Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Into the Odd: The Greenman of Darling & The Iron Coral

Some quick actual play notes on an Into the Odd one-shot I ran this week. 

Five workers from the Rumfield's Redcake factory ("perfect at nine, noon, and nightfall!") rescue the Greenman and explore the Iron Coral. Character generation and a rules introduction were included in the session.

Rumfields Redcake factory

Practically perfect at nine, noon, and nightfall!

One-eyed Jack is a guard trying to earn enough money to set up his younger siblings. Ansovald Widenfield is a nephew of the factory owner with a supervisory title and zero interest in the humdrum factory life, oh and he has a pet eagle named Mort. Shemp works on an algae boat with his dad and son; their boat was recently repaired with money borrowed from the bank. Biltong is a dangerous drunkard who works in the hellish room where algae is dried. He carries around a bomb and thinks about sabotage. Lemmy Reeves works in the mold room, where algae mash is pushed into molds before baking, and has a gambling habit. He also has a 'magic key' that gets him trough any door/wall. 

The sign of the Pickled Herring

After work on Friday the group visits their regular pub, the Pickled Herring, to collect their factory benefit of a "daily dram." A commotion coming from outside the tavern causes the spit dog to turn the meat too fast and hurl hot grease at the patrons. Responding to this disturbance, the crew become embroiled in an altercation between a fleeing boy with a glowing green beard (Charlie Brumfield aka The Greenman aka The Wee Man of Darling aka The Leprechaun) and some ruffians who work for Dr. Mysterio's Singular Sideshow: August Chop, a portly man with an iron leg; Junas Jongler a head carnie who wears a plum-colored coat with shiny brass buttons; Rolly, a master of fisticuffs; and Pipp Horrican, a youth with a wispy mustache, piercing blue eyes, and an annoying pug. Ansovald recognizes Charlie from sideshow posters. 

Carnies chase the sideshow escapee - The Wee Man of Darling

Altercation highlights: Shemp drinks everyone's dram in the commotion. Biltong uses the fracas to once again skip out without paying his ever-growing bar tab. Jack puts the portly August on a whip leash and shoves a pistol barrel into the seam of the blustering gentleman's trousers. Ansovald's eagle makes a fool of him by refusing to attack Rolly. Rolly blackjacks the Greenman but ultimately the carnies back off. The factory workers have likely made a powerful enemy.

Once rescued, Charlie tells how he got his beard (touching a glowing orb while exploring the Iron Coral), and how his parents sold him into servitude, separating him from his twin sister. He also complains that his life now consists of getting "lucky" beard hairs pulled out for the financial benefit of others. 

The workers decide to explore the Iron Coral for arcana, as they have until 1 pm the next day to get back to work. This dispensation is the result of their boss's religious habit. He attends secret "star cult" rites in the wee hours of each Saturday, and so shuts the factory down (other than hiring a crew to grease the workings) on the following morning to give himself time to recover. (Though he claims it is for the benefit of his hard-working crew.) Charlie agrees to lead them to the Iron Coral, since it is on the way to his home town of Darling.

In the coral, the crew find an underground tunnel with clear walls that look into the ocean, touch a glowing sphere that hurls One-eyed Jack against a wall, and fight a glittering woman who seems to guard a couple of handleless iron doors.

Highlights include Biltong falling down some wet stairs, Lemmy chucking his canary at a glowing cloud, and Jack sprouting a red, glowing, fleshy orb in his empty eye socket after being thrown into the wall by the sphere. The fight gets nasty as the aforementioned glittering woman is hard to damage, but seems to sap away the will of anyone she squarely hits with her sparkling claws. Lemmy's key is used first to try and turn the woman corporeal (a clever idea that failed) and then to bypass both doors. Several characters are overwhelmed by damage: One-eyed Jack (now Red-eyed Jack) and Lemmy both get taken out of the action. Lemmy manages to first pass his key to Shemp who recovers two gauntlet-shaped arcana from the locked rooms. In the fight, Biltong tries putting on both gauntlets and smashing them repeatedly into the woman. They trade blows until the woman explodes - her glittering form dissipating into the air of the room. 

After getting the injured back on their feet the crew return in time for their next shift, but tired, drained, and hurt as they are, several pick up "demerits" for their lackluster performance on the job. (Current demerit count: 2 for Biltong and Ansovald. 1 each for Shemp, Lemmy, and Jack.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Knights of the Road by Bordercholly

This tripartite micro-zine takes the bones of Electric Bastionland and fleshes them out with a vague, early 20thc weird west setting. Sound cool? It is. (You can get it on bordercholly.itch.io.)

When I first heard about this zine I got the impression that the player characters were hobos, partly because the GM was called a "Conductor" (as in train conductor) and partly because they are roaming around 1930s (?) America on rails. But the characters aren't just tramps looking for a handout. Instead, they are part of an order of vagrant-knights who move around undoing evil-wrong-bad things. Also, America isn't really America; the setting is a fictional analogue of America. The time period is equally hard to pin down because of inconsistent references to technologies. Even so, the result is a charming (and liberating) mass of ideas. Vampire lords run the rails. Cryptids like chupacabra and bigfoot infest the darker corners of the world. The landscape is peppered with haunted abandoned movie sets and alien crash sites. Great stuff.

I'm going to pick at the product a little in the next few paragraphs, but let me make it clear that I think this is a brilliant little zine and fills a niche you rarely see filled.

The product itself is readable and mostly clear. For $5 (digital) it's a helluva bargain. The art is a little sparse but cool and proper for the setting and the overall feel of the zine. There are quite a few typos and grammar gaffs, but nothing that would really throw you for a loop. I don't have the physical product (yet) but I hear they are quite small. The title fonts are nice, but I found the body font a little clunky. 

The zine includes an example of play. This kind of thing is rare for zines, so I applaud the inclusion. However, the example is almost laughably condensed. It's basically a whole game session (or at least a major encounter), start to finish, in two micro-pages. Even so, it gets the idea across, including the fast-and-loose nature of conducting a light RPG like this. 

For a zine-game, KotR is surprisingly complete. A full book of monsters, quite a few story hooks, GM advice, examples, etc. It really covers the bases. I highly recommend it and would love to run it for one of my gaming groups. 

I'll leave you with a tiny bit of the awesome, full-color map. 

Monday, June 28, 2021

Agramabug by Frederico Volpini

Federico Volpini recently shared his very cool bug-centric mini-setting for Troika! with me. The writing is great and the art reminds me of the Tenniel illustrations from Alice in Wonderland. The world is full of crazy, flavorful details: freon zombies, punk foodies, dust monks, a bug pope, a weird landscape of human refuse... great stuff. (You can pick it up at volpe80.itch.io.)

The following are a couple of very minor criticisms. The introductory paragraph is a bit of a cold start, throwing you right into the setting. It misses stating the "obvious:" Agramabug is an RPG setting compatible with Troika! in which communities of insects scrabble over the discarded wastes of humans hoping to attain power, security, and prosperity. The text is also a bit tightly-spaced, but then I think my 53-yo eyes are just always craving a little more white space these days. My 23-yo self probably would have loved the denseness of the design. 

Is there such a thing as too many poo jokes? I feel like the setting is scatalogical to a degree that would get a little old. What else matters to bugs -- water, pollen, seeds? It bears thinking about before you throw players into the setting.

Back to the good stuff. The lists – oh my gawds – the lists. I have a soft spot for lists because a designer can pack so much setting into them, and that's just what Fredrico did. The classes are great too, and if you know Troika!, you'll know that this is its other primary tool for communicating a setting.

The world is both comical and dreary at the same time. It could be played as grimdark or wildly comic, or both. My first addition would be some granola-hippy bugs who live on a sunny hill filled with dandelions, just to give a bit of contrast to the extensive landfill that Fredrico provides.

Perhaps the highest bit of praise I can give to Agramabug is that I want to play it. My default reading stance after a few paragraphs was "how I would run this" not "is this any good?" So clearly I made up my mind on the latter pretty fast.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Zinequest 2021 progress report

This is just a quick progress post related to the Zinequest 3 projects I backed and am watching. Big thanks to the zines who have already delivered. I'll note that no project is, as yet, "late."


