d6 opportunities from the thieves’ union

Does a guild of thieves sound too trite for your campaign?  In Barnsleigh, the thieves have unionised.

1. Closed shop policy

Adna Fairfield is keen for all thieves in the town to be members of the union.  As far as she knows she’s got most of them, but she needs to check.  Break into the town constabulary and steal their records.

2. Tax makes lax

The Mayor has recently been criticised by town councillors and religious demagogues, so she’s keen to make some strong political decisions.  Bluff your way into the Princes’ ball and convince the Mayor to raise tax on home security measures.

3. Tall storeys

Some of the union’s best workers have been out of business for months following falls from upper windows.  Find a way to influence building regulations to lower overheads.

4. Sickness benefit

Being part of a union means protected sickness pay.  Break into the home of Suren Parnell & leave her a valuable painting.

5. Fragile economics

If you can’t control demand, you can control supply.  Find eight more vases like the three we already have: destroy them.

6. Picket line

Since the thieves unionised, fewer and fewer people are shopping in the market.  Fortify the picket line to insist that no theft takes place in the square.

d6 opportunities from the thieves’ union

Molding a Monster: the Locksmith

The Locksmith is a corrupted humanoid, its pallid flesh splitting with myriad orifices – lipless mouths, nostrils, arseholes – that form and collapse within moments.

The Locksmith can only pass through sealed thresholds. An open door holds it back as much as a wall does.

Game Statistics : Abilities (Athletics 6, Health 5, Scuffling 8); Hit Threshold 4; Stealth Modifier +1, Stability Loss: +1.

Weapon : Skin-on-skin contact heals the target d6 Health points – if target Health is full, it seals their sensory (eyes, ears) or respiratory (nose mouth) orifices. Every strike incurs a five point stability test.

Armour : Wounds caused by piercing and cutting immediately heal over. Fire cleanses it of orifices for a moment but deals no lasting damage. Blunt force trauma will harm the locksmith.

What lies above is probably my favourite horrific creature I’ve ever brought about. It forms the killer in my scenario for the RPG Geek GUMSHOE one-sheet contest.

Originally, the thought came to mind when I spotted a bricked up window in a London side-street.  I remember learning about the window tax as a child, and suddenly was struck with the realisation that these are essentially permanently sealed thresholds.  This train of thought continued, largely from a perspective of justifying weirdnesses.  What if a creature could only pass through sealed thresholds?  What would its lair look like?

The building is labyrinthine and almost all of the doors and windows are sealed tight, be they through sturdy lock or wood and nail. Of course, the Locksmith can pass through these thresholds so long as they are sealed. So long as it is able, the Locksmith will attack and retreat guerilla-style.

From the decision of its movements, I began to think of the way it would harm people — and the very best way I manage that is to go heavily overboard on the same image. So, further sealed thresholds: though in this case, the orifices of the body…

How can I do this myself?

  1. Find something weird in the real world — an interesting staring point
  2. Extrapolate from this — how could something strange exploit this?
  3. Continue from there — if this, then what?

I’d love to hear where you start & what you end up with!  Share your favourite monsters in the comments below.

Molding a Monster: the Locksmith

BURN, SIR — an investigation for INTO THE ODD

The following adventure was written by stealing mercilessly from the excellent folk song Burn, Sir by Apple of my Eye. You should definitely buy the song: it makes excellent music to play out the end of the session with.

The Scene is Set

The town of Orchard lies barely a day’s ride from Bastion and is famed for its most excellent cider. It also happens to be the home of a young woman who was waiting on the visit of one of the players: who didn’t turn up as promised…

Ask the following questions of the players — ask a different question to each player:

  • Who is this woman & what happened that you didn’t go back to her?
  • You were also involved, but why don’t you feel bad about it?
  • Why did you plan on visiting Orchard?
  • What do you owe another player?

Likewise, ascertain why the players are now interested in heading to Orchard. Once they have stocked up on supplies, they may make their way out of town.

