Ouroboros University

I am taking something of a holiday from my regular posting agenda for most of November and will return in December. In the mean time, here is preview of my next series, Ouroboros University.

Why a University?

Colleges and universities, in one form or another, have long been a part of Europe life and culture. For example, the Byzantine authorities and scholars established the University of Constantinople in 425 CE, the University of Salerno in the 9th century, the University of Bologna in 1088 and the University of Oxford in 1167. As such, they were a part of life in some cities during the so-called “Dark Ages.”

Further, universities play in a roll in mainstream science fiction and fantasy fiction. Examples include Miskatonic University from H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the Unseen University from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

Given the history of universities, and their presence in fiction, it is possible to have such an institution in a fantasy game without it being an anachronism and to use it as a source of adventures.

A passage from the forthcoming series;

“The fey city Merimna is home to the oldest university known to still exist and the City of Brass boasts a Jami’ah which educates creatures from across the planes, while for most students the University in Kaddath is an unattainable dream. More accessible – though no less reputable is Ouroboros University – located in the player Character’s home city.”

A sample of the first column;

Inn without End

A room in the inn. Everything in fine.

A room in the inn. Everything in fine.

Something is going wrong with the large inn and tavern standing on Hodgeson Street.

Something has always been wrong with the large inn and tavern standing on Hodgeson Street.

The Hodgeson Street Inn is owned and operated by Oroborus University and provides decent accommodations – the university uses the facility to teach people the trade of inn keeping. The tavern and dining hall provide decent food and a standard selection of drinks.

Shaped like the letter “U” the exterior walls are smooth, wattle-daub and punctuated by a few windows. Inside the “U” wide balconies provide access to the rooms and over-look a narrow, brick paved courtyard. Stairs are located in balcony, at the bottom of the “U.” A rarely opened two storey gate permit wagons into this courtyard and a smaller door, set into the gate, lets patrons in and out.

There is no cellar. Occupying the ground floor are the common room, dining hall, kitchens, privies, storerooms and staff rooms. The best rooms are on the second floor, including several full suites. Standard rooms – one or two beds per room – occupy the third floor. Dorm style rooms, as many as a dozen beds to single large room, occupy the fourth floor.

Stables stand next door but are separate facility operated under different management.

Sometimes something is always wrong with the northern end of the third and fourth floors and sometimes the second floor as well. Sometimes nothing has ever been wrong with these floors.

Here are things which are persistent problems with the inn and which have never occurred at all;

  • A walk from the door of a room to the stairs is a few hundred feet there but a kilometer or so back,
  • Dark water pools across the ceilings of rooms and halls… and something is swimming below (or above, depending on where you are standing) the surface of the water,
  • Walls gradually move off plumb… way off plumb,
  • When seen through the windows or from the upper most balcony, the sun has turned red and bears a large, dark wound in its center, turning it into a bloody ring of fire,
  • Other things seen through the windows or from the balcony may make hardened warriors weep,
  • Someone exploring the suddenly maze-like warren of room may find their own thoroughly decayed corpse,
  • Things skulk in shadows and abduct inn patrons,
  • Some patrons disappear entirely… even from the memory of most of the people who knew them,
  • Other patrons emerge different,
  • Slugs are sometimes seen in the rooms and balconies,
  • Some of these slugs are the size of house cats and carry visible, pulsing brains in their abdomens,
  • With every eye blink, the appearance of the rooms and hallways change, alternating from new and well kept to aged and inhabited by spiders that spin webs and songs like sinister and insane songbirds,
  • People’s awareness of these issues is as inconsistent as the appearances of these issues.

Why is this happening?

At some point in the future, something from the darkness below fights a losing war against former slaves and those it attempted to enslave. As a mad gambit, these hungry and wicked forces struck a blow against space and time, damaging the fabric of reality. Cracks spread through creation like fissures through a pane of glass. Those terrible forces fled backwards through time and across worlds using these fissures.

One such fissure – invisible unless physically encountered – snakes through portions of the large inn and tavern on Hodgeson Street. As damage to the structure of space and time, it is at once; not yet appeared, always been present and is only just appearing. This is why no one has attempted to implemented solutions and why the inn was built at this location in the first place. Further, a crack in a glass ink jar will be stained as a portion of the ink spreads along the inside surface of the crack – likewise, the “reality” of the inn spreads along a portion of the space and time fissure running through and beyond the inn.

