Arcane Secrets

Imagine that the world as we know it is a book. On it are written the tales of heroes and triumphs and disasters and bloodshed. Just as that book is made of sentences, so too is the world made of things. And just as a sentence is made of words, so too are things made of something else.

Now imagine that we’re talking about the ink on that book. Now we’re talking about magic.

Or so it has been explained to me.

If you’re playing a Wizard, you know some Secrets. You can make your own list, or you can use mine, which I ripped from an OSR source and remixed and mangled.

The basic idea is that you roll on the chart to see what Secrets (spell fragments) you have at hand. You pick two of them, decide what it does, and then go for it.

Here’s the list of everything I’ve got. I’ve been thinking of dividing them into discrete themed lists, but this is your general purpose all-rounder Wizard.

Wizard Draft 1

Ok so here’s the gist- this wizard has a bunch of spell fragments, if you will, called Secrets. I actually went through an OSR game’s fixed spell list and took all the adjectives and nouns that I thought would be fun and put them in a big list.

When you create a wizard (or level up) you get a couple Secrets. And when you rest, you have a couple of those Secrets ready. You can take any two Ready Secrets and decide that’s a spell. You pay for the spell with your Magic Dice, which give you pseudo-hit points you can spend to fuel the spell. Or you can use your hit points, too, if you want.

So as an example, imagine you’re a Wizard and you have the following secrets: Animating, Cone, Greasing, Pushing.

From those Secrets, you could try and cast:

  • Animating Grease (Maybe a little grease monster?)
  • Pushing Cone (A cone-shaped blast that knocks stuff around?)
  • Greasing Cone (Grease spray, I think that’s an actual spell)
  • Animating Cone (Maybe a bunch of little stuff in a cone comes alive?)
  • Greasing Push (You push on something and it moves as if greased?)

Anyways, I really don’t like writing spell lists, or choosing from discrete spell lists either. Let me just make something up. I’m a wizard, damn it!

To make it a little less random, you always get to choose one Secret to learn and one Secret to make Ready, so that you’re never entirely at the whims of fate. Just mostly. Hey, magic is weird sometimes!

Check out the PNG of the class, soon to be turned into a PDF whenever I get around to it:

How to Sandbox

All I ever run (and have ever run) are homebrewed sandbox campaigns. I have run starter adventures a handful of times, and I have run like, two modules in my life. [1]

Running sandboxes just feels natural. After the starter adventures, what’s next? What’s in the town over there? Another dungeon? Something to steal? Evil cultists?

A blonde-haired adventurer with a sword and a green cape stands with their back turned to the viewer and stares into the distance. In the background, a blue sky and fluffy white clouds obscure the adventurer’s destination.

But I realize not everybody’s like me. So here’s how I do it:

  1. Gather some players and decide on a system. I usually pick the system first and then seek players, but you do it how you like.
  2. Pick a theme. I keep it vague- romantic high medieval, gritty sword and sandal, gonzo post-apocalypse, dark fantasy, whatever.
  3. Write up five or so cultures. I am a big history nerd so I usually just think about the last handful of cultures I was reading about. If I had to do it now I’d probably go with Greco-Bactrian colonists, Babylonian city states, Mongolian steppe confederations, Russian merchant-princedoms, and, why not, let’s do a Malian Empire.
  4. Then I decide vaguely where they are next to each other. Let’s put the Malian Empire in the South, the Russians in the West, the steppe nomads in the East. Babylonians go North, and the G-Bs are in the Northeast. Why not. [2]
  5. Then the boundaries and features of the region. There’s a big sea in the Southeast, and an ocean to the North. There’s a vast desert in the south, and sparse shrubland in the east (where the horse lords are, naturally). The West is hilly and forested. There are a lot of mountains in the Northeast. The North has lots of rivers and deltas and floodlands and swamps.
  6. Then decide on how the cultures relate to one another. The M. nomads raid the R. merchant-princedoms regularly. The M. Empire and the B. City States have a Silk Road deal going on, with the Rs always trying to move in on it. The G.B.s constantly clash with the M nomads, whose lands they are encroaching on. The G.Bs and the Bs have constant border skirmishes, usually instigated by the colonists.
  7. Write down what the people in that culture are like. Keep it short. The Imperials are clean, tall, dark-skinned, and wear keffiyehs and robes. The Merchant Princes tend to be stocky and bearded, fond of drink, prone to riots. The steppe nomads wear furry hats, have facial hair, are excellent hunters and trappers, and tend to be athletic. Short and sweet. [3]
  8. Then, pick somewhere and decide on an inciting incident, something to get the party together and invested. I usually pick what I think is the most interesting area, personally. Think of a handful of nearby settlements, and write two or three words about them. “Militaristic port city” is a good one. “Secretive Forest Druids” is also good. Keep it short and sweet. You can make it up later, if it ever matters (and it might not!)
  9. Let’s say that I start the game by having the players try to survive a raid. I’ll tell them “The game starts in the trading town of Soralsk in the summer, so make sure your characters have a reason to be there. Soralsk is a bustling seaport by the steppe, known for its timber.”
  10. Watch what your players come up with, and use some of those ideas. Your players will tell you what aspects of your shared world they’re interested in exploring, so take the hint! [4]
  11. For the starting area, think of three organizations that are in ‘dynamic tension’ with one another. For Soralsk, let’s do Guildsfolk versus the Nobility versus, eh, let’s do Shamans. Currently, the Guildfolk have the upper hand, but that can (and should) change as the campaign goes on. [5]
  12. Off you go! Start the session- the players happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The raid proceeds, and the players react.

The reactions of the players is extremely important. Always have the players’ actions affect the world. For every action they undertake, there should be a reaction. Somebody shows up to stop them, or to help them, or to warn them, or to ask them for help. The city they save starts to expand, and in the process, defiles a sacred river and now the river spirit is pissed off and causing problems. If the city is devastated? The refugees flee the city and the raiders continue onwards, greedy for more. And so on and so forth.

But that’s really more about running a sandbox, which I find to be fairly easy if you follow the steps above.

[1] Don’t get me wrong, I’ll read modules, but I am a tinkerer at heart and I am only reading them to steal their ideas and pass them off as my own.

[2] I don’t draw a map unless my players ask for one, or if they buy one from somebody somewhere. Sometimes they’ll make one themselves, which can be fun. Either way, distance to and from landmarks is more important than a map.

[3] I find that a physical trait, an interesting bit of clothing, and one cultural attitude is enough to get the juices flowing. Short people wearing floppy hats who enjoy dancing? That’ll work. Moustache-wearing people who wear colored tights and are famous sailors? One can work with that.

[4] If your player is playing a cleric, let them tell you about their pantheon. If they’re an elf, let them tell you a little bit about their homeland. I always use the old improv trope where you can build on what others have said but never negate. “Most elves are from tree-cities but there are also sea elves with gills and fins on their heads and I am one.” “Actually most dwarves aren’t colorblind, it’s just the royal family and their many, many cousin branches.” etc etc

[5] Three factions is a nice, stable situation and you can always zoom in or out if you need more or less. All the factions of the city in the example fight and squabble, but they close ranks against their rival cities. Or the Nobles come from the same lineage and are all cousins, so they work together quite well against the merchant guilds in the cities they share. And so on.

The Black Hack

I honestly didn’t know that you could just play the Black Hack for free by looking at a website. Did you know this? How long have people been keeping this a secret from me? And to what end?

Anyways, regardless, here’s a link. https://the-black-hack.jehaisleprintemps.net/

From the drivethru page:

The Black Hack is a super-streamlined roleplaying game that uses the Original 1970s Fantasy Roleplaying Game as a base, and could well be the most straightforward modern OSR compatible clone available. If speed of play and character creation, compatibility, and simple – yet elegant rules are what you yearn for. Look no further!

The Black Hack is a fast playing game and the rules can be picked up in minutes. The full rules fit in a single 20 page A5 book!

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/178359/The-Black-Hack

Neat!

Oops! All Attacks

source

In your typical dungeon fantasy game, your attacks have both an attack roll and a damage roll. Why don’t other abilities have this feature?

A quick experiment: All your abilities have a ‘skill’ roll and an ‘effectiveness’ roll. Skill determines breadth of ability, the character’s capacity to take what they know and apply it to the situation at hand. And ‘effectiveness’ is how well that works.

When you roll to test an ability, roll 1d20+ that ability’s skill rating. Target difficulty is 10+the defender’s skill rating. If you succeed, you roll effectiveness and apply that ‘damage’ to the defender’s ‘stress.’

Stress takes the place of ‘hit points.’ When you take enough stress, you gain a condition reflecting what happened to you. When you gain a condition, mark a couple* of your skills. Those skills are at -1 per mark until the condition is removed. [1]

Difficulty, in general, is abstracted much like hit points for monsters would be in standard dungeon fantasy. A cliff that resists the efforts of the party might have 10 ‘stress’ that must be overcome by applying climbing skills, or engineering, or athletics until the party’s gotten on top. Meanwhile, slipping stones cause abrasions or concussions, falling causes scrapes and bruises and broken bones, etc. A monster, obviously, needs to be defeated- but by the sword, or by demoralization? Or can it simply be fed? You can give the world around the players various ‘skills’ that reflect how approaches might be taken. A hungry owlbear might have Ravenous +3, Ferocious +2, and Massive +1, so it’s really good at eating, fighting, and being hard to move (in that order). You might have a hard time in a battle, but it’s not too hard to trick. A stuck door might have Rusted +2 and Jammed +1. Picking the lock is a pain, but it’s not especially durable do you can probably shatter it if you have an axe or something.

As a rule of thumb, you can probably give non-players an amount of stress equal to their skill totals times their durability, where durability is explicitly there to make the challenge last longer (and therefore have more opportunities for the environment to make its own actions).

Probably there needs to be an explicit rule that if the players fail, then the challenge gets an opportunity to react using its own skills and rolls, with its own chance to cause stress and inflict conditions.

Items exist in this ruleset to tell you things about the fiction- a sword lets you cut, but you can fight without it. Ropes let you climb back up from places. Poles let you poke. An axe lets you cleave. A helmet might protect you from head trauma. Probably it’d be cool to let appropriate gear give you a +1 to your skill- after all, you gotta bring the right tools for the job.

[1] I don’t think it’s probably necessary to note which stress condition caused which penalty- if you gain a condition that affects your fighting and one that affects your climbing, it’s probably ok for the condition you gained in a fight to recover and remove the penalty to your climbing. The “human” body/psyche/spirit recovers in a variety of interesting ways, after all. Not that this ruleset specifies that you must play a human, of course. Play a cyber-shark vigilante in a post-human Mars colony for all I care.

Warriors: Valor

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Warriors have an additional attribute: Valor. They gain Valor when they defeat a worthy foe (or cause them to admit defeat, or submit). You lose Valor when you are forced to stand down, admit defeat, or retreat.

A being is considered a worthy foe when they have at least as much valor as you (or, if they are a monster, if they have an equal or higher Rank than your Renown.)

When you’re in combat, you gain the twice the difference between your Valor and your enemy’s as a bonus to your attack and damage rolls.

Two examples:

If you have 3 Valor and your enemy has 1, you get a +2 bonus to attack and damage.

If you have 3 Valor and you are fighting a mixed group of enemy warriors (two at 1 Valor, and one at 4 Valor) you get a +4 bonus against the 1 Valor enemies and no bonus against the 4 Valor enemy (who will themselves get a +2 bonus against you).

As you can see, the only way forwards for a Warrior is to find victory, to never back down, and to continue to challenge themselves in battle.

Note: This can lead to fun scenarios where player characters pick on an old man only for the warrior in the group to realize that this seemingly frail old man is actually a retired weapon master, and also for the warrior to recognize that the big blustering barbarian is actually a big wimp and will fold after a little pushing. It also encourages Warriors to realize that some fights are just not worth their time, which is fun in a very particular way to me.

Note 2: This is intended to work alongside the Dungeon Core rules I was writing, where Warriors inherently get a larger damage die than other classes, better hit points, and an additional ‘feat’ that makes them a little different. DC also doesn’t use attributes, so a Warrior in this scheme has hit points, gear, a Valor score, and some skills.

Rogues: Connection

This is the first entry in my series about companion mechanics for generating fantasy characters. I’ll write more about the project itself, later. For now, I’d like to get this stuff out of my brain and into the ether.

source: https://imgur.com/gallery/uKuYK

The defining characteristic of Rogues are their Connections. For many rogues, this is the Underworld- a loosely defined chain of smugglers, thieves, bandits, and spies that trade information and contraband in shadowy webs. For some rogues, their connections are to fellow heretics, as they hide from unaccepting eyes. Some rogues are revolutionaries, fighting to overthrow the established order in some capacity and remake the society in which they live. Some rogues, almost paradoxically, are members of extralegal or semi-legal enforcement agencies- think witch hunters, bounty hunters, and the like.

