Friday, 31 May 2013

Cthulhu monster balance


This post was inspired by episode 17 of the MUP.

It's true that Call of Cthulhu doesn’t have the same monster balance situation as games with more of a PC power scale in them, like D&D or GURPS or Vampire or whatever. Monsters aren't a tactical challenge, but typically a narrative one, to be overcome by intellect or endured, rather than defeated. So you're not looking for a monster that provides a particular combat role and has a particular mathematical power relationship to PCs. At the same time, PCs don't level, so their power level compared to the monsters doesn't change much, except through changes in equipment or acquisition of a vital spell.

On the other hand, I think you can make a reasonable argument that monster balance is an issue you need to consider in scenario design. Monsters are extremely powerful in Call of Cthulhu, and most of them are perfectly capable of a TPK. In fact, forget monsters – an ordinary human is a serious threat to the party, in a game where a single lucky headbutt can kill. To take an ridiculous example, when you're picking something to scare the party outside the antagonist's lair and prove her sinister connections, but which they can overcome and proceed to a confrontation (or just blow the place up) you want to pick a ghoul rather than Great Cthulhu. Similarly, if you're looking for a terrifying abomination that needs to be evaded until they can escape or find a cunning solution, a ghoul just isn't tough enough to cut it (unless they're unarmed kids, for example).

However, I agree that it’s not the same kind of balance. You’re not weighing up Challenge Ratings or build points, and the power of monsters can be pretty difficult to establish. Also, you’re not just trying to create combat challenges of various levels for the party, but a whole range of possible interactions, with direct combat just one option.

Very broadly speaking, I think the balance issue for Call of Cthulhu is not “how powerful is this monster compared to the party?” but “how will this creature interact with the party?”. Different kinds of capabilities are appropriate for different cases. Sometimes you do, in fact, want something that will wipe the floor with a whole army. Sometimes you want something a single human can realistically defeat, or maybe outsmart. Sometimes you want something that doesn’t do combat at all: a psychic parasite, a malevolent presence, a predator on the vulnerable. And sometimes, you do want an interesting fight. Obviously, the balance of those will vary between groups, play styles and campaigns. The suitability of any monster for a particular role depends on a lot of different criteria.

Job-seeking for monsters

Ghouls allowed

For example, ghouls tend to get on with their own business, which occasionally intersects with living humans. If discovered, they might take measures to eliminate witnesses, but might also try to recruit them, strike a deal, or even leave them be if they don’t consider the person a threat. They don’t tend to hunt humans or actively meddle in human affairs, but might do so if they want to track down a particular treasure, or as part of an overall goal, such as dealing with a rival Mythos entity, or protecting an important location. An individual ghoul is only slightly more dangerous than a human, and a party can reasonably expect to survive an encounter with one. Of course, a ghoul is intelligent enough to avoid direct conflict if they don’t expect to win. However, where there’s one ghoul, there are probably more to come.

Ghouls are good for things lurking in shadows up to mischief, which can be beaten or driven off in small numbers, but who need to be defeated for good by stopping whatever plot they’re up to, which doesn’t necessarily mean direct conflict. They’re good as monsters that a party can tool up for and then confront directly. They’re also good as grey-area entities, who might have to be bargained with. They know all kinds of things, and are relatively relaxed about sharing them. They have understandable motivations and personalities, however twisted. However, a ghoul is not a particularly good fit for a single monster lurking at the evil heart of the town, because most are not very powerful or even that imposing. They’re not suitable as a terrifying entity that should send people (especially Investigators) fleeing in dread, or a Big Bad that’s intended to wreak havoc on the party; at least not as written.

...of a gigantic hound!

A hound of Tindalos, on the other hand, is a lone predator. It will relentlessly hunt down its chosen prey, taking delight in the fear of its victim. Its actions are restricted by a different and alien set of physical laws. It does not, in the usual way, deal or bargain, and can’t be scared off by pretty much anything humans can achieve. It’s vastly more powerful than a human, and immune to all but the most powerful of attacks; actually bringing any of those to bear on a teleporting time-traveller is yet another problem.

A hound is a great monster if you need a terrifying hunter, something that has picked off other victims regardless of protection, and now it’s after *you*. It’s a good motivator to get people moving, or doing frantic research, or taking desperate and possibly abhorrent measures to protect themselves – maybe go and make a deal with those ghouls. On the other hand, it’s not a good fit for a surprise to spring on the players, because an unexpected hound is a TPK by another name. As written, it’s not particularly good as the single evil heart, because it’s not the scheming manipulative sort and doesn’t tend to have followers. If you want something skulking about that the players might ambush and defeat as their first real evidence of Mythos involvement, a hound is far too dangerous. If you want a sort of haunted house mystery, with a creature lurking in the shadows that will strike at them, but eventually be defeated, a hound is possible, but problematic.

The Young Ones

Dark young of Shub-Niggurath are servitors, and immensely powerful ones. They have an array of magical powers, are incredibly strong, and terrifyingly resilient. They tend to either lurk in the wilds for their own mysterious purposes, or serve as focal points for cult worship.

A dark young is ideal as the great lurking evil that investigators must hunt down, and even better as the great evil that they must discover and then escape from. As the immediate centre of a cult, it’s much better than ghouls or hounds. They’re also decent as things to lurk around, motivations unknown, but clearly too dangerous to confront. On the other hand, a dark young is not so good as a hunter-down, since they’re big and obvious and it’s hard to have them skulking around. They’re not great as a gatekeeper monster for investigators to defeat or drive off during an investigation, or as a warning shot sent by some cult or sorcerer (while you could send a dark young just as a scare tactic, nobody insane enough to summon one is likely to try and restrain the thing). It’s possible to defeat one, but in planning a scenario that would be a big assumption to make unless you plan the setup to give investigators plenty of tools and options.

Okay, that seems like enough.

So when you’re planning a scenario, it’s reasonable to worry about whether a particular monster can fill a particular role in the game without either a) getting mown down in a hail of Fist/Punches and tommy-gun fire; or more likely b) wipe out the entire party when you didn’t want it to. There’s always going to be some margin of error, and you can make ad-hoc adjustments to some extent, but you want to gauge things at least roughly.

Monster analysis for fun and profit

Here’s a few things I might consider when looking at monsters. Obviously, a lot of these you can simply change, to fit your own interpretation of a monster or your own requirements. You can make it act more or less intelligently, and people often ignore the possibility of monsters having spells.

Physical capabilities

  • Some are roughly comparable to a human, with similar endurance and physical strength.
  • A very high proportion have tough hide, alien anatomy or are immaterial, and so are very difficult to damage.
  • Some are very strong, and can easily fend off a human or rip one apart.
  • Some have acidic blood, poisonous breath or consist of energy, and so approaching one at all is dangerous to humans.
  • Consider their skill percentages for attacks. These can make a major difference in the deadliness of an enemy.

Movement and speed

  • Some can’t move
  • Some are slow and sluggish
  • Some are fast and quick to react
  • Some can fly
  • Some can burrow
  • Some can teleport (or switch between clone-bodies at will, or leap to a new psychic host...)

Supernatural capabilities

  • Some creatures have powerful supernatural attacks or spells. These can easily allow them to injure or kill investigators.
  • Some creatures can enslave, terrify or otherwise control investigators, which alters the balance of power, and denies investigators the full use of their capabilities.
  • Some creatures can summon other creatures to reinforce them, or to hunt down investigators.
  • Some creatures can magically escape from difficult situations, so are very difficult to destroy or defeat permanently.
  • Some creatures can haunt dreams, track down individuals’ psyches, and otherwise cause harm from a distance.


  • Is it a mindless thing that acts purely on sensory input? These can be outwitted and manipulated by clever investigators.
  • Is it a beast, acting on instinct from hunger, fear, pain or rage? Investigators can plan how to deal with these, and predict their behaviour to some extent.
  • Is it somewhat intelligent, capable of rudimentary planning, setting ambushes, manipulating its environment, and predicting human behaviour? These can spring surprises on investigators, especially if nobody knows about them.
  • Is it of human intelligence, able to scheme, deceive, manipulate, build, destroy, use and learn with the best of them? These are exactly as dangerous as humans, pretty much.
  • Is it superhumanly intelligent? This one is (naturally) very difficult to model, except in terms of technology and learning capability. Naturally, these are extremely dangerous to deal with, because investigators can’t even rely on their wits to overcome a more powerful entity.

Behaviour and attitude

  • Randomly preys on people wherever it likes, so isn't a persistent threat but a constant menace.
  • Actively hunts down specific targets, under its own motivation or under orders, which leaves those targets in permanent danger but others largely safe.
  • Attacks intruders on its territory, but doesn't hunt, so it's relatively easily avoided.
  • Stays in one place unless disturbed, then defends itself and may become more active; not provoking it is the best course of action, at least in the short term
  • Exerts a malign influence through dreams, disease, spores, catalysing weird events... this creature's very existence causes problems for humans, and it needs to be escaped, destroyed, banished or otherwise dealt with to shake off those influences.
  • Captures victims for later consumption or experimentation, which means there's some chance of escape, but the creature is a long-term threat and may have horrific aims.
  • Captures victims and physically enslaves them, so escape is possible, and captives could be freed. The creature needs them for a purpose, so what is that purpose?
  • Captures victims and transforms them into minions; they may be savable from mental domination, but not physical transformation. Such creatures present a lurking threat - are people who they seem, or minions of the enemy?


Just how unsettling is the creature to see? Some are mildly repellent, others horrific and disturbing. Some force you to rethink your concept of reality. A creature with low SAN loss (anything up to a 1d6) is easier to shrug off narratively, and to pass off as something else - an ugly thug, a mask, a wild animal. Mechanically, it's unlikely to impose an insanity unless it's the latest in a string of shocks. A creature with high SAN loss is much more mechanically dangerous, because it's far more likely to cause an insanity that may prevent an Investigator from reacting appropriately. This means they may struggle to survive a threat that they could normally escape or deal with. This is more of a concern in groups that roll for insanities, as a Keeper can always select something that won't be crippling.

