Quick Aside on Pronouns

This probably doesn’t even warrant a post, but I have noticed that I tend to use male pronouns when writing rules. This is certainly not intended to be exclusionary in any way; I have gamed with women as well as men over the years, and in one of the longest-running groups I played in there was a woman who was as skilled of a role-player as anyone I have known. I think the “he / his / him” writing comes from a combination of running for an all-male group in my current game and from an ambivalence about the use of plural pronouns to refer to singular subjects.


Saturday Morning Maps: Mountain Temple

Mountain TempleI just know I’m getting myself into trouble with the way I titled this post and the odds that I will be able to keep up with this, but after last Saturday’s glimpse at the world map in progress, I figured “What the hell, go for it.” So the above is presented for public use; click through for a much bigger version. No key, as I will likely use it in my home game at some point and some players are surely reading this (hopefully they’ll forget about the secret door). Besides, you can populate as appropriate to your home game!

Ritual Magic in the Age of Ruins

In the arcane tradition of the Age of Ruins there are many magical rites that do not require any Arcane Background edge for a character to learn and perform. Some rituals do utilize the Spellcasting skill, however, and are therefore only useful to mages. Rituals follow the rules for “Dramatic Tasks” found on page 84 of Savage Worlds Deluxe. As described in those rules, rituals take place over five “actions,” however, the length of an action is defined by the ritual itself. Some rituals take five combat rounds, others five days, and still others may take five weeks. For more lengthy rituals, the description will indicate if the entire time is taken up by the ritual, or if there is simply a requisite amount of time before the next step can be completed. Because Action Cards are not also being drawn for other characters in combat during these longer rituals, the character must kill one card from the top of the deck between each draw.

If a ritual can be performed during combat (Action Length: 1 round), then disruptions to the performer’s focus harm his chances to successfully complete the ritual. Every time a character performing a ritual is shaken or takes a wound, subtract one success from the total accumulated.

Under most circumstances, failure to properly complete a ritual simply causes a loss of time and the resources or components required to conduct the ritual. However, many failed rituals can also cause particularly harmful ill effects under the circumstances of a “Disastrous Failure.” This occurs when either the total accumulated successes while performing the ritual equal 1 or less or when a roll is failed (at the additional -2 penalty) while acting on a Club, as described on page 84 of SWD. As always, the Perilous Practice rule applies.

Ritual Name
Rank: The minimum rank a character must be to learn the ritual.
Skill: The skill used to perform the ritual.
Difficulty: The penalty applied to the skill above while performing the ritual.
Action Length: The amount of game time one segment of the ritual takes.
Requirements: Any material components or specific actions needed to perform the ritual.
Below that initial description is the description of the ritual and any side effects.
Disastrous Failure: The result of accumulating 1 success or less, or of failing on a Club action card.

Here are three sample rituals.

Spiteful Spears of Vollund
Rank: Seasoned
Skill: Spellcasting
Difficulty: -2
Action Length: 1 round
Requirements: An iron staff forged during a violent thunderstorm, at least 3 feet in length and topped with an amethyst worth at least 500 silver.

This ritual calls forth a storm that the performer can use to rain down destruction upon his foes. As the ritual is performed, the sky darkens with roiling storm clouds. Rolling thunder in the distance grows ever louder as it nears completion. Once the ritual is successfully completed, lightning begins to rain down from the sky under the caster’s guidance. The caster may call down one lightning bolt per round within a 1 mile radius, provided he takes no other action that round. Each bolt does 3d6 damage to the target.

For every minute that passes, the caster must make a Spirit check at a cumulative -1 penalty to maintain control of the storm. Once the caster loses control, the precipitation begins and the storm transforms into a natural (but particularly intense) weather occurrence for the region that lasts 2d12 hours and affects a 40-mile radius. A standard failure to complete the ritual still brings about this weather.

Disastrous Failure: Upon failing, a first bolt strikes down on the character performing the ritual. Bolts continue to fall for the next minute with a 25% chance that each bolt will strike the caster. If the caster is not hit, another random living being in a 1 mile radius is hit.

Fury of the Star Stones
Rank: Seasoned
Skill: Spellcasting
Difficulty: -2
Action Length: 1 round
Requirements: An amulet carved from the stone of Rukma and engraved with the bearer’s true name

This ritual calls forth a shooting star that wreaks fiery devastation. As the ritual is performed, shooting stars begin to streak across the sky. Once complete, a meteorite strikes a spot of the caster’s choosing, even directly impacting a single being. The target of the strike takes 5d6 point of damage; anyone within a large burst template of the strike takes 3d6 points of damage.

During the hour after the ritual is completed, 2d3 similar strikes will occur within a 40-mile radius. A standard failure to complete the ritual still calls forth this meteor shower.

