On the Effects of Magic, Cantrips and Rules

An interesting wizard is a themed wizard.

The original magic-user had a very limited spell list with spells that were very focused on utility in a dungeon.

The original magic-user only had 8 first level spells, 10 second level spells, and 14 third level spells.They have 12 fourth level spells, 14 fifth level spells and 12 sixth level spells.

This gives them a grand total of 70 spells

A magic user in a second edition game has access to over 2,174 spells.

So how do the effects of magic help solve this problem? They introduce costs into being a wizard. Yes, they also give the wizard "extra power" but they do so unilaterally, meaning, also while you are walking through town or the dungeon, not just in combat.

Do you have protection from evil memorized? Congratulations on leaving a trail of chalk dust through the dungeon. Memorize water breathing? drooling next to the fighter while he talks with hobgoblins is going to weird them out. Do you have Wall of Fire prepared? Enjoy your walk through small villages with exclusively wooden buildings.

It can be a lot to keep track of, so the suggestion is to only allow the effects from the highest two levels of spells the caster knows. Upon reaching fifth level, the caster only has the effects of magic from second and third level memorized spells. This keeps the effects to under a dozen, meaning they are track-able.

This can work well in a game with specialist wizards who have limited spell lists and generalist Magic-Users. Generalists can learn any spell, but specialists can only learn spells from very specific limited lists of 8-10 spells a level. Specialists however can use or exhibit only the side effects from preparing spells when they wish due to their mastery and control, whereas generalist mages always exhibit the side effects.


Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.

Wizards of any sort may do any of the following at any time:

  • Touch someone to cause an involuntary bodily reaction at any time on a failed saving throw vs. paralyzation. (fart, bletch, blink, nod, yawn)
  • Produce a small lighter sized flame
  • Chill an object smaller than 1 cubic foot to 40 degrees. 
  • Clean one man-sized creature or smaller, or one 10' x 10' x 10' cube or smaller. Cleaning the cube takes the magic one turn.
  • Summon one diminutive vermin or insect
  • Kill one tiny vermin or insect
  • Control up to 1" of hair growth or removal.
  • Cause one object on his person to appear in his hand or an object in his hand to disappear off his person.
  • Travel while hovering 1" off a solid surface for up to 10'
  • Repair or mend small (minute) breaks or tears
  • Warm or cool an area by 10 degrees F.
  • Perform minor changes on small objects (change the color of parchment, turn a diminutive bat into a diminutive bird). These changes last from 1 day for very minor (color) changes, to 1 turn for subtle changes, to 1 round for drastic changes.
  • Open or close a regular door. Levitate objects weighing 1 pound or less within 10' of the caster
  • Cause a soft chime to ring
  • Animate diminutive objects for 1 turn

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On the Thursday Trick, Monster Guts

So, it never fails.

You put ONE GEM inside of a dead kobold, and for the next TWO YEARS your players butcher the guts of every creature they come across.

How to turn this into an example of agency instead of an automatic action?

Two steps:

  • Have a consequence for taking this action
  • Provide clues in the environment or the encounter that the creature might have eaten something


Much of what a relevant consequence is has to do with what type of game your are playing. In a megadungeon, having the butchering take a turn and grant a +1 to the next one or two wandering monster checks is a reasonable and significant penalty.

In quest based small site adventures it becomes more difficult to institute a reasonable penalty. Perhaps a penalty to monster reaction, or in the likely event that reaction rolls are not used in your quest-based game, a penalty to social checks or even charisma for a short period after butchering the creature. Certainly in a more social game, providing a -4 penalty to diplomacy, gather information, and bluff checks (along with a +2 bonus to intimidate checks) is a reasonable penalty (or a -2 on reaction rolls). 


What can clue you in that a person or animal might have something hidden inside their stomachs?

  • A wild animal lair with fresh kills of humanoids
  • A corpse nearby something subtly missing
  • A prisoner being interrogated
  • Nearby non-food substances having bite or teeth marks
  • Interesting items found in stools or obvious elimination areas 
These need not be obvious. A fresh kill in a monster lair can be described as having equipment, but with his guts and groin chewed out and eaten. Searching the stomach of the monster will turn up a belt buckle and pouch. The same with leaving a fresh kill that is missing a hand, where you find a ring inside the target.

The subtle missing item can be something very obvious i.e. "There is a circle of dust where something once stood on the table" or it can be more subtle "You find paper and pens inside a drawer" where the stomach contains magical inks. The corpse doesn't necessarily have to be in the room -- the players can kill it nearby and be forced to connect the missing item with the monster that could have eaten it. 

Interrogated prisoners will often consume anything valuable they are carrying to hide it.  

The other two are obvious clues that if downplayed only active and experienced adventures will follow up after itemizing the treasure they found.

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On A Board Game of Thrones

So our regular Dungeon Master was out of town this last weekend. We took the opportunity to engage in some board gaming!

We played, Game of Thrones the boardgame.

It's really very good.

It looks long, complicated, and slow. It isn't. It plays fast and interesting.

Play goes as follows.

  • Draw and follow the instructions on a series of 3 cards.
  • Everyone simultaneously places orders for all their lands face down. Feel free to talk, cajole, or convince the other players what you're doing and what they should do. 
  • Everything is flipped up and resolved in order. 

The actual resolution of events is very fast. This means for most of the two to four hour playing time, you are heavily engaged in discussion, treachery, planning, and manipulation.

You are literally playing a game of thrones.

It was very fun. We have plans to play it again.

Some thoughts:

  • The instruction manual was pretty good for a FFG game. We spent some time flipping back and forth to figure out the function of star tokens, and some things were not clear (such as when new troops were mustered) but as instruction booklets go, it was passable.
  • A huge missed opportunity in calling it the BOARD GAME OF THRONES. 
  • It's a euro style race game - first person to 7 castles or the most castles at the end of 10 turns. 
  • The influence tracks are a  neat idea. The Iron throne decides between ties, which is super powerful, but the others influence ties in combat and how many special icons you can use.
  • Although I've read most of the books, I am not a fan and do not watch the TV series. 

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On the Fear of Play

Why isn't Dungeons and Dragons more popular?

I play a lot of games and not with gamers. I force people I already get along with to play all kinds of games. Over the last 30 years of doing this, I've discovered that many people not only don't like to play games, but find the experience uncomfortable to terrifying.

My pre-existing relationships with these people allowed me the latitude to delve into why this was the case. I didn't go into the situation to try and change minds, but just to listen and discover what they felt about the experience. Here are some of the things that I was told.

  • "There was so much information involved in learning the game I was overwhelmed."
  • "I felt like I was studying for a test."
  • "Once the game started everyone was mean to each other."
  • "I got angry because I hate losing."
  • "I didn't want to play, because if I won (so and so) would lose."
  • "When we started negotiating, I couldn't trust anybody and it was horrible."
Of course, to a gamer, the above things are reasons we like games. Information gives us a feeling of discovery of new systems and worlds. Mastering the game brings us joy. Shit talking in a reasonable way* is a way to have fun with your friends. Losing a game is when we learn to play better. Winning is something that comes around to everyone sooner or later. And negotiating is a thrill because it's you gaming with your friends, not just moving pieces around on a board.

The Internal Difference

But people are genuinely different from each other. 

I am often put into situations where I am forced to engage in violent physical conflict with people. I've been bit by humans twice in the last two years. Even though I am very skilled at deescalating these physical confrontations, they still occur. And when they do, I find I enjoy the experience. 

This isn't true before the confrontation. I have the same instinct for self-preservation as everyone and I do whatever is in my power to avoid having these violent confrontations. But the fact is that they are often unavoidable from the point at which I become involved. Sometimes in the case of psychosis or organic disorders it's unavoidable from any point. Knowing it's coming or before the conflict begins is very stressful for me.

I have seen many, many people quit after having such a confrontation, or take months to choose to return to work. But after over 100 of these events, I find that contrary to being stressed about the experience, I enjoy it while it is occurring, and feel fantastic afterwords. Their internal experience of the event for different people is physically, chemically, and psychologically different.

This sounds truistic. Other people are actually very different from you. They hold different baseline assumptions. They place importance on different things. Especially if you pull away everything you know, and the right and wrong of things, and ignorance, and low self-esteem -- the pure unadulterated essence of who that person is and how they internally feel is different than you.

They really like scream-o, maybe more than you like Zeppelin

The Thing About Games

Some people don't like confrontation. Others don't like losing. Some don't like being put in situations where they might disagree in public. Some people are concerned about having their performance judged by their peers. 

It's my personal belief that a lot of these causes revolve around esteem and issues of confidence and maturity. And in a lot of cases that can be true. 

But it isn't true in all cases. 

Even very confident, mature, people can find an experience like bidding for a piece of property unpleasant. Not because they are concerned about what someone might think if they lose, but because they simply find the process of competing with friends internally unpleasant. It is not to their taste. 

De gustibus non est disputandum 

The Thing about Role Playing Games and Dungeons & Dragons

This leads to two related issues to tabletop gamers. 


When I tell someone we are going to be playing a wargame, they know what the experience I'm relating is. When I tell someone we are going to be playing a minature skirmish game, they know what the experience I'm relating is. When I tell someone we're going to be playing a turn-based computer game, they know what the experience I'm relating is.

When I tell someone we're playing a role-playing game?

Well, there are certain people who expect to sit down to play a game. There are others who sit down and expect to experience drama. And there are some people who do something in-between. 

None of these is better or worse than another**. None is a right or wrong way to play. Some people enjoy one and some people enjoy the other. 

But how do I know which one I'm going to get?

Pre-Game Anxiety

Have you ever run a game? Have you ever felt prepared beforehand? 

I play tabletop games somewhere between 10-20 hours every week. For 4 to 10 of those hours, I'm the Dungeon Master. I've been doing this for over 25 years of my life. 

To this day I still get nervous before a game. 

Doesn't everyone have this anxiety? Our current in-person Sunday morning dungeon master almost quit after the first session because she was so stressed about preparing for the game. 

You know what you need for every game of Dungeons & Dragons? 

The End Result

Gaming is popular and cyclical. In times of recession and low personal and financial autonomy, they are more popular because of their value per dollar. Gaming is here to stay.

But the reality is, there's no new innovation that's going to raise gaming to the profitability of movies or video games. Dungeons and Dragons requires a Dungeon Master and Board Games require conflict and winning and losing. 

Acknowledging these factors and recognizing that they occur can make gaming a more pleasant experience for everyone! Knowing that I feel anxious and unprepared as I sit in front of 500 rooms across 127 pages of +Numenhalla means that I address the feeling as "that thing that happens before a game", instead of getting wrapped up in all the little concerns and worries. Telling someone that it's ok to lose, because you're going to play another three rounds of Dominion makes it easier to deal with that feeling.

Getting past these things and spending time actually playing is really the point, isn't it?

* e.g. "The Irkutsk-Yakutsk connection will take you down this time!" or "Beware House Stark, for we control the barren frozen north", not hate speech or abuse.

** This pretty clearly super explicitly has nothing to do with being able to objectively critique these systems and make judgement calls about how they actually function in play. Hey, hey, RAW 4th edition, you aren't gonna die, how you like your easy mode? Here's the secret. Maybe you super-enjoy your easy mode and their isn't anything wrong with that. We can still talk objectively about the design and what it's attempting to appeal to. 

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On the Effects of Magic, 9th Level

The magical energies contained in the brain cause side effects. When the wizard acts as a conduit, there are risks. When a wizard memorizes a 9th level spell, she gains the ability to take on a specific named aspect. This replaces part of her soul with the soul of the spell and has the effects listed below. Once taken, this aspect can only be dismissed with a successful save versus paralyzation, which at first can be attempted at the end of a turn. The next time is the end of an hour. The time after that is at the end of the day, then a week, then a month, then a year. If the wizard fails at that point, his essences has been subsumed by the spell itself and rejoins the weave of magic.

View the entire series here. When reading these, recall the caster must be at least 18th level to even memorize one of these spells.

  • Astral Spell
    • Aspect of the Star: Casters body becomes translucent and surrounded by a glowing outline. The interior appears filled with galaxies and star stuff. Caster can fly and is immune to normal weaponry. When struck, star material pours from the gash, damaging all targets in a 3" x 3" cone for 2d8 damage in a random direction. 
  • Bigby's Crushing Hand
    • Aspect of the Fist: The caster doubles in size and his muscles grow to huge proportions. Her Strength is raised to 19, and her intelligence and wisdom decrease by the same amount her strength increased. Her armor class improves 4 places from natural armor and her fist attacks do 1d8 damage as a base. She may jump up to 4 times her normal jumping distance. Her skin may turn a different color. 
  • Gate
    • Aspect of the Overworld: The casters skin turns either obsidian or ivory colored, and her eyes become pools of a solid color. The wizard gains the ability to open up portals between locations in time a space. She may summon small objects or open up a pair of portals that link to each other.
  • Imprisonment
    • Aspect of the Warden: The casters body becomes more dense, gaining an increase of 2 to armor class and doubling in weight. Spending a round concentrating the caster can raise a permanent stone wall 5' thick, 10' high, and 20' long.
  • Meteor Swarm
    • Aspect of the Meteor: Caster gains a fire aura that does 3d6 damage to adjacent creatures and acts as a fire shield (hot). She can throw balls of fire, one per round, doing 5d6 damage to any target she hits. 
  • Monster Summoning VII
    • Aspect of the Summoner: The caster has a number of floating arcane symbols that act as satellites. They can be used to attack a monster within 40', doing 4d8 damage, or they can be used defensively protecting the caster from ranged weapons and raising the casters armor class by 8 as a shield bonus, or they can be used to support the caster allowing her to walk through the air. 
  • Power Word, Kill
    • Aspect of the Black Bolt: The casters voice is a wave of destruction. She may shatter any object with her voice up to 100 pounds per caster level using the spell in this way expends the spell. Using the voice to harm a creature kills it as the definition of the spell. Otherwise the caster may not speak.
  • Prismatic Sphere
    • Aspect of the Universal Shaman: The caster gains a limited ability to transmute objects into other objects. Rain can be turned into flower petals, fire can be turned into streaming paper, blood can be changed into insects. Doing so takes a full round, but the caster is limited to changing small objects into other objects. 
  • Shape Change
    • Aspect of the Mutable Form: Your form becomes liquid and malleable. You may spend a turn to form part of your body into a certain trait, gaining you an animals or creatures natural ability. Attacks against you do 3 points less damage than normal because of the nature of your body. 
  • Temporal Stasis
    • Aspect of the Eternal Form: Your skin becomes gleaming and speckled and you lightly glow a golden color. You do not age while this spell is prepared and your touch causes sleep to all creatures of 4 hit dice or less. Higher level creatures receive a saving throw versus the sleep effect. 
  • Time Stop
    • Aspect of the Hourglass: While this spell is prepared, you instantly experience the moment it is cast, and then live backwards from that moment. at any given time you have no idea what has just happened, but have a clear understand of what will happen. The Dungeon Master informs you of what is ahead privately and any attacks or actions you take have a +4 bonus on the roll. 
  • Wish
    • Aspect of the Quantum: This aspect is too powerful to be maintained for long. If the spell is not cast, every molecule of the casters body vibrates with energy with appropriate effects. 

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On the Ecology of the Zorbo

"They don't like us, but they like us to eat. " - Ralfish Dortkud, Nezumi Spy

Nomenclature: Zorba, Zorbo, Sorbers, Dirt bear,

Description: Small bear like creatures with fangs and claws and black beady eyes.

Things that are known:
  • It hungers for the flesh of humans and humanoids
  • It has the ability to absorb the traits of objects and items around it, as well as draining magic items of their energy
  • It looks very much like a koala bear.

