On Interesting Treasure, The Bell Face

There is nothing suspicious about this bronze bell. Certainly nothing unusual. It most certainly does not sound like screams of the dying when rung, and that face on the bell most certainly does not animate and writhe in pain.

The very idea that it whispers, begs, and pleads with you to do nefarious tasks is absurd. Clearly it is worth 60 gold.

Gold Piece Value: 60 gold?

On Reader Mail: What's wrong with the Action Economy?

I write in this post: "the action economy sucks"

I'm curious if you have more about this elsewhere, and/or care to elaborate. I (effectively) grew up on 3.X, so I've never know anything but Full, Standard, Move, Swift, etc.

I think it has very much to do with how you play at the table.

The long and short of it is, it is massively powerful and easy to unbalance. 

Currently, me and my friends, we play for four to six hours, once a week.

In that time we spend between 30 to 60 minutes in combat. They fight maybe five to eight different groups of opponents. Occasionally we'll have a much longer fight, up to thirty or forty minutes once every six weeks for a major fight, spending about 90 minutes of our four to six hour session in combat.

A fighter that cuts down an extra few opponents or a wizard with the occasional extra action from time stop makes very little difference. Your build, your skill at combat, how much you can accomplish in a round makes very little difference to your peers, because it's more about how you manage your resources across six to eight encounters.

Now, when I played Pathfinder, the reverse was the case. There was a four hour session with 20 minutes of setup and one to three fights, lasting the remainder of the time. This also was a great time. I don't like running games like this, but playing in them is plenty fun.

The problem with the action economy is that it is trivial to gain extra actions. Rod of quicken spell? Yes please! Animal companion? Don't mind if I do! Give up a single move action in addition to my standard to gain extra turns? That's tops! Familiars and mounts? Why not!

This isn't even getting into psion/swordmage/timestop/prestige class nonsense where characters can just straight out get extra standard actions every round.

In the basic core classes, you have ways to allow players to dominate table time of the primary action the table is expected to engage in. If you're spending four hours in combat, and my druid starts every combat by attacking and summoning, then I get three turns every round (Familiar, summon, and fighting spellcaster) - well, what the heck is that? If you build a game engine that expects and rewards game long fights, then allowing people extra turns; creates situations where there are explicit easy ways to gain an unreasonable advantage in combat.

An additional point, this is an issue with large single opponents. How do you build a balanced encounter with a single opponent when your four person party outputs 120 points of damage in a round? They only get one standard action, right? Or you're cheating to prep the opponent for the party. The character/monster equality was very harmful to the action economy in 3e in that way. I believe this problem is addressed in 4e, and anyone attacking a 1e dragon (He breaths, tail swipes, claws to his left, and buffets with his wings. . .) knows that it isn't a problem.

So I hope this addresses your question about why the action economy is less than a functional system.

Thanks for asking the question! I love to hear comments and read e-mails by readers. Feel free to write me at valis 'at symbol' oook 'dot' cz

On The Sublimity of Third Edition

So wizards is reprinting 3.x core books.

What's good about this? Not much. What's good about third edition though?

More than one or two things.

Reprinting just the 3.5 core books is a special kind of idea, the terrible kind. Anyone who wants those books is just going to buy Pathfinder. They would do better with Expanded Psionic, Spell Compendium, and other series of 'collection' books. Why? Because 3.5 books are available new at a lower price then the reprints. They lost the core rulebook sales to Paizo, and re-releasing the core rulebooks isn't going to change that. Have you seen the Pathfinder core books? It's a better engine then 3.5.

That's not what we're going to talk about today. What are we going to talk about?

Well, I'm pretty negative about 3.X in general, so here I'm going to talk about what 3.X did right. What elements of brilliance it contained that should propagate throughout the OSR. Here we go!

1. Touch Armor Class - Why is this not freaking standard? When writing for D&D writing, "must make a touch attack" is so much easier then writing "Must make an attack that bypasses armor, only allowing a dexterity bonus to armor class". One is simple way of stating what must be done. The other requires re-iteration every time it is mentioned.

2. Standardizing the terms of the action economy - In general, the action economy sucks a literal pile of moist monkey poop through pursed lips while making a 'swwwwwwwuuuuuuuuuup' sound. However, it is much simpler and more clear to say, "This takes a full round action," rather than saying, "The character must use the item for a full round in order to gain the benefit". Similarly, saying "The character cannot attack and can only move and make non-offensive actions" is much more unclear and complicated then saying "The character can only take move actions."

3. Spell descriptors - Let me be clear. I love item saving throws. I can even wrap my head around spells creating 'normal fire' and 'magical fire'. But categorizing energy types and having spells tagged with descriptors and then having clear-cut categories for what the spell is doing, helps me as a DM to make judgement calls as needed. I still can't parse the 2e version of Alter Self.

4. Conditions - I think having general condition descriptors is a good idea.  As long as you don't create a new condition for every little variant, and have a short list of perhaps 15 different conditions and general effects that other game effects can use or modify.

5. Bonus Types - Finally, there is an awful awful lot I hate about the magic item/spell bonus system. The one part I don't is having explicit bonus types with explicit rules for how they stack.

6. Templates - I thought they were a good idea when I first saw them, and I still think they are a good idea. Why shouldn't anything be a ghost? or a skeleton? Obviously some intelligence should be applied, but this is a good idea.

On The What of Red Herring Agency

Last weeks article is here.

How to avoid being obvious. There are three watchwords here.

