Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Grime and Gore: A Review of Gathox Vertical Slum 2: Quake Alley Mayhem

Disclaimer: I was approached by David Lewis Johnson, the author and illustrator of Gathox Vertical Slum as well as GVS2: Quake Alley Mayhem, about writing a review. I agreed, on the condition that I share my honest thoughts about the game and provide this disclaimer. For purposes of the review, I was provided a PDF copy of the book by David.


Book: Gathox Vertical Slum



Gathox Vertical Slum 2: Quake Alley Mayhem is a highly-lethal, tournament-style module for use with the original Gathox Vertical Slum setting book (which you can find my review of here) and a party of 3-6 level 1-3 adventurers. The book itself is compact and lays out a small but dense dungeon full of traps and enemies, as well as rules for tournament play as well as suggestions on how to fit it into an ongoing campaign in Gathox. It continues the gonzo sci-fi elements found in the first book but increases the intensity and lethality of the world. With one or two minor caveats, I would give GVS2: Quake Alley Mayhem a hearty recommendation for any lover of old-school roleplaying products who already has the original Gathox Vertical Slum.  



Setting and Rules

In GVS2: Quake Alley Mayhem, a team of gang members are tasked with infiltrating the Grist Mill - a safe house run by another gang of alien freaks called Kermen - and retrieving Vaclav's Holy Driver, a weapon of great power and importance. The hideout is several sub-stories deep and littered with traps in every room. As if that weren't enough, every 20 minutes, and mini-earthquake occurs, potentially endangering the PCs. Between the enemy guards, traps, and earthquake mishaps, GVS2 proves to be a highly lethal adventure, which the book estimates to be ~80% in playtesting. While I personally don't have an issue with this, some players might, and it will be the DM's job to inform any potential players of this fact. 

Aside from the lethality, one particular quirk of GVS2, is as the name suggests, earthquakes. These happen on a strict 20 minute timer, and are responsible for mishaps which escalate over time as well as opening and closing various doors inside the Grist Mill. This system works well to keep the intensity and pressure up on players, especially for tournament play. However, as quakes escalate, they can be intensely punitive to PCs, especially of a low level who are more likely to fail saves and have fewer HP left after previous encounters. 

The rules that cover tournament play are simple and straightforward, with the DM awarding points for one of five types of actions. If the DM is planning on running the module as part of a campaign in Gathox, GVS2 outlines how to award RP (reputation) to players and their gang instead of tournament points. 

Overall, the added timed elements are clearly delineated and work well, as does the method for awarding points in tournament play. 

Quality and Quantity

Quake Alley Mayhem is compact and punchy. Every room in the dungeon contains something of interest, such as a trap, puzzle, enemy, or all of the above. As was the case with Gathox Vertical Slum, the writing quality is descriptive without being verbose, and appropriately weird for the setting. The artwork is sketchy, grimy, and punk as hell - perfect for the tone of the book. There's just enough to get the imagination flowing without feeling like it's just there to take up space between the text sections. Overall, the quality of the book, both writing and illustration, is top notch, and there's enough to feel substantial for a small tournament module. 

My only small gripe is that I wish there were an inclusion of either an "I Loot the Body" table, or details of treasure to be found besides the macguffin. While those are things any good DM can draw from other sources (including the main Gathox book), it would have been nice to have at least a small table of new or unique Gathox-flavored treasure included. I loved the uniqueness of the items in the main book and was looking forward to more of the same.

Layout and Ease-of-Use

The layout of GVS2 follows closely in line with the original, utilizing a nearly identical layout style and the same font (though in a larger size.) Text never flows (with one exception) over from page to page, ideas are presented neatly with appropriate headers, and wonderfully evocative illustrations break things up well. 

Page 14 contains the 3 maps used for the dungeon, which are simply illustrated and easy to use. My only complaint here is that the maps don't appear again anywhere else in the book, making it so that the DM must flip back and forth between the maps and room descriptions. The solution here is quite easy, however, and would only require the DM to print the page out separately for quick reference. 

Once again, all tables are re-presented together at the end of the book, as well as several pre-gen characters on original Gathox character sheets. Also included at the end is a module tracking sheet for tournament use and an new death and dismemberment table. 

Overall, the book is laid out well and is easy and efficient to use.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Human Spell Formation Machine (WIP)

Here's my take on the "human computer" described in Cixin Liu's incredible science fiction novel, The Three-Body Problem.


The Great Sorceress Adira bat Kezia, fifth Vymrr of that city and second of her line, stood atop her specially constructed sandstone spire which rose 600 feet above the nearest tower. To her back was the Boiling Kettle, angry and steaming with its bubbling whirlpools and melting islands. To her front was the Crushed-stone Sea, that vast and terrible expanse seemingly without end. The sun was high and the winds were low. She raised her hand, the fluorescent stone bangles falling down her forearm, and the tumultuous crowd on the sand flats below grew quiet. 

"Rejoice! For today, together, we will perform a feat of magic unknown in the history of our people. Let us achieve this, so that we might live in splendor."

Cheering erupted from the thousands-strong gathering below as they made their way into the first formation. When all were ready, the Great Sorceress snapped her fingers and the ritual began. In groups of seven, the volunteers began their incantations, creating an inharmonious and haunting melody that carried through the city. Adira herself began to chant, weaving mystic signs in front of a massive lens, her apprentice maintaining a magical font of light above. The resulting shadows cast upon the ground formed the guidelines for the formations of the crowd. 

With each completed formation, the strength of the magic grew, each unit of seven maintaining a different aspect of the complete spell, creating their own signs as part of the whole. 

At first, the magical energies appeared as a crackling in the air. A static charge the sound of a flock of sea birds. But as the sorceress and her peons created and assumed ever more complex arrangements, the energy began to permeate the earth, lacing through the sand and stone in impossibly fractalized patterns of pearlescent hue. A grouping in the crowd mistimed their chant and were swallowed whole by the sands, but still the spell continued. The ground shook, and the bleak clouds above trembled and were wiped away. Adira's chant rose to a shriek and all below mimicked her in unison, their shrill intonations mocking the gods for their contentment in the heavens. In the distance, the northern mountains split and blossoms of radiant energy burst forth, soaking everything nearby in a harsh and violent radiation. But near the city, beautiful trees erupted from the sand, flowers bloomed in the cracks of the sandstone buildings, food appeared on the tables and water in the wells. The deceased were reborn as their beautiful younger selves. As the spell continued over days, the city rejoiced as their newfound paradise took shape. Its beauty was indescribable. 