The Journey to Orchard

Orchard nestles in the low foothills outside of Bastion, set gently on a soft river that runs lazily out to the Polar Ocean. The route there is straight and largely uninteresting, though sadly the players are set upon by a murmuration of 2d4 johnson swifts.

The swifts are fast birds, night-black save for the dull pink of a slobbering acidic tongue in the place of their heads. They are driven to dissolve glistening surfaces (such as eyes). (STR6, DEX16, HP1; d6 acid tongue {ignores Armour}.)

Orchard Town

The village is a sizeable one, its buildings surrounded entirely by fertile farrowed ground. There are no trees. The inhabitants of the town can’t directly remember the recent past. This doesn’t worry them.

1 Halen Dormal
2 Corm Noergat
3 Zhett Blund
4 Glory Scart
5 Swifft Owin
6 Jarl Hedg

The memories are affected by the presence of the hateseed. Likewise, its presence means that all of the roads out of town loop back to Orchard.

At night, a solitary treegaunt stalks. It is driven to pluck ripe fruit. (STR14, HP14; very slow moving; d10 ripening touch; decapitates on Critical Damage.)

Points of interest

  1. The boathouse on the river might be the only way to actually get out of town. Beside it sits the watermill, whose grindstone is mealing up poison-powder from appleseeds.
  2. At the edge of town, a rainbow’s end almost meets the ground. There is nothing there beyond a murmuration of 2d4 johnson swifts.
  3. There remains a single barrel of cider in the pub. The price goes up continually as the barrel drains: half a pint currently costs sixty shillings.

The villagers are able to identify the house of the ex-lover. She won’t see anyone.

The next morning

The oppressive mood of the village feels even greater and when you look outside it’s possible to see hundreds of treegaunts moving slowly about. It very much feels like a net closing in. After leaving a building, as far as the eyes can see there are houses burning.

This is your doing.

Despite the external threat, there is a clear path to either the well, or a conspicuous cellar. The player with the lowest WIL knows that the solution lies beneath.


  1. There is a room with a precariously balanced round-bottom flask atop a chest. On the bottle is the inscription “Eat me”.
  2. Along one wall, a rainbow-shimmering cascade of water descends — it is possible to walk through this with no danger (beyond the dampness) and doing so will allow you to bypass the next threat.
  3. As you push deeper into the tunnels, there are two treegaunts holding guard.
  4. Ensconced in a bed in a sparsely lit room lies the weathered form of the ex-lover. About her neck is hung the hateseed — an object that turns negative feelings into animating power (and if it is taken from her, the treegaunts will cease to “live”). Being close to her is dangerous: she breathes clouds of cyanide gas (pass a STR save each round or take 1d4 STR damage).
BURN, SIR — an investigation for INTO THE ODD

Four reasons why Judge Death is the perfect OSR antagonist

Staring down a vicious stat-block just isn’t in keeping with the mindset that best suits OSR roleplaying.  A long list of pre-determined weaknesses and resistances lends itself to an archivist’s game. A player’s success at getting past prescriptivist obstacles becomes an admin task instead of an opportunity for creative problem solving.

Vicious stat-blocks are so much easier to design.  Want to make this more dangerous?  Just add two to all of the numbers.

But designing problems that enable problem-solving is much more enjoyable an experience.  The incomparable Arnold K. wrote an excellent piece that summarises what I most enjoy about designing these challenges:

Writing a good OSR-style problem is tougher than it sounds.  It needs to be something that. . .
  • has no easy solution.
  • has many difficult solutions.
  • requires no special tools (e.g. unique spells, plot devices).
  • can be solved with common sense (as opposed to system knowledge or setting lore).
  • isn’t solvable through some ability someone has on their character sheet.  Or at least, it isn’t preferentially solvable.  I’m okay with players attacking the sphinx (a risky undertaking) if they can’t figure out the riddle, because risky-but-obvious can be a solution, too.