Disastrous Failure: Upon failing, the initial strike falls immediately, centered on the caster. Assuming the caster survives, there is a 20% chance that he will be the target of each subsequent strike.

Blade-Binding of the Mazakym
Rank: Novice
Skill: Knowledge Infernalism
Difficulty: -4
Action Length: 10 minutes
Requirements: A bladed weapon of superb craftsmanship (worth at least three times the listed price) and a stone alter surrounded by binding runes painted in lamb’s blood

This ritual summons a mazakym, a particularly bloodthirsty variety of imp, and binds its essence into a bladed weapon. In the hands of a skilled warrior, the mazakym’s viciousness manifests through the blade, savagely cutting into enemies. When the wielder of a mazakym blade makes a successful Fighting roll, he gains +1d6 damage for each raise on the roll, breaking normal cap of 1d6 bonus damage gained from the first raise. However, anytime his Fighting die is a 1 (regardless of his wild die), he hits a random adjacent target, as per the Berserk edge.

After a month of bearing such a blade, the wielder’s features gain an otherworldly darkness, and though his personality and nature remain under control, he becomes susceptible to bonus damage from the Champion edge of virtuous characters.

A normal failure to complete the ritual fails to bring forth the mazakym and causes the blade to become brittle and unusable.

Disastrous Failure: The results appear the same as a normal failure, but in actuality the mazakym possesses the performer of the ritual. He gains no bonus damage, but the negative effects of rolling a 1 on Fighting apply to all rolls the character makes. In addition, the character literally begins to thirst for blood. At first, the impulse is small and controllable, but it continues to grow, and by one month after the ritual the need is equivalent to Habit (Major), with one cup of blood needed every day.

The Forgotten Year

In the fall of 1993, a half-elf thief named Roland of Gilead (let he who is without this particular sin cast the first stone) wandered into Shadowdale’s famous Old Skull Inn, met up with some other adventurers, and nearly 20 years later I’m writing this blog. That was my first time playing D&D, and it was full of the requisite clichés: bar fighting, bandit attacks, fleeing from city guards in Zhentil Keep, and Mountain Dew. The Forgotten Realms can be divisive, and I’ll admit that I have little desire to game there again, but it will always have a special place in my heart.

For the first 6 months or so that I played D&D, various PCs power gamed or gruesomely died through short-lived adventures, only to be replaced the next weekend by a new crew of faces. At the time, the couple older guys (juniors!) who did most of the DMing ran the Realms just based on the info in the FR Adventures hardcover, Drow of the Underdark, and what they knew from tie-in novels. The world didn’t really open up for me until that Easter, when I got my DMG and the Forgotten Realms box set.

I laid out those maps, read A Grand Tour of the Realms front cover to back, back cover to front, and from the inside out, and unintentionally set about running my first real campaign, strictly populated by my fellow underclassmen. It started with a pick-up game on a school night near the end of May and it only lasted until the late days of August, but in between we played 3-4 days a week, anywhere from 6 to 12 hours a day. Summer vacation and the campaign were one and the same. An epic tale unfolded, sweeping characters from one end of the Realms to the other, embroiling them in the machinations of the Red Wizards of Thay, the Zhentarim, and an invasion of extra-dimensional orcs of superior intellect and malice.

The Realms has a bad reputation for taking the focus away from the PCs and a group’s own game and shifting it toward NPCs and world-changing events that help sell novels and new supplements. With the perspective of time, I have to admit that it’s somewhat deserved. However, for that game and a couple others that came later, the Realms were ours. The sinister organizations challenging the PCs may have come from published materials, but the individual NPCs conspiring to ill ends and the heroes challenging them were strictly the creation of my friends and I.

Next up is Dark Sun, a post that will hopefully shape up to be a bit more of a review of the actual setting and product and a bit less Stand By Me by way of my parents’ basement.

Work in Progress

I’m breaking my normal Tuesday/Thursday schedule just to put this out there real quick, since I spent a bunch of time on it this morning:

Age of Ruins 1 Hex = 20 miles scale
(click through to embiggen)

Even at Flickr’s biggest size you can’t see the image anywhere near 100% size as I exported it on my computer, where each hex is nearly an inch across on the screen. 20 miles is what I allow PCs to cover in a day’s march across relatively flat, open ground, assuming that they aren’t extremely encumbered or slowed for some other reason.

I still have a lot I want to add. Of course, the majority of detail will be filled in through play and then added to the map for posterity.

Arcane Magic in the Age of Ruins

FYI, I’m going to keep the campaign setting posts to Tuesdays.

