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? Remember the word “perversion”, we’ll get back to it. And get your minds out of the gutter.

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. 

And since you’ve made it all the way to the end of the article, you may have noticed a Patreon button. It’s brand new, shiny, and hopefully not very obnoxious. Check it out, if you’re so inclined. 

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

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.


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.