Sunday, December 28, 2014

This Sword Here At My Side Don't Act The Way It Should: Magical Weapon PCs

Way back when, Mikah and Wilhelm Person asked for rules which allowed players to play magical weapons. Here's my stab at this. The rules are unplaytested, fiddly and require a good bit of work on the part of the GM to prepare a weapon suitable to the campaign setting. That said, I think that the approach has promise to it. 

"And it howls! It howls like Hell!"
Michael Whelan
Magical weapons and artifacts as player characters (henceforth "Weapons") do not have physical stats, just mental ones. Choose one mental stat (Int, Wis, Cha) to be rolled on 4d6 drop lowest; the other two to be rolled on 3d6. Weapons remain pretty static as "characters," and don't gain abilities through experience. Instead, they gain them through gaining influence over their owners.

Influence: This replaces the ego system as outlined in B/X. A Weapon, even one aligned with its owner, is going to be continually striving to dominate them and exert their influence.

The Weapon and its owner operate on an influence track, proceeding from the owner utterly dominating the Weapon's will to vice versa. However, the Weapon's greatest powers can only come forth when it is able to dominate its owner. To gain that ultimate ability, an owner must give way to their Weapon.

Once a day, after a Weapon draws blood from a foe or one of its powers is used, either the Weapon or its owner may force an Influence check. During an Influence check, the owner and the Weapon spend 1 round locked in mental conflict; the owner loses their Dex bonus and fails all saves in that round. Both the Weapon and its owner add up their mental stat modifiers (Int + Wis + Cha) and add 1d20. The higher total shifts one level on the Influence Track.

Owner Utterly Dominates: Tier II powers available 3x/day, Tier I powers available at will. Weapon rolls an additional 1d8 on influence checks.
Owner Dominates: Tier II powers available 1x/day, Tier I powers available 3x/day. Weapon rolls an additional 1d6 on influence checks.
Owner Weakly Dominates: Tier I powers available 1x/day. Weapon rolls an additional 1d4 on Influence checks.
Balance: Only base power available.
Weapon Weakly Dominates: Tier I powers available 3x/day. Weapon can cast suggestion on wielder 3x/day; owner may save to avoid. Owner rolls an additional 1d6 on Influence checks.
Weapon Dominates: Tier II powers available 3x/day, Tier I powers available at will. Weapon can cast suggestion on owner at will; owner may save to avoid. Owner rolls an additional 1d4 on influence checks.
Weapon Utterly Dominates: Tier III powers available 1x/day; Tier II powers available 3x/day, Tier I powers available at will. Owner is charmed by the Weapon; no save available (but can still call for Influence checks).

A Weapon's purpose and powers should be predetermined by the GM, but its alignment and outlook on life should be determined by the player.

Dragon's Curse, John Howe
Túrin: "Hail Gurthang! No lord or loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that wieldeth thee. From no blood wilt thou shrink. Wilt thou therefore take Túrin Turambar, wilt thou slay me swiftly?"

Gurthang: "Yea, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly."

- Tolkien, Silmarillion

Powers: Each Weapon is going to have a different set of powers. One sample set is given below. Base Powers should be designed with the knowledge that they are going to be continually active; you might look here for a list of 3.x feats that might be a decent starting point for a Base Power, or here for a list of unique magical weapons. Tier powers can be spell-like abilities, or something custom designed as well.
  • Base Power: True Striking - The Weapon's player makes attack rolls instead of the owner. The weapon strikes as a fighter of the owner's level; if the owner is a fighter subclass, it applies its normal bonuses; if the owner is a fighter specifically, it applies its normal bonuses +1. Example: Talon, a sword +2 with True Striking, will strike as a 5th level fighter without any bonus to hit in the hands of a 5th level thief, as a 3rd level fighter with a +2 bonus to hit in the hands of a 3rd level ranger, and a 1st level fighter with a +3 bonus to hit in the hands of a 1st level fighter. (The owner's strength bonus continues to apply in all circumstances.) In all circumstances, it will deal normal damage.  
  • Tier I Power: Blade of Light - the Weapon may carve through any non-magical substance for 1 round/owner level. It can cut through an enchanted substance with a successful Strength check by the owner on 4d6. During this time, the Weapon glows in a badass manner and gains a 1d4 bonus to damage. After the Blade of Light power expires, the Weapon goes dormant for 1 turn per round that this power was active, and loses all bonuses to hit/damage/powers. It can still communicate with the owner, though. 
  • Tier II Power: Detach owner's shadow to function as the spell wizard eye
  • Tier III Power: Any being slain with the Weapon can be animated as an undead of equal HD, or 5 HD at minimum. Such a being would retain all spells and spell-like abilities, but would not be able to re-memorize or regenerate such. 
I would be remiss if I didn't include a tip of the hat to Neal Stidham's Parenthesis Press, and his nanogame Runeblade. I read it a few years back and it's stuck with me.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nest of Spies