The formulae of arcane magic have been passed down from wizened mages to eager apprentices since the dawn of civilization. Ancient towers and private libraries house scrolls and tomes of lore elucidating all manner of enchantments and conjurations. Some require a broad education in the fundamentals spellcasting before a would-be invoker can even attempt them, while others only require that one is exacting and meticulous in executing the particulars of a ritual lest the outcome be less than desirable.

Perilous Practices: Various magical effects in the Age of Ruins have negative consequences associated with failure on a trait roll or rolling a natural 1 on a skill die. Though a player may always spend a Benny to re-roll in effort to succeed at an action, the ill effects of the initial roll are not eliminated by the results of a subsequent re-roll. Once an arcane punishment is incurred, there is no escaping it.

Spellcasting: Spellcasting in the Age of Ruins follows the “No Power Points” rules set out on page 95 of Savage Worlds Deluxe, with a few additions and modifications as noted below. All spellcasting in the setting comes from a tradition of arcane, wizardly magic, and therefore all spellcasting characters must have Arcane Background: Magic.

Powers with a reverse effect, such as Light/Obscure, count each effect as separate — a character would have to spend two power slots for the ability to cast both Light and Obscure.

Backlash: The damage caused by backlash to a spellcaster is a potent and dangerous form of arcane feedback that can seriously harm those attempting to harness magical energies. After a mage suffers backlash, residual arcane energy around the character prevents any wounds suffered as a result of the backlash from being healed by means of spellcasting for 1 day. This means that the Healing spell cannot cure these wounds, though potions and the Healing skill can. Once the day has passed, the Greater Healing spell may also be used to heal the character’s backlash wounds.

Research: In addition to gaining powers through Edges, mages may learn the magical formulae recorded on scrolls and in tomes discovered in the course of their adventures. To gain a power in this way, a character must work at copying the spell into some recorded form of their own, be it a spellbook, scroll, engraved tablet, etc., all while conducting experiments to verify that their own interpretation of the spell will work. At the end of this experimentation, the wizard makes a Knowledge Arcana check to determine if he has learned the power. The minimum time required is 5 days per rank of the power, and the materials required cost a minimum of 500 silver per rank of the power. For every full 5 days additional work and every full 500 silver extra in materials, the character adds +1 to the roll.

Should the character roll a 1 on their Knowledge Arcana skill die (regardless of the result on the Wild Die), the process of probing into the reaches of mystical knowledge takes a toll on the mage’s mind. Roll a d20 and consult the Mental Disorder table on page 26 of Realms of Cthulhu to determine the exact nature of the character’s new mental hindrance.

In a world …

The title of this post is to be read in an overly dramatic movie trailer narrator voice.

PHB 2nd EditionWhen I got my first copy of the Player’s Handbook in 1993, enthralled though I was by the classes, races, spells, and all of the great illustrations, I was just as fascinated (perhaps even more so) by the gatefold advertisement on the inside front cover. This series of small cover images and short blurbs probably would not have been nearly so intriguing were it not dominated by a plethora of fantastic worlds to explore: Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and Al-Qadim. Not to mention the Forgotten Realms, the setting through which I had recently been introduced to the hobby.

James Maliszewski has referred to this period as the Bronze Age of D&D, the “age of the boxed campaign set,” and I have to agree. TSR’s published campaign worlds and their related fiction were the dominant force in RPGs during the 2nd Edition era. In fact, pre-published settings were arguably the defining aspect of 90s RPGs even outside of the D&D brand — White Wolf’s games are known more than anything for their shared World of Darkness setting and its ever-evolving metaplot.

One of the tenants of the OSR philosophy is that the creative freedom of the earlier era, when the rules assumed that each DM would craft his own setting for sandbox-style exploration, allowed for a more vibrant and engaging hobby, as opposed to the more creatively one-sided producer/consumer dynamic that emerged later on. I can’t disagree; there’s no denying that building your own setting leads to more activity away from the table, such as amateur cartography and encounter table creation, things that are close to my heart. I used to love to draw maps of make-believe lands even when all I knew of fantasy was Narnia and Choose Your Own Adventure. And not long after I got my first Dungeon Master’s Guide (only 4 months after the PHB), I began drawing a sprawling map on a big piece of poster board.

But there was a powerful magic in those published settings as well, and entering into the game when I did means that they left an indelible mark on my imagination. I may have started drawing my own map right after getting my DMG, but it was the Forgotten Realms box that served as the back-drop for my first real campaign. So this is intended as the intro to a series of posts exploring the published worlds of TSR, such as they were in those early 2nd Edition box sets that I encountered in my first year or two of gaming. First off will be the Forgotten Realms … same as it ever was.