This is why easy to become hopelessly lost, discover one’s own corpse and to be devoured by carnivorous slugs in the short and brightly lit room of a respectable midtown inn.

Game Design and Risk vs. Reward, or Why Game Balance Matters

Games with a tight Risk-Reward peak can be awesome fun

Games with a tight Risk-Reward peak can be awesome fun. Or suck.


Last week I was briefly involved in a Twitter conversation with Sean Preston, Michael Wolf, Tracy Barnett, and Marshall Smith about whether Pathfinder RPG or another system (Savage Worlds) would be a “better” system to develop a steampunk campaign setting with. Michael and Sean both had their doubts about using Pathfinder.  I did not, however.  This discussion inspired Sean to post over at Reality Blurs: “The Platform Matters: System Influence on Setting Design.” It’s an excellent, albiet Savage-centric, post that argues that game design, system choice (platform), and setting are intertwined. I couldn’t agree more.

“@NevermetPress @realityblurs But do you really think that Pathfinder works for Steampunk settings? I have my doubts.” – Michael Wolf

But that’s not the point of this post. What I realized when reading Sean’s post was why I am leaning away from Savage Worlds (SW) to develop Loaerth & Feywyrd (my long in development fantasy “coalpunk” setting). Why? Because developing for Savage Worlds is hard. From a GM’s point of view, my experience running Savage Worlds campaigns for the last two years supports this notion as well.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the SW system. I have a blast running it every time I play it. I’m still working with SW to develop the Dead Queens of Morvena too [1]. But, it’s slow going and requires frequent tweaking and fiddling with to get it just right. After reading Sean’s post at Reality Blurs, I think I may have figured out why. I left a comment on his blog, and this was the point that prompted me to do so:

“In Savage Worlds, someone familiar with the system knows it is an intuitive, delicate process. It is not simple number crunching. You have to to be comfortable with the system to know when you’re getting the feel right. Even then, it requires playtesting, fine-tuning, and tweaking to get things just so.”Sean Preston.

This point nails it for me: Savage Worlds is hard to develop for. It’s hard to GM for too. It’s way too easy to create scenarios where the PCs are wiped out, sometimes without warning. You’re left scratching your head thinking “WTF happened?”. Similarly, it’s easy to go in the other direction too. Encounters that are too easy get boring quick. You can tell just by looking at how much people are checking their Twitter feed at the table. Right: BORED.

But when you hit it just right – when you hit the perfect balance between Risk and Reward with Savage Worlds – the game launches you into a totally new level of fun that other games (Pathfinder, D&D 4E, Shadowrun, all games I’ve had “fun” playing) pale in comparison to. It’s like “WTF?! I didn’t know what I was missing!” You’re hooked.

But, to hit that perfect balance requires either extremely well designed adventures (“scenarios”, whatever), or for a GM to fudge things. A LOT. What I’m basically saying is that for a GM to keep the Savage Worlds game at that pinnacle of fun you have to bend the rules. I’m not saying this without something to back it up either.

Long time readers of this blog might remember when I wrote “Ditch the Screen: Open Metagaming Is Good For Roleplaying“. Basically, I was advocating that GMs should stop using the screen (virtual or otherwise) and spill the beans on the crunchy bits (monster stats, NPC details, etc) in favor of a more collaborative storytelling style. It’s sort of like putting all your cards face up in a poker game in favor of telling a good story. Well, I tried that and it doesn’t work – at least not for dice games like SW, D&D and the like.

It wasn’t all for nothing though – getting rid of the screen made me acutely aware of how often I was fudging the results, bending the rules, changing monster stats on the fly. I was – without realizing it – seeking that perfect balance between Risk and Reward. We had fun too – but I soon stopped with the “open metagaming” approach and resumed keeping my cards only for my eyes.

That might have been the start of my doubts about Savage Worlds. Was a game really as super awesome as I thought it was if I’m always fudging the rules and adjusting things on the fly? You’ll often hear SW devotees say things like “balance doesn’t matter. learn to flee” – that may be true from a player’s perspective too, but from a Design perspective, it’s bullshit.