Be Subtle

Be Complicated

Be Crafty

Of course this requires planning your room descriptions out ahead of time. My model for this is the 1st Edition DMG.

"DM:'The sacks hold rotten grain, so the cleric will go and help the magic-user as ordered. They find the refuse consists of castings, some husks of small victims of the spider, hide, bones, a small humanoid skull, and 19 silver pieces. Do you now fire the webs overhead?'
LC: 'Examine the skull first. What kind of humanoid was it? Can we tell?'
DM: 'Possibly a goblin. When you are looking at it more closely, you see that there is a small gem inside - a garnet.'"


DM:'First, the others checking the containers find that they held nothing but water, or ore totally empty, and that the wood is rotten to boot. You see a few white, eyeless fish and various stone formations in a pool of water about 4' to 6' deep and about 10' long. That's all. Do you wish to leave the place now?"
LC:'Yes, let's get out of here and go someplace where we can find something interesting.'
OC: 'Wait! If those fish are iust blind cave types, ignore them, but what about the stone formations? Are any of them notable? If SO, I think we should check them out.'

DM:'Okay. The fish are fish, but there is one group of minerals in the deepest part of the pool which appears to resemble a skeleton, but it simply - '

Be Subtle:  This means downplay the things you mention. Mention them as if they are unimportant items in the room. There's a yellow cloak, some leather boots and a sword. Is the cloak covered in yellow mold? Do the boots hold a key? Is the sword rusted or magical? If you just described 10 other things in the room will the important thing stand out?

It shouldn't.

Walls aren't soot covered or covered in blood. Walls are stained, dirty, dark, filthy. The floor isn't covered in pulverized rock, the ground is sandy, dirty, or dusty.

Be Complicated: The way into the secret room, isn't always in this room. Secret doors are not always two way. Your hints, maps, treasure maps and clues can be abstract. Mechanisms can be specific (You must lift up on the east side of the slab, the spider decoration on the iron chair in the corner must be lifted, the right eye of the frog mosaic must be pressed in 3 times.) For the uninitiated, here is Why This Is Not Pixel Bitching.

Be Crafty: This is, know what your players are expecting. Did you trick them with yellow mold once? So they are expecting gold or yellow things to be dangerous? Put a gold or yellow thing on a wall that when poked, triggers a trap. When the poke it with a stick, to test if it's yellow mold, they get hit with the trap! Don't design your encounters in a vacuum. Have a repeating feature in your dungeon, like round stones in the wall. Have one of the stones depress to deactivate a trap, and another that presses in to activate a trap. Then leave a map as a clue, but make the map vague and abstract. Engage your players, make them think!

On What Player Skill Is

Shelia the Thief
I just ran across a blog post that asks the question "What is player skill?" They come up with the inclusion of "asking engaged questions."

It has always seemed so obvious, it never occurred to me that someone might not know.

Character skill is how well your avatar within the game accomplishes task.

Player skill is your ability as a player to make intelligent tactical and strategic decisions that lead to accomplishing your in-game goals.

It's true of any game, except in most games there isn't character skill. Many modern games contain the ability to manipulate an avatar. This is a feature exclusive to modern games, unless one wants to make an argument that the way a rook moves is an example of character skill.

It is more than knowing the rules. You can memorize the odds in poker, but that won't make you a good poker player. This is why 'how well you build your character' isn't really a measure of player skill. In an RPG it is no more skill related than selecting hard or easy mode in a video game.

Tactical decisions are specific logistical implementations in order to maximize efficiency. Strategic decisions are long term choices about resource allocation to accomplish goals.

In a type IV game, this means working as a team to maximize your damage and minimize your resource expenditure — it also means not engaging a trivial fight when there is a more important objective.
In a OSR game, this means thinking about the situation your character is in, being observant and making decisions to engage in situations that minimize risk.

For information on why player skill isn't pixel bitching or playing guess what the DM is thinking, this post elaborates. For information on agency and empowering players in general, read posts under this tag, or start here to learn about the quantum ogre.

On Reader Mail: Set Design

More Reader Mail, this time on some questions about Set Design. 

"I'm attempting to key a modified version of the B1 module for an ACKS game I'll be running in a week and a bit, and I'm trying to use the method you describe in your two 'Set Design' blog posts.

I wanted, if you're amenable, to run the first room by you to see if I'm on roughly the right track, or if you had any recommendations for improvements.

Entrance |          6 Statues
-> Saints (Muses, Knowledge throw to ID), Broken and vandalised -> Holding Writing Tablet (Calliope, Epic Poetry), Lyre (Terpsichore, Dance), Cithera (Erato, Love Poetry), Aulos (Euterpe, Song & Elegiac poetry), Comic mask (Thalia, Comedy), Tragic mask (Melpomene, Tragedy).               
-> Ornate, damaged.
             Tiled Mosaic Floor
-> Broken, Coloured Geometric pattern
             Steps up
-> into corridor -> triggers magic mouth
             5 Bodies
-> 2 Human Bandits, 3 Human ‘adventurers’
             (1 Fighter, 1 Cleric (Sol), 1  Thief?)
-> mucky red bandana,
-> broken Sol symbol,
-> ruined leather, bandits -> ratty wolfskin cloaks.

1. The alcoves contain statues, all of them broken. Anyone with knowledge of the old world can identify them as minor pleasure goddesses. The floor is tiled in a coloured geometric pattern. Many tiles are broken or missing, but clearly it was once very elaborate.

The magic mouth described here does not actually appear anywhere but a disembodied voice speaks as the first person climbs the short stair to the open arch at the north end of the hall. Rather than the text from the book, it says in a jovial voice, “Welcome guests! Seek your pleasures within!” It won't speak again unless someone passes again through the front entrance doors.

The grisly sight remains beyond the arch, with the addition of a broken statue. This statue is a stone angel, broken in two at the torso. The berserker wears a ratty wolfskin.

But that misses out some of the details from the original module, like the bodies.

Any advice? Suggestions? Critique?

Hi Stuart and thanks for writing in. I'm really glad you sent me this. It lets me talk more about the theory and practice behind the set design.

For those that are unaware, the point behind my method of set design is to allow you to quickly reference what you need in order to pay attention to the table and the players in the game. Reading the text is great for prep, but when playing, all you need are the easily locatable prompts. For example, compare:
" The alcoves contain statues, all of them broken. Anyone with knowledge of the old world can identify them as minor pleasure goddesses. The floor is tiled in a coloured geometric pattern. Many tiles are broken or missing, but clearly it was once very elaborate."
Alcoves -> Broken Statues -> Minor Pleasure Goddesses
Tile Mosaic Floor -> Elaborate Coloured geometric pattern, Broken Tiles

They are basically the same thing, but the written paragraph format means you need to stop and read, parse the information and then respond to player queries. Using keywords speeds up the process and helps combat the "I just read what kind of statues those were, where is it in the text".

The format of set design digitally is immediately visible things are in bold, Monster Names are underlined, with stats in italics. When I'm actually working with paper, so I'm rarely doing second drafts. I'll rewrite a module once, but doing it twice is a bit more work than something I want to do for my home table. I'd rather focus on creating more content. On paper, immediately visible things are thicker lines, monster names are underlined and stats are in parenthesis.

What I'm actually doing when I'm keying a room this way is thinking of how the players are walking into the room. What can they immediately see? What is going on nearby? What is most obvious? What must I mention at a bare minimum to maintain their agency?

I understand that a lot of formatting got lost in the translation to me. I have rekeyed the adventure as I would run it below. I would do everything possible to eliminate any need for text blocks.

Entrance 1) | Ornate Columns -> Damaged
                     5 Bodies -> Human -> Male
                                                   Bandit (2)  -> ratty wolf skin cloak 
                                                   Cleric -> broken Sol Symbol
                                                   Fighter -> Ruined Leather
                                                   Thief -> Murky Red Bandana
                      Tiled Floor-> Elaborate coloured mosaic geometric pattern, Broken Tiles
                      6 Alcoves -> Broken Statues -> Minor Pleasure Goddesses (Knowledge to ID)
                      Stairway -> Triggers Magic Mouth 
                                                |->"Welcome guests! Seek your pleasures within!" (Audio Only)

                     The Statues -> 
                            Holding Writing Tablet (Calliope, Epic Poetry), 
                            Lyre (Terpsichore, Dance), Cithera (Erato, Love Poetry), 
                            Aulos (Euterpe, Song & Elegiac poetry), 
                            Comic mask (Thalia, Comedy), 
                            Tragic mask (Melpomene, Tragedy).
                            Stone Angel ->Broken in Twain

I cannot tell from your example if you intend on keeping the text. When I construct my modules, the whole of my text used is contained in the examples above.

Some of the above is dependent on how it is you intend to present the module. Are the statues immediately visible in the alcoves? Then they must be moved to the left of the arrow, like so:

6 Alcoves with Statues -> Broken -> Minor Pleasure Goddesses (Knowledge to ID)
6 Alcoves with Broken Statues->  Minor Pleasure Goddesses (Knowledge to ID)

The first indicates that the statues are immediately visible, the second indicates that they are very damaged.

I reorganized the order, because the human eye will be drawn to the columns first (because they are long narrow shapes at eye level) and the bodies second (because we are biologically engineered to seek out human forms, shapes, and patterns in visual stimuli first). The floor and stairway would be noticed after and later.

What isn't noted above, is that I will describe the room that the characters enter based on the information garnered from the map. E.g. "You walk through the door and see a (small|average|large|huge) (room|chamber|closet|hallway) with ornate columns running (at column locations). Bodies lay strewn around the room on the tiled floor. You can see alcoves in the dim light and a stairway that rises on the (N|E|S|W) wall. There is an exit(s) on the (N|E|S|W) wall."

On Interesting Treasure, Ith Braclet

Not all Mabden tribes were violent murderers. One tribe, long subjugated by the Cartepyans called the Ith were nature dwellers, living at one with the land as the ancient Zunel were said to.

This is an ancient relic of that forgotten time. The faces of the old wise men decorate the length of this bracelet. Its size indicates perhaps the Mabden were once larger then us. Who's to say if that's the only way they were once superior. . .

It is worth 120 gold, you could get triple that from a collector or historian.

On The Why of Red Herring Agency

All of these traps are predicated on the idea of Agency.

What's that mean, functionally in play?

When players have their characters walk into the room, they get a description of all relevant manipulable widgets. This way if they miss something, it is due to player choice/skill and not due to a die roll.

This is a very engaging way of playing. Sometimes the experience is so horrible that people will think that other people should not be allowed to play this way! Why is that? Because if this is done poorly it isn't fair. After all, you just killed your players with no warning! Who would want to play in that game?

Not me.

Here is the problem I ran into when I started. I would describe the room, with all its relevant features. Then my players would avoid the rooms with burn marks, stains, pulverized dust - or only approach them in hazmat suits; and immediately start manipulating every object listed in the room. I didn't want to be unfair. I didn't want to leave anything out. Therefore, at first, everything was simple.

What was the solution? Complex mechanisms and Red Herrings.

When an encounter is designed, you need to leave some clues for traps and such. Do these clues need to be obvious? No. Do these mechanisms need to be simple? No. Does everything you put in the room have to be relevant? No.

Remember, their interactions in the room take time. During this time you're rolling encounter checks. This is the cost of being thorough. Make sure that some of your encounters can threaten your players, so this is an actual cost.

Some actual rules clarifications are useful. I allow people, when unsure of the environment to perform a thorough search. One person can search a 10' x 10' surface section per turn. When they search they get standard chances to detect secret doors. Knowing that the door exists does not automatically mean they know how to open it. I do not inform them of the results of the rolls. This turns the decision into an interesting choice.

Read Part II here. . .

On a Flattened Power Curve

One of my players is a fighter.
Oh, look a module with +1 Plate mail!
Oh, heck, is that a Ring of protection +1?
A medium shield, with a +5 bonus? What are the chances?!
Armor Class of the mages? 12
Armor Class of the alchemist? 15
Armor Class of the Fighter? 27

Clearly we have a bounds problem. I very much like the option of level-scaled combat, but in a system with someone having an almost 30 armor class, it is very much infeasible. Here are my proposed level scaling changes.

Fighters receive +2 to hit at 1st level.
Experts receive +1 to hit at 1st level .
Sages receive a +0 bonus to hit and a +1 per level when attacking with spells.
Alchemists receive a +0 bonus to hit and a +1 per level when attacking with alchemical items.
Psionicists receive a +1 bonus to hit.
Monsters receive +2 to hit at 1 hit die, +1 per additional hit die, +1 per +3 hit points.

There are three categories of armor.

People with no armor have an armor class of 8.
Padded, leathers, and other light armors provide a +2 armor bonus to AC.
Hide, Scale, Chain, Breastplate, and other medium armors provide a +4 armor bonus to AC.
Splint, Banded, Plate and other heavy armors provide a +6 armor bonus to AC.

Bucklers raise AC by 1 versus 1 opponent.
Light shields raise AC by +1 shield bonus to AC.
Heavy shields raise AC by +2 shield bonus to AC.
Tower shields raise AC by +3 shield bonus to AC, and provide cover (+4 cover bonus) versus arrows.

An item with an Enchantment provides an increase in the value of protection of 1 of the type.

When creatures or characters attack each other, compare their Attack Bonuses+Weapon Skills, and subtract the lesser one from the greater. Magical bonuses and physical prowess are not considered in this calculation. The one with the greater initial AB gets this difference as a positive modifier to his attack roll.  The lesser rolls unmodified. Note that the player must only calculate their new attack bonus, then they read their d20 roll + AB as normal.

Proficiency selection Proficiency with a weapon removes penalties for using the weapon and gives 1 attack a round. Weapon proficiencies can purchase both proficiency and focus for any character. Specialization and up require ability picks.

Weapon focus gives + 2 to hit.
Fighter only: fighters who take weapon focus gain 3 attacks every two rounds.

Ability picks
Level 3 + or fighter class
Weapon specialization gives + 1 / + 2. (+ 3 / + 2 total) Gain 2 attacks a round.

Level 5
Weapon mastery gives another + 1 to hit (+ 4 / + 2) and allows five attacks every 2 rounds.

Level 8
Weapon grandmastery gives another + 2 / + 4 (+ 6 / + 6) and gives three attacks a round.

The old fighter had a base attack bonus of +6, and a modified bonus of +7 after strength. She had an armor class of 27.
The new fighter has a base attack bonus of +2 and a  modified bonus of +3. She now has a base armor class of 8, + magical plate +7, + magical heavy shield +3 + Ring of Protection +1 deflection for an armor class by 19. This seems reasonable for a fighter in magical plate with a magical shield and a ring of protection.

EDIT: I meant to mention that these posts were inspired by these posts at The Dragon's Flagon: Level-scaled combat and analysis, and Untimately: Evasion and Armor

I meant to come edit this post before publication and never made it around to it. Thanks be to them!

On Interesting Treasure, Little Buddy

It's a bronze statue of a little man! He's giving you the thumbs up! Worth about 20 gold to local buyers, this statue brightens spirits.

A closer examination reveals several interesting features, armor, a small cross. Could this figure be religious? If so, of what religion? Is it even still worshiped any more?

He's so cute though! What could go wrong?

Gold Piece Value: 20 gold

On Reader Mail: Party Size

 Mark writes:
". . .It makes me wonder at what point in the games history did the assumption of party size change, and what exactly enabled that.  I do not think it is just a matter of dungeon design, as 4 level 1 Pathfinder characters would be fine delving into the classic Caves of Chaos, which would be absolute suicide if attempted with earlier rule sets.  The power level of PCs has certainly increased quite a bit, but I think even as early as 2e a shift seemed to be happening away from assumed use of henchmen and hirelings at low level just to survive. . .
This has got me thinking, what would the minimal amount of rules tweaks necessary to a ruleset like LL or ACKs to remove the assumed use of Henchmen/Hirelings and enable parties of 4-6 characters to have a reasonable hope of success at low level?  I am not talking about super human characters like newer rule sets tend towards, but enough of a boost to keep relatively the same rate of mortality as by the book with hirelings. 
My rough ideas at the moment:
- Shift Class HD up one dice size
- Greater access to healing at low level, either through a bind wounds type rule, or increased access to clerical magic from level 1 (with bonus spells for WIS even)
- Increased uses of 1st level spells to magic users, or access to level-0 spells or even a crossbow (it sucks having nothing valuable to do in the majority of combat encounters without henchmen to get to roll for)
- Extra attacks for fighters through Weapon Specialization or a Cleave "Chop til you Drop" mechanic to make up for reduction in party attack output
- Poison that debilitates instead of killing outright
These all being ideas present in the base 2e edition rules, before they started going crazy with options and kits.  As I have been pretty fond of your ideas and experience with playing with both current and old systems, I am curious on your insights."
Well, first of all, Thank you Mark for taking the time to write in. I love to hear from readers and find I learn the most when I'm talking with them.

I am certain the key is increased survivability. There is truly little difference in a first level Pathfinder fighter, and a first level first edition fighter. A marginally better chance to hit and doing more damage, but these bonuses are negated by fighting against creatures with more hit points and in many cases higher armor classes. The primary difference here in survivability are the death rules.

That 1e fighter has 6 hit points. And when they reach 0 he's dead.

That Pathfinder fighter? He's likely to have a minimum of 9 hit points (5.5 average, rounded up to 6, a minimum 14 Constitution for a bonus of +2, and an additional hit point for favored race/class). 
That's not the worst of it though. What happens when he reaches 0 hit points? He's Staggered. he still gets to move, or take another action. If they are knocked into negative hit points, as long as they are less then their constitution total, then they are still alive.

What's this mean? Well, our 1st level Pathfinder fighter with a 14 constitution actually has 23 hit points! What's more, if she's got one hit point, in order to die she has to take 15 points of damage in a single hit! Otherwises he falls down and ceases to become a target in play. If she doesn't take a 15 point hit, then she has to roll a DC 10 Constitution check, -1 for each point of damage below 0 to become stable.

So, what are some options to increase survivability? There are two that I've liked that I've used a lot. 
First, Hit point kickers. This is the default in Hackmaster, and it works much the same way as the Pathfinder system, except it's easier to graft onto old school style death and dying rules while keeping essentially the same effect. I gave 20 hit point kickers to party members, while Garth uses 20 for fighters, and smaller kickers for other classes.
Second, warhammer style criticals. I used my GA3: Table for Avoiding Death to great effect in my Labyrinth Lord mega-dungeon game. It makes characters super-resilient, but instead of dying when their hit points get low, they start getting all Effed up! They still act like terrified B/X style characters, but in reality they are a lot more durable and correspondingly need fewer to no henchmen.  Also, attacking your players leaves them with grievous wounds and heinous scars! Of course, you don't use it for any henchmen, they still drop like flies. I've really enjoyed using this table in play.

Any other questions you want answered? Feel free to mail me at valis at oook dot cz.

On The Thursday Trick, Magic Trap Agency

Magic Snare (Spells)

Trigger:Magical: ProximityEffects:Never Miss
Resets: AutomaticBypass:Disarm

Description: A magic trap? These are literally magic spells that act and detect as traps. Some (non-comprehensive) examples include:
Fire Trap,
Explosive Runes,
Spike Stones,
Glyph of Warding,
Sepia Snake Sigil,
and others

Detection/Disarming: How does this even work?

None of the rules in none of the editions cover magic traps very well. Here is how I manage agency in my campaigns.

Only thieves can detect magic traps. Not assassins, rangers, random schlubs with the search skill, variant thief classes, thief classes with kits -- only your plain basic pure class thieves can detect magic traps. (I make exceptions for thieves who want to be burglars or trap experts of some sort).

This is a huge factor into what makes thieves special. If thieves can detect magic traps and no one else can, then they have another important function which is useful for a class who's class features basically consist of things most everyone can do.

I always allow thieves their base find traps percentage to notice magical traps. How do I use it beyond that to increase agency?
  • Magical traps are deliberate! Not random. A mage must prepare them, and then they must be set. This means the type of item protected is somewhat limited. When you're near an important area, it's time to detect magical traps.
  • Magical traps should produce an odd smell or sensation. The room should smell of ozone, or remind the thief of blackberries eaten on the warf, or should give him a chill of mountain snow.
  • When checking for magical traps, describe what the thief sees if the trap is found. In the Myth series by Robert Asprin, mages lose focus and see magic as lines of energy. In the Wheel of Time they are threads that can be pulled. Describe the physical manifestation of the magic! It could be motes in the air that float up or down, a glowing sphere, beams, rings, or holograms.
  • When interacting with magical energy describe memories, sensations, some improbable. E.g. "Your blood feels solid as if turned to gas and then tastes of sugar in your veins" or "When you touch the strand, you remember lying in your coffin a millennium in the future as your skeleton is finally destroyed." "You scream in pain as wood feels when it is chopped knowing it is destined for the fire of fleshy creatures." 
As far as disarming traps go, if you aren't going to use an abstract mini-game to disarm magic traps (Pull 5 jenga blocks, win 2 hands of war, solve this puzzle in 15 seconds etc.), then this would seem a wholly appropriate time to use their percentage based skill at removing traps. 

On Expanded Set Design

The other day I was talking about Set Design, or how to write a 'useful in play' adventure description. I gave some examples of how I would key rooms, and was asked a question about how I would key a more complicated room. The example is below.

Brendon of OSR search asked me to key this location from Matt Finch's Demonspore module. (Print) (.pdf)

Original Text reproduced under "Fair Use".

5. The Lake Portcullis

BEGIN boxed text

A massive portcullis of wooden beams, bolted together with iron, bars the way across the tunnel and river. The unpleasant smell of rotten fish is heavy in the air.

END boxed text


• Toad-Man Sentries (2): HD 2+1; HP 11, 5; AC 6[13]; Atk 1 spear (1d8); Move 9 (Swim 12); Save 16; AL C; CL/XP 2/30; Special: None.


Two toad-man sentries guard this portcullis. Because the dam beyond (AREA 4) is also protected by a locked gate and portcullis, guards at this portcullis are almost never particularly alert. If a party of adventurers calls out from the gate at the dam, or lingers very long there making noise or carrying a light, the guards will raise the portcullis and go to find out who seeks entrance into the Halls from the river. Obviously, this is a foolish way of manning the defenses since it leaves the portcullis open. However, it has been so long since the Halls faced any serious attack from the river entrance that the toad-men are not cautious at this entrance. Just inside the portcullis there are five reeking wooden buckets, half-filled with what appear to be fish guts. These are used to placate the toad-hydra beneath the bridge at AREA 9. If the party peacefully buys entrance into the Halls, the sentries will hand them a bucket of fish guts, and explain, “For crossing the bridge.”

The central part of the portcullis, which descends into the river, has longer bars than the rest of the gate, descending into the river itself. However, the bars do not actually extend all the way down to the riverbed, and if the party is entering (or leaving) the Halls under the river, it would be easy to squeeze underneath.

Treasure: One toad-man carries a pouch containing 10gp and a small crystal worth 50gp. The second toad-man carries 22gp and a potion of healing.
How I would code such a room.

Lake Portcullis 5) | Portcullis→woodenblocks tunnel & river→can pass under portcullis
                               Beyond Portcullis→buckets→wooden→reeking→fish guts
                              |→If party noticed (light, noise) 2 Toad-Man Sentries approach
                                      (AC 6[13], HD 2+1; HP 11, 5; spear 1-8; Save 16; XP30)
                                      |Pouch→leather1) crystal (50 gp), 10 gp; 2) Potion (healing), 22 gp;

                               Toad-Man Sentries raise portcullis to approach party.  
                                 | Fight→Defend in tunnel
                                 | Parley→Purchase Passage→Fish gut bucket→"For Crossing Bridge"

Why do things this way? The physical structure of the room is first. The relevant triggers for action are bolded much like the immediately visible items because they are the "immediately iimportant actions". Monsters are underlined with stats in italics, allowing me to ignore them when scanning the description and find them quickly when combat starts. (You can test this. Look away and think "I'm going to look for the monster"; or "monster stats"; or "what the players can see from the entrance". Then glance back and see how long it takes you to find it.)

The various options when interacting with the sentries are outlined here. It is separated for ease of location. I just wrote what was in the original key, though in my games, I would also add a personality word (from my Character Traits download, I am not the creator of this file) and some 'Combat Commentary' in the left hand margin.

I find that the quick outline gives me the information I need allowing me to DM without having to stop the game to read. Have a separate section of the module for 'exposition' would be useful, as would visual aids. The reason I prefer the above to the ultra-simple Teagol Manor style, because it makes it more clear what is in the room at a glance, and provides slightly more information making my responses more varied and more creative.

On a Character Sheet

Hey! Here's a scan of the character sheet I'm using for my game!
Bleed, Pain and Internal (bleed) are from my GA3: Table for Avoiding Death
The Escalation Track is how stats are improved. Every 7/13 rolled fills in a dot. The player who points it out gets 100 experience. Once the track is full, rolling a 9 will raise a stat.
The weapons section has dots indicating proficiency, over a roman numeral II. This is the number of attacks every 2 rounds. Missile weapons are treated as if they were over a roman numeral I (Excepting crossbows).
The blank at the top is for the name of the campaign. The space in the middle is for a portrait.  
The .jpg is print quality.

The back of the sheet is the Lamentations of the Flame Princess sheet back. It is the most singularly useful sheet back in the history of gaming.

On Interesting Treasure, Guardian Rooster

Reminiscent of the terrifying roostercat, this hollow bronze statue shows little wear.

It is worth 80 gold to a local museum or curio shop. Close inspection reveals a small seam. At one point the statue might have been separated? Perhaps there is something inside.

Perhaps not, after all, the seam is very small and might be nothing.

Gold Piece Value: 80

On Alchemical Items, Dust of Severance

Dust of Planar Severance
BSC:0%(R)gp:4,000 gp
DC:28TTC:8 days
CC:12CGP::1,400 gp
NWP:-9XP:1,000 xp
D100:-25%Weight:- /5
D6:0 in 6 /7Difficulty:Formidable
RarityVery Rare

Materials: Rare Earth (4 drams), Sulphur (4 drams), Powdered Silver (1 dram), Powdered Gold (1 dram), Powdered Platinum (1 dram), Rakshasa Paw/Planar Essence (2 drams), Powdered Diamond (25 carats),
Description: This dust blocks planar connections. It has several effects. Targets must save versus Spells (Will Save DC 16) or be affected. On a failed save wizards and spell-using monsters are unable to cast spells for 2-7 rounds (1d6+1). Mindless undead have their connections severed to their home plane, They de-animate and drop lifeless to the floor. Planar effects such as True Seeing, etherealness, and Blink are suppressed for 2-7 rounds.
    This dust is found with 2-5 (1d4+1) doses.