Monster roles

So I'm going to take a quick look at roles that monsters (and non-monsters) might take on in a Call of Cthulhu game. These are somewhat different from things like D&D roles, because they're primarily narrative rather than tactical. This is really off the top of my head, so feel free to disagree. Another point is that monsters may take a very different role when facing a party of armed soldiers, compared to a group of foppish professors; roles are always relative to the protagonist. Similarly, the tools offered by the scenario make a major difference: heavy weaponry, magical artefacts or spells can turn lethal opponents into only moderate threats.

Cultist: lackeys of a primary antagonist that work towards its aims. They are not initially easy to distinguish as monsters, so betrayals may occur. Cultists may be actual cultists, hypnotised minions, parasite hosts, human-looking monsters and so on. They normally occur in groups. Cultists are typically about as dangerous as humans, so one or two can be beaten by a party, half-a-dozen need careful handling, and larger groups present increasingly overwhelming threats. The party's technological capabilities, especial weaponry, usually make a significant difference to their chances against cultists.

Hordling: a creature that turns out to exist in significant numbers. Individual hordlings are, at most, slightly more dangerous than a human (though without weapons that's of little consolation). However, killing just one achieves little. Typically protagonists find themselves amongst hordlings, seeking a way to escape without being caught by the creatures; they may be actively hunted, or simply in hiding. Occasionally protagonists actively venture amongst them to retrieve a friend or item, either by stealth or in disguise. Hordlings may be able to adopt humanoid guise, or may be actually human. The Shadow over Innsmouth is a fine example of hordling monsters.

Gatekeeper: a creature that is overcome (one way or another) in order to continue with the scenario. A gatekeeper may provide final confirmation of the main antagonist's evil, perhaps being the first real proof of supernatural or monstrous presence in the story. Gatekeepers may be anticipated or unexpected; sometimes they are encountered early in a scenario but can't be defeated at the time. They are typically alone. They are threatening, and may have some immunities, but can be defeated with concerted effort from the protagonists. Physical force is often enough to defeat them.

Messenger: a creature that typically serves as a weapon of the true antagonist. It is sent to assassinate, kidnap, torment or warn off potential threats, either as a one-off or as a regular tactic. A messenger is often enslaved by the antagonist, but may also be a loyal servant, powerful hireling or the Brawn half of a dual antagonist. Messengers are quite dangerous, but tend to stick to their specific purpose, which means they won't bother to kill people who aren't in their way. They also often have a decent sense of self-preservation, and will back off if exposure or serious harm threatens. Because entertainment, fear or deterrence is often their goal, they don't mind letting victims escape and won't hunt them down relentlessly. A messenger is typically much more powerful than any individual protagonist, and sometimes more powerful than the party as a whole, but can be evaded or defeated with cunning. Messengers are often immune to some kinds of attack, but have specific weaknesses that can be exploited. Releasing a messenger from its servitude (or banishing it) may be a good solution. Defeating the messenger is not required to complete the scenario, but may be possible.

Beast: a creature that is the primary antagonist of a scenario, and protagonists are expected to defeat it as the climax of the adventure. It is typically a single creature, occasionally a small group. The beast is very powerful, and presents a major threat to the party obliged to deal with it. Defeat may mean destroying the creature in pitched battle, luring it into a trap, discovering and performing a ritual to banish it, or breaking its hold on a victim (especially a possessor or parasite). Monsters like a lone werewolf or Predator are classic beasts.

Hunter: a creature that is a major (often the primary) threat in a scenario, and which the protagonists must escape. It may be a relentless hunter that pursues them across space and/or time, and needs to be deterred or banished. Alternatively, protagonists may be trapped with the hunter, for example on a wooded island or in a spaceship, and need to physically escape. A hunter may be destroyed in a scenario, but this happens offscreen: the reactor core overloads, the ritual takes effect, the forest burns with the creature inside. Alternatively, the cavalry may capture or destroy it with resources far beyond those of the protagonists. Destruction is usually open to some question (and the possibility of an implausible sequel). Several apparent defeats may occur during a scenario, with the creature returning each time, perhaps regenerating or possessing a new body.

Final Horror: a vast, monstrous evil that is uncovered. A final horror is far too vast and monstrous to be destroyed, and sometimes has no physical form to attack; it can only be escaped, and often not even that. Anyone trying to fight a final horror is doomed. Most people encountering one are also doomed. Cthulhu himself is a good example.

Analysing the Fire Vampire

Campfire and sparks in Anttoora 5

For example, let’s look at the fire vampire. It’s not especially physically imposing, to be honest, but you can’t exactly brawl with it, so that doesn’t help. On the other hand, you can use normal physical obstacles against it, except that it can fly. It’s fast and manoeuvrable. It’s very difficult to harm by normal means, but vulnerable to things that extinguish flame – in theory, if you locked it in an airtight room, it’d burn out eventually. What mainly tips the balance is its fire attacks, which can cause an awful lot of damage to investigators in a pretty short time. While some weapons inflict similar damage, the resilience of the fire vampire tips the balance: it can damage investigators much more easily than they can damage it.

So in terms of direct confrontation, a fire vampire is a tough proposition for Investigators. It’s going to work well as an assassin, since it can fly, it’s fairly discreet, and its attacks can even be made to look like a normal fire. By giving the Investigators some heads-up, though, you can also use it effectively as a guardian of some location or artefact, which they must prepare to defeat. They’re good as roving monsters, visible from a distance and quite scary, which investigators must evade as they explore or escape some area – sure, you can destroy one with luck, but it’s risky and you’ll probably just attract more attention. You could probably use a fire vampire as a beast, actually: it’s dangerous and resilient enough that investigators will struggle to defeat one unless they’re prepared for the fight.

As a cultist, the fire vampire is clearly no use. You could potentially use one as a hordling with the right setup: scientists in a facilty might end up playing cat-and-mouse with an invasion of fire vampires, sneaking around the base and occasionally destroying one with a fire extinguisher.

Fire vampires make effective messengers: they're powerful enough to wreak havoc, and hard to kill without the right preparations. Their fiery nature means they can't easily capture or retrieve, but as assassins or warnings (or indeed, for destroying evidence) they're great. They're very often summoned as servitors, and are surprisingly discreet in many ways, so don't draw too much attention.

A fire vampire might serve as a gatekeeper. It's not a great match, especially because it relies mostly on ranged attacks that make it relatively hard to defeat. However, a messenger fire vamp might turn into a gatekeeper if tracked back to a lair of some kind; perhaps a crucial room in a sorcerer's home. Overall, though, I feel they don't quite have the right character to be a good gatekeeper. They're not quite alive enough, and too good at following people and hunting them down.

As a hunter, the fire vampire is good in many ways, but too vulnerable to mundane attacks to have the required staying power. It might work somewhere that didn't provide access to water or sand; simply boosting its hit points might do the trick, but once you start modifying creatures it's a new calculation. With a slightly different balance of power, a fire vampire could also be an effective beast, since it's dangerous and defeatable. Its manoeuvrability and insubstantial nature may cause some problems, though. You really want both beasts and hunters to be more like a powerful predator, limited by the environment and somewhat predictable, so that protagonists can escape from it and cower in fear somewhere.

Finally, without some serious modification, a fire vampire is not really suitable as a final horror. For one very important thing, it's not nearly big enough or monstrous enough, being just a little ball of fire, which isn't especially horrifying or sanity-blasting. Mechanically, it's not powerful enough to be an utterly overwhelming threat to a party of adult humans, since some lucky work with dust, water or even some fireproof blankets can take one out.

Right, I think that's more than enough uninformed wittering from me.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A Carcosan catalogue

Unknown Dutch Master- Still-Life with Books

I know Shannon is running an adaptation of Tatters of the King at the moment, and a few times people on YSDC have asked about ways to show off the growing influence of Hastur in the setting.

Well, I thought that drawing on some authentic period literature for flavour might be nice, especially when dealing with artistically-inclined Investigators, so I've dug up a few real-life books and plays from the 1910-1930 period with titles that seem evocative. I may add to this list when I have time: some decadent poetry and music would be nice, and some artwork (recommendations welcome; I'm not sure where to look).

Just a note, I didn't check any of these books' contents, only the titles; I'm guessing players won't generally have a clue about them either, and a book with an appropriate title and irrelevant content seems more useful here than one with really suitable content whose title gives no clues. You can always make up some better contents if necessary. I'm fairly sure there'll be at least one distressingly racist book in there somewhere, given the period.


