Wall: Pepper’s Sword, Pepper’s Baby

This is a very long post about motivating players, interparty arguments, and faked pregnancies.

First of All, Pepper the Elf

Pepper was a wood elf ranger played by someone who’d never done a tabletop game before. His main touchpoint for gaming came from rogue-likes such as Pixel Dungeon. (If you’ve read past posts, Pepper is the one who killed the singing, peace-loving bear in the Church of St James.)

In an effort to engage Pepper’s player and to expand the world beyond Wall’s…walls, I gave Pepper a quest: get some ancient artifacts and return them to the elflands. In return, he’d be welcomed back (he was an Outlander, and his player decided it was because Pepper was a boozer) and even given a small grant of land.

Pepper engaged with the hook, and he assured the other PCs that they’d be rewarded, so they were happy to help. It looked like everyone was working together, so I was happy too.

Indentured Gnomitude & Feathered Elves

On the way to the site, a random encounter came up “gnomes.” They wanted to know why the characters were on their land, and in traditional Pepper style, the encounter escalated to combat, with one gnome captured. The new prisoner was “encouraged” to lead them to the ruins they were seeking.

The ruins were found, and the secret door to the underground area was discovered.

Bas reliefs cover the walls. Viewed from entrance to throne, they show elves arriving in a thick woodland with strange creatures wrapped in the roots of the trees. The elves raise the creatures up from the roots and put their arms in chains. The creatures mine stones and build towers for the elves to sit in. Then the elves and the creatures wrap each other in their arms—are they fighting? mating? merging in some other way? The last carving shows a crowned figure combining the features of the elves and the creatures, looking out over the woods. Also, lots of big birds are killed and eaten throughout.

Crown of Morgoth: The crown on the mummy (the same as the one on the final figure in the reliefs) is an electrum circlet set with a single large opal surrounded by a fan of feathers. The opal is the home of Morgoth, an ancient demon of the earth who was bound into the crown. It’s not sure it can be released from its prison, but it still seeks freedom from the tomb. It’ll happily ride an adventurer into the outside world and freely use its minor powers for their benefit, telling them that he’s the spirit of an ancient elf king, imprisoned after trying to rebel against a conservative and fascistic government. If it learns of the gate to Hell at the bottom of the dungeon in Wall, it would like to go there and see if those demons are in any way its kin.

Minor powers: Once a day, the crown can reveal nearby treasure or people. The wearer can set parameters—magical items, coinage worth over 500 gold, gems, any elf, Governor Blanchett, etc.—and Morgoth will give the direction and distance to the closest corresponding person or thing. Depending on the wearer’s relation to Morgoth, he may reveal other relevant information (traps, hidden doors). If relations are sour, he might obfuscate key facts. His “vision” extends up to one mile away.

The crown can also project a minor illusion similar to disguise self at any time. However, it only perfects the wearer’s extant face: blemishes, scars, and wrinkles are hidden, and perfect symmetry is arranged. The wearer is in no way disguised. Reaction rolls gain advantage if they’re being made purely on appearance, but Charisma is not affected. (This glamour is in place on the mummy when he is discovered.)

Major powers: Morgoth can cast spells as a mid-level wizard. Favorites include hold person (which manifests as an ethereal, electric claw), chain lightning, cloudkill, animate objects, and entangle each once a day. Morgoth saves these spells for when it believes the crown is in danger of being taken by someone Morgoth would not want to be in the possession of.

[“feathered elves,” as a term, stolen from the Elder Scrolls series]

Despite much discouragement, Pepper took the crown from the dead elf king’s head, but the elf-mummy was killed. Pepper almost died too, saved only by his compatriots’ healing potions. The crown revealed a personality as Pepper donned it, directing him to a stash of gold and a magic sword hidden beneath the throne.

This led to the first learning moment of the saga: when Pepper’s player said the other PCs would be rewarded, he meant that they would probably have their own personalized side quests, and they’d get to keep the rewards from their quests. After some mediated argument, Pepper agreed to let the rest of the party split the gold, but Pepper was keeping the crown and the sword. He wouldn’t be sending them back to the elflands.

All That’s Grubby is Not Greed

The sword wasn’t especially magic, and I treated the crown as an NPC that only helped Pepper when it wanted to, so Pepper’s insistence on keeping them around wasn’t about the mechanical benefits. It was definitely a status thing, and it became a very fun thing for me push at. I didn’t want to screw him over—I just wanted to know how deep his attachment went.

For instance, Pepper was leading a group of new players on a tour of the dungeon when a heinous random encounter came up: a mole avatar of the gnomish god of greed. The mole demanded a toll to pass through “his” tunnels, and the players were hesitant to pay, and a gnomish paladin attacked the mole, believing it was his holy duty. It wasn’t until a couple of the new characters went down that Pepper gave up his sword, which the greed god seemingly ate.

But the sword would return.

One of the many forms of Urdlen, gnomish god of greed. Image by Kevin Budnik.

Nunchuck the Pregnant

One day, upon returning to the surface after a long day of adventuring, Pepper has a note: an elf is waiting for him in Wall’s boarding house. Curious, Pepper walks over, and amidst the crowd of widows and spinsters, he spies a pregnant elf woman. Pepper walks out without saying a thing, which leads to all future acts of refusal and retreat being called “pulling a Pepper” or “Pepper nopes out.”