So Sun-Lord Chris, Robert the Reaver, and Anthony of the Straits recently launched the Slumbering Ursine Dunes Kickstarter. I've helped out a tiny bit in manuscript edits and playtesting. In the traditional post-game bull sessions, the topic of the Zone (and its suitability for a pointcrawl treatment) has come up a few times. And I start to think that fully fleshing out the Zone should be my next game design task.

Naturally my inspiration seizes upon something completely different. In this case, it's communications, networks, spies...intrigue.

Kalam and Quick Ben, by Nether83
For this sort of thing, it's really helpful to look at...well, some other Hill Cantons posts - particularly Chris' series on putting together networks, inspired by Top Secret. (Parts OneTwo, and Three; see also putting factions into play here.)

Sanctuary and the local environs are out on the borders of the Asbari Caliphate, certainly. but this does not mean that it's immune from the intrigues that continue to plauge the land. The Calipha assumed the throne ten years ago under suspicious circumstances during the Forsaken War, and the fallout from that transition has not yet been resolved.

Known Political Factions Within Sanctuary
  • The Black Banner opposes the Calipha and her reformist agenda. They suggest that she was responsible for her father's death, and support raising up one of the cadet branches of the family to take the throne in her stead. Mostly composed of old money and older nobles, they don't have too much of a presence in Sanctuary. Jamsheyd "Prune-Face" Rabbani, a major cattle rancher, is their most prominent supporter in the region.  
  • The Spears of Djaida come from a militia raised to defend Sanctuary during the Forsaken War. They strongly support the Calipha for ending the war, and seek to ensure that her reformist ideals are implemented within Sanctuary. They are quite vocal, but perhaps the smallest of the factions within the city (albeit composed mostly of battle-tested veterans). Serit Axe-Hand, a former sergeant, is the most outspoken member of the Spears; she can usually be found leading street demonstrations protesting the latest outrages by the Governor's personal guard.
    Horsemen Waiting to Participate in a Parade
    Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti
  • Since well before the Forsaken War, there has been a growing sentiment that Sanctuary and the western portions of the Caliphate should break free and declare independence. The most recent incarnation of this feeling, Sahabi al-Chai, maintains a vibrant though fractious street presence, and has the readiest access to street toughs and demagogues. Governor al-Hakam has been playing to the Sahabi recently. Boubakar the Tall, known to be punctilious about his truthfulness, leads the Sahabi, and is well respected by all - though perhaps others of the Sahabi less so.
  • The Sons of Marwan are perhaps the most overt of the various factions within Sanctuary, and operate under the thinnest veil of secrecy. Headed by the sage Zouman ibn Zouman, they represent the alchemists, geometers, and wizards of the city. Zouman, the fourth in his family to bear the group's leadership, has been facing pushback on the name from Hafiza bint Noora and the Whisper, female alchemists angered over the name and the institutional hesitancy towards women practitioners. 
  • The official representatives of the Asbari Caliphate are of course the Governor, Mustafa al-Hakam, and the Qadi (judge) of Sanctuary, Lord Abazu the Unsmiling. Governor al-Hakam is but recently arrived from the Calipha's court and is a relative unknown to the people of Sanctuary, but Lord Abazu is very much an institution of the city. His unbending will has recently seen the destruction of the street gang known as the Red-Eyes. While Lord Abazu is seen to be apolitical and above the fray, Governor al-Hakam has had no choice but to enter the political realm. His support from the capital has thinned (particularly as reports of his contacts with the Sahabi al-Chai have filtered back to the court), but popular support has swelled after the recent liberation of the Tower of Horns. 
Lord Abazu the Unsmiling
(photo by Alfred Eisenstadt, "Master of the Hunt")
The many cultures of Seven Cities seethed with symbols, a secret pictographic language of oblique references that carried portentous weight among the natives. Such symbols formed a complex dialogue that no Malazan could understand. Slowly, during his many months resident here, Duiker had come to realize the danger behind their ignorance. As the Year of Dryjhna approached, such symbols blossomed in chaotic profusion, every wall ine very city a scroll of secret code. Wind, sun and rain assured impermanence, wiping clean the slate in readiness for the next exchange. 
-Steven Erikson, Deadhouse Gates 
And of course, all of this is going to produce lots of spiders.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Webs of Intrigue

Spiders Keep Secrets.
Jumping Spider
Photo by Opo Terser via

No, I know; you thought "web of intrigue" was just a neat catchphrase. But every time a secret is born, a spider emerges from the shadows. It bears the secret, holds on to it, nurtures it and draws strength from it.

