Friday, February 23, 2018

The Great Goblin Wood

On the eastern border of the Elf Empire, past the River Sleep, the woods grow knotted and strange. This is goblin country. There is little agreement what "goblin" truly means: does it refer to the creatures who infest this land? The process that changes them? The land itself? Some external force leaking into the land?

Whatever the truth, it is acceptable shorthand to refer to the diminutive, warped, spacetime-damaged beings native to the wood as goblins. Goblins are not born - they are changed. They have no children themselves and so are forced to kidnap the infants of other races. They heavily favor elves. This is the reason for the eternal elf-goblin war: for goblins, it is a matter of reproduction. Raids fill them with orgiastic zeal.

At the wood's heart lies a labyrinth. At the labyrinth's heart, a tower. This is the Tower of Change. Goblins, for whom navigating a maze is as natural as taking a breath, lay their captured children at the tower's door and return in a year and a day to find new goblins.

Every time you look at a goblin anew, something is a little off. Weren't its ears bigger? Its nose sharper? Goblins are never truly done changing. This impermanence of form means that goblins have a tendency to dematerialize, pass through walls, or rearrange their molecules to flow like liquid or float like gas. It also places them close to dreams. Goblin oneirists explore dreams - sometimes their own, sometimes others'.

The things goblins make often come off as parodies of the things other cultures might make. They love to buy and sell, but they place little stock in money. The Goblin Market has things for sale not found anywhere else, but expect to pay a heavy price. The greatest goblin export is spidersilk, a gift of the spider goddess Anansi and the spiders of the wood. Goblins fashion the silk into the sails of airships from which they launch their raids.

These are the tables I use to run the Great Goblin Wood, finished not a moment too soon because my players now find themselves deep in the wood. I know I sort of promised more regular posts of these region tables, but that's not going to happen. They take a long time to write. I kind of have to sit and daydream with each region for a while until I start to get a feel for what makes it tick. So, ten more regions are coming, but who knows when. Probably when my players get to them.

This also turned out to be my response to this Kotaku article about boring goblin fights, even though I was already working on it when the article was published. I'm not as down on Cecelia D'Anastasio as others have been - she does identify a real problem. My response is threefold: I give goblins Cheshire Cat powers, weirdass motivations and culture, and I make the environment of the wood itself part of the danger. Monsters without goals more defined than just "kill the PCs" will always be boring monsters. Also, the problems she has with D&D combat can be fixed with group initiative re-rolled every round.

To the tables:

Encounters by Terrain Type (d100)

Roll once per day of travel, more if you want. Re-roll after rolling weather events. Rolling over the highest number listed means no encounter.

EncounterKnotty woodsThorny brambleBog
spatial distortion (see following chart)1-81-81-8
swamp gas-9-129-16
hallucinogenic spores9-12-17-18
thick fog13-2013-2019-26
goblin war party28-3228-3235-38
pig cavalry33-34-39
scribble shaman35-3633-3440
goblin merchants37-38--
displacer beast41-4237-3842
balloon pig43--
creeping vine-39-4143
chiron crawler---
spider goddess4444-
spider emissaries45-4645-46-
switch pig4949-
id pig5050-
rat alchemist-5547
consuming fog--48-50
suicide pig5556-
tsetse fly swarm--51-54
idiot birds56-5757-58-
goblins in dragon costume58--

EncounterLabyrinthGeode caveGoblin city
spatial distortion (see following chart)1-8--
swamp gas-1-8-
hallucinogenic spores-9-10-
thick fog---
goblin war party9-1611-129-20
pig cavalry--21-28
scribble shaman17-201329-32
goblin merchants21-241433-40
displacer beast2616-
balloon pig--41-44
creeping vine---
chiron crawler27-3021-
spider goddess-22-
spider emissaries-23-2445-48
switch pig31-50
id pig32-51
rat alchemist-27-2861-64
consuming fog---
suicide pig37--
tsetse fly swarm---
idiot birds38-40-65-68
goblins in dragon costume-2969

Spatial Distortions (d8 or use the d100 encounter die number)

  1. No matter how far the party travels today, it will end up exactly where it started.
  2. The party will arrive at its destination tomorrow, no matter how far away it actually is.
  3. The party can only get closer to its destination by moving away from it.
  4. The party wakes up in an entirely random part of the wood.
  5. The party wakes up outside the wood on the border nearest where it slept.
  6. The party wakes up in the Goblin Market.
  7. The party moves at half its normal speed today.
  8. The party moves at ten times its normal speed today.

