An Election in the Time of Apocalypse

While I’m working on a comprehensive look at Apocalypse World, here’s a bit of fun from our ongoing AW campaign. An election was held in the home town of the PCs, with two of them participating as candidates. I had a simple idea for how to handle it, which got discarded when the PCs suggested the power should go to not one, but the top three candidates, forming an actual government. Not willing to just assign votes as I saw fit, I made a simple online form and offered it to a couple of online communities: the RPG.SE chat room, Powered by the Apocalypse G+ community, and my non-existent twitter followers. The players in our group also shared it with some of their other gaming friends. The results blew me away: 61 people voted!

Here’s the info I provided:

You are denizens of Hub, main town of the surviving civilization, where train tracks meet. Things have been somewhat hectic lately. The local warlord had been killed. Then the new warlord had been killed. Then the not-really-a-warlord who took over had a change of heart and declared elections instead, sight unseen. He’s since also been killed.

Threats and weird shit are everywhere: Swarm Children are infiltrating the town; Thomas the Train Warlord is on his way, expecting tribute; bones of all the people who died during the apocalypse have fallen from the skies. And there you are, gathered in the town square, participating in a snap election called two days early. Choose three people you’d like to lead you into the bright future of the Apocalypse World!

//Completely by accident, we ended up with pairs of people vying over three spheres of influence: military, economic, principles. Choose one from each, or not.

And no, I’m not telling which ones are the PCs.//


Unicorn Jones: Law & order, anti people-murdered-in-their-homes-with-a-machete. Stranger.

Camill: Fearmongering (justified) and a small army. Original warlord’s sister and second in command.

Domino: Prosperity through trade and negotiation. Owner of the pizza parlor. Currently in a coma.

Timpanee: Populism & complete deregulation. Wealth & drugs for everyone! Disgraced trade overseer.

Mouse McGee: Helping those in need, stop-fucking-killing-each-other. Town medic, runs an orphanage.

Chan6: Transparency of government & freedom of speech. Radio host.

And here are the results (Google Forms are terrible at exporting multiple choice questions, so I took a screenshot):

Turns out, denizens of Hub really like the idea of not being murdered, who knew. The first and second place were solidly taken, but the third was up for grabs. And then there was the dark horse candidate, Timpanee. Who really didn’t have all that much to offer… other than being backed by a secret cannibal lobby. Because of course he would be. And so we went into the game with a three-way fight between Camill, Chan6 and Timpanee over the votes.

Now that the elections are over, I can reveal that Domino is the Maestro’D and Chan6 is the News. Domino didn’t really stand a chance, what with being in a coma. An unfortunate combination of failing to deal with an overambitious employee (Heff, also the ringleader of the cannibals) and then not being able to attend the pre-election session would do that to you. As for Chan6, he wasn’t quite certain he wanted to win, and definitely not if it meant Camill not getting in. The party were correctly worried she wouldn’t accept not being in power, and would just have her army take over.

To handle the last-minute campaigning, I grabbed 10 tokens to symbolise undecided voters, and dropped them next to the names of candidates they were convinced to vote for. I shouldn’t have bothered. All the campaigning was done in favor of Camill, and all of Timpanee’s efforts were rebutted. The town should really look into anti-Brainer-campaigning laws.

Realising his pawn that would allow him to practice cannibalism in the open was about to fail, Heff tried to get into the radio tower (sail-powered pirate radio train) to make his pitch. Instead he got cut by the Battlebabe, shot by the Brainer, and ultimately finished off in full view of the crowd by Chan6. Poor Unicorn Jones nearly had an aneurysm.

And so new day begins for Hub. Camill, Unicorn Jones, and Mouse McGee are in charge. Camill fully expects to be able to do whatever she wants, leaving civilian concerns to Unicorn and Mouse. And there are no PCs in power to keep her in check, a shame. Then again, the town has spoken, and they want peace. Perhaps that will be enough to make Hub a better place.

Season of Bones, second “season” of the game, ends. Domino has feelings for Camill. Unicorn Jones, who came to town looking for his father, is about to find out the Hubble, town’s warband and his prospective underlings, mostly consists of cannibals. There’s a reason his father’s body was never found. Defiance the Battlebabe is still playing speed chess, and won’t stop until she’s in charge. Thomas the Train Warlord is coming. Season of Judgement begins.

Poor Heff, an “ethical cannibal”, all he wanted was to openly make human pizza out of those already deceased.

