Especially Nasty – Intellect Devourer Delusion

This creature uses the curse rules as a foundation, taking them in a slightly different direction. There’s no moral lesson to this “curse”, just the unremitting terror of having your mind eroded, bite by bite. This is how intellect devourers are born.

In addition, there are a few elements which use the corruption rules. Simply ignore any mentions of corruption if you’re not using that subsystem.

Intellect Devourer Delusion

Transgression: You’ve really annoyed someone really unpleasant. Alternatively, this could be the side effect of severe corruption.

Associated Icons: Archmage, Lich King, Prince of Shadows, The Three, some horrorific fallen or rising icon.

When the curse strikes: All throughout the session, you feel like you’re being watched. As Germination (see below) rises, you’ll start hearing a voice, nonsensical at first, then issuing instructions or insults. At the beginning of combat during this session, you become aware of an intellect devourer hiding somewhere on the battlefield. It’ll keep reappearing this session until either Germination or Comprehension is increased.

Some Assembly Required

The nascent intellect devourer always matches the capabilities of its host. Find the “base stats for normal monsters” on page 254 of the core book and use them to replace all the ‘x’s in the write-up below. The intellect devourer’s level is equal to the level of the host, MD is its better defense, and Initiative is equal to its level +4. See below for the way the effective hp are calculated. If you’re feeling fancy, you may wish to further customize these numbers to better suit the infected PC. Take a look at the previous page for simple adjustments. For instance, if the host is a healer, you could make its intellect devourer a scrapper (+3 to attack, 70% of normal hp); or if the host is a “glass cannon”, the intellect devourer could be an oaf (-3 to attacks, +3 to AC).

Delusion Progress

There are two parameters that track the progress of the intellect devourer growing inside the poor host’s head: Comprehension and Germination, both starting at 1. Comprehension is a measure of success the host has in understanding and ultimately overcoming the intellect devourer. It goes up by 1 each time the character defeats the intellect devourer. Germination, on the other hand, measures how close the intellect devourer is to completely overtaking the host’s personality, growing legs, and attaining freedom. Germination goes up by 1 each time the intellect devourer knocks out the host with psychic damage at the end of the fight.

Comprehension affects the intellect devourer’s total hp: it has 50% of the hp it’s supposed to have according to the table when Comprehension is 1, 75% when Comprehension is 2, and 100% when Comprehension is 3. This may seem counterintuitive: the better the host understands the threat, the harder it is to vanquish. However, while their comprehension is 1 or 2, they cannot truly defeat it: it slinks away back into the recesses of their mind. Once Comprehension reaches 4, the intellect devourer is actually destroyed.

Germination makes it easier for the intellect devourer to use its abilities. In addition, whenever Germination goes up, have the player choose a background their character has. Now it belongs to the intellect devourer. But it’s fine, it’s willing to share. Every time the character uses the stolen background, they risk corruption, and the memories they draw upon are dissociated from their own point of view. Describe a mundance scene relating to the background, as observed by an alien intellect.

Due to the way the intellect devourer’s psychic damage is applied (see below), both Germination and Comprehension can go up simultaneously. Should both reach 4, the host is left in an unenviable position of being in total control of an intellect devourer that has hijacked their former body.

Nascent Intellect Devourer

“You are worthless. Just give up. Let me out. I’ll take care of everything.”

Initiative level +4

Host’s level spoiler [ABERRATION]

[Special trigger] C: Anxiety +x vs MD – the host rolls damage as if they’d hit themselves with the attack they used, dealing psychic damage.

Limited use: Use as an interrupt when the host attacks and an opportunity presents itself.

[Special trigger] C: Delusion + x vs MD – the condition against which the save was made is applied again, even if the save wasn’t successful, except any damage it deals is psychic. It’s not considered to be the same effect, though, e.g. if a creature gains a bonus to attacking those suffering ongoing fire damage, ongoing psychic damage of thinking you’re on fire won’t help it.

Limited use: Use as an interrupt when the host makes a save and an opportunity presents itself.

[Special trigger] C: Paranoia +x vs MD – the ally rolls damage as if they’d hit the host as well, dealing psychic damage.

Limited use: Use as an interrupt when the host’s ally attacks an enemy nearby the host, and an opportunity presents itself.

C: Your lying eyes (nearby host) + x vs MD – x psychic damage, and the intellect devourer teleports to a nearby location.

Limited use: Use only when the intellect devourer hadn’t used any interrupts abilities since the end of its previous turn.

Opportunist: Several of the intellect devourer’s abilities can be used “when an opportunity presents itself” while some specified action occurs. With Germination 1, the ability can be used when the action resulted in failure and the natural roll was odd. With Germination 2, the ability can be used when the natural roll was odd, no matter action’s success. Finally, with Germination 3 the ability can be used when the natural roll was odd and on any roll when the action resulted in failure. The host can risk corruption to deny the intellect devourer an opportunity.

Mind playing tricks: Only the character suffering from the delusion can see or in any way interact with the intellect devourer. It’s all in their head. Quite literally: they’re not being stalked by a montser, the monster is growing inside their brain.

Identity crisis: Keep track of the damage dealt by the intellect devourer separately – do not subtract it from your hit point total. You can’t heal it either. Instead, the damage applies all at once at the end of the fight.

Insidious

This is as horrific as a monster gets. A parasite stealing one’s mind, a memory at a time. A disembodied voice critizicing every decision they make. An alien thing they share their head with. It is an opportunity for the GM to pull out all the stops, especially in the sessions when the “curse” strikes. Don’t let the few ideas mentioned so far limit you. Get under your player’s skin, inside their skull, and wriggle those growing legs. At the same time…

A word of caution

As you can see, the intellect devourer delusion is not just a nasty critter, but a not-so-subtle metaphor for mental illness. For some players, it may simply be a challenge to overcome. For others, it could potentially be catarthic to squash the embodiment of the horrible voice inside their head. Others still could be using games to escape similar real-world troubles. Just… be mindful.

Depending on your players, it may be a good idea to reframe the intellect devourer’s influence as insidiously helpful instead of anxiety-inducing. In that case, it wants to be your friend, a better friend than any of the fake friends you have. Anxiety becomes Earnest concern: “Oh no,” it says, “Look how clumsy you are. That’s ok, let me help.”

