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  • Designer Diary: Firefly Dance

    by Josep M Allué

    In addition to designing 3F (fun/family/filler) games, I like science and magical effects, which means I really like scientific experiments that surprise you and make you think, "How did they do that?"

    A few years ago, I saw an experiment on YouTube about how to light a lamp that wasn't connected to anything by placing it close to a small Tesla coil. While seeing this, I said to myself, "Hey, I'm sure there's a game hidden in here."

    Following various tutorials, I bought a roll of copper wire, the right kind of lamp, and a 9-volt battery, and I made a coil by wrapping the wire hundreds of times. Then, very excited, I connected to the battery and gradually brought it close to the lamp, waiting for it to light up.

    My first (and failed) attempt
    The effect was immediate, yet rather unexpected. Even today, I'm not sure whether it gave me an electric shock or burnt me directly, but, my goodness, it hurt!

    I never did get that lamp to turn on, but I thought that if I could manage to do it, I could have small pieces that would light up on their own no matter where on the game board you placed them. As a magical effect, it would be really nice — the only problem was that I had no idea how to do it.

    I kept wondering how to turn on a light without any kind of connection until one day a friend said: "You need to get a magnetic switch connected to an LED and a battery, then place it close to a magnet." Eureka!

    The key component of the prototype
    I spent the following weeks testing how to assemble the pieces, while at the same time thinking about designing a game with them. It had to be a game with a magical theme, so while I was soldering and testing non-stop, it occurred to me that I could make four fireflies with a different color for each one. To light them, you would have to touch them with a magic wand that would show you which color each one was. I had it!

    The fireflies in full action
    And if there were a magic wand, there had to be a fairy or a magician so that gave me the final component to create the story for the game: "Every night, a small fairy would go out to dance with her friends, the fireflies, to turn on their lights. Will you help them dance together?"

    Front of the prototype
    Depending on which square the fairy finished her movement, the fireflies would perform different actions such as moving or swapping positions, which would force the players to continuously memorize which color each one was.

    Final prototype
    When it was time to dance, the player had to take one of their dance cards, and to win that card, they had to turn on the fireflies in the order shown. The first player to correctly perform four dances would win the game.

    Dance cards from the prototype
    With the prototype ready, it was time to test it on children — and wow, what a success! They loved moving both the fairy and the fireflies, memorizing their positions, and turning them on with the magic wand. And beating their parents, of course. It seemed that everything was ready to be presented.

    I took the prototype to Essen, and many German, French, and even some American publishers liked it. Many copies of the prototype were ordered, and a large publisher even paid a thirty-day reservation fee, but in the end, no one decided to publish it. They really liked the game, but it was difficult to develop technically, and the components were expensive — too much investment and too much risk. Little by little, the prototypes came back.

    Although I wasn't exactly joyous, a few years ago I would have been much more disappointed to see them back. By this time, though, I had already gone through a similar process with my game Go Cuckoo! (designed with Víktor Bautista i Roma), which was finally published by HABA after being rejected by a long list of publishers due to production problems.

    I continued to show people the game until I met the Korea Boardgames team at SPIEL '18. It was love at first sight. They saw the game and requested a prototype, and in less than a month, the contract was signed. At the FIJ 2019 game fair in Cannes, France, Ivan from Korea Boardgames proposed some small changes to the game dynamics and components that, in my opinion, improved the game, so we implemented them.

    Just before SPIEL '19, I received the cover and the photo of the final game, and what can I say? I loved the work done by Korea Boardgames and the illustrations from ZAO.

    The fireflies and their magic friend!!
    The game fair in Essen featured a giant version of the game and was one of the hits of the booth. At the end of the fair, copies were sold out, so I think it was liked by the players.

    Playing at SPIEL '19
    Now it's time to look for new publishers around the world who want some magic in their catalogs. Let's see whether the fireflies will fly far beyond!

    Josep M. Allué Read more »
  • NY Toy Fair 2020 II: Forgotten Waters, Patchwork: Americana, Sugar Blast, and Catan in 3D

    by W. Eric Martin

    NY Toy Fair 2020 is still underway as I write this report, but I've already left Manhattan with a pocketful of pics and more than enough notes to keep me busy until GAMA Expo 2020 opens in two weeks, so let's get started before the next tide of info arrives.

    We'll also have edited game overview videos from the FIJ 2020 game fair in Cannes, France in the next couple of weeks, so you will have more games to explore than you can possible imagine!

    Components not final
    The Asmodee North America booth was showing a mock-up of a new 3D version of Catan. A representative from Catan Studio told me that with copies of the 2005 Catan 3D Collector's Edition selling for many hundreds of dollars over its original US$300 price tag, the publisher thought it made sense to bring this item back to market, although current plans call for the pieces to be manufactured from hard plastic instead of resin, which would likely lower the price tag from what a resin-based version would sell for these days.

