From the Campaign: Emberhaunt

Here’s a little something I thought I’d share, that will make an appearance in one of my upcoming D&D sessions. I’ve been developing a haunted location in my game, and I wanted something a little special to spring on my players. Enter the emberhaunt. After I’ve had a chance to run it a few times I may work it up a bit more and commission some art for it. We’ll see.

I’m curious what you think, so please look it over and drop suggestions in the comments. And feel free to take it for a spin in your game. It’s easy to adapt to whatever RPG you’re running. It’s shared under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license.

Making Scrolls Magical

I wrote before of ways in which you can make the magic in your game more magical. Today I want to focus on that most ubiquitous of magical items, the scroll.

Casting magic from a scroll has been a staple of fantasy for longer than there has been fantasy. Mythology is rife with scrolls being used to make magic great and small. Terrible and wonderful things have been wrought by words written on a rolled-up bit of paper.

And that last bit is the problem. Say “scroll” to your players, and it’s very likely you both have the same image in your head; a rolled up bit of parchment, maybe tied with a ribbon or tucked in a tube. And the response to finding a scroll in their treasure is indifference at best, unless they’re one of the party casters.

So let’s change that. Even in our world different cultures created myriad ways to communicate the written word. A scroll from Feudal Japan is going to look different than a similar scroll from Medieval China, and both will look nothing like the scrolls used in Dynasty Egypt. Why shouldn’t the scrolls in your game have that same variation?

And that assumes you stick to scrolls written on paper or paper-like surfaces. I’ve listed ten ideas for weird and wonderful scrolls to surprise your players with at your next session. While it isn’t exhaustive, hopefully it helps get your brain juices flowing to come up with unconventional scrolls of your own. They may require a bit more thought and care on behalf of the GM than a regular scroll might, but I think the excitement from your players will be well worth it.

  1. The scroll is a skull, with the spell inscribed on the inside surface. At the GM’s discretion different skulls could enhance certain spells (a shrinking spell inscribed in a pixie skull, for instance)
  2. The scroll is a playing card, with the words symbols hidden in the card’s artwork. Added bonus, your players may, for one sphincter-clenching moment, think they’ve found a deck of many things when the deck of cards detects as magic. Good times.
  3. The scroll is a stretched hide in a frame. Cumbersome to carry, this is more suited to ritual spells that might commonly be cast in a specific location.
  4. The scroll is one of several similar tapestries, all hanging within eye line of the ruler as they sit on their throne. Perfect for when an NPC needs quick protective/offensive magic.
  5. The scroll is a bird, the words inscribed on its feathers. When the bird is released its song activates the spell.
  6. The scroll is a small (15-20 piece) puzzle, which must be completed to activate the scroll.
  7.  The scroll is an uncooked egg. Breaking the egg releases the spell. Only works on uncooked eggs. As with the skulls, different eggs may enhance different spells.
  8. The scroll is blend of spices, coloured pigments, and other granular ingredients. Flinging the entire contents into the air releases the spell.
  9. The scroll is a small firework, and the spell releases after it explodes.
  10. The scroll is a doll, the words written on its porcelain skin. When you pull the string in its back its eyes open and it speaks the trigger word to complete the spell.

Pick a description you like, or roll a d10 for a quick one-off result. Or use a bunch all at once; imagine a library filled with a variety of these scrolls. Comment below with your ideas for alternate scrolls.

Marginalia and Other Oddities

I love introducing libraries of books in my campaigns. It’s the sort of treasure I’d love to find if I were an adventurer, after all. Cracking open a door no one has opened in centuries, only to discover shelf upon shelf of dusty manuscripts…oh yeah, you can keep your gold and gems (okay, maybe not all the gold and gems).

The problem with dropping large numbers of books into your campaign is keeping them interesting. Sure, you’ll come up with cool descriptions for the special books, magical tomes or the books which advance the plot. But in a big library a lot of those books are going to look exactly the same, at least on the outside. That’s where marginalia can spice things up for you.

Turns out, cats have been jerks to books for centuries.

