Saturday, October 22, 2022

The Rule of Thirds

Chateau de Mehun Sur Yevre; Albert Robida

Plot hooks. Mysterious locations. Old maps.

A sandbox style game is not - as a physical sandbox - simply a blank slate on which players mold the world to their liking. Instead, there are adventure sites, factions, towns, landmarks, and wilderness for the party to experience and explore. The sand, so to speak, has been formed - it has an existing state - which the party can expect to discover at the table. Whether they re-form it or not will depend on how successful they are over the campaign - but in order to kick-start the adventure, in order to inspire the group to move out of the tavern and into the adventure, hints - incentives - have to drop.

One doesn't give the players a blank sheet, 3d6 down the line, and ask them where they are going: instead, they have to have leads - they have to have ideas which may guide them into the unknown. 

And this article talks about one of my favorite aspects of doing just that.

An Unreliable Narrator

Acne during pregnancy does not indicate a female child - though that doesn't stop certain relatives from telling you as much. Consider - not all rumors are true; not all maps are accurate. If that is true in real life, why wouldn't it be true in your campaign world as well? Some of the things that your party hears - be it carousing at the tavern, be it scrawled on the wall of a shallow crypt - will be valid information: but some of it will not.

Key word some.

What you don't want to do is to destroy the trust, to instill an instinct of unbelief, in your players whenever they come across information. If the bartender is always evil - the party will never trust the bartender; if the map is always inaccurate, the party will leave it where they found it in the hidden library. As such - you want to have some of the rumors and hooks lead true - bring the party where the party expects them to go - while other rumors and hooks do not. Of the hooks that do not lead where they say they will, it's also important to ground them: some of them will be total hogwash - perhaps intentionally perpetuated by other adventurers to throw off rival parties from the trail of a find; perhaps seeded by malign NPCs (living or long passed) who were seeking a particular end - but some of them will be based on truth. Some of them will have a hint at what was found before, only to have been lost in a game of telephone, ear to ear and embellishment to embellishment as the tale is passed around varied campfires. 

And it's up to you - the referee - to determine which is which so that the party can thereafter root out what's what.

El Castillo at Chichen Itza; Frederick Catherwood

One Third / One Third / One Third

When preparing rumors and hooks, I like to break out a table - typically 1d12 - to contain and randomize which ones the party finds or hears. These are divided into three, even in number, among the degree of their veracity:

  1. True - True rumors are hooks which are correct. The map says it goes through a cavern of scorpions and terminates in a well, at the bottom of which is a magic sword - and the party, following the map, finds a cavern, scorpions, and beyond that, a well containing a magic sword. Simple, easy, for a ref.

  2. Partially True - The partially true rumor is the tale inspired by a seed of fact germinating into a sprig of maybe. Fishermen tell tales of a cave visible at low tide where pirates and outlaws once stowed their gold - but upon arrival, the party may find a cave: but instead of pirate gold, a skeletal guard keeps watch over an ancient weapons cache from a fallen and advanced civilization (a dead pirate near the entrance, perhaps, as they may have not gotten as far as the fishermen thought).

    These can be the most fun to come up with, as they will throw the party a curve ball: test their skill at the game both from a resource planning and execution perspective but also from an adaptation perspective: or they can be used to introduce other elements of campaign lore or lead to more adventure.

  3. False - Lastly, a false rumor is one which has no basis on fact. The drunken veteran claims you should expect a pyramid on the far side of the vine-choked hills - but no pyramid looms. The sages say that a race of white apes inhabits the low pass but can be appeased with spiced fruits: but their tomes and records are old and the apes have been hunted to extinction by an insect species whose tastes have developed a fondness for flesh. There is an adventure to be had - surely - however it will not be the adventure that the party expects!

