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Space Politics

One of the things more industrialized settings sometimes do for an rpg campaign is open up new avenues of adventure. While there is nothing at all wrong with tuning an abandoned mall into a dungeon, or a wrecked spaceship into a haunted house, or treating an alien progenator as a dragon in its layer, sometimes it’s fun to play with new possibilities as well.

And if you have a setting with multiple homeworlds drawing together in a confederation with representative officials from different worlds, each with its own method of selecting said officials, that means politics.

While in some games PCs might actually be candidates, and some system of determining who wins an election might be useful as a subsystem, the idea of political action adventures can be introduced without going nearly that far. Much as you don’t need a subsystem on fighting epidemics in order to rush antidotes to a plague-ridden city and don’t need rules on the impact of an alpha predator on an ecology not designed for it to hunt down the bullette destroying a forest, you can do a lot with politics as a motivator without ever getting into voting, caucuses, poll taxes, or even issues.

As with many RPG-related adventure ideas, you can borrow heavily from fiction for inspiration. While these are by no means an exhaustive list of movies with politics-driven action plots, and it’s certainly not a commentary on the quality of any of these movies, they are things that a good GM should be able to easily borrow from to throw some political adventure into a modern or science-fiction campaign. All of these have at least some elements where it’s easy to envision PCs of any level getting involved, either accidentally, as catspaws, or as a politically appropriate measured response. While it might be important in some cases to downgrade the action from centering around a chief executive to simply a minor representative who’ll cast a decisive vote on something, the core ideas are still easily lifted.

And obviously, I leaned towards those movies with cool ideas and set-pieces over those with believable politics.

Air Force One
Bridge of Spies
Enemy of the State
Escape from New York
Godzilla: Resurgence
The Hunger Games tilogy
In the Line of Fire
The Kingdom
The Manchurian Candidate
Olympus Has Fallen
The Pelican Brief
The Purge: Election Year

Speaking of Politics

Well only sort of. But politicians need supporters… and so do I! I have a Patreon, where I have set up pledge levels to explain how much you’ll actually be charged (within a few cents) even under Patreon’s weird new pricing scheme. Check it out!

Dirty Delvers Treasure Division

Two things are on my mind at the moment. “Dirty Santa” style gift –exchange games, and treasure division in dungeon-delving style fantasy RPGs. These two things have nothing to do with each other, and yet…

Let me interrupt my own train of thought to point out that I’m not claiming this is a good idea. I strongly suspect it’s a bad idea. But, it IS an idea, and sometimes those demand our attention.

So, let’s combine Dirty Santa and Treasure Division.

Decide how many items there are to be divided. We’ll call this the number of “picks.” If there’s money or other bulk valuables you can divide the total value by the number of people in the party who get treasure (we’ll call them folks), and treat each amount of that value as one pick. (So if there is 2400 gp of coins and gems, and five folks dividing the treasure, that’s five picks worth 480 gp each.)

Divide the total number of picks by the number of folks, and round up.

Double that number, and each of the folks get that many takes. A take represents selecting an item of loot to keep. They should track their takes.

To decide who gets to spend a take first, players all secretly bid how many takes they will spend for that privilege. Then reveal the bids. Whoever bid the most goes first, and the order after id determined by who bid the 2nd most, and so on. In case of ties, roll off to see who goes earlier.

The person who goes first expends 1 pick to select an item. At least for the moment, it is theirs.

The next person may expend 1 pick to select an item left in the pool, or may expend TWO picks to take the item already selected by the person who went first. If that happens, the person who went first gets one pick back.

Proceed in order. On each turn, a folk can do one of these things:
A: Expend one pick to select an item no one has selected yet.
B: Select an item someone else has. This requires you to spend a number of picks equal to 1 + the number of people who have already picked it. So if two people have already picked it, you have to spend three picks. No matter how many picks you spend, one pick goes back to the person you take it from.
C: Select an item someone else has that you were the very first person to pick. This costs only one pick, no matter how many people have picked it since.

Repeat this process until you run out of items, or everyone runs out of picks. If you run out of items, the process is over. If everyone runs out of picks when there are still items left, everyone gets back all the picks they began with, and keep going.

Speaking of Ideas

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Rats, Wereratrats!

Adventure idea: A community of unusually short-tailed, round-headed ratfolk (an ethnicity called ‘voles’ by other local races) who live in borrows (boroughs?) outside a major city have begun to be assaulted and driven out of local markets by rougher citizens of the city. The settlers accuse the ratfolk of theft, and desecration of several shrines within the city, saying the ratfolk move through the city’s sewers and drains, and have even been seen trying to get at children asleep in their homes.

The ratfolk proclaim their innocence, and point out they warned the city’s leaders weeks ago that wererats had been spotted in the thick brush of a nearby woods. The ratfolk believe the wererats have infected some city dwellers. The city government thinks the ratfolk are making false claims about wererats to protect some ratfolk hooligans, and thus aren’t taking it seriously.

Thus the ratfolk need help, because the wererats (who do indeed walk among them, including a few wererat ratfolk who only have a modest appearance change in hybrid form) are a demon cult who wish to summon agents of their demonic patron, a scavenger lord who spreads disease and uses vrocks as his agents. The wererats have summoned one vrock already, and want two more so they can do a dance of ruin beneath the city streets! So, the rastfolk want to hire some outsiders (the PCs) to fairly investigate.

The players must separate fact from fiction, deal with hunting down were rats both in the city sewers and hiding in plain site among the ratfllk, and ultimately deal with the apocalyptic whereat demon cult’s plans.

The name of the adventure?

“Vrock and Vole”

Roller Dungeon

So here is the idea:

Dungeon speed runs as a team sport, on roller skates. “Roller Dungeon Team T-Shirts” optional, but the Absalom Abyssals Woman’s Speed Destruction Team is my favorite.

EVERYONE is on roller skates. Heroes, monsters, gelatinous cubes… everyone.

The Rules

Every PC must have half their levels in barbarian, brawler, cavalier, fighter, investigator, kineticist, monk, ninja, rogue, or slayer.

For these mandatory class levels, you get +4 skill points per level, and the Skating skill. Also, any class that has Ride replaces it with Skating.

Skating works like Ride, but your “mount” is a pair of skates that take your space. Anything you could do on a mount, you can instead do on skates. All skates have a 30 foot move rate and, like a mount, if you control your skates without taking an action, you get a full action.

Skates are never battle-trained mounts, unless you would get a mount as a class feature like cavaliers).

All dungeons should be 2 CR lower than the APL *your spellcaster assistance has been limited after all, and you are making speed runs).

You only get full XP and treasure for a combat or trap encounter if you finish it in 5 rounds or less. For every round more than that, you lose 25% of your XP and treasure. An encounter begins when you become aware of it, so scouting eats into your time. If you complete an encounter in less than 4 rounds, you get a 10% treasure bonus for each round less time you take.

It’s assumed you have an audience, so Performance combat is an option.

Combine with DungeonBall! or X-Crawl as desired.

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SpaceThulhu 1889!

I kind of want to write “SpaceThulhu 1889!”
“To defend an Earth on the brink of War, man must take to the stars in ships driven by steam and ether!”
“And face horrors never before imagined.”
1. The Dagon Drive
2. The Statement of Captain Randolph Carter
3. Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Crew
4. Nyarlathotep Nebula
5. Herbert West — Chairman of the Royal Reanimation Society
6. The Colour Out Here in Space
7. The Whisperer on Mars
8. The Eclipse Over Innsmouth
9. The F
all of Cthulhu


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Island of Misfit Magic Items

I kinda want to write an adventure set on the Isle of Misfit Magic Items.

“So you have a 9th level spell as a prerequisite. Oh! Are you a ring of wishes?”

“No!” (sobs) “I’m a ring of foresight. I’m a ring with literally the only 9th level spell no one cares about.”

“Well… at least you’re an intelligent item!”

“Not that intelligent. I can’t spell.”

“But you have a spell in you!”

“Yeah… but it’s ‘Foursight’!”

… Along with the Gem of Climbing, Cloak of Elven Strength, and Rope of Holding.

Death is Good, Life is Bad

A fantasy world where necromancers are the good guys is fairly easy to envision.
A fantasy world where clerics are the bad guys is fairly easy to envision.
But consider a world where magic healers, with no ties to a force outside themselves and no negative side-effects of their healing powers, are the buy guys.
My idea: TheApothecaries and Healers Guild (AHG) is entirely mercenary. They keep kings and merchant lords alive… forever… for a price. Of course the most tyrannical of rulers are those most likely to afford that price.
No one is allowed to heal without paying for AHG member… which you can really only afford with a rich patron. Healing is the ultimate resource, and AHG both has a monopoly, and is selling only to the highest bidder.
As a bonus, the only people who can afford to oppose them are the necromancers, who don’t need health care for their forces, and aren’t afraid of death…
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Silly Scares: Shark-Hazards

Silly Scares are super short Pathfinder rules to add a bit of a fright to a fear-themed game, without getting at all serious.