In an instant, Vymrrys was transformed into a paradise - a utopian city caught between a boiling ocean and a desiccated, infinite desert.  

And just as the massive human spell machine reached the zenith of its spellcasting, something went horribly wrong.

The newly grown trees began to shrivel and die and the food to rot. The dead, newly risen just days ago, began to decompose where they stood as the living wept. An unearthly stench filled the alleyways. Citizens cried out as the Boiling Kettle breached the sea wall and flooded the streets, swallowing the city whole. The human-spell-formation-machine collapsed, the casters turning upon one another in the chaos as Adira looked on, leaving the flats caked in blood and viscera. Impenetrable clouds filled the sky and writhing black masses erupted from the Apex and wriggled across the dry, cracked earth. Dark and inhuman figures rose over the desert and laughed at the folly of humans, their shadows miles long.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Silent Effigies of the Howling Hills

Far to the North of the Great City and its pearlescent towers, the arid desert climate slowly gives way to rolling grassland. Past these savannas the earth begins to buckle and heave skyward to form the Weeping Children, that black and imposing mountain range streaked with ice and snow. Where the mountains and the grasslands meet, the Howling Hills make themselves known. Due to a unique geographical oddity, the occasional gusts of wind produce a howling sound as they curl among the knolls, ensuring that not many visit or travel through. However, those that find themselves wandering through this peculiar patch of land may encounter the Silent Effigies - a field of humanoid sculptures surrounding the ruins of an old monastery. While walking among the effigies, no sound can be heard, and the air is always still with no precipitation no matter the weather nearby.

Use the tables below to randomly generate effigies.

Singular or Clustered (d6)

      1 - 3. Singular
      4 - 6. Clustered (roll d4 to determine number)

Material (d20)
  1. Mud and twigs
  2. Pile of oddly shaped rocks drawn on with ink
  3. A tree stump carved by a knife
  4. Roughly forged iron
  5. Perfectly shaped brass
  6. Animal bones and furs/skins
  7. Wax
  8. Single piece of wood
  9. Frozen lightning
  10. Entanglement of snakes nailed together
  11. Glass
  12. Thousands of layers of parchment/paper
  13. Snow
  14. Vines and flowers
  15. Canvas sack filled with feathers
  16. Thousands of lightning bugs encased in crystal
  17. Void
  18. Birds frozen in flight
  19. Mirrors
  20. Immaculately carved marble or sandstone
Pose (d20)
  1. Graceful pirouette 
  2. On knees frozen in horror
  3. Crucified upside down
  4. Arms crossed
  5. Sitting in lotus position
  6. Standing on hands
  7. Swimming
  8. Fighting stance
  9. Standing erect, hand outstretched pointing towards something
  10. Kneeling on the ground, playing with a small animal
  11. Arms akimbo
  12. Bowing in prayer
  13. Exalting in joy
  14. Flexing muscles
  15. Hand to ear listening intently
  16. Sinking into the ground
  17. Brandishing a sword or spear
  18. Smiling sadistically with hands behind back
  19. Reaching out with both arms
  20. Fetal position
What Happens if it's Destroyed? (d10)
  1. NPC known to the party is found dead the following day in the same position
  2. Ghost bound to the effigy is released and thanks the PCs, gives location of treasure hoard
  3. Witch who built the effigy finds out, vows to hunt down the PCs
  4. NPCs known to the party go mad and begin slaughtering other locals, creating a panic
  5. Nearby village or town is struck by the plague
  6. Beast lying dormant beneath the monastery awkens
  7. Foul blood bubbles up from the earth
  8. PCs incur the wrath of a good deity for their misdeed
  9. Local villagers thank PCs for destroying the effigies of their sadistic feudal lord
  10. As it's being destroyed, effigy is animated and tries to fight to the PCs

Monday, January 8, 2018

Gathox Vertical Slum: District Tram Lines and Encounter Tables

After reading through David Lewis Johnson's excellent Gathox Vertical Slum for probably the 3rd time now, I decided to make my own DIY content for it. On a longish train ride recently, I sketched up some ideas for a tram system through the slums. My idea is that the trams would not only provide a type of transit and a new location for a variety of random encounters while city-crawling, but also another means and strategy for the territory control and the gangland meta-game. For example, the PCs end up controlling a specific station as a source of income, but are constantly warring against another faction who controls the rest of the line. I felt that this new method of travel would work well in a futuristic/pan-galactic mad-max-esque urban landscape. The tram cars themselves are mostly ramshackle assemblages of discarded technology and are generally in need of constant upkeep. They aren't terribly safe to ride, but still shuttle tens of thousands of passengers a day. Although verticality is a huge part of the Gathox setting, I haven't placed the tram lines vertically within the world -- that's up to the DM. In my game I chose to go with elevated lines that directly followed streets at about six stories up. This led to a variety interesting scenarios and tense encounters.


How It Works

Depending on where adventurers are in the slum at any given point will affect which lines are available to them. On the map below you can see the tentative placement of three haphazard tram lines, each of them connecting two of the three districts. Each line also comes with an indicated Danger Rating on a scale of 1 (safest) to 3 (most dangerous). 

GREEN LINE (3): connects The Kettle to Berchan Favela

BLUE LINE (2): connects The Kettle to The Craw

PINK LINE (1): connects Berchan Favela to The Craw

When PCs wish to use the tram to move within a district or between districts, they would pay the indicated fare to the operator, and the DM would roll on the encounter table once for the ride. So for example, if Vardax the Mutant, Kristi the Cosmic Doctor, and Lobat the Martial Master wanted to take the GREEN LINE 2 stops across The Kettle, the DM would roll once on the GREEN LINE ENCOUNTER TABLE after the PCs paid for 2 stops worth of travel. 


Map courtesy of David's blog. 

