Posts Tagged ‘Dungeons & Dragons’

Wilderlands of High Fantasy conversion for Barbarians of Lemuria

I’m a big fan of Simon Washbourne’s Barbarians of Lemuria roleplaying game. It’s a great, light system for fantasy adventure. I’m also a big fan of the Judges Guild Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting, which is, to me, the standout achievement of early Dungeons & Dragons game design.1

A while back, I was planning a play-by-post campaign in the Wilderlands, and I wanted to use BoL. So I worked out the various Wilderlands national origins in BoL format. Here they are.


The city folk of the large cities of the northern Wilderlands, such as the City State of the Invincible Overlord, Warwik and Modron.


  • Keen Eyesight: Whenever you make a mind check to perceive something using your eyesight, you may roll one extra die.
  • Etiquette: You gain an extra die on any task where good form is important.


  • City dweller: Roll an extra die in situations to do with outdoor survival.


Antillians, centered on the city of Antil, are cunning and disarmingly vicious. Antillians are terrifying merchants, willing and able to swindle at the drop of a copper; they are also a proud people, and they have taken the tradition of vendetta to hitherto unknown heights. They’re also sexist pricks.


  • Bluff: Roll an extra die when trying to persuade someone of a dubious claim.
  • Sneaky: Roll an extra die where stealth is important.


  • Gender Bias: Roll an extra die when attempting to socialize with females. (This can apply to female characters as well, since the patriarchy can potentially fuck up the socialization of women, as well.)

Common Avalonian

The common humans in the city of Valon. They have an affinity for the sea and ice.


  • Born sailor: When dealing with ships or carrying out physical activities on board ship (other than fighting), you may roll an extra die.
  • Power of the Arcane: You have two extra Arcane Power.


  • Missing Eye or Ear: Roll an extra die whenever the GM feels it is appropriate to the situation.
  • Missing Limb: Roll an extra die whenever the GM feels the situation is appropriate.

Common Orichalcan

There are few of these folk left, as most people with Orichalcan blood have been hunted down by the Altanians. Most that still exist either live in isolated communities (such as the Moonraker Moor Folk or the Roglo River Folk) or live in areas where they are not persecuted.


  • Power of the Arcane: You have two extra Arcane Power.
  • Dragon’s Hide: You have slightly scaly skin, which gives you one point of protection from damage, even when not wearing armour.


  • Racism: Roll an extra die when attempting to socialize with characters of other races.

Common Viridian

Common Viridians are the basal population of the cities, towns and villages surrounding the Falling Empire of Viridistan.


  • Learned: When recalling a fact from your area of specialty, you use an extra die.
  • Attractive: Roll an extra die in situations where good looks might be important.


  • City dweller: Roll an extra die in situations to do with outdoor survival.


Dunael Woods-Folk originated in Dearthwood, where most can still be found, locked in eternal struggle against the Warriors of the Purple Claw.


  • Forest Tracker: When tracking creatures or people in a forest environment, use an extra die.
  • Keen Scent: Whenever you make a mind check to perceive something using your sense of smell, you may roll one extra die.


  • Landlubber: Roll an extra die on activities whilst at sea.


The Gishmesh are the people of the City State of Tarantis and the surrounding lands.


  • Born sailor: When dealing with ships or carrying out physical activities on board ship (other than fighting), you may roll an extra die.
  • Great Wealth: Roll an extra die on any attempt to obtain any goods, services or items you need whilst in your home city.


  • Untrustworthy: Roll an extra die when the situation calls for someone to believe or trust you.


The Skandik Sea Wolves are a water-loving people. They are ritually birthed in the water and spend most of their youth learning the ways of the sea.


  • Born sailor: When dealing with ships or carrying out physical activities on board ship (other than fighting), you may roll an extra die.
  • Sea Tracker: When tracking creatures or people at sea, use an extra die.


  • Distrust of Sorcery: When dealing with wizards and alchemists, roll an extra die.


Known as Horse Lords, Karakhan are the people of the far-off Kingdom of Karak to the east.


  • Beast Friend: Whenever dealing with animals, roll an extra die.
  • Steppe Tracker: When tracking creatures or people in a steppe environment, use an extra die.


  • Feels the Heat: Roll an extra die for any tasks undertaken in a hot desert environment.


Tharbrians are eternal nomads of the central Wilderlands, having migrated into the Wilderlands from the far West.


  • Tharbrian Saber: If using a Tharbrian saber, roll an extra die.
  • Fearsome Looks: Use an extra die whenever you are trying to force somebody to give you information or do something they don’t want to do.


  • Illiterate: You cannot read or write and you cannot choose a career with literacy as a requirement.


The “barbarian” Altanians occupy the portion of the Pazidan Peninsula south of the City State of the Invincible Overlord known as Barbarian Altanis.


  • Beast Friend: Whenever dealing with animals, roll an extra die.
  • Jungle Tracker: When tracking creatures or people in a jungle environment, use an extra die.


  • Illiterate: You cannot read or write and you cannot choose a career with literacy as a requirement.


In the north, Amazons can be found in their castle near Sea Rune on the Pagan coast north of Ossary. They can also be found in the southern lands in and around the city of Rallu and near Ghinor and the Ament Tundra. Mercenary Amazons can be found in nearly every fighting force in the Wilderlands. Amazon sexism usually prevents males from receiving training with arms, although many are trained in other military capacities.


  • Combat Precognition: Roll an extra die when wearing Amazon armor or no armor.
  • Forest Tracker: When tracking creatures or people in a forest environment, use an extra die.


  • Gender Bias: Roll an extra die when attempting to socialize with males. (Again, this Flaw can apply to male characters as well, because I’m an irritating post-modernist.)
  1. Empire of the Petal Throne deserves mention here, too.

Whence rules?

Simple question, long answer:

What situations do you need rules for, and why?

Zak over at D&D with Porn Stars recently presented a discussion on whether D&D has enough rules, and whether those rules are necessary for fun.1 He makes the argument that D&D’s lack of rules for certain things help the game go in unexpected directions according to the desires of those at the table and, presumably, chance.

Obviously, most game designers think you need rules for combat. This is enshrined in countless “what is roleplaying” blurbs, where the rules are presented as a way of answering the question “did I get shot” in a game of “Cops and Robbers.” In that example, the rules are there for  arbitration. They’re there so that one player can’t arbitrarily declare that another must leave play.

I’ve never liked this example. It implies that the main purpose of the rules is to protect you from Ms. Frost, yet most games give the GM absolute authority, anyway.2

Still, I think some rules do serve to arbitrate or disambiguate. The purest example I can think of is Greg Stolze’s …in Spaaace!, where the core mechanic (a bidding system) is all about whether you, as a player, get your desired outcome.

Rules do other things, too. One you’ll certainly recognize if you read D&D with Porn Stars is to introduce chance. Roleplaying games, particularly older or newer ones, make use of a lot of devices to create unpredictability. The most iconic is the random encounter table. Rules also usually make the winners of a conflict unpredictable.

This is the main thing I use rules for, myself. A number of my own systems include a sentence like “If the players agree that more than one of the possible outcomes is interesting, use these rules to decide which happens.”

In any of these cases, the point isn’t primarily to arbitrate a dispute over whether you meet an angry bear, it’s to introduce the angry bear in the first place. In conflict resolution, the point isn’t that I say the bear is willing to give up his salmon and you say he isn’t, but that we mutually admit that we don’t know and would like to ask the dice.

In Apocalypse World, Vincent Baker proposes another purpose for rules. He asserts that roleplaying games are conversations3 and that the purpose of rules is to modify those conversations, to make sure that people say things that they otherwise wouldn’t. So, normally, I might not suggest that my character takes a nasty fall, but when the dice tell me so, I do. Or I wouldn’t agree to taking that fall, except that there’s a tasty drama point on offer.

So, what do you need rules for, and why?

  1. I don’t assert that that was his only point, but it’s the one that got me thinking.
  2. Sometimes, this authority is represented as ownership, as in “it’s the GM’s game.” Other times, it’s represented as public service, as in “it’s the GM’s responsibility to make sure everyone has fun” or “it’s the GM’s responsibility to serve the story.” No matter the case, most roleplaying games seem to be pretty sure that one player can declare “rocks fall, everyone dies.”
  3. I agree, they are conversations.

Fiction in, fiction out

I'm a clockwork punk

I'm a clockwork punk

There are essentially two kinds of game mechanics: fiction-in, and fiction-out. A fiction-in mechanic is triggered by an event in the fiction. A fiction-out mechanic creates an event in the fiction.

In traditional roleplaying games, most mechanics are both. The fiction “I attack that guy with my sword” goes into the mechanic “roll 1d20 to hit,” which outputs the fiction “and then he dies.” In older games (read: classic Dungeons & Dragons), the most common mechanics that are purely fiction-out are character generation and, arguably, experience gain.

In everything produced up to about the late 90s, purely fiction-out mechanics were relatively unusual. Point-build games even made character generation fiction-in. Purely fiction-out mechanics tend to be mechanics triggered by fiction-in mechanics.

More recently, we have games that encode a dramatic structure into the mechanics — Fiasco is a good example here. These games have some fiction-in mechanics, but more fiction-out mechanics. Purely fiction-out rules tend to look like this: “each player takes beans from the bag; the player with the most black beans narrates the beginning of the scene, and the player with the most white beans narrates the end of the scene.”

My current project, To Seek Adventure, has the players making a decision on each turn: do I narrate my character taking action, or do I narrate an event for the other player? The dice are then rolled, determining how close the scene is to resolving; unless a character falls, there’s no direct fictional output.

This pacing mechanic affects the fiction — if the scene doesn’t resolve, you narrate more action and events — but doesn’t output any particular fiction, such as “and then he falls over and hits his head and dies of of bleeding.”

At the same time, 2SA also has some purely fiction-out mechanics, such as the random plot hook draws that kick it off.

Relying exclusively on fiction-out mechanics can be dangerous: you run the risk of creating a clockwork story machine, in which the players’ fictional contributions affect very little. At the same time, most pacing or structuring mechanics are primarily fiction out, as are such techniques as random encounter tables. All things of which I’m a fan.

What games rely heavily on mechanics that are fiction-in/out, and what games go only one direction? I’d say Apocalypse World is a particularly pure example of the former… am I right? And how might this relate to narrative boardgames like Battlestar Galactica?

Why I fell for Exalted

As I prepare for some exciting Vampire-related content, as well as new Raven: Swordsmistress of Chaos, I thought I’d talk about some of my current gaming.

Right now, I’m preparing an Exalted game for three of my players. I’m looking forward to it, since Exalted is a very different kind of fantasy from what I usually run or play, yet shares the pulp fantasy roots I draw from so often.

In going back to the first edition core book, I’m reminded of why I fell in love with the game in the first place. There’s a lot to love in that book, but I remember the first thing that jumped out at me — maybe the first thing I even read.

From page 204:


Through the use of this Charm, a character can cause a bureaucracy to accomplish a task in record time. An Exalted using Speed the Wheels causes the bureaucracy to work (her Essence + 1) times faster for the duration of a particular job. For example, a character with Essence 3 who uses the Speed the Wheels Charm to expedite an appeal tothe ruler of a city to use the naval dry-docks to repair her ship would be able to make the appropriate appointments and cause the proper papers to be read four times faster than normal. Note that this Charm simply speeds the process, it does not increase the character’s chances of success. Characters who wish to improve their chances of success should use Social Charms or Deft Official’s Way.

I was blown away. I had the general idea that Exalted were demigods who practiced a sort of all-powerful, glowing kung fu, but no one had told me that they had literal martial arts for cutting through metaphorical red tape. The whole idea of a secret art for every skill was tremendously cool, and it made me immediately want to play an Eclipse negotiator.

That’s the second thing that made me want to play Exalted. The Eclipse caste. Loosely equivalent to D&D’s bards, they were supernaturally proficient ambassadors, able to seal bargains in the name of the Sun. I’ve long held that the coolest moment in any Star Wars novel was in Heir to the Empire, when Luke discovers that, as a Jedi, people automatically look to him to resolve disputes. That’s what I had here — Solar Exalted were sword and sorcery Jedi, and actually had the powers to back that up.

Just like that, Exalted became the first fantasy game where my first character concept wasn’t a rogue.

Then I flipped back to the beginning and read the traditional White Wolf fiction. And I learned about Chiaroscuro. A city where the living live alongside the hungry dead, the boundary maintained only by lines of precious salt. For me, that evoked Zothique in all the best ways.

A world of incredible marvels alongside an incredible sense of loss and sadness, where titanic heroes were empowered for their potential to make a difference.

That sealed it. I had to play this game.

And that’s how I fell in love with Exalted, and why I’m running it now.

Know Your Monsters: Snakkubus

The Snakkubus

The Snakkubus


Level 4
Medium Semi-Humanoid (nekkid)
Number Appearing: 1
Habitat: Moors, Mires, an abandoned shrine you’ll find by accident

The snakkubus is a sort of minor goddess or demon that dwells in the Grimbog. She has the upper body of a woman, the lower body of a snake, and the upper body of a snake somewhere in-between the two. When disturbed, she typically attacks with the jaws of her midsection, the fangs of which carry a lethal poison.

While there are varying reports of whether or not she is a single creature or a community, most adventurers agree that it’s unlikely an entire tribe could have such fantastic… eyes. The snakkubus can take the form of a beautiful female human or elf, but doesn’t, because she has a positive body image.


  • Slithering Slide: The snakkubus’ movement cannot be blocked by an adventurer.
  • Poison: Any adventurer against whom the snakkubus rolled a critical hit during a fight must, at the end of the fight, take another attack from her, whether or not she still lives. 

Annie, Would I Lie to You?

Edition War

Edition War

Yesterday, Mike Mearls made a plea for Dungeons & Dragons players to make peace in our edition wars:

Whether you play the original game published in 1974, AD&D in any of its forms, 3rd Edition and its descendents, or 4th Edition, at the end of the day you’re playing D&D. D&D is what we make of it, and by “we” I mean the DMs, the players, the readers, the bloggers—everyone who has picked up a d20 and ventured into a dungeon…

When we look to the past, we learn that there are far more things that tie us together than tear us apart.

Needless to say, I agree. As far apart as any two things called “Dungeons & Dragons” might be, we, the players, are a single community. We share a soul. A network, as Ryan Dancey might say, with balls-to-the-wall externalities.

There are, however, those who doubt Mike’s sincerity. He’s just making nice for the Pathfinder players, they say, in order to lure them insidiously into his brand-new gingerbread house D&D products. The ones that look like candy, but are soaked in cyanide. And WoWcraft.

That last paragraph was my initial response to the skepticism. “You must be crazy to doubt this guy,” I was thinking. But, you know, you don’t have to be crazy at all. It’s one of those things that looks different when you’re working in the industry.

‘Cause, here’s the thing: you don’t get to have the proud but exceedingly unromantic title “Dungeons & Dragons R&D Group Manager” without being a huge fucking fan of Dungeons & Dragons. How do I know? Because I’ve been there. I am here. When you are asked to take charge of designing new stuff for a beloved-yet-still-valuable intellectual property, it is not because you were the person who thought all eight previous versions sucked, and you can do better.

Those people, by and large? They take other career paths.

When you’re put in charge, you’re the last fan standing. You’re the one who loves the game enough to keep working on it when the entire market is alternately shrinking and filling with pus. You’re the one willing to put up with the corporate bullshit. And don’t kid yourself: once you’re in charge, there is corporate bullshit, no matter how wise or well-run the organization. By the time you get to be in charge of ruining the franchise for a whole new generation of fans, you’ve been through a lot, and still love the game so fucking much that you’re willing to step into the line of fire.

From now on, everything that goes wrong will be laid at your feet. At best, your mistakes will get chalked up to the interference of “suits.” At worst, your successes will become dividing lines in new conflicts between the fans. You will go to bed every night knowing that the future, if not the fate, of the world you love more than anything rests on your shoulders.

In those late, hard hours, when you’re trying to wring every drop of cool out of the twisted rag your employer’s property has become, do you hate the rag? Do you hate those who came before you, with their brown books and their red boxes?

No. You love them even more. You look at your predecessors, and do you see men? No. You see giants. Not the kind that eat people. The kind that are Ultraman. You love the work that came before yours all the more because now, just a little, you see what those greats were up against. You know what it’s like to face a fraction of what they faced.

And so you love them with the fury of a thousand suns. When the fans of your work pile up on the message boards and talk about how great your stuff is and how much the old stuff sucked, you want to jump in and start smiting. Just as much as you want to defend your own work against those who call it a debasement, a soulless corporate abomination that has seized a once-great name.

You see the big picture. Because you can no longer see anything else.

Yes, I’m projecting. But I think I’m right.

You go, mearls.

Know Your Monsters: Robgoblin


Level 2
Small Humanoid (delinquent)

Number appearing: 4-12
Habitat: Any, but there are often football posters

As misshapen and mischievous as any goblin, the robgoblin had a degenerate youth and got mixed up in potions and gangs. Some have even been to goblin prison, and come back with tattoos both fearsome and salacious. Others have been kicked out of goblin militias, and you know how hard that is. Robgoblins operate in small bands, but can be extremely well-organized for a group of creatures which do so much cackling.

There is usually a reward for returning a lone robgoblin home to his parents. Happy reunions are unlikely, however, as he usually learned it by watching them.


  • Rob: If they roll a critical, robgoblins may steal an item from an adventurer.

Know Your Monsters: Night Troll

Night Troll

Level 5
Large Humanoid (nocturnal)
Number Appearing: 1
Habitat: Caverns, Castles, Forests, Ruins

You need to understand two words with regards to the night troll:


Because these are the only two words he thinks. In his mind, the night troll is always the star of his personal black metal ballad, and this can lead to him wielding a large axe and occasionally being accompanied by a black panther with lazer eyes.

The night troll will generally want to bludgeon and split you with heavy weapons and then eat you while posing for a crowd of forest monsters, but he has also been known to spare those who truly rock.

Know Your Monsters: Night Gaunts

Night Gaunts

Level ?

Number Appearing: ?
Habitat: Wherever you are sleeping

Night gaunts ravage unprotected camp sites, leaving no survivors and only the tiniest and grossest traces of bodies (such as bloody toes). They are believed to attack in total darkness, like the grue, but this is largely presumed because no one has ever seen one, ever. It is possible that night gaunts were created as the monsters under adventurers’ beds, but the lack of beds in use by adventurers has caused them to evolve into grislier and even more invisible forms.

Do not sleep in the wilderness without protection, or the night gaunts will get you.

Do not sleep in inns without protection, either, especially with the serving staff, but you are an adult and we should not have to tell you this.

Know Your Monsters: Owl Bear

Owl Bear

Level 3
Large Owl Bear
Number Appearing: 1
Habitat: Caverns, Woods

Mathematics dictates that some bears will be smarter than the average bear. But possessing the wisdom (and head) of an owl, this bear is even smarter than that, and not included in the aforementioned averages because of discrimination. Probably this bear would have better scores than you, if it had had the same advantages in life and not squandered them on being an adventurer.

Owl bears are typically peaceable, so long as no one messes with them. They often perpetrate cunning traps and elaborate revenges against those who cross them. Those they tear to shreds with beak and claws are usually those who only tweaked them a little bit.


  • Grab: On a successful melee attack, the owl bear grabs one adventurer. A successful melee attack on the bear releases the grab, but a roll of 5 or less also hits the adventurer.
  • Bear Trap: Any owl bear lair is likely to contain a trap. Roll 1d6; on a roll of 3 or less, the trap is a pit trap, on a roll of 4-5 a jaw trap, on a roll of 6 the trap involves another monster.