Musings on Cross Contamination

A curious thing has been happening in our weekly 13th Age game. When a player rolls poorly, the GM would sometimes offer them what can only be described as an ugly choice. And often enough, players choose the course of action that is “sub-optimal”, if not outright harmful to their characters, as if compelled. If you’ve played Apocalypse World or Fate, you’ll recognize those terms. There are mechanics in those systems that demand ugly choices or compel dangerous-yet-interesting behavior. Except we aren’t playing either of those games.

Of course, Apocalypse World doesn’t hold a monopoly on failing forward, and neither does Fate originate the idea of playing out the negative sides of your character’s personality. However, these games (and many others beside them) are built around those concepts. By playing them, you internalize their ideas. It becomes natural to consider how your actions will impact the overall direction of the game, to offer choices. And when you move on to the next game, you bring along this expanded approach. Your games become cross contaminated.

Is that a good thing? Not necessarily. By coming into a new game with preconceptions on how to play games in general, you risk missing what makes that game different. The aforementioned AW basically screams from every page it’s a different kind of beast, yet some seasoned players and GMs alike read it and are left wondering why anyone would want to ever play something that allows its GM to respond to any PC action with bears. Likewise, going into an OSR game expecting it’ll provide a sequence of fun, challenging yet ultimately fair tactical encounters à la D&D 4e will only result in disappointment.

So playing a game as “intended” is important, to understand it before you change it. Whenever learning a new system, conscious effort is required to figure out the way the author(s) had intended for it to be played. That’s not always easy. All too often, these expectations are not articulated in the text. Indeed, one suspects these expectations are rarely articulated even in the author’s head. If the author has only ever been exposed to one “way” of playing, why would they be. This is where the aforementioned AW and Fate shine: they dedicate a lot of their text to elaborating on how they’re meant to be played, and with good reason.

Naturally, you are free to change the games you play as you see fit – no game police will stop you, and purists declaring you’re having fun wrong are best left to their own strictly regimented hells. However, the cross contamination of ideas described in the first paragraph is not as overt. We didn’t introduce mixed successes or fate points to 13th Age. Instead, we had those as part of our vocabulary. We knew those tools existed, had experience with them, so we were able to metaphorically grab them off the shelf, use as required, then toss them back without looking, without even thinking about it.

By offering a mechanical reward for going against your character’s interests, Fate teaches its players it’s ok to do so. It’s all sleight of hand, the negative consequences often take more than a single fate point to resolve. It’s a bad deal, if you’re trying to “win”. But take it a few times, and you realize the game doesn’t end when the character fails, it gets more interesting instead. The criteria for “winning” shift. And once that happens, the fate points are not needed anymore.

Likewise, AW teaches the GM to put a lot more trust into the players. Its rules dictate the GM to let them pick their own poison, and ask them questions and accept their answers as truth. In effect, the players take ownership of these little bits of the game, and through them, the game as a whole. Once you are used to relinquishing control just a bit, you no longer require the rules to tell you to do so.

The moral? Play more, play different, play mindful. Step out of your comfort zone every once in a while. All the GMing advice articles in the world won’t beat the experience of actually doing it.

Curses in 13th Age

Sometimes, characters do something they know they shouldn’t, as they let their greed or boneheadedness get the better of them. Cursing them is a traditional punishment. Here you’ll find a rules variant for doing just that, advice on making up your own curses as well as a few examples which range from silly to deadly.

A fair-y curse

Generally speaking, the PCs should know what they’re doing is wrong, or at least dangerous. It’s not a punishment if it’s unexpected, that’s just you being mean. Stealing magic items from a burial mound is worthy of a curse. So is being rude to a witch. Or an Icon, for that matter. A lot of curses come from fairy tales, and those typically carry some moral lesson.

There’s an important distinction to be made, though: this moral lesson is meant for the characters, not the players. To put it another way, you shouldn’t punish the players for “playing wrong”, punish characters for doing wrong instead. These curses are not a tool for a GM to passive-aggressively correct players’ behavior, they’re meant to make the characters’ lives more interesting.

Iconic interference

Curses hijack the icon relationships characters have, as they fundamentally come from the same source: Icons. Hopefully, you didn’t actually get cursed by an Icon, but the person, spirit, or tradition you wronged had ties to one nonetheless. This immediately poses an interesting question: what sort of behavior would a particular Icon dislike so much their followers could curse you? That which sufficiently annoys the Archmage, the Orc Lord would find amusing.

It doesn’t have to be personally offensive to the Icon, either. You could have a positive relationship with the Elf Queen, but the hag that cursed you is her grand niece, thrice removed. Finally, it doesn’t even have to be a current Icon. Whether fallen or rising, there are stranger quasi-Icons in the world than the thirteen we know. The Gold King and the Forest that Walks are detailed in Bestiary 2, and you of course could invent more. In fact, you could count overcoming a curse as a campaign success against them.

Curses 101

The cursed character gains a special relationship with the Icon that caused their curse, if they don’t have one already. They roll it at the start of every session as they would a regular one, though it grants them no usual benefits. From then on, whenever they roll a 1 or 2 for their cursed relationship, whether they had one before or not, their curse strikes: some time during the session, the GM should conspire to inflict its specific downside on the character. The GM can optionally do the same as the drawback of rolling a 5 on a pre-existing relationship.

This downside is unique to each curse. It shouldn’t be something that removes a character from play, instead making their life interestingly unpleasant for the duration. Some curses offer the cursed character an opportunity to succeed at some task despite the complications it presents, others merely require persevering through it. Each such success helps the character take a step towards overcoming the curse, either providing them with a piece of information they need, or weakening the curse directly. The third success (or simple survival) is enough to break the curse.

Six hexes

Curse of Transformation

Transgression: You’ve needlessly harmed an animal that was dear to an Icon’s servant, or that served an Icon itself.

Associated Icons: High Druid, Priestess, Elf Queen.

When the curse strikes: you transform into a defenseless critter yourself. A frog is somewhat traditional, though a rat works just as well. Your clothing and maybe even your empty skin fall to the ground. Generally speaking, this shouldn’t cause your character to miss fights, instead causing them grief when they try to do something important, or turning an everyday action into something highly inconvenient. The transformation lasts for a scene.