    The Catan Studio rep said that the water pieces will be made from the same material as the island tiles, and the ports will be represented by ship figures that feature the tradable good.

    Fallout Shelter: The Board Game from Andrew Fischer and Fantasy Flight Games has all the players collectively building a shared fallout shelter, while personally tending to their people in order to maintain their happiness — while still sending them out to work in locations where they might be overrun by monsters, which are represented by plastic overlays that make a place impossible to visit while occupied.

    Patchwork: Americana Edition from Uwe Rosenberg and Lookout Games features gameplay identical to ye olde Patchwork, but with graphics that match Americana quilting styles. I posted these pics on Twitter and saw many people saying they prefer the original look, but those people are not the customers for which this edition is intended. If I were to purchase this game for most people in my extended family, this is the version I would give as it would look more familiar and inviting to them.

    Shows like these emphasize how hard it is to keep up with new game announcements. I had seen Forgotten Waters — a design from Isaac Vega, J. Arthur Ellis, Mr. Bistro, and Plaid Hat Games — at an earlier non-public event, but now the game is out in the open, so let's put up a page and say a little about the game:
    Forgotten Waters is a Crossroads Game set in a world of fantastical pirate adventure. In it, players take on the role of pirates sailing together on a ship, attempting to further their own personal stories as well as a common goal.

    The world of Forgotten Waters is silly and magical, with stories designed to encourage players to explore and laugh in delight as they interact with the world around them. It's a game in which every choice can leave a lasting impact on the story, and players will want turn over every rock just to see what they find.

    Forgotten Waters features five scenarios and a massive location book that provides players with tons of choices wherever they go.

    In the game, each player has a character (sheets shown at lower right) that they customize in various ways, and as you progress through scenarios, you can boost stats and gain bonuses, although different characters max out at different levels. You'll use these skills to overcome threats and continue your adventure. As your ship progresses on the water, you'll encounter new situations, such as the two depicted above. In an encounter, at least one player must visit a red activity, at most one player can visit a blue activity, and any number of players can visit a green activity.

    Forgotten Waters will include an app to provide crossroad moments, and the design seems like a cross between a Crossroads game and an AdventureBook game like Stuffed Fables.

    Rory's Story Cubes: Star Wars is pretty much what you'd expect it to be: nine dice that collectively feature 54 iconic characters, objects, and vehicles from the Star Wars films. Roll the dice, then create a story from what's visible. Can you craft a tale that won't have people rushing to Twitter and Facebook to complain?!

    Tea for 2 from Cédrick Chaboussit and Space Cowboys is a two-player-only, deck-building game of sorts. On a turn, you each play a card from your deck, and whoever plays the higher card can use that card's effect or buy a new card for their deck with the difference between the two played cards being the amount you have to spend, although you can increase that amount by paying tarts.

    You want to manipulate the clock that determines which bonus is available, with players having the long-term goal of winning points and being able to pick up bonus tiles along the way that reward them for collecting or doing different things.

    Sugar Blast is a "match 3" style tabletop game from Leo Almeida, Matthew O'Malley, Ben Rosset, and CMON Limited. On a turn, you swap two adjacent pieces in the grid, then remove any rows or columns of three or more matching pieces. After doing this, you tilt the board in your direction to see whether you have any more matches. If so, remove those pieces, then tilt again! You keep at least one piece from each set you make, and the long-term goal is to be the first to satisfy the random goal card for that game, such as four different-colored pairs of tokens (as shown here) or a pair and a four-of-a-kind of different colors. Read more »
    - Newest Items

  • Seafoot Games - Agarnoth’s Hold | 40x30 Battlemap
    Publisher: Seafoot Games

    Agarnoth’s Hold

    A small trail leads you meandering through the dreary swamp of Blackmire before you arrive at the foreboding wooden gates of Agarnoth’s Hold. A palisade has been erected, using old stone pillars in the design and with series of wooden stakes lining the outer walls. Two large animal skulls sit atop the gates pillars, leering down at you with malice.

    Inside the holds walls lie many barrels, presumably stock taken from recent raids as well as two tents by the fire place. A shrine sits atop a stone pedestal surrounded by bones and crowned by a strange spell book and a fetish.

    Two paths lead you into separate parts of a shallow cave, one room contains a large skull flanked by two fire pits and more piles of bones as well as wooden stakes. The other path leads through a small room and into a larger sleeping and eating area where hay, leather bedding and hammocks are.

    Adventure seed

    Within the swamp of Blackmire lies the personal hold of the orc war chief Agarnoth. Built into a shallow cave on the outskirts of the orcish village of the Skulltakers the war chief uses this hold for feasts, sacrifices and meetings most foul.