Huge thanks to everyone who’s participated in our election! With your help, the Hub will not be the same.

Backup Campaign

Getting the whole group together for a game night can be tricky. As we grow older, obligations and kids accumulate. I’m amazingly fortunate that my players are still committed to weekly gaming. Well, almost. We’ve agreed that we’ll still play if one out of our five players is missing, otherwise we’d never get anything done. And if four can’t make it, it’s an easy call to cancel the event. But what if only two or three are out? Hanging out or board games are decent options, but we’re united by our shared love for roleplaying games. Hence, a backup campaign.

The backup campaign has to have minimal character importance – we never know who will be present next time. Likewise, as a month or more can pass between these backup games, there can’t be any significant plot. These requirements lend themselves to a dungeoncrawling game, where ideally each floor of a dungeon is completed in a session. It also seemed like a good place to experiment with the OSR style of play.

On the night this idea came up, we set up a town to act as a hub, surrounded it by thematic locales players wanted to explore that would easily house dungeons and wilderness adventures, and placed a giant weird hole in a ground next to it to act as an excuse for any random dungeon I might find.

Finally, I had Shadow of the Demon Lord burning a hole in my electronic shelf, and all the pieces fell in place. We still had two characters who survived our first foray into the system, and it’s easy enough to roll up a new one. We wanted to see more of the system, so levelling up is very quick – each session survived (in which significant progress was accomplished) grants a level. At the same time, high lethality is part and parcel of OSR, so I’m not terribly worried all PCs will reach max level and get bored.

Darkest Dungeon served as an inspiration for the whole model. I briefly considered further emulating it with some sort of city upgrades, but that just seemed like too much work. Instead, I’m using an ad hoc achievement/unlock system. Everything in the core book is fair game for players to choose. Beating dungeons or getting treasure grants them access to specific extra material, of which SotDL has plenty. For instance, our party is about to befriend (or try to beat) the not-quite-lich at the end of the Tomb of the Serpent Kings. Either will open up the Death magic tradition from Demon Lord’s Companion for them.

This has worked really well for us. While this playstyle is not our usual cup of tea, its problem-oriented nature offers a nice break from our usual moral dilemmas and drama. There’s a certain sense of freedom I experience as a GM – all I gotta do is portray the current obstacle, without worrying how it ties into the established plot lines or how it’ll affect them. Maybe the dungeon gets the PCs, maybe it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. There are more PCs if it does, and more dungeons if it doesn’t.

More than anything, having a backup campaign has removed the stress and frustration that comes with scheduling issues. Full group or not, we’re playing something fun, not scrambling to find a replacement activity.

Progression Done Right – Gumballs & Dungeons

Having spent the better part of the last month railing against exploitative progression systems in games, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about a game that does progression well. A mobile collectathon. Please don’t run. A mobile collectathon with energy, timers, and premium currency. No, seriously, hear me out.

Gumballs & Dungeons kept being recommmended in my Play Store, and the cutesy name and graphic style kept scaring me off. Too Candy Crush. Having finally tried it a few months ago, I’m glad I did, as I still play it daily. First and foremost, G&D is a competent roguelite dungeoncrawler. Each maze (as the game calls them) level is a 6×5 grid hiding monsters, loot, and the way down. As you progress further, monsters get tougher and bosses appear. There’s equipment, spell scrolls, and xp, which is spent on a branching skill tree. It’s all comfortably familiar.

For each run, you pick a character, one of the titular gumballs. Each gumball has a unique talent, and belongs to one of three types which determine its starting stats and the skill tree it uses: melee, magic, or venture. As you progress through the, essentially, extended tutorial stages of the game, you unlock the ability to “soul-link” a second and then a third gumball, letting you use their talents and skill trees. Except you can only soul-link with gumballs of the same faction, of which there are four. With almost 200 gumballs to choose from, and new ones added frequently, there’s plenty of combinations to try.

Mazes have not just their own monsters and bosses, but sets of achievements and unique mechanics as well. There’s a gumball associated with each maze that you get for beating its “story mode” – several short runs you do at the start; and a second hidden gumball you have to somehow earn inside the maze.

That’s the basics. G&D passes the first test that so many mobile games fail – it is actually a game. Picking a combination of gumballs you haven’t tried yet and seeing how far you can go or what achivements you can get is fun. What about the second test, how exploitative is its progression system?

