Tag Archives: writing

Nicodemus the Archmage

Here’s that model I painted. He’s turned out not too bad considering I’ve not picked up a brush in years. Took about an hour, and it looks ‘good enough’ which is all I need it to do. Given that I only want to paint minis I feel like doing (as opposed to armies or competition), I might as well stat them up for D&D. So, here’s Nicodemus the Archmage*

Nicodemus is big. He is an old human wizard, who has the stature of a retired prizefighter. He stands at 6’6″, and that’s without his battered blue hat. He leans heavily on a staff made of solid stone, which he wields as easily as a rapier when angered.

His temperament  is as grizzled as his visage. He answers queries with beetled brows before offering the applicant a salvo of explosive and creative swearing, backed up with a prodding finger to the recipients forehead. The only topic of conversation that seems to pique his interest in that of the Feywild. Nicodemus has made a lifelong study of the bright plane, and is perhaps the most learned of all scholars on the sunject. However, his knowledge is strictly theoretical, as he claims he is too old, and too busy to go on field trips.

Nicodemus will pay well for first hand knowledge of the Feywild, in particular news of hitherto unknown crossings. He has plenty of gold on hand, though no-one knows where that wealth comes from. Potential thieves would do well to consult with the spirits of those rogues who have crossed him in the past.

Nicodemus has a secret. He is in fact a juvenile gnome. Years ago, as a precocious apprentice illusionist, the young gnome wished for power, and for the appearance of power. He made a bargain with a dark and capricious power to make him a mighty arch mage. The patron did no more than asked, and since that time Nicodemus has been cursed to appear as an elderly human wizard, replete with travel worn robes, beard and hat. Worse, the bargain also means Nicodemus can never return to the Feywild while the curse persists. Of course, his patron resides there chuckling to itself for eternity.


*Name blatantly nicked from Mordheim. Cheers!


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Bloodsand Arena Revised

I’ve been busy prepping for LemurCon recently. I’ve managed to convince some old friends to give 4e a slot and we’ve gone with Dark Sun. This is a one shot, so I wanted to hit as many of the setting’s key notes as possible, while also telling a self contained story, and having the traditional elements that make any D&D game great. In 5 hours. No easy task. At time of writing, I don’t know how this eventually went down, but here’s some of the things I’ve done in the making.


I almost exclusively DM so I haven’t done much more than dabble wiith characters. I have the builder, and I wouldn’t attempt anything above 1st level or non-Essentials with pen and paper.  I wanted 6th level, it’s just right for one-shots in my experience. I fired up the builder and tried out a few things. I don’t know why but I was a bit surprised that Essentials classes and races don’t really suit Dark Sun in the main. I’d polled my players on their wants (I sent them a little primer on race, class, theme and the world) and they wanted Thri-Kreen, gladiators, Sorcerer-King warlocks and all the rest. Great stuff, but it meant using the classic 4e set up. Mostly not a  problem, just had to take care to pick powers and abilities that didn’t have too much conditional stuff. I like themes, but I don’t know if I went overboard with them and thus didn’t get enough original class flavour in. We’ll see. Feats. Oh my god,  feats. There is an absolute skipload of them, and after 15 minutes of reading I wished I didnt have to take them at all. I’ve tried to go for something DS in feel, but lord only knows if they’re in the slightest bit effective. Again, we’ll see.

I do like the inherent bonus system. It’s quick, and effective, and saves adding in a bunch more power cards for my newbie players. I hit auto-select for shopping to see what I would get, it’s pretty random, I got Eberron items and things for water breathing! Not recommended. I had to delete them all, and when I tried again I got different items, so it’s definitely random.

I’ve also been looking at character sheets. The internet failed me, as it looks like people really don’t do their own sheets so much anymore. I’m not a huge fan of the ones the builder currently offers, and the classic one is too busy. I wanted to keep the power cards though, so there wasn’t a lot left to do. I customised my old Word doc sheets, and picked an appropriate colour scheme, and it’s done. Some manual input needed, but that’s not particularly onerous.

I’ve added in one of the sheets to the Free Stuff page. https://rpgtreehouse.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/lakta-cho.docx

Next: The Scenario

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Paizo of the Coast modules

I’ve been asking a lot of questions about companies’ approaches to adventure design recently, but I haven’t been supplying many of my own answers. Some of that is because I don’t really know the answers! However, there’s a few observations I do have.