When a spider is killed, the secret is lost. If it is destroyed in a single strike, someone, somewhere, gains the knowledge of the secret that it bore. If it is consumed, the being that consumed it will learn its secret. Portions of a dead spider's secret may be recovered and extracted from the pieces of spider that are not obliterated; a shoe striking a small house spider is likely to wipe out most of the secret - if one is lucky, the words "Fahd, the bak-" might be extracted from the legs that were not crushed. On the other hand, giant spiders slain by murderous rovers armed with pointed, and not crushing, weapons might be able to recover more details. And it is often said that the scope of the spider matches the scope of the secret...

The nature of the spider is rumored to have some relation to the type of secret that it bears. Jumping spiders bear secrets of individuals, while those that spin webs bear secrets that touch upon multiple parties. Sages have debated the significance of the number of strands or the size of the web, but no conclusions have been reached.
"Queen of the Demonweb Pits," Justin Gerard

This entire discussion has obvious relevance for some traditional D&D groups, particularly those that might, for instance, have societies based around spiders and place a high premium upon noble intrigues.

In such societies it is considered taboo to harm a spider. Rather than a piece of vanity on the part of a Spider Goddess, however, this is practical advice in the great game of the noble houses. Destroying a spider means that the secret is lost; seducing a spider means that you might be able to convince it to give up its secret. Of course, you'd have to give it a new one in exchange - namely, another spider for it to devour. Gifts of spiders between noble houses are not uncommon - in some cases, they are the secrets of others, traded back and forth, while in others they are secrets of one house being given as a sign of good faith.

The Spider-tailed Adder, whose tail mimics the motion of a spider to attract prey, raises some tantalizing issues... (h/t to Jensen for this one)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Stories of the Body: Nomad Tattoos

Several nomad groups, including the Bani Juzayy, customarily tattoo female members of their tribes. To some degree, the practice is a beautification ritual, it can also bind magical forces into the very flesh and blood of these women. When Bani Juzayy are tattooed, the tattoos are generally applied by a wandering member of the Bani Juzayy, the adasiya, who is no longer a member of any one tribe of the Juzayy, but helps to tie the people together. Bani Juzayy tattoos are usually blue, tinted by kohl and special scrubland flowers.

Starting PCs can have tattoos if they have the Nomad background. When generating the character, roll a save vs. spell. If successful, the tattoos contain a magic power (detailed below). If unsuccessful, the tattoos are simply tattoos.
Original source unknown. 

1-2 Face
3-4 Hand
5 Arm
6 Leg

Type of Tattoo
1-2 Health and Fertility
3 Healing of Injuries
4 Increased Fortitude
5 Increased Strength
6 Warding against Jinn

Along with dots, lozenges, and teardrops, tattoos often incorporate one or more of the following symbols. Only one "special effect" can be present, though - any further supernatural effects from tattoos that might exist take place on a far lower level than is modeled in game rules.

Health and Fertility 
Examples: Tree (strength), star, gazelle
Effect: At the beginning of a month, the bearer makes a Charisma check on 4d6. If she passes, she gains Advantage on efforts to resist disease, or attempts to create or design something. (The tattoo also has a positive effect on individual fertility, but including mechanics for that seems like a terrible idea so let's pass on that.)

Healing of Injuries
Examples: Snake (magic), Teardrop, Wheel
Effect: At the beginning of a month, the bearer makes a Charisma check on 4d6. If she passes, she regains an extra hit point when resting.

The Free Man symbol. Via Essaouira.
Increased Fortitude
Examples: Burnus, The Free Man, Stirrups
Effect: At the beginning of a month, the bearer makes a Constitution check on 4d6. If she passes, she gains immunity to environmental distress rolls.

Increased Strength
Examples: Chain, Light, Arrowhead (lightning, energy)
Effect: At the beginning of a month, the bearer makes a Strength check on 5d6. If she passes, she gains Advantage on all Strength checks for the remainder of the month.

Warding Against Jinn
Examples: Comb (unity), Shears (reaving, separation), Khamsa, Fire
Effect: Bearer is immune to the effects of the Evil Eye. Upon encountering jinn, the bearer may make a Charisma check on 4d6. If she passes, she has the effects of a protection from evil spell with regards to the jinn in question - not relating to any other beings. The effects of this protection only last until the end of the encounter with the jinn in question.

It is rumored that many of the traditional symbols used in tattooing represent components of a legend, prophecy, or other form of communication. Some Imperial commentators have suggested that the tattoos indicate crucial knowledge that a given tribe has sworn to preserve, while others have posited that the tattoos serve a function of preserving the stability and reality of the world around the tribes. The commentators have, however, failed to secure any definitive comments from those tattooed themselves.

Tattoos and Gender
Facial tattoos are generally linked with femininity among nomad groups that engage in the practice (which is why this post refers to the bearers as female). An individual's decision to avoid tattooing could be considered an indication of eschewing femininity or expressing some masculine identification, while the reverse might indicate eschewing masculinity or expressing some feminine identification. A few examples:
  • Titrit, the warrior, getting tattooed later in life as part of the process of indicating her correct gender, along with changing her name
  • Izem, the priest, removing the tattoos applied when he was younger, correcting his identification as well
  • Siman, the metal-worker, getting tattooed as an indication of their feminine spirit, but donning the veil as a recognition of their masculine spirit. (Several nomad tribes place their smiths and metal workers in "sacred trickster" roles outside of society, which can include going outside the traditional gender spectrum.)
The presence or absence of tattoos isn't a strict determinant - someone might avoid getting tattoos for any number of reasons without having it necessarily read as an indicator that she is less feminine.

References / Further Reading:
Apetroaie, Vladiana-Ioana. "Women's Social and Spiritual Body - Amazigh Facial Tattoos (draft)." Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2013. Available here.
Bendaas, Yasmin. "Between the Lines: Facial Tattoos and the Chaouia." Pullitzer Center, 2013. Available here.
Krutak, Lars. "Tattooing in North Africa, The Middle East, and the Balkans." Vanishing Tattoo, 2010. Available here.
Rasmussen, Susan. "Ritual Powers and Social Tensions as Moral Discourse Among The Tuareg." American Anthropologist 100(2): 458. 1998. Available here.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Blood, Words, and Money: Organizations and Factions (Santicore 2013)

Santicore 2013 continues its triumphal march of destruction. Volume 2 just came out (get it here, and Vol. 1 is available here). My own contribution is in Volume 2, so now I'm free to post it here as well.

Blood, Words, and Money: Organizations and Factions

Determine the size of your organization, to figure out how many subgroups it will possess. "Small" organizations will have 1d4+1 subgroups, medium organizations 1d6+1, and large organizations 1d8+1. These things will get byzantine quickly so be warned. I recommend something like five groups as a manageable yet intricate balance. (Hey, it works for Magic: the Gathering...)

Subgroups and Powers:

For each subgroup present in your organization, roll a d6 on this chart to see what sort of a role it plays. 
Intelligence - Gathers information for the organization in some capacity. Magical scrying? Wiretaps? Are they looking at communications, individuals, social context, or even just basic facts? They're likely to have the most on-the-ground contacts, familiarity with locations - and the most information about what other parties are doing.
Resources - This can either be equipment - something like James Bond's Q Branch, putting together gadgets - or it can be finances, false identities, forged documents, and the like. Their focus is eliminating sources of friction and allowing other groups to complete their objectives; throw enough money at Resources and problems melt away. <
Administration - Avoid making this an executive group, and skew towards administrative, managerial and human resources issues. Personnel, staffing, and coordination. Sounds bland, but they've got their fingers in everything. There's a reason Stalin made sure to secure the personnel and assignment apparatus in his rise to power - personnel assignments mean that they've got control over who works where, and also who has access to what.
Operations - This group takes active steps to implement things. Generally filling the "field agent" category, and the most likely group to be authorized for use of force. They'll have personnel with the most field experience.
Internal Affairs - This group watches the watchers, and quite possibly sticks them underneath a bright light and asks them a bunch of terrifying questions. They have investigative authority over the other groups, even at very high levels - but nobody trusts them for obvious reasons. 
Roll again twice and combine both rolls.* 

*If this result comes up on the reroll, do not merge two groups, but create a "Communications” subgroup instead. Communications groups are responsible for the security of information transmission - which means that they have access to all of it. (It's a rarer group to encounter than the rest, but once in a while it will pop up.)

Depending on the independence of each sub-group, you're likely to have some elements of each role present in each subgroup. For example, it's reasonable for an Action group to create its own dead drops, caches, and the like, to ensure that there's less chance of the resources getting compromised. Of course, these grey areas are the subject of wrangling and infighting.

Good intelligence work, Control had always preached, was gradual and rested on a kind of gentleness. The scalphunters were the exception to his own rule. They weren't gradual, and they weren't gentle either. 
- John le Carre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

George Smiley, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Once you've created your subgroups, figure out how specialized they are at their given task on a scale of 1-20 (1 being not at all, 20 being hyper-specialized; these scores should be in the 13-20 range, since each group is inherently specialized). When a subgroup takes a significant action relating to its specialty (a field operation for Operations, an investigation for Internal Affairs, a major R&D project for Resources, etc) they need to roll underneath their specialization score. When a subgroup takes a significant action outside of its specialty (Intelligence running an investigation into Internal Affairs because they think that IA is compromised) they need to roll over their specialization score.

If a roll fails, roll a d6 to figure out why:

Misfortune: Bad luck, someone in the wrong place at the wrong time - it was all going smoothly, but unforeseeable events resulted in failure.
Hostile Intervention: Everything your organization did was fine, but an unexpected intervention (another subgroup? A hostile organization?) wound up interfering with your plans.
Incompetence: Worse than a crime, it was a blunder. Someone in the subgroup messed things up, whether in planning, execution, or somewhere in between. 
Managerial Intervention: DAMMIT! Meddling and micromanagement, whether from the subgroup's leader or from the head of the organization, has caused this action to fail. 
If needed, use the margin of the failed d20 roll to figure out how visible the failure is. On a margin of 1 or 2, it's a failure, but nobody knows about it and the damage is contained. On a margin of 3 or 4, the subgroup needs to choose between losing resources (cutting agents loose, massive bribes, etc.) or having a failure become public knowledge. If the margin's 5 or greater, you lose the resources and the failure is public. 


Arrange the subgroups within the organization in a circle. Adjacent nodes interact often; opposing nodes are rivals, compete for resources and budgets, or otherwise antagonistic towards each other.
Paranoia is just having the right information. 
- William S. Burroughs
Subgroup Goals:

Roll a d6:
 Expand: Grow larger, acquire more resources. Use as a default behavior for organizations if you don’t want subgroup goals.
Replace / Eclipse: Supplant another subgroup within the organization.
Suborn: Gain control of another subgroup.
Crown: Promote head of this subgroup to head of the organization.
Realign: Swap places with another subgroup (re: alliances/conflict above).
Defect: Leave the organization, either to an opposing organization or to become independent.

“Management is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt they don't have enough to do," she murmured back. "So they've invented a new acronym.” 
- Connie Willis, Bellwether

Representative NPC:

Need to have an encounter with someone from this group? Roll on this chart! (Nomenclature format cribbed from Echo Bazaar: ). 

Bored Bureaucrat
Unlikely Academic
Passive-Aggressive Clerk
Jovial Amateur
Bluff Professional
Ambitious Underling
Powerhungry Boss
Burned-out Workaholic
Rebellious Naysayer
Recalled Veteran
Disinterested Middle Management
Charismatic Leader
Evangelist “Team Player”
Jaded Outcast
Foreign Contractor
Detestable Visionary
Giggly Social Climber
Shameless Brown-noser
Punctilious Charmer
Useless Wanker

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a sane employee in possession of his wits must be in want of a good manager.” 
- Charles Stross, The Fuller Memorandum

Subgroup Quirks:

Roll twice. The first roll is what the group’s friends think of them; the second is what their enemies or opposition think (or suspect).

Use secret signals extensively
Are older than they seem
Are suspected of brainwashing their members
Will accept anyone
Are behind on their taxes
Were acquired in a hostile takeover
Have distinctive facial tattoos
Have friendly ties with (Table A)
Are well-known about town
Rob from the (Table B), give to the (Table B)
Operate by night
Use exotic animals as messengers
Swallow up real estate
Use offensive tactics (PETA offensive? Kneecapping offensive? Up to you)
Have ferocious, almost inhuman, discipline
Are fiscally irresponsible
Have a naïve mission or motivations
Have a highly placed deep cover asset within (Table A)
Have horrendous uniforms
Focus on long-term strategy 

Table A
The Prisoner

Another subgroup within the organization
Local government
A faction within another organization
Organized crime
Revolutionaries / Dissidents

Table B


Major Influences: 

Paranoia – Allen Varney, 2005, RPG
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carre, 1974, novel
The Atrocity Archives – Charles Stross, 2004, novel

Thanks to Mikah McCabe ( ) for her assistance and feedback and love of ridiculous lists. 

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of "Admin." The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern. 
- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (preface)