Tales That Dead Men Tell (hereafter, Tales) is the second and final scenario published for Forge Out Of Chaos by Mark Kibbe back in 1999. It retailed back then for $9.95 and consists of a 46-page staple-bound book with colour cover art (by Jim Feld) and some B&W interior art (also by Feld, a departure from the team who worked on the original rulebook), including regional and local maps by Steve Genzano and lots of illustrations of NPCs and enemies discovered during the scenario.
Tales isn't available as a PDF through DrivethruRPG but there are a lot of copies for sale online, from as cheap as $3 from some book sites to a typical $6 on eBay.
First glance shows Tales to be a more ambitious project than The Vemora (1998). Gone is the cartoony artwork of Mike Connelly and Don Garvey: Feld's moody and murky illustrations set a more crepuscular tone that fits the spooky theme. It's a more mature and professional style and it definitely gives reptilian Kithsara and bestial Higmoni a much more distinctive look.
Jim Feld (left two) compared to Higmoni and Kithsara by Connelly/Garvey
Connelly and Garvey homaged 1980s D&D with their style, but Feld is a step onwards and upwards, offering Forge its own visual identity - yet I can't help feeling that something charming has been left behind. In fact, much has been left behind, as we shall see.
And there's a lot of this. Whereas The Vemora was set in a rather hazy fantasy kingdom with a distant High King and a local Village Elder, Tales is rooted in the detailed history of the Kingdom of Hamsburg, which seems to be pitched to us as Forge's default setting. I'll have more to say about Hamsburg and the Province of Lyvanna later on. Suffice to say, this is a territory that has won its independence from being an imperial colony and is the sort of trade-hungry border region that fantasy RPGs seem to gravitate towards.
More relevant is the recent history of thief-made-good Kamon and his ambitious wife Maria, a woman combining the more extreme traits of Cersei Lannister and Scarface. While Kamon works like a dog building up a mercantile business, Maria constructs a criminal empire under the cover of his honest dealings, offering Kamon Manor out as a safe house to the Rat's Nest, a nasty band of villains. When the Law comes calling, poor old Kamon is executed, one of Maria's sons is killed and Maria goes to gaol, leaving her youngest son to expire all alone, locked in the cellar. The Manor is subsequently haunted by the ghost of Maria's betrayed husband and her abandoned son.
That was all a generation ago, but now a team of Necromancers has arrived at the Manor with some mercenary Higmoni (it's always the Higmoni...) in tow. They've suppressed the hauntings by ringing a mystic bell and ambushed the local militia sent to investigate the strange goings-on. They're looking for Kamon's fabled treasure, hidden somewhere in the house.
The PCs are the usual swords-for-hire and are recruited by an elderly merchant who rejoices in the astonishing name of Aberdeen Jenkins. Jenkins has bought the Kamon Manor estate as a fixer-upper but needs the adventurers to sort out the mystery of missing militiamen, ghostly bell-ringing and sundry hauntings. Simple as that, really. Do some research in Lyvanna into the Manor's history then get down there and clean the place out of troublemakers. Jenkins is paying 500gp for this bailiff-work and - weirdly - is prepared to let the adventurers keep any treasure they find on his estate while they do it. That's a bit mad, but I'll suggest a more rational offer for Jenkins to make later on.
Research in Lyvanna
As well as a simple 'rumours' table, Tales invites you to explore the town of Lyvanna and interview a selection of NPCs about Kamon Manor and its unlucky history. This research phase gives the scenario a bit of a Call of Cthulhu vibe, although it sits somewhat oddly with Forge's system, which doesn't offer players any social or research skills. Ron Edwards (2002) summed up Forge as a game that was "gleefully honest about looting and murdering as a way of life, or rather, role-playing." I think he exaggerated, but Tales' shift away from dungeon-bashing towards investigation and negotiation is a clear departure from the ideas that were noticeable in the rulebook. Whether Forge's mechanics really support this style of gaming is another matter...
Roaming around Lyvanna, the players can interview the helpful Dunnar sage Xavier Pratt, the helpful local lord Bromo Lionheart, the helpful militia leader Captain Honis, yes, everyone in Lyvanna is very helpful. Now don't get me wrong, I don't like grimdark settings where everyone is backstabbing everyone else, but these NPCs are intensely static: the designers give each one a distinctive behavioural quirk, but none of them has an agenda or a subplot to offer. They're just waiting for the PCs to turn up so they can deliver their exposition.
Perhaps sensing that their setting lacks dramatic conflict, the designers present a pickpocket and a conman for players to interact with and some agents of the Rats Nest who will start dogging the PCs' footsteps. More about them later.
Off to the Kamon Estate
Once on the grounds of Kamon Manor, the PCs can wander freely by day or be harassed by Giant Bats at night. If they take cover in the Bell Tower and kill or chase away the Higmoni guard, there will be consequences: with no one ringing the bell, the ghosts of Kamon and his son resume haunting the site.
Superior maps and tone-setting art, compared to The Vemora from the previous year
The Manor House is an old fortress and entering it will tax the players' ingenuity. The front gate is guarded by more Higmoni but the walls can be scaled and the side tower accessed through a bridge. There's a prisoner to rescue in there (an unlucky Rats Nest spy) and a dangerous monster, a Vohl (which is a sort of taloned ghoul, as opposed to a vole, which is a cute water rat).
Exploring the house is a tense affair, especially if Kamon's ghost is active, whispering creepy things, pushing people down stairs and dropping statuary on passers-by. There's a chipper Sprite adventurer also moving through the house: Theo Bratwater will join the party and be either useful or annoying, depending on how the Referee plays him. There's a militia man to rescue, two Necromancers to tangle with, plenty of Undead and the Higmoni captain who might leave without a fight if approached correctly. There's also the ghost of Davis, Kamon's tragic son, who appears to be a normal kid and a helpful guide until you stumble across his corpse in the cellar.
The main bosses are the Necromancers: Chiassi the reptilian Kithsara and Berria the Elf. These two are presented with spell lists in full and demonstrate the crunchiness of the Forge system, offering the Referee plenty of choice, both in roleplaying their reactions and selecting their most effective tactical responses.
Chiassi: check out his feet!
Hopefully, the players discover the documents exonerating Kamon and lay his ghost to rest. On the way home, those three Rats Nest spies (remember them?) ambush the exhausted party, prompting a final act battle.
As I've discussed elsewhere, Forge converts painlessly to older iterations of D&D and even 5th ed conversions shouldn't pain anyone too much. The Higmoni are Orcs or Half-Orcs, the Necromancers are Chaotic/Evil Clerics, Zombies and Skeletons are Zombies and Skeletons, the Ghosts don't require stat blocks and the other dangerous animals or carnivorous plants have easy-to-source analogues in various Monster Manuals. The Vohl would be 7HD, AC 4, 3 attacks for 1d6/1d6/1d2 (Save vs Death Ray or lose those 1d2 HP permanently), MV 15" or 150' (50') - a nasty opponent for low-level characters.
It's a tougher scenario than The Vemora in terms of the number of monsters and the spell-casters: probably better if most or all of the PCs are 2nd level rather than 1st, maybe with a 3rd level Thief on board. But that, I suppose, makes it a good follow-up to the earlier dungeon.
Do you need it, though? The Vemora was a fantastic tutorial dungeon with enough dangling plot threads to prompt me to write an expanded version of it. Tales feels less essential. On the positive side, it's an intelligent explore/destroy mission and Mark Kibbe has a talent for dungeon layouts that generate drama. The presence of the tragic ghosts lends an element of spine-tingling mystery to things. The maps, NPC portraits and caption boxes are all attractive: if the whacky or primitive art of the earlier books repelled you, you will feel you're in the hands of professionals now.
On the other hand, the stakes are quite low. You're bailiffs for Aberdeen Jenkins (that name!!! I'm in love!), turfing out trespassers on his land. It's not glamorous. It reminds me of the sort of thoughtful scenario White Dwarf used to publish in the UK in the 1980s - or the AD&D module U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (1981); the one that sent the PCs to a haunted house that was really a cover for smugglers.
The "Scooby Doo episode of D&D modules" according to Ken Denmead (2007) vs the 1986 WFRPG
Or, perhaps, a better fit is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, with its dark fantasy-Europe setting: any story in which a wealthy merchant sends you up against evil cultists and a vicious guild of thieves has a clear WFRP vibe going on. WFRP delights in its low-fantasy theme, its dark low-key dramas and tragic backstories.
But of course U1 shifts its action from searching the old Alchemist's House to raiding the ship Sea Ghost, whereas Tales doesn't really go anywhere: you don't get to track down the Rats Nest and punish them for their perfidy. The space in the booklet is taken up instead with fluff about Hamsburg and Lyvanna, which I don't think most DMs will be making use of. So let's talk about the setting.
Sensible Settings, Yawn...
The cover of The Vemora surprised me with its Tudor buildings, lacy collars and breeches. Tales shows that the 17th century tone was quite intentional. This is not a Dark Ages or even Medieval world. It's Renaissance or perhaps Baroque. The various kingdoms and empires are stable, with parliaments and universities. Government exists "to uphold the welfare of the commoners" (p10), which is as clear a statement of Humanism as you could wish for. The focus is on tariffs and taxes, laws against "unfair trade practices and economic collusion" and revolts that remove oppressors from power.
In other words, far from being dystopian, Hamsburg seems like a lovely place. You cannot imagine giant flightless birds, enormous man-eating beetles or two-headed super-snakes marauding across this landscape. Maybe a dandy highwayman inconveniences travelers, but never a dragon. It's the sort of setting that makes Tolkien's Shire look gritty and morally ambivalent; the politics are more cut-throat in Narnia!
Mark Kibbe offers one concession to cultural darkness, which is the Hamsburg seems to treat women poorly. Kamon's wife Maria barters herself into marriage and criminal dealings in pursuit of power and autonomy in a world the treats her sex as chattel. The problem is that Kibbe's imagination is so genial that he forgets his world is supposed to be like this: we are told Maria's teenage daughter survives the fall of her family because she was off at University at the time. How very progressive!
Look, I don't mind idealised fantasy settings, but there seems little point in describing their political settlements if there are no important conflicts going on. Conflicts don't have to explore the dark side of human nature: some people are greedy, fanatical, jealous, cowardly or filled with hate; others are generous, idealistic or desperately in love. Nobody in Lyvanna seems to be doing anything, good or bad, except the Necromancers, and they're just cartoonishly evil.
The positive is that Tales is a step forward for Forge in many ways: in production values, story complexity, world-building and so on. The downside is that not all of these steps develop what was noteworthy and interesting about Forge in the first place.
The original Forge rulebook boasted a hell-on-earth setting, ruined by the gods with mortal races left behind to survive in a dystopian world. The monster Bestiary resembled Gamma World's collection of mutants and horrors more than a conventional fantasy monster manual. The PC races were exotic and rather primitive. The rules embraced dungeon delving and tactical combat, with few skills or spells for politicking, negotiating or carrying out deceptions.
Tales takes place in a harmonious and rather advanced world that resembles (to my mind) the New World colonies in the 17th century and the cosier parts of Reformation Europe, far away from the 30 Years War or the Witch Trials. Everybody seems to be human, with a few Elves, Dunnar and Kithsara as 'exotics'. One cannot imagine giant one-eyed gorillas or telepathic weasel-people moving through this society.
The naming conventions reveal much. In The Vemora, NPCs have names like Kharl Atwater, Brundle Jove, and Jacca Brone. The High King's name was Higmar. Solid fantasy names with a touch of otherworldliness to them. In Tales, we meet Maria Yates, Xavier Pratt and the incomparable Aberdeen Jenkins. These aren't bad names either, but they're very different names. They belong in our world, albeit to colourful people.
The God-Wars have faded from the imagination and religion is back. Maria marries the hapless Kamon in "a small roadside church," the Province of Lyvanna is governed by "wealthy landowners and influential clergymen" and the local temple of Omara is "very small compared to the elaborate churches of larger towns" - in other words, this is Christian Europe, thinly disguised.
Clearly, Mark Kibbe has matured and his imagination has moved away from the barbarian world of Forge towards a more sophisticated setting. That's fine. The problem is that Forge doesn't really support roleplaying in such a low-fantasy world. There are no illusion spells or skills for things like pickpocketing, faking signatures or seduction. Plus, your character is a giant one-eyed gorilla!
There's a solid scenario here. It would be great adapted for WFRP but D&D players would enjoy it as part of the Saltmarsh campaign.
The scenario creates a problem for itself that the passions and betrayals of Maria and Kamon's marriage and their gruesome ends are far more interesting than the events going on in the present. How much better the story would have been if the PCs were contemporaries of Maria: they could be employed by her to get her treasure back (only to be betrayed by her in turn when she strikes a deal with the Rats Nest), rather than acting as bailiffs for the soft-hearted Aberdeen Jenkins, decades later.
In other ways, the scenario inspires fresh directions. In an earlier blog post I introduced the idea of Dungeon Constables or 'Dinglemen'. In this adventure, the PCs are themselves the Dinglemen, sent by the owner to evict trespassers from his 'dungeon'. The idea that the PCs keep the treasure they find there is absurd: it all belongs to Jenkins by right and the PCs are paid a wage to retrieve it. This introduces nefarious possibilities if the Rats Nest approach the PCs to fake an 'ambush' whereby the treasure is all 'stolen'; the PCs and the Thieves can later meet up secretly to divide it between them. Do the players take the deal and betray their employer Jenkins? What happens when the Thieves betray them and keep all the loot for themselves?
The module's back page advertises an intriguing third module: Hate Springs Eternal, "coming in November 1999." This scenario sounds thoroughly epic, with an arch-mage returning from the dead and the PCs battling through an army to save the continent. A new type of Magic is promised! Alas, it was not to be. Tales turned out to be the second and last Forge module, leaving the game with a distinct identity crisis that is only deepened by the directions taken in the World of Juravia Sourcebook (2000), which I'll look at next.
After reviewing Mark Kibbe's 1998 module, I set about expanding it in order to develop its dangling plot threads: what was the truth behind the deadly plague that brought down Thornburg Keep and resisted even the healing powers of the Vemora? what is Shirek the Ghantu doing in the Keep and what are his humanoid minions searching for? what happened to the Cavasha? how does all this fit into the Kibbes' mythology of banished gods? The expansion document is found on the SCENARIOS page.
Paul Butler's lovely cover illustration of the Cavasha: alas, the scale of the houses is all wrong
The Return of Galignen
The Forge rulebook introduces Galignen as the god of Disease, but also of nasty plants (fungus, molds, slimes, etc). He's the younger brother of Necros (Death) and Grom (War) and joined their Triumvirate that tried to take over the world during the God-Wars. He is "deceitful and unscrupulous" and "despises mankind" which he looks upon as "insects" and he "twisted man into sentient flora." During the God-Wars he "unleashed pestilence and plagues, the most severe of which was known as the Rotting Death."
Artist Mike Connelly's depiction of Galignen
The rules list Galignen among 'Those Taken from Juravia' as opposed to Necros (cast into the Void) and Grom and Berethenu (banished to Mulkra/Hell). Why did Galignen get off so lightly, since he seems just as malevolent as Necros and as destructive as Grom?
An idea for a Forge campaign could focus on Galignen: what if he escaped creator-god Enigwa's wrath and judgement by merging himself with Juravia's plantlife? For hundreds of years, Galignen has been present in Juravia, assumed to be banished but really just left behind. He has spent that time slowly recovering his sentience and a bare fraction of his divine power, perhaps inhabiting a giant fungus colony in a deep cavern, attended by a loyal cult.
The secret of the Vemora
There is more than one Vemora. The Vemoras are relics left behind by Enigwa in his wisdom to counteract the power of Galignen, should he have survived the God-Wars. The Vemoras' healing properties are side-effects of their true purpose: they are the spiritual locks that prevent Galignen returning in power. In order to regain his full divinity, Galignen needs to corrupt or destroy all of the Vemoras.
The attack on Thornburg Keep's Vemora is just one manoeuvre in Galignan's plan, which has battles on many fronts. Galignen sent his own worshipers to Thornburg Keep, infected with the Red Rot, to close the healing sanctuary down. His next move is to retrieve the Vemora for himself. Unfortunately, the Red Rot drew on far more of the god's power than he calculated (and he was perhaps badly defeated in his attempt to retrieve another Vemora elsewhere). Galignen has spent 80 years recovering his power - but what is a century to a god? He is ready now to reach out and seize the Vemora. He has sent his worshiper Shirek the Ghantu to do this. When the Vemora is brought back to him, it will become Galignen's Chalice of Plagues, restoring a large measure of his power to create diseases.
The Red Rot
Galignen developed this plague in collaboration with his brother Necros. It is a hemorrhagic fever (rather like Ebola) which covers the poor victim in blood-seeping sores. Worse, the corpse of a victim is reanimated as a Plague Zombie. Galignen intended the Plague Zombies to overrun Thornburg Keep and bring the Vemora to him themselves.
He was thwarted in this. The master Healer of Thornburg Keep was wise enough to burn the infected corpses and evacuate the Keep. Exhausted, Galignen allowed the plague to fall dormant. Now he's ready to try again, but this time he won't trust in zombies!
Shirek and the Plague Cult
Most of Galignen's cultists are sentient flora, but he has a few fleshy worshipers like Shirek and his Higmoni lieutenant Voork. The Higmoni's natural regenerative powers enable them to endure the Red Rot for far longer than other creatures: they believe that, if they are successful in their mission, Galignen will cure them, but they are surely mistaken in this.
Shirek is a true acolyte of the cult and bears countless infections and fungal growths on his flesh, but Galignen's power makes him immune to them: he is the example of the god's power that inspires the Higmoni to put up with the infection they endure. However, should he succeed in his quest and bring back the Vemora, even Shirek will be abandoned to die or, at best, be transformed into a shambling plant.
Shirek has set his minions to work ransacking the dungeon, looking for the three keys that unlock the Vemora, but has so far come up with nothing. Worse for him, the Cavasha has set up its lair in the Keep and (unwittingly) guards the only route through to the Throne Room where the Vemora is kept.
If only Shirek knew about that teleportation arch. Let's hope no one tells him!
Belisma Mort's ill-fated Company
The Keep is strewn with the corpses of an unlucky band of adventurers who entered the dungeon a few weeks ago. This was the party of Belisma Mort, a Dunnar enchanter. They spent some days exploring the dungeon but bit off more than they could chew when they descended to the second level. They found the silver key in Captain Voln's quarters, but lost it when their Dwarf was captured by the giant spiders. Belisma was blinded when they disturbed the Cavasha and they fled back to the infirmary where they discovered another companion, Sezzerin, had contracted the Red Rot. One by one the adventurers succumbed to the Rot and reanimated as Plague Zombies, leaving Belisma as the last survivor, starving, blind and mad with fever, holed up in a remote guard post.
This provides a bit of character for the anonymous corpses and the threat that, one by one, they will reanimate as Plague Zombies. If Belisma can be rescued, she will parley her map and information about the silver key for escort out of the dungeon - but this will put the party into conflict with Jacca Brone.
Jacca Brone, the Dingleman
Instead of being a pointless priest of Shalmar, Jacca Brone is beefed up to be the Dingleman overseeing Thornburg Keep. After all, this is a royal residence that holds a royal heirloom; moreover, it's a quarantine site that might still harbour a deadly infection. Jacca's job is to prevent greedy treasure-seekers (like Belisma Mort's hapless crew) breaking into the Keep.
I've redesigned Jacca as a competent Beast Mage whose spells make him very effective at detecting intruders and negotiating the perils of the dungeon. He now features on the Wandering Monster table for the first level of the dungeon, which he patrols (looking for Shirek, whom he observed entering the site).
Jacca's presence creates very different outcomes depending on whether the PCs are chartered adventurers in the service of the local King (unlikely) or trespassing treasure seekers doing an illicit favour for the local peasants (more likely). If the latter, then Jacca will turn the party away at the Keep's entrance: they need to sneak back later while Jacca is off patrolling and avoid him at all costs if they meet him in the dungeon. Yes, they could attack and kill him, but he's a royal officer so that's a crime that carries a capital punishment for all concerned.