It’ll take years to Get All The Things – and that’s the one and only objective in this game. And yes, it’s possible to instead pay a silly amount of money to, essentially, avoid playing the game, the paradox of microtransactions is fully applicable. The game, however, claims you don’t have to spend money to enjoy it, and it’s mostly true. The “buy-in”, which unocks what I’d consider the intended experience, is 10 USD. That’s the somewhat standardised value of a package awarding premium currency (gems) every day for a month. Even here, G&D has a twist. You can save up and pay gems to upgrade the item producing gems twice, slightly increasing the gems it gives, and prolonging its lifespan for up to a year. Quirky? That’s G&D in a nutshell. And $10 for a year of gaming is not too bad. This “buy-in” approximately doubles the amount of gems you get daily, and there’s plenty of things to spend gems on.


Another very important factor: whatever you pay for, you won’t have wasted your precious gems. All upgrades are permanent. Even the random gumball fragments you get from pots are not worthless. Unlike in many similar games, upgrading gumballs is not destructive – you don’t have to sacrifice a bunch of lower-tier gumballs to advance the chosen gumball to a higher tier, or any such nonsense. Neither are your rewards ever held hostage by limited inventory space or some other threat of missing out if you don’t pay up. Everything you get is yours to keep, and there’s a finite, quite reachable point where a given gumball is maxed out. And once it’s maxed out, there’s a way to prevent its fragments from appearing in pots again.

The game provides an actual reason to want to collect and max out every gumball that goes beyond the exploitative Gotta Catch Them All. It’s an approach I haven’t seen before: each gumball has not just a unique combat talent, but a passive buff as well. These differ significantly: some increase the stats of some or all other gumballs, others buff spells and items, or improve the functionality of the game itself.

Take alliance missions, for instance (of course there are alliances). They refresh every 12 hours, with each mission taking 5 minutes to complete – a simple timer. These grant varying amounts of alliance coins (of course there’s a separate currency), from 120 to 30. Meaning it’s good to do the few best-paying missions, and the rest are a less significant bonus. Still, sounds a bit tedious, doesn’t it? However! One of the first things you should spend these alliance coins on are fragments for the Nelson gumball, whose passive decreases the mission timer. When fully maxed out, and that does take a while, missions are completed instantaneously with a press of a button. Yes, the game created an obstacle and then made me work to gradually remove it. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good to press that button. That’s progression systems for you.

Sky combat, yet another subsystem (are you noticing a pattern yet?), provides another reason to collect the gumballs: you put a bunch of them on an airship, which gains stats depending on their star level, and bonuses for combinations of different gumballs present. There’re, naturally, a bunch of different airships you can gather fragments for, which improve their passive bonuses and guns that can be mounted on any airship. Sky exploration is its own minigame, with elements of Choose Your Own Adventure, that mostly grants its own set of resources which are used to progress further in it. Which isn’t that different from the core game, really. Unfortunately, sky exploration is the weakest part of the game, with very little interesting decisions you get to make, and I would love to see an overhaul. Still, you do get severall gumballs from it, and in a few mazes you can even call your airship to assist you.

As a result, you always feel like you’re progressing, even if it slows down to a crawl after a while. You’re never waiting for a lucky drop that may come tomorrow or next year – slow and steady accumulation of gumball fragments and other resources is inevitable. You will get every thing, if you’re patient enough. And meanwhile, with each gumball you acquire the rest grow a bit stronger. Next time you’ll get further in sky exploration, delve deeper in a maze.

Gradually, the game becomes more of a management sim than a dungeoncrawler. You “raid” mazes to spend the energy, and even automatically complete the daily quests in the maxed out mazes you raid. Check the shops when they refresh, explore the sky when the sky energy is full, do the alliance missions. It’s busywork, but it’s busywork that’s earned its right to exist. The game isn’t a new hotness for me anymore, and I’m glad I have a way to progress in it without engaging with the main, time-consuming component that frequently. And I’m equally glad the game gives me reasons to actually play by having regular mini-maze events and occasionally releasing new mazes.

G&D is full of gradually unveiling subsystems, some seemingly there just so that you’d have more things to master. It is full of not-at-all subtle cultural references – Zerg Queen gumball comes to mind. Its interface is a mess, and the game could use a bunch of quality-of-life polish. It is brimming with charm and easter eggs. Most importantly, Gumballs & Dungeons is an example of a progression system done right: it takes many of the established addictive progression techinques of free-to-play mobile quasi-games, but uses an actual game as a foundation. The progression system is used to enhance and prolong the experience of playing the game, not to hide its absence.