Curse of Restlessness

Transgression: You’ve robbed a tomb.

Associated Icons: Lich King, Dwarf King.

When the curse strikes: Ghosts of the dead you disturbed torment your nights, demanding you perform a service for them, something you can do this session. This may involve avenging a wrong done to them, fulfilling a task they left unfinished, or helping out their still living relative. Until you do, you only regain 4 recoveries whenever you have full heal-up.

Curse of Misfortune

Transgression: You mocked an Icon servant’s poor luck.

Associated Icons: Prince of Shadows, Elf Queen, Diabolist.

When the curse strikes: For the entire session, humiliating coincidences follow you: whenever you roll an odd number on a d20, something minor yet unpleasant happens. Drinks get spilled on you in a tavern, the pit you fall into had been used as a latrine by the dungeon’s denizens, your pants split as you swing your sword, etc..

Curse of Charity

Transgression: You refused to offer help when it was needed.

Associated Icons: Priestess, Great Gold Wurm.

When the curse strikes: This curse is special, in that its effects increase each time it strikes, and don’t go away until it’s done with you. The curse of charity is kinda-sorta a magic item, or at least it counts against the number of magic items you can attune to without them overwhelming you. It starts at one such “slot”, and increases the number by one each time it strikes. The “quirk” it imparts is, unsurprisingly, heedless charity – the character may go as far as giving away their hard-won magic items to those who may need them. While they don’t have to do so, it’s a good way to get back under the limit of magic items they can handle.

It takes three acts of genuine charity to break this curse. These include donating magic items, as well as other significant sacrifices. Giving the items you can no longer use to party members doesn’t count, though.

Curse of Cowardice

Transgression: You fled from battle with the servants of an Icon. This curse could be the campaign loss you incur, affecting the one who convinced everyone to flee.

Associated Icons: Orc Lord, Crusader.

When the curse strikes: For one fight during the session, all enemies gain fear aura (see p200 of the core book) that only affects you. You make progress towards overcoming the curse only if you display bravery during the fight, which is left up to the GM to determine – this may be standing and fighting despite the fear penalties, but could involve some other act of heroism as well.

Curse of the Labyrinth

Transgression: You’ve stolen from an Icon’s servant.

Associated Icons: Archmage, Emperor, Golden King, The Three.

When the curse strikes: At the start of one fight during the session, walls rise up that only you can see, separating you from everyone else. To others, it looks like you’re needlessly zigzagging through the battlefield, avoiding the opposition. To escape this illusory labyrinth, you have to get to the other side of the battlefield. Once you do, the illusion fades.

You can’t see or engage any enemies, as you perceive labyrinthine walls between you, so you have to move around them. They can, however, attack or engage you, seemingly leaping through false walls or acting as triggered traps. The curse makes any enemy that engages you look like a minotaur. In addition, such enemies gain the following trait:

Lost in the maze: Whenever the cursed target disengages from the “minotaur”, it loses the sense of direction – or, as it’s all an illusion, the exit shifts. The GM secretly rolls a d4 to determine on which side of the battlefiled the new exit is located. It takes a move action and a hard skill check to learn where to go. Alternatively, the cursed character can try their luck and pick a direction.

If the battle ends while you’re still trapped in the maze, it fades away. However, this doesn’t count as progressing towards dealing with the curse.

Go forth and curse

As you can see, the mechanical framework is very simple, yet allows for a great variety of curses. Much like the Icon relationships they parasitize on, curses are what you make them to be. And if you do make up your own, feel free to post them in the comments!

Especially Nasty – Infested Water Elementals

There are plenty of scary things that dwell in seas, rivers, and lakes. Thankfully, all you have to do to avoid them is not go into the water. But what if water comes to you?

Piranha-infested Water Elemental

“Lay the plank over the pond, so they think they can safely cross it, as long as they don’t fall in,” the orc giggled. 

3rd level large spoiler

Initiative +3

C: Ebb and flow +8 vs PD (up to 2 attacks, each against a different nearby enemy) – 9 damage.

Natural even hit: The target pops free from other creatures and moves to engage the infested water elemental.

Piranha swarm +8 vs AC (all creatures engulfed by the infested water elemental) – 20 damage.

Miss: Half damage.

Limited use: 1/round as a quick action.

Rip current: Any creature that ends its turn engaged with the infested water elemental is engulfed (functions like a grab).

Nastier specials:

R: Projectile piranhas +8 vs AC (1d3 nearby enemies) – 7 damage.

Limited use: 1/round as a quick action, if there is no creature engulfed by the elemental.

AC 18

PD 16     HP 99

MD 13

Shark-infested Water Elemental

A shark-infested air elemental, colloquially known as “Sharknado”, if such a thing existed, is a one-way shark-delivery method. This elemental, however, acts as an adventurer-delivery method. Generally one-way, too. 

5th level huge spoiler

Initiative +5

C: Ebb and flow +10 vs PD (up to 3 attacks, each against a different nearby enemy) – 17 damage.

Natural even hit: The target pops free from other creatures and moves to engage the infested water elemental.

Rip current: Any creature that ends its turn engaged with the infested water elemental is engulfed (functions like a grab).

Infestation: The shark-infested water elemental starts with 3-4 sharks infesting it. Include them as separate monsters when building this battle, though note they are weaklings and so count as half a normal monster.

Nastier specials:

Shark arms +10 vs AC (one attack per shark infesting the elemental) – 12 damage.

Miss: 1d6 damage.

Limited use: 1/round as a quick action, if there is no creature engulfed by the elemental.

Infinite sharks: At the start of each round, roll a d6. If the result is greater than the number of sharks infesting the elemental, and less or equal than the escalation die, another shark appears inside the water elemental. Where does it come from? Is there a portal to a Shark Kingdom within the elemental’s heart? Could something else come through? Could you go through it instead?

AC 20

PD 18     HP 237

MD 15

Shark Infesting Water Elemental

It seems quite happy with its living situation. At the very least, it’s smiling. 

5th level weakling troop

Initiative +9

Massive jaws +10 vs AC – 12 damage.

Miss: 1d6 damage.

