The Coney-Cliff Crypt is a 30-minute Dungeon Challenge, as set out by Tristan Tanner in his Bogeyman Blog. It was submitted by Karl McMichael who wins a copy of Forge Out Of Chaos as his prize in the January 2020 competition.
Thanks to Andrew Cook for the stylish cover
Karl submitted the dungeon with references to D&D 5e; I've added a few conversions to Holmes/BX/AD&D and I'll adapt the whole scenario to Forge Out of Chaos next month. Andrew Cook has created a printable version of the scenario. I've adapted (and slightly expanded) the scenario for Forge Out of Chaos.
A Necromancer has enslaved a tribe of Kobolds, insisting he can raise the skeleton of a dragon with human bones and sacrificial ritual. To this end, the Kobolds have been luring local villagers into nefarious traps then turning them over to the Necromancer. An adventurous gang of local teens have entered the dungeon and (mostly) been killed or captured.
Disappearances have been occurring around the old crypt on Coney Cliff: recently five teenagers from the village went out to investigate but never returned. They are Devonna (gentlewoman), Tad (woodsman), Nedward (scribe), Hedrick (militiaman) and Genelle (rogue). The mayor fears something eldritch and ineffable may be going on. You have been sent to retrieve the disappeared youngsters or bring back their bodies.
Coney Cliff is a windy rise well above the sea. As the wind howls in from the sea, faint cries and wails can indeed be heard on the wind. A tumbledown dry stone wall surrounds weather-beaten grave stones and tombs.
A grand-looking crypt entrance stands most prominent: it is ornately carved with rusted iron gates open leading downward. However, the stone doors a few steps down but are stuck fast. Inscribed above the entrance reads: ‘Honour, oath and promise, here lay my briar brothers.'
Dotted around the ground are dozens of rabbit burrows, several of which upon closer inspection contain jewellery, coins or semi-precious baubles (these are traps: see area 2).
To the east of the Crypt Entrance lies a well (1); if the party look down inside they will see the flickering of a torch and hear a voice from below asking for help.
Each square is 5 feet
1. The Well
The Well has only 2' of rope attached to the winch. It descends 30' into water that is 5' deep. Five feet above the water, several bricks have been removed (a secret door) and the area around the bottom of the well has been roughly excavated; some buckets and broken tools lie strewn about.
There is a young man trapped down here with a dying torch; Nedward is thankful somebody arrived to help him as the rope he climbed down on snapped. He will tell the PCs a confusing tale of how he came here with his four friends:
“Genelle disappeared before we came down. We tried the crypt door but it’s stuck fast, so we came down here when we saw the light. We went down the corridor beyond those bricks, but there was this shrieking thing! Lucky Devonna brought a sword and Tad borrowed a wood axe. They chopped it all up, my ears are still ringing though. They went through the door but there was a skeleton! Hedrick and I ran to get help, but when I got back Hedrick was gone! I’m no warrior, and I’m not brave. I guess dad was right, I’m only good for running and reading.”
Nedward will attempt to leave, but might be persuaded to help if PCs leverage his insecurity about his father. He is a 3HP normal human with no armour or weapon but carries 5 torches and a tinder box. At area 4, he might give them a clue for the door: “It wants your word, some sort of promise.”
Along the corridor is a secret door leading to a tight passage (where Hedrick was abducted); if it is discovered the Kobolds beyond will retreat to room 10.
At the end of the corridor is a shoddy door, badly hung. In front of the door is a giant purple fungus, hacked apart by Nedward’s friends.
2. The Rabbit-holes/Kobold traps
These small caves are linked by tight corridors. Creatures taller than Dwarves fight at -2 in the tunnels; those larger than Kobolds or Gnomes must travel and fight single file and cannot use shields; no one can use two-handed weapons. Kobolds can fight two abreast in the tunnels.
In each of the numbered locations are 2 Kobolds, 14 in total (MM pg.195, 1 spear armed, 1 with javelin and club). They act as teams to capture those who reach for the trinkets in the rabbit holes at dawn and dusk.
For Holmes/BX/AD&D, each Kobold has 2HP and deals 1d4 damage.