  • Courier
  • Crawler
  • The Void of Thrantar
  • Before Fire
  • Fresh from the Forge
  • Wizard Funk 3
  • Desert Moon of Karth
  • The Lighthouse at the Edge of the Universe
  • Dethroners
  • Bloodheist
  • Realms of Peril
  • Colostle
  • Harrowings #03: Muspelhell
  • Dodeca RPG
  • Many Crypts of Lady Ingrade
  • The Vaults of Torment: Blood is Fuel
  • The Drain
  • Lowlife
  • Planar Compass Issue 2
  • Not a Place of Honor

  • Siege: Pocket Warfare (print)
  • Pamphlet of Pantheons (digital)
  • In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe (print)
  • A Bug's Guide to the Shimmer (digital)

  • Kriegsmesser (print)
  • Microvania (print)
  • Menagerie of the Void (print)

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Menagerie of the Void by Eran Aviram

Menagerie of the Void is a solo, zine-sized, journaling game that I backed during Kickstarter's Zine Quest 2021. You are traveling onboard an early starship when an alien zoo abducts you to serve as its keeper. The game revolves around creating, housing, and caring for bizarre creatures. It uses index cards and playing cards, and is something that you could pretty easily play in short stretches. The game ends when you master all of the robotic systems of the zoo (unlikely) or when your character gives up hope.

The book is 28 pages (included the covers), designed beautifully, and well-written. The art, though a little inconsistent in feel, really gets across the alien nature of the game and the zoo's weird organisms. Illustrations of the cards (thank you!) help you figure out how the game works. A number of random generators and outcomes for various events assure lots of replayability.

Overall this is a really solid little game book. I can't wait to try it out for real, and will be sure to write about my experience when I do.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Kriegsmesser by Gregor Vega

Buy Kriegsmesser – because I say so. If that isn't enough:

Kriegsmesser is a gritty and sometimes raucous look at the "long sixteenth century somewhere in Europe" designed by Gregor Vuga. It's a no, or low magic setting with "scientists," mercenaries, merchants, and spies. The tone is gritty, dark humor. The game uses Troika! style careers rather than the race/class norm of traditional RPGS. You need only d6s to play. 

Kriegsmesser is well-written, stylish, and inspiration. The physical copy I have features a nice "floppy" hand feel. Despite that, I would like to have seen a thicker cover stock used. It can be played with Troika! (a derivation of Fighting Fantasy by Jackson & Livingston) or with Gregor's own, onboard system.

I backed Kriegsmesser during Zine Quest 3. Here we are, just 2.5 months later, and I have both a PDF and a physical copy in hand. There was roughly one update a week between successful funding and delivery - just the right amount. I got the Preview 3+ weeks ago, the PDF over a week ago, and the zine this week. Congrats on a clear, well run KS campaign go to Gregor Vuga and his team! This is what a really professional KS feels like - not too aloof and not too chummy, no gratuitous stretch goals or messy piles of digital files, clear expectations were set by the creators and then they delivered. 

The zine packs a lot of punch. A bit about the implied setting is followed by a short page of character creation rules and 36 random careers. After that comes a basket of goodies: a rules base that's a good alternate to Troika!, optional rules for combat that makes it a bit more mechanical and/or more likely to cause scars than death, some thoughts on running the game, a whole system for creating flavorful NPCs, a method of generating towns and adventures, some flavorful pre-generated scoundrels for encounters, more info about the 'long sixteenth', and a final thought on playing the game in other times or places.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Languages: house rules summation

As a kind of wrap-up to this series (for now at least) I want to share the following text. It reflects decisions I made about how common and alignment languages work for my OSE campaign world. I believe this represents a workable perspective with internally-consistent logic and that presents some interesting fictional opportunities.

Ancient Language by DaiSanVisArt


There are three alignments, Law, Chaos, and neutrality. Neutrality is an agnostic or transitional state between the other two. One can ally with the forces of Law or of Chaos, or attempt to remain neutral. Chaos and Law constantly battle over the allegiances of men and other species, however. Some supernatural entities also attempt to maintain neutrality in this war, with greater or lesser success, but they tend not to interfere in power struggles or gift powers to mortals.

Alignment Languages 

Those allied to Law or Chaos are granted a supernatural language. To speak or understand Law, you must be aligned to Law. The same is true of Chaos. If you ever drift away from your allegiance, you will lose the ability to speak/understand the language. The range of concepts communicable in these languages are related to their nature. For instance, there is no word for “truce” in Chaos; but one may speak of a bargain.

Speaking Law or Chaos is a powerful and often dangerous act. It may reveal your presence to supernatural creatures. It will certainly be recognized by enemies and can be used as a kind of litmus test among allies. Characters who are exposed to an alignment language they don’t know for very long will suffer, physically and mentally. Anxiety and headaches are followed by tears of blood or other stigma. If the exposure is prolonged, madness may result. Characters who are neutral will suffer less than those of the opposite alignment to the language being spoken.

Some spells are scribed in alignment language. This means that they may not be cast by individuals of other alignments without the use of Read Magic and without sustaining damage and eliciting the attention of supernatural beings. (It also means that despite being magic, someone of the same alignment could read it without using Read Magic.)

[Rules text for OSE.] Exposure to an opposite alignment language causes d3 hp per round (1 hp for neutral characters). If the exposure is prolonged or especially intense, the GM may call for characters to Save vs. Spells to avoid madness. On a successful save, the damage ends. 

Characters can try to drown out the voice of someone speaking by stopping their ears, making loud noises, or even speaking loudly in the opposite language. This grants a bonus to saves and/or reduces damage to 1hp per round. Combining voices of the same language don’t do additional damage, and Chaos and Law being spoken at the same time cause a painful noise but essentially cancel each other out – though any/all servants of Chaos and Law within psychic earshot may show up!

Characters cannot cast spells of an alignment that is not their own, not even from a scroll. They literally cannot read or speak the words that would make the spell happen.


Common is a trade language based on the most common, wide-spread human dialect.  Most humans know Common and, as does any species that commonly interacts with humans.

Common consists of several hundred very basic words. It is pretty easy to learn, but lacks any depth or nuance. For most things, there is only one word: e.g. “home” covers house, hut, den, burrow, nest, etc.

Species with mouth-shapes that significantly vary from human are less likely to (be able to) speak Common. Communication with such a species takes longer (requires more patience) and is likely to include a number of misunderstandings from concept drift or simply misspeaking/mishearing.

Speaking to another culture in their own language automatically gives you a +1 on reaction rolls. It probably also gives you a rudimentary understanding of their culture.

Some folk refuse to learn or speak Common. Usually their reasons are seated in some form or cultural/regional pride and/or dislike of other species. Speaking Common to them may cause a -1 reaction penalty.

Learning Languages

Languages other than alignment can be learned through study. Speaking a language may require a mouth similar to the species whose language is being studied. 

Languages are often related to each other. Given a steady stream of nonverbal cues, context, and words, a bystander can sometimes follow the gist of a conversation by others if the language being spoken is close to any they know.

The INT bonus determines how many additional languages (other than alignment, native, and common) a character can learn. These languages may be chosen from the list below during character creation or they may be saved for learning a language later. Adventurers aren’t scholars and simply don’t have the time to study/learn an endless number of languages. If a character wants to learn a language at some point and doesn’t have any open slots left, they may study to learn a kind of smattering or pigeon form of that language. Mark it with an asterisk on the character sheet to indicate its limited nature. To change languages, mark an old one with an asterisk (the character is extremely rusty with it) and fully learn the new one.

Starting Languages

Your list here.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Words of power: weaponizing alignment languages

Acts of Power

I'm continuing to experience thoughts on alignment languages in D&D. This round I want to talk about speaking alignment language as an act of power. Inspiration came in the form of a response to an earlier post:

GrymlordeApril 21, 2021 at 10:00 AM

I think I can safely say that in the Midwest during the 1970s, everyone assumed that the Chaotic alignment language was the Black Speech of Mordor. Rightly or wrongly, Tolkein had an unbelievable huge impact on everyone's campaign. The early Judges' Guild products are a good examples.