Rumors and other whispers in the dark:
  • Its dying curse is to leave adventurers with the shameful Mark of Zorbo, a Z on their forehead, which to those in the know is occasion for ridicule and mirth.
  • They are said to give birth to 1 to 2 live young every 3 years. 
  • Zorbo are created by pickling koalas in mysterious alchemical concoctions for seven days while performing a ritual known as "chanting the seven mately groans'.
  • Killing a Zorbo with a melee weapon traps your weapon in the corpse 4 out of 6 times.
  • Zorbo were originally designed to go in steel cages, fired from siege engines. They would take on the aspect of steel, and when the cage burst on impact, they rampaged. They were the winners of a contest, where a wizard submitted his life form. Unlike golems, they were cheap to breed. Because they had a meat form, they were relatively easy to feed and house. And when they became burrs digging through infantry ranks, that put a smile on the commander's face.
  • Zorbo are children of the Gum-Tree God, tending the gardens of creamtime.
  • Some Zorbos absorb brains, and they are called Zorbies.
  • Zorbos are universally double jointed. 
  • Zorbo claws make excellent mace heads, maintaining their absorbing power even after death. 
  • Zorbo were created by religious xorn. They prayed for something they could hunt through the earth, after seeing what joy their underdark neighbors took in the practice. The original zorbo were holy creatures, reserved for hunting through the earth on xorn holy days. The trick was to catch and kill the zorbo when it was formed of the most delicious material--adamant, always put in its path...
  • Zorbo are shapechangers who manifest entropy and chaos, their shape of a koala bear is simply a mask of skin streched across their void flesh. 
  • The hunger for humanoid flesh, comes from their millennial long origin as the pets of demons; favored most by the succubi, they all long for the delicacies of their past.
  • Zorbo are unable to climb backwards, like squirrels they must face forward to ascend.
  • Groups of Zorbos are known as Blots. There is much disagreement among the sages on the plural of Zorbo, many different kinds have appeared in academic texts on the subject. 
  • Once, a stage magician offended the God of Magic. The god cursed him, that all his illusions were factual. Knives went through things. His touch transmuted. The climax of the curse saw his pet bear actually turned to steel, and it ripped him apart in front of a duly impressed crowd. If a wizard sees a Zorbo, that is a sign that the wizard has offended the god of magic, and must atone very soon or else all magical effects become more real than they should, climaxing in the wizard's death.
  • It is incorrect to say that Zorbo absorb traits, they are reflected with a slight delay. 
  • A herd of earth elementals was carefully gathered for a religious ritual, but kept in close proximity with the mutagens and toxins that were also to be part of the ritual, they contracted a disease. Delirious, they escaped, and somehow were able to breed with all the local wildlife. The zorbo is but one unfortunate consequence.
  • Zorbo are actually plants that masquerade as animals. They wait to be eaten, and once they are, they absorb the animal, finally free to walk as living creatures do.
  • Sanglee the Lesser conquered a region and prohibited weapons. Revolt after revolt showed that the people were still getting their hands on refined steel to make armor and blades. Sanglee approached his grandfather, a completely insane wizard, and asked for something that would let him take weapons from the people without tipping them off to his presence. The zorbo was the result, his grandfather's last (and most eccentric) work. The screams of rust monsters and furry beasts echoed long into each night.
    • All did not end well for Sanglee. The zorbo did in fact wipe out all the metal it could get its furry claws on. So, the locals developed unarmed and simple weapon fighting, giving them a serious edge when they faced Sanglee's metal-wielding troops with their war-zorbos.
  • Zorbos live in extended family groups called greeks. They like playing chess. 
  • When zorbos kill a creature, they drag the corpse to a special chamber underground, where a giant cocoon sits. The shove the corpse into the cocoon and spin more silk to seal it closed. Eventually these wake and become a giant meat golem.
  • Zorbos are a weapon -- mutant dropbears bred to bankrupt a magic-glutted kingdom by foreign enemies. 
  • High fashion was supplied with color-shifting furs, and Zellman knew he had to up his game. He would produce furs that could change their textures! He never did figure out how to do that, but he did create the zorbo in his painstaking decades-long experiments. They were so cute they became a status pet among the nobility, who had special bare stone rooms for playing with their absorbing pets. When the empire fell, the zorbo escaped into the ruins, and still haunt them now.
  • A Zorbo is actually just an animal skin that covers a seething, buzzing colony of chaos beetles.
  • Dwarves created the zorbo. They trained them to follow certain cracks and fissures, absorb the best of what was there, and return. Their small size and the purity of their recon made them the mascots of the Helliriak Clan. When the clan fell, the mascots became status pets and delicacies for the goblins that followed.
  • Zorbo population is steady, because their waste is often coated in diamond dust and occasionally contains rare jewels.
  • Zorbo skin and flesh is in high demand, because it is used in the construction of bags of holding. 
  • The Adamant Idol was the toughest construct the world had ever seen. It was worshiped as a god, and it conquered nation after nation. As the faithful prayed to their defending god, that night a pod of zorbo arrived. The faithless bitterly laughed, that their god chose to mock them before watching their destruction, but the confused faithful bundled the creatures up and took them along. During the battle the next day, the zorbo took on the toughness of the Adamant Idol and destroyed it with its own grade of weaponry now in their claws and jaws. The survivors tell the tale once a year. Priests have a pet zorbo in each temple, living in a specially carved nest that looks like a suit of armor, symbolic of their god's protection.
  • The nose of a Zorbo is often considered a delicacy, especially in the court of the Crimson King. 
  • A Zorbo once slain, turns into an inert, solid, lump of obsidian. 
  • Back when beholders had an eye that could see meat, even through barriers, the fey used zorbo to sneak up on them and bite off that eye stalk. Eventually it stopped manifesting.
  • Zorbo reached this planet on the hull of spelljammers, who find them to be irritating parasites. No one knows where they originated, but they delight in absorbing (and holing) spelljammer hulls. It gives them magic resistance.

The ecology series is a crowdsourced series of articles, and contributors can be found on google+ under the hashtag #crowdecology. They are limited posts, but following me on G+ will allow you to see them. All artwork is credited where the artist could be found. Classic ecology articles from Dragon magazine are used both for reference and inspiration; the whole impetus of the idea was to create 'classic' ecology articles that are actually useful. Let's Read the Monster Manual by Noisms is also a source of inspiration.  If you're curious how to make effective use of these articles, read On the Use of Ecology. 

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On Reader Mail, The Alien World

Garth writes:

"I'd like my players to encounter a truly alien continent--separated from the rest of the world by millions of years of evolution, and seeded by otherworldly creatures. The encounter becomes boilerplate. I want to do more than just re-skin goblins, hydras, etc. 

Any tips on making an environment feel completely alien, beyond avoiding classic creatures/architecture?"

Thanks for writing in Garth! If you have any questions or if your curious about my thoughts on anything, write into campbell at oook dot cz, or message me via my google+ profile.

This is a great question, but a complicated one. If this truly is a major theme of the game, then the answer can be quite complicated.

Starting Steps

Unless the default environment the players are from is very much like our earth or very much  like bog standard fantasy, then I would make the first several sessions about discovering what the normal environment is like, so that the changes you make are significant. If you go this route, then expectations set up during these first sessions should be subverted in lots of different ways. This can be as simple as describing or experiencing many of the local customs and creatures, and then being told a very inaccurate story about the place you are travelling to.

Creating Alien Environment

There are several factors to balance in creating an alien enviornment.

  • Subvert expectations: This is the most important part. Things are alien and different because they do not work or function the way we expect.
  • Obscure the Purpose: It is important to understand that today, right now, scientists are discovering things in forests that they have no idea what they are. And it's often only with a lot of research, luck, time (six months!), and investigation that we ever find out. 
  • Develop relationships and ecologies: Yes, some animals will have predator/prey relationships, but those aren't the only relationships that form. Symbiosis, animals that are necessary for mating, and bizarre inter-dependencies can all make whatever environment you are in feel alien. 
  • Generate unique traits: You are probably just resuing monster stats. Make sure that you generate unique lairs, spoors, tracks, and traces for each type of monster. 
  • Limit Monsters: Limit your monsters to less than six types in each different climate area. any more than that, and there's just too much information for the players to ever be able to unravel any of the mysteries. By limiting your monsters to four to six different kinds, you know your players will encounter them often enough to begin to understand their relationships.
  • Recall the Familiar: Even in a strange place, there will be things they will be able to understand. Having one of the monsters be "Like a cat or dog" or "hunting around like a bear" will provide both a common touchstone in the alien environment, and make the different things seem even more different. 

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