If the party can find a way to parley with Jacca (especially as the threat of the Red Rot grows), he has lots of information about the dungeon layout, the three keys, Shirek's incursion and the Cavasha. Of course, he won't let infected people leave the site - but he ends up becoming infected himself, as you will see.
The Events that tell the tale
Every time a Wandering Monster is indicated (10% chance, every hour), then next Dungeon Event occurs from the sequence of ten. These include things like Belisma's last companion dying and reanimating, Belisma dying, Shirek moving around the site, Plague Zombies animating and all the Giant Rats in the site becoming infected too. Among these Events, Jacca Brone becomes infected, which might well alter his negotiating position.
This creates a linear narrative, as the plague spreads across the dungeon, infected corpses rise as zombies and the humanoids assemble to do battle with the Cavasha. There are now lots of opportunities for players to ally with or exploit the different factions - or just creep through the dungeon trying to avoid the mayhem.
There's another collect-the-set mission, since the Master Healer's ledger now contains a cure for the Red Rot, which (naturally) involves the Cavasha's eyeballs.
I'm very fond of The Vemora as a tutorial dungeon, but there isn't a great need for such a thing among my players. The Expanded Vemora upgrades the scenario into something more complex and dangerous that experienced players will enjoy. The Plague Zombies also replace quite a few of the tedious blood-drinking bats and acid-spitting crabs that pose pointless threats in the original.
I'm a big fan of dungeons with a timetable of events: things that will occur in a certain order, with NPCs and monsters moving around, dying, capturing treasures, etc. This makes for a dynamic dungeon where adversaries do not simply sit in their rooms, waiting for PC adventurers to turn up and fight them. It also means that, if the players go away then come back again, the dungeon will have changed in their absence.
The Red Rot makes a nasty adversary in its own right, creating drama as the players start showing symptoms. There is a chance that tough PCs on full Hit Points might survive the illness, but for most this introduces a terrible urgency to the exploration of the dungeon.
Galignen as the background villain links the events in the scenario to Forge's intriguing mythology. As last-god-standing, Galignen hopes to make the last and decisive move in the God-Wars and claim the entire world for himself. The need to locate and secure the other Vemoras and perhaps take the fight to Galignen's Cult and the demi-god himself is a worthy plot for an epic campaign.
The Vemora is the first scenario published for Forge Out Of Chaos by Mark Kibbe back in 1998. It retailed back then for $7.98 and consists of a 28-page staple-bound book with colour cover art (by Paul Butler) and some B&W interior art (by Mike Connelly & Don Garvey who worked on the original rulebook), including two maps and lots of drawings of rooms and enemies discovered during the scenario.
There's a detailed NPC and two new monsters (mutant animals, nothing special) and a small amount of information about the setting. For me, the product is interesting for what it reveals about the sort of game Mark Kibbe thought he had created; now, two decades later, there are copies for sale that cost less than the original RRP and DrivethruRPG sells a PDF for $6 (without the slipshod reproduction that ruined the PDF rulebook).
The scenario is set in the realm of Hampton, which is one of those place names that sounds very Olde Worlde if you're American, but not if you're British. Nearly a century ago, High King Higmar ordered the construction of Thornburg Keep and its underground sanctuary to house a precious healing artifact, the Vemora. Then a plague arrived that proved resistant to all medicine and magic and Higmar ordered the evacuation of his stronghold. Since then, monsters have moved in to inhabit the underground levels (as they do!) as well as a couple of groups of marauding humanoids (Higmoni and Ghantu) looking for loot. The Vemora itself remains hidden and inviolate, deep underground.
Rumours of adventure bring the PCs (rootless mercenaries, as per standard) to the village of Dunnerton. Recently, the monster known as a Cavasha attacked the village and blinded its defenders, including the Elder's son. The Elder wants the PCs to hike out to Thornburg Keep and retrieve the Vemora, to use its magic to heal his son. If good deeds aren't a motivation in and of themselves, he'll pay 300gp. A scout will take the PCs to the dungeon entrance and a local Elven healer will accompany the party out of sheer goodwill.
The cover of the book (by artist Paul Butler) depicts the very Lovecraftian Cavasha attacking the village. It's an exciting scene, with villagers falling blinded after it uses its gaze power. Unfortunately, the Cavasha itself never features in the scenario, so this picture is a tease, really, since the Cavasha definitely lives up to what the rulebook calls its "gruesome appearance" (p165).
The buildings in the village and the style of dress (breeches, lace collars, jerkins) suggest a 17th century setting, rather like Europe during the Witch Trials and the Wars of Religion (or perhaps Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay). I wonder, is this really how Mark Kibbe envisaged Juravia? It's certainly very different from the Post-Holocaust/Dark Ages vibe I detected in the rulebook.
Dunnerton is sketched out in essential detail only. There's a Dwarven smith, Brundle Jove, who will offer free armour and weapon repairs to PCs working for the Elder; however he has a finite number of repair kits so there is a limit on the number of APs he can restore. A Sprite trader named Dya Brae runs the store and a list of the resources she has for sale is provided along with the exact amount of each (e.g. she has 5 Healing Roots in total). Alongside her wares, she dispenses some in-character dialogue that mixes inane wittering with nuggets of good sense. The Drunken Dragon Inn offers lodgings and a brief rumour table: the untrue rumours are far more interesting than the actual dungeon itself, which begs the question why the author didn't make use of these ideas! There's a temple of Shalmar, Goddess of Healing and the priest, an Elf named Jacca Brone will accompany the party if they need a healer. His character sheet is provided in full along with some pointers for the GM to roleplay him.
There are no subplots going on in Dunnerton, which is always a shame, but the scenario is explicitly pitched at first-time-roleplayers so perhaps that extra layer of complexity is unnecessary. I like the recognition that local smiths and traders don't have unlimited supplies to service adventurers. Providing Jacca Brone is a nice touch, especially if newbie players neglected to take the Binding Skill or avail themselves of a Berethenu Knight.
The presence of a Temple of Shalmar left me scratching my head. The gentle Shalmar was murdered by her brother Necros during the God-Wars. Indeed, this blasphemous crime seems to have triggered the wrathful return of Enigwa and the Banishing of the gods from Juravia. What can go on in a Temple to Shalmar? How (and why) do you worship a defunct goddess who can neither respond to prayers nor acknowledge worship? Maybe Shalmar-worshippers are a bit like certain Church of England Vicars: they don't really think their deity exists, but they respect the sort of things she stands for. That's nice, but why a tiny community beset by monsters would support a temple to the beautiful concept of healing, rather than building a temple for and funding the services of, say, a real live Grom Warrior who can kick monster butt, is a pressing question in my mind.
The Dungeon, Level 1
The back cover art shows the scout directing a band of adventurers towards the dungeon entrance, which is a broken door set in the hillside, surrounded by carved pillars and steps and all overgrown with ivy and moss. The party includes a big barbarian warrior with a hilarious bald-patch, what look like a dwarf and an archer and a Merikii with his signature two-sword pose.
Dungeon level 1 has 32 rooms, very much in the densely-packed Gygax-style rather than the sprawling Holmsian aesthetic. If the PCs press on in a straight line they will pass through the two entrance halls, the Dining Hall and the Great Hall, ending up in the Library where they have to tangle with a Tenant, which is a Mimic-like creature that inhabits wooden objects with a very nasty attack.
Along the way, they will come across lots of mosses to test their Plant ID skills on, magical fireplaces which add a much-needed spine-tingling moment to proceedings, possibly find a magic dagger and end up securing some valuable tomes and clues about the nature and location of the Vemora. They will also have a modest skirmish with crab monsters and possibly fall through one of those pit traps that deposits them in the abandoned cell block in Dungeon Level Two, with all the fun that this implies. The trap only triggers if the party numbers 3+, which is an elegant touch: small parties (or cautious ones) are spared this complication.
Rooms 1, 2, 4, 5 and (mind the pit trap) 30 take you to the Great Library (#32) and a nasty monster
If the PCs venture away from this central spine, things get a bit more varied. Up to the north there are acid-spitting crabs, a teleportation gateway that takes explorers directly to the Royal Chambers on Level Two (but allows them to return, unlike the pit trap), giant rats, giant centipedes, minor trinkets and a guard room explicitly intended to be a safe base for adventurers to make camp.
Those who have played D&D Module S1 (Tomb of Horrors) will be wary of this
North definitely equals 'safe' and the teleporter offers the intriguing possibility that hapless PCs could blunder straight into the Vemora's hiding place - but of course they won't have the special keys needed to get at it yet. This offers a cute glimpse of where the PCs need to end up and a way of getting there quickly once they've assembled all their keys and clues.
The southern rooms are a bit livelier. There are armouries to ransack, more rats, crabs and blood-draining bats to fight as well as a Creeper, which is an acidic slime. There are mysterious tracks to decipher (cue: Tracking and Track ID skills) that reveal you are not alone: Shirek, a tough Ghantu, and his Higmoni henchmen are camped down here. Shirek is the main 'Boss' on this dungeon level and there will be a communication barrier unless someone speaks Ghantu or Higmoni, in which case a fight can be avoided.
The set-up here is exemplary: first the signs of ransacked rooms, then the tracks, then the Higmoni, then the appearance of their one-eyed boss. The designer makes some questionable assumptions. The main rulebook introduces a Languages skill but doesn't encourage anyone to learn it, saying "all character races ... speak a common language known as Juravian" (p23) but at the same time each character "is fluent in its own language ... as well as the Juravian language" (p5). The chances that a group of PCs will not include at least one bestial Higmoni or giant one-eyed gorilla Ghantu are (knowing the aesthetic choices of dungeon-bashing players) slim. This means players are highly likely to defuse this encounter non-violently unless they are immensely dunder-headed. But this is supposed to be a teaching dungeon, so that's probably how it should be.
The Dungeon, Level 2
The lower dungeon level has 27 rooms, arranged in a sort of loop, with a spur off to the north (the old cell block where the pit trap deposits you) and the south-east (the Royal Chambers where the teleporter takes you).
There are several ways down here. The pit trap is the worst: you're in the old cell block, with giant spiders nearby, and you don't know the way out. The teleporter is better: you discover the Royal Chambers and all their loot (including magic items and a magical sword) but you probably cannot open the difficult locks. You can stumble into the eerie throne room but you probably won't have the keys to get into the Vemora's vault. Try exploring further and you encounter the ravenous undead in room #36 (see below).
Conventionally, you'll descend the stairs in the southern part of the first level. This brings you into a central columned hall with a fountain, magical roots to identify and the corpse of another Higmoni, tipping you off there are more raiders down here.
Have fun exploring the temple rooms, dealing with killer mold and a Berethenu Shrine, which is a great asset for Berethenu Knights and offers a cute benefit for Grom-ites who choose to desecrate it.
You soon discover the bedrooms, workrooms, smithies and studies of the castles old occupants and some of their correspondences. This is clearly inspired by the chambers of Zelligar and Rogahn in Mike Carr's seminal D&D Module B1: In Search of the Unknown (1979). There's a pleasant frisson to exploring the intimate chambers of these long-dead people and it's a valuable reminder that this labyrinth was not always a malevolent dungeon.
There are a lot more Higmoni down here, split into two groups and leaving evidence of their looting all over the place. They're having a spot of bother with a pack of undead Magouls (why MAgouls? why not just ghouls? why???), so, once again, players who prefer to talk than fight might be able to negotiate something.
The Magouls (that name, grr-rrr) are in room #36, which isn't keyed on the map, but it's the room outside the Throne Room #56 (perhaps another reason for smart players to double back and use the teleporter upstairs).
Unkeyed room is #36, just off the main corridor (#33) and the only way through to the Throne Room (#56)
Once the PCs have their three keys, they can head to the Throne Room (which may or may not involve confronting the undead) and retrieve the Vemora - naturally, its a big golden chalice. Then it's back to Dunnerton for the reward.
As noted, this is an exemplary tutorial dungeon for a novice group of D&D players. It has all the best features of Basic D&D Module B1, while being tighter and more focused. It's an underground fortress with a lot of empty rooms containing interesting objects and a few mystical moments when the magical fires light up; there are dungeon raiders who pose a challenge but can be negotiated with if the players aren't too trigger-happy; there's a pit trap to the lower level; there's a historical mystery in working out what the rooms once were and who inhabited them.
In some ways, it does its job better than Module B1: the quest for the Vemora, and the collection of keys to unlock it, gives structure and purpose to the adventure, rather than aimless wandering. The nearby village of Dunnerton offers support and healing as well as a grand reward.
D&D conversions are easy: giant centipedes, rats and spiders (albeit large spiders in D&D terminology) are standard; use stirges for Ebryns and fire beetles for Nemrises; 1HD piercers work for Bloodrils; the Creeper is an ochre jelly; the Tenant is hard to translate but a half-strength mimic would work (3 HD, 2d4 damage). The Higmoni can become goblins, their Leader a hobgoblin, Shirek the Ghantu translates as a bugbear or a gnoll. The Magouls are, of course, proper ghouls with proper names.
The limitation of the scenario is that this is all it is. Exemplary tutorial dungeons are all very well, but D&D 5e includes The Lost Mine of Phandelver in the Starter Set, which is a far more ambitious introductory adventure than this. Even back in 1998, the sort of dungeon adventure The Vemora provides was pretty dated: it might perfect the formula of In Search of the Unknown, but that means perfecting something already 20 years old at the time.
Nonetheless, if you play any sort of OSR RPG or any iteration of D&D and come across a cheap copy of The Vemora, don't disdain it. It's a little gem of an introductory dungeon that provides the right balance of mystery solving, exploration, combat and a sense of wonder. There's a bunch of noob adventurers out there who will remember it fondly if they get a chance to cut their teeth on it.
Evaluation: Forge & adapting the scenario
Although it's a great tutorial dungeon, The Vemora is a frustrating product for Forge Out of Chaos. Even in 1998, it was unlikely players were coming to a RPG like Forge as complete noobs. The rulebook makes few concessions to novices, since it commences with a treatise on the Kibbe Brothers' distinctive mythology rather than explaining what roleplaying is. It's very worthy that the scenario carefully points out every opportunity PCs have to use and check skills like Plant ID, Tracking and Jeweler but these sort of training wheels are certainly redundant.
Instead, Forge players will be hoping the scenario sheds light on what's distinctive about Forge as a RPG: its themes, setting and conflicts. Yet here we are disappointed. The Temple of Shalmar and its priest Jacca Brone only goes to show that the authors have not grasped (or simply forgotten) the implications of their god-free setting.
Forge promises a post-apocalyptic world, but the scenario presents a rather orderly one, with its well-run kingdom and 'High King'. The dungeon is not the mansion of a fallen god but something much more prosaic: an underground fortress that's only 80 years old.
The ancient plague hints at darker designs, but is never explained and finds no expression in the dungeon itself: where did it come from? where did it go? why was it immune even to the Vemora's healing power?
Then there's the hideous Cavasha from the front cover. With 25+1d6 HP and Armour Rating 4, it's a tough opponent but not beyond the means of a party of adventurers who have availed themselves of magical weapons. With Attack Value 3 and two claw attacks for 2d4, it's a Boss-level combatant for starting PCs and of course there's the permanent blindness from its gaze - though the Vemora's on hand to cure that. Surely the Cavasha, rather than those preposterously-monickered Magouls, should have its lair in room #33.
Developing the Dungeon
The Rumour Table at the Drunken Dragon Inn suggests some other, far more interesting, plots within the dungeon. For example, there's the obligatory previous-party-of-adventurers who entered the Keep and never came back. Wouldn't it be better if some of them were still down there, wounded, starving and desperate? There's a rumour about the water being infected with the Plague: that's a good idea! The High King's ghost is supposed to haunt the Throne Room: Forge doesn't do spirits and incorporeal undead, but what if the Plague raised its victims as zombies? What if those previous adventurers are infected by the Plague now? What if there's a cure for it somewhere in the dungeon? What if the cure requires the ichor from a Cavasha's eyeballs?
A dungeon like this needs a Dungeon Constable or Dingleman and it makes sense to cast Jacca Brone in this role (which makes more sense than a priest of Shalmar). The Referee has a choice: are the PCs chartered to enter the Keep by the current King, in which case Jacca is an ally who will show them in and offer directions to the Great Hall and warn about Higmoni incursions. Or (more likely) Jacca enforces the quarantine on the site and the villagers of Dunnerton are going behind their lord's back by recruiting adventurers to trespass on the site and retrieve the Vemora. In this case, Jacca is an adversary and wandering monster (on the 1st level) who must be avoided at all cost.
If you add the Cavasha to the dungeon, then the Dingleman will know that it lairs somewhere on the 2nd level; he probably warned Dunnerton of its approach when it went marauding out last month. If the PCs have a (self-appointed) mission to destroy it, the Dingleman might allow even unchartered adventurers entry and guide them to the stairs - but will expect them to hand over treasure and magic items when they leave (including the Vemora - it's a royal heirloom). That creates a dilemma since the PCs swore to bring the Vemora to Dunnerton...
See how much fun Dinglemen add to a dungeon?
Mark Kibbe's decision to frame the scenario as a tutorial dungeon was a mistake, creatively and (I suspect) commercially. But if the dungeon architecture is robust - and this is - then it's easy to adapt it to a more complex story. Removing a few of those acid-spitting crabs, mutant rats and blood-draining bats is step one; replacing them with tragic plague victims and plague zombies is step two. Then there needs to be a cure among the papers in the Great Library (#32) with ingredients to be gathered from various mosses, roots and monster body parts around the site, the whole thing to be brewed up in the Vemora chalice to save the NPCs (and, by that point, PCs too) who are infected. That would be a scenario even experienced players would get behind and, even if it doesn't do justice to Forge's setting, it would pass a merry couple of evenings.
Over the last few months I've been slowly unpacking the thinking that went into the 1990s indie RPG Forge Out of Chaos. The character creation system had a few neat ideas, combat mechanics were sturdy, the magic system bristled with interesting implications. It's time to look at the 'Monster Manual' at the back of the book. It's not going to be fun - I warn you in advance, the monsters are a very pedestrian selection - but even failures of creativity can be revealing. So let's dive in.
"You're gonna need a bigger boat"
There are 75 monsters listed; a suspiciously tidy number that makes me wonder whether it was set in advance as a target quota. They're listed alphabetically, but I find it helpful to lump them into some meaningful categories of my own.
These are real-world animals that also exist in Forge's fantasy setting of Juravia. There are only two: Grizzly Bears and Wolves (although Guard Dogs, Hawks and Horses get some stats in the Equipment section on pp33-34). It's a bit disappointing. The rules reference habitats like jungles, deserts, polar mountains and swamps, so it would have made sense to see, oh I dunno, maybe Tigers and Crocodiles in here too. The omission is telling. The Kibbe Brothers might pay lip service to exotic climates and terrains in the text, but their imaginations reside in underground dungeons and the Northern European/North American woodlands that must be crossed to reach the dungeon entrance.
We shall meet this odd truncating of perspective again in this section of the book. It doesn't occur to the authors that the Bestiary might need to include cobras and panthers, elephants, hippopotamuses and baboons. The focus is resolutely Euro-centric. Given that there is a whole school of Attack Magic (Beast Magic) devoted to mastering wild animals, it short-changes the already-underpowered Beast Mages that more wild animals are not included.
Wolves, then: with 20+1d6HP, an Attack Value of 3 and 2d4 damage from a bite, a Wolf is a good match for an armoured warrior with a spear. That's one big, mean Wolf! With 50+1d6HP, AV 7 and two claws for 2d4+3 each, Grizzlies are things of terror - although, to be fair, that's what grizzlies really are. The point being, these are the ordinary animals and they are dangerous to fight. Good job Beast Magic lets you tame and recruit them.
Grizzlies (left) and Wolves (right)
Both beasts are accompanied by text that (redundantly) reiterates the information from the stat block - although, now that I think of it, the early versions of D&D did this too, so maybe the authors just thought this to be appropriate style for a monster manual. They also note the chance these animals will leave you alone if you don't mess with them (80% for the Bear, 75% for the Wolf - I cannot vouch for the truth behind these probabilities) which makes a refreshing change from the old convention of animals in RPGs attacking on sight. We also learn that bear pelts fetch 80gp but there has to be a better way of earning money than trying to kill one of these things.
With 20 creatures, this is the largest category, which reveals a lot about how the authors view their fantasy world. Some RPGs devote their pages to adversaries who are fairies, or sub-species of troll, or gun-wielding bunnies, but the biggest threat to life and prosperity in Juravia seems to be giant, mutated animals. There are super-sized versions of Rats and Spiders (of course), but also Boars, Snakes, Lizards and various massive Beetles. Giant birds seem a particular fixation, especially the flightless ones, or small flappy ones that have stingers or drain blood. There are poisonous bats and fiery bats and acid-spitting frogs.
What are these misshapen critters doing in the setting? Forge's back-cover blurb describes a post-apocalyptic setting: "Once beautiful landscapes are now swamps, desolate wastes and jagged mountains. The calm and gentle rain has turned to fierce storms of fire and ice. Nothing of paradise survived the Banishment. Not even the gods." That sounds a hell of a setting, quite literally, and these gigantic monstrosities do fit with its vibe. One gets the impression that, at some point in its development, Forge was intended to be like Gamma World, which was TSR's 1978 D&D-clone in a futuristic world with radioactive mutants and killer robots.
Gamma World: the absurd beast is a Yexil and it eats manufactured clothing, which is more imaginative than anything Forge's giant beasts have to offer.
If the Wolves and Bears of Juravia are terrifying opponents, the giant mutated critters are altogether more manageable. A Giant Boar has only 15+1d6HP and an Attack Value of 4, dealing 2d4 damage, making it less intimidating than a Wolf. A few other creatures are slightly more alarming. The Tursk is a two-headed snake that makes you lose initiative with its hypnotic swaying then bites you - twice! - at Attack Value 10 (yikes!) for 2d6 damage each time. Now that is definitely unpleasant.
A couple of creatures do add flavour to the setting. Mul-Hounds are armoured mastiffs with 100% Tracking Skills that can issue a howl that terrifies listeners so badly they suffer -5 to Attack Value. I could see Evil Bad Guys employing them to chase down Player Characters. With 30+2d6HP, AV 7 and a bite for 2d6 damage, a single Mul-Hound will overpower a single adventurer most of the time. Mevoshks are massive snakes with a venom that paralyses victims who suffocate in 10 minutes unless a Brye Leaf antidote is applied: nice to see variation on the old 'Save vs Poison or Die Immediately' conceit. Juldanni are 10' tall T-Rexes that Higmoni (the orc-like race) ride into battle - something that definitely catches the imagination but there are no rules for PC Higmoni acquiring these and surely they're a better fit to be tamed by the reptilian Kithsara? Keva are big horned herbivores that yield spectacular leather; not really 'monsters', but you wish there was more information on animals that add to the texture of life in Juravia.
Left to right: Tursk, Mul-Hound, Juldanni: the stat blocks don't have much nuance but at least they're simple.
The distinction I'm making here is a bit hard to pin down, but these creatures seem to be more magical or otherworldly than the previous carnivorous birds, gigantic beetles and scaly dogs: more like monsters from a fantasy setting than refugees from Gamma World.
There's familiar fantasy fodder here: Dragons of course, as well as Basilisks, Griffons, Hydras, Manticores, Phoenixes and Unicorns. There are creatures with evocative names (Ji-Amyds are the noble giant eagles) and dull names (Slime Dragons). Many of these have their origins in the now-banished gods, who created them as weapons in their wars or defenders of their sacred places (the lovely Shonril are birds with healing powers).
Despite their divine origin, what's striking about these creatures is how resolutely un-mystical they are. They might look like creatures of heraldry and fable, they might be products of divine creativity, but they're just big animals. Basilisks don't turn you to stone: they're just very venomous, very massive snakes. Griffons have two heads and can serve as steeds, but they're not intelligent or loyal. Manticores have human-like faces but they're just "ravenous carnivores." Unicorns are horses with horns: they don't have feelings for virginal maidens.
Even Dragons "rely on brute strength to destroy their victims" and in terms of magic they are "reduced to a few incantations." These are not the numinous, tragic dragons of Ursula Leguin's Earthsea, nor the proud, wily dragons of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. They're just psychopathic flying lizards.
No chatting with Forge's Dragons
Nonetheless, Forge does ring a few changes. Forge's Dragons are "the most powerful creatures known to exist in the land of Juravia" and their stat block backs this up. With over 300HP, an Armour Rating of 20 and AV 18, they're almost off-the-scale. Their fiery breath deals 5d10 actual damage - it bypasses armour and toasts you inside. Since they can detect invisible creature (take that, Smaug!), it's hard to see how PCs will ever bring down one of these things.
A Dragon. Ouch!
It's nice to see Dragons reinstated as the ultimate enemy in Fantasy RPGs. Poor old D&D Dragons were long ago overshadowed by more terrible foes, but D&D expansions like 1990's Draconomicon started beefing them up, a process consolidated by D&D 5th Edition, so Forge is in step with (or even foreshadowing) a direction D&D would take, by putting these iconic monsters at the apex of deadliness.
But in other ways, Forge's Dragons have been demoted. Gary Gygax's interpretation of D&D's monsters was prosaic in the extreme and he established the game's penchant for turning the creatures of myth and fable into big angry animals, but even Gygax afforded Dragons some measure of dignity: some could talk, some could cast spells, you didn't have to fight them to the death. Forge dithers between two origins for Dragons: they are creations of the ferocious god Marda sent to plague the world or the end-state of powerful Beast Mages who've moved beyond mortality. Either way, they're all about the senseless destruction.
The only fantastic beast interpreted in a novel way is the Phoenix, which is a creature that lives in lava pools, but whose blood confers lifelong immunity to fire: consequently, they've been hunted to near-extinction (presumably by adventurers who want to take down a Dragon). I appreciate the attempt to do something different with a familiar fantasy trope, but once again, a creature rich in symbolism and spiritual suggestion (it's a metaphor for immortality and rebirth!) has been turned into an animal with quirky attributes. Even J.K. Rowling - an author almost as much a stranger to romance as Gary Gygax - treats phoenixes with (slightly) more reverence than this ("Fascinating creatures, phoenixes. They can carry immensely heavy loads, their tears have healing powers, and they make highly faithful pets").
Couldn't finish it.
This is my term for monsters who might just as well be categorized as "bastards" - they're intelligent but senselessly evil, either because they're alien demons, divine scourges or just irredeemably horrible jerks. They make up the second-largest category after Mutated Beasts, 19 of them, which sets the grim tone for the post-apocalyptic world of Juravia.
As usual, there are many standard fantasy critters and familiar D&D imports: Gargoyles, Harpies, Medusas, Trolls and Werewolves. Mermaids are in there too, but these are the the man-eating type.
The curious theme we detected earlier crops up here too. The Mermaids aren't beautiful and don't lure sailors to a tragic doom with their song: they're just beasts with claws and fangs that pounce on sailors who fall into the water. The Harpies don't 'charm' you with their song: they just inflict sonic damage with it. The Trolls don't regenerate: they're just very strong. Everything romantic, eerie or symbolic has been stripped away and replaced by fight, fight, fight...
Part of me is intrigued by this. There's something bracing about throwing away the facade of Romanticism and revealing horrible monsters for what they really are: carnivorous predators around whom silly myths have grown up, which veteran adventurers know to ignore. But the cumulative effect is very reductive if it isn't balanced by a contrary imaginative impulse. For example, in Call of Cthulhu the creatures of folklore are usually exposed to be alien predators rather than faerie spirits, but this is balanced by the Gothic panoply of the 'Cthulhu Mythos' with its gulfs of time and cyclopean architecture. Forge lacks anything to serve as a foil to its relentless reductionism.
At least Medusas are everything you would expect, especially since they are the snake-bodied gorgons of Clash of the Titans (1981 or, if you absolutely insist, 2010) and they still turn you to stone. With 80+3d6HP, Armour Rating 8 and AV7 they're a real handful. Alas, they don't come with wickedly creaking compound bows.
The shuddering stop-motion animation gives Ray Harryhausen's Medusa the quality of nightmare.
There are Cavashas which have four tentacles for legs and Kesharus which have four tentacles for arms: they sound Lovecraftian but they're just combat mooks really. More promising, the Necromers are necromantic spiders that turn people into Zombies: a sort of blend of Shelob and the Spiders of Metebelis 3 from Doctor Who. The best art award goes to Nagdus, which look like drowned corpses but can mutate their blubbery bodies to imitate other creatures; more Doctor Who inspiration seems to be at work, perhaps this time the Zygons.
Nagdu (left) and Zygon (right): blubbery shapeshifters
But the Nagdus don't do anything with their shapeshifting powers. They're not infiltrating society. They just get the drop on you, latch on with their ghastly sucker mouths and drain your blood. Blood-draining is a big theme among Forge monsters.
None of the 'demonics' are actually demons - none are from Hell. This is a world abandoned by the Divine, remember? But the best demonics at least hail from strange dimensions. Gura-Shen are malevolent shadows with psychic shrieks that are bound to a place; they are a step up from standard bite/claw monsters. Dungwalas have a terrible name but manage to be genuinely creepy: evil mists, they paralyse you with dread then suffocate you, consume you, then vanish while they digest you, which takes a fortnight. Now that's what we want. Players will quake when those things approach, which is why I put one in my adaptation of the Zenopus Dungeon.
But the most innovative monster in the collection is the Doppelganger, which succeeds in departing radically from its D&D namesake. This is an invisible shade (I hesitate to call it a 'spirit' since there are no spiritual things in this compendium) that latches onto a victim, drains their Stamina over many days, then cocoons itself within their corpse, transforming it into a new monster called a Limris. The Limris is more like the D&D Doppelganger, since it can shapeshift, but it can also mentally dominate weaker minds, acquiring an army of psionically-subdued slaves. They fill the role that Mind Flayers occupy in AD&D. Unfortunately, as with Nagdus, the Limris doesn't seem to have an agenda beyond eating people. They don't try to take over civilisation; they're just enemies you fight inside dungeons. But that aside, the Doppelganger/Limris entity is by far the most imaginative monster in the set.
Doppelgangers (left) have a nasty suffocation attack if you mess with their cocoon; the Limris (right) has the obligatory claws but "special" refers to its psionic attack.
Undead are really a sub-type of Demonic, since they're inherently hostile jackasses. Given the prominence of Necros the god of Death in Forge's foundational myth, you'd expect the bestiary to be full of them, but the selection is pedestrian, Skeletons, Giant Skeletons, Zombies, Vampires and Magouls (why Magouls? why not Ghouls? why?).
None of these deviate much from the D&D template, right down to Skeletons resisting edged weapons and Zombies resisting blunt ones. There are no incorporeal undead (no spirits in Forge, remember?). Magouls (why? why???) lack the paralysing powers of D&D Ghouls (the First Rule of Forge: make-stuff-less-interesting) and all Vampires are high-level Necromancers who have moved beyond humanity. This makes Vampires automatically sorcerers but, since they are not bearers of a vampiric contagion, it takes away a lot of the dread that we feel for them.
Artist Don Garvey clearly got a kick out of drawing Magouls (that name! argh! WHY?)
The rules lump these creatures together as Humanoids, but I prefer C.S. Lewis' term Hnau, meaning sentient, reasoning species with a sense of right and wrong (as opposed to the Demonics, who just love evil).
There are 10 Hnau in the bestiary, including familiar Centaurs, Cyclopes, Cy-Ebs (Satyrs), Geleb (Lizard Men), Giants, Minotaurs, Ogres and Yetis. The same anti-Romantic sensibility is at work as before. Centaurs get some ethnographic detail (their males get aggressively drunk and the females flirt with outsiders to provoke them to jealousy) but the classical role of Centaurs as healers, teachers and prophets is missing. Similarly, Cyclopes are not master smiths and engineers, just big one-eyed giants. The proper Giants are not the fallen demigods of Greek and Norse mythology and lack even the diversity and occasional nobility of the D&D templates: they are enormous brutes with leathery skin, rather like the Game of Thrones Giants but without even their barbaric dignity.
There are a couple of original additions. Frost Heaves have a terrible name but are essentially ice-goblins: Yetis hunt and eat them. Fireborne are copper-skinned efreet who radiate heat and are immune to fire - you would imagine they earn a living hunting Phoenixes or hiring themselves out as Dragon-slayers but the connection goes unexplored.
It becomes clear that three of the PC races also serve as 'monsters': the ersatz-Klingon Berserkers, pug-faced Higmoni and monocular Ghantus are clearly the 'bad guys' that PCs will be fighting. The authors introduce the Bestiary with an appeal for nuance: there is "no distinction between good and evil in living creatures" so it is "usually wise for adventurers to speak with the humanoids they encounter" because "it is even possible that the humanoids are friendly" (p162).
But this is empty piety, really. The Bestiary offers little or no advice about what the different Hnau want or believe. Giants can be bribed with wine and the frothy sexual dynamics of Centaurs might be exploited by canny PCs, but what exactly you would talk to Fireborne or Frost Heaves about, what they value, how they feel about each other and about humans, none of this is explored: as a GM, you are on your own when it comes to non-combat resolutions to these encounters.
Plants, Parasites and Novelty Monsters
Mutant Plants also add to the Gamma World vibe of Forge. There are six, with three being tentacular, constrict-y things and the other three being different types of molds. These are foreshadowed in the book's mythology chapter, introducing Galignen, the god of Disease, and his children, "the magic-wielding molds and fungi that dwell in the deepest, darkest caverns." If you were hoping for Swamp Thing, you will be disappointed, but Power Moss does absorb Spell Points out of Magic used against it and use them to cast its own offensive spells, including mind control and horrible lung infections. Skill Moss permanently drains percentage Skill points from passing characters and defends itself with poisonous spores; if you defeat it, its roots are either toxic (75%) or confer 1-100% in a random Skill.
I can't help feeling there's a missed opportunity here to make Galignen's children the distinctive nemeses of Forge: toadstool people, shambling compost heaps, gestalt intelligences in root networks, tree-folk, cactus-men and bloodthirsty dryads would have been much more engaging than giant flightless birds as far as filling up the wilderness with unpleasant monsters goes.
The Parasites are microscopic infestations that drain magical energy, Intellect or Stamina and rust weapons and armour. It is striking that these are all material creatures, just very small ones: they are not spirits. Forge's commitment to its materialistic outlook goes really deep.
The novelty monsters are as silly as the ones in D&D, but some concession to realism is at work. Bloodrils look like stalactites and drop from the ceiling but they are really a type of blood-draining crab; Gemrils are evil coral; Nemrises are acid-spitting crabs (so many monster-crabs...); the Stone Mimic paralyses you and sucks you into a wall; and the Shrieking Stone is, well, a stone that shrieks if you pass too close: it's just like the shrieking toadstools in D&D except that, in keeping with Forge's philosophy that everything should hurt, the shrieks cause damage as well as attracting other monsters..
Monsters Without Romance
As the blog title says, the Bestiary is pretty banal. Not many of these monsters are worth adapting for other games. It's nice to see Medusas with snake-bodies, super-tough Dragons are always welcome; only the Doppelganger/Limris has a genuinely interesting life-cycle and makes a distinctive contribution to a campaign, although the Dungwala is a good example of a low-powered monster that will strike fear into even quite powerful PCs.
But on the positive side, the monster stat blocks are simple and easy to deploy at the drop of a hat. Conversion from D&D is pretty easy. I've added a conversion system over on the MONSTERS tab of this site.
This means a Cockatrice (if you want to referee Bury My Tusks At Broken Jaw) would have 30+1d6 HP, Attack Value 5, Armour Rating 3, peck for 1d3 damage (petrification on failed Save vs Death), Saving Throw 14+ and Speed 2/6.
More interesting is Forge's unusual aesthetic, this wholesale rejection of the spiritual and otherworldly: is this deliberate artistic choice or unconscious preference? Not only is Juravia a world where the gods have been banished, it seems to be a world without spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, faeries or mystical entities of any sort. All the Undead are corporeal; the very few non-corporeal monsters all seem to be microscopic parasites or extra-dimensional aliens. When creatures of myth and fable appear, they are stripped of their romantic properties: Mermaids are simple cannibals, Harpies don't mesmerise, Trolls don't regenerate, Pheonixes don't rebirth in flames, Basilisks don't kill with a glance; Giants are overgrown Neanderthals, Dragons are rampaging lizards; only the Medusa retains her fabled magical attack.
Instead, the Bestiary reads more like the monster list for a post-holocaust SF RPG, with giant birds and lizards and savage creatures of fang and claw.
It certainly seems like a conscious design choice, except that, other than the back cover blurb, the rules nowhere state a post-holocaust theme for the game. Indeed, the published scenarios and world sourcebook don't explore this sort of genre at all. Maybe the ideas for Forge evolved in the writing of the game; perhaps it started as a post-holocaust fantasy RPG but developed into a broader, more universal sort of fantasy RPG in its final version, but no one thought to update the monsters.
I like the post-holocaust setting and I think that's how I'll run with Forge: more Gamma World than World of Greyhawk. However, this sort of setting creates its own problems. If you rip all the romance, mysticism and spirituality out of the monsters and races, you need to inject it back again somewhere else.
Gamma World (1978) is a good example of how to do this. TSR's 'D&D-with-mutants' RPG replaces the flavourful and suggestive creatures of art and myth with Badders (mutated badgers!), Hoops (killer bunnies!) and the sock-eating Yexil described earlier. There are giant radioactive moths, enormous six-legged horses and giant trees with exploding seed pods. Some of these creatures raise a laugh, some are absurdist delights and a few have a sort of demented appeal as antagonists, but there's no awe or wonder at work.
Instead, Gamma World directs the PCs to explore the ruins of the Ancients (i.e. our homes and cities) and uncover our everyday objects as cherished treasures. Standing in the shattered ruins of Stoke-on-Trent, trying to figure out how to use a toaster, has its own bleak romance. Then there are the 'Cryptic Alliances' which are organisations of humans and mutants pursuing their own vision of a renewed world: the Knights of Genetic Purity oppose all mutants, the Archivists venerate the most trivial pieces of Ancient technology, the Restorationists want to unite human and mutant in the project of rebuilding the world, the Followers of the Voice think surviving computer AIs should rule the world. Even the most fascistic and deluded of these groups have a certain nobility of purpose and the best of them are intensely idealistic. It may be a world where giant bunnies carry assault rifles, but those bunnies have a cause they are prepared to die for.
Would you care to hear about our lord and saviour, Bugs Bunny?
Forge lacks anything like this. The rules don't hint of any vast ruins to explore: the former mansions, playgrounds, shrines, prisons and torture chambers of the now-departed gods. The only universal cults are those of saintly Berethenu and warlike Grom, but neither is given any political agenda and it's not suggested that the 'monsters' join their ranks.
Gamma World's authors, James Ward and Gary Jaquet, were wiser than the Kibbe Brothers in this regard: they understood that a RPG doesn't have to stand or fall by its monsters, but if the monsters don't carry the emotional and philosophical weight of the game, then something else has to. You can play a very unsophisticated D&D campaign but it will still have moments of genuine grandeur when you encounter a Cloud Giant in his floating palace, a magnificently evil Ancient Red Dragon that can talk and cast spells, a Dryad who symbolises unspoilt nature, an actual honest-to-goodness ghost of a dead person. None of this can happen in Forge. You just run up against the hideous denizens of a world abandoned by God and kill them, one at a time.
Forge needs a setting that is compelling enough to compensate for its banal monsters; ideally a setting that draws upon the poignant, death-of-God themes in its anti-Romantic mythology and makes sense of this Monster Manual mish-mash of mutants and depowered demigods. Unfortunately, the scenarios and worldbook published for Forge tried to take the game off in a rather more conventional direction. For me, this explains the game's failure to find an audience. If you're going to play standard quasi-feudal fantasy RPGs, you want to confront the spine-tingling creatures of myth and legend. If the game offers you only degraded versions of these antagonists, it had better have something even better up its sleeve - and a cool magic system won't cut it.
Bring Me the Heart of Finbar Forkbeard is a 30-minute Dungeon Challenge, as set out by Tristan Tanner in his Bogeyman Blog. It's a break from the list I set myself last year, because Valentine's Day approaches and, over on the DMS & GMS Facebook Page, Liu Lance asked for ideas for a Valentines-themed scenario. So... challenge accepted.
I used Tristan's optional tables to create an extra discipline for this 10-room dungeon: empty rooms that point to a combat, reveal history and offer something useful to PCs; the special room provides a boon for a sacrifice; the NPC is a rival; the combat encounters are a horde of weaklings, a pair of toughs and a tough boss; the traps are inconveniencing and incapacitating.
The course of true love never did run smooth. Brigid Rosenbrow is a wealthy unmarried Dwarvish lady who owns an extensive mine in the Mountains of Broddick. She has conceived a powerful romantic interest in a younger Dwarvish adventurer, Finbar Forkbeard. Finbar, however, thinks only of dungeons (and, indeed, dragons) and has no interest in marriage and even less in Brigid. Brigid has decided she will go adventuring with Finbar and win his love by demonstrating her courage. To this end, she has reopened an old ‘training dungeon’ in her mine, where the Rosenbrows used to practise martial skills. She has spread a rumour that a fabled heirloom, the Ring of Broddick, rests in this dungeon.
When Finbar arrives, anxious to retrieve the Ring, Brigid offers to join him. She recruits a group of adventurers (PCs) to play the role of goblin ‘monsters’ in the dungeon.
There are two complications for Brigid. One is Hildy Heffenhammer, a female Dwarf adventurer and rival for Finbar’s affections, who will be joining her party. The other is Olaf the Black, a Dwarf renegade with his band of Svarts: Olaf has picked up on the rumour too and is a bitter enemy of Finbar. He and his monsters have penetrated the dungeon by digging down from the mines, discovered the fake Ring and now lie in wait for Finbar.
The Player Characters ae assumed to be 1st level beginners and about 6 in number. For each PC fewer than 6 in the party, promote one of them to 2nd level (Forge: level 2 in Melee or Magic), so if there are 3 PCs they are all 2nd level.
You have been hired by Brigid Rosenbrow to play the role of ‘goblins’ in her training dungeon. She offers a fabulous fee for a day’s work and all the weapons will be ‘bated’ so no one should get hurt. Brigid will be accompanying a Dwarvish adventurer named Finbar through the training dungeon. Your job is to fight mock battles against Brigid and Finbar and never to ‘break role’ as goblins.
Show the players the Player Map of the dungeon and point out the service tunnels.
Brigid takes the PCs into her confidence (see Appendix 1, the Chemical Equation). Brigid shows them how to open the secret doors and warns them about the Dungeon Cleanup Crew (see room 2):
Brigid issues the PCs with their weapons and arrows which are bated or blunted (D&D: they inflict minimal damage; Forge: they inflict half damage, none of it actual). She reassures them that her and Finbar’s weapons will be similarly safe and says that there are healing potions, nets, smoke bombs and stuff for controlling the monsters “somewhere in the maintenance room” (see room 2)
The players will be given their Goblin Disguises (see Appendix 2) and, once they are in costume, must meet Brigid in the Dungeon Entrance (1). They have enough time to familiarise themselves with the Maintenance Room (2) and Service Shafts (3) but see no sign of Carrie or Gerald at this point.
1. Entrance Hall
The broad corridor is 12’ high. Brigid waits here, in mail armour, holding a lantern. She checks the PCs’ Goblin Disguises and briefs them on their tasks:
2. Maintenance Room
This dirty room is lit by a lamp on the central table. The walls are stacked with barrels and crates. Each time they are in this room, the PCs might notice something useful (1 in 6 or a Search test for Forge):
3. Service Tunnels
These 5’ wide tunnels are 6’ high; larger-than-man-sized characters will be cramped here (-2 to attacks and saves, +2 to AC; in Forge: always use DV2). The secret doors have spy-holes and the acoustics allow PCs in the shaft to hear perfectly what is going on in the room or corridor beyond. The doors can be locked from inside the shaft to prevent pursuit.
The ‘Wandering Monsters’ in the shafts are Gerald and Carrie. Roll 1d12 every time the PCs pass through the shafts after the start of the adventure.
1-3 Gerald the Gelatinous Cube (HP 10)
4-6 Carrie the Carrion Crawler (HP 8)
7-12 Nothing but the distant sound of Gerald’s wheezing
Gerald is very decrepit. He’s not very transparent any more, makes a wheezing sound when he moves (at half speed) and is accompanied by the smell of curdled milk. He only surprises on a 1-2 and his paralysing secretions are weak: +2 on Saving Throw, paralysis for 2d4 rounds only, only 1d4 damage. He will retreat away from the Rattle (see room 2) and can be shepherded towards an ambush point quite easily. He has the personality of a old, blind, smelly dog that moves towards noise but is easily startled.
Gelatinous Cube: (D&D) HD 4, HP 10, AC 8, smother for 1d4 + paralysation for 2d4 round; (Forge) HP 20, AR 1, AV 4, smother for 1d4 + paralysation for 2d4 rounds, ST 14+, SPD 1
Carrie only has 3 tentacles which likewise are weakened (+2 on Saving Throw, paralysis only lasts 1d4 rounds). She has the personality of a playful puppy with limited attention span. She will bound towards PCs, caressing them with her tentacles, then wander off. She will chase after her food pellets. If fed more than 3, she will curl up in a corridor (blocking it) and go to sleep for 10-60 minutes: nothing can wake her.
Carrion Crawler: (D&D) HD 3+1, HP 8, AC 7, 3 tentacles, no damage, paralysation for 2d4 rounds; (Forge) HP 16, AR 2, AV 3, 3 tentacles, no damage, paralysation for 2d4 rounds, ST 14+, SPD 4
Getting either monster to Brigid’s ambush point is quite easy. Neither of them is aggressive and they will both try to run away if injured. Brigid would like the PCs to intervene to stop any harm coming to them (they have to spend a round being attacked and can then retreat through the secret door).
4. Skirmish Room
Vents in the floor squirt rolling smoke into this room, to ankle-height. This is the scene for the first battle between the PCs (as ‘Goblins’) and Brigid, Finbar and Hildy. The PCs will learn that Hildy’s weapons are NOT bated: she inflicts normal damage with her enthusiastic whacks.
Brigid: (D&D) 1st level Dwarf Fighter, DEX 9, HP 5, AC chain mail & shield, spear for 1d6 bated; (Forge) HP 15, DV1 5, DV2 4, chain mail 50AP, shield 5SP, AR 1, spear for 2d4 bated, ST 13+, SPD 3, Read/Write, History, Binding
Finbar: (D&D) 3rd level Dwarf Fighter, DEX 14, HP 16, AC chain mail & shield, sword for 1d6 bated, +1 bonus from Strength, Dexterity and Charisma; (Forge) HP 17, DV1 6, DV2 4, chain mail 50AP, shield 10SP, AR 4, broad sword for 1d8+1 bated, light crossbow for 1d4 bated, ST 12+, SPD 3, Missile Evasion 40%, Tactics 50%, Binding, +1 bonus from STR and AWR.
Finbar enjoys the fight, bellowing: "These Goblins are a sorry lot. I barely feel their pitiful blows!" Hildy calls back: "In truth, dear one, they are daunted by your battle prowess - see how this one quails as I smite him!"
Hildy: (D&D) 2nd level Dwarf Fighter, DEX 12, HP 10, AC plate mail, war hammer for 1d8, +1 bonus from Charisma; (Forge) HP 16, DV 7, DV2 7, plate mail 70AP, AR 2, war hammer for 1d8, light crossbow for 1d4, ST 13+, SPD 3, Charisma Benefit, Weapon Stop 33%
After 1d4+1 rounds, there’s a hissing sound and the smoke in the room rises by 0-3 (1d4-1) feet at the end of each round. Once the smoke is 5’ high the Dwarves are blinded and the PCs can retreat freely.
In the smoke, Finbar blunders back out of the room but Brigid and Hildy quarrel (see Appendix 1, A Sexy Complication). If the PCs get lost in the smoke, there's a great opportunity for comedy, with characters blundering around, mistaking each other: let Hildy or Brigid (or both) throw herself at a PC, believing them to be Finbar.
While Hildy goes looking for Finbar, Brigid uses the secret door to find the PCs and suggest a new plan (see Appendix 1, the Hook).
If her team gets dangerously low on Hit Points (ie herself on 2HP, Finbar on single figures, Hildy on less than 5), Brigid will make an excuse to slip away to the Maintenance Room (2) and collect a Healing Potion (Forge: Healing Root or Binding Kit) to restore them.
5. The Bridge of Doom
This high chamber (30' vaulted) has a chasm dividing it in two, bridged by a 3' wide plank. This is the second combat encounter (unless the PCs staged an ambush involving Gerald or Carrie in the corridor outside). Finbar, Hildy and Brigid emerge on one side of the chasm, the PC ‘Goblins’ on the other. Finbar and Hildy will open fire with crossbows (Hildy’s quarrels are NOT blunted) and the PCs can return fire while Brigid heads to the Bridge for a mock fight with one of the PCs.
After 1d4 rounds of this, Hildy pulls out her Rod of Fire Smiting and uses it to bathe the ledge where the PCs are standing in flames. At least the fire and smoke will cover their retreat!
The Rod sends out a funnel of fire, setting fire to everything in front of it in an area 30’ deep and 30’ wide at the end. Creatures in the target zone must Save vs Wands (Forge: vs Magic) or catch fire. Characters on fire take 1HP damage every round until they can leave the scorched zone and roll on the floor for a round, beating at the flames. The Rod has 5 charges left.
After the fight, Finbar is intrigued by this item and inspects it closely (to Hildy’s great pleasure) before muttering that “Elves make such cunning toys” and dismissing it with a sniff (to Brigid’s delight).
6. Abduction Point
This is the location where Brigid wants the PCs to abduct Finbar so that she can rescue him. The secret door is silent, allowing for total surprise. A smoke bomb, net or the paralysing powers of Carrie or Gerald could bring this about. If the players come up with a good plan, it will automatically succeed: don't let it fail just for a bad roll.
After the events of the Appendix 1, the Hook, Brigid instructs the PCs to abduct Hildy instead (and after the Bridge of Doom incident they will probably be only too glad to).
If the PCs succeed in this, they will overhear Finbar confess his feelings for Brigid (see Appendix 1, the Swivel).
7. The Trophy Room
This big chamber has a 20’ high ceiling and the far end of it is dominated by a raised platform (6’ high) on which the trophies of the Rosenbrow dungeon cadets are displayed – along with the fake Ring of Broddick. A ladder allows people to climb to the platform.
The PCs are supposed to bring the captured Finbar (or Hildy) here and put up a mock fight so that Brigid can play the rescuer. However, it is likely that Brigid and Finbar will get here before the PCs can make it round the service shafts to the secret door. The PCs will probably arrive to find Brigid and Finbar battling and witness Finbar being captured in a Svart net and pulled up onto the balcony by Olaf, who kicks away the ladder.
The svarts are equal in number to the PCs, plus three.
Svarts: (D&D) HD 1-1, HP 2 each, AC as leather, pick for 1d6; (Forge) HP 8, AR 2 (7 AP), AV 1 (2 if they outnumber), pick for 1d6 (+1 if outnumber), ST 13+, SPD 2
8. Display Platform
The (fake) Ring of Broddick rests on a wooden pedestal, covered with a half-globe of glass.
At some point in the scenario, the back wall collapses and Back Olaf enters with his Svarts. He seizes the Ring and his Svarts descend to the room below (7) to explore.
With Finbar in his power, Olaf exults over his captive:
“I have you now, Forkbeard. You remember me? I see by the fear in your eyes you have not forgotten Black Olaf! I possess the Ring of Broddick and tortures vile await you. Say farewell to your loved one! And your life!!!!”
Olaf bundles Finbar into the tunnel (9).
When Olaf escapes the Svarts will wail and rush to the platform, scrabbling (and failing) to climb up after him; they will ignore the PCs for 1d3 rounds. Hildy’s Rod of Fire Smiting might be useful again.
9. The Dark Tunnel
This tunnel was an old mining seam, widened by Black Olaf’s pick-wielding Svarts. When the PCs get here, Olaf has fled ahead into the darkness.
If Hildy is present, the PCs will need to explain themselves (their Goblin Disguises won’t bear close scrutiny). Hildy could react in different ways:
The final confrontation is down to Brigid and the PCs, with their bated weapons. However, they might think to retrieve military picks from the Svarts. See Appendix 2, The Dark Moment.
10. Showdown on the Staircase
Olaf drags the struggling Finbar to the staircase that connects with the mines. He starts dragging Finbar up the steps but the PCs arrive at this point.
Black Olaf: (D&D) 4th level Dwarf Fighter, HP 25, AC plate mail and shield, axe for 1d6 damage, +1 Strength bonus; (Forge) HP 21, DV1 7, DV2 5, chain mail 50AP, shield 10SP, AV 4, battle axe for 1d8, ST 10+ (14+ vs Magic), SPD 4, Tactics 45%, Weapon Stomp 33%, Missile Evasion 33%, +1 STR bonus.
Olaf is a tough opponent. From his position on the steps, two PCs can engage him in melee combat and others can fire missiles up at him.
After first taking damage, Olaf wastes a round pointing the Ring at his enemies and shrieking “By the power of Broddick, die, peasants!” Of course nothing happens.
After dropping to single-figure HP, Olaf seizes Finbar and threatens to slit his throat with a knife.
Brigid downs her weapons and offers herself instead: “I am a lady of note in these halls, a wealthy inheritance rests upon me: much will my kinfolk pay for my ransom. Take me instead.”
Seeing Finbar’s furious resistance to this idea, Olaf throws the bound dwarf down the steps and seizes Brigid. Brigid grapples with him and he stabs her. The PCs can take advantage of the confusion to attack Olaf at +2 (Forge: use DV2).
If Olaf survives this, he will break free and rush up the steps into the mines. PCs can pursue or let him go; he's not important any more. Brigid needs treatment – the Healing Potion (Forge: Jilda Weed) in the Maintenance Room (2) will revive her. The PCs will witness a tender scene between Finbar and Brigid (see Appendix 1, Joyful Defeat).
Appendix 1: When Finbar met Brigid
Billy Mernit (2001) offers 7 ‘beats’ for classic romantic comedy. Here are some scenes to insert constructed around Mernit’s template:
Beat 1: The Chemical Equation
Brigid Rosenbrow takes the PCs into her confidence:
"Do you know of a dwarf named Finbar Forkbeard? But of course you do; he's famous, isn't he? He slew the wyrmling of Bodach Fen, stole the Necklace of the Grebbings, hunted the Wolf of Glenfarg, so many adventures. And of course, that beard..."
Brigid Rosenbrow's cheeks have become very rosy indeed, but she recovers herself.
"I am a woman of means, an heiress, and I intend to take a husband, but why would a hero like Finbar Forkbeard look with affection upon such as me? No, his warrior soul can only love a warrior-maid. And thus shall I prove myself to him. Help me," she pleads, eyes glistening, "in a noble deception, a pantomime of love, if you please. I have circulated a rumour of a treasure, the Ring of Broddick, and Finbar and I shall quest for it together. My family's training dungeon shall pass for the Ring's hiding place and you, my friends, shall disguise yourselves as goblin-folk. There can be no danger, for all our weapons shall be blunted, but Finbar will be deceived by our mock battles only to be undeceived when he looks upon me and sees that I have a warrior's heart. Then, I hope, I pray, he will love me. Will you do this for me, for the love I bear for Finbar Forkbeard - or if not for love, then for a princely reward, for my coffers are rich and my gratitude is boundless?"
Beat 2: The Meet-Cute
Brigid Rosenbrow and Finbar Forkbeard meet and Hildy Heffenhammer arrives:
"Quickly," Brigid Rosenbrow whispers, "lie down and pretend to be dead and that I slew you."
You lie yourselves across the floor and Brigid stands in your midst, holding her lantern and spear. Finbar Forkbeard descends the steps.
"Ho there," his voice booms, "what is this? A battle? Goblins, by my father's beard! And a warrior maid standing proud amongst the fallen. Name yourself, bold lady, for I am Finbar called Forkbeard."
"I have been expecting you," Brigid replies, "for I am Brigid Rosenbrow and, while I waited for you here, these wandering monsters chanced upon me. More the worse for them, for my spear thirsted and they have slaked its thirst with their blood."
"Not that much blood," Finbar mutters and nudges one of you with his boot. "This one doesn't look quite dead yet. I shall chop off its head."
"No need, no need," says Brigid quickly, "better to let the nasty creature die a slow death, don't you think?"
"By all that glitters," exclaims Finbar in admiration, "but you have a sharp blade for a soul."
"She certainly does," cries a new voice, a woman's voice, "and we shall be shield-maidens together in this day's great deeds."
"This," says Finbar, introducing the newcomer, "is Hildy Heffenhammer, an adventuring lady, my companion in valour."
"Charmed I'm sure," says Brigid, in a voice like frozen milk. "What a pleasant surprise to have another woman join our party."
"I am sure we shall be best of friends," replies Hildy, with no more warmth. "You have certainly made a fine start at depopulating this dungeon. Although this one isn't quite dead yet..."
"Never mind that," says Brigid, drawing the other two Dwarves away down the corridor, "we must press on. I'm sure there are plenty more enemies to face up ahead."
Once the Dwarves turn the corner, their voices fade and you can all sit up and breathe deeply.
Beat 3: A Sexy Complication
While Finbar explores, Brigid and Hildy quarrel:
The two Dwarf ladies call out to each other through the shifting smoke cloud.
"He's a fine warrior, don't you think?" says Hildy Heffenhammer. "So vigorous, such clean sword-strokes...!"
"That beard!" sighs Brigid.
"What's that?" cries Hildy, from further off.
"Nothing. A cough! This smoke!"
"Yes, curse this smoke! What do you think of his beard?"
"His beard?" says Brigid. "I hadn't noticed it."
"We are well-suited, he and I, don't you think?"
Brigid doesn't reply.
"You will have noticed," continues Hildy, "that there is an understanding between us, he and I."
"An understanding?" says Brigid, her voice faint.
"Yes. An unspoken promise, you could say. You will have seen the way he looks at me. The proposal cannot be far off now. You will attend the wedding, will you not? For I feel we are sisters-in-battle, dear Brigid, and that will make you his sister-in-law? Is that not a merry jest? Why do you not answer, dear Brigid? And what is that horrid sobbing sound?"
"The smoke," Brigid replies at last, "is getting in my eyes."
Beat 4: The Hook
Brigid turns to the PCs with a new plan:
You hear Brigid Rosenbrow calling for you in the service tunnels and meet her in the maintenance room.
"There's a new plan," she says grimly. "The Heffenhammer woman has to go."
You are inclined to agree, but wonder what she intends.
"You remember how I intended for you to ambush Finbar and take him to the Trophy Room, for me to rescue him? I want you to abduct Hildy instead."
That doesn't sound easy, since Hildy's weapons are very real.
"There is a net in here somewhere -- over there, in the crates. Smoke and flash bombs too. Have you found them yet? After the Bridge of Doom, there's a silent secret door. Jump out, flash-bang, in the net with her and drag her away. Maybe get Carrie to keep her quiet."
That sounds better, but what will Brigid do?
"I just need some time alone with Finbar, to find out if he really is promised to her. Then we can rescue Hildy in the Trophy Room - or just find her abandoned there, if you have bruises enough for this day's work. Do this for me, my friends. A Dwarf's love is like a river of lava: slow but inexorable and consuming every obstacle!"
Beat 5: Swivel
Finbar admits feelings for Brigid:
"Be not dismayed, Finbar Forkbeard," says Brigid, "we shall rescue your fair companion!"
"By my father's beard," exclaims Finbar, "you are as resolute as iron"
"I know how much she means to you."
"Resolute, aye," says Finbar in a softer tone, "and as true as silver. Can a maiden as brave and noble as you lack for a host of suitors?"
Brigid replies in a breathless voice, "Not all men see me as you do, sir."
"Then I am the prospector who has found the seam of gold, which the other miners overlooked."
There is a long pause.
"Have you not promised yourself to Mistress Heffenhammer?"
"Nay, lady. A bachelor adventurer I have been and so thought to remain, until I met with you. Hildy is..."
"Just a friend?"
"Aye. And no more than that."
Brigid laughs with delight. "Then I know where your friend may be found and unharmed too, I shall warrant. Let us go together and rescue her. The Ring of Broddick means nothing to me now."
"Nor to me, brave lady," Finbar answers, "though I shall have gentle use of a ring for you, if you are minded to accept it."
Brigid is too overcome to reply.
Beat 6: The Dark Moment
Finbar has been captured and Brigid prepares to go after him.
"Friends," she says, "you have done all and more that I have asked and been well paid in bruises and indignities. I cannot ask more of you. Peril and death await up yonder passage, for Olaf the Black is a mighty opponent and vigorous in his hate. Yet I must go after my love, a true warrior at last, if only to die under Olaf's axe. Must a maiden go into such dark places alone?"
In this monent, lamp in one hand and spear in the other, Brigid looks every inch the warrior-lady she has only play-acted so far.
"Let us go together then," she says. "A Dwarf's love is like the trembling mountain, that spends itself in fire and ash, then falls cold and silent for ever after."
Beat 7: Joyful Defeat
Finbar and Brigid are united at last:
Finbar bends over Brigid, whose rosy face is now as pale as milk. He gently takes away her helm and her unbound hair falls across her cheeks. His tears fall upon her closed eyes.
"Never was a maiden braver, nor a heart more true. Live, sweet warrior, live and be only mine and let Death remain a bachelor in my place."
Brigid's eyes flutter open.
"If you command me, then live I shall. It is the first of many duties I shall discharge for you, my loving friend."
"Say not friend, but husband, servant, life-long companion, slave and fool."
"Husband," Brigid replies and smiles, "is a very fine name indeed."
Finbar kisses the tresses of her hair and she the braids of his beard and you onlookers, at last, retreat, that the couple might enjoy the first of many private felicities in the long life of the Dwarves.
In terms of the Freytag model of dramatic structure, beats 1-2 make up Act I (Rising), beats 3-5 form Act II (Climax), and beats 5-7 create Act III (Sinking or Return).
Appendix 2: How I Met Your Nemesis
Force everyone to wear cardboard goblin ears while their characters are “in disguise”. They will thank you afterwards and this kiddy craft website shows you how.
For added chuckles, make an extra set and singe the edges. The players can wear these after Hildy uses the Rod of Fiery Smiting on them (5).
As usual, the basic map and key took half an hour but adding in the dramatic beats, dialogue and plotting took much longer, so it's not really a 'thirty minute' dungeon at all.
It's a linear dungeon, of course. The players are on rails and move from one set-piece scene to another. The benefit of this is that a strong narrative emerges. The disadvantage is the lack of player freedom and autonomy.
There are some choices for the players to make in the middle act, especially with rounding up Gerald or Cassie to stage the 'wandering monster attack'. They might also use these monsters to help abduct Hildy or even to pursue Black Olaf. Don't discourage this sort of creativity - there's little enough opportunity for it in a scenario like this - but remember that speed is important in pursuing Olaf. If someone heads back into the service tunnels to find one of the monsters or bombs from the Maintenance Room, the rest must pursue Olaf and the absent PC (and the monster) can rejoin the showdown after sme time has passed (say, 1d6+4 rounds).
Assume that Brigid has many opportunities to sneak away from her party and interact with the players, if only by whispering through the spyholes in the secret doors. As a GM, roleplaying her emotional rollercoaster is part of the fun of the story.
The PCs might capture Hildy at an earlier stage of the story. In this case, allow her to break free of her net or recover from paralysis to rejoin Finbar and Brigid at an opportune moment (e.g. on the Bridge, wielding her Rod of Fiery Smiting). Beat #5 (Swivel) can be inserted at a different moment if need be.
If the PCs are very weakened, Hildy doesn't have to depart at the end and could join them for the showdown. It's important that she demonstrates the hardness of her character and shallowness of her affections, perhaps by sneering at Finbar for getting captured and making it clear she is only pursuing Olaf for her own glorious reputation.
Gerald and Carrie are comedy interludes and a possible resource in the showdown. Don't employ them as 'wandering monsters' and force the players to fight them. A nice idea if for Gerald to grow if he gets to feed on a proper meal (e.g. the dead Svarts), swelling up to full size and regaining his normal damage (2d4) and fully effective paralysation. He then becomes a weapon the players can direct at Olaf. Don't let the monsters steal the show. If the PCs direct Gerald or Carrie at Olaf, he will use Finbar as a shield against the monster or hold a knife to the Dwarf as a bargaining chip, prompting Brigid to offer herself in exchange.
To all roleplayers hoping to adventure alongside their sweetheart - and to anyone else who enjoys some romantic comedy in their RPG session - a happy Valentine's Day.
I'm working through the rulebook for the late-'90s fantasy heartbreaker Forge Out of Chaos because it speaks to something in my OSR soul. I've covered the magic system in blogs that looked at simple but restrictive Divine Magic and the more potent but unreliable Attack Magic. A third type remains.
Enchantment is a type of Pagan Magic. In Forge, this means it's a sorcerous ability that was once granted (illicitly) to mortals by the gods - in this case by Dembria, goddess of Enchantment - but since the gods went into Exile, mortals have figured out how to do it by themselves. They don't do it accurately or consistently and they have to power it themselves, but it works and you don't need to go kowtowing to Grom or Berethenu to make it happen. Enchantment differs from Attack Magic in that it is permanent, or potentially so. Yes, we're in the business of creating indefinite magical effects: changing form, granting powers, boosting stats, making armour and weapons more potent, reshaping the world around you.
In other words, the cool stuff.
How it works (or doesn't)
As with other sorts of Pagan Magic, you start with a number of spell slots equal to your Intellect and you can choose spells of your current level or (with penalty) the level above, so 1st level casters have access to 1st or 2nd level spells. You have a pool of Spell Points (SPTS) to use, on average around 20, and with a base cost of 6 SPTS for 1st level spells, Enchantment is pretty cheap. When you go up a level in Magic, you usually get another half dozen spell slots and a dozen more SPTS.
The big choice is whether to add more spells to your repertoire or improve the ones you've already got. Yes, you can use up a spell slot to re-roll on those Schematics Tables, hoping to improve your spell's area of effect, saving throw modifier and of course the HSE (Hidden Side Effects). Only with these spells you have something else to worry about: Maintenance Points.
Enchantment spells don't have 'Duration' - they last for as long as you keep paying the Maintenance Cost out of your SPTS. These SPTS that have to be spent on Maintaining spells are Maintenance Points (MPTS).
MPTS are determined by those 'schematics' tables too. A 1st level spell could take 6 MPTS to maintain every day; that's a very poor roll and it means the spell costs as much to maintain as it did to cast it in the first place. It could cost as little as 1 MPT per day; that's an amazing roll that you will probably only get if you invested more than the minimum 10 Skill Slots into Magic or if you are re-rolling the 1st level spell when you've reached a higher level.
The maintenance costs increase predictably: 2nd level spells cost as much as 7 MPTS and as little as 2; 3rd level costs as much as 8 and as little as 3, and so on. You'll notice though that the maintenance isn't keeping pace with the casting cost. It will cost 18 SPTS to cast a 3rd level spell but, at the very worst, only 8 MPTS to maintain it.
The schematics for MPTS and Area of Effect for 1st level spells. Rather than learning an extra spell, you could re-roll an existing one. If you invested 12 Skill Slots in Magic you get +2 on one table. Which table would you apply the bonus to?
Schematics for level 4 spells. Even on a good roll, they probably cost as much or more to maintain as a 1st level spell that rolled badly. Instead of learning an extra spell, would it be better to re-roll one of these or try and make that 1st level spell even cheaper to maintain, now that, being 3 levels higher, you get a +6 bonus to split between the tables for 1st level spells?
Enchanters, therefore, get powerful fast, since they only need to cast a spell once (usually during downtime) and the measure of their power is how many spells they can maintain. Re-rolling your spells to push down the maintenance cost is therefore a better strategy than going for a wide range of spells that cost a lot to maintain.
Problems with Maintenance
The rules state that Mages recuperate 5 SPTS for every 2 hours of sleep, up to a maximum of 20 SPTS a day. In other words, sleeping more than 8 hours offers no further benefit. This makes 20 MPTS the sustainable maximum for your spell-load. If they add up to more than 20 MPTS, then you're running down your reserves and eventually you won't be able to cast any new spells or meet the cost of maintaining current ones: you have to let a spell dissipate.
The flat limit of 20 SPTS a day seems rather blunt. It's exactly the sort of limit that ought to vary from character to character. The Benefits & Detriments rules (pp17-18) could be extended to cover traits like Heavy Sleeper (+2, regain 6 SPTS per 2 hours) and Light Sleeper (-2, regain 4 SPTS per 2 hours) which could be chosen by Mages at character creation. A Percentage Skill like Meditation (INS x 2) could be used to regain 2 SPTS above and beyond the sleep-limit after an hour of successful meditation. A creatures of Dembria, surely the Dunnar should regain 1 SPT every hour that they spend away from sunlight?
It's not clear when exactly the MPT levy has to be paid. As soon as you wake up, whenever that is? But what if you stayed up all night? At dawn or midnight, irregardless? That seems a bit arbitrary. At the hour of the spell's first casting? Too much book-keeping there!
It's best to make each Enchanter choose their 'payment occasion' which is the point at which they pay maintenance on their spells. Characters could choose a fixed time (midnight, noon) or a relative time (dawn, the setting of the moon) so long as it's an unavoidable daily occurrence. It makes sense to choose a time that comes immediately after the +20 SPTS you earned from a good sleep but before anything can occur in the day to force you to spend or lose more SPTS: 8am or 9am are sensible choices.
Other forms of Pagan Magic need spell components and it's a big restriction on starting Mages that they cannot afford the components for all the spells they would like to cast. But at least those components are permanent once you own them and they only risk exploding if you "pump" a spell and it backfires on you. Enchantment also requires spell components. The good news is they tend to be a bit cheaper than the ones for Attack Magic; the bad news is they are entirely used up when you cast the spell.
This extract gives you a flavour of the spell components on p117. Some you could harvest yourself (although good luck getting Dungwala ashes the hard way). Emeralds are pricey!
The lower level (1st-4th level) spells tend to involve the cheaper ingredients of course. Casting Literacy to grant yourself or someone else some languages involves 2oz of gold dust (20gp) and a glass lens (5gp), which is not 'nothing' but a starting Mage could stretch to that. The 2nd level spell Friendship is a sort of 'Charm Person' spell, but with components including 4oz of gem dust (100gp), you're not going to be throwing it around. That emerald is one of the components for the 8th level spell Ego Meld, that lets you steal someone else's body. Considering the benefits (effectively, immortality), it's good value for money.
Of course, you might only ever cast a spell once, so the components are a one-time investment. But when five members of your party want Night Vision, this 1st level spell requires 2oz of gem dust per casting, so that will set you back 260gp. Hopefully your friends will contribute to the costs...
Casting time & hanging spells
Enchantment magic is time-consuming: 5 minutes per level of the spell. Given Forge's maddening 1 minute melee rounds, this means you could perhaps fire off a 1st and maybe even a 2nd level spell if you hung back from combat if no one bothered you (that's a big 'if') but, practically speaking, you won't be casting these spells down the dungeon or on the road. Casting enchantments is a downtime activity.
This creates a problem with experience checks that the rules don't address. Normally, Mages check their Magic Skill every time they cast a spell in a crisis situation (i.e. during an adventure), but Enchanters usually cast their spells during sedate downtime. Even if we grant them a check for this, Enchanters just don't cast spells often. In fact, once a spell is cast, they might never cast it again. Enchanters will advance in Magic painfully slowly, if at all.
One solution is to grant Enchanters a check to Magic for every spell that is active when they complete the adventure and every spell they pay MPTS for during the adventure. This isn't entirely satisfactory. If the PCs go on a 3-day wilderness quest, an Enchanter with 5 spells active will get 15 checks to Magic (5 on completing and 10 for the spells maintained during the adventure). Another Mage might well not cast 15 spells in that time. On the other hand, multi-day adventures aren't the norm in dungeon-crawler games like Forge and perhaps Enchanters need a slight edge over those Elementalists and Necromancers.
Something else missing from the rules is any consideration of 'hanging' a spell that you cast and paid for earlier. Some Enchantment spells do have tactical potential: you might want to cast Friendship on a monster you meet during an adventure - indeed, it's difficult to imagine a situation where anyone will sit obediently for 10 minutes and wait for you to cast a spell like that on them. Curse is another 2nd level spell that only seems to have tactical potential: it imposes a stiff penalty to someone's Attack Value, which is great in combat, except that it takes 10 minutes to perform, by which point a lot of fights are winding down. Who are you going to cast this on during downtime, with its range of 'Touch'?
A simple House Rule is to allow Enchanters to cast a spell earlier and leave it 'hanging' until it's needed, whereupon it can be cast like any Attack Magic spell. You use up the ingredients, spend the SPTS and you have to maintain the hanging spell like any other, but you don't get any Skill Check for it until it actually gets triggered. This creates an incentive to cast Curse at home (12 SPTS, 4 oz of gem dust and a crushed lodestone so that's 110gp) and maintain it as a hanging spell, so that when you meet that Ogre you can zap him with the Curse you prepared earlier, claim your Skill Check and probably stop paying maintenance for it (since the point is to make the creature easier to kill, right?).
The spells themselves
D&D mixes together its permanent effect spells (Continual Light, Magic Mouth, etc) with the wham-bam tactical stuff. By hiving off the permanent magics, Forge creates an interesting option for Mages.
Defensive enchantments are more appealing. Mystic Robes grants you (and only you) an Armour Rating which could go as high as 6 (that's like Plate Mail and for 11gp worth of components, it's a bargain). Protection from Magic offers you a Save Modifier (potentially up to +6 and for only 10gp in silver dust) against Magic. I prefer the Robes, especially since Enchanters can't wear armour.
Then there are the 'utilities', like Light (familiar from D&D but at 51gp you might think twice), Magic Lock (what it says, but it can be picked although at a penalty), Night Vision (granted to anyone) and Strengthen Weapon (granting a weapon a chance of not being 'notched' which warriors will clamour for but since it involves 50gp in gem dust they had better pay).
The smart thing is probably to pick just a few of these (Robes, obviously; Strengthen Weapon to please your friends; Light, I think; Night Vision too) and use your extra slots to re-roll them to push the MPTS down.
If you try to learn 2nd level spells while your Magic level is only 1, you get a -2 penalty on all the schematics. Nonetheless, Curse and Friendship, described earlier, make the Enchanter a dangerous opponent, especially if we use the House Rules to 'hang' spells.
Runes improves on Strengthen Weapon by making a weapon count as magical for purposes of hitting mystical creatures. Enchanted Vestment improves on Mystic Robes by granting you 10-30 Armour Points - now that's real protection and cheap for 24gp in components!
These spells have much more potential in campaign play and out-of-dungeon adventures than the other spell lists. High level enchantments allow for all sorts of magical traps and banes to put on weapons, tougher defensive spells, more dramatic utilities, telepathy, invisibility, golem-building, magic item crafting and, at 7th level, Solidify Magic lets you sacrifice dozens of permanent SPTS so that you no longer have to pay MPTS to maintain your crafted magic items: they are independent of you now.
The implications of Enchantment: show me the money
Enchantment is definitely where the long-term fun is in a Forge campaign. It provides a more logical power progression than D&D spells (Invisibility is hard to pull off), rationalises the creation of magical items and offers a log term goal in Ego Meld (stop ageing, just steal younger bodies). It gives a sense of the texture of a fantasy world where these magical effects are, if not commonplace, at least known about. What's lacking is some sort of payment chart to help you calculate how much NPC Enchanters will charge you to cast these spells.
If you don't like Capitalism, stop reading now.
Obviously, you have to pay the cost of the components. Friendly Mages (Reaction 76+) might let you provide them yourself, but most will insist on sourcing their own "to ensure quality" and charge you double for their trouble.
Then there's the daily fee to the Mage for providing the Maintenance Points to keep the spell going.
Back in the '80s, Paul Vernon wrote an excellent series of articles for White Dwarf called Designing a Quasi-Medieval Society for D&D. Vernon constructs D&D economies around the 'Ale Standard' and proposes that a minimum wage labourer ought to be able to slake his thirst at the end of the day for a tenth of his income. Since a pint of ale on the Forge pricelist is 10sp, this means you're paying pack-bearers and torch-holders 1gp a day. On a previous blog, I calculate this to be the equivalent of £50 in modern money. If we assume that a Mage-for-hire considers each of his Spell Points to be worth a day's work for a peasant, we can start calculating.
If we assume a Mage-for-hire has the worst maintenance costs based on the schematics, so a 1st level spell requires 6 MPTS/Day, therefore 6gp per day. Yes, the Mage might have rolled better than that and actually only spends 5 or 4 or even 1 MPT/Day, but he won't tell you that. We must also assume the other schematics are at rock-bottom, so hiring Strengthen Weapon gives you a sword that is 50% likely to notch. Let's say you can increase the effect by one bracket by paying the base cost all over again, so 12gp/day gives a result of 45%, 18gp produces 40% and if you want a sword that only has a 25% chance of notching, you had better pay 36gp/day.
Then there are the HSE (Hidden Side Effects) and the Mage doesn't want to bear them on your behalf, so that schematic has to be increased by three brackets as standard, just to improve the spell to a safe level: a 1st level spell begins at a minimum 24gp/day and goes up from there in 6gp intervals if you want to improve its effects.
Applying this logic, 2nd level spells begin at 28gp/day and go up in 7gp intervals; 32gp/day plus 8gp intervals for 3rd level spells; 36gp/day plus 9gp for 4th level spells; a big hike to 50gp/day plus 10gp for 5th levels spells and 66gp/day plus 11gp for 6th level spells.
Let's try a worked example. You visit Melzon the Enchanter because you want Night Vision for a forthcoming quest. The components cost him 52gp so he charges you 104gp. He contracts to provide you with Night Vision for a week. Rolling 1d20, we find that Melzon's Night Vision schematic has a range of 70ft (two brackets past basic) so Melzon charges 36gp/day or 252gp for the week: after components, that's 356gp, thank you very much, payment up front, to see at night like a cat, for a week. If a Forge gold piece is worth £50, then you're paying nearly £18K for this enhancement.
Imagine Melzon has a neighbour and rival, Lozeb the Lonely, who has Magic to 2nd level. Lozeb can put Runes on your sword for the week, charging you 200gp for the gem dust needed and 196gp for the week's duration: a Rune-buffed sword for 396gp. Watch out: your sword dissolves when the spell ends. I bet Lozeb insists on providing the sword himself "to ensure quality" and charges double for that, so add in 50gp for the broad sword for 446gp total cost (over £22K).
Why not get Lozeb to provide the Night Vision too? Lozeb will charge 2nd level rates for it, even though it's a 1st level spell. After all, why should he rent out his SPTS for anything less than their full value? So his Night Vision will cost you 42gp/day or 398gp (after components) for the week.
It pays to shop around, but I bet the Mages don't like that. Lozeb will be cross if he finds you've been sneaking off to that upstart Melzon for a cheaper deal on Night Vision. His contract probably stipulates that you don't engage other Mages while he's working for you and if he finds out that you've done that (and he will find out) then he stops paying the maintenance cost for the spells at once and good luck claiming your money back!
This all assumes Lozeb has access to all the spells, which he won't. But let's assume Enchanters-for-hire combine to form business associations so they can cover as many spells as possible and they all charge the rates of the highest-level Mage in the partnership. So if you go to the fancy offices of Gro Finbar Associates (headed up by a 4th level Magic user) you can get all your spell-needs met if you pay as if a 4th level Mage was providing them (even if, actually, it's a 1st level junior partner doing the work). Or go back to Melzon for that Night Vision: he's a sole trader, charging 1st level rates, but he's probably only got 3 or 4 spells to offer.