Yes! This thought occurred to me at one point in my earlier writing and I lost it. So I am indebted for Grymlorde for both reaffirming it and returning it to my mind. When Gandalf makes the faux pas of reciting the Black Speech that is engraved in the one ring aloud at the council of Elrond, a shadow passes over the sun, everyone trembles, and the elves stop up their ears. Later, as the fellowship attempts to cross Caradhras the Cruel, Gandalf rattles off a fire spell and two things happen, only one of which is the intended effect of the spell:

Gandalf himself took a hand. Picking up a faggot he held it aloft for a moment, and then with a word of command, naur an edraith ammen! he thrust the end of his staff into the midst of it. At once a great spout of green and blue flame sprang out, and the wood flared and sputtered.

"If there are any to see, then I at least am revealed to them," he said. "I have written Gandalf is here in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin" (The Fellowship of the Ring).

Art for the Bakshi Lord of the Rings
movie poster, by Tom Jung (I think)

If alignment languages are gifted by their representative gods, it's not unreasonable to assert that each alignment language embodies a fraction of the power of those forces. In other words, when one speaks Law or Chaos, one is literally doing something powerful – invoking supernatural forces. This may sound like a stretch, but how else can one explain the inability of a "former" Chaotic creature to speak Chaos? It is a gift that can be revoked! 

When a character speaks alignment, I want other character's ears to bleed. I want to see minds shattered. I want characters to think twice before speaking in an alignment language!

Here's how I might handle it at my own game table. Taking cues from Tolkien and dialing things up to 11, I would say that speaking an alignment language reveals not only your alignment, but may reveal your presence to enemies. Second, hearing an alignment language that you don't understand causes you immediate discomfort and, if prolonged, real physical and/or mental wounds. 

This treatment makes alignment languages feel powerful! And it keeps them from being a kind of shortcut. Theoretically, if there are no ramifications, a party consisting of characters from each alignment could converse with almost any intelligent creature in its alignment tongue. Despite Gygax's suggestion in the 1e AD&D DMG that one never flaunts their alignment language for reasons of secrecy and social pressure, many a player has remained undaunted by peer pressure inside the game world! Conversely, eliciting dangerous attention from the powers-that-be and causing pain to creatures of another alignment would be a good deterrent.

Weaponized Words 

Alignment languages could also be weaponized. If a party entirely consisting of lawful characters spoke Law in front of a gaggle of chaotic drow, they could slip in some extra damage. But it's a slippery slope, as they could also draw more agents of Chaos. 

It's more likely that weaponized language would be abused by the GM; having evil persons speak Chaos to cause damage to Law characters, under the assumption that it is safe to speak within a stronghold of like-minded chaotic creatures. It's likely, however, that this problem would be checked by two factors. 1) The GM really has infinite power and could kill characters any number of ways, so another trick doesn't really make things worse. The real limit to a GMs power is the tolerance of their friends. Rough handling and unfair practices leads to an empty table. 2) Chaos doesn't necessarily want to draw the attention of Chaos. Just because they share an alignment doesn't mean one Chaos Lord doesn't have a beef with another. The same might be true of Law. Not all agents of each faction are united in purpose.

Closing Thought

None of this is intended to be prescriptive or didactic. I am following my own ideas, interpretations, and preferences. If yours differ, please follow them to your own conclusions.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Further thoughts on common and alignment languages

Literary Sources of Chaos and Law ... and Neutral?

The main sources for alignment concepts in the Appendix N are probably Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, Moorcock's Elric and Corum series, and Zelazney's Chronicles of Amber series. I have read all of these, with the caveat that I have only read four Elric books and four Corum books. 

For the most part, Neutral is not a force in these works, but rather an in-between, a neutrality. The exception might be Moorcock's Grey Lords. Even then, the position of neutrality is seen more as not taking sides, and Law and Chaos only really care about each other. (See quotes below; page numbers emitted because they were pulled from e-texts.)

“True,” Rackhir nodded. “Most recently we averted a threat with certain aid from the Grey Lords—but Chaos had caused the gateways to the Grey Lords to be closed to mortals. We can offer you only our warriors’ loyalty" (Stealer of Souls)
“Arioch!” Elric bowed his head before the Lord of Chaos.
“Aye, Elric. I took the demon’s place while you were gone.”
“But you have refused to aid me . . .”
“There are larger affairs afoot, as I’ve told you. Soon Chaos must engage with Law and such as Donblas will be dismissed to limbo for eternity.”
“You knew Donblas spoke to me in the labyrinth of the Burning God?”
“Indeed I did. That was why I afforded myself the time to visit your plane. I cannot have you patronized by Donblas the Justice Maker and his humourless kind. I was offended. Now I have shown you that my power is greater than Law’s.” Arioch stared beyond Elric at Rackhir, Brut, Moonglum and the rest who were protecting their eyes from his beauty. “Perhaps you fools of Tanelorn now realize that it is better to serve Chaos!”
Rackhir said grimly: “I serve neither Chaos nor Law!”
One day you will be taught that neutrality is more dangerous than side-taking, renegade!The harmonious voice was now almost vicious.
“You cannot harm me,” Rackhir said. “And if Elric returns with us to Tanelorn, then he, too, may rid himself of your evil yoke[…]”
(The Sleeping Sorceress)

If you search the wikipedia page on Elric you get 13 mentions of Law, 28 of Chaos, and 0 mentions of neutral or the Grey Lords. IOW, the works are focused on the former two and the latter, neutrality, is almost an afterthought or just natural byproduct of the dichotomy (anything NOT Law or Chaos). Using Wikipedia is a fairly weak argument, but I certainly believe that Chaos and Law are more realized than neutrality in Moorcock.

Given his state influences, one wonders why Gygax even established a Neutral alignment language in D&D. I've probably already said enough about that in my previous posts, however.

Common Is Esperanto?

My friend Aonghais (who also dug up the quotes above for me) reminded me of Esperanto as attempt at universal language. It hit a nostalgia chord with me as I was once an avid reader of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series. In that fictional world, Esperanto is the galactic common.

I think the efforts of linguists to create a universal language of some kind teaches us something. To date, their efforts have always failed to find any kind of widespread use. Why? Because language is political. Let's start by recognizing that some languages might be superior to others: more normalized and rational in construction but also with a depth and sophistication. Even if we could all agree on which language is the "best" – which of course we can't – it would not mean that everyone would rush to learn and speak it. 

There's lots to say here, but it has been said by others. We all recognize the fact that language is used to create borders, to mark insiders from outsiders, to force allegiance. We can look at both noble and not-so-noble manifestations of language wars: like the well-intentioned efforts to retain French as the native language of Montreal, Quebec, or the bigotry espoused by songs like "Speak English or Die!" by Stormtroopers of Death. It's a thing, and we all know it. 

Non-Verbal and Mimetic Langauges

In the comments on my previous Common Is... post, Ron Bishop said "Andre Norton utilizes this limited common tongue concept in her Beast Master stories. Terrans and Norbies communicate through a limited "finger talk" since Norbie vocalizations sound more like birds." Great example!

In other discussions I've had on social media about Common and alignment languages, gamers have indicated similar interpretations. 

"I always thought alignment language was like how Italians can talk with their hands and tattoo people have this inside thing."

"I’ve always understood alignment language to be more akin to unspoken like body language or maybe more what is talked about."

This is an interesting take. Of course hands might vary as much as mouths. Can two races share a hand-language if one has 5 fingers and the other 6 or 4? It's a viable alternative for your game world though. 

Gygax ultimately settled on alignment as a set of culturally-shared memes. 
On page 24-25 of the 1e DMG.