Balance DOES matter. So, consider Sean’s comment on Savage Worlds:

You have to to be comfortable with the system to know when you’re getting the feel right. Even then, it requires playtesting, fine-tuning, and tweaking to get things just so.” 

Is that the sign of well-designed game system? I don’t know, but it definitely makes design hard. And – personally – I would rather be designing a new game setting using a system that is easier to design with.

This is why I’ve chosen the Pathfinder RPG as the system of choice for Loaerth & Feywyrd. While I’m admitting that it may not be “as fun” as Savage Worlds, it’s a concession that – with Pathfinder – the balance between Risk-Reward is smoother. More predictable. There’s less risk that it will be broken from the outset. This allows for time spent on story/setting development to keep pace with system/setting development from a game system point of view. All, of course, after I’ve put the finishing touches on the Dead Queens of Morvena – which will be rolled out with Savage Worlds. It’s just meant to be that way.

“Game balance is the net under the highwire or trapeze at the circus. It’s very helpful when learning, but once you’ve got your act down the show is much more exciting without it. Of course, when you fall you’re going to wish it was there!” - Jeff Rients in 2008 at the RPGBlog II.

Yes Jeff. We agree.

I hope this doesn’t come off as a rant – it’s not. For me, it’s more of revelation about game design.

Your thoughts?

[1] Development on the Dead Queens of Morvena nearly came to a stand still last spring after receiving some important critiques from Joel Kinstle at Pinnacle Entertainment. Unfortunately, during that same period, Charles Dickey left Nevermet Press and the development of the Dead Queens of Morvena landed in my lap. In short, I’ve been working on expanding the setting and focusing on building it around a central theme: “gothic fantasy horror sandbox”. Stay tuned.

Mind Flayers on the Brain – A Coloring Book Extra

Fellow NMP blogger The Grumpy Celt posted an interesting piece concerning mind flayers[1]. I found it particularly timely as I’ve recently been working on a painting for my portfolio of one of these lovely tentacled horrors. I have always found the visual qualities of the ‘flayers particularly striking. I remember as a child seeing an image in my local book and game store of one and being drawn to the alien appearance and when I learned more about the twisted diet and mindset, I was hooked. They have always been a favorite villain of mine and so I couldn’t put together a portfolio composed of mostly monsters and not include one.

Mind Flayer Culinarian, illustration by Rob Torno

I started trying to develop a bit of story for who my particular ‘flayer would be, to get into my monsters character and motivation. Normally for me this involves sitting around sketching hairy, horned beasties and trying not to attract too much attention by growling and saying things like “rawr!” But for the silent and stalking mind flayer I had to think outside my normal ‘monster’ box so I went to one of my other areas of expertise, namely the culinary world. You see, when I’m not drawing and painting monsters or spending time with my family, I’m a chef.  And the ‘flayer diet is a primary source of horror for anyone who has faced up to one. So the chef in me started wondering if there were any mind flayer chefs and what they would be like. What tools would they use, what culinary techniques would they apply to attain the best flavor profile from a particular dish. I can’t imagine that such an intelligent and sophisticated race would scoop up a meal from just anywhere without developing the components to the pique of flavor.

And so I imagined my subject to be the Hannibal Lecter of the underdark world, a culinarian supreme. He would stalk a herd of sentient humanoids, observing and selecting only the best for inclusion in his dining experience. After capture and immobilization the subject of his devotion would be prepared for the table over a period of days with a combination of physical and psychological torture to bring out the best possible flavor and texture, a dish to be savored for hours as the former owner of the ingredients is perhaps still conscious. As horrible as he would be to meet, I found myself identifying with my fellow culinarian quite a bit. Not enough to utilize his approach or components, but enough to really like him as a villain.

So I thought I’d post him up here for you good folks. I’m putting up the line drawing as well so anyone who would like to print it off and color it themselves can do so. Use crayons, pens or pixels, whatever you prefer. If you want to expand on his story or use him in you game be my guest. I’d love to see what you come up with.


Mind Flayer Culinarian line art

[1] Mind flayer and Illithid are copyright Wizards of the Coast. The art and references here are presented as fan art.

Devouring Zombie [4E D&D]

Happy Halloween!

They are hungry.

They're hungry...