Shredder: When an engulfed enemy misses with a melee attack against a shark or an elemental it infests and rolls a natural 1–5, the attacker takes 2d6 damage. This happens only once, even if there are multiple sharks infesting the same elemental.

Blood in the water: The shark goes into a frenzy if there’s a staggered enemy engulfed by the elemental it is infesting, and deals extra d6 damage, hit or miss.

Symbiotic relationship: The shark gains +5 to all defenses against attacks made by enemies that are not engulfed by the elemental it infests. However, once the elemental dies the shark becomes semi-hazardous terrain at best.

AC 21

PD 19     HP 36

MD 15

cOSRatic Dialogue

Magician: Greetings, wise one. I have long since observed you, and read some of your writing. Yet I confess, the essence of your teachings eludes me.

cOSRates: My lessons are not some great mystery, but the original and most natural way to play. It does, however, require clearing your head of all the clutter of modernity, as it is forged out of false assumptions. Only once your mind is unpolluted can you see the simplicity and elegance of the old ways.

Magician: Simplicity is the right word. That’s the part that’s always been a stumbling block for me. I like rules. They can guide and shape the experience. Yet you preach ascetism when it comes to game mechanics. Your game systems are so simple they are interchangeable.

cOSRates: I have nothing against rules, either. But they should serve a puprose, to fairly arbitrate situations that frequently come up. Why would you want to learn rules you may never use? Why would you trust a distant game designer to judge a unique situation at your table better than your own GM can?

Magician: That’s the issue, isn’t it. Trust. I trust a distant game designer to know how their game works, and to foresee complications I may not consider when they create the rules, even rules that won’t see frequent use. I don’t know if I trust myself, much less a GM I may have only just met, to do the same. You mentioned fairness. That’s what I want, too.

cOSRates: Without trust, how can you play? If you can’t rely on your GM to be impartial and fair, no amount of rules will save you. Why look to guidance in rules, when advice on running a game is so easy to find in plain text? Why put shackles on the GM and on the game itself on the off chance they will fail you? You spoke of knock-on effects of rulings. Those only really are an issue in complex games. That is some of the clutter I mentioned. Simplify. Free yourself. And if a ruling does become a problem, it’s still not a rule. Change it, change the situation, adapt. You are the GM, that’s how the game works. Nothing is written in stone, it’s not even written on paper.

Magician: It does seem like the old school way of playing fosters an antagonistic relationship between players and GM, though. There certainly are plenty of horror stories of power-tripping GMs, or players who pulled a fast one on the GM. The latter, predictably, are hailed as heroic, further reinforcing the antagonism. And that’s before we get to the perhaps more common situations where neither side is actively trying to screw the other, but have different ideas on how things should work, or what they find fun. With rules to guide them, it’d be easier to find common ground. Still, I take your point that trust is foundational.

cOSRates: You mention “fun”. I suspect we’d have different definitions. In my eyes, overcoming adversity is fun. Outsmarting the enemy is fun. Beating, truly beating the dungeon is fun. For the victory to be meaningful, there has to be a real chance of defeat. If you go into my game expecting to be a hero, you may well be disappointed. Which isn’t to say there aren’t power-tripping GMs or antagonistic players, of course there are. But we’ve had a long time to figure out and perfect the playstyle. If they deviate from it, that’s on them.

Magician: But why would you want to play a character that doesn’t end up the hero of the story? Our hobby immitates the stories we love, lets us live them. It’s not much of the story if the protagonists die at the hands of random orcs. It’s not satisfying.

cOSRates: You say death at the hands of random orcs is not satisfying, I say guaranteed victory over the random orcs is not satisfying. Our hobby is inspired by stories, yes, but it doesn’t immitate them. Unlike stories, roleplaying games are interactive. It may not be much of a story if characters die stupidly, but it surely is a game. And that’s another thing. A bad roll or two can kill a character, that’s true, but the character had to do something to get into this position. It was the player’s decision that got them killed, not the roll.

Magician: I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood me. Yes, I don’t think heroes should die to random orcs. But that doesn’t mean their victory should be guaranteed, either. How they win, what they have to give up, what consequences this victory causes, that’s what’s interesting to me in a random fight. Should the characters lose the fight, I’d be more interested in seeing them captured, to find out how they proceed from there. And to your latter point, granted, characters had to make a decision or three to get to the point of rolling dice – but why make them dread rolling dice in the first place? The game is about fighting monsters in dungeons, is it not? Then why make the actual fighting undesireable?

cOSRates: And now it’s you who misunderstands. The game most certainly is not about “fighting monsters”. It is about overcoming the dungeon by whatever means necessary. The players know combat is deadly. They know a trap can kill their character at any moment. It is a test of their skill, not of the numbers on their character sheet. If they win through brute force – great. If they die – too bad, better luck next time, hope you learned your lesson.

Magician: Fine. Perhaps I turly am too accustomed to the modern interpretations of D&D, I cut my teeth on the 3rd edition, after all, and I know it’s not to your liking. To be honest, it’s no longer to my liking, either, though probably for different reasons. Anyway, let us go back a bit. You say there is no expectation of PCs being heroes in your game. That you’re not trying to tell a story at all, but play an interactive game, governed by players as opposed to storytelling rules. You talk of outwitting the enemies, of picking and choosing your battles. I suspect you may be fooling yourself. It is a story, just not necessarily a story of heroes saving the world a dungeon at a time. It’s a story of foolhardy people in dangerous circumstances. They may become the world-saving heroes, but they will probably die in a gelatinous cube long before that. The narrative conventions are different, but they are still obeyed. And it’s a fine story to tell, no better or worse than the story of heroes actually saving the world, or any other. Which is why proclaiming it to be the best and only true way of roleplaying is mystifying to me.

cOSRates: Some of my disciples do get overzealous, it’s true. That’s on them. Though, of course, we receive just as much of inane criticism as we dish out. Regardless. If you wish to call it a story, if that helps you wrap your mind around the concept, go ahead. It’s not the point of the game, not how I see it. Still, if it’s story you’re after, riddle me this. You talk of heroes, but what makes them heroes? How can they be heroes if their victory is preordained? You play to find out if their victory will be Pyrrhic, to see what they would do to reach their goal. “Roll 2d6, on 10+ you are awesome, on 7-9 a puppy dies but you’re still awesome, on 6- you get kicked around, then roll again.” I play to see if they can manage to be heroes, to be victorious. Which game is more heroic?

