On A New Year

May you have happiness and love in your life. 

Comments are turned off here, but if you'd like to comment, feel free to either join us on the discord or on Patreon! Discord is free. This is not a lucrative field, and my patrons have gone a long way to insuring my stability (housing and food insecurity) so I can grow. There are no words to express how amazing it is to have someone believe in you enough to help you change the world. 

I'm going to be more open about my Schitzophrenia this year. My father always said "Just because you are paranoid, doesn't mean people aren't watching." I find it strange as an adult that I suffer from both clinical paranoia (as a side effect from the schitzotypal PD) and actually have groups of people engaged in organized harassment (Like telling publishers I'm some sort of alt-right men's rights activist, or setting up some rube to engage in sock-puppeted arguments on reddit). I'm going to try and be both more accepting of this as well as more public about the threats and harassment I receive. It is, after all, my own fault for being a public figure. There isn't anyone who's name you know that doesn't have people who decry them and I'm going to try to come to terms with that this year. (If you're curious about the truth, that's why I've posted a biography.)

A total of 3 million of my countrymen died this year. That's more than ever in the history of the United States. It's 1 out of every 1,000 people. Six times the number of Americans that died from our four year civil war, the most deadly war to Americans in our history. My heart is heavy with this loss. It has been a hard year for many people. That's 3 9/11's every day this year. Suicide, hunger, Covid, it's almost more than a heart can stand.

Finally, there's a lot of good stuff. I'm going to kickstart the third of my triad after Artifices, Deceptions and Dilemmas releases. It's going to be the ecology book, based off the posts made here, from the G+ days. Then I'll have OD&D, a guide for players and downtime, AD&D a guide for Dungeon Masters, and the un-named ecology book as a de-facto monster manual. How cool is that? (I'm taking suggestions for the names in my discord!) I'm still working on the details, so there may be some more surprises regarding that. 

The Artifices & Deceptions index is back! Expect it to be filled with more high quality art, ideas, and information.

I've extended the sale on amazon for On Downtime and Demesnes till after the New Year! Don't miss your chance to grab it in print for 19$ or in kindle format for 9$! After this it goes back to it's regular price of 34.99$. 

In a Deadly Fashion, my Lamentations book will be coming out next year I hope. My work on it has been done for a long time, and it looks like most of the illustrations are finished. 

This year my Alchemy book was Kickstarted quite successfully by Frog God Games. This is my first time ever being published by an industry publisher. It's strange, and I'm very interested to see what the final product looks like!

You may have noticed more regular posting has resumed. I spent a lot of this year fearful of people—many have very negative and hateful things to say. It started this year when I expressed dismay at 345 Covid deaths on March 21st. I was told that I was making a big deal over nothing, and causing panic. I was told I'm going to ruin myself, and that I needed to shut up. Now there are nearly 350,000 corpses from it a short nine months later. Not a single person who lashed out at me or threatened me has changed their mind.  I still have friends in the health industry, who've watched so many people die this year, choking to death while intubated on pure oxygen, who even as they are dying, deny they are dying of Covid. Can you imagine? 

I wonder why they think a crazy guy who draws dungeon maps for a living is going to have mainstream ideas. Just because I read widely and listen to a lot of people and have strange thoughts—do we want it another way? Yes, I have worked with people who don't pass a purity test and who hold views some people don't like and many people don't understand. I'm so guilty of that. I will be again. I personally have been wrestling with the hatred and bigotry of so many of my brothers and sisters on this planet earth. It makes you want to force people to be better. It doesn't work that way. I've spent too many years working with all kinds of people in mental health, and the fact is we are all struggling. We need compassion. As part of that, I've decided I'm going to keep sharing my thoughts and ideas. Even if it upsets people. People are allowed to be upset. It's not like they have to consume my art.

And it is art you know. Here are some of the pieces in Artifices, Deceptions & Dilemmas.  I think I'm finally starting to hit my stride, you be the judge.

Hope to see you in 2021!

Support me on Patreon and help 2021 be a better year for having each other in our lives!

On Artifices & Deceptions: Triggers, Pit Lids

These “mechanical” triggers are very simple—any object that covers a pit that doesn’t look like the a pit is a lid. This also refers to false coverings that open into a trap. Prodding and tapping are very effective at detecting these kinds of traps. Pits, like pressure plates, usually have a percentage chance to not be triggered. Since lids are literal covers for holes, water usually tends to be very effective in detecting these traps.

There are different types of pits lids: open, breakaway, latch, teeter-totter, and illusion.  

Breakaway pits are camouflaged, but any testing or prodding will indicate that the floor is not solid, or that the covering has some give to it. Consider the terrain and the material used to cover the breakaway pit. Leaves and sticks outside, a carpet indoors.

Latch pits have moving parts. There is some support for the latch, and usually some way for the latch to reset. This means a wheel or gear hidden nearby. Also, it is more difficult to hide the seam of a latched pit.

Teeter-totter pits are easy enough to detect by prodding, but as a side effect from heavy use, may not center correctly. One side may be raised up an inch or more, while the other is low. Or if it is poorly made, the wrong side of the lid could be visible.

Illusionary pits create a very realistic looking floor, making detection by vision almost impossible. The illusion isn’t solid and doesn’t interact with the environment. Detect magic makes it obvious, but fog rolling along the ground will drop right through. It doesn’t block sound or airflow, all of which can provide clues to the illusion. 

Traditional use

B2: Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax

A. KOBOLD LAIR: There is a 2 in 6 chance that as the group enters the cave-like tunnel, 8 kobolds will come out from hiding in the trees above and attack. . .Each carries d8 silver pieces.

Note: 30´ inside the entrance is a pit (B). There is a 3 in 6 chance that each person in the front rank will fall in unless they are probing ahead. There is a 1 in 6 chance that individuals in the second rank will also fall in, but only if they are close to the first rank and the character ahead has fallen in. The pit is 10´ deep, and those falling in will take 1-6 points of damage. The pit lid will close, and persons within cannot escape without aid from the outside. The noise will attract creatures from areas 1. and 2. Planks for crossing the pit are stored at #1., beyond.

