2024/06/21

Sci-Fi: Squishy Space

I decided to write a space opera system. Initially, I just wanted to write a really good space opera mission generator, but the project got out of hand. If you want something to exist, and it doesn't exist, you have to make it. 

Squishy Space is a game about a group of unlikely characters stumbling, shooting, and bluffing their way through a chaotic rayguns-and-spandex galaxy. It is a fast-paced and not particularly serious game, where life is cheap and exciting, fortunes can change in the blink of an eye, and nobody knows what will happen next. 

Squishy Space also contains lewd elements. It’s not necessarily about the lewd elements, but it does incorporate them. Perhaps it’s merely smutty. In any case, it is not a conventional all-ages game of violence, mayhem, and robbery. The lewd elements are optional, but they are present throughout the text.

The elevator pitch is "the galaxy's least functional polycule steals Space Bezos' yacht." If the standard OSR setting can be called "vernacular fantasy" this is "venereal sci-fi". Think The Fifth Element or Futurama or the references in this blog post. Less grim used-future space rebels, patches-and-spikes cyberpunk, or smoothly automated utopia, and more techno/retrorave. Less truck stop, more nightclub.

It's a 45 page RPG. It's completely free. It even has art (well, technically, to match the budget of "free").

PDF Link

While the text is, honestly, considerably less explicit than the average supermarket magazine, there is also a bowdlerized version (link) that removes anything even vaguely suggestive. Pick whichever version your local laws or personal inclinations support. There's a lot of systemless content that might be useful for a wide variety of sci-fi games. It's a dense utility-focused 45 pages.

Starstruck by Elaine Lee & Michael Wm. Kaluta

But Why?

As I said, if a thing doesn't exist, and you want it to exist, then you have to make it. I wasn't able to find a game that did what I wanted, so I had to make it. 
 
There are plenty of normal games out there. There should be room for a weird one.

Choosing A System

Traveller is great, but the games it produces tend to be Traveller-flavoured, much like D&D 5E-derived games tend to be D&D 5E-flavoured. Star Wars D6 is fun but I've always found it a little unwieldy, like a car that refuses to find third gear. Thousand Suns is just too darn sensible (and deliberately, stridently imperial). Mothership and other space horror games would require a lot of adaptation. They set the wrong tone. GURPS: Tales of the Solar Patrol is like a lot of GURPS books; fun to read, less fun to implement.

Fate Core would be a good option. I've run sci-fi Fate games before, both Star Wars and hard sci-fi. While it worked for those games, I feel like the GM in a Fate game is rarely surprised by the story. Yes, players can make unexpected choices, but the system itself is so heavily weighted towards success that the dice rarely decide anything. Fate's freeform character creation also didn't seem like a perfect fit for this setting. It works best when the players are either building the setting from scratch or basing their characters on a well-understood genre, and when the GM is willing to tempt players (instead of letting players tempt themselves).

Apocalypse World / PbtA seems like the modern conventional choice for this sort of game. While I like Apocalypse World, I find it handles interparty drama and grit much better than party vs. world shenanigans. It's a wonderful system for apocalyptic, grim, traumatic, character-driven, angst-riddled, and/or heartbreaking games (like Dungeon Bitches or Thirsty Sword Lesbians). It's not a good fit for the lighthearted high-speed nonsense of Squishy Space. I also wanted a system that is broadly symmetrical, where PCs, NPCs, and the world  mostly follow the same rules.

In the end, I decided to write my own system, based on Greg Stolze' One Roll Engine. ORE is an older system (yes, 2002 was a long time ago), and it seems to have fallen out of popularity, but (like many things designed by Greg Stolze) it works remarkably well. ORE has moderate mechanical crunch and a resolution system that tends to result in amusing simultaneous chaos. It's simple once you get the hang of it, but it does have a learning curve. That curve is not helped by my desire to create condensed rules. If you get stuck, read another ORE game for guidance.

Starstruck by Elaine Lee & Michael Wm. Kaluta

Tools & Tables

Kevin Crawford's Stars Without Number is a good toolkit, but I wanted to write a compact set of sci-fi generators with high at-table utility. Squishy Space packs a lot of content into 42 pages. Even if you don't like the system or implied setting, these generators may be useful.


Most of the sci-fi encounter generators I discovered also felt weak or repetitive, so I tried to create a pretty good table without any duplicate results. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult.


As well as a compact all-purpose sci-fi plot and job generator.

 
 
And some setting enhancement tables. The fake app names were a ton of fun to write. "App-as-backstory" is a great worldbuilding tool.
 

Eccentric Design Choices

Aside from writing a NSFW-adjacent game and using an obscure system with a moderate learning curve, Squishy Space uses a baked-in set of sci-fi units.


Ordinarily, fake in-setting units are the sort of thing I try to avoid in RPGs (both written and purchased). They've infuriated just about every playtester and reader. But for some reason, I think they work for this project.