Encounter Tables

4GP / stop
1 - 5. Ride continues as normal
6. A small band (d4) of hyper-capitalist Kermen plant a flag on the tram car and declare by First Possession Theory that the tram car is now sole property of Kerman society. As such, they quickly begin an attempt to convert the tram car to small textile factory.
7. 1d6+1 X'Xul halt the tram using their space magic and attempt to enslave the passengers (including the PCs). 
8. One of the tram passengers unwittingly disturbs a trash pile in the rear of the carriage, causing 1d6 Arachnoclasts to spring into action, instantly riddling him with laser holes as they begin firing indiscriminately into the tram car. 
9. PCs board the tram car only to find 1d4 dead and dying commoners, potentially victims of a gang scuffle. With proper skills half of them can be saved.
10. As the tram creaks along, a nearby building is swallowed by Gathox, but several vagrants are able to leap from their windows and hang onto the moving carriage for dear life. One of them looks like she's falling though. If saved, she can be recruited as a lvl1 Street Tough hireling at no initial cost.
11. At the first station, a large human and several bodyguards board as well. It seems their leader, Shasta the Serpentigress, is looking for people vaguely matching the PC's description. PCs must persuade that they aren't the right people or be forcibly dragged all the way to the Gorgontula estate to talk to Shasta.
12. A Contrail Antenna flies alongside the tram, spouting inane conspiracy theories about the passengers and PCs alike. 
13. PCs pay for a tram ride, but are surprised when none shows up as expected. If they question the fare collector thoroughly enough, they might reveal that they were paid off to ignore any stoppages by a well-funded gang who wished to assassinate a rival gang leader (Krotex Motorhead, Lvl3 Soldier) riding the car. If the PCs can locate the stopped tram in time, they could potentially prevent the assassination. 
14. A Contrail Antenna flies alongside the tram, spouting inane conspiracy theories about the passengers and PCs alike. 
15. Kalina von Hammershmitzensteinbergovichdorf, a popular celebrity heiress, boards the tram car with a small army of personal servants and several guards. The servants sweep the ground in front of her and clear the rabble from the car. Kalina wears intricate neon and bejeweled robes and avant garde makeup to conceal her face from advanced facial recognition tech employed by the Mokron and some paparazzi.  
16. Tram car track/cable snaps/breaks and the whole carriage crashes through the ground into the sewers. The crash ends with the tram car in a pool of oil, and a group of 3d4 sewer children stalking the passengers as they exit. 
17. Gathox begins a planet-hop mid tram ride. Gravity is suspended, lights flicker and colors invert. The tram car seems to stretch to infinite length as all matter is extruded and contorted. The effect lasts seemingly forever and for no time at all. When Gathox finally arrives at its new home, things seem to resume as normal, but one of the PCs realizes that their arms and legs have been flipped, the result of an unprepared hyperspace jump.
18. Two upstart nightclub DJs stage a turntable battle on the tram car. The passengers, having decided the winner by the strength of their dancing, mob the loser and attempt to toss him from the moving carriage. If saved, the DJ can be hired as an entertainer to boost the income of any entertainment-type property owned by the PCs. 
19. A toxic jet spews from a nearby waste dump, soaking one side of the car in radioactive techno-waste. PCs near the jet of waste (50% chance) must make a DEX throw or suffer 1d6 damage of radiation burns, take a -2 penalty to CHA checks until they can clean themselves, and have a 10% chance of sprouting a random mutation. 
20. 4d4 pirates stop the tram with steel grappling hooks and quickly attempt to instal rocket boosters to the tram. This will take 5 turns. If successful, they turn on the rockets and attempt to fly the tram car out of Gathox into the wilds of the planet, and towards their base of operations. 

8GP / stop

1 - 10.  Ride continues as normal
12. A tall, bald woman in neon robes and face paint slips into a seat near the party. She offers to join their street gang (lvl2 Cosmic Doctor) if you agree to help her assassinate the leader of the Free Bastards, the gang that killed her brother. 
13. Just as the group settles down on the tram, a supremely ugly mutant in a trench coat approaches  and asks if they want to buy any weapons from his "special supply". If so, he gives them an address to a hidden shop in The Kettle.
14. A fanatic of the Elven Primacy Hall leaps onto the tram car from above and tosses a smoke grenade into the car. All party must save vs. poison or hallucinate for 5 hours (-3 to hit). 
15. Two human street urchins board the car in the crowd at the next station, and ask among the crowd for donations to an acrobat troupe - worshippers of The Goddess Who Balances on Narrow Precipices. If donation is given by the party, they are invited to a performance in Berchan Favela. 
16. Shouting is heard from the front of the tram car as several Vulzari agents leap through the windows and assassinate the tram operator! They claim the tram for the Vulzari and attempt to hold the occupants hostage until they can be taken below ground for forcible conversion.
17. Some newly installed parts explode (50% chance of the explosion being near the party) instantly killing nearby occupants, or dealing 1d6 damage (save for half) to PCs. The explosion leaves the tram near a station but in a precarious situation (i.e. might be hit by another tram car, dangling and about to fall to the street, near a building that's about to collapse, etc.)
18. 1d6+1 gang members from a hostile Neighborhood Friendship Society board the tram and begin asking occupants for "protection money".
19. Several passengers in the back are openly smoking bakra root in the back of the tram, filling the cabin with an acrid smoke. Unless they're stopped, everyone on the tram is spun out by the next stop (save or -1 to all checks for 6 hours). 
20. As the PCs get up to exit the car 1d8+1 Sloughs crawl through the car, having already removed the face of the tram operator and one passenger! If left unchecked, they will harvest a number of faces equal to the number of rolled Sloughs -2 before returning underground. 

12GP / stop
1 - 15. Ride continues as normal
16. An otherwise uneventful ride is interrupted when the tram's (already unstable) power goes out, leaving it stranded halfway between two stations.
17. A Mi-Chiw elite death squad (1d6+1, level at DM discretion) boards the tram at the next station, shouting loudly that they're searching for someone. The grotesque turtle-people snatch a small boy from his mother if nothing is done and leave the tram car before it departs.
18. Without warning a fight breaks out between d4 humans and d4 Glaatu down the aisle of the tram car. Laser blasts start firing and other passengers flee or hide.
19. If PCs are lucky they'll notice that the tram has begun to move in a direction it wasn't supposed to. It turns out that the Gathox tendrils have eaten the next station, and now the tram is headed deep into the underground caverns where swallowed buildings dwell.
20. A massive sandstorm from the deserts of Red Doom sweep through the city, filling the tram car with a thick red sand haze. When it clears, the PCs realize that the tram has stopped, but they're now missing any currency they were carrying.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

New Name, New Header

Hey readers! As should be obvious, I've decided to change the name of my blog as well as redo my header image to match.

