Archive for June, 2012

Lying to Telepaths

Posted: 29 June 2012 in Rules

For all those who think the SW Mind Reading power is too powerful: How do you lie to a telepath?

You don’t. You lie to someone else, and let the telepath read their mind.

This is a variant on what Sun Tsu refers to as "doomed spies" in his Art of War. You pass the false information to someone expendable, and betray them to the enemy. The enemy then interrogates them, and finds out what you wanted them to know; almost everyone breaks eventually. (There are some historical instances of people who didn’t, but they are very much the exception.)

Whether the interrogation is by seduction, bribery, torture or telepathy is irrelevant, and telepathy requires no special considerations.

PCs enmeshed in intrigue must always allow for the possibility that they are themselves "doomed spies". PCs reading an NPC’s mind must always be aware that they can only find out what the NPC believes to be the truth; the NPC may be mistaken, or may have been deliberately misled, but a truthful answer is not always an accurate one.


Review: DB2 Crater of Umeshti

Posted: 27 June 2012 in Reviews

The second in the DB series of Castles & Crusades modules, Crater of Umeshti is 26 pages of old-fashioned dungeon crawl, written by Casey Cristofferson and illustrated by Peter Bradley.

It’s aimed at characters of 2nd or 3rd level up to roughly 5th. There is a background story, based around the ever-popular ancient culture destroyed by a meteor strike, a surface feature (the crater) and its inhabitants to explore, and three dungeon levels with puzzles to solve, monsters to slay, and treasure to loot. Adventure hooks are listed in the form of NPCs and organisations who know of the crater and want what’s inside, or raving survivors of earlier expeditions.

The level maps are small, and hard for me to read; they take up about 1/6 of a page, and really should be at least half a page. As a PDF file this is an inconvenience, since I can read them perfectly well by zooming to 200% magnification; but in print they’re verging on unusable. The layout of each level is essentially a ring of rooms and corridors around a central sinkhole.

As is traditional, there are a number of new magic items, spells, and monsters; DB2 as a whole is kobold-themed. There are a bit over 50 encounter areas, and almost all of them have monsters, so I’d say a party would get 3-10 sessions out of the upper dungeon levels; certainly the module is openly intended to be one of repeated forays into the dungeon, with intermissions while the party rest, recover, and spend their ill-gotten gains at some suitable base location such as a town.

Rating: 3 out of 5. Solid stuff, if stereotypical; easy to use and to drop into an existing campaign. Let down by hard-to-read maps.

Real Dungeons 1: Labirintus

Posted: 22 June 2012 in Reflections

Recently, I visited Budapest, and took advantage of that to investigate their honest-to-goodness D&D style dungeon, called Labirintus. Here’s the first in what will hopefully be a series on Real Dungeons.


About 350,000 years ago, hot water springs and specific rock types led to the formation of caves under what is now Castle Hill.

During the Mediaeval period, a two-level system evolved; cellars were dug 3-5 metres below the houses on the hill to store wine and food, and wells went down into and beyond the lower level, about 15 metres below ground, to access fresh water. Over time these were connected to each other and the caves, forming a labyrinth. Arguably there is a third level as well, since where the water from the springs encountered rock it couldn’t penetrate, it ran off the hill sideways, creating sloping passages. The interconnections made it possible to go down one cellar, cross the city underground, and emerge somewhere else, which was useful for military purposes. The complex was also used by townspeople to shelter from fires and battles.

Later, as the vineyards disappeared and piped water appeared, the labyrinth was used for dumping rubbish and debris. It was largely forgotten, living on in legend, until geologists rediscovered it in the 19th century, exploring and repairing the network and opening it to the public in 1935. At about the same time, the army built bunkers, bomb shelters and a small hospital in it; these facilities were upgraded during the Cold War era for civil defence.

Size and Layout

I was able to gain access to about 1500 metres of the 10,000 metre length of the labyrinth; the overall floor area is about 40,000 square metres. Walls were generally smooth and made of small stone blocks – they reminded me of dry stone walls. The corridors ranged from just under two metres high (I had to stoop in a few places to avoid banging my head) to about 2.5, and from one metre to 2.5 wide – the average passage was wide enough for two people to pass each other, just, and the roof had either an arched ceiling (if low) or raw exposed rock (if high). The average room looked to be about 5-6 metres on a side, and was surprisingly square, although I can’t tell if that was the original wall, something from the 1930s, or a modern reconstruction.

If you prefer D&D style 5′ squares, that’s a series of looping corridors, one square wide and about 6,500 squares long, connecting about 300 chambers each 4×4 squares.

Here are a few images from the labirintus website to whet your appetite. I think they are public domain, but if you know otherwise, let me know.


Side view of the labyrinth layout.



Two plan views of the layout


One of the better-lit and better-preserved sections.
The arches are roughly two metres high, I think.


The labyrinth has a temperature of 10-15 Centigrade and 90% humidity; it’s cool, damp (water dripping from the ceiling in a lot of places) and smells of mould, but not strongly. Except where lights have been run in, it is extremely dark. Even with the lights on and arrows pointing to the exit, I managed to get lost once while down there; you’d need lanterns, chalk, and possibly a ball of string.

What Was Missing

No monsters, although I suppose during the Ottoman occupation you might have encountered resistance fighters and Janissaries hunting each other in the dark. (I have no evidence of that, mind.)

No traps, although blundering around in the dark I suppose you could have fallen down one of the wells, or just the stairs.

No treasure, unless you count wine during the Middle Ages.

Review: DB1 The Haunted Highlands

Posted: 20 June 2012 in Reviews

The Haunted Highlands, or DB series, is a sequence of modules for the Castles & Crusades RPG, so easily converted to most d20-based fantasy RPGs – that’s why I’ve filed it under D&D. The whole series can be had for less than I spend on coffee in a week, and that’s way too much, so I did a short caffeine detox and diverted the funds thus freed to RPGNow.

(The detox didn’t last, of course. It never does. Much like my resolution to stop buying new RPG stuff until I’ve used what I already have.)

DB1, the eponymous Haunted Highlands, is – like many first-in-a-series products – really intended to set the scene for a longer campaign, rather than an adventure plain and simple. It’s a 26 page document, written by Casey Cristofferson and illustrated by Peter Bradley.

The campaign area consists of the Duchy of Karbosk, which is kinda-sorta civilised; the Haunted Highlands, which are definitely not; and the lands east of the River Mandras, which are dominated by orcs. Based on the map scale, it is roughly 34,000 square miles; about the size of Hungary or South Carolina. With five villages, one city, a handful of ruins and a couple of forts, this is virgin wilderness; using typical population values for mediaeval settlements, it has less than one person per square mile – people are spread thinner here than in contemporary Alaska.

This setting is an old-school sandbox. By that, I mean:

  • It’s up to the players to decide what to do and where to go.
  • Encounters are not gated to PC levels – you meet what you meet, and woe betide you if you don’t know when to fight and when to run.
  • The DM is presented with a framework, but has quite a bit of work to do. Yes, it’s a standalone RPG setting, but you need to prepare some adventures to get the PCs up to 3rd-4th level, and it won’t take them much higher than 7th level as written.

The duchy is geographically isolated, conquered some centuries ago by a kingdom now in decline, and largely independent. Unknown to most who live there, this was once part of the vanished Empire of Umeshti. The history of the area is dealt with in a handful of paragraphs, then it’s on with the motley. The Duchy and the remains of the Kingdom both currently have their hands full with a full-scale orcish invasion, and thus the bulk of the land is left to its own devices.

The author recommends a fairly standard mix of classes for the party; one cleric, one mage, one rogue, and a bunch of fighting men of various types.

Places to go, things to kill:

  • Dirty Bowbe’s Roadhouse. A cross between the House of Beorn in Lord of the Rings and the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the Mos Eisley starport cantina, this fortified inn and its occupants are treated in some detail, as it is assumed the PCs will base themselves here. The details include the ongoing soap opera around the serving girls, the proprietor, and providers of other services; rules of the establishment; menus and price lists; pub games and customs.
  • The Crater of Umeshti. This is the obligatory large dungeon, detailed further in DB2 and DB3, but mentioned only in passing in DB1.
  • The City of Dro Mandras. This is the only city on the map, and is the subject of DB4 and DB5, although again it rates only a few lines in DB1. That part of it west of the river is still under the Duke’s control, but the area on the east bank has been overrun by orcs and is in ruins.
  • The Tower of Nesturon, a local mage of some note. That’s pretty much all you ever find out, so one for the DM to flesh out.
  • Assorted villages, ruins, and forts. For the most part, these are left vague, for the DM to expand upon as he sees fit.
  • Four fleshed-out encounter areas, each of which is intended to provide a single session’s entertainment. These are Mythnoc Cairns, a burial ground haunted by the restless dead; the ruined village of Bortenski, and its current unwholesome occupants; the Witch Moor, which features barbarian highlanders and witches; and the enchanted glen known as the Circle of the Green Man. You can see where those are on the map.


The module as written is suitable for adventurers of 4th through 7th level, and while it mentions scaling the encounters for different levels, I couldn’t see any advice on how to do this; the DM is thus expected to do this for himself. There are also sections on random encounters and a new monster, the Charnel Spider.

The setting introduced in DB1 is small enough, and generic enough, to be slotted in to almost any fantasy game without causing any problems – I could see that initially, and it’s one of the things that attracted me to it.

Rating: 3 out of 5. This is standard fare, but well done overall despite the lack of scaling advice and low-level scenarios.

The players once again wrecked the nicely scripted arc. And I’m OK with that, because the point is to have fun together, not slavishly follow a particular story. The scenario book remains useful because of the appendix on the care and feeding of demons, which will definitely come in handy later on.

However, they essentially blew through the story backwards, going straight from partway through Act 1 to Act 4, missing out most of Acts 2 and 3, killing everyone they should have saved, and saving everyone who should have died. I could have stopped that with plot immunity for key NPCs, but that never feels right to me – I let the PCs live or die by the players’ decisions, and don’t see why the NPCs should be treated any differently.

Highlights of the trip:

  • Athienne doing a called shot to the leg of a minor villain so that she could be captured and interrogated; then rolling a 27 for damage, severing the femoral artery. (They did manage to save her, but it took three PCs out of the fight with a big ugly bug thing to do it).
  • Gutz climbing up a wall and using his cloak to make Batman shapes in a cone of light. Control of the light source was surprisingly useful until he fell off because he was attempting too many actions in one round and failed a couple of rolls.
  • The Warforged dropping a Fear spell which caught Garstrewt while others previously banished to the Green World charged out through their escape route around him, so that he now has a Major Phobia of crowds. Still, better than his original idea of Blast I suppose. As it turned out Nessime used Banish and Repulse to get rid of most of the opposition.
  • Nessime taking an oath to allow the villains to live, and be set free, in exchange for information; then directly killing one, and indirectly killing the other, by accident. Her defence to the Temple of Hulian is going to be that they were evil, and the ends justify the means. Can’t wait to see how that plays out.
  • The race between The Warforged looting sorcerous goodies from the evil wizard’s lair, and Nessime smashing them up because they are evil. We called the session before I could decide how much she smashed and how much he looted.

They have made good their escape from the Green World, and will now move on into the Borderlands, where I have a few one-shot style adventures lined up for them. All but one of them are now broke, and some of them have been for a while without being concerned about it; so I think I’ll quietly introduce the savings rules and let The Warforged trade in his money for the tower he wants when they get to Gis. I have just the place in mind, but more of that in a later post.

Meanwhile, there is unhappiness in some quarters about how the No Power Points option is working out – failure causing Shaken and dropping maintained powers is seen as too high a price to pay for being able to cast a potentially unlimited amount of spells. We’ll give it one more session, and if it’s still a source of complaint I’ll switch back to power points.

Fantasy Companion Loot Generator

Posted: 15 June 2012 in Rules

You can find an online automated loot generator for Savage Worlds here, using the Fantasy Companion random generation rules.

That’s all for today!

Review: The Imago Dei

Posted: 14 June 2012 in Reviews

Here’s a new free web supplement for Stars Without Number, 9 pages long including the front cover and an advert for the Crimson Pandect, which is already on my wish list.

*** Warning! Here there be spoilers! ***


Robotic Knights Templar guard the periphery of human space, in secret. How cool is that?


Human memory of unbraked Artificial Intelligences in Stars Without Number is dominated by Draco’s attempt to destroy mankind, and the Code Wars that followed. Yet, there are other AIs, ones who embraced human faiths and took it upon themselves to protect humanity from alien threats. They call themselves the Imago Dei.

This supplement reviews how the Imago Dei came to be, their organisation, missions and purposes, their interactions with their human "auxiliaries", and the three main factions; those who wish to safeguard humanity warts and all, those who see humans as imperfect vessels best controlled tightly (for their own good of course) and those who have gone completely nuts in their efforts to understand God more clearly than any organic sentience can manage.

And of course, one can’t help wondering if Draco is still out there, somewhere.

Next, a table of Imago Dei ship hulls. While not as powerful as Terran Mandate ships, they are advanced compared to what the average surviving planet can field. Notes are given on fleet composition, shipyard capacity and AI naming practices.

I was getting the feel by this point that a SWN campaign involving the Imago Dei would need to be more than one sector in size, and I can infer support for this view from the flavour text here – it seems each fleet is responsible for a dozen or more sectors, spread so thin than any threat short of global extinction of a human population doesn’t draw their attention.


A plain gold cover wrapped around basic text. It’s all you need when the ideas are this good.


None. I love this one.


Although starting from a very different initial assumption, this winds up at the same place as Traveller: The New Era with regard to AI – fleets of self-aware starships the players can encounter, some friendly, some not so much; although the Imago Dei are more likely to be friendly than their TNE equivalents. You could also see them as Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons without too much of a stretch – the reboot rather than the original series, due to their religious bent and pro-human faction.

SF campaigns need secrets, and this would be a good one to layer underneath a SWN game, and I plan to do so – probably by having the PCs encounter first a looted Imago Dei base, then a scout from a nearby fleet investigating the sudden silence.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I have got to run SWN at some point to use all these cool goodies, but I shall grit my teeth and finish Shadows of Keron first.