Each hole has a snare that one Kobold tightens round the victim’s wrist as they reach in. They pull together to drag the victim into the crypt. They will bash the victim repeatedly until compliant or unconscious and bind them in room 10. If this fails, the spearman will finish the job and drag the body to room 10.
Each group of Kobolds reacts intelligently: follow and ambush intruders, seek other Kobolds to gang up, attack intruders immediately, play dead, fake calls for help, self preserve and stay still or surrender and lure the PCs into a trap (e.g. room 5). Their motivation is to protect or misdirect intruders away from room 10.
3. Tribute Room (15' high)
The room is covered in murals (a good amount may be covered by soot) which depict heroic deeds and figures in full plate with bramble motifs battling demons and defeating a giant dragon. There is a staircase that would lead up to the Crypt Entrance but the ceiling has collapsed, making it impassible. On the east wall, several bricks have been removed and bare soil is clearly visible: this is the secret door to area 8.
The door in the North wall is carved with the same phrase in multiple languages: ‘I strive to keep order, to fight chaos and uphold the integrity of the Briar Knights.’
There are 2 skeletons (MM pg. 272) in this room which will rush to close the door in the south wall if they can and attack if not.
For Holmes/BX/AD&D, each Skeleton has 4HP and deals 1d6 damage.
In the centre of the room is a 5' wide copper bowl full of pitch.
There are two arrow slits are located 12' above the floor on the east wall. Two Kobolds fire at any who enter room 3 with light crossbows for 3 rounds (targeting the least armoured character, including the boy Nedward from area 1). During the second round of combat, a Kobold from the arrow slit will fire a burning brand into the copper bowl igniting it and causing the room to fill with thick black smoke: 1’ after 1 round, 3’ after 2, 5’ after 3, 6’ after 4, 10’ after 6' and after 9 rounds the room will have 14' of smoke (it will stay at 10' if any doors are open) and the fire will die out.
4. Hallway of Oath
There is a door to the east (room 5) which reads: ‘Here we lie.’ Daubed across it in thick red paint is a draconic script which reads: ‘CORPSE STORE. DANGER.’ NOTE: A Kobold group stalking the party may wish to open room 5 and unleash the Zombies if the PCs are looking too healthy.
The door to the east (room 6) reads ‘ Here we are remembered.’
As the players proceed along the hall, they hear a female voice: ‘I am to join you Tad, they've come to finish me off.'
Around the corner are two figures: a young man slumped against the wall, a woman hunched clutching her thigh with one hand and brandishing a sword with the other. The dead figure is Tad, a quarrel is protruding from his chest. The young woman is Devonna. A dead Kobold lies at her feet. She is in poor shape and laments her foolishness. She will do what the party asks of her but is in no shape to fight.
The door to the north is heavily carved and inlaid with silver. It depicts a figure in plate armour with an ornate helmet crowned wìth thorns. It has a banner across both doors. It reads: ‘If you are to keep this, you must first give it to me.' The answer is oath/word; the specific oath is carved all over the door in room 3 in multiple languages and the correct response is: ‘I strive to keep order, to fight chaos and uphold the integrity of the Briar Knights.’ Upon receiving the correct answer, the door will open.
The door may be picked, but unless the lockpicker criticals (or succeeds on two successive rolls for Holmes/BX/AD&D), a tiny hammer will fall on the lockpick, breaking it before resetting the lock in the door.
5. Zombie Room
A room with open and smashed sarcophagi. The room is packed with 8 zombies (MM pg. 316).
For Holmes/BX/AD&D, each Zombie has 8HP and deals 1d6 damage.
Unless the door is closed quickly, the Zombies will spill into the corridor and attack anyone they come across. The zombies are Briar Knights raised by the Necromancer and instructed to attack intruders in preference to Kobolds.
6. Timber Room
This room contains nothing apart from wormwood ridden timbers. Two are long enough to cross the pit in room 7 but one (50% chance it is the one the PCs use) is rotten and will break if any creature heavier than a Halfling walks across.
A door leads east. It is of poor quality and fitting but it is locked. The lock is not a difficult check, but using force to break it down results in momentum carrying the PCs into the pit in room 7.
7. Spiked Pit
A spike pit covers the west side of the room; there is a 10' drop into spikes covered in excrement and urine (DMG pg. 123). This is also a toilet as well as a trap.
For Holmes/BX/AD&D, falling into the pit deals 1d6 damage and the character must Save vs Poison or take 1d4 damage and contract a disease (similar to Giant Rats).
NOTE: this could be a great place to ambush PCs with one or more Kobold groups.
There is a secret door to room 10 on the north wall. A tight slope leads up to room 9, climbing 10' (PHB pg. 192). If the Kobolds in area 8/9 are still active, the PCs will hear cries of help from room 9 (this is a trap).
8. Secret Ladder Entry
The corridor terminates in a ladder which scales 10' up into room 9.
If PCs find the secret door and enter here, the 2 Kobolds firing through into room 3 will come here to attack when a PC is at the bottom of the ladder. One will douse the intruder with a bucket of oil, the second will throw a burning brand down after it, setting the oil on fire.
Once a PC reaches the top of the ladder, the Kobolds will do the bucket trick again on anyone else climbing up.
The Kobolds will then summon two of the groups near them to join the fight and send the third to room 10.
9. Kobold Barracks (9' high)
The earthen tunnel is full of rags, clothes, miscellaneous bones, boots and whatever the Kobolds took from commoners. On a crude dais in an alcove is an articulated wooden dragon toy surrounded by gems and gold coins. Leaned against it is a +1 magic warhammer with etched brambles along the head, a wand of magic missiles with 1d12 charges and 2 healing potions are also nestled in the pile.
If players entered through area 8, there will be no fight. There is a caged mastiff by the slope to area 7. It is starved, blood thirsty and rages wildly when it sees the PCs.
If the players enter through area 7 (perhaps answering the fake ‘cries for help’), the 2 Kobolds keeping watch on room 3/8 will drag the caged mastiff (MM pg. 332) over to the slope and lift the door of the crate to release the brute. They will then do the same as in area 8, using only 1 oil bucket to send a pool of burning oil down the slope.
For Holmes/BX/AD&D, the Mastiff is HD 2, 8HP, AC 7, bite for 1d4+1.
A young woman is bound tightly in the corner by the cage; her name is Genelle. She cries for help and to be cut free. She explains how she saw some fairy gold in a rabbit hole and was pulled underground, beaten and tied. Genelle is a 1st level Rogue/Thief (HP 3) and knows the route to room 10 through the Kobold tunnels and the secret door: she was taken there by the Kobolds and witnessed Hedrick being murdered but the Necromancer sent her back to the barracks to ‘amuse’ his servants. Genelle will agree to aid the party but will run away as soon as the Undead Dragon animates.
10. Necromancer's Lair & Dragon Grave
The party disturb the Necromancer (and any Kobolds that fled to the room). There is a gaping 20' wide scar carved through the cliff face; it looks out over a tumultuous sea. Wind whips in through the hole, billowing the robes of a dark figure. There is a large skeletal dragon stretched upon a mountain of treasure. The ancient bones and mound of treasure is stained with strange patterns and sigils in deep red. The metallic smell in the air is overpowering as well as the stench of decay. Piled inside the rib cage of the dragon are corpses in varying degrees of decomposition; one is very fresh (this is Hedrick, one of the missing teenagers).
Along the West wall is a lean-to with a bed roll surrounded by books and scrolls. A fire rages in the centre of the room.
The Necromancer slashes his hand and places it on the forehead of the great skeletal beast.
He says: ‘You called me mad.’
The dragon begins to shudder, limbs snapping magnetically into place.
The dragon pulls itself upright on its forelegs
‘But I’ve done what you never could’
The dragon shoots forward on forelimbs; it is lame, dragging the back legs and pelvis uselessly.
The Necromancer slumps exhausted, enamoured with his creation. He ignores the PCs. He will not interact or react to the PCs and will mutter and mumble to himself regardless of outcome.
The Dragon’s stats are noted below. The treasure is left to the DM’s imagination.
Frail Skeletal Dragon (5e)
Large undead, lawful evil
AC 15, HP 65, Speed 20'
Str 16 (+3), Dex 8 (-1), Con 16 (+3), Int 8 (-1), Wis 10(0), Cha 10 (0)
Saving throws : Dex +2, Wis +3
Languages: Draconic; Skills: perception +2
Damage vulnerability: bludgeoning; Damage resistance: neurotic; Damage immunity: poison; Condition immunity: poison, exhaustion
Senses: blindsight 10', darkvision 60', passive perception 12
Noxious odour. Any creature within 5’ must make a DC 12 Con saving throw. On a failed save the creature is poisoned for the next minute. A creature poisoned in this way can repeat the saving throw at the end of its turn.
Multiattack. This creature may make 2 attacks per round. Bite/breath weapon and claw.
Bite. Melee attack. +4 to hit. 5' reach. Single target. (1D10 +3) piercing.
Claw. Melee attack. +4 to hit. 5' reach. Single target. (2D4+3) slashing.
Breath weapon (recharge 5-6) bone shards: 15’ cone. DC12 Dex saving throw. 5D6 damage on a failed save or half as much on a success.
Skeletal Dragon (Holmes/BX/AD&D)
AC 4, HD 5, HP 25, 2 claws & bite for 1d3/1d3/2d6, bone shards breath weapon in a line to 40', cannot be subdued but may be turned as a Spectre, treat as undead, nauseating odour the same as Troglodytes
Karl has invited me to write a commentary on his scenario, which I'm delighted to do.
Karl took his inspiration for this from Tucker's Kobolds. Back in 1987, Roger E. Moore wrote a famous editorial for Dragon #127 in which he described a dungeon adventure where a tribe of kobolds (the weakest of the D&D humanoid monsters) were deployed so cleverly they posed a significant challenge for even high level (6th-12th) adventurers. "Sometimes," Moore concludes, "it's the little things—used well—that count."
Karl places his 16 Kobolds where they might capture some incurious PCs immediately, by dragging them through fake rabbit holes into underground caves and knocking them unconscious. Once the fight moves into the dungeon, the Kobolds take advantage of cramped, low tunnels where they can gang up on their restricted opponents. The Kobolds make use of traps and advantageous positions to pepper the PCs with arrows, pour burning oil on them, unleash savage dogs on them and retreat from direct melee wherever possible.
The PCs will be badly battered and probably will have lost party members when they arrive at the climactic showdown with the undead dragon, a fight which will finish them off unless they make use of surprise or are sensible enough to flee.
This is a delightfully malevolent dungeon, designed to give the PCs terrible experiences at every turn. 1st level characters probably won't get very far at all: 2nd level characters might be hardy enough to live to run away at the end.
Set against this punishing experience are two mutually-reinforcing themes. One is the Crypt's original function, as the resting place of a noble order of nature-themed paladins. There are touches of beauty down here, in the bramble-motifs in the Tribute Room, in the dignified oaths and high-minded solution to the riddle on the doors. This was not always a terrible place, but it has been despoiled and corrupted. The PCs should be inspired to salvage what goodness and hope can be found down here, which leads to the second theme...
The other theme is the rescue of the five teenage wannabe heroes. These characters are like the cast of a Hollywood horror movie who stumbled into a Very Bad Place: Hedrick and Tad are now dead, but the PCs can rescue Nedward, Genelle and Devonna and need to remember that this is in fact their mission. If they can bring all three youngsters alive out of the dungeon, they should feel rightly proud of themselves. Confronting the Dragon is pure hubris.
If you referee this scenario, you might feel differently and want the PCs to have a fighting chance against the Dragon. You could rule that, if the Necromancer is assassinated, the skeletal dragon-thing collapses in ruins. More interesting is to emphasise its weakness: it has no mobility and cannot turn around, so PCs attacking from behind should enjoy Thief-like backstabbing advantages and Thieves themselves should inflict even more damage (triple, if you use Holmes/BX/AD&D). This heroic ending rather detracts from Karl's dramatic intention, but some player-groups prefer to win like heroic fools rather than flee and live like wise tacticians.
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.
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 started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..
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: