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Making Monsters: Leap Day Edition

February 29, 2020 Leave a comment

Thanks to everyone for your response to my earlier post on the Jersey Devil. Before too long, it will be getting and update and expansion as I work toward the ideal format for a system-agnostic monster description. Soon I hope to make the official #secretprojects announcement and you’ll see what my plans are, and how you can help.

Here’s another monster – and today being Leap Day, I’ve gone for the Water Leaper from Welsh folklore. I’ve changed the format a little, and as always I would love to know how it could be improved. Let me know in the comments section.

 

The Water Leaper

Water_leaper

Painting by Brian Froud. Used without permission: no challenge to copyright intended.

 

RANGE

Real World: Wales: swamps and ponds. Lone or pack (3d4).

Fantasy World: Temperate marshes and ponds. Lone or pack (3d4).

 

TYPE: Animal

 

SIZE: Small (3ft/1m long)

 

MOVEMENT

Swim: 25 feet (7.5m) per round

Glide: 30 feet (9m) per round. Must spend at least 2 consecutive rounds swimming before being able to fly.

Crawl: 5 feet (1.5m) per round.

 

ATTRIBUTES

Strength: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Dexterity/Agility: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Constitution: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Intelligence: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Willpower: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Hit Points/Health: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

 

ATACKS

Bite: Animal, small (e.g. cat, fox, or small to medium dog)

Buffet: Only usable when gliding. Knockdown, based on creature’s Strength, resisted by victim’s Dexterity/Agility. No damage. Used to knock victims out of boats and into the water.

Shriek: Startle, based on creature’s Willpower, resisted by victim’s Willpower. Range/Area of Effect 30 yard/meter radius centered on creature’s position. Startled characters act last in the next turn and suffer a mild (e.g. 10%) penalty to all actions. Critical success on the creature’s part, or critical failure on the victim’s part, causes a Fear result in addition.

 

WEAKNESSES

No special weaknesses

 

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Stinger (Optional): Some reports of water leapers give them a barb or stinger at the end of their tail. This gives the water leaper one additional attack per round, causing damage as a dagger. In the case of a stinger, the attack also causes mild poison damage, like the venom of a small, mildly venomous snake.

 


 

Water leapers, known as llamhigyn y dwr (pronounced roughly “thlamheegin uh duwr”) in their native Wales, look something like large toads with wings (sometimes bat-like, and sometimes like those of a flying fish) instead of front legs and a long, sinuous tail instead of back legs. Their broad mouths are full of very sharp teeth. Their bodies are 2-3 feet long, with tails twice as long again.

They will attack almost anything, and regularly destroy the nets and lines of local fishermen. They also attack swimmers and livestock drinking at the water’s edge.

Water leapers have been known to try to knock fishermen out of their boats by deliberately leaping at them. They can emit a piercing shriek which can startle an unwary fisherman or animal, making their attack easier. In the water, up to 12 of the creatures can attack a human-sized victim at the same time.

Their pack attacks show a rudimentary organization. For instance, they may spread out and attack a target from all sides at once. One creature may stand a little way off and shriek just as the others are swimming or leaping to the attack.

Water leapers can live on lake fish, but their appetites are so voracious that they quickly deplete the fish stocks in any lake they inhabit. They seem to prefer the meat of sheep, cattle, and humans. They have no natural enemies apart from enraged fishermen and deadlier water monsters such as lake worms and water horses.

 

Links

Cryptid Wiki

A d20 System adaptation

A 5e adaptation

 

Another Bit of Bling

February 26, 2020 1 comment

While I was looking at images for my previous post on armillary rings, I came across this image. The ring has four secret doors covering a design inside – something like and advent calendar.

Compartment Ring

 

Here is a link to an article on compartment rings, as they are called. It seems they were quite fashionable at one time.

There are many uses for this type of ring in a fantasy roleplaying game. As well as covering the name of a lover (a secret lover, perhaps, constituting proof of an illicit affair that could get the wearer beaten, locked up, or even killed), a compartment ring might hide the insignia of a secret organization, and act as proof of membership. This organization might be a spy ring (spy ring! … oh, please yourselves), an elite secret agency serving a monarch or powerful noble, a society of forward-thinking academics whose ideas might get them into trouble – or, of course, an evil cult or a revolutionary movement.

 

Single message

 

A player character might be given an identifying ring like this by a patron, or – arguably more fun – they might loot it from a fallen foe (like Kastor Lieberung in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure Enemy in Shadowsfor instance) and find themselves plunged into a world of intrigue and deception. In the right circumstances, showing the ring’s secret may save the party’s lives; in the wrong circumstances, it might condemn them to arrest, torture, and execution.

