Category Archives: Adventure Sketch

StarBarians: The Saturday Morning Campaign Hack

Welcome StarBarians! You are the heroic defenders of the world of Barbarth, the most important Science-Fantasy world in the universe! You must oppose Lichlor, the undead technomancer tyrant, and his hoard of villainous themed villains.

StarBarians is a silly, high-action campaign hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.

Male Alien Thug-color

(All art by the spectacular Jacob Blackmon!)

Character creation:

You are 2nd level. You’re never going to gain any levels until the very last adventure (whenever the GM says that is), when you pop up to 4th and get a new costume! This is a fast and silly game, there’s no need to worry about things like experience points. Or continuity. Or whether your feet are in sync with the rate the ground is going by.

Before racial modifiers, your ability scores are one 18, one 16, one 14, one 12, one 10, and one 8. Alternatively you can have one 20, four 10s, and one 8, or three 14s and three 12s. Assign as desired, but if you have an 18 or 20 in any ability score, no one else should. Be adults, work it out.

You get all the benefits of any one suit of armor of your choice that is 3rd level or less. You aren’t WEARING that armor, of course. You’re a StarBarian! You run around in a fur loincloth or (for some reason) skintight Victorian suit. But you get the benefits. If you want an armor upgrade, pick it as an item below, and just strap it on. It’s fine. Jump jets over fur boots is perfect for StarBarians.

You get ONE item of your choice of 5th level or less. this is your THEMED ITEM. You can never lose it for longer than the duration of 1 fight. It should have a name. Lichlor and his minions will try to steal it periodically, They never succeed. This item can be a suit of armor if you like, in which case you get its benefits instead of your baseline 3rd level armor when you wear it.

You get THREE other items of your choice of 3rd level or less.

You get 9 other items of your choice of 1st level.

Female Alien Rogue-color

If you selected a ranged weapon, its item level is 2 lower. All weapons with usage above 1 never run out of ammo or batteries. All weapons and items with a usage of 1 or that are 1-shot count as 3 items, but are fully restored at the beginning of each game session.

Each game session you can use the StarBarian Power to do two spectacular things (two different things, one each). This is because you have a StarBarian Stone. Lichlor is always trying to steal StarBarian stones. He never succeeds, and you can’t lose yours. Ever.

Starbarian Powers are based on class, can be performed whenever an appropriate roll or even occurs, and take no time.


Treat a failed Int/Wis/Cha skill or ability check as if you had rolled a 20 on your d20.

Allow an ally who failed any d20 roll or check to treat it as if they had rolled a 15 on their d20.



Succeed at any one Engineering check

Drone: Allow your drone who failed any d20 roll or check to treat it as if they had rolled a 15 on their d20.

Exocortex: Treat any failed attack roll as if you had rolled a 15 on your d20.


Treat any failed saving throw of yours as if you had rolled a 20 on your d20.

Restore yourself or one ally to full health, ending all conditions.


Treat a failed Str/Dec/Con skill or ability check as if you had rolled a 20 on your d20.

Force a foe who succeeded on any d20 roll or check to treat it as if they had rolled a 5 on their d20.



Take an extra round of action.

Solar Weapon: Treat any one solar weapon attack that failed as if it had automatically hit and done maximum damage. Apply any critical effect, though don’t double your damage.

Solar Armor: Negate all effects of any one successful attack against you.


Treat any failed attack roll as if you had rolled a natural 20 on your d20.

Replace any one damage roll you make, or that is made against you, with either maximum or minimum damage (your choice)


Force a foe to treat any successful saving throw against an effect of yours as if they had rolled a 5 on their d20.

End any one magic or technological effect with a duration.


Lichlor is a 4th level Technomancer with a +2 bonus to every roll he makes. But he always does minimum damage, and the duration of all his effects is a maximum of 1d4 rounds. No matter how often you defeat him, he always escapes.

Robot Juggernaut-color

His Themed Minions are CR 2 NPCs. They always escape between adventures.


Special Rules

No one ever dies. If you should have died, you are just unconscious.

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Short Fiction: Weftwork

Vanre felt consciousness creep into her body like an unwelcome guest. She resisted the lure to open her eyes, or stretch her muscles, focusing instead on the warm, soft quilts piled above and below her… but to no avail. The very act of trying to find a way to stay asleep sent her mind racing through options, which inevitably meant she was awake now. Keeping her eyes closed was an act of rebellion rather than a viable tactic.

A soft scraping above her did cause her eyes to flutter open of their own volition, and her brain was immediately fully alert. Dim light leaked in through the shuttered window, casting dusky shadows across the wooden beams of her bedroom ceiling. The poor visibility was not, however, nearly enough to conceal the enormous arachnid clinging to the wooden boards above her.

Its body was more than a yard long, from it’s eight glossy black eyes and furred mandibles to the rainbow-striped abdomen. It’s eight legs spanned nearly the whole room, the longest set of fore-mid arms just inches from touching the ceiling’s corners ten feet apart. Most of the body was thickly furred, with only the orblike eyes, sharp fangs, and the leg’s numerous small claws at the tips and joints not covered in the bright pelt.

As Vanre’s eyes opened, the huge spider tilted, so it’s inhuman face lowered suddenly to be right over her head.

“Floor too cold again, Senneh?” Vanre asked with concern.

The spider’s shorter aft-mid legs dropped from the ceiling and waved meaningfully, the many clawtips forming precise, complex shapes.

Can you see me? The hand-sigils were fast and smooth, better than most webfolk Senneh’s age managed.

Vanre smiled. “I can hardly miss you, darling. You take up the whole ceiling. Just because my eyes can only look at one thing at a time doesn’t mean I’m blind to obvious things.”

I am never sure. There was none of the little wiggling clawtips that would suggest Senneh was joking. The floor was much too cold. Even with the old weavings you convinced the steward to give me, my joints ached. Water is becoming solid outside. Why do your kind live here? I liked our previous school much more.

Vanre sat up in bed, reaching up to rub Senneh’s face, enjoying how thick and soft the webfolk’s fur was.