    Regional spies have come back with reports that the war chief is holding a grand feast with leaders from the other orcish tribes soon, he intends to unite them under his banner, destroy the nearby human settlement and then push down further into the human kingdom with the united war band.

    You can not let this happen, whether through poisoning food, diplomacy, or brute force you must stop this meeting and if that means killing everyone, so be it!

    What You Will Receive 
    A home-printable 20x30 battlemap, compatible with any role-play game, and VTTs such as Roll20.

    Download Contains

    Home-printable, A4 .PDF of the gridded map at 300dpi, spread over several pages.
    300dpi .JPEGs of the map for A1 poster printing or VTT.
    72dpi .JPEGs of the map for VTTs.

    Map image

    Map image

    Want more bang for your buck? Come support us on Patreon, and get five or more maps for as little as $4.00 every month. 

    Or, follow us on Facebook to recieve updates about new maps, adventures, and giveaways!

    If you enjoyed any of our content, please leave a review below—or tell us what you’d like to see in the comments!

    Seafoot Games - Agarnoth’s Hold | 40x30 BattlemapPrice: $2.99 Read more »
  • Strange Things Afoot character sheet
    Publisher: Point of Insanity Game Studio

    Keep track of your character's information on the Strange Things Afoot Character Sheet.

    Strange Things Afoot character sheetPrice: $0.00 Read more »

    Gnome Stew

  • Fate of Cthulhu Review
    Fate of Cthulhu Review

    I think for today’s review, I’ll look at something nice and simple that shouldn’t be at all controversial. Let me just check the internet for a moment.

    Oh. Oh my.

    Well, let’s see what this controversy is all about then.

    Wait, really? People didn’t know all of that? And there is a rising wave of people with very strong and very constrained opinions on exactly what does and doesn’t count as cosmic horror?

    Maybe 2020 really is the gateway to the worst timeline, after all.

    By the way, today we’re going to look at Evil Hat’s latest Fate based game, Fate of Cthulhu, a game that is equal parts cosmic horror and Terminator storyline.

    The Grimoire of Fate

     This review is based on both the physical Fate of Cthulhu hardcover and the PDF version of the product. This game comes in at 258 pages. Do you like green, because you are going to get green. There are four pages of sample characters, a four-page index, and a full-page timeline tracking sheet and character sheet.

    If you have seen any previous Fate products from Evil Hat, the formatting on this book is very similar, which means it has some of the clearest formatting of any products in the RPG industry. Bold headers and clear color blocks draw your attention to the right places. Professional, clear, and attractive, without a lot of background embellishment.

    The interior is full color, and while Fate products from Evil Hat uniformly have strong, attractive art, this one is especially colorful and atmospheric in presentation.

    Disclaimers and Discord

    Many modern Cthulhu related game products have begun to put disclaimers about Lovecraft’s history in the products. These can vary from “he was a man of his time” to making a neutral statement about Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia.

    Fate of Cthulhu isn’t neutral about any of that. It is a refreshingly blunt statement that not only condemns Lovecraft’s racism, but also calls to light how that racism influenced his work. This is the Lovecraft disclaimer I’ll measure other Lovecraft disclaimers against.

    Oddly, this caused a stir online, rallying a segment of Lovecraft fandom to defend Lovecraft and condemn this book. Not only do I want to call attention to what an uncompromising disclaimer looks like, I also want to ask anyone that might read reviews of this product elsewhere to keep this hornet’s nest in mind.

    Introduction/Pick Your Apocalypse

    The first sections of this game introduce you to the concept of the game. This section makes it pretty clear that the goal of the game isn’t to emulate general cosmic horror investigation. Instead, the protagonists of the story are soldiers from the future coming back through time to attempt to make the future a better place by stopping, or at least mitigating, the coming of some Great Old One (which I noticed abbreviates as GOO, and for some reason that amuses me).

    There is a balance in the setup between traditional cosmic horror, and the Fate assumption of competent, proactive player characters. Some of the horrible stuff that the GOO introduces to the world will still happen, but the characters can attempt to give humanity a better future by undoing some of the worst aspects of the apocalypse.

    Multiple Great Old Ones and the timelines associated with their arrival are presented. The goal of the player characters is to take what they know about the various events leading up to the arrival of the Great Old One and do what they can to act against that element of their coming.

    Character Creation/Fate Condensed/Fate of Cthulhu Fractals

    The next section of the book is a streamlined explanation of the Fate Core rules, as well as the unique elements added to the rules to model the Fate of Cthulhu setting. For anyone unfamiliar with Fate, there are four main actions whenever a character rolls–attack, defend, overcome, and create an advantage. The dice are skewed towards providing a 0 result, so in addition to skill ranks added to the roll, invoking aspects, true statements about a character (or place, or thing), is very important to success. Spending a Fate point allows you to invoke your aspects.