Devouring Zombie Level 5 Brute

Medium Natural Animate (Undead) XP 200

Initiative –1 Senses

Senses: Perception +0;

HP HP 40; Bloodied 20

AC 14; Fortitude 13, Reflex 9, Will 10

Speed 5 Darkvision

Immune disease, poison; Resist 10 necrotic; Vulnerable 5 radiant


[Melee] Horrid Bite (Standard) • At Will

Attack: Melee; one creature; +4 vs. AC (+10 vs. AC if the devouring zombie has grabbed the target

1d6 + 3 damage and the targets contracts the zombie disease (refer to the devouring zombie entry in the appendix)

Standard Actions

[Melee] Slam (Standard) • At Will

Attack: Melee; one creature; +6 vs. AC

2d6 + 2

[Melee] Zombie Grab (Standard) • At Will

Attack: Melee; one creature; +4 vs. Reflex

the target is grabbed (until escape). Checks made to escape the zombie’s grab take a –5 penalty

Alignment Unaligned Languages —

Str 14 (+3) Dex 6 (–1) Wis 8 (+0)

Con 10 (+1) Int 4 (–3) Cha 3 (–3)

Devouring Zombie Disease (DZD) Level 16 Disease Endurable Stable DC 30, Improve DC 30

Someone who has contracted DZD feels numbness starting at the extremities that works its way in, hot and cold flashes and painful seizures.

The Target is cured. The target suffers a -2 penalty to Dexterity and Speed and loses half their total healing surges. The target suffers a -4 penalty to Dexterity and Speed and loses any remaining healing surges. -> Final State The target dies and rises as a devouring zombie 2d10 rounds after death.

Devouring Zombie Tactics

When not engaged in some form of combat devouring zombie wander aimless, stand still long enough for cobwebs to form on them or sometimes fall into sad repetitions of the actions they took in life. The only thing devouring zombies attempt to do in combat is overpower living targets by striking them or grabbing them and eating the target.

Devouring Zombie Lore

A character knows the following formation with a successful skill check.

  • Dungeoneering DC 18: Devouring zombies are rare and given their contagious nature, they are among the most dangerous.
  • Arcana or Religion DC 24: There is often an evil “lynchpin” behind the existence of a growing horde of devouring zombies, such as a devil, larva mage or something similar. Devouring zombies transform into a “standard” zombies upon the destruction of this individual.

Mind Flayer Redesigns

Flayers of the Mind

Flayers of the Mind

I have been reading H.P. Lovecraft lately and he is influencing my style a bit…

The mind flayers – also known as the illithids – are one of the most well known monsters in the Dungeons & Dragons catalog of terrors [1]. They are mauve humanoids with the heads of squids, possess telepathic powers, dwell in dim passages under the surface of the world and feed upon brains. These monsters amass networks of slaves kept in thrall and plot to extinguish, or at least dim, the sun as daylight inhibits their activities. Mind flayers are among the few official monsters to intimidate the drow.

One area of failure of the original game design of for these creatures are the masters of mind flayer communities – the elder brains. The rules as written describe them as giant brains dwelling in pools of brackish water. The leaders of these dark and terrible creatures amount to a joke. Perhaps it is just me who fails to find exposed brains, large or standard sized, as intimidating? A number of changes to the top-level design of mind flayers, their elder brains, and their overall organization are suggested below.

Larval Slugs

A mind flayer begins life as a small, slug-like parasite. The mind flayer larval slug invades the skull of a helpless humanoid victim and devours its brain, and then subverts the body to its own use. Within a matter of days, it transforms the body it steals into an adult illithid, a process that permanently extinguishes all traces of the creature’s former being.

The larval slugs are difficult to distinguish from normal slugs (Dungeoneering DC 20, with close examination).

On dark nights when moon hides and normally brave dogs cringe, mind flayers walk here and there, scattering larval slugs like a farmer scattering seeds with the anticipation of a good harvest in the months to come.

Den’s of Inequity

The secret masters of opium dens have tentacle faces – something known among certain circles (Streetwise DC 25). They also alter milder substances, such as ale, tobacco and even children’s candy (Streetwise DC 30). A common thread to such alteration is the substances become hallucinogens causing waking nightmares.

Everything they touch, they taint… and they touch many things.