“It’s a major port, nine months out of the year. And this is about as far south as the uriphants are willing to come. They don’t understand why we are willing to live places where water ever isn’t solid. Finding one place for all five civilized peoples to come together isn’t easy. Eleanear is about as good as it gets. And the Empire only allows one school for advanced magic.”

But it is COLD. Senneh used one of her fore-mid legs to repeat the last sigil, to give her complaint more emphasis.

Vanre stood, feeling the very chill air on her skin. She dared a very minor spell to freshen her skin, then began pulling on her uniform, hung neatly on a rack next to her bed.

“It is cold, sweetling. I’m sorry. If you want, you can just sleep in here until summer. We can even burn some charcoal in the brazier at night.”

You do not mind?

Vanre smiled. “Not at all. I don’t use the ceiling for anything.”

Vanre’s eyes drifted to her tiny desk, in the room’s corner, where an open book was covered in her own handwriting. The tight runs were interspersed with illustrations of webs, spinnerets, and weaving patterns.

Vanre’s smile grew. “Not yet, anyway.”

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The Secret to Being a Good GM

First, note that I am a HUGE believer in playstyle being variable. I don’t think there is one BEST way to do almost anything in gaming. I often get annoyed if people are being too silly when I want a serious story… but that doesn’t mean I am right and they are wrong. Similarly if a group wants to focus on tactical miniatures combat using RPG rules, that’s fine, as long as they are all having a good time.

But for me, and the styles I engage in the most, this is the thing that I have done as a GM, and that GMs of mine have done, that has generated the most total fun.

Ready for the secret?

“Create the environment to tell the PCs’ stories.”

That’s it. … And that is a lot.

Anything I do — building memorable NPCs, adding GMPCs, worldbuilding, props, funny voices, creating a meta-plot, creating random encounters–it’s all designed to create an environment where players can build the story of their characters.

Yes, I want to have fun doing that. But I am specifically trying to tell HALF a story. I don’t want to write how the villain falls. I want to write how he rises, grows, becomes a threat… the players will write his downfall.

To me, this idea has two main corollaries.

First: Build the details in the places the players show interest.

Yes, it can be annoying if I mention there are two people in a bar (a mysterious cloaked figure with a circle of runes floating around her head, and a dirty pig-farmer), and the players only show interest in the boring one I *didn’t* build an adventure around.

But that’s okay. All my ideas connected to the circle or runes are still available. I just get there a different way, or table them until later. If the players want to know what’s up with the pig farmer, then THAT is the story they want, and I’ll give it to them.

What IS a pig farmer doing in the same bar as women with magic halo crowns? How can he afford a drink? Why isn’t he tending his pigs?

The answers to those questions can form the same story, or a new one. I’m even okay railroading PCs… as long as I build the track through the scenery they want to see.

Second: Give PCs opportunities to change, and be changed.

Gaining a flaming sword? Kinda cool, especially for some players. Gaining the ability to make any sword you use flaming because you saved a fire elemental envoy from being killed by evil water wizards and were named a Knight of Emblazoned Honor, a peer fo the Plane of Fire?


Of course, the player can turn that down. Or then seek out other elemental titles. Or embrace the idea of fire being their birthright.

On a smaller (lower-level) scale, let players save the owner of a tavern, and get free drinks. Be befriended by an entirely mundane mockingbird. Have one horse hate them. As with all elements of telling their story put out feelers, and build on what the players enjoy.

Look at their character histories for hints on this. A summoner who doesn’t know why they can summon a chickenlike outsider? Give hints to multiple potential answers, and see which ones they build on. A fighter who carried their grandfathers sword from the Otyugh Wars? Leave hints their grandfather did more than they ever let on… and the sword may have a destiny as well.

While non-item rewards are part of this, so it just giving the players a sense that their characters impact the world in ways large and small, and the world can impact them as they interact with it.

Don’t force change. But make it available.

While, of course, trying to give players more of the things they seem to enjoy, and less of the things they don’t.

It’s the most complex simple thing in the world. 🙂

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Writing Basics: Tell Publishers Why They Should Care

I did a two part article on RPG pitches, but there is always going to be associated information I think of later.

Like this.

If you are trying to get a publisher (or developer, editor, producer–anyone who could pay you for words) to accept a pitch of yours, tell them why they should care about it.

Compare the following pitches for “State of the Union,” a hypothetical Starfinder adventure.

Pitch One

I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. What appears at first to just be normal academic pranks turns out to be  the cover for a major organized crime operation, and only the PCs can stop it!

The adventure would be 32 pages long, and I could have it completed in 3 months.

Pitch Two

I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be  the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!

The adventure would be 32 pages long, have 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available.

Pitch Three

Among the projects I think might be a good match for your company is a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) titled “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be  the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!

I envision this as 32 pages long and needing 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available. It could also be adjusted to be longer or shorter, to fit your production needs. The core of this adventure comes from my experiences as the manager for the parking garage of the University of Oklahoma Student Union in the 1990s. During my 20-years as an RPG designer I have considered designing it for d20 Modern and Star Wars Saga Edition, but what has always been missing before are elements now available with the Starfinder RPG.

Pitch Four

So, this one is special. It was written in response to this article by Steven Marsh.

If you want to learn about RPGs and how they work, you should already know who Steven Marsh is. If you don’t, go look him up. But the main thing is that he was editor of Pyramid Magazine for 18 YEARS!

Steven has seen more RPG pitches than I will in a lifetime. If you ignore everything I wrote here, PAY ATTENTION to his much-better version (reprinted with his kind permission).


Dear Editor,

I’ve reviewed your submission guidelines and hope you’ll consider a new entry for your line of adventures under the Starfinder Compatibility License.

THE PITCH: Intrigued by seemingly mundane academic pranks, the heroes soon discover these deeds are cover for a major organized crime operation. With no one else taking this life-and-death threat seriously and the clock ticking down, only the spacefarers can infiltrate the multi-species student union and save the day . . . hopefully before the evening’s Zero-G-Pong Charity Fundraiser!

SPECIFICS: This is a lighthearted scenario close in tone to your adventures “Toastmaster Emperor” and “Pair of Dice Lost.” Designed as a combat-light standalone adventure for 4-6 low-level heroes, it can also serve as a followup to “Toastmaster Emperor.” It’s outlined at 31 non-title pages: 6 pages of background, 20 pages of encounters centered around two locales, and 5 pages of new gear and adversaries. It requires 2 maps; I could provide basic InDesign or JPG files, which can either be used as is or form the basis for more “professional” efforts.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to your thoughts!

The Takeaway

You CAN put in too much information, and Pitch Three is pushing what i consider to be the upper bounds. But letting a potential publisher know you have done your homework,  you have relevant real-world experience, and this isn’t your first rodeo are all useful additions to what you are pitching and why.

Waste Nothing

Also, as much as possible, reuse any work you have already done and still have the rights to (though clear that with your publisher, if it’s ever been seen by the public before) and write things you can use multiple ways.

For example, I WAS the manager of the OU Student Union parking garage in the 1990s, and I DO have an idea for an adventure called “State of the Union.” So, if a publisher asked me about this article, I could confirm those details.

(Though I DON’T have an outline. Yet…)

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Comic Book/Superhero Ideas

Sometimes when looking to create superhero worlds or adventures, all you need is an idea to run with. It could be a jumping-off point, a villain, a dead hero to draw the protagonist’s interest… just something that feels like it comes from a comicbook sensibility but (and this is the hard part) without being a direct ripoff or sharing a name with any character from mainstream comics.

So, here are a bunch.

I can’t claim they are all entirely original–many are intentionally based on existing tropes–or even that the names aren’t used in any comic/supers stories. But I developed them independently of other sources, and casual searches didn’t show parallel development of note.

These are designed for you home games or to spark new ideas original to you (though if you have some potential commercial use, feel free to drop me a line).

Aberzombie & Glitch.
Annoying, immoral preppy necromancer and technomancer who manipulate magic they barely understand, while stylishly dressed. Note that being shallow doesn;t automatically make these villains. they could be the kind of allies you avoid… until you absolutely need their help. Or even neutral to greater conflicts, and just sometimes dragged in on one side or the other.

A heavy weapons vigilante, mercenary, or assassin who uses an AK.

A villain. A terrorist who takes the unscientific belief that vaccines are dangerous and to be avoided to extremes by killing those who perform/promote vaccines, and tries to prove they are ineffectual by spreading deadly contagious diseases among vaccinated communities.

A woman with classic “brick” powers (high strength and resistance to damage) and no fucks to give about other people’s opinions. She could be a dauntless hero, a bitter villain, a self-interested mercenary, or anything in-between.

Cannon’s Fodder.
A penal superhero unit of convicted criminals who can cut time off their sentences by performing high-risk missions for the government. Run by Captain Cannon, a hardass patriotic supersolider with a cybergun arm who does as he is told and rules over the ‘Fodder’ with iron discipline.
The Fodder are run by the Combine, and operate out of a mobile secret base ship called The Trough. Cannon’s Fodder are often B- and C-grade villains (and occasionally antiheroes, vigilantes, and heroes who ended up on the wrong side of something), but are quite a dangerous force combined with the gear the Combine can arrange for them, and Cannon’s tactical acumen and willingness to sacrifice the lives of his Fodder if that’s the only way to get the mission done.
Thus while you can use noteworthy villains for your campaign’s Cannon’s Fodder, you can also just grab any terms or names you think of to be the “current” team, repurposing any write-ups you already have to represent the B List. (For example, the Feb 2019 team might include Bear Man, Deadnought, Killer Kaiman, Layaway, Punching Judy, Sister Sirocco, Spotlight, and Tigerdrake.)

A highly trained spy and combatant, who has luck that increases as the chance of failure goes up.

A team of 5 teens who can transform into powered, color-coded versions of themselves. Anywhere from Power Rangers to Sailor Scouts. Could be heroes, villains, or just an annoyance.

A berserker who gains size, strength, and resilience (including to mental powers) as he becomes angry. Most likely an antihero.

Doctor Dank.
A rogue genius pharmacologist who gains massive psychic powers when high. could be an antihero, a villain, or just an unreliable hero.

A pulp-era-style detective or hit man who is happy to pit his/her skills and a single common handgun (the “gat”) against whatever superpowers foes have.

What if the Punisher had Batman’s training, resources, and skills?
That would be Hardcore.

The Knackerman, or Knacker, is a supernatural force who clears corpses from roadways and public spaces, and repurposes them as revenants. Usually the Knacker just gives abused animals a chance to return and punish their abusers, or sometimes save a beloved human in trouble. But sometimes Knacker brings back cars, or toys… or people.

Can slow down anyone or anything, so all actions and reactions take longer.

Mr. Untouchable
A mastermind crime boss, who is known to also have powerful connections to legitimate political authorities such as mayors, judges, and law enforcement–though no one knows exactly what those connections are. the combination of ruthless underworld agents and corrupt politicians and agents and moles makes him (or her, regardless of the name), well, untouchable.

A massively overweight werebear. Might be a cuddly hero, but might also be a bitter villain jaded from years of mockery and abuse.

Psychic Stripling Samurai Snakes.
Five sibling anthropomorphic snakes with mental powers and samurai training.
(Some of these ideas are less original than others.)

The world’s best detective, an unassuming pulp-era style investigator in a trench coat and fedora. QED can take apparently unrelated facts and use them to describe events that must have occurred to cause the known facts, thus revealing things that seemed unknown or unknowable.

Rick Rekt.
A feared, immortal assassin. When you truly need someone to suffer, you Get Rekt.

The Shark Brothers.
Card Shark, Loan Shark, and Pool Shark, three mobster brothers with bites that can sever gun barrels, each with their own specialty in crime.

The Skeptic.
The idea of someone who neutralizes mutant/metahuman powers is fairly common. This idea puts a slight spin on that, as someone who neutralizes all forms of magic.

The Relics.
A “family” of superbeings who are evolved and sentient magic items from mythology. Some, such as the swords Durandal, Gram, and Nothung, and the rings Andvarinaut and Draupnir, were forged directly by the sorcerer/smith Weyland while others, such as Fragarach, Mjolnir,  Nemean, and Tarnkappe, were reforged/rewoven by Weyland to grant them sapience, sentience, and human forms.
The Relics are reincarnated if slain, so while some have been active and alive for centuries, others are born as aparently normal humans, and then begin to gain powers of the reliquary nature sometime between their 12th and 18th years. Relics are not as a group entirely good or bad. Some, such as Durandal, appear to always be driven to work for justice. Others, such as Draupnir, seem to always seek power and wealth above all else.
And all sense that they exist to serve some great purpose in Weyland’s plans… which he refuses to talk about, though he calls them his “true children” and often aids them if they are in serious danger.

The ancient nordic sorcerer/smith of Germanic myth, though his origins are neolithic and he has survived to the modern era. Forged or reforged the Relics, causing them to be true living beings. Wayland is not evil, per se, and isn’t willing to see the world devastated, but his own plots and plans that take place over a scale of centuries, and mostly doesn’t care about “petty” issues like crime and justice.
Generally opposed by his equally immortal, but not quite as skilled, son Verlandsson, who mostly just hates his father and wants to stop the elder’s plans whatever they are, whatever the cost. Verlandsson is sometimes aided by his grandfather Vade, a giant and sorcerer/smith, who mostly just wants to be left alone.

Able to send and receive any broadcast signal. Makes an excellent “Overwatch/Quarterback/Ally in the chair” character, for good or ill, but could also be a badass in their own right with equipment and skills any superhero-level human can achieve, plus the WiFi power. Or, could have a swarm of drones. Or, all of the above.

In ancient Rome, someone who was banished from civilization was marked with the brand of the Wolf’s Head, meaning they could be hunted and killed as if a rogue wolf. One of those branded criminals turned it into a badge of honor, forming the Church of Crime and becoming the first popelike Wolfshead of All Crime.

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The Power of Blackskull (for Pathfinder)

Blackskull (and its mistress) is a location you can use as the seed of one or more adventures. It can be a side-quest, the end of a small adventure, a goal for players to claim, or even act as a patron’s home base. Legend claims it is the remains of Akash, the Titan of All Knowledge and avatar of the Akashic Record. You can set it in a vast desert, at the center of a massive barrow ground, at the peak of a dangerous mountain, or just at the edge of a small town that has spring up to house and make money off people who come to speak to the oracle of Blackskull.

The one true power of Blakcskull is the highest chamber within the skull, known as the Lore Room, which once per day allows anyone making a Knowledge check there to gain a +10 circumstance bonus to the check, as the ancient knowledge of Akash soaks into their mind.


(Blackskull cartography from Dyson Logos, and available for use by license)


For years, Blackskull was a focal point for petty squabbles among various sects of gods of knowledge and wizards who wished to use its resources to design new forms of hybrid animals. After an unfortunate incident when two such forces combined and made a small chimera-like creature with the body and one head of a racoon, wings and head of a magpie, and additional head of an tiger keelback snake, which began stealing the holy books of all religious orders, the local baron set up a challenge that Blkacskull would be granted to the scholar who could answer the most difficult question the baron could pose.

And the winning sage was the Fel Sage, also known as the Blood of Knowledge, a minor bard lich who poses as a vampire.

The Mistress of Blackskull

The Fel Sage is legendary as a “reasonable” undead. She doesn’t have any ethical limitations on her choice of actions, and would happily burn orphanages to the ground if it further her own researches one iota. However, she is also an apt historian who has a clear view of what happens to evil overlords when they become a threat to the world at large—heroes come and destroy them. The Fel Sage doesn’t want to rule the world—that sounds like a lot of work—she just wants time to read all the books, scrolls, tablets, and folios she has gathered over more than  a lifetime (which is why she became an undead to begin with—to have more time to read).

So, she used the power of suggestion to convince the baron to pose a question she already knew the answer to, answered it in a public show of her vast knowledge, and laid claim to Blackskull. As a result she even has some legal protections—as long as she doesn’t break local law, it’s illegal to kill her just for being an undead. Further, she acts as a sage for numerous adventuring parties and heroes, to ensure she has more allies than enemies—part of her plot to survive forever.

Though she used trickery to win her roost, in truth, the Fel Sage is capable of answering questions well beyond the norm for creatures of her power level. If she chooses to use the akashic communion spell she can gain a +10 insight bonus to one Knowledge check, and combine that with Blackskull’s Lore Room for a +10 circumstance bonus and her archivist version of lore master that allows her to take 20 on one Knowledge skill check per day, getting most of her Knowledge skill totals to +49 to +51. Of course even when this is her plan to answer a question, she insists such knowledge comes from days or even weeks of research, and generally only promises to have an answer after a petitioner has gone and gathered some rare book she desires (or rubbings off new ruins that have been discovered, or a drop of blood from an unidentified body that might spark a border war in a conflict zone so she can cast blood biography, or anything else that might quench her thirst for knowledge).

The Fel Sage only willingly sees people under the guise of a disguise self spell, and normally thus restricts herself to one meeting a day so as not to drain her spell resources (though she has scrolls if she is forced to break that rule). She doesn’t use her disguise self magics to appear human—that’s beyond the power of the spell. Instead she uses it to appear to be a vampire, a different form of undead than her own lich status, and an undead with a very different set of limitations and weaknesses.

While she sees significant tactical benefits to being mistaken for a vampire, her main motivation is actually pride. She is an extremely weak lich, having only barely managed to transform herself and only because she found a document with the easiest, most carefully-explained lich ritual ever. She fears mockery if the world at large ever discovered she was, essentially, the weakest lich ever. But if she poses as a vampire, her immunity to daylight and ability to claim she holds off bloodlust through ancient elixirs and pure willpower make her seem extraordinary and special.

She also uses her disguise self to make her whip look like a dagger, and to make an impressive magic ring appear on her hand, which she pretends is the source of her paralyzing touch lich power.

If a group comes to her with some question that must be answered she insist on being paid in rare knowledge and books, and often has some specific quest she insists on sending adventurers on. If possible, she picks tasks that are more dangerous than they sound, hoping anyone bothering her will be killed off rather than return for an answer—but if they do return, she sees the benefit in having adventurers who will put themselves as risk for her benefit, and treats them fairly. If any seem taken with her comely vampire guise, she does her best to establish a sense of intimacy, often creating a first name she offers to allow them to call her (which she makes up n the spot, the Fel Sage has long since forgotten her “life name,” which she considers irrelevant to her new existence).

Of course she is a lich, and she is evil. Someday, even with the tenuous protection of local law, someone will decide she has to go.

Her hope is that when that day comes, more adventurers will want to keep her around than get rid of her.

The Fel Sage

CR 8

XP 4,800
Female lich (human) bard (archivist) 7
NE Medium undead
Init +2; Senses darkvision (60 ft.), Perception +19; Aura fear (60-ft. radius, DC 19)
AC 18, touch 12, flat-footed 16 (+1 armor, +5 natural armor, +2 Dex)
hp 73 (7d8+35)
Fort +3, Ref +8, Will +7; +4 vs. bardic performance, language-dependent, and sonic
Defensive Abilities channel resistance +4; rejuvenation; DR 15/bludgeoning and magic; Immune cold, electricity, undead traits
Speed 30 ft.
Melee whip +7 (1d3–1), touch +2 (1d8+3 plus paralyzing touch)
Ranged light crossbow +7 (1d8/19–20)
Special Attacks bardic performance 22 rounds/day (countersong, distraction, fascinate, inspire competence +3, lamentable belaborment*, naturalist +2*), paralyzing touch (DC 19)
*Represents an ability gained from the archivist archetype
Bard Spells Known (CL 7th; concentration +12)
3rd (2)akashic communion, charm monster (DC 19)
2nd (4) alegro, blood biography, invisibility, mirror image, suggestion (DC 18)
1st (6)—beguiling gift (DC 17), charm person (DC 17), disguise self, expeditious retreat, hideous laughter (DC 17), memory lapse (DC 17), saving finale, touch of gracelessness (DC 17)
0 (at will)—detect magic, ghost sound (DC 16), light, message, prestidigitation, sift
Str 8, Dex 14, Con -, Int 14, Wis 12, Cha 22
Base Atk +5; CMB +4; CMD 16
Feats Arcane Strike, Greater Serpent Lash, Lingering Performance, Serpent Lash, Weapon Finesse
Skills Acrobatics +12, Appraise +11, Disguise +16, Knowledge (arcana) +9, Knowledge (dungeoneering) +11, Knowledge (engineering) +9, Knowledge (geography) +9, Knowledge (history) +9, Knowledge (local) +11, Knowledge (planes) +11, Knowledge (nobility) +11, Linguistics +7, Perception +19, Perform (oratory) +16, Sense Motive +14, Spellcraft +6, Stealth +19, Use Magic Device +16
Languages Common, Giant, Polyglot, Necril
SQ bardic knowledge +3, jack of all trades*, lore master (take 20*) 1/day, magic lore*
*Represents an ability gained from the archivist archetype
Combat Gear scroll of comprehend languagesscrolls of disguise self (2)scroll of restful sleep, wand of cause light wounds (50 charges), wand of grease (50 charges)Other Gear quilted cloth armor, light crossbow with 10 bolts, whip, cloak of resistance +1headband of alluring charisma +2, backpack, spell component pouch, 25 gp

Blackskull in Your Campaign

You can use Blackskull and the Fel Sage as traditional villains and adventure locations if you wish–just have the Fel Sage send thugs to gather lorebooks by any means necessary, the thugs steal something from friends of the PCs, and the adventure is on! Or she can become a colorful patron, always willing to answer the PCs’ questions… in return for their taking on some dangeorus mission (which gives you, the GM, an easy work-around any time your PCs are stumped–they can get the answer to any question, as long as they do an extra adventure for the Fel Sage to make up for it).

Of a PC could become the “legal” owner of Blackskull somehow, and have to kick the Fel Sage out of it.

Or the PCs could discover some foe of their is always one step ahead of them because that foe buys information from the Fel Sage, and force the PCs to decide if they want to kill her, or buy her off to gain information of her own.

It’s easy to add some encounters to Blackskull to make it a mini-dungeon. Since the Fel Sage is CR 8, throwing together some CR 4-9 monsters is easy enough. here are some examples.
*An androsphinx waits outside, having paid the Fel Sage to find him a new riddle, and he attacks anyone who tries to go in before he has his answer from her.
*An annis hag has become the Fel Sage’s apprentice, usually taking the form of a sky maid named “Lilly.” Lilly tries to get visitors to violate any of the Fel Sage’s rules, so she can kill and consume them. Also, she makes soup.
*One of the upper elvels is protected with a flame strike trap.
*A hill giant, Onks, serves as the Fel Sage’s guard. She has convinced him he is descended from the titan Akash, and that if he serves her long enough he’ll become smart. This is a lie.
*The lowest level has been blocked off and flooded, and there’s a globster in it. because the Fel Sage read about one, got one imported to study, and now doesn’t know what to do with it. She doesn’t feed it much, so it’s hungry.
The Fel Sage has stuck a lurker above in the room off the right eye socket, to protect access to the Lore room. It knows she’s rotted meat, and has no interest in eating her.
*Two bookcases are actually Wood Golems.

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Gambling in the Really Wild West (for Starfinder)

Gambling, and being a professional gambler, are common Wild West tropes, so the ideas ought to be supported in the Really Wild West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game (which, after a long rest, is going to start getting regular support from me again!).

On the one hand, those rules ought to include some way to have dramatic gambling scenes for when a game of chance has become crucial to the plot. On the other hand, most people don’t want to have to be good gamblers to play the gambler character (any more than they want to have to be sharpshooters to play gunslingers).

So the rules should be simple, and play to the character sheet as much as the player, while retaining some dramatic tension.

Profession (gambler)

Step one is to explicitly allow “gambler” as an option for the Profession skill. In most cases, a character who wants to make money gambling just uses Profession (gambler). While all professional gamblers can pull from a broad toolbox to make money, the emphasis of their gambling style is determined by what ability score it’s based on. If the skill is Intelligence-based, the gambler depends primarily on knowing the odds and rules of the games, calculating the smart bet and using betting schemes to maximize wins and minimize losses. If the skill is Wisdom-based, the gambler depends more on reading other gamblers and trusting instinctive gut feelings on how to bet. If the skill is Charisma-based, the gambler depends more on bluffing, faking out other gamblers, or using a distraction to cover cheating.

Unlike most Profession skills, a character can make Profession (gambler) checks untrained *thought they cannot use it for the earn a living task if untrained). A player decides what ability score Profession (gambler) is based on when they take their first rank it in (and may choose any ability score if using it untrained).


Casual Gambling

To make things slightly more interesting, a character with Profession (gambling) can use casual betting when making the skill check for the Earn a Living task. The player bets a number of credits equal to their Profession (gambler) skill +10. Then if their skill check for the task (which they may not take 10 on) results in a d20 roll of 2-5, their bet is lost and no money is earned. On a 6-10, they win back their bet, but do not earn any additional income. On an 11-15, they win back their bet and earn credits normally. On a 16 or higher, they win back their bet and earn twice as much as normal for a week’s work. On a natural 1, they lose the bet and lose the same amount of additional credits. (Overall this option is good deal for the player.)

Once a character has used this option for a week in a settlement and made money doing so, it’s not normally available again for at least a month (as locals have learned better than to play with the character). A GM may modify this rule for cities with lots of gambling, very large settlements, and times when numerous new potential gambling partners are appearing regularly.

Dramatic Gambling

Dramatic gambling is only used when the GM calls for it, and normally only when there’s more on the line than just credits. This is the option when the master villain insists on playing poker to see who wins the blood-soaked contract that sells a soul to a devil, or a neutral third party won’t sell the crucial material for a required ritual, but will gamble for it. Unless all the players are gamblers (or find interacting with the dramatic betting rules interesting), this should be as rare as any other focus most players can’t interact with—it’s fine as a spotlight scene or a change of pace, but you shouldn’t build regular encounters out of these rules unless your players know the campaign is going to have a gambling focus.

Dramatic gambling can be done with Bluff, Culture, Diplomacy, Profession (gambling), or Sleight of Hand (with potential consequences). Characters must make multiple checks during a dramatic gambling event, usually using at least two different skills. Most of these skills cannot be used more than once during a dramatic gambling event. The exceptions to this are Profession (gambling) and Sleight of hand, which may always be used. If a character decides to use Sleight of Hand they are choosing to cheat, and all participants and bystanders are allowed to make an opposed Perception check with a -5 penalty and, with a successful check, spot the character cheating.

The Stakes

Before any rolls are made, the gambling event’s stakes must be determined. This can be as simple as an amount of money risked by each participant, but for dramatic gambling events it’s equally likely to be some sort of plot point. For example, if the PCs are trying to convince the Cattle Duke of Montana to allow them to lay train tracks through his grazing lands, the Duke might decide the issue is settled by a high-stakes game of Red Dog, as represented by a dramatic gambling event. Similarly, if the specific player is trying to pick up a legendary item using renown, a GM might decide the final task needed to do so is a throw of the dice with Death herself… again, as a dramatic gambling event.

If the stakes are money, the winner gets to double their stake, and everyone else loses their stake (any “unwon” money goes to the house, which is never a PC). If the stakes are more plot driven the GM should be clear about the consequences of winning and losing. The PCs convince the Cattle Duke to allow their train through his territory if they win, and lose any chance of a peaceful settlement of the problem if they lose. The PC wins a legendary weapon from Death with a win, and gains a temporary negative level with a loss.

Stakes should also include the cost of folding. A character can fold until the Final Reveal. Normally folding costs you half your stakes, though for dramatic gambling where the stakes are more conceptual, the GM should just establish stakes that are half as bad as loosing (the Duke won’t work with you, but will allow you to keep trying to find a new deal he likes better. Death doesn’t give you the legendary item, but the negative level only lasts 1d6 days.)

The First Deal

Once stakes are set, the First Deal is made. This represents how good a position each participant begins with in the gambling. This need not be one hand of cards, or even cards at all. It could represent luck in the first spin of a roulette wheel, how good information about a horse is, or the value of an initial die roll in a gambling dice game.

Each participant in the event rolls a d20 in secret. The die is set aside for the moment. The First Deal is used to determine the final winner of the dramatic gambling event, but not yet.

No abilities that affect d20 reroll can be used on another character’s First Deal, including things like rerolls, unless the character using the ability has successfully Read the d20 result first. Any participant can attempt to Read another participant’s First Deal with a successful use of the detect deception task of Sense Motive check. This can be attempted once after the First Deal, once after the First Deal, and once after the Raise Round, each time looking at a single participant’s First Deal. On a successful check, the raw d20 result of the First Deal is revealed. Once you use Sense Motive to attempt to Read a First Deal you can’t use Sense Motive for any other purpose during the dramatic gambling event.

The GM can ask to see anyone’s First Deal die result, but can’t have NPCs act based on that knowledge without successfully using an ability to Read it.

Raise Round

After the First Deal, comes the Raise Round. Each player makes one d20 roll in the open. Then, from lowest die result to highest, each participant chooses a skill to add the bonus of to d20 roll. Characters can only use their ranks + ability score for this bonus, unless they state they are using some other rule that affects it, such as a class feature, feat, racial ability, spell, or item. (Using spells or items is always considered cheating, and requires a Stealth check opposed by all bystander’s and participant’s Perception checks, to do so without being noticed). Any such ability that affects a die roll or skill bonus can only be used once at any point in the dramatic gambling event. If an operative decides to add operative’s edge to a skill check for the Raise Round, it cannot be used again in the Final Round, even for a different skill.

Once each participant has done this, and the current result of all the raise Round skill checks are known, in the same order characters may choose if they wish to change to a new skill (perhaps one with a higher bonus), or to add an ability that can impact the Raise Round skill check. If anyone does so, another round of potential chances to skills used and class features is taken, repeating until all players pass.

Any skill or ability used in this process cannot be used again in the Final Round.

The winner of the Raise Round is allowed to roll an additional d20, in the open. In the Final Round, that player can use his original First Deal d20 check, or the new d20 roll. This decision need not be made until all the Final Round actions are completed, and everyone’s First Deal is revealed.

If two or more character’s Raise Round skill check totals are tied for the highest total at the end of the Raise Round, whichever character got to that total first wins the round.

At any point in the Raise Round, a participant may Fold, in which case they lose half their stakes (or suffer the more minor penalty, for dramatic gambling events with nonmonetary stakes.)

Final Round

In the Final Round, participants go in reverse order of the order used in the Raise Round. Each participant chooses a skill and declares what their total bonus for that skill is, but do NOT yet reveal what their total is with their First Deal die.

As with the Raise Round, after every participant has declared a skill and any abilities they wish to use to boost it, another round is held where characters may swap to new skills or add new abilities. After each round, characters may Fold, as with the Raise Round.

After everyone passes, everyone in the same order decides to Fold or Call.

Everyone who Calls reveals their First Deal d20 roll, adds their total bonus, and the highest total wins. Whoever won the Raise Round may swap to their second d20 roll in place of their First Deal roll after seeing everyone else’s total. In case of a tie, the character with the highest number of ranks in their chosen skill wins (better good than lucky). If there is still a tie, everyone tied rolls a d20 and the highest result wins.

Example of Play

Alex (a soldier), Janye (an operative), and Stan (an envoy) are playing out a dramatic gambling event. They establish stakes, 100 credits each.

Each of them makes a First Deal roll. Alex gets a 4, Jayne a 7, and Stan a 17, but none of those die results are revealed.

Alex decides to attempt to Read Stan’s First Deal die roll. Alex makes a Sense Motive check, opposed by Stan’s Bluff check. Alex succeeds, and learns Stan’s hidden die roll is a 17. Alex now can’t use Sense Motive for any purpose in this dramatic gambling event other than attempting another Read check after the Raise Round.

For the Raise Round, Alex, Jayne, and Stan each make another d20 roll this time in the open. Alex gets a 15, Jayne an 11, and Stan a 10. Since Stan rolled the lowest, he is the first to declare a skill total. Since he knows he has a 17 as his First Deal, he decides to use a lower skill here and states his using Diplomacy, which is +8, for a Raise Round total of (d20 roll 10 + 8) 18.

Jayne goes next. She has Profession (gambling) at +12, and is an operative with another +2 from operative’s edge. She can use Profession for both her die rolls, but can only apply her operative’s edge to one of them. Knowing she has a First Deal roll of 7, she’d like to win the Raise Round to get a reroll, but hopes she won’t have to use operative’s edge to do it. So she uses her Profession skill without her+2 operative’s edge, getting a total of (d20 roll 11 +12) 23.

Alex has a Raise Round result of 15, and knows his First Deal result is 4 and Stan’s is 17. His best skill is Culture, which is +12, and his second-best is Diplomacy, which is +9. He feels he must get the reroll in the Raise Round to have any hope of winning, and isn’t sure using Diplomacy is good enough. It would get him a 24, better than  Jayne’s current total, but if she has any abilities to boost her result she could beat him. Alex decides to use his Culture to get a total of (d20 roll 15 +12) 27.

Everyone has a chance to change their skills now, again beginning with Stan. Stan decided he wants to prevent Alex or Jayne from getting the reroll from winning the Raise Round, even if he doesn’t need it, so he switches to his Bluff, which has a +12 bonus and gives him the option of adding a +1d6+1 expertise die. Stan decided to use the expertise die now, and rolls a (1d6 roll 4 +1) 5, giving him a +17 bonus for this skill check. That gives him a (d20 roll 10 +17) 27 total as well. However since Alex got that result first, he wins the tie.

No one else wants to use any other skills, so Alex wins the Raise Round. He makes a d20 Raise Roll in the open, getting a 12. Now he can use either his original First Deal result of 4, or his Raise Roll of 12, for the Final Round.

On the Final Round, participants go in reverse order of their Raise Round totals (Jayne 23, Stan 27, Alex 27). Each announced their skill total, but does not yet reveal their First Deal die. Jayne knows Alex has a Raise Roll result of 12 he can use, and she knows her own First Deal roll is a 7. She declares she is using Profession (gambling) again, which gives her a +12 bonus, and that she is using operative’s edge (there’s no reason not to), for a total of a +14 bonus.

Stan used his best skills (Bluff and Diplomacy) and his skill expertise class feature, so his best remaining option is to use his weaker Sense Motive skill, at +7.

Alex knows he has a Raise Roll of 12, but his best remaining skill is diplomacy at +9.

No one has any additional abilities to add or better skills to switch to, the everyone passes.

Jayne then must decide to Fold or Call. She has a skill bonus of +14 and a First Deal die roll of 7, so she knows her total is 21. She also knows Alex has at least a 12 (his visible Raise Roll) and a bonus of +7, also a 21. She thinks she has more ranks in Profession (gambling) than Alex has in Diplomacy, so she calls.

Stan has a skill bonus of +7, and a First Deal die roll of 17, for a total of 24. But he is afraid Jayne’s much higher skill bonus makes her more likely to win. He folds, and loses half his stakes (50 credits).

Alex thinks Jayne must have a really bad First Deal die roll, so he Calls.

Jayne and Alex then reveal their totals. They are tied at 21, but Jayne DOES have more ranks in her skill than Alex has in his, so she wins. Alex loses all his stake, and Jayne doubles her stake.

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Adventure Sketch: Lord of the Rapids (for Pathfinder)

Adventure Sketches are just the most basic set up, plot, twist, and development for as many or as few sessions as a GM wants to turn them into. They’re enough guidance to make plotting out a game easy, but not so much it’s hard to fit into any existing campaign.

Intended for Pathfinder, this adventure sketch can be modified to work with nearly any RPG with lawless lands, frontier zones, and numerous races.

The rapids are the most dangerous part of the great river, but are also on a branch of the river easily bypassed by those wishing to use it for travel. The land around the rapids is rockier and heavily overgrown, bad for farming and hard to travel through. It was considered to be most concerning as a potential place for bandit hideouts, but no such group was ever known to use it. As recently as a generation ago the rapids were considered too far from anything of value for any thinking group to bother with them.

But in recent years, numerous aquatic animals and magical beasts have attacked all up and down the rest of the great river, and most ponds and lakes near it. At first such attacks were only on isolated groups, mostly itinerant traders, and local settlements ignored it. But in recent months the attacks have been bolder. Major trade shipments have been attacked, and a few small thorps have been abandoned, with signs of attacks in the disused buildings.

Major merchant princes in faraway lands wish the disruptions of trade to end, and assume some brigand ranger or  petty druid is finally using the lands of the rapids to set up an outlaw camp. The merchant princes wish to end the problem quickly and cheaply, and thus have placed a bounty on the leader of these presumed “rapids rogues.” The PCs are drawn into this situation, perhaps to pay off a debt, perhaps as guards for a river trader and his shipment, perhaps as a favor for a struggling vendor, or perhaps just for the bounty.

But in truth, it’s a brine dragon (a juvenile brine dragon perhaps, CR 8, and a good capstone fight for 5th or 6th level PCs) and its lizardmen conscripts that have been causing problems. The brine dragon, Breakwave, has also conquered the local nixie clan who once lived in idyllic peace in the rapids and surrounding lands. Breakwave wishes to build an empire, and forces the nixies to use their talents to train and command aquatic threats (giant caimans, anacondas, arapaima, monstrous electric eels, and dire river otters), and uses threats and bribes to turn any other nearby creatures into soldiers.

The PCs must fight their way through the rapids, learn the true nature of the threat, rescue citizens of the abandoned settlements (many of whom have been pressed into service by Breakwave), bypass monstrous and aquatic guards, and finally defeat Breakwave himself.

And then the real adventure begins.

Breakwave has angered numerous other nearby threats–attacking some, extorting others–and his death causes those threats to rush into the lands around the rapids to claim his presumed hoard. Further, without his *undesired) patronage, and with the rapids now seen as a crucial tactical location, the nixies and their care for that section of the great river are doomed–unless they can convince the PCs to protect them (perhaps in return for the nixies’ loyalty).

And the merchant princes suddenly think the PCs may be making too great a profit. And the lizardmen came from a not-too-distant tribe, who expected regular payments in return for the lizardman mercenary service, and will demand recompense for the loss of the income Breakwater provided.

The PCs can flee the situation, or try to use diplomacy to re-establish equilibrium, or claim the area as their own base of operation, of even pick up where Breakwave left off…

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Microsetting: Midlands

The Plains are the safest. Not safe, mind you, but not as bad as when you move too far in any other direction.

They can’t cross running water, so the Mississippi is the barrier from the East. I’ve heard the Panama Canal is as safe as you can go South, but I don’t know anyone who has gone any further than Laredo. Something about the air. Baja California is supposedly still okay, but god help them for being so far West.

There’s no set barrier between the Plains and the West Coast. The Rockies do most of the work of keeping us safe, but stay clear of the passes. Everyone knows what happened at Logan Pass, and I saw how bad things get close to Marias Pass myself. I-15 is like a line of death, and they move north-south along it much, much too easily. I-90 isn’t as bad, but it’s not good either. I don’t go farther North than Nebraska, anymore. I’m told U.S. 20 is worse, but I never saw anything on it.

I wish I could say they only come out at night, but that’s not true. They see better at night than we do, or at least most of ’em do, so night’s more dangerous. But they can move and hunt in the day, too. The leaner pickings get, the more they hunt in the light. But that doesn’t mean you should feel safe if there are people around. Some groups just haven’t been hit yet. Others make… arrangements. Arrangements that don’t go well for strangers to their area.

Shooting them in the head is great, but not strictly necessary and requires you to be sure what part is the head. If you have the ammo, center-mass is still the safest bet, but it takes a lot of lead. Clubs seems useless, and machetes are too likely to chip and bend. Spears are okay, but you need some kind of cross-brace, or they just pull themselves down it until they get to you.

Axes are good. Shovels work in a pinch, if sharpened.

Don’t listen to anything broadcast. Don’t eat anything you can’t identify, even if it comes from a can. Don’t try to read anything in a language you don’t recognize. If you think you can hear the stars, get inside. If someone near you says they can hear the stars?

Axes are good.

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A Beginning Is A Very Delicate Time

“We are locked in existential battle with the forces of Khernobog. Every living, thinking thing on the other side of the rivers and mountains wants us dead. Or worse.

“The Wards Majoris keep out most threats. More powerful creatures can burst through the wards, of course, but doing so takes time and sets off alarms. As long as our Princips aren’t busy elsewhere, they can respond to any such effort and prevent a breach.

“But more minor creatures are simply below the threat level the wards respond to. Sometimes those lesser forces of Khernobog gather in numbers large enough to be a significant danger. Generally they must take such armies through the fords or passes. Which is why there are keeps and castles there, manned with veterans who couldn’t stop a creature powerful enough to breach the wards, but can act in units to guard against incursions of massed minor threats.

“Of course, for them to respond quickly, they can’t stray too far from those routes, and they can only patrol so much territory beyond that. Smaller groups of minor creatures that can pass through the wards can sneak past the patrols, or move through rough terrain a whole army couldn’t negotiate.

“Such individuals and small bands are no danger to our lands as a whole. But that is no comfort to a father mourning a stolen child, or a wisewoman who loses her chickens.

“Those threats are minor, but no less threats, and someone must face them. Someday, perhaps, you will have the experience and power needed to guard the castles. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll even be a Prencip, and defend us from reality-altering powers of the enemy.

“But until then, we need you to form into small groups, and seek out those threats you can handle. Ensure that the patrols don’t have to abandon their posts, and the Princips are neither distracted nor out of position.

“It may seem minor, but this, too, is a great service to our lands.”


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