Eventually, the elf woman introduces herself to Pepper and the other adventurers. Her name is Nenya, and she claims to be carrying Pepper’s child, conceived on his last night in the elflands, and she asks him to return with her, hand over the dangerous crown, and help raise his child. Pepper asks for time to think about it, and his fellow adventurers try to sway him one way or another. From the adventure log: “[Pepper’s] fellow adventurers wonder whether Nenya is telling the truth or not. Pepper admits that his memory on the matter is hazy, so they convince him to get drunk, assuming that ‘drunk Pepper’ will remember what ‘drunk Pepper’ has done in the past. Pepper complies, drinking the last of his moonshine.” What follows is a drunken escapade wherein ghosts are freed from purgatory, a fancy saddle is stolen from a wandering horse, and the crew smokes pipes on the beach while the sun rises.

No decision is reached in the matter of Nenya, though, except that Pepper begins calling her Nunchuck.

The Crown Reveals its Power

Another excerpt from an adventure log: “The entire guild is awakened by the screaming Nenya. She’s caught in a magical claw emanating from Pepper’s circlet. Pepper hears the voice of the crown, accusing Nenya of trying to sneak in and take it, saying that it (the voice) is a banished elven king who was deposed for trying to lead elven society toward a less conservative way of life.

“Klef and Sylvester free Nenya from the claw, and Sylvester, in an amazing combination of skill and luck, manages to kick the crown from Pepper’s head. They ask Nenya why she was sneaking in so late, and she claims that it was because she’d been rebuffed at all other times. She needs to talk to Pepper about the baby. Pepper agrees to talk later. He places the crown under his pillow and plans to take it to Marta during the day.”

Eventually, the crown is moved to Sunniva (one of the other PC)’s house in order to keep it safe. It happens to be the same house that Nenya is staying in, but it’s also permanently staffed by a live-in servant/friend, so everything is seemingly safe. As a DM, though, I am constantly looking for a way to move these pieces around.

The Romance is Gone

The moment arose in a beautiful player-driven moment that I couldn’t have planned. Adventuring in the woods west of Wall, the group came upon a group of nature worshipers having a bit of a love-in. As they approached, I asked the players if they recognized any of their acquaintances in the group. Without a moment’s hesitation, Sunniva’s player said that her servant, Mallory, was there.

We all recognized the implication at the same time: Nenya was alone in Sunniva’s house with the crown.

So when they got back home, of course Nenya was gone, and the crown was nowhere to be found. She left a note explaining that she was working for the rulers of the elflands, tasked with finding and returning the crown. She apologized to everyone but Pepper, thanking them for their hospitality. Also left behind was a belly-shaped waterskin and the clothing necessary for making the filled waterskin look like a pregnant stomach.

Wrap-Up

The sword eventually returned, wielded by a gnomish terrorist empowered by Urdlen. Pepper’s quest to recover it drove many adventures and interactions, including a sting with Pepper disguised as Salty Cayenne, the Shitty Wizard. It was also part of the biggest inter-party argument in the entire campaign, the one that led to a player quitting, which demands to be the subject of a future post. Here’s one of that player’s final requests, sent to Stickly Figgins, fellow adventurer and portrait magnate:

“I would like to commission a portrait of Pepper holding his sword for when he has to give it up. Maybe he will enjoy the portrait as much as his sword.”

Stickly was kind enough to make the portrait himself:

“What kind of hair does Pepper have?”
“Sort of a Dracula’s widow’s peak.”

The gnomes became an active faction in the world, establishing an independent hold, and it all stemmed from the random encounter rolled when the PCs first went in search of the elf artifacts.

Nenya also returned after the gate to Hell at the bottom of the dungeon was opened, becoming an ally to all the adventurers except for Pepper. I constantly pushed for a Leia/Han style romance between them, but it never came about. In Pepper’s words, “Rangers gotta range.”

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Wall: The Bone People

They fought for you in the Demon Wars. They died for you. The thanks they get is an eternity in demon-corrupted caves. They live on, of course, in a cursed way. Colonel Martin Severus, bone king, has taken charge of them. He was always something of an evangelical in life, and he’s convinced the restless dead that they are striving through a limbo between heaven and hell. The fact that they’ve been granted a physical body makes them blessed. The bodiless undead are the true failures, and their weak souls are to be harnessed and used. In this philosophy, he with the most bones wins; you’ll never get to heaven with just the skeleton you have, so the bone people are always adding on, trading and fighting for more bones. Imagine a skeletal behemoth who’s been adding to himself for 60 years of ritual combat.

Without a tongue, the bone people can’t speak, so they keep copious records of bones bought and sold and battles won and lost. Discarded notes abound in their territory. Blank paper is a rare and costly thing, and it’s to be used until there is absolutely no room left.

Travelers may be challenged for their bones, or they might be offered contracts with immediate payment for receipt of their bones upon death. Anyone dressing in extra bones may be given extra respect.

art by Kevin Budnik

 

Bone Peasants

Skulls skittering on hands or wheeling about on a circle of four legs. Human-like skeletons missing a leg or rows of ribs. They trade or fight amongst themselves for their favorite kinds of bones. They silently wave their banners that signal their intentions to buy bones, giving out large electrum coins that originated in a northeastern duchy 60 years ago.

Use stats for skeletons, crawling claws, and various animals. All are resistant to slashing and piercing damage. At any time, there are between 10 and 40 bone people in the main thoroughfare that is the entrance to their lands. They range from small and weak (minion or ½ HD) to monolithic giants made of numerous bodies’ worth of bones (8 HD or more). Through careful construction, they can replicate almost any physical attacks that other creatures possess.