    The aspects that a character will have are their high concept (the sentence that describes who and what they are), their trouble, a relationship aspect tying them to other player characters, and some free-floating aspects that can add more detail. Fate of Cthulhu also introduces corrupted aspects.

    Instead of leaning heavily on a sanity mechanic, Fate of Cthulhu instead focuses on corruption, and the gradual loss of humanity a character suffers from being exposed to cosmic forces. Characters with corrupted aspects gain corruption stunts, which let them do superhuman things, at the cost of more corruption. Characters have a corruption track, and when it fills, another aspect is corrupted. Once you run out of aspects that can be corrupted, your character has lost touch with humanity.

    Part of this shift from sanity is an attempt to remove the stigma attached to mental illness, as well as provide a more sensitive vector to explore encroaching doom. There is advice for players that wish to incorporate psychological decay as part of their corruption, the biggest thrust of which is to come up with a detrimental character trait, without attempting to fit that character trait into an incomplete understanding that would imply a specific diagnosis.

    This explanation of Fate is also being used as the basis of Fate Condensed; a more streamlined explanation of the Fate Core rules. Most things work the same, but if you are a long term Fate player, the main differences come from what you do with your aspects, greater flexibility with skills, and stress boxes that utilize a 1:1 tracking scheme.

    As someone that has gravitated to the Fate Accelerated implementations in Dresden Files Accelerated and Iron Edda Accelerated, I like the streamlining that has been put in place in these rules. I also appreciate how succinctly this section expresses the core concepts of Fate.

    Reading a Timeline/The Arrival of . . .

    The next section is divided into the broad “Reading a Timeline” section, which explains the timeline sheets and how the timeline is used in play, and then features multiple “The Arrival of . . . “ sections that detail the individual timelines for different Great Old Ones. The detailed timelines include:

    • The Arrival of Cthulhu
    • The Arrival of Dagon
    • The Arrival of Shub-Niggurath
    • The Arrival of Nyarlathotep
    • The Arrival of The King in Yellow

    The timelines are comprised of four events, culminating in a final, fifth event, which is the actual arrival of the Great Old One in question. The four events aren’t locked in place. They are events that will happen, but maybe not at a set, exact date, which means that the players can tackle these events in whatever order they wish.

    Each event has a Person, Place, Thing, and Foe, and each one of these has a particular rating based on the face of the Fate die (a plus, minus, or blank). Depending on the face, that determines how troublesome that element of the event is. For example, a “+” person is likely willing to be an ally, that may need to be recruited, and a “-” place is likely a dangerous, hostile environment. Depending on how events resolve, they cascade forward, eventually setting the four boxes for the Great Old One and the Resistance.

    This ends up determining how well humanity is prepared to weather the storm, and how weak the Great Old One is when they finally arrive. A strong resistance and a weak Great Old One means maybe that Great Old One can be banished from Earth and the future is far less tumultuous. A strong resistance and a strong Great Old One means humanity may be equipped to survive, but it’s going to be a rough, torturous time of it.

    Each of the Great Old Ones has a strong theme, not just in how they manifest (sea creatures, disease, etc.) but in the thematic story elements that weave through the events and the tenor of the apocalypse. For example, Cthulhu’s coming revolves around gathering what has been scattered, and the loss of control. Dagon’s coming revolves around confronting the past and choosing between bad options. Shub-Niggurath’s coming involves cycles, repetition, and persistence. Nyarlathotep’s coming involves the subversion of trust in institutions of authority. The King in Yellow’s coming involves the unpredictable and doubt.

    Each of the timelines detail what the resistance knows about events from the future, giving players a good amount of information from which to proceed. There are multiple twists in events that make resolving the events more complicated than the history books might indicate. The various stat blocks that serve as examples in the different timelines also introduce some fun widgets to use in other implementations of Fate, like giving singular, tough opponents additional consequences, or changing the Fate Condensed assumption of 1:1 stress to more stress per box to represent hordes.

    In addition to mining the stat blocks for some versatile Fate rules that can be used in other games, the individual timelines were very compelling to read. The twists are all clearly expressed, and don’t feel like “gotcha” moments. They seem like fun plot elements to introduce at the table. I enjoyed how easy it was to see an emergent theme for the different Great Old Ones, and how those themes resonated across all of the events for that timeline.

    Being the Game Master/Running a Fate of Cthulhu Campaign/Building Your Own Apocalypse

    This section revisits some of the concepts introduced at the beginning of the book, with an eye towards the GM side of the game. It reinforces the Fate point economy, as well as providing some best practices for compels and scene framing. It also discusses the importance of setting stakes for various scenes, and pacing story elements.

    From general Fate advice, the next chapters specifically addresses the setting of Fate of Cthulhu. This discusses specifically leveraging elements like corruption and managing corruption and the timeline trackers for the various Great Old Ones.

