The 5 Sinful Books of the Covert Library

The library at the bottom of the city with no name has quartz walls. There are great stone tablets documenting the secret passages of the city, ancient vellum spell scrolls written in iron-rich blood, and foot-thick books with detailed records of open accounts going back centuries.

And in a small room at the back, there are the five books of sin.

(The dwarves have five big sins:

  • sloth
  • gluttony
  • meekness
  • deceit
  • jealousy)

The Books

The Unfolded Axe by Friedrich Folium

Friedrich was a dwarven paper-maker whose brother went to war and won glory for the family. No one cared about Friedrich’s paper-making, so he created a book that could be folded into any kind of axe. When folded, it becomes a magical +1 weapon, +3 against dwarves (1d8 or 1d6 damage). It is a book of JEALOUSY. The book is large but thin and made of cardstock and pulp paper.

An Autumn of Razors by St Vincenza de la Capitanio

Vincenza was a saint of the god of wrath. When she wasn’t allowed to rise to the top of the church’s hierarchy, she composed An Autumn of Razors as her suicide letter and threw herself from the top of the church into the courtyard. The high priest of the church read the book and was consumed by the swarm of leaves that burst forth. Vincenza was granted sainthood. The book hungers for more flesh, so it’s sin is GLUTTONY. (Dex save 13 or 1d8 slicing + 1d6 poison damage.) The book is chained down and is bound in wood and metal.

Silent Grammar by Duan Su Qi

The famous demon hunter Duan Su Qi captured Zagam, the demon of DECEIT, between two covers woven from the wool of the sheep of the southern realm’s God of Justice. After capturing Zagam, Duan Su Qi retired and lived a long and happy life. When the book’s covers are open, the pages turn into Zagam, who is now free. Zagam can turn water to beer and is very friendly, waiting for the moment to turn on someone. The book is very thick and behind glass.

Elfin Truisms by Misozwerg the Scholar

Misozwerg was born crippled and often mocked by young dwarves. He grew to hate dwarven culture, and Elvin Truisms is one of his many attempts to undermine his race. It is written in the most beautiful poetry, and it tells of the joys of relaxation, individualism, and useless ornamentation. The book hums sweet songs (4d8 HP of sleep, and those affected can only be awoken by being dealt damage) and can slowly extinguish torches and small fires. It is a book of SLOTH. The book is small, thin, and green, and it’s wrapped in cotton.

The Door Into Somewhere, author unknown

The origin of this book is unknown. It is a book that is also a door. Its table of contents lists a number of locations it can take you to: a small tropical island, a silent deciduous forest, a cave overlooking a sparkling waterfall, or a rocky desert filled with chromatic sands. Those who use the portal find that there’s no way back. It is a book of MEEKNESS. It speaks in a high, nervous voice, and it demeans itself and its powers. The book is huge and has a blue cover and smooth, cream-colored pages.

From P. Gasparis Schotti’s Physica curiosa (1662)

The Test

Young library assistants are put in the room of the five sinful books and told to guard them overnight. They’re locked in the room, told not to let anyone in, and warned not to touch the books. The door (which is also The Door Into Somewhere) is shut and locked from the other side.

They’re provided with the following equipment:
dry cakes
paper armor (14 AC+Dex, wearable by all)
sloth-fur caps
three each of swords, shields, warhammers

Throughout the night, five demons knock on the door.

Sloth: a cute, sleepy sloth looking for a place to rest; a PC who lets it in can roll an extra Hit Die during a short rest

Jealousy: comes in the shape of a man-sized rat who wants to read the books and elevate itself to manhood; the demon will hide the books away and teach the characters proficiency in Sleight of Hand

Meekness: asks for entrance in the voice of a child, a helpless bystander with no grand plans or designs; it will teach characters to be proficient in Stealth

Gluttony: comes in the shape of a pig-centaur who wants the characters’ food; a character who dines with the demon heals 6 HP

Art by Cathy Hannah

Deceit: comes in the shape of the head librarian to tell them the long night is over; it will let the characters out into the greater library

Characters who pass the test are made full librarians. Characters who fail are killed.

Wall: Why D&D?

This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to a hot take, so here we go: D&D versus story games.

Origin Story

I didn’t play any sort of extended campaign until my mid-20s, and that first long experience was a two-year love story with D&D 4E and with my DM, who taught me everything I know about awful moral quandaries as framing devices and character motivators.

Alas, over 7 years later, my DM has moved on to story games. I can play Fiasco with him, and even Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, but he’ll never Master my Dungeon again. Still, I like to run ideas by him every now and then; his responses are gracious and helpful, but they often include something along the lines of, “You know, you could run this with [insert story game system.” And it’s true—I often could. So why don’t I?