 

Colonel Martin Severus

Through the years, the reigning skeleton king has become something of a bony serpent or centipede. He’s almost 20 feet long, all ribs and hands and feet along his “stomach.” His head is a hodgepodge of skulls and hip bones in the shape of a crocodile skull. Two long claws rise up from just behind his head, swinging the misty axe he’s made with the spirit of Jillian the Unfleshed (see below). Use stats for a giant alligator or small dinosaur.

Selling Your Bones

Most skeletons have pouches of large silver-looking coins that they use to barter for bones. Once adventurers begin trafficking the tunnels, the skeletons draw up contracts for them—if the living will their bones to the skeletons, collectible immediately on death, the skeletons will give them 50 to 150 silver coins (depending on perceived bone quality) with another 50 going to a beneficiary upon the signatory’s death.

What the bones don’t say is that they’ll also mold and shape the signatory’s spirit into a weapon, which is a very painful process for the newly minted ghost. Additionally, if the bone people find out their agreement wasn’t honored (perhaps circumvented by a raise deadspell), they’ll set out to get what is rightfully theirs.

Alternately, the bone creatures may be challenged in one-on-one combat, winner take all (of the loser’s bones). Most of the creatures are very weary about accepting, since a loss reduces them to a bodiless spirit that will undoubtedly be turned into a weapon.

No idea where I got this from or who drew it.

 

The Spirit Underground

Those who oppose the bones can find allies in the Spirit Underground that seeks to free their spectral kind from enslavement as weapons. These weapons are normal hilts, but the blades are like indigo fog, shaped by runes discovered by Colonel Severus. When they taste flesh, they scream in sympathy.

When a bone creatures is killed, the ghosts enslaved in their weapons might escape. The ghosts search out the best hiding spot they can find: the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Wall. At night, they rise to the surface to bemoan their fates to the heavens, and they dance. Naturally, this might spook some ship captains. Sailors might refuse to leave or enter port, which screws up just about everything.

The ghosts are more than happy to move elsewhere, but only if all their number are freed from the skeletons. If freed, they offer a final boon: using a method similar to how the skeletons enslaved them, the ghosts can imbue a weapon with a bit of ectoplasm, effectively turning them into magic weapons +1 that also have the ability to hit intangible creatures (even if a more powerful weapon is normally required). Each ghost can only do this once.

In a combat situation with the ghosts, use stats for ghosts. Duh. Only they’re sort of purple.

Jillian the Unfleshed

The leader of the Spirit Underground has been enslaved in Colonel Severus’s axe. She’s an ex-priestess of the sun, burned at the stake for a supposed heresy. If the weapon she’s bound to hits a PC, they’ll receive vague clues to the true state of the ghosts along with calls for help.

Invasive Species

The day may come when the bones of a giant or a dragon or something weirder get introduced into the skeletal ecosystem. Like a savage predator introduced onto an island of quiescent herbivores, whichever skeleton creature buys these huge and dangerous bones becomes an unstoppable beast who defeats all challengers.

An example: over ten feet tall, its shins and forearms reinforced by a wrapping of smaller bones, its joints protected by pelvises, it is hung with ragged scraps of paper. Its rib cage is full of fingers, toes, and oversized silver coins that thunk lightly together like a macabre windchime. Atop its shoulders, around a great, sloping skull, sits a conical mound of smaller skulls facing all directions, the eyes glowing purple-gray.

In addition to swinging its two ghostly swords, the giant skeleton has a number of special attacks:

animate minions: it throws one of its many skulls at nearby pile of bones to animate 2 skull-less wheeling things with 1 hp, +5 to attack, and 2d4 damage

ribs uncaged: at half health, it shoves a skull up its rib cage, causing finger and toe bones to explode 20 feet outward like bony buckshot, dealing 3d6 damage (½ damage on successful Dexterity save)

grasping hands: once per encounter, skeletal hands form and hold the players immobile until the end of their next turn; other skeletal hands claw and grope at them for minimal damage)

 

Mine: Weird Fantasy at the Edge of the Empire v0.1

I’m a huge fan of the Campaign podcast, and it’s turned me on to Fantasy Flight Games’s Star Wars rules. I thought it would be fun to try to reskin/hack it into a weird fantasy game along the lines of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. Here’s the document as it stands at the moment.

The whole thing is an exercise in rules-as-worldbuilding. I didn’t want to write any extended exposition; I wanted the rules to indicate the world, and I wanted the prose of the rules to hint at tone. Here’s the introduction, which is the only bit of extended fluff in the book:

4000 years ago, the Eld covered the red moon like ants on a nest. They watched as the planet they orbited suddenly burst with mountains and became swamped with sickly mist. They had thought it was a dead world.

3000 years ago, the Eld houses saw the first omens that presaged the dissolution of their moon. They dropped magically engineered vassals down to the misty planet below, directing them to scour the world for resources to reinforce their frail moon. They called the planet Mine.

2000 years ago, half of the Eld moon crumbled and trailed off across the sky. Tides spasmodically drenched the planet. Many of the Elds’ servants became masterless, their taskmasters flung dead into space. Others rebelled. The Eld fought violently against the revolts and redoubled the mining efforts.

1000 years ago, the last of the Eld descended onto Mine, calling their faithful servants into Three Cities that they built. The moon burst open, dropping steaming chunks of lunar flesh onto the land below.

Today, the world is as dangerous as ever. Inside the Three Cities, Eld interbreed and dream of their lost kingdoms. In the wilderness that covers the rest of the world, poisonous mist blows in migratory storms, mutated beasts stalk petrified forests, and bands of bloodthirsty rebels stalk the timid roads.

[Moon Eld as genetic engineers swiped from Hill Cantons.]

Here’s an excerpt from the races.

CORPSE
Physiology: Your body has no rhythm of blood or breath. Your veins are filled with sludge. You are paler than you should be. You probably smell bad.
Society: Some corpses strive to resemble life. Others take pride in their deathiness.
Home: The dark places are kind. Cemeteries remind you that things could be worse. But all corpses need something from the living—blood, brains, warmth, air—so they can’t stray too far.
Language: In addition to the language you spoke in life, all corpses speak the groaning, cold tongue of the dead.
Adventuring: Maybe you want to be restored to life. Or maybe you want to preserve your rot with blessed bandages, cursed phylacteries, or womb-coffins. Or perhaps you desire to sup essence only from the cruelest of the living.

DETRITAN
Physiology: You are leftover rubbish, goop, and alchemical mistakes. Your oozing body digests the garbage it encounters, rendering it into the monochromatic slime your body is made up of.
Society: Originally engineered as cleaning devices by the Eld, Detritans rarely create societies of their own. Instead, you are a cleaner or sin-eater in the cities of others.
Home: Garbage cans, refuse heaps, and the gutters where slop buckets get dumped.
Language: You speak the language of the city you work in. Additionally, Detritan body language is unnatural and learned. They are limited to 8 facial expressions and 8 postures.
Adventuring: The garbage is always goopier on the other side of the wall. Also, there are places in the wilds where scavenging is natural and valued. Maybe you can find a place in a nicer ecosystem.

MANDRAKE
Physiology: You are descended from a race of chthonic root people engineered by the Eld to find treasures in the earth. You’re short, probably not over 5 feet, but you’re quick. Your arms hang down to the ground, and you smell of spices.
Society: Mandrakes respect their elders. Young mandrakes fulfill the wishes of the old, running errands for the geriatric roots who are swollen huge and grown into the dirt.
Home: Dank tunnels run throughout the world. These are the homes of the mandrakes. Some tunnels are closer to the surface, and the mandrakes that live there sprout green in the spring. Other tunnels are deep and wet, and the root people there are closed-eyed and white.
Language: You speak a thickly accented Eldish.
Adventuring: Elder mandrakes may send you on a great quest to the other side of the world. Or perhaps you are tired of regimented life underground and seek to escape the hegemony of the great roots.

ELD
Physiology: You are pale and weak. Your species lacks genetic diversity, and you are sustained by eldritch mixtures.
Society: Once, your kind ruled the world from their immaculate moon. Now you are down amidst the rejected life forms. They hate you, and so you must fight to survive. Power is all that matters.
Home: If you can find a secure place, do so. Make it safe. Keep out the mutants.
Language: You speak flawless Eld.
Adventuring: Perhaps your family was stained by imperfection and you were driven to leave. Or maybe you can find a way to the hidden moon.

HUMAN
Physiology: Originally blank templates created by the Eld to be modified for a variety of purposes, humans come in a range of colors and body shapes. You may choose.
Society: Perhaps you escaped from an alchemical vat, were released by a fleeing Eld, or were lost in transit. You travel the world seeking a purpose.
Home: Wherever you lay your head.
Language: You slowly learn the language of your creators, the Eld.
Adventuring: Who are you? Why are you here? What is the point of life?

MISFIT TOY
Physiology: You are an unliving being created by another and magically animated. They come in an infinite range, but there are some common blueprints.
Clockwork: Made of metal, driven by coiled springs and burning steam. They may be guards or entertainment.
Scarecrow: Wood and cloth and a terrifying visage. Keeping the crops safe may involve standing watch, helping with the planting, and occasional combat.
Golem: Stone soldiers of truth created in times of distress.

Society: Are you in proud service to your master? Or are you on the run? Can Toys make a place of their own?
Language: Whatever they were taught by their masters.
Adventuring: You may be working for a master or running away from one. Beware, though, of hunters who seek to claim independent Toys.

OGRE
Physiology: You’re big in all dimensions. Tall, thick, exaggerated. The skin of ogres comes in all the colors of the swamp: bone white, bark brown, muck black, leaf green. You have a symbiotic relationship with an algae that lives on your skin. You only eat meat. Your nostrils are between your eyes.
Society: Ogres live in small covens. They claim to be native to the world, but the Eld dispute this claim, saying that ogres are an early attempt at the process that eventually resulted in Detritans.
Home: Your people live in swamps, resting up to 80% of the day with only their eyes and nostrils above the water. Some build longhouses out of sod and petrified wood.
Language: You know the Ogre language, and you probably speak Eld.
Adventuring: You might be on your walkabout that Ogres go on every ten years. Perhaps your swamp is endangered—drying up—and you’re looking for the reason why.

REPTILIAN
Physiology: You’re covered in scales. You might have legs—or a tail instead. Or you might have both. You’re cold-blooded since your people were engineered for warm climates.
Society: Reptilians usually live alone, meeting only to mate.
Home: You have a territory that is yours. Other Reptilians are threats to that territory unless they introduce themselves to you and swear not to challenge your authority.
Language: You speak the Eld tongue, but the language area of your brain is underdeveloped, so you speak slowly.
Adventuring: You may be seeking a mate. You might be trying to expand your territory or establish new territory.