So what is Yenemvelt?

Yenemvelt is a Yiddish word loaded with meaning and nuance. Strictly speaking, it's generally translated as "other world" with alternate romanized spellings as yenne velt, yenemsvelt, and yenevelt. But it's more than that, and highly dependent on context. In general conversation it can be used in a few ways:

1) as a way to say "you're off in your own land" or too lost in your own reality, or

2) as a way to refer to "the middle of nowhere" or somewhere so far away as to be inconvenient.

However, I prefer the third way: as a reference to somewhere far off, imaginative, and full of magic. When used in this way, yenemvelt is an evocative way to talk about the mystery of lands unknown. In this context, you can see why I like it so much.

That is, ultimately, what I want this blog to be - an exploration into another world, the yenemvelt.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Black Monolith From Another Sun: Level 1

Last week, I flew back from LA and while on the flight decided to sketch up some ideas for a hex/point and dungeon map for my Vymrrys campaign setting. Below are some general ideas I had, the first go at a map, and a map key. Within the couple weeks or so I'll probably take another stab at it before moving on to the next level of the dungeon. While not a "megadungeon" - I'm nowhere near skilled enough yet to successfully design something that complex - I'm hoping I can expand this out to at least five levels. You'll notice a lack of access to other levels. Once I've designed those I can begin to add more interconnections.


Vymrrysian scholars have long theorized as to the true nature of the Black Monolith, that totemic object which stabs out from the Infrared Octagonal Hills to the southeast like a knife. While some holdouts still cling to the notion that it was constructed by a long-since-exterminated civilization, most modern academics believe it to have originated from one of the many thousands of suns that dot the night sky. Many an aristocrat has sent scouting or raiding parties to the Monolith, bringing back a variety of alien gems, metals, and the like, assuming they were able to get past the structure's formidable security measures.

Several levels of the monolith have been explored so far, but reports indicate that there are assuredly several more floors above the first 3. In the time between aristocrat-funded treasure-hunting groups, other creatures have themselves moved in, or at least tried to do so. Most recently, a breakaway faction of Zealous Geometers have announced a claim the Monolith, and have begun to set up magical defenses and wards near the only known entrance to the structure. Most hallways are unlit, though some rooms still have flickering or unstable light sources. The whole structure is composed of a dark black and green alloy.

1-3: 1d4 Zealous Geometers (cultists)
4: 1d4 Purple Sun elves (thieves)
5: 1d4 Serpents of the Legless Star Seekers (fighting men)
6: Escaped Carnivore Slug from level 2 (3HD, 15 [5] AC, +3 to hit, 1d6 damage, sluglike but can leap from floor to attack)
7: Fast-moving poison cloud from a nearby pipe rupture, run or save against paralysis
8: 1d6 giant desert spiders from a crack in a nearby wall
9: 1d6 escaped prisoners from Level 2, feral, as commoners
10: 1d3 irradiated mutants from a nearby loose floor hatch, as ghouls


Solid blocks indicate loose floor sections (i.e. pit trap down into mechanical sections of the ship), while Xs indicate dangling electric cables that will shock PCs. 

  1. Entrance to the Monolith. Seamless black door made of the same metallic alloy as the structure. Guarded by 1d4 Zealous Geometers. Closely observant characters will find finger smears in the shape of two triangles about ten feet apart on the surface, indicating two people must trace the outline to open the door. If a Geometer is captured they tell PCs how to get in. 
  2. Central Hall. Quiet and dimly lit, save for the faint hum of distant mechanical constructs. The air here is still. High up in the ceiling enneagram-shaped shards of metal glow dimly with a phthalocyanous green hue.   The <--> indicates a large staircase which ascends to Level 2. Locked behind massive and ornate doors. Unfortunately, since Level 2 hasn't been designed yet...I haven't made a way to open these.
  3. Empty Room. Room looks like it's been picked clean for quite some time. Secret door leads to hidden alcove containing the intertwined skeletons of long-dead lovers. Note in an alien language. Mechanically unfurling religious icon in the shape of a lotus made of metal (worth 50gp). Weak wall can be smashed into 4.
  4. Old barracks room. 1d4 Zealots have turned this old barracks room into a waystation for their group. They may be trying to breach the heavily secured door to 5.
  5. Chrome Well. Three steps lead down around the room towards a 5' diameter basin about 3 feet high. A perfectly still chrome liquid* is perfectly level with the surface. The only light emanates from bright orange signs in an alien language ring the walls. If translated the signs read "Use If All Hope Is Lost". The air here smells metallic and feels oppressively heavy. Around the sides of the room are scattered the broken remains of glass and steel containers, though several are still intact. 
  6. Security Checkpoint. An old security checkpoint, now abandoned. However, tripwire strung diagonally, blocking southwest corner. Strange gun (1d6 exploding damage, 5 laser charges) is visible in sealed case. If tripwire is touched, make save or take 1d6 damage from steel spikes in the floor. 
  7. Strange Cathedral. Void Guardian** sleeps between the alloy pillars at the far end of the room, in front of an incomprehensible glass and metal icon to That Which Sails the Void***. Secret door leads to what looks to be a still-useful seed-bank. If computer system is toyed with, 1 in 6 chance that seeds are launched into atmosphere. Most of them are alien plant species, but several of them are seeds which will grow into new Void Guardians. 
  8. Storage Room. An old storage room, picked clean. 
  9. Meeting Room. A large, round table at the center of the room. 1d4-1 Zealots are meeting here with a Serpent-man representing a faction further along in the dungeon - the Legless Star Seekers.  
  10. Study Rooms. Two adjacent rooms that at one point were used to study data from the Humming Archives. Powerless mechanical hummingbirds lay dormant around the room, and valuable metals have been ripped from the electronic devices in the walls. If the powerless hummingbirds are brought to the archives 1 in 2 chance of reactivation (worth 200gp if captured and sold powered on). 
  11. Mess Hall, Skirmish Site. The sight of a recent clash between factions. Several corpses are scattered around the room, as are the signs of magic use. One in two chance that 2 "corpses" are actually still alive but dying slowly. If searched carefully, several packets of sealed rations of an alien food can be found. They are still edible, though will taste strange to PCs. 
  12. Viewing Port. Walls here are made of a near-unbreakable glass compound through which the expanse of the Infrared Octagonal Hills is viewable. Metal benches dot the room. One of few sources of natural light in the Monolith.  
  13. Martial Training Room. Plastic and foam dummies of various alien species dot the room, clearly stations for martial training of prior occupants. 1d4 Zealot scholars are in deep thought taking notes on the representations of foreign life. Searches reveal 2 alien swords of black, lightweight alloy, as well as a pair of lightweight flexible Turbo Gloves (bonuses as unarmed attack, but 1 die type higher damage due to pulse propulsion of fists during strike. Also grants 1-point bonus to checks made to grab or catch objects with hands). 
  14. Power Relay Station. Several lights flicker through strange gems within the casing units of this near non-functional power station. Fiddling with or destroying this relay station to remove the gems (50gp each, 5 total) will permanently shut off all non-natural lighting on Level 1, disregarding 17
  15. Psionic Prison. All surfaces made of white alloy, and otherwise empty aside from the ceiling-mounted cage of black psionic energy. Trapped inside is a telepathic life form made of slow-growing crystal lattice†. Door from the hallway is trapped any attempt to pick the bulky lock mechanism will deliver an electric shock to the PC worth 1d6 damage. Save for half. Can be opened safely with cardkey found on a corpse in  14.
  16. Guard Room. Contains information about the crystal life-form in an alien language on a holographic datapad. Door to 15 is trapped any attempt to pick the bulky lock mechanism will deliver an electric shock to the PC worth 1d6 damage. Save for half. Can be opened safely with cardkey found on a corpse in  14.
  17. Humming Archives. This seeming library hums with the still-going activity of thousands of mechanical hummingbirds, sucking electric knowledge nectar from the stacks and shuffling it around. Three levels. Spiral stairs lead from 1 -> 2 and from 2 -> 3. Several old skeletons are located on level 3 near a destroyed stack. 
  18. Chrono-Hall 1. Malfunctioning but still powered graviton generators have created strange time fields in this hall passage and the following. In this section, time moves at roughly 1/4 the speed. Sound is deep and language becomes almost indecipherable, light moves slowly and bends through the air, etc. Spending too much time here will become disorienting upon exit. If more than 2 turns are spent here, PC incurs a -1 penalty to reaction rolls for 1 hour. One can see the flicker of these forces in the air as specs of red energy. 
  19. Chrono-Hall 2. In this hallway time his sped up by 4, as is one's momentum upon exiting the hall from the East side. PCs that don't make any attempt to move as slowly as possible will rocket out of the time field at quadruple their normal speed, and on a failed save, crash into the nearest wall for the equivalent of 10 feet of falling damage. 
  20. Shooting Range. Nonfunctional shooting range. Laser burns scar the metal walls. A laser rifle (1d10 exploding damage, 10 charges) sits locked in a case (extremely difficult to open, trapped) along the wall nearest the door. When PCs enter, 3 purple sun thieves are trying to open it. They will try to talk their way out of the situation before fighting. If PC attempts to force the gilded case open, a laser blade will extend like a wire from the case edging and attempt to remove fingers. On a failed save, 1d6 damage and lose 2 fingers.  
  21. Escape Pod Room 1. Empty save for spots where escape pods used to be. Doors are ringed in bright orange paint. 
  22. Escape Pod Room 2. Similar to above except one pod remains. Made of similar smooth blackish green metal alloys as the rest of the ship. Glass window at approximately 3/4 the height of the pod. Inside can be seen an inhuman skeleton in some sort of armor.†† Inoperable hatch unless power is restored. Glass can be shattered with a near impossible strength check.  
  23. Archivist's Quarters. Ancient computing systems sit unpowered around the room, powerless hummingbirds lay scattered about. Now being used by Tetratus (magic user, 4HD, 14 [6] AC) acting leader of the Zealous Geometer's expedition, along with 2 of his underlings (both fighting men, 2HD, 15 [5] AC). He will be immediately hostile if he knows any of his men have been killed. Otherwise, he may attempt to parlay with the party for information. 
  24. Vertical Gardens. Small radiation sources in the walls and ceiling have kept the plants growing far longer than they should have. Many alien vines and flowers twist around each other from within their gilded housings. Extended exposure to the radiation in this room is toxic to all PCs and NPCs. If the room is visited twice for more than one turn, use a table to determine random mutations for characters. 
  25. Medical Center. An old and picked over medical center. Vertical pods with shattered glass in corners of rooms. Several healing items can be looted here, though PCs wouldn't recognize them. 1d4 Purple Sun elven thieves are picking through the room on arrival, probably descended from Level 2.
  26. Empty Room. What was once here is now gone. What looks to be a metal desk has been stripped of ornamentation, and one body lies in the corner, decaying. --> in the nearby hallway indicates an open well within the ship. If someone jumps or stumbles in and fails a save, 100 feet of falling damage as they plummet through the machinery in the lower levels. 
  27. Caged Men. Door guarded by 2 serpent-men of the Legless Star Seekers. Pitch black room full of stacked cages, most with skeletons. Upon closer inspection several cages contain 3 captured Geometers. The secret door at the end of the hallway between 27 and 28 provides a secondary entrance to the Monolith. Can only be entered via scaling a cliffside, and if exited without caution, PC takes falling damage from 30 feet without a successful save. 
  28. Meditation Room. Sealed by an "airlock" style door system, organic metal fixtures weave throughout the room, providing natural places for alien bodies to relax and meditate. Several pairs of soft shoes are present in the lock. A flickering holo-projector sits in the center of the room, the black room intermittently punctuated by the cyanic light. Holo-lenses can be stolen for 200gp each. Sound echoes extremely well here, and creating enough noise will cause pain. PCs not attempting to walk or talk quietly will create noise at ten times the volume. For every PC making noise all PCs in the room take 1d3 damage per turn. Currently empty and still. 
*Chrome Liquid. Functions as a one-time use set of flexible, light, plate armor. Used by original inhabitants in case of the ultimate emergency. If touched, liquid will quickly move to cover the entire body including all orifices. Dampens hearing partially and smell completely, but breathing and sight are still possible. Grants a +2 bonus to saves vs any inhaled poison, breath, or similar attacks, nullifies contact poisons and grants +3 AC on top of current AC. However, extended use of the armor is ill advised. Every 30 minutes of wear take 1d4 damage as the chrome anchors itself into the skin. Can be removed on command and will turn into a solid slab of metal once removed. Can only be carried in specified containers.

**Void Guardian. 5HD, 16 [4] AC. +3 to hit, 1d6+1 physical attacks, 1d10 psyonic attack requires 2 turn recharge, feeds on radiation. 15' tall, slick grey skin the texture of cured leather. Muscular arms and thick legs but no head. Thick prehensile tail. Instead of a head, a blinking metal contraption is set directly into the shoulders, with tubes inserting directly into the back and upper chest. Senses room by vibra-location, giving all PCs a -3 penalty to stealth.

***The Icon of that Which Sails the Void. A glass and alloy structure that seems to mutate without moving. Its etherial substructure creates a religious totem of indescribable shape and complexity. If meditated before for one day, the PC will be granted brief contact with the deity.

Slow-growing Crystalline Entity. Has been imprisoned for hundreds of years be the Monolith's original occupants. Nearly insane. Has been subsisting on trace amounts of radiation leakage through the ship. If freed will immediately search out stronger sources of radiation. However, may have information on some of the groups in the Monolith. Not immediately hostile but will go through anything to find more food. 6HD, 11 [9] AC, 1d4 prismatic rays per round, colors as spell prismatic spray.

††Armor from Another Sun. Ornate black and gold armor made of densely woven threads and high-grade ceramic plating. Full suit is AC as plate. Grants damage resistance to missile attacks. Motorized joint assists can absorb half of falling damage. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Working on a Semi-mega-dungeon

In between a variety of other things, I've been working through building the first level of a 5-level "semi"-mega dungeon. This first draft of it contains 30-odd rooms and is meant to provide some alien vibes to any weird-fantasy game. Writing it as system-neutral. Check back in a few days for an update!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Black Dragon Incorporated (A Demon City playtest recap)

A week or two back one of my regular players had an evening conflict and had to skip our weekly campaign. In its place, I had the remaining 5 regulars roll up some Demon City characters. This was our third foray into Demon City, the prior two "episodes" claiming the lives and/or sanity of 3 characters. With a bit better handle on the rules and mechanical quirks of the game, this was probably the smoothest of our play sessions. It was also the luckiest, and the PCs dice rolls were on fire. Unlike our prior games where things went wrong fairly frequently, somehow they made everything here work almost flawlessly. Those who had to make new characters were able to do so quickly, and I was able to easily insert them into the ongoing narrative. I'll take this moment to be a bit of a shill and just say that this is one of the best new RPGs I've played in years. At least for me, it hits all the right notes in terms of tone, structure, and mechanics.

This "episode" takes place one year after several of the characters made it out of LA, having witnessed multiple homicides and becoming embroiled in a pseudo-religious conspiracy involving several Russian crime bosses. The remaining PCs moved to Philadelphia in an attempt to escape their past, but as they soon learned, the past always catches up...

What follows is a recap of our session in which the group witnessed a car chase, stole a motorcycle, investigated a shady and heavily-secured house, witnessed a bizarre summoning ritual, and blew things up with grenades on Christmas night.

Yes, I know this is South Street and not in the Italian Market, but it was the best dark South Philly photo I could dig up. 


Episode 3
Black Dragon Incorporated

DJ appearing as Clarence the Shady Accountant (I)
Greer appearing as Rod Zaplenti the Trucker (F)
Chris returning as Greg 'Buq Wild' Buqowski the Stage Magician (P)
Laurel appearing as Trevor [RETRACTED] the Conspiracy Radio Host (C)
Joanie appearing as Glinda the Pawn Shop Owner/Fence (C)
Jonathan returning as Jimothy Steele the Ex-White Collar Crimes Cop (V)


A light snow fell outside as Greg and Jimothy paced back and forth across the main room of the apartment they were squatting in the Italian Market section of South Philadelphia, muttering about one conspiracy or another. One block further down South 9th Street, Rod was making a late-night illicit delivery to Glinda's pawn shop. Clarence was on his way home while Trevor was on his way to the studio, hoods up so as to avoid the snow. Along the several blocks of the Italian Market, vendors were finishing the process of closing up shop, lowering the graffitied steel doors to seal off their storefronts from vandals. It was Christmas night, and most were trying to close early in order to spend some time with their families. White steam rose from steel grates in the sidewalk, obscuring the vision of any walking through.

As lights began to twinkle out along the street, tires squealed and a jet-black four-door with tinted windows whipped around the corner from Washington Ave and onto South 9th, barely avoiding several streetside market stalls. Two black motorcycles followed, their riders spraying bullets from semiautomatic pistols through the icy flurries. Sparks flew, the slugs bouncing away from the bullet resistant rear of the car as they sped north through the market. Barely poking out of the passenger side window, a man returned fire, one of his bullets striking a rider in the throat. The motorcycle pitched wildly as the man toppled off, pulling the kill-switch on the ignition. The other rider continued following the car north towards Center City and the gunfire faded into the night, as the man bled out in the street.

Rod and Clarence were first to the scene, having narrowly dodged a hail of gunfire. While they checked to see if the stranger was still alive, Jimothy and Greg descended from their squat, intrigued if also suffering flashbacks to their time in LA. Trevor hung back down the block to observe, trying to recall the license plate number of the car. Clarence, noticing a familiar tattoo on the face of the stranger through his cracked helmet visor, asked the gang to help him examine the body. Before the cops could arrive, they carted the body around to the back entrance of Glinda's shop along with the motorcycle which was still functional though beaten up.

After laying out the body, the group set about inspecting for any clues as to who the man might be. While Trevor recalled the license plate [DEEZNUTS], the rest of the group carefully removed the cracked helmet and the man's jacket. The gunman's face and throat were covered in strange, serpent-like black tattoos, as were his hands. The only identifying material in the dead man's possession was a matte-black card, about the size and thickness of a credit card but substantially more dense. Glinda got the idea to pass it under a blacklight, which revealed a single line of Chinese characters. Jimothy snapped a photo and sent it to a contact of his in Chinatown who sent back the translation.

Black Dragon Incorporated.

Clarence and Trevor were able to conduct a public records search online, and managed not to draw any attention to themselves (or so they think) in the process. The search revealed a South Philly address registered to BDI. Curious, the group made plans to scout out the building. Using the slightly battered but still functional motorcycle, Clarence rode out first while Jimothy set out on foot and the rest of the gang hopped into Rod's truck. 

Upon arrival, Clarence noted the presence of many concealed security cameras and relayed this information to the group on the way in the truck. When the PCs in the truck arrived, Glinda and Rod decided to fake making a delivery in order to do two things: 1) see who answered the door and if they could fake their way inside, and 2) provide a distraction for Clarence who wanted to find a security hardpoint to hack and shut down the camera feeds and/or power. Meanwhile, Greg and Trevor decided to sneak around the block and behind the house, attempting to find a way inside from the rear. 

Yes, I know this is the "Latimer House" at 12th and Latimer, but I couldn't find a photo of the actual house this is based on.

Somehow, this plan went off without too much trouble: Glinda and Rod carried a large crate of oranges (which concealed a smaller box of grenades, intended for sale to a local crime syndicate) up to the front door. A large, burly Chinese man in a black suit answered and Rod managed to stall him long enough for Clarence to find a hardwire into the camera system. Meanwhile, Greg and Trevor worked together to climb a drainpipe up to the second floor, stealthily open a window, and slide through into what looked like an office. A creeping sense of dread grew among the group as they pushed toward the focal point of their investigation.

Suddenly, Rod and Glinda dropped the crate, sending oranges flying into the house, surprising the suited man who though annoyed let them in to pick up the oranges. At the exact instant Clarence managed to loop the camera feeds, another suited guard opened the door to the office only to see Trevor near the desk. Right as he was about to radio for backup, Greg pulled out his automatic knife and pounced on the man and slit his throat. Back in the foyer, Glinda and Rod worked to distract the guard, giving Clarence enough time to slip through the front door unnoticed. Jimothy decided to hang near the truck and wait for any signs of struggle.

While Trevor and Greg decided what to do, Clarence found a door to a dark basement. Reaching it, he discovered a small black obelisk with a scroll placed on top, surrounded my life-like statues of elderly men frozen in horror. Dread consumed him as he read what appeared to be the instructions for some sort of occult summoning ritual. He was used to criminal activity sure, but not whatever it was that they had just walked into.

The following occurred simultaneously: 1) Rod and Glinda anger the guard by venturing further into the house and looking into a large central room two stories tall, 2) Clarence searches for and finds a computer in the basement, and is able to shut off all security measures, 3) Greg and Trevor exit the office only to be looking down on the same two-story room from a hallway with a half wall. A guard in the upper hallway spots the pair and radios in vain for backup to his location. At the same time, the guard downstairs rushes Rod and Glinda, who fend him off and knock him out before he can draw his gun. In the upper hall, Trevor and Greg take down the guard with a combination knife and bronze-sculpture attack.

It's only after the guards are dealt with that they pay attention long enough to see what they were guarding - the ritual detailed on the ancient scroll!

Three elderly men who have never seen themselves in a mirror.
A perfect flower of life in salt upon which they stand equidistant.
A flawless 64 tetrahedron array in obsidian at the center.
The chant, repeated eight times in perfect unison. 
Behold the sacred
These lines drawn by feel alone
Our voices summon you from stone
Arise Black Dragon, awakened!

The elderly men stand, robes removed equidistant around the sacred geometry, chanting quickly in unison. Clarence, now on the main floor across the room from Glinda and Rod, screams that they have to disrupt the ritual and everyone makes their moves. Clarence rushes in to tackle one of the men, while Greg leaps over the half wall down to the first floor to do the same. Alas, the chant has finished its eighth incantation just as they tackle the elderly men in white robes.

Suddenly, the obsidian 64 tetrahedron begins to shift, its geometry flowing into impossible shapes, unnerving all of the PCs looking on. As it morphs it grows, its form beginning to take on the discernible shape of a dragon, stone wings growing and a stone maw protruding from the geometric void. Rod sprints back to the orange box and digs up the grenades, tossing a few to Glinda. He shouts for everyone to clear the room as the black dragon forms from the stone. Suddenly grenade explosions erupt around the ritual area, shrapnel blowing through the walls and weakening the structural stability of the house. Demonic cries can be heard from the still forming dragon. Somehow, nobody besides one of the old men is killed in the explosions. Jimothy, hearing and seeing the explosions, rushes in, his gun drawn, and fires several shots at the demon which ricochet off.

As the roof begins to collapse, everyone flees the house...except Greg. In a panic, he screams and leaps at the stone demon with his knife, and in that instant discovers the full extent of his psychic abilities.

Just as the stone demon impale's Greg's shoulder with two of its talons, Greg screams, "GO BACK!" hurling his knife a the creature. The knife crackles with blue psychic energy created by the full huse of Greg's new telekinetic powers and instantly attains super-sonic speed and the mass of a much larger object. A millisecond later, the knife impacts the stone dragon/demon, blowing a hole through its body and sending stone shrapnel hurtling through the far wall. The demon screams in agony as its newly summoned form is blown apart by the telekinetic blast wave.

Before collapsing from the psychic exertion, Greg flees the house, what remains of it imploding behind him. The group manages to grab him and haul him into the truck and speed off before the police arrive. In their downtime after the session, most PCs elected to try and recover mentally while Greg rested in the hospital, trying to come to grips with his newfound abilities.


I hope you all enjoyed this recap of Episode 3 of our group's Demon City adventures! Stay tuned to see if our curious crew can uncover the deeper connections between all that they have witnessed. Will they stay sane in the face of occult horrors? Will they succumb to grievous injuries? Find out next time!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

5e Blues (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the OSR)

Even though I dabbled in tabletop games during my high-school years, I didn't really get into the hobby until a few years ago when I finished up my undergraduate education. When I did, I jumped right into the newest iteration of The Game: 5th Edition D&D. While I still host two 5e games a week, over the last year and a half or so I've been steadily replacing my 5e leanings with a host of OSR systems. While others in the G+ blogosphere have written about this far better than I can ever hope to, I wanted to provide my perspective as a relatively new member of the community on the following question: why is the OSR (and old-school versions of the game in general) so much better than 5e?

To me it comes down to a few key approaches in mentality and mechanics:

  1. Grounded vs. Fanciful
  2. Player action vs. Character action
  3. Creativity vs. More Skills

Grounded vs. Fanciful

The overall tone of 5e is probably one of my biggest ongoing problems with it. The closest comparison I can make is comparing Diablo II to Diablo III (action RPG computer games for those who don't know). Diablo II was released in 2000, and had the perfect blend of great art, action, and tonality that kept me hooked for years - playing at night with friends online through middle and early high-school. Diablo III by comparison, was released in 2013, and vast visual upgrades and gameplay changes did the game no favors. The new art style felt like a downgrade, and it changed the tone drastically. Diablo went from feeling like a fantasy-horror RPG splatterfest to a childrens' book version of the same thing.

Screenshot from Diablo II (2000)

Screenshot from Diablo III (2012)
This is one of the main reasons why I love OSR content and systems so much as compared to the 5e system and its content. When I started playing 5e, I was a bit put off by its overly-fanciful nature, but it seemed to be what all the cool people were playing so I stuck with it. As I discovered OSR content however, I realized that I much preferred the "grounded" feeling of its systems and settings. Even when OSR goes full gonzo (I'm looking at you Gathox Vertical Slum), there is still an overall essence to the game that keeps it from feeling whimsical. Things matter here, in a way that the more high-fantasy 5e content can't seem to match. In the same way that Diablo III turned the game from a tense, harsh, and dark affair into something more cartoon-like, 5e took D&D and make it overly whimsical and bland.

Player Initiative vs. Character Initiative / Creativity vs. Many Skills

The other key differentiator for me, and probably the most important, is the difference in how the player/character dichotomy is handled between the OSR systems and 5e.

5e seems to be much more centered around the idea of inhabiting your character's stat sheet, scrolling through a long list of skills and proficiencies, and deciding what to do in a given situation. Success in 5e is highly dependent on choosing the "right skill" for a given situation, rolling well on your dice, and moving forward. Roleplaying is important, but only insofar as "thinking like your character". This is highly limiting, as characters without the right skill makeup for an encounter, or high enough stats that give the player license to say "well my PC would think of this solution because she's smart", are totally left behind.

OSR games take the opposite approach: how situations are handled is determined by what the player can think of, not the character. Skills and abilities are still important, but they often don't determine the success of the party on a dungeon delve or adventure. Success is frequently determined by decisions players make, how they work together as a team, or roleplay effectively. This means finding creative and novel workarounds, planning ahead, and generally engaging more critically with the game or setting. Success means more than properly decoding your skills and their applied bonuses for maximum effect.

Bang vs. Whimper

Combined, the above leads to one major difference - the reason why I DM so much more OSR play now rather than 5e play. OSR play is punchy, in-your-face, and impactful. 5e play is abstracted and after a Warlock's 8-millionth eldritch blast, boring. Every situation overcome, enemy slain, or kingdom toppled in an OSR game means something. You get the rush of knowing that you earned it. When your magic-user casts that crazy spell and wipes out the gang of bloodthirsty mercenaries about to pounce, the whole party goes insane. OSR games, and by extension OSR DMing, has a visceral and evocative feeling that 5e just can't match. I've found that it takes special players to help overcome this feeling of rote-ness.

OSR characters accomplish the mundane with a bang, 5e characters accomplish the fantastic with a whimper.  

New Posts Coming Soon!

Hey all!

Just wanted to let everyone reading know that I'll have some new posts coming up soon. Between finalizing PhD applications and coordinating other things with my job(s), my creative output has certainly dipped.

Look forward to some posts within the next week.

Friday, October 27, 2017

OSR Class: Otterperson Swift Striker

My assortment of FLAILSNAILers who are inhabiting Vymrrys at the moment really took a liking to the otters and their orgiastic bacchanals and ongoing war with the elf gangs of the House of the Purple Sun. One of them wanted some otter hirelings, so here's the first of three disturbingly violent otter classes. 

Otterperson Swift Striker*

While it is not currently known from whence the Otterpeople originated, most of those living in Vymrrys currently occupy a hidden enclave South of the shipyards and docks on the west side of the city. Swift Strikers are the mercurial spies and assassins of the otter-world, conducting surveillance against the House of the Purple Sun throughout the city. They rarely engage in battle headlong, instead preferring to surprise their enemies unaware.


Prime Attribute: Dexterity [13+]
HD: 1d6
AC (base): 9 [10]
Armor/Shield Permitted: Leather, no shield
Weapons Permitted: Any, but magical daggers and swords only

*For saving throws, hiding, moving silently, picking locks, and leveling use the standard Thief table from S&W Complete


About The Class

Alignment: Any

Armor: Due to their supple skeletons and contortionist-like abilities, Otterfolk can only wear armor that can bend with them, limiting them to leather and cloth.  Armor purchased or requisitioned from a non-Otter leather-smith will cost double. 


Class Abilities

Supple Skeleton: An Otterperson's supple bones and joints allow them to contort into a variety of shapes, allowing them to enter and crawl through any tunnel through which even a small humanoid could not fit. Their wriggly nature also makes them harder to hit with slow moving weapons, giving a +1 AC vs. two-handed weapons. 

Otter Lungs: All Otterpeople are able to hold their breath for up to five minutes, allowing them to swim underwater for great distances as well as give immunity against inhalation poison for that time. 

Rock Assassination: The Swift Striker is especially adept at using rock slings to kill its prey, never incurring a penalty when aiming at a specific body part with the sling. [1d4 dmg] 

Hide in Liquids (2nd): At 2nd Level, a Swift Striker learns to hide in any liquid as well as it can hide in shadows. 

Whisker Location (3rd): At 3rd Level, the Swift Striker has adapted its sensitive whiskers to note moving objects within 60 feet. And will only be surprised by unseen assailants 33% of the time. 

Leap from Water (5th): At 5th Level, a Swift Striker becomes capable making an especially deadly stealth attack from water, should it be hiding there. This quick and lethal attack gives an extra +2 bonus to attacks from hiding, and an extra 1d4 damage.  

Establish Shadow Enclave (9th): At 9th Level, a Swift Striker may establish their own Enclave along any available coastline. The new enclave start with 2d20 Otterperson civilians, 1d8 of which can be immediately trained in the ways of Swift Striking. Each level after 9th, roll 1d8 to see how many new clan members have been born. Of this new number, 1 in 3 will be a Swift Striker, rounded up. 

Every Other Level: Roll on the random advancement Thief table.