Alignment language is a handy game tool which is not unjustifiable in real terms. Thieves did employ a special cant. Secret organizations and societies did and do have certain recognition signs, signals, and recognition phrases — possibly special languages (of limited extent) as well. Consider also the medieval Catholic Church which used Latin as a common recognition and communication base to cut across national boundaries. In AD&D, alignment languages are the special set of signs, signals, gestures, and words which intelligent creatures use to inform other intelligent creatures of the same alignment of their fellowship and common ethos. Alignment languages are NEVER flaunted in public. They are not used as salutations or interrogatives if the speaker is uncertain of the alignment of those addressed. Furthermore, alignment languages are of limited vocabulary and deal with the ethos of the alignment in general, so lengthy discussion of varying subjects cannot be conducted in such tongues.

It goes on. And on. But it's all interesting. It's clear that by 1978 Gygax had thought about alignment languages in some detail. Oddly none of this is even suggested in the PHB. It also fails to explain how someone who changed alignments or successfully infiltrated one couldn't know multiple alignment languages at once. 

In America, for example, if you go up to someone and say "Peace be with you," you will know they are Christian (or perhaps just certain sects of Protestant) if they say "And also with you." If you say "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" to someone and they get it, you will know they are a Trekkie. If you sing "My Bologna has a first name" any American over 50 will find it hard to resist singing back "It's O-S-C-A-R." We have all kinds of insider languages that aren't true languages. 

If you get this, you were "alive" during the 2020 election primaries.

There's no magic to knowing these cultural codes. No magic at all. Boring! I personally prefer the god-gifted glossolalia discussed in my previous article. And such a perspective seems warranted by key game systems such as spells and magic items that depend on alignment.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

What are alignment languages?

In my last post I talked about "Common" as a language. In this one I want to answer the question, "What the hell are alignment languages?" Also, "Why is there an alignment language for Neutral?" (By extension this gets into whether Neutral is in itself an ideology or a lack of one.)

Alignment Languages

The concept of alignment languages was baked into the first iteration of D&D (Oe, 1974) and reached it's most elaborate state with the nine-point alignment as detailed in the 1e AD&D Player's Handbook (1978). Here are the relevant passages:

Law, Chaos and Neutrality also have common languages spoken by each respectively. One can attempt to communicate through the common tongue, language particular to a creature class, or one of the divisional languages (law, etc.). While not understanding the language, creatures who speak a divisional tongue will recognize a hostile one and attack (Oe D&D Vol. 1, 12).

In addition to the common tongue, all intelligent creatures able to converse in speech use special languages particular to their alignment. These alignment languages are: Chaotic Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Evil, Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Neutral Evil, Neutral Good, and Neutrality. The alignment of your character will dictate which language he or she speaks, for only one alignment dialect can be used by a character (cf. CHARACTER CLASSES, The Assassin). If a character changes alignment, the previously known language is no longer able to be spoken by him or her (1e AD&D PHB, 34).

[Edit: I skipped over a section in the 1e DMG which alters the following assumptions somewhat. For now, just go with it knowing that this is my own take on alignment languages. I address EGG's thoughts in the DMG in the following post. ]

Conceptually, we are led to believe that these alignment languages are:

  • Full languages in which two proficient speakers can converse.
  • Languages that "come with" a character's alignment - so they are neither learnable by someone of another alignment, nor retained if one changes alignment.
  • Of a nature that discloses one's alignment when spoken, or at least one's relationship to other alignments.

Inferences and Practical Effects

Given these points, alignment languages are gifted (and revoked) in a supernatural way. They are gifted "by" someone or something of a sufficient power, the supernatural forces (gods) that are representative agents of each fundamental alignment.  

This means that the languages can serve as a real litmus test for alignment. "You say you are lawful; prove it by speaking Law!" Note that this could prevent characters from effectively operating in disguise (physical or illusionary), a common occurrence in D&D games.

They also serve as a kind of secondary Common. A chaotic character could speak to a minotaur in Chaotic. 

Absurdities: Neutrality and Overlap

All of these effects are interesting and bear a kind of strange, but consistent internal logic ... to a point. I find it reaches the level of absurdity with the nine-point alignment and with the nature of neutrality in general. Here are my opinions in that regard.

Given that neutral characters are granted the Neutral language, and that it can be revoked by a change of alignment, we have to assume that Neutral is governed by gods equal/analogous to the gods of Law and Chaos. There gods of Neutrality, and Neutral is not just a position in-between Chaos and Law or some form of agnosticism. 

In practice, a lot of players use neutral alignments as just that, a kind of alignment agnosticism; they don't feel bound by alignment forces and don't have alignment enemies. It's a kind of Humanism, or perhaps even the somewhat toxic Objectivity Positivity espoused by Ayn Rand. That is, it's the ultimate form of self-love/selfishness.

Other players treat it as a kind of religion of its own - seeking a kind of harmony or balance in the universe. It takes some mental gymnastics to reconcile the two types of players. Selfishness and communalism, for instance, would seem to be at odds. (Though one can intelligently argue that what is best for the self is to neither be more or less advantaged than others.) More to the point, what are the gods of neutrality like? They have to exist if Neutral is a gifted language.

Nature is presumably the best model - each organism pursues its own interests, but larger forces (weather, species competition, geography...) conspire to enact change (evolution). IOW, balance is achieved effortlessly over eons, but individually life is a struggle. This gives us a kind of picture of a force that is both real in-game and allows characters a range of expression from selfish or apathetic to a zealot seeking to establish balance. The gods are probably gods interested more in the tapestry than its individual knots of fabric.

That's a cool idea, but functionally, in the game, I kind of want an out. Neutrality seems to draw players who want characters in a neutral, unaligned space (rather than aligned to Neutrality). This means a lowercase neutrality could exist alongside or in place of Neutrality. To relate that to the point of this article, a truly neutral person could not speak Neutral. 

If Neutral exists, each corner of the triangle should be antagonistic toward both of the other corners. Neutral clerics should war with both Lawful and Chaotic ones. Lawful clerics should feel equally antagonistic toward Neutral and Chaotic clerics. If Neutral doesn't exist ... if there is only neutral (lowercase), then the battle ground between Law and Chaos is a bit more charged. 

And what of the nine point alignment? Where we had Law, Chaos, and Neutral before, we now have things like Lawful Neutral, and Neutral Evil. Somehow, the Neutral half of LN is fundamentally different from the Neutral half of NE, otherwise the languages would overlap such that some words would be common to both. Similarly, the Chaotic of Chaotic Good and Chaotic Evil would overlap? It's nonsense. I believe this is why Gygax retreated to a position where alignment languages are cultural rather than god-gifted. You aren't magically imbued with Chaos as a language the minute your alignment drifts into the chaotic, but rather you learn all the mannerisms of speech and body language that allow you to fit in. But ... how does this make sense with a magic system that allows you to detect alignment, or weapons that are tuned to one alignment or another? Alignment languages are a mess in AD&D.


As a kind of wrap-up thought, I want to talk about glossolalia. This is the word for what some religions call "speaking in tongues." (There is an argument among protestant Christians about tongues – some say the were other real-world languages, while other sects believe in a kind of angelic tongue. The latter also usually feature interpreters who can understand those speaking in tongues.) Glossolalia is a more "scientific" term for "speaking in tongues." It specifically means to speak in a language that is not known by others.

Part of me was tempted to think of alignment languages as Glossolalia. They are languages gifted by the gods that are a mark of "ownership" and for which understanding must also be gifted. If your character is lawful, they must be gifted the language of Law and others who would understand them must also be lawful and gifted the language of Law. Further, you have to be "moved by the spirit" to "speak in tongues" and/or to be able to translate them. If you are not living out your alignment, it might prove impossible to access your alignment speech.

From the perspective of a (lowercase) neutral character, a character speaking in an alignment tongue might appear to be speaking gibberish. They might assume such speakers are deluding themselves. 

It's extremely interesting to note that Gary Gygax himself was a member of a fairly extreme protestant congregation; he was a Jehovah's Witness. JWs acknowledge the reality of speaking in tongues. At the time Gygax was writing D&D, JWs believed it was a miracle of God in the first century, as recorded in the New Testament. Modernly, they believe that speaking-in-tongues still happens, but that it is instead caused by a demonic spirit wishing to create division in the church. So, while they don't believe people should speak in tongues, they definitely believe that people can and do speak in tongues and that it is an ability granted by an inhuman supernatural entity. It strikes me that I have never heard anyone claim that Arneson introduced the idea of alignment tongues, which makes me think it was Gygax's invention.  He is, therefore, both its creator and (when it comes to AD&D) it's destroyer.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Common is more-or-less 800 words

I've been thinking a lot about RPG languages recently. This article is pretty specific to D&D and related games, but general principles apply to other games as well. Some of the questions I've been asking myself are:

  • Why is each species language seemingly monolithic? Humans don't all speak the same language so why should goblins or lizardfolk?
  • Does it help to know a language in the same family as another? If my character knows Goblin, does he have a chance to understand the gist of a conversation in Orcish? It works that way in the real world, knowing one "Romance Language" can give you a leg up on another. 
  • What the hell are alignment languages and why is there one for "Neutral?" (BTW, my first thought is that they are bit like "speaking in tongues" or glossalalia. But I'm still mulling that over; watch for a future post.)
  • And, the topic of this article, what is Common, exactly?

The Common Concept
Let's start with how the Common language works in most games. In my experience, GMs and players think of Common as fully-fleshed language that nearly every creature in a setting can learn and speak. Further, most intelligent creatures that interact with humans learn Common and speak it by default. We can generally infer that it's a language invented by humans, though that is rarely explicitly stated. 

Common Problems
This conception of Common is increasingly less realistic the larger the setting gets. To start with, non-human species with variant mouth shapes and conceptions of language/body language would find it much harder to learn and speak Common. Lizardmen, for instance, probably don't have lips soft enough to correctly form words with b, f, m, p, v, w, and y. They would have to develop some analogous, approximation, given the lips and anatomy they have. (I bring anatomy into it because of common non-verbals, like shrugging.) Second, cultural drift, political borders, and other contrariness would both increase the need for, and spoil the efforts to preserve a universal Common, even among human tribes. There is likely to be some percentage of humans, perhaps whole regions of them, who haven't learned and might refuse to learn Common. 

New Rules for Common
What does "realism" have to do with fantasy anyway? Why do we care? Let's recognize that Common is just part of the game and tackle it as rationally as possible. The goal is to build something that is internally consistent, feels real, and is perhaps more fun to work with than classic Common. Here are some conceits that I believe would make for an, more realistic and interesting take on Common:
  • Common is a trade language developed or most heavily influenced by the most prosperous/prolific species in the area. Pretty much all games assume that is humans, but it wouldn't have to be. Your game, your choice. All species that commonly interact with the dominant one, learn Common growing up. Those that never wander or are more isolationist, don't. 
  • Common consists of about 800 words. This number is derived from the "Basic English" work of I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogen and affirmed by this recent article on functional language learning. As a result, the words that make up Common would be extremely basic and un-nuanced. The tyrannical Big Brother culture in 1984 provides a good example of a much-reduced vocabulary. All the synonyms for good and great are replaced with "good (good)," "plus good" (great), and "double plus good" (excellent). The practice of a Common language exchanges sophistication for universality: a lot of people speak it, but when speaking Common one can only communicate very basic ideas. For most things, there is only one word in common: hut, den, burrow, nest, etc. are probably all just "house." 
  • Having only 800 or so words makes the language easy to pick up in a short amount of time. It would take days and weeks to learn, not months and years. 
  • Species with mouth-shapes that significantly vary from the base-culture of Common are less likely to learn Common and, when they do, are difficult to understand. That being said, Common develops within a region to accommodate. Maybe instead of "house" the word "nest" is used because a common species can't speak an "h" easily.
  • Communication in Common takes longer (requires more patience) and is likely to include a number of misunderstandings from concept drift or simply misspeaking/mishearing. It's too simple to be useful for deep subjects.

These simple ideas keep Common powerful, but also make it a lot less useful, so that knowing other languages is a huge benefit. In fact, let's add another bullet:
  • Speaking to another culture in their own language automatically gives you a +1 on reaction rolls. It probably also means you have a rudimentary understanding of their culture.

Finally, let's assume a similar rule applies to all cultural and regional differentiations in the base-language as well. IOW, if you are of the base culture and travel far from home, you are more and more likely to rely on Common and not be able to speak the local language. It probably first pops up as heavy accent or dialect issues, so that you are speaking the same language but communication is slower and gives rise to a number of sidebars (to explain unfamiliar words and figurative language). 

As a counterpoint, we might assume that long-lived cultures experience less language drift. They are slower to adopt new and variant words. 

Practical Impact on the Game

My final thought is that, while I like all of these ideas, I recognize that they require energy in-game. This is why Common in most games is treated as outlined at the start of this article. Language barriers can be fun and interesting, but they can also be tedious. So I would generally allow a lot of latitude until someone tries to express an idea in Common that just seems really technical or nuanced. At which time I would point out the other conversant is looking confused, or angry, or trying to suppress a laugh.

Treating Common as an un-nuanced language makes learning other languages more useful and special. Thus supplying a reason for non-wizard characters to value a high Intelligence. 

The idea that your dialect of your own language becomes less useful the farther from home you travel is also an interesting one in game terms. It could serve as a signal that you are moving into a region where understanding local laws and cultural norms will be more difficult. You will be unable to pass as a local unless you keep your trap shut, and you may find yourself running afoul of local law or simply making embarrassing blunders. IOW, the GM could use it as a plot hook, to make an area feel more exotic, or even to encourage players to stick to the "known lands."

Also note that speaking the same language creates intra-party ties and politics. A human, an elf, and a dwarf walk into a tavern. The human speaks Common and local Human. The Elf speaks Elven, Common, and Dwarvish. The Dwarf speaks Dwarvish, Common, and Goblin. They can all order beer or wine in Common. Small talk is slow and sparse because they have to converse only about basic things, except when the Elf deigns to speak Dwarvish and the two of them can start commenting on the loutish human patrons of the bar ... and then possibly fall into an alcohol-fueled argument about the relative merits of smithing vs. woodcraft or some such.  

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Unofficial Delve FAQ

Here are the questions I have had while reading the rules or playing, and the answers I've come up with for my own play. I'm sharing them for the benefit of others, but they are in no way endorsed by the creator of Delve.

Awww. Ain't he cute.

Q: You get 5 soldiers at the start, in your entrance square. Is this square a kind of Barracks? If so, is its limit 5? Or will the soldiers move to the first Barracks I build? 

A: Unclear in the rules. I treat it like a free, first Barracks with a capacity of 10.

Q: When do I shuffle the cards I've drawn back into the deck?

A: Page 4 says "After you've resolved a card (e.g. drawn the discovery on your map, and dealt with any combat) shuffle it back into your deck." This could mean every turn and maybe more. That's kind of ungainly, so my ruling is that I only shuffle the deck at the end of a turn in which I have drawn an Ace. Note that I also use the deck for the d2/d4 "rolls" instead of rolling dice. So I go through a lot of cards. 

Q: When Exploring, do I have to build a corridor to get to an adjacent cell? 

A: It is a little unclear, but my impression is this, from reading pages 3 and 11 primarily: all adjacent cells on the same level (row) are implicitly connected. All cells above or below are not connected, by default, and require stairs. Stairs and corridors are free, but you can only build one per turn and it takes up the time you would have built a room (so it's stairs OR corridor OR room). So why would one even build a corridor? Well, on page 9 it says a corridor or drawbridge can be built over water, so you could use it to bridge a space. A corridor takes up a cell, BTW. 

Q: Can I build in a cell I haven't explored?

A: Yes? Apparently that's how it works. You can build in an empty room or cavern or in an empty cell. I got this (still get this) wrong a lot and think I have to have an empty room to build in, but the rules indicate you can build in an "unexplored space" that "you haven't drawn in" and which "connects to at least one adjacent explored space."

Q: Which units can I recruit at the start? Which things need a special room?

A: The answer is, ALL units that you might recruit require a room to be built (or sometimes found) first. (The exception would be if you treat the initial cell as a free Barracks.) Here is the correlation:

  • Soldiers and Gunners need Barracks
  • Hounds need Kennels
  • Clerics need a Shrine or Temple
  • Mages need a Library
  • Prisoners need a Prison (duh)
  • Alchemists need a Lab
  • Golems need a Golem Forge (which you find, not build)
  • Cannons need a Forge
  • Skull Dwarves need a Crypt (which you find, not build)
Note that most rooms have a max capacity. You can only "recruit as many units as you are able to house and afford."

Q: How do I calculate enemy unit STR? Are the terms Unit and Troop used interchangeably?

A: As I understand it, a unit is a singular thing you recruit, e.g. 1 Soldier or 1 Cannon. A Troop is a group of units moving together. The card draw tables will tell you how to calculate enemy STR (sort of). Sometimes the STR is fixed, sometimes it is by the size of the room they are found in. But you always add Level x 5 STR. If a "Hive" is 10 STR  x 2 grid cells, that makes it 20 STR. Except that, if it is found on level 6, the Hive would be (10 STR x 2 cells) + (5 STR x 6 levels) or  50 STR. That's how I read it. The rules aren't super clear, but I think it would be a little weird to add the level bonus first, e.g. (10 STR + (5 STR x level 6)) x 2 cells = 80 STR.

Q: Cleric shields have a range and are "per cleric," but what about Temple-generated shields?

A: On page 8 it says that "Clerics can only apply shields to units/Troop that are in the same grid space or directly adjacent." It also says they can do one shield per cleric. My assumption is they can stack. A Temple says "A Temple of Protection allows you to pay 5 Trade Goods (Diamonds) and place a Shield with 20 STR on a unit or Troop" (page 15). Later it says, on the same page, that Temples need at least one Cleric to activate their effects. So, can I activate that effect multiple times if I pay the 5 TG multiple times? Can I only do it as many times as I have clerics, even though I only need one to activate the power, and/or as many times as I have units, and/or as many times as I have troops? And since it's implied that the temple (not the cleric) is generating the shield, does it have to go on a unit in an adjacent space or can it go on any unit/troop? My ruling has been that there is no range. You need 1+ clerics to activate the temple and it can place a 20 STR shield on any troop for 5 TG. Can it do it multiple times? I've played it different ways, but let's say "no." I think it's more fun if it only works once per combat. The upside is that it can go anywhere. I suppose if you play it just like clerics (with a range of 1, IOW) you could move your troops adjacent to the temple, get the blessing, and then ship out. In which case you might want some rails leading to your temple! Also, the extra clerics could stack on some 5 STR shields that way. IOW, 3 clerics could apply 30STR (20+5+5) of shields to a unit that way. 

Q: If a unit is wounded but doesn't die, what happens? Or, what do I do with leftover damage that isn't enough to kill a unit?

A: It's clear that if an enemy takes damage but isn't killed, the damage sticks. A 50 STR horde of goblins climbing over a 20 STR spear wall comes out the other side as a 30 STR horde of goblins. Let's say that same 50 STR horde moves through a troop of 10 soldiers that each have a 7.5 STR because of a nearby Kitchen. The combined strength of the soldiers is 75. The goblins die, and in the process reduce the soldiers STR to 25, which at 7.5 per soldier means there are 3.333 bodies remaining. The rules say (page 8) "if the damage would be enough to defeat a unit in that Troop (i.e. 6 damage in a Troop of soldiers), then a unit is defeated." The implication and letter of the text there is that since the damage was enough to kill 6/10 soldiers in this case and not enough to kill 7/10, then that "third" of a soldier walks away to fight again as a whole soldier. And that's the way I play it. Note that in the example given by the book, assumed soldier STR is 5 per. So 6 damage on 2 soldiers (10 STR total) kills one and leaves one.

Q: Does combat take place all in the same turn?

A: Yes. At first I thought the rules might mean that units move one space every turn, but the term used is "combat rounds" (not turns). You play out the combat in rounds, but all within the same turn. Round movement mostly just determines where the battles take place and how many/which rooms a unit moves through. I also use a round in which one of my troops can move to activate things like Temples and Pumps. More on that below.

Q: Is there a limit to the width/depth of my hold?

A: Apparently not. Per page 9 though, the play grid supplied is 10 cells wide by 8 tall. 

Q: Are barricades relative to a cell's wall?

A: I asked this question because of an oddball comment on page 9 under Burrowing. It says "barricades can be built horizontally over openings like these or to close off stairs." Which made me wonder, if I used a barricade to seal off a room of gas to the "left" of a room, does that mean monsters could freely travel through the room north to south? Or could I place the barricade in front of the stairs and allow monsters to move freely in all directions except up the stairs? Sounds like I could. I place barricades relative to a specific wall or walls. I pay the same no matter how many walls/exits in a cell I want to cover. It doesn't come up all that much.

Q: Liquid and gas flows up to 2 spaces sideways, just at the beginning? In one direction or both?

A: I've read this different ways at different times, but the let's start with a simple answer and then explain why the question is worth asking. Identify the source of liquid or gas. Have it go up (gas) or down (liquid) as soon as it can. If it needs to move one or two spaces to do that, then have it flow in the direction of the nearest point of escape. Once it flows up or down, it doesn't move laterally anymore. If it can't go up or down, even after flowing two spaces left or right, then just roll a d2 to see which way it flows (black left, red right). We are assuming that no ground or ceiling is perfectly level and slopes slightly toward the nearest drop or ascent. So, up/down as soon as it can, and laterally up to two spaces beforehand if it can't.

Having said that, there are lots of ways to interpret the movement described. You could, for instance, have it go laterally up to two spaces in either/both directions as well as going up/down. Or you could have it go one space laterally, then fall or rise until blocked, and then have it flow another space laterally, and then ascend/descend if possible. Some might read it as flowing two spaces and then rising/dropping and then flowing up to another two spaces, etc. 

Q: How do monsters move during a takeover?

A: I have them move one cell at a time, as per normal combat, and determine direction randomly when progress toward the entrance is impossible. This will matter if you have troops that can get to the monsters and defeat them. If you don't, you can just shorthand this and have them move through all the rooms they are going to eventually claim in one go.

Q: The rules say Hospitals revives one troop of your choice on the same level after combat, is that really a troop or just a unit?

A: Good question. I think the rules may have meant to say unit, not troop. IOW, if you had 10 soldiers in a troop and they all got wiped out, does the hospital bring back 1 or 10? You can make your own call. One is seemingly too weak and the other might be too strong. You pay 10 hearts and 10 diamonds for a hospital (so 15 diamonds if you covert the hearts/resources). That's the cost of three soldiers. A hospital would only be worth it if there were more than three battles on that level involving soldiers, if you take the conservative "unit" view. But what if a hospital could bring back a singular 30 diamond cannon unit? Can a hospital heal a cannon? Let's say this - hospitals can't heal constructs, but they do in fact restore ALL of the units in a single living/breathing troop on the same level at the end of a combat.

Q: Are Museums worth it? 

A: My math says no, though there is definitely a cool factor. You could spend 50 hearts and 50 diamonds, then wait to defeat an enemy, and THEN you get to build a statue that gives you a measly +10 STR against them in future combats? Nah. Note though, that this should/would apply to multiple troops. If an enemy for which you have a statue just happens to pop up a second time and goes through a troop of soldiers and then a troop of cannon, that +10 STR would be applied to both combats, I think.

Q: The Overseer's Office doubles any diamond card in its column, is that before or after the level bonus?

A: Since it doubles the card, I read that as before the level bonus. Say you draw a 2 of diamonds on level 8. Normally that would be worth 10 TGs (2 + 8). With an overseer it would be (2 x 2) + 8 = 12. If you read it the other way, it would be (2 + 8) x 2 = 20. 

Q: Shrines can work as a level 3 trap and are much cheaper, am I missing something?