Pit lid design

Early pits should be open, and be an exercise in players finding a way to cross. Open pits should be placed in areas where other action will be taking place. These early open pits can be crossed simply by dropping in, walking across, and climbing out the other end, to heights up to 15´. For any medium-sized adventurer climbing out of such a pit is a trivial matter. Once pit depths reach 20´it begins to get more difficult. They may attempt to jump across, use planks or poles, or try to lasso something on the other side. 

Breakaway lids should be considered in room or hallway descriptions and accounted for when first describing a room or area. It is very important to be clear when identifying breakaway lids in description. In most cases, anyone who asks about the floor or what’s on it should be told, “It looks like it’s covering a pit.” If the pit is particularly well hidden, i.e. if the floor itself is buried in leaves, and there’s no way to tell that they are covering a pit, an appropriate response to someone investigating the floor would be “There is entirely too much debris and scattered leaves to even tell there is a floor underneath them.”

Latch and teeter-totter pits will frequently not be described or visible, and are the most classic X in 6 style of triggering pit. However, anyone who specifically examining the floor specifically should be able to spot them. As these evolve and you move away from kobold and goblin pits, to latch pits designed by dwarves and thieves, the players should have access to more powerful tools (e.g. eyes of the eagle, detect traps, true seeing) in addition to high level thieves, monks, and rogues. The presence of well hidden latch pits should be telegraphed by the environment being one where a master trap-maker would work. 

Illusion pits are rare and for good reason. They are silent and can be quite lethal. “Early” illusionary pits could be old magic that’s failing, looking like static occasionally or flickering in and out of visibility. Or they could have obviously wrong things, like water flowing from a fountain onto the floor where it just disappears into the ground, or a hallway covered in debris, everywhere but the illusion. For higher level characters, it is both the quickness and the silence of such a pit that’s dangerous. It’s possible to have an illusion pit cover a deadly substance like acid or a paralytic gelatinous ooze up to 15 feet down, which a character would fall in under one second. That isn’t enough time to even shout out. To the other characters it would appear that the person just vanished. Even someone looking directly at the person falling in would be hard pressed to tell what happened, seeing them quiet literally fall though the floor. The other triggers all take more time to trigger and will alert everyone to their presence. Breakaway lids will fall in, teeter-totter lids will swing, latches will fall open, often with a loud bang, alerting nearby monsters like a dinner bell, but illusion pits rarely will make an audible sound at all. Fortunately they are visible to detect magic, and detect as traps, making them easy prey for players prepared for danger. 

On Reader Mail, Cities and Encounter Design

Hey Courtney,

Only just started GMing (well, probably 9 months ago now) and really enjoyed your articles on Adventure and Set Design. They've really broadened my perspective on player agency and allowed me to plan–and most importantly, play–more efficiently and effectively.

Planning linear encounters seems simple, especially the way you do it. I also find planning the power and time structures fairly simple, because these are things that humans already plan with flowcharts and timetables.

What I'm finding most clumsy is planning sandboxy space structures. With dungeons and hexcrawls, this is pretty simple; use a map, code the rooms with numbers. But how do you plan towns, or huge cities? Specifically, how do you label/annotate such structures?

Is there something I'm missing? Please help!


Hi Kalle. This is surely a sticky wicket. I have been thinking very hard about this problem.

Unlike dungeons which, as you note, have received a high degree of development, cities have few representations at all, much less highly iterated or developed ones.

There have been some notable examples though. Early examples include the encounter tables for City-state of the invincible overlord and city encounters in the Judges Guild ready reference pages. (Neither is available for purchase, Rob Conley explains why here.)  Having used these encounter tables, you're equally likely to run into a petty god or a king as opposed to your average peasant. On the other end of the spectrum is nearly 700 page Ptolus campaign setting which, in true 3.5 style leaves little to the imagination. There's were books from judges guild on villages, each containing a page map along with certain basic information about the city. One of the best of the old supplements is Cities by Midkemia press. And TSR made numerous entries into city supplements during second edition, notably Lankhmar (and little else). The adventures involving Lankhmar are of the standard 2nd edition type and can be easily ignored.

Then there's the dry tournament early Gygax style of T1 and B2, where the settlement is described in exhaustive detail, and actual relevant information is hidden within pages listing the value of bedspreads, curtains, and hidden treasure in niches. Let's not forget the literal hundreds of supplements describing inns, city sections, specific cities, districts and more.

The Key
It's about purpose. What's a dungeon there for? Looting! Danger! Adventure! Cities are less simple.

Cities are literally a word for where citizens gather and build things. Along comes the whole of human nature: drama, politics, power struggles, oppression, opportunity, families, children, light and darkness–The whole of the human condition. Combine that with the character motivations in the game and how in the hell do you notate that?!

There are different purposes that cities serve. The purpose of a city changing over time is what makes city notation so difficult.

The first is a base, a place where adventure does not occur. This is not well suited for adventure campaign play. It sets up walls the players don't expect to be there, it breaks verisimilitude and removes a lot of options from play. It is well suited for megadungeon play. The base is represented excellently by a menu style, allowing the players to quickly access whatever they need to get on with the play of the game.

Another purpose cities serve is discovery. These are cities and villages stumbled upon while traveling or hex-crawling. They provide a safe place to rest with some risk or unknowns involved. Generally  characterized by a single major feature or two, and have one or two issues or quests the players can get involved in.

A city can be an adventure site. These are the Gygax styled Homlettes, forts on borderlands, and Phandelvers. They are visited multiple times, with resources and adventure sites contained within. They work best in traditional sandboxes. In a larger, more complicated city, point crawls are useful to avoid spending all that time mapping out non-interesting areas. The travel in a larger city is more risky, lending support to that point crawl random encounter style.

And like all campaigns, each of these can change over time. So you might start with an area being one type of site and it might grow and change into another, necessitating a change or expansion in the way in which you've keyed it.

