dungeon hexes

Here’s how this works. It’s a random table, but an iterative one: each result leads from the previous, but is not locked into any one path. It’s designed with a vague logic, but there’s no guarantee it will go any specific place.

Start in the center: loitering. For the next iteration, roll a d6 and go that way. Do it again, then again. Maybe you’ll go one direction, maybe you’ll loop back, maybe you’ll get stalled out somewhere. If you hit an edge, slide down along the edge to the nearest hex.

Idea shamelessly stolen from the Medieval Stalemate Simulator (or Six-Dimensional Warfare).1 Skerples stole it from Six Dimensional Weather.

dungeon hex

So what are the denizens2 of that dungeon doing today?

Loitering: Just hanging around. Maybe the denizens are resting. Maybe just lazy. Could be just bullshitting with each other or otherwise being useless. In any event, not doing much.

Sleeping: Most or all are sleeping. Maybe there’s a guard set, but probably not. Time to sneak about!

Eating: Do the denizens look like you? Then they’re probably eating something you would eat. If not, not. They’re eating communally, sometimes, ritually and affectionately. Or maybe everyone grabs what they can then runs off and hides before someone bigger can take it from them.

Drunk: Someone stole some liquor! Or, more likely, one of the denizens is brewing or distilling some nasty hooch down there and passing it around. Either way, everyone is drunker than two skunks, and either shouting, hassling someone else, or out cold.

Under Attack: Someone or something either wants what’s inside the dungeon, or wants to destroy it. Either way, the denizens are being attacked. It could be tomb-raiders—I mean, adventurers—trying to steal other peoples’ things, or an army pacifying the area, or maybe just farmers sick of their goats being eaten.

Aftermath: Aftermath could be anything, really, so long as it’s bad. It could be the crippled and the dead from an attack, the remnants of the Plague3, or just the photophobic remains of last night’s drunken revelry.

Vile Ritual: Any sort of eldritch skanknastiness will do. A shaman of the old ways performing the sacrifice of innocents or some sorcerer stitching together parts not made to go together or simply goblins performing their traditional (nude!) fertility dance. Something no one was ever meant to see.

Hunting: Some or all of the denizens are out hunting for whatever they eat. That might be you.

Preserving: The hunt is over, and now everyone is packing away the goods for later use. Skinning, dismembering. Packing or pickling. Salting and smoking.

Decamp: Something has caused the denizens to decide to leave. It could be super boring! Maybe the well dried up. Or maybe they’re frantically fleeing something more sinister.

Prisoners: The denizens have captured what is now the unluckiest of souls. The use of said soul being ransom or punishment or feasting.

Trading: Merchants, of the traditional sort or something weirder, have arrived at the dungeon to do business. What are the means of barter?

Parlay: Enemies negotiating to become not-enemies. Sometimes it even works.

Riotous Disportment: It’s a ruckus! Up to you just how vicious the amusement happens to be.

Fortifying: The denizens are terrified, but doing something about it. The attack is imminent, and if the dungeon was hard to break into before, it will be harder soon. Traps are set, doors are barred, rubble blocks hallways, the children and valuables hidden away.

Gambling: Everyone is bored as fuck, so out come the knucklebones or the absurd wagers or the feats of speed and strength and foolishness. Everyone hates the winner.

Fighting Amongst Selves: Actually, everyone hates everyone. Someone shat in the larder or the boss is too bossy or someone fucked someone someone ought not have or a favorite spoon got stolen or some damn thing kicked off the fight.

Unrecognizable Weirdness: Just fucked up. These folks are up to some nonsense you wouldn’t have thought up given all the time and all the dope.

1 The War is a thing in your campaign, right?

2 “Denizen” is a funny word. But I don’t know who or what lives in your dungeon, so there we go.

3 The Plague is a thing in your campaign, right?

abashed the devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is

For children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.

There used to be a time when men loved justice. That time has passed.1

In those times, there were legions of angels, and those angels’ only purpose was to plummet to earth and dispense justice.

In those times, everyone knew how the world operated. Two people come into dispute. Those people cannot conclude their dispute amongst themselves. They both pray—a quick prayer will do, muttered under the breath—and an angel of justice, an adjudicator, would crash to earth, survey the disputants, and administer summary justice then and there.

Virtue is always rewarded. But most men are not virtuous, and do not get rewarded. Most all men are wicked, and the adjudicators can see your wickedness.

The problem is that it never takes long for people to realize that whatever petty spat they have going on—a drink-soaked brawl, an eloped daughter, trampled crops—really is petty compared to what truly lies in their hearts. And the adjudicators see, clear as a morning’s ray, those wickednesses: the crippling sloth, a neighbor’s envied wife, the infant thrown with the hog slop. Adjudicators persist until a work is done, and when called down they address each sin, each dispute, and each disputant; the calling prayer only brings their attention. They do not take commands, and the prayer is not a command, just an invitation. And when you invite them to extirpate wickedness, they do so.

Battistero di San Giovanni, dome, The Tongues of Men Speak Forth Sin (1225).2

Those men of old knew of all of this.

Perhaps then it was why they were so kind to each other. If disputes lead to wildness and wroth and the cloudiest of thinking, it is too easy to forget that calling an adjudicator is always just but rarely wise. So men, reacting as could be expected to the smoking holes of arguments past and the now-limping now-beggars whose ugliness within was writ without, learned not to dispute. It only takes one to call down an examiner who harrows the sins of all.

And so men forgot. The memory of the prayers fell away before the kindness did, but the kindness fell away too, and now we have the world we all live in.

Those legions still exist, but they are purposeless. They enjoy their current position—that is, adoration at the feet of the deity—but hedonism—and that is what it is—is ultimately unfulfilling. Purpose gives meaning, and exercising that purpose provides joy that lasts beyond when the activity ends.

1 People still think they want justice. They really don’t.

2 Marie-Lan Nguyen (CC-BY-SA 2.5)

elves have to be fucked up, pt. 2

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

(The second in a series about how either elves are the dominant humanoid species, or somehow screwed-up, the first of which is here.)

Possibility 1: Evolutionary Misfires

Elves are heavily K-selected.

Elves haven’t conquered the world because there are just too damn few of them, there are too few because they reproduce too slowly, and because they reproduce so slowly they are exceedingly risk-averse.

Roughed out for the gaming crowd, in ecological theory, r/K selection is the idea that organisms will converge on one of two reproductive strategies. An r-selected organism emphasizes speedy growth, early onset of maturity, production of many offspring, low parental involvement in the raising of those offspring, comparatively low survival rates of those offspring, along with smaller body size and shorter lifespans. Think rats, or goblins.1

Alternately, K-selection is a strategy typified by slower growth and later onset of maturity; production of fewer, but better cared-for, offspring; extensive parental involvement with those offspring leading to better survival rates; larger body size and longer lifespans. Think elephants . . . or elves.2

We know elves have a relatively large body-size for a humanoid.3 We know that they live a tremendously long time and undergo a childhood and adolescence the length of a long human lifetime; we can easily presume a parental involvement and investment in single offspring orders of magnitude greater than that provided by other humanoids. Elves are quintessential K-strategists. From what we know we can infer that elven children have superb survival rates and elven adults, exceedingly low reproductive rates. If an elven child requires a century of rearing, we can assume that each elven family—not just mothers, as that level of resource-investment likely requires the fathers, as well, or the community as a whole—spaces births in increments of scores of years.

When you have so much resource investment in each and every child, each of those children is tremendously precious. So many resources, in fact, that we could plausibly assume that any settled elven society has the majority of its resources invested in its people rather than anything material. Why would it then send those resources off—in the form of young men and women—to war for any reason short of an existential threat? Any elven society will consequently become incredibly risk-averse, perhaps to a self-defeating degree.

Even if elves overcome this risk aversion, the extremely slow reproduction rate means there just aren’t that many elves. Sure, an exquisitely trained elven swordsman may defeat a dozen orcs, but there are a dozen dozen more standing behind them. Sometimes quantity has a quality all its own.

Maybe elves haven’t conquered the world for no other reason than that there are too few of them, each is worth too much, and the elves are paralyzed thereby.

To be continued in part 3, “The Price of Purity.”

1 Actually, think of litters of rats under your floorboards. Or litters of goblins under your floorboards. Actually actually, don’t.

2 In unstable environments r-strategists tend to dominate, as survival becomes a numbers game when there is no clear superior adaptation to the changing circumstances. Conversely, in a stable environment, there is time for evolution to produce smaller and smaller incremental improvements suited to that specific environment, intensive—slow!—nurturing pays bigger dividends, and K-strategists emerge.

3 Your elves are taller than humans, right? Right?

elves have to be fucked up, pt. 1

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet?

Why haven’t elves taken over the world? They’re just as smart (if not smarter) than humans, adaptable to many environments, generally considered attractive and charismatic by other humanoids, and, most importantly, they live for-fucking-ever. They compete with other humanoids for the same basic resources— water, arable land, game, metals and lumber, space to expand—but, for some reason, haven’t extirpated their competitors.1 Why?

John Martin, The Hubris of Elvenkind is Rewarded (1831).

Intelligence and tool-making, whether those tools be mundane or magical, are the killer advantage in conquering an ecological niche; once in the realm of technology,2 physical attributes are less relevant. With technology taken hold, strength matters little: a muscular build pales in comparison to the work that can be done with a simple lever. Dexterity matters more, but not insofar as we care about stealthy backstabs; rather, dexterity supports the manipulation of tools, the knapping of flints and the sewing of hides into clothes and the planing of spokestaves. Constitution always helps, but not to the extent we would wish: a tough guy can withstand the cold, but a whole tribe of weaklings can huddle around a bonfire.

The key here is that elves live a tremendously long time. By itself that matters little—a bristlecone pine can live longer than five elves—but when combined with intelligence, it means that techniques, proficiencies, and advances can be continually built upon without losing ground to senility, death, or errors in transmission. Say, roughly, that an apprentice is useful at ten and spends ten years learning the trade. If you live eighty years, and ignoring senescence, that’s three quarters of your life productively working. But if you live a thousand years, that’s 98% of your life spent productively. Maybe elven children take much, much longer to develop: but even if an elven childhood is roughly the length of a human life—and holding the time spent to learn a trade the same, befitting equivalent intelligence—that’s still 90% of a life spent productively.

The more experience you have practicing a trade, the better you’re likely to be at it. It doesn’t matter if that trade is tanning or masonry or generalship. The skilled elf simply gets more time to improve, try new things, and figure out more efficient processes. Included in this mastery is improvement of teaching the trade to proteges, to get them up to speed faster, or barring that, to a higher level in the same amount of training. Absent something fundamentally wrong with the elf, an elf should be better than any other humanoid at whatever the elf chooses to do.

But what we see in most settings is that elves—along with humans, and dwarves, and secondarily with gnomes and halflings and orcs and goblins and hobgoblins3—exist in a sort of hand-wavy equilibrium. Maybe the dwarves are in the mountains, the elves in the woods, and we ignore interspecies competition for resources by pretending that they all just stay where they’re supposed to. But there’s no reason to suspect that such an unstable equilibrium would develop, and were it to spring afresh sua sponte, no reason to expect it would last. Even if everyone starts in their canon-proper places, successful reproduction means they’ll have to expand to fill their environment, and now we’ve got elves creeping down old mineshafts to take habitat from the dwarves and taking to horse to run off those plainsmen.

Elves should be able to outcompete their peer competitors for resources, and consequently either exterminate them or push them into unproductive environments and irrelevance. So why haven’t they done so? Something must be wrong with the elves.

To be continued.

1 For further commentary on the effects of competition between humanoids of overlapping ecological niches, consult your local neanderthalensis colony.

2 By technology, here, we include magical advances.

3 Bigger, stronger, faster, just as smart—and very well-organized. Why haven’t the hobgoblins subjugated the world yet?

a time for ghosts

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths[.]

Carolina Death Crawl (free PDF, here) is a storygame with a particularly interesting mechanic perfect for an OSR game. As a game, CDC is about a ragtag group of Civil War soldiers—Southerners, fighting for the North—making their way through the ravaged countryside, trying to find home or hope or redemption—and finding none—along the way.

William Strang, Come Hell or High Water, etching (1893).

Characters die. But as the game is a one-shot, there’s no rerolling (or replacing) characters. Rather, when a PC dies (and they will), it becomes a swamp ghost. That is, some fragment of the collective spirit of spite and loss and recrimination that haunts the Carolina swamps and brings grief to the living. What this means in game terms is that the player ceases playing the dead character, rises from the chair, and becomes a vengeful ghost. “The job of the Swamp Ghosts is to compel the survivors to reflect on the horrors and atrocities in their past and guide them into an unspeakable future.” The ghosts—should there be more than one—scheme and conspire in secret, then return to pace the room, always at a (still-living) player’s shoulder, whispering imprecations into an ear or casting portentous doom upon the table.

This, of course, just feels right for a certain sort of ugly D&D shitgame. But there’s a different feel here. It’s too easy to create a game of grit and unpleasantness—mire, disease, sullen go-nowhere villagers—for a mood of poverty, physical and spiritual. There’s a difference between mud and venom. CDC is about guilt and spite and the weight of your own actions accreting to you. If you’re going to have a shitgame, may as well go all the way.

Next time a PC dies, instead of rolling up another one or animating a hireling, make a ghost. And let the ghosts of PCs-passed1 remind those living just how foolish and morally bankrupt they are.

1 I see what you did there, hella.

there are no monsters in the Monster Manual

Pale manchild were there last agonies? Were you in terror, did you know? Could you feel the claw that claimed you? And who is this fool kneeling over your bones, choked with bitterness? And what could a child know of the darkness of God’s plan? Or how flesh is so frail it is hardly more than a dream.

I’m thinking about monsters again. I pulled out GURPS Horror recently, which made quite an impact on me way back in the day (the one with the not terribly scary skeleton-slasher on the front). I don’t care for GURPS—less for that certain sort of “but there’s a rule for everything!” GURPS evangelist—but this splatbook is good, and has been through the editions.

I don’t play GURPS and I don’t play WoD, but I read the splatbooks because they can, when good, be really good, at least insofar as conveying a certain grim tone and bevy of evocative ideas you don’t usually get from D&D. It’s hardly new to complain that whatever edition and whatever setting of D&D you play, it feels the same. Oerth and Faerun and Krynn differ in the details, but can anyone straightfacedly say they feel like fundamentally different worlds? There have been a few settings that stand out as “yes, this is a different thing”—Athas comes to mind—but how many have there been in the last forty years?

GURPS Horror is pretty good at conveying (if you ignore the crunch) what makes things scary and how to use them in games. But where it shines is in taking a fundamentally different (coming from a D&D perspective) approach to monsters. The Monster Manuals aren’t really about monsters; they’re really just encyclopedias of various animals. There’s nothing there to tell you why these things are scary, or how to really make them so. They’re only frightening to the extent that the combination of numbers in the statblock compares to that of your character; there’s nothing about what is fearful, to the player’s psyche, about this creature.

Alfred Kubin, No Shit, There I Was, Rowing This Boat (1905).

GURPS Horror takes a different approach, which is as breathtakingly obvious as it is woefully underused: there, they categorize the monsters by what archetypal human fear they embody. That is, the process is reversed: “here’s a universal human fear, and here’s how it has been reflected in our cultural imagination,” rather than “here’s a creature, and here’s why it’s scary.” Thus the fear of our own sin gives shape to demons; fear of the unnatural gives us ghosts and doppelgangers; fear of the wilderness, werewolves and the fae; fear of the monolithic state, men in black; fear of starvation, wendigo.

For D&D, you have to think about monsters in this reverse order, or else your monsters are just creatures you’re hunting. A wight isn’t horrifying because it drains abstract levels; the fear is of men who lived by terrifying violence whom even death won’t stop, and will continue regardless. An ogre isn’t scary, but the childborne fear of huge, violent, and capricious authority is. A lich isn’t inherently dreadful, but the dead hand of generations past living on to control the world through the present, is.

A “monster manual,” isn’t. It’s just a list of creatures to hunt. If you want real monsters in your game, start with a very-human fear—corruption, disease, starvation, the uncanny, the vastness of the sky—and find or write a monster that embodies that fear.

As a special aside, you won’t find much better than Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, Vol. I.

how to make your cleric hate you, vol. 1

There is no description of a fool, he said, that you fail to satisfy.

You went off to seminary. Spent three years as a novice, baking bread and calling the hours. You read four languages, two of which no one even bothers to speak anymore. You can refute even the finer points of both the Anacian and Jerevite heresies, convincingly. And you’re bold enough to carry the Word into the dark places of the earth so that others may know light and joy.

And your party thinks you’re a healbot, hanging around for no other damn reason but to patch them up after they do dumb things. You carry healing and grace with you everywhere you go; the common people flock to your touch. Turns out, you’re their healbot, too.

What stupid shit do they need your learned help with today? Roll d10.

1: Buddy bet him a groat that he couldn’t punch himself unconscious. Buddy lost.

2: Got drunk as a skunk and passed out with his legs too close to the fire.

3: Has all the STDs. Doesn’t want to have STDs. Wants to show you.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, oil on oak panel (1559).

4: Got drunker than two skunks and fell off the plowhorse. Still drunk.

5: Attempted suicide via crossbow-and-string trap.

6: Happy (human) mom and proud (human) dad are in labor with their first. She delivers a beautiful baby (half-elven) boy.

7: Shoot an arrow in the air. Whoever is standing closest to where it lands, wins. This kid won.

8: Snuck into the hedgewitch’s hovel and drank all the potions. All the philters, elixirs, and decoctions, too. Now freaking the fuck out. With miscellaneous magical effects.

9: Demands—demands!—to be healed of some nonexistent ailments.

10: Has dagger pommel lodged somewhere unpleasant. Swears he was just reaching for something on a shelf, naked, when he slipped and fell right on it. One-in-a-million chance, he says.

Shamelessly stolen from various emergency-medicine fora.