A: Good question. Yes, a shrine of defense costs 20 hearts (same as a L1 trap) but counts as a passable level 3 trap - AND you can recruit a cleric with it AND you don't need a mason to build it. The rules don't say if this is a stopping or damage trap, so one would presume it's your choice. Also, what does "passable" mean - that you can pass through it with troops unlike other L3 traps (page 17, bottom) - or that it "passes for" a L3 trap? I guess since you need the cleric to activate the trap it's more like 28 hearts for that trap. But a L3 trap built by a mason effectively costs 60 hearts plus the cost of the mason (though he can build more than one). Hmmm. It's a loophole, exploit it to your heart's content.

Q: Stockpiles and Treasuries (page 14 and 15) say they "increase your maximum" and under the Rune of Greed rules (page 39) an effect applies when you have more TGs "than the capacities of your Treasuries." Do you have a limit on resources and trade goods? What is it?

A: Yeah. I don't know. I read this at first as adding 50 hearts (Stockpile) or TGs (Treasury) to your pool. But I think it means increase your maximum by 50. But I haven't seen anywhere that tells you what your original maximum was. Let's assume it is 50. So increasing it by 50 doubles it. 

Q: How do Temples work? 

A: See the question above about cleric shields. 

Q: When do you activate drawbridges, pumps, temples, and other stuff you can activate. Do you need a unit there to activate them?

A: I say you do it on a turn in which you could move a unit, but no, you don't have to have a unit there - unless the room description says you do. IOW, you need a cleric at a Temple of Defense to throw up a  20 STR shield but you can open up a pump to flood an area without any unit in the room. In most cases having a troop there would defeat the purpose. For instance if a unit was in the room with a pump, it would die. If a unit was activating a drawbridge in a square where an enemy was, they would immediately fight (before the drawbridge is activated?) and the unit would either die before closing the bridge or the enemy would die in which case there is no point in closing the bridge.

Q: Elevators give a speed for monsters ascending, can troops descend in them too? How fast? At the same time?

A: Enemies take 2 rounds per cell to ascend. I say troops ascend or descend at normal speed (1 cell per round) and that, yes, they can do that while an enemy is ascending. However, these elevators are open (no sides) so if/when one enters the square of the other a fight breaks out. Otherwise, they would just pass each other by! And that's no fun.

Q: Pumps are pretty great aren't they? Do they cost anything to reset?

A: Yes. Yes they are. They can become a really easy way to defeat an enemy. So here is what I say. First, you have to pay 5 diamonds to reset the pump (like a trap). Second, you have to drain the room first. You also have to drain any other room it flooded if you want it dry again (it costs 5 diamonds, per page 5). Stop your crying, you killed a dragon with it, right? Also, pumps follow the flow rules I set above. The water drops as soon as it can and stops flowing sideways when it does - but until it drops it can go up to two cells toward a drop or just sideways in one direction or another (random if no drop is closer than another).

Q: Are Breeder rooms worth it?

A: Probably not, but consider the cool factor of having your own mini-dragon. 

Q: The book says that Damage and Stopping Traps "start at level 1," is that the dungeon level?

A: Nah. This was a poor word choice. Trap and barricade levels are kind of like "ranks." A level 1 damage trap does 10 STR damage. A level 3 trap does 30 damage. They do this damage regardless of what level of the dungeon they are on.

Q: Do defensive barricades damage units?

A: I don't think so. It's just a kind of wall. Once the unit is strong enough to bust through, it does, without taking damage.


Post them below!

Delve 3, in progress

I think it may be safe to say I'm a little obsessed with playing Delve (see earlier posts). In fact, my next post is going to be a more in-depth look at the rules as a kind of FAQ.

For now, let me tell you about my current hold. 

Day 1 journal entry: Today's Delve is going well. An hour in and no show stoppers. Although the lich-queen came very close to ending my digs for good. Experience is starting to count. I built a temple early and was ready for that damned Demon Portal that I always seem to draw. I've had some good luck too. That crystal cave put out trade goods for a huge number of turns and both times I ran into gas pockets, they were blinding (only), not toxic. I definitely wasted money on that drawbridge though. Didn't know I was going to hit an underground lake.

Day 2: The Delve continues... So what happened today? I got most of the gas cleared up. But while trying to expand my first level I ran into magma that wiped out my Mason and Forge. Lots of monsters vanquished, including a crypt of Skull Dwarves, Fraxilector the Golden (a dragon), and a hive of Black Wasps. Mostly by flooding. Again, I think pumps might be overpowered or rather that more things should have immunity to them? I dunno. I also had to sac another cleric to close up a second demon portal. I've uncovered two wishing wells and a buried temple and haven't had the guts to use either - I'm afraid of bad magic. The biggest item of note was running into an ancient monstrosity in the form of Metus - Dancer in the Dark. Luckily? He immediately disappeared (Mastermind) and will come back the next time I draw a King card. I also have a sleeping dragon, Dranigar the Surly, on my hands. I've stolen from him twice and gotten away with it. I can't resist those 20 diamonds! Treasuries are low 34 hearts and 32 diamonds. But they've been lower. Stopping for today to think about building more defenses.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Delve: a very short play example

Today's Delve didn't last long (maybe 15-20 minutes). 

I built up a small unit and went down to level two. There I hit giant ants. 

After defeating those I ran into a well that I was too hesitant to use. Then a demon gate that I had to seal (after fighting the first round of spawn that came out of it). Sealing it took building a shrine near the grave site of my dead soldiers, recruiting a cleric, and then convincing that cleric to sacrifice herself (along with a ton of diamonds). 

Depleted in both soldiers and coin, I foolishly opened up another room on level two. Shit. An XXL monster village. The goblins there were strong (50 STR) and worked their way up, defeating my remaining 6 soldiers (45 STR with the Kitchen in play), and overrunning my hold!

I'm going to start naming my Dwarf Holder and maybe even the soldiers, clerics, etc. That way it will hurt more when I lose them. 

FYI, the only rules mod I'm using right now is that I redraw only at the end of a turn on which I drew an Ace. That puts more variety in the game and reduces shuffling time.

Cheap fixes for 2d6 random tables

Random encounter tables using two dice are heavily peaked toward the median. Sometimes that's good. For instance if you want the weather in a region to be fairly predictable are trend strongly toward a specific result. But sometimes that median result becomes tedious when rolled repeatedly. This is especially true in encounter tables, where the "most boring result" is often stored in the middle. After you have fought that random, roving band of goblin guards three times, do you really want to chance rolling it again?

There are some cheap, fast, and easy fixes.

1. Cross out the result you are tired of getting and write in a new result. Goodby "d4+2 Goblin Guards," hello "Bugbear looking for the latrine."

2. Just ignore the dice when you get a result you have already gotten and choose a different result. I recommend shifting up the table one result at a time until you hit something new.

3. Instead of using the result you get (yet another run-in with those gobba-guards), insert a sign from the most dangerous thing on the table. The party turns the corner to see a huge pile of dragon poo!

4. Swap out the two like dice for two unlike dice. For instance, change 2d6 into a d8+d4! This flattens out the curve, as seen in these graphs (courtesy of AnyDice.com). Note that the chances of the extreme results don't change that much, but the middle flattens out dramatically. 

You can mess around on AnyDice and see how different combinations of dice that produce the same number of results and the same top and bottom numbers affect the curve. For instance, look at 2d10 vs. d8+d12. Realize though, that this can easily become a mini-game that is no longer "fast and easy." Find your favorite alternates and stick to those so you don't enter some processing loop at the table or try to look at the curves in AnyDice in the middle of a game! 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Delve: a short play example

Here is a quick example of play for Delve (see my last post). I didn't track my cards and expenditures, I'm just going to kind of tell the story of what happened as I remembered it. 

At first the digging was easy. With some lucky draws and the starting funds, I built a Barracks, Kitchen, and Forge. 

Digging down I ran into an underground lake that flooded the level. I drained it and installed a pump. 

Digging away from the lake I ran into an ancient library which released evil magic. It opened a portal to some kind of demon circus. Twice the demons clowns spawned and twice I flooded them out with the pump.

The Hold, at the end of the first session.

