a castle along the Dreadful Coast:

1. The lighting is: sparse candelabra, windows admitting moonlight

2. The smells are: dust, incense, decay, roses, wet dog, ammonium

3. The walls are: dark marble, decaying plaster

4. The floors are: creaking pine

5. The doors are: cracked stone or lacquered pine

6. The stairs are: circular to disadvantage right-handers going up and lefties going down

7. The ceilings are: vaulted but low

8. The inhabitants are: compulsively melancholy and apprehensive

9. Appropriate passwords are: “Lugubrium,” “Nepenthe,” or “Doomed”

10. The coinage is: a mixture of dust-covered doubloons and modern vampire-minted tender.

Here we see different goals served by different parts. The first two questions are sensory, one tactically essential and the other more to create a sense of place.

The next five exist merely to realize the common repeating elements of dungeon-space architecture, to adorn something abstract (like "a hallway") with a modicum of detail to render it something you can visualize (like "a hallway of marble blocks filled with the scent of ammonium and incense.)

Number 8 is a quick way to extend the dungeon characterization to its inhabitants, and to inflect a reaction roll. The way a someone seized by gothic melancholy reacts on a positive roll should be different your standard, contextless reaction roll. Number 9 is I think a great way to show organization for a faction, and to create a social resource PCs can exploit.

The final question brings evocative, minor detail to the treasure a party might find, and carries implications of the dungeon into the world afterward. Players will start to consider things like how the barkeep will react to being paid with old pirate treasure, and will imagine their belongings to be substantial things, not just a number at the bottom of their inventory.

Here's a blank version of the above list. I'd love to see proposed alternates, standards, and other assumptions to consider!

1. The lighting is:
2. The smells are:
3. The walls are:
4. The floors are:
5. The doors are:
6. The stairs are:
7. The ceilings are:
8. The inhabitants are:
9. Appropriate passwords are:
10. The coinage is: