Thursday, December 17, 2015

To Quaff or Not to Quaff - alchemical items in low fantasy campaigns

                Since I earlier discussed alchemy as a source of magical power in a sword and sorcery setting, I feel it is pertinent to talk about the kind of items an alchemist (or witch, shaman, etc.) may be able to provide for your players in a low fantasy setting. I am not going to talk about items of necessarily great power, because, as discussed already, those should be relatively few and far between in your game. Further, I would draw the general distinction between what can be made via alchemy and its lower magic cousins from the traditional crafting of magical items is the consumable nature of the item.
 I would caution against giving any alchemical item the ability to recharge its abilities; an item with such a property should be the result of magic on a more grand scale, and should absolutely not be available for purchase. Alchemical items can be grouped, I believe, into the following groups: mundane, quasi-mystical, and supernatural. Before I jump in, just one more caveat: alchemical items should be expensive. If you are going to include items like this for sale in a low fantasy game, I encourage you to adopt some of the suggestions from my post on in game economy.
The Mundane
                Some of the items that alchemists will be able to produce will be mundane by the standards of people such as ourselves that live in a highly technological world. The thing to remember is that in a world where the vast majority of people are illiterate and toiling in very labor intensive agricultural occupations, knowledge that does not directly tie in to someone’s day-to-day activities is a luxury that few possess. In this sort of backdrop, anything requiring years of study to accomplish would be quite the feat indeed. Let’s look into some of those items.
                Healer kits
While magical healing is very rare in a low fantasy world, there have always been medicines. A healer’s kit would simply be an assortment of balms, salves, and herbal remedies which, when applied to the player character, will expedite the healing process. A generous DM may make it so the application of these kits will heal 1d4+ half the level of the alchemist hit points when used. If however you intend these items to not be instantaneous, I recommend sticking to increasing the amount of hit points healed per day (say two or three per day as opposed to just one). Either way, if you want to keep the threat level of your campaign consistently high, enforce the ruling that uses of these items do not stack and can only be used once per day.
                Specific Cures
Whereas a healer’s kit will help with the scrapes and cuts someone accumulates throughout an adventuring day, if a PC were to come down with the some kind of serious (non-magical) affliction, a more specific cure may need to be purchased. If you have a PC that has been poisoned, succumbed to the elements, or been stricken with a disease that is not fundamentally magical, an alchemist should be able to provide a cure. These cures should never be instantaneous, however. If a player character contracts a mundane disease, he/she should anticipate having to spend days in bed while the treatment is being administered. If the disease has a cumulative list of effects, these should stop accumulating upon the first use of the cure. It seems reasonable that every day of bed rest and treatment will reverse one effect of the illness. The time needed (and thus money spent) on the cure should be dependent upon how far the illness has advanced.
Incredibly dangerous, difficult to procure, and undoubtedly illegal, poisons are among the main reasons that the common person (and the local government) would be weary of alchemists. Poisons should always be made out of rare and expensive materials, otherwise the players are likely to become too apt to employ them, thereby upsetting game balance. Because of the highly volatile nature of poison making, the process should take days for an alchemist to complete even if he/she does have the all of the necessary component on hand. In general, however, an alchemist will not have the materials to make any/every kind of poison the desired by the player characters, though he/she may possess most. If a player character does want to have a potent poison produced by the alchemist, mere payment will not suffice (though it will definitely be a component). Characters will have to first earn the trust of the alchemist and then complete a side-quest wherein they get the necessary alchemical reagents needed to produce the poison. Depending on what is needed, this could force the PCs to travel great distances or deal with unscrupulous characters.
In much the same way alchemists can produce poisons, they are likely able to refine various narcotics. If your player characters need to drug someone with the extract of the purple lotus, for instance, an alchemist is definitely the person to seek out for such an item. For the same reasoning as with poisons, narcotics are going to be difficult to come by due to their likely illicit status. The again, the player characters are likely going to have to come up with the material components on their own, as well as gain the alchemists trust and pay a hefty fee.

The Quasi-Mystical
                Potions and items of this nature of the kind of thing that allow characters to achieve greater than average feats. Anything than can impart greater than average strength, celerity, or endurance falls under the “quasi-mystical” umbrella. A potion that allows someone to go longer without food or water would also fall under this auspice. The effects of these sort of items, however, should not be potent enough to replicate actual spells.
The Supernatural
                The final category of alchemical items are those that actually replicate the effects of magic. Healing potions and magical cures are some of the first that come to mind, and are likely the most common of the supernatural alchemical items. It is possible, however, that an alchemist with the proper time and reagents could produce other magical potions such as those which render the user invisible or mimic enchantment spells. One-time use oils that temporarily increase the accuracy and/or damage of a weapon would also fall under this category. These items should be exceptionally cost-prohibitive even by alchemical item standards.

Strong on his mountain ( his desk),

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Appendix N Podcast

Hale and hearty welcome, dear readers. I sometimes contribute to The Tome Show's Appendix N Podcast hosted by the kind and knowledgeable Geoffrey Winn and Jeffery Wikstrom. True to form, I mostly contribute to conversations about the work of Robert E. Howard. I encourage you to check this podcast.

Strong on his mountain ( his desk),

Friday, December 11, 2015

Laughing at Your Four Winds - Session Zero as a check to problematic behavior

                We all have had to deal with problem players. Heck, most of us have probably been a problem player at one time or another in our lives (of late, I am given to rules-lawyering). There have been a lot great articles and such written on the subject of how to deal with the issue of the problem player, but upon perusing various role-playing groups I feel that people default to “boot the player” far more often than is good for the game. We exist in a golden age of nerdery; people actually want to get into this stuff.
With the expanding participant demographics, it is only logical to assume that people with differing tastes, desires, and expectations of what is or is not appropriate in a roleplaying game are going to come together, and contention and strife can be expected as a result. Individuals that come into tabletop roleplaying from MMOs are going to have different ideas about how the game should be played then someone coming to gaming from a roleplay by post background. The depth of character development, the manner in which treasure is divvied out, and the very style of play are all likely to be different. Heck, after forty years of game design it is hard to find two veteran tabletop gamers who view these things the same way. Ever had an OD&D grognard and a 3.X fanatic in the same party? Things get real messy, real fast.
I am not going to attempt to identify the different types of problem players and give novel solutions for their behavioral issues here. That topic has been done elsewhere far better than I ever could examine the subject. If you are interested in this, it is my (in no way) humble opinion that the Vampire: The Masquerade Storyteller’s Handbook covered this subject the in the most complete and useful way ever published. In this article, I would like to attack the problem at its source by talking about what is likely the most overlooked aspect of your game: Session Zero. So, my stalwart reader, let us dive in and explore how we can avert (to the best of our abilities) the problem player.

                Okay, so this one probably goes without saying, but the first thing your group needs to decide is what genre they want to play. This seems easy at face value, but different players come in loaded with conflicting concepts about what each genre entails. Say we are playing in a science fiction game, how expansive do we want the universe to be? Is space travel easy or difficult? Is the future expensive? How vast is the playing field? Is it galaxies, star systems, or as small as the immediate planets around the characters homes? Are their extra-terrestrial species? I could go on like this forever.
                Regardless of genre, these issues (or their genre equivalent) will come up, and, in my experience, a large amount of problem player behavior stems from a fundamental misunderstanding about the confines of the genre being played. Before you talk about anything else with your players, make sure that this topic has been properly exhausted. Don’t let pencil touch character sheet until everyone understands and, most importantly, has agreed to the conceits of the genre in which you are working.

Rule Heavy or Rules Light?

               The distinction between running a rules heavy and a rules light game is another important way to stop problem behavior before it begins. Everyone hates rules lawyers, heck I do and I often am one. There are some times when such a thing can be very helpful, however. In a campaign (or system) where there are rules for every conceivable circumstance, it is almost impossible for one person to keep all of them straight. As such, if your party is committed to obeying printed rules, having a rules lawyer player is pretty useful.
                By the same token, if you and your players enjoy the sort of free form gaming experience that comes with playing in a rules light environment, this sort of behavior is anathema to the culture of the game. For the sake of time, it is often easier for the Dungeon Master to simply make a ruling and move on than it is to spend time pouring over rulebooks to find the printed mechanic. Some players may not like this “fast and loose” approach, however, so if you are the kind of DM who prefers this, it is important to get that out in the open before play even begins. By discussing this in session zero, you can avoid future arguments about “what the book says,” because you were able to establish parameters as a group for how to adjudicate these circumstances.
 Be aware, though, that you should take notes about what rulings you have made so you can stay consistent. Even players who have agreed to a rules light style of play will begin to become upset it there is a lack of consistency in the game. Dungeon Master fiat is powerful and, not to sound like Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility.

Role-playing or Roll Playing?

                I like a good dungeon crawl as much as the next guy. I mean seriously, this is probably how majority of us (especially people that started gaming in second edition or earlier) began their roleplaying careers. The endless onslaught of monsters and treasure is, in many respects, the backbone of Dungeons and Dragons and those tabletop games that emulate it. Not all games are like that, however, and even within a system that lends itself well to the dungeon crawl, not all players enjoy this style of game. If you have player that rolls a character who is particularly suited for social circumstances, you are going to have a lot of problems with that player if all the party does is hack and slash their way through a labyrinth of antagonists.
 As much as is possible, establish before the game starts where you want the balance of play to be. Some groups may only see combat as a means to further more interesting roleplaying experiences, and if that is the case, combat should not be the major focus of the campaign. Not every Dungeon Master, by the same token, is comfortable crafting the elaborate campaign setting necessary to facilitate a more conceptual game, and that is alright too. Session zero will often reveal that the gaming group is not well suited for each other, and learning this early can save a lot of time and frustration in the long run.

Cooperative World-building or DM Control?

               World-building gets overlooked a lot more than people realize. We often take for granted that the Dungeon Master has his/her campaign world all laid out, and that we as players just need to be dropped into this extant world of imagination. Often, however, players want to feel more invested in the campaign setting, and this is facilitated by allowing them to have some input into the various cultures, countries, and geography of the world.
                It is perfectly fine if you come to the table with binders full of history, political factions, geographic features, and endless maps, but this may make players feel like they have little reference for the goings on of the campaign setting. Even if you provide your players with a primer on the setting, it is highly unlikely that more than a couple (if any) of them will actually read it. If you want your game to be immersive, allowing players to add their own ideas to the world can help them feel invested. This is not going to be the case for every group, so it is necessary to talk about it prior to character creation.

                I have saved what I feel to be the most important aspect for last. More games become derailed and hostile because of a disagreement on what is or is not proper subject matter during play than any other reason. Recently in a D&D Facebook game I follow, the subject of rape reared its ugly head. As the thread grew and became more hostile, I realized that this is a great example of the kind of behavior that needs to be specifically talked about prior to play commencing. I am sure we have all been in a party where one player acts in such a way as to make us feel profoundly unsettled, uncomfortable, or afraid. Given that gaming is supposed to be a cooperative and enjoyable experience, it is best for everyone that a culture of mutual understanding is cultivated.
Even though you are playing a chaotic evil character, it is important to understand that your desire to decapitate the goblin baby is likely to make someone at the table uncomfortable. For people that have been through traumatic experiences, the description of a particularly violent act could open up a veritable Pandora’s Box of memories that they are having difficulty not reliving to begin with, and by bringing them up you have ruined the escapist nature of the game for them. So please, talk explicitly about what are and are not acceptable topics at your gaming table with your players. If someone states that a certain thing unnerves them, don’t demand justification and don’t push the subject. Remember, we are all here to have fun and leave the table feeling better about ourselves than when we sat down at it. Don’t be the person that takes that away from someone.

Strong on his mountain (er… at his desk),

Thursday, December 3, 2015

"I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.” - More thoughts on magic in sword and sorcery settings

         Just when I think I have exhausted the subject of magic in a low fantasy setting, I come to the realization that I have over looked a few things. If your game is like mine, there are powerful sorcerers out there waiting to be foils for your player characters. While you do not want the magic to be too prevalent, these sort of adversaries have a rich history in sword and sorcery literature (Xaltotun, Thoth Amon, etc.), and make for some really engaging adversaries for your PCs. But whence does their magic come? Does the existence of this kind of magic entail that player characters can gain access to it as well? How do you maintain balance? The easiest way of answering these questions is to look at some different sources of arcane power.


The source of magic that is the least likely to upset game balance is magic in the form of alchemy. Generally speaking, the alchemist will be able to craft potions and salves from rare and quasi-supernatural materials. While this sort of individual will be rare, players should be able to find them in the larger cities and isolated places of the campaign world. Befriending an alchemist can be a great boon to the player characters, because it will allow them to have some access to potions outside of stumbling upon them through the course of the adventures.

 Like most practitioners of the arcane, alchemists should jealously guard the secrets of their craft. Further, these individuals are probably not trusted very much by the general population, find themselves to be pawns in the machinations of political figures, or even outright persecuted by religious sects. As such, an alchemist is likely to be wary of the player characters, and may take some convincing when it comes to offering aid. More on alchemical items later on in an upcoming article.

                Powerful entities

Bargaining for, or simply being imbued with arcane might by, a powerful supernatural entity is another of the more common ways to gain magic abilities in this sort of setting. The individual who has made such a bargain is likely paying a terrible price for it. This is distinct from the warlock class, because the price of this bargain should be far more immediate. The practitioner should become instantly corrupted or enthralled to the entity, or have some very specific prescriptive actions that they must take. Even the summoning of the entity may be dangerous for the would-be magic user and is not something that should be undertaken lightly or easily. 

Not all of the entities will need to be malicious, however. In a tribal society, this sort of arcane user is likely the local shaman or witch doctor, and the various spirits (loa) served by the individual may have constraints on personal hygiene, dress, or action. Either way, this sort of magic should be relatively restrictive.


Another way to gain arcane knowledge in a sword and sorcery setting is to be a member of a clandestine cult of one kind or another. Entering into the cult should be exceedingly difficult, since cults are often distinguished from mainstream religions by being exclusive rather than inclusive. The process may be one that starts in childhood, but membership could also conceivably be gained via the performance of favors for the sect. Either way, once the acolyte has become initiated in the cult, it is unlikely that he/she will ever be able to leave of his/her own free will. Many of these cults will be illegal in many places, so participation is probably a closely guarded secret. While on face value, the cult seems like it would be the same as bargaining with an entity, I would argue that this is not so.

While it is probable that the leader (or inner circle) of the cult has gained power due to direct contact with a powerful, supernatural entity, the magic used by the rest of the sect is more likely to be a result of mental conditioning (hypnosis and psionic abilities), arcane knowledge, or ritual magic. The practitioners in a cult are not powerful or important enough to directly syphon power from an entity, but certain rights passed down through the ages may do just that. The key is that the average member of the cult does not understand how this magic works, but rather assumes its efficacy on faith alone. 

                Magic items

An often overlooked source of magic is one which is derived from items of power. Whether it is a ring (think Thoth Amon), a gem, or some other artifact, magic derived from an item can be a fun way to keep players on their toes. The assumption most of the time when a PC encounters a magical adversary is that the opponent has this power inherently. By allowing the antagonist to be potentially separated from the source of his/her abilities, the game master can make a seemingly unstoppable enemy more easily vanquished. 

This also allows the players the opportunity to do some detective work in order to discover the source of the villain’s power. The item could be anything from a portable object to a large obelisk that allows the knowledgeable to tap into and manipulate its energies. This object could be forged by an ancient civilization, come from beyond the stars, or simply be a natural feature of the campaign world. Either way, the user will keep this object close whenever possible, and will take great pains to ensure that no one uncovers the secret of his/her power.


Studying the heavens is a wonderfully thematic way to gain mystical powers. When certain stars are in alignment, gateways to cosmic powers and otherworldly realms could open up, and it would just take someone knowledgeable to exploit this. While this is unlikely to be the sole source of the user’s magic, it is a perfect source for magic from the schools of divination and conjuration/summoning. Using the cosmos as a guide for this kind of magic should be complicated and fickle. 

The timing of any ritual or spell would need to be precise in order to gain the desired effect, and the fallout from botching such timing (especially when summoning creatures) should be dire indeed. The pay-off for successfully completing this kind of casting should be immense, however, since stars should only be right in the necessary way at most once a year. The more powerful spells should require cosmic alignments that happen once every lifetime or even aeon. While impractical in most respects for player character spell casting, this is an ideal way furthering the machinations of a magic using antagonist.

   Esoteric tomes

Probably the most common way of gaining magical power in Dungeons and Dragons, tomes can be an easy way to transmit magical abilities to player and non-player characters alike. I would urge the Dungeon Master to not allow for magic gained from such a source to be immediate, however. The ability to spontaneously cast spells should come from one of the sources listed above, in order to make the casting of spells from tomes as laborious and ritualistic as possible.  

The assumption behind an arcane text (assuming it is not written in a magical alphabet) is that any person literate in the source language should be able, with time, to unlock its secrets. That makes tomes of arcane lore a potentially over-powered and altogether too easily accessed wellspring of mystical prowess. In order to keep this tendency in check, make sure that all of the spells in the tome contain the ritual designation, and, as I stressed in a previous post, rule that the only way one can cast the spell is as a ritual.

Strong on his mountain ( his desk),