Faces like Carrion Birds

These monsters employ “encounter suits”, made of dark and hard leather, which feature masks resembling the face of vultures. These suits mind flayers employ to permit activities during the daylight and as armor (AC +8, -2 Check, -1 Speed, 30 pounds in weight).

Skull Snails

There is no single elder brain in the center of the surreal cities of the mind flayers. There are multiple elder brains – perhaps ten or more – moving about their horrible community. The term “elder brain” in the singular refers to a community of thinking, hating, undead and ambulatory brains. Brains of the oldest and most terrible of the illithids joined in a telepathic network of terrible power and terrible malevolence.

Possessing an appearance that creates in healthy minds revulsion, the elder brains are a horrible cross between giant snails and hermit crabs. Upon reaching prodigious age and power, certain mind flayers pull their own heads off their own bodies. These heads remain ambulatory, moving themselves along via their facial tentacles even as their flesh decays into near liquescence. For protection, they slither, crawl and twist their ways into the skulls of humanoids, like a hermit crab moving into a shell. They peer at the world around them through empty eye sockets with their own milky, mad and dead eyes, moving about with rotting tentacles.

So long as they are within a half-mile of each other, the individual members remain in telepathic contact and maintain the hive-mind of the elder brain network, itself the master of the entire illithid community. The individual members of the elder brain network may access any of the powers, traits and abilities listed for the monster in its entry in Monster Manual III with the following changes: Speed 4 (Teleport 6), Hit Points 43 (Bloodied 21), AC 30.

[1] Mind flayers and illithids are copyright Wizards of the Coast.

Challenging Terrain: Hysterical Mob [4E D&D]

Mob Violence

Mob Violence

I employed this in a game where the scenario had the party members in a crowded temple – every square occupied by something or something – when the thatch roof caught fire. As good characters the party could not simply hack its way through the peasants and commoners and escaping the mob proved to be one of the most interesting challenges of that game session. The attacking zombie, which had caused he fire in the first place, were almost incidental to “not being stomped to death by commoners.”

Anyway, dealing with a mob in this manner was not something I had experienced an RPG before.

A mob of panicked or angered humanoids functions like a challenging terrain. It prevents movement, inhibits line of sight and potentially damages any creature in the mob. It is not possible to take 10 in a mob.

Moving through a mob requires a successful Acrobatics or Athletics skill check, starting at DC appropriate to the party (Refer to the Skill Check Difficulty Class table under Encounter Settings in the Dungeon Master’s Guide) but increasing by +1 for every turn they are in the mob. Success means the PC moves through the mob as though it were difficult terrain. Failure means the PCs are unable to move. Further, every round they are in the mob requires a STR or DEX (whichever score is higher, depending on the character) check against the DC of the mob. Success means they remain standing, failure means the actions of the mob knock the character prone. Anyone who fails under the crowd is dazed for the remainder of that turn and remains prone until they can stand. Standing requires an Acrobatics or Athletics skill check against the mob’s DC + 10. Anyone in a mob, standing or prone, potentially takes damage – checked against the character’s AC – for every turn the character remains in the mob.

Situation and Potential Damage

Standing or Moving 1d4+1

Being Knocked Down 1d8+1

Prone 1d12+1


Note: If the mob is capable of making additional attacks of any kind, it may do so at any time at the discretion of the GM.

Gravesites: Tower of Silence (Area)

Tower of Silence

Tower of Silence

Home for the city’s gravediggers’ guild is a solemn, nearly featureless slate gray tower which matches the uniforms of its members. Crows and ravens frequent that gray tower.

What People Know

The gravediggers’ guild and its headquarters are a subject of frequent and somber conversation in the city. A character knows the following information about the guild and the guildhall with a successful History, Streetwise or Religion skill check.

  • DC 14: The gravediggers’ guild is an organization responsible for enforcing laws and customs that prevent the creation of the undead. They do this by ensuring proper interment and keeping track of graves.
  • DC 16: A solemn, gray tower frequented by crows and ravens is the guild’s headquarters. The tower is located close to the city walls. The proper name for the tower is “Astodan.”
  • DC 18: The city’s guild here is recovering from a scandal which occurred about 20 years ago, where the masters of the guild operated in collusion with necromancers.
  • DC 20: There is an entrance to the Necropolis located in the cellar of the guild’s tower.
  • DC 22: Poor people may turn to the guild for inexpensive interment. The guild, in fact, owns and is responsible for the city’s catacombs and “Potter’s Field.”
  • DC 24: An impressive library of records is kept and maintained by the gravediggers’ guild. This library includes catalogs of graveyard, tombs, maps, diagrams, copies of wills and assessments of the current status of all of the above.
  • DC 26: Members of the guild are supposed to wear uniform cloaks and hoods. These uniforms are supposed to conceal the members identities and come in different shades of gray, the darker the color the higher the rank. However, the uniforms are unpopular and members go without them whenever they can.
  • DC 28: A tangle of allegiances and vanity has put the leadership of the gravediggers’ guild at odds with the city’s government. As a result the city has restricted the guild’s access to the Necropolis in the catacombs below the city streets.


Within sight of two graveyards inside the city walls is “Astodan,” though it is commonly called the tower of silence or the gray tower, the headquarters of the gravediggers’ guild. The stone tower resembles a step-pyramid, is gray in color and five stories tall.

The tower provides facilities for embalming, cremation, excarnation, conducting funerals, libraries for recording keeping on graveyards and similar services.

Cremations requiring a ceremony (something demanded by certain deities for proper disposal of the remains of their worshippers) are performed on the uppermost roof. Excarnations – allowing remains to be reduced to bones – are performed on platforms along the terraces of the building. Crows, ravens and vultures feed on the remains.

The exterior smells of decay and smoke. The interior, composed of wood, with curtains, nice furniture and tasteful decorations, smells of cedar and antiseptic potions. Astodan is well maintained and kept clean.

Members are allowed almost anywhere, but patrons are limited to the lobby and viewing rooms or the library and member offices if accompanied by a member.

No one dwells in the tower, though some members of the guild are present in the towers at all hours working on one project or another and a patron is usually present during the day to hire some service the guild provides. Some remains of the dead, or “clients” as the guild refers to them, are always present.

Astodan possesses one cellar, where the guild stores supplies, raw materials, remains awaiting preparation, interment or cremation and some barrels labeled “Worcestershire sauce, not embalming fluid” and other barrels labeled “embalming fluid, not Worcestershire sauce.” The guild’s entrance to the Necropolis is located in the cellar, through currently it remains locked by order of the city government.

Guild Memberships

There are two kinds of members of the gravediggers’ guild; adjunct members and full members. About four dozen people across the city are adjunct members, who are not required wear the robes and this level of membership include individuals like the Old Mister and Misses Vespillo. About two dozen people are full members and while on duty they are required to wear guild uniforms, which are full length robes the same slate gray color as the tower itself. The robe’s hood is round, heavily starched, resembles a pillbox and the wearer looks out of a horizontal slit in the front. The color of the hood and the matching gloves signifies the individuals rank in the guild, with novices wearing grey and the leadership wearing black.

Guild membership includes all races, genders and classes but excludes the chaotic evil and necromancers.

Astodan Services

Services and goods, such as performance of rituals, coffins and the like, provided by the guild may be provided by other merchants in the city somewhat cheaper, but the guild offers the luxury of one-stop shopping. It also provides some services not found elsewhere, including professional mourners – usually members of the guild out of uniform – who may be hired to increase the size of a funeral party. In keeping with their business, the guild keeps records of all graveyards, tombs, mausoleums and the like in the city and for miles around. Copies of census – a list of items, remains and any known undead – of these locations are sold, as are two kinds of maps, one only detailed enough to find the site and the second essentially building schematics. Guild libraries include information on the funerary customs of many races and cultures.

Available at Astodan 
  • Adequate Map of Gravesite (10 gp.)
  • Good map of Gravesite (25 gp)
  • Census of Gravesite (20 gp.)
  • Research (25 gp. per hour plus access to Library for 5 gp to 50 gp.)
  • Partial Cremation, Reduced to Bones (1 gp.)
  • Complete Cremation (3)
  • Urns (2 gp.)
  • Ossuary (2 gp.)
  • Coffins (10 gp.)
  • Oilcloth (1 gp)
  • Sarcophagi (250 gp.)
  • Bronze Grave Marker (50 gp.)
  • Stone Grave Markers (100 gp.)
  • Wood Grave Markers (5 gp.)
  • Wards against the Undead (7,500 gp.)