Magician: I think I get it now. You see the game as a collection of problems to overcome. That’s what dungeons are. Players have to earn their victories, earn their meaning, or they become yet another object lesson decorating the dungeon walls. And I’ll admit I see the allure. At the same time, I now realise “heroism” was the wrong angle for this discussion. “Interesting” would have been better. Many of the modern games, like the Apocalypse World you mock, have identified what they find interesting, and actively create such circumstances. For instance, ammunition is only interesting if it runs out, so there’s no need to track it, you can instead have a rule to say when it runs out. You talk of earning victories. But you have to earn interesting events in your games, too.

cOSRates: Damn right, you have to earn them. I won’t even address the ridiculousness of having a special rule for ammunition running out. I create volatile circumstances and put PCs right in the middle. Interesting things can’t help but occur, that’s how the game is set up. You just… cheat. Cheat and proclaim an interesting thing has happened. It’s hollow.

Magician: And that’s where we differ. I want different stories, not just the one you tell. I want interesting events, and I’m happy to “cheat” to get them.

Especially Nasty – Illiphant

Illithids are plotting, secretive, inscrutable, psychically potent yet physically frail creatures. They are also “product identity” of D&D, so no official version exists in 13th Age. Fortunately, an illiphant is none of these things. It owes its existence to a mural made by Alexis Diaz, though the artist can hardly be blamed for the name, or the ensuing silliness.

Illiphant

Whether an illithid experiment or the result of escaped illithid tadpoles latching on to a poor creature, this monstrosity is highly territorial, exceptionally intelligent, and holds a grudge. If bodies of massive creatures with enormous holes in their skulls littered throughout the area were not enough to deter you, you better hope you merely get trampled to death. Illiphants do so like the taste of terror mixed with despair. 

Level 7 Huge wrecker [ABERRANT]

Initiative +9

Trample +11 vs PD, 42 damage.

Natural even attack roll: the target may choose to pop free. If it does, the illiphant moves to a nearby enemy it hasn’t attacked this turn yet and repeats the attack. If the target chooses not to pop free, the illiphant repeats the attack against it instead.

Natural odd roll: the illiphant makes a tentacle grab attack against the same target as a free action.

Tentacle grab +11 vs PD, the target is grabbed. An illiphant can have up to four creatures grabbed. This is the ability it usually uses for oppoprtunity attacks.

Squeeze the brains out +13 vs PD (all creatures grabbed by the illiphant), 84 damage.

Nastier Specials:

Cacophanous trumpetting. The illiphant has fear aura (fear threshold 36hp). In addition, its tentacle grab attack can target either MD or PD, whichever is lower.

An illiphant is never forgotten. The creature that strikes the killing blow against an illiphant never truly escapes the encounter. Their wounds may heal, but fear lingers. The (hopefully) irrational fear of being followed by an illiphant bent on revenge. Of its massive bulk hiding in the shadows. Observing. Biding its time. Bringing about their inevitable downfall. A hulking gray eminence out to get them.

Clearly, the only way to rid yourself of this fear is to confront it. Hunt down and kill the illiphant hunting you. Or at least any illiphant you can find. Just be sure it’s you who lands the killing blow again, or the paranoia will spread.

AC 24

PD 21    HP 324

MD 19

Building up an Adventure

Last week, two of the players in our group couldn’t make it, so the regular game was cancelled. I seized upon the opportunity to try out something different, namely Shadow of the Demon Lord. It wasn’t enough to write a First Impressions post, however the experience of rewriting the adventure was perhaps noteworthy enough. Because the starting adventure I picked, A Year Without Rain, was just a tad disappointing.

Note, this isn’t really a review of the adventure, nor is it a rewrite you can easily use to run it yourself. Instead, I hope you’ll find the process itself useful. And if it wasn’t apparent, there will be detailed spoilers of the adventure.

The premise held promise: a village affected by a lenghty drought, then stricken by people suddenly drying up, their corpses all but turning to dust. Investigation leads the party into the well, where a demon to blame for it all resides. Cool. The lone review on DTRPG warns of the adventure’s deadliness, and it isn’t exagerrating.

However, the main issue I immediately had with it is it’s just a dungeoncrawl. And not a very engaging one, either. Once the PCs dive into the well, it’s just a series of rooms with monsters popping up to attack them. The demon herself simply wanders the halls, appearing at any moment. Kill it and you win, the end. This isn’t to say there aren’t any interesting elements scattered there. The Goblet of Tears, a magic item that produces 10 gallons of salt water each day, and has a 1-in-20 chance of not stopping for a year is quite cool. As a side note, the party immediately triggered this hidden drawback, and the survivors intend to build themselves a salt-selling business.

The initial investigative stage is straightforward but serviceable. One moment that’s not very well thought-out: the Laughter in the Well, the demon to blame for all the deaths and the drought, has apparently been killing people for a year now. It’s also seemingly been dragging their dessicated corpses into its lair as it’s strewn with dust left from their bodies. How come it’s only been noticed a week ago for the first time? There is even a dedicated well-watcher in the village! The demon can scry on the surrounding area and teleport there, picking off lone travellers, and I guess teleporting back with their bodies. A week ago its modus operandi changes. Now it floats out of the well, asks lone passers-by for a kiss, and just lets them walk off and die.

Perhaps it has gradually recovered its strengths, growing bolder. The Shadow of the Demon Lord looming ever closer probably had an effect, too. This isn’t something PCs are likely to discover, but it helps to give the adventure urgency. As written, if the PCs do nothing the demon eats a villager each night until eventually the inquisition is called in and presumably deals with the threat. Not all that exciting. Instead, let’s say the demon goes out of its way to kill any messengers sent to alert the authorities, after which the villagers figure they should start sacrificing people to it, doing it with proper respect. Malery, one of the few NPCs players are likely to have a positive interaction with, makes for a good first victim. Outsider PCs work, too.

Overall plot sorted, lets move on to mechanics. Now, I’m new to SotDL. However, it seems like actual fighting is not it’s goal or source of fun. It’s exciting, but it’s not something you’re meant to be doing for the majority of the session, unlike, say, in D&D 4e. The rulebook even warns new players to avoid conflict, calling it “last resort.” At the same time, the strength of the system seems to lie in the flexibility of its boons and banes, allowing for quick adjucation of novel approaches. A somewhat OSR attitude.

With that in mind, what opportunities for avoiding combat and novel approaches does the adventure offer? There’s a whole bunch of monsters in that dungeon. The tiny demon hiding in the sand pool and the golem masquarading as a magic circle are seemingly there to punish PCs for poking around too much – a strange lesson to teach as there aren’t any warning signs of their presence. In contrast to that, the large spider in a coffin, while seemingly doing the same, actually rewards confronting it – if not dealt with, it’ll pop up later when PCs are most vulnerable.

Inconsistent lessons aside, many of these monsters also don’t make sense. What is the spider eating in this dry-as-a-bone dungeon, how did it get there, why hasn’t it been destroyed by the traps or demons? Whose coffins are those? Why are animated corpses in the other room animated and not drained until they’re sand like everything else here? What’s with the magic circle/golem room: why are doors blown off its hinges, why is the golem even there? “Some great explosion had
occurred here long ago.” Great. Very interesting.

Too much of the adventure feels like it’s just filling up rooms with monsters, filling up the session with combat. Time to cut. I’ve kept the sand pool demon, to act as an intro to combat rules, and it dropped one of the PCs in two rounds. Deadly, indeed. The PCs had brought multiple waterskins into the dungeon, reasoning it’d come in handy against something that drains people dry, and I let them splash it on the demon (Agility vs Agility, 1d6 damage).

While I didn’t quite mean to, I literally forgot the spider room even being there. No big loss. The magic circle is just a magic circle. The ghoul musician is amusing enough, though this gag encounter being as tough as the actual demon is a bit ridiculous. Still, if the PCs fail to appease it, they can run back through the trap tunnel, softening it up. Which means the trap tunnel needs some more definition. Let’s go with standard raised bricks that trigger the blades popping up.

Secret doors to the “treasure room” also need an actual description. An idential carving of the demon in its beautiful guise will do, offering an obvious hint that something’s there. And seeing how it’s so focused on kissing people to death, lets say the doors are opened by touching the carving’s lips.

What to do with the demon itself? Beating it to death is hardly satisfying. Not to mention it’s very likely to one-shot a PC each round, and I only have 3. No, we need a “puzzle” element, a way to weaken it to a more manageable state. The scrying orb is a natural fit to give a hint. As it’s written, it gives non-essential and fairly bland backstory. Instead, lets say it shows how the demon was first defeated. It’s “portfolio” is lust and drought, a strange combination. Perhaps even its “priests” had a love/hate relationship with it. Kiss, draining all liquid, death, betrayal, sacrifice. Salt. Got it.

The vision shows five priests do a simple ritual over the Goblet of Tears, drinking the cursed salt water from it, then kissing the demon one after another. As they die, so does the demon. Oh, and look at that, there are five animated corpses for some reason entombed with the demon, how convenient. So there we have it. Get the vision, the goblet, the unholy symbol from the priests, do the ritual, fool the demon into drinking one of you. Don’t want to sacrifice yourself? Perhaps there’s another way. The first victim of the demon was a real jerk named Braidon. Let’s not kill him, skipping straight to the second victim and making up more if we have to. Want to save yourself? Sacrifice Braidon instead. Get a point of corruption, welcome to dark fantasy.

Once the demon drinks the cursed salt water from someone, it starts falling apart, clump by clump turning to dust itself. Here’s where boons and banes come in handy: for each “sip” it takes, it gains one bane to everything, and those attacking it gain one boon. You still have to fight it, but at least now the PCs stand a chance.

And finally, how do they meet it? Lets say it reconstitutes itself out of dust in the dungeon each night, assembling its body on the burial slab. As PCs spend time in the tomb, they notice dust streaming towards that room of its own accord. Functionally like a vampire waking up at night, but with a different flavor of growing tension.

With all these changes, why even use a pre-written adventure? It offered a starting point. Especially for a system you’re not familiar with, seeing how you’re “meant” to run it is useful. And it wasn’t all bad: the antagonist, the goblet of tears, the human dust-strewn dungeon, those are all evocative elements. It offered a foundation, upon which I could build a satisfying game. It would have been nice not to have to do that, to just run it as is, but hopefully with this post as an example, you’ll be able to do something similar yourself.

Especially Nasty – Raggamummy

It shambles towards you, more pitiful than menacing. The stench of rotting flesh is barely contained by its dirty bandages. It is not a very impressive mummy. As you notice the bandages sway in the non-existent wind, you realise, way too late, it is not a mummy at all.

Raggamummy

Without a creature to wrap around, the raggamummy is just a pile of animated bandages. Everything changes when it finds a victim – the bandages snake over them, wrapping tighter and tighter.

Level 2 spoiler

Initiative +2

C Entangle (one nearby non-mummified creature) +7 vs PD, 7 damage and the target is hampered and mummified.

Mummification. The mummified creature suffers 5 ongoing damage for as long as it remains mummified, and starts making last gasp saves, except it retains its full set of actions – see below. Success allows the mummified creature to throw the raggamummy off. On the fourth failed save, the raggamummy reaches inside the creature’s head, pulling out its brain through its nose. Some of the bandages coil up inside the now empty head, and the raggamummy takes full control of the body. Treat it as permanently hampered pseudo-undead.

While the raggamummy has a creature mummified, it doesn’t act on its turn. Instead, it controls the mummified creature’s actions.

Natural even save: the mummified creature has control over its standard action this round.

Natural odd save: the mummified creature has control over its move action this round.

Only the regular last gasp saves can trigger these effects, saves granted by other creatures or abilities do not.

Close to the skin. While the raggamummy has a creature mummified, it takes only half damage from any source, with the mummified creature taking the other half. It takes full damage from fire instead (the mummified creature still takes half).

Nastier Specials

Death by a thousand papercuts. The more you struggle, the deeper the bandages cut. The mummified creature’s ongoing damage increases by 5 each time it makes a last gasp save. It can voluntarily fail last gasp saves without making a roll.

AC 18

PD 12      HP 30

MD 16

The raggamummy starts the encounter as a “mummy”, wrapped around a corpse – use zombie shuffler stats (level 1 mook, 13A p251). Whenever a creature hits this “mummy” with a melee attack, the raggamummy makes an entangle attack against it. If successful, it leaves the body which drops dead.

First Impressions – Cthulhu Confidential

Cthulhu Confidential is an elaboration of a version of GUMSHOE, an investigative RPG by Pelgrane Press. Let’s untangle this a bit. GUMSHOE is the engine upon which multiple games are built. It’s core idea is as follows: it’s not fun, and therefore shouldn’t be possible, for investigators to fail to solve a mystery because they failed a roll to find the crucial clue. To that end, character abilities are divided into investigative and general ones. Characters are masters of ther investigative fields, and automatically succeed whenever their skills are applicable. In the core GUMSHOE system, there’s a resource/spotlight management element involved, but it is entirely absent in Cthulhu Confidential for reasons which shall become apparent momentarily.

Trail of Cthulhu is one of the games based on GUMSHOE, and portrays, unsurprisingly, investigators of Lovecraftian mysteries. Finally, Cthulhu Confidential is an adaptation of Trail of Cthulhu to a new variant of GUMSHOE, GUMSHOE one-2-one. One GM, one player, all the horrifying mysteries between them.

It is a very light system. The book itself consists of 70 pages of rules, of which 8 are dedicated to a primer on Cthulhu Mythos, followed by 220 pages dedicated to 3 scenarios. I’ve run the first scenario so far, and, as an experiment, have recorded it for my friend and player’s youtube channel. If you so wish, you can follow Dex Raymond, a hardboiled detective, as he tries to solve the mystery of Fathomless Sleep, or listen to our post-game discussion.

How it Runs

The scenario is excellent. Not once did the player get stuck, not knowing what to do next – there was always a clue to follow up on, something else to investigate, all the way to the resolution. Оn the flip side, the scenario made my job as a GM easy as it offered a scene for every thing my player had tried, and an answer for most questions he’s asked. And a good thing, too – this game isn’t meant to be improvised.

The three scenarios in the book are set in three different cities and time periods, following three different detectives, with plenty of setting details and potential story hooks provided for each. Should you decide to continue the adventures of a detective you liked, you’ll find everything you need there.

I found it very interesting (and this is a very slight spoiler) how little supernatural elements there were, at least in Fathomless Sleep. Majority of the time is spent on Dex simply talking to various unsavory characters. When the supernatural does show up, it is all the more efficient.

The book warns of the “intensity” of this game: the player has no one to hide behind, no one to take the spotlight or responsibility from them. They’re it. To mitigate this intensity, the PC can turn to their sources, friendly NPCs offering expertiese in the investigative skill fields not covered by the PC. There is advise on using them to break up the tension a bit, though I’m not sure how practical that is: the player is the one initiating contact with sources, typically when there is something they need help with, and not when pacing would suggest they need a break.

Intensity works both ways. Just as the player is constantly in the spotlight, so is the GM. You don’t get a chance to look up the upcoming scene or plot what comes next while the players argue with one another. And in this game every detail matters, you really don’t want to mess up what clues you give out. As we were recording the game in 30 minute episodes, we had natural breaks which were very convenient. I’d suggest calling for an occasional pause as you play, even if you’re used to running uninterrupted sessions in other games.

How it Works

Scenarios are well and good, but what about the mechanics? In addition to the investigative abilities at which the character simply succeeds, they get a bunch of general abilities, rated at one or two dice. These cover the “action” side of the game: Fighting, Sense Trouble, Shadowing, Stability, etc. Most of the time, these are used in Challenges, which provide branching outcomes to a scene. On the face of it, it’s a standard Success/Success with Complications/Failure mechanic, but there are some fascinating subtleties.

If you haven’t rolled high enough, you can take on a Problem in order to get an extra die. Reaching the “success” value usually grants you an Edge in addition to accomplishing whatever it is you were doing, while failure often saddles you with another Problem. These Edges and Problems are represented by cards detailing how they work. Cards impose penalties or offer benefits on rolls, restrict your options in some way, or merely remind of their existence in the narrative.

While there are generic Problems and Edges in the appendix of the book, scenarios provide their own cards specific to the situations within. This underscores the need for GM preparation: ideally, you’ll have your own tiny decks written up, covering the likely eventualities.

As the GM decides what the outcomes of a Challenge can be, it doesn’t get a chance to derail the game. The PC can’t die due to an unlucky roll, but neither can they beat up an entire mob.

Taken together, the cards and the way the Challenges are framed essentially replace all the other mechanics the game might have had. There’s no damage or sanity system – if you get wounded, you’ll likely have a Problem card that tells you what it means. Why was injury on the table in the first place? Because the Challenge was set up that way. There are no antagonist stats of any kind. It works, and the game flows quite smoothly, but there isn’t even a shade of “simulation” as the result, and it does feel a bit lazy, especially once you find out how the target numbers are assigned – more on that in a moment.

First, some more thoughts on the nuances of this mechanic. Unlike Fate, where you get “karmic credit” by accepting problems that you later spend on overcoming other problems, here the Problem you get is a direct consequence of your actions as you push yourself further in order to succeed, e.g. a pulled back as you dodge a blow. It’s Edges that often act as somewhat specialized fate points, as many of them can be spent for an extra die on a particular kind of a Challenge. But Edges are earned by rolling high, not by choosing to make your life harder.

The player isn’t rewarded for screwing themselves over in an entertaining fashion, neither are they expected to do so. Instead, they accept Problems as a means to an end, to succeed and hopefully gain Edges. And as Challenges resolve a scene’s worth of conflict, you’re going to need all the Edges you can save up for that last roll or two which decide how it all turns out.

Overall, while it is a narrative system with seeming similarities to Fate, the underlying dynamics are quite different.

As there is only one character, the adventure is custom made for them. Their abilities are known, and so all the Challenge difficulties are set with them in mind. The table for choosing these difficulties is based on how the different outcomes will affect the plot, and comes with two columns, for one or two dice the PC has in the general ability used. So what does having two dice even do for you?