Construction Requirements: Craft Wondrous Item, Dimensional Lock; Cost: 2,000 gp

Rules are here.

On the Thursday Trick, Agency and Melee Traps

Weapon Trap (Melee Attacks)

Trigger: Mechanical: Tripwire or Trigger WireEffects: N/A
Save:Armor Class Duration: Instant
Resets: ManualBypass: Disarm

Description: These are most often triggered by tripwires, this causes a melee weapon such as a log, axe, blade, spikes, or scythe to shoot or swing out, cutting, smashing, or impaling characters. Variations include triggers that caused timed attacks, poison on the blades, or magically enhanced blades.

Detection/Disarming: This is the second most frequent 'trap tax' type of trap, where player agency is put second to the random roll of 'is the trap found.' (The most frequent is the arrow trap). Let's take a step through the ways we can restore agency to this venerable trap.
  • The prototypical dead body.
  • Cracked walls or cut walls, stained with blood. This can be the result from the trap being triggered.
  • Often there is either a open or plaster covered space in which the weapon rests. This option can be particularly stealthy when there is a small passage (big enough for an arm, say) that contains the weapon within this passage. This is very hard to detect. 
  • Bits and chunks of metal from destroyed armor. Unless the hallway is swept, damage from previous victims should be discoverable. 
  • If the weapon is on any sort of metal swing, such as a buzz saw or an axe blade, then there should be the scent of oil on the air. Likewise for a log attached to a rope, the smell of wood should be out of place in a dank dungeon. 
Any other suggestions or ideas for melee weapon trap agency?

On a Map of the Known

A map of the known world that my players purchased!
Totally Accurate!
If you click me, I get bigger!

On A Utility of Usefulness

The actual tracker I use in game while DMing!
The original is handwritten, so no digital copy. The .jpg is print quality however.
Click on me for full size

On Set Design

If you're coming here from reddit, and you like this, let me know. Or check out the other stuff I write!

There have been some posts lately on how to label adventures.

I think that the old methods and indeed these new methods are unsatisfactory! I run a game based on agency and that has certain specific description requirements. Here is an example of some encounters in my adventures and how I think they should be labeled.

My entry for the famous Tick room in the Moathouse. The bar is the line separator on the page.

Kitchen 17)  | Tables -> Stained, Wooden Cask->Giant Tick
                      (AC 16, HD 3, HP 19, Bite +5/1-4/1-6 auto, ML (20) XP 141)

Here is an entry with treasure and a monster

Small Alcove 32) | Refuse, Furniture, Bones->in corner, 8 Ghouls!
                                (AC 6, HD 2, +3/1d4-1/1d4-1/1d6, Para 1d6+2, ML (20) XP 175)
Ornate Iron Armchair-> Dwarven, decorative cobalt inlay (900gp) 65lbs. + Bulky.
Blanket (60gp) Chiffon, covering-> ottoman, Hollow slate upholstered in woven twill. (200 gp) 35lbs. + Bulky.
      -> Gem, Kunzite  /mi (202 gp) 
      -> Human sized Iron mail (Chain +1, weightless)
      -> Fleece Pouch (Pouch of Accessibility)
      -> 3 Scrolls (Scroll-Protection from lycanthropes, Scroll-Cursed, 
          Scroll-Cleric, spell levels 1,2,4,5,6,6)
Sack, Moleskin(10gp) Horsehair cord->platinum aiguillette-> 3 vs/vf Rubies (400 gp)
       -> 400 gp, 200 hs, and 80 pp

(How I generated that treasure is here).

Let's break down how this works.

  • Before the bar on the page is the room type. This let's me know instantly what kind of room this is. When stocking this room, I use Empty Rooms which lists common contents for every room type. Ever. In the history of the world. All rooms.
  • After the bar are the immediately visible items! When describing things, I only use the bolded words! The players receive no extra information unless they ask for it!
  • The arrows indicate that it is either "Information available upon further examination" or "An item contained in or on the container". For items containing or supporting multiple items (tables, chests) indents are used to group the items.
  • The order the thing is listed, is the actual order it is stacked. I.e. Inside the ottoman, the gem is on top of the mail, which is covering the pouch and scrolls.
  • Gems are noted as to number, with size/quality following. Blanks indicate average size/quality. The GP value is for each individual gem. 
  • Coins listed without modifiers are just that, loose coins.
  • Any word that is not important, is not used. It is clear, for example, that the horsehair cord with the platinum aiguillette is what is securing the moleskin sack, by virtue of it being listed on the same line.


On the fly, I look down and say, "Roll for surprise (party rolls a 4, ghouls roll a 3) You see a small alcove filled with bones, furniture and refuse, as half a dozen dessicated humanoids turn towards you and groan. They move forward intent on consuming your immortal souls, except for you Frank. Declare actions." After the combat I will go "What do you do?"

If they go, "We look around." I'll say, "You see a small alcove with refuse, furniture, and bones in the corner"

If they say, "We look at the furniture." I'll say, "You see an ornate iron armchair, a blanket covering something like a box, and a sack sitting next to the chair."
"What's under the blanket."
"You can't tell from here."


The key things here are speed, flexibility, and creativity. I do it this way, because I am in constant engagement with the players.