Other Factors

There are other things to keep in mind. There are no cell phones, no maps, no cars, no useful information sources on what's around the next corner. That means for anything beyond a small village or hamlet, travel within the city can be difficult. A city the size of Phandelver doesn't have this problem. You can stand in the center and in a few minutes know what each building or place is. But when you get much larger, travel time, dangers, and information can be unknown.

Imagine being dropped into Chicago on foot in a random place with no maps, narrower streets and no cars. There's no public police force and no easy way of contacting the guard. How many buildings are locked? Where can you rest? How threatening are your environs? You come off as an outsider, and unless you are in the appropriate section of the city will likely be treated badly by the locals.

Large cities, really large cities of the Baldur's Gate, Invincible Overlord, or Waterdeep type are not places you can just hop out your door and head to your destination. I've found that the Judge's Guild type encounter tables along with urban skill rolls to determine travel time rather useful in this regard. I wouldn't bother with mapping such large cities, except in the broadest and most general way.

Small and medium sized cities can be handled much like mini-hexcrawls with broad background maintained, but exploration and contents determined randomly as they explore local and distant neighborhoods. The shared discovery and mapping of uncharted territory can be a fun exercise, as long as players have pre-existing goals. 


There is still a lot of work to be done in this area. I suggest checking out a few of the works linked above for rough ideas about how to generate and key cities as adventure sites. (I am not affiliated with any of the products, nor receive any revenue from their purchase). I recently completed a work covering many of these topics, which you can get here: On Downtime and Demesnes

Figure out what the purpose of your city is and then figure out what information you need to minimally generate in order to make the situation fun for your players. 

This reader mail was originally published on 8/8/16. If you like these posts, consider supporting me on Patreon.  

On the Physical Space

Module designers, can we talk?

It's not me, it's you.

This is 2018 (ed. 2020 now), not 2000. Why am I still seeing modules with flat spaces, square rooms, and two dimensional thinking. Captain Kirk taught  us long ago that future people think in three dimensions when they fly their space cars. Not in two dimensions like those clones from the 1990's!

Let's have a discussion about vertical spaces and how they can be useful in play. 

Not just any three dimensional space is good for gaming! Some add nothing, useless complexity for no purpose. Let's not do that! What do we want? Not that!

Three Dimensional Spaces in Play

The Cliff:

The cliff is fun because I have a neat critical hit table for crushing blows, and I calculate damage the way hardasses do, 1d6 cumulative per 10' feet. 20' would be 3d6, 30' 6d6. At 40' I just pick up all the d6's and grin.

Also, the angle of the cliff; that's what the thief's climb skill is for, to move across that terrain at full speed.

It's fun if the characters are above, they can survey a situation (sometimes called an encounter!) with a "Monster". That's what we call the things that live in the places our characters invade to rob. So they are usually doing monster things like boiling peasants, paying taxes, and bitching about that snippy biddy down the hall with the fire breathing dogs. I also usually like to have a very small loud annoying thing in the room.

If they are below, did you know trying to dodge thrown boulders is a fun game? We played it on a hill with my friends as children, and the hospital bills weren't even that bad! It's exciting. Especially if you are the one throwing boulders! If you're reading this, you probably are, and let's be honest. That's awesome. So do it.

The Vertical Corridor:

You remember that scene from Don Bluth and Rick Dyer's game, written by Rick Dyer and Drawn by Don Bluth, the Dragon's Lair (TM) Laserdisc video system? Where the platform fell and there were all the corridors—wait this one? Too late! SPIKES!

I like to roll lots of 'to hits' with my spikes. I make sure as I roll all the dice that I let the player know I feel really bad that—oh! six of them hit. That's just, that's not good Todd. That's not good at all.

I don't usually have a falling platform, although hanging discs, rope, and other accoutrements really help the space. Also monsters aren't dumb. Well, not all of them anyway. We're not speciest here. They know this is a really good place to fire arrows at adventurers!

So it's super enjoyable as they begin to try to deal with Todd's unfortunate situation, that I'm forced to let them know that from the darkness—*Clatter* "FOUR of the arrows hit, guys, four. That's so many. I'm sorry. Where are my d8's?"

Some of the levels overhang each other, because seriously, damnit why would anything in life be easy? Additionally, monsters are just made for this. Harpies, ropers and cave fishers, piercers, and fungus beds galore. It's like a ball pit for saves versus death!

The Action Playset:

We can talk about bad dimensional spaces here. Like, the "vertical wall" challenge. This was popular in mid-wave third edition Dungeons and Dragons 'dungeon punk' where the challenges and encounters were becoming more mechanical and build focused. "This fight takes place on a vertical wall/ship in battle/earthquake!"

That sounds awesome, right? All you have to do is have a normal combat, except anytime anyone has to do anything, they have a 50% chance of failing their balance check and losing their turn.

So it's like normal boring combat, except half the time you lose your turn. I mean, maybe that sounds fun to you because it's brutal or realistic or something. But if it does, fuck you, you know? I'm here to play D&D man. My father told me one of my early board games designs (from the 4th grade era) that losing 8 turns just because you landed on a space was bullshit and no good game would make someone lose 8 turns.

I showed him though. I built a Magic: the Gathering deck that gave me infinite turns. Richard Garfield is a millionaire. That, among other reasons, is why my father wasn't a game designer.

Which is why the concept of an action playset is important. There can't just be an area that has a negative property, unless it's in context to other alternate spaces. This plays out in a couple of different ways depending on the game mode you happen to be engaged in: exploration, role-playing, or combat.

One thing that's intimidating about Dungeons and Dragons for newcomers is that its structure has always been very fluid by design, to fit the personality of the person running the game. But because that varies from person to person, it's difficult to not only clearly identify the je ne sais quoi of the structure, but to clearly encapsulate that to provide understanding.

Dungeons & Dragons is played by sharing a conceptual space filled with unknown and highly dangerous or rewarding outcomes. It's important for emergent play, play that arises beyond the simulation of the mechanical, that multiple outcomes are provided simultaneously. When exploring you enter a room, there are items of interest weird object A, basic-looking object B, suspicious detritus object C. When in combat, there's advantage area A, cover-filled area B, and independent mechanical feature area C. When interacting a non-player character has personality trait A+B, and interacts with the party and its retinue.

This combination is the perfect balance of 7-9 interesting interactions that people can track. You have an advantage because 4 of those are the players. And you wrote things down. Unless you didn't and you're trying to impromptu everything off the top of your head. Why this is a really just shite idea was, no bullshit hashed the f&*k out. At length. Have fun down that rabbit hole. I lived it.

So the action playset is just that. A tower with two platforms, stairs, and a gem powering a ritual at the top. A floating disk filled with wizards. Areas with alternating magma flows (or lava flows if you're engaged in outdoor exploration). A group of victims perilously under threat of death. Get the things together, put them in the bowl, and stir the shit out of that pot.

"Are you surrreeee you don't want to dig through the filthy trash?"

Well, I was, damnit.

This post was originally published on 8/8/18. It is not available in print. Did you like this? Did you also know that I have a vested interest in continuing to afford shelter? There are a group of awesome people making the world the way they want it to be by supporting me on Patreon to make more Dungeons AND Dragons.

On the Magic Bell (Curve)

Chainmail style roll to cast is an excellent way to allow spellcasters more opportunities to spell-cast. It was originally mentioned in a post here by Jeff, and followed up with these posts by Brendan.

The 2d6 curve is a real thing of beauty, but the implementation above is more complex than it needs to be.

Add your wizard level and your intelligence bonus (+1 for 13+, +2 for 16+ and +3 for 18) together and subtract the bonus from any armor worn. (leather provides AC 8, so a wizard in leather has a -2 to this roll)

This is easy to calculate, giving a 'magic bonus' which works very much like a 'to hit bonus'.

The next step is to subtract both the level of the spell and the number of times you have cast it already. This creates two problems, the overhead of tracking the spells cast per day, and this awkward double mathematical operation

Here is my new idea.

You get an arcane pool of 2d6. You get an additional d6 to your pool for every caster level you have and the intelligence bonus adds a 1d6 for every point of bonus (+1d6 for 13+, +2d6 for 16+ and +3d6 for 18). 

You may roll as many dice as you wish to cast a spell. Compare the total of the roll to the table below. Any die that comes up with a number equal to or less than the level of the spell you are casting is lost and cannot be regained till you rest and memorize new spells. Armor reduces the number of dice you have available. For every point of protection a piece of armor gives you, lose a 1d6 from your spell pool. 

2 Spell fails. Lose the spell
3-5 Spell goes off at end of the round. Lose the spell
6-8 Spell goes off during the magic spell phase, Lose the spell
9-11 Spell goes off during the magic spell phase, you can cast the spell again
12 Spell goes off at the start of the round, you can cast the spell again
Doubles are wild surges, and snake eyes are spell mishaps.

You memorize spells as normal. You announce spellcasting at the start of the round (as indicated on page B28) If you get hit, the spell for that round is canceled, it is only lost on a roll of 5 or less.

This has three important effects. Your spell power and utility increases with level. Using more power (rolling more dice) makes it more likely that the spell will go off before combat, that you will be able to cast the spell again, versus the cost of draining your magical power more quickly and causing surges and mishaps to become much more frequent. 

That is: Accessing large amounts of raw magical power is useful, but dangerous. This allows casters to have access to more magic while giving them options as to how they use it. Their power drains over time, and drains much faster when they cast more powerful magic. Powerful spells (level 6+) always drain the caster of power. 


The above is for B/X or OSE style games that have a phased initiative system: Morale first, then movement, then missile attacks, then magic spells, and finally melee. But it is trivially transposed to simple over/under systems by having results of 6+ casting the spell when the player acts. In 5th edition, your spell slots become your magic pool, a second level slot providing 2d6 dice. 

This dovetails nicely with equipment like wands, which can increase/decrease/modify spell dice for certain spells or schools (e.g. a wand of illusion that gives you a free 1d6 die when you cast an illusion spell, or a wand of transmutation that reduces the power drain: instead of losing dice that come up 1,2, or 3 when you cast a third level spell, you would only lose dice that come up as a 1 or 2 because the wand makes the spell easier to cast)

It makes magic less reliable, more of an interesting choice, and allows more spellcasting then slots. 

This post was originally published on 07/09/2013, and is available in the DMP5: Chainmail Style Casting for Fantasy RPG's from DrivethruRPG for free, along with an Ad-free version for patreons!

On the Wizard

No Wizard is happy.

Imagine a doctor, years of study. Chooses to become a proctologist. There's a reason. Yes: money, job security, comfort. Still, to devote so much time to assholes, looking at asses of mostly older men and women, thinking about what the health of a colon really means, nobody that has the opportunity to become a doctor would choose something like that if it didn't resonate with them at least a little.

So it is with wizards.

Whatever they are into, is not a topic of interest to most people. It's off-putting and strange. They didn't get to be so knowledgeable about such topics by wiling away their hours in idle pursuits. The study, social inexperience, and strange experiments and activities push them further apart from their fellow man. They wonder how much to care about the opinion of a person that can't even read.

You're a wizard

Magic never has the answer. Solitude, isolation, and the plain fact that magic is terrible for utility, why risk your very life toiling with such forces for such a meager payout? Magic leaves you destitute. Those with money or no future will seek tutelage from other powerful wizards, in exchange for either cash or servitude. Your habits of study and isolation leave you unclean—your spirit, hygiene, food even, are just annoying things that take you away from what matters.

And it does matter, when you finally bind the axial niffit from the dolorous realm to the resonant exoskeleton of the clockwork narix, allowing you to maneuver it under your control. You share your idea, only to be told the utility of such a thing is useless.

How do they not see the potential?

You have your awakenings, as all mortal creatures do. But revulsion and disgust on the face of the young man or woman you fancy, is it your stench? Unkempt hair? It doesn't matter. People speak in euphemisms. You are a 'magic-user'. You let go of the idea that you would spend hours, hours, every week engaged in such banal activities, just so other people found you palatable. What a waste! You have more important things to do.

The study of magic, is, at its core, based on a series of poor decisions. The energy for it comes from other creatures and other realms, filled with powers beyond the reach of men. Those willing to traffic in such knowledge often did not have better options. Unsuccessful sociopaths, power hungry criminals, those who would just as soon see you fail. These are your peers and sources of magical knowledge. Each as unseemly and untrustworthy as the next.

You start to realize what magic means. That people are really just harmonic wave reflections, made transparent by sacrifice of loric natodes. It is your will that you enforce upon the universe. Are people that do not even real? More and more you discover the limits, the forms and behavior that make up your so called "peers". They are revealed and controlled just as easily as a simple narix. Well, perhaps not a simple one, but. . .

If you're lucky, you have money, and can secure yourself a homestead and an apprentice far enough away from civilization for you not to be noticed. If not, you could find yourself a group of ner-do-wells and trade your services in hope of finding enough money. Allying with a group who's best plan was to sell everything they own; to roam around try to steal lost "treasure" from deadly monsters while hiding it from the government? Like you, these people were poorly-suited for fitting in among civilized people. Except they didn't have intelligence to carry them. Assuming their poor judgement and ignorance doesn't get you killed, you put up with their abuse, because what does it matter what gnats say?

Finally, what's your success? Ultimate power and riches? Hardly. Now that magic's secrets are unfolding, you see the endless cost, and it becomes about tricks and techniques and resources to bear the weight of that cost. You see what you want, but just out of reach. Only another year or two of research. . . . If you're successful, you've created an isolated environment that allows you to actually do that research, and then just hope a bunch of armed and heavily armored thugs doesn't break into your home and murder you.

Finally, when magic gives you real power, when you've twisted and folded your very being that the cost for what you want is finally enough to bear, you look around and realize you are alone. Your path leaves you few friends and many enemies. You yourself have become old. You no longer recognize the land, the songs they sing are strange, and it feels as if you walk among a cardboard stage. Any who see you whisper and those that meet you recoil in fear.

You spend an age using your power to grant you all your lost desires. You form a demi-plane and within your dreams come true. Even you are intelligent enough to realize the base urges and simplistic ego structures that make up such a fantasy are empty and devoid of value. You live there for years after all the joy has fled.

Finally, assuming you avoid running to the unknown or other self-destructive behavior, you realize all that's left is your engagement with the mysteries of magic. All worldly concerns cease to be yours, your environment idiosyncratic, your only company, those few of your peers who have survived, but can't really be trusted. Your intermittent communications with them the only telluric enterprise that remains.

Eventually, you die while at work, as your body gives into the ravages of a life unbalanced.

This is the life of a wizard.

This was originally published 2/13/18, and is available in print, in Hack & Slash Compendium IV, which is all about wizards and their esoteric bullshit. If you liked this post, support me on Patreon. Hack and Slash Compendium is available digitally at DTRPG and in print at Lulu.

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On Gigagames

It isn't about money.

Activision Blizzard is run by a narcissistic, self-centered, aggrandizing CEO Bobby Kotick.

If you received 10,000$ a day from the birth of Christ to today, you wouldn't have nearly as much money as Bobby. True story. 

Here's what Bobby has to say. 

"The goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks into Activision about 10 years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games.

"With respect to the franchises that don’t have the potential to be exploited every year across every platform with clear sequel potential that can meet our objectives of over time becoming $100 million plus franchises, that’s a strategy that has worked very well for us.

You can't take or give bobby money that has any value. You work, he kills golden geese. The goose in this case is Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, and of course, Diablo.

There will continue to be opportunities for us to exploit the PC platform in ways that we haven’t yet.

This is reflected in the choices of the company since activation took over. Blizzard supports (by refusing to oppose) China's genocide of Uighurs, has enacted punishments against e-sports players for supporting independence in Hong Kong and has taken part in the information blackout china requires. Why wouldn't they? Their goal is to extract value. People who own Activation stock will get payouts, until they kill the golden goose, and then Activision will buy something else. Why make beloved games like diablo, when you can make more money with phone games?

I promise this really isn't about what a reprehensible sociopath who spreads misery in order to exploit people for money he doesn't need.

"Lifestyle games"

They aren't "lifestyle" games. 

People used to have a lot less time. Like a lot less time. Communities had to produce their own products, conveniences like light sources caused terrible damage to interiors.

This happened in the space of 200 years. We went from using horses and simple tools, to literally having robots drive. We are on the cusp of the absolute elimination of labor. Non-invasive brain interfaces allow people, today, to control prostheses, drones, weapons, wheelchairs, and more with their mind. We are in the process of colonizing space. When I was born, we had phones with landlines, now we have a wireless network that extends to Mars. We have the ability to edit genes on living creatures, which is why people are engaged in a debate on whether to eliminate malaria by genetically altering mosquitos so they can't carry malaria. The debate started years ago when we gained the ability to edit genes in living creatures.

Have you maintained a well this year? Had to clean soot from kerosene or gas lamps from surfaces? How much wood did you chop and burn for heat in the winter? How much bread did you bake by hand? How much livestock care do you do in a day? Have you made your own butter? Soap? Candles? 

Humans are used to doing stuff. That doesn't mean that there isn't a bunch of stuff to do—there is, tremendous work. You can see that anytime something pops up and you wonder why this wasn't happening before. There are thousands of un-met needs. But survival is covered.

Idleness and lack of activity leads to depression. It's one of the feedback loops in depression, you do fewer things, your support structures suffer, and instead of 'recovering' depression increases. Isolation and idleness in general are symptoms and causes of depression. 

So, in first world societies people fill that time with activity. . . . like games.

But when I say gigagames, or when a company says a 'lifestyle game' (which is sometimes a gigagame, but is more often a 'gacha' game—a glorified slot machine, with colors, bells, digital collectivity, and graphics instead of cash payouts) I mean an environment that is both a game, a community, a marker of status, effectively endless playability, and a replacement for the lack of activity. 

There is uncertainty as to the name, massive games, giant games; lifestyle games refer to a subset of these that companies try to 'over-monetize', where companies use psychological manipulation to extract value (i.e. money) from a consumer. Obviously Gigagames can be expensive, but they are not, necessarily, designed to constantly bleed you for money. 

Grim Dawn is a good example of this. There are 40,000 class combinations. They don't charge per-play, or sell microtransactions. They focus on making a good game, and provide avenues for people to voluntarily support them. They are a successful game studio and plan for sustainability. The community and culture is positive. There are many goals in life. I live in a culture that glorifies what Bobby does, and denigrates other values and goals. It's fair to say that designing for maximizing profit makes for worse games—which is why people are still playing games like Grim Dawn and X-com, while Marvel Supers, Shadow of Mordor, Anthem and all those other soulless cash grabs rot in the bin.   

The idea of demanding a constant influx of cash is opposed to the core of what a Gigagame is, and eventually (even if it takes a long long while) leads to their downfall. 


Kingdom Death. The base game is 400$, and the basic set of expansions runs between 50-150$. There are more than a dozen expansions, and add-on's (like the gambler's box, or molded plastic boards) can run the cost up into the thousands. When you get the game, all the gamepieces are in sheets, which must be assembled like a model, then you spend months playing through a single game.

Total War: Warhammer. The base game is sixty dollars for four races, the sequel is sixty dollars for four more races, and each race pack will run you 10-20$, including beastmen, wood-elves, Britannia, the dead Egypt mummies, special lord and unit packs, and more. If you don't buy it on sale, the whole game can be purchased for about 325$

Pokemon GO. Grim Dawn. Stellaris. Crusader Kings. Rimworld. Civilization. Dwarf Fortress.

Dungeons and Dragons.

The really amazing thing about many of giga-games are played against literal rocks. In layman's terms, a wafer of silicon is put under magic light, and then dipped in magic water, and it becomes an incredibly tiny machine that we can then tell what to do. 

It's pretty amazing. I had dreams as a child where I could telekinetically control my toys to play with them, and now, my computer will simulate thousands and thousands of soldiers, dragons, and more all fighting and dying as I smash my toy armies against each other. 

Heady stuff.

Stellaris is a space game that was not well designed. It's been out for years and has been drastically different games at drastically different times. Whole systems have been created and then trashed. But finally, after over four years of being released, it's beginning to resemble a designed game, instead of a mess of different ideas.

None of these games are particularly challenging. They aren't about 'what's best'. After all, you are playing against a literal rock. Stellaris has one clear 'best path' meta to victory. But who cares? Warhammer, Dwarf Fortress, Kingdom death, etc. Gigagames aren't primarily about victory or competition. They are about simulation. 

It's this line of thinking that leads people into believing our universe is a simulation—the statistical odds that if universes can be simulated, then it's very likely ours is, simply because most universes are simulated. And are they wrong? Pawns in Dwarf Fortress meet every criteria for life, they are responsive to their environment, they grow and change, they have the ability to reproduce, they have a metabolism and breath (as anyone who's lost dwarves to miasma knows), they maintain homeostasis (Literally, they have internal systems that are regulated that drive their needs), and they pass their traits off to offspring. There is some degree of question as to whether they are composed of 'cells', but they without question are more complicated then many simple insects.

So while I work, drawing and writing, Stellaris chugs along in the background, simulating an entire galaxy and it's people, like a fish tank of a universe that I can watch. It's easy to imagine where this goes in a hundred years. You can just decide how all the beings in the universe are. Become a fascist empire, or peace loving space hippies. All of them work, they just have different. . . drawbacks. There's been a disconnect for me, realizing that this is a model of life.

We can have things be any way we want them to be. We get to decide. Right now, America wants to riot and kill black people in large numbers every fifty years. One year after the last pandemic (1919) red summer happened (where hundreds of african-americans were rounded up and hung, over 100 in a local city here, but murders happened all over the United States.) Your grandparents were around for that. Some of us and our parents were around for the civil rights act and the race riots triggered by a white cop executing a sixteen year old man named James Powell in 1964. 

This is mostly the way it's always been, and it's this way because most people want it that way. The real question is why?

There's still four days left to take advantage and grab my book in print for 19.99$! You'll be happy you grabbed a copy at this low price, and it might even show up in time for Christmas! If you like articles like this, you can make an incredible difference with a pittance, support me on Patreon—that's one way you can change the world. 

Hack & Slash 
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On a Happy Holliday

 This year, man. 

There's some cool stuff going on. First, On Downtime and Demesnes is on sale this week only for 9.99$ on Kindle, and 19.99$ in print on Amazon. This sale will disappear on Christmas day and the book will return to normal price of 35$. This sale is only on Amazon.com

It's full of ideas and guidelines for all the space between adventures to make your players excited to explore your world. 

Secondly, I'm also happy to announce that Megadungeon #5 is FINALLY available in print! 9.99 for Print + PDF, and 4.99 for PDF. It's packed to the gills with amazing stuff. 

There's a whole section on upgrading your home base in a megadungeon campaign, maps, tricks, riddles, puzzles, and danger in the Alchemical Halls, a three level, open, Lavish Mine of Fur Slime, filled to the brim with ingenious molds, fungi, and jellies. 

And just like in every issue of megadungeon; dragons, non-player characters, and treasure maps ready for use in any campaign. 

There's a lot of art in there, along with a brilliant cover by James Shields. I think his work is amazing. He's working on a comic, and just has this huge library of art I can use when I need a fill. I mean, just look at his cover above. 

I commissioned another piece of art from Bodieh for the issue. It's also amazing. I really depend on Bodie for feedback, and just a nice reprieve. He's such a great guy. He did the cover for Megadungeon #4

He's doing this cool thing right now, where you buy a sticker pack and make player characters and non-player characters! It's only on for the next few hours, it's only available till then. 

But like, Where else can you buy a book full of Dog Wizards. I didn't stutter. It's a book filled with dogs that also happen to be wizards! 

If  you want to hand out some stuff to kids to get them into D&D, can you do better than sticker sheets? Kickstarter even gave it a 'projects we love' tag, which is just wonderful

I've been quiet for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the work which is going into Artifices, Deceptions and Dilemmas. I think you can see from the illustrations below it's quite a magnum opus. Hundreds of illustrations and detailed discussion of, well, Artifices, Deceptions and Dilemmas. 

The plan is not to disappear from the internet, like most creators once they become professional. This is risky, so I've taken some structural and legal steps to make streaming and being a public figure safer for me and my family. For now, questions about who I am and what I stand for can be found on my Biography

A workshop from Artifices, 
Deceptions and Dilemmas
Anyone who wants to ask me anything can join my discord, and I'll answer whatever you want to ask. Lots of perks and disclosure on the Patreon also. Those people who support me, this just flat out wouldn't be possible without them.

There's a lot of exciting stuff. Frog God is about to start shipping my Alchemy book soon, which is just a real milestone for me. Once it is available, there will be limited extra stock available for sale!

There's a lot of sorrow too. I lost my cat last year at Christmas and hundreds of thousands of my country-people this year. Alas, that these dark days are mine. But I think everyone knows it can't rain all the time. We will see you soon, in the coming year and beyond. Who knows what dreams may come? 

On What to Do With a Dragon Corpse

My players were about to leave Thundertree, when they decided to look around to find a certain missing amulet. While they found the amulet, they also found a strangely attired group of humanoids.

Failing their stealth roll, they were invited in for tea and a strongly worded offer.

Thull explained how the dragon cult helped his sick grandmother out and provided for his every need. He explained that they quite successfully recruited dragons, he himself having never heard of a dragon refusing an offer of the dragon cult. And he strongly suggested that the players that had been spotted and invited in join, because he'd much rather be their friends than have to offer them to the dragon also.

The players agreed and the cultists got to walk outside of the door before the rest of the party attacked. The bard put dissonant whispers in the mind of the leader, who fled screaming.

The murder of several dozen cultists is not the quietest activity, especially not when one of them has taken psychic damage and is screaming as loudly as he can in draconic, which no one in the party can speak.

Shortly, the ground shakes as Venomfang roars, quite upset about having being woken from his slumber. The raging reckless frenzied barbarian, tired of the shrieking madness of the cult leader, runs up to him and splits him in twain. The Dragon climbs to the top of the tower and flies towards the party, landing right in front of the dead cult leader and the barbarian standing over his corpse.


The bard, being the bard, attempts to talk Venomfang down. She says "Oh, great and mighty dragon, we come only to bask in awe of your mighty form." Using the updated 5th edition modifications to the "On the Non-Player Character" social system, she rolls for the Honor action and gets a 26, changing his mood from hostile to neutral.

Then it is the raging reckless frenzied barbarian's turn to act. She attacks twice. Combat is joined.

It doesn't matter how powerful your dragon is. When you lose initiative against six players, you're going to have a bad time.

By the time Venomfang got to act, he had already lost nearly 100 hit points. The dragon took flight, and breathed on as many targets as he could. Two targets, only being the barbarian and the 1/2 orc monk. Venomfang did 56 points of damage. You'd think this would be deadly to a 1st level monk and a 3rd level barbarian. They both save. 28 hit points leaves the barbarian with 10, and the monk, being a half-orc, is not killed outright, so remains standing with 1 hit point.

How upset is Venomfang at this point?

Not nearly as upset as he is as he fails his saving throw against Tasha's Hideous Laughter when he's 30 feet in the air.

So, the point of todays post is, 

What can you do with a dragon corpse.


There is very little value in fighting monsters, except for the value of the monster itself. ACKS uses "Monster parts" that's defined as having a value in gold equal to the experience point value of the monster, arbitrarily assigning each unit a weight of 5 stone for 300 gold.

Essences work differently in that you can acquire 1 per hit die of the creature you kill. They are worth 10 gold towards crafting a relevant item or spell research, or may be sold for half price to recoup some value. In a system that is essentially on a silver standard such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess or 5th edition, then this value is reduced to 10 silver.

Dragons, being magical creatures, can provide up to 3 times the normal essence as a more mundane creature. That means a 16 hit die creature like Venomfang can produce up to 48 essences. You may extract essence from the blood, the flesh, and the brain. Note that this is an all or nothing affair. You can either have the corpse, or you can reduce it to essence. Turn the flesh into essence, no dragon armor for you.

This means totally breaking down the dragons corpse grants 480 gold, which is just in line for the amount of treasure handed out in Phandlever and Hoard of the Dragon Queen.


Dragon Hide makes excellent scale mail armor. It can also be used to craft a shield. It cannot be used to make other kinds of armor, select the rationale for such a decisions from the following list: verisimilitude, balance, simplicity.

A medium dragon produces 1 hide-unit of armor. A large dragon produces 3 hide-units of armor. A huge dragon produces 5 hide-units of armor. A unit of armor produces a medium sized shield, helm, or mantle (cloak). Two hide-units produce a medium sized suit of scale mail armor.

This is assuming the dragon was slain in normal melee combat. If the party takes care to do as little damage to the hide as possible (blunt weapons, sleep spells), then add 1 hide unit to a medium dragon, 2 to a large, and 3 to a huge dragon. If the party is particularly vicious in their attack on the dragon (arrows, many sword blows, violent spells), feel free to reduce the hide-unit values appropriately.

Dragon hide armor is resistant to the element the dragon breathes, and is easily enchantable. This can work however your rules system manages, but generally reduce the costs to enchant dragon hide armor, helms, shields and cloaks by half.

Dragon hide is consumed if the flesh of the dragon is converted into essence.

Note that good or evil, no dragon looks favorably upon someone wearing their skin.


The blood is a deadly poison if ingested, causing death if eaten or swallowed on a failed saving throw versus poison at -4, (or a DC 15 Constitution save, or DC 18 Fortitude save, depending on your system.) It has no poison effect via contact, inhaled or injury, although it is strongly corrosive against most metals and rocks, causing them to become brittle and prone to breakage over time (weeks).
If you bathe in the blood (requiring 40 gallons for a medium creature, half that for a small creature) you are cured of any diseases, any poisons are neutralized, and you gain 1d12 years of life, as a potion of longevity. After a single bath, the blood is useless for any other purpose.
There are 2 gallons of blood in a medium dragon, 10 gallons in a large dragon, and 500 gallons in a huge dragon. Blood sells for the same price it breaks down into if transmuted into essence, 10 gold pieces per hit die. The Dragon blood is consumed if the dragon blood is broken down into essence.


Dragon bones, horns, teeth, and claws, can be used to create staves, wands, rods, weapons and trinkets. A medium dragon produces 4 bone-units, a large dragon produces 16 bone-units, and a huge dragon produces 256 bone-units.

Why don't I include stats for a gargantuan dragon? Because get out of here. If you're killing a CR 24 gargantuan dragon, you don't need to be scavenging it for parts, leave that for the mortals.

As with other dragon parts, these reduce the cost of enchantment of items by half.
A wand or trinket (amulet, etc.) or small weapon costs 1 bone unit.
A rod or medium weapon costs 2 bone units.
A staff or large weapon costs 4 bone units.
A single bone unit can produce 10 arrows or bolts.

The dragon bones are consumed if the dragon bones are broken down into essences.


It is possible to consume a dragon brain to gain great power. It is also possible to die horribly. Make a saving throw versus poison when eating the brain or regurgitate the brain, ruining it and losing all benefit. (Constitution DC 10 save for medium, DC 15 save for large, DC 20 save for huge, or DC 10 + Dragon's hit die Fortitude save).
On a success, violent changes occur inside your body. Make a system shock roll or die. (Constitution DC 3 for medium, DC 5 for large, or DC 10 for huge, or DC 2 + 1/2 dragons hit die Fortitude save). If you live roll 2d8 on the following table:
2 You believe you are the dead dragon. Act accordingly.
3 You gain 1 hit point per hit die permanently.
4 You gain 1 point of Strength and Constitution. This can exceed your normal maximum.
5 You gain the ability to smell gold (As Treasure Finding, once a day)
6 You gain magic/spell resistance of 10% (SR of 5 + Character level, or advantage on all saves versus spells)
7 You gain 1,000 experience points times your level.
8 Gain 1 point of intelligence and 1 point of wisdom. This can exceed your normal maximum.
9 Gain 1-4 points of intelligence. This can exceed your normal maximum.
10 Gain 2 points of wisdom. This can exceed your normal maximum.
11 You gain 1d10 x 500 experience points.
12 You gain the ability to cast charm person 3 times a day.
13 You gain 1 point of Dexterity and Constitution. This can exceed your normal maximum.
14 Your eyes glow red, and you gain a 10 foot aura of dragon fear activatable at will.
15 Your skin becomes tough and resilient to damage. Gain a +2 bonus to armor class (+2 natural armor).
16 Gain immunity to the dragons breath weapon type.

The dragon's brain is consumed if the dragon's flesh is broken down into essence.


The dragons eyes may be swallowed. This follows the same procedure for swallowing the brain above.  If successful, the eyes replace (painfully) the eaters natural eyes, granting them dragon sight. This has several effects.

The eyes bulge unnaturally, extruding from the face. The orbs are the color of the dragon with vertical pupils. You gain Blindsight out to 15 feet, and darkvision out to 30 feet per size of the dragon, i.e. Medium is 15/30, Large is 30/60, and Huge is 45/90. Also, roll percentiles:
01-10 see into ethereal plane
11-30 see invisibility
31-70 no additional effect
71-90 detect magic
91-00 true seeing

The dragon's eyes are consumed if the dragon's flesh is broken down into essence.


There is a chance that a dragon has magical stones in it's kidneys, gall bladder, or gut. 1d4+1 stones may be found. There is a 40% chance of a medium dragon, an 80% chance for a large dragon, and a 20% for a huge dragon to have 2d4+2 (huge dragons always have 1d4+1 stones). These are Ioun stones and their effects are generated randomly.

The dragon's stones are consumed if the dragon's blood is broken down into essence.


Eating the heart of a dragon has different effects depending on the size of the dragon.

Eating the heart of a medium dragon affects the eater as if they were  under the effects of a haste spell. There are two servings of the heart.

Eating the heart of a large dragon affects the eater as if they were under the effects of a haste spell and a heroism potion (of the appropriate class). There are 4 servings of the heart.

Eating the heart of a huge dragon affects the eater as if they were under the effects of a haste spell, a super-heroism potion, and and the spell aid cast by a 15th level cleric. There are 8 servings of this heart.

In any case a system shock roll (Constitution DC 3 for medium, DC 5 for large, or DC 10 for huge, or DC 2 + 1/2 dragons hit die Fortitude save) must be made after the effect ends to avoid dying.

The dragon's heart is consumed if the dragon's blood is broken down into essence.


A character may sever their own tongue, and attach a dead dragon's tongue in it's place. This process is dangerous due to the bleeding risk, but rarely fatal. The person attaching the tongue must succeed at a DC 7 Healing check (DC 20 Medicine check, DC 25 Heal check) on a success, roll on the following table:
1 Saving throw difficulty of your spells increased by 1.
2 Blindsight 10 foot radius.
3 ability to detect poison in a 5 foot radius.
4 verbal charisma based skills (persuasion, charisma, bluff) increased by 2 points.

On a failed healing/medicine check, the attachment was botched, and you speak with a lisp or slur. This causes you to fail casting spells with a verbal component 1 in 5 times (20% spell failure chance).

The dragon's tongue is consumed if the dragon's flesh is broken down into essence.

This is available in permanent form as a Pandect for free from DTRPG. If you like this content, you can support it on Patreon and get advertisement free versions of the pandects. This post was originally published on October 17, 2014
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