    There is also a chapter that looks at creating unique timelines for Great Old Ones not covered in the book. It discusses emulating other figures from existing cosmic horror stories, as well as creating new Great Old Ones for unique stories. I’m not surprised, since so much of this came through in the individual timeline chapters, but a big focus of this section is about finding a theme for the Great Old One, as well as defining the way the Great Old One accomplishes its goals (for example, its signature supernatural moves and the creatures most likely to serve it).

    Riding the Temporal Wave
    It has a voice, and that voice is slightly irreverent and definitely action-oriented.

    The tone of Fate of Cthulhu is inviting and clear. It has a voice, and that voice is slightly irreverent and definitely action-oriented. The subtle streamlining of the Fate Core rules works well with the natural energetic flow of the book. There are great examples of how to implement the Fate rules built into various stat blocks, and toys like the corruption clock and the corrupted aspects and stunts introduce a new vector of Fate widgets for storytelling.

    Collapsing the Waveform

    Some of the fun rules widgets that appear in the stat blocks would have been great to call out expressly in the GM section as ways to model narrative items. While I like the way the timeline tracker works and how it models the cascading timeline, it does take a careful read to make sure you understand what’s going on.

    Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

    If you are a fan of Fate in general, this is a great product for summarizing and streamlining the Core implementation of the game. It delivers on the promise of the weird hybrid of Terminator and Lovecraft Mythos, and it wouldn’t take much work to drift the structure of a timeline to other “fix the timeline” style campaigns.

    Cosmic horror has been around in roleplaying games for a long time. What are some of the best ways that cosmic horror has been cross-pollinated with other genres over the years? What made that hybrid appealing to you? We would like to hear from you in the comments below.

    Read more »
  • Interesting Foods
    Apple Strudel

    Today I’m going to delve a bit into world building. I can see some readers checking out already because they run a pre-published setting like Forgotten Realms or Eberron. Don’t give up on me just yet. This article applies to all GMs, even those running someone else’s material. I’ll be talking about how to make food a little more interesting during those social encounters at feasts, taverns, mead halls, space stations, and cantinas.

    The reason this article popped into my head was because of the numerous memes floating around social media that are based on the Lord of the Rings movies. I didn’t do a scientific count, but my gut feel is that about half of those memes are somehow related to food. You know. Second breakfast. Po-Tay-Toes. Things along those lines. The other half are pretty evenly split between something heroic and Gollum’s “my precious.” Out of the 11+ hours of epic battles between small and large, good and evil, magical and mundane, we came away with jokes and memories about food.

    That tells me that food is more important to the human condition than simply an intake of calories and nutrients to keep us alive. So let’s dive into how to make it more interesting in our world building moments when presenting food to the players.

    Fantasy Fare

    For fantasy, the typical fare in a tavern is going to be day-old bread (is bread ever freshly baked in a fantasy setting?), a hunk of large cheese, dried meats, a tankard of nutty ale, and a bowl of greasy stew. Raise your hand if you skimmed that list or tuned out until this sentence started because you already have that list of food memorized. Yeah. Your players do the same thing. What I listed off above is flat boring because it’s been done to death.

    Change things up with your fantasy setting. It can be done in a subtle manner, too. You don’t have to go way exotic (though that is an option) for a meal to be memorable. Let’s try this on for size as some “boxed text:”

    You’re served a half-loaf of bread with a tangy scent steaming off of it. The soup you’re served is an even mix of yellowish broth, short noodles, and turnip chunks. Alongside the bread is a large bowl of turnip-based salad, and thinly-sliced turnips decorate a plate of dried meats and cheese.

    What did I do to change things up? I added turnips and made the bread fresh. The salad is also a change from the traditional fare. Three simple and relatively small changes will make the meal memorable. Of course, by overusing turnips, I’ve driven home that there’s probably a large turnip farm nearby. This can even be shifted into an adventure hook down the road when the PCs return to the tavern and aren’t served turnips at all. This might indicate that something is wrong at the turnip farm, and any adventurer worth their “bowl of greasy stew” will march straight to the farm to investigate.

    Science Fiction Food

    In science fiction, characters traditionally survive off of rehydrated meat, protein packs or pills, and oddly colored milkshakes of dubious origin. None of it has flavor because apparently flavor is bad for you in the future.

    Even if you limit your scope of spacefaring folks to earthlings, you have thousands of cultures and cuisines to borrow from or to mesh together to make things interesting for your food in space. Yes, there might be some limitations on what’s available due to technical reasons and depending on your “tech level” of the game. Assuming some technology more advanced than what is presented in The Expanse series, almost any combination of foodstuff is possible. Using a random country generator, it’s easy to come up with a few countries to merge together. It might take another couple of Google searches to find food from those countries, but get creative and mash them up. Here are some ideas that I came up with in the span of just a couple of minutes:

    • General Tso’s Calzone
    • Borscht Wonton
    • Haggis Ravioli
    • Beef Bolognese Pad Thai
    • Deep Fried Twinkies
      • (This one is more post-apocalyptic because if anything will survive it’ll be deep fat fryers and Twinkies.)