The yellow book, or The story of the yellow jar
By: Yellow book.
Description: [1901] Lond. cm.15. book

The old yellow book : source of Browning's The ring and the book in complete photo-reproduction
By: Hodell, Charles Wesley ; Franceschini, Guido, conte, 1657-1698
Description: 1908, [i. e. 1916] Second edition. [Washington, D.C.] : Carnegie institution of Washington, 27 x 21 cm. book

The dancer in yellow
By: Norris, William Edward.
Description: 1913 Lond. cm.17. book

The woman with the yellow eyes
By: Dawe, William Carlton L.
Description: [1919] Lond. (8). book

My lady of the yellow domino
By: Marchmont, Arthur Williams.
Description: [1914] Lond. &c. cm.18. book

The yellow leaf, otherwise : The third book of Sarah
By: Christie, Robert Stuart.
Description: 1926 Lond book

The yellow typhoon
By: Mac Grath, Harold.
Description: [1923] Lond book

The yellow primrose
By: Young, John Frederick.
Description: 1928 Longmans, Green and Co. 348 p. book

The yellow streak
By: Williams, Valentine, 1883-1946.
Description: [1923] [Popular ed.]. London : H. Jenkins 311 p. ; 20 cm. book

The yellow diamond
By: Sergeant, Emily Frances Adeline.
Description: 1904 Lond. cm.19. book

The yellow war
By: James, Lionel, 1871-1955.
Description: 1905 Edinburgh ; London : William Blackwood viii, 302 p., [8] leaves of plates ; 20 cm. book

The yellow letter
By: Johnston, William Andrew.
Description: 1912 Lond. cm.18. book

Through a yellow glass
By: Blakeston, Oswell.
Description: [1928?] [London] : Pool 138 p., [3] leaves of plates : ill. ; 19 cm. book

The yellow bridge : and other tales
By: Hodder, Francis Edwin.
Description: [1925] Lond book

The yellow pirates, and other stories
By: Finnemore, John, b. 1863. Woodville, P. W. Caton
Description: 1922 London : A. & C. Black vi, 248 p., [8] leaves of plates : ill. ; 20 cm. book

The yellow rat
By: Grierson, Francis Durham, 1888-
Description: [c1929] London : Collins 270 p. book

The yellow mistletoe
By: Masterman, Walter S. (Walter Sidney), b. 1876.
Description: [1930] London : Jarrolds 288 p. 20 cm. book

The yellow holly
By: Hume, Ferguson Wright.
Description: 1904 Lond. cm.18. book

The mystery of the yellow room
By: Leroux, Gaston.
Description: [1920] Lond book

The yellow document; or, 'Fantômas of Berlin'
By: Allain, Marcel.
Description: 1919 Lond. cm.18. book

The yellow snake
By: Wallace, Edgar, 1875-1932.
Description: [1926] London : Hodder and Stoughton 318 p. ; 19 cm. book

The yellow ribbon
By: Le Queux, William Tufnell.
Description: 1918 Lond. &c. (8). book

The yellow dream book
By: Serkoff, Vera, Countess.
Description: 1926 Lond. book

The quest of the yellow pearl
By: Macfarlane, Peter Clark.
Description: 1909 [New York] cm.18. book

The yellow fiend, by mrs. Alexander
By: Hector, Annie French.
Description: 1902 2nd impr.. Lond. (8). book

The yellow cygnet
By: Redcliffe, Harold.
Description: 1930 (1st ed.).. (Lond.) book

The yellow spot
By: Stack, Lily.
Description: 1925 Lond. &c. book

The yellow hand
By: Upward, Allen.
Description: 1904 Lond. cm.18. book

The yellow pup
By: Green, Evelyn Everett-
Description: [1912] Lond. (8). book

The coachman with yellow lace
By: Hannan, Charles.
Description: 1902 Lond. cm.18. book

Dán Dé, the poems of Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh : and the religious poems in the Duanaire of the Yellow book of Lecan
By: McKenna, Lambert. O'Daly, Donogh Mór, d. 1244
Description: 21 cm xx, 159 p Dublin, Educational Company of Ireland [1922]. book

The yellow spider
By: Beecham, John Charles.
Description: (1921) Lond book

The yellow corsair
By: Bennett, James W. (James William), 1891-
Description: 1928 Lond book

The yellow claw, by Sax Rohmer
By: Ward, Arthur Henry 1883-1959.
Description: 1915 Lond. cm.19. book

The Yellow frigate; or, The three sisters
By: Grant, James 1822-1887.
Description: 1916] [Lond. &c. cm.15. book

Yellow sands
By: Ross, Adelaide, 1896-
Description: [1930] London : Chapman & Hall 2 p. 1., 252 p. 20 cm. book

The yellow pigeon
By: Guest, Carmel Haden.
Description: 1928 Lond. &c book

King's yellow
By: Cox, Euphrasia Emeline.
Description: [1925] Lond book

The yellow rock
By: Footman, David, 1895-
Description: 1929 Lond book

The yellow dwarf and other fairy tales
By: Aulnoy, Madame d' (Marie-Catherine), 1650 or 1651-1705. Le Fanu, Brinsley, 1854-1929
Description: [1906] London : "Books for the Bairns" Office 59 p. : ill. book

Crome yellow
By: Huxley, Aldous, 1894-1963.
Description: [c1922] New York : George H. Doran company 307 p. 20 cm. book

Yellow shadows
By: Ward, Arthur Henry. 1883-1959.
Description: 1925 Lond. &c. book

The yellow poppy
By: Broster, D. K. (Dorothy Kathleen)
Description: 1920 London : Duckworth 439 p. ; 19 cm. book

The yellow dragon
By: Mills, Arthur Hobart.
Description: [1924] Lond book

The forbidden word
By: Le Queux, William.
Description: [1929] Lond book

The yellow god
By: Haggard, Henry Rider sir.
Description: 1909 Lond. &c. (8). Book

The yellow crystal
By: Wilson, R. McNair (Robert McNair), 1882-1963
Description: 1930 Philadelphia ; London : J.B. Lippincott Company viii p., 1 ß., 11-303 p. 20 cm. book

The yellow hunchback
By: Hume, Ferguson Wright.
Description: 1907 Lond. cm.18. book

The yellow pearl
By: Teskey, Adeline Margaret.
Description: 1911 Lond. cm.19. book

The yellow face
By: White, Frederick Merrick.
Description: 1906 Lond. cm.18. book

Yellow fingers : a novel
By: Wright, Gene. J.B. Lippincott Company ; Washington Square Press (Philadelphia, Pa.)
Description: 1925 Philadelphia ; London : J.B. Lippincott Company 332 p. ; 20 cm. book

The yellow witch book
By: Harland, Margaret.
Description: 1905 (Reading &c.) cm.19x27. book

The land of the yellow spring, and other Japanese stories
By: Davis, F. Hadland (Frederick Hadland)
Description: 1910 London : Herbert & Daniel 317 p. : ill. (col.) ; 19 cm. book

The yellow snake : a complete novel of mystery and intrigue
By: Wallace, Edgar, 1875-1932.
Description: 1926 Garden City, N. Y. : Doubleday, Page p. 3-73 : ill. ; 26 cm. book

The masked stranger
By: Amy, William Lacey.
Description: 1930 Lond book

The masked terror.
By: Richmond, Mary.
Description: [1934] Lond. book

The masked man
By: Leroux, Gaston. Bennett, Hannaford
Description: 1927 Lond book

The pallid giant : a tale of yesterday & to-morrow
By: Noyes, Pierrepontt, b. 1870.
Description: 1928 London : John Long Ltd 287 p. ; 20 cm. book

Animism, magic, and the divine king
By: Róheim, Géza, 1891-1953.
Description: 1930 London : K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co., ltd. xviii, 390 p. 23 cm. book

The masked lady = Le masque
By: Du Terrail, Joseph Durey de Sauroy, marquis, 1712-1770.
Description: 1926 London : Chapman & Hall ; New York : R. M. McBride xiii, 140 p. ; 23 cm. book

The king waits
By: Gerard, Morice, 1856-1929
Description: [1921] Lond. Book The hooded king
By: Wallace, Edgar, 1875-1932.
Description: 1917 London : Ward, Lock p. 13-19 : ill. ; 25 cm. book

The lore of the wanderer
By: Goodchild, George, 1888-
Description: [1920?] New York : Dutton ; London : Dent 256p. port. 16cm. book

A king by night
By: Wallace, Edgar, 1875-1932.
Description: 1926 Garden City, N. Y. : Doubleday, Page ix, 339 p. ; 20 cm. book

The masked knight of Alons.
By: Sandford, Grant.
Description: [1929] Lond. book

The saga of king Lir : a sorrow of story
By: Sigerson, George, 1839-1925.
Description: 1913 Dublin ; London : Maunsel [4], 25 p. ; 19 cm. book

The king of the Golden River, or, The Black brothers : a legend of Stiria
By: Ruskin, John, 1819-1900. Doyle, Richard, 1824-1883
Description: 1909 London : G. Allen & Sons 64 p. : ill. book  


The yellow mask : a musical play
By: Duke, Vernon, 1903-1969. Baynton-Power, Henry, b. 1890 ; Wallace, Edgar, 1875-1932
Description: [1928], c1927 London : Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew 12 p. of music ; 31 cm. score

A King and a gentleman
By: Harrison, Denham, d.1945. Lytton, W. T ; Dagmar, Alexandra
Description: c1901 London : Francis, Day & Hunter 1 score (5 p.) : port. ; 36 cm. score

The singer and other plays
By: Pearse, Padraic, 1879-1916.
Description: 1918 Dublin ; London : Maunsel 123, iv p. ; 19 cm. book

The Erl-king
By: Higgs, H. M. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1749-1832 ; Scott, Walter, 1771-1832
Description: c1906 London : Novello and co. 1 vocal score (33 p) ; 26 cm. score

King Alfred : a masque
By: Huntington, Keith. Kenilworth, Henry
Description: [1901] London : Joseph Williams 1 vocal score (14 p.) ; 28 cm. score

The gipsy king
By: Glent-Vale, A. Alvey, Southwell
Description: c1903 London : Francis, Day & Hunter [1] leaf of music ; 37 cm. score

By: Steel, Flora Annie Webster, 1847-1929.
Description: 1928 London : John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd. vi, 346 p. : music ; 19 cm. book

The King shall rejoice : coronation anthem
By: Handel, George Frideric, 1685-1759. Silas, Edouard, 1827-1909
Description: [1911] London : Novello 1 vocal score (25 p.) ; 26 cm. score

King of Cadonia : a musical play
By: Jones, Sidney, 1861-1946. Lonsdale, Frederick, 1881-1954 ; Ross, Adrian, 1859-1933
Description: c1908 London : Keith, Prowse 1 vocal score (143 p.) ; 28 cm. score