Some units were rounded or adjusted to make the metric / imperial conversion easier, or to make the conversion between sci-fi units easier. "Easier" does not mean "sensible" in this case.  

The GM really needs to commit to these measurements. They're present throughout the text (because including two or three sets of units felt cumbersome). It might take a while to remember that a "marbec" is an hour and a "malton unit" is a day, but once you've committed, their use at the table creates a fun atmosphere. Players can and will use whatever units they want, including "about ~yea big" and "over there (gestures vaguely into an imaginary room)", but if the GM sticks to the fake units as much as possible, it helps with the game's ambience.

We actually got so we couldn't talk to anybody but each other, because we'd be sitting there with a calculator going, "How many dog years are in a standard galactic cycle?" or "How many ribecs are in a rigon?" And we really were there with a calculator figuring it out. And we lived in that world so deeply that it was almost hard to have conversations with other people.
- Elaine Lee, Starstruck Origins with Elaine Lee (Part 1), 14:14.

Inspiration & References

This is not a complete list. Additional references are listed on pg. 2 of Squishy Space.
Starstruck by Elaine Lee & Michael Wm. Kaluta

Starstruck & A Starstruck Odyssey

For many years, I could confidently say that I wasn't into modern high-production-value RPG shows. But I started watching other Dropout TV shows, and found them generally excellent, so I figured I'd give the much-discussed Dimension 20 seasons a shot. It's rare to find non-enshittified content these days, but Dropout is (currently!) a breath of fresh air.

The Dimension 20 seasons I watched were much better than I expected, given ambient internet discourse. This is a sign to not trust ambient internet discourse. I knew that, and yet... 

Sure, they're flashy and adjusted for the peculiar requirements of the format, and there's a great deal of hooting and hollering over a 5% chance on a d20, but there's a lot to like. It's a great exercise in craft.


Yes, it's not exactly how real-world RPG sessions tend to go, but nobody talks like they do in Shakespeare's plays either. It's a show. It's a cast of professional actors and comedians, and a huge behind-the-scenes crew, inside the Hollywood reality distortion bubble. The fact that Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan planned their stunts doesn't make them less impressive. Don't worry about it too much.

The Dimension 20 season: A Starstruck Odyssey uses a custom and unpublished hack of Star Wars 5E, itself a hack of D&D 5E. The RPG show format seems to expect a level of mechanical expertise and slow nuanced combat to compliment social interactions (though the Dimension 20 crew seems to be moving towards more flexible non-5E systems like Kids on Bikes for a recent season).

I enjoyed the show and the comics it's based on (moderately NSFW) so much that I integrated several elements into Squishy Space. Starstruck is an cult classic and well worth a read (and a purchase, and probably several rereads given the plot density.) I even tracked down a copy of the original stage play to check a few references. Squishy Space should let anyone who wants to play a Starstruck-like game without reverse-engineering a system. It's all unofficial of course, but so is that Star Wars 5E hack. What's Sam Reich going to do; send the Pinkertons after me?   

Some of the daring energy of Starstruck has faded over the decades as the world attempted to catch up. What once was cutting edge or an inversion of sci-fi cliches might seem unremarkable until you remember when Starstruck was published.

I don't see them as being opposed. They're just two very different flavours. This universe is so deeply fun and wild and full of adventure, and also, if you get caught in a moment of idealism, you're going to catch a pipe to the back of the head.

- Brennan Lee Mulligan, Starstruck Origins with Elaine Lee (Part 1), 20:58

Lovelyss by Alexisflower
 

Lovelyss & Lovesyck by AlexisFlower

All links in this section are NSFW. Lovesyck is free to read online here, and both Lovelyss and Lovesyck can be purchased here (and should be!). For references in this post, on the spicy pepper scale, Lovelyss and Lovesyck are 🌶🌶🌶 out of 🌶🌶🌶. If you order a 3-pepper dish and are surprised it's spicy, you only have yourself to blame.  

The writing, art, humour, worldbuilding of AlexisFlower's works are off the charts. Hit after hit. Superb character designs, brilliant lines, wonderfully crafted dialogue, excellent use of colour. They're a genuine joy to read; a body of work that makes you glad that the internet exists and can be used for non-evil purposes. It's got something for everyone.

Lovesyck by Alexisflower
Lovesyck by Alexisflower

Buck Godot by Phil Foglio

Link rot has devoured several of the original hosting sites, but it can be read online via various shady downloads or web archives, or purchased here. The episodic comics are fun, but the Gallimaufry Saga is where the setting really shines.

Some parts of Buck Godot have aged well. Some haven't. Some weren't great to begin with. Still, Buck Godot was a major influence on Squishy Space.

Buck Godot by Phil Foglio

Buck Godot by Phil Foglio

 Final Notes

Frank Kelly Freas


This will probably be the only post about Squishy Space on this blog, unless there's an unprecedented amount of interest. It was a fun project, and I hope people find it useful. If you spot any mistakes or errors, leave a comment. And if you enjoyed the book, tell people about it!