Progression of progression, level 2

Having laid the groundwork in the previous post, we can finally do some analysis. 


Remember the formula: Value = Challenge * Reward. We’ve covered Challenge and Reward, now it’s Value’s turn. Value is in the eye of the beholder – it depends entirely on the individual how challenging slaying the beholder was, or how much said individual wanted the beholder’s eyes. And as Value is subjective, game designers employ every trick they can think of to convince the players they’re getting the best possible Value by playing the game. This can mean making the game a great experience – no one sets out to make a bad game, after all; but it also means stuffing games full of progression systems.

They’d be crazy not to do so. Progression systems work, creating perception of Value out of thin air. And there’s nothing wrong with progression in principle, it’s just another tool of game design. But you may have noticed some of the Challenges and Rewards discussed in the first part were not as meaningful as others. While still challenging or rewarding in their own way, they lack substance. They have no connection to the game itself, no purpose for being there other than to be there. To use a dietary analogy, they’ve replaced nutritional content with spoonfuls of sugar. When both Rewards and Challenges in a game are nothing but sugar, the Value they create is addictively tasty, but not actually nuorishing. It’s a perversion of the very concept, leading to a cognitive dissonance. Our monkey brains tell us an achivement for killing a thousand orcs is an incredibly important thing. They also tell us it’s a meaningless tick mark you earn for hours of unenjoyable grinding.

Some have compared such games to a Skinner box: pull a lever, get a reward (xp, loot, unlocks, whatever), ad infinitum. While the comparison is apt, the games are actually much more insidious. It’s not just a piece of carrot that you’re getting, to be enjoyed today and forgotten tomorrow. You’re getting carrot #458/9999. You already have all the previous carrots you got. One day, if you pull the lever long enough, you’ll own them all. And even the trash-tier carrots you get have their use, you’ll disenchant them and get yourself the god-tier UberCarrot5000. You’re not just enjoying this one transient piece of reward. You’re progressing towards the End Game.

Having put hundreds of hours into a game, having earned all this progress, we’re held hostage by the sunk cost fallacy, another essential component of progression systems which can overpower the cognitive dissonance. Yes, the game has long since stopped being enjoyable, and yes, the “progress” is a load of rubbish. But if you stop now, you’re going to lose all this Valuable rubbbish. And you’re a smart person, you didn’t waste all this time. You invested it. Fun? What’s that?

Kinds of Fun

Ok, that wasn’t entirely fair, there are different ways to have fun, and even the most hollow games offer something to their players. Mark LeBlanc had identified 8 kinds of fun in his paper on the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics approach to game design. The list is not meant to be exhaustive:

  1. Sensation – game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy – game as make-believe
  3. Narrative – game as unfolding story
  4. Challenge – game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship – game as social framework
  6. Discovery – game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression – game as soap box
  8. Submission – game as mindless pastime

Any game features a mixture of several kinds of fun. Of these, Submission is an obvious fit for some of what we’ve been discussing: zone out, put up a Youtube video on the second monitor, and go kill some orcs. I would like, however, to expand this list with two more kinds of fun that are leveraged by progression systems. First one is Completion – game as a check list. Catch them all, collect all the moons, get all the achievements. For this kind of fun to be present, there needs to be a finite list of things to get. The second is Anticipation – game as a carrot on a stick. It’s a strange, deferred kind of fun. You will be amazing – one day. That day the game will end. Keep moving forward, keep levelling up, keep finding better loot. Your gun has reached its max level? Don’t actually use it, time to level another one. Or “prestige” it, and do it all over again.

Gamification of Gaming

Remember when gamification was going to change our mundane lives? Transforming everything from work to working out, from chores to learning by turning everything into a game. Reward the desired behavior with points, badges, levels; encourage competition and one-upmanship, where appropriate; watch people fall over themselves to do the things they hated. Basically, take the lessons learned from decades of game design and apply the same motivations to real world. The idea is no doubt still out there, though it seems to have lost some steam. Instead it doubled back, and, like a scorpion stinging itself, went back into the gaming industry.

Take the principles which make people like the activity they enjoy even more. Refine them on activities people hate. Reapply them to activites people enjoy. A good game is hard to make, gamification will make anything enjoyable. And if gamification requires compromising the game itself, that’s a sacrifice too many game developers are willing to make.

From energy and timers of mobile and facebook games, to daily quests of MMOs and now AAA titles, they all do the same thing. XP bars, levels, unlocks. Keep playing. Don’t miss out. Keep investing your time. Submit. You’re being rewarded. Login streak. Submit. Level up. Achivement unlocked. Submit. Fun is coming. Submit. Submit.

Ahem. Where were we?

Monetization of Gaming

Games may be art, but game publishing is a business. Artists pull the game in whatever direction their art takes them, while business tries to maximize profits. Every game exists somewhere between the two, a compromise resulting in a product players get to enjoy. Technical capabilites have shifted significantly over the years, and games have followed suit, drawn by business’ incentives.

It starts with arcade games. They are tough, but don’t rely on randomness to determine success – it’s possible to master them through trial and error (and lots of coins). There is no permanent progression as it is not technically possible. There is only progression of skill. Whether endless games you play for a high score, or more structured games you play to beat, they don’t sell you the game itself, but attempts at winning it.

Then computers and consoles come to homes without a coin teleportation technology. There is no longer an incentive to make games fiendishly difficult as there is no way for players to pay for extra attempts. The game itself becomes the product. Once the player bought it, they can do whatever they want with it – cheat codes are a popular “feature”.

Eventually, Internet and credit cards offer a way to pay the game publisher after a game is already bought. The ramifications would take a while to be fully felt. MUDs and later MMOs appear. They charge a subscription fee to cover the ongoing cost of running servers. And once you start charging a subscription fee, you want players to keep paying it. Drawn out progression systems become the norm. Time played is the product.

Meanwhile in the real world of tabletop games, Magic: the Gathering takes over, spawning numerous less successful immitators. These Collectibe Card Games sell randomized booster packs. Their contents is unknown. It’s probably rubbish. But it could be amazing. The thrill of opening a pack is as much a product as the cards themselves. Crucially, the cards are a physical object, capable of being exchanged or sold on the secondary market.

But back to computer games. A subscription forces the player to ask themselves each month: is it worth it? For that matter, the initial price of the game poses the same question. Free-to-play Facebook and mobile games appear. They offer even more drawn-out progression systems, as well as limit the ability to actually play the game – actions take energy to accomplish, which replenishes every so often, or skip this abstraction entirely and count down real time in hours or days. These are extraneous, artificial challenges hiding the shallow gameplay.

While “hardcore” gamers quickly see through it and are turned off, these games aren’t meant for them. They aren’t games you play, per se, and they purposefully target those who would not normally call themselves gamers. And how do these free timewaster non-games make money? Why, they sell you the ability to avoid playing them. Their gameplay consists of gradual progression. Microtransactions let you skip it. The Challenge is time… or money. That’s the paradox of microtransactions: not playing the game is the product.

This is the most evil, ingenious twist on the ingenious concept that is progression. It was as inevitable as it was catastrophic. And it is sold as consumer choice! You can play the game for 4528 hours to unlock everything, or you can pay $2100. Choice is good, right? The proposition is as insulting as it is effective.

And then there are lootboxes. Remember the CCGs? They’ve grown up. Everything is a collectible card game now, everything comes in packs. Collectible and random, cards are a perfect metaphor for any and all progression elements. Lootboxes, yet another layer of the progression progression. Specifically, Wilson Lootboxes. By randomizing progression itself, games further inflate the Value they offer. It’s yet another trick our monkey brains fall for: the chance to get the best possible Reward out of a lootbox feels almost as important as actually getting it. We rarely know the actual probabilities of getting specific rewards, and are bad at handling probabilities anyway. You’re always just one lucky drop away. And once you do get it, you won’t have to grind the damned lootboxes anymore. The product is the thrill of not playing the game.

Money are Weird

Once money are a part of the in-game challenges, everything gets profoundly weird. So far, we’ve dealt with perceived Value. Money only has a perceived value as well, but its value has a lot more reference points. We know how much money are worth to us much better than we know how much a shiny weapon is worth to us. Or do we? If a particular reward takes 10 hours of gameplay to earn, a player can evaluate how much they actually want it. But offer the same reward for a few dollars as well, and they suddenly have to consider if it’s worth a cup of coffee. Except that’s not quite how the comparison ends up working out.

Because money are not a part of the game, they introduce a different dimension to the Value chart rather than replacing the Challenge axis. Which means that by earning the reward through gameplay, we feel its Value is that much greater – we “saved” the money we could have spent, and we got the reward to enjoy, too! And by buying the reward with money, we feel we don’t just get the item itself, we also saved the hours of gameplay. Whatever we choose, the Value we get is increased. All by placing a price tag on it.

Progression of Progression, level 3?

So there you have it: a line stretching all the way from the very first D&D to the prevalence of lootboxes in modern gaming, the evolution of progression systems from a simple desire to keep playing the same characters to the monstrous, exploitative, omnipresent scheme we have nowadays. What next? Progressions systems are not going away because human nature (read: monkey brains) isn’t going to change. The only thing we can do is be more mindful of what we play. Pause and think: what is the Value of the game you’re playing made of? Is there something beneath the mind tricks and the sugar? Are you actually having fun?

Especially Nasty – Aboleth

Twelve ages have come and gone. Kings and queens have risen and fallen. Archmages and archfiends have ascended and been cast down. Everything changes. Everything but aboleths. In the murky waters of history, they dwell. Better than any other creature, they understand the ebb and flow of power. They feel the currents which bring past into the future. Once the aboleths are satisfied nothing can surprise them, they will emerge from the depths, as inevitable as time itself.

If there’s one weakness aboleths have, it’s their aquatic nature. If forced to crawl on land, an aboleth moves slowly, a literal fish out of water.

Ancient Aboleth

We are but footnotes in the memory archives of aboleths.

Huge level 10 spoiler [ABERRANT]

Initiative +10

Drown in memories +15 vs MD (up to three nearby or far away enemies) – 30 damage, and roll a 1d3 once:

1: Fall of the heroes – If the target has at least one relationship with a heroic Icon, it takes 50 ongoing damage.

2: Tragedy of the undecided – If the target has at least one relationship with an ambiguous Icon, it becomes stunned.

3: Treachery of the villains – If the target has at least one relationship with a villainous Icon, it becomes confused.

The targets are flooded with visions of past Icons’ doom, with them in place of the Icons. The aboleth chooses the targets that will be most affected by the specific attack. The condition ends on an easy save if the target has one Icon relationship of the corresponding type, on a regular save if it has two, and on a hard save if it has three or more. The player can describe the scene from the ages past that their character is seeing in order to get a +5 bonus to their save roll. These scenes cannot repeat.

Slimy tentacles +15 vs PD (2 attacks against different enemies) – the target starts making last gasp saves as the aboleth slime seeps into their skin, turning it transparent. On fourth failure the target falls unconscious, and later becomes the aboleth’s slave, unable to survive long outside the water. If the target is already making last gasp saves when it is hit by this attack, it fails one immediately.

Special: aboleth can use slimy tentacles as a quick action 1/round.

Special: if using the corruption rules, a character has to risk corruption in order to make a last gasp save – they fail it automatically otherwise. An ally can still help them to try and shake it off as usual, but they risk corruption instead unless they find a way not to touch the slime as they clean it off. 

Nastier specials:

Elemental mount: the aboleth is suspended in a sphere of murky water, technically a lobotomized quazi-elemental, which enables it to move over land. It gains +2 to all defenses against creatures outside the sphere. Creatures inside the sphere are engaged with the aboleth, and take a -2 penalty to last gasp saves against the aboleth slime.

AC 24

PD 20    HP 648

MD 25

Petrified Aboleth

The stone idol worshipped by the horrid creatures of the desert hides a dark secret. Trapped by a retreating sea, the aboleth within passes the time until its return submerged in memories.

Large level 4 spoiler [ABERRANT]

Initiative +4

Drown in memories +9 vs MD (one nearby or far away enemy, or three enemies when aboleth is staggered) – 8 damage, and roll a 1d3 once:

1: Fall of the heroes – If the target has at least one relationship with a heroic Icon, it takes 15 ongoing damage.

2: Tragedy of the undecided – If the target has at least one relationship with an ambiguous Icon, it becomes stunned.

3: Treachery of the villains – If the target has at least one relationship with a villainous Icon, it becomes confused.

The target is flooded with visions of a past Icon’s doom, with them in place of the Icon. The aboleth chooses the target that will be most affected by the specific attack. The condition ends on an easy save if the target has one Icon relationship of the corresponding type, on a regular save if it has two, and on a hard save if it has three or more. The player can describe the scene from the ages past that their character is seeing in order to get a +5 bonus to their save roll. These scenes cannot repeat.

Stone shell: the aboleth is encased in a protective shell of petrified slime. It is immobile and has resist non-psychic damage 13+ (non-psychic attacks that roll less than a natural 13 deal only half damage). When the aboleth becomes staggered, its shell cracks: it loses damage resistance, can move, and takes 10 ongoing damage. The ongoing damage ends only when the aboleth ends its turn submerged in water.

AC 20

PD 16    HP 150

MD 17

Progression of progression, level 1

This post will meander not just over tabletop RPGs you may have come to associate with this blog, but over computer and board games as well. This was always the intent behind it anyway – “ponderings on (all kinds of) games”. As this is an overview of the entirety of gaming, there’ll be plenty of generalizations. For every observation I make, you can no doubt find a counter example. Just assume appropriate caveats are applied. 

Sense of pride and accomplishment

The idea of earning your fun permeats some aspects of the gaming hobby. Some would say it’s the defining feature of computer games as a medium – you have to be good enough to even be allowed to access the entire game. You have to put the effort in, work hard as you play in order to deserve the rewards, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with them. This idea is an essential part of all progression systems, but is not limited to them. Where does it come from, how has it evolved over time, how does it work, and why does it seem like it’s been taken too far?

Progression operates on a separate layer from the actual game. There’s the game itself: an adventure, a dungeon, a match, a map. And as the result of playing it, you accumulate or unlock something, some reward, typically after the game is concluded. Gold or xp, in-world or out-of-world currency; new items; new characters; new maps. Progression is distinct from more organic changes to the game world as the result of choices made during the game, often present in RPGs, both tabletop and computer, though the line can get blurred. Opening a door with a key you found is an in-game accomplishment, a direct consequence of your actions. Killing a bunch of goblins so you can level up, put points into lockpicking, and open the door – out-of-game accomplishment, no causal in-game link. Grinding lockpicking in a system with direct skill progression to open the door – weeeell.

Most board and card games are self-contained, with one game having no bearing on the next. You play a match, someorene wins, you put the game away. Some card games, however, are meant to be played over a series of matches, tracking the score between them. These can be abstract points or actual money, e.g. bridge or poker. While superficially similar, I’d argue these do not feature “progression” as the individual matches or hands do not constitute the true game. They would not make for a satisfying experience on their own, partly due to the random nature of card draws meaning a single match is very dependent on luck, and only through a sequence of such matches an actual winner can be determined.

D&D is to blame, naturally

War games by the very nature of what they simulate would seem to be perfect for sequential games with some form of progression in between. A campaign, if you will. I was somewhat surprised to find (after a very superficial attempt at research) that the first book to formalize such a campaign, Wargaming Campaigns by Donald Featherstone, came out in 1970. Without a doubt campaigns were played before it, but we’re far outside the scope of the article as it is. Notably, Wargaming Campaigns dealt with such subjects as linked scenarios and attrition, and so likely didn’t have rewards for smart play, just an opportunity to lose fewer of your precious troops.

Chainmail, the progenitor of D&D, came out in 1971. While Gygax was likely aware of Wargaming Campaigns (an article by Gygax on fantasy battles had appeared in Featherstone’s Wargaming Newsletter in 1972), there were no progression rules in Chainmail. It was David Arneson’s modifications of Chainmail that introduced experience points and led to the creation of D&D.

The following quote from a Wired article gets to the heart of it: “There was another aspect of the game he wanted to tweak: the fact that it ended. Arneson’s group was having too much fun playing these specific roles to want to part with them after a single game. Outside of the individual games, Arneson created an experience system for characters. Your character would earn experience points based on their success from game to game. After a certain number of poins, a character would “level up.”

I’d argue, completely baselessly, that progression played a significant part in the popularity of D&D. It gave players a reason to play it again. Immersion in a magical world is great, playing out continued adventures of your very own characters is fantastic, but survive another adventure, and you’re likely to level up. That’s some dark magic right there, a lightning in a bottle. 40+ years later, the gaming industry has crawled into the bottle, having kicked the genie out of it. How’s that for a metaphor pileup?

It’s not just the numbers growing larger –  you could start the game at a higher level if you so wished, and it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. It’s the challenges you have to overcome to earn those numbers that give them value. The character sheet in your hands is not simply a cool character you made up, it’s the physical manifestation of weeks or even years of effort. To put it another way, Value = Challenge * Reward.


“Challenge” in this equation is a very flexible term. It can be a test of skill: you’ve got to play well to progress. Can you beat the boss? Survive the dungeon? Finish the level? It can also involve risk, a threat to take the already earned progress away. Early RPGs were deadly, a single mistake could end your character’s life. Early computer games were deadly too, though that may have been driven by the desire of the arcade machines to suck coins out of players. Interestingly, games have mostly moved away from this type of challenge, respecting the players’ time (or afraid of scaring them off). Rogue-lite games are an obvious exception to this trend.

Challenge can also be tied to the time put in: the dreaded word, “grind”. Turns out, our monkey brains are bad at distinguishing between these types of challenges, they all contribute value to the rewards we earn. Game designers, bastards that they are, took notice. Note that creating a Challenge is not the only function that grinding serves, but it’s the function the article is focused on.

Grind, that is, repeated execution of a task, is an easy way to increase the perceived value of a reward and keep the players occupied. Grinding is all but impossible in tabletop RPGs due to their very nature: mindless repetition is not a desired state, so few GMs would entertain it, even if players were to try it. You can’t keep killing orcs in the same cave over and over, or jam the spacebar to advance your jump skill. Once transitioned to a computer bereft of common sense, though, a reward system such as xp can be hijacked by an enterprising player. Rules stay the same, but the way we interact with them changes.

Computer is happy to keep spawning orcs in a cave, or pokemon in tall grass (I think that’s how it works? Never actually played Pokemon). Players are happy to keep fighting them, as the rewards they get are, perversely, even more valuable to them. Game designers are happy to save on the effort it takes to provide unique and interesting challenges. Everyone wins. Right?

Meanwhile, consider idle games, e.g. one of the progenitors of the genre, Cookie Clicker, an inadvertent and rhetorically unsuccessful reductio ad absurdum of progression-driven gameplay. Most have barely any gameplay as such – the name of the genre should have been a hint. You earn currency to spend it on things that earn more currency, ad infinitum. There’s some optimization involved, choosing which upgrade to buy next, some shifts in capabilities which require changing up the strategy, but by and large, time spent playing is the main determinant of your success. And yet they can be incredibly addictive to a certain subset of gamers, a combination of low effort with the constant drip of rewards. The Challenge is days and weeks spent running the game, the stupidly large numbers you get are a meager Reward, yet their combination makes the perceived Value high enough to keep players coming back.


Access to the next level is a reward for beating the previous one. A powerful gun is a reward for finding it. A new ability is a reward for levelling up. All these enable the player to see something new, do something new or at least do the same thing better. Which means there’re limits to the amount of such Rewards. New content requires development time. New abilities are also limited by the design space of the game.

Fortunately for the game developers, Rewards can be just as flexible as Challenges. Vanity items are a reward: skins, titles, badges, anything you can show off, even in a single-player game. There are only so many hats you can possibly wear, yet players are compelled to collect them all. Which is another reward: collectibles. From Pokemon to pretty skins in any MMO to guns in Warframe, it’s not about the functionality of the item or even using it at all. Possession is its own reward, collecting them all is an achievement. That’s another dreaded word – “achievement”.

Do something challenging, get an achievement, feel good. Wikipedia says these can be traced back to 1982, when Activision would send out physical patches to those who got high scores in their games. Achievements can be seen as a dare: bet you can’t avoid killing anyone; bet you can’t beat the boss in two minutes; bet you can’t get both endings. These guide players to experience a game in a manner they may not have otherwise considered, offering more direction than just improving the score. They provide not only a Reward, but the Challenge needed to complete it as well. More rewards, more playtime, happier players.

Here, too, our monkey brains get fooled. Beating a boss in under two minutes is a challenge that tests player’s mastery of the game; getting an achievement for this feels rewarding. Killing 1000 orcs tests persistence at best, or simply happens after a while. Yet getting such an achievement also feels rewarding. And if you’ve already killed 950 orcs, it may be worth your while to go grind some more, to get a tick mark that does nothing the achievement. It’s another form of collectibles, completely divorced from both function and fiction of the game.

Achievements are not uniform: they can be rated by their difficulty, or even give you points. Relatively recently, these achievement points began to be used as a currency or a score, unlocking more rewards in the game, which gives them some substance.

Next time: Value and perversion thereof, kinds of fun, gamification and monetization of gaming.

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.


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