Monday Maps #6: Peasant Cottage

February 24, 2020 2 comments

Adventurers spend a lot of time traveling through remote places, so a peasant farmer’s cottage will be a familiar sight. It may be threatened by bandits or monsters, presenting an opportunity for a Seven Samurai defence action. It may be occupied by a family whose remoteness from the world hides secret mutants or other quirks, like the cannibalism of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Or it may simply be a place to get out of the weather, and perhaps bargain for a bowl of stew.

Irish Cottage 2

This design goes back into prehistory, and is still in use today in some areas. In a medieval setting, the windows would be smaller, with curtains of skin in place of glass. Copyright Marion McGarry: used without permission.

 

In some places, a cottage is little more than a barn, divided into two parts. The animals occupy one part, and the family the other. Sometimes the sleeping quarters are in a loft above the livestock stalls, benefiting from the animals’ warmth. More prosperous farmers added hearths and chimneys to their cottages, and moved the animals into a barn across the farmyard. Other features might be added, such as a granary and vegetable store, a well, and even a smithy.

Farm 1

A medieval farm, by Dante78. Borrowed from Renderosity: click image for more information.

 

Often, there would be a surrounding wall, both for defence and to stop animals wandering off.

Farm 2

Hudson & Allen Studio’s 25mm Fortified Medieval Farmhouse. Image from Wargame Scenics. Click image for more information.

 

 

German cottage

A two-storey cottage from Germany. This is large enough to accommodate an extended family, and would probably belong to a fairly prosperous farm family.

 

Links

This page from British History Online has some useful plans of various cottage layouts, as well as a lot of information on various building types and how they were used. Scroll down to find all the plans, but if you have the patience to read the text you will find some of it useful.

 

 

A Bit of Bling

February 19, 2020 1 comment

Astronomical Ring

 

Here’s an interesting little trinket for a scholarly character: a ring that opens up into an armillary sphere. In a game I was running, a piece like this would allow a character a small bonus to skill rolls in astronomy and astrology, and perhaps a time bonus as well, since it would help the character make the necessary  calculations more quickly. If the ring were magic, the bonuses might be even higher, all the way up to instant, error-free success every time.

I found this image on Pinterest, and it turns out that rings like this are available from a number of retailers at quite reasonable prices. If you like the idea of owning one, for cosplay or LARPing or just for fun, a search for “armillary sphere ring” or “astronomical ring” should find you plenty of options.

The My Modern Met web site has short article on armillary rings, which includes photos of some items from the British Museum’s collection. Here is a link.

In the Old World of WFRP, rings like this might have variants that chart the movement of the Chaos moon Morrslieb, and allow cult magi to make the sort of calculations that could get a person burned. The Enemy in Shadows Companion, now available as a PDF and coming soon in dead-tree format, includes a chapter on the dreaded Purple Hand cult which includes a new Cult Magus career.

Monster-Based Adventures

February 15, 2020 2 comments

There is a whole class of adventure that revolves around a single monster. This type of adventure first came to prominence in the early 1980s with the publication of Call of Cthulhu: its investigative style mainly involved trying to find out which creature from the Mythos was responsible for a situation, learning how to deal with it, and managing the final conflict so that it was defeated or banished – and hopefully not too many investigators went too mad in the process.

With the current resurgence of interest in folk horror roleplaying games, this seems like a good time to take a look at the design and plotting of monster-centric adventures. I have been a fan of folklore and folk horror for decades, and I expect these games will provide players with a wide range of interesting and challenging creatures, not all of which will succumb to a simple shotgun blast.

 

Monster-Based Adventures vs. Monster Encounters

 

Monster-based adventures are different from monster encounters – even boss-monster encounters – in several important ways.

The first is that a monster encounter is not complete in itself, but invariably forms a part of a larger adventure. Even if it is a one-shot encounter designed to be dropped into an existing campaign or adventure, it is not an adventure in its own right.

A monster encounter normally begins with the party meeting the monster, whereas that is the third act in a monster-based adventure. Both showcase the monster’s nature and abilities, but a monster-based adventure includes a research and investigation phase, and players usually come out of the adventure having learned more about the creature and the setting that a simple encounter has to offer.

Here are my thoughts on this kind of adventure. I’m sure you have ideas of your own, and your own favorite monster-based adventures. Let me know about them in the comments section.

A monster-based adventure consists of three distinct phases, each with its own particular design considerations:

 

Phase 1: Effects

The adventure starts with a report reaching the player characters that something unusual is happening somewhere. Their informant may be a friend or acquaintance of one of the characters, or a stranger who has heard of their reputation for solving mysteries.

Reports are fragmentary and may be contradictory. The only thing that is clear is that something is wrong.

The PCs have an opportunity to do some library research on the reported incidents and the local area, and may be able to form some suspicions. Once they are as prepared as they can be, they set out for the site of the incidents to conduct the second phase of their investigation.