SPIRIT
Physiology: You are only partly corporeal. When you manifest, materials are drawn around, forming a shell that allows you to interact with the physical world.
Society: Spirits come from many backgrounds: ghosts of the deceased, nature spirits from trees or rivers, or essences of good or evil. Some spirits recognize others and form hierarchies. Others are loners.
Home: Some spirits are bound to certain objects or places and always return there. Others live in imitation of corporeal beings.
Language: Spirits know the tongue of the Eld from long discourse with them. They also speak languages that only their kin know.
Adventuring: Some spirits are summoned and sent on tasks. Others work to further the philosophy of their kind. Some seek to run from those philosophies. Some are merely lustful for bodily experiences.

Wall: St James of the Mold and His Singing Animals

St James of the Mold is a familiar presence in the caves under Wall. There are animals that sing his praises in the Harmony House, the under-church of the dungeon. He has a lab nearby guarded by vegepygmies. He stalks the deeper levels, checking on the fungus people and the vegetable deity who guards the gate to Hell.

James is a thin man of average height who looks like he’s been living in a series of tunnels for 60 years. His left half sprouts fungi of every color and shape. His right side remains human and looks younger than it should.

 WALLillo_02
St James of the Mold by Kevin Budnik

Originally, St James of the Mold was known as Spry James. He was a member of the King’s Men, the group of adventurers that sealed the gate to Hell. He was an apprentice to Lady Hawthorne, the elvish wizard who served as liaison of the elflands in the Demon Wars.

James was thought killed by raging myconids, but his body was never found. In truth, he managed to use his magic to keep the creeping fungus from taking over his body. By the time he was able to move again, the war was over, and the caves were sealed. All James had was his familiar, an albino rat named August.

The Church of St James

While exploring the dungeon, James often used the awaken spell to turn the natural animals of the caves into a spy network. Educated by August, the animals began to meet to discuss James’s plans and their future. They used colored stones, mats of moss, and colored stones to turn the floor of the Harmony House into a mosaic of James and August. They sing his praises, thanking him for their enlightenment, or they sing of his journeys, such as in “St James’s Delight”:
When I can walk in shadow and not look upon the skies,
I’ll bid farewell to demons’ war and clear my moldy eyes.

CHORUS: I feel like, I feel like I’m in my kindly cave.
I feel like, I feel like I’m in my kindly cave.

Should devils seek my fungus soul and fiery darts be hurled,
Then I can smile at Geryon’s rage and face th’ underground world.

CHORUS

Let moldy spores like cave-ins come, let rocks of sorrow fall,
So I can safely reach my home, My lab, my cave, my all.

CHORUS

There I shall bathe my weary soul in sightless rivulets,
And not a wave of trouble roll across my mushroomed breast.

CHORUS[DMs, sing this as though it’s a Sacred Harp song; let it echo through the cave.]

[Edit: one of my players actually got his singing group to record this! It made my day, so please check it out.]

James’s Lab

 img166.jpg
Click to enlarge.

 

The Books of St James

James has recorded his studies into a series of five large, hardcover books. These are usually kept in his lab, although they may be spread throughout the dungeon. These books are lushly illustrated and masterfully bound, and they could be worth up to 75 gold each to a wizard, naturalist, scholar, or collector (or to someone who seeks to control the myconids and molds). Reading these books can give characters a number of advantages.

First of all, James learned to treat mold as people. One of the books counts as a spellbook that includes the spells charm person, hold person, and speak with plants. A wizard who reads this book is able to affect mold and fungi (including myconids and vegepygmies) with these spells (as opposed to having to wait for the charm monster/hold monster variations).

Secondly, these books contain treatises on the helpful qualities of cave mold. On discovering this knowledge, wizards can use this cave mold in lieu any material components that cost 10 gold or less. This mold is easily gathered throughout the dungeon and elsewhere.

Third, James discovered the secrets to delaying mold and fungal infections. After reading the book, a character with knowledge of medicine, nature, or survival can create tinctures that double the amount of time before any mold or fungus spores take effect, and if the infected person gets a saving throw to resist the effects, that saving throw has advantage. It takes about an hour to find and refine the materials required into this tincture.

Lastly, if one reads between the lines of the books (perhaps requiring an Intelligence check), a smart character can discovery how James learned many of these secrets: via the alien mold god at the bottom of the dungeon.

The God of Mold

As the Demon Wars raged, things looked bleak. The forces of Hell had convinced a small god, a culture of holy mold spores from the infinite plane of decay, to take their side. It created an army of myconids and sent itself creeping forward.

The reasons for the mold gold’s betrayal of the demons are undocumented, but its defection turned the tide of the war. After the King’s Men sealed the gates, the mold god settled into a sedentary mass, a pond of spores, in front of the gate, waiting for any who might try to open it.

Be the Mold

With all these spores around, a character is bound to encounter them, and it’s possible that they’ll be turned into a vegepygmy. Most versions of D&D dictate that characters turned into moldmen would pass to DM control. However, between James, his books, and the mold god, there are forces beneath Wall that would allow such a character to continue working with their party. To do so, though, one must go through a number of changes.

First, if the character’s Intelligence is 6 or higher, it’s reduced to 5. They lose all racial abilities (although racial ability adjustments remain) and gain an advantage on resisting poison and spores.

Moldmen can only be fighters, rogues, or multiclass fighter/rogues. Characters of those classes who become moldmen retain their levels. Characters of other classes may choose either fighter or rogue and have levels in that class equal to one less than their level in the class they pursued in meat-life. No vegepygmy can choose a class path, prestige class, or kit that grants them the ability to use magic. Moldman rogues can’t pick locks or disarm traps (though they can still detect them). Moldman fighters can’t use the warlord-style maneuvers in 5th Edition, and they don’t attract followers.