Now, a lot of OSR play does’t require overt antagonists.  However, Arnold’s breakdown coupled with my well-documented love of villains and resulted in the realisation that Judge Death is perhaps the perfect OSR antagonist.

Judge Death by Frazer Irving

1. He swiftly sets a tone

While there can be a lot said for subtlety, it becomes increasingly difficult to deal with a subtle challenge in a nuanced manner.  Einstein famously said, “If you cannot explain something simply, you do not know it well enough.”  Judge Death’s personality is crass (& arguably one-dimensional) but this quickly establishes a standard from which to interact with.  Through play, the shades of meaning can be found.

The global annihilation threat isn’t a new story and it isn’t a particularly subtle one.  It is retold so often because it retains a powerful emotional pull.

Likewise, Judge Death’s plan sets up an inevitability that demands interaction.

2. His motive is clear to grasp

All crimes are commited by the living, therefore all life is a crime.

While Judge Death is unlikely to calmly debate the innate issues of his logical fallacy here (Talking back to a judge? That’s ten years, perp.), his reasoning is easy to follow.  The key word here is grasp.  Not only can players simply understand it, they are able to use it as a tool.  It doesn’t require setting-specific information in order to interact with and its simplicity enables the players to make safe assumptions about Death’s likely behaviours. And from safe assumptions, risky plans can be built.

Furthermore, it is clear that his motive is evil, in case there was any misapprehension about his role in the story.

Fire, Fear, Mortis & Death

3. He comes with interesting friends

A villain capable of proving a real threat to the world doesn’t work alone.  However, Judge Death doesn’t just come with a legion of faceless goons.

The success of the other Dark Judges come from their variety; while the simplicity of their goal might become monotonous over a large campaign, the difference in their behaviour and tools help provide freshness.  The variety and distinction is another thing that helps in play: each becomes an overt opportunity to solve problems the solutions for which will differ between encounters.  Consistently showing players that they must solve these kinds of problems will give them the skill to solve problems later on.

4. His statistics aren’t the most important thing

While it would be possible to write a stat-block for Death, he becomes a much more interesting villain if a number of truths are established about his character than a number of Hit Points given.

  • Judge Death doesn’t regenerate xHP each turn; instead, he suffers no personal harm on being damaged.
  • If his (current) body is completely destroyed, he moves on as an insubstantial spirit-form.  This form can possess bodies.
  • He doesn’t deal traditional damage; instead he reaches into your body and can stop your brain or heart.

Thus, fighting him doesn’t descend into a war of attrition.  The combat becomes less a mastery of the system, more a mastery of the narrative.

* * *

I can’t recommend you drop Death directly into your game.  Intellectual property protection would deem that a crime (for which the sssentence iss death).  But you can use the facets of his success to create successful antagonists in your OSR games.  Consider how you can use a character’s tone, her motive, her companions and the innate truths of her existence to provide elements for your players to interact with.  Your villains should be much more than just a bundle of numbers.

Let us know how you apply these lessons to your villains in the comments below.

Four reasons why Judge Death is the perfect OSR antagonist

Suburban Cathedral: a dungeon for INTO THE ODD

The Hook: Across town, various metal panels have been riveted into the ground. Some of these have even been found inside buildings. The panels have been put in place by a labour of molemensoon after the ground opens up in a fissure immediately beneath the panels. These fissures can be followed down into an enormous cavern five storeys deep into the earth. Out of the centre of this cavern rises a grand cathedral-like building of ruddy stone and marble.


The Truth: The panels prevent the fissures opening up further. The earth is splitting because a fissuremana living embodiment of an earthquakeis trapped within the suburban cathedral. The molemen are holding it there, trapped in a prison of tin.

It is not necessary to free the fissureman. However, the cathedral itself houses many valuable secrets.


The Map: The internal layout of the cathedral is one you know already. It will be a large public building with a mix of room sizes and shapes, and multiple entry points; a school or museum is perfect. The most important office in the building is the prison of the fissuremanit’ll be directly guarded by two frenetic molemen.

