Friday, February 14, 2020

Here And There Along the Nightsky

The Nightsky River

The Nightsky River is, in truth, no river at all. But by toponym, and convention, it is a river nevertheless. The Nightsky is composed of a system of partially flooded caves, mining tunnels and underground ruins that function as an anabranch of the much larger river from which it diverts and rejoins.

According to the old tales, the Nightsky was the product of a magical mishap, some mystical triviality gone awry, causing the earth to collapse and allowing the mighty river to permeate the subterranean world beneath. The tales are vague and confused regarding the nature of the ritual and the identity of those who tried to work it, but it is clear that their invocations have left a lasting impact.

Time flows differently on the Nightsky. Not slower or faster exactly--just, differently. While some of those who enter never leave, whether by dint of choice or circumstance, one feature of the temporal abnormality of the Nightsky is of particular value to sufficiently desperate merchants, travellers and warlords: a successful navigation from one end of the Nightsky to other takes only a single night from the perspective of the world above. 

A journey of many days travelling on the river above is reduced to a matter of hours by making it along the Nightsky. At least in the view of those safely on shore. For those traversing the Nightsky, the passage of time within its dim caul is significantly more subjective.

In addition to its status as a miraculous, albeit risky, shortcut the Nightsky contains a variety of outlandish denizens, bizarre treasures and unusual experiences that sometimes attract expeditions by the curious or foolhardy. Entering the Nightsky with the hope of finding anything in particular is, however, an invitation to frustration. 


The Nighsky takes its name from the bioluminescent fungus that grows high up on the walls and ceiling of its caves and tunnels, dotting the darkness above with small clusters of light reminiscent of stars in the night sky. Some of those who have traversed the Nightsky for many years even claim that they can navigate by these ersatz stars.

There are no other natural sources of light within the Nightsky, and large stretches of the river may be travelled in near total darkness. However, in many places artificial lights are maintained including torches, oils lamps and even magical light sources. It is said that the lights are maintained by the Lamplighters Guild, and the Guild certainly asserts a claim to extract a toll from travellers on the river, but very few people actually attest to having seen a lamplighter about their work within the Nightsky.

The Nighsky maintains its own microclimate, independent of the weather above. Most of the time the weather is warm and humid, and the air is still. On occasion a chilling wind blows along the course of the river, bringing with it frost and--in extreme cases--icy waters. At times, and much to the surprise of the unprepared, rain falls heavily from the ceiling hihg above.

A variety of animal noises, particularly the chirping of insects and the screeches of bats, echo along the river. It is not uncommon for these sounds to be mixed with other cries, shouts and screams. Underneath everything else is the constant sound of water--dripping from the ceiling above, being stirred by oars and lapping against the walls.

Navigating the Nightsky

There is no foolproof way to navigate the Nightsky. Between journeys, people and places within seem to change positions along the course of the river, apparently without any rhyme or reason. Every journey along the Nightsky is different.

If the player characters are simply seeking to traverse from one end of the Nightsky to the other, roll 1d6+1 times on the Nightsky Encounter Table [note: the full table doesn’t actually exist yet].

If a result is rolled more than once on a single trip, ignore that result but do not re-roll. If the result was a location, make a note of it. The next time the player characters travel on the Nightsky they may choose to reduce the number of encounters rolled by one and visit the noted location during their journey.

If the player characters hire a guide or navigator to take them along the river, they may reroll up to 1d4 results on the Nightsky Encounter Table and choose which result to take. Each encounter may only be re-rolled once.

Unless otherwise noted in an entry on the Nightsky Encounter Table, and regardless of the time that has passed while travelling the Nightsky, only a single night will have passed in the outside world when the player characters emerge.



Roll an additional 2d3 times on the Nightsky Encounter Table. The third time this result is rolled in a single journey, do not roll for any additional encounters, when the player characters emerge from the Nightsky, d66 years will have passed in the outside world.


The player characters encounter another vessel on the river. Roll 1d6:

1 - 3 The passengers on the other vessel are the PCs from the future.