Design Tasks: Choose the monster. Chart its arrival in the area and its actions after arriving. Decide what evidence is left behind, and what witnesses and survivors might say. Think of several other causes that would leave similar traces, and create at least 2-3 red herrings. Pick an NPC who contacts the PCs, and create a player handout of the letter, email, text, or other communication that starts the adventure for them. List the research resources available to the PCs and the information they can recover. Make sure each piece of information has a named source and a relevant skill test to recover it.

 

Phase 2: Investigation

In this phase, the PCs examine the evidence on the ground and interview witnesses, starting with the person who first contacted them. They add to the information they gathered in Phase 1 and have the opportunity to refine their theories on the nature of the monster. They may find that the situation has grown worse since they received the first reports.

During this phase, the PCs must formulate their plan to deal with the monster. If they are too slow, the GM may decide to have the monster take the initiative, attacking before they are ready for it.

Design Tasks: Map the local area, including all relevant locations and sites of attacks. Create all necessary NPCs. Give each one a starting attitude toward the PCs and a list of information they can convey. Note that information need not be accurate, as long as it is believed by the NPC in question. If an NPC has a reason to lie to the PCs, make sure any false information fits the NPC’s character and motivation. Wherever physical evidence may be found, create a way for the PCs to find the spot (a local guide, for example, or a chance of stumbling on the spot by themselves), a list of evidence (e.g. tracks, bloodstains, etc.), and the skill checks required to spot each piece of evidence. Do the same for documentary evidence from local libraries, church records, etc. Create a backup source or informant to get the PCs on the right track if they fail to piece the clues together properly.

 

Phase 3: Confrontation

The final phase is the encounter with the monster. If the PCs have researched and reconnoitered properly, they can give themselves a tactical advantage. If they have not, the monster may have the upper hand, at least initially. Intelligent monsters may fortify their lair and/or keep watch for attackers. Aggressive monsters may take the fight to the PCs at the first opportunity. Some monsters, especially those from folklore, can only be defeated by certain means, such as silver bullets or blessed weapons. Some intelligent monsters might be open to persuasion or a bargain, which is far less risky than combat. The adventure is over when the monster is killed, driven away, or defeated by some other means.

Design Tasks: Re-read the monster description and design the time and place of the climactic encounter. Also draw up contingency plans in case the players encounter the monster under different circumstances. Sketch out the aftermath of the monster’s defeat: whether it is permanently destroyed, whether it may return, and what precautions may be taken for the future. Reckon experience points and other rewards (increased knowledge, NPC contacts, etc.) for a successful conclusion.

 

Did You Say Folk Horror?

 

Yes, I did. Over the last few months I have become aware of at least two new and forthcoming folk horror RPGs, and they both look interesting. Here are links:

Solemn Vale

Set in the UK in the 1970s. The British film industry produced a lot of good horror at that time. https://dirtyvortex.net/solemn-vale/

Solemn Vale

Vaesen

Set in Sweden in the 19th century, and based on the art of award-winning illustrator Johan Egerkrans. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1192053011/vaesen-nordic-horror-roleplaying

Vaesen cover

Monday Maps #4: Town and City Gates

February 10, 2020 Leave a comment

In medieval Europe, and in most fantasy worlds, towns and cities are surrounded by wall to protect them from attack. The gates are the weakest part of a town wall, so they tend to be the most heavily fortified.

In a small town or walled village, the gate fortifications may be very modest. In a great and wealthy city, each gate can be a small castle in its own right.

Plan and Elevation of Monk Bar, York

From The Pictorial History of England (W & R Chambers, 1858)

This 19th-century image of Monk Bar in medieval York shows the basic components of a fortified city gate. It has a barbican with a double gate and a portcullis between: when the outer gate is breached, attackers enter a killing zone and must endure fire from all sides as they assault the portcullis. Having broken down the portcullis they must pass under an archway to reach the inner gate, and the ceiling of the archway is pierced with “murder holes” through which defenders above can fire missiles or drop boiling water or oil.

 

 

A guardhouse stands beside the gate, and outside it stairs lead up to the wall top and the room above the murder holes. The winch for raising and lowering the portcullis would often be at this level as well.

Finally, there is a sally port beside the gate, through which defenders could break out and get behind an attacking force.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smaller towns will have more modest arrangements, like this:

 

VK-com

Borrowed from VK.com

 

 

This model would suit a medium-sized town in Warhammer’s Old World or a similar setting:

 

 

Turbosquid

Borrowed from Turbosquid.com

 

 

…and here’s a floorplan from Jason Engle, whose web site is worth a look. Find it here.

JAEstudio

 

See you next Monday for more maps!

 

 

Making Monsters: The Jersey Devil

February 5, 2020 9 comments

 

Recently I have posted about my favorite RPG monster books, both those I worked on and those I didn’t. These posts sparked some great discussions both here and on various social media platforms, as people shared their favorite volumes and their must-have, nice-to-have, and wow-look-at-this features of existing game bestiaries.