For each room the players enter, roll d6:

  1. There is a monster here. Roll d6+2 and consult the threat table below.
  2. This room is home to a monster, though they are absent. Roll d6+2 and consult the threat table.
  3. The room is empty, save for an odd sight or sound.
  4. The room is empty, save for a strange aroma.
  5. “The room appears empty.”
  6. There is something of value in the room. Roll on the treasure table below.

If players make a lot of noise, or delay for some time, roll d6: on a 1, roll d8 on the threat tablethat result enters this room; on a 2, roll d8 on the threat tablethat result is in the adjacent room.


The Threat Table (roll d8)

  1. “The air keens with a sudden pressure.” All players must make WIL saves or lose all HP.
  2. “From the direction of the further door, you hear an audible, breathless sigh.”
  3. An acrid scent tips your attention to one of the surfaces, which is coated with some indeterminate fluid.
  4. The room is darker than usual, save for a dancing humanoid glowing with dull light; it is in fact the lure of a CAVERN ANGLER (Str 18, HP8, d12 bite; driven to eat sources of warmth, swallows characters whole with Critical Damage.)
  5. A shapeless body on the floor is the home to a swarm of LEATHERWASPS (Dex 13, HP10, Armour 2 {because of swarming behaviour}, d4 sting; driven to escape into open air, lays eggs in victim on causing Critical Damage that slowly dessicate the victim’s flesh over a fortnightthe skin becomes a leathery shell for the adult wasps).
  6. Smack of d6 JELLYFINCHES that float through still air (Str 4, HP1, d10 beak; driven to crack open small, hard things).
  7. Chamber with d4 SKYCRABS moving through space on long, filament legs. (Str 9, HP4, Armour 1, d6 claws; driven to protect their territory).
  8. d6/2 MOLEMEN (HP2, d6 claws; driven to stay hidden).


Treasure Table (roll d10)

  1. Bag of Infinite Rats (single use)
  2. Hydraulics Bottles
  3. Dressed skycrab (very tasty)
  4. Baudrillard Hauberk (attacks on you are Impaired; take d4 damage when you move)
  5. Portable Portal (the size of a shield)
  6. Skeleton Key (only capable of locking doors)
  7. Niall’s Covetous Unguent
  8. d7 Artefacts of Impractical Shape (valuable to collectors)
  9. One cicada, bound and gagged
  10. Antique chess set


Suburban Cathedral: a dungeon for INTO THE ODD

Collarbone: a short game of patience for half a pack of cards

I have come to the realisation over the past few months that I would count patience with cards as one of my real hobbies. It’s not just something I do when the fancy strikes me: it’s something I look forward to doing, it’s something I hunt out old books describing, it’s something my girlfriend bought me two packs of patience cards for my birthday for.

So, if you’re similarly a fan – get in touch! And if you’re yet to be, let this be a good starting point.

You’ll need pretty much a complete pack of cards, though you’ll only use half.

The layout for COLLARBONE
The layout for COLLARBONE


  1. Take from a pack of cards all of the black cards; similarly take six of the red cards – these can be any value, though I tend to use each of the red court cards. Shuffle these together and set the rest of the cards aside.
  2. The aim of the game is to pile all of the black cards into the foundation, represented by the vertical green pile in the image above.
  3. The red cards represent blocking cards; if these would be dealt into the seven tableau piles, deal the red card face down. Red cards are never dealt into the foundation.
  4. At the beginning of the game, deal seven cards in the shape of the horizontal tableau piles shown in the image above. If you deal a red card at the beginning of the game, turn it face down and deal another card on top.
  5. After you have dealt your seven piles, deal next card to the central, vertical pile. This is the foundation.
  6. The remaining cards form the stock. You will be allowed to deal through this twice during the course of the game.
  7. The foundation is built by counting upwards, regardless of suit.  A complete foundation will have Ace to King twice over — after the King, the next card is an Ace.
  8. You can move any card from the tableau to the top of the foundation; empty tableau cards are filled from the top of the waste pile, or from the remaining stock if the waste pile is empty.
  9. If you cannot make a move, deal one card from the stock to a single waste pile. You may move cards from the top of the waste pile onto the foundation. If a tableau space becomes empty, move the top card of the waste pile into that space (if the card is red, place it face down).
  10. If you run out of cards in the stock, turn the waste pile over without shuffling & assume this is the new stock. You only deal through the stock twice!
Collarbone: a short game of patience for half a pack of cards

