Critical fail

D&D is a game where everyone - no matter how good they are, or how much they train, or what dark powers they control - has a 5% chance of hitting themselves in the face.

(Or throwing their weapon across the room, or flailing wildly and stabbing a friend, or tripping over and lying on their back like a turtle, unable to get up.)

I assume everybody else must already know that D&D is a cross between Conan the Barbarian and The Three Stooges, but it came as a big surprise to me. No-one ever mentioned this undercurrent of Vaudeville. It's the one big element of D&D that you can't get from Appendix N: The omnipresent terror of quick death combined with hilarious pratfalls. Watching your fighter slip over and get impaled in a pit of spikes is somehow both horrible and hilarious.

It would be possible to remove the slapstick, with a bit of work. Instead of Stealth Checks, for example, thieves could get better at stealth by slowly going up a table like this:

Silent walking on soft surfaces: grass, dirt
Invisible in complete darkness
Silent running on soft surfaces
Invisible in moonlit darkness
Silent walking on hard surfaces: Wood
Invisible in shadows
Silent running on hard surfaces
Invisible in low-light
Silent walking on loud surfaces: Metal, Gravel
Invisible in overcast daylight

I understand that 5e has tried to eliminate hilarious failures by giving the fighter a minimum of 3 damage, no matter what he rolled. This stuff is very sensible. In real life you slowly get better, rather than getting a smaller chance of failing. It makes sense that fighters don't hit themselves in the face 5% of the time, it makes sense that professional thieves aren't always coughing and giving away their position, it fits into the source material to make everyone into competent professionals who do not fail. 

After making this table, though, I realised I'd never use it. Slapstick isn't something anyone would ever imagine adding to fantasy, it's been quietly ignored in all D&D licensed comics, books and movies, it makes no sense - and it works. The massive infusion of humour and unpredictability it adds is totally vital to RPG's as I play them.

Race as Chewbacca


D&D seems to take it's cue from Tolkien when it comes to races. There a few important races that are going to show up all the time, and each one has a rich history and acts as a showcase of a different philosophy. Each main race is totally, inherently important to the fabric of Tolkien's setting, and ideally the story goes through the opposing philosophies of each race individually before bringing them together in a cathartic allaiance.

Thing is, D&D is terrible at that kind of storytelling. You might put in a character to show off the dwarf philosophy, but like as not the party will be kill him half-way through and then get lost and end up befriending the orks. Any attempt to tell them about the intricate history of the elves is likely to bore them to tears. The picaresque style of D&D just doesn't work well for a story that goes deeply into the culture of a small set of races.

It seems to me that races in D&D should work more like Chewbacca, in that there is only one Chewbacca. You only see one Hutt, one Yoda, one Greebo. You assume they all belong to a larger species with it's own culture, but it's crucially important that they never explore that culture. Going down to Wookie Planet and exploring the deep history and philosophical viewpoint of Chewbacca's race would be totally detrimental to a New Hope, because Chewbacca isn't there to show a way of looking at the world - he's there to be weird. Showing you where any of the aliens in Star Wars came from would diminish their weirdness.

(Yes, I'm aware that later Star Wars stuff focused on the aliens already introduced instead of making new ones, so all those aliens now have deep interesting cultures and are considered totally vital to the fabric of Star Wars. I'm just using Star Wars as a popular example: the non-humans in pretty much any pulp story are treated exactly like Chewbacca. Inevitably, anything that goes on for a long time finds itself deeply exploring all the things it just hinted at previously.)

D&D, and the pulp that spawned it, fits exactly into this style. The way most travelling-band-of-mismatched-rogues handle race is: there is only one elf. The elf butts in to talk about his crazy elf ideas and propose crazy elf solutions to the party's problems, and he's always doing something weird that shows off his crazy elf culture, but you never see anyone else like him. One is perfect; it makes him uniquely weird.

So, two massive tables; each entry is an alien attribute. One table gives positive attributes, one negative. To be a non-human, you roll on each chart, and the player has to make up their own race out of that mish-mash. This makes the race totally unique, and also makes the player the foremost expert on their culture, not the DM. You could give incentives to keep up an interesting culture by letting them have one or two weird artefacts from the race they make up.  You'd want to restrict the number of non-humans - say, one per party, or you only get a random chance of being non-human.

