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)

the evil of orcs, pt. 1

Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.

Orcs are intrinsically evil.

There are no “orcs” and “elves.” They are the same thing. They are polymorphs (no, not like that, wizard) of the same creature.

The switch is, somewhat inexplicably, the moral choices of the individual. At most basic, an elf is one which has consistently made good—altruistic, empathetic, righteous—choices in her life; an orc, one who has made wicked—selfish, callous, violent—choices in hers. The making of these choices moves the individual along a spectrum, one little bit at a time. The spectrum runs from the most ethereal elf to the most brutish orc, and while there are no hard stops along the way, every observer seems to exhibit a desire toward amateur taxonomy. Barring extraordinary event,1 each little choice—keeping the last bit of butter to oneself, lending a hand in another’s garden, standing with one’s friends, or casting insult—changes one imperceptibly in one direction or another. It is the sum of innumerable unthought-of actions that produce the dramatic change in phenotype.

Absolutely no one is happy with this situation.2 Elves, thinking themselves (often rightly) so very virtuous, want no mention made of any relation to that most brutish of humanoids. These are the bedside whispers given to little elflings: “Be good, or your sins will show themselves on your hairy body!” Everyone knows, or thinks they know, someone who has fallen; one day, someone disappears, is never seen again. It is said, if anything is said, that they killed themselves, a less-embarrassing story. A whole line can be besmirched by the fall of one son. What does it say about you, they’ll mutter when your back is turned, that you raised a son so wicked that he turned into a beast?

The orcs don’t much care for it either. For a people built on strength and ruthlessness and a narrow-eyed focus on getting things done, any kinship with the effeminate lightweights is a snub, like the birth of nearsighted runt. But where an elf making the turn quietly disappears, self-exiling into either a period of contemplation in an attempt to reverse the process or a rampage free of the oppressive strictures of elven society, an orc turning slight will, with any sense, just disappear into the night. Those with less sense will awaken—for a few sputum-gasping moments—with knives lodged between their ribs. So hated are the elves, and those looking as though they will turn to one, that any sign of wasting or emaciation or weakness will often be taken as the turn, and culled nonetheless.

But the turn is a slow one, and is a progression along a spectrum rather than an on-off switch. Hence, half-elves and half-orcs. They would like to have you believe that these folks are the result of forbidden love or more vicious abuse, but that’s a façade all pretend to. A half-elf or half-orc is simply an intermediate step along the spectrum. A fallen elf slowly gains strength and loses some grace, and becomes what is commonly called a half-elf. The process continues from half-elf to half-orc, and from half-orc to orc. And these poor folks have the worst of both worlds, hated from all ends for not being enough … whatever “enough” means. Is it any surprise that such people tend to the extreme, either paragons of goodwill or redoubts of perfidy, in an effort to become all one or all the other?

Orcs are, by definition, evil. Elves are, by definition, good. An elf who does evil becomes strong and coarse and brutish. An orc who does good becomes slim and graceful and clever. Can there be any surprise that they—flip sides of the same coin—hate each other so? The sight of the other reminds each of what they could become if they stray from their path. There is no thing so hated as the incarnate reminder of one’s own shortcoming.

1 Some acts of enormous import—saintliness or atrocity—can change one much more quickly. It is these sudden transformations, typically an elf turning into a beast overnight, that is what most commonly betrays the truth of the situation to outsiders.

2 This is a lie. There are some remarkably well-informed sages who both know of this situation and think it is, intellectually, interesting as shit. They don’t get out much.

Continued in: “the banality of orcs, pt. 2

what’s in the homestead?

Off the Queen’s Road, past the thorp of Wightrise, is an old estate across the cataract from the millroad. But what sort of estate is it?

But what's in there, really?

The old Erranton estate.

I like maps like this, because they are alive with possibility. They lend themselves to multiple types of adventures. Sometimes I wonder if less really is more: with no grid, no directions, merely a space, any GM can fit such a map into her campaign. Perhaps the archetypal use would be a simple explore and loot.

Not gridded; the fundamental touchstones of measurement are how big you want the house to be, and how big the roads.

GM copy, flagged with encounter areas.