King Goldemar : (the story of Elfin Mount) : an operetta for junior schools and classes
By: Holland, Theodore, 1878-1947. Sidford, K
Description: c1902 London : Novello and Company 1 score (76 p.) ; 26 cm. score

The Storm King is out to-night!
By: David, Worton, d. 1940. Lee, Bert, (Herbert)
Description: c1913 London : Francis, Day & Hunter 1 score (5 p.) ; 36 cm. score

King Arthur : an opera
By: Purcell, Henry, 1659-1695. Cummings, William Hayman, 1831-1915
Description: [1926] Abridged concert ed. adapted from the complete edition of W.H. Cummings.. London : Novello and Company 1 vocal score (ix, 101 p.) ; 26 cm. score

The vagabond king : a new spectacular musical play founded on Justin Huntley McCarthy's romance "If I were king"
By: Friml, Rudolf, 1879-1972. Hooker, Brian, 1880-1946 ; Post, W. H ; Alfred, Julian ; Stoddon, R. S ; Janney, Russell, 1884-1963
Description: c1926 London : B. Feldman 1 vocal score (181 p.) ; 30 cm. score

King of Cadonia : new musical play
By: Jones, Sidney, 1861-1946. Lonsdale, Frederick, 1881-1954 ; Ross, Adrian, 1859-1933
Description: c1908 London : Keith, Prowse 40 p. ; 22 cm. book

The yellow mask : a musical play
By: Duke, Vernon, 1903-1969. Baynton-Power, Henry, b. 1890 ; Wallace, Edgar, 1875-1932
Description: c1927 London : Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew 15 p. of music ; 31 cm. score

The yellow bittern, and other plays
By: Corkery, Daniel, 1878-1964.
Description: 1920 Dublin : Talbot Press ; London : T. Fisher Unwin 96 p. ; 18.1 cm. book

Monday, 27 May 2013

Podcasts I Like

So I thought I'd take a bit of a break from things and muse about some of the podcasts I listen to. Don't worry, this is technically game-related, I haven't gone completely off the rails just yet... I'm going to stick with Actual Play podcasts for this post.

I started listening to podcasts about six or seven years ago, and one of the earlier things I listened to was the Penny Arcade podcast they were running back then. When 4E D&D came out, they ran an audio game on the podcast, and I listened to it. This was actually my very first exposure to tabletop play. There've been a few what you might call key milestones that actually got me into gaming (Warhammer, a copy of Dungeon bought when I couldn't find a White Dwarf in New Jersey, Icewind Dale, and a friend who spent most of uni either gaming or writing comics about it) but this thing really got me paying some attention to actual pen-and-paper RPGs. They were just having so much fun. This was a podcast designed to showcase 4E D&D, and it did a very good job of that; in truth the GM handwaved some things and allowed the players to control things quite a bit, more than the system really allows, but that's advertising for you.

That was a one-off game (though a few more have come out since) and I started looking for other similar podcasts. I found a few that I listened to. Some dissipated into thin air after a few episodes, and after one or two of those I started checking "last updated"s and update schedules before I bothered starting. Others I listened to for a while, but eventually lost interest in: they didn't seem to be going anywhere, or the adventures weren't that interesting, or the group dynamics weren't fun for me. At least one I got cross with the players for the way they were handling the premise, and coupled with a fairly slow pace I gave up. Several just didn't have audio quality I could accept. But there are a few I've stuck with. These are the shows that make me happy just from hearing the theme music starting up.


Eventually I ran into the Icosahedrophilia podcast, which I still listen to whenever an episode comes out (sadly it's fairly irregular). That's fairly impressive, because this is another 4E D&D podcast, and as Dan has mentioned on more than one occasion, it's hard to think of many less interesting premises than listening to other people play 4E D&D, with its drawn-out tactical combats. So why do I like it?

One important thing is that the audio is very good. It has the odd muffled moment, but the vast majority of the time you can hear exactly what's going on; there's very little background noise, dice roll fairly softly, and table chatter is pretty minimal. People don't tend to talk over each other, and as the podcast has progressed they'll actually clarify things for the audience sometimes, rather than treating it as purely a recording of their game. Chris, the DM, will insert clips now and then to explain things that might be confusing otherwise. The audio's carefully edited - I'm sure a fair bit of pausing and noise gets cut out, because there's just not as much as I'd expect, but at other times long digressions or rulebook-consultations are carefully faded through to keep up the pace of the podcast. The result is it's pleasant and easy to listen to, and it's usually also clear what's going on, both mechanically and narratively. Obviously audio quality alone isn't enough, but it's fairly crucial.

The second thing, and the main reason I've stuck with it, is that I just enjoy the storyline. Chris is running his own homebrew campaign, inspired in part by a couple of existing products (like the Stormhaven setting), but mostly drawing on wider inspiration, especially the Cthulhu mythos. The campaign is a globe-trotting adventure that doesn't feel forced, full of characterful locations and a lot of variety. I'm always wondering what will happen next, and the overarching doomsday plot that began in the very first episode has lent structure and direction to the campaign as a whole.

Thirdly, and another major reason for at least my initial interest, I found it a very helpful guide for how the game actually works, and how to DM it. This became very relevant as I ran a 4E game for a while, and as none of us had played a tabletop RPG before, there was nobody else to guide me. Icosahedrophilia gave me a lot more confidence in how things actually went around the table, what kind of adjudications might be made (and why), and how some of the mechanics worked in practice. This is in part because Chris' style is very clear, and the group were initially learning the rules, and now need reminding of them between sessions: rules get read out, clarified, reasoned through and generally made sense of, and people get reminded to place tokens, or take modifiers or keywords into account. Chris also includes a "Prop Shop" segment after most of the podcasts, where he describes minis and tiles used in the game, but also often goes into how he statted up monsters, rules discussions, and comments about the session. He'll mention things the players did that changed his plans or surprised him, and how he responded, as well as more general thoughts about the campaign and the plot. I personally find this makes the podcast significantly more valuable and interesting than the play alone would be. While my 4E game is long deceased, I still enjoy hearing how someone else does GMing.

Of course, Dan's point holds: 4E D&D is a very tactical game with very long combats, and there are absolutely times when a single combat will stretch over several episodes. These aren't my favourites, but I don't find it a huge problem. I think it's partly because I've got to know the characters and their capabilities over time, and so to some extent I can follow along with the tactical decision-making - honestly I suspect it's a lot like listening to sports matches, if you're the kind of person who does that, which I'm not. It does drag sometimes, though. A second helpful factor here is that I listen to podcasts when I'm doing other things - typically either running, commuting or housework. This means the podcast doesn't need to absorb my full attention, only enough to keep me entertained, and it doesn't matter much if my thoughts drift off for a bit. The third thing that compensates is, I just enjoy the dynamics of the group; I find them a very pleasant bunch to sit in with, and enjoy the idle chat and roleplaying, even when they're stuck in the sixtieth round of combat. The helpful flipside is that because combat's so tactical, you could just skip (say) an episode that's just the middle of a combat, without losing track.

Chris also takes the credit for finally getting me to actually read Lovecraft, an author I'd vaguely heard about for nearly twenty years. Problematic aspects aside, I'm glad I did.

The story is very strong, to the point where it could be accused of railroading, though personally I don't think the players are particularly inclined to wander off. I'm also pretty sure that in one podcast Chris mentions his players' preference for knowing what to do next, and moving on to his next idea, rather than trying to sandbox. This is very clearly not a sandbox campaign, but Chris does adapt to the players' actions, sometimes quite dramatically - in one section he completely rewrites (offstage retcon, you could say) the reality of the island they're on to keep the characters as heroes, after his intention and the players' interpretation of events fail to match up. They do also get some freedom in what they do and when they do it, so it's not scripted or anything.

I also appreciate the extra effort Chris puts into making this a public podcast rather than just a recording. As well as the prop-shop segments, there's a brief summary of the campaign at the beginning of each recording, with extra detail on recent events, plus each of the sizeable cast introduce themselves and their characters to help you keep track. A special Story So Far episode gives a much more detailed breakdown of the crew's adventures and goals, perfect for anyone wanting to come straight into the podcast (perhaps to check out one particular episode) or simply to get a reminder of what's been going on, especially after a hiatus. Moreover, Chris provides blog posts for most episodes, often with photos of the session to highlight particular situations, minis or gaming tools he used, and details of many creatures he invented himself. There's also product reviews, and general musings on D&D.


This one is a little strange - I think I actually discovered these folks when I spotted a cataloguing error in the record for their CD in the university library service...

Regardless, I think it was a good while later that I re-stumbled upon them when randomly searching for actual play podcasts to listen to. Honestly I was pretty sceptical about Call of Cthulhu at that point, but decided to give it a go, seeing as they had so much stuff to offer, and I'm glad I did.

There's a huge range of material on YSDC, from audio games to interviews to Lovecraftian news to experimental soundscapes (I kid you not). Mostly I've listened to the games and the news segments, because I'm not sufficiently into the gaming scene to find interviews that appealing - although as I haven't tried them, I may be missing out. The games are a mixture of Innsmouth House Players sessions (the group who started the site) and con games. As such there's quite a variety; even within the IHP games, people GM on rotation and each have their own distinctive style.

Again, this podcast is notable for its audio quality, which really is outstanding. Paul, the chief culprit, is a dedicated audiophile and has gone to the extent of using binaural recording with a bronze head in the middle of their gaming table. The result is that in more recent recordings you're effectively sat in the centre of the group, making it very easy to pick out voices and identify the players, even on the occasions they talk over each other. In general that doesn't happen though; their table-discipline is quite something, and even the snacks are quiet. I find this podcast a real pleasure to listen to, and the melodious northern accents of the Players are certainly not biasing me in any way (ahem).

The second reason I love this podcast is simply that the Innsmouth House Players are so much fun to sit in on. Their chemistry is brilliant, very relaxed and cheerful, without getting anarchic and detracting from the games themselves. There's a certain amount of in-joking, but the more accessible kind, and explanations are usually provided for anything too bizarre. They run quite a jolly style of Call of Cthulhu, full of good humour even when everyone is horribly doomed, which has definitely been a big influence on me when I finally started playing it.

From a GMing-aid point of view, the sheer volume of games and the variety of Keepers means there's plenty of opportunity to pick up ideas, see how other people did things, and decide whether you'd have done it like that. Since they follow the Cthulhu tendency of using prewritten scenarios (often campaigns), you can get some ideas of what you'd like to run, how it might work out (and what doesn't work for you) and so on, though there's enough deviation that things are rarely a straight run through the intended plot.

YSDC has been going long enough (having invented actual play recordings, no less) that they've got a number of retired shows, including a couple of news-like shows that I used to enjoy, though I can see how they felt keeping up with the news was difficult. For Patrons (sponsors of the site) there are extra bonus recordings, including early access to audio games and archive access, plus an excellent show called the Silver Lodge, which covers specific themes in depth, ranging from life in the 1920s to the 1980s gaming scene. Again, the quality of these is really superb, and the guests are just as good company as the Innsmouth House Players themselves. YSDC radio is also notable for sharing a host with the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast.

Close The Airlock!

I found this podcast relatively recently, soon after it started, and have been listening along with great enjoyment. As I remember, I was specifically looking to learn more about Traveller, and by this time actual plays are my go-to resource for that.

Compared to the last two, the audio quality isn't quite so good: there's usually at least one person Skyping in, which makes their voice much less clear and sometimes leaves the group themselves a bit confused. Some podcasts also feature unwanted baby, and one player sometimes has to leave the table to deal with that; more recently she's been skipping most games entirely, which is a shame, but hey. On the whole, though, the quality is still very decent. They also make some concessions to the audience, explaining things where necessary.

It's a rather more player-driven game than the last two, with little in the way of long-term plot, leaving the players to pick routes and missions with only a little prompting from some NPC contacts. The players can simply head off into space and see what they find, though the GM can predict what their broad options are based on their fuel capacity and other practical constraints. However, there are two long-standing plot elements that may eventually become more prominent. One is a strange alien device they discovered behind a panel of their second-hand spaceship, whose functions they're still experimenting with. The second is that characters regularly disappear for varying periods and reappear, following encounters with some strange nanotech. As you may have guessed, this was set up as an in-game explanation for players missing sessions, but the players are clearly interested in it and I suspect there's some plot lurking in the background that will eventually come to the fore.

Another aspect of the game is that several (possibly all) the players have a scientific background, and they're quite keen on keeping the science fairly hard (as hard as space opera allows). This can be quite fun to listen to, as they debate how a situation would play out realistically and exactly what it is that a weapon does, so as to determine its effects in specific situations; it also occasionally leads to retcons when they suddenly realise that something couldn't have happened.

One of the reasons I particularly like this podcast is that again, the group are actively learning Traveller as they go along, which means it's full of rules discussions and explanations - intended for the players, but also helpful to the ignorant listener. It's a really good showcase for the system too, great advertising.

While I've noticed some differences in the players' styles, they seem to mesh reasonably well, and make concessions to each other; the impregnable armoured killing machine that shows up at one point has a fair run before being retired, and the group has a nice balance in general. They have a nice tongue-in-cheek style without making the whole game cartoonish, and I really enjoy listening to them.

The GM has just changed as I write this, but so far I've been very impressed with the creativity of the plots on show. Everything seems to be homebrewed, and quite a lot of material is invented on the fly as necessary, and very good it is too. From alien gameshows and modesty elbow-patched to addictive hover-hippo, the games are full of rich little touches and fun scenarios that make them genuinely entertaining to listen to.

Josh, the GM, also posts plans of ships and planets used in the game, interesting for checking details, and eminently stealable.

What works?

As you may have noticed, there are a few recurring themes here.

Audio quality

While it's not sufficient, I personally find audio quality really important in producing an actual play podcast that I can listen to comfortably. This is partly because of how I listen to podcasts; 99% of the time it's through headphones, and typically there's a certain amount of background noise from nearby traffic, wind, fellow customers, housework or whatever. Poor audio will put me off a podcast faster than just about anything.


Background noise means that it's harder to pick out voices on the recording, so quiet voices or mumbling are a problem. It also intensifies any interference from people talking over each other, rustling wrappers, crunching crisps, nearby hubbub, or simply poor-quality recordings with lots of hum and crackle. Con games are often inaudible because of the sheer amount of constant background noise, including nearby people confusingly talking about other games, and I have to make a special effort to listen to them on speakers sometime if I'm really interested. Mostly they just get forgotten. Background noise is very understandable, so I don't particularly blame anyone for it, but it does make things harder to listen to. I'm generally more sympathetic to generic noise than to loads of table noise, because it's much harder to control. However, I tend to feel that if eating and by-chat take up as much time as the actual game, or constantly run over the game so you can't really hear it, then maybe putting up your game for public consumption is a bit excessive?


The second main issue is volume. Because of real-life background noise, I typically have to put podcasts on fairly high volume to pick out the voices; any noise on the recording itself only adds to that. That's usually tolerable, but when volume is wildly variable it becomes a problem. Some podcasts have very loud theme music, which is careless because it's being deliberately added. Dice often sound very loud and sharp, probably because of where the recorder's sat - I'm struggling with that one myself at the moment - but you've got to expect that in most games.

On the other hand, I've heard a few with sudden bursts of noise at unbelievable volume, including one with unexpected dog that left me stumbling and trying to wrestle off my headphones while passers-by stared at me with concern. Babies also occur sometimes. With the best will in the world: having a dog (or indeed a baby) is entirely your affair, but do not leave them in your podcast. Why anyone has bark-prone dogs in the room during a game baffles me, let alone when they're recording, but I expect the courtesy of removing them before sticking the podcast out there. It's not remotely difficult to look at an audio file and spot the bits where the audio volume is twice normal, and you can't possibly have failed to notice the barking. Neglecting this is like baking a load of free cakes, watching someone spill a bag of marbles into the mix, and then proceeding to distribute the cakes anyway without bothering to sieve out the marbles. It is unforgivable.

As you may have noticed, I'm a teensy bit tetchy about this one.

Group dynamics

If you're going to spend at minimum a couple of hours, and potentially dozens or hundreds, listening to a bunch of people play games, that group really needs to be enjoyable to spend time with. Primarily, that means they need to sound like they're having fun. One podcast (At Sixes and Sevens, a Changeling podcast) I drifted away from, because I was starting to feel like the players weren't really enjoying it: they didn't really seem to have much agency in the game, even though the storyline itself was initially interesting, and so it didn't have the spark. Another one, which I can't remember, had some careless remarks that bothered me (I don't remember those either). Some groups simply have a style that grates on me personally, so I shrug and move on - nothing you can (or should) do about that one.

For the most part, podcasts I listen to regularly (be it actual play or whatever) survive because there's really good chemistry between the participants. They sound like they enjoy what they're doing and appreciate each others' company; they riff off each others' creativity, bounce jokes off each other, are genuinely interested in what the others have to say. They make concessions and work together, rather than standing on their independence. The GM steers the ship smoothly, without being too high-handed to follow the prevailing wind. There's a feeling of genuine camaraderie and pleasure in the occasion, which makes my position as an authorised eavesdropper an enjoyable one, so I feel part of a fun social occasion, rather than the stranger shifting awkwardly in the corner wondering how soon I can escape from these people.


Good editing can turn a probably-not-brilliant recording into an enjoyable experience. Most people don't have the time and money to set up complicated recording rigs, and many groups aren't going to want attempts to record them potentially compromising the game - the great advantage of a plain recorder is you can just plonk it down and ignore it. However, by editing well you can remove background noise, edit out people taking toilet breaks, cut long digressions or incomprehensible in-jokes, boost quiet people, muffle loud people, crop hums and haws and frantic rulebook-referencing, and generally make yourselves sound cleverer, smoother, wittier, more focused, more knowledgeable and altogether better than in real life. There's obviously a middle ground here in terms of effort-reward ratios, and the kind of podcast you're looking for: slick professional productions (like the Penny Arcade game) from friendly warts-and-all games intended not to scare anyone off.

In general, I find it a great asset if the group or the editor make some concessions to an audience, by clarifying things that might be very confusing (you just flipped over the mat to teleport the group to a completely different location with completely different NPCs?) or perhaps having a quick reminder of what's going on at the start of a recording. It also helps a lot when you're trying to work out whether you already heard this one, or maybe skipped one by mistake!

So that's it for now. Further suggestions for cool podcasts are always welcome.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Monitors: making magic

Magic v. Technology

So things have stagnated a bit with Monitors. I'm not really sure what needs doing, and some of the obvious things (like concrete numbers and mechanics) you can't really settle by waffling. However, there are a couple of significant gaps I notice: shiny shiny technology, and ancient arcane magic. As these are supposedly cornerstones of the game, I can't really even look at alpha-testing the system without something in place.

Something Old, Something New

Magic and technology are two key ways of interacting with the world. The conceit behind these two elements in Monitors is basically their contrast. Technology is modern, exciting, comprehensible, relatively shiny, mostly safe and mostly reliable: a product of the genius and hard work of countless experts. Magic is antediluvian, arcane and potentially sinister: scraps of secret knowledge that occasionally drift to the surface.

So in a game, I'd like these two to feel substantially different. I want technology (barring experiments and so on) to feel sleek, reliable, and generally cool. I want magic to feel exotic, mysterious, significant, and maybe a little subversive.

Time for some research, methinks.

Something Borrowed

A good starting point for this exercise is to see what other games have done with magic. My traditional calling points here are Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu. When I say "magic", I'm going to be looking at yer'actual spells here, not artefacts and that.

Lovecraftian Magic

A typical spell in Call of Cthulhu... doesn't really exist. There are a few very broad classes you can sketch out, such as Summonings, Enchantments, Horrible Attacks, or Horrible Transmutations, but many spells don't even fall into these. However, a spell looks a bit like this:

Summon/Bind Fire Vampire

causes one fire vampire to swoop down from the sky like a skittering star. The magic point cost varies; for each magic point sacrificed, increase the chance for a successful cast by 10 percentiles; a result of 96-100 is always a failure. Each cast of this spell also costs 1d3 Sanity points. A bonfire or other source of flame is required. The spell may be cast only at night when the star Fomalhaut is above the horizon (September through November are the best times in moderately northern latitudes).

Raise Night Fog:

draws up a dense ground fog from a body of water. Casting it costs 3 magic points and 1D2 Sanity points. The ritual takes about twenty game rounds to complete and involves a bowl or cup for water, filled from the body of water where the fog is to form, then blowing softly across the surface of the container. The fog forms suddenly; if there is wind, it drifts with the wind. The spell can be cast only at night. The fog dissipates with the rising sun.

Unspeakable Promise:

establishes a binding oath made to He Who Is Not To Be Named, and costs the caster 2D8 Sanity points. In return, Hastur grants the caster some benefit — a plausible gift would be an important ancient tome such as the R'lyeh Text or the yearly award of 3 POW for the rest of the recipient's life. Additionally, however, there is a non-cumulative chance of 2% per year that the caster transforms into a gruesome humanoid monster totally under Hastur's sway, one which the keeper may create afresh or draw statistics from the Unspeakable Possessor, in the Creature Companion.

This selection of spells showcases a few of the common aspects of magic in Call of Cthulhu.

  • Magic is alien and corrosive to the human mind, and causes sanity loss.
  • Most magic involves a cost or risk that isn't just resource-management, such as being devoured (or driven mad) by an unbound summoned creature, obliterated from reality by misfiring time-travel, horribly killed if someone negates your organ-stealing spell, or transformed into a thrall of Hastur.
  • Spells have quite specific requirements, often apparently arbitrary. It seems like a lot of gamers handwave these - nobody ever seems to check the star-charts before allowing a character to summon byakhees - but they're in the rulebook. You don't just need water, but some water from the specific pond. You need sacrifices, or a magical dagger of pure metal, or to cast the spell on a spot where the patron god was worshipped.
  • There is no suggestion that spells can be varied, or even controlled well. Raise Night Fog isn't just making some fog, it's making fog at night from a specific body of water. Most spells have very specific effects.
  • In fact, many spells are only useful in specific scenarios, because they relate to particular entities or places, or very specific sets of circumstances - or will leave a PC caster in no shape to continue their career.
  • In general, spells are designed to be used against the PCs, not by them. NPCs can ignore the crippling effects of the spells and shrug off their vile requirements; PCs will quickly be destroyed if they turn to magic. The main counterexamples are bindings and banishments.
  • As a levelless game, there is very little scaling in spells - even less than might be expected. Opposed spells typically make high POW scores more likely to succeed, but abilities rarely make a substantial difference to how powerful a spell is, and skills never do. Most spells' effectiveness depends on magic point investment, effectively a mana system, which means characters can typically cast a spell once successfully if they're determined, or gamble on casting more than once with a lower chance of success. However, the power of spells, and their relative rarity, means casting more than one isn't very common.

A trait that doesn't come up here is that learning spells is very much down to the GM. Characters don't simply gain spells; they come either from ancient tomes of forbidden knowledge (for which see: tomes) or imbued by mysterious entities. This gives the GM a great deal of control over what spells characters are able to learn - though it doesn't necessarily mean they will. Another facet of this is that learning spells deliberately is difficult, often requiring long periods of study (typically between scenarios/chapters) as well as successful rolls. This limits the total number of spells characters are likely to know, and potentially makes players think carefully about where they want to invest their effort, since they can only read one tome at a time.

As you might reasonably expect from a horror/weird game, Call of Cthulhu takes a strong stance on the supernatural, mostly against it. It makes magic strange, horrible, and destructive. The first one matches what I'm looking for, but the other two take things too far for Monitors. So I can borrow a couple of ideas here, but not simply import the overall structure (besides, that's stealing).

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

The first thing I notice about all versions of D&D is that wow, that is a lot of spells. There's spells for a vast variety of miscellaneous purposes, plus a huge number of (arguably redundant) spells for Killing Stuff and Not Getting Killed By Stuff.

This is not the tack I want to take in Monitors. Monitors magic is esoteric, rare, and significant. There are no spells for bathing children, or weeding. Magic should not be taking on completely mundane roles. I already have technology to handle the ubiquitous-solution role. Hey, I learned something already.

Pebble Shower

(complex mechanical stuff)
The Pebble Shower (aka Stoneskin Remover or Spell Casting Disruptor or Tyre's Annoyance) propels a stream of small stones (or similar objects) at a single target by their own volition from the caster's hand, 1 stone per segment, to a maximum of 10. One stone can be propelled per leve of the caster, and a normal to-hit roll must be performed for each missile (no range or non-proficiency penalties apply). Each stone causes 1 hp of damage, and falls to the ground if it misses its target. The caster must maintain continuous concentration on the spell until its completion, or the remaining attacks are lost.

Since the items hurled are non-magical object, magic resistance does not apply.

The material component is a number of small stones, marbles, or similar items. The items are not consumed by the spell, but must be regathered after use. The sole somatic component is opening the hand with the stones, so this can (in theory) be performed while webbed or netted if the hand can be directed towards the target.

Tenser's Floating Disc:

Description: With this spell, the caster creates the slightly concave, circular plane of force known as Tenser's floating disc (after the famed wizard whose greed and ability to locate treasure are well known). The disc is 3 feet in diameter and holds 100 pounds of weight per level of the wizard casting the spell. The disc floats approximately 3 feet above the ground at all times and remains level. It floats along horizontally within its range of 20 yards at the command of the caster, and will accompany him at a movement rate of no more than 6. If unguided, it maintains a constant interval of 6 feet between itself and the wizard. If the spellcaster moves beyond range (by moving faster, by such means as a teleport spell, or by trying to take the disc more than 3 feet from the surface beneath it), or if the spell duration expires, the floating disc winks out of existence, and whatever it was supporting crashes to the surface beneath it.

The material component of the spell is a drop of mercury.


When this spell is cast, each affected creature functions at double its normal movement and attack rates. A hasted creature gains a -2 initiative bonus. Thus, a creature moving at 6 and attacking once per round would move at 12 and attack twice per round. Spellcasting and spell effects are not sped up. The number of creatures that can be affected is equal to the caster's experience level; those creatures closest to the center of effect are affected first. All affected by haste must be in the designated area of effect. Note that this spell negates the effects of a slow spell. Additionally, this spell ages the recipient by one year, because of sped-up metabolic processes. This spell is not cumulative with itself or with other similar magic. Its material component is a shaving of licorice root.

One of the things I notice is that AD&D magic is complicated. There are detailed numerical specifics and descriptions for many spells, with disclaimers and explanations of how they interact with other spells or specific situations. Most have specific material components, though only inconvenient or costly components are usually tracked. Spells may also have vocal or somatic components, which determines whether they make a noise, if they can be cast while wrestling, and so on. It's assumed that many spells will be cast in combat, so their casting time and interaction with friends and foes is carefully documented.

A handful of spells have significant costs, but Haste is rare in that regard. Moreover, the cost is largely a narrative rather than a mechanical one; whether or not groups actually tend to follow it I've no idea. My guess would be not, though in a system where many spells had costs this would be more likely. In AD&D, though, magic is supposed to be used, so penalties like that would be counterproductive.

It's hard to demonstrate this with a handful of examples, but AD&D (and its successors) do have huge numbers of niche spells. There are spells to walk at full speed when carrying too much, spells to repel birds, spells to show you what a broken object looked like when whole, spells to control gases, spells to make undead glow, spells to kill bookworm (complete with combat mechanics!), spells to enlarge desert creatures, spells to protect from summon horses... many of which are of course extremely rare. This is very handy if you're keen to avoid your PCs learning NPCs' spells and becoming too powerful, but also for giving unique twists to particular characters or cultures. Having a magic system based mainly around niche spells like this would give a very esoteric feel to magic, which becomes something only useful in very specific situations - or calls for you to find unexpected ways to use it.

I think what I'm looking for is something that's relatively common in-game, but thematically unusual; Monitors encounter more than most because it's their job, and use it because it's a powerful tool. So Monitors are likely to be using spells or artifacts regularly, but not trivially; and NPCs with magical training are unusual and noteworthy.

D&D traditionally uses Vancian magic, so spellcasting per day is limited by forgetting spells. I've always found it fairly hard to justify that sort of thing, but having some kind of limit on spellcasting makes sense if it's supposed to be an exotic and exciting element of the game. On the plus side, because Monitors is basically an all-caster game, I shouldn't need to worry about warrior/wizard scaling issues.

In contrast to the Cthulhian take, learning magic in D&D isn't difficult: it's either a) easy and under the player's control; or b) completely impossible. Only certain classes have access to spells, and characters can only learn class-appropriate spells even if they find a spellbook lying around. Similarly, you can only learn spells appropriate to your level. On the flipside, wizards can generally learn whatever spells they want when they gain a level, though there's some variation between editions, and optional rules where you have to first find a copy of the spell you want to learn. Clerics, of course, just know all the spells.

This flexibility, plus the ability to learn a relatively large number of spells, means spellcasters in D&D can have an array of niche spells for specific occasions, rather than just learning a few blunt-instrument spells that they know will come in useful. On the downside, especially with multiple casters in a party plus a pile of magic items and scrolls, it can produce a situation where no matter what happens, the party has a spell to deal with it. This means very few things present a serious challenge, and more importantly it overshadows non-casters.

