Especially Nasty – Murder Mollusk

I’ve dug up this beauty from the depths of cloud storage (or should it be heights?), a kaiju boss fight. I mostly share it now because of all the titles the creature has.

A monstrous slug five meters tall and twenty long, with scythe-like claws as long as a man, it crawled out of the sea and headed straight for the nearest city. Seagulls fell from the skies in its wake, burned by its foul miasma, trees wilted as it passed. All that stood between it and civilization was a group of plucky heroes manning a defensive wall and an arcane McGuffin Vibrational Disruptor they’d just rescued planted on top of it.

Murder Mollusk

Polyp of Pestilence, Sovereign of Slime, Ruler of Rot, Crustacean Czar, Tarnishing Tyrant

Huge 8th level wrecker [BEAST]

Initiative: +11

Murderous bite +16 vs AC – 75 damage, 30 acid damage and the mollusk grabs the target if it’s not already grabbing a creature.

Miss: 20 acid damage.

Scything claws +16 vs AC (2 attacks against nearby enemies) – 50 damage.

Natural even hit or miss: the target pops free of all enemies and is flung away.

Miasma: When a creature is engaged with the mollusk at the start of its turn, it takes acid damage equal to 9 times the escalation die.

Flesh of Chaos: Whenever the mollusk is hit by a natural odd number attack, it spawns a chaos glorp nearby. Whenever the mollusk is critically hit or staggered for the first time, it spawns a chaos beast nearby (both creatures are found in the Bestiary). If the attacker is engaged with the mollusk, the spawned creature immediately engages them.

Nastier Specials (duh):

Bejeweled mollusk: The mollusk has glowing stones embedded in its chitinous hide. When an enemy misses with an attack against the mollusk, that enemy chooses one: it takes 10 acid damage; OR one piece of its non-magical equipment (something useful, but player’s choice) melts. Adjust skill checks or stats accordingly.

Steaming body: The mollusk’s foul stench obscures the air around it. Ranged attacks against the mollusk take a -2 penalty, or a -4 penalty if the attacker is far away.

AC 24

PD 22    HP 420

MD 18

Everything Rots

If the Vibrational Disruptor is not operational at the start of the mollusk’s turn, decrease the escalation die by 1 and destroy one fortification or war machine.

Vibrational Disruptor

A sphere of concentric rings creating a teeth-shattering hum when they resonate. d6, d8, d12 and d20 symbolize the speeds at which they rotate. A character operating the machine can spend a quick action to activate it for the turn to roll all the dice. Another quick action can be used to adjust the settings and re-roll any of the dice. If at the end of a round any dice are common denominators of others (e.g. 4 and 8), everything in the fight takes those dice in damage. 1s don’t count.


Two ballistae are mounted on the wall. The character operating a ballista can use the following attack:

R: Anti-kaiju projectile +14 vs AC (one nearby or far away enemy) – 50 damage.

Limited use: the ballista must be reloaded between shots, which takes a standard action. Another character can do this.

If you have uncanny memory for monster abilities, you’ll be able to recognize a remorhaz deep within the slimy exterior of the Murder Mollusk. I’ve used it as a foundation before adding abilities to make it more of a boss monster. From what I recall, it showed up some distance away, giving the party a couple of rounds to shoot at it. There most likely was a sahuagin herald running ahead, whose main purpose was to announce all the titles of its god. And, despite being 4 levels below it, a defensive ability and other threats present on the battlefield, the party murdered the Murder Mollusk in about 3 rounds.

At the time, it prompted the post on boss decay, an abstract and slight of hand way of preventing abrupt death of our beloved bosses. In retrospect, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. 13th Age doesn’t have Solo monsters of D&D 4e, which were meant to stand up to a party of 5 on their own. They most often couldn’t due to action economy among other things, but at least the concept was there. At most, 13th Age has triple-strength (or Huge) monsters, which, unsurprisingly, pose a threat to at most 3 characters.

The implication is clear enough: don’t have a sole boss monster, add underlings of some sort to spice up the fight. And I did! But players can prioritize, save up their most powerful abilities for the boss, and squash it like a slug. Which isn’t exactly a problem, they feel like big damn heroes. But, y’know, I’d like my monstrosity to feel like a big damn threat before it dies. Not to mention the quick fight making the McGuffin we’d spent several sessions restoring almost meaningless.

Here, then, are a few alternative ideas to prolonging the average lifetime of a boss.