The Wisdom of the Insect and the Fungus – a poem for Earthtongue

Earthtongue is a vivarium simulation set on an alien world, where you guide the ecosystem’s development or watch it falter fallow. What’s perhaps most exciting is that instead of paying the nominal fee of $5 for the game, you can pay with art. This is my contribution to that end – a sestina called The Wisdom of the Insect and the Fungus.

* * *

Yet through the glass you could taste on your tongue
A mouth filled with different gravel of a salty earth,
A darkened place you might have left to spoil.
And amid the rustle moves an unassuming insect
Its unfamiliar shape brought out by glow of fungus.
It catches your attention and you deign to see it flourish.

The fabric of the soil moves only with a simple flourish
Reminds you of a thing heard once in grandmother’s tongue:
“The landing of the spore has naught to do with its fungus
But more relies upon the waiting nature of the earth.”
A wary hand manouvers ever closer to the insect,
A gentle nudge, a mindful hand careful that’s not to spoil.

But choice of this leaves to you creation’s wholesome spoil
The fertilising element spurring imagination’s flourish.
The world itself potentially is as a little insect
If choice dictate you crush it beneath either foot or tongue.
Let words and thoughts consign ended history to earth;
Tomorrow day begin again from first advance of fungus.

In darkness kept – watered by tears – begins the newest fungus:
A markedly improving version of its prior spoil,
A sodden soil of failed attempts make up its precious earth.
A spar unfolds and rakes the sky with an idle flourish
Uncannily resembling the motion of a disembodied tongue.
And rests beneath this place of horror that initial insect.

A tiny mind, a little brain, itself protects the insect
From your prying fingers as you pull apart the fungus.
It looks at you with waving fronds that swallow back your tongue.
Cast aside so easily yet resumes its purpose without spoil:
A natural safety program of its growth and idle flourish.
Yet were you dead this mini beast would protect the earth.

Therein lies the realisation’s electric need to earth
That illusion of a choice is less impactful than an insect
Makes itself and the power lies within a need to flourish
Not at this point now but later – so too with the fungus
Leaching spore into the air. Under doubt’s decision spoil
Falters opportunities and leaves only a bad taste on the tongue.

A new approach – combining minds – a very earthen tongue:
Understanding symbiosis flourish into spoil,
Learned from the lowly insect and his partner fungus.

The Wisdom of the Insect and the Fungus – a poem for Earthtongue

Three reasons you should play cards with a mindreader.

Well, the venue remains the same. And the reasons remain the same.

But the date is now Monday 10th November and you can get tickets here.

ersatz esoterica

On Monday 13th October, I have another show at the Phoenix Artist Club. It’s called MIND GAMES*.

Would you play cards with a mindreader?

This is why you should.

Monday plans start the week right

Most people hate Mondays – but having a plan to do something that evening really takes the sting out of it. Your Monday will be more productive because of that: that’ll set up your most successful week this autumn.

You’ll learn some new games

If you’re anything like me, you burn through games fast. Things stop being fun when they’re no longer a challenge. I’ll teach you two brand new games you can play with your friends**!

I’m really excited for the finale

I haven’t been this excited about a card trick for about six years. And the last one made a guy run off.

MIND GAMES starts at eight on Monday 13th. It’s…

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Three reasons you should play cards with a mindreader.

MIND WHAT YOU READ at the Camden Fringe

Humans have a long history with stories. And it’s the stories that mean the most, that last the longest. I don’t mean those with a moral (although fables