Why a 1d12 table? For me - it's easy to roll on the table and provide quickly what the party encounters without allowing myself a bias. If it's up to the dice, it's not going to be influenced by how pressed I am for time this month and want to get the adventure moving; it's not going to be changed because I happened to watch The 13th Warrior this week and feel the need to plagiarize the Horns of Power twist. Similarly - when I remove a false rumor, I can replace it with another false one for next time; or when I remove a true rumor, I can replace it with another true. This will keep it varied and - by law of averages - prevent a pattern from developing. Over time, the group will encounter a mix, they will not mistrust the rumors (or trust them blindly) because of me - the delivering ref - and thus, the group will see more role play. They will spend time investigating - they will interact with more elements of the world to help them figure out the likelihood of whether it's true, false, or somewhere in between. And then, planning accordingly, they can set off with the best possible odds their skill can stack. 

Man With a Scroll; Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione

Can I have my players roll on the table? Absolutely. Players love rolling dice. In so doing, however, it's important to change things up. You don't want them to see a 3 and think, "Well, this hook is going to be a lie - I keep carousing for another." Change up the numbers - maybe structure the table a bit differently - or maybe have three tables and you, the ref, determine which one is true/false/mixed in secret. It's good to have the players roll - when the players roll, they tend to own the result a lot more readily than if the result is "assigned" to them by the referee - however it's also important to reject the pattern: don't allow them to figure out the mechanism, the nature of the rumor, from the dice result: only give them the information that they receive. It will be up to them to pry for more in character.

What not to do: Regardless of rumor, regardless of hook - and I've been saying "rumor", but this same principle can be applied to anything you tell the players, any information that they find - regardless of the nature of the rumor encountered, it should always lead to adventure. A false rumor should never dump your players in a desert only to feel the fool for having followed a lead that led them astray. The point of the game is the adventure - and having lost one will leave a sour taste in the mouths of everyone at the table - you, the ref, included. No one benefits from a bad session. Thus - it's important to remember, all roads lead to adventure: it's simply the expectations of the party that are up in the air. A false rumor may take longer to reach, a false rumor may end up entangling the party in a web they did not intend, or a false rumor may end up empty: providing nothing more than a seed to another adventure - but whatever it does: it should do so with style: it should do so with encounters, maps, problems, and exploration. It should reinforce the experience the game is designed to produce, even if it expressly doesn't provide what the players were expecting.

And Them's My Two Coppers

Thank you for reading - and I hope it finds application to your game.

Delve on!

Long Arm Glided; Alphonse de Neuville

Public domain art retrieved from and the National Gallery of Art and adapted for thematic use. Attribution in alt text.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Gods of Caan: The Bladed Huntress

Queen Bedroom Fantasy Panther; Pixabay user, Victoria_rt

Anath - the Bladed Huntress, Mistress of the Quest

Themes and Domain

Anath is a war goddess - the lady of the hunt, and a protector of the young. Her clergy and paladins are mixed among their ranks: while not overwhelmingly female, bearing a much greater proportion of the feminine persuasion than among the other Caanish gods.

  • War
  • Love and Loyalty
  • Hunting and Searching
  • Adventure and Exploration
  • Sister to Astarte, the Soldier-Mother
  • Foe and Slayer to Mot, the Snapping Turtle
  • Favor to Bows and Blades
  • Embodied by Lions and Flowers

Sacraments and Taboos

Along the Ash Coast and all along of Caan, the gods require sacraments and sacrifice in order to earn their favor - Anath is no different! Behaviors and prescribed (and proscribed), the tenants of which must be obeyed, or the goddess will not grant her favor. For this purpose:

  • A Sacrament is a behavior that a Cleric of Anath must perform - rites, rituals, or lifestyles.
  • Conversely, a Taboo is a behavior that a Cleric of Anath must never perform.