Story games are beautiful little machines designed to create a certain type of story. Fiasco almost flawlessly creates a Coen-Brothers-style emotional noir. Apocalypse World creates tense moments of emotion in the face of oncoming adversity. Polaris carves out a chilling tale of aristocratic doom. Why not use these systems?

And let me say that I do play these games. I have tons of respect for them on a design level, on a play level—I’m so glad they exist, and I want more of them! Their powerful designs guarantee the sort of story they intend to make…

…and therein lies my problem with playing them a lot.

D&D A Picaresque Bildungsromantic Postmodern Neo-Cubist Fantasy Morality Play

When I say that most story games are made to create a certain kind of story, I mean that the rules in the game create strictures on a story level. Fiasco always has a certain number of acts. Apocalypse World has an intense and brilliant questioning structure that creates interdependence. And so on.

If players are unsure how to structure those acts and story beats—or even if they’re good and practiced at it but just don’t want to think about it—story games are the way to go.

But what if you don’t want a structure imposed from the outside? D&D and its imitators are, as far as I can tell, devoid of large-scale narrative rules. They have rules directed toward individual, small-scale beats—inspiration in 5E, daily powers in 4E, and so on—but that’s about as large as they go. What does this mean?

(Small interjection: I bet there’s a neat argument to be made that spells like geas and other curses could be used to drive large-scale stories in a mechanical fashion, but I’ve never actually seen a DM use stuff like that, so I can’t speak to it.)

Because of the lack of narrative rules, D&D can easily slip in and out of genres or eschew them entirely. And I’m speaking here of structural genres: picaresque romps like Don Quixote, postmodern ramblings like Ulysses, bloated serials like Lost, and more. Because of this lack of narrative impositions, D&D can feel much more like real life than a story game might; it can meander, it can quietly focus on relationships or internal striving, jump into intense action and leave back out, and meditate on unexpected change or death.

Which isn’t to say that a story game can’t do these things. In my experience, though, they haven’t really done all of them.

A procedurally generated image by John Pound, which is also somehow a metaphor for the discussion at hand.

Choice Paralysis on the Plains of Hell

It’s not that a lack of rules is always a good thing. I had planned for act two of my Wall campaign to see an increase in PC agency. They would no longer be newcomers, so they could enter the “domain” level of of D&D: making political alliances, choosing where to go, investing in a community, and so on.

And they hated it. It was the one time that they got together outside of the game to talk about the direction of the game. They made a clear and impassioned plea: we’re not sure what to do, and it makes the game feel like a difficult slog sometimes.

So I changed things around. I was happy to.

But maybe things would have been different if D&D had a special set of Act Two rules that helped players through the process. Or maybe I should have invented them. I bet I could adapt 5E’s carousing table so that every session started with a “what happened abroad” sort of thing.

The Purpose of Rules

I am in no way saying that any system or game is better than another. I always want more games—they all teach me to be a better gamer and help me create my own best game.

I do think it’s interesting, though, that I’ve never played a game of Fiasco without explicitly using the rules—handing out dice, passing the turn, rolling on the Tilt table—whereas I’ve seen a number of games of D&D where a rule is never considered—where people just talk and consider, even moving outside of the “rule” that players only play their characters.

So I wanted to say that the argument of “D&D only has rules for combat so it pushes people toward combat” is totally bogus.  D&D 4E let me internalize a few combat rules so that I could forget about  combat and instead focus on the best way to embody my paladin of the goddess of lies.

And the Arbiter of Rules

Of course, the DM has the power to act as a filter of how many rules get utilized in D&D, and typing that out, I fear I’m leaning toward a “benevolent dictator” theory of gaming. Story games naturally have to develop rules for narrative direction once they start decentralizing the power of narrative determination.

The Campaign podcast has players stepping in as one-off characters that often become recurring, and lately (as of episode 56 or so), has the player/GM dichotomy breaking down entirely, with a split party GMed by two people, each of which is a character in the other half of the party.

Blurring those distinctions is something I’d like to see more of.

Beyond the Fiasco

After 24 sessions, the adventurers of the Wall campaign reached the bottom of the dungeon and, through a series of unfortunate choices spanning most of the campaign, opened the gate to Hell. It was a dramatic moment, and I wanted to use it to bookend what I considered the first act of the campaign.

I already had plans for the start of act twothe exploration of the fringes of Hell and the consequences of opening the gate—but I wanted something else in place in case the players went off in a different direction. Could I make a whole new dungeon in addition to all the planning I was doing for their time in Hell?

That’s when it hit me:

Get the Players to Stock a Dungeon

I told the players that we’d have a session unrelated to our normal campaign. It was going to be a bit of a “breather” between acts, a light story game combining elements of Bully Pulpit Games’s Fiasco and Flatland Games’s Beyond the Wall.