One (probably) final thought; there is a well-known issue with a particular set of D&D spells, which allow characters to polymorph into other creatures. The problem is fundamentally down to ever-expanding sets of creatures from expansions, plus feats and powers and other spells that allowed characters to gain more benefits from the polymorph, so that a spellcaster could turn into just about any creature and gain not only its shape, but also most or all of its special abilities. Now this is partly down to poor spell design, but also demonstrates how spells and other rule-breaking abilities can cause problems by interacting in unexpected ways.


In Deathwatch, unsurprisingly, powers tend to be definitely military in nature. A few grant communications or transport ability, but most are all about shielding, terrifying, suppressing, or preferably obliterating.

Force Dome

Action: Full
Opposed: No
Range: 5m x Psy Rating radius
Sustained: Yes
Description: Summoning up a shimmering field of force, the Librarian fashions a shell around himself and nearby allies. The shell is a sphere extending up to the radius around, above, and below the Librarian and protecting him and any within it. The shell provides 2 AP x Psy Rating against all kinds of ranged attacks or hazardous environmental effects (this additional protection stacks with any worn Armour), even trapping air and water within it. However, it does not stop melee attacks or creatures (friend or foe) that may pass through it without restriction.


Action: Half
Opposed: No
Range: 10m x Psy Rating radius
Sustained: No
Description: The Librarian conjures up lethal bolts of lightning that leap from his hands to burn and blast his enemies into ash. Smite must be targeted at a single creature. However, it may affect others nearby depending on its power. The Librarian does not need to make a BS test to hit the target. However, his Focus Powers Test is modified as if he was making a ranged attack (using bonuses and penalties for range, lighting, enemy talents etc.). Smite deals 1d10 Energy Damage per PR with a Penetration equal to his PR. Any creatures within 1 metre x PR of the target will also be affected by Smite.

The sharp-eyed will notice there's fewer examples for Deathwatch because I can't find copy-pastable examples anywhere (seriously?) and typing them out by hand is a faff. But these two are a good start.

The other major feature of Deathwatch and the other 40K RPGs that makes it quite different is the existence of the Psychic Phenomena table. A skill roll is needed to cast a spell, and a failure leaves the caster rolling on this table to see what went wrong. The exact rules vary from RPG to RPG. In Deathwatch you can cast spells (sorry, "use psyker powers") at three different levels: fettered, unfettered and push. The first protects you from mishaps, the second has some risk, and the third is relatively dangerous. Results on the table can vary anywhere from "there's a funny smell", through "everyone within thirty feet floats up into the air, then falls hard", to "your soul is eaten by a greater demon". In reality, for Deathwatch at least, using psychic powers isn't enormously dangerous unless you manage to stack up some penalties; however, even the lesser phenomena can cause problems and certainly give a weird edge to the game that makes psykers a double-edged chainsword. The Damocletian threat of truly horrible consequences, however rare, tends to discourage people from being completely gung-ho about using magic unnecessarily. I have to imagine that in the less heroic RPGs, with more-human and lower-tech protagonists who are more vulnerable to psychic misfires, this is even more the case.

As the spell descriptions show, the caster's stats are significant here because Psy rating determines the effectiveness of powers. This rating can be bought up with XP, which provides some level-scaling. It's worth noting that in Deathwatch there will be little or no discrepancy between early characters, so magical power is a factor of experience rather than innate ability. This contrasts with both Call of Cthulhu (where any variation is all about POW) and D&D (where both statistics and level determine the power of spells).

Spells can't be acquired in play, but are bought with XP in the same way as stat boosts and other benefits. This system means that increasing the breadth of spells available is one option to be weighed up alongside others. Interestingly, spellcasters actually have to trade off learning new spells against becoming better at casting them. This is a definite contrast to D&D, despite both having class-based levelling systems and relatively similar types of spell.

Summary of observations

  • Mechanical costs to spellcasting limit use of magic
  • Permanent or near-permanent costs to spellcasting will discourage spellcasting
  • The threat of horrible consequences create a cost-benefit judgement
  • Systems with only resource-management costs encourage spellcasting
  • Point-spending costs to spellcasting allow limited scaling with character power
  • Statistic-based power scaling of spells can produce wide discrepancies in magical ability; this needs consideration in terms of levelling and initial character creation
  • Making it time-consuming and difficult to learn spells can subtly restrict characters' breadth of magical capability
  • Mechanical limits on magical capability can maintain balance and allow power-scaling
  • Esoteric requirements make magic stranger
  • Narrative costs to spellcasting can give spells a strong flavour
  • Specific uses restrict the influence of magic, and give it distinct tones
  • Spells for mundane purposes makes magic more mundane
  • Where spells break the normal rules, there are potentially exponential complexity problems
  • Flexible spells are unpredictable and can become ubiquitous
  • Spellcasting is inclined to overtake non-magical approaches if not carefully watched

That's a fairly sizeable post so I'll leave it for now. Next time I'll be pulling back to look at some general approaches to magic.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Pathfinder serious injuries chart

A while ago I was running a Pathfinder game, and started thinking about death and injury in the game. I’ve always been a bit wary of the way D&D-alikes handle this, for several reasons.

The systems tend to combine several things that don’t quite add up: healing spells that can cure diseases, heal wounds and remove mental impairment; resurrection of the dead; and presentation of sickly, crippled and simply dead NPCs. With perfect healing magic, there’s very little basis for characters (PC or NPC) to acquire cool scars, interesting injuries and other characterful features. The hard-bitten pirate with the eyepatch might as well get a Remove Blindness spell and carry on as before. That’s a shame, because those are interesting additions to a character. “I was an adventurer, until a troll killed my friends and took my eye,” but there’s very little support for that in a system with hit-point damage and magical healing. Put simply, there’s no way to lose that eye except by DM fiat or player invention.

Also, it creates a situation where danger has quite binary consequences. It’s all-or-minimal at low levels, where healing dents your gold supply and resurrections are unaffordable; it’s very nearly nothing-or-nothing at higher levels, barring the handful of effects designed specifically to inflict permadeath. Foolish mistakes that get you mangled by trolls will have no lasting consequences, which means being hacked to within an inch of your life doesn’t feel very different from getting slightly scratched, so for low-level characters either you win or you die. Once characters can resurrect their party members, even death is an inconvenience rather than a serious issue. This binary win/die situation makes me a bit uneasy. I worry that either PCs will end up dying because they don’t take injuries seriously (why should they?), or I’ll end up being over-lenient on character deaths because I’m a softie, which also distorts the game.

In older editions of D&D there are hard limits on resurrection, and XP penalties as well. That prevents infinite resurrection, but doesn’t tackle injuries or offer much support for running a world with resurrection magic.

I also tend to be uneasy about resurrection magic, because it seems like making it make sense in game is quite tricky. This is especially true when it’s available to benevolent clerics and allied wizards: why aren’t they just resurrecting all the accident victims and murderees? What exactly do they need that money for? But of course, if you start doing that, you run into other problems.

Anyway, I ended up with the idea that injury rules might either help this, or be an interesting addition to the game, or just be fun to make. I never actually ended up using them, so I’ve no idea how well they work or whether they’re a faff, and it could certainly do with a few more ideas if anyone has any. But here they are, for your entertainment/inspiration/nitpicking.

The idea is that when a character would die by the Pathfinder (or D&D) rules, they instead roll on the chart below to determine the consequences of their injury. Most serious injuries are more stubborn than those incurred in the normal course of the game. These injuries cannot be healed by cure or heal spells, but require specialist magic: essentially it’s going to be down to questing of some kind. For those with a keen eye, this is very heavily inspired by Necromunda’s serious injury chart.

Roll a d100 on the following chart. If a character would be entirely or largely unaffected by a particular result, perhaps due to racial or class abilities, choose another. Some injuries may result in other situational bonuses or penalties not specified here, as the DM thinks appropriate. Bonuses and penalties should be applied with common sense; injury descriptions take priority over flat mechanical rules.

1X: Dead.
Can only be raised with an appropriate ritual.
2X: Head Wound
20AnosmiaThe character’s sense of smell and taste is impaired. They suffer a -4 penalty on any checks to detect tastes or smells, such as scenting an enemy or detecting poison, and their pleasure in eating or drinking is reduced. This may prevent them from gaining the full benefits of certain fine or magical foodstuffs. However, they also gain a +4 bonus to resist negative effects, such as the nauseating stench of a troglodyte.
21Partial DeafnessThe character takes a -2 to initiative, appropriate Perception rolls and -2 on ritual casting rolls.
22DeafenedA deafened character cannot hear. They take a –4 penalty on initiative checks, automatically fail Perception checks based on sound, take a –4 penalty on opposed Perception checks, and have a 20% chance of spell failure when casting spells with verbal components. Characters who remain deafened for a long time grow accustomed to these drawbacks and can overcome some of them.
23Sensitive EarThe character becomes unusually sensitive to certain noises. They suffer a -2 on saving throws against effects with the [sonic] descriptor, and find loud noises in general uncomfortable and unsettling.
24Blinded In One EyeThe character takes a -4 to Perception rolls based on vision, -2 to attack rolls and -1 to Armor Class. Choose an eye at random. A character blinded in both eyes becomes totally blinded, though may slowly overcome some of their impairments. If the same eye is rolled twice, reroll on the Head Wound chart.
25Partial VisionThe character takes a -4 to appropriate Perception rolls, -2 to any other skills based on vision, and -2 to attack rolls. They read at half speed and can see half the normal maximum distance.
26Light SensitiveThe character is blinded if they are exposed to bright light or take damage from spells with the [light] descriptor. They can make a Fortitude save (DC 12 + level) at the start of each round to recover. In ordinary daylight, they are uncomfortable unless their eyes are shaded or protected, and may become dazzled.
27Hampered SpeechThe character suffers a -2 on speech-based Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate and Perform checks, and has a failure percentage chance equal to the spell level when casting spells with a verbal component.
28Light-HeadedThe character is more vulnerable to dizziness and fainting. The character suffers a -2 penalty to Acrobatics checks to keep their balance, to Climb checks, and to saving throws against effects that cause unconsciousness, dazing or stunning.
29Severe HeadachesThe character suffers agonising headaches at times of stress. In any highly stressful situation (DM’s decision) they must pass a Fortitude save (DC 5 + level) or suffer a -2 penalty on attack rolls and skill checks until the situation passes. Pain-suppressing magic, such as delay pain, can alleviate the effects.
3X: Emotional trauma
30-31NightmaresThe character has regular nightmares, and may scream or behave oddly in their sleep. A character that does not sleep may have flashbacks instead during periods of rest. The character suffers a -4 penalty against any effects that manipulate their dreams (positive or negative).
32-33PhobiaThe character has intense fear of a particular situation, creature or object related to their injury. This might impose a situational penalty on morale, e.g. counting as shaken while the trigger is present; sudden unexpected exposure might make them flee or freeze. The phobia might manifest as flight, violent self-defence, freezing or any other suitable response.
34-35RevulsionThe character finds a particular item or substance disgusting or hateful. They are distracted in the presence of the trigger object, and will avoid it where possible. A Will save may be necessary to interact with it (DC 12 + level).
36-37HatredThe character hates a particular type of creature, defined by the GM (anything from “orcs” to “Bone Islanders” to “elderly male elves with long beards”). The character suffers a -4 penalty on Diplomacy checks towards the target creatures, preferentially targets them in combat (other things being equal), and is likely to misattribute motives or intentions. They may need a Will save to break off an attack or hostile confrontation (DC 12 + level or as DM determines). Hiding their hostility is a matter of roleplaying and possibly Bluff.
38-39Personality changeThe character’s personality changes, either as a response to the near-death event, or due to an injury. They might become more nervous, bitter, irritable, more cautious; they might gain behavioural quirks appropriate to their injury, such as obsessively checking for traps, or always carrying a backup weapon.
4X: Lingering Injury
40-42Aches and PainsThe character’s ability to withstand hardship is reduced. The character is treated as having 1 permanent point of nonlethal damage per character level. This damage does not heal from normal healing, nor from healing magic.
43-45WearinessThe character is quickly tired by strenuous effort. They suffer a -4 penalty to skill and ability checks made to avoid nonlethal damage or continue strenuous activities (See the Endurance feat). They may need to make checks for physical activities that wouldn’t normally risk fatigue (such as significant climbs, or walking long distances with a heavy load).
46-47Low Pain ThresholdThe character is unusually vulnerable to pain, suffering a -4 penalty on any effect that causes pain.
48-49Old Battle WoundThough mostly healed, the injury flares up at odd moments. If the character rolls a 10 for any physical skill check (DM's definition), they immediately suffer the effects of a pain strike cast by a wizard of their level (save applies).
5X: Scarring
50-52Restrictive ScarsThe character has scar tissue, badly-mended bones or damaged nerves that limit their movement. They suffer a -2 to Athletics and Acrobatics checks.
53-55Impressive ScarsThe character has an obvious scar that makes them appear tough or dangerous. They gain situational bonuses or penalties to social skills (usually +4/-4), depending on those involved.
56-58Horrible ScarsThe character has an obvious and disturbing scar. They gain situational bonuses or penalties to social skills (usually +4/-4), depending on those involved.
59CallousedThe character has reduced sensitivity in a body part (select at random) due to dense scar tissue, but is less sensitive to pain. Apply this ability as appropriate, with a typical -4/+4 modifier. For example, a character with calloused hands might struggle with lockpicking, but be able to shrug off heat long enough to drag something out of a fireplace, or climb a thorny vine without rolling to see if they can maintain their grip. This ability doesn’t necessarily prevent hit point damage, it just suppresses pain.
6X: Leg wound (select a leg at random)
60-61Missing LegThe leg is severed or rendered entirely useless. The character can crawl, or walk at -5 speed with support from allies or a crutch. With practice, they can learn to walk on crutches at full speed or run at double speed (speed-and-a-half in heavy armour) but cannot use the crutch arm – which is usually the opposite arm. With an artificial leg and some practice, they can treat this as a Wounded Leg (see below).
62-63Wounded LegThe character’s leg is painful and has reduced mobility. They suffer a -4 penalty to Acrobatics and Athletics checks involving the legs. They run at double speed (speed-and-a-half in heavy armour).
64-65Slow MovementThe character’s movements are slower and more awkward than usual. The character suffers a -5 penalty to Speed.
66-67Weak LegThe character's balance and carrying capacity is hampered by a weakened leg.They suffer a -2 penalty on checks to avoid falling prone or being moved, and when attempting to bullrush opponents. Their weight thresholds are calculated on three-quarters of their Strength.
68-69LimpThe character moves with a distinctive limp and struggles with obstacles. Their overland movement is calculated with a -5 Speed penalty, and they treat difficult terrain as x3 rather than x4.
7X: Arm wound (select an arm at random)
70-71Missing ArmThe arm is severed or rendered useless. The character may no longer use that arm to hold or manipulate items. In addition, they suffer a -4 penalty to most Dexterity- and Strength-based checks using the arms, including combat manoeuvres where appropriate.
72-73Lost FingersThe character loses 1d3 fingers from the chosen hand. The character suffers a -2 penalty to most Dexterity- and Strength-based skill checks using the hands, and finds it hard to hold or grasp objects. They suffer a -2 penalty on attack and damage rolls using that hand.
74-75Wounded ArmThe character’s arm is weak or difficult to control. The character suffers a -4 penalty to most Acrobatics and Athletics checks involving the arms, and a -2 penalty on melee attack and damage rolls using that arm. They may suffer other appropriate disadvantages.
76-77ShakesThe character’s movements are shaky or clumsy. They suffer a -2 penalty to most Dexterity- and Strength-based checks using the hands.
78-79Muscle LockThe character's hand muscles are damaged, leaving them strong but barely mobile. The character can hold items, but must force their fingers open and closed using their other hand: for example, they can use their left hand to grip a bow in their right, then fire left-handed. They can't pick up most items, or use the hand for any task requiring manual dexterity; this imposes a -2 penalty on tasks such as grappling, lockpicking, playing the lute or forgery because they must rely on a single hand. Tasks such as climbing are very difficult (-4 penalty). Spells with somatic components may suffer a failure percentage chance equal to the spell's level (DM's decision per spell). The character can still attack using that hand, suffering a -2 penalty on ranged and melee attacks.
8X: Intellectual trauma
80-81Memory LossThe character struggles to recall and use information. They suffer a -4 penalty to any checks requiring recall of information, most importantly Knowledge checks. They may forget names and messages, or get lost easily. Deciding the parameters of a character’s memory loss is a matter for negotiation.
82-83Attention DeficitThe character struggles to focus on a task. They suffer a -2 penalty to Concentration checks. In addition, any time they need to spend more than a few minutes on the same task, they are liable to become distracted and a Will save may be called for.
84-85DisjointedThe character’s intellect is unimpaired, but they struggle to marshal arguments or arrange ideas in a logical order. They suffer a -4 penalty to Diplomacy checks, as well as any attempts to explain or discuss complicated topics.
86-87LightmindedThe character’s resolve weakens, leaving them inclined to stare at lights and easily lulled by soft voices. The character suffers a -4 penalty against fascination effects.
88-89BefuddledThe character becomes unusually prone to psychotic episodes. They suffer a -2 penalty on confusion effects. Narratively, the character may suffer from mild panic at stressful moments, or suffer occasional hallucinations.
9X: Complications
90-92Liver DamageThe character’s ability to handle toxins is reduced, leaving them unusually susceptible to poisons of all kinds. The character suffers a -4 penalty on all saving throws against poison effects, including alcohol and other drugs.
93-94Lung DamageThe character's lung capacity is reduced, making it harder to breathe and leaving them more susceptible to airborne hazards. The character suffers a -4 penalty on saving throws against gases of any kind, or any roll relating to controlling their breath, including appropriate Perform checks.
95-97Weak StomachThe character is unusually sensitive, suffering a -4 penalty against any effect that causes sickening or nausea. They are likely to find certain foods, perfumes and other strong scents unpleasant.
98-99Sleep DisorderLingering pain, emotional trauma or metabolic damage disrupts the character's sleeping patterns. They may struggle to stay awake for long periods, or find it difficult to sleep. They suffer a -4 penalty on any effect that effects sleep in any way.
0X: Special
00-01AnomalySomething very strange happens: the character is saved by an alternate-universe duplicate; an apparently-inert bracelet erupts into a miniature golem that absorbs the killing blow; a spirit or deity revives the character with a message, offers a bargain, or places a geas on the character; the character becomes a ghost, shade or other intelligent undead.
02-03Wandering SoulThe character's spirit goes astray and must be brought back before they can reawaken.
04-05Soul InfestationEvil influences or psychic predators latch onto the character as they lie unconscious. It may take some time for their presence to be noticed, even once the character reawakens. Use any suitable monster, or invent your own.
06-07Spiritual AcquaintanceDrifting in unconsciousness, the character encounters wandering spirits that may try to steal their body, become parasitic, befriend the character etc.
08-09AwakeningThe character develops unexpected abilities, but usually at a cost... for example, they might gain a minor spell-like ability or a lesser feat, but lose a point of statistic. They might begin to speak visions, without knowing their meaning. This may be a good opportunity to introduce features from another setting in a very limited way.