I'm currently in the middle of a Race-as-class DCC campaign, but I might try this out if I get into another game.

Morgan Brackish Meadows' Anti-Hammerspace Item Tracker

In Jack Vance's pulp fantasy Cugel's Saga, keeping track of your items is a big deal. Cugel the clever loses his items almost as soon as he gets them - stolen, smashed, misplaced, or most often, abandoned as Cugel flees from an angry mob. Cugel doesn't track encumbrance, but placement; because his items occupy a definite space in the world, everything in the world can effect them.

By contrast, items in DnD occupy a vague hammerspace somewhere around your character, where they can be teleported into your hands at any time. Traditional encumbrance systems work to weigh you down, but not to define where your items actually are. It's almost impossible for a DM to fuck with items in this hammer-space - you have to ask where the player's keeping them, they have to make something up, and you have to shrug and say "Well, they're gone now." It feels like cheating.

No more! I present Morgan Brackish Meadows' Anti-Hammerspace Item Tracker (I helped).  This item-tracking sheet is designed to ground your items in the world without wasting a second of time at the table. Each character can carry 6 containers, and each container has 3 slots. The player defines what each one is - a sack, a utility belt, a backpack, whatever. Wearing Leather armour or better takes 1 container, Chain or better takes 2, Scale or better takes 3. The player just writes down or draws each item in a slot as they get it.


Stoner the Warrior

Cray the Thief

Some guidelines: A dagger is 1 slot, a short-sword is 2 slots, a longsword is 3 slots. 1 weeks food for one person is one slot. In my campaign you can get a +1 AC shield that takes up 1 slot, or a +2 AC shield that takes up 2 slots. Misc is for anything you're wearing, your animals, tiny objects, and anything else that  wouldn't take up a slot. If you really want to add encumbrance, give them -5 feet of speed a turn per container. For mounts, use this same sheet and cross off containers based on the armour of their rider. 

This is a harsh system that will see fully-clad warriors carry little more than food, weapons and gold. Personally, I love that - Conan never had much more than a loincloth and a sword. You can still own as many items as you like - it's just that you'll have to write them under "Left it at home", rather than hulking all your worldly possessions around on your back as you fight.

I have never seen anything but a game show the protagonists worried about their items weighing them down. Worrying about where your items are, though, is a staple of Pulp. Your arrows fall out, your money-pouch is stolen, your food gets wet, a dinosaur eats your back-pack and your bedroll is set on fire. That's a pulp encumbrance system. A few items that matter, constantly under threat. 

I've been trying to capture that feel for a while now. One of my PC's was suspended by vine-tentacles over a carnivorous tree, and decided to throw lighted lamp-oil down into it's maw. Instead of teleporting it into his hand, I had him fumble with his backpack, holding flint and tinder in one hand and oil in the other, precious food-packs falling out into the maw as he tried to light the oil.

Encumbrance systems have always tried to tie your items into the world. They fail, not just because no-one can be bothered to do the math, but because they track weight instead of where the items areThis system solves that problem, and it feels like the only thing I could ever use. I'm going to try it in my next session, so I'll tell you how it goes.

Patron: The Benefactors


Outsiders from the void between worlds are heading towards earth... and they need allies. The Benefactors have many gifts for those who would help them achieve their goals.

This patron is here to flesh out the alien hints in the 0-level funnel "Portal beneath the stars" from Dungeon Crawl Classics. They're intended to be shadowy and distant, with obviously bad motives. They speak in super-low pitched, oscillating computer voices. 

Invoke Patron check results

12-13: Microwaves saturate the area. Everyone within 30 feet, including the caster, must make a will save or  take d8 head-exploding damage.
14-17: The caster's personal gravity is halved for 2d6 rounds, letting them jump around with ease. 
18-19: The caster is beamed to a location of their choice within a hundred miles, with a d30 mile margin for error. 
20-23: 1D6 spider-bots will beam into the PC's location. HP 1d8, AC 12. They will clamp onto an opponents head. The opponent must them make a Will save or be controlled, with -2 to all rolls.
24-27: The caster and up to 8 allies are beamed to a location of their choice within 500 miles, with a d30 mile margin for error.
28-29: A scouting vessel shadows the party. On a successful spell check the vessel uses it's tractor beam: Reflex save or be abducted.
30-31: "Co-ordinates received." The caster will be given 1d3 turns to evacuate the area before 20' around the position where the spell was cast is destroyed by an orbital strike. 2d20 damage, everything in area will be set on fire.
32+: The Mothership arrives in aid of their earthling ally. HP 2d30, AC 16, Lasers: d20 damage, Tractor beam: Reflex save or be abducted.

Patron Taint

1. The Benefactors inform the failing caster that they will be converted to a more efficient form. First time rolled: The caster will vomit razorwire whenever they eat for 2d4 days as their organs are transformed. Second: Hands show bulging shiny veins, caster is unable to grasp small objects without crushing them and will lose fine motor control for 2D4 days. Third: The caster is numb to pain. They take damage as usual, but will be unable to feel it, and must be careful to avoid accidentally cutting/hurting themselves without realizing. Fourth: Casters skin turns totally transparent, revealing their churning metallic organs.

2. The caster's mind boggles with cosmic knowledge. First: their brain grows, expanding their upper head to a deformed size. Second: A hole forms in their forehead, bleeding and weeping pus. Their pulsing brain can be seen inside. Third: A third eye forms. Roll a d20: 1-10 it's useless and bleeds constantly, 11-15 it uncontrollably shows the caster visions of other places at inconvenient times, 16-19 it sees through cloth and flesh so everyone looks like organ sacks, the caster must concentrate hard to close it 20 it can see souls.

3. Trace radiation seeps into the caster. First: They glow in the dark. Second: A tiny second limb (Hand or foot) grows off from one of their own, hampering their movement. Third: A tiny malevolent Siamese twin 
slowly grows in their stomach, eventually splitting off.

4. The Benefactors are watching. First: Tiny monofilament wires slowly ooze out of the casters skin at all times. Second: Subliminal messages seem to be planted around the caster - NPC's will unknowingly give them messages like "The Benefactors are here to help!" in between their normal speech. Third: Seemingly normal animals with lenses for eyes will constantly flock around the caster. 

Payment for Services Rendered 

The Benefactors will demand these things in return for gifts, favours, or Spellburn. 

1. The Benefactors require certainty. When the caster next sleeps, they will wake to find a hole in their tent and a pressure in their frontal lobe. Taking any actions against the Benefactors plans will make their head start beeping. Continued disobedience will make their head explode.

2. They will give the caster a small metal cylinder, telling him to make sure it touches the forehead of an important NPC and stays there for five minutes. If the mission is completed, the NPC will start to give strange orders.

3. The benefactors require samples from at least 10 different races. They will need the fittest possible examples of each race taken alive to a deserted hillside somewhere out of town.

4. The benefactors will need to extract and scan your brain to retrieve all relevant knowledge before re-implanting. This will tell them everything you know. It won't hurt, unless they are forced to revive you from death during the process.

5. The Benefactors will require these co-ordinate verifying devices set up at these five horribly dangerous points on the map. This will allow their craft to land there and greet the local populace.

6. This device will activate within 24 hours. We require it to be in the most populated point possible at that time.


The benefactors will reward the caster with these items for exceptional service.

1. The caster may be teleported aboard the Benefactor's ship to receive enhancements: 2d3 extra Intelligence. 

2. An Android slave (Page 394). This android may gather information on the caster and/or slowly go rouge and/or activate self destruct when near death. With further pestering the Benefactors may grant the android extra powers: Disguising as any human, x-ray vision, laser eyes, detachable rocket-arms.

3. One of the Benefactors weapons - a shining translucent tube. The PC's will have no idea how it works and will be wildly inaccurate with it, but a successful hit does d20 damage. Without being maintained properly it will fall apart after 1d6 days.