Enchanters-for-hire don't like short contracts. They make their money providing the Baron with Light in his study all the year round, or granting Herbology to a gardener for the whole summer. A bottom-feeder like Melzon might offer Night Vision for a single evening, but I bet Lozeb charges for a week, minimum, and Gro Finbar Associates charge you for a month, even if you only need the spell for a week. A 6th level Mage won't bother enchanting anything for less than a year. This means, if you think your butler has been stealing the silverware and want to put a Truth spell on him, you might only want the spell to be in effect for an hour or two, but Lozeb the Lonely will bill you for a week: that's 378gp, including components, to make the butler confess. It might be cheaper to let him keep stealing...
Nonetheless, some spells are very useful. The 3rd level spell Tongues grants you any language. A 3rd level Mage probably insists on charging you for a fortnight, but 618gp is a fair price if you really need to know Ghantu for an upcoming mission (for the record, Gro Finbar Associates charge 1178gp because they bill you for a month minimum).
Whew. OK. I enjoyed that. These costs seem right for player characters: cheap enough that spells could be purchased by successful adventurers for particular quests, expensive enough to put magic out of the reach of starting characters. A bit pricey for ordinary people, perhaps?
Of course, magic isn't for ordinary people, but these are definitely "adventurers' rates". Remember that, for established businesses like Gro Finbar Associates, adventurers are terrible customers. Yes, they pay cash up front, but that's the only good thing about them. They are erratic customers and they often acquire spell-casting allies or henchmen of their own who service them for free. They purchase a service then disappear off for weeks. Often they don't come back at all. They rarely have good reputations.
No, Enchanters-for-hire want a respectable clientele who need spells maintaining either perpetually or regularly. The Baron wants his favourite boar spear to have Strengthen Weapon on it all year round; the chief constable of the watch wants Night Vision available to him right up until he retires; the merchant prince wants Tongues for the duration of each yearly trade envoy and Magic Lock on his coffers the year round. These people are returning customers and they get much better rates: less than half what player characters pay or even bigger discounts for perpetual enchantments that have been in place for years. And it's worth bearing in mind what enchantments will be enjoyed by well-heeled NPCs, especially if the PCs intend to do something silly, like rob them...
I was reflecting the other day about what a valuable resource 'dungeons' are and how odd it is that, in most campaigns, they don't seem to be owned by anybody.
Which is peculiar, really, because dungeons are a powerful economic resource. Not only are they full of treasure, but magic items too. The skin and fur of magical beasts make great adornments for the upper classes and are usually ingredients sought after by mages. Even the arms and armour of humanoid denizens, the vellum and lore of lost grimoires and the access to seams of rare metals have financial value. Why would a local lord allow a dungeon on or near his estate to lie ignored until a bunch of no-account yeoman adventurers finally loot it?
Because dungeons are dangerous, is one answer. You can order your knights and serfs to go to war because most combatants in a medieval war don't expect to die in it: the knights can expect to be ransomed and, assuming that disease and arrow-fire doesn't claim them, the peasant levy can hope to leave the battlefield with only bruises and scars. There are fatalities in war, of course, but the majority of combatants survive even on the losing side. Dungeons, on the other hand, are properly dangerous: orcs don't take prisoners, you can be eaten by ghouls, you can be killed by traps, you can be turned to stone!
But that doesn't make dungeons valueless. If suicidally brave adventurers are going to descend into a dungeon, the local ruler will want them to be his adventurers, paying him a fee, taking a cut from their loot and certainly first choice of the best magic items, plus samples of rare commodities (lycanthrope fur, demon feathers, powdered gargoyle horn).
What is a Dungeon: ruins, wizard sanctums or lairs?
Dungeons are an odd concept. The idea that the fantasy landscape is strewn with these large multi-leveled subterranean labyrinths requires some explanation. Many RPG campaigns have abandoned the concept altogether in favour of more naturalistic assaults on fortresses, temples, woodland hideouts and caverns. But the dungeon exerts a grip on my OSR imagination and seems pretty central to the type of adventuring proposed in Forge Out of Chaos, so I'm going to think deeper about what dungeons are supposed to be.
In Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the landscape of Cydoril is littered with Ayleid Ruins, easily distinguished by their bright marble surface works and full of slap-footed undead zombies and treasures such as the valuable welkynd stones. Weirdly, the PC adventurer seems to be the only person in Cydoril who realises you can get rich from plundering these places.
Original D&D spawned this conceit, perhaps inspired by the Moria scenes in The Lord of the Rings; it's hard to trace antecedents in fantastic fiction for adventures happening in these dynamic labyrinths: elements of Lovecraft, Howard and Lieber? Ursula Leguin's The Tombs of Atuan (1972)? The Zenopus Dungeon, the ur-dungeon created by Eric Holmes for the 1977 'Blue Book' Basic D&D set, is located "on the ruins of a much older city of doubtful history and Zenopus was said to excavate in his cellars in search of ancient treasures."
The idea of dungeons as the residue of a more advanced parent or pre-human civilisation has some resonance in history. In the Dark Ages, Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded Britain and discovered the cities of the Romans with their puzzling arches, heated bathhouses and vast plazas. Archaeology shows us that the Anglo-Saxons didn't inhabit these ruins but set up their villages alongside them, doubtless plundering them for stone and treasures while telling stories of the mysterious builders whom they believes to be 'ettins' or giants.
One anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet describes such a city like this:
Another rationale for dungeons is that they are the architectural side-effect of stuff powerful wizards get up to. Wizards seem to need to delve underground: perhaps their magics only work at full effect far away from the sky, the sun and stars, from common people - or perhaps they like to be closer to rare minerals in the deeps of the earth or the resting places or summoning portals for eldritch beings. Again, Eric Holmes got here first, with Zenopus the Magician making "extensive cellars and tunnels underneath the tower" which is the proximate cause of the Zenopus Dungeon in Holmes' Basic Rules.
The Zenopus Dungeon has been updated and expanded for 5e D&D
Gary Gygax took the conception of dungeons in a different direction. For Gygax, dungeons were just lairs, either cave complexes monsters had moved into like squatters (such as the Caves of Chaos in Module B1: The Keep on the Borderlands) or else fortifications built by the monsters themselves to be their home and evil playground (such as the Against the Giants series).
Modules B1 (Keep on the Borderland) and G1 (Steading of the Hill Giant Chief) both illustrate the Gygaxian approach to dungeon politics: the player characters are agents of the state and venture beyond its borders to impose sanctions on monsters in their lairs. It could be called a Rumsfeldian model...
In Holmes' world, the authorities of Portdown "had a catapult rolled through the streets of the town and the tower was battered to rubble" after which the local dungeon was shunned out of superstitious dread. This fits with Holmes' psychoanalytic interest, with the dungeon representing the repressed id and the adventurers engaged in an exploration of the realm of the imagination that ordinary folks deny - a fine metaphor for roleplaying in general. Gygax's conception is more prosaic, but more alert to the political implications of dungeons. In his scenarios, the authorities send the players into the dungeons, with promises of reward or threats of what accompanies failure: the PCs are agents of the state, bringing law to the strongholds of chaos.
As Ron Edwards gleefully points out: "In Forge: Out of Chaos, the very notion of doing anything that isn't treasure-seeking in a dungeon is completely foreign." Yet at least Forge has a clear rationale for dungeons to exist: they are from the God-War or the time before it: the shrines, prisons, mansions or workshops of the gods themselves or their semi-divine servitors. Places like that littering the landscape definitely have to factor in local politics.
Are Dungeons like Royal Forests?
In the Middle Ages, a 'Forest' meant an area of wilderness set aside for the king or regional lord; originally for hunting but later the emphasis shifted to timber for shipbuilding and war. 'Forests' were usually wooded, but the territory often included marshland, upland heaths, rocky massifs, it was all 'the Forest'.
Forests and Dungeons have much in common. Forests are home to dangerous creatures (boar, bears, wolves but also outlaws) and other prestige animals (deer) that count as treasure. There are resources to be harvested: timber of course, but also coal and charcoal and related glassworks, salt mining, honey pasturage, fishing and herbs.
But unlike typical dungeons, medieval rulers didn't allow just anybody to wander into a Forest and take advantage of the opportunities there. In 1100, Henry I created the Forest Laws of England, forbidding common people from entering Forests with weapons, cutting down trees, hunting or pasturing animals. Each Forest was overseen by a Keeper, appointed by the King and sometimes (as in Sherwood Forest) the Keeper-ship was hereditary. The Keeper would then hire Foresters (known as Verderers) to police the Forest and arrest trespassers or lawbreakers.
These laws and the Foresters who enforced them weren't popular. Lots of rural communities depended on the surrounding woods and heaths for their food and raw materials, but were now forbidden from entering or making use of them. Laws were broken and Courts-of-the-Forest (Swainmoots or Woodmoots) set up to hand out punishments.
Courts of Inquisition would be convened if a serious infraction was discovered - such as the carcass of a deer killed by poachers - and as often as not strangers in the community would be singled out for blame. Blinding and castration were the 12th century punishments for poaching the Forest deer. Peasants would have to be pretty hungry to risk this. As time went on, the Forests became a greater source of income for the Crown, so fines replaced mutilations (6 pennies for felling a green oak) and more licences were issued.
Keepers, Companies and Dungeon Charters
In a quasi-feudal setting envisaged in 'classic' D&D campaigns and in Forge, dungeons form part of the 'Forest' claimed by kings or powerful nobles. A court official (let's call him, without irony, the Master of Dungeons) would appoint Dungeon Keepers to manage the known sites. The Keeper would be a wealthy local landowner: a Squire or Baron, perhaps. The Keeper would in turn appoint serjeants-donjons, dungeon-constables or (my favourite) dinglemen to police the sites. More about them shortly.
Of course, the Keeper doesn't want to go dungeon-delving himself: he has a big and profitable estate to run. And yet, the dungeon must turn a profit somehow... Enter companies of adventurers. The Keeper appoints a Company to represent him, granting them his livery and their own heraldic badge. The Chartered Company delves into the dungeon and, on returning, presents the Keeper (and his feudal overlord) with a choice cut of the treasures, including the best magic items.
Sharp-witted GMs will realise that this is a very effective way of preventing the creep of wealth and magic items in a campaign. Players get to rake in the money for purposes of XP and use potent magic items while down in the dungeon itself, but on emerging they have to surrender half the cash and the best artifacts to their boss.
Unchartered adventurers are poachers. If they evade the dinglemen and get in and out of the dungeon, they had better not convene in the Green Dragon Inn to split their loot, because word will surely get out. The Keeper, whose estate they have trespassed on, will confiscate ALL the loot and add a week in the stocks or a judicious flogging to send out the right message: robbing the dungeon is robbing its lord. The Chartered Adventuring Company will be strongly motivated to assist in the pursuit and add summary justice of their own: they didn't go to the trouble of acquiring their Charter and surrender their most exciting magic items to have a bunch of black market tyros poach from the dungeon right under their noses and run away with the best treasure.
In a quasi-feudal setting, the Keeper grants his Charter to an Adventuring Company who reputation redounds to his glory, although valuable gifts would be offered by way of introduction to attract the Keeper's consideration. Eventually, successful Adventuring Companies go national in scale, holding Charters with lots of different Keepers and subcontracting the dungeon-delving out to less experienced groups who have to pay a fee to go adventuring under their badge and livery (and still offering most of the treasure up to the local Keeper). In other words, an Adventurers Guild comes about.
Feudal lords delight in their Chartered Companies and their exploits. They expect them to do more than raid dungeons. They have to recount their exploits at banquets, demonstrate their weapon skills at tournaments, accompany their lord on hunts. It's not unlike winning a beauty pageant or a reality TV show: you're in demand. It's tiring being a court favourite and finding the time to get back down the dungeom again can be hard.
In an imperial setting, relationships are a bit less personal. A regional governor will assess dungeon sites in his jurisdiction and sell permits to delve into them; the Empire will claim a percentage of the haul and first choice on the magic items. The appointment of a new Governor means the reassigning of permits and some intense negotiations between existing Adventuring Companies .
Chartered Companions for and against Player Characters
A simple way to start a campaign is for the PCs to be members of a Chartered Company in service to a lord or in receipt of a permit from a regional governor. Perhaps one of them has well-connected family or is related to a celebrated adventurer and can trade on the family name; perhaps someone inherited a fortune and sunk it into getting the Charter.
This positions PCs for a dual life, where dungeon-delving sessions are balanced with intrigue storylines at court, where they must re-tell their tales, show off their skills, curry favour with superiors and lovers, make enemies and get sent on all sorts of non-dungeoneering enterprise by their lord or his courtiers: anything from hunting down lost livestock to escorting young maidens around the countryside.
In this sort of campaign, rival unchartered adventurers are a scourge and the NPCs that dungeon encounter tables identify as 'Bandits' are probably these people. Enjoy seethng with resentment when your hempen homespun rivals clean out lucrative dungeon levels while you're kissing babies at the village fete; watch them level up faster than you and accrue more powerful magical treasures; delight in revenging yourself when the opportunity presents itself.
Alternatively, the PCs are the unchartered adveturers: you are sneaking into the dungeon under cover of darkness, evading the dingleman and his henchmen, meeting at a secret trysting place to divide the loot, coming up with far-fetched tales to explain your wounds and scorched clothing. Most of all, you are running scared of the Chartered Company: those smug, lazy playboy-adventurers who get all the glory and who dog your footsteps, trying to expose you at any turn. The stocks or the scaffold await you if you're caught - unless of course you get wealthy enough to earn your own Charter.
Meet the Dingleman
The Dungeon Keeper doesn't want riff-raff poking around in his dungeons. Peasants in search of shelter or loot will probably get themselves killed or else provoke the subterranean monsters (pretty much the plot of Beowulf, where an escaped slave steals from a dragon's hoard and the indignant reptile visits destruction upon the tribe of the Geats).
But it's not just that. It's even worse if those enterprising peasants succeed, and emerge from the dungeon as hardened veterans, with magical equipment, spell books and a heightened sense of themselves. Such 'heroes' aren't going to be content back behind the plough. More likely, they're the ringleaders of the next Peasant's Revolt.
Even if they don't revolt, peasant-adventurers promote something just as bad: social mobility. The ruling classes in a hereditary aristocracy don't want to be mixing with ploughboys and dairymaids who made their fortune plundering dungeons.
This means dungeons must be policed and the dingleman or Dungeon Constable is the policeman. Probably, this person is the landowner nearest to the dungeon entrance, drawing an extra stipend from his lord for these duties. It might be a hereditary position or it might be offered to a retired war hero or adventurer, complete with a gift of land and a nearby cottage or tower from which to keep an eye on things.
Obviously, the dingleman chases trespassers away from the dungeon entrance - or, in the case of large armed companies, takes a careful note of their identities. He's probably a capable warrior or magician and has some henchmen (perhaps his sons) and some big dogs to back him up.
More than this, the dingleman's patrol probably includes the upper dungeon level too, or at least the corridors and rooms around the entrance. The dingleman knows about the traps and some of the monsters and might have some tricks (high pitched whistles, unpleasant-smelling incense) to chase away wandering monsters like slimes, rats, gelatinous cubes and mindless undead.
If the post is hereditary, some of these monsters knew the dingleman's grandfather and their working relationship can be quite sophisticated. Perhaps the Goblins tip off the dingleman when they're planning to raid the surface, so he can warn nearby farmers to lock their doors or spend a few nights safe in the town inn while their barn is being ransacked. Perhaps the dingleman tips off the monsters when the Chartered Adventurers hove into view: they can retreat to a lower level or hide away their children and womenfolk. That's what makes dungeon poachers so destructive: by descending unannounced on a dungeon and, by slaughtering the unsuspecting monsters, they damage the delicate trust-networks that have grown up around the site.
I like to imagine Dungeon Hunts are popular with the more eccentric nobility: some young lordling and his entourage descend into the dungeon, clatter around harmessly for a few hours and do battle with something they can manage and emerge as monster-killers. The dingleman curates this experience, much like foresters set up a hunt by locating a likely quarry. The local monsters have to be forewarned and clear out ("You don't want to go messing with the young prince, he's well connected!") and in return point out to the dingleman the location of a suitable quarry ("Human, on the third level is predatory wyrm that devours our scouts: it would make a fine trophy for your prince!").
Of course, sometimes the dingleman really is working for the monsters, especially if there's a mesmerising Harpy on the second level that's turned his mind. What ought to be a safely-curated day of underground hunting can go badly wrong. This is the sort of occasion that sends in the player characters (even if they're unchartered) on a rescue mission.
Dinglemen for and against Player Characters
A friendly dingleman is the best source of likely-to-be-true rumours that a Chartered Company of Adventurers can have. He might be on hand to help with hauling large treasures out of the dungeon and willing to escort the party to a jumping-off point within the complex and offer directions from there ("These steps go to the third level; there's a room of glowing pillars, they say, and beyond that a witch's lair: she turns folks to stone!").
Naturally, in return the dingleman expects a share in the party treasure and perhaps the choice of a magic item. This, and also respect and fair language. If the party behave high-handedly, well, the dingleman can be much less helpful: rumours will be of the less accurate sort, directions vague, assistance grudging. If relations really break down, monsters will have uncanny foreknowledge of the party's approach.
Unchartered adventurers usually avoid the dingleman at all costs. In a feudal system, the dingleman's loyalty to his lord (and fear of the punishments for dereliction of duty) makes it hard to bribe him or talk him round. He might show up to rescue PCs from a tight spot, only to escort them to a gaol.
In other settings, the dingleman might be more of a jobsworth, amenable to a bribe or even taking a liking to young adventurers. Any assistance he offers will have to be secret though: remember the Chartered Adventurers and their sense of grievance? Best to turn a blind eye and leave it at that.
I'm charmed by the idea of dinglemen: I'll make a point of incorporating on into my next dungeon. Here are some final thoughts about how a dingleman might function in a well-known dungeon: the Zenopus Dungeon by Eric Holmes.
The Zenopus Dingleman
You can read the original Zenopus Dungeon here, or look at my version for Forge Out Of Chaos or buy Zach Howard's 5th Edition adaptation for $1.99. I analyse the dungeon in an earlier blog.
Brubo patrols the area around the dungeon entrance to chase away trespassers but won't offer violence. He's too honourable to bribe. He will direct Chartered Adventurers to the stairwell and cackle about the endless corridors, the perilous graveyard, the sunken city of pre-human origin: he's great for setting the tone and functions as a Threshold Guardian (in Joseph Campbell's neo-Jungian terminology).
Inside the dungeon, Brubo can be encountered as a Wandering Monster. He can help the party out against undead and carries a string of sausages to distract Giant Rats: in terms of Campbell's monomyth, he's a Helper and Mentor. Of course, he has been charmed by the Magician in Room F: he will direct or chase adventurers away from that area and fight to protect his master. On the other hand, he's a keen enemy of the Pirates in Room M and will assist even trespassing unchartered adventurers against them.
If Brubo apprehends trespassers, they face a night in the stocks and confiscation of all treasure. If they keep returning to the dungeon, they will earn Brubo's grudging respect and he will increasingly turn a blind eye to their movements, especially if they deal with the Pirates.
Post Script: I've added Brubo to my adaptation of the Zenopus Dungeon for Forge over on the Scenarios page.
The Inn of the Cold Companion is a 30-minute Dungeon Challenge, as set out by Tristan Tanner in his Bogeyman Blog. I hope it will inspire other people to create some of their own and send them to me - so I can hand out free copies of Forge Out Of Chaos as prizes in the January 2020 competition
I used Tristan's optional tables to create an extra discipline for this 10-room dungeon: empty rooms that point to a combat, reveal history and offer something useful to PCs; the special room provides a boon for a sacrifice; the NPC is a rival; the combat encounters are a horde of weaklings, a pair of toughs and a tough boss; the traps are inconveniencing and incapacitating.