    I’m not sure how pleasurable some of those would be to eat, but they’re certainly memorable! The more thoughts your combinations provoke, the more hooks into the world the players will have. This will make the world feel more lived in, more three-dimensional, and more realistic.


    Something I’ve learned along the way in my fiction writing career is that readers (in your case, the players) will be more willing to suspend disbelief for the fantastical and wondrous elements of your story (or setting or NPCs or adventure hooks or events) if you give them some solid ground to stand on. Food is one of those footholds. Making the food authentic to a true eating experience, but with a memorable twist, will buy you a considerable amount of goodwill toward the story you’re trying to collaboratively tell at the table.

    Read more »

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  • Solasta - Dev Update #8 - Choose your Monster
    Here's dev update #8 for Solasta: Crown of the Magister: Dev Update #8 - Choose your Monster & More! Hey there folks! How have you all being doing? We want to start off this Dev Update with a big congratulations to Kiaradth Bright-Spark (submitted by Jackobake), winner of the Mayor of Caer Cyflen Contest.... Read more »
  • Master of Magic - New Update and DLC @ GOG
    Henriquejr spotted an Master of Magic update and a DLC on GOG: Master of Magic gets an update and new DLC from Slitherine The classic strategy game receives a new version with fresh features and visuals. Master of Magic is now available on GOG.COM in a completely updated version.... Read more »

    Sly Flourish

  • The Grendleroot in Avernus

    Note, this article contains spoilers for Descent into Avernus.

    Fantastic Adventures, Ruins of the Grendleroot, my book of ten 5th edition underground adventures, is designed to fit into any fantasy RPG world. Here's a quote from the book:

    Blackclaw Mountain is designed to fit into just about any fantasy world, whether of your own design or part of a published campaign setting. The mountain can be a single peak in a large range, a lonely highland in a great plain, a pocket dimension, or a splinter between worlds. Drop Blackclaw Mountain into your world wherever it makes sense and won't disturb other parts of that world.

    Blackclaw Mountain is also potentially infinite in its depth. All the locations and adventures in this book are set up within the mountain, and as a self-contained fantasy environment, the mountain can be expanded however you wish. You can add in borders marking the entrances to other worlds, tunnels to vast cities, and the lairs of monsters of any type and size. If it can be found underground, you can add it to Blackclaw.

    The mountain is thus both a self-contained adventure location, easy to drop into any fantasy world, and an infinite portal opening up to a lifetime of stories. Use it as best fits the stories you and your players want to share.

    One of the Kickstarter backers of Ruins of the Grendleroot on Kickstarter asked how they could use Blackclaw Mountain in the D&D hardback adventure Descent into Avernus. This is a perfect exercise to show how flexible this mountain truly is.

    Placing Blackclaw Mountain

    As described, we can place Blackclaw Mountain just about anywhere in Avernus. It might appear as an obsidian mountain piercing out of the cracked hellish landscape. It might be part of an existing mountain range of charred rock in Avernus or an independent demonic spire piecing through the abyss and into this first layer of hell.

    Blackclaw Mountain as an incursion between the Abyss and the Nine Hells puts it in a really interesting spot for our tales to come. Devils can't get rid of it and demons use the mountain as a passageway from the abyss into hell.

    This pivot point can create great energy for those who can control it, and many powerful beings wish to do so. It's possible areas of Blackclaw, maybe even the city of Shadowreach itself, regularly switch hands between demons and devils. For those able to profit from the blood war, like the warlords in chapter 3 of Descent into Avernus, Blackclaw Mountain is a dangerous yet profitable location.

    The Grendleroot as Demonic Incursion

    The Grendleroot itself, the strange alien entity whose spires pierce through the caverns of Blackclaw, might be a demonic root, a sentient growth of the Abyss that pierced into Avernus. It may be the catalyst for the whole mountain itself and it continues to claw its way out into the hellish lands above. The Grendleroot might be the remains of a demon prince whose attempts to break through into hell from the Abyss transformed it into this sentient horror. It reaches still, though slowly, trying to claw its way free into the skies of the Abyss.

    The Black Star, the entity the Grendleroot calls out to, may be a more powerful demonic presence; maybe even an elder evil from the Far Realm. It might be Tharizdun, the chained god, trapped in the lowest levels of the Abyss.

    The History of Blackclaw Mountain in Avernus

    The history contained in Ruins of the Grendleroot is designed to be as reskinnable as the mountain itself. We can do so here when we place the mountain in Avernus.

    First, we can replace the Order of the White Sun, as described in chapter 2 of Ruins of the Grendleroot, with the Hellriders, the knights of Eltruel who followed Zariel into Avernus over a century ago. Zariel's fall works well as the moment the Hellriders abandoned Blackclaw Mountain and returned to Eltruel.

    As for the Magocracy of the Black Star, these archmages might be left mostly intact but with a more fiendish connection to the lords and dukes of hell. Each of the archmages may be tied to one of the lords of hell formed into a loose alliance in the city of Shadowreach where they practiced their terrible magics supported by an entire city of the damned.

    Other aspects of the history of Blackclaw Mountain can be likewise reskinned. The ancient red dragon Aravax Blackflame may instead be a demon prince who built their throne on this border between the Abyss and the Nine Hells defeated by the Magocracy.

    The abolethic city described in the history of Blackclaw and found in the adventure Chuul might instead be the lair of sibriexes (see Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes). These ancient keepers of forbidden lore may fit well as the mysterious caretakers who captured the Grendleroot. In our Descent into Avernus mashup the sibriexes may replace both the aboleths and the caretakers in Ruins of the Grendleroot. They could be the creators of the Grendleroot itself, having used the twisted alien entity to tear its way across the planes.

    Deepdelver's Enclave: A Protected Beacon of Hope in Hell

    Deepdelver's Enclave is designed to be a shining beacon in the darkness and it can continue to be so even if that darkness lies beneath the surface of Avernus. Perhaps it is too small for the demons and devils to care. Perhaps it is a sanctuary between the warlords who rule over Avernus's surface. Perhaps some other power protects it. It seems quite likely that Ayaan of Veyr, a rakshasa merchant in the Enclave, might either know of or be part of the force that protects the enclave.

    When the enclave does come under attack; as it often does in the beginning of many adventures and particularly in the adventure Fistful of Copper, we'll want to ensure that there's a logical reason for these protections to fall. Perhaps they are weakening for that time. Perhaps whoever keeps a protective eye on the Enclave has looked elsewhere for a short time. Whatever reason we create, we'll want to consider it up front and ensure it makes logical sense.

    The melting pot nature of Deepdelver's Enclave fits well into Avernus. We can think of it like a miniature version of Sigil in which both demons and devils walk the streets but no violence breaks out. The residents of Deepdelver's Enclave simply find the profit of delving into the depths of Blackclaw Mountain too inviting to ignore.

    Tuning the Adventures

    As for the adventures themselves, you'll want to reskin them to fit the fiendish nature of the new realm in which Blackclaw Mountain sits. This might be as easy as reskinning some of the monsters into more fiendish varieties. Temple of the Forgotten God may show what Avernus was like when it was meant to tempt mortals into hell with grand visions of idealistic lands. A Fistful of Copper may use small attacking bands of smaller demons and devils instead of orcs and hobgoblins. Many of the rest of the adventures likely need only small tweaks to fit them into an Avernus campaign.

    Setting Blackclaw Mountain in the Depths of Hell

    If we can take Blackclaw Mountain and fit it into the depths of hell, there's likely no fantasy world into which it cannot fit. Drop it in the Mournland of Eberron or in the mountains of Greyhawk. Plop it into the Spine of the World in the Forgotten Realms or under the scorched lands of Dark Sun. Blackclaw Mountain is designed to be your world within a world wherever you decide to plant it.

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  • Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 8: The Styes

    This article is one of a series of articles covering the hardback D&D adventure book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Other articles include:

    Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

    Building On the Tharizdun Campaign Arc

    Like Salvage Operation and Isle of the Abbey, The Styes was originally intended as a stand-alone adventure. If you are planning on running The Styes as a stand-alone adventure, you can likely run it as-is from the book and this article will be of limited use.

    If we're running it as part of a Saltmarsh campaign, however, we'll want to modify it to fit within a story arc that crosses all eight adventures. We'll do so in two ways. First, we're going to connect it to the idea of a great rift in an ancient abolethic city called the Endless Nadir that leads to the abyssal layer of Tharizdun. In our running of The Styes we'll focus on the aboleth who has become infatuated with Tharizdun and has created a cult of twisted monstrosities throughout the decrepit city.

    We can further connect this adventure with Chapter 7: Tammeraut's Fate by turning Syrgaul's connection to Orcus into a connection with Tharizdun. We can also bring the idea of the Endless Nadir from this adventure into Tammeraut's Fate. We'll discuss this more in our article focused on Tammeraut's Fate.

    Connecting with the Scarlet Brotherhood

    We can also connect The Styes with the larger arc of the Scarlet Brotherhood. In this arc, Mr. Dory, the main antagonist in The Styes is a Scarlet Brotherhood agent and leader for their activity on the southern coast. Skerrin Wavechaser, the butler of the Saltmarsh councilor Anders Solmor, might actually work for Mr. Dory. If the characters have figured out that Skerrin is an agent of the Scarlet Brotherhood, he might make his escape to the Styes and the characters might follow him here.