Mainly, it safeguards you from the randomness of dice. Two dice are a tiny bit less likely to screw you over than one, simple as that. Preciously few rolls are made each session, and they are prone to feedback loops: roll poorly once, and you’re saddled with Problems making it harder to roll well next time. Roll well, though, and you have an Edge which may help you get more Edges in the future. Thus even though having 2 dice in a skill doesn’t actually make you better at it, it makes you more reliable at it, and given the feedback loops that is extremely important.

First Impression

Running Cthulhu Confidential is like having a conversation. The rules get out of the way to let the player be engulfed by the story. There’s no bookkeeping, nothing to reference, just the very brief character sheet and the cards you gain. There’s no one to hide behind, either. It is a perfect set up for a horror game. Just you and the mystery.

Terrain Effects in 13th Age

13th Age doesn’t much care for terrain or environmental effects. There’s the Tracker and Swashbucker talents, and a bit on using traps in the core book. The GM Resource book has a solid chapter on using terrain and overcoming the stand-and-hit-each-other problem. Good advice, but no mechanics. So, here are some mechanics. This post is a toolbox more than anything, providing you with a starting point to create the terrain effects that match your situation.

The idea is directly inspired by D&D 5e’s lair actions. But whereas the lair actions are tied to boss monsters controlling their environment, terrain effects are tied to Icons, can appear anywhere, and can be taken over (or even created!) by PCs.

Adding Terrain Effects to Combat

The simplest way to add a terrain effect is to have it be there from the start. A terrain effect is roughly equivalent to a single-strength creature of its level. If the opposition owns it (see below), simply include that in your battle building calculations. If it is neutral, but starts out under the opposition’s control, it’s still worth something. Neutral active terrain effects make life harder for everyone and probably don’t affect the calculations.

There is, however, another option. Players can use one of their 6’s or 5’s on the icon relationship dice to create or conveniently discover a terrain effect. 13th Age is a high magic game, with Icons affecting the world itself with their will. That said, it’s entirely up to your GM (and the group) how often this would happen. The effect, as well as the locaiton, should fit thematically – utilising your relationship with the Lich King at a graveyard to cause zombie arms to pop up from below the ground and grasp at your enemies is cool. Calling on the same zombies to grab your enemies in a royal palace is a bit odd.

A 6 on a relationship die gives you ownership of the terrain effect. It can also give you ownership over a neutral terrain effect already present on the battlefield. A 5 provides a neutral terrain effect.

What does owning a terrain effect mean? Whoever owns the terrain effect chooses who counts as its enemies, simple as that. Neutral terrain hates everyone equally.

Mechanics of Terrain Effects

Terrain effects use the numbers from the Skill Check DCs, Trap/Obstacle Attacks & Impromptu Damage by Environment table on the page 186 of the core book. Depending on how far along in a tier your party is, use the Normal or Hard line. Handwavy, I know, but the convenience of using a single table from the core book beats individual write-ups.

Whenever monsters are forced to do skill checks, they roll a save instead: easy save replaces a normal check, normal save replaces a hard check, and a hard save replaces the ridiculously hard check.

Each terrain effect listed below is abstract, but comes with a number of examples. Modify the effect based on its flavor – change the damage type, the condition it inflicts, the defense it targets, or the skill it requires.

“Zones”

This is another things 13th Age doesn’t normally have. There’s two approaches here: if the terrain has a clear boundary, like ice-covered river, that’s the zone. Otherwise, if it originates from a single point, whether that point actually exists (unholy idol) or doesn’t (cloud of gas), the zone of effect is everything nearby this point.

Whenever a creature is on the edge of a terrain effect zone, a PC engaged with it can use a quick action to make whatever skill check they can get away with, to conclusively move their target into or out of the zone. Likewise, if a PC is on the edge of a terrain effect zone, a creature engaged with them can use a quick action to cause the PC to make a skill check or end up in or out of the zone.

Active terrain

Active terrain is almost a creature in its own right. It acts on its own initiative – give it an initiative modifier as you see fit, much like you would with a custom monster. No need to overthink this, +0 is generally fine.

Painful terrain

Attacks PD of 1d3 random enemies within it, dealing damage.

Examples: lava eruptions (The Three, High Druid, Diabolist, Orc Lord), steam vents (Crusader, Dwarf King, Archmage, Emperor), statue of an angry god (Crusader, Diabolist, Priestess, Lich King), snake pit (High Druid, Prince of Shadows, The Three).

Mobile “terrain”

Moves in a predetermined fashion, attacking PD of everyone it encounters along its path, dealing damage.

Examples: rolling boulder (Orc Lord, Dwarf King), boulder perpetually rolling down a Penrose staircase (Archmage), swinging axe (Dwarf King, Crusader).

Grasping terrain

Attacks PD of 1d3 random enemies within it, those hit become stuck, save ends. If the target is already stuck, the terrain deals damage instead.

Examples: strangling vines (High Druid, Elf Queen), zombie hands (Lich King), sinkhole (Dwarf King).

Passive terrain

Passive terrain affects enemies entering, ending their turn, or trying to do something within it.

Polluted “terrain”

Whenever an enemy ends their turn within this terrain, it attacks their PD. Those hit take damage, or become weakened or confused until the end of their next turn, depending on the polutant.

Examples: aerial poison (The Three, Prince of Shadows, Lich King), room on fire (The Three, Diabolist, Orc Lord, Great Gold Wyrm), spore cloud (High Druid, Elf Queen).

Unstable terrain

Whenever an enemy tries to move within this terrain, it must make a Dex skill check or lose the action.

Examples: patch of ice (High Druid), waist-deep swamp (The Three), tar (Orc Lord).

Dangerous terrain

Enemies are vulnerable while within this terrain.

Examples: blood-soaked fields (Orc Lord, Crusader), sacrificial altar (Lich King, Diabolist).

Protecting terrain

Whenever a non-enemy starts their turn within this terrain, it can make a save against a condition affecting it.

Examples: sanctified ground (Priestess, Great Gold Wyrm), inspiring statue (Emperor, Elf Queen, Dwarf King).

This is obviously not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to see your suggestions on expanding it.