Category Archives: Adventure Design

Spicing Up ttRPG Combats: Local Benefits and Drawbacks

One way to make combat encounters more interesting is to add local features that can affect the course of the battle. Regardless of game system and whether using maps and miniatures, vtts, or theater of the mind, you can make a simple attack by brigands (or mob enforcers, walking tanks, dragons, or whatever lese works in your campaign) more complex and memorable by adding quicksand, tar pits, rickety bridges, vines, dense underbrush, boulders, eldritch altars, holy sites, traps, fog, and dozens of other elements.

Today I am going to discuss two kinds of elements — local benefits, and local drawbacks.

A Local Benefit: Anything that makes the PCs’ easier, but only in part of an encounter or only in limited ways. The most common examples of this in ttRPG adventures are concealment, cover, and holy auras, and those are great places to start. These can be ad hoc ( a pile of rocks that characters can get on top of or crouch behind), or more explicitly set up (an old ruined defensive wall still has a single one-person crenelated tower a archer or spellcaster can take cover within, and only two easily-guarded stairs grant access to it, allowing melee-focused characters to intercept foes trying to reach the tower top). Local benefits can be as simple as having the high ground or an easily defensible position, or as complex as a narrow zone on the map that can be seen by an allied sniper, fighting fire elementals in the rain, or having a space where PCs can set up traps and extra supplies in advance.

A Local Drawback: Anything that makes the PCs’ lives more difficult, but only in part of the encounter or only in a limited way. While things like monstrous spider webs, difficult or slippery terrain, enemies with cover, traps, and unholy magical auras are fairly common in ttRPG adventures, it’s possible to spread well beyond these examples For example, fighting in a cave behind a waterfall can drown out all sound, or fighting full amphibious foes around a deep, black pool they can easily see and move through but the PCs (or at least most of them) can’t.

It’s true that anything that counts as a local benefit for the heroes can be reversed to be a local drawback, but look out for things that seem local but are actually the only location the majority of the action is going to happen. A fight with a staircase on the field might well lead to a few interesting combat moments, but if the fight is focused almost entirely on getting up or down those stairs, they go from a regional effect to the majority of the terrain used in the encounter. There’s nothing conceptually wrong with that, but it can greatly magnify the impact the added element has on both overall fun and the outcome of the encounter

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Root of the Problem (A Pathfinder 1e Mini-Adventure)

I recently applied for a full-time, remote, full-benefits, game writing position at Foundry. (One thing I have learned in this industry is that you need to keep up with changing needs and markets.) While I didn’t make the final cut, I did get far enough along to do a timed writing test. I was given instructions at 10am by email, and had to return my work by noon. The test called for an adventure in any game system I wished, that included a missing druid as part of the plot and at minimum one encounter that included investigation, one that included talking to an NPC, and one that was potentially a fight. The main prompt was “The wilderness surrounding a remote town has become perilous. Wildlife that previously avoided contact with humans is now overcome with some form of madness or disease, attacking townsfolk with reckless ferocity. A local druid and longtime protector of the region has gone missing. The protagonists are tasked with investigating the nature of this affliction and resolving it, if possible.”

Obviously, with just two hours for a complete adventure I just managed a “first draft” level of manuscript. But I thought people might be interested in what a produced. So, with Foundry’s express permission, here is “Root of the Problem,” a Pathfinder 1st -edition Mini-Adventure for 3-4 characters of 1st level. By Owen K.C. Stephens.

(Art by Chaotic Design Studio, and not part of the original writing test)

Adventure Background
The Crosstimbers are a dense and ancient forest, filled with towering evergreen trees that rise up to 300 feet tall, smaller trees that grow in clumps so tight that their limbs cross and weave together to form natural platforms, and dense, thorny underbrush that is often impassable to anything larger than a rabbit. They are also the site of an ancient battle thousands of years ago, between a powerful necromancer queen and a court of faeries. Though relics of this battle are mostly buried deep beneath the roots and moss of the forest, their influence can sometimes reach up to the surface level.

One such ancient power is the Grave of Lord Vaugir, also known as the Baron of Stakes. A powerful wight warrior who served the necromancer queen, Vaugir had a particular hatred of vampires (even those who were theoretically his allies), and carried a number of wooden stakes he used to both unsure those he killed would not raise as vampires naturally, and to destroy any vampire he could successfully accuse of treachery to their queen. Lord Vaugir was slain by a group of faerie Swan Knights, and buried in a stone tomb hundreds of feet below the surface. While Vaugir himself remains trapped in the tomb, a few roots of one redwood have cracked one corner of his burial vault, and been tainted by his undead powers.

This influence has not gone unnoticed, as the dwarven druid Ferron Ironbark has long known one of the Crosstimber’s mighty trees was fighting some dread infection. Ironbark has monitored the tree for decades, doing his best to heal and nurture it in the hopes it would overcome what ailment was attacking it. However, at the last new moon, the necromantic energy finally took control of one of the redwood’s roots right at the surface becoming the Grave Root and, when Ferron came to visit it, it impaled him through the heart. Ferron’s apprentice, a brownie named Rumpleridge, managed to drag Ferron back to the druid’s grove, and has watched over the body to ensure it won’t rise as some form of undead.

The Grave Root still does not control more than one short length of the redwood it is attached to. It cannot free itself, and cannot, yet, taint the entire massive tree it’s attached to. However, it can reach a spring adjacent to where the redwood grows, and has been tainting that water for a month now. The spring is a common watering hole for native fauna, which are also being tainted by the Grave Root’s power. This makes them ravenously hungry and much more aggressive than usual, but also causes them to work together and not attack one another regardless of the natural instincts.

Not far from Ferron’s grove is the town of Highmoss-On-The-Hill (often just referred to as “Highmoss”), a walled settlement just outside the Crosstimbers. The people of Highmoss have long been on good terms with Ferron, and work to maintain a sustainable relationship with the Crosstimbers. They gather herbs and wild mushrooms, hunt only as much food as they can eat, drag out dead timber for their own use, and make sure any foray into the forest is able to come home before nightfall. While an occasional attack by minor monsters or wild animals is not unknown, in the past month anyone who stays in the Crosstimbers for more than 2-3 hours has suffered an attack by wolves, wolverines, a bear, or even packs of apparently-rabid squirrels. No one has seen Ferron (and the town is unaware he has died), and in recent days some townsfolk have been attacked within sight of Highmoss’s walls, not even within the Crosstimbers.

The Town Council has decided someone must venture into the Crosstimbers are travel to Ferron’s Grove, a 6-hour trip down a well-known path, and speak to the druid. This group should confer with Ferron, determine what is going on, and if possible assist him in fixing it. The more experienced hunters in town who would normally undertake such a missing are missing or too injured from wildlife attacks to attempt it, so the PCs have been chosen to do so. It is the height of summer, and daylight lasts 15 hours from sunup to sundown. If the PCs hurry it is hoped they can enter the Crosstimbers at dawn, consult with Ferron, solve the issue, and return before sundown.

Random Encounters
Wandering around the Crosstimbers is genuinely much more dangerous than usual, and there’s a chance the PCs may encounter some of the fauna that has been affected by the water tainted by the Grave Root. Until the water source is cleaned, for each hour the PCs are exploring the Crosstimbers there is a 20% chance of the PCs being confronted by one of following random
encounters. That chance doubles at night, and is halved if the PCs have been confronted by an
encounter in the past hour.
[Insert CR ½-1 random animal encounters here]

The Dead Hunter
The trail is marred by the smell of blood and signs of a vicious fight. Torn leather and cloth are scattered about, and a few tufts of black fur sit matted in old pools of blood.

This is the location where a Highmoss senior hunter, Apaxus Longshank, was attacked and killed by a pack of black wolves tainted by the spring next to the Grave Root. His body was dragged off the trail when they ate him, and a DC 10 Survival check to track or DC 15 Perception check to spot signs of the drag marks can locate him.

Examining the body show bite marks that can be identified as wolves, but the more significant clues are on Longshank’s own weapons. He fought with a masterwork handaxe and shortsword, which are still clutched in what’s left of his hands. They are bloody from the fight, but the blood is streaked with dark, oily slime. A DC 10 Knowledge (religion) check reveals this is necroplasm, a material sometimes used in place of blood by undead creatures. Finding it mixed with actual blood suggests the attacking wolves had been tainted by undead energy, but not yet true undead.

The Grove of Ferron Ironbark
The dense canopy of leaves and branches above break open, and light shines down to reveals a small, neat grove just off the path. There is a round hut with neatly fitted stone walls, a low, wide wooden door, and a roof apparently made of interwoven tree leaves and needles. A firepit sits in the middle of the clearing, with a wooden framework holding a small iron cauldron and
kettle side-by-side above it, but there is no fire now.

To one side of the clearing a neat pile of rocks has been build in an elongated dome roughly five feet long and three feet high. Laying next to it is a short humanoid, no taller than a human’s knee, with a bulbous head topped with a pointed felt cap.

This is the grove of Ferron Ironbark, but now it is his burial place. The brownie Rumpleridge build a stone cairn for his teacher and friend Ferron, and guards it all day and night. Rumpleridge won’t notice or acknowledge the PCs unless they call out to him, and even then, he’s slow to realize who they are or what they want. But eventually his enormous tear-streaked eyes will focus on them, and he’ll answer their questions as best he can. Rumpleridge wants to honor his teacher’s alliance with Highmoss, but is unwilling to leave the cairn for any reason. He plans to stay here through the summer and fall, and only come winter will he consider moving on.

Rumpleridge knows the general backstory of the Crosstimbers, but not the details of Lord Vaugir’s tomb or creeping influence. He does know Ferron was convinced some ancient, deeply buried evil was tainting a specific redwood an hour from the grove, at a major watering hole, and that a root from that tree impaled the druid. He gets tearful when he admits he saw the event,
and that it took all his strength and cunning to drag Ferron back home, and bury him.

Rumpleridge knows animals are going rogue, and can confirm that behavior began when Ferron was killed. It doesn’t occur to Rumpleridge that the Grave Root is infecting the nearby watering hole, but he does mention the infected redwood is “By the main watering hole in this section of woods,” and if a PC asks if the watering hole could be the source of the problem, Rumpleridge agrees the animals becoming vicious are all ones that would periodically drink there. As Ferron had been checking on the tainted redwood for decades, there is a well-worn path leading from the clearing here to the watering hole.

If attacked or pushed too hard to render aid, Rumpleridge will use his brownie powers to harass and confuse the PCs, but he won’t risk harming them. If he must, he flees into the Crosstimbers, and only returns to the cairn after the PCs have left.

The Grave Root
A large pond sits in a low point in the forest, a short outcropping of rocks surrounding it to the north and west, and the roots of a mighty redwood bordering it to the south and east. The surface of the pond’s water seems oily and black, with dark swirls spinning within it though there seems to be no breeze or current to cause the movement. At the southern edge of the pond, one root among the masses is darker, wetter, and more gnarled than the others, it’s 10-15 foot length pulsing slightly. The tip of the root moves, dipping itself into the pool to release a black ooze that joins the oily darkness covering all the water. The root then curls up, rising like a wooden tentacle, and sways back and forth.

The Grave Root uses the stats for a Draugir (HP 19, Bestiary 2), but with the following changes.
It has 15 feet of reach. It is immobile. It can fire a hunk of its own rotting bark as a target as a ranged attack that uses its slam attack, but has a range increment of 20 feet.

If the Grave Root notices the PCs, it immediately attacks. If destroyed, it breaks down into rotting mulch, and the oily blackness begins to clear from the water (taking 2-3 hours to be fully gone). If a PC drinks the water before it is clear, they are immediately confused and affected by the rage spell for 1d10 minutes.

The oily material on the pond is necroplasm, and PCs who found Longshank’s body can identify it as the same as was in the blood on his weapons. Without the Grave root, the water will run clear within hours, and the tainted animals return to normal within a few days.

Continuing the Adventure
Dealing with the Grave Root eliminated the immediate problem, but the risk presented by Lord Vaugir’s tomb remains. Striking up a friendship with Rumpleridge can help explore the region and safely travel further into the Crosstimbers. Seeking a senior member of the faerie court that claims rulership over the forest may reveal the true nature of the evils buried beneath it, and
lead to finding and dealing with Lord Vaugir, and other threats like him.

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A PF2 NPC Idea, an Arboreal: Old Witch Hazel

I’ve had the dreaded scheduling conflict eat the past couple of Saturday games, and the next few don’t look good either, so no new session posts for my Gatekeeper’s campaign for PF2 for a while. But I am still jotting down PF2 ideas when they come to me, especially those that feel like they might make for interesting encounters or adventureplots.

I don’t know that this one will ever make it into the campaign, but if so I’ll list this to my Gatekeeper’s campaign index.

Old Witch Hazel

Also known as Grantha Mountain-Ash and Quickbeam Lament, Old Witch Hazel is legendarily old and grumpy arboreal (sometimes called a “treant” by locals) that appears to be a moss-covered, partially burned rowan tree, possibly wrapped around a larger, even older tree, with foliage and berries in states representing all 4 seasons. Old Witch Hazel can supposedly be bribed to teach occult and primal magic secrets, but no one knows anyone who has ever successfully done so. The treant is also known to oppose hags, skelm, and evil fey. While a few folks say this is also just rumor and myth, there are dozens of people who will attest to having seen Old Witch Hazel drive such creatures away from small farm communities, roads, and peaceful groves.

Old Witch Hazel is also well-known for thrashing younger humanoids, apparently for no reason. Such attacks always take place outside of settlements, and many adults claim that clearly the treant is warning adolescents away from dangerous creatures or punishing them for bad behavior or violating some secret tree-pace, perhaps without knowing it. Those that have been beaten by Old Witch Hazel protect their innocence, claiming they had done nothing and gone nowhere to invite such treatment.

When Old Witch Hazel attacks youngsters, all its attacks are nonlethal(taking the normal -2 to its attacks for dealing nonlethal damage). It also often throws clusters of rotting berries, which act like moderate water bombs (except they smell worse). If any target attempts to protect someone Old Witch Hazel was attacking, the treant always switches to the defender, ignoring the old target as long as it doesn’t make new attacks. After everyone has been hit at least once, or anyone knocked unconscious, Old Witch Hazel lets them flee, and wanders off into the nearest woods.

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Movies To Use for MegaRuins Inspirations

One common response to yesterday’s MegaRuins campaign ideas article was to ask “what kinds of ttRPG adventures would happen in this setting?” That’s a great question, and one I feel too few ttRPG campaign ideas address. The short answer is “anything you like,” since MegaRuins was conceived as a setting, not a specific plot or theme, but that’s not particularly helpful to a GM looking for inspiration. So, instead, here’s a list of movies that I believe are good inspirations for MegaRuins ttRPG plots.

These movies ALL have a range of content warnings to consider before watching them. Please take appropriate care for yourself, and maybe check out a site such as doesthedogdie.com if there are ideas and visuals you don’t need getting added to your head. (Goodness knows I’m not always in the right headspace to witness recreations of cruelty, horror, or trauma).

(Art by azstondesgins)

Aliens (1986)/Attack the Block (2011), Deep Rising (1998)/Gremlins 2 (1990)/Re-Animator (1985)/Resident Evil (2002)/The Silent Sea (2021)/The Thing (1984)/Virus (1999)
The “trapped somewhere with unexpected horrors” genre includes a lot more than the movies I listed, but they feel representative. Whether a secret lab or ground zero of some new threat, the area is remote or locked down and they aren’t trapped in there with you… you’re trapped in there with them.

The more interesting the “there” you are trapped in, the more fun as a ttRPG scenario. It’s one thing to face a shapeshifting alien mutant zombie in an underground lab run by a mad AI, and something very different to do it on the city-block-sized gondola of a rotating ten-mile-high Ferris wheel arcology… with a mad AI.

The Belko Experiment (2016)/Mayhem (2017)
You might want to change why this happens (this is a great place for a rogue AI to make terrible decisions for what it feels are logical reasons, for example), and you can change from just an office environment to any sealable section of your MegaRuin/MegaStructure, but the core idea of Battle Royal In A Building remains both a good kickoff for a dystopian campaign, and a nice backdrop to set something else for the PCs to have to do, like rescue someone important (a la Escape From New York) or use the distraction for a heist (shades of Army of the Dead).

Daylight (1996), Meteor (1979), The Poseidon Adventure (1972 and 2005… and Poseidon in 2006), Skyscraper (2018), The Towering Inferno (1974)
If I was splitting hairs more narrowly I’d make a distinction between movies where you are trying to prevent or mitigate a disaster, and those where you are just trying to survive it. Both plots are great sources of ttRPG scenarios, though since a Gm has less control than a scriptwriter you may end up planning to run one of these plots and end up with PCs (though great success… or great failure) end up mostly tackling the other. And, of course, there’s the related sub-genre of running rescue missions in such conditions, which leans more closely to San Andreas (2015), Volcano (1997), and The Wave (2015), or of crooks using the opportunity to try to pull off a crime such as in Hard Rain (1998) or The Hurricane Heist (2018).

Die Hard (1988), Dredd (2012), The Raid (2011), The Rock (1996)
Criminals in buildings, and the need to stop them/survive their plot/get to them, can have the dystopian and/or scifi level ratcheted up when instead of a highrise, the building is an underground megacavern saltmine arcology, miles-long bridge city connecting continents, or any other MegaRuin.

Escape From New York (1981), Escape Plan (2013), The Platform (2019)
Whether the MegaRuin has been turned into a prison out of convenience, or it had a prison to begin with that’s now far more dangerous or uncontrolled than planned, dystopian prison stories offer a lot of options for PC adventures.

High-Rise (2015)
This is much more about societal breakdown than the kind of action-adventure I tend to thin of as near-future-dystopia ttRPG hooks… but there are a lot of different types of games and gamers out there, and this could translate very easily to a crumbling MegaStructure gone wrong.

Cube (1997), Death Race (2008), Death Race 2000 (1975), Escape Room (2019), The Most Dangerous Game (1932 and 2022), Hunger Games (2012)
The why can be adjusted to meet GM taste, the core issue is that the PCs have been put someplace full of traps, killer vehicles, and/or other contestants, and are being watched and hunted. Maybe it’s a 1-time thing… maybe it’s a weekly broadcast for the depraved masses.

Das Boot (1981), Murder on the Orient Express (1974 at al), Snowpiercer (2013), Speed (1994), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974 and 1998), Train to Busan (2016), Under Siege (1992), Unstoppable (2020)
Very little links these movies except that they all primarily take place on or around a vehicle… and that’s my point. Watching all of these should give you a great idea how to have a special setting influence lots of different genres of story, and that insight applies directly to doing near-future stories in structures that don’t exist yet. It’d be easy to put Speed on a building-sized dirigible, Murder on the Orient Express in an underwater mansion with hours before the next sub shuttle comes along, or Unstoppable on a space elevator car heading up toward the top anchor at dangerous speed.

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#CampaignPitch: MegaRuins

Just a quick idea for a ttRPG campaign hook. Something I could see using with Everyday Heroes (once it’s out), Modern AGE, or Starfinder, just to name a few. This is just the start of setting up such a campaign, you’d need themes, plots, a kickoff… but the setting can help clarify those kinds of things.

MegaRuins

It’s a few years into the future. Things are bad worldwide, but society hasn’t collapsed… except around the many megastructures built… or partially built… by governments trying to quell social disquiet and stimulate economies with massive, ill-conceived, projects that they mostly didn’t finish, and definitely didn’t properly maintain. The world is littered with mile-high towers, salt mine cities, floating artificial islands, eternally flying airship megamalls, and AI-controlled arcologies… but none of them are the glittering beacons of success and progress that were promised.

Many sit more than 90% empty, the cost of moving to them and living within them too great for populations to risk moving into unproven and experimental communities that often depend on advanced, untested systems to even provide basic necessities such as clear water and lighting. The empty spaces attract gangs, private military companies, scam artists, and billionaire 0.01%-ers who find whole metropolises worth of abandoned officers, warehouses, and apartments more convenient than secret bases in deserts and failed nations. Even those that are populated have significant problems, with autonomous AIs making decisions that seem increasingly divorced from reality, critical systems built using proprietary technologies failing as the companies that built them go bankrupt, and the politics of their creation shifting as they go from trophies of the administrations that began them to scapegoats for successors which find them an easy target to blame all current problems.

Each MegaRuin, and often every 30-50 floors within the same MegaRuin, has its own culture, power bases, secrets, faults, trade routes, and local traditions. It’s not that the whole world is an apocalypse, it’s that there are specific modern megastructure ruined areas that each have their own problems, hazards, and risks, and people who have a proven track record of operating successfully within them are always in demand.

Here are three example MegaRuins, just to start creative juices flowing.

(Art by Shift Space)

The Circuit: A massive, mirrored, 450-kilometer circumference, 500-meter wide, 900-meter tall donut-shaped building that was designed to be the perfect “smart city,” controlled by a network of predictive AIs and built around multiple high-speed transit capsule tubes to allow for a 100% car-free, street free community where everything you need is within a 10-minute walk.
Of course it was built in a desert, with 1/3 of it sticking into a salt-water ocean, the systems were never completed, and the capsule system is a single fail point that, more and more, is failing. And since it never reached full capacity, the 10-minute walking communities are each missing at least one crucial facility, leaving populations having to cross gang territories and AI-enforced blockades to do things like get medical care, get mail, or for that matter get out of the Circuit.

Cloud 8: The largest airship ever built, Cloud 8 is actually 12 airships locked together with a framework that houses dozens of boutique businesses, cruise cabins, cargo bays, ultimate bungee event centers, glass-bottomed restaurants, and antimissile defense systems. The floating entertainment complex was supposed to fly around the world on a 2-year course, dropping in on major tourist destinations and becoming a mobile festival and shopping event that both drew passengers paying a premium to live in the air, and massive crowds at each destination willing to shell out big bucks for overpriced Cloud 8-branded goods.

And it worked… briefly. Then local businesses at all the major destinations around the world decided it was sucking much more money out of their economies than it was bringing in, and got local authorities to ban it. No major tourist destination allows it within 200 miles of them, and many countries refuse it access to their airspace entirely. That made selling rides at the top prices in the world impossible, and forced Cloud 8 to charge less for everything, as it could only get permission to go to 3rd- and 4th-tier locations.

But it is still a giant travelling business center, and it does still go around the world… so it has rapidly become a major source of drug smuggling, bootleg electronic broadcasts and pirated entertainment, and ethically questionable activities it offers patrons while over international waters. Cloud 8 is now a seedy, mob-run, 24-7 mobile red light district, and a favorite way for career criminals and shady business execs to flee any jurisdiction it can get into.

Starscraper: A 4-kilometer-high tower (with a 6-kilometer wide base) that was envisions as “stage one” of a project to build a space-elevator and was designed to house 10 million people. Named as a play on being taller than a mere “skyscraper,” the Starscraper was supposed to be the anchor of an entirely new space industry. But the advanced in materials science that was expected to be able to built the space elevator tether by the time the Starscraper was done turned out to be too slow and too expensive to scale up to the 100,000-kilometer size needed to access space from Earth.

Without the influx of businesses and industry tied to the cheap space travel that never happened, the Starscraper was too expensive to maintain. It’s also, by far, the tallest building in the world, and thus too prestigious to ignore. The result it that the top 50 floors are among the most expensive real-estate in existence… and much of the remaining 700 floors are vertical slums, empty, dilapidated, or all of the above. The building also has 30 subterranean levels, many of which must be maintained to keep power, water, air, and sheer-balancing systems working, but no one ever wants to live or work in them. In many cases, the billionaires who own the top of the tower fly in workers from other countries to labor n the lower levels, and use armed security to keep them from fleeing.

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For Starfinder: Squimic the Mimic

So, I wrote Squimic for an adventure back in 2018. The idea was that in a grey experimental base, the PCs would find Squimic in a lab, the result of a project the grays did not yet considered a success. I wanted to introduce an NPC gun that would talk to characters and grow with whoever carried it. But, my idea was complex, untested, and would have required GMs running followup adventures to ad lib Squimic’s responses since the authors of those adventures were writing them at the same time I was, and had no idea Squimic existed and thus could not include any guidance on how it would react to the events they were writing about.

Ultimately the developers who did a great job polishing my raw text into a finished adventure simplified Squimic into a “Living Transmutation Matrix,” and I think they did the right thing. An idea can be fun and perfect for some groups without being the right fit for every adventure.

But, since that adventure came out years ago (and was released under the OGL), I feel comfortable presenting my original open content version of Squimic here, for anyone who thinks a little mimic gun buddy is a good match for their campaigns. I’ve included all the text that would have been in that adventure if they’d gone with my version, including background information on the project and how the PCs were to find and interact with Squimic, but not any of the plot points, proper nouns the publisher used, the adventure name, or any of the other material the publisher marked as Product Identity in their Open Game Content declaration.

Squimic was found in a lab where it had been consistently used by a robot to shoot troll polyps.

S.Q.U.I – Mimic

A search reveals a dirty and battered data-tag, marked SQUI-mic, with further information encoded in a small computer chip. A close examination shows it actually says “S. Q. U. I. – mimic,” though the periods and first “mi-“ were concealed by dirt. Anyone can use a comm unit in their armor, or any tier of computer, to read the full encoded information stored in the tag. This reveals it is for a Special Qualities Unified Initiative Mimic. It’s clear the project name is “Unified Initiative,” the branch of that project that created this project is the “Special Qualities” division, and the test subject is a mimic.

In fact, Squimic is the only even-partially successful prototype of a special project to create small, cybernetically-enhanced mimics that could switch between taking the form of tiny creatures (especially vermin, rodents, and pets), and useable technological devices. The grays hoped to be able to breed these creatures to serve as tools of their espionage agents, but were concerned about Squimic’s intellect and independent motivations. They hoped repeated exposure to threats that required assistance (in the form of the robot arm) would cause Squimic to “normalize” the concept of just doing what they are told.

(Some of Squimic’s many possible forms. Art by Hasibul)

Squimic

Though Squimic is a living, sapient creature, they lack the ability to move or take most actions. Mostly they just take the form of various small arms, and shoots at things someone wielding them aims at and pulls their trigger (though Squimic can refuse to carry out such attacks if it wishes to). As a result, squimic is much closer to an item with some special rules than a creature, and is treated as such in its description.

Squimic can become any item level 1-3 small arm or basic or advanced melee weapon of light bulk or less that it is familiar with, and which uses batteries (of any capacity), darts, flares, petrol, rounds (of any kind) or scattergun shells as ammunition. It is currently familiar only with those the grays programmed into it (including all such presented in Chapter 7 of the Starfinder Core Rulebook, along with the tactical switchblade, wire garrote, personal cryospike, red star solar brand, subzero hail pistol, frost subduer, bruiser decoupler, bombard shellgun, vapor cavatation gun, bravado handcannon, and explorer handcoil from Starfinder Armory). Regardless of what kind of weapon Squimic is, they can accept any size battery, and use the battery for all ammunition usage of the weapon they are emulating (using the energy to generate darts, round, shells, and similar physical ammo as needed). Squimic can learn another weapon if it can examine one in detail over 10 minutes, and it meets all their other requirements.

Squimic can have one “ready” form they can assume as a full action (currently a vapor cavatation gun), and it can take any other form over the course of ten minutes. Squimic’s ready form can be changed with an 8-hour period of “downtime” that functions like sleep.

Squimic is currently treated as an item level 5 weapon for purposes of hardness, HP, saves, and so on. They act as though they had a tier-2 computer with an artificial personality for purpose of what skills they have and at what bonus. They count as both a weapon and an aberration for purposes of what spells and effects can function on them, and if an effect can work on both the caster may choose how to treat Squimic.

Squimic can grow in power if someone provides enough UPBs for it to eat and makes a successful Diplomacy check (DC 15 + 1.5x Squimic’s current item level). Squimic can never be of higher level than the number of ranks in Diplomacy of the character attempting to convince them to grow, and the highest item level small arm or melee weapon of light bulk they can become is always their current item level -2. Squimic’s effective computer tier is always equal to half its current item level.

Squimic can only consume raw UPBs, or functioning and fully-repaired weapons, armor, and armor upgrades. Items must have an item level no greater than Squimic’s item level +2, and if they have an item level lower than Squimic’s -2. Squimic gains only 10% of the UPB value of the item. The total UPBs Squimic consumes determines their maximum item level.

Item Level Total UPBs Consumed

6 4,000

7 6,500

8 9,000

9 12,500

10 19,000

11 24,000

12 32,000

13 48,000

14 65,000

15 110,000

16 150,000

17 235,000

18 350,000

19 550,000

20 900,000

Characters may well have questions for Squimic, which they answer to the best of their ability. Some typical questions and answers are detailed below.

Q: Who are you? (or What are you? Where did you come from? What’s your name?)

A: “I don’t know! I woke up next to a broken tube, and everything was shaking. There was a tag on the tube marked “SQIU-mic,” so I guess my name is Squimic.”

Q: How can you become a functioning weapon?

A: “Oh, I can become all sorts of things! They just… appear. In my head. And if I think real hard, I turn into them! I… I don’t know how. Or why.”

Q: Who created you? What are your plans now? What can you tell us about this facility?

A: “I don’t know about anything outside this room. There was some sirens and explosions earlier, but I didn’t go look what made them. I have no idea where I come from, or why I was brought here, or what I am going to do next!”

Q: Why were you a plasma pistol?

A: “I kept being put in that broken case with those squirmy things, and they’d try to hit me! And there was this robot arm that would squeeze me, so I became different guns with the robot hand pulling my trigger, to see what would keep the squirmy things from hurting me, and this worked the best.”

Squimic has no hostile intent toward the PCs, though they defend themselves if attacked. They are afraid to explore beyond this room by themselves, and are unwilling to be sent anywhere on their own, but are willing to accompany the PCs, and even act as a weapon for a character as long as the PCs promise not to use them as an expendable scout or abandon them.

Squimic is happy to help, as long as the PCs treat them reasonably well (not sticking them in a bag, not using them to look around dangerous corners, and so on). Each time Squimic feels abused its attitude toward the PCs goes down one step (beginning with neutral), and it takes a Diplomacy check to improve. Squimic functions as a standard weapon for anyone they feel neutral or better towards, but refuses to function for anyone they feel unfriendly or hostile towards.

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Gatekeeper’s Campaign for PF2, Session 1, Part 2

Since people asked for it, I’m posting session notes for my Gatekeepers game for PF (index here if you want to look something up) . Here’s Part 2 for Session 1. (Part1 is here.)

The heroes have saved children from the basement of a flooding ruined tower outside the town of Tidegate. The children were apparently captured by devotees of a Bloodletter faction leftover from the Bloodletter wars of more than a century ago. The heroes want to keep the Bloodletter connection quiet as long as they can, and attempt Diplomacy to convince the children not to tell anoyone about tht part of the event.

The Diplomacy roll goes badly, but the children all claim to agree.

However, as soon as the heroes make it back to the Smoke Pine Taven, and the children see their clan patriarch, Syrkin Dale, in the great room, they rush up to him and loudly begin shouting all the details of what they saw happen.

This makes the townsfolk and shipwreck survivors in the Taven uneasy, but the councilfolk present don’t seem shocked. As the children are taken to a private room to calm down, the councilfolk tell the heroes that Bloodletter Sectarians have shown up trying to perform strange rituals every few decades. The council tends to keep it quiet, but it’s a known risk.

When the heroes mention the Sectarians seems to be waiting for them, specifically, the councilfolk note it may not have been about the PCs individually. Some Bloodletters have access to ritualistic divination, and can create situations that will bring in the elements that give them the best chance for success. So rather than “five specific townsfolk whose names we know are here!” the message might really have been “the divination indicates these are the random people who give our ritual the best chance of success!”

The PCs don’t mention their strange experiences with apparently elemental power sources, and most of the PCs don’t realize anyone but themself experienced it. Jaedyn and Morgan say each other’s Mystery Point uses and have acknowledged it to each other, but don’t mention it to anyone else.

It’s decided by the council that Hexer Hellaina will be asked to go investigate.

When the PCs go to get warm by the fire, the council-member Pottage swings by to give them some of his “Feel-Better Soup,” and at the same time quietly and in the most serious tone of voice any PC has ever heard him use, says “The Bloodletters wanted you, specifically, We’ll talk later. Be careful.” Then quickly moves away.

Several cats climb into the lap of halfling barbarian Hollyhock Stonefound, and keep her pinned in place by the fire all night.

Hexer Hellaina eventually shows up, and wishes to speak to the PCs. They tell her the general course of what happened, answering questions about the blood-drinking stone, but don’t mention the Mystery Point powers. Hellaina decides she needs to go look herself, after the storm ends, sometime the next day, and asks the PCs to go with her. They agree.

The next day the group including Hellaina have an uneventful journey back to the Ruined Tower. Hellaina does some rituals and analysis and determines that 1: The tower is the anchor for a wedge between the Mortal Realm and the Unlit World (where shadows, death spirits, and forgotten things dwell), 2: That wedge was asleep until awoken by a ritual recently, 3: Once awoken it was why the stone was drinking blood, and if it had gotten *enough* of the *right* blood, it could have forced open a full doorway between the Mortal Realm and Unlit World, and the PCs prevented this by moving the bodies of the fallen away from the tower, and 4: There must be an relic of some sort to serve as the focus for this anchor, and they need to find and destroy it.

So she gives everyone dowsing rods and explains how they work (search with Perception or Occultism, takes time), and Nambra ends up using a Red Mystery Point to reroll her check.

Well before anyone else has gotten more than a slight twitch on their dowsing, Nambra is strongly pulled to the keystone of the main door into the tower. Her dowsing rod then bursts into flame, the fire strikes the keystone and blows the front off it it, revealing it’s a hollow, lead-lined container dressed in stone, and containing a skull covered in sigils very similar to those of the Bloodletter Sectarians. Also, Hellaina notes that is NOT how the dowsing rod should work.

It’s suggested that maybe Nambra has a stronger connection to the relic because she took a critical hit and spilled the most blood on the stone before Averill telekinetically pulled her out. Hellaina is shocked Averill’s tk was strong enough, and he explained he felts a rush of power when he was straining, and Jaedyn and Morgan exchange glances. They begin to ask if everyone experienced such a thing, and Nambra confirms she had a similar rush when using the dowsing rod, and Hollyhock that she had the night before when running on top of the mud.

So Jaedyn and Morgan explain their experiences, and Hexer Hellaina finds this curious and important. She tells the PCs she’ll need to do some research ebfore she can even guess what is going on, and suggests (but does not order) that they keep their experience quiet for now.

Then she uses a ritual to destroy the relic, closing the sliver of a gap connecting the Mortal Realm and Unlit World at this location.

End of session.

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Gatekeeper’s Campaign for PF2, Session 1, Part 1

Since people asked for it, here’s part 1 of the notes for session 1 of my Gatekeepers game for PF2.

It’s early fall in Tidegate, and the storm season has been unusually bad. As we begin play, a major storm has caused a ship to wreck on the shore north of town, and most of the town council and senior people of note have gone to help survivors. As is the norm for local disasters, survivors are being brought to the Smoke Pine Taven, and all the PCs end up there to help settle people in. The many cats of the Smoke Pine are all present, but staying well out of reach of anyone.

Among other things the PCs have someone manning to Smoke Pine’s door, so they can open it to let people in but otherwise hold it closed against the wind and rain. The PC spots two councilmembers struggling towards the door – Syrkin Dale, who is clearly injured, being part-carried by Pottage (who is also struggling with a giant cauldron of his modestly famous “Feel-Better Soup”).

The PCs help them in and patch up Syrkin Dale, and determine that in the rough category of “Battle, Beast, or Debris,” the wound seems caused by debris. Syrkin explains that one of his tenant farmers’ children were last seen playing in a tower of the Old Keep outside of town, and hadn’t shown up since the storm began. Syrkin had gone to look for them, heard them calling for help from the tower’s basement saying they were tapped and the basement was flooding, but then a piece of the old tower’s structure fell on him and both injured him and blocked the only door in. Syrkin staggered to town to get help, and Pottage had spotted him and helped him in.

PCs note that Syrkin seems very annoyed Pottage is the person who found and helped him… and Pottage doesn’t seem to notice. Also, the Smoke Pine’s cats take turns coming up to and rubbing happily on Pottage.

With all the townsfolk who would normally go help already busy outside of town with the shipwreck, and a flooding basement not something that can wait to be dealt with later, the PCs decide they need to go save the children themselves. The Smoke Pine’s owner, Nana Cutthroat, gives them some gear to help, and they rush out into the storm.

The tower is up on a hill that’s a bit steep under the best of circumstances, and is a dangerous mudslide waiting to happen in the heavy rain. With some careful use of ropes and letting the most nimble PCs go up first, the group manages the ascent without incident.

The tower is a ruin, with a staircase on the outside spiraling up to the top of its 25-foot wall (the roof long-since gone), a pile of rubble on the other side making a rough but passable ramp, and a single door that does seem to be blocked by some collapsed timber. The PCs split up, with half heading toward the blocked door, and half heading to the stairs to seek an alternate way in.

As the PCs approach the blocked door, it slams down having obviously been rigged as a trap. Four sailors are just inside, all with thin leather handwraps common to sailors from the Akkaron region of the Continental Empire. One sailor has a headband, the other three have sigils freshly cut into their exposed foreheads. The headwrapped sailor yelled “They’re *all* here! Kill them!”

Fight ensues.

More foes climb up from the basement, warning children below to shut up.

Jaedyn opts to leap from the top wall down onto the new targets, a 30-foot leap. The player invokes the white Mystery Point, which allows her a good roll and Jaedyn discovers the wind is swirling around and guiding her. Morgan leaps after her, his player using a blue Mystery Point, and the rainwater water guides him. Nambra takes a critical hit from a crossbow, and is knocked out.

As the PCs defeat the sailors, they discover the stone of the tower is literally drinking up any spilled blood. The PCs begin to haul fallen bodies outside, beyond the apparent reach of the thirsty stone. Averill uses his telekinesis to pull Nambra out of the tower, so it can’t access her blood, which also required the power of a Mystery Point. However, they don’t manage to do so before enough blood gathers to form a icy blood paraelemental, which they must defeat.

Trying to get the children saved, allies patched up, and bodies moved, Hollyhock’s player expends the green Mystery Token, and the muddy ground supports her, preventing her from sinking in.

The fight is over, but the game session goes on (to be covered in Part 2).

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Gatekeepers Campaign for PF2 – Mystery Points

I’ve now run the first session of my Gatekeepers campaign for PF2. There was the usual awkwardness to be expected when a group tackles a brand-new game system (I’m the only person in that group to have played in a PF2 game, and I’ve never been the GM for one before), but everyone agreed they had a good time.

I also dropped something new on the players, to represent strange forces at play within the reality of the game — Mystery Points.

Mystery Points

Every player began the game with one Hero Point, which was represented by a black poker chip. I clarified that spending a Hero Point was a player-based decision that did not necessarily represent any special effort on the part of their character.

However, each player also got four Mystery Points which were represented by a set of 4 poker chips, 1 each of blue, green, red, and white for each player. Players were told that a Mystery Point worked like a Hero Point, but it DID represent an in-character choice on the part of the character. Specifically, sensing a deep reserve within themselves that they could access with extra effort, without truly understanding what it was. And that using these was entirely option, no one had to do it, and while there might well be consequences they were designed as a fun part of the campaign, not a way to screw players over. (This is a group I’ve played with for 35+ years, so trust is well-established.)

One a character played a Mystery Point, they lost all their other mystery points, Further, every other player would lose access to the Mystery Point of that color. There were four players so everyone had a shot at a Mystery Point, but the choice of colors (which I affirmed when asked did meant *something*, but I didn’t say what) would dwindle as other players used them.

I also affirmed that Mystery Points were not guaranteed to be used in every game session, or to work the same way if they did show up again.

To embrace the fun, all four players did end up using a Mystery Point during the first game session, and their characters discovered this gave them a brief burst of elemental power (blue = water, green = earth, red = fire, and white = air; while later discovering a NPC had also experienced something similar with either “shadow” or “spirit”). How and when the characters decided to share that revelation with each other and NPCs on the Town Council became an important roleplaying aspect of the night which influenced play far more than the one extra Hero Point of options had. I was extremely pleased how the use of game mechanics and props managed to create an actual air of mystery for the players, where they could choose on their own when to potentially become embroiled with unknown powers, and then explore what their characters though was going on.

If there’s interest, I’ll talk briefly about what actually happened in that first game session in a future post.

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How I Set Up My New PF2 Game, “Gatekeepers.” Part 5: Quickstart Tidegate Gazetteer

When doing a homebrew campaign (such as my upcoming Gatekeepers game for PF2), I have long since given up having everything mapped out in advance. I want a few key things defined (and, if possible, graphed to maps), but only at the lightest level of detail. having done that at the island-level, I also want to put a few things in place for the starting town, Tidegate.

(The map I’ll be using for Tidegate. This is a great piece by DysonLogos.com, which he makes freely available for commercial purposes thanks to the support from his Patrons. I want to not only pick some of the vast resources I have linked to help have visuals for the Gatekeeper campaign early, but also pick those I can use in an actual produce later if I choose to do so. As locations, like the Smoke Pine Taven become important, I’ll mark them on a copy of this map.)

History
Tidegate is one of the oldest settlements on Kheysus Island, it’s original founding lost to history and firmly in the realm of myths and legends. It existed before the kingdom of Khetonnia, though in a much smaller form than its current borders. The two most common claims about its origins are that it was originally a temple to a lost sea god, where farmers and hunters would bring offerings to appease the forces of storm and tide. The other is that it was created as a trading post between aquatic species and land-dwelling ones, possibly by a family that included members of both. Of course, these two myths aren’t mutually exclusive, but there’s no real evidence to support either.

Eventually Tidegate was the capital of the Crosstimbers, a Cantref of Khetonnia. The Cantref had no ruling nobility, but was overseen by a Council elected by a vote of landowners (with each acre under production, and hundred acres patrolled but wild, counting as a single vote). Sometime before the Continental Empire conquered the island, the Crosstimbers “went wild,” and most of the nearby woods were ceded to the wild, with any remaining settlements within it independent and fortified.

Tidegate has been ruled by a Town Council ever since, elected by taxpayers with votes proportional to taxes payed over the past 10-years in a running tally. On the one hand, this means the richest people in Tidegate decide who is in charge. On the other hand, it discourages the rich avoiding the paying of tax, and much of how the tax money is spent is dictated by the Duchess of Tides laws on the matter.

The Continental Empire built the Old Keep to the northwest of the town, the Watchtower on the adjacent hill, and the Rampart Wall that surrounds Tidewall shortly after taking over, in preparation for an attack from some international foe that never came. They did so at great expense, and seemed more concerned with defending Tidegate than the larger city of Seagrace.