The term “marginalia” simply refers to anything added to the margins of a book or manuscript. The earliest examples of this were the scholia, or notes, written in the margins of ancient manuscripts by Medieval and Renaissance scholars. Such scholia continue to this day, the most famous modern example being Fermat’s Last Theorem. But it also includes drawings found in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, as well as (less accurately) notes found among the lines of a manuscript’s text. The term can also refer to anything that one might consider a mistake in the manuscript, thought that usage is less common. My favourite example of this is pictured to the left, where we see that cats haven’t changed one bit.

You might ask yourself why someone would hold onto, or even buy a book that came with errors or marginalia. Unlike today where the cost of printing a book is relatively cheap, any form of the printed word was a time-intensive, and therefore costly, enterprise. If you were half-way through copying out a book by hand and the cat walked across the page with inky paws, or you noticed you made a spelling or grammatical error, you fixed it as best you could and soldiered on. Besides time, the materials used for copying manuscripts were often expensive. Even a simple book copied out in a single colour of ink was still an investment.

Often the marginalia was done quite on purpose. As already noted, scholia were written in by scholars as notations for other students of that particular text.  But artistic illumination was often added to the margins to make the book more impressive, and didn’t always relate to the subject matter. It was not uncommon to find cartoonish and sometimes even vulgar images drawn in the margins, and at the top and bottom of pages. Occasionally these would tell a simple tale over

Hmmm…how do I tell these penises are ripe?

several pages, similar to our relatively modern flip-books. And just sometimes, the artist wanted to draw fruit being picked from a penis tree.

Marginalia in your trove of campaign books can have a wide range of forms and uses. Intentional or in error, marginalia can be used to tease your players with riddles or clues, or waste their time with a literary red-herring. But they’re the perfect addition to any of your campaign manuscripts, instantly making your books more interesting. I’ve provided a list of twenty examples below. You can either pick one you like or roll randomly when a character thumbs through that book they just found.

  1. Tiny clawed footprints, burned on the surface of several pages as if something had walked or stood upon them. (Left by an imp; could be random, or done deliberately to obscure text)
  2. A series of small drawings in the margins of each page, depicting the comic (and sometimes lewd) misadventures of a flaxen-haired elf and a red-bearded dwarf.
  3. In the bottom right corner of each page, a series of pictures depicting an “untoward” unicorn. (You pick how “untoward” to fit your group)
  4. A carefully written recipe for potato soup, with some odd ingredients (DM’s choice). If tried, the soup is delicious but otherwise unremarkable. (Should ideally be found in a book having nothing to do with cooking)
  5. Next to a passage with information vital to the characters, a note in the margin reading, “Annotation needed, incomplete passage. Original should be kept by [fill in group from your campaign here].”
  6. Someone has underlined several lines on every page throughout the book, often with comments like “Yes! Yes!!” and “Finally, someone gets it!” They don’t seem to bear any relation to each other, and the hand-writing in the comments is different in several places.
  7. On an otherwise beautifully illuminated manuscript, a quite visible green-inked thumbprint can be seen obscuring a portion of the title page.
  8. Starting in the bottom left corner of the last page, and spiraling clockwise and inward on each page, another shorter book has been written in the margins. The subject of the marginalia text should bear no relation to the book’s original subject.
  9. Several pages have been cut out and re-glued back into the book in different places, some upside down or backwards.
  10. Someone has meticulously cut the letter “e” out of every word in the manuscript. Tucked in the back of the book is a small pouch containing the resulting confetti.
  11. Characters will notice the lyrics and musical notation for a bawdy song about naiads hidden in the illuminations of a manuscript. If sung aloud near any body of water the song summons a water elemental which immediately attacks the singer.
  12. A character notices an image of a thin man with glasses, wearing a striped tunic, in the marginalia of one page. That same character now can’t help but notice that same image in the marginalia of every book in this library.
  13. The illuminations in the manuscript look slightly off. But if the page is angled properly under the correct light, characters will note the illuminations appear to be three-dimensional.
  14. Scattered through the margins are a series of truly terrible and nonsensical riddles. Examples: “Why is a gelatinous cube like a sandwich? Because they both like carp!” “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Penchant. Penchant who? Bless you!”
  15. Beautifully drawn and illuminated marginalia, except every figure has a very obviously bare bottom showing.
  16. Starting with the first page and repeating until the end of the book, the first letter of each page spells out a character’s name. Coincidence?
  17. The beautiful but faded artwork and illuminations in this book were restored badly, almost cartoonishly. If properly restored, the book’s value would double, possible even triple.
  18. Someone has worked the phrase, “Gwen and Slaughterjaw forever!” into the marginalia of every page. (Or pick two names which better suit your campaign world)
  19. An unfinished thaumaturgical formula. It seems to make perfect sense but is obviously missing some vital section. (DM can determine how difficult it is to solve, and what it leads to)
  20. The margins are filled with carefully written but indecipherable script (pick a language none of the characters have or make one up). If translated, the writing appears to be scholia, correcting the original text in several places and filling in some missing information.

What sort of oddities have you put in your books? Share below!

Campaign Inspiration

I was asked the other day about where to find ideas for tabletop campaigns. The person I was talking to seemed concerned that they weren’t coming up with enough interesting ideas for their campaign setting, a concern shared by most gamemasters, I think. They were also lamenting not having the resources to buy the latest campaign and setting books. Luckily I was able to offer some suggestions for inexpensive, non-game book alternatives, borne out of my own search for inspiration. Since it was fresh in my mind I thought I’d share a few of my go-to sources here.

National Geographic Magazine – Ever since my mother gifted me a subscription to this magazine back in high school (yes, I was the kid who thought this was a cool gift. Still do!) National Geographic Magazine has been a constant source of inspiration to my tabletop campaigns. Gorgeous photos and excellent articles cover a range of topics: ecology, oceanography, archaeology, anthropology, history, and more. Almost every article, map, or photo is an adventure seed or campaign inspiration waiting to happen. I once based an entire orc tribe off an article on the mongols, and a special issue on deep sea fauna inspired a host of monsters for my gaming table. Plus it’s just a fascinating read. Subscription cost is pretty cheap, but if you can’t afford cheap then head to your local library. Chances are they have copies for you to read.

YouTube – I’ve definitely talked about the gaming-related YouTube channels I follow, and those are a great resource. But there are plenty of channels, not directly related to gaming, which can be just as helpful and inspiring. Crash Course, for instance, is a fantastic resource if you want to learn the basics of a topic relatively fast, and can give you some great jumping-off points for campaign inspiration. History Buffs is another great channel, comparing the history we see in movies to actual recorded history. The rather uninspiring name Lindybeige hides a plethora of videos on a truly eclectic range of topics, from steampunk comedy to how a torch actually works. These are just three examples. Type in your subject and you’ll almost always find some sort of video to help you out.

Antique Shops and Flea Markets – Depending on where you are, you may have anywhere from a few to a seeming infestation of antique shops, flea markets, and other types of second-hand shops. Wandering through them can be a great way to inspire yourself, especially if you are looking for odd or clever objects to add to your campaign world. In addition, take a moment to imagine what sort of person would own the objects you come across. Now you’ve got GM character inspiration as well. You may also find a few cool little in-game props and visual aids for your next session. Plus it’s just a cool way to spend a few hours.

Online Libraries – Different from wikis, online libraries collect a variety of texts on an almost unlimited number of topics. Best of all, may of these texts are available free of charge, or for a nominal yearly subscription. While you can certainly just scroll through Wikipedia, I sometimes like to hit up an online library to get the full text of a book, rather than the bare bones a wiki provides. Plus many real-world libraries have sources available online, again either free or for a small fee. These resources can include scans of old and even ancient texts, old maps and charts, and copies of historical documents. Use any or all of these for inspiration or as handouts for your players.

Those are a few of my favourite non-rpg GM resources. What are yours? Comment below and let me know!

Playing Card Treasure Generator

I talked about why I started using playing cards as a random generator in the previous post. In short, as a young gamer I didn’t have the spare cash to pick up every new gaming aid that came out, so I improvised with what I had. And like any gamer, what I had were decks of regular playing cards. Thus was born an entire series of Game Master generators that I used for several years. Today I’m going to talk about my treasure generator. Note that I’ve adjusted it for use with 5e D&D, but it’s just as useful for Pathfinder and other fantasy systems. With a few adjustments you could also use it in a modern setting.

As with all these generators, the treasure generator gives you the framework of a treasure hoard (general value, types of items) and allows you to add the specific details that fit your campaign. So the generator can tell you the characters found jewelry, for instance, but you have to decide if it’s a Third Dynasty Dwarven necklace or a platinum Gnomish puzzle ring.  Or both.

To start, decide what type of treasure hoard you are generating. For a small, personal stash I’ll deal out a blackjack hand (two cards); if I’m going for the Big Boss’s treasure I’ll deal out a five- or seven-card stud hand (but keep all seven). For a dragon hoard or similar big treasure, I’ll do the full Texas Holdem of ten cards (five card hand, five card river). There are ways to adjust the values of these cards to better tune the amount of treasure as well, which we’ll touch on in a bit.

Once you’ve decided how many cards you’re drawing, draw them and look at the suits. The suits tell you the type of treasure present, as follows:

  • Diamonds: Money, Gems, or Jewelry (anything where the primary value comes from its gold-piece value)
  • Clubs: Mundane Items or Trade Goods (anything from the equipment section of the PHB, or bulk trade goods like bolts of fabric or barrels of pickles)
  • Hearts: Crafted Items or Objects of Art (chalices, paintings, tapestries, statues and so on)
  • Spades: Magic Items

Then look at the value of each card. The numbered cards give you a gold piece value based on the card’s number x10. The Jack is worth 150gp, Queen is 250gp, King is 500gp, and the Ace is 750gp. For Spades, the card value gives you the commonality of the magic item: 2-10 is Common, Jack and Queen is Uncommon, King is Rare, Ace is Very Rare.  I purposely left Legendary out of the generator, as I feel it’s the GM’s perogative to add those items to her campaign.

If you want to adjust the overall value of the treasure found, you can do that in one of two ways. Either change the multiplier up or down, anywhere between x2 (for very pitiful treasure) to x100 (stumbled into an efreeti’s vault). Alternatively, change the monetary base up or down. Gold is the standard, but you could change the values of everything to be in silver pieces or even copper if you want very small value treasures, or up to electrum or platimum to raise the overall value. I tend to adjust the multiplier only, but you can experiment to find the amount of fine-tuning that works for you.

That brings us to the Jokers. Drawing a Red Joker indicates the characters have found something of extreme benefit to them, whether they realize it or not. This could be a magical artifact, a signet which identifies them as allies to the right people, or a scroll with information or a spell they will need later. A Black Joker, on the other hand, means the characters have found something of detriment. This could be a cursed item, a signet which identifies them as allies to the wrong people, or information which leads them into a trap. Either way, the joker tells the GM it’s time to get creative and allows her to add in some plot specific items if she chooses.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Goblin Raiding Party: 4 of Hearts, 9 of Hearts, Jack of Spades. The raiding party was on it’s way home from robbing a small roadside chapel, and so is carrying candlesticks and other temple finery worth 130gp, plus the sacred waters of St. Fluvius (potion of Hill Giant Strength).
  • Ogre Lair: 9 of Diamonds, 4 of Clubs, Queen of Hearts, Ace of Spades, Black Joker. The ogre has been accosting travelers and merchants for a few weeks, but it wasn’t until it snatched the Baron’s son that the party was called in. After a hard-fought battle they’ve found the creature’s treasure, consisting of assorted coinage (90gp value), some barrels of cheap wine worth 40gp total, an assortment of gold filigree, silver wire and other artisan supplies worth 250gp, and the Baron’s son’s sword (a Dancing Sword). Sadly, they also find the body of the freshly deceased and partially eaten Baron’s son. Despite it not technically being their fault, the Baron is unlikely to ever forgive them for returning his son to him dead.

As you can see from the examples, while you get the bare bones of a treasure there is plenty of room for you to adjust the details to better fit your campaign. And much with the GPC generator, you could use the treasure generator ahead of time to have a stock list of treasures ready to go. You could even use it as a very rough method of generating some random encounters, by generating a treasure and then fitting a monster or monsters to that treasure.

If you give it a whir, let me know what you think. Do you have some tweaks or suggestions to make it better? Drop me a line in the comments.

Playing Card GPC Generator

I didn’t always have the budget for gaming that I have now. I’m certainly not complaining, it’s nice to be able to pick up a supplement if I want to, without having to decide to go without groceries or maybe hold off paying the phone bill for a bit. But I did have to get creative with my gamemastering supplements. Most of the time I resorted to using items I already had laying around from other games. And more often than not that meant a deck of cards.

Back then I was also a much more improvisational GM than I am now. It was for the best of reasons; I was running many more games than I am now. So many, in fact, that it ate into my prep time. So I adapted a simple deck of cards to cover a multitude of sins, serving as a random generator for many campaign needs. I used playing cards to generate GPCs (Gamemaster Player Characters) on the fly, generate treasure as needed, figure out random monster encounters, and even help build and stock dungeons quickly. I’m going to outline the first below, saving the other uses for future posts.

These generators give you a framework to build on, as opposed to detailing everything for you. That suits my style of GMing, as I prefer to modify and customize GPCs and treasure to fit the campaign. Your mileage may vary but I hope you’ll find these at least somewhat useful. For each, I use a standard deck of playing cards with the Jokers left in, giving me 54 cards. I refer to the red and black Jokers, as the decks I have make that distinction. If your’s does not, simply mark one Joker so you can tell it from the other.

Gamemaster Player Character Generation

It happens to every GM at some point. Your players have ignored the careful trail you’ve laid for them and strayed into an area you haven’t prepped. Now they want to talk to that innkeeper or wainwright you haven’t fleshed out. This generator allows you to give that GPC a quick bit of personality to hold you in the moment, and a framework to build on if the characters are likely to keep interacting with those GPCs down the line. Combine this with a list of character names and you’ll be able to generate GPCs on the fly whenever you need them. Alternatively, you can sit down for an hour and generate a list of 27 generic GPCs to slot in without needing the cards during play.

Take a deck of playing cards with the Jokers still in. Draw two cards for each GPC. The first card signifies the dominant trait of that GPC, based on the suit of that card:

Diamonds – Appearance (facial features, dress, overall demeanor)

Clubs – Physical (height, weight, body shapes)

Hearts – Personality (first impressions of the GPC’s attitude)

Spades – Secrets (the GPC is wrapped up in keeping a secret. Note this, then draw another card ignoring other spades.

The second card gives you an approximate rating for that trait, from 2 to Ace. Roughly, numbered cards describe a range of below average to average, Jack to King is above average, and Ace is exceptional in some fashion.

If you draw a Joker as the first card, that denotes either a potential ally to the party (Red Joker) or a staunch enemy (Black Joker). Draw a second card to get the actual trait and a third card for the intensity. If you draw a Joker as your second card, ignore and draw another card. Some examples:

  • Jack of Hearts (personality), 5 of Diamonds: GPC is annoyingly friendly, to the point of unwanted familiarity and contact.
  • Ace of Spades (Secret), Queen of Diamonds (appearance), Queen of Clubs – The GPC is immaculately handsome and finely dressed, and gives the impression of some sort of nobility. It is all a sham, however. All the GPC has is the (mostly faux) finery on their back and is desperate to keep anyone from finding that out.
  • Black Joker (Enemy), King of Clubs (Physical), 3 of Clubs – The GPC was painfully crippled during some altercation the party was involved in. Now the GPC is doing all they can to make the character’s lives miserable and working towards their ultimate revenge.

As you can see, the method still requires you to interpret the results, but I’ve found it to be a great way of generating quick GPCs. Slap a name on them and it’s enough to play them for a session, before fleshing them out later.
Do you use playing cards to aid your game-mastering? Have you taken this GPC generator for a spin, and did it work for you? Let me know in the comments.

Guest Post: The Elven Monk

One of the things I wanted to do for the site this year was get some guest bloggers to contribute, and to do some guest blogging of my own. Jesse C. Cohoon over at Fantasy Roleplaying Planes reached out with a post, and I’m currently working on a post for his site as well. In an earlier article I talked about how I had changed some races to better fit my campaign. So Jesse’s article seemed like a good fit, as an alternate way to look at the Elven people. I hope you enjoy, and take a look over at his site if you have the chance.Brent

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The Elven Monk

Elves are typically presented as aloof, long-lived protectors of the forest, experts in magic, sword, and bow. But this is only one interpretation of what elven culture can be. What would happen if a sect of elves decided to remove themselves from society altogether, abandon their forest homes, seeking instead lives of meditation and quiet contemplation? Elves have a serene quality about them, and due to their longevity if they bend their minds and wills to focus on this, have a wisdom which few can match.

Lands & History

This branch of the Elven people withdrew from the world. They were tired of the constant need to protect the land from invaders. So they found a mountaintop constantly shrouded in blizzards and built a home there, daring anyone to try to take it away from them. They built a community with their temple at the center of it, which they named Yana Halt tel’ Loomi Raumo, translatedto common as “Leap of the storm clouds.” Despite this limiting factor of their location, they seem self-sufficient in getting all they need, having learned how to garden indoors, coaxing vegetables and fruiting plants to grow in what sparse light they have.  They also have a herd of alpacas which they use the meat and wool to weave their simple robes from.

Community

The Elven monks of this community spend their times training their minds and bodies to perfection. Everyone shares in chores alike: men, women, and as they are able to, children. Even though they are a temple, there is a sense of community and commonality for all there. This is not to say they’re not strict about their members adhering to the temple’s standards. If a member violates its rules, they may be asked to leave. For the most part, they do not welcome strangers into their lands with open arms . That is not to say they are inhospitable; if someone stumbles into their temple grounds needing help, they’ll supply them with what is needed: be it food or a guide, and send them on their way.

Appearance

They are typically lithe men and women who wear simple robes of a single color, oftentimes decorated with a sash of a different colored material to note their status or position within the community. When adventuring, this sash also doubles as storage for anything they’re carrying with them. On their feet they wear simple sandals.

Everyone originally from the community is first encountered bald. Newcomers to the temple for training or to join are required to shave their heads.

Personality

This group of Elves are isolationists, preferring not to get involved with the outside world. This is not to say they will not; if the situation arises and someone can convince them that their skills are needed, they will venture out into the world to face and defeat the evil. They’re fearsome foes to those that oppose them. Woe to be the enemy that confronts them in their mountaintop home.

Most of them are soft spoken, and will rarely initiate a conversation, preferring to mind their own business rather than getting involved in outside situations, unless failing to do so would violate their oath.

Weapons & Armor

They don’t typically wear armor, as it interferes with their acrobatic movements, but that’s not to say that they’re defenseless. The monks are trained to use their sash to parry attacks and use it to misdirect attacks from vital areas, sometimes blocking them from hitting completely. They typically carry a long three section staff that has a length of rope coiled onto it. The rope can be uncoiled to reveal a folding grappling hook. This combination is used similarly to the o-kusarigama, and can be used to cross gaps, and trip or entangle foes.

Skills & Powers

Due to their constant exposure to the elements, this branch of Elven monks can ignore the side effects of normal cold weather. If their training is advanced enough, they may be able to shrug off cold damage. They can deliver a chilling Ki attack with their palm strikes. Also, due to their physical training makes them surefooted in all but the most unstable of circumstances. They also are excellent climbers. Unfortunately, due to their social isolation, they aren’t good conversationalists, and despite their serenity, sometimes don’t make a good impression on others.

Adventures

Elven monks from Yana Halt tel’ Loomi Raumo may be found adventuring if they are seeking more advanced training, coming back home from guiding a lost traveler, or after having fought other evils.

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Jesse Cohoon is a blogger who writes about tabletop gaming. His strength comes from being able to pull his experience from fantasy novels, video games, and real world experiences and combine them into one. His blog can be found at fantasyroleplayingplanes.blogspot.com. Contact him if you want him to do a guest article for your site.