Shielding Minions

The boss gains resist all damage X, where X is twice the number of its mooks present on the battlefield. Start the fight with 10 mooks, and/or add a few every round or on some trigger, whatever suits the situation. Give the PCs a reason to not just nuke the boss.

Vulnerable While Charging Up

While the escalation die isn’t even, the boss’ defenses increase by 3. While it is even, they decrease by 2 instead. Of course, it makes a nasty attack while the escalation die is even. For bonus points, present an opportunity for PCs to hide from this attack instead of hitting the vulnerable boss. Tactical choices! And don’t forget to add other enemies to the fight so PCs have something to do while waiting for the boss to open up again.

Truly Enormous

An old idea of mine (I’m sure others have thought of something similar too), breaking up the gigantic enemy into several sub-creatures that have their own hit points, do their own attacks or grant it traits. A fight against such a boss is likely to be much more brutal: instead of the abstraction of damage, you’re chopping off its limbs. This is a much more involved approach as it likely requires designing everything from scratch. Guess writing up one such enormous boss monster will be my next project.

Musings on Perfection

We’ve wrapped up our Apocalypse World campaign recently, and it’s left me pensive. Throughout the game, I embraced the AW maxim: “play to find out what happens”. Embraced it to such an extent that I discovered the true “motivation” of the psychic maelstrom (the not-really-well-maybe-antagonist of the world), doubling as the moral lesson for the entire campaign, as I opened my mouth to deliver it. It fit with everything that came before, mostly. It worked. But would it have worked better had I figured it out beforehand? Generalizing, just how much of the game world should we figure out at the start of the game, and how much of it should be left uncharted? See also the Dungeon World principle: “draw maps, leave blanks.”

Roleplaying games are a unique medium. A live one-off show where performers are also the audience. There are no rewrites in it, no fixing it in post, no rehearsals. Dice fall, characters make choices, the world changes. Well, that’s not quite true. We can amend what happened, fudge the rolls, rethink. We can fix mistakes, as long as we catch them quickly. Though when we do, the emotional impact is inevitably lessened.

Point being, RPGs are inherently chaotic. They by definition cannot be perfect, not like a static, complete work can be. The more input players have, the more input the game has, the more we relinquish control over the events, the more entropy we invite. Entropy leads away from perfection, but it can lead to life. We don’t want the high entropy system of everyone just yelling at each other while the dice are on fire, and can’t have the perfectly crystalline structure of static media. We want to find the right temperature and the right conditions that would let our games come alive.

What flowery nonsense, what does it even mean? Take combat, the most regimented activity in most RPGs. We don’t, generally speaking, plot it out. Instead, we trust that once we throw enough orcs and heroes into the same room, swords will clash and fun will be had. However, there’s initial preparation, in some systems a lot of it, in figuring out character and monster abilities and stats, terrain, likely monster tactics, etc. Then we let the dice and the players decide how things turn out. The game provides the elements, the GM picks the right proportions, then together with the players they throw these elements together. Cool and funny and epic moments arise out of this chaotic mess. Combat is not perfect, but it is often fun.

This is what I’m musing over: how do we know we’ve done enough to prepare the initial conditions of the entire game, the way we can be reasonably sure we’ve prepared for a combat encounter? Write out everything, and you have a pretty yet lifeless crystal railroad, players enacting the play. Write nothing, and there’s just a few incoherent story blobs flopping around on the table which may or may not converge into something meaningful. And that’s not even getting into a common mistake of many novice GMs, writing a whole setting that the players will barely see.

Apocalypse World, the game that prompted this post, does a really good job of guiding the GM through at least some of the campaign prep: everything and everyone is a threat, it says. Threats have wants, so no matter how the circumstances change, you’ll know how they react. They come at you from different directions, so make a threat map. Wherever the PCs go, whatever they do, there’ll be a threat there to do onto them. The GM Principles and Moves further help shape the game into a volatile, tense experience. Even the game engine itself, being a narrative rhythm engine, throws curveballs at players and GM alike.

Writers often talk about their characters taking on a life of their own, dragging the story in unexpected directions. In RPGs, the characters do have a life of their own through the players controlling them, and the dice wreak additional havoc. All you’ve got to do is let them. By leaving answers to fundamental questions up in the air, allowing them to emerge from the game seemingly on their own, we give ourselves an opportunity to not only be surprised, but also come up with something we normally wouldn’t have.