I have also hinted, here and there, that I am working on a couple of #secretprojects, which I hope will come to fruition over the next year or so. As some people have guessed, the first one concerns monsters.

More details will be released as things firm up, but right now I would like to ask you, my beloved readers, for your help. One of the things I want to achieve with this project is the development of a systemless format for presenting game stats, and the description of the Jersey Devil that follows includes my first attempt at doing so. The objective is to describe a creature’s attributes and abilities in such a way that GMs of any game will find it easy to develop stats for their particular rule set.

So read this, play with it, and let me know what you think. In this version I have opted for a comparative method, likening the creature’s stats to those of an average human or a common animal. There are other, crunchier methods, but I think this is the clearest and the easiest to use. Tell me if I’m right, and tell me how you would go about improving it.

I don’t want to frame this request as a competition, and I’m not in a position to offer prizes or rewards – yet – but as the project grows and takes shape I expect that to change, and I hope to be able to acknowledge and possibly reward those contributions that I found most valuable.

If all goes as planned, this will be the start of a fun ride. Are you in?

 

The Jersey Devil

Jersey_Devil_Philadelphia_Post_1909

An image from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, based on sightings of the 1909 hoax devil. Borrowed from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s website.

 

RANGE

Real World: North America, specifically the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. After 1735. Unique.

Fantasy World: Temperate pine woodlands. Encountered singly or in groups of 2-6.

 

TYPE

Local Legend, devil, or animal.

 

ATTRIBUTES

Strength: Human range, high end

Dexterity/Agility: Human range, high end

Constitution: Human range, average

Intelligence: Animal, superior (e.g. dog)

Willpower: Animal, superior (e.g. dog)

Hit Points/Health: Animal, medium (e.g. horse)

 

ATACKS

Bite: Animal, medium (e.g. wolf)

Trample: Animal, medium (e.g. horse)

 

WEAKNESSES

No special weaknesses

 

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Fly: Large, slow (e.g. wyvern)

Cause fear: Supernatural, demonic

Growl: Enhance fear effect


 

Sometimes known as the Leeds Devil, the Jersey Devil is rumored to inhabit the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. Those who have seen it describe it as eight feet tall with a long neck, crane-like legs ending in hooves, large bat-like wings, and a head like that of a deer or a dog. It is a vicious creature with a taste for human flesh.

There are many tales of the creature’s origins. Most connect it to a local merchant named Leeds and his wife Deborah. According to the most common story, Mrs. Leeds was in labor with her thirteenth child in 1735. Some say she was a witch and the child’s father was the Devil. Others say that she was unhappy to find herself pregnant for a thirteenth time and cursed her baby with the words “may it be a devil.”

Other stories view the Jersey devil as a divine punishment upon its parents: for Mr. Leeds’ harsh treatment of the family’s servants, or for Mrs. Leeds’ refusal to renounce her Quaker faith in favor of her husband’s Puritanism. A final version tells that, despite its appearance, Deborah Leeds cared for her monstrous offspring until her death, when it flew into the swamps of the Pine Barrens and has remained there ever since.

All versions of the story agree that the baby was a monster. It killed the midwife – and everyone else in the house, in some versions – fled up the chimney, and has been haunting the Pine Barrens ever since. Attempts to track down the Leeds family or their descendants have failed, and the tales cannot be verified. The beast was seen multiple times in 1909, and ever since it has been world famous – but no one has ever captured it.

 

A Tale Grown in the Telling

regal-jersey-devil-taylors

A Quaker tract denouncing the Leeds family.

 

Daniel Leeds ran a publishing business, which included almanacs. Local Quakers objected to them because they included astrological information. A feud began, with each side publishing pamphlets that used stronger and stronger language. After Daniel Leeds died in 1720, the Quakers accused Daniel’s son Titan Leeds of being “Satan’s harbinger.” Also, the Leeds family crest featured birds, but they are easy to mistake for bat-winged devils if badly drawn.

This may be the origin of the Jersey Devil, but its tale remained obscure for almost 200 years. The creature gained its current fame in 1909, when the owner of a private museum in Philadelphia organized a publicity stunt. A kangaroo was fitted with fake wings and sightings were staged around New Jersey. The plan was to announce that the Jersey Devil had been captured and put the disguised kangaroo on display. Ever since then, pictures and descriptions of the Jersey Devil have all looked very like a kangaroo with wings.

 

Almanac

The Leeds family crest and the cover of one of Titan Leeds’s almanacs. It is just possible to interpret the badly-drawn birds as horned, winged devils.

 

Links

The Skeptical Inquirer published a piece on the Leeds family and the Jersey Devil in 2013, which is worth reading.

The Philadelphia Inquirer covered the 1909 hoax in detail on its 110th anniversary.