The defenses became important a century ago during the Bloodletter Wars, when the Bloodletter Dominion tried to conquer the world. They made numerous attempts to take over Tidegate, and it seemed to be their primary objective on Kheyus, though they also did extensive, unknown things on the western side of the island, beyond the Keystone Mountains. Tidegate was besieged several times and numerous defensive battles fought on its walls, but it was never seized by enemy forces.

Current State of Affairs
Tidegate is a fairly stable, prosperous town. It has a regular stream of small merchant ships coming to buy supplies, as well as provisions from and goods from Fishport. Violent crime is rare, work plentiful, and satisfaction among the population high. When there is a serious problem in town it can almost always be traced back to drunk sailors, old feuds between well-establish families, or someone (usually a visitor) acting weird and crazy during a full moon (which is just considered to be one of those things).

Tidegate is the economic, social, and security lynchpin of dozens of farms, outfits, and small settlements within a 2-3 days travel. If there is any regional problem (such as a pack of wolves, or an ogre, or active bandits), people bring the problem to Tidegate and expect the Council to deal with it. If there’s a major local problem a farmstead or thorp can’t deal with, it’s Tidegate they turn to for help.

Tidegate City Council
Not a complete list, just noteworthy members.

Daenen Thraes

Daenen Thraes is a skilled elven blacksmith who is pushing 500 years old. He dislikes talking about the past, but is known to have fought in the Bloodletter Wars and the Imperial Conquest and to have a standing invitation to visit the Duchess of Tides, which no one has ever seen him accept. He has no known family. He runs the only smithing shop in Tidegate, Iron Will Anvils, and makes sure to take new apprentices every few years. He rarely takes commission work himself anymore, and nearly all the work he does do it sold to traveling merchant marines or more mysterious, cloaked figures. (Image by Николай Акатов)

Hexer Hellaina

Hellaina is a gnome who runs the largest herbalism and alchemy shop in Tidegate. She is extremely skilled and well-known for being able to make custom infusions and poltice, and it’s not unusual for a customer to come from the Continent to commission a cure from her. Relations between her and Nana Cutthroat are cool, but not hostile, possibly because Nana knows herbal things Hellaina does not, and possibly because Hellaina has adopted and fully domesticated a few of the Smoke Pine cats, who don’t go there anymore. (Image by KOVALOVA)

Miller

Miller has a given name, but not only does he never use it, most folks in town have no idea what it is. He’s the town miller, as was his father and his father before him. The family clearly has some elven or similar ancestry, as they live 150-200 years apiece. The family has grown to be among the richest in Tidegate, and Miller himself employs more people in town (for his mill, but also to run a few outlying farms, act as porters, run bakeries, run warehouses, and so on) than any other single employer. Miller is known to have very minor magic ability, and his family have been building a collection of books that recently grew so big Miller took over part of the Rampart Wall to house it. (Image by diversepixel)

Lantern Siggurds

Siggurds is the head of the Tidegate Council. A locally-born human he left in his youth to travel the world on Circle Trade ships, and retired to the town roughly 20 years ago. He has military experience, and doubles as the town watchman when one is needed. He’s part investor in a number of small, fast merchant ships, and runs a ship-patching and supply business by The Big Dock. He’s seen as a stick-in-the-mud by a lot of locals, but also as a keen city manager and brave watchman, who often helps outlying communities when a child is missing, or a barn burns down, or a pack of wolves is spotted. However, the Siggurds family and the Dale family have been feuding for generations, and often people feel they must either get a Dale’s help, or a Siggurds’ help, not both. (Image by Algol)

Nana Cutthroat

Owner of the Pine Smoke Taven, Nana Cutthroat is believed to the second-oldest citizen of Tidegate, right behind Daenen Thraes. She’s run the Pine Smoke since before the Bloodletter Wars, and seems to have been around before that. She refuses to explain the mis-spelled “Taven” sign, though she sometimes seems wistful about it, and claims replacing it would be stupid because everyone knowns what it means.

She’s a venerable orc woman with a soft spot for strays and outcasts (leading to the Pine Smoke having a large number of semi-feral cats she claims aren’t hers, but no one dares harm), no patience for fools or liars, a surprisingly good hand with children, and an amazing skill at cooking and herbal medicine. Nana (or Goodmiss Cutthroat if she’s in a bad mood) is often torn between not wanting to get involved with affairs outside her inn, and not being able to stand people being stupid about solvable problems. She claims she doesn’t vote for herself to be on the council, and about half of Tidegate believes her. (Image by IG Digital Arts)

Pottage

A human often accused of having some halfling blood, as an infant Pottage was found as the only survivor of a shipwreck 30 years ago. Nana Cutthroat took him in temporarily, and ended up raising him. He became her cook, and then her manager, and then to her pride and annoyance, set up his own provisions business and general store, which has done very, very well. He’s considered a likeably doofus by most of town, still cooks at the Smoke Pine a few nights a month, and seems beloved by even the most grumpy of Nana’s semi-feral cats. He’s considered a likely candidate for who is voting to put Nana on the council, though she’s been on it since long before he came along. (Image by Lunstream)

Syrkin Dale

Syrkin is the patriarch of the mostly-human Dale family, who have very few members in town but are a large clan that run numerous farms, logging outfits, and some sheep in the surrounding area. No one Dale has much spare money, but all the clan’s trade is funnelled through Dale-owned businesses in town, giving those Dales enough tax money to pool resources and ensure the head of the clan is voted into the council. Syrkin is considered among the smartest, most skilled, most unpleasant clan patriarchs, and he seems intent on stirring discord between people who live within Tidegate proper, and families and settlements outside the Rampart Wall who are merely dependent on the town. He is deeply devoted to his family’s traditional dislike of the Siggurds, and seems to also personally despise Pottage (though no one knows why, and Pottage doesn’t seem to return the animosity). (Image by Zdenek Sasek)

Warden Ellicent

Warden Ellicent is the official representative of the Duchess of Tides to Tidegate, and a formidable tracker, hunter, and trapper. A half-elf she’s considered young for the position, which she has already held for more than a decade. Ellicent seems to dislike being forced to be on the council by ducal decree, and spends as much time ranging as possible. She doesn’t get along particularly with the majority of the council with the important exception of Nana Cutthroat. (Image by Daniel)

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