4. An anti-grav belt buckle. On a successful spell check the caster's fall is slowed instantly whenever it determines they have fallen an unsafe distance, making them immune to damage.

5. The True Name of one NPC. Retrieval will take 1d10 days.

6. A fully-accurate birds-eye rendering of one location. 

7. A jetpack. In the hands of a PC it'll fly erratically and is likely to explode.

8. A captured and lobotomised specimen of an incredibly valuable creature.

9. Time travel. Reliability will depend on Caster's past service.

10. Space travel. Reliability will depend on Caster's past service.

11. Brainwashing machine.

Character Creation Adventure

I made this unfinished Choose-Your-Own Adventure as a way of letting my players know what my campaign setting is like. That was ages before I actually started this campaign, though, and I went on to merge the stuff here with all of the things in Vornheim. Here's a sample from "Britannica", the city I turned into Vornheim.

Ah, Britannica! Land of smoke and iron and patriotism! Despite the recent plague, the Great City still covers the land, and the eternal fires of her million smoking chimneys still shield the country's secretive monarch from the prying eyes of her many enemies.
Which region do you hail from?
The underground sanctum of Britannica's political elite. Built in the Bureaucratic coils of an eternally twisting labyrinth to protect the governing body from the constant threat of spies and war. Here, you and your colleagues in the Ministry toil to keep Britannica running - and try to keep The Missus happy.
Which party do you owe allegiance to?
The best of the best! The political elite! You don't have to bow to anyone- apart from The Missus, of course. Your party has almost total control over Britannica. At your order, men will kill or die in an instant - as long as the correct paperwork is filed and approved in double triplicate, of course.
Which egg-sack were you hatched in?

Ice Elves, Jungle Halflings, Desert Dwarves

Some new occupations for Dungeon Crawl Classics, made to fit the demi-humans in my setting.

All elves originally came from the Glade (or "Elfland"), a magical hippy forest dimension that they were exiled from long ago for unknown reasons. They have two main competing religions; The Gladers are nostalgic hedonists who are in favour of ignoring this whole wretched world and finding a way back to elfland, while the Ironborn believe the elves must make the most of their situation and conquer this world, ritually scarring themselves with iron.

The tundra elves of Norndrick are pitiless and insectile, with pale skin, black eyes and teeth sharpened to points. They live in a giant hive icicle, honeycombed with tunnels dug out by burrowing frost serpents. Raiding parties ride out from the icicle to gather food, each dedicated to the attributes of a different Glade animal: The Patience of the Grass Worm, the Cunning of the Megadeer, the Ferocity of the Blooderfly, or the raw Sexuality of the Flamingo.


29: Elven actuary: Dagger, Parchment and quill pen
30: Elven clutch-mother: Stirring-claw (As spear), Eggs (6)
31: Elven ironson: Flail, Iron handcuffs
32: Elven falconer: Dagger, Falcon
33-34: Elven raider: Javelin, Totem*
35: Elven glassblower: Hammer (as club), Snow-glass (3lbs.)
36: Elven ice-tester: Sounding rod (as staff), Geology charts
37-38: Elven worminger: Axe, Larval frost worm**  

*Roll 1d4: (1)Grass Worm, (2) Megadeer, (3) Blooderfly, (4) Flamingo
**Roll 1d4: (1) Burrowing, (2) Silk, (3) Fat, (4) Flying

Halflings are jungle pygmies  - dark-skinned tribes who live in the vast trees and swamps that form the impenetrable heart of the Morass. The Morass is a vast uncharted continent, but human conquerors are starting to form small colonies along the edges, lured by gold. 
Halflings probably a race of humans rather than an entirely different species. They use cocoa beans for currency.

55: Pygmy auger: Dagger, Pig
56-57: Pygmy swamp-farmer: Staff, Food Grub
58: Pygmy shaman: Needle (as Dagger), Hex doll
59: Pygmy builder: Bamboo pole (as Staff), 50' vines
60: Pygmy musician: Staff, Bone flute
61: Pygmy warrior: Maquahuitl (as longsword), War paint (1 quart)
62: Pygmy priest: Staff, Gold mask (50 gp)
63:  Pygmy hunter: Blowgun, Poison (3 gourds)*
64: Pygmy child-rearer: Sling, Baby

*Roll 1d4: (1) Madness, (2) Paralysis, (3) Swelling, (4) Blindness, (5) Slow death, (6) Exploding

Dwarves are desert-dwellers, who live underground because the sun is too hot in the open. Their culture is middle-eastern, all turbans and beard-wax and advanced knowledge of the universe. They rely on underground springs and yearly flooding for survival.

18: Dwarven barber: Razor (As dagger), Beard-wax
19-20: Dwarven inventor: Hammer (as club), Gunpowder*
21: Dwarven cigar-maker: Switchblade (as dagger), Fine Dwarven Cigars (10)
22: Dwarven herder: Staff, Sow
23-24: Dwarven miner: Pick (as club), Lantern
25: Dwarven scholar: Staff, Diagrams**
26: Dwarven imam: Staff, Quran
27-28: Dwarven stonemason: Hammer (as club),Fine stone (10 lbs)

*Or roll 1d6: (1) Gunpowder, (2) Compass, (3) Watch, (4) Working model of the solar system, (5) Oil, (6) Mithril (1 lb.)
**Roll 1d6: (1) Alchemical charts, (2) Star maps, (3) Anatomy of various races, (4) Philosophical conundrums, (5) Map of another plane, (6) True names of various demons

Deformed Char-gen

In Dungeon Crawl Classics you start by making 4 terrible 0-level peasants and running them straight through a Darwinian meat-grinder. Anyone who survives can go to first level. This evolutionary generation makes sure you're left with a character who can survive, while giving you someone a lot weirder than usual.

Unfortunately DCC still uses the classic DnD character roll, 3d6 - which is designed to make sure your character is as average as possible. Your ability score will be zero 50% of the time. That makes total sense when you're only rolling one character, but when you're rolling up four and throwing them at the wall to see what sticks you want a lot more random craziness.

"A lot more random craziness" is basically the defining attribute of DCC, from the weird dice to the wizard rules to the fumble and crit tables. The 3D6 just seem like a blind holdover from DnD. It works against the spirit of the game, from the funnel (Your peasants will all be average instead of hilariously deformed) to the Lucky roll (DCC characters add their Luck to a random roll, making everyone different - but this bonus will just be zero half the time, so it barely matters).

SO! I've made this radical new table where you roll 2d10 for char gen. Along with the extra modifiers, this gives your characters a much better chance of getting high and low ability scores, which is likely to make them simultaneously crippled and amazing. I wouldn't suggest using it in normal DnD, but when you're rolling up 4 characters one of them is always going to be usable, and this table will give them an extra dose of weirdness with it.

Anyone you roll here should be totally fine in an existing DCC game - they just might have +1 or -1 more than the existing characters can. If you want to convert existing characters to this system, just apply the new modifiers. Here's the maths:

       2d10:                                    3D6:

Mod        Probability  |    Mod       Probability (roughly)

-4            3%                |    -3            .5%
-3            7%                |    -2            3%
-2            11%              |    -1            21%
-1            15%              |     0             47%
0              28%             |    +1            21%
+1            15%             |    +2            3%
+2            11%             |    +3            .4%
+3            7%
+4            3%

Mountains of Mounts

A dwarf fighter named Cesarini sells tracking cats that can be used as mounts, among them:- one is ferocious, no-one has ever ridden it- one is trained for battle- one is extremely friendly, to anyone
also, today only, a flying bear mount, who is skinny and emaciated and who is very old 
(a basic mount gets 2d8 HD, AC12, +2 tohit, 1d4+2 damage. add stuff as required. suggested prices: 50g for a regular mount, or 300g for a good one, or 800g for a special. haggle.)
Game design ally and player of mine Matt Rundle has started a blog called Evil Baboons or perhaps Mandrils, and is making things like this Ostler generator. I'm going to use it, and then I'm going to stare at my pun awhile in numb revulsion.