2024/06/20

OSR: Magical Industrial Revolution is back in stock!

The new print run has arrived! Copies are available via Indie Press Revolution and Compose Dream Games.

What is Magical Industrial Revolution? It's a 154 page hardcover setting guide, magic item treasury, and toolkit. Check out the Megapost for reviews, videos, and other information.

This new print run also features sewn bindings, if that's an incentive to pick up a second copy.


2024/05/28

OSR: A Material Component Magic System

Material components are annoying. They're fun in theory but a pain in practice.

Most groups operate on the time-hallowed system of tracking only components with a substantial cost (e.g. the 100gp pearl for identify) or simply deducting their cost from a character's cash. Some GMs keep track of rare components, like vampire dust or basilisk eyelashes, but most don't.

Single-player resource management minigames aren't fun. You can write material gathering encounter tables and eccentric shopkeepers, but it's difficult to make material components interesting for an entire group, unless the entire group is into it. Helping the wizard gather mushrooms and bat fur usually feels like a distraction from the game at best or a monopolization of spotlight time at worst.

But what if material components weren't an addition to a spellcasting system? What if they were the core?
Filipe Pagliuso

Canon Components

In AD&D, the main wellspring of the concept, material components fall into two categories:

1. Sympathetic Magic:
  • Protection from Normal Missiles: piece of tortoise or turtle shell.
  • Summon Shadow: smoky quartz
  • Grease: bit of pork rind or butter
  • Detect Undead: pinch of earth from a grave
  • Wall of Stone: small block of granite
  • Wall of Fire: phosphorous*
2. Gygax's Little Jokes:
  • Wall of Fog: pinch of split, dried peas. => pea soup fog
  • Message: short piece of copper wire, drawn fine => telephone wire
  • Ventriloquism: parchment rolled into a cone. => megaphone
  • Confusion: three nut shells => shell game
  • Passwall: pinch of sesame seeds => open sesame
And of course the ridiculous items and actions required to cast Tasha’s Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter.
*Incidentally, in the real world, phosphorous was discovered in 1669, which is a bit odd for a medieval-ish D&D setting, but so it goes.
Glendower: I can call the spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come, when you do call for them?
- Henry IV, part 1. Act 3, Scene 1

The Blackmoor Magic System

The system used in Arneson's Blackmoor campaign remains shrouded in mystery. There are a few hints in The First Fantasy Campaign, and but not enough to completely reconstruct the system. It was very material-heavy.
In Blackmoor, magic followed the "Formula" pattern for most magic. The reasoning behind limiting the number of spells that a Magic User could take down into the Dungeon was simply that many of the ingredients had to be prepared ahead of time, and of course, once used were then powerless. Special adventures could then be organized by the parties to gain some special ingredients that could only be found in some dangerous place.

Progression reflected the increasing ability of the Magic user to mix spells of greater and greater complexity.
-The First Fantasy Campaign
It's possible that the system defies systematization. If it was a collection of ad-hoc rulings for every effect, writing it down for publication would be impossible.
Sam Carr

Towards An Alternative Casting System

What if, instead of being being a requirement to cast a pre-written spell, material components are the spell? The caster holds two items, fixes their mind on a belief, and convinces the universe to "make the world like this."

Say a Magic-User wants to cast a spell to clean their house. They might grab bristles from a broom and a flake of soap and say "make this house like this." Or they might grab a tin whistle (for "as clean as a whistle") and a square of paper (for "squared away").

If you want to charm a monster, put a bit of sugar on a coin.

The spell has to convince the universe and the GM. The player has to be confident that the items will produce the effect. That's the point of being a wizard.

This is a different approach from otherfreeform magic systems like Whitehack or Maze Rats. There's no table of suggested effects or spells. Instead, the Magic-User's player goes through their imaginary pockets and cobbles together an effect based on poetic logic. It's similar to Nick S. Whelan's magic word system, but with objects instead of abstract concepts.

Material Spellcasting

'Witches just aren't like that,' said Magrat. 'We live in harmony with the great cycles of Nature, and do no harm to anyone, and it's wicked of them to say we don't. We ought to fill their bones with hot lead.'
-
Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett 
This system should drop into old-school games without too much trouble. There's noo need to rewrite the entire game.

Whenever a Magic User would gain a spell slot, they instead gain 1 Magic Point. To cast a spell, the Magic User selects 2 material components and spends 1 Magic Point. The materials are consumed. The caster must hold the materials and speak a few magic words. Magic points are restored each day, just like spell slots.

The player describes the intended effect to the GM, and why the chosen materials will produce the effect.

E.g.
"I want to set all of them on fire. I'm going to use some of the skin of that fire toad we fought last session and some flour."

"I want to transform into a bear. I'm going to use some bear fur and some clay."
GM is free to dispute or refine the effect.
"I want to set all of them on fire. I'm going to use a candle and a bit of string."
    "How exactly will that work? A candle burns pretty steadily. And what does the string do?"

          "I want to lock that door. I'm going to use some sealskin to seal it and some mortar."
             "That feels like it would fuse the door to the frame, not lock it."
           "Fine by me!"

"I want to drive that monster into a frenzied rage. I'm going to use wax and a thorn."
    "Ok... explain?"
"To wax wroth, and to be nettled."
    "Damn it, that's awful but it works."
After casting a spell, the player notes the materials and effect and materials a spellbook, then rolls 1d6. On a 3+, all future casts of the spell cost +1 Magic Point. This is cumulative. (This chance may need to be adjusted after additional testing.)

A Magic-User cannot create an identical effect with different items. Once a Magic-User does something one way, that's how it's done. That's their house-cleaning spell or the fill-bones-with-hot-lead spell.

A Magic-User can share their method and items with another spellcaster. The base chance that the other caster will be able to use the spell is [caster level]+50%. The first time the caster uses a learned spell, it costs 1 MP as normal.

A Magic-User can keep up to 20 materials (different or duplicate) ready for instant use. They can store more materials in a pack or pouch.
(This may need to be adjusted after additional testing, but twenty items seems like a good number without being overwhelming.)

A Magic-User cannot level up until they've cast a total number of unique spells equal to current level's spell slots. This shouldn't be a problem.

Most of the time, a Magic-User cannot invent new spells during downtime or non-adventure situations. Spellcasting requires a heightened emotional state. Use the rules for spell research for downtime testing, especially if the player has a desired effect in mind. The point is to avoid, "I have 3 days of downtime and 5 Magic Points, so I will invent 15 new spells." Instead, gather material components during downtime.

Like this, but fancier.

Spell Effect Guidelines

This system assumes the GM has a reasonable grasp of spell effects and mechanics. It's an advanced and personalized system.

Creatures still get Saves.

Use [caster level] to adjust the power of spells.
  • Fireball. 1d6 per [caster level] in a 20' sphere. 
  • Fly. Fly for 1 hour + [caster level]x10 minutes.
  • Charm Monster. Charm up to [caster level] x 2 HP of monsters for 1 day.
  • Transform for [caster level]+1 rounds.
Material components must be plausible medieval-ish items that the caster can obtain or gather without too much trouble. Good luck keeping ice chips cold in your pocket.

Rare items produce a stronger effect. The heart of a unicorn and a diamond the size of an apple will probably bring someone back to life, but players are unlikely to have a renweable supply of unicorn hearts. 
 
A candle stub and a bit of flint will produce a mediocre light spell, closer to a cantrip than a proper spell.
 
You could make the spell cost HP as well as Magic Points, but only in systems with fast healing.

Bojler

Magical Thinking

This system relies on associations, allusions, fuzzy logic, magical thinking, and puns. Dictionaries of idioms and quotes might help. Real-world books on the magic properties of herbs and crystals don't; since their magical effects have to be indistinguishable from chance. This list of alchemical reagents is a good starting list of items.

Here are a few examples of material component associations. It's not a complete list, just food for thought.

Bell
Organization. Summoned by a bell, saved by the bell.
Announcement. Wedding bells, alarm bells.
Clarity and purity. As clear as a bell.
Doom. For whom the bell tolls.
Memory. Rings a bell.
Fanciness. Bells and whistles. With bells on it.

Bone
Fear.
Mortality, time, aging.
Depth, possibly hidden. Soaked to the bone, feel it in my bones.
Dogs.

Cloth
A funeral shroud.
A blindfold.
A napkin, as in a magic trick.
Muffling. Cloth ears.

Dust
Dryness.
Blinding, sneezing, impairing.
Worthlessness. To shake the dust from your feet.
Death. To bite to dust, dust to dust.
Hidden things. Dusting for fingerprints.

Earth
Fertility.
Graveyard earth, hallowed ground.
Native soil.
Distance. Four corners of the earth.
Sensibility. Groundedness, to come back to earth.
Materiality. To move heaven and earth. Older than dirt.
Secrets. To have dirt on someone, to dirty one's hands.

Egg
Enclosing, hatching, possibilities, new life.
Transformation, growth.
Zero. A goose egg.
Wealth. The golden egg.

Hair
Aspects of a creature.
Warmth.

Honey
Honeyed words.
Stickiness.
Attracting animals and insects.

Iron
Solidity.
Violence.
Strength.

Leather
Toughness. Health and resilience. As tough as old leather.
Hardness, hardened skin.

Wax
Waterproof.
Malleable.
Sticky, but mild.
To wax wroth, to wax lyrical, to wax and wane.
Trustworthy. Wax seals.
Secrecy. Sealed letters, none of your beeswax.

Daze

Balance

This system lets a Magic-User potentially solve X problems per day.

If they encounter more than X problems, the Magic-User can cast the classic spells "mundane missile", "cower", and "bluff."

Fighters solve one class of problem, Clerics solve a narrow class of problems and help fix failure to solve other problems, Thieves go around the problem or give everyone time to plan, and Magic-Users frequently trade one problem for a different problem.

This system enables extremely flexible casting, at the expense of reliability and power. In this system, creating an effect as powerful and as persistent as the 9th-level spell bigby's crushing hand would require more than an eggshell and some snakeskin.

It also encourages players to interact with the world, to hoard wizardly items, and to think outisde the box. Save up your weird wizard treasures for powerful one-off spells. 

The spellbook also serves as a campaign record. "Remember when I put all those goblins to sleep using sand and lettuce? Good times." "Yes, but the bugbear still broke my arm." "Good times..."

The total number of Magic Points is pretty sensible. A player might try to maximise their Magic Points by only casting unique spells, but most of the time, effects they've already produced are too tempting not to use again. The table below is from AD&D.  

A player might invent fireball or finger of death at level 1, but each cast potentially increases the cost. They might not even be able to cast it a second time until level 2.
 

Spell Level







Total
Level 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Spells
1 1                 1
2 2                 2
3 2 1               3
4 3 2





  5
5 4 2 1




  7
6 4 2 2




  8
7 4 3 2 1           10
8 4 3 3 2           12
9 4 3 3 2 1         13
10 4 4 3 2 2


  15
11 4 4 4 3 3


  18
12 4 4 4 4 4 1

  21
13 5 5 5 4 4 2       25
14 5 5 5 4 4 2 1     26
15 5 5 5 5 5 2 1     28
16 5 5 5 5 5 3 2 1   31
17 5 5 5 5 5 3 2 2   32
18 5 5 5 5 5 3 3 2 1 34
19 5 5 5 5 5 3 3 3 1 35
20 5 5 5 5 5 3 3 3 2 36

Sidebar: Divine Casters

Clerics don't use this system. They get their spells normally. They don't need to convince the universe, they just need to manifest the will of their god.

Alternatively, for each spell slot, the Cleric rolls on a random holy verse table (using the book or books of your choice, but using all the verses, including the boring ones.). The spell's effect depends on the verse or line. Each day, the Cleric may replace any number of lines/spells or keep previously generated lines/spells.

2024/05/09

OSR: 1d20 Dungeon Merchants

Another excerpt from the Treasure Overhaul, but formatted for a blog post. Arnold K's dungeon merchants are, as usual, well worth reading.

In the depths of a dungeon, in the desolate wilderness, adventurers may be lucky enough to encounter a Dungeon Merchant. They carry a limited selection of mostly mundane items, but occasionally have magic items and potions for sale.

If your players still have an “I stab the king” mentality, dungeon merchants probably will not work for your group. There are forces you meddle with, and forces you do not meddle with, and Dungeon Merchants are firmly in the latter category.

Marko Laine

1. Springald Jackback

Appearance: a human-sized cockroach wearing a thick wool coat, scarf, and jaunty hat. Wears its inventory like a one-man band kit. Rattles and creaks.
Voice: Piping, cheerful, mangled vocabulary. “Hoy hoy, adventursomes. It is I, Springald Jacback, forbearing treasures and oddifacts of trite reasonablity.”
Covets: horrible and unique smells.
Shrewdness: interested in coins and gems. Disinterested in other items or long-winded tales. Functionally immortal. Scuttles through the world.

Springald Jackback opens trading from a safe distance or while hanging from the ceiling. It carries miscellaneous adventuring gear and pickled rations, but rarely any magic items.
 

2. Sister Charity & Sister Avarice

Appearance: two nuns in black-and-white habits. Sister Charity is apple-cheeked, freckled, and smiling. Sister Avarice is battle-scarred, has a milky eye, and scowls like a cursed-blasted oak.
Voice: Sister Charity is syrupy-sweet, soft, and unflappably cheerful. Sister Avarice grunts and points.
Covets: donations.
Shrewdness: highly moral, but with the instincts of career extortionists. Probably supernatural.

The Sisters put out a trestle table covered in baked goods, gently used sweaters, sporting equipment, knick-knacks, and occasionally rare magic items. They accept donations. Remember, it’s all for charity.

3. Harry J. Hesterhausen (& This Mule)

Appearance: a high-sided canvas-topped two-wheeled cart pulled by a scruffy grey mule. Harry is broad, bearded, unwashed, and wears muddy tweed.
Voice: strong oaths as punctuation.
Covets: money, directions.
Shrewdness: impatient, harried. Trades rapidly; hates  bargaining and frivolity.  

An otherwise mundane traveling trader who gets stuck in the most implausible situations. On a path behind a waterfall, in a locked vault, at the bottom of a pit trap. Blames “f’ing wizards and this f’ing mule.”

4. Ogmar’s Third-Hand Goods

Appearance: an incongruous wooden door below a faded painted sign. Smell of mildew and dust. Inside, rickety shelves stuffed with obscure goods. Faded yellow tags. Drifts of dust and shoals of cobwebs.   
Voice: silent. Jangling shop bell. Dusty hand-lettered sign on the counter reads “Out to lunch. Leave money on the counter. Exact change only. -Ogmar.”
Covets: quick and efficient transactions.
Shrewdness: damaging or removing an item without paying inflicts 3 rounds of mind-shattering agony and drops the miscreant to 0 HP. The store then violently ejects all customers and vanishes.

Shelf after shelf of wood dowels, bales of cotton, sacks of glass orbs, and chalk. Items in the store are have moldered for decades. Rope crumbles, leather creaks, but steel is still sharp and gold still glitters.

5. Writhing Protorootball

Appearance: an unnatural amalgamation of roots, fungal veins, lichen, wilting leaves, and fused fruits, pushing from a wall or bursting through a floor.
Voice: soothing telepathy. A lullaby whisper. Simple sentences, clear intent.
Covets: rich and nutritious food.
Shrewdness: grasping. Cannot pursue thieves quickly, but will seek slow and terrible revenge. Terrifying legend to dryads and myconids.

A complex semi-magical colonial life form. Might be vast and extra-dimensional. Trades by extruding items and absorbing coins. Magic items are clutched in the partially digested skeletal hands of unlucky warriors. 

6. The Price is Not Negotiable Show

Appearance: a smiling slightly waxy host named Eli Boyle, a wooden podium, brightly coloured set.   
Voice: booming game show cadence. “Welcome to The Price is Not Negotiable. I’m your host, Eli Boyle…” Laugh track from an unseen audience.
Covets: fair play.
Shrewdness: rigid magically enforced rules. Blatantly inhuman. Hideous and menacing friendliness.

When the game begins, the host will produce three items. These could be mundane or magical, useful or actively inconvenient. A volunteer / contestant must guess the price of each item. If they guess over, they get the item but must pay the price they guessed. If unable to pay, they don’t get the item. If they guess exactly the price, they get the item for free. If they guess under, they do not get the item. The host explains the rules. After the three guesses, the host, set, and unclaimed items vanish.

7. Goblin Pop-Up Market

Appearance: skittering goblins, crude stalls, smell of rotten meat, assorted fruit, strange chemicals. Glowing eyes in the darkness. Fleas, muck. Set up quickly; vanishes even more quickly.  
Voice: shrieks, hoots, garbled speech, laughter.
Covets: shiny-shiny to hold, yes, and others.
Shrewdness: all trades are perilous. The market dissolves into violent omnidirectional chaos at the slightest provocation.

Stolen and lost things, but mostly junk. Goblin-made items are comically shoddy. Do not eat the fruits.  

8. Jarscorx Hoxliate

Appearance: a blue-green humanoid with mirror-bright eyes and teeth. Shimmering, ambiguous. Has a crinkling silver bag.
Voice: cheerful but unconvincing. Buzzes whenever it says a proper noun, as if a different voice took over.
Covets: gold and platinum, probably.
Shrewdness: thinks lies and forgeries are amusing jokes, but refuse to accept them.

Jarscorx Hoxliate is a huge and eerie fan of anyone it meets. It has an almost omniscient knowledge of a past encounters, and will combine unconvincing flattery with inflexible prices. Items produced from its bag are blisteringly cold. 

9. The Spiral Pilgrim

Appearance: grey robes, grey beard, bulbous nose, sad watery eyes.  
Voice: sighing, tragic, depressing, deeply unhelpful.  
Covets: current coins, novelty.
Shrewdness: can suck the life out of any long conversation.  

The Spiral Pilgrim was cursed to wander the worlds for being unbearably morose and pessimistic. They trade trinkets and items picked up along their journey.

10. Repetitious Broseph Thundercloud

Appearance: steel-clad paladin with an implausibly muscular frame. Closed helm, enormous sword.
Voice: echoing shouts. Quotes holy texts no one else has ever read. Homicidal black-and-white joy.   
Covets: helpful items or portable wealth.
Shrewdness: brought too many items on a convoluted quest, and acquired too much loot along the way.

Offers mild discounts for feats of strength. Loves arm wrestling because Repetitious always wins.Repetitious does not understand charity. Repetitious’ quest is vital. Your quest is incomprehensible.

crowzenyogurt


11. Braden’s Bulk Bin

Appearance: a rusty iron cube. Speaking grill and item  exchange chute. Flickering neon sign.
Voice: echoing, garbled, but youthful and bored. Sounds underpaid and fed up. Follows a script.
Covets: rare magic items.
Shrewdness: not paid enough to handle weird arguments. Do you want your torches or not?

Mundane items sold by Braden’s Bulk Bin are twice as heavy and occupy twice as many Inventory Slots as normal. They are usually badly painted custard yellow.

12. Parlour Toad

Appearance: a cat-sized green toad. Eyes pulse with multicoloured lights. Faint sound of music and conversation inside.  
Voice: polite accented inquiry when opened.   
Covets: gems, cultural trinkets.
Shrewdness: expert assessment. Provides receipts. Refuses to open if captured, held, threatened, enchanted, or otherwise bothered.

Parlour Toads contain portals to a mysterious extraplanar city. Only items that fit through the toad’s stretchy mouth can be traded. They wiggle, hop, and squeeze their way out of confinement.

13. Horace Moonstalker

Appearance: terribly unlucky adventurer. Scruffy, hunched, pale. Afflicted with vampirism, lycanthropy, mummy rot, roving petrification, thirty-five different curses, ooze-marrow disease, scurvy, and syphilis.  
Voice: coughing, sneezing, muttering.   
Covets: portable wealth, healing.
Shrewdness: seasoned, immune to threats.  

Horace is very difficult to kill. Do not spend more time around Horace than absolutely necessary. Horace endures; the rest of his parties never do.

14. Crypt Vulture

Appearance: an embalmed and fossilized horse-sized vulture. Stone wrappings, clay flesh, painted eyes. Flies through stone. Vomits or swallows items.
Voice: formal, croaking, archaic.
Covets: weapons to aid their master in the afterlife.
Shrewdness: skeptical of all claims. 

The Crypt Vulture trades honey, wine, clay jars, torches, and other grave goods for weapons or other items that might influence a cosmic battle.

15. Arianda Eladrohiane, Chronocurator

Appearance: a beautiful elf in a gossamer gown. Lit by unseen suns and splintering tachyons.
Voice: monumentally, cosmically bored. Faded echoes of arrogance. Polite, but in a dismissive way.
Covets: beautiful things. Gems, but not crude coins. Nothing humans create is worth examining.
Shrewdness: judgmental. Will respond to rudeness by  skipping forward or back in time to spread rumours. 

Collector from the end of time. Willing to trade ingots, elven items with imperceptible flaws, and paleo-synthesized goods for perfect, rare, or unique things. 

16. Unionized Familiars

Appearance: a swarm of cats, bats, rats, toads, snakes, baby-faced homunculi, and stoats.
Voice: babble of conflicting voices, jibes, counteroffers, innuendo, and hissing.
Covets: drugs, secrets, spells.
Shrewdness: collective cynical wisdom.

When wizards sleep, witches cavort, and alchemists recover from mercury fumes, their familiars sneak out to play cards, trade gossip, and smoke cigars. At least that’s what you assume is going on. 

17. Tempters In Training

Appearance: one well-dressed devil with a clipboard, and a swarm of minor imps in unflattering uniforms.
Voice: stuttering, awkward mispronunciations, formal contracts, unconvincing side-deals.
Covets: commerce.
Shrewdness: the imps are credulous and confused, but the devil will step in if things get out of hand. 

Before they can lure mortals into temptation, imps have to learn the basics of contracts, exchange, and trade. The items they sell aren’t cursed in any way. They’re just practicing interacting with people.

18. King Onion

Appearance: an ogre-sized yellow onion with a gold crown, pantaloons, and a cheerful face. Followed by a train of thinner purple onions carrying sacks. Not actually a king, just an arrogant merchant.
Voice: royal proclamations, trumpeting.
Covets: glittering treasure, deference.
Shrewdness: expert knowledge of local prices and customs. Haggles with glee; offers additional onions.

For every mundane item purchased, get a free onion. Magical items come with a sack of onions. Anyone eating, disparaging, or discarding onions within sight of the King of Onions is cursed to smell like rotting onions. Washing only makes it worse. 

19. The Fire-Blackened Mirror

Appearance: a scorched full-length oval mirror in a wood frame. Walks on four paper-thin brass legs. Reflections imperfectly match reality. Dead eyes, flickering expressions, mismatched items.
Voice: distorted viewer’s voice, as if they were sounding out words backwards but playing them forwards. Profoundly unsettling.
Covets: items of any sort.
Shrewdness: eerie insight.

Only non-living matter can pass through the mirror. Does it show a false world, a parallel dimension, or a bound demon? Who knows. Who dares to inquire? 

20. Peter Pock, Theoretical Cryromancer

Appearance: a portly frost-coated wizard in heavily enchanted robes. Wooden trunk floats nearby.
Voice: confident, but slightly bewildered. Teleported their way into this situation and they’ll teleport their way out.
Covets: rare magic items, powerful spells.
Shrewdness: haughty, unhelpful.

Peter Pock is perfecting a new ice-based method of teleportation. It keeps sending him to strange locations. He has a variety of powerful defensive charms and will teleport away if threatened, but, in the meantime, is willing to trade.

2024/04/16

OSR: Mirrors, Cubes, Rods, Staves, and the Deck of Motley Things

I've written another 10 pages of the Treasure Overhaul (title pending), a condensed magic item compendium for old-school games. Unlike the first two previews, this PDF is only available on Patreon.


This new PDF covers Mirrors, Cubes, Rings, Rods, and Staves. It's a decent mix of classic D&D items in a new format and new problem-solving / problem-creating tools. It also includes the Deck of Motley Things, a 78-card tarot-compatible magic item designed to introduce a little chaos into a campaign.



In other news, the Monster Overhaul is back in stock in the USA, Canada, and the UK/EU.

2024/02/12

OSR: Holy and Roguish Items, Pocket Debris, and the Ghastly Tomb Tinies

Here are another 7 draft pages from a potential "Treasure Overhaul" book. Combined with the previous PDF, that's 13 pages of free treasure.

PDF

Unique and legendary holy items (such as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch) will probably go in a different section, or on a new page.

The Pocket Detritus page will go after a standard (well, relatively standard) Dead Adventurers section/chapter. The Ghastly Tomb Tinies are a fun list of 26 corpses (loot pending) in the style of Edward Gorey.


2024/01/25

OSR: The Treasure Overhaul (?)

Some people have asked for a "Monster Overhaul but for treasure and spells." Here's a very early six-page draft attempt at compressing a lot of classic D&D items into an immediately usable format.

1. Magic Weapons
2. Magic Armour
3. Potions
4. Tools
5. Transport
6. Helms

PDF

Design Challenges

Organization

The plan for the Monster Overhaul eventually crystallized into 20 themed chapters of 10 monsters, an introduction, and indexes.

With magic items, the themes are more clear, but also less interesting. The draft PDF has six sections. The plan is to add themed section, such as:

  • Holy Items (holy avenger, holy symbols, icons...)
  • Wizardly Items (hats, orbs, staffs...)
  • Roguish Tricks (skeleton key, disguise kits...)
  • Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Fey, Elemental, Dragonic, etc. Items (Boots/cloaks of elvenkind...)
  • Magitech / Sci-Fi (blasters, laser swords...)
  • Horror
  • Aquatic (harpoons...)
  • Mundane treasure (artwork, furniture, gems...)
  • Intelligent Items (talking swords, magic mirrors...)
  • Artifacts

I would also like to expand the current sections with "weird" followup tables. The current pages cover basic, standard, in-common-use items, but the real fun (for me) is weird items with highly situational uses. The compressed Magic Weapon page in the draft PDF could be followed by 1d100 (or more) specific magic weapons. They'll probably be less useful than +2 lightning greatsword, but that's part of the fun. 

This is why some sections repeat the Element d8 table; in the final project, they'll be separated by multiple pages from the next Element d8 table.

Duplicated Effort

The Monster Overhaul has a lot of items in it, and they're placed in a useful context. So does Magical Industrial Revolution, articles on this blog, and the rest of the internet. A book of magic items needs to rely on utility, density, and editorial choice to stand out.

Layers of Flavour

The monster entries in The Monster Overhaul follow a consistent pattern. Think of them as the sponge of the sponge cake. The generic locations are the icing or custard. The really weird tools, like Generic Life Cycle chart, are little bits of flavourful fruit. This isn't the best metaphor, but it will do.

With a book of items, there's a very real risk that the entire book is sponge, an endless series of unremarkable tables. Items do not have agency. They don't want anything.

(Well, intelligent swords might want things, but that's an edge case.)

Signposts

The chapter title pages of the Monster Overhaul serve as landmarks. They break up the text into manageable and navigable chunks. With a book of treasure, the chapters feel either too long (all magic items, all spells) or too short (magic weapons, potions, etc.). This might be alleviated as the project continues.

Readers should be directed to important information on a page. The trouble with tables is that they can blend together. A crucial table that should be used frequently looks, at a glance, like a table that's just for specific situations or optional flavour. In a book of tables, how do you maintain at-table utility while still providing high density?

Power Level

With I like to divide non-weapon and non-armour items into two categories:

1. An item a PC will use all the time, in all situations.

E.g. a Belt of Giant Strength. If a PC gets a Belt of Giant Strength, and it improves their Strength, there's no reason to ever take it off. It's pure enhancement.

2. An item a PC will use situationally. Ideally, in situations not envisioned by the designer.

E.g. a Portable Hole. It might allow for some cool and unexpected solutions to a problem, but it can't assist with every problem.

This is why classic items like a Belt of Giant Strength and Gauntlets of Ogre Power don't appear on these treasure tables. They will appear somewhere, but I'd like to place them with items that enhance a PC in equally permanent most-situations zero-downside ways. Some items from the Tools section might make their way to this proposed section eventually.

Description and Variants

Magic items should feel special. They should have an aura of mystery and wonder about them. This can be difficult to evoke in a game about small integer math and dying in a hole for treasure.

I also want to balance utility with density. Yes, I could make a full-page magic armour description with dozens of adjective prompts and historical references, but is that actually helpful?

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