Sunday, April 26, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 4: Flawed Creations

We were going to look at terrible blessings next, but since we’re working up the ladder from mildly cursed items to the dread artifacts that consume souls and worlds, we’re not quite ready to step up to such malignant items. So this week, let’s look at flawed creations instead.

Like quirky items, flawed creations were created to be beneficial magic items. In both cases something went awry: In the case of the quirky item the defect is (relatively) minor. In the case of the flawed creation, it is more serious. (And it must be said that not much separates the two categories; the transition between one and the other is pretty fluid.)

Accidentally flawed creations are probably quite rare, for two reasons. First, accidentally cursed items are a very small subset of the items a competent mage enchants over his career. Rules for failure during magic item creation vary from system to system—or are non-existent—but in the creative spirit let’s say three percent. Thus, a remarkable mage who creates one hundred magic items in a very long career might expect maybe three to go wrong. Most mages produce far less. So fatally flawed items are rare because the failure rate is low.

Second, most mages are not eager to circulate their failures. Who wants word to get out that his magical creations have the potential to harm the user? What ethical mage could knowingly unleash a cursed item on an unsuspecting world? Most mages destroy or carefully hide their failures as soon as their flaws manifest themselves. So now they're even rarer because, of the small number produced, most are disposed of before they can hurt anyone.

In the end, of course, some flawed creations escape into the world. Items can be stolen by thieves or lost to storms or war. Hidden caches of flawed creations may be brought to light by descendants or tomb robbers. Something as simple as a lost or misread will might result in flawed creations being auctioned off in a wizard’s estate or passed on to unsuspecting relatives and colleagues.

Some mages, who after all have invested quite a bit of time and effort into creating their flawed items, may elect to sell them to recoup at least the material cost of producing them. Of course, in most cases, only the most unethical sort of wizard would essay such an action. Flawed creations disposed of in this fashion might be discovered by the characters anywhere, from tombs to citadel armories to the stock of a fencer in a major city.

But not all mages who dump their failures on the market are necessarily unscrupulous. What better way to confound one’s enemies or rivals than saddling them with a passel of cursed items? To take a Forgotten Realms example, imagine a Waterdeep mage selling a supply of flawed -1 shields to an arms merchant known to supply the Zhentarim. If this happened not long ago, the characters may acquire the shields from defeated Zhent warriors. If it has been awhile, again, they could be anywhere, perhaps in the hands or grave of someone with nothing to do with Zhentil Keep, or locked away in a strongbox in some Zhent stronghold.

And you know, this works the other way too. Mayhap there's a drow sorceress down in the underdark somewhere looking to ditch some cursed rings in the hated city of the humans, or—let's hit a little closer to home here—even an enemy of the characters who desires to slip them a present or two via an unsuspecting intermediary. (Oh, but we'll get to terrible blessings soon enough, and that's a much more promising road to travel if that's the sort of thing you want to do.)

So, having thought a bit about how flawed creations escape into the wild, let’s take a closer look at what form they might take. In many ways, this is a no-brainer: most of the “generic” cursed items we all know and love qualify as flawed creations. A survey of the tables offered in the SRD will generate many ideas for curses.

It's probably best not to get too exotic with the powers of flawed creations. In most cases the curse should have some bearing on the effect the enchanter was attempting to achieve. Most likely, he produces a version that does the opposite of what he desired. A mage creating a +1 blade or a potion of giant strength might inadvertently produce a -1 blade or a potion of weakness. This category best accounts for the majority of cursed magic items without a specific history: the 1- axes, the -2 suits of chainmail, and so on.

Cursed Items of Opposition are especially appropriate as flawed creations. The Cursed Item of Opposition is my catch-all term for the plethora of cursed braziers and chimes, pipes and scarabs to be found in various editions of the DMG that look just like similar magic items that provide some great power. I wrote a little essay not long ago theorizing on the design origins of these items, but now is our chance to make sense of them in a campaign context.

Take a look at two brooms drawn from the original DnD rules and Supplement I:
Broom of Flying: This device allows the owner to fly at Dragon speed (24"/turn). The user must know the “Word of Command” to make it function. The Broom of Flying will come up to 24" when its owner summons it with the command word. It will carry two persons but its speed is reduced by one-quarter.
Animated Broom: A broom which exactly resembles a Broom of Flying, but when such an attempt is made the broom will attack the user, beating him severely about the head and shoulders with the bald-headed end of itself. Only destruction of the broom will make such abuse cease.
Hey, even a bald-headed broom of flying rocks. What student of witchcraft or wizardry wouldn’t want one? Probably more than can safely pull off the enchantment. Thus did animated brooms (a.k.a. brooms of attack) enter the world.

You can go down the line of published cursed items and pick out many other examples: the bowl of watery death as a failed bowl commanding water elementals, a loadstone as a failed luckstone, a chime of hunger as a failed chime of opening, gauntlets of fumbling as failed gauntlets of dexterity, and so on.

Of course, equipping flawed creations with an oppositional power every single time gets a little old, so what else can we do to stir things up? Some flawed creations may actually work as designed—to a point.  The chime of hunger is an example of this type: it works as a chime of opening a couple of times before horribly malfunctioning. What are some flawed items that might make for an unhappy party should they suddenly stop working as designed? Flying carpets and wands of teleportation come to mind. Oh, yeah, teleportation. What could possibly go wrong? Remember this? I'll admit it; I had me some nightmares before Christmas in 1979.

Some items may just warp the creator's original intentions in unexpected ways. Cue the chime of hunger again. What would happen if a rod of resurrection went wrong? Nothing good, I'm pretty sure.