If you’ve played with the same group of people for a long time, they learn your storytelling habits and favorite tricks. Many times now, my players had guessed the underlying plot half way through the game. That’s harder to do if even I don’t know it. And the favorite pastime of many a GM, listening to their players speculate, becomes that much more meaningful: you won’t even need to rewrite anything if they have a better idea than you.

And so: just how much should you know about the game before you run it? There is no clear answer to this one, no one-size-fits-all recommendation. If nothing else, it depends on how comfortable you are with drawing connections between disparate plot elements on the fly: not just improv, but integrating results of improv into a cohesive whole.

While I can’t tell you how many big answers you should have from the start, you should try and have all the big questions. “What does the psychic maelstrom want?” gives you something to build upon, whereas simply positing the existence of a psychic maelstrom merely offers you a cool thing which may or may not fit anywhere. A while ago, when I was only starting down this road, I wrote about the benefits of including players’ ideas in your games and managing the resulting chaos. In the latter post, I suggested the “Chekhov’s gunpile” method of throwing cool things into the game in the hopes that at least some of them will “fire”. In that metaphor, the big questions we pose at the start are the targets these “Chekhov’s guns” will hit.

Another thing worth deciding upon from the start is the main theme of the campaign, or at least of the current story arc – a suggestion I first saw in tremulus. Something as simple as “revenge” or “hope”. The players are not likely to ever recognize it, but it provides cohesion, acting as a hidden context for most plot lines that occur.

Most importantly, remember that you will sometimes miss the mark, and that’s fine. However good you get at GMing, you’ll make missteps, or the players will, or the dice will refuse to cooperate. Plot lines will not always converge in a satisfying manner, characters will not always get their due. All you can do is learn and try to do better next time, one imperfect game at a time.

First impressions – Apocalypse World 2e

This post has been a long time coming. The first Powered by the Apocalypse game I’ve played was tremulus. While it was far from perfect, I still loved it and ran multiple mini-campaigns in it. A couple of one-shots of Dungeon World followed, and didn’t leave a strong impression. Despite theoretizing about it, I never got around to playing Apocalypse World itself. Post-apocalyptic dystotopias are not my thing, either aesthetically or ethically. More on that in a gratuitous personal aside, below. With the second edition of AW out, I thought it was a good time to finally try it. And, well. I love the AW campaign we’re currently playing. The rules? Hit and miss.

Apocalypse World 2e is a refined, definitive version of the game that spawned countless spinoffs. Chances are, since you’re reading an RPG blog you are invested enough in the hobby to know how AW works, but for the sake of completeness, here goes. Apocalypse World uses 2d6 + an appropriate stat rolls, which are exclusively done by players when they trigger so-called moves. They always follow the same logic: 10+ means you get what you wanted, 7-9 means you mostly get it but suffer some misfortune or complication as well, while 6- means the GM gets to make your life interesting. Moves further codify these results, offering ready options for the GM or player to choose from.

Another foundational element of AW is the way it formalizes the role of the GM (Master of Ceremonies, as the game refers to the role) – they get not just a list of principles to follow, but also a list of moves of their own. It covers most things you might do as an MC, though the rules don’t actually limit you to them. The MC is supposed to “make your move, but misdirect” and “make your move, but never speak its name”, two principles which demand we hide behind the fiction, pretending it wasn’t a bad roll that was the cause, and the consequences weren’t picked from a list. This is a tall order.

Something is supposed to happen when a roll doesn’t go the PCs’ way. That’s the promise of all the failing forward and yes-but games. And if it’s not immediately apparent what that would be, the illusion of fiction driving the game falters. The magician (hah) gets tangled up in all the invisible wires, calls for a pause and fumbles through the print out sheets looking for the list of threat moves. The not-quite-sewn-in-half PC lights up a cigarete. Dice sit in the middle of the table, glaring at the party with their snake eyes.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a roll in the first place. But I’m no longer a novice to this kind of games, not even a novice to PbtA, and these awkward pauses still happen almost every session. They’re not a disaster, just a regular reminder that narrative games are hard to grok. The best way to use the MC move list that I found was not to reference it in the middle of the game, but to reread it beforehand. That way, when a move is called for, at least some of the options come to mind.

MC moves are a slight of hand anyway. The MC is prompted to make one when a roll is failed, but also when the party looks at them awaiting input. That is, whenever they feel like they should say something – exactly like they would in any other game. The book offers guidance on when and how to use these moves, suggesting you limit yourself to setting up a future harder move and giving characters the opportunity to react until you get a golden opportunity handed to you. To this end, the recommended setup moves are “announce future badness” and “announce off-screen badness” – develop the situation futher until decisions are made, PC moves are triggered and dice come out. The golden opportunity mentioned previously is either a failed roll or something you’ve been setting up that comes together without interference. That’s when nastier moves come out.