1: Crossroads. The millroad leads from Wightrise up to the ford in Erran’s Run where the stream slows enough for the mill to take advantage. The overgrown path turns to the bridge leading to Erranton Estate.

2: Bridge. Built in the days when craftsmen cared for their work, this wooden bridge spans the gash that separates the road from the homestead.

3: Home. The ancestral Erranton home backs up against the woods. In former days the family lived here; now it crumbles down upon itself, pressed down by the inexorable weight of time and rain and indifference.

4: Caretaker’s Cottage. Formerly the hearth and home of the servants that managed the estate.

5: Outbuildings. A smokehouse, chicken coop, and root cellar. Located away from the main house to keep the odors down.

6: Stables. Stables and paddock. Shelter for livestock and a place to graze; tools and equipment.

7: Well. Reliable water source; center of daily life.

8: Gardens. Self-sufficiency garden for the estate.

So, now we’ve got the environs. What sort of adventures can we set here?

Option 1: Dungeon Crawl: The PCs have heard that the old Erranton place has been ransacked and overrun by goblins/orcs/bandits. The PCs go out there, fight the monsters, explore the place, and loot it.

Option 2: Reverse Dungeon: The PCs have been sent by their patron/mentor/employer to go to the Erranton Estate and negotiate to purchase something. The Errantons have the something, and are surprisingly reasonable about the transaction. The catch? At an inopportune moment someone else appears at the crossroads looking to ransack the Estate. Now the PCs have to team up with the Errantons to defend the homestead. It could be monsters being monsters, troops looking to collect back taxes, or just adventurers raiding other peoples’ homes just to steal their stuff. Can you hold the bridge?

Option 3: Swords & Shadowruns: The PCs are hired by Guildmaster Johnson to assassinate the scion of the Erranton family line. Old Man Erranton is on his last legs anyway, but his son has aspirations to local power, and someone doesn’t want that. But the PCs need to be quiet and make it look like an accident. No door-kicking and fireballing. Can the PCs get in, get done, and get out?

Option 4: The Returned: The old Erranton place has been avoided for years. Recently the local Order lured all the Returned into the house and burned it down around them, lighting the bridge aflame as they withdrew. But as of a month ago, the house and bridge still stand–and look just as they always have. A scarecrow stands in the field, eternally shouting something in an elder tongue. How can the PCs clear out the house for good? Why is the stableyard covered in fresh furrows? Why is there fresh meat in the root cellar? And why is that little girl standing on the lip of the well?

Option 4a: The Glamour: Everyone knows the old Erranton place is haunted, a place where the dead walk and maintain a mockery of a farm. But what no one knows is that there are no dead at the homestead. How long will it take the PCs to figure out that reclusive fae have taken the place for their own, and are using magic to frighten interlopers away? And how will the PCs react when they discover that they’re the invaders, and the fae aren’t even wicked?

What kind of scene would you set here?

why is the tarrasque so boring?

Because it’s just a video game boss battle.

What is the tarrasque, anyway? An oddball concatenation of miscellaneous special abilities fulfilling little purpose save the gamist impulse to kill the biggest thing in the setting.

It takes its name from the tarasque of Provence, a lion-headed creature combining the features of a number of beasts and said to lay waste to the countryside. But there the similarities end; the Provencal tarasque met its end not in epic combat, but rather was tamed by the prayers of a saint. Outside Provence, the legend never seems to have captured the public imagination, but rather seems an allegory of Christian conversion and the backlash faced by newcomers to the flock.

Monsters become frightening, awful, or awe-full when something about them touches on something in us deeper than large numbers in a bestiary. Some monsters–e.g. ghosts, werewolves–embody common human fears, here maybe the fear of unfulfilled purpose, of losing control of one’s self. Others represent sin or taboo, embodiments of those urges we would extirpate from ourselves. Vampires, the sin of lust, unfulfillable and ultimately damning; wendigo, the taboo of cannibalism, beginning tragically and ending worse.

But chimeric monsters just feel like lazy mythmaking. “It’s a ferocious monster!” “How do we know?” “Uh, because it’s got the body parts of various other ferocious animals all mixed together?” When chimeric monsters work, when they resonate in the imagination, we stop thinking of them as chimeric, and just think of them on their own terms. A centaur is a chimeric monster, a horse with the torso of a man. Morphologically, an angel is just a person with birds’ wings. A pegasus, a sphinx, these stand on their own. They work. If our tarrasque were closer to the Provencal tarasque, maybe it would work better.

But it didn’t. It just never caught the imagination well enough. Have your players ever fought a tarrasque? If so, was it a roleplaying experience, rich and evocative? Or was it just the biggest boss monster in the book, and so the logical thing to fight at the end of the campaign?

Quick, imagine a tarrasque. What did you come up with? It’s… big? With a shell? Maybe a shiny shell? It probably bites things? We might all disagree about what a zombie looks like, but we can each imagine one, and do so effortlessly. If your players can’t instantly and satisfyingly imagine what your monster looks like and does to you, you’re unlikely to have a satisfying scene. How much more the pity is it when that’s the Big Bad of your whole campaign.

the drover’s wife vs goblins

Monsters are frightening in proportion to what they can take from you. I was recently rereading “The Drover’s Wife,”1 but instead of snakes, I was back to thinking about goblins.

In most settings, humans treat goblins as little more than vermin.

“Adventuring” humans, that is. The PCs, the kind we pretend to be. Some NPCs do, too, the bigfolk, those sitting in the manor house with the bailiff delivering the rents.

Goblins are different when you don’t carry a broadsword for a living, or can’t afford the smithing of one, or haven’t ever seen one beyond the make-believe type the shepherd-boys pretend their crooks to be.

Comfortably civilized folk may think goblins are vermin, but let’s not forget that vermin kill more people than war does. If we really want to understand a setting, maybe the correct perspective isn’t that of the one-in-a-thousand who fight when they want to, but the thousand who fight only when they have to.

Say you’re a cottager, well-worn from trying to feed your wife and children off a few acres of someone else’s land, miles from the trade road and miles more from the market town. You’ve got a good oaken cudgel, a door that never does fit in the frame just right, and just enough firewood to use every other night or so. And your dog.

Your dog was lying in the garden this morning, and you had to figure out what to tell your little girl about why all those little black arrows were sticking out of it. But thankfully your wife got everyone to sleep, save you, awake with the weight of care.

Those crazed little eyes out in the darkness, whispering in the barley rows, how harmless do they feel now?

1 “The Drover’s Wife,” by Henry Lawson, a (very) short story about a mother, her children, their dog, and a snake. It hasn’t aged well, but it is quite good at conveying what it’s like when you’re poor, and the sun is going down, and the next neighbor is nineteen miles off.

elves : humans :: humans : goblins

In most settings, humans treat goblins as little more than vermin. Goblins are weak, annoying creatures, dangerous in the way a rat might be. Ultimately of little concern. They live short, frantic lives, causing trouble and breeding prodigiously. They find empty or weakened niches in geography or ecosystem to populate, and when those are filled, overrun outwards, rapidly depleting the resources (food, fuel, patience, goodwill) of the places they spread. They are nearly universally despised by the longer-lived, more-civilized races, and seem just as universally ineradicable.

So why don’t elves consider humans in the same way that humans consider goblins? In most traditional fantasy settings (read: those derived extensively from Tolkien), elves are nigh-immortal elder beings, cultured and thoughtful. To an elf whose goals and experiences likely span centuries, humans must seem obnoxious upstarts, never to mature and incorrigible in their violence, dizzyingly busy and almost infinitely resilient. How could an elf ever see a human as a peer? How could an elf see human social structures as anything beyond a child’s attempt at playing civilized?

If goblins appear to humans as the embodiment of id-driven wasteful children, humans almost certainly appear to elves as forever-teenagers, discomfitingly mature in body but never able to gain the wisdom that comes with experience. At least goblins are manageably small; all else equal, they’re still only three feet tall. A human has the ability to do much greater harm, lumbering man-children given the tools of destruction but never the temperance to match. Can a human aspire to wisdom any more than a dog can aspire to song? If a goblin dies of his foolhardiness after fifteen years of life, or a human after seventy, how much difference does that make from a perspective of seven centuries? Or six millennia?