 At time  of writing I’m running my weekly group through WotC’s Orcus modules. We’re deep into E1, Death’s Reach. It’s been good fun so far, and we’re one session into the final section, which is a dungeon called the Reliquary of Timesus. Simultaneously, my current read is part 5 of Paizo’s Legacy of Fire Adventure Path. It’s also a dungeon, based in a palace complex set within the City of Brass. It’s called The Impossible Eye. It’s a good read, full of flavour, but looks very tricky to run. 

There has to be a middle ground between WotC’s dry/linear adventures, and Paizo’s complex/verbose ones. What would a product that took the best of both worlds look like? Let’s take the Reliquary, and reformat it the Paizo way.

On the WotC side, they utilise(d) a two book format. The first book has the overview, and the extras like new monsters and treasures, and art work. The second book has the encounters all laid out in a delve format for ease of play. The folder also contains a double sided poster map of some of the big locations in the adventure. (I should say that WotC have moved away from this format in the last year or so, but only in that they bundle all this together into a single book, otherwise it’s broadly the same).

Paizo are much more traditional in their formatting. It’s written in a travel-guide fashion, with a brief overview at the front and then it takes the reader through the adventure, location by location. It does mean having to flick back and forth a lot to see how various parts link up. The art is sprinkled through the adventure. In the APs, they give a big chunk of the product to supplementary material, fiction, new monsters etc.

WotC try to separate the encounter information from the plot exposition. The trouble is, there’s too much bleed over. There are 13 encounters in the Reliquary spread over 19 locations. All the locations are summarised over a mere two pages, with references to the combat pages in book two. The entire dungeon is presented over just 4 pages. There’s a lot of story/plot elements that only appear when you get to the encounter format itself, or worse, it’s duplicated. Those encounter maps are keyed with starting monster locations.

Paizo blend all the mechanics into the prose sections of their keyed entries.  They have a tendency to start with some boxed  text that concentrates on the architecture and the furnishings. If there are any adversaries present, they get introduced right at the end of the entry. The description can be wide ranging about histories and relationships. Adversaries can be flagged up that don’t get explained until later in the book. Each entry rewards repeat reading and notetaking so that nothing gets missed, like the monsters.

My blended approach would be to stay with the single book, but to separate it into sections to facilitate play at the table, and to make the inevitable page flicking easier. I would spread the art through the book. That gives it context and the company website or a scanner allows the images to be shown to players as required. I would put the stat blocks and tactics directly into the main body of the adventure. The delve format has only one pro (to not have to flick pages in the middle of a combat) and too many cons (repeated, or discreet, story info; the keyed map which can’t be printed; lots of white space; repeated environmental info and more). Fourth edition encounter design means that groups of opponents are far more likely to be encountered than solitary monsters or traps. The delve format brings all those stats to one place, but frankly, a 3e statblock for a single creature easily takes up half a full page. I don’t think it’s completely necessary to separate out the encounter info. At worst, the encounter info might run onto another page, but that’s a small price to pay for legibility and read-flow.

Similarly, there’s no need to repeat the encounter map with starting positions. These positions should be apparent from the description, either the boxed text (enabling the DM to place the monster as they read) or within the description for hidden monsters and traps. These starting positions are wasted post the initiative roll anyway. Same with environmental effects like tables, chairs, doors, fires etc. All common environmental effects can be boxed out in an appendix or at the start of the adventure.

The dungeon overview provided by WotC is actually fine, it’s concise and gives the DM what he needs, the story and enough to improvise on should the party enquire. This should be followed by the dungeon map. The Paizo maps  are like architects drawings, they’re fascinating, inspiring even, but they are extraordinarily difficult to describe or map out at the table. They also have verisimilitude, with barracks, kitchens and kennels. There are more ’empty’ rooms than inhabited ones. Some of those empty rooms contain clues or history, but others are there just to fill out the map. There are lots of linked levels, and the DM has to be careful to see how inhabitants hear and see the other locations. It’s very pretty, but low on utility.

On the other hand, the WotC map of the reliquary is made up of scanned dungeon tiles, and it’s squeezed into the A4 page. There are no dead ends, only 3 empty rooms, and it’s a largely straight sequence of chambers. There’s no sense that this was designed and built by anyone but a  WotC employee. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s eminently playable. The DM and players won’t get lost and no-one needs to worry about what the surrounding locations are doing. It’s almost brutally functional.

The meat of the adventure is in the keyed locations. This is where WotC have again, gone for the functional approach. They make a nod towards story by having every chamber covered in sculpted reliefs that slowly tell the story of the Dawn War between the Gods and the primordials. They even back this up with art depicting the same. There’s a skill check noted on occasion to translate the carvings. This is the best part of any location description as it’s almost all of it. the room will only ever have one or two more sentences of description outside of the encounter book. For example, the final room:

“This chamber, the prison of Timesus, shows signs of a methodical excavation.”

That would have been fine back in the days of 1st edition, but the modern audience is entitled to more. In fairness, the encounter book expands on this and gives read aloud text as well as tactics, but even then it errs on the side of sparsity.

This is where the biggest change could be made. the locations should be able to be read as if part of a story, or at least a travel guide. Paizo go too far too often by including text that’s irrelevant to the adventure at hand, and tenuous in it’s relationship to anything the characters are likely to encounter. The happy medium would be for the text to be explanatory first and interesting second with inspiring a third priority. If it is only one of those three things, it’s missing the key element of a role playing game scenario.

Lastly, and this isn’t in Death’s Reach, WotC have made strides to make the treasure placement more customisable in latter adventures. This is a great use of an appendix, and needs to help the beleaguered DM keep their game, and campaign, on track.

In summary, I’d hugely expand the first book from WotC, using the best writing from the Paizo styles, and I’d contract the delve book into the body of the adventure. At every stage I’d look to see that the book remains a gameable product, and not something to be read in lieu of a novel.


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The Ultimate Tavern

“You all meet in a tavern…”

The original unoriginal beginning to adventure. But what if you did all meet in a tavern, and what if that tavern was the most fantastic place in the world? What would that look like?


My plan is to make the ultimate tavern for fantasy worlds. It will be the place to meet patrons, swap stories, hear tall tales, cement reputations, make legends, get roaring drunk and have one of those lovely little bowls of spiced nuts they do. 

I need your help and inspiration. I have the physical place all mapped out, and I have some plots, history, schemes and organisations all ready to go. I want to populate this place with (ir)regulars of all stripes, and that’s where I could do with a hand.


So tell me about your character.

 It can be any fantasy character. It might be the one from your gaming history, or one you play today, or one you’ve always wanted to. System is irrelevant (I don’t want numbers). I only ask that you use the following template if you can (and if you can’t, I’ll get over it).


  • Occupation: what’s your way of life?
  • Physical description: just briefly, including any quirks
  • Attributes and skills: anything markedly above or below the norm
  • Values and motivations: what spurs you to action?
  • Behaviour: traits that stand out
  • Useful knowledge: perhaps a hook?
  • Mannerism: something memorable 

As they come in, don’t be afraid of putting in links to other characters. Enmities and alliances are all grist to the mill.


My long term plan is to gather this cast into a game resource. Eventually I’ll publish it. Contributors will be credited of course, and if there is anything physical to come from this I’ll get you a copy gratis. That’s all I can offer. I know it’s not much.  

Over to you.


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Quoted For Truth

I was catching up on my reading and came across this from James Wyatt:

Did you ever read a novel where the world was a barrier? Maybe you felt like you had to earn a master’s degree in the history of this fictitious place to make sense of the story you were trying to read, or you had to keep referring to a glossary in the back to keep track of all the made-up names for the most mundane details of the world. “What the heck is a Quelarian star-fruit, and why do I care? Why doesn’t the hero just eat a banana?”

I’ve read that book, or tried to. And I’ve run that D&D campaign, or tried to. It turns out that my players didn’t have any more interest in the campaign than I had in the novel. This time around, I’m letting the world get out of the way and concentrating on the big picture: the themes.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’m currently running the HPE series, and there’s really no setting to speak of in our games. I once referred to the world as Generica as a laugh and it kind of stuck. A great setting can really help colour in the game, our occasional Eberron game being a great example. But sometimes too much ‘world’ gets in the way.

I’d recommend reading the whole article I’ve snipped that quote from. You’ll have to be a subscriber, but the entire Dungeoncraft series is worth checking out.

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A novel idea for a setting

I found myself in the public library today, which is a rare occasion. I was scanning the fantasy/sci fi/horror section, surprised at how much stuff they had, and wondering why on earth I spend what I do in bookstores. I checked a few back covers for a precis that sounded interesting. While doing that I came round to thinking about how my reading tends to be mosty gaming related, and that includes the novels I pick up. It struck me then that I’d been slowly coming to a decision over recent months and it goes a little something like this.

I’ve got loads of RPGs, about 5 or 6 times as many as you can see in the banner for this site. The vast majority of them have a setting as part of the game. Consequently, I’ve internalised an awful lot of imaginary worlds. Add to that the weird predilection I have for trying to see everything in the real world as potential gaming fodder and you might begin to see how full my head is. Novels and comics are an obvious source of gaming maaterial, but as time has gone on I’ve realised I’m never ever going to sit down and write a setting bible based on a novel, I’m just not. It’s way to much work and frankly, if my players aren’t as invested in the setting as I am then it’s never going to see time at the table. Let’s not even think about publishing it, not going to happen. Last time I tried to do this was with the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F Hamilton, my favourite author. It’s absolutley ripe for gaming and I sincerely hope someone will do it one day. But it’s more than 3000 pages long and the cast of characters, locations, kit etc is absolutley enormous. Even the really hard core wiki builders struggle with that challenge.

So I don’t do it. I don’t even really build my own settings out of whole cloth, nor do I really pay a huge amount of attention to game worlds so much any more. The reason being, there’s just too much stuff, often of little relevance and too little of it ever reaches the ears of my players. Where’s the utility in a 300+ page book where 297 pages are just dry historical detail?

Let me give you an example. I recently bought Eclipse Phase after reading some reports and reviews online. It’s fans are vocal and passionate to say the least. Just browse RPGnet, you’ll see what I mean. When a poster said I could do Night’s Dawn with it I was totally sold. However, after an hour reading it from the first page I started to flick, never a good sign. ten minutes after that, I’d shelved it. The reason was I felt I would be better off reading a novel as I’d get the same giant infodump but in a more entertaining medium. Believe me when I say this isn’t a dig at the game, I’m sure it’s as brilliant and innovative as people say, but it’s not for me with the way I want to approach gaming these days. The short fiction at the start seemed like something from Shadowrun circa 1994, while the rest of the book was a patchwork of the authors favourite transhumanist scifi of recent years. again, it’s a perfeectly valid approach to a game book, but actually I found myself wishing I’d read the source material instead.

So I noticed a section of books by Charles Stross in the library, and his works are mentioned in Eclipse Phase. My interest piqued, I checked out the splash page. turns out the one I’d picked up is his first published work called The Atrocity Archives and I don’t think it’s one of the transhuman books. Here’s the back page for you:

Bob Howard is a low-level techie working for a super-secret government agency. While his colleagues are out saving the world, Bob’s under a desk restoring lost data. None of them receive any thanks for the jobs they do, but at least a techie doesn’t risk getting shot or eaten in the line of duty. Bob’s world is dull but safe, and that’s the way it should have stayed; but then he went and got Noticed. Now, Bob Howard is up to his neck in spycraft, alternative universes, dimension-hopping nazis, Middle Eastern terrorists, damsels in distress, ancient Lovecraftian horror and the end of the world. Only one thing is certain: it will take more than control-alt-delete to sort this mess out…

There’s enough there for a whole campaign no? And the preface makes it even more succint. In it Ken MacLeod points out:

Think, for a moment, what the following phrase would call to mind if you’d never heard it before: ‘Secret intelligence’

And there’s about 20 of the games on my shelf summed up. Except those books then give me another 13 chapters of explanation and detail which is mostly unnecessary and has the effect of dulling and diluting the original concept. Bringing it back to RPGs proper, the worst offender for me was The Iron Kingdoms, a superb setting from Privateer Press originally for d20 gaming. It started with a trilogy of adventures which gave the DM just enough to go on, and  crucially it all came out at the table as the party progressed. Three modules later and everyone knew as much as everyone else at the table without having to study for hours and without losing any immersion either. I think it was better than most settings just because of that ‘reveal during play’ approach. Obviously the fans wanted more and the publishers got to work. The first book was Lock and Load, really just a conversion supplement for standard D&D. It came with maps and geography and history, all in 64 pages. Brilliant. And then a long, long wait while the big hardback sourcebooks were produced, weighing in at 600 pages over 2 hardbacks, all as dry as dust. They’d utterly explained away all the magic. A crushing disappointment, especially when you consider their minis game in the same world, Warmachine, had exactly the same job to do, yet managed it in colour with barely a third of the page count. 

Now, this post haas gotten way too long and is in some danger of becoming a rant. So part 2 tomorrow…


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Taking the world building plunge after 30 years

Over the years I’ve played loads of games, and loads of campaigns too, yet I’ve rarely come up with my own world before 4e came along. To help me (and others) understand why that is, I’ve had a look back at some prior experiences.

I think you have to love the system, and I love 4e. This is because, for me, I like the setting assumptions to be present in the system itself as much as possible. Take Burning Wheel for example, it’s what I call a strong implied setting and because of that, it’s the sort of engine that people like to try out with their own worlds. With 4e, it’s a looooong way from being a generic system and maybe that’s why I find it easier to world build with.

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