To put this another way, the situation should gradually escalate until the PCs decide if they want to interfere, at which point they eat consequences of their choices and their rolls. That’s how games work in general. While there’s nothing groundbreaking about MC moves, they do drive the game forward. Every time there’s a lull in the action, the game says, don’t dawdle. There’s no “stop and smell the flowers” move. “Put someone in a spot”, instead. The MC moves list also effectively conveys the expectations of the setting, prompting you to do things you might not have considered otherwise. Warlords don’t just “make a show of force”, but can also “buy out someone’s allies.” Grotesques don’t simply “ruin something”, they “display the nature of the world they inhabit.”

Displaying the nature of the Apocalypse World is probably the game’s greatest strength. Everything is highly thematic, from principles and moves to playbooks. They all but scream at you: “hey, fucker, this is what you’re supposed to be doing, this is what AW is all about.” And yeah, there’s plenty of swearing in the book, certainly an unusual approach. Unusual, but thematic.

Going Aggro, one of the basic moves, is an interesting example of how AW reinforces its themes. You Go Aggro when you don’t just threaten someone, but fully intend to follow through with your threat. If you make the roll and the target chooses to force your hand and suck it up, you don’t have the option to reconsider. No dicking around, you said you were going to shoot them, BAM. It’s a harsh (apocalypse) world out there. Too harsh, perhaps, as my players frequently find they don’t actually want to use this move. Worse, this typically leads to a discussion of what they mean and if they’re prepared to follow through, which takes us out of a tense moment. They’re not the only ones who hesitate…

Gratuitous personal aside

I’m not a connoisseur of post-apocalyptic fiction, and I’m sure there exist counterexamples to this, but the one thing that always stood out to me is the utter hopelessness of it. The world is broken, most people are dead, and the best our heroes aspire to is growing their cabbages in peace, unbothered by warlords, zombies, etc.. The genre wallows in despair. That’s its point, to depict the collapse of society, to serve as a dire warning at best, and ridicule the very idea of cooperation in times of strife at worst. It shows protagonists struggle to survive this new savage existence with no time to dream of a better tomorrow. It is, in short, the opposite of what I’m interested in playing or writing about.

The setting of my own making, in which I ran multiple campaigns and based my to-be-finished-no-really novel is fantasy post-apocalypse, too. It gets bleak, and, I’m told, characteristically Russian. But the central premise of it is a simple promise: through hardships and sacrifice, you will leave this world a better place than when you found it. The stories I want to tell are about fighting for the future. Apocalypse World lost its past and is afraid to dream of the future.

As I was reading the rulebook, another personal issue became apparent. Life is worth very little in AW, that’s what the examples convey: “this guy is annoying so I’m gonna blow his head off.” It’s true to the source material. It works well with the whole irrevocable consequences thing. It also disturbs me, a feeling that’s been growing over the last few years. I’m fine with killing monsters in D&D. Even if they’re not mindless, they could be Evil, and that’s somehow good enough. But AW says: “make everyone human.” And humans are very rarely Evil, just fucked up.

These two objections are connected, of course. By killing someone, even someone evil, you deprive them of the possibility to be better in the future. To which AW would say: “fuck you and fuck your future.” While it’s just a game we play, and it lets us explore morality and worlds not our own, I still am revolted by this.

And so the damage inflicted by the loss of life has been the central theme of our game from the start, becoming more and more prominent as the campaign progresses. Hell, we held elections on this topic last week. I never explicitly told my players this, as that would diminish the point – more than anything in this game, I wish their characters would decide killing others, while a convenient solution, is not a good way forward. So far, they haven’t, and after each session they’ve thoroughly enjoyed I feel like I’ve failed. But that’s my problem, not theirs, and not AW’s.

Welp, this got long. As you were.

Where were we? Ah, yes. Setting expectations. In a game that tries its hardest to emulate the entire genre of post-apocalyptic stories, the psychic maelstrom stands out as something uniquely its own. And it’s cool, don’t get me wrong, a malevolent weirdness that permeates the world it broke. I find it strange, however, that it’s the one worldbuilding element that we are saddled with. Everything else largely depends on our setup and the playbooks players choose. But even if we don’t pick any of the pseudo-psychic playbooks, the maelstrom will still be there, a part of the core rules. And it worked out perfectly well for us, the apocalypse in our game was caused by the nanobot swarm gone mad, so the psychic maelstrom is the distributed consciousness of the swarm. But would it be a good fit for a Mad Max-ian game? No idea.