They can’t speak, although they have a 50% chance of retaining the ability to write. However, a speak with plants spell allows a caster to communicate with a moldman. Moldmen can speak with others of their kind, along with molds and fungi, via spores. Spores are speech, but they’re also chemicals. Thus, the way moldmen talk is affected by how they feel, what they eat, how they move, and everything else that changes a body’s make-up.

As moldmen level up, they gain spore powers in the order they’re listed below. They are gained in lieu of martial/roguish archetypes.

 moldman
art by Tony DiTerlizzi from AD&D’s Monstrous Manual

In 5th Edition, the saving throw to resist spores is Constitution with a DC equal to 8 + proficiency modifier + Constitution modifer. Each spore power can be activated as an action, and the character must take a short rest before using it again. On activation, the spores explode in a 5′ radius around the character, affecting all creatures who breathe.

just choking or blinding: Characters who fail their saves have disadvantage on their attack and ability rolls for the next 1d6 rounds. Can be circumvented by holding breath and covering eyes.

open-minded love: Those who fail their saves are considered charmed by everyone they can see. Lasts 1d10 minutes or until they are attacked.

savage berserking: For 1d10 turns, an affected character moves toward the nearest character and, if possible, attacks them with a melee weapon (or, lacking one, with their fists). If there are multiple equidistant characters, decide randomly which will be attacked.

hallucination: On a failed save, all Dexterity, Wisdom, and Intelligence are at a disadvantage for 1d4 hours as the character suffers hallucinations from the table below. Roll 1d6 to get the sense affected by the hallucinations and 1d8 for the “flavor.”

Sense Flavor
1 sounds 1 dead or dying
2 hands and feet 2 delight
3 smells 3 enlargment
4 sight 4 shrinking
5 premonition 5 childhood
6 roll twice, ignoring further 6s 6 holy
7 demonic/terrifying
8 roll twice, ignoring further 8s

slow death: On failing a save, the character loses 1d4 Constitution points and has a disadvantage on all Constitution-related rolls. The character continues to lose 1d4 Constitution daily as mushrooms sprout from their skin. This effect can be cured by a cure disease or restoration spell or by a concoction made from the ground-up horns of a hoofed fae beast (such as a satyr, minotaur, etc.). Alternately, they can use horns from a hoofed demon. This will cure the spores, but instead of the mushrooms wilting and falling, they burst into flames, causing 2d8 points of damage and forever marking the person as the killer of that demon. On reaching 0 Constitution from the spores, the character dies, leading to…

zombies: Characters killed by spores come back as mindless vegepygmies. These spores can also be used on the recently dead (less than 12 hours) to animate them. Any creatures reanimated by a PC’s spores remain under their control.

Wall: Adventurers You Can Hate

How Can Non-Monster NPCs Motivate Players?

In the excellent blog Deeper in the Game, Christopher Chinn often talks about trap NPCs, which are the stereotypical quest-givers that turns out to be some sort of villain who the PCs have been helping all along. Repeated exposure to trap NPCs (or even a singular exposure that is poorly done), can leave players feeling distrustful and even make them unwilling to engage with future NPCs.

In opposition to trap NPCs, Chinn encourages DMs to create NPCs that characters will like—NPCs that give them basic goods, places to stay, good advice, and other little tokens of friendship. This NPC becomes a tool to direct players toward, well, anythinglocations, treasures, story hooks—without creating that sense of betrayal and fear.

But Christopher Chinn is a better DM than I am, or he knows his players better than I know mine, or his players are nicer people than mine. Early on in the Wall campaign, they entered a church of singing animals. The animals ran away on noticing the invaders, with one bear staying behind to cover their exit, grappling the characters to keep them from chasing. It dealt no damage, and I tried to be as clear as possible about the bear’s intentions. Pepper the elf promptly arrowed the bear to death, and it became a touch point and long-running joke: why does Pepper the elf hate bears?

A bear by Jon Carling, from his Tumblr

Pepper’s player blamed a history of video games for his leap to violence, and over the following months, Pepper experimented with a variety of diplomacies. But the writing was on the wall: I couldn’t assume that NPC friendliness would be reciprocated. So what could I do?

Since my players already seemed to be suffering from Chinn’s abused gamer syndrome, I decided to make a number of NPCs into out-and-out jerks. It was bizarro logic, but I figured if everyone had a crappy demeanor, the players would be less scared of betrayal; you can’t be betrayed by a meanie.

Advent of the B Squad

First up was a group of adventurers working in the same guild as the PCs. In the very first session, they had been assembled at random from this chart:

Name Abilities Class HP Equipment Personality
Lydia of the Southlands S 8, D 10, C 10, I 11, W 10, Ch 14 bard 8 lute, hand crossbow pleasant, naïve
Jonas Mercykiller S 15, D 9, C 13, I 13, W 17, Ch 8 paladin 7 chainmail, longsword insightful, manipulative
Hob the Gambler S 14, D 11, C 8, I 14, W 9, Ch 16 warlock 2 dagger gambler, patron: fiend
Husband Bartholomew S 9, D 8, C 14, I 14, W 9, Ch 7 wizard 8 dagger, staff must bring his wife
Hale Jennifer S 12, D 8, C 15, I 12, W 8, Ch 13 fighter 9 club, crossbow, chain ignorant, pleasant
Craig White S 5, D 11, C 10, I 12, W 11, Ch 9 wizard 5 staff, poisoned darts betrayer
Jon Fergusson S 18, D 12, C 8, I 8, W 7, Ch 13 ranger 5 two shortswords, bow, leather armor lucky, optimistic, werebear
Dashing Antonilla S 11, D 14, C 10, I 7, W 9, Ch 15 rogue 3 sling self-preserving bravado
Plain Thomas S 11, D 8, C 11, I 8, W 9, Ch 7 fighter 9 longsword, shield, chain boring, talks about himself
The Duchess S 7, D 15, C 12, I 12, W 11, Ch 7 rogue 8 cloak, mask, shortsword, crossbow noble slumming it in disguise
Veronica Olafsdottir S 17, D 10, C 15, I 13, W 7, Ch 10 ranger 11 great axe, throwing axes, scale biracial, something to prove
Quick Peter S 11, D 11, C 4, I 14, W 9, Ch 16 warlock 3 wand dense, patron: fey
Sister Helena S 12, D 13, C 7, I 12, W 15, Ch 18 cleric 6 holy symbol, mace terminally ill, cloistered
Roger the Sage S 8, D 5, C 6, I 18, W 7, Ch 8 wizard 1 books coughing fits
Scott Cooper S 10, D 7, C 3, I 7, W 8, Ch 14 bard 4 shortsword, leather armor singer
Ragged Finn S 10, D 7, C 8, I 8, W 10, Ch 10 cleric 3 quarterstaff alms beggar
The Burned Man S 10, D 14, C 12, I 8, W 4, Ch 8 rogue 8 crossbow, leather armor, water burned, impetuous
Sir Alexander IV S 12, D 10, C 11, I 8, W 8, Ch 10 wizard 5 gilded staff inherited position in wizard school
Big Brother S 11, D 9, C 17, I 14, W 14, Ch 15 cleric 11 club loves animals
Ragnar the Great S 17, D 12, C 9, I 8, W 9, Ch 13 bard 7 drums viking bard, boastful

A few quick rolls netted me a party consisting of Hob the Gambler, Hale Jennifer, Jonas Mercykiller, Husband Bartholomew, and the Duchess. They were quickly overshadowed on that first adventure and became known as “the B Squad,” which means they had a perfect reason to treat the PCs like dirt.

It wasn’t long before the B Squad had a chance to get their revenge. On one of the first days in the dungeon beneath Wall, the PCs were seeking an abandoned mine. They asked for directions from B Squad, who was returning from an exploration session. For 20 gold, Mercykiller told the PCs they’d find the mine down a western passage…which led to a kingdom of bone creatures who constantly fight for and purchase more bones to add onto their bodies.

The creatures of the Bone Kingdom, as drawn by Kevin Budnik.

(Perhaps due to Pepper’s absence, no fight arose directly from the visit to the Bone People. Sylvester the halfling rogue signed a contract with them, though, willing them his bones upon his death.)

B Squad’s other crimes were many: they killed most of the singing animals; they took their companion Hob’s bones to the Bone People to cash in on his contract despite his wishes otherwise; and when the PCs discovered that the Bone People were enslaving ghosts, B Squad stood in the way of the PCs’ attempt to enter the Bone Kingdom to investigate. After 14 sessions of play, the two groups of adventurers finally fought, and all of B Squad were killed except for the mysterious masked Duchess.

I used B Squad to reveal the nature of some of the dungeon factions. Since they slaughtered the talking animals, the players had pity for them, and this led directly to their befriending the leader of the animals, St. James of the Mold. And while the players were waffling over the moral consequences of the Bone People’s enslavement of the ghosts of their contract signatories, aligning B Squad with the Bone People almost automatically clinched the players’ feelings: the bone guys are bad guys.

The mystery of the Duchess and the death of Hob continued to drive the players throughout the campaign. Those random rolls for five random jerks provided story fodder through the entire campaign.

Wall Act One: The Dungeon as Economic Stimulus

Why a Dungeon?

Early in the campaign, the governor of Wall broke the seals and undid the chains that kept shut the well in the center of town. She did this because Wall was flagging; it had no major exports, and the wars that had led to the town’s creation had ended long ago. The local adventurers’ guild was home to bums and thugs, and she wasn’t going to take it anymore. She believed the town’s redemption was in those caves: rich mines, lost treasures, and new magics.

I love a good dungeon. When done right, it’s a frontier, a mythic underworld, and an ecosystem all at once. A dungeon usually has rules, but the rules are different; there’s a sense that what happens in the dungeon stays in the dungeon (and that it might be impossible outside of the dungeon).

I wanted the governor’s choice to open the well to be understood (if not necessarily agreed with). Why have a cave full of dangerous things open to whoever stumbles in?

So I tried to have NPCs talk about the dungeon the way people in our world talk about nuclear power, fracking, or building a dam: there was danger, sure, but if it was systematized and managed, it could be harnessed. And if one of the adventurers expressed some concerns, why, the best way they could deal with the danger was to go down there and tame it.

How a Cave Becomes a Dungeon

The tunnel complex beneath the well had been overrun in Hell’s war against the mortal world. Beasts and devils burst from a gate far below, and the Demon Wars raged. After a long fight, the demons were driven back, the gate was sealed, and the caves were abandoned. 60 years passed. What could be down there now?