Background (Referee only)
The Inn is a place in the realm of death where the souls of the dead gather on their way to the Netherworld. It was once a real Inn that entered the realm of death when the Innkeeper Rosenkrantz, deranged by grief after the death of his wife Ophelia, burned it down around him.
Dead souls will not rest here long, before the Cold Companion (an avatar of Death) comes to collect them. Dead souls do not realise they are dead: they believe they are resting on a long journey but have only hazy ideas about their destination. They also do not know their names and the only treasure they carry are two silver obols each (the coins to pay for their passage). In this scenario, the players are members of a party of adventurers who have died in a disastrous dungeon encounter, but in the living world their cleric-cum-medic is struggling to revive them.
You are bone-weary from travelling and there are still leagues ahead of you, but the last light of a wintry day shows a roadside inn ahead, with a lantern glowing faintly above the door. The creaking sign bears the name ‘The Cold Companion’ and the image of a feral child with sparkling eyes. Your rations are spent and your waterskins empty, but there are coins jangling in your purses. You enter, look for rest and perhaps fellowship from other travellers on this dismal highway.
In this scenario, characters do not know their Names (q.v.) when asked and cannot remember each other’s names or even think of any names at all. Players can describe their appearance and origin (but no names, of countries or towns) and know each other’s achievements (famous deeds, reputation, shared exploits, but no names of places or enemies) and may refer to each other by this (‘Dwarf’ or ‘Goblin-killer’ or ‘Elf-lover’). The only exception is priests who will remember the name of their god.
The players have no rations (all spoilt), water or wine (spilt or sour). Forge characters have no armour repair kits, binding kits or healing roots. If players bought these accessories, they are mysteriously rotted or simply vanished.
Regardless of initial moneys or treasure from previous adventures, each character has just 2 silver pieces (obols) on their person.
Fire cannot be lit in the Inn, except for Rosenkrantz’s candle. Spells which create magical fire will not cause other objects to burn (exception: room 6). The rooms are lit by an eerie radiance from the windows; shuttered rooms are pitch black until the shutters are opened. The Cellar (8 and 9) is pitch black unless Rosenkrantz is there with his candle or magical illumination is used. The candle in 7 will help the PCs a lot.
Allow players to discover these absences and mysteries through play (i.e, when asked their name or when they try to pay for something).
1. The Common Room
This is the public bar with three long trestle tables and benches set around a big stone Fireplace (10) which is piled with kindling but unlit and cold. There is a bar, with shelves behind holding tankards and bottles, and big tuns at either side with spigots for dispensing beer or cider - but everything is utterly tasteless. The room is high-ceilinged (20’) and overlooked by a minstrel’s gallery (3).
The windows to either side of the fireplace present a Spectral Vista as will the door if PCs try to leave.
If the PCs make noise or call for service, Rosenkrantz will appear, pretending to be the innkeeper. If the players spend too long here or return to this room, the Undead Patrons will arrive.
2. Corridor of Windows
This dark corridor is lit by the windows, which present the same Spectral Vista. When the PCs cross the corridor, skeletal hands break through the windows and attack. Each PC is grabbed by 1d4 hands, which attack as 1HD monsters (Forge: as AV 2) and deal 1 damage. PCs who are grabbed may be pulled through the window on the following turn; they must Save vs Death (D&D, at +4), with a -2 penalty for each hands holding them. An ally may try to save a character being pulled through the window: this allows a second Saving Throw with an additional +2. The arms may be turned as Skeletons or attacked (treat armour as leather and a single hit destroys one).
If the PCs returns to this corridor or pass through in the company of Rosenkrantz (when he shows them to their rooms), the windows will be once again intact but the arms will not appear. There are three staircases: up to the upper floor (4), up to the Minstrels’ Gallery (3) and down to the Cellar (8).
3. The Minstrels' Gallery
This balcony commands a view of the Common Room (1) 10' below. While PCs are up here, the Undead Patrons will arrive. There are musical instruments here (harp, lute, citern, recorder, violin) and any PC will find themselves able to play mournful tunes on them. A character who can play or sing will find themselves able to recall a sad ballad of the death of a beautiful woman named OPHELIA; the singer can bestow the name on one character (including him or herself).
4. Shadowy Hallway
The only light in this corridor comes from the window at the far end, which presents a Spectral Vista. A dark shadow lies across the floor. Anyone stepping on it must Save vs Death (Forge: at -2) or fall into it, disappearing. Anyone putting their hand into it feels numbing cold and cannot use their arm for 1d12 minutes. Objects placed in the shadow are withdrawn covered in frost. Any PC falling into the shadow arrives at the front door of the Inn all over again, in the company of anyone dragged through the windows (2), with no recall of being here previously and any Names (q.v.) that have been learned are forgotten.
The shadowy hole temporarily disappears in light: from a candle (in 7 or carried by Rosenkrantz) or magical illumination) but reappears in darkness. Players might use this to their advantage against the Cold Companion.
5. The Guest Room
This room is unlocked but, if Rosenkrantz shows the PCs to a room, he will bring them here and lock them inside. There are six bunk beds and a chest for goods and several weatherstained cloaks on hooks. Scratched on the inside of the door is a message: THE COLD COMPANION IS COMING. Under one of the beds is an old pair of boots with a name written inside: YORICK; anyone putting on the boots acquires the name. Characters who sleep in this room dream of dying in battle against monsters in an underground dungeon; one character hears their name being called over and over from the Well (9) downstairs.
The window is shuttered but, if opened, reveals a Spectral Vista.
6. The Innkeeper's Room
This room is locked and piled with junk: the possessions of former travellers can be determined on a random item table. The room smells of soot and ash. The Innkeeper’s Ledger is kept here and bears the Innkeeper’s name ROSENKRANTZ on the inside cover.
Under the bed is a sack containing thousands of silver pieces: the payments of countless previous guests. This is the only room in the Inn where fire can be started and objects can burn: if a fire is started here, creatures inside take 1d6 damage on the first round, then 2d6, then 3d6 and so on.
If the PCs do not summon him to the Common Room (1) or discover him in the Cellar (8), Rosenkrantz can be found here, counting his coins.
7. The Master Bedroom
The door is locked and Rosenkrantz does not have a key to it; listening at the door, PCs will hear a man sobbing but if they enter there is no one within. If someone bearing the name of 'Ophelia' is present, the door will open for them.
This grandly appointed room has shuttered windows that display a Spectral Vista if opened. The bed is laid for a funeral, with vases of flowers: rosemary, pansies, daisies, violets and rue. An ever-burning candle (similar to Rosenkrantz's) is set beside the bed and can be taken by the PCs; it sheds light in a 10' radius.
Paintings on the wall show the Inn in a busy city street; a portrait of the Innkeeper and his beautiful wife; a deathbed, clearly in this very room, with the Innkeeper grieving; a terrible fire burns the inn down, the Innkeeper clutching a ledger can be seen in the window of the Innkeeper’s Room (6). The final picture shows a creature advancing through the doorway to the Inn: a pale child with sharp teeth and shining eyes. The Innkeeper in the paintings is not the one the players might know as Rosenkrantz.
If the PCs did not summon him to the Common Room (1) or find him in the Bedroom (6), Rosenkrantz is down here, endlessly dragging heavy barrels around while he repeats his name over and over to himself. He will offer to show PCs to the Common Room (1) then bring the Innkeeper's Ledger and then escort them to the Guest Room (5). He will go to great lengths to stop them discovering the Well (9).
9. The Well of Souls
The well is a deep shaft in the floor, near;y 10' across. A voice calls out of it, calling to one of the characters by name (determine which player randomly: that PC now knows their name). Any character trying to descend into the well falls into darkness and experiences the Medical Intervention. This character then wakes up in the Master Bedroom (7).
10. The Cold Fireplace
After the Medical Intervention or the final Spectral Vista occurs or when Rosenkrantz lights it, the fireplace erupts with blue flames that give off no heat. After 1d6 rounds, the Cold Companion enters the Inn, seeking out any characters without names. If the PCs defeat the Cold Companion, they awaken in the living world.
This is another dead soul, a thief, who has been at the Inn for untold ages. When he arrived here, he stole the Innkeeper’s name (Rosenkrantz) so that the Cold Companion took the old Innkeeper instead of him. Rosenkrantz plays the role of an oily and obsequious Innkeeper, but delights in the players’ confusion and enjoys taunting them by asking them for their names on any possible occasion and teasing them with the imminent arrival of the Cold Companion. He carries a smelly tallow candle at all times that never goes out; he will not share it with guests or let anyone else use it to light the Fireplace. He also carries keys to lock rooms 5 and 6.
He has the following rumours to impart:
Rosenkrantz cannot be killed except by the Cold Companion or by a fire in room 6. However, if the players acquire the Ledger and steal his name, the former-Rosenkrantz will use his candle to light the Fireplace (10) and summon the Cold Companion, hoping to trick the players into giving him back his name in return for protection (a lie: he has none to offer).
If the PCs summon Rosenkrantz to the Common Room (1) or meet him in the Cellar (8), Rosenkrantz will offer to provide them with a room at a cost of 2 silver pennies. He will ask them to sign the Ledger (and might have to head off to room 6 to fetch it if encountered in the Cellar). The ledger is full of pages where previous guests signed in (as the nameless players must do) with X. The inside cover has an inscription: ROSENKRANTZ, HIS BOOK, AND HIS LOVELY WIFE. Any character holding the book and reading this aloud acquires the name of Rosenkrantz and the previous Rosenkrantz becomes nameless.
The Undead Patrons
Two leather-armoured warriors arrive at the Inn, demanding service. If the PCs do not interact with them, Rosenkrantz will appear with his Ledger and book them in: they too have a pair of silver obols each. The nameless men are cheerful and keen to talk and play dice with other guests. They will explain how they were exterminating the undead in a haunted cemetery just last night; their companion was killed by an undead creature and they buried him; they had been concerned that he might rise as an undead monster himself and come after them, but clearly that has not happened, which is why they are celebrating.
During the interaction, the Patrons start to change, because of course they were killed in the night by their former-friend and are now turning into undead themselves.
The player in the Well (9) experiences waking up in a dungeon corridor, surrounded by corpses. A female cleric (Forge: Berethenu Knight) is trying to staunch their wounds and pleading with them to ‘stay with me’. The player can utter three words before the vision ends and they return to the Inn. This scene is really happening in the living world. The corpses are the other PCs, killed in an attack by wandering monsters. The cleric is GERTRUDE and if asked she can offer her own name, the name of the dying PC and any other names that a three word question could elicit.
After the Intervention, the fire lights in the Chimney (10) and the Cold Companion will soon appear. The PC awakes in the Master Bedroom (7).
It is vital the players acquire names. They might steal ROSENKRANTZ’s name from the Ledger, acquire OPHELIA from performing music (3) or learn their own names or that of GERTRUDE from the Medical Intervention; YORICK can be discovered in the Guest Room (5). Clerics (Forge: Grom Warriors/Berethenu Knights) will know the name of their god and can take this name upon themselves, once only for 1d6 rounds.
Looking out of the Inn (from rooms 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7) reveals a supernatural landscape. Roll 1d6 for each different occasion, adding +1 for each previous Vista that has been viewed.
The Cold Companion
This avatar of Death appears as a pale and feral-looking child, with razor sharp teeth, glittering eyes and sharp, filthy nails. It moves to attack nameless characters and ignores those with Names. Characters killed by the Cold Companion turn into balls of floating blue fire, which the Cold Companion gobbles up: this also takes 1 round, buying respite for other PCs. If a named character deals damage to the Cold Companion, it will be able to attack once in retaliation.
The Cold Companion appears when a now-nameless ‘Rosenkrantz’ summons it, in which case it eats him first (despite a scene where he pleads or promises: Death is not to be cheated by thieves), giving the PCs a melee round of respite. It also appears after the Medical Intervention or the final Spectral Vista.
In D&D, treat the Cold Companion as a Wight but ignore it’s immunity to normal weapons. Level-1 PCs struck by the Cold Companion are instantly killed by the level drain unless they have a name, in which case they forget their name instead.
In Forge, the Cold Companion is a Death Hag and named characters who fail to Save vs Death will forget their name rather than be destroyed.
If the Cold Companion falls into the shadow pit (4) or the Well (9), it is defeated. If it can be lured to the Innkeeper’s Room (6), it can be trapped in a fire which will then spread and destroy the entire Inn. When the Cold Companion is destroyed, any remaining characters leave the Underworld and recover in the dungeon, at the site of the Medical Intervention: they have returned from the dead.
"And they were really dead the whole time!" It's a cliche of TV and film, but it's still a fresh conceit in a roleplaying game. This scenario assumes the players have experienced a TPK (Total Party Kill). If the players create new characters, then the TPK is an aspect of their backstory that they have forgotten. Have fun dropping this scenario in if the players really do experience a TPK!
This was my attempt to create a Twilight Zone style 30 minute dungeon. The dungeon itself took 30 minutes, but writing up the rules for Rosenkrantz, the Undead Patrons, the Spectral Vistas, etc., took longer.
The scenario assumes half a dozen PCs, who could all be 1st level. If the number of PCs is half that, they should be 2nd level and the Referee should remove Yorick's Boots from room 5 and trigger the arrival of the Cold Companion as soon as there is only one un-named PC left.
I hope there's some pleasure for the PCs in figuring out the Inn's mysteries: even if they quickly realise they are dead, there's still the puzzle of Rosenkrantz and the history of how they original Innkeeper destroyed himself and the Inn.
The players might decide to leave the Inn. The Spectral Vistas are designed to discourage that but if the PCs insist, introduce horrid Sandworms (as in Beetlejuice) to gobble them up, with PCs awakening back at the Inn (in their Guest Room, probably) and with names forgotten, to teach them a lesson.
Rosenkrantz is intended to be a nuanced NPC. I think he's been at the Inn for centuries and is quite mad. He's a mixture of humble-grovelling towards guests and smug-sarcasm, delighting in being mysterious and showing that he knows more about what's going on than he will reveal. If the players want to attack him, allow him to run into a shadow, like the one in 4 but instead of being ejected from the Inn he escapes to the Innkeeper's Room (6). This is a unique power he has learned from spending so long at the Inn.
The Cold Companion is meant to be an eerie, fey sort of psychopomp. I imagine it to be Ophelia's unborn child, grown into a sharp-toothed demon-thing. It giggles in a high-pitched voice, skitters about the place on slap-slap-slap bare feet and scratches at doors with its horrid nails. It cannot be reasoned with, though it might back off (briefly) from fire or the flowers from the Master Bedroom (7). Have fun with it.
If you want a less-violent, more spiritual sort of climax, think about how the players could relate to the Cold Companion. If the Companion truly is Ophelia's unborn child who died with her mother and then was incinerated in the fire, it might be possible to reach out to her, especially if a PC has taken on the name of OPHELIA or ROSENKRANTZ and recognises the child as their own. The Companion's grieving reaction to the flowers in 7 and pained response to Ophelia's theme played on the instruments in 3 might provide clues.
Alternatively, players might improvise names for themselves based on their behaviour within the Inn: 'Shadow-tripper' or 'Well-diver' are riddle-names of the sort Bilbo offered to Smaug in The Hobbit and Referees should reward this sort of creativity.
It's possible that all the remaining PCs end up with names, especially if someone used their three-word question in the Medical Intervention wisely. In this case, they are immune to attacks from the Companion and Referees should not force a battle. Players might overcome the Companion by showing it kindness or simply a lack of fear. Again, Referees should reward thematic roleplaying. Conquering death doesn't have to involve killing something, after all.
Bury My Tusks at Broken Jaw is a 30-minute Dungeon Challenge, as set out by Tristan Tanner in his Bogeyman Blog. I hope it will inspire other people to create some of their own and send them to me - so I can hand out free copies of Forge Out Of Chaos as prizes in the January 2020 competition
I used Tristan's optional tables to create an extra discipline for this 10-room dungeon: empty rooms that point to a combat, reveal history and offer something useful to PCs; the special room provides a boon for a sacrifice; the NPC is a rival; the combat encounters are a horde of weaklings, a pair of toughs and a tough boss; the traps are inconveniencing and incapacitating.
In this scenario, players can use Ryan Marsh's goblin PC class (and allied Hobgoblins and Bugbears).
The goblin kingdom was overthrown by the invading Elves of the Pale Empire (‘Foam’, as the goblins call them, for their pale skin). After the death of the last Goblin rajjor (king) San Rankill, Goblins were sent to live in Munaan (reservations). One such as Broken Jaw, deep in the swampy Watching Glades. Now the Elves have arrived to evict the goblin chief (Keth) and his sworn companions, herding the tribe into a stockade where they will be deported to the slave markets.
The Elves came in the night on their silent ship to Broken Jaw. Your cousin Botang brought you warning and you escaped the Munan (reservation) on canoes while he sacrificed himself fighting off the Bleach (Elves) and their Mudskin (Human) henchmen. Many of your companions died in the Swamp of Ghosts but dawn finds you camped in the Old Boneyard, warming yourself round a feeble fire, while you plot your revenge.
One of the PCs is the Keth (chieftain) of the goblin reservation of Broken Jaw. The scenario involves his or her attempt to recapture the island home and expel the imperial Elves and their Human mercenaries.
Create characters for D&D based on the Goblin class by Ryan Marsh. Optionally, allow one PC to be a grizzled Hobgoblin sergeant who trained the young Keth in arms. Another PC could be a Bugbear, an old family retainer. If there are 6 PCs, they can all be 1st level; for each PC fewer than 6, promote one character to 2nd level, starting with the Hobgoblin sergeant, then the Keth, then the Bugbear for a group of three 2nd level characters.
In Forge, the Keth and his or her comrades should be Higmoni, the sergeant a Berserker and the retainer a Ghantu. If there are fewer than 6, consider promoting their level of Melee or Magic skill as above.
1. A Cold Night in the Old Boneyard
The PCs start here, at sunrise. They are equipped with only leather armour and their krist daggers (damage 1d4+1). The swamps below are covered in mists. Each PC rolls 1d6 for rumours about their surroundings (add +1 if Wisdom 13+ or if History skill is used):
If the PCs search the boneyard, they will find caches of ancient weapons; roll 1d6 for each PC (add +1 if Intelligence 13+ or if Search roll successful)
2. Bomoch's Hut
Bomoch the Greenseer lives in a squalid hut of leather tents and woven reeds. All around the hut dead weasels hang from lines and Bomoch keeps many weasels in cages (to keep away Cockatrices, of course). He is a wild-eyed, cackling maniac but he has been expecting the PCs.
Bomoch greets the Keth as a great lord and volunteers a safe route following an ancient causeway north through the Swamp of Ghosts. He warns PCs not to stray from the causeway into the mists: Penanggouls will imitate the voices of loved ones and Cockatrices turn you to salt with their bite.
Bomoch tells the Keth that the Jade Queen is waiting for him or her inside the Emerald Labyrinth. He will offer no more clues except to direct the PCs to 3 and instruct them to eat the fungus growing on the trees near the old totem pole.
Bomoch offers other advice to the other PCs, roll 1d6 for each (+1 if Charisma 13+ or possess the Charisma trait)
3. Into the Emerald Labyrinth
The PCs will be sent here by Bomoch (2). The trail ends with a sinister klireng totem pole before the wall of dense forest. If the PCs consume the fungus growing on the trunks of nearby trees, they will experience a vision in which a trail opens up into the forest. Following it takes them to the Bower (4) along a path that is almost lightless because of the canopy of branches overhead.
The Referee should add haunting and scary details to the journey or roll/choose for each character:
Any deaths or Hit Points lost during the vision are recovered at the end and the PCs awake outside the forest, with the sun now in late afternoon and the day nearly over.
4. In the Bower of the Jade Queen
The vision quest concludes in a clearing in the heart of the forest, watched over by a final brooding klireng pole.
5. The Causeway through the Swamp of Ghosts
If the PCs took Bomoch’s advice, they can follow the causeway. Along the route are salt pillars (petrified victims of the Cockatrices). The Referee should alarm the players with the reptilian slithers of Cockatrices in the mist. If the PCs visited the Emerald Labyrinth it will be dusk and they may sight Penanggouls, floating heads that call to them with the voices of loved ones.