4 - 5 The passengers on the other vessel are the PCs from the past

6 The passengers on the other vessel are the PCs from the past, and they are in imminent danger (GMs choice).

If the player characters kill the past version of themselves or allow them to die, the present versions of the player characters die immediately. If the past version of the PCs kill their future selves or are otherwise the survivors of the two groups, feel free to pick up with whatever adventure the past PCs were on.


The player characters encounter a small island in the middle of the river, overgrown with plants. In the centre of the island there is a five foot tall standing stone carved with weathered runes. On the shore of the island someone has installed a wooden sign reading “Mushrooms”, and a collection of empty wooden buckets lies beneath it.

Engineering minded characters might be able to notice that the island appears to have been artificially created, and that the standing stone sits in its dead centre.

The runes on the standing stone have been worn away with time, and are inscribed in a long forgotten language. If they PCs can use magic or some other clever idea to translate the writing, the runes indicate that the island is a graveyard for traumatic memories.

Any PC who searches the island for mushrooms locates 1d4 rations worth of edible mushrooms. Any PC who speaks out loud the details of a tragic or traumatic memory while searching for mushrooms feels the burden of that memory lifted, and rolls 1d6 on the table below for the unusual mushroom that they find:

1 Portobello of Purging: When introduced into the bloodstream, the affected person experiences intense sadness for 1d6 hours, and will weep uncontrollably during that time. At the end of this period the person experiences a profound sense of tranquility for 1d6 weeks. During that time they are immune to fear and magical effects that produce negative emotions.

2 Warming Agaric: When placed into an enclosed vessel of water, this mushroom slowly disintegrates and causes the water to boil. Anyone who drinks the water is immune from the effects of cold until they next drink something else.

3 Surfactant Sporocarp: A person who immerses themselves in water after eating this mushroom will dissolve into the water and become part of it. This effect lasts for 3d6 hours, after which time the person coalesces into their solid form.

4 Sympathetic Milk-cap: When this mushroom is  cut or bruised, it exudes a white milk that can be applied to wounds to heal them [1d8 HP]. When the mushroom is damaged, the person who last touched it to their bare skin suffers a powerful pain as if they themselves had been cut or struck; however, no lasting physical damage is caused. After extracting milk from the mushroom roll 1d4, on a result of 1 the mushroom is destroyed. 

5 Memetic Morel: When used in cooking, the cook can impart a sense-memory into the mushroom. Anybody who subsequently consumes a dish that contains the mushroom will vividly experience the sense memory.

6 Ilitog’s Death Cap: When this mushroom is consumed, if the person who ate it has given up on life or lost the will to live, their heart stops immediately and they die peacefully within seconds.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Through Ultan's Door in 5E - some observations

I have now had the chance to run two sessions of my 5E campaign using material from Through Ultan's Door Issue 1. However, given our short session length, that only amount to about five hours of playtime.

The experience of running the module has cause me to make some adjustments to my conversion document, and I suspect that there may be more to come.

**There are some mild spoilers for the module below**

The party entered the sewers of Zyan at level two, and the PCs are a human bard, a merfolk wizard (illusionist), ravenfolk rogue and a gearforged druid. Yeah, I like allowing as many races as possible, what of it?

The first session was spent poking around the new location, engaging with traps and trying to communicate with the nonspeaking Guildess. Fortunately CL4U-D1A, the gearforged druid, can talk to beasts and was able to garner some information from the equus hound that accompanied the Guildless.

The players in this campaign are much more familiar with more modern RPGs and more modern play-styles, so it took a fair bit of prompting to get them to think more carefully about what objects within the dungeon might be valuable beyond simple gold and gems. This does, however, run up against a fairly commonly observed problem in 5E: there is almost nothing within the rules to do spend gold on. XP is not based on gold, PCs cannot generally buy magic items and there are no robust stronghold rules.

Ultimately, this means that treasure is basically acquired for its own sake. If I was intending to run this campaign as a very heavily dungeon/hex-crawl based game, I might look to implement XP-for-gold, but I'm planning on mixing and matching various modules and play-styles and I am not using XP for levelling (I don't like tracking XP for encounters, and prefer to just award level ups when it feels appropriate, or when content demands it).

Anyway, anyone else planning to run the module in 5E should give this issue consideration because it definitely shows that it was created with a XP-for-gold play-style in mind. This is not in any way a criticism of the module.

At the end of the first session, the PCs triggered a set-piece combat encounter with some white swine and we picked up session two by rolling for initiative. The combat took up the whole of two-hour+ session, and was instructive in a number of ways.

As is obvious, the combat took a long time, and it ended in a hard-fought victory by the PCs. But I wasn't really happy with how it went.

I used a lot less enemies than the module suggests, six white swine rather than the somewhere in the region of 3d6 demanded by the module. This wasn't an issue per se, as I went into the module knowing that 5E isn't really set up to handle enemies those numbers. In addition, the players in this campaign are not really "combat-as-war" players either (as an aside, I fucking hate the combat-as-war vs combat-as-sport meme, but I guess it gets across the point well enough), so I erred towards the kind of encounters they like and expect.

The major problem was that the white swine were too tough. When I say too tough, I don't mean the encounter was not balanced, I mean that they had too many HP and did too much damage for the role I wanted them to play, and the way I wanted fighting them to feel as an opponent. I have gone back and reduced their damage and HP in the conversion document, so that fighting them in large numbers is less of a drag. I don't see them as complete chaff but I see them attacking more as swarm than as elite combatants.

One of the particular issues, and it is something I alluded to in a previous post, is that fights with six of the same enemy--particularly when you are using a battle map--are not super engaging in 5E. This is exacerbated when the enemies hang around for a long time due to having too much HP.

I tried to make thing interesting by choosing more flavourful actions for the white swine at various points. They didn't go all attacking, instead trying to use darkness to their advantage and standing in defence of their home.

Some tried to grapple and drag a PC away to be consumed by their mother. Another ran over and ate the stone that the wizard had cast 'light' onto before throwing it into the room--snuffing out the party's light source. I played up the white swine wanting to stay out of the light to retain the advantage of their ability to see in the dark, and even had one of the swine move under cover so that the 'faerie fire' affecting him would not shed light on others.

Those aspects were all cool. But there was an awful lot of simple melee attacks being made in between. In old school play, where combat is often over pretty quickly, this is less of an issue, but in a drawn out tactical combat in 5E it starts to become very repetitive.

One solution, which I have employed, is dropping the HP of enemies. I may yet do this with some of the other monsters I have converted. 

Another solution is to create more tactically varied versions of each enemy (in the style of 4E or 13th Age). This would probably be most satisfying, but I'm not sure I want to go to that extent. It also feels a little bit out the spirit of an old school style module, but that's always a possible issue with converting an adventure.

A third thing is to be mindful of the environmental factors that can effect combat, like terrain and other opportunities for interaction with the dungeon itself. There is some very worthwhile advice about this very thing in Silent Titans that I will be re-reading before the next session. I did have the white swine's mother, who was lurking under the floor, thrash about a bit under the floor to cause instability during the fight, but in the circumstances the tactical relevance was limited.

Some of these problems will be alleviated by the players reaching level three, which will give them more tools to end fights quickly and a greater degree of tactical flexibility.

None of these things are problems inherent to the module and should not be understood as criticisms. They are simply the awkward seams between the expectations of the module and the kind of game I am running in 5E.

The atmosphere of the module, and the inventiveness of Ben's Dreamlands setting have been a big hit with the players and have been firing their imaginations. They have been particularly intrigued by the hints are the larger purpose of the dungeon, and the history of the place. As a DM it has been very fun mixing the explicit and implicit lore with my own ideas, and the other setting material I am jamming it together with.

No doubt I will report further when we have completed a few more sessions, but for now my conversion notes are very much a living document.

A quick plug:

Members of my podcast crew and I have published our first adventure as a module for the Zweihander RPG. You can get it here.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


As mentioned in a previous post, I have been converting the monsters and NPCs from the first issue of Through Ultan's Door, by Ben L. The conversions are now (I think) complete.

You can check the completed conversion out here. I may yet lay them out more properly if there is any demand.

I haven't had the chance to test the conversions out, but I should get my first opportunity on Monday when the party takes their first step through Ultan's Door and into the sewers of Zyan.

One thing that doing this project has really drive home to me is just how boring I find monsters in 5E. Ultimately, a lot of the conversions actually have more abilities than their OSR-style counterparts but they feel less interesting in some way. I find that 5E stat blocks sit in an uncomfortable position between Classic D&D stats and 4E stat blocks. 

Classic D&D stat blocks are short, and intended for generally quick and lethal combat. The monsters don't need a ton of stuff to do because they aren't going to be on screen for long enough for it to matter. In addition, the simple stat block feel ripe with opportunities to improvise, because the relatively simplicity (not quite the right word, but HD and highly constrained AC/to-hit maths provide some simple guideposts) of the maths makes adjudicating novel actions relatively easy.

By contrast, 4E stat blocks are much more detailed, but they also provide everything needed to run a monster that has a defined role in an encounter, and at least one or two tricks that will make them memorable and feel different from other monsters.

In 5E stat blocks, you get a large amount of detail but there usually isn't much there in terms of memorable tricks or unique abilities. Usually there's just AC, some HP, an attack or two that does HP damage. Occasionally there is the odd interesting special ability, but not much that changes the tactical situation. 

It feels like the worst of both worlds where the monster is designed with a Classic D&D mentality in terms of how complex its abilities need to be, combined with a very detailed stat block, and the fact that combats lasts longer and the monsters takes up more screen time.

5E's task resolution systems mean that you need all that additional stat block detail to resolve improvised actions, but that extra detail doesn't come with the benefit of more interesting mechanical game play. Whereas, I would argue, 4E's more complex stat blocks do meaningfully add to the tactical combat elements of the game.

I have tried to find some opportunities to add a few unique abilities, but 5E's "natural language" approach and monster design philosophy doesn't give the design language or mechanical tools that I would like for those sorts of things. I also feel a little bit weird assigning gimmicks to Ben L's creations without more input from him because if those unique abilities are properly designed they can imply a lot about monster and its place in the world.

For what it is worth, I think that Kobold Press do a much better job with this kind of monster design in their Tome of Beasts and Creature Codex products.

Anyways, enough waffle from me, here are a couple of the conversions:

The Sweating Maiden
Medium construct, unaligned 

Armor Class 14
Hit points 35
Speed 30ft.
Senses  passive perception 10
Challenge 2
Saves Dex +3, other saves +0

Bladed Parasol. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5ft., one target. 
Hit: 15 (3d6 +5) slashing  damage.

Parry. The Maiden adds 4 to is AC against one ranged attack that would hit it. To do so, the Maiden must see the attacker and be wielding the Bladed Parasol. The first time the Maiden takes this reaction each round, it does not use up its reaction.

The Groomsman
Medium construct, unaligned 

Armor Class 14
Hit points 35
Speed 30ft.
Senses  passive perception 10
Challenge 2
Saves Dex +3, other saves +0

Whirling Dance. The Groomsman may take a bonus action on each of its turns in combat. This action can be used only to take the Dash or Disengage action.

Multiattack. The Groomsman makes two Scissor Stilts attacks.

Scissor Stilts. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 10ft., one target. 
Hit: 9 (2d6 +2) piercing  damage.

Shadow Puppet Sorcerer
Medium elemental, chaotic

Armor Class 13
Hit points 1
Speed 30ft.
Damage immunities poison, psychic 
Condition immunities blinded, charmed, deafened, frightened, grappled, poisoned, restrained, stunned, unconscious.
Senses darkvision 120ft., passive perception 13
Languages  - 
Challenge 1
Number 1
Saves Dex +5, other saves +0

  • moving silently, blending into shadow +7.
Shadow Body. If a Shadow Puppet starts its turn in  light shed by the Light or Sunlight spells (or similar magical illumination),  it must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or be destroyed.

Innate Spellcasting. The Shadow Puppet's innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 11, +3 to hit with magical attacks). It can cast the following spells, requiring no material components, only by taking the Random Spellcasting action on its turn. 

At will: darkness, magic missile, phantasmal force, stinking cloud

Random Spellcasting. The Shadow Puppet Sorcerer casts one of the following spells (roll a d4):
  1. darkness
  2. magic missile
  3. phantasmal force
  4. stinking cloud

Thursday, March 14, 2019

TARTARUS INCURSION THREATS or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Make Random Tables

If there is one thing that can be said about me it is this: I never do new work when I could just recycle old work.

The Nightmares Underneath provides a number of tables for designing Nightmare Incursions (that game’s equivalent of dungeons). Many of those tables can work for The Long Bright Dark with a little bit of creativity and some judicious reskinning, but I wanted to add a few extra tables for inspiration.

Fortunately for me, I had pretty much already done the hard work when I wrote up a set of threats for creating investigations and arcs in my PbtA game Malleus (with a significant debt owed to Monster of the Week). A little bit of re-jigging, and some re-formatting, later and I had several random tables for inspiring Tartarus Incursions in The Long Bright Dark—how good!

I think that these tables should work reasonably well for any dungeon, particularly ones with some horror theming. Anyways, I have reproduced the table below.

The Crown, as in The Nightmares Underneath, is the spawn of Tartarus that represents the main risk or threat in an Incursion. If you are creating a nightmare from scratch, using the nightmare creation rules in TNU, you can roll a d10 on the table below to determine the nature of the Crown:

to breed, spread and overrun
to torment, murder and butcher
to sow doubt and create instability
to run rampant and destroy
to eat, devour and consume
to dominate, possess and control
to infect, exploit and drain
to hurt, torture and disfigure
to sway and tempt to damnation
to usurp the power of Tartarus

Thralls are lesser nightmares that inhabit an Incursion. In many cases they are beholden or subservient to the Crown; however, some Thralls have their own motivations and may be opposed to the Crown. They may also serve a Location or Tartarus directly in certain circumstances. The following table provides inspiration for creating Thralls:

to kill with skill and cunning
to infest and infect
to track, observe and report
to steal and sabotage
to trick, confuse and betray
to do the Crown’s bidding
to protect a person, place or thing
to terrorise and attack

Locations represent important physical, or meta-physical places, within the incursion. Not every single room or location the PCs might encounter need to be treated as a ‘capital-L’ Location—just the ones where the location will form a notable obstacle or serve as a backdrop for a major conflict. For certain kinds of incursion, a Location might even stand in for the Crown and have its own Thralls if its influence is strong enough. The following table can be used to provide inspiration for Locations:

to provide sanctuary to Tartarus and its children
to be at the centre of things, to bring things together
Breeding Ground
to provide fertile ground for, and birth the seeds of Tartarus
to trap and confuse
to draw worshippers
Charnel House
to bring death and destruction to those within
to harbour the dead and restless souls
to form a place of power
to hide the ancient and the unknown
to inveigle, entrance, and tempt to Tartarus

Tartarus itself, separate from the Crown, may have its own wants and desires that affect the Incursion. Tartarus can be used as a thematic overlay on an incursion, a uniting principle that can operate anywhere in the incursion. There are seven aspects of Tartarus—I think you can guess why! You can pick one, roll a d7 or figure out some other way to make a random choice:

intense longing and desire for a person or living thing
overindulgence and overconsumption, selfishness
desire and greed for the accumulation of power and possessions
indifference to duties and obligations, avoidance of exertion
uncontrolled anger, rage and hatred
insatiable jealousy and covetousness
hubris, narcissism, corrupt selfishness and the perversion of dignity

NPCs represent other people or beings that may be present in or near an incursion. In general, they are not antagonists and some of them may not even really be an obstacle in and of themselves. NPCs such as the Meddler or the Storyteller may get in the way of the PCs and require them to change tack. Allies, Investigators, Victim and Witnesses might be able to aid but are also likely to be endangered by the incursion—the threat they represent is that the PCs might not be able to save them or may end up making them collateral damage:

to provide aid and assistance to the PCs
to provide information
to looks for answers or ancient knowledge
to interfere and pursue their own ends
to pass on rumours and hearsay
to put themselves in the clutches of Tartarus