Treasure/Search the Body (d100)

1Night Wood black candle, darkens room when lit
2d4 orcish nuclear beast eggs, explode when thrown
3Primeval Forest moss baby
4icon of the Twilight Grail, ends one curse or affliction
5northern whale lamp oil, burns underwater
6Southern Isles lizard man rum
7Lotus Straits bathyscope
8goblin key, can lock any door
9jeweled marionette from the Reach
10account of a doomed expedition to the Land of Shadow and Flame
11Rusted Land clockwork lamp, rubbing grants one very minor wish
12Voivodjan mince pie
13elven opium (Yoon-Suin p. 283)
14-63gold equal to half dice roll
64mask, fools any goblin (but only goblins) into thinking you're a goblin
65fine spidersilk robes
66imitation spidersilk robes, will make goblins mock you
67spidersilk glider
68vial of tsetse flies, carry sleeping sickness
69scribble shaman chalk
70nilbog blood, drinking makes you healed by damage for the next round
71Spool of spider thread from Anansi herself - leaving a trail prevents distortions
72airship bomb
73vial of spider venom
74very nice pocket lint
75goblin liquor, Con save or lose 1 HP per drink
76book of vulgar nursery rhymes
77map of geode cave tunnels criss-crossing the wood, not subject to distortions
78letter from one goblin noble to another, detailing plans to backstab a third
79necklace of elf ears
80crown of the Goblin King, return carries a reward
81black iron manacles, prevents goblins from changing form
82blowgun with tsetse fly darts
83poem detailing where a goblin's treaure horde is hidden
84invoice from Reach merchant, instructions to find the One Market
85goblin map, looks like accurate map of region but gets all non-goblins lost
86elfsear mushroom, CON save - pass: +2 WIS, fail: -2 WIS
87purple amanita mushroom, causes lucid dreaming
88bat wing mushroom, leaves eater open to dream invasion
89green ghost mushroom, makes eater ethereal for several minutes
90magic tattoo needle, creates living tattoos
91random animal scribbled in chalk on slate, acts as that animal
92spell-stealing egg, absorbs one spell that can be cast when cracked open
93scroll of walk on wall/ceiling
94delicious pastry, totally normal
95papers of ownership for an airship in drydock for repairs
96spidersilk sail, allows small boat to become an airship
97clutch of spider eggs, will hatch into sons and daughters of Anansi
98elven infant
99spider, has important information to return to Anansi
goblin bone scribed with ash and chalk, consuming prolongs life but causes mutations

NPCs (d20)

  1. goblin raider
  2. goblin merchant
  3. goblin shaman
  4. pig knight
  5. airship bombardier
  6. spy
  7. hermit wizard
  8. fungus farmer
  9. oneirist
  10. lizardman separatists from Southern Isles
  11. traveling merchant
  12. orc scout
  13. rat man
  14. elf crusader
  15. snail rider
  16. idiot bird, goblin court attendant
  17. goblin noble
  18. spidersilk weaver
  19. emissary of the spider goddess
  20. Anansi, the spider goddess

Wilderness Locations (d10)

  1. bog
  2. labyrinth
  3. geode cave
  4. moving city on chicken legs
  5. hedge maze
  6. mushroom field (hallucinogenic)
  7. misshaping pool
  8. deep cave
  9. spiderwebs
  10. beanstalk

Settlement Locations (d10)

  1. airship yards
  2. drinking hole (think Star Wars cantina)
  3. rat laboratory
  4. menagerie of intelligent creatures
  5. palace
  6. pig stables
  7. oneirist chamber
  8. shaman's hut
  9. spidersilk works
  10. fortress

Dungeons (d4)

  1. Goblin Market
  2. web of Anansi, the spider goddess
  3. Tower of Change
  4. spire of Sarpedon the Shaper

Events (d8)

  1. Four goblin nobles, three goblin merchants, two goblin children and a handsome shrew all claim to be Goblin King. Each develops a violent following, especially the shrew.
  2. An assembly of mushroom-worshipping oneirists gather in a large mushroom field for the harvest festival.
  3. A goblin merchant plots to kidnap one of the player characters to sell to an eccentric collector.
  4. A giant in a floating castle recruits goblins for a campaign of terror across the world.
  5. A procession of goblins carrying babies from the latest raid makes its way to the Labyrinth.
  6. A ragtag flotilla of airships passes overhead on its way to raid the elf borderlands.
  7. A great migration of the forest leaves the place unfamiliar even to seasoned inhabitants.
  8. A hermit wizard claims to have unlocked the secret to eternal life by studying goblin anatomy.

Customs (d6)

  1. Goblins of means compete to see who can be the worst host for travelers.
  2. The upper classes get around via a network of underground geode cave tunnels.
  3. You cannot truly trust someone until you have been inside each others’ dreams and lived to tell about it.
  4. Offering to pay for something with money is an unforgivable offense.
  5. It is customary to leave an offering of flies to the spiders before undertaking any great venture.
  6. Goblins often claim the support of the Goblin King in disputes, but it is rude to ask who or where the Goblin King is.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

D&D Without HP

Since September, I've been looking down the barrel of an hour-plus commute five days a week. It's a major bummer. The one silver lining is that it gives me plenty of time to daydream when I should be paying attention to the road.

On Friday, I was thinking about hit points and combat in D&D (LotFP is my flavor of choice). It exists in this nebulous space where one d20 roll is not necessarily one swing of the sword, but could be a series of successful moves that wears down the opponent's stamina (thinking of HP as stamina has actually really helped me to conceptualize it, I think). In practice, though, it's often more dramatic and just plain easier to narrate the combat as though it were blow-by-blow. Sometimes, that makes it feel like lumbering battleships trading salvoes and doing unspecified "damage" until one finally sinks.

This is the one major disadvantage of the HP system, at least at my table. It abstracts combat to the point where hits have no concrete effect until 0 HP, and I have to do a little bit of on-the-spot adjudication every time a player wants to do something more specific than just "I attack".

What could a slightly more granular, HP-less D&D combat system look like? I've always liked the optional rules for dueling in A Red & Pleasant Land (p. 143). They're designed to add depth to one-on-one fights. Essentially, a dueler rolls on a short d6 injury table for every hit taken after reaching 0 HP. Once they roll the same injury twice, the dueler is either dead or unconscious (that's why the table is short).

I've used injury tables like this before. But what if we took HP out entirely and skipped right to the table? It could go something like this:

d10InjuryFirst hitSecond hitThird hit +Called shot AC bonus
1-2left legalways lose initiativemovement rate halvedlost, dead if not stabilized in 2d6 rounds1
3right legalways lose initiativemovement rate halvedlost, dead if not stabilized in 2d6 rounds1
4-5off arm-1 to most tasksincapacitated until healedlost, dead if not stabilized in 2d6 rounds1
6favored arm-2 to most tasksincapacitated until healedlost, dead if not stabilized in 2d6 rounds2
7-8torso-1 to most tasksbroken ribs, save to move until healeddead2
9equipmentone item destroyed (attacker's choice)weapon dropped---2
10headblood in eyes, -2 to anything involving sightdead---3

So, you'd roll to hit vs. AC as normal, but instead of rolling damage, you'd roll d10 to determine where you hit. Defenders would keep track of how many times that body part has been hit and apply the mechanical effects as they come up. If the attacker wants to hit a specific body part, the defender gets to add the indicated called shot bonus to AC.

Weapon damage would be replaced by how many "hits" one attack is worth. d4 and d6 weapons (daggers, shortswords, etc) would do one hit, d8 weapons (standard swords, etc) would do two hits, and d10 weapons (greataxes, etc) would do three. Critical hits would increase the number by one. Since any successful hit by a large weapon is likely to be a one-hit kill, there's a tradeoff: you can't apply any bonuses to hit, just the straight d20 roll. I'd also consider a Strength requirement to even wield a large weapon - either 13 or 16.

Without HP increases to make higher-level characters more survivable in combat, you'd need to increase base AC instead. Fighters and dwarves would go up 1 AC every two levels; clerics, elves, and thieves would go up every three; and magic-users and halflings every four.

This system would make combat short and brutal, which would work for some games but not others. It would require a bit of a different mindset than D&D combat as usual - mindless hack-and-slash without a plan is going to result in a lot of dead PCs. Also, you'd have to modify the table for non-humanoid creatures. Bespoke tables for each creature would help make fighting them feel unique, but it's a lot more work than just rolling up HP.