On the Thursday Trick, Props: Codes and Hidden Messages Part I

If you're interested in Tricks and Traps like these, be sure to check out Artifices, Deceptions, and Dilemmas, collecting all of these along with beautiful illustrations. 

Props are physical puzzles, tricks, and brain-teasers you can hand to your players at the table for them to actually physically handle.

Scytale: A strip of paper is wrapped around a cylinder, and a message is written across the paper. Unwrap the paper and the message is meaningless, rewrap the paper around a cylinder of similar size and the message becomes clear. Old like the greeks.

Deciphering: If you write the message around something that is lying on the table (A pencil/marker, etc.) then simply handing them the strip of paper should be enough. If you want to give them several options, then the strip of paper should be handed out either before or after the cylinder is found and the cylinder should be disguised (Hairbrush handle) and with a variety of other objects.

Mirror Message: No, not just writing a message backwards. That's dumb and simple.

You can bisect the letters vertically and write a message using the letters: AHINOTUVWX
Or, you can bisect the letters horizontally and write a message using the letters: BCDEHIKOX
(Use a Scrabble Word Finder to get words)

: Once they figure out they need a mirror, they may use one nearby, if anyone bothered to purchase one. Alternately, you may hand out a mirror (or other reflective object) with several other items to obfuscate the text.

You can do this similarly with maps or secret codes using Catoptric Anamorphosis, but it requires some measure of artistic talent and a polished cylinder. On the other hand, if you have a reflective teapot, it can make a fascinating puzzle.

If I were going to attempt it, I would place the teapot/reflective mylar/tin foil wrapped around a paper tube, etc. on the paper, and sketch an outline in pencil of the map or message. I would have a good eraser.

Alternately it can be a letter substitution, or letters can
be missing from the cypher. 
Substitution Cypher: The message is in code. Substitution cyphers are simple to solve if you know the substitution. All the players have to do is have the message, either before or after they are shown a disguised copy of the cypher. It can be hidden in art, murals, colored, or otherwise disguised. The cypher could be written on pillars and stone tiles or hidden somewhere else in the environment.

Deciphering: The key factor here, is that the substitution key must be presented. You cannot fail to mention it, nor should you provide more emphasis on its discovery. If the message is handed out earlier or later then the discovery of the message then the connection must be made by the players. The key can be obfuscated (as in an element of a larger picture, message, or image), but should be available.

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On the Ecology of the Cockatrice

"Those are stone hens up in that den. You'll be a work of art coming out." -Ophid, Country rustic

Nomenclature: Cockatrice, Stone Hen, Rockbird, Cocatris, Calcatrix, Ichneumon, Basilicok, Basilikos, Cocatriz, Velchukruk ("lil peckers" in Stone Giant), Skoffin

Description: Advanced reptillian arcane hen

Things that are known:

  • Their gaze or touch can petrify people, even after death
  • They can fly short distances
  • It is immune to poison
  • A cockatrice has the head and body of a rooster, bat wings, and the long tail of a lizard.
  • A male has wattles and a comb like a rooster
  • The much rarer female appear the same, lacking wattles and a comb only
  • It has red or black eyes
  • It is about the size of a goose or turkey
  • They lay eggs

Rumors and other whispers in the dark:

  • A cockatrice is actually a dragon, possibly born from a dragon mating with something other than a pure dragon
  • Once it has caught the sent of prey, it can unerringly track
  • Any toad or snake incubating an cock egg will produce a cockatrice
  • The weasel is immune to their petrifaction
  • The sound of a roosters crow will kill a cockatrice dead.
  • A mirror will not stone a cockatrice, but they will violently attack the reflection (or any other live cockatrice) until dead or exhausted
  • Its hiss can route all serpents, reptiles, and vipers
  • It doesn't actually petrify, but withers plants, scotches grass, and bursts stone from heat and its deadly breath
  • Its blood is poison that spreads when struck, up the weapon into the body of the person holding it
  • The bite doesn't kill, but passes on hydrophobia to the victim.
  • They are impossible to kill by stabbing. Perhaps this is due to poison or perhaps their skin is resistance to piercing weapons
  • The beak and claws of a cockatrice are made of iron
  • A cockatrice has three tails, not a single snakes tail
  • It is the mortal enemy of the crocodile
  • They are filthy, stupid, and vicious animals
  • If in a city, they can kill many with their poison breath. A cockatrice that has done so, can only be ousted with the power of the gods
  • The cockatrice doesn't actually turn anyone or thing into stone. It has venom that causes calcium to multiply and crystallize, replacing flesh. The stoning that results from this causes a porous appearance versus the statue-like look caused by a medusa or gogon. It is this calcium that they eat
  • The crowing of a cockatrice will curdle the milk inside a cow
  • A pregnant sow will birth deaf piglets if exposed to the crow of a cockatrice
  • The feathers are quite magical, and useful for arrows, quills, bu they must be used quickly
  • The cockatrice is actually a passive grazing animal and not a predator at all. Their deadly gaze is for insects, not man
  • A cockatrice grinds the stone it eats using hard diamonds stored in its stomach. 
  • Sometimes called the "excuse bird" it is often credited with ills it did not cause. They have never been known to eat homework or cause a late snow or poor harvest
  • This name offends them and they retreat into their study of geology, hiding in caves
  • Cockatrices are actually very wise and know many profound and secret thoughts of the origin of things, learned from the earth itself
  • They often correspond with wizards under the guise of being a geothaumatologist or ignohistorian. They pay for their research by providing the locations of gems and raw magic.
  • These locations are the subject of many treasure maps
  • They are not natural creatures, they are created from a rooster of superior chickens and a still living snake plucked from the head of a medusa
  • They don't actually consume stone, but eat it in order to help them digest food. They don't eat rocks like a reasonable animal because they have very tiny brains
  • It is actually a being of extra-dimensional origin. It is a normal hunter and scavenger on its home plane, but on ours it is deadly. It has a envenomed beak and its feathers contain toxic material. It petrifies organic matter, leaving behind crystallized salts
  • Cockatrices are quite fecund, but poisoned easily by toxins in this planar environment  Those that survive all learned to bury their crystalline eggs underground
  • They have a particular vulnerability to strong acids, sonic vibrations and metal poisoning
  • It has a strong affinity for natural forces
  • Cocksatroises was once widely accepted as the plural of cockatrice, now there is debate that it refers to an intelligent breed of cockatrice whose eggs were incubated by tortoises
  • Victims do not turn to stone, but are nearly instantaneously fossilized. The tap from the beak pulls the victim out of sync with its time frame, stealing all the motion from the targets life. This motion is lost to the universe, funneled into another somehow
  • The result of this is every time a victim is refleshed and recovered, that is stealing energy from another dimension. Do that enough and you might be noticed
  • They are used to herd stone giant children and keep them safe
  • They were designed by the wizard Vora Elgath, a wizard and friend of the stone giants who found them peaceful company
  • A cockatrice is not a separate creature, but is in actuality an infected chicken  This mutated form can only survive on venom, kept on hand by their stone giant keepers
  • They are actually the cursed offspring of Ur Kardar, a dragon foolish enough to attack a god. He lost and his eggs were all turned to chicken eggs. A trickster god coaxed the dragonish to the surface by changing how they hatched, becoming his favorite assassins
  • That trickster god's clerics can attune to the cockatrice and command its actions; possessing it for a time and petrifying their foes
  • The flesh of a cockatrice is quite delicious
  • They are vain, bullying creatures and constantly battle for status among themselves
  • Females lay 1 to 2 eggs a month at the waxing of the moon. The eggs are brownish-red, flecked with rust-red speckles and have hard brittle shells. They hatch in 11-19 days.
  • They love to line their nests with shiny sparkly items. The more shiny their nest, the higher the status among cockatrices
  • Cockatrice have the option of petrifying, it does not automatically petrify by touch.
  • The feathers of a cockatrice can turn creatures to stone for a long time after their removal or the death of the cockatrice
  • The females keep a harem of males and kick their young out at six weeks
  • They are the damned combination of a basilisk and its mortal enemy, the rooster.
  • They grow a crowstone inside their vestigial gizzards ranging in size from a grain of sand to marble size. This cloudy colorless gem is a potent cure for poisons and venom  Swallowing the rank tasting stone is the most effective application. The larger the crowstone the more effective it will be
  • Cockatrice feathers are useful as magical quills because of their durability against caustic substances
  • Cockatrice do not always turn you to stone. Some turn you to gold, disintegrate you, liquefy your bones, or turn you into a thrall. Some change your alignment, or polymorph you
  • Cockatrice flesh is a delicacy
  • The saliva of a cockatrice can turn stone back to flesh


Pyrolisk is a cockatrice that causes opponents to burst into flame
Cyrolisk is a cockatrice that freezes opponents solid
Aqualisk is an aquatic cockatrice that eats coral and breaths water
Perfidalisk is a cockatrice that causes wounds that do not heal
Regalisk is cockatrice the size of an elephant
Bicockatrice, a cockatrice with two heads
Somnolisk causes a deathless sleep
Miasmalisk breaths a killer venom that spreads out like a fog

On Ecology, Cyclops

   "It's not an eye, it's a time-sphincter" -Olabuk, mad mage

Nomenclature: One Eye, Cyclops, Logos-bound, Tartaro, Siklops, psyclops, Kyklopes or Kuklopes

Description: Giant men with a singular eye

Things that are known:
  • Giants that have one eye
Rumors and other whispers in the dark:
  • Their primary food source is man
  • They forge bolts of lightning
  • They act as host to annelids, until their lifecycle advances enough to be able to feed from humans. At this point, the cyclops discharges them through their eye into unwilling human hosts
  • Cyclopes have vestigial eye sockets with their eye in the center of their head. This is because in order to become a cyclops, one must remove their eyes
  • Cyclopes have white marble orbs in place of eyes. These are quite valuable and stealing one from a living cyclops is a feat of great daring 
  • The eye of the cyclops is unique in that it isn't covered by a lid. It rests as a sphere in the center of the forehead, hence the meaning of the name 'round-eye'
  • Cyclops are excellent engineers, working and constructing factories which produce tekno-steam marvels. They name themselves after elements and machines: bright, thundering, forge, etc.
  • They build extremely sturdy walls alternating stacking bricks to produce solid, impenetrable barriers. This brick stacking method is known as cyclopean
  • Their creativity spills over into agricultural areas, cyclopes being the first beings to develop agriculture. Legend says that every time they taught it to men, the men slew them
  • Cyclops can control the weather causing winds to bring them ships and dash them against rocks below to feast on the human corpses
  • Cyclops are noted teetotalers, becoming enraged at the thought of drunkards or dipsomaniacs
  • Cyclops cleanse their lands of all other life, having firm and immutable borders that they defend vigorously
  • Cyclopes are, at best, as intelligent as a well-behaved dog
  • The single eye grants all cyclopes great mental powers, not the least of which is prognostication, allowing them to see and change the future.
  • The cyclops is no man-like creature, but instead manifests as a stormy sky, and when approached, it reveals a malign milky sphere, a great eye; to witness the destruction it brings
  • Cyclops are bound by sorceries of the Pythagoreans, doomed to live 216 years backwards

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On Strong & Weak Henchmen Forces

A house rule, to speed up play involving entourage or henchmen heavy play.

The Weak Henchmen Force

Each henchmen in combat with a player character raises that characters armor class by 1. When ever the player hits an opponent, the player does an extra point of damage for each henchmen involved in the melee.

The Strong Henchmen Force

As above, but the bonus is 1d4 damage when the player hits.
Note that this only applies to the player's henchmen in melee with the player. If your henchmen have ranged weapons, even if they are not the henchmen of the PC using ranged weapons, the ranged weapon using PC gains the benefit of the ranged henchmen for the duration of the missile fire. If no PC's are using ranged weapons, then the henchmen will not either due to fear of hitting their bosses.

This provides a reason for the monsters to go after henchmen (they have become ablative armor and damage bonuses).

If your loyalty is high enough (Fanatical) , you may also use henchmen as shields as in 'All Shields Must be Splintered!"

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On 10 Random Facts about Numenhalla

Level 1. 300+ rooms. 4 sub-levels.
Many, many character fatalities.

10 Facts about Numenhalla

  1. Numenhalla is known as the god halls, because it is where the gods walk. And they literally do walk among the halls.
  2. Typhon took the sword of Tethys, and she looks for it still, or one can surmise from the room in her hunting halls filled with swords.
  3. The Cannites live in a multi-level structure surrounding what appears to be a 200 foot tall statue of a snake, but really, it's the imprisoned foot of Typhon, king of gods.
  4. Altars provide access to the logos, a special realm where the rules are different, and those skilled in religion can explore those depths. 
  5. That giant staircase in the center will take you as far down as you please.
  6. Only one group of players has opened and explored beyond the black door that radiates cold, very near the entrance.
  7. The sun of the Soma of the Gis (the world above the dungeon numenhalla) is a flaming lance, that runs from Holdstyri to Holdstyri, the mountains that make up the edge of the world. It too, is beginning to fade.
  8. The dungeon was started the day before my daughter was born, and lives in a quadruled leather book, filled with my scrawlings. 
  9. The gigantic treasure hoards of Freya lie inside a rotating puzzle deathtrap, each vault locked with three keys, Three of metal, and three of color. 
  10. There is a gigantic shopping mall with over 50 stores + inventory, containing a variety of strange and useful wares.
Development on Numenhalla continues! You can pick it up in issues Megadungeon #1-5

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On the Thursday Trick, Collapsing Walls

This post was originally published in January of 2015. If you're interested in Tricks and Traps like these, be sure to check out Artifices, Deceptions, and Dilemmas, collecting all of these along with beautiful illustrations. 

"In spite of the artificial setup of this room, collapsing walls don't show up often enough in published materials." -Brendan S.

I agree!

The room in question:
"At the top of the stairs are the remains of a door, beyond which is a room. The floor here is almost entirely gutted as is the floor below. 30' below is the gray stone of the cellar floor. There is an open door-way on the opposite side of the room on this level. Any exits from the first floor or the cellar have been completely filled with rubble. There are three possible ways to walk across the space—a charred and crumbling section of floor clings to the left wall, a narrow pathway of fallen beams stretches across the center like a bridge, and a sounder section of floor, only burned at the edge, runs along the right wall. All three paths are accessible from this end and lead to the doorway on the opposite side."
If the crumbling ledge is probed, large pieces of burned wood will crash to the floor. If any character steps on the ledge, it will collapse beneath them. The center path is narrow and will wobble slightly when stepped on. Plaster and ash will fall and the wood will creak and groan. As unsafe as it seems, the path is sturdy and may be crossed without falling. The ledge to the right is sound and solid. However, when the lead character reaches the halfway point, their weight will cause a loose beam underfoot to shift. The wall beside them will collapse inwards, knocking the figure off the ledge. If characters are roped together when this happens, each figure after the first must roll a successful bend bars/lift gates to stay on the ledge. Characters that fail will be pulled over the side. The fallen wall will block this ledge. A fall to the cellar will do 3-18 points of damage. (FOR TOURNAMENT USE: 12 points of damage). -A1:Slave Pits of the Undercity

Description: A wall is unstable or has been designed to collapse. A falling wall can expose the party to new hazards, such as basilisk, poisonous monsters or snakes, rushing water or lava, or anything better kept hidden. It can move party members or knock them over causing them to fall or separating them. The falling wall itself can do damage, or even release dangerous substances like asbestos, yellow mold, or acid. It can create new passageways and routes through an area for both the party and their allies.

Detection/Disarming: A collapsing wall is difficult to detect. As noted in the above boxed text, there is no special characteristic or description given to the wall, and indeed, it appears to be the most stable of the paths. The clue is given in the surrounding area. Collapsing walls may not be mortared or may even be described as walls of rubble. Walls designed to collapse may be plastered and smell or appear to be different. Depending on the type of collapsing wall, dwarves should automatically get their chance to detect this. Elves should also be able to use their sense of detecting secret doors to detect plastered or disguised walls.
Other indicators that the wall is unstable include:

  • Bulges or sagging walls, walls that are no longer completely vertical. ("The walls of this room bulge inward", "The convex walls of the chamber frame a. . . ")
  • A non-standard wall or a wall formed of a different substance. ("This chamber looks formed by rock collapse, the walls being piles of boulders stacked atop each other to the ceiling", or "The grey cemented bricks give way in this chamber to bricks surrounded by loose mortar")
  • Sounds or other descriptions could clue the players in ("The sound of rocks shifting as you enter this chamber gives way to dripping water. . ." or "There's a light static sound, as if sand were falling or settling")
  • There may be visible signs of wear on the walls. ("The stone walls in this room are cracked and worn with disrepair")

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On the Ecology of the Yeti

Daniel R. Horne
"She had those damned crazy eyes. I don't got nothin' else to say about her or any of 'em." - Zauzikhoo Khalimas

Nomenclature: Yeti, Frost monkey, Ice ape, White death, Hunters, Snow Giants, Abominable snowmen, The horror that walks the mountain

Description: A white, furred, giant, ape-like creature

Things that are known:

  • They live in cold, arctic, climes
  • Their gaze leaves men not what they once were

Rumors and other whispers in the dark:
  • Some things are lost in the mountains what a man does what he must to survive. Many will not pay that cost, and they freeze to death. Those that do are transformed in both shape and spirit, possessing only rage and pure madness. 
  • The emotions of a Yeti are so strong that they are contagious. Meeting their gaze is glimpsing the deepest, obfuscated, recesses of your soul. Apart from the terror, it causes your human nature to traumatically rebel against your animal flesh.
  • The fear that results from gazing into a Yeti's eyes, is the realization that each yeti is in fact their far future selves, returned and sent to slay themselves before the horror of their transformation into the yeti occurs. Sadly, this does not cause the yeti to cease to exist.
  • Yeti fur is actually a wiry red-orange, yet invisible in the snow. Nearby tribes will often have colors considered strange by foreigners. However bright orange huts are a sure sign you are in yeti territory.
  • The urine of a Yeti is thick and viscous and warm. It turns snow into hardened ice, melting it, and the water refreezing in the cold. This is why their are so many deadly slick traps near yeti lairs
  • When the lost, spiritual, or weak willed die in the mountains, they dream they are a beast, walking the land as a Yeti. If you gaze into the eye of a yeti you can see the dreamer, but also their dream reflection of you in their eyes. This is knowledge forbidden, and those that see it can lose their minds, becoming mad forevermore
  • Yetis do not have brains. They all worship Ithaqua and Wendigo and madness, chaos, and an icy hear lurk behind their eyes, and it is this you see that drives you mad
  • Yeti are bailiffs of terrible evils frozen and hidden in the mountains. They try to prevent people from visiting their prisons by yelling, throwing things, and scaring people away, but no one ever listens
  • The yeti and the abominable snowman are two sides of the same species. During interglacial periods, men turn into yeti. Except in rare peaks, where the torturous elements conspire to create and awaken an abomination. When the winter comes and the cold descends, the yeti are subject to this cold and become abominations themselves. 
  • Yeti, although as intelligent as a normal man, able to speak and reason and act as any creature can, is touched by the fae realms and lives only in the moment, unthinking of the future or the past
  • They yeti are not as intelligent as their abominable snowmen cousins, and have none of their psychic powers, save one. Their blue, blue, paralyzing eyes are the only psionic power they possess
  • The yeti is adapt at swimming in arctic waters, and dives deep feeding off the plankton filtered through it's fur
  • Yeti are not creatures. They are the parasitic spawn of the elder kind who sleep beyond the universe, burning with the fire of infinite darkness. Their eyes are portals to their masters, and to look upon them is to lose ones self. Those who die from this gaze are drawn through the portal to suffer eternally at the hand of the darkness in the universe
  • The glare in the eye of the yeti is lust. The hugs are a prelude to something horrible and it is that thought that drives men mad
  • Yeti are 4 feet tall, and very angry for short people
  • Yeti are not of average intelligence. They are hyper-intelligent, smarter than any other living creature. They act like beasts, because they take the minimum effort to survive, maximizing every ounce of brainpower on greater cosmic mysteries. They care for no other creatures, and not even themselves, convinced this world is just an illusion attempting to distract them from greater cosmic mysteries. It is this - this otherworldly intelligence far beyond that of mortals or even gods, that is seen when one gazes into their eyes.
  • Yeti don't naturally live in frozen wastes. Their life their is a choice to separate themselves from worldly things.
  • A yeti is winter manifest. It is the cold embrace of winter. Those that fear the frozen cold are frightened of its spirit, and the cold chills of fear grant the yeti power over them
  • Yeti theater is melodramatic and wildly sentimental. It features long, tragic, repetitive musical interludes which are absolutely not songs and which are never woven into the narrative
  • Yeti shamans make a trade, they lose a portion of their boundless fury in exchange for an understanding of the spirits. Their 'damned crazy eyes' only deal 3-18 damage and they can cast Faerie Fire, Speak with Dead, and Preserve Manflesh once per day each.
  • Yeti are thoughts of a peculiar intensity, wandering the mountains high. They are hallucinations brought on by oxygen deprivation. Possibly they are the self, cast out by the mind and made flesh
    • If the character looks into the yeti's eyes, then the full weight and significance of the revelation grips them. It is a calling and a geas. Save versus spells or get another class at level 1. Roll 3d6:
    • 3: Barbarian - you have seen the wild and it is you. No more shoes
    • 4-5: Ranger. You can keep your shoes
    • 6-9: Druid. The wild has shown you things
    • 10-12: Monk. Duh, mountaintop
    • 13-16: Cleric. You must bring the word to the people
    • 17: Thief. But they can't hear it while they're distracted by fripperies
    • 18: Yeti. You can't come down from the mountain until you've passed the vastation on to someone else
    • What the nature of the revelation is left to the Dungeon Master and player to disscuss, but it must be heretical, troublesome, and right
  • Yeti are beasts that only live during the ages of ice. They estevate for millenia, frozen in glaciers, polar caps, far beneath the ice. They wait for the intense hot period that occurs briefly before the ice age starts
    • When the yeti come down the mountain, things are about to get much worse
  • Yeti are fire spirits, trapped in cold places lest they set fire to the earth and sky. Their fur is sooty smoke or pale mist. "Eyes" are holes in the smoky covering, through which primal fire, maddening to mortals, projects
  • Yeti is a pasta shape associated with the cannibal tribes of high Dolomites
  • There are beach yetis, marsh yetis, and perhaps others, each a tyrant of it's own territory
    • There are rumors of sewer Yetis, but no man has ever seen one
  • Yetis are bundles of sticks and fur, animated by rage spirits
  • Yeti have a propensity to rip your arms out of your sockets if they lose in a game
  • Yetis are the wandering, tortured souls of extinct volcanoes. As such, they are immune to fire, and disintegrate into ash when slain.
  • Yetis will guide travelers through frozen mountain passes if approached with the gift of a mirror and hairbrush
    • Perhaps their anger is due only to bad hair days
  • Yetis have a mortal phobia of mirrors and hairbrushes, blasting out the call of the yeti if confronted with them. The yodel causes all within 100' to save versus magic spells or become forever warped by the haunting trills and falsetto growls of the yeti yodel. 
  • All yeti's are functional hermaphrodites
  • Yetis are obsessed with salt
  • Yetis worship Cryonax, their progenitor and evil para-elemental lord of the ice realm. Without this holy worship, they lose powers of ice and cold and are less aggressive. 
    • Some are blessed with tentacles like their lord
  • Yeti's are the harbingers of snowstorms and blizzards
  • They are accomplished abstract  snow sculptures, focusing on the abstractions of good and evil
  • Yeti refer to themselves as "Ch'rrawr'grrah'hwtech", which in the yeti tongue roughly translates to "the true folk". 
  • Yeti are self-absorbed liars.

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