It was at this point that I had to make up/add some rules about pumps. The rules say you can activate them in flood mode. And water goes up to two spaces in either direction, and as far down as it can. The rules don't say how/when you activate the pump in this mode or whether it is useable again. So I made up the following rules. To activate a pump you need a unit there. They may retreat one space after activating it (so they don't die from the resulting flood). You can't activate a pump in a room with enemy units. Afterward you have to pay 5 diamonds (per the rules) to drain the room and 5 hearts to reset the pump (as if it were a trap).

Knowing that the next time the demons spawned they would get to the pump room ahead of me, I went back to the first level and worked sideways, building a shrine and recruiting a cleric. The cleric immediately sacrificed himself (and 20 diamonds) to seal the hell-circus. (Later I recruited another one, just in case.) That problem dealt with, I tried to go down on the right side of the digs.

On the right side, I kept hitting magma. Sigh. Back to the pump room. I dug down and hit a goblin village. I had 10 troops (total STR 75 because of the kitchen nearby), so that wasn't a big problem. Then I hit a golem forge, and a magma tube. And then a purple worm.

I dug down at that point and hit the Lich King's chambers. It and/or its army of undead was huge - 120 STR points because of the size of the room (5 x 20 STR) and the level (+20 STR for L4). My troops were depleted from the goblin fight and it looked grim. So in the ensuing battle I reversed the pumps, causing a flood. 

The flood went down into goblin town, over into the golem forge, down into the Lich King's hall. Problem solved.* I wasn't really thinking about gravity though, so I actually had the water run over two spaces. 

Which meant the flood waters ALSO fell down the magma tube. What happens when a flood of water hits magma? My guess was gas. I used the random table for one of the gas rooms to see of what type it was, and it was, of course, toxic. 

The gas rose and filled level 3 (left side). Then level 2. Then level 1. Where it wiped out my remaining troops.  At this point, I spent my remaining money clearing a few chambers of gas and water, and decided to quit for a while. 

* Ok. Per the rules a flood defeats any troops. Should it defeat undead? I don't know. Maybe the force of it scattered their bones. I suppose I could have ruled that it didn't affect undead, in which case I would have lost the fight and the Lich King's horde would have reached my stairs to the upper realm and caused my hold to be a failure. 

As you can see, this game requires some adjudication from the player. I wasn't totally comfortable with the rhythm of the game at first to trust my judgment in these matters. Was I being too hard on myself? Too easy? Was I missing stuff? After a few sessions (no void crystal yet), I'm getting the hang of it. I can see how it work better on a 1" grid, as suggested by the author, but I like playing in my digest-notebook. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Delve by Anna Blackwell

Well. This little solo-mapping-adventure game was a surprise. I've bought and played a number of solo games over the years. They often come in small formats, like zines, pocket-mods, or a few printable page spreads. Some are more workable, intuitive, and/or fun than others. I put this one at the top end of the ones I've played. After I've had my say on this one, I'll talk about a few comparable products. But before I go on, I don't want to forget to say that you can buy Delve and some of Anna's other games at Exalted Funeral Press


Delve is a 44-page game by Anna Blackwell. You can play it for a few minutes at a time, but a complete game will take hours to complete. It's very compact and satisfying in that regard. You just need some cards and pencil-and-paper (preferably gridded or dotted) to play. Anna suggests some tokens as well. I didn't use them because I was in a rush and wanted to get playing, but it would indeed be helpful during the combats.

But, let me back up and begin again with a top-down explanation. You are a the Overseer of a Dwarven Hold. Your king, the "Under-King," has tasked you with exploring the depths of the earth to find the fabled Void Crystal. The game proceeds in turns of 5 phases. 

1. In the first phase, you explore. This means you draw a card. The suit will tell you whether you encounter more resources, trade goods, or encounter a natural wonder (often dangerous) or remnant (usually some kind of monster or other threat). 

2. Once you resolve the card, you go into combat with any remnants uncovered. This only happens about 1 in every 4 turns and is resolved quickly. Your units move one chamber per turn, as do the monsters, heading for your hold entrance. (Sometimes the book will tell you that they do other things.) If you meet them in battle, you basically do attrition damage to each other, the winning side being reduced by the power of the losing side. There's nuances to that, but as a general description it works. And in play, it works. I kind of enjoy not rolling dice. As the Overseer you are managing a small army of soldiers and specialists. You can recruit more (see step 5). If the monsters make it to your entrance, your hold is a failure. You basically lose. 

3. The third phase involves converting resources into trade goods or vice versa to set up for turn 4. 

4. This is the phase where you build stuff. You get to build one room from a long list of rooms (barracks, forges, cannon outposts, hospitals, temples, etc.). You can only build one per turn, which is an important restriction. I often had enough resources/goods to accelerate things, but couldn't because of this turn-by-turn development. You also use this phase to make repairs to rooms that are damaged, build barricades and traps, etc. Again, all of this is spelled out. You look up what you want to build and the book tells you how much it costs, what its strength in combat is (if any), and how it works.

5. Finally you recruit units. Some units require you to build special rooms first. The book isn't always clear about this. For instance, I didn't see any where that you needed a special room to build cannons, but you need to randomly encounter a Golem Forge, and beat the golems there, before you can build golems.

There's also kind of a phase 0 where you do upkeep on special rooms you have encountered. For instance, I had a crystal cavern that yielded trade goods each turn (for a while). I also, unfortunately, encountered a spooky carnival that made killer clowns after a run in with some "Bad Magic."

Why is that in quotes? Because you either earn or encounter magic in the game by recruiting clerics or running into things like magic wishing wells. Often you randomize what family of spell you get, good or bad, and then randomize which spell happens out of 13 (Ace to 10 + J, Q, K as a table). It's good fun.


The first time through I started playing immediately, as I was reading. I had fun, but I was sure I was making a few mistakes so my first map has about 21 rooms before I felt comfortable enough with the basic concept to stop and really read the book. There's about 18 pages of actual rules. They are fairly simple and procedural in a way so that they don't all crowd in on top of each other. The rest of the book is tables and such you will use during play, with a few sections of rules that trigger off when you get deep into the dungeon. 

Honestly, while the rules are largely clear, and it's easy enough to work around what you don't understand, the organization isn't always great, some small bits of information are missing, and there are a few small things I would change. But by in large it is playable and REALLY FUN. I've been at it for hours now. My second map -- above -- is developing. I'm going to have to add pages, probably to get to the void crystal. I think the replay value is going to be pretty high. 

One other minor complaint I have is that it seems pretty easy to stay alive. This may be intentional. Anna says it is supposed to be relaxing. And indeed I found it to be relaxing and fun, emphasizing exploration and discovery over other game modes. Still, I might read through the rules one more time to see if I'm making my troops more powerful than they should be or missing something about the strength rating of foes. 

If You Like Delve...

First of all, I don't know that Anna has seen or read How to Host a Dungeon by Tony Dowler, but this game is similar and really stands on the shoulders of HtHaD. I've not played the 2nd edition of Dowler's game, but my gut says I like the process of Delve better. That being said, HtHaD has been around for years and is an incredible game. As far as I know it was the first game of this type, developing a setting/world/adventure through procedural, randomized drawing prompts. You should take a look at it. In HtHaD there is no winning or losing. "You" are not a character, but rather an observer of the activities of surface races digging deep into the earth for treasure. You root for the "good guys" (sometimes!), but you are not "one of them."

In contrast, Four Against Darkness by Andrea Sfiligoi is a dungeon-exploring, drawing game where you are the party. (Not just a character, but a party of four.) Whereas Delve you theoretically play until your hold fails or you get the void crystal, and HtHaD you play until you have gone through all the "ages" of the dungeon, in FAD you get a strong push-your-luck mechanic. Your play sessions are about getting in, getting enough experience to level up, and getting the hell out before you die! It's a punishing game (in a fun way). 

Last Thoughts

Buy this game. It's a cool, fun thing to play if you like to doodle or if you like designing dungeons or if you like solo games. I you like two of these, are all three, it's pure gold.