So when you make a Rogue, choose one Association and one History. You will also choose one Mission, secretly. You start the game at Rank 1 and Reputation 1- low but with many opportunities to rise.

Association

  • Criminal– Making money outside of the law
  • Heretical– Beliefs outside of the norm
  • Revolutionary– A better world is possible
  • Espionage– Agents on the line of the law
  • Protectors– Keeping the realm safe

When you select an association, name it and identify your primary contact (your handler, immediate superior, boss, or some combination). Name its ultimate purpose and a few signs to identify your peers by.

History

  • Neonate– You are brand new in the organization.
  • Disgraced– You’re well known in local circles, but not necessarily for a good reason. Write this event down. Your rank is 2 but your reputation is -1.
  • Rival– You accidentally made a few bad moves and gained a rival out of your league. Name them. Your reputation starts at 2.

Mission

Completion of a mission increases your Rank or your Reputation. Failing a mission may or may not cause your Rank or Reputation to decrease.

The following is a list of suggestions for missions:

  • Smuggle– get an object from point A to point B
  • Steal– take something important from someone and bring it back safely
  • Sabotage– break or destroy something without being caught
  • Blackmail– gather evidence of a wrongdoing or embarrassment and then return with proof
  • Assault– Harm (but do not kill!) a target
  • Murder– Kill a target, and present evidence
  • Silence– Prevent the spread of information at its source
  • Rescue– Save someone from a bad situation
  • Escort– help a person get from one place to another

Postscript

I am trying to be better about attributing source to the images I borrow, but I just browse Pinterest for them and half the time there’s not any actual attribution, just a link to some hosting site (like the image here).

I also don’t know how I feel about having ‘rogues’ be ‘heretics,’ given the real-life effects of inquisitors and witch-burners and the like. And doubly so given that I prefer for my fantasy games to be polytheistic- but I wanted the rogue class to be able to have secret religious societies, typical fantastical ‘evil cults’ and the like and I couldn’t think of anything else.

Similarly, with the name of ‘espionage,’ although at least with that one I’m sure it’s not problematic.

Glimmer

Glimmer is the currency of the underworld. It is pure, distilled lifeforce. It is similar in appearance to moonstone, but moonstone never shines with an internal light, and moonstone does not vibrate, shift, and wiggle in its own power. A typical specimen is about the size of an adult human thumb, with variations in size and shape

When you would die, you instead lose half of your Glimmer to the void, and then you lose 1d6 additional Glimmer. If you are out of Glimmer, you cease to exist- your corporeal body dissolves and your life force ebbs into the background radiation of the universe. If you still have Glimmer, you may still recover.

You may discover Glimmer by accident, as free Glimmer that forms ‘naturally.’ Or you may wrest it from the beaten and battered bodies of your enemies. You may also trade ‘free’ Glimmer from the other denizens of the underworld that you come across in your travels. It is the only universally accepted currency- metals and trinkets have no inherent value here among the dead. And, lastly, you may discover solidified Glimmer in the form of weapons, armor, and other items of note.

You can spend your own free Glimmer to manifest or enhance items that you wish to carry with you. A mundane sword may become enchanted, or an already-enchanted sword may gain new powers. You can also give the Glimmer to others, for any reason you choose.

You can also absorb your Glimmer to increase your own power. When you reach certain thresholds of Glimmer, you ‘level up’ and increase your abilities and power, sometimes substantially. When you lose Glimmer (by ‘dying,’ for example), your ‘level’ can decrease.

A being or item with little Glimmer appears somehow unstable, translucent, insubstantial- for example, the gutter wretches of Schilla. On the other hand, a being or item with much Glimmer seems unusually solid, sturdy, vigorous, and potent.

What causes Glimmer to solidify and form out of soul-stuff and life energy is one of the great mysteries of the underworld.

Dungeon Core Character Generator

That’s right, a generator for the heartbreaker I’ve been working on, because it’s more fun to write generators for half-written systems than finish writing those systems. Apparently.

I continuously want to write oddball shit into my generators but that’s my mouth writing checks my brain can’t cash, so this one is fairly mundane for the time being. I think that’s a good thing for a dungeon fantasy game- the characters should be the canvas through which the players explore the strange unreality of the world around them, and keeping them relatively grounded helps with that sort of thing.

Anyways, here it is: https://perchance.org/tns25awykv

Talent Perks: Brainstorming

Two main ideas: give players something to look forwards to at 3rd level while also giving more definition between characters. At 3rd level, your character has been with you for a little while. They’ve been through a few things. They’re ready to grow.

I like the idea of 3rd level perks tying into the first level ones, but without any character building restrictions other than your concept. If you want your mage to learn weapon mastery, I won’t stop you.

So first we have Weapon Mastery, which again increases weapon damage dice by one step, and increases critical strike range. This is just the Fighter perk again, but this time anybody can take it. If the fighter takes it, they’re either wielding a one-handed weapon that deals 1d10 damage or a two-handed weapon that deals 2d8, which is pretty fearsome.

Guardian is something new- it adds the ability to protect others. When you’re standing next to an ally, you can take their damage. It also gives you 1 DR and +1 defense, so you can better endure whatever you have to endure.

Berserker is also new. When you take damage, you gain that much Rage. For every 3 points of Rage, you add +1 to your attack and damage rolls. For every 6 points of rage, you gain +1 Damage Reduction. And Rage, of course, dissipates once the threat has passed. This works best if you have a lot of hit points, and if you want to fight.

Energy– gain 2 focus and when you spend a point of focus, you can gain +1 to attack rolls and Defense until the end of your next turn. Not terribly useful unless you’re a martial artist, but helps you land important strikes and encourages you to chain your unarmed striking (since the bonus carries over).

Hands Without Shadow lets you regain focus when you land an unarmed strike. Also, you get to roll your unarmed damage twice, taking the higher result.

Peace and Calm lets you dart around when you spend focus. It should probably also give you more focus. I haven’t decided on this one yet.

The Assassin has two easily movable parts- they need their enemy to remain unaware of them, and they want to deal damage.

Dangerous lets you automatically apply hit and also the critical effect of your weapon to an enemy if you are the one to engage. Imagine a bold assassin walking up to his target and jamming a dagger deep into their guts.

Sharp Eyes gives you additional 1d6 damage if you strike an enemy against whom you have advantage.

Dirty Fighting lets you (or an ally) get advantage on your next attack if you succeed by at least 5 on your attack roll.

Adepts like to cast spells but don’t really have a way to gain more, so here are a couple things to help them out:

Innate Sorcery: If you already know a 1st level spell, you learn one 2nd level spell and two 1st level spells. If you do not know a 1st level spell, you gain two 1st level spells and spell points equal to your level.

Arcane Knack: You learn a 1st level spell. You gain 2 spell points. Whenever you cast a spell of 1st level or greater, if you succeed, you regain that many spell points.

Acrobats like to move and dart around, and they also get a lot of mileage out of their abilities outside of combat, so let’s do something like this:

Tumble: Whenever you spend a point of focus, you may move up to half of your speed in any direction. You ignore difficult terrain or an non-blocking obstacles in your way.

I guess Acrobats get the short end of the stick for now. I’ll think of something else later.

Now for the Mage-centric perks:

Runic Inscription: When you take a long rest, you may inscribe your weapons and armor with runes. You have 2 less spell points as long as you are equipped with runic weapons and armor. You gain a +2 bonus to defense as long as you are equipped with runic armor. You may add your proficiency bonus to your attack and damage rolls as long as you are equipped with runic weapons. You may release the runes’ power during a short rest, if you wish. The runic weapons and armor only function in your hands.

Battlemage: Whenever you strike an enemy, you may immediately cast a spell of your choice on that same enemy, or on yourself. That spell costs 1 less to cast.

Practiced: Select a single skill. Whenever you add your proficiency bonus to a roll related to that skill, add your proficiency bonus +2 instead.

Hyperliterate: Add your proficiency bonus to checks to transcribe spells into your spellbook. Your spellbook can contain 5 additional levels of spells.

Tome of Power: When you cast a spell that is written in your spellbook, you may spend 1 point less to cast that spell.

Living Codex: Your spellbook hovers around you when not in use. When you are not casting a spell from your spellbook, it provides you with +2 defense.

That’ll do for now, I think.

For my next brainstorming lesson, I’ll try and come up with some compelling options for the level 6 ‘Capstone’ perks.