I framed it as a chance for the players to all be Dungeon Masters for a session: they would make characters based on classic villain archetypes and tell the story of their quest for villainous power. 

I presented them with a drawing of a ship, telling them that it was a hulking vessel floating in an infinite sky. (I’d been hearing a lot about Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams from a friend, and Gus L’s HMS Apollyon setting is always in the back of my mind.) The system I threw together gave us factions, locations, and treasure hoards, all in service to the fantastic apocalypse that Fiasco is so good at structuring.

It worked exactly as I planned. After the game, I was left with a mysterious ship filled with alchemical smokestacks, a poisoned swamp, a porcelain Frankenstein, and killers made of lead. I fast-forwarded things about a hundred years so that the players would still have a few surprises when their Wall characters ended up there, and boom, a waiting dungeon with the players as my abettors.

The Rules

Ahead of time, draw the outlines of your future dungeon on a piece of paper. No fine details are necessary—just some borders and an explanation of what it is (caves, a castle, inside the shell of a giant turtle, etc).

When the session begins, there is no DM. Each player gets a character sheet, either randomly or by choice. No repeats are allowed. See below for the full class list, but here’s an example:

All who wander the earth face barriers, and even the most blessed and the most protected are harmed by cruel fate. You seek to emulate this process. Everyone has a weakness, and you seek to know them all so that you can stymie, capture, or kill them. All the while, you wait for the inevitable trap that the world has set for you.

1d6 Why does weakness disgust you? The player to your right…
1 Your parents were cowards.
…was allied with the affected person or organization.
2 You were betrayed by a partner.
3 A mechanical accident killed a companion.
4 You were the victim of an uncaring government.
5 Medicine couldn’t save your sibling.
6 Your enemy escaped justice.
1d6 What kind of tools do you favor? Add
1 Spikes and spinning blades.
A trap-filled hallway to your workshop.
2 Automatons of all shapes and sizes.
3 Spring-loaded flingers.
4 Mazes and mirrors.
5 Restraining chains and glue.
6 Fire.
1d6 Who is your greatest prisoner? Add
1 The one who rejected your love.
A prison further beyond your workshop.
2 Your doppelganger.
3 An angel.
4 The greatest hero of your people.
5 A giant monster.
6 A monarch.

Each player rolls for the first section and works out the details of their connection with the player to their right. Then everyone rolls for the second section and gets to add something to the dungeon map. The same goes for the third section.

Each player can have one mulligan, choosing a result from a single section instead of obeying the die roll.

After characters are created, an index card is placed in between every player. This index card is populated with objects, locations, or needs as per normal Fiasco rules, and the rest of the game is played out as a typical Fiasco session. Use your favorite tilt table.

Here’s a printer-friendly document with all the classes along with object, location, and needs tables. 

Sexing the Illusionist

Our session included a face-changing illusionist, an alchemist with an army of lead people, a master of fish, a fine china golem, and a warlord named Pussywillow. Because this is Fiasco, everything ended in an explosive cinnamon apocalypse (a mishearing of “imminent apocalypse” that was too strange to let go). The fish-master’s swamp was poisoned and irradiated with magic. I couldn’t ask for a better dungeon.

(The session featured the campaign’s only sexual encounter, which was deemed mediocre by all involved.)

The void ship after our first session.

Handling the Transition

A month and a half passed in real life between the dungeon-making session and the arrival of the adventurers from Wall. A century had passed on the ship, though:

When the characters arrived on the ship, the effects were exactly what I wanted: a little bit of amazement, a little bit of fear, and some excitement regarding checking in with the players’ evil characters. It was the best kind of metagaming: the players knew the gist of the dangers inside the ship, but I gave them clear signals that some time had passed, so their knowledge wouldn’t keep them safe from surprises.

How to Live Like a Dwarf, or, Dwarven Hold ‘Em

I’ve long been enamored with Patrick Stuart’s “a city without a name.” A few sessions into the Wall campaign, I realized that there were no dwarven PCs or NPCs in Wall, and I knew it was my chance to mix Stuart’s heavy metal, constantly fighting dwarf city into my own campaign.

It ended up being part that, part 30 Days of Night, with the dwarves building a circle of fortresses on the melting edges of the world’s Antarctic continent. During the 28-day darkness, sloth demons rise from the snow and ice, and only the dwarves keep them from corrupting the rest of the world.

As is maybe appropriate, the background stuff I developed for the dwarves resembled an iceberg: the players only discovered the tiniest bit, seeming generally uninterested in the snow and ice. I blame the Minnesota weather.

So I repurposed everything into a standalone story game, How to Live Like a Dwarf, or, Dwarven Hold ‘Em. It’s a game about keeping and discovering secrets while keeping demons at bay.