Why bother to decide that your dust of sneezing is a flawed creation rather than a generic cursed item? As a spur to your creativity, of course! It’s the first step in developing a backstory for the item, and this in turn spawns adventure ideas. Consider again our example of the cursed shields sent to the Zhentarim. If the ruse was discovered in Zhentil Keep, it may put into motion a retaliatory plot that draws the characters into the feud. Thus the provision of the shields form the backstory to the present adventure, which may feature nocturnal assaults on inns in Waterdeep, attempted kidnappings on the coastal highway, and perhaps the reappearance of the shields themselves in the hands of a band of thugs hired to attack the characters.

For a fully realized example of how a flawed creation forms the backdrop of an adventure, refer to the Judges Guild adventure the Corsairs of Tallibar , in which a potion created to increase the power of the corsairs instead drives them mad.

Of course, cursed items with a history can also form the basis for a quest. Suppose a wealthy collector has learned that one of Alleon’s prized Swan blades (see below) was spied being purchased in a bazaar in a far-off city by a certain slave trader, and will pay the characters a princely sum to acquire it for him. Only if they succeed do they realize that it is one of Alleon’s forgotten flawed creations and not the mighty blade that he made famous…

Next week we’ll pick up our discussion with terrible blessings. See you then!
Alleon’s Swan Blades
Alleon was reknowned for his great skill in producing elegant enchanted daggers for the nobility of his day. Most of the daggers engraved with his trademark swan emblem are priceless heirlooms still jealously guarded by the families that commissioned them. Very few have found their way into the open market, and they are highly sought-after collector’s items.

As great and careful a wizard as Alleon was, he had his share of failures. During his long career, he produced seven cursed daggers, each a result of error or imperfect craftsmanship. Unwilling to destroy his creations, he kept them in his workshop as a reminder to himself and his apprentices of the need to strive for excellence.

When Alleon neared death, he resolved to hide his failures from the world lest they find their way into the hands of an unsuspecting public. Ever the artist, he created a fitting final resting place for his wayward creations—a stout strong box constructed of oak and lined with fine green felt.

He entrusted his remaining apprentice with the task of burying the chest where no one would find it. The apprentice obediently carried out his master’s instructions, but Alleon’s gardener, who had discovered what the chest contained (but not their nature), followed the man and watched him bury the box in an isolated grove. Returning after the old man’s death, the gardener unearthed the chest, and carrying it to a large city, sold off its contents to a purveyor of fine weapons.

Over the centuries, the cursed swan blades have mingled with the genuine items, and scattered across the known world. One resides in the collection of a prominent grand duke, another lies in the watery lair of a giant turtle deep beneath the waves of immense Lake Collan. Through misadventure, most have been thankfully lost to the world. Until, of course, some enterprising adventurers come along to rediscover them.

Every swan blade, cursed or otherwise, is a gleaming jewel of a weapon, both beautiful to behold and a joy to handle. Each is finely balanced, suitable for hand combat or throwing. The blue steel blade is engraved with the mark of Alleon’s swan, and speaking his name causes the mark to glow faintly with a magical light (an effective measure against common non-magical counterfeits). Every swan blade is a unique creation, with a hilt customized to suit each client.

Even as cursed items, the swan blades are valued to certain collectors. Most can fetch a handsome sum in the right market. However, characters must consider the ethics of unleashing a cursed dagger on the world, and realize that even if they warn their buyer of the curse, such knowledge might not be passed on to the next owner. Characters of lawful alignment, particularly priests and paladins, must be extremely cautious in who they entrust such a weapon to.
Alleon’s Flawed Swan Blades. Four of Alleon’s seven cursed daggers are -1 blades and two are -2 blades. Their curse merely renders them unreliable in combat; unlike some cursed weapons, they may be freely discarded when their faults are discovered. 
Alleon’s Dagger of BackbitingThe curse on the remaining dagger is more potent, because Alleon was attempting a more ambitious project. It is a +2 throwing dagger, but each time it is used in melee against a foe and the attack roll is a natural 1, it damages its wielder instead of his intended target. When the curse takes effect, the dagger twists in the hands of its wielder, automatically dealing the damage to the wielder. The curse even functions when the dagger is hurled, and in such a case the damage to the hurler is doubled.
Previous Installments
Part 2a: Another Quirky Cursed Item: Maldric’s Cloak of Flying
Part 3: Dark Gifts 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Free Urban Adventure Resources

I've always loved urban adventure (I blame Fritz Leiber and Robert Lynn Asprin), and some of my earliest non-TSR purchases were city settings (namely here, herehere, and here). I want to cover urban adventure game resources at length at some point, but for now a quick post to profile some free resources that discuss the theory of city design: one you may already have heard of, and one you probably haven't, since it's buried in a forum.

The One You've Heard Of
Expeditious Retreat Press' City Guide from A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe. It's free and it's an excellent guide to city design.

The One You Haven't
Hie thyself over to this thread of the Cartographer's Guild forum and download Ravells' A Guide to the Creation and Depiction of Fantasy Cities - Part I. This tutorial is crammed with great thoughts on designing your city from both an in-world perspective and from an artistic one.

You may have to sign up to the forum to download, but you won't be sorry. Check it out:

Another look:

So there you go: two free city supplements!

Oh, you want another one? Okay, how about a complete, somewhat seedy neighborhood ready to plug and play:
Eastside City Block
(The Lia-Kavair, by the way, are the local thieves guild.)

I know, I know, it could always be better... have a froggy evening!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 3: Dark Gifts

Dark gifts, like quirky items, promise naught but good, but conceal drawbacks that undermine the user. Unlike quirky items, however, which are merely annoying, dark gifts ultimately seek to control the users. Terrible blessings, which we’ll cover in our next installment, are similar, but seek to destroy.

As mentioned in the first installment of this series, cursed magical items are too much of a bother creating without a specific use in mind. Who is going to spend a decade cranking out generic rings of clumsiness or boots of dancing? Cursed items created as either dark gifts or terrible blessings should have a history. Someone was highly motivated to have them made—why? Revenge? Jealousy? Ambition?

The nine rings Sauron gave to the Men of Middle Earth are undoubtedly the most famous, and probably most extreme, example of a dark gift. These precious rings confer upon their owners immense powers, but also at length corrupt them until they become slaves to the Lord of the Rings. Their maker had a very good reason for creating them.

One motivation for creating dark gifts is to provide servants or allies wondrous items that increase their utility to their master but also contain a controlling element. If you’re the evil high priest of the land, a mace of blood is an excellent way of ensuring your chief lieutenants lay the smack down while staying firmly in your court.

Or imagine a +1 sword that charms its wielder into loyalty to its maker if he doesn’t successfully save versus spells each time it kills? How about a wily dragon who has a few weapons like this tucked in her hoard, which she generously offers as the first fruits of victory to the heroes who “beat” her in some contest of skill or wits?

What would happen if such a weapon was found in some treasure pile centuries after its maker and cause vanished? Would its seduced wielder become obsessed with reviving the lost cause? Resurrecting its leader? Seeking out a contemporary group with similar aims?

There are other ways of controlling a user. How about a potion of giant strength or speed that’s addictive, or provides a temporary antidote to a poison or disease already inflicted on the target via a previous dose? An evil high priest or merchant lord may appreciate giving his honor guard an edge in combat while discouraging the freelancing ambitions of its members by letting them know that only another dose within a day or so will hold the mummy rot at bay.

A variation on the theme of positive magic items with a creator-inflicted drawback is the magic item that fuels its enchantments with the user’s life energies. The Call of Cthulhu RPG and supplements are replete with magic items that siphon off the magic points of users to enable another person to cast powerful spells. Perhaps an unscrupulous enchanter has discovered that she can take short cuts in creating a potent item by tapping into the user’s vitality. Obviously, such an item shows a callous disregard for one’s servants and allies, but to a wizard morally flawed enough to create such a monstrosity, no one matters but herself anyway.

Such an item might take the form of, say, a lens of true seeing that depresses the wearer’s intelligence by one point as long as it is worn. Or perhaps a suit of armor that when worn offers its wearer +2 protection by lowering his Constitution by 1 point. (To balance such items, you might establish a cumulative chance that the loss is permanent or that the ability score penalty increases over time.)
Thus far, we’ve discussed cursed items that the creator regards as well, cursed. But a curse is in the eye of the beholder, and if the creator considers the cursed state to be an improvement over any other, the dark gift may be provided as a boon, not a burden—however the recipient may feel about it. Fairy tales warn visitors to fairy courts and revels not to accept any food or drink offered, lest one in accepting fairy hospitality be unable to leave their realm. Fairies, of course, do not regard this as a terrible fate.

Or what of Llorio the Murthe in Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, who plots to turn an enclave of wizards into witches to serve as her entourage? This misandrist sorceress regards such an enchantment as a singular honor, however much her ensqualmed victims might disagree while in their right minds.

Magic items that enable the user to assume the shape of an animal—perhaps a wolf or great eagle—but also carry the potential for making the change permanent if used too much or too often—are fairly common in RPGs. The user may or may not know of the danger before it makes itself known.

Certain artifacts created by, say, a centaur, dryad, or lizardman mage may turn its users into a member of its race in exchange for certain powers. Perhaps the powers the item provides can only be used by a member of that race, so the user must take on aspects of that race for the item to be effective (such items may fit better under “Dedicated Weapons,” more of which in a future installment).

Perhaps such items are the ancient remnants of a colonization effort or even provided the origin of the species: “There weren’t no such thing as harpies before the Oil of Ollander began flowing into the waters of the temple baths that ill-favored spring of long-ago…”

Or maybe they were created to “convert” specific people, but have over the centuries gone on to inflict their enchantments on others. Many fairy tales talk of men taking non-human wives (like the swan maiden), and one can readily imagine the creation of a jewel that would confer humanity on her for the sake of her lover. One can as easily imagine a jewel that makes a drow out of a human for the same reasons.

Speaking of forced conversion, where might helms of opposite alignment come from? There might be a number of such helms knocking about the world, each a remnant of a past event or power struggle. It’s easy to imagine such an item tipping the balance in some political or actual battle—in such cases the expense of creating a cursed helm may be justified by what is perceived to be at stake.

In the case of an actual war, perhaps a wizard general besieging a city feigns surrender, and plies the “victors” with weregild—among them magical helms for each of the opposing commanders… Renewing the siege with ready-made traitors commanding the enemy troops makes for a short fight!

So there are some thoughts on dark gifts. Next time we’ll take a look at their close cousins—terrible blessings. Unlike dark gifts, terrible blessings are not meant to control, but to kill—or at the very least, to betray.

But before we go, let’s put a new face on an old classic. And here’s a challenge for you: select a cursed item from any edition of the DMG and provide it with such a compelling legend that your players will be eager to find and use such an amazing artifact.

Armor of the Stone Queen
The archmage Astrophel dominated his age, and due to his thirst for conquest and capacity for cruelty had enemies without number. The greatest of his generals was the medusa Vashti—the Stone Queen. She rode at the head of her mighty army, and few could face her and live.

Indeed, most opposing troops, seized with great fear at her approach, avoided her vanguard entirely, striking out at lesser units. This greatly displeased Astrophel, who enjoyed watching his hill giants smash the statuary that littered the battlefield with their immense hammers as they marched.

One day, Vashti appeared at the front of her army clad in gleaming plate armor—adorned with glowing, writhing dragons—created by Astrophel himself. The veterans who in past battles had fled from her were filled with a righteous anger at the sight of this abomination wearing the armor of a nobleman. They charged her vanguard, filled with renewed determination and courage. As they neared, Vashti raised her helm and they fell rank after rank, petrified at the sight of her flashing eyes.