  • things left over by the human armies: weapons, armor, buildings, and a group of humans who decided to stay down there and protect the gate
  • things left by the demons: a lab, traps, and the effects of their tainted magic seeping into things
  • the natural inhabitants of the cave: animals, myconids, and elemental things
  • a mine famed for its black iron but judged an acceptable loss to keep the gate blocked
  • the gate itself, protected by modrons, sealed by magic and iron and the vegetable love of an alien god

How do all these factors interact, and what do those interactions produce? How have they changed each other across 60 years? And how can they reveal the story of the Demon Wars and the adventurers, a group known as the King’s Men, who sealed the gate in the first place?

Gerlachs Jugendbücherei: Märchensammlung von Ludwig Bechstein (A fairy tale collection by Ludwig Bechstein) edited by Hans Fraungruber, illustrated by Carl Fahringer. Published 1912 by Verlag v. Martin Gerlach & Co., Vienna & Leipzig. See the complete book here.

About Wall: The Campaign

Wall & the Gates of Hell began in November of 2014 and ran for 60 almost-weekly sessions across 16 months. It used 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons rules and saw 12 players, mostly first-timers, explore a long-closed dungeon, rural Hell, a titanic void ship, and more.

When I started designing the campaign, I did so around a few desires:

1) Accommodate a weekly drop-in model of D&D. Anywhere from 3 to 8 players might come to any given session, and sessions can’t last more than 4 hours since everyone works the next day. This meant getting characters “home” at the end of each session in case a different group attended the next; everyone could sally forth from their base together

2) Avoid Tolkienesque fantasy. While the implied villains of the campaign, the demons of Hell, are a familiar trope, the creatures and factions of the caves and wilderness around town were intended to surprise my players, most of whom were wary of generic fantasy. Even when I ended up getting tapping into that stuff (fairies and elves, for example), I tried to lean more toward old fairy tales and D&D-originated monsters than to modern fantasy fiction. I also didn’t want to use “savage” races as tides of disposable Others. NPC factions needed more motivation than “they are all evil.” This leads to…

3) Create an ecology of assholes, which is a term coined by a friend to describe his DMing style. It consisted of dropping the PCs into a situation with two or more competing sides, none of which were particularly savory or “good.” (Think Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars.) It was up to the PCs to determine which side (if any) was better to support, and choices should always have both positive and negative consequences that lead to further stories

(It was important to me not to turn these choices into “gotcha!” moments. Instead, think of it as a choice between raw materials. In this situation, you aren’t choosing between two awesome weapons; you’re choosing between two dirty, trouble-filled mines. You might be able to do a bit of research on each that can inform your choice, but in the end, regardless of which you go with, there’s more work to do afterward. The awesome weapons can be created eventually, but it’ll take some commitment.)

4) No read-aloud text. I hate that stuff. Nothing kills a mood faster than forced text that doesn’t match the tone that players have established. I went with minimal imagery and other sensory information and let the players ask questions from there. If they asked if something specific was near them, I’d almost always say yes, and this led to rooms as good or better than rooms I’d have designed (and it saved me a lot of time).

5) Use 5th Edition D&D. As far as D20 systems go, 5e is pretty malleable. Since almost everyone was new to the game, 3.x and 4e both felt too cumbersome. My only veteran player was familiar with OD&D and Advanced, so 5e wasn’t hard to pick up. In the posts on the blog here, I’ve tried to keep edition-specific rules out, hoping to keep stuff compatible with OD&D, AD&D and OSR stuff, but I’m sure 5e “flavored” the original campaign in ways that other editions might not.

And naturally, I drew (stole stuff) from a ton of sources:

Appendix N
Games
The Village of Hommlet by Gary Gygax

  • I love the amount of detail in this old module. I love that they’re presented as a toolbox without telling you what to build.

Planescape: Torment by Black Isle Studios (Chris Avellone, et al.)

  • I wanted factions and social situations that weren’t discretely good or bad. They could be odious, but they might also be salvageable.

Elder Scrolls work of Michael Kirkbride

  • There’s some weird stuff in his writing: flying Arctic whales who drop hallucinogenic snow, fractal cloud cyborgs, etc. I wanted weird stuff.

Books
Sagas of the Icelanders by various

  • Choices in the sagas have bloody and long-lasting consequences. Also, I have tons of respect for their brevity and their combination of humor and seriousness.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber

  • The only fantasy books I regularly return to. So urbane. And full of picaresque continent-crossing adventures, small heists, tragedy, jokes, and even trips into our real world.

The War Hound & the World’s Pain by Michael Moorcock

  • Full of different realms with different rules. Powerful creatures have unfathomable drives. My favorite opening sentence: “It was in that year when the fashion in cruelty demanded not only the crucifixion of peasant children, but a similar fate for their household animals, that I first met Lucifer and was transported into Hell; for the Prince of Darkness wished to strike a bargain with me.”

Blogs
False Machine by Patrick Stuart

  • I specifically stole Mr. Stuart’s idea for an apocalypse-preventing dwarven fortress.

Sſtabhmontown Adventures

  • My true inspiration for a weekly drop-in campaign. I love their weekly previews, and they’re the kindest-sounding podcasters ever.

Dreams in the Lich House by John Arendt

  • I could not have made this happen without his play-by-play description of creating his Black City campaign.

Comics
The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple
Prophet by Brandon Graham
Hellboy by Mike Mignola

  • Bio-weirdness meets fairy tales and demonic fate.

Movies
Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa (director)
Django by Sergio Corbucci (director)
The Tale of Zatoichi by Kenji Misumi (director)

  • Sundry factions, none of them wholly good or evil, meet and battle over wealth and freedom. Yojimbo particularly features an intimacy and ownership of space that I tried to replicate.