    In secret, even to the Scarlet Brotherhood, Mr. Dory might no longer serve the Brotherhood and instead serves the aboleth under the city of the Styes.

    The Murder

    The Styes follows a series of dark murders all tied back to a man, recently executed, who claims to have no knowledge of his dark deeds. An investigation leads to one of the four councilmembers of the Styes, Mr. Dory, who, in turn, is connected to the aboleth responsible for much evil in this dark city.

    We can run this murder investigation as-is and still tie into a larger storyline. The murder can get some of the key players in front of the characters and take them to the locations that matter. It's a solid focused thread that can bring the characters into the larger plots going on in the Styes.

    Read Your Lovecraft

    The Styes feels like it was lifted right out of HP Lovecraft's story The Shadow Over Innsmouth. This story is definitely worth the read when running this adventure. It will load up your brain with inspiration, themes, and setting for the adventure, particularly the idea of a city fallen to a dark religious cult and the physical transformation of humans into fish people.

    In our running of the adventure, the Styes can be a dark mirror to the city of Saltmarsh. Where Saltmarsh weathered the fall of the sea princes to the kingdom of Keoland, the Styes never recovered. The pirates and the support they had in the Styes fell and those remaining sought out what comfort they could in the dark shadows of the cold depths. In this case, that was the call of Tharizdun and its prophet, the aboleth Sgothgah.

    Play up this dark and nasty atmosphere. The people of the Styes are a sickly looking lot with weird pale clammy skin that shows their thick black veins. The people of the Styes will smile at the characters and point to their foreheads as though they have three eyes instead of two (the sign of Sgothgah the aboleth).

    All of the temples to other gods have fallen into decay. No religions appear above the water here in the Styes. Below, however, lies the temple of Tharizdun.

    Running the Aboleth as a False Hydra

    There's one major storyline I wish I had done in the two instances in which I ran The Styes. This Goblin Punch article on the False Hydra is the inspiration for this idea.

    Sgothgah the aboleth is slowly transforming the people of the Styes into his willing servants: sea spawns, deep scions, skum, and kraken priests. As he does so, they not only lose their bodies but their minds as well. As they lose sense of self, Sgothgah's psychic energies further steal their very existance out of the minds of those who knew the creature. A brother transformed becomes forgotten by their own family as they turn into a deep spawn and swim into the black depths.

    For example, Mr. Dory may have once had a son. This son is known to the people of the Styes and even as far as Saltmarsh. Let's say Sgothgah transforms Mr. Dory's son into a sea spawn. When this takes place, no one remembers Mr. Dory's son anymore. Even the characters no longer remember the son. There might be a portrait of the son but no one knows who it is. Maybe it was some visitor who came by years ago. People are more than happy to fill in these lost memories.

    As the characters travel around the Styes, they start to see people disappearing all around them and their own memories begin to change.

    This is a great chance to play the meta. When a player asks about an NPC who has become transformed by Sgothgah, we tell them that their character has no memory of such a person. When they ask around town, no one recognizes who they're talking about. Even the characters don't remember but the players remember and know something weird is going on. That priest, Father Refrum? Nope, I don't know any priest like that. The temple's been abandoned for years.

    If you're not getting it, read this Reddit thread on running a False Hydra. I've not run it myself yet but the next time I'm running an aboleth, I'm definitely trying this out. I wish I had done so in The Styes.

    Adding In Lamp's Light Sanitarium

    The Styes includes an investigative location called Hopene'er Asylum. We can, if we desire, replace this with the excellent adventure location Lamp's Light Sanitarium. This campaign adventure can fill out this location in the Styes with one of sinister horror and suspense. If you want to fill out the Styes, consider adding in this campaign adventure.

    The Temple of Tharizdun

    If you're not satisfied with the old wrecked boat as the lair of the aboleth, you might consider adding in a deep half-submerged temple to Tharizdun that has been here under the Styes for hundreds of thousands of years. This Dyson map can work well for the lair and final encounter with Sgothgah. To make the battle more challenging, you might add a number of chuuls along with the aboleth into a chamber that made reaching the aboleth difficult. The aboleth might also have access to the spells of a priest including a spirit weapon and spiritual guardians to make the life of characters even more difficult.

    Your Moment for Seaside Horror

    The Styes is a perfect adventure to focus on ancient seaside psychological horror. As an homage to Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth, we can fill our running of The Styes with the mysterious transformation of a people into sea creatures who worship a being beyond mortal minds. By running the aboleth as a memory-stealing terror we can shake up not only the characters but the players as well. What will they think when their own characters begin to lose their memories?

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