Half way through the swamp, there is a high mound marked by a totem pole. A scouting party of 10 Humans are camped here; they are servants of the Elves.
Human Scouts: (D&D) HD 1, HP 3, AC leather & shield, spear for 1d6 or javelin for 1d6; (Forge) HP 15, DV1 3, DV2 2, 15AP, 5SP, AV 1, spear for 2d4 or javelin for 1d6, ST 12+, SPD 3
If the PCs eavesdrop on the Humans they might learn things (roll 1d6 for each):
If the PCs did not visit Bomoch, they will not find the causeway. They will wander for hours in the swamp and find themselves stalked by Cockatrices. Bomoch will arrive to save them, carrying a weasel in a cage to frighten the Cockatrices away. He will guide them to the causeway and accompany them to the Slave Stockade (6). In this case, Bomoch will offer his puzzling omens but will not tell PCs about the Jade Queen.
6. Attacking the Stockade
The Goblins used this area as a timber yard for valuable hardwoods felled in the Watching Glades. Now the Elves have imprisoned the Goblin tribe here and set their Human soldiers to watch over them. There are 20 Humans: 4 guarding the bridge and 4 in the watchtower and another 12 standing guard over the prisoners. See 5 for their characteristics. The Goblin prisoners are all tied up.
The players need a plan to pick off the guards quickly, under cover of night or fog, perhaps freeing the prisoners to aid them. Once this is done, they can free their loved ones. Each PC has a significant NPC to free:
However, many prisoners are missing including at least one of the special NPCs. They were taken last night by a creature of darkness and dragged away into the Watching Glades (7).
The stockade contains a supply of limes (to feed the prisoners). For D&D, there will be a Potion of Healing. For Forge, there are leather and shield repair kits and tools as well as 2d4 Binding Kits.
7. Through the Watching Glades
If the PCs choose to go in pursuit of the kidnapped prisoners, Bomoch will not accompany them (if he has come this far). It will be night time and the jungle trail is treacherous. At the other side of the jungle, stepping stones cross the river and the ruins of the old kings are visible in the moonlight.
Roll 1d6 for each PC to find out what happens on the journey (for irony, don’t roll and choose an event that matches the vision encounters described at 3):
8. To the Ruins of the Old Kings
The statuary and wall carvings here surprise the PCs: the old kings, the Rajjors, who ruled here were not Elves, but Goblins. PCs with Intelligence 13+ (Forge: History skill) will conclude this was the palace of San Rankill, the last Rajjor. A statue depicts him riding a water dragon (Naga).
The throne room is now the lair of a Jembalang. This scaly, bat-winged demon has been awoken by the arrival of the Elves and sends out its ghost-body to capture victims to eat.
Jembalang: (D&D) HD 6, HP 30, AC as leather & shield, 2 claws for 1d4 each and bite for 1d6, flies, hypnotic song; (Forge) HP 45, AR 3, AV 5, 2 claws for 1d4 and bite for 1d6, ST 11+, SPD 4/8 flying
The Jembalang uses its projection to swoop down for a surprise attack but this will flee as soon as it is injured and can be tracked back to the throne room, where its entranced victims are kept. The true Jembalang (which takes any damage its projection took) will use its hypnotic song: all PCs must Save vs Magic (Forge: vs Mind) or slip into a trance. Entranced PCs can be shaken awake by others (they get extra saving throws for each round of this and save at +4 if they taste or smell limes) but once it has sung its song the Jembalang will attack.
When the Jembalang dies, entranced victims wake up. A mighty roar from the south (9) indicates something else has woken up.
9. The Old Stones at Kuala
These old stones are the ruins of a wharf and jetty. The Goblins just know them as ‘old stones’ but respect them because many have Naga-symbols on them. Once the Jembalang (8) dies, the entranced Lake Dragon wakes and comes to the surface here.
This is Radiant Pang, a giant, intelligent crocodile that faithfully served San Rankill and will serve the new Keth too. PCs can ride on Pang’s back across the lake and Pang will attack and sink the Elven ship, forcing the Elves to swim for the dubious safety of the Swamp of Ghosts.
10. Showdown on Broken Jaw Island
The PCs might arrive here at dusk (if they came directly to the Stockade and ignored the mystery of the kidnapped prisoners), in which case the freed Goblins will assault the Elven ship while the PCs come ashore. If they fought the Jembalang, the PCs will arrive at midnight on the back of the Lake Dragon. If they went to the Emerald Labyrinth first, they will arrive at midnight (if they ignore the Jembalang) or before dawn (if the destroyed it).
To recapture their home, they need to confront the Elven Captain Zeng and his ally, the traitor Botang. Creeping through the deserted village, the Goblin PCs overhear the two villains argue in the Keth's Hut:
Botang: You make me Keth and leave me to rule over an empty rock?
Zeng: Perhaps not even that...
Botang: You betrayed me!
Zeng: [Angry] You talk of betrayal? To me? Watch what your crooked lips say, Ular (= snake or goblin)
Botang: [Pleading] They are my people!
Zeng: No, Ular, they are the Pale Emperor's slaves.
Botang invited the Elves to install him as the new Keth in return for the valuable hardwoods the village harvests, but the Elves have left him as chieftain of an empty island when they took his tribe away to be slaves. Nevertheless, when the PCs arrive, Botang will fight beside his new masters unless the PCs can appeal to his shame.
Zeng, Elven Captain: (D&D) 3rd level, HP 16, AC chain and shield, broad sword for 1d8, Magic Missile, Ventriloquism, Mirror Image; (Forge, Elf) HP 16, DV1 5, DV2 4, AP 40 SP 10, AV 3, broad sword for 1d8+1, ST 9+, SPD 4
Botang, would-be Keth: (D&D) 3rd level, HP 14, AC leather and shield, krist for 1d4+2, javelins for 1d6; (Forge, Higmoni) HP 15, DV1 3, DV2 2, AP 20 SP 5, AV 3, krist for 1d4+2, javelins for 1d6, ST 8+, SPD 3, 2nd level Beast Mage (Jump, Spike, Fangs, Rending, Sonic Wail)
If the PCs overcome Zeng, the ship will be captured (by the freed Goblins) or destroyed (by Pang the Naga). If the kidnap victims have not been rescued, the PCs could use the ship to visit the ruins at 8.
At the conclusion, Bomoch will arrive to announce that the Keth of Broken Jaw is Keth no longer, but the new Rajjor of the Goblins, for whom a battle of liberation awaits.
Appendix: The Jade Queen's Trials
If the PCs undergo the Jade Queen’s trials (4), the Referee can arrange for them to predict future fates.
Did I do this in 30 minutes? No. A sketch map and keying the locations took 30 minutes but then I went back and created all those tables for the rumours, omens, incidents, etc. So as far as '30 Minute Dungeon Challenge' goes it's a bit of a cheat.
Never mind. If you're going to do a linear story like this, it stands or falls on the details that makes it feel compelling rather than limiting. Hopefully, this tale of down-trodden goblins learning their royal birthright and rising up against their colonial masters has some resonance. There's some nice mysticism in the forest and I tried to get across a sense of omens being fulfilled.
The whole idea of native 'heroic' goblins and evil 'imperialist' elves turned up in a mini-campaign I ran last year, but there it was a romantic orc confederation being conquered by elves, with their vaguely Aztec human servitors. The routed orcs had to retreat into their swampy heartland and discovered truths about their origins and foundational myths along the way.
I wanted to avoid clumsy Native American comparisons (despite the name alluding to Wounded Knee) and give the goblins a sense of cultural texture, so I located this in a South East Asian (specifically, Malaysian) setting. If you want to give the goblins some linguistically appropriate names, here's a quick table:
I didn't provide any stats for the hideous Cockatrices (they turn you to salt! they're frightened of weasels!) and the floating-head-undead Penanggouls. These horrors are just there for texture and chills.
If you really want the PCs to fight them (why would you want that? why?) then Cockatrices (minus the weasel stuff) are in the D&D Expert rules/Monster Manual or Basic (Holmes) p23 and Penanggalans are in the AD&D Fiend Folio (or else treat them as Wights). In Forge, use Basilisks as Cockatrices and the characteristics of Nagdu for Penanggouls.
One of the distinctions that divides fans of different editions of D&D is the question, 'How long is a melee round?'
Some lexical detective work is needed to figure out what D&D originally intended. Back in 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson explain (in the Underworld & Wilderness Adventures expansion) that a 'turn' is ten minutes and there are 10 1-minute melee rounds in a turn.
Gygax retained the 1-minute melee round for 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, justifying it like this:
The 1 minute melee round assumes much activity – rushes, retreats, feints, parries, checks, and so on. Once during this period each combatant has the opportunity to get a real blow in (1st ed. AD&D Players Hand Book, p39)
The 1-minute round seems to have its roots in the wargaming superstructure that D&D emerged from. One minute allows a squad or battalion to move, line up, fire, generally 'take their turn'. Combat in wargaming is typically all-or-nothing, so in that 1-minute of action you might completely eliminate your opponent.
Adapting this to tabletop RPGs produces a high level of abstraction. You're free to imagine a lot of cinematic business going on surrounding your solitary 'to hit' roll or spell. But it leads to absurdities. An armoured warrior can only manage short bursts of energetic combat, but combat in D&D can easily last 10+ melee rounds, especially in a 'cleric fight' (a fight between well-armoured characters with low damage output). That's 10+ minutes of huffing and puffing in quilted doublets, thick leather jerkins, mail hauberks... Impossible.
While Gygax was working in minutes, Eric Holmes was tasked with presenting Basic D&D (1977) and unilaterally decided that the time frame for combat should be in seconds rather than minutes:
Each turn is ten minutes except during combat where there are ten melee rounds per turn, each round lasting ten seconds (Basic D&D Blue Book, p9)
Now that ten round fight lasts just under two minutes: much more realistic.
Subsequent editions of Basic D&D - the 1981 beautiful edition by Tom Moldvay and the 1983 ugly edition by Frank Mentzer - retain this 10-second melee round.
Moreover, Basic D&D charted the path that other RPGs followed. For example, Runequest defines fantasy roleplaying for non-D&D folk and hit upon a 12-second melee round.
The melee round is 12 seconds long. One complete round of attacks, parries, spells, and movement happens during ascenario. (Runequest 2nd ed, p14)
12 seconds is long enough for it to eat your shield
Then, in the 21st century, 3rd edition D&D switches to the 6-second melee round, which has been the standard ever since. Take that, Gygax. Holmes is vindicated!
A round represents about 6 seconds in the game world. During a round, each participant takes a turn (5th ed. D&D Players Hand Book, p189)
There are arguments to make both for the combat round as minute or handful of seconds. The 1-minute-round moves combat towards 'theatre of the mind' with a lot of improvised 'business' going on around the decisive blows. Tasks like picking up weapons, unsheathing swords, notching arrows, drinking potions and finding spell components are easy to fit into this stream of activity and don't penalise the character.
But if you find such protracted combat unlikely, the 6/10-second-round offers a more moment-by-moment approach that suits tactical combat better, where facing and flanking matters; where you forfeit your action if you're caught unawares, if you have to ready your weapon; where it matters where you are standing and who you can see and whether you can reach somebody in time to hit them.
But is it really likely that an armoured warrior can hit someone 6-10 times in a minute - or even twice that if they are high-level? Can archers really fire 12-20 arrows a minute, minute after minute? Can you really cast 6-10 spells in a minute, with combat going on all around you? The fast melee round seems to credit PCs with incredible vigour.
Real Life Comparisons
A medieval longbowman at the Battle of Crecy (1346) was expected to fire 12 shots a minute. That involves drawing and firing a longbow, which most people would find pretty punishing to do just the once. On the other hand, it didn't involve much aiming: longbows work because they drop a swarm of yard-long steel skewers onto the enemy, willy-nilly. And of course, this could not be sustained for more than a few minutes.
A shortbow might be fired 20-30 times a minute, but, again, no one could sustain this.
All of which favours the 10-second melee round more than the 6-second one, which allows a bow to be fired up to a dozen times.
Moreover, how many arrows actually get fired in a 1-minute round? If the round assumes lots of 'shots' which only pin the opponent down or harry them, but include a couple of 'true' or 'effective' shots that have "the opportunity to get a real blow in", it's reasonable to assume an archer fires at least half a dozen arrows per minute, probably twice that. An archer with a quiver of 20 arrows will have fired all of the after a couple of 1-minute melee rounds.
Jogging speeds in minutes and seconds
Usain Bolt's world record is to run 100m in 9.58 seconds. That's about 200ft in 6 seconds or 330ft in 10 seconds. The average jogger covers 70ft in 6 seconds or 120ft in 10 seconds or a whopping 730ft in a minute.
Now if we halve that 'jogging speed' for someone running in heavy clothing, carrying adventuring gear, in a darkly lit tunnel, over uneven and slippery floor, you probably get 35ft in a 6-second melee round or 60ft in a 10-second round and let's say 360ft in a minute. But it's even worse in heavy armour, carrying a sword, trying not to get killed. Even if we assume adventurers are trained to run around in armour, 35/60/360ft per round has to be the maximum and a more likely distance is 20ft in 6 seconds or 30ft in 10 seconds and 180ft in a minute, which is walking speed.
1st Edition AD&D (PHB p102) allows unarmoured characters to travel 120ft in a 1-minute round, which suggests a very cautious sort of walk. Halve that for characters in metal armour, which is a weary shuffle.
D&D 5th edition has an unencumbered human traveling 60ft in a 6-second round, which is rather speedy, more like an actual jog along a smooth pavement. Basic D&D (Molvay or Mentzer) has unencumbered characters jogging 40ft in a 10-second round and lumbering 20ft in metal armour, which is comparable to AD&D speeds. Holmes Basic D&D allows 20ft movement in a melee round, 10ft if armoured, which is almost immobile by comparison.
One of the less-remarked aspects of the development of D&D through the editions is how much faster everyone is now.
A combat minute in Forge Out Of Chaos
Indie RPG Forge confesses its derivation from D&D (especially 1st edition AD&D) in myriad ways, but its adoption of the 1-minute melee round is one of the clearest. After all, who would come up with such a profoundly un-intuitive gaming convention on their own?
But Forge imports some ideas from other RPGs that sit uneasily with the abstract 'melee minute'.
For example: armour. D&D treats armour as an impediment to hitting which works fine in a melee minute, where it's assumed your opponent takes lots of swipes against you and armour merely shifts the odds of being hurt in your favour. In 1978, Runequest took another direction, with armour deducting from dealt damage, which works well with its more simulationist 12-second round, in which combatants deal each other single bone-crunching blows.
Forge tries to have it both ways. Armour makes you harder to hit (in an abstract, when-you-average-it-all-up sort of way) but also absorbs the damage dealt (in a specific that-blow-didn't-get-through sort of way).
However, Forge usually inhabits the theatre-of-the-mind world of AD&D combat, where miniatures and battle maps are optional because positioning and facing barely matter. In Forge, you're either attacking an enemy's DV1 (including shield and Awareness bonus) or DV2 (no shield, no Awareness bonus) and there's nothing more specific than that. At least AD&D perversely factored in whether you were making a flank attack on someones shield-side or not (forgetting, temporarily, the rushes, retreats, feints, parries, checks, and so on of a melee-minute).
But then Forge also forgets its melee-minute time frame when it obsesses about the range of magic spells and invites you to 'pump' spells to increase the range. Who cares what the range is when the spell is being cast in a busy minute in which you can dash over 100ft to get close to someone? Back in Holmes Basic, when a Magic-User might jog 20ft and an armoured Elf lumber 10ft, spell range mattered.
Forge bases movement on the Speed (SPD) characteristic, determined for PCs using 1d4+1 (2-5).
'Yards' is an oddity: all the spell ranges are in feet. It's probably an unedited error and I'm always happy to enforce the convention that yards apply outside the dungeon but once you're underground, all yards count as feet.
Forge also lacks any rules for encumbrance (but I offer house rules), so we have to assume these distances apply to unarmoured, unencumbered characters. If SPD 3 is the human norm, then adventurers are moving around much faster than in AD&D. If we apply AD&D logic, then characters in non-metal armour lurch about at 3/4 this speed and metal armour in 1/2 this speed. Nonetheless, if you've got SPD 5 then, even in plate mail, you will cover an impressive 170ft in a melee minute, much faster than AD&D.
(I'm not even going to get into the whole conceptual muddle about whether SPD is supposed to represent reflexes or brute strength, the latter of which matters more for hauling yourself across a combat zone in armour.)
If you can cover this sort of distance in a melee-minute, you don't worry too much about the range requirements of bows (which Forge also dispenses with) or spells. You just jog until you're close enough to your opponent and ZAP!
Does anybody use melee-minutes any more?
Gary Gygax ported the concept of the melee-minute into AD&D and Forge cloned it in an unreflective moment, but neither game really gets to grips with the implications.
Gygax links his melee-minutes to another of D&D's defining concepts: Hit Points. What does it mean for a high level character to amass Hit Points sufficient to endure any number of sword blows? They haven't increased in literal physical toughness, but rather
such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the "sixth sense" which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection (Dungeon Master's Guide, p82)
In other words, some 'hits' in combat aren't even 'hits' at all. They're like the lost lives of a cat. The axe whistles through the space where your head was a moment ago, but some instinct made you duck. You lose Hit Points, representing pushing your luck, but you're physically unharmed.
Yet, in another mood, Gygax is devoting pages in the Dungeon Master's Guide (e.g. pp52-3, 64, 69) to tactical movement, as if he were offering rules to a skirmish game with the action paced out in heartbeats, forgetting that all this is redundant in a rules set where, each minute, characters move great distances ("rushes, retreats") and the 'to hit' roll represents shaving away your opponent's luck rather than actually stabbing them.
You can see why later editions of D&D followed Holmes down the heartbeat route of melee-moments rather than melee-minutes. Yet it leaves D&D with the preposterous institution of Hit Points, now bereft of its only justification, that a damaging 'hit' in combat doesn't necessarily involve any physical contact.
If D&D can't square the circle of melee-time, then I can't 'fix' Forge's hybrid concoction either.
In Forge, Hit Points are calculated from Stamina and don't balloon as you gain experience: a 'hit' in Forge is clearly something that leaves cuts and bruises. You use binding kits to regain your Hit Points, which you wouldn't do if all you'd lost was some good luck. In Forge, armour absorbs damage: if the armour deteriorates, then surely the axe did hit you! The long melee-minute loses its rationale.
If I convert to the 'melee moment' approach - and I like the feel of Holmes' 10-second melee round - then all of Forge's spells last way too long and there's no point in 'pumping' them for extra duration (although extra range might become relevant again since unarmoured SPD 3 characters would only move 60ft per round or 30ft in plate mail).
We can at least be consistent about the melee-minute approach.
There doesn't seem to be anything to be done about the weirdness of two-handed swords which get swung once every two minutes. The convention comes from Holmes, with his snapshot 10-second rounds. Gygax did away with it in a moment of lucidity, but Forge ports it straight back in because it's really hard to make yourself remember that your melee rounds last an entire minute!
Keeping track of arrows fired during a melee-minute seems irrational. In that space of time, an archer will fire almost all her arrows, then gather up the fallen ones to fire again. To represent depletion, just house rule that the archer's quiver goes down by 1d6 arrows every round, representing shafts that cannot be easily recovered. Then, at the end of the battle, the archer gathers them all back, minus a few lost or broken ones (perhaps, reducing the total stock by 1d6).
In this sort of time frame, combatants can reach just about any area of the battlefield that their (rather large) movement allowance permits. Forge is onto something by treating tactical positioning as a simple DV1 (they saw you coming) vs DV2 (they didn't, or they're engaged in combat with somebody else). Place your miniature wherever you want to be on the battle map at the start of each melee minute. Or dispense with miniatures altogether!
OSR dungeoncrawling without miniatures? I think I'd better think it out again...
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've adopted Forge Out of Chaos to pursue my nostalgia for old school RPGs.
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: