Saturday, September 14, 2019

Dwarves as Golems: Dwarf PCs

Now that I've put out my dwarves, I figured some lunatic might actually want to play as one. Well, I've never been one to deny someone what they want.

Dwarven PCs

There are a few problems up front with using dwarf PCs.

Image result for dwarves
Hmmm, not quite what I have in mind.

Dwarves are Really Powerful

As written, dwarves are seriously powerful creatures. For one, they have intimate knowledge of golemancy and enchantment. More importantly, they have a ton of immunities. They don't have to eat, drink or sleep or breathe. They don't fall sick or succumb to poison. They don't age, so they would be immune to aging attacks, and possibly to undead energy drain, depending on how you skin it. Hell, they're not technically alive. Should death magic affect them?

But at the same time...

Dwarves are Really Weak

They're not alive, not organic, and so don't have organic vulnerabilities. They also don't have organic advantages. They don't eat, therefore they don't get hit points back from lunches. They don't heal naturally. They most likely wouldn't benefit from healing magic either. Can a potion, any potion, affect you if you don't have a metabolism?

It would appear that dwarves are really swingy. There are some problems which can be entirely mitigated by having a dwarf in the party. But without healing, a dungeon will whittle a dwarf PC down and kill them in short order.

Here's my attempt to compromise them, with some variant rules I'm not decided between.

Image result for karn liberated full art
That's what I'm talking about!

Dwarf Race

Reroll: WIS

Bonus: +4 to Save vs Sleep and Aging.

Weakness: May only heal during [see below]

No need or benefit from rations. Cannot suffocate, starve, die of thirst, be poisoned or fall sick.

Healing Rules

Variant 1: Dwarves do not heal during lunches/short rests. They heal 1d6+Level HP per long rest, as they take time to repair their own bodies. They heal to full only during downtime.

Variant 2: Dwarves may heal only during downtime. You have CON times Level HP in total (up to four).

The first rule is better for combat heavy adventures and dungeon exploration. It allows dwarves to recover HP while still providing a significant tradeoff for their immunities. They're non-comparables, which I find always spices up gameplay. Make sure the party has an incentive to delve deep and not have a fifteen-minute workday.

The second fits better for adventures which are combat and damage-light. High-level dwarves can take a lot of punishment, but they still have to worry about being worn down.

I'm going to rule that magic potions affect dwarves just fine, and that injuries are similar enough you can use a normal death and dismemberment table.

Using Dwarves

These are by no means a core race. The dwarves are reclusive people with few adventurers among them. They're weird and swingy to play. Most importantly, I wouldn't use them if the players are going to encounter lots of dwarves.

If your campaign is surface focused, the odd dwarf would work. They're weird and out of place on purpose. In a Veinscrawl or other underground adventure though, I would probably limit dwarves to hirelings. Very expensive and hard to get hirelings. Probably just the soldiers. Maybe camp followers which can create simple golems.


Dwarven Soldier: HD 3 ATK 12 DEF 14 MOR 12 SAV 8
Physical Stats 14. Mental Stats 10. 10gp per month

Dwarven Golemancer: HD 2 ATK 10 DEF 12 MOR 8 SAV 6
Physical Stats 10. Mental Stats 14. 15gp per month. Can create simple golems given time.


If you have a crafting system, you may consider giving dwarves a bonus here. Additionally, if you want dwarves to create simple golems in downtime, that would fit quite well. I don't have rules for that, but I think using hireling stats with frontloaded creation costs would work in a pinch.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Dwarves as Golems: Everything You Need to Know

Special thanks to Lexi(who wrote her own dwarf golems today), grimlucis, Oblidisideryptch, mtb-za and retrograde tardigrade xenograft from the Discord for helping to flesh out these ideas.

The Veins of the Earth are home to a variety of sentient creatures, many belonging to advanced civilizations. They are almost all insane. The two exceptions are antlings and dwarves. Skerples has already covered antlings in great depth.

Dwarves are entirely different.


Also known as undermen, the deep elves, dokkalfar.

Dwarves are golems. Free-willed, sapient golems, created by other sapient golems. Chiseled from stone, eyes inlaid with jewels, the essence of the Law carved and hammered into their bodies with holy blows. Dwarves are born with the knowledge of enchantment and golemancy, arts which humans labor whole lifetimes to learn. They must know them, for that is the only way to create more of their kind.

Of course, that is only the beginning. But let's leave a little to be revealed.



Just as procreation is instinctual in humans, it is instinctual in dwarves. It is, however, much harder. Humans procreate accidentally. Dwarves must do it cautiously, deliberately. It is a work of both industry and art. Most often this is a collaboration by multiple dwarves, though great and eccentric dwarves sometimes dedicate themselves to creating a child in their own image and their image alone. The finances, status, environment and aesthetic sensibilities of the parent dwarves inform everything about the children.

Dwarves are first sculpted from stone. Clay is used for simple golems, but it cannot hold the intricacies of a dwarf. The kind of stone used is a major source of status, and will define how other dwarves perceive them. Stone with large amounts of impurities, or shoddy stone like slate is cheap and widely available. Dwarven parents will only use them to create children if they have no other choice and are in desperate need.

The exact choice of stone, from banded marble, basalt or granite, to more daring selections like ores, crystals or glass, is dependent on both taste and available resources.


Likewise their size and shape. The name 'dwarf' is a bit of a misnomer. True, most dwarves are short and stocky. This is because they fit better in underground spaces, it's cheaper to use less stone, and great size isn't really necessary. Quickness of mind and precision of hand are the most valued qualities in dwarven society.

That said, there are many dwarves who are hardly described by the term. Dwarven soldiers in particular tend to be human-sized or larger. If they were created with underground combat in mind, they will be built compact. If they were built with surface combat in mind, they can be very large indeed. Mighty dwarven warriors have been known to wrestle trolls into submission.

The features of a dwarf are primarily aesthetic. The form of the nose, ears, lips and eyes are entirely up to what their parent was really digging at the time. Some go for classic looks, emulating the features of past rulers and heroes, like how human parents name their children after religious figures and human artists emulate the works of the old masters. Others are experimental, or even abstract. While (literally) chiseled abs and muscular physiques are the norm, you will see a variety of forms, some corpulent, some thin, some round, some angular, and a similar variation of facial types.


Unlike the common golem, which is merely animate material, dwarven bodies are unto flesh. They are pliant and supple as actual muscle, skin indistinguishable from that of a human but for the lack of hair and pores (only very wealthy and resourceful dwarves have the ability to give their creations such details).

That said, their internal functioning is nothing like ours. They do not eat, breathe, drink or age. They have no internal organs. They do not fall to sickness or poison. Though they can be injured, they do not bleed. By that same token, they do not heal. Their hair does not grow back, their flesh does not knit itself back together. A dwarf can be repaired, but they will bears seams, magical scarring.


One of the most common features among dwarvenkind is the beard. Beyond the aesthetic value, the beard is used to denote the family history and status of the individual dwarf. The style, shape and texture of the beard is a hidden sigil that tells another dwarf the place and time of one's birth, what line of craftsmen one came from, and one's place in wider society. Knickknacks like beads added into the beard over time denote great achievements and feats, like wearing a medaled uniform.

Remember, faces are there entirely for aesthetic purposes. Dwarves don't identify each other by face, but by beard, and that tells them not only who you are, but your whole family history.

Now, not all dwarves have beards. Some parents, in daring artistic leaps, choose to forgo the beard in favor of placing the sigil elsewhere. The chest or the crown of the head is an acceptable choice, though sometimes obscured by hats and clothing. Placing the sigil elsewhere, such as on one's back, leg or the sole of one's foot, has about the same effect as having your face on one of these places.

Of course, dwarves guard their beards jealously. They cannot grow them back, after all. To cut off a dwarf's beard is akin to slicing off a person's face. The act only of a true lunatic. You can get a prosthetic beard, or render your sigil elsewhere on your body, but it's like looking at a person wearing a fake face. It's creepy, and strangers will never trust you. Even exiled dwarves only have their beards trimmed, the relevant section shorn off to reflect their banishment from society. To cut off a beard whole is to destroy a dwarf's public identity.

A Dwarven King. 


It is worth noting the topic of gender. Dwarves, strictly speaking, do not have it. They may have facial features of one gender or the other, and the secondary sex characteristics of one or the other, but more often have a mix. A dwarf may have the face of a man, the genitals of a woman, androgynous clothing and a great big beard. Dwarven scholars have an academic understanding of human sex and gender, and why it matters to them, but the average dwarf does not. They just like how these body types and those facial features go together.



Despite not having food or a sense of taste, dwarves do have alcohol. It's a highly efficient fuel that they use for simple machines. Mind you, dwarves and their golemic creations are fueled by their chem, the magic words and runes carved into their bodies at birth.

For the longest time, they just created high-proof fungal liquor. After trading with surface folk, they found humans had a wide variety of alcohols, and valued them quite highly. Sensing an opportunity, a handful of dwarves apprenticed themselves to human brewers and winemakers. They reproduced human work, and then created new dwarves with the knowledge of the masters and a focused dwarven genius for drink. The dwarves proceeded to brew with a level of quality incomprehensible to humans.

They have refused to make it in industrial quantity for two reasons. First, they consider it an art, not an industry. Second, it keeps the prices for dwarven liquor at a premium, and gives them significant leverage over human nobles. Once one of them throws a kegger with a one of a kind microbrew, the rest suddenly want one too.

Dwarven beers, wines, meads, whiskeys, vodkas and a variety of fungal products original to them are made in small batches, with constant innovation. Every brewer maintains a team of trusted human taste-testers to tell them if it's any good.

Structure and Conformity

When you can effectively program people from birth, you'll end up with a rather conformist society. A dwarf's interests and personality are determined by their parents, carved into them along with sentience and knowledge. They are created for a specific purpose, and are expected to fulfill it.

Of course, golemancy is more an art than science, and most dwarves are slightly different than their parents expected. These quirks are normal, but are largely kept under wraps. Disagreeing with one's parents or displaying an unusual hobby is taboo. Openly defying your place in society is akin to saying that your parents failed.

The dwarven version of the Hero's Journey typically follows a young dwarf, dissatisfied with their place or bearing a secret quirk. They seek wisdom from their elders and come close to breaking from society, before reconciling and conforming to their intended role. Dwarves find this story arc reassuring and cathartic.

That said, there is an entire caste of dwarves dedicated to the opposite. Rogue dwarves are intentionally created without a place in society, and serve to shake up the system on a regular basis. Most of the time they're just silly. They go around wearing spiders as hats. Others are violent. Others are obsessed with a particular topic and do nothing but examine that.

They are a source of controlled chaos within in otherwise static system. They serve to expose and correct systemic flaws and blindspots in dwarven society, as well as advancing it faster than could occur normally. Spider-hats are enormously fashionable today. They take major risks so that others don't have to. They often don't live very long. Most don't do much of importance. But every so often, one of them makes an advancement or discovery otherwise impossible, and are remembered as heroes.

So this is all mine?
No, it's a loan-


The dwarves don't have gods per se, but they do worship something. The chem. The magic that animates them and allows them to create more of themselves. Souls carved from stones. Mythology and doctrine varies from hold to hold, in some cases radically, but all share this base.

The earth, the whole thing, was once a dwarf. The Ur-Dwarf. A perfectly wise being, the source of all chem. It sacrificed itself and let that energy go so that the dwarven race might exist. It has a plan. It wants the dwarves to unite and become as wise as it was once.

This is a deeply, but quietly held faith, not spoken of to outsiders. Outsiders, holds most doctrine, get in the way of that purpose. The other races, are, at best distractions, and at worst, parasites upon the holy corpse. They are either to be traded with for long-term advantage, or slowly exterminated. Humans and most other surface dwellers fit the former. Almost all other underground races are in the latter. Antlings are alright though.

Dwarves are born with this knowledge, and so the activities of dwarven priests are mystical in nature. They plumb the depths of chemical (ha!) mysteries, searching for divine patterns that will guide their actions. They construct elaborate metaphysics and apply them. They are getting close to some real breakthroughs.


In a society built on conformity, trials and criminals are fairly rare. The odd rogue dwarf is dragged in when their activities cause more harm than the king is willing to tolerate. A common dwarf that breaks from their expected purpose is arraigned and pressured to return to their purpose. The king does not tolerate disobedience, and abhors an execution when not strictly necessary. Especially difficult criminals are shipped off to other fortresses, or sent to the front lines for an honorable death.

Human criminals are uncommon, though expected. If you break the law and end up in a dwarven court, you will find a trial presided over by a priest, or the king if you've really screwed up. These are the wisest people in the fortress. Wisdom does not mean kindness, and they are not on your side.

Your crimes will be tallied, and you will represent yourself. If you can make yourself useful, the dwarves will send you on a quest. Your bodies will be carved with geas runes. You will not be taken as slaves. Humans aren't good enough slaves to be worth the hassle.

If you have someone looking out for you that the dwarves would rather not anger, they will consider letting you off. If they think a lack of consequences will lead to more shenanigans in the future, they'll run the numbers and make their decision. Precedent is secondary to results. The ends justify the means.


Dwarves, understandably, live for a very long time. They don't fall sick, they don't age, they don't starve. A dwarf will just keep on chugging unless its physical body is destroyed beyond repair. Barring rare accidents (tragic) or battlefield death (limited to soldiers, who are programmed to happily sacrifice themselves for the greater good) they will keep on working and living.

By way of illustration: a classic dwarven tragic opera tells the story of two young kings, a human and dwarf, who embark on a journey of heroic conquest, finding brotherhood and friendship along the way. The human king slowly ages and finally dies at the conclusion, with the dwarven king at his bedside. Human audiences often find it bittersweet, but heartwarming. Dwarven audiences consider it terrifying.

Dwarves do, however, decay. The chem which carves life into them degrades over time. Centuries, sometimes millennia for well made dwarves, but nevertheless they degrade. Everyone knows it. Nobody talks about it. It begins with forgetfulness. Then changes in personality. They act erratically, until they no longer recognize their own children and spit on the work they once held sacred.

Rather than face this fate, most dwarves choose to go go elsewhere as they near the end of their lives. Some seek out an honorable death fighting the enemies of dwarvenkind. Others journey to isolated monasteries where they enter a sort of stasis, slowing the decay, and awaiting the day they may be needed again. Dwarven rulers make a great show of inaugurating their successors and traveling throughout the world seeking adventure.

Here's a secret. One of those you could build a campaign off of. The chem is shrinking. Whatever source of power the dwarves tap into when creating their children is finite, and they're brushing up against the borders of it even as the number of dwarves and their golemic creations increase exponentially. Dwarves are living shorter lives by the generation. Some have noticed.


Knowing that the dwarves are masters of golemancy, it would be odd that they do not create lesser golems to serve them. Odder still is the truth. In a dwarven settlement, everything is golems.


Image result for golem

The house you live in? Golem. The pack scarab you're riding? Golem. The dwarven armor you're wearing? Golem.

They vary widely in intelligence. The animals they create are about as intelligent as actual animals. They're more versatile than machines, able to improvise and complete simple tasks in a general domain. The inanimate items aren't intelligent, but are capable of moving and changing their structure slightly. A house can bend to better weather an earthquake. Armor can loosen to allow its wearer to move more easily or slip it off quickly.

The distinction between the dwarves and their pets is sapience. Most creations are not granted this gift. The carving of abstract thought is expensive and time consuming, and is usually reserved for humanoids. There are some exceptions. Uplifted golems, or dwarves sculpted in extremely unorthodox ways.

This extends far beyond what an explorer might expect.

The Under-Emperor

Visitors to dwarven holds may notice that their names are quite odd. Instead of location, the name given is that of the emblem, typically some kind of animal or other creature. The Citadel of the Iron Elephant, the Fortress of the Horned Squid, and so on. Humans believe these to be a reflection of city identity. Not so.

Visitors will also notice the strange construction of these holds. They spiral in beautiful symmetrical patterns and then break off unexpectedly. They don't follow an external logic, and any pattern you think you see will break down with the next area. Humans believe the construction to be another form of art. Not so.

Remember. Everything is golems.

Dwarven fortresses are not an exception. They are massive golems deep in the earth, with tens of thousands of dwarves living inside of them. Their name is not a circular reference, but a literal description of its shape. Intelligence, after all, must be embodied. In times of dire need, the fortress itself may animate, though this is supremely rare.

Their primary purpose is governance. A human entering a dwarven court would think the figure on the throne is the king. That's what they call themselves, but they do not rule. Just as medieval kings were thought to be conduits to God, the dwarven kings are intermediaries with the intelligence of the fortress. It is very busy, and cannot waste its time with the sheer noise of day to-day life. So the king appoints a justice system to deal with ordinary events, personally takes charge of more complex issues, and appeals to the spirit of the fortress only with the most important and difficult of questions.

These are the Under-Emperors. Superintelligences working to predict the shape of the world. They direct the actions of the hold, and delegate down the line. But that's not the end of it.


The dwarves have a goal. To connect the Under-Emperors together. To seize the earth's core and render it intelligent, according to dwarven Law. They war with their neighbors and expand constantly for this reason. They curry favor with the surface folk only insofar as it furthers this goal. It is the common destiny of dwarfkind.

This is all very chem-intensive. There may not be enough chem in existence to accomplish this goal. If not, the dwarves will find a way to make more. A handful of rogue dwarves believe that ritual sacrifice of other sapient creatures can increase the total supply of chem. They have begun to experiment.

It is up to the GM how far along the dwarves are in this goal, and whether it is possible. Perhaps it is a fools errand, or millennia off, and it won't affect the campaign. Or it is merely years away. If they succeed, the other races of this world, surface and underground, will consider this an apocalypse. To the dwarves, it will be apotheosis.

Related image
The short ones don't end up on the battlefield.


Here are a few samples of dwarves, items and plots, ready to slot into a variety of campaigns.

Sample Dwarves

Medam, the Judge

Most dwarves are imperfect. The Law is carved into them, but a small chip here or there results in differing judicial opinions. Medam, however, is not.

Medam is the perfect judge. The Law is strong with him. He sees the plan of the Ur-Dwarf clearly, and converses regularly with the Under-Emperors. He does not judge individual cases, as they are beneath him.

50% chance that he is a charismatic and delusional rogue dwarf.

He appears as a diminutive human woman carved of white marble, dressed in robes of gold and orange with a beard shaped like a law tablet, wearing a gilded tarantula.

Medam: HD 2 HP 10 DEF 10 ATK MOR 11 SAV 6

Noru of the Squids

Image result for octopus helmet
There's a real dearth of warsquid art

Noru was carved for a very specific purpose. To lead the dwarves of the Horned Squid clan to victory against the merman incursion. He was carved of ocean stone. His face and beard were as a squid, and studded with merman ears. His legs had spurs to hold onto the flaps of his warsquid better. He was first revealed to the world in their final battle against the mermen, where he led a suicidal attack that routed their army. But as the clan celebrated, he refused to return, and pursued his quarry into deep water, armed with only his lance, harpoon, and trusted mount, Inky.

He was not seen again. But neither were the mermen. Some say he destroyed his enemies and yet roams the oceans, his parameters for 'merman' becoming looser by the day. Perhaps that's why ships keep going missing along that route...

Noru: HD HP 20 DEF 14 ATK 12 MOR 10 SAV 8

Inky: HD HP 60 DEF 16 ATK 14 MOR SAV 4

Konrick the Forge Golem

Forge golems are simple creatures, with an animal intelligence created for menial and non-magical smithing. Their bodies are animate metal, their heads blazing furnaces. All except for this one.

The dwarf Albrig, a master smith, was condemned for his numerous blasphemies against the priests, and barred from creating children. He was watched closely, and when he mysteriously disappeared, he was thought to have no heirs. Until his forge golem was found to speak and act independently. He had uplifted it, piecemeal. It was confused, but willfull. It was an abomination, but one eager for a place, and so it was brought back into the fold.

In reality, it had inherited its masters cunning and fractured knowledge of the Law. It knows its masters location, and works to build influence for his return. It is beardless, and is known on sight by its sigiled scarf.

Konrick: HD HP 25 DEF 12 ATK 10 MOR SAV 5

Sample items

Golem Plate: This dwarven plate mail is statted as chain +2. It provides that protection while allowing its wearer to move freely and easily. Forged from steel, the chest carved with the face of a roaring alkalion.

Fungal Brew: A cask of hardened shroom-wood, bearing the words 'Warble & Sons Brewery'. It is a very expensive limited fungus brew, easily recognized and desired by wealthy Veins residents. A glass confers +2 CHA for an hour. Drinking more heavily results in a CON-4 check vs Hallucination.

Royal Forge Tools: The smithing tools of an ancient dwarf ruler. Still in perfect condition, gorgeously embossed and tingling with magic. A surface smith could make +1 weapons and armor with this. Dwarves treat their tools like reproductive organs. Holding someone else's in public is obscene. Stealing a long-dead king's is... well, good luck explaining this to anyone.

Sample quest hooks

An antling expedition accidentally burst into a dwarven hold while tunneling into hell. The dwarves are very angry, and have retaliated violently. The antlings don't know why they're so angry. It turns out they broke a sensitive piece of the fortress and now the whole thing is going haywire.

A renowned dwarven brewer has a lucrative order for a wine snob in the Veins. Good news, he has the order ready. Bad news, the customer is currently riding the Civilopede. Half delivery, half train heist.

The dwarves want detailed maps and intelligence on the substratal regions because none of your business. They've established contact with a Deep Janeen named the Lady Sedimentary of the Flawless Fault. Do what it wants (deliver a prank message to another of its kind, signed by a third, and adequately communicate how funny the resulting carnage is).

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Session Report: Smokers take on the Rat-Catchers

I found myself running a quick one-shot game for a group of three players last night. I whipped up a quick ten-room dungeon, a simple quest with a twist, and let them loose in it. thanks to quick thinking, lucky rolls and quite powerful characters, they managed to get through without so much as a scratch. I need to step up my game. The next session I run is getting the killer-DM treatment.

Our victims cast:

Sir Bleys of Bronzewater, Human Knight. Bastard half-brother of Sir Morgan.
Garen the Green, Human Orthodox Wizard. Friend and classmate of Sir Morgan.
Smokey the Raven, Ravenling Thief. Previously arrested by Sir Morgan, many times.

The obvious references to weed are the funnier for being (supposedly!) totally accidental. The players were veterans of Pathfinder and D&D, with some experience playing Maze Rats and the Black Hack.

Each of them also rolled a minor magic item here. Smokey had a cheater's coin, which he chose to hide from the party, though he challenged the knight to a coin toss for loot distribution rights. Garen had magic scones. Bleys, disappointingly, rolled up a perpetual motion machine of nondescript functioning.

The Background

Sir Morgan was the eldest son of the local baron, Lord Oberyn. He was sent on an expedition to the nearby swamp to investigate rumors of goblins. That was a few months ago. Since then, the region has become all the more chaotic, with a gang of bandits called the Rat-Catchers forming, under the leadership of Mokvik Hook-Hand, a goblin.

The players tracked the bandits down to a ruined burial mound in the swamp. The sun was setting, and the bulk of the force had left for the night to reave the local area. The players had about eight hours to go through the dungeon before they returned at sunrise, and they had to deal with many more enemies.

Image result for styx goblin shards of darkness

The Session

The party began at the main entrance to the mound. They scouted around the dome, and found both a hidden pond and a broken section of wall. This revealed the inside of the dome, with a mangy dog sleeping inside. Tempting it away with a ration, the party discovered a trap door, and dropped down.

They ended up in a yet-sealed room, filled with several sarcophagi, including one with a pentagram and strange message, 'Within lies an invincible spirit. Spill your blood on the seal to summon it forth. Slay it and receive great reward'. In the room to the north, two bandits were arguing while sacking mummies. The players considered turning the sarcophagus on them, but instead chose to rush them, rolling well and killing both before they could get out a cry for help.

Investigating the sarcophagus, they place blood on the seal, and the text changes to 'No weapon nor tool nor spell forged of mortal hand may harm this spirit'. They summon the spirit... a scrawny, red skinned humanoid in a loincloth. It antagonizes the party, before they tackle it, hogtie it and beat its brain in with a rock.

The back of the sarcophagus then opens, and leads down into the treasure room on the second floor. There, the party finds loose coins and trinkets, along with three items on an altar. A crystal ball, a pair of glass bottles containing a murky liquid, and a scroll. The bottles turn out to be poison, the ball is a seeing stone that allows the party to scry in 60', and the scroll contains a charge of force field. Emboldened, the party finds that the room is sealed, with three secret doors leading to the north, east and west. The north leads to a corridor. The east leads to a supply room. The west leads to a gambling room, with five bandits gathered around an improvised roulette wheel. A gnome is tied to the wheel as the bandits chant 'Spin, spin, spin, spin!'.

The party decides to grease the secret door to the west, tempting the guards in with treasure and then setting it on fire. With some lucky dice, they managed to defeat the bandits in short order. Freeing the gnome, they were told of a prisoner in a cell adjacent to this room. Hoping they found Sir Morgan, the players instead encountered a grave nymph.

A skeleton wearing a bright yellow sundress and a wide-brimmed hat, bouncing a ball against the wall of the cell, one hand manacled to the wall. She and the players spoke, and she had no information on Morgan either. They released her, at which point she entombed herself and summoned her ghouls to feed on the corpses of the bandits. It turned out she was bound with thorn manacles, which prevent magic-users and magic creatures from using their abilities.

The supply room to the east contained three hogsheads of blackpowder, a thin section of floor, and a dozen bottled fairies. It's worth noting that fairies are the piranha of the sky. Scrying below, the players see Mokvik. An armored, man-sized goblin, stirring a massive stewpot, filled with body parts, from which more goblins sprout. In the corner of the room, a cage contains a stitch-beast made from the remains of Morgan's horse, an abomination the bandits called Wolvey. The wizard fails his Con roll and spends ten minutes trying not to vomit. Looking closer at the Mokvik, they realize it is in fact Morgan, transformed into a goblin.

The players decide against their previous plan of blowing a hole in the floor and letting the fairies eat Mokvik, instead choosing to take him prisoner. They sneak down the steps to the next room, and Garen casts Sleep, expending his die. Beating Mokvik's HD, he rolls a save and... fails.

The party rushes over and tips the stewpot into a nearby pool of acid. The goblins are corroded, but the hellhawk escapes. Failing its morale check, it flies up the stairs and isn't seen again. Manacled and hog-tied, the players extract Mokvik with minimal fuss, waving goodbye to the nymph and her tuxedoed ghoul companions. They let the fairies out of the bottles by throwing them down a trapdoor and running, and high-tail it back to civilization in the dead of night.

In the denouement, the local villagers had to deal with a hell-hawk and a band of traumatized ex-bandits who saw their fellows eaten by ghouls and fairies. Wolvey remains on the third level, in constant pain. The players return to Lord Oberyn, and after a good deal of convincing, he decides to honor his son's memory by tossing the thing he became in the deepest dungeon and declaring he died heroically.

Bleys got a small grant of land. Garen got a swanky new laboratory. Smokey had the charges dropped from the last time he tried to burn down the tavern (where do you think he got his name?).


This is the first time I've run for players significantly older than myself. I'm used to running for players new to RPGs, or at least unfamiliar with OSR. These guys were another breed. They knew the ropes, combats with them were lightning-fast, and they were extremely thorough in searching their environment.

I have a bit of a problem with making antagonistic NPCs. Unless they're straight up insane (and sometimes even then) I have a tendency to make them extremely reasonable, without a real conflict with the PCs. It's partly because I know the PCs tend to keep their word. I need encourage my players to be more opportunistic.

Having experienced players made the combats incredibly fast. I also have a problem with calibrating challenge in combats, and take to make them a but too easy. I want to include more in the way of puzzles and riddles.

I also want to include more exploration of the dungeon, with more entrances, exits, loops and general jaquaying. To that end I've been reading the Underworld and Wilderness Adventures booklet from the OD&D white box. The rules there for precise dungeoneering, dungeon population and the sample dungeons are enlightening, and I'll be using that in the near future.


Thanks to all the new readers coming onto the blog. Make sure to follow for more GLOG content, as well as a series on adapting AD&D to OSR.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Goblin Pots

Much ink has been spilled on the subject of goblinoids. Goblins, gremlins, gretchlings, orcs, orknies, bugbears and hobgoblins. Many arbitrary distinctions and taxonomies. In reality, they're all the same creature. First noted in Beowulf as the Old English orcneas, translated variously as 'evil spirits', 'ghouls' and my personal favorite, 'demon-corpses.'

These demon-corpses come in all shapes and sizes, and the variety of local names for them has given some scholars the idea that there are multiple kinds of goblinoids. Any country peasant could tell you otherwise. As everybody knows, goblins are born from magical stew-pots, bearing an ugly and fetid soup. They crawl from the stew fully formed, some tall some short, some thin some fat.

Image result for where there's a whip
The best depiction of goblinoids I've yet seen.

Crocodile-headed, shark-toothed, stag-antlered, pelican-beaked, frog-lipped, fish-gilled, cat-eyed, snail-horned, elephant-tusked, dog-fanged, slug-bellied monstrosities jumping out into the world. All unique, all depending on what ingredients the goblins have been putting into the soup lately.

The stew is mostly composed of miscellaneous animals parts. On the occasion that the goblins capture humans, they will be able to produce goblins of exceptional cunning and viciousness. Wizards may spawn goblin sorcerers. Soldiers may spawn powerful goblin fighters. Capturing faeries and other magical creatures does all sorts of nasty things to the tribe's genetic soup. In lean times they resort to using stones, which produce small, pathetic, rocky-skinned goblins. And when even that enough, they may sacrifice their own shadows to the stew. Thus gretchlings.


The stewpots came first. They're pseudo-sentient, with the intelligence of a dog or cat. They wish to survive and reproduce. This is understandably difficult. They create goblins to carry them around, defend them and work towards making more pots, an arduous task. They are the nuclei of a large family, simultaneously a parent and a god.

If goblins appear suicidally stupid or careless, it's because they're not strictly mortal. A dead goblin will reincarante in the stewpot, in a radically new form. To them, there is a seamless transition from death to birth. Simply killing goblins won't destroy an infestation. You need to destroy the pot. This the goblins will do everything in their power to prevent, as it is a true death for them.

As to where the pots came from, nobody, including the goblins, really know. I like to think they were made by Shadoom.

At the same time, some believe that goblins are cousins of the mysterious fae. That the realm of Faerie is secretly formed from gilded stewpots, from which the fae spring. That the fae hide this fact jealously and despise any connection between themselves and the goblins, who were once fae but expelled to Earth for a hideous crime (being ugly).

Most don't really care. They just know that there are disgusting goblinoids walking around, infiltrating their cities, stealing grain, lurking under beds to stab you in your sleep and carry off your children for the stewpot.

Image result for goblin pot
Exactly like that, actually.

Using Goblins

I was never especially enamored with standard fantasy goblins. I couldn't get a grip on what they were. Reptilian, mammalian, fungoid? No traction. The 40k goblin look mixed with the misunderstanding of Tolkien's goblins was never evocative to me. The folkloric element was lost and replaced with 'random crazy green things that go boo.'

I like the theme of corruption. I like the idea of goblins appearing in infinite forms, all of them ugly. I REALLY like the Angry GM's use of a hobgoblin as a soldier in an evil army. This is a world where goblins are an unknown quantity, where they can appear, and you don't know what they're up to.

Goblins aren't just sadistic little shits. They're sadistic human-sized shits and sadistic troll-sized shits. If you got a big enough stewpot you could make sadistic giant-sized shits. And you really have to sell the sadism. Which, as much as I love Arnold K, is why I don't use his goblin tables. I have humans for goofy, debased and disgusting stuff. Goblins should be scary, and you can't overexpose them.

Don't have the party jump down into a goblin den. Have a single, halfling-sized goblin stalk a small town, observing, calculating, subtly adjusting the environment to creep people out. Trailing a single target for the stew pot, which the players must identify and protect. Your players should be begging you to fight bandits instead of a single, well-placed goblin.

And goblins should only come out in force at the worst time. When a village is on the verge of starvation, they come to overwhelm. When an army has passed by, they take the survivors and scavenge the wreckage.

And when the next dark lord shows up? They sign on as soldiers, and everyone knows to fear them.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Adapting AD&D to GLOG: System Shock

Welcome to the first episode of AD&Daptations, a hopefully fruitful little series on this here blog, adapting choice pieces of AD&D to GLOG. Along the way, we'll explore the history of the hobby, what purpose these rules served in the genesis of the hobby, and how these tidbits can improve your game in the twenty-first century. Today, we'll be tackling a fairly simple rule: system shock. (I wrote the intro first, article second. This was supposed to be a quick, simple palate cleanser before returning to Elder Scrolls. Ha ha.)

Obligatory Disclaimer: I am what many in the hobby would call a 'young whipper-snapper.' I have never played AD&D. My introductions to the hobby came from Matthew Mercer and Arnold Kemp.  My knowledge of the system comes largely from The Blue Bard, as well as some light research on my part. I am incapable of having nostalgia for anything D&D related.

I am examining this because it opens a portal to the origin of the hobby, and I believe that is valuable. A fantasy author benefits from understanding the mythological inspirations behind Tolkein, because it allows them to see how one transforms influences into novel and evocative forms, even (no, especially!) if they're not using elves and dwarves. Seeing how the originators of the hobby translated their influences into the first editions of the game gives aspiring creators more options in doing the same with a different seed.

JB of B/X Blackrazor recently turned me on to Anthony Huso of The Blue Bard, a by-the-book AD&D blog. As a newcomer to TTRPGs, it's a tremendous resource, expanding my sphere of knowledge (history) to include a major part of role-playing history. In a post glossing several of AD&D's more particular rules, he briefly mentions system shock.

Related image
No, not that one. At least, not yet. 

System Shock, not present in the basic versions of the game, is a variant roll-or-die effect used with powerful magic. Haste, resurrection, polymorph, wish and several other effects provoke this check. If you fail, you die. Simple as that. It reinforces the sense of magic as risky and dangerous.

Yet, others take issue with the depiction. This post by Duane of Runecarver circa 2010 makes the case that SS lumps multiple concepts together. The possibly deadly physical shock of magical aging, offensive polymorph and petrification carries the same risk and is handled with the same table as drinking a Potion of Speed, as well as casting Wish and Resurrection.

This, some say, is what Saves vs Death are for, and doubling down on them is unnecessary. Others, such as on this Dragonsfoot thread (possibly the one mentioned by Runecarver?) contend that it doesn't match the fiction; when did you last see a frog turn back into a prince only to die because of the sudden physical trauma?

The response was that AD&D doesn't simulate fiction. When did the protagonists last suffer a TPK after all? But JB specifically calls out adherence to the fiction in his post, claiming that SS simulates a powerful magic-users' caution against using high-level magic. It's dangerous.

But the biggest reason, according to JB, is maintaining tension. 

"One of the knocks against all versions of basic D&D is its tendency to devolve to more superheroic fantasy with the acquisition of readily utilized, high level magic. Parties that can haste themselves with impunity, polymorph their henchmen into dragons, and raise dead with nary a concern make for nigh unstoppable forces in a campaign world, untroubled...and the usual dangers and detriments of the game world.

Utilizing system shock, "unrelentingly" as Huso suggests, is a great way to make such high level magics feel a bit more dangerous to the user...a double-edged sword, certainly worth the risk in many cases, but still risky."

These two sides are coming to the rule from different angles. The former group likes the superheroic nature of the game at high levels, and takes umbrage with rules which would curtail that. The latter, led by Huso and JB, want to keep the tense and deadly nature of the game in effect at all levels. They see the abuse of spells like Polymorph, Wish and Resurrect, and see System Shock as a useful rule for keeping the game interesting.


JB and Huso are by-the-book people. Huso has spent years playing AD&D as close to the original rules as possible, while JB has given B/X a similar treatment. For them, a big part of System Shock is not just that it works for their style, but its place in the original rules places it above the dungeon master. The rolling of dice and the strict adherence to rules as written create distance between the game and the DM's whim, and so maintain the place of the DM as a fundamentally neutral entity in a dangerous and deadly world. It's canonical. 

I, the filthy heretic that I am, have no such compunctions. I'm going to pull the rule apart, see what works in different games, and make my changes accordingly.

If you're running a superheroic game... you probably shouldn't use it. It's not built for the fiction or feel of the game you're trying to run. Simple as that.

If you're running a grittier, down to earth game, you can gain a lot from its inclusion. But first let's tease apart the effects.

First, the trauma effects. Petrification requires SS rolls both when entering and exiting petrification. If the former fails, you die in addition to being turned to stone, and if the latter fails, you die while returning to flesh. Being petrified is as good as being dead, and in cases where de-petrification magic is less common than resurrection, worse. The appropriateness of SS for petrification depends on:
A) how common the effect is, B) whether there is a saving throw to avoid it C) how common de-petrification is, and D) how lethal you want the game to be. 

Aging from ghosts is similar. If your ghosts don't have aging attacks, then it won't apply. If they do, there are some complications pointed out by Runecarver. Do your ghosts take a set number of years off the lifespan? A dice roll? Is it proportional to total life expectancy? Does an elf with ten years taken off have the same risk of death as a human? These are questions for the individual game master and their world. If your campaigns take place on a very short time scale, I recommend adding either Constitution damage or, if you're feeling nasty, level drain. But that's for another post.

Polymorph can be a very useful effect. Not only can you transform enemies into bunny rabbits, you can transform allies into dragons. This seems to be enough of a concern that Gygax and Arneson defined Polymorph (at the very least the true, Polymorph Other spell) as an offensive spell which would trigger System Shock. Even if it's voluntary, you can't deliberately fail your save (as per Runecarver, I can't confirm this myself). If you see your players transforming their hirelings into various monsters to stomp the dungeon, I suggest heavily penalized Morale checks. If you see the players turning each other into monsters, I'm tempted to let them, with the risk of staying that way forever. But System Shock for involuntary transformation is kosher in my book, pretty much as written. 

Then, the spellcasting. Very powerful magic, such as Wish and Resurrect, provoke System Shock rolls on the caster. Near as I can tell, the spell goes through if it fails. Again, I like the implication. The limit on Wish isn't just how much gold you have - it's how willing you are to risk character death. And raising that character also triggers SS - on the caster! Huso tells the story of his party convincing their 16th level NPC cleric to revive their 6th level magic-user. The MU is brought back, but the cleric fails his save (rolled openly) and dies. 

This, again, feels right to me. The uncertainty does more to make the magic feel risky and costly than any amount of gold.

'BUT!' cry the opponents. 'This is all stuff that should be handled with a Save vs Death, or Petrification or Polymorph! Why have a whole separate system?'

Well, I'll tell you why. Let's take a look at the Save tables. 

Image result for 1e dmg player character saving throws
This is the 2E table, but the relevant sections are identical. 

For fellow GLOG-ites, note that the Saves here are roll-over.

Saves are dependent on class and level. Since we're talking spellcasting, Priests and Wizards are our focus. 

Defense against Petrification and Polymorph are their own thing, while aging could easily be placed under Death, if one wanted to replace System Shock with a Save. Of course, the former two already get that. No class has better than a 80% chance to Save, even at the highest levels. At starting levels, it ranges from 20-45%. 

Now, aging from ghosts doesn't get a saving throw. More accurately, the to-hit roll is your saving throw. It's part of what makes undead scary in AD&D. You could put that under Death, which starts out with a save chance between 30-50% at level one and 60-90% at the highest levels.

If you want to use Save vs Death for casting Wish and Resurrection, then you're applying a level-dependent chance to a character which must be high level to begin with. 

Now, let's take a look at the System Shock table from Supplement 1: Greyhawk, provided by JB.

Constitution 3-6:   35%
Constitution 7-10:   55%
Constitution 11-12:   80%
Constitution 13-14:   90%
Constitution 15:   95%
Constitution 16:   98%
Constitution 17:   99%
Constitution 18:   100%

You'll note that these are not dependent on level, but on attributes. The effects on gameplay are completely different. Short of very lucky scroll finds, characters casting Wish and Resurrection will be high-level, but don't necessarily have high Constitutions. Wizards in particular aren't known for being tanky. The value of the Save mechanic comes from watching characters overcome threats as they get steadily more powerful. The value of attribute-dependent rolls comes from differentiating player characters of the same level.


The applications in GLOG should be clear here. Save is dependent on a combination of Level bonus and Charisma bonus. However, you're unlikely to ever have a greater than 50% base Save. If you dumped Charisma, it may be very low indeed. Saves come into play when the party messes up, and they get a chance to not mess up. At pretty much all levels, they will probably suffer, but in a reasonable number of cases, they will be spared.

If you want to copy the table above straight into GLOG, it'll work just fine. If you like everything to be compact, you can simply use a Constitution check, which is less generous than the table and has a very different curve, but produces a largely similar effect. The use of modifiers here will help drive player behavior. I like the idea of using a fancy, slow ritual to boost the System Shock chance. That's my rationale for why villains always use easily-interruptible summons. They want to live.

Fundamentally, System Shock adds a manageable risk to powerful magic. The decision to use Wish and Resurrect becomes less sure, and all the more exciting for it. Effects like Polymorph and Petrification remain scary at higher levels, while still being limited by previous Saves. Undead are all the more terrifying.

Final thoughts

This post was meant to be a small introduction to adapting AD&D for GLOG. It ballooned very quickly. When this series comes up next in my writing cycle, I plan to do psionics. But, you know, not before I finish the ESGLOG Wizards. And probably the Encounter Table challenge.

If JB and Anthony Huso somehow end up reading all the way down, I sincerely apologize for the heresy, and heartily recommend their blogs.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Elder Scrolls GLOG: Morrowind Campaign

Having made all this material for a GLOG campaign in Tamriel, one must ask, "How do you run a game here?" It's a very particular setting with mountains of lore, books, maps and resources, with an accompanying fanbase numbering in the millions, many of whom don't play tabletop RPGs. From the outside, it can all seem a bit daunting.

The key here is to use those resources to your advantage. If your players walk into Sadrith Mora, you have resources for that on the Elder Scrolls wiki. Maps, NPCs, shops and even quests which you can modify to suit your needs. You can find screenshots online of those locations. Hell, you may be able to navigate the whole location from memory if you've spent hours navigating them before.

But what kind of campaign would work in Tamriel? The games tend to focus on prophesied heroes, who take on very specific quests. Do you create a new prophecy? Are your players the chosen ones?

That would certainly be the tack if you're playing latter day D&D or Pathfinder. But GLOG and the OSR really doesn't lend itself to that. The whole 'prophesied heroes' schtick doesn't work if a long-running campaign has a complete turnover of characters between the beginning and end. If the characters are told that they are the chosen ones more than five minutes before the final battle, chances are they'll die, run for the hills or otherwise derail the prophecy.

And that's fine. Actually, that's exactly what I want my players to do. So the campaign must take that into account.

[If you are playing in my game, read no further. GM's eyes only.]

Image result for jiub you're awake

Here's how I would run a game set in Tamriel. More specifically, in Vvardenfell, the setting of the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.

It is the year 427 of the Third Era. The emperor is Uriel Septim VII. The players begin as prisoners (natch) in an Imperial prison fort on Vvardenfell. I'm leaning towards the east coast, close to Sadrith Mora.

While having the maps is useful, they don't control you. You can plop a dungeon or a fortress or what-have-you wherever you so please. Also, we're giving Tamriel proper proportions, a la Daggerfall. Vvardenfell is big. Traveling from Dagon Fel to Ebonheart by road takes weeks at a fast pace.

The players are unjustly (or justly) imprisoned for crimes they may or may not have committed. Have the players describe their crime and whether or not they really did it.

The game begins with the players being escorted to a dungeon. The fort commander discovered a buried structure nearby, and is sending in prisoners to scout it out. The party is not the first to enter. This far from home, the Empire doesn't much care what some corrupt warden is doing with his prisoners.

Without weapons and with only a few basic supplies, the party must explore a small dungeon. They may find some old weapons, or improvise them. Hazards and ancient traps remain deadly, with the bodies of fellow prisoners hinting at the dangers. Combat is likely contained to an encounter or two with a weak monster, or another surviving prisoner. There are a few valuables there, which the warden will be wanting.

At the end of the dungeon, an escape. The party doesn't have to return to the prison. They can run with what they found, hide and create new identities while the guards think they're dead and send another group. The area is wild and rugged, and the Imperials don't have accurate maps.

From here, survival is up to the party. There are ashlander camps nearby, as well as several Dunmer cities and fortresses. They may become bandits, or seek refuge with Dunmer eager to have pawns against the empire.

This could very easily become a murder-hoboey campaign of wacky hijinks. However, the party should repeatedly have the option of joining guilds, earning money and gaining reputations. This adds some early goals and advancement opportunities for the party. But the real structure of the campaign comes from a particular character. This character, though a hero, will be based on the techniques for building effective villains.

Image result for indoril nerevar

The Nerevarine

The campaign takes place contiguous to the story of Morrowind. The Nerevarine arrives on Vvardenfell at the order of the emperor, makes their way to Balmora and is inducted into the Blades by Caius Cosades before building their reputation and influence. The Sixth House works to infiltrate every settlement and organization. The Blight is spreading. But who is the Nerevarine? Who is the chosen one?

Well, the players certainly aren't.

That's right, the players are not chosen ones. They are under no prophecy, have the attention of no Daedra prince (at least at first) and most importantly, they have free will. If the players do nothing, then the Nerevarine will eventually come forth, unite the Houses, become Hortator and defeat Dagoth Ur. But the players are a wrench thrown into those gears.

Building the Nerevarine

At the end of each session, have one of the players roll a die. The first decides the sex of the Nerevarine. The second foretells which of the ten races they belong to. The third indicates if they are a Warrior, Mage or Thief. Build the Nerevarine like a powerful player character. 4d6 drop the lowest for stats with rerolls each level up. But unlike PCs, the Nerevarine's health does not cap at 20 and is capable of taking more than 4 class templates.

Have the Nerevarine level with the party, or be the level of the highest level character you have had in the party up till now. early on, they will be comparable to a single PC. Later on, they may well be a match for several on their own, on top of commanding armies and having numerous magic items.

Introducing the Nerevarine

After that, have the party encounter the Nerevarine in some fashion, while both are still low level. Perhaps they are competing for the same bounty. Or the party is hired to gather information that the Nerevarine needs to pull off a heist. Maybe the party seeks out a rare book the Nerevarine needs to solve some arcane mystery.

The party should not be aware of who the Nerevarine is. They are another NPC the party is working with or for. The first time they meet, the Nerevarine is low level and inexperienced. The party has an opportunity to influence them. There should be substantial gaps between meetings, at least until things start to heat up.


By the time the Nerevarine has located the dissident priests in Holamayan, Vvardenfell has begun to change. The Blight is spreading faster, with more contagions. Raving madmen are attacking people in the streets. Vvardenfell is under quarantine. If the party wishes to leave Vvardenfell, make it difficult, but possible. The campaign will change completely if this occurs.

By then, the Nerevarine has become the commander of the Blades on Vvardenfell. In the videogame, this has little effect. In the campaign, this is a big step. They gain access to a network of informants and dozens of agents, and will work to acquire more. If the Nerevarine has come to trust the party closely, they will be brought into the conspiracy. If not, the Nerevarine will interact with them through agents to get their help.

As the Nerevarine gains in power, becoming Hortator and likely the leader of a guild, their power grows considerably. At the same time, the party will have racked up a fortune and connections of their own. The assault on Red Mountain will take an army. Both the players and the Nerevarine should work towards recruiting them, and not necessarily be on the same page.

Keep the spotlight on the players

There are some very important considerations. For one, the Nerevarine can die. It won't happen offscreen, but if the players get involved, the thread of prophecy can and will break. The players will have to live in the doomed world they created.

Also, the Nerevarine must not be a DMPC. Most of what they do must happen offscreen unless the players deliberately seek them out to involve themselves in that quest. If this occurs, don't have the party playing second fiddle. They are a powerful quest giver, but do not simply solve the party's conflicts, and have an agenda far greater. Powerful though they may be, so are the players.

Image result for dagoth ur
I'm a GOD! How can you kill a god? What a grand and intoxicating innocence.

Hero as Villain

Remember what I said above with the Nerevarine being built as a villain? Well, that's not just because they have their own agenda. The Nerevarine should be at least somewhat antagonistic, and not fully trustworthy, like anybody who quickly rises to power.

If the party's goals are aligned to the Nerevarine's, it's because the party was convinced to the cause or the Nerevarine was convinced that the party's way was best.

While the Nerevarine opposes the evil of Dagoth Ur, that does not make them good or nice. When the dust settles and the Big bad is slain, the Nerevarine will have immense personal, military and political power. They may wish to expel the Empire from Morrowind, or destroy the Tribunal. They may be straight up evil. You can roll to see if this is the case, or develop it organically as the campaign goes.

Will the players allow such a person to become so powerful? Will they lay plans to assassinate them after Dagoth Ur is defeated, or will they play their hand earlier and take the Sixth House on themselves?

While the PCs lack the option to join the Sixth House, being outlanders, they can still defy the prophecy, take down the Nerevarine, collect the artifacts and destroy the Heart themselves.

This campaign structure, built around a single NPC whose identity and role in the story is fluid and malleable, is how I would run an Elder Scrolls campaign. A dynamic world, a questionable NPC, and absolute player freedom to screw up the plans of destiny.