An Eponymous Origin and Overview

The Age of Ruins campaign began in December 2011, although with our monthly (at best) schedule, that doesn’t amount to a ton of sessions thus far. Previously I had been running an Iron Kingdoms military campaign, also using the the Savage Worlds rules. Though we were all generally enjoying the campaign (and had enjoyed IK campaigns in the past), I had a sense that a deep investment in the setting was lacking for many of the players. So I put it to a vote — continue with the IK campaign or begin a new campaign in a fantasy world created by the whole group. The vote was unanimous in favor of the latter.

I had been wanting to try both Microscope and Dawn of Worlds (DoW) for some time, so I was very excited by the decision as well. I ultimately decided DoW was going to be better for a first crack at such a project due primarily to its linear design and more traditional “game-ish” aspect of dice rolling. I did, however, steal the concept of the Palette from Microscope and integrate it at the beginning of our world building, as well as laying out four broad types of fantasy that we could use as a baseline. I defined these as:

  • High Fantasy (Tolkien; generic D&D in later editions)
  • Gritty Fantasy (Game of Thrones)
  • Pulp Fantasy (Conan stories; generic D&D in early editions)
  • Weird Fantasy (Planescape; The Dark Tower; anything really out there)

We decided that our baseline would be High Fantasy, but some aspects of the Palette somewhat altered the standard assumptions of gaming in such a world. For example, I added that there would be no “flashy” direct-damage dealing spells. However, we also decided that elaborate rituals would be part of the world, and some of the rituals I’ve created do allow for characters to wreak havoc, albeit with serious side effects and a great personal risk.

Completing the process of moving through the three Ages of DoW took us about two and a half play sessions; we rounded out the third session with character creation. We did discover some quirks in the game we had to tweak. After the first session we all realized our map was a bit geographically bare, even though we had moved into the Second Age. Part of this was due to the scale we were working at — we were using the hex side of a standard battlemat with 1 hex equaling 100 miles — but part of it was due to players wanting to spend their points on something “cooler” than just creating some mountains or forests. To try and remedy this, we kicked off the second session with three rounds during which everyone got maximum points to spend, but those points could only be spent on geographic or climatic features. However, it would ultimately turn out that the most defining feature of the setting would emerge during the last 4 or 5 turns of the Third of Age of D0W, which represent the last few decades before the campaign begins.

The campaign world at 1 hex = 100 miles (click to enlarge)

The first major ruin came about in the southern half of the map, when an arcane catastrophe destroyed the city of Ar’Ak-Ivus and killed or mutated everyone residing therein. But the setting really earned its flavor when a great army was formed from an alliance of nature-worshiping races — the Elves and the Children of Iso Kharu. This army set forth on a decade-long assault on the great cities of the Men of the North; its goal was not conquest, but destruction. Nearly every major northern city east of the great swamp was sacked and razed by the decade’s end, leaving thousands of miles inhabited only by small, isolated communities and vast ruins.

The actual campaign begins roughly 30 years after the end of this war, when these ruins have had plenty of time to be resettled by a slightly more monstrous populace. While the players who brought most of this about were just following the natural narrative of the races they had created, I am sort of fascinated that we unconsciously ended up creating something so similar in spirit to what Chris Kutalik would describe as the post-apocalyptic default setting of classic D&D.

An Introduction

Hopefully this will be the hardest post to write …

So, hi, I’m John and I’ve been gaming for a long time. Not as long as a lot of people in the gaming blog world, and certainly not as long as most of the people in the OSR blog world, but it’s really those OSR blogs that inspired me to do this.

My goal here is to split the difference between general posts about my perspective on the history and culture of gaming, RPGs specifically, and posts detailing new material for my home game. I was most inspired toward the format by the excellent Hill Cantons and Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesgue blogs, as well by the high-quality commentary of James Malzewski’s Grognardia.

But unlike the authors of those blogs,  I wasn’t playing D&D in 1983. At that time I was just a 4-year-old, watching the D&D cartoon. I began playing AD&D 2nd Edition in 1993, my freshman year of high school, although like many gamers of my generation I had a table-top RPG pre-history starting in 1989 with Milton Bradley’s HeroQuest. So while I may share my thoughts on games dating from the earliest era, or new games that harken back to that era, I also plan on looking back a lot to the 90s. It was the decade of the D&D campaign setting boom (and TSR bust), of White Wolf’s gothic-punk narrative “Storytelling” games, and of the licensed game that will always hold a special place in my heart, West End Games’ Star Wars 2nd Edition.

Regarding material from my home game, I am currently running a Savage Worlds game in a home-brew fantasy realm that was collaboratively generated using Dawn of Worlds. While I will certainly post things that are specifically pertinent to the campaign’s background, I also hope that some of my house rules for the game will prove useful or inspirational to any GM running a fantasy campaign using Savage Worlds.

OK, that didn’t hurt too much. To paraphrase a great man, “Until next time, True Believers!”