Here are the rules:

Dwarves live in a city in a mountain at the bottom of the world. This city is never named because no one is allowed to find it. Every day, they celebrate their skills and seek to discover the gifts the gods left them. These secret gifts give them great joy, so they like to keep and reveal their own secrets as well. Every night, they keep the demons of hell from escaping their prison at the center of the world.

A single game of The Secrets of Dwarves reflects one day-and-night cycle in their nameless city at the bottom of the world.

Goal: To end the game alive, with at least one of your secrets revealed and at least one secret still secret.

Art by Kevin Budnik.

Character Creation

Dwarves have built their society around seven Virtues:

GROOMING (beardcraft, accessorizing, bespoke, make-up, tattoos)
DRINKING (ale-guzzling, shots, keg stands, drinking games, leading rounds)
CRAFTING (stonecraft, jewelry, wood carving, sculpting)
STRENGTH (lifting, throwing, pulling, pushing, wrestling)
POETRY (family sagas, slam poetry, doggerel, song)
DIVINING (finding ore, finding water, casting runes, telling fortunes)
ROMANCE (mostly indescribable)

Assign your Virtues a number, 0-6. Each number can only be used once. A higher number indicates greater accomplishment and more likelihood of success.

The values assigned to Grooming, Drinking, and Crafting are public. The others can be hidden.

Create two secrets. One is potentially revealed by winning a contest related to a Virtue of your choosing. One is potentially revealed by losing a contest related to a Virtue of your choosing.

Lastly, choose a gender for your dwarf. This is kept secret; it is your most delightful secret and will be revealed only to the dwarves you marry. Possible genders are nearly limitless, but here are some options: agender, androgyne, bigender, boy, demiboy, demigirl, female, gem, genderfluid, gendersmash, girl, intergender, man, male, metal, nonbinary, pangender, polygender, woman, rock

Round One

Characters are celebrating the night’s victories and the day’s marriages. In round one, each player must challenge one other to a contest in a Virtue of their choice. The oldest player goes first. Play continues to their left.

Both players roll a die and add their skill number to the roll. The higher result wins. The characters receive appropriate tick marks in the “wins” and “losses” columns of their sheets. Any applicable secrets are revealed.

Example: Hrothgar High-Rock has the secret, “Pinkie finger of left hand is an immaculately constructed prosthetic,” and that secret is only revealed on a loss of a Crafting contest. Jillian the Hammer-Headed has the secret “Can sculpt lead like water” that is only revealed on a win in a Crafting contest.

Jillian challenges Hrothgar to a Crafting contest. They plan to make busts of each other. Jillian rolls a 5 and adds their 3 Crafting for a total of 8. Hrothgar rolls a 4 and adds their Crafting of 1 for a total of 5. Hrothgar loses, and both dwarves reveal a secret.

Round Two

Night falls. The demons are here. Each player, in turn, adopts the identity of one of the manifold beasts of hell, starting with the player who went last in round one. Demons need a realm of origin, terrifying features, and at least one name.

Each demon chooses one dwarf to challenge. The demon chooses which Virtue will decide the challenge, and it has a 6 in that Virtue. The dwarf may recite the tales of as many of their wins as they’d like, regaling the demon with how they were achieved. This wins are “bid” on the battle.
On a win, the dwarf gains a number of wins equal to the number they recited plus one as their listed deeds are amplified by besting a demon. Also, secrets may be revealed depending on their conditions.
If the dwarf loses, there are a number of potential consequences:

  • The wins they recited are converted to losses. They gain an additional loss as well.
  • If the dwarf has any unrevealed secrets, the demon may demand it reveal one if it so desires.
  • If the dwarf recited wins and they’ve already revealed both of their secrets, that dwarf is killed. However, it destroys the demon as well, overcoming it with the power of their deeds.
  • If the dwarf did not recite any wins and has already revealed both secrets, the dwarf is killed, and their body is tainted by their cowardice and inhabited by the demon. It will rise in 24 hours as an unholy thing.
  • A secret may be revealed if it matches the condition of the loss. This happens after the fight is concluded but before the dwarf dies, if applicable.

After all demon challenges are completed, the night is over.

Round Three

Living dwarves return home. They must bring any corrupted and possessed compatriots with. These dwarves are ritualistically slain, and the player of the slain dwarf must distribute their losses to the other dwarves, using each loss to cancel out one win.

Once this grisly duty is completed, dwarves with wins may propose marriage to any other dwarf. The two must discuss the terms of their contract, including property ownership, sexual allowances, and so on. If they come an agreement, they are bound forever. They reveal their genders to each other, each gaining an unrevealed secret (their spouse’s gender).

Once the marriages are finalized, the players may drink. Those characters with at least one of their secrets revealed and unrevealed are seen as successful within dwarven society.

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.


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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.