I look down at the tick room, and I see enough information to tell me everything I need to run the encounter successfully in seven words. The next time I will have to disengage from the players is to read the Ticks stats!

It also allows me to construct encounters dependent on player skill, in such a way that I won't give away anything by having to check the sheet. I've given them the interactable objects, with the red herrings, so they can't read where the danger is.

This structure changes depending on the complexity of the room easily, while still keeping the information clear, and not taking up a ton of space on my sheets.

From the player side, they don't know what the results of interacting with anything will be, so even though it seems simple from the DM's side, it remains a complicated sequence of choices for the players.

Mostly it's safe to examine refuse or travel through it, except when it isn't. If they didn't examine the refuse; and it contained rot grubs; and they moved to inspect the furniture. . .

My school is all old up in here.


In the classic DMG example:
DM:'First, the others checking the containers find that they held nothing but water, or ore totally empty, and that the wood is rotten to boot. You see a few white, eyeless fish and various stone formations in a pool of water about 4' to 6' deep and about 10' long. That's all. Do you wish to leave the place now?"
 I would key the room as so:

Water Room 2) | Barrels->Location A->Water, Rotting, Buckets, Small Rivulet/Pool
                           Stream (Rivulet)->Cold, Fast, North to South, 7'-5' wide, 3'-5' deep
                           Pool of Water->Mineral Formation->Skeleton->Hand->Key
                                                                                          |->Disturb->Cylinder dislodged, 
                                                                                              floats South in steam, AC 16
                           Cylinder->Watertight Ivory Tube->Vellum Map of level (See Handout)

Questions? More examples?

Edit: There are more examples, here in the future. Here is a page from my notes.

And here's a spread from Megadungeon #2

Hack & Slash 

On Intelligence

A discussion was had the other day, in the plus of G about Intelligence.

What makes a man smart?

I am not smart. I will tell you what I do.

Read. When I was young, my father showed me the back of the Atari cartridge while he was on the phone and said "If you just read those directions, they will tell you what to do."


I have read voraciously ever since.

Listen and Think. David Mamet wrote in Heist "I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, "what would he do?""

Stop and Think.  Here's a secret. You rarely make decisions based of thought. You often make decisions based off emotions and rationalize them later.

Avoid Dogma. Dogma is literally the opposite of thinking. It is avoiding thought, and becoming subservient to the will of another person, religion, or organization.There are many heinous consequences of dogma, and the desire to lose yourself to it is quite strong.
When you "pick a side", then you cease to be concerned with the facts, and only become concerned about winning. Science is not something to follow, it is simply a series of steps performed that allow us to prove that something happens. That is useful.

Be Skeptical. Primary education is about enforcing the Status Quo. Schools are interested in producing a taxpayer base that can read, write, do basic math, and follow directions. Do more than that.

Question Everything.  Most importantly, what you already think you know. Does your source have an agenda? If they aren't independent, don't believe (i.e. think without proof) anything they say. Are you living in a filter bubble?

On Interesting Treasure: Ancient Grimoire

Ancient books are covered in mildew. They often contain minutia of little interest to the brave adventurer.

At first, this book appears to be a book of nothing but records. Materials in and out, like a log book, of receipts. Seems worthless.

A closer look reveals a strange set of ingredients. Each entry contains such oddities as
1 grd Brb D. Horn
20 ct. Ruby
10 d. pwd. G
12 H. Hnd. Teeth

The are grouped in small dates. What could happen if you collected those materials?

Gold Piece Value: 2 gold to a book dealer; 200+ gold to an interested alchemist.

On Alchemical Items, Flaming Candles

Exploding Candle
BSC:30%(R)gp:1000 gp
DC:22TTC:2 days
CC:6CGP::250 gp
NWP:-3XP:200 xp
D100:+5%Weight:- / 20
D6:2 in 6 / 5Difficulty:Hard

Materials:Beeswax (2 drams), Mineral Oil (1 ounce), Silk (2 drams), Rare Earths (1 dram), Hell Hound Teeth/Fire Essence (2 drams)

Description:  After burning for 5-12 rounds (1d8+4) these candles explode in a pillar of fire. The flaming cylinder extends 1” (5 feet) out from the candle on all sides doing 6d8 damage. A save versus Breath Weapon (Reflex save DC 18) will allow someone to escape for half damage. When this occurs the candle will be destroyed.
    You may trim the wick on this candle giving it a minus to the duration. If however, the random duration is rolled and results in a duration of 0 of less, then the candle explodes instantly upon being lit.

Detonating Candle
BSC:30%(R)gp:1500 gp
DC:22TTC:3 days
CC:6CGP::400 gp
NWP:-3XP:250 xp
D100:+5%Weight:- / 20
D6:2 in 6 / 5Difficulty:Hard

Materials: Beeswax (2 drams), Mineral Oil (1 ounce), Silk (2 drams), Rare Earths (1 dram), Hell Hound Teeth/Fire Essence (4 drams)

Description: This candle burns for 5-12 rounds (1d8+4), then explodes in a sphere of flame. The flame extends 3” (15 feet) out from the center of the candle. It does 6-36 (6d6) damage. You may make a saving throw versus Breath Weapon (Reflex save DC 16) for half damage.
    You may trim the wick on this candle giving it a minus to the duration. If however, the random duration is rolled and results in a duration of 0 of less, then the candle explodes instantly upon being lit.

Rules are here.
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