Author Archives: Chris Jackson

3 Generations After the End: The Forests

This article is part of 3 Generations After The End, a post-apocalyptic setting suitable for any role-playing system.

The face of the world has irrevocably changed, three generations after the end. The landscape is divided neatly between vast swathes of desolate waste and gigantic, ancient forests. Arable land that has not become completely overgrown is an incredible rarity in the world, and all of that has long since been claimed by the warlords or the sorcerer-kings. Many of the remaining cities have been built within the crumbling remains of those left from before the end, crowding along the coasts of rivers, lakes, and oceans. These are almost invariably held under sway by the ineffable whims of the Priesthood. Wherever one can gain a fleeting sense of security, one also must have to sacrifice liberty.

Magic seems to have not only returned to humankind. The forests are, perhaps, the most dangerous place in the world. Technology begins to inexplicably break down and malfunction, the further one strays from civilization, but there is nowhere worse than deep within the forests, where technology just doesn’t work at all. Even more primitive implements such as compasses can often lead one astray; the magic imbuing the place seems to disrupt natural as well as artificial magnetic fields. This may also contribute to some of the more subjective experiences, deep in the woods; spending too much time in the wilds can lead to dizziness, confusion, exhaustion, and anxiety. These effects seem to be particularly bad to those with natural magical talent of their own; not only does magic frequently misfire or go astray, but but it is more exhausting for the caster to carry through. Worse, it seems that many flora and fauna within the forests and jungles seem naturally attracted to magic, zeroing in on the errant caster, often ignoring their companions completely.

Very few animals still dwell within the forests, and those that do are monstrous. The plants themselves, it seems, have become the chief predators, preying both upon each other, and anything else that wanders too far in whether for folly or for food. Many have changed into things unrecognizable from what they may once have been, developing bulbous, tuberous, vining, sticking, and piercing structures to assist in their predations. Nearly every predatory plant can exhibit short bursts of incredible growth, draining storage organs and shrivelling pseudobulbs in order to achieve these wild grasps. Roots, stems, and even flowers are often covered in minute hairs, which sense something brushing against them, or even walking over the ground above, and stimulate the plant to strike. These hairs can also serve another purpose as well; many are packed full of potent crystallized toxins, causing skin that brushes against them to burn, scab, or even necrotize. Many pollens serve a double-duty as soporific agents, lulling the breathers into a narcotic sleep. Spines and mucilaginous glands along the leaves and stems further serve to deliver the plants’ predatory payloads to their unsuspecting victims. Once bound by rapidly-growing vines, disabled by poison or injury, or simply exhausted from fighting back cruel nature, the plants slowly grow over their victims. Adventitious roots pour out of any part of the plant and dive into the flesh, drawing out nutrients as they exude enzymes that breaks down the tissue. Even calcium is drawn out from the bones, eventually, leaving nothing as evidence after only a couple weeks.

People venturing into the forests, whether for adventure or for forage, often do not return. Rescue parties are a rare sight; usually once someone has been attacked, there is very little chance of survival. Nevertheless, the sight of a scarred, scabbed individual is not an uncommon one within the settlements nearest to the forests. Some are even permanently disfigured from their experiences in the wild. It is sheer folly to venture within the woods alone, so oftentimes a member of an adventuring group will take a misstep and be attacked by feral foliage, and for the rest of their lives bear the marks of the encounter. Yet the incredible bounty promised within the forests continues to draw the brave and the desperate; despite all of the deadliness, there is also an abundance of edible fruits, roots, and fungus. Many nomadic groups travel from forest to forest, foraging and scavenging within for items of subsistence and trade, as well as for the components of valuable medicines which they can produce. It is unreasonable, therefore, to make any sort of attempt to destroy the forests wholesale, despite the threat they present, because it is counterbalanced by their incredible fecundity of natural resources.

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Swords to Ploughshares (Part III)

I recently participated in a Halloween blog carnival called “On A Night in the Lonesome October,” where I submitted two adventures. One of them was a 2nd-level D&D adventure titled “The Village Above The Sea.” In it, 2nd-level adventurers stop off and stay in a seaside hotel in a quaint, out-of-the-way village, populated by some very strange characters. However, things are not as they originally appeared, and some of the villagers start exhibiting some extremely bizarre and frightening behavior. The plot thickens when the town drunk, a former adventurer, tells a tale of a secret cult that his group discovered in his youth, that were committing blasphemous acts with the minions of some piscoid god that they had all pledged themselves to. He was certain that he and his cohort had stomped out all traces of the creatures born of this unholy union, but stops there. Events conspire to suggest that there might once again be something unsavory lurking in the waves beyond.

After discovering an elaborate set of natural sea-tunnels carved out of the bluff underneath where the village was seated, the party discovers that the villagers above had been getting kidnapped, and terrible things done to them while they were put under a mind-spell so that they would not remember it. However, the hypnotism had side effects, and that was what originally alerted the adventuring party that not all was what it appeared in this village. After carving through half-human and half-piscoid abominations, maniacal cultists, and other horrible creatures that lurk in forsaken places underground, the party finally discovers that all of it was aimed at summoning an aboleth through a portal, which would enslave the minds of all in its presence and use them as its corrupt minions to further its dominion within this realm as well.

With the aboleth defeated, the mind-controlling effects over the villagers finally abolished, all that is left is to lead the prisoners out from the caves and back up into fresh air. Things have a way of not turning out as planned, however, and it turns out that what should have been assumed to have been the high priest was just yet another crony, and that the real instigator of all of the horrible events was the village priest, who had become corrupted in the mind while abroad, and had heard the whisperings of this beast and become insane. Furthermore, he had planted seeds of taint within the bodies of some of the villagers, which causes them to fall to the ground, die, and rise back up as horrible zombie-like minions, which then try to spread their corruption to the other villagers.

What results is a race against time to first, try to defeat the mad priest, but at the same time, try to save the villagers (who are all locked in the temple with the monsters). Ideally, it seems that the fastest way to solve this problem is to kill the priest, and hope that whatever deep corruption he is drawing upon to command these monsters will be vanquished with his defeat. Certainly it seems the most logical course of action, given that he seems to be in control, more or less, of all of the creatures who are murdering villagers.

But what if he is just under the influence of some external power himself? Wouldn’t simply killing him as the most expedient way to solve a problem be, at the end of the day, murder? Certainly most of the villagers who were spared by the act would probably be able to forgive the situation, given the circumstances, but this is a man, who for all intents and purposes was lawful good until he became corrupted. Another lawful good character might have serious reservations about murder, whether justified or not, especially if it could be possible that he could be saved. It would be terribly unclear whether he was hypnotized or under a spell, or whether he actually had become completely mad. It doesn’t make sense to just try to quick whack him over the head and carry him off, but he also doesn’t seem to be in any sort of state where anybody would possibly be able to reason with him. So what’s the alternative?

I suppose a start would be to try to quickly dispatch the monsters; the villagers who had already been slain by his dark machinations, to wipe them out as quickly as possible so that more villagers could be saved. It is clear that they are dead, and only reanimated by evil magic. The entire time, he will be launching necrotic bolts, and probably laughing maniacally, so it will be sort of hard to not want to hit back, but it would give the whole encounter a very interesting dynamic if it were impressed upon the players that knocking him off was “off limits.” Or even better would be for them to draw that conclusion on their own.

But what would happen once all of his minions were defeated and he was trapped, with 3-4 angry warriors bearing down on him? Would he relent? Would he try to escape? Would he at last try to talk his way out of it? Maybe even if he was irreversibly insane, he would even try to convince them that he had been under a spell, and that he was better now to throw them off. It is this sort of situation that creates memorable encounters for GMs and players alike, and I’m not exactly sure what I would do if this situation arose. It could even be a quest opportunity: seek out this person, this spell, this item, that can clear his mind of evil. The villagers will keep him prisoner until then. All of these options are far more interesting than just simply killing him, and it lays the foundation for many more roleplaying experiences and story points. It allows the players to dictate where the game moves next.

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Swords to Ploughshares (Part II)

The first D&D adventure I ever wrote was a reasonably short one, where the adventurers (level 1, obviously) are hired for a relatively simple task of clearing out a swamp of dangerous frogs, which have been terrorizing the halfling inhabitants of a small farming village. However, the twist was that the frogs had been stirred up by an ancient, buried secret that lay deep within a cursed subterranean temple, which once was home to a cult who worshipped Pelor. What are Pelor worshippers doing underground? This was a sect that believed that life and death was a cycle, much like light and dark, and had embraced a contemplative lifestyle where they meditated on the mysteries of life and light whilst shrouded in darkness.

Flimsy, I know. In order to even access the temple, the players had to either break down the door (which was heavy oak), or else defile graves in order to dig up two keys. Either prospect was not very appealing. With break DCs what they were in the PHB1 days, a level 1 character would almost have better luck shooting the door with arrows until it felt apart than running at it and trying to knock its hinges off. I suppose I’d have allowed a Thievery check to simply remove the pins from the hinges and a Strength check to lift the door clean off and set it aside, but I never really had a chance to test what players would, ultimately, come up with.

The deeper, darker secret was that the cult’s purpose had been abruptly altered when they discovered a portal to the Shadowdark deep within the recesses of the cave, through which dread Things were trying to emerge. In order to protect the world from these creatures, they constructed a very elaborate seal, craft from solid silver and solid gold, and took shifts uttering incantations over the seal to keep the bonds strong. This worked great for a while, until the members of the sect became old, feeble, and died. For some reason they never thought of recruiting, apparently, or sending for help from a more mainstream Pelorean temple. I just made up that word, Pelorean. Maybe they feared persecution? I never thought that part through.

Alas, stranger tides did turn and the last surviving member of the sect, in a desperate bid to try to keep the seal over the portal secure, went through the blackest, darkest ritual to become a wight, under the misdirected notion that becoming undead would enable him to maintain his holy mission for the rest of time. As things like this happen, as time went on, he became more and more corrupt as his soul slipped further and further away, and rather than shedding holy light down upon the portal, he was feeding it with necrotic evil. The wildlife in the swamp outside the halfling village becoming crazed and perturbed was only the first hint that something far more evil was afoot, and thanks to the quick thinking of the adventurers, they’d come up with some way to destroy the wight, and secure the seal.

The wight was a scaled-back deathlock wight (mostly so he was easier for level 1 or 2 characters to hit), but all conversation options ultimately led to him attacking. He also had a neat raise minion undead power I stuck in there to make it a bit more interesting. The way I had the adventure end was after he was defeated, the last bit of power escaped from him and flung the portal open, which caused evil energy to pour out, which inadvertently causes the cave to collapse around the portal, sealing the evil in.

However, wouldn’t it have been even more interesting if there was a way to, ultimately, reason with the wight? At least misdirect him long enough for a thief or some other character to slip by, unnoticed, to at least pull something over on him? If I was a player in this adventure, I’d have been very interested in the documents that the sect left behind (discoverable earlier in the adventure), plus all of the untold knowledge kept safely by the wight in his secret study (he had constructed a dormitory directly adjacent to a small room containing the portal and surrounded himself with all of the things he felt he needed to pass the eons), and would really have liked to have engaged him, if nothing else, in a philosophical debate, which may, eventually, have reminded him of his earlier days when he was still human, alive, and passionate.

Perhaps he could have been convinced, at last, that his mission had become corrupted, and that he was no longer performing the duty which he had sworn to uphold, and in fact was acting, inadvertently, against his own express desires. He certainly couldn’t return to the world above, he was a wight, a thing of evil, he would not be accepted. He couldn’t remain where he was, his corruption was feeding the tear between worlds and making it stronger, his very presence acted to draw more evil things to the threshold. It would be very easy to make the player chacters pity the wight, instead of hate him, and make them want to try to come to an alternative outcome from killing him, at least killing him in cold blood. Even if he attacked, they could attempt, if they sympathized with him enough, to merely subdue him, and try to bring him to sense later.

Heck, if, as a player, I liked him enough, I’d probably even try to come up with some way to cover him up in a cloak, smuggle him out of the city under cloak of night, and secret him away to some temple of Pelor somewhere else in the world, try to explain the sad situation to the priests there, and let the wight live out the rest of his life in penance there. Not only would that have been a very unexpected and novel solution for the problem, but it also would set up the opportunity to have a very powerful (albeit unusual) NPC contact for other adventure seeds. I think that, while alignment can be really useful a lot of the time, at other times it can get in the way of role-playing. If there is an outcome to a situation that is more interesting as a player, but which contradicts alignment, I’d be very tempted to ignore alignment for the moment and just see how the situation played out. Those sorts of moments are often much more memorable than simply smashing the bad guy and calling it a day, and their effects can last for a much longer period of time.

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Swords to Ploughshares (Part I)

Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition is the first RPG I ever ran as a GM. I had played in other RPGs before, mostly Middle Earth or Shadowrun, a little Vampire: The Masquerade here and there, but Dungeons and Dragons had completely gone under my radar. I was aware of it, of course, but I was even more wary of its reputation: that of a rules monster. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have to keep track of all of the stuff that you supposedly had to keep track of; in all my MERP games the GM had an uncanny ability to track all that unpleasantness while still keeping the game lively, interesting, and entertaining. I guess I had been spoiled.

I missed D&D 3(.5) completely, and, though I’ve since read the Pathfinder core book, as well as the AD&D player’s guide and DM handbook, I have no nostalgic connection to either of them. Honestly, while I’d be more than willing to play in a Pathfinder game one day, I’d hate to be the one running it. It seems like an even bigger rules monster than AD&D. Most of the systems I like to play are almost as easy for the GM to keep up with as they are for the player; this is not a judgment against any rules-heavy system (like Pathfinder), it’s just a matter of preference. I like to think of myself as story-focused and I prefer to not have to keep track of too many incidentals in the process.

One of the main reasons why I like 4e is that it is relatively straightforward, and easy to pick up. Wizards of the Coast had released a “quick-start guide” for learning the system, which was a great way to see whether it was something I’d enjoy before making any monetary investment in the product. It was an easy winner for someone who had spent a lot of time away from gaming. I liked what the game had to offer, and is still the system I play most often, whether in its “pure” form or the adaptation for Gamma World. It’s quite easy to even put together a more casual, impromptu game, and published content is, for the most part, reasonably well-assembled and tells a good enough story.

However, one of the things that I immediately noticed upon picking it up (me, and everyone else), was that it was very combat-oriented. The published adventures provide a little bit of material to move players from one combat scenario to another, and overall it assumes that groups are using some sort of checkered play surface to gauge distance, and markers to designate locations of player characters and enemies. But I was fine with that, because I was not terribly comfortable with trying to design (or run) situations where there would be more opportunity to roleplay than to fight.

But that’s not all. Even now, I find myself terrified that the game might head in a different direction than I originally intended, or move into areas for which I don’t have sufficient details written. Consequently, most of the adventures I write myself are more or less “on rails.” I limit the players’ choices while still trying to tell a coherent story, rather than let them figure out what the story should be and play it out themselves. Of course, I’ve never had a game escape from the Heroic tier, so maybe dungeon delves are still appropriate for that level of character. Nevertheless, I still heavily lean on combat-based adventures, without trying to accommodate for alternate avenues of resolving the problem.

I acknowledge that this is a crutch that I lean on to save myself some imaginative work in creating a more open, fully-realized game world. However, there is nothing in the rules stating that XP can only be gained through martial means, and so I see absolutely no problem at all with awarding the same experience for intentionally avoiding an encounter, either through diplomacy or guile, especially if that meant that the encounter would not re-present itself as a problem in the future. That means sliding a stone over the mouth of the cave full of orcs, talking one’s way out of a bar-brawl in the making, or even misdirecting a raiding party so they end up being hopelessly lost in the forest instead of assaulting innocent villagers.

The tools are all already there, as 4e is honestly a pretty remarkably flexible system, I just haven’t ever taken advantage of them. As a player, I always had to rely on the GM for coming up with clever ways to accommodate for the often completely insane things that we the players, collectively, came up with to try to warp the situation to our advantage. As a GM, I’ve probably gotten a little soft, and often the sorts of things that players come up with completely surprise and disarm me, temporarily, before I can come up with a solution. Therefore, over the following few weeks, I will take an encounter or two from adventures that I have written, and try to come up with ways I would try to respond to it, as a player, to avoid or disrupt combat. In other words, an exercise in self-critique, coming from the perspective of the other side of the screen.

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