If a Cleric fails to keep a Sacrament or Taboo, the Cleric stunts itself on the turning table and in spell-casting ability. Thus, for a Cleric of 5th level - when in combat with a group of opponents: most leather-clad and brandishing cheap weapons, but one opponent is in metal armor, giving orders to the others: showing signs of leadership: if the Cleric does not challenge the apparent sergeant, she will have failed in the 4th level Sacrament: thus, until the opportunity to atone presents itself, will cast spells and turn undead as though she was level 2. Hit dice, to-hit, and other factors are not affected.

Level Sacrament Taboo
1 Tithe, 6%; prayers at noon
Charity may be given; but not received
Ritual bath - each solstice and equinox - the most important of which, the solstice in the winter
Heavy armor may not be worn
Seek single combat with enemy champions and leaders
Procreation - no children of your own
Protect (and spare) children
May not wash while on campaign
Eat only what you kill or forage
Retreat - return with your shield or on it!

Meteor Shower, Etienne Leopold Trouvelot; and He Stopped to Drink, Charles Livingston Bull

The sacred number of Anath is 6. 

Her constellation is The Stag.

Blessings of Anath

All Clerics of Anath are permitted to use swords, bows, knives, and similar weapons: purpose built for the hunt or for battle. 

Clerics of Anath do not use axes, scythes, spears, or other "conscript weapons" - though they may continue to use blunt weapons, as normal.

In addition, Clerics of Anath which adhere to the Sacraments and Taboos of Anath listed above gain additional blessings based on experience level - the effects of which are described below:

Level Blessing
1      Mark of the Huntress
If using a Bow - not a Crossbow - the Cleric benefits from +1 to the attack roll.
     Long Stride
If wearing no armor or Light armor - the Cleric increases its movement speed by 3" (or 30').
     Lion Shape
Once every 6 days, the Cleric may shift form into that of a lion. The effect lasts up to 6 turns. When in this form, the Cleric may not cast spells nor communicate normally, but fights as a beast of equivalent HD to its level.
     Blessing of Blades
When fighting with two hands on a sword, the sword qualifies as Magic, +0.
At level 12, this increases to Magic, +1.
At level 18, this increases to Magic, +2.
     Skin of Bronze
All physical attacks made against the Cleric suffer a -2 penalty.

Miracles of Anath

In addition to the normal spells available to a Cleric, Anath is willing to grant additional miracles outside the normal purview of the divine domain. Any Cleric of Anath capable of casting a spell of the provided level may take one of the following spells as though it was part of the Cleric list.

Level Miracle
     Shield of Anath
Missile attacks made against the Cleric must, for the duration of the spell, roll 3d6 in lieu of 2d6 on their to-hit roll, keeping the low result. If using the Alternative Combat System, roll attacks at disadvantage.
Duration: 5 rounds / Cleric level
     Animal Friend
If a target animal (note, not a magical beast) fails a saving throw, the animal thereafter considers the Cleric to be its friend. The animal may be taught tricks - 1 for every 4 points of the Cleric's Intelligence - requiring 1 week of training each.
If the animal is left alone for 3 days or more, it returns to nature - the effect ending. A maximum number of HD may be affected at one time equal to half that of the Cleric.
     Great Strength
The Strength score of the spell's target is increased by 1d6 (or, if a servant of Order and Law, 1d8).
Duration: 1 hour / Cleric level
     Hold Animal
As Hold Person, except it may target animals and magical beasts.
     Speak with Monsters
For 1 turn, the Cleric may communicate clearly and flawlessly with any monster capable of communication.
As Raise Dead, but the duration of time for how long the target may have been dead is measured in years rather than days.
May be reversed - in which case the target is destroyed and turns to dust.
After casting the spell, the Cleric must meditate for six days (twelve days, if the spell was reversed) in order to return to a state of connection to the material world. Prior to this meditation, the Cleric may not engage in any strenuous activity.

Jordan Valley; David Roberts


Open license or public domain artwork retrieved from Pixabay and and adapted for use. Attribution in alt text.

Thoul Tunnels

Scale: 10 ft. Click HERE for a PDF ve...