A different kind of strangeness is to do with the choices offered by some of the playbooks. The game is all about living in a struggling community. Players get gangs, followers, radio towers. Responsibilities and ties to others. Things to want, things to lose. And then there are playbooks like Battlebabe and Gunlugger, that simply don’t give a shit. And while others are immediately embroiled in conflicts and intrigues their playbook has thrust upon them, the antisocial characters have to be additionally prodded until they get involved. On the one hand, that’s appropriate. On the other, even the antisocial archetypes have social ties. Those they’ve killed or screwed over, those they try to protect or avoid.

Your Gunluggers is Not To Be Fucked With? Great, what’s the name of the gang that’s last tried to fuck with him and has retreated to lick their wounds? That’s the kind of questions I expected all the playbooks to pose, creating the world by the time players are done making characters. Not including these hooks in all playbooks feels like a missed opportunity.

AW does a great job reinforcing, over and over, how dangerous and volatile it’s meant to be. There is not status quo, the book says. Everything and everyone is a threat. There’s even a Threat Map to arrange these threats, though I didn’t find it very useful. The threat types (each comes with its own set of moves) didn’t always fit the actual NPCs, either, but they did give me a few ideas I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Overall, preparing for the game felt like setting up dominoes, some waiting for PCs to knock on them, others already falling. Another mantra – don’t prepare future scenes, play to find out what happens. Which meant that once I knew where all the “dominoes” were, I could just show up to the game session – a strange feeling, and not necessarily a good one. It’s one thing to relinquish control over the narrative and let things develop. It’s another to find out things aren’t actually developing because PCs decided the falling dominoes weren’t a big deal, and don’t particularly want to knock over others. The first two or three sessions we had have been somewhat slow. Thankfully, there’s enough chaos, ambition, and threats in the mix that it’s no longer an issue.

The game engine contributes to this chaos. Nothing is ever guaranteed, moves snowball, things escalate. A bad roll leads to more rolls leads to carnage. If preparing for the game is akin to setting up dominoes, the rules make sure they’re set up on a minefield.

Lifestyle costs are meant to help get things moving by exerting a constant pressure on the PCs: hustle, or starve. Take gigs, interact with the settlement. Great! Except once the things are in motion and dominoes are falling left and right, doing gigs is no longer interesting to the players, and looking for sources of income becomes a drag. I could have insisted on this rule, and we would have had a different, more desperate kind of game. Instead, we’ve agreed to mostly ignore it after a while.

Turns out, PCs, at least mine, are all too eager to run around talking to NPCs and one another. Half the time, I’d just kick back and observe them. And, with 5 players in the group, so would the 3-4 not currently involved in the dialogue. While I as MC can just enjoy the drama I helped create, participate as NPCs or plot ahead, inactive players just get to be passive observers – a less than ideal situation. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t recommend AW to groups larger than 4 players.

Another issue, and the biggest one I have with the mechanics, is the way armor negates combat. The game is centered on consequences and tough choices. Whatever unique moves you have, if you fail your roll, expect the worst. Except if you’re a combat monster in heavy armor (or an almost naked Battlebabe). The brutality of the main combat move, Seize by Force, which says you exchange harm once you’re in a fight, clashes with the guaranteed ability to ignore it. A bog-standard jerk armed with a bog-standard 2-harm handgun literally can’t do anything against a character wearing 2 armor.

Well, that’s not entirely true. By the rules, the MC can choose to say the player Suffered Harm even if it was 0, and so has to roll the corresponding move, which does have potential consequences. Still, that’s asking for a second unlikely roll after the first unlikely roll, just to have something happen, it’s somewhat obfuscated, and feels like picking on the character. Interestingly, Seize By Force doesn’t even have an option for a MC move on a miss, something that I think would have alleviated the problem.

If you got this far, you can see there are plenty of issues I have with AW, plenty of things I wish it had done differently, plenty of things that didn’t quite work for us. Despite these quibbles, the AW campaign we’re still playing is, in some ways, unlike anything we’ve done before. The rules fade into the background – just like they’re meant to. The principles hide in the back of the mind. At the forefront is the game world they help create. Messed up, farcical going on tragic, in-your-face, intimate. Apocalypse World.

What do you do?

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.

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!