Shark- (Simple Hazard Template, +2 CR)

The Shark- (read “shark blank”) template increases the danger of hazards by making them shark-related. Thus a forest fire becomes a “shark-forest fire,” clearly a case where a shark-forest catches on fire.

When a shark-hazard forces a character to make a saving throw, or it makes an attack against a character, or it deals damage to a character, the sharkiness of it also makes an attack. This is a bite. It has an attack bonus equal to the CR of the hazard x1.5, and deals 1d8 damage per 2 CR of the encounter. Any one event only results in a single attack

So if caught in a CR 8 shark-forest fire, each time a character had to make a Fortitude save to avoid nonlethal heat damage, the character would also be subject to a shark bite (+12 to hit, 4d8 damage). Even if the character both failed a save and took heat damage, the character would still be subject to only a single bite attack.

Any skill to identify a hazard gains a bonus equal to the hazard’s CR if it is a shark-hazard. Because an entire shark-forest burning is hard to miss.

A shark-hazard returns after 1 year + 4d20 – 4d20 days if it is not destroyed properly. (This is often referred to as a “sequel” to the original shark hazard.) Destroying it properly requires a complex plan capable to both ending the hazard, and simultaneously killing a number of sharks equal to double the hazard’s CR.

It doesn’t matter what the plan is, as long as it is complex, ends a normal hazard, and kills a bunch of sharks.

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Silly Scares: Drunken Spirits

Silly Scares are super short Pathfinder rules to add a bit of a fright to a fear-themed game, without getting at all serious.

Drunken Spirit (Simple Template, +2 CR)

A drunken spirit is a form of ghost that died while tripping balls. It only exists for, and can only interact with, creatures that are suffering the staggered condition, or are sickened as a result of drinking too much alcohol. For other characters the drunk spirit cannot be seen, affected by any spell or ability, or even confirmed to exist by anything up to 9and including) miracle and wish.

Similarly, the drunken spirit can do nothing to those who cannot affect it. The drunken spirit treats itself as incorporeal for all unattended, inanimate objects, so it walks through walls and can’t pick up or throw rocks. (A giant with the drunken spirit template can still use its throw rocks ability, but they are steins of sloshing booze).

Any creature can have this template. Although it is theoretically an undead, it doesn’t act like an undead for creatures that can interact with it, and can’t be affected by other creatures, so that doesn’t matter.

Any affect that can sober up a creature damages a drunken spirit (roughly 1d6 points of damage per spell level of the effect), and anything that makes you drunk heals them.

An easy way to introduce a drunken spirit is to have one appear when a character is staggered, and then it follows that character until it is seen again. This can also be a kind of horror for play and character alike, as the GM assures other players the PC claiming to see something is wrong, while that character takes damage. For an extra level of confusion, you can decide any damage the drunken spirit deals to the staggered of drunk PC appears self-inflicted.

Top Ten Cinematic Dungeons

I am oft assaulted with cries about the unrealism of RPG “dungeons,” when conversing with less chthonic game fans. Even ignoring the cognitive dissonance of claiming fireballs are fine but you can’t have many geographically isolated regions of high-danger that include mushrooms that can sustain an ecosystem, I think dungeons have gotten a bad rap because so many are run as nothing more than endless mazes of unconnected threats. I prefer short, focused delves downward and thematically linked quarantine sites that happen to be underground to monolithic puzzles of mega-corridors, but I think limited-access, PC-channeling adventure sites have a lot going for them and can be part of a strong, logical narrative. While they are not “dungeons” in the penal sense, I believe lots of good stories use sites any good Dungeon Master can recognize as a place for wandering monsters, 10-foot poles and trap checks.

Since moving pictures are worth 1,000 blog posts, to support the case for dungeons in stories (and offer a little inspiration) we now present:

Top Ten Movie Dungeons

  1. The Mountain of Power (Conan the Barbarian, `982)

Given how popular D&D was with young teen boys in 1982, the orgy scene in this movie may have been a hit with that segment of the RPG crowd more for bare breasts than the thematic conflict of free-spirited freebooter mercenaries against a totalitarian cult regime of nihilistic excess. But it’s still great music, a great fight, and a great dungeon.

  1. The City of Lost Children (The City of Lost Children)

Not only is this a great-looking locale oozing with color that, if well described, could keep players enraptured regardless of the plot, it’s a wonderful set-up. The City is an actual prison, a place where the inhabitants cannot escape. Ruled by a mad scientist and patrolled by his golems, the City has traps, oddities, and a “thieves’ guild” run by an octopus. And a man-mountain of a hero must find his way through all of it on a rescue mission, which is about as typical an RPG dungeon plot as I can think of, though done this way it feels fresh again.

  1. The Lair of Vermithrax Pejorative (Dragonslayer)

The fiery lair of the dragon in Dragonslayer has elements to be seen in many RPG dungeons that came after – altars for live sacrifice, hordes of smaller threats, strange terrain (the burning water), caverns with tactically interesting ledges and, of course, a dragon. Given this movie came out in 1981 it clearly is not the origin of Dungeons and Dragons (despite having both), but it’s fair to say it was an influence for years. Of course those elements are far from the only things fantasy RPGs borrow from this movie (though interestingly it’s the spear and shield seen most often, not the d8 of ultimate power or ash of archmage summoning – so style over substance began early).

  1. LV-426 (Aliens)

Yes, it’s a science fiction setting, but the overrun colonial habitats (and alien hive) certainly qualify as a dungeon by RPG standards. The heroes must search it, avoid being ambushed, rescue prisoners, fight monsters, and find the end Boss Monster. And it’s not hard to envision fiendish ants or otherworldly horrors replacing xenomorphs, or knights and wizards standing in for marines and pulse guns.

Every other movie in this series includes at least one locale that counts too, but I think Aliens has the most adventurous take on the theme.

  1. The Gameboard (Jumanji)

The game Jumani is a perfect example of a dungeon without walls. It’s all random encounters, and it requires an artifact of major mojo to pull off, but it forces the heroes to go from event to event, and gets to ignore pesky details like the food chain or why encounter 5 doesn’t eat encounter 9 before the protagonists show up. And the end goal is always clearly visible, though you can’t be sure how long it’ll take to get there.

  1. The Labyrinth (Labyrinth)

Okay, it’s a well-known truism in fantasy rpg adventure design that mazes make for bad adventure settings. This is only true if the PCs are asked to map every T-intersection, 45-degree angle, and granite colonnade. If instead the maze is a setting, a vast country filled with its own people, threats and odd encounters and the GM gets the players from scene to scene with no need for hours of dull mapping, Labyrinth shows how to keep the maze as interesting as it was when Theseus was first asked to be delivery food.

  1. The Apartment Building (Rec/Quarantine)

If I’ll allow sci-fi, there’s no reason I wouldn’t look to horror for good dungeons, and this one (in either the American remake or the original movie) is great. One of the nice touches is that when the characters enter it, they have no idea it’s going to become a sealed-off, tightly-cramped series of rooms with monsters in them. And the story sets up a three-tiered threat: zombies, whatever is turning people into zombies, and the local authorities that won’t let the protagonists out – a great way to keep a dungeon from feeling like reheated subterranean leftovers.

Other horror options include the Machine of the Damned/Haunted House from 13 Ghosts, the land of Freddy’s nightmares, and every camp any teenager has even been beheaded in.

  1. Chinatown Beneath (Big Trouble in Little China)

From a secret door in a wizard’s domicile to random monster encounters (“It will come out no more!”) to mysterious substances (Black Blood of the Earth), trapped elevators, sewer connections, a hidden underground temple, mounds of dead fish, and a floating eye-monster spy, this dungeon setting has it all. It’s also one of the few examples where the heroes are in-and-out of the same subterranean complex more than once, which lends itself well to the way most PCs tackle big warrens of evil.

  1. Caverns of the Wendol (13th Warrior)

Announced with a boldly asked question – “Is there a cave?!” – the caverns of the Wendol savages from 13th Warrior begin a running battle that uses more stealth than many cinematic dungeon-stomps. From sneaking past (and/or assassinating) guards to the boss-monster fight with the Mother of the Wendol to the “secret escape” through underwater passages, this is a tightly focused, high-speed dungeon that isn’t emulated enough in many RPG campaigns.

  1. Moria (LotR: Fellowship of the Rings):

I often think of this as THE dungeon, because I suspect it’s literary counterpart is the origin of dungeons in RPGs. In addition to good backstory, a strong story reason for entering, a mystically locked door, hoards of goblins and a mysterious follower, Moria gives us the Balrog, one of the all-time great Boss Monsters.

This entry is also a stand-in for all the subterranean adventure sites in Lord of the Rings movies, from the caves of Helm’s Deep to Shelob’s lair.