Again and again this scene repeated itself, and the legend of the Stone Queen and her infamous dragon armor grew as army after army recklessly charged her, only to fall before her fatal gaze. Bards say to this day that none so much as marked her armor with blade until the coming of the warrior king Dungeld.

It was he who at last cut down the Stone Queen and her dread master. Her legendary armor, however, survived the final battle, and was taken in victory to Dungeld’s royal city, Austerlitz. Dungeld, who had no female knights, never found a use for it, and it was lost in the sacking of the city centuries ago. It lives on in a famed sculpture in Austerlitz’s main square, which depicts the final struggle between Dungeld and the medusa, clad in her distinctive armor.

No doubt it lies in some forgotten tomb or ruin, awaiting the arrival of a lithe female warrior who can don it and discover what mighty enchantments Astrophel laid upon it to aid his champion.
Armor of the Stone Queen. This armor is similar in appearance to breastplate of command and functions as a suit of +1 full plate. However, when it is worn, the armor causes the character to take a –4 penalty to Charisma. All unfriendly characters within 300 feet have a +1 morale bonus on attack rolls against her. The effect is not noticeable to the wearer or those affected. (In other words, the wearer does not immediately notice that donning the armor is the cause of her problems, nor do foes understand the reason for the depth of their enmity.)
Previous Installments
Part 1: Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist
Part 2:  Quirky Items
Part 2a: Another Quirky Cursed Item: Maldric’s Cloak of Flying

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Look at the Eurogame

We're not all DnD all the time at Tales of the Ink Knight! If you're a boardgamer, especially with an interest in game design, you might enjoy Yehuda Berlinger's essay on the  features, mechanics, and themes of the Eurogame.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another Quirky Cursed Item: Maldric’s Cloak of Flying

I suggested we might have another look at quirky items in our last installment of our Curses series, and here it is: a cloak of flying that wants a little something in return. A lot of little somethings, in fact.

Maldric's Cloak of Flying is more developed than most items that will be presented in this series. But the level of detail, including the Tale of King Nides and his Flying Court and the details of the Maldric cloaks' debut show how an item might be integrated into a campaign, and suggest ways in which knowledge of its powers and drawbacks can be made known to PCs.

Maldric’s Cloak of Flying
Francis Maldric was known for decades as the miracle mage of Barclave, a figure of wonderment who would work a year and a day in his workshops to produce a limited series of exclusive magical items. One season he might offer exquisite music boxes complete with little animated figures reenacting popular operas, in another a series of magical waterclocks that warned of approaching storms.

Just possessing a Maldric original was a mark of distinction, and they were much sought after by members at Court. Until, that is, the year he offered his Cloak of Flying.

It was, in many ways, a bad year for Maldric. His wife had discovered all three of his mistresses and trashed his workshop before stalking out of his life. The five-month siege of Barclave was also an unwelcome surprise. In short, Maldric was behind schedule on his latest project, four remarkable cloaks of flying, which he had foolishly boasted of while in his cups—and were now eagerly anticipated by the royal family itself. The worst blow came just weeks before the debut—the king’s birthday—when he learned that the ship bearing the cloaks’ final and key component from the southern colonies—a bag of roc feathers—was lost at sea.

Desperately combing his archives, Maldric hit upon what he thought would be a viable substitute—giant bat wings. Daring a series of unconventional shortcuts in his enchantments, Maldric completed his cloaks with just days to spare, and in a series of limited test flights was confident he had pulled it off.

The king’s birthday dawned bright and clear, and it was with a cheerful heart and not a little ceremony that Maldric loaded the 12 wooden boxes containing his latest creations on the gilded wagon that would bear him and them to the palace.

The presentation of the gifts at the height of the party was everything Maldric had imagined it would be. The king’s delight knew no bounds, and donning his own cloak, he pressed the others on his family. Away they soared, now arcing high into the clouds, then swooping low over the harbor to the amazement of all below.

After an hour or so, when it seems that the king’s party must tire and return to the pavilion for refreshment, its members developed a singular game in which they took turns buzzing the grounds, passing through the orchards, and flying through the vineyards, all the while snapping their mouths in the most remarkable fashion.

At length the party began to return. First were the king’s daughters, who collapsed as soon as their silken slippers touched ground and began sobbing. Next to alight was the queen, who fainted dead away from exhaustion. Finally, the king alighted, and without a work of explanation, ordered the stunned magician seized. His head was removed from his body before the hour was out.

For a time the cloaks were stored in the palace, but they soon passed out of reckoning and who can say where they might be found? The ballad of Old King Nides and his Flying Court is well known in the taverns of the land, and it may be that some old gaffers can recall some details of that day long ago. What so displeased the king no one can rightly say.
Maldric’s Cloak of Flying. This fine cloak is fashioned from durable wool and topped with a clasp bearing the mark of the magician Maldric of Barclave. By holding the edges of the garment, the wearer is able to fly as the third level Fly spell. The wearer may fly as he will for 1d6 turns (this roll is kept secret from the players), after which the appetite of the cloak awakens. At that time, the user must save versus spells. Success means the cloak ceases functioning immediately, leaving the wearer to make his own way to the ground. Failure means the cloak continues to function, but the wearer is compelled to seek out and eat his weight in insects, an act that takes an additional 2d6 turns. Happily, the cloak conveys to the wearer a keen sense of where all bugs in the area are, making the task somewhat easier. After performing this action, the wearer is deposited to earth, now empty-bellied and exhausted. The cloak can be used just once per day regardless of the length of time spent flying.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Open d6 Coming

This isn't really news to those paying attention, but I wasn't and just learned of it: West End Games is converting its d6 System to an Open License. It was announced last autumn, and WEG owner Eric Gibson shared a few more details in a recent chat session:
"OpenD6 will be OGL, with the D6-specific trademarks released under an STL, much the same way as 3e D20 .... The copyrights, rules and everything else will be freely available. It is a share-alike license, meaning everything you publish under OpenD6 will be covered under the OGL as well unless you identify it as Product Identity. ....  
Unlike the D20 STL, there are no protected rules. The only thing the the STL will require is that you upload your OGL covered material to the OpenD6 website—thus we maintain a single unified archive of everything OpenD6."
Like the Legacy DnD movement, WEG is interested in harnessing the power of the web and POD publishing to showcase and move OGL content out to fans. Gibson says that while WEG doesn't have plans to publish a full generic ruleset for OpenD6, "the ultimate goal is for the user to construct their own rulesets and have it packaged and exported as a PDF. There may be way (no promises) for OpenD6 to interface with a POD printer such that a user can construct their unique custom rulebook and have it printed just for them with a few clicks." Even if users have to submit their pdfs to sites like Lulu themselves, the OGL should make that simple enough.
Here's a rundown on what the d6 OGL covers:
  • 51005 The D6 System: The Customization Roleplaying Game (a.k.a. the D6 Cookbook)
  • 51011 D6 Adventure
  • 51012 D6 Space
  • 51013 D6 Fantasy
  • 51015 D6 Fantasy Creatures
  • 51016 D6 Adventure Locations
  • 51017 D6 Space Ships
  • 51019 D6 Gamemaster Screen and Aid
  • 51020 D6 Fantasy Locations
  • 51021 D6 Adventure Creatures
  • 51022 D6 Space Aliens I
  • 51024 D6 Vade Mecum of Magic
I'm pretty fired up about this development for two reasons. Firstly, having another OGL game system out there with a pedigree is good for everyone. More sites of gaming content, more books being bought and sold on sites like Lulu, and more cross-pollination between d6 and d20 communities (including those developing Legacy DnD content).

Secondly, it's the game system I know better than any other. I started playing the Star Wars RPG in 1987 while in college, and used it fairly steadily throughout the '90s, both professionally and in private play.

Looking forward to learning more in the coming months.
UPDATE: Hat-tip to Stargazer's World for covering WEG's d6 development in detail.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Another Pocketful of Whimsy

Happy Easter, everyone! For the lazy Sunday afternoon after the big meal, a few links to enjoy:
  • Propnomicon: A talented prop maker documents his efforts in creating props for the Call of Cthulhu RPG and offers tips and resources on making your own.
  • GI Intelligence Dept.: A site dedicated to WII re-enactors. But the link takes you to a page of pdfs you can download that replicate military paperwork of the era. Very handy to have around if you anticipate ever running a game set in the late '30 through mid-40s.
  • Crazy Diamond Design Historical Fonts: If you're looking for medieval fonts to pep up your maps and player handouts, look no further than Crazy Diamond. They have some of the best historical fonts around. I used the 17th Century Print font to create the Tales of the Ink Knight masthead.
  • Lost Films: Photographs developed from film recovered from lost cameras going back decades. A fascinating look back into people's private pasts.
  • Brass Goggles: If you like steampunk, this is your blog.
  • Coraline Production Art: If you're a big fan of whimsical design, this blog delivers. Presents art from the film Coraline by one of its designers.

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist Part 2: Quirky Items

Last week we kicked off a multi-part series of articles in which we take a close look at cursed items with an eye toward giving them a history and reason to exist in the campaign (see here for Part I ). This week we cover the first and possibly least life-threatening cursed magic items: the quirky item.

In the pantheon of cursed items, quirky items are fairly benign. In fact, they are usually very useful items to have around—they just have annoying side effects! Roger Rabbit's Singing Sword comes to mind; you know, the heroic-looking magic sword that bursts into song when drawn for combat. Puts a crimp in your holy smiting style if you're a paladin, but hey, it's still a magic sword; it'll hit those golems and other critters that take no notice of mundane weapons. Quirky items can be freely discarded, and do not require use of a dispel magic or remove curse spell.

Quirks can be intentionally placed on a magic item or creep into the design through error. Design errors that result in quirks are relatively minor mistakes (we'll discuss what might happen when more serious errors are made in the “Flawed Creations” installment). Think of them as bugs in an otherwise functioning application.

Accidental quirks need not make a whole lot of sense in terms of the item's intended function, though if you can tie both together and have fun item, go for it. Magic is unfathomable deep down, and who can predict what a minor mistake might tap into? Perhaps a short sword howls like a scalded cat when unsheathed (handy in those moments when you’re trying to sneak up on someone), or a ring of protection from fire puts out every open nonmagical flame within 20 feet as long as it is worn (the party doesn’t really need all those torches and lanterns to see in the dark). Note that these quirks do not interfere with the functioning of the item, and in fact everyone can readily imagine situations in which it would be wise to wear a ring of fire protection no matter what it does to the torches.

Deliberately created quirky items need some explanation, and perhaps a bit more logic, since there is a mind behind the quirk. Who would spend the time and money to develop such eccentric items? The cliché mad wizard puttering around his workshop is good for a few quirks. Perhaps it amuses him to produce eccentric designs. Maybe he is just too senile now to help it—old Professor MacCrowley has gone cracked and his Seven League Boots won't function unless the wearer is wearing a kilt.

A variation on this theme is the mage who is forced to enchant items against his will. A mage enslaved to enchant arrows and spears for the ogre king who ate his family might not be in a position to openly defy his master, but he can occasionally slip a quirk or two into the weapons he enchants to satisfy his passive aggression. Perhaps the magic arrow leaves a glowing arc in the air that reveals the position of the bowman. Maybe the spear causes less damage than it should, even if it finds its mark more often. Just maybe using that awesome two-handed sword causes its wielder to lose control of his bowels if he takes on more that one opponent at a time.

Intelligent weapon can also be quirky items, not through design or error, but because their personalities have developed eccentricities. Quirks held by such weapons are usually the annoying sort that can be used for great comedic effect. Like the afore-mentioned singing sword, or a blade that likes to stop by the side of the road and smell the pretty flowers, or go on long detours because it wants to see the view from a nearby hilltop. (For endless GM amusement, imagine Higgins from Magnum P.I. as a magic sword that has done and seen it all—and in the hands of what it claims are more worthy heroes.) Other examples include the cowardly mace that screams at the sight of blood ("Get it off, get it off!"), the magic bulls-eye lantern that’s afraid of the dark, or the haughty sword that is “allergic” to cheap sheaths.

Naturally, an intelligent item that isn’t humored will sulk and find some way of getting back at its intransigent owner, either by denying him its powers at the earliest opportunity, or making a general pest of itself. Generally, intelligent items won’t do something that will get its owner killed; they just like to nag. (Weapons loyal to someone other than their current master also have personality quirks, but they will be covered in “Dedicated Weapons”.)

The key to designing a properly balanced quirky item is that the PC should constantly gravitate between a need to use the item and an intense desire to throw it in the bushes and run. The seriousness of a quirk should therefore be somewhat relative to the benefits the item confers. If all it does is light a fire or shed a light, maybe emitting a noisome stench with every use is appropriate. If it, say, grants the power of teleportation, perhaps a quirk of a higher (lower?) order is appropriate. Like, it doesn't teleport clothes or supplies or hair—only living bodies.

There are plenty of ideas sprinkled above to get you started in designing your own quirky items, and the Hammer of Slaying below provides an example. Rich Stump developed a great list of quirks that might plague magic items in Dragon #163 (“Magic Gone Haywire,” portions of which are reprinted in various volumes of the Encyclopdedia Magica and perhaps other places). For a more recent source of ideas, try here.
Hammer of Slaying
The Hammer of Slaying is an artifact From Beyond, which, for reasons of its own, has taken the form of a throwing hammer on the Material Plane. Sentient but without means to speak or otherwise communicate, it makes its simple desires known by its performance, or lack thereof, in combat.

And its desires are indeed simple: it wants to be thrown at species it hasn’t killed before, and only those species. Toward the objects of its desire it is a potent weapon. In an encounter in which it targets a new species it willfully engages all members of that species, until the battle is over and it can savor and catalog its new experience.

However, once cataloged, a species is no longer of interest to the Hammer. Indeed, it is deeply insulted when someone attempts to throw it at a species it has already killed in past battles. The first few times it is so thrown, it circles lazily back to the thrower and lands in his hand with a stinging slap. If these warnings are ignored, it turns on its thrower when so thrown, even if it has previously slain the user's species.

Because it came into being on the Outer Planes, the Hammer's catalog of slain species can be eclectic, to say the least. It has yet to encounter many species common to the Material Plane, but is useless against some fairly exotic beings. (As GM it falls to you to select the species it has already encountered. Perhaps elementals and efreets, but not orcs and stirges. You might determine in advance which key species will soon oppose the PCs that it is no longer interested in. There ought to be at least one surprise in the mix…)

The Hammer of Slaying may be discarded at will, and indeed by the time a PC tires of it, the feeling is likely mutual. If not kept sufficiently amused by diverting new targets (e.g., held in "reserve" for special occasions while other weapons are favored), it may quietly disappear on its own when no one is looking.
Hammer of Slaying. Fashioned from a glossy dark green material of undefinable origin and well-balanced as a throwing weapon, the compact Hammer of Slaying is otherwise unremarkable in appearance and aspect. It behaves as a +3 missile weapon when targeting species it has not yet slain (treat as a hand axe), and continues to do so throughout the present encounter. It does 2d6 damage when it hits. It refuses to strike species it has slain in previous encounters, however and instead circles back to the thrower, doing 2d6 damage to him or her after the first 1d4 throws against a species it has no interest in (its count carries over from encounter to encounter, and does not reset between melees). The Hammer of Slaying may be discarded at will. It may also vanish on its own if not exposed on a fairly regular basis to "fresh blood".
So that's quirky items. Or nearly so. We may have another look at them before the week is out.

Next week we'll take a look at Dark Gifts and Terrible Blessings—cursed items that deliver beneficial powers, but are designed to control or destroy others. That Ring of Invisibility is certainly useful, but it has some strings attached, doesn't it, Mister Baggins?

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Few Thoughts on the Origins of Cursed Magic Items

In taking stock of the cursed magical items offered in the Dungeon Masters Guides of olde, I notice a certain tit-for-tat pattern, one that is seemingly an echo of the early days of the game where DMs and players engaged in a playful match of wits, each camp attempting to overcome the challenges posed by the other. One can readily envision how it started: 
Fighter: “This magical bag is amazing! I’ve already put three sets of magical armor in there, all the gold I used to store back at the keep, my two iron golems, food, torches, all my magic treasure … everything I own! No matter how much I put in there, there’s always room for more!” 
Magic-user: “Next time we go under Greyhawk, I’m gonna find me one of those.” 
Elf: “Me too. Why keep stuff at home when you take it all adventuring with you?” 
Nasty, sneaky, tricksy DMes: “Hmmmm…” 
 Ever notice how most of the cursed loot looks just like the sweet loot? Bag of holding, meet bag of devouring. Girdle of manly strength, meet girdle of Playtex. Go on, flip to the back of the classic DMG and take it right down the line—from braziers and chimes to pipes and scarabs, you won’t find many cursed items that don’t look just like the nice versions.

You can almost see the magic items tennis match taking place.
F: “That time we took out the monks at the Pagoda of Inverness? Gary set me up with this Gong of Amazing Blessings!”
MU: “Man, I thought I found one of those up north when we took out that toad temple, but Dave saddled me with a Gong of Horrible Nastiness instead. Looked just like yours. My dude is still deaf. Have you seen my Libram of Leveling Up?”
E: “Far out. Where’d you get it?!?”
DM: “Hmmmmm.”
Just why do most cursed items, at least to me, lack something in the way of personality? Could it be because they weren’t created to stand on their own, but merely as a return volley?

Tune in on Sunday for Part II of our Cursed Items series, in which we put a bit of personality on those nasty bits of glowing goodness.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How to know you're dealing with a bad-ass knight

He's got a little baby on a rocking horse on his livery...

Love his festive helmet garland, too. It's simply faaabulous! Keep this guy handy next time you wish to taunt your players a first or a second time. Nobody parades around like this unless they know they can totally pwn yer hide. 

(Hat-tip to Tiff for the awesome link.)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Give Your Cursed Items a Reason to Exist

There have been many articles and supplements over the years encouraging the GM to endow his swords, pendants, crystal balls, and other magic items with personality and a sense of history. There have been examples galore, describing not only the wondrous powers of a talisman, but also revealing the fearsome throes of its creation, the tumultuous events surrounding its use in the hands of heroes and villains of old, and the mighty battles or stealthy betrayals in which it disappeared from the annals of history, only to reappear centuries later in a dragon’s hoard or an abbey’s library.

Well, there is no need to restrict such wonderful details to the items player characters crave. Cursed items deserve no less. In many ways, a history is even more important to explain the existence of, say, a -2 sword as opposed to a +2 sword—there are many markets for a beneficial sword, while special circumstances must no doubt attend the creation of a harmful weapon of value to few.

Consider the motivations for creating a -1 dagger. In most cases it takes just as much effort, expense and work to produce a cursed blade as a beneficial one. Who would be in such desperate need for such an unconventional and expensive weapon? Revenge? Surely there are simpler methods at the disposal of a talented mage. For money? Perhaps.

We might suppose that most mages would consider it a breach of professional ethics (or a waste of time) to dabble in such unsavory areas of their art—even evil ones probably have better things to do with their time. These factors working in tandem makes cursed items rather uncommon, and therein lies the germ of an interesting history.

Categories
This Sunday kicks off a weekly series in which we'll survey the different sorts of cursed items out there, discuss ways in which they might be customized to your campaign, and provide a few sample items along the way. Here are the categories we’ll use to approach our topic, ranked loosely in order of nastiness:
  • Quirky Items: Otherwise beneficial items that have mild or significant drawbacks.
  • Dark GiftsBeneficial items designed to exert influence or control over others—like Sauron’s Rings. 
  • Flawed CreationsBeneficial items that just went wrong during creation. Ethical mages destroy such failures. Others…?
  • Terrible Blessings: Malefic gifts, like poisoned apples and necklaces that strangle.
  • Dedicated Weapons: A sword of troll slaying isn’t so hot if you’re a troll. There are plenty of magic items out there designed to hurt humans and demi-humans, and harmful to the hated foe who attempts to use them.
  • Traps or Vehicles of Vengeance: Hellraiser puzzle boxes, anyone?
  • Crosses to Bear: Dangerous items that must be borne and guarded lest they fall into the hands of the innocent—or the corrupt. Salazar Slytherin's locket from the Harry Potter series falls into this category.
  • The Mark of Cain: Artifacts sent to the world of men by the gods to humble or punish a presumptuous or arrogant person, nation, or race.
On the menu for next Sunday: quirky items. Possibly the most fun of all cursed items for the GM, because players are constantly torn between using the item and enduring its abuse or tossing it aside...

POD Mags Are Here: 30 Color Pages for 6 Bucks

With two Old School DnD magazines in Lulu's top 10, and dozens of game systems and supplements on tap, print on demand (POD) publishing continues to have a liberating impact on the gaming community. Even bound hardbacks, once the purview of professional game companies, are within reach of the serious hobbyist without the need for expensive up-front print runs and traditional distributors.

While Lulu continues to be the POD publisher of choice, new player MagCloud promises full-color magazines at 20 cents a page, says the New York Times:
Charging 20 cents a page, paid only when a customer orders a copy, H.P. dreams of turning MagCloud into vanity publishing’s equivalent of YouTube . The company, a leading maker of computers and printers, envisions people using their PCs to develop quick magazines commemorating their daughter’s volleyball season or chronicling the intricacies of the Arizona cactus business.
“There are so many of the nichey, maybe weird-at-first communities, that can use this,” said Andrew Bolwell, head of the MagCloud effort at Hewlett-Packard. Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who plans to use the technology in his classroom, said, “We’re not talking about replacing the Vanity Fairs of the world. But it’s a nifty idea for a vanity press that reminds me of the underground zines we had in the ’60s and ’70s.”
"Nichey, maybe weird-at-first communities"? Yep, that's us! Like Lulu, publishers dispatch PDFs to MagCloud, and buyers can make their purchases from MagCloud's site.

I'd like to see what the quality of output is like; it certainly sound promising. For the hobbyist publisher with little to no art budget, Lulu will probably remain the best option for the time being. However, for the writer/artist or enterprising publisher with gratis artists on board, opportunities abound: adventure modules, map collections, and, hey, how about magazines?

One application I could see using this service for is producing a Player's Guide to my campaign with setting info, full color maps, character generation info, and so forth. Put it all in 12 pages, and send it out for $2.40. That's the price of a bag of chips!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Golems of the Javarta Campaign

Part of the fun of campaign design is deciding how your design decisions impact the use of DnD staples like magic items, monsters, and so on. I have already decided that magical metal weapons can only be fashioned from Golan metal fallen to earth from the sundered Golan moon (see To Sûr With Love). That has all sorts of implications, but while reviewing monsters in the Swords & Wizardry ruleset, I saw an interesting opportunity to harmonize a traditional D&D monster with its new environment.

The changes are in the flavor text; I made only minimal changes to the S&W stats. Some might regard this as fluff, but fluff is the stuff from which adventures are made. Decisions made here have a large impact on how golems might be used and by whom, and where they might be encountered.

Golems
Golems are animated man-shaped creatures fashioned from the various elements of Golan rock. Golems are created by particularly powerful priests, though clerics of more modest ability have been known to animate golems if blessed by an Avatar or working from librams preserved by certain temple sects.

Golems possess a rudimentary intelligence and knowledge of their creator’s native tongue, and can follow simple instructions. Golems cannot speak. They are incapable of disobeying their creators, but caution is warranted when commanding them, because they tend to be very literal in interpretation. They also simply stop listening when commands become too complex, which can lead to tasks being half completed, sometimes with disastrous results!

Golems can only be hurt by weapons fashioned from Golan metal. They are also immune to the sorts of spells used to create them (iron golems being immune to fire, for instance).

Clay Golem
Clay golems are fashioned from soil and water drawn from the impact crater of a Golan meteor. Because such sites in the Old World tend to have towns and cities built up over them, the clay golem is most closely associated with urban environments.

Due to the mix of profane earthly matter with the blessed Celestial elements borne from the sundered Golan moon, Clay golems are somewhat unstable. For each round of combat, a clay golem has a 1% chance (cumulative) to go berserk, leaving its master’s control and attacking enemies and allies alike.

 Non-magical weapons made of Golan metal do half damage to clay golems, while enchanted ones do full damage. They are immune to all spells other than those affecting earth, and these have very diminished effects—with one exception. An earthquake spell utterly destroys a clay golem.

Clay Golem: HD 12 (50hp); AC 7[12]; Atk 1 fist (3d10); Move 8; Save 5; CL/XP; 14/2700; Special: Weapons fashioned of Golan metal to hit (non-magical Golan weapons do half damage), immune to spells.

Stone Golem
Stone golems are fashioned from Golan meteor rock. When the requisite amount of rock is gathered, it is fused together to form a massive stone statue and animated by very powerful magic.

Stone golems can only be harmed by magical +1 or better weapons fashioned from Golan metal. They are slowed by fire spells, and damaged/healed by rock to mud spells and the reverse. Spells that affect rock (and fire spells) are the only magic that affects them.

Stone Golem: HD 15 (60hp); AC 5[14]; Atk 1 fist (3d8); Move 6; Save 3; CL/XP 16/3200; Special: +1 or better magical weapon fashioned of Golan metal to hit, immune to most magic.

Iron Golem
Iron golems, fashioned from Golan metal itself, are the rarest and most powerful of all golems. These huge moving statues of iron can breathe a 10 foot radius cloud of poison gas. They can only be harmed by magical +2 or better weapons fashioned from Golan metal. They are slowed by lightning spells, but fire-based spells actually restore hit points to them. No other type of spell affects them.

Iron Golem: HD 20 (80hp); AC 3[16]; Atk 1 weapon or fist (4d10); Move 6; Save 3; CL/XP 18/3800; Special: Poison gas, +2 or better magical weapon fashioned of Golan metal to hit, slowed by lightning, healed by fire, immune to most magic.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Javartan Ogre Warrior

Because ogres play such a prominent role in the Javarta campaign, I created a character race to suit the more martial members of their kind, for use as PCs or NPCs. The following class is based largely on the Barbarian class created by Michael Curtis in his excellent article "New Classes and Racial Variants for Basic Dungeons & Dragons" (very helpful reading if you wish to tinker with new races and classes), but has a few new bits as well. This is written up in Swords and Wizardry format, but should be equally applicable to most flavors of D&D0e. I'll detail the culture more in a future post.

Javartan Ogre Warrior
Hit Die Type: 1d10 per level. After reaching 9 hit dice, the ogre warrior gains only 3 hit points per level
Armor/Shield Permitted: Any but metal
Weapons Permitted: Any
Prime Attribute (5% xp bonus): Strength 13+

Standing at a mere seven feet, Javartan ogres are much smaller than their northern cousins, as well as more intelligent. While most ogres are farmers who can fight defensively using polearm or knife, the larger tribes boast a complement of fighters trained in the arts of war. These ogre warriors protect the tribe and its headman, lead hunting parties, and fight when called upon. When displaced by tribal conflict or seized by wanderlust, some drift into the colonies in search of work.

Due to their training and great bulk, ogre warriors do double their normal damage with their main attack when they elect to charge into melee (this only applies to the first attack, and they cannot do this if surprised). They can use any weapon and both attack and save as fighters of equal level.

Like most ogres of their culture, ogre warriors regard wearing metal armor as unnatural—bordering on unholy—and will go defenseless rather than desecrate themselves by donning it (they do not care if others wear it, however). They may use non-metal shields, and indeed, many carry small rattan bucklers with a large hook set in its face, that, in the hands of an ogre warrior, can sometimes snare an attacker's weapon.

Ogres regard magical items known to their culture—weapons, armor, potions and jewelry—as useful tools, but will have nothing to do with other sorts of magical items (even those usable by fighters), including scrolls. Even civilized ogres are rather provincial in this regard.

Reaching 9th level: When an ogre warrior reaches level 9, he becomes a headman and attracts 5d10 loyal ogre warriors of 1st and 2nd level due to his renown. These followers never need check morale as long as the character is present, and fight to the death in his service. Losses to these numbers of loyal followers are not replaced.
(click for a larger view)


143,750 experience points per level for each additional level beyond the 12th.

Ogre Rattan Buckler: As standard shield, but on a natural 20 attack roll, the hook in the face catches the attacker’s weapon or appendage; the attacker loses the first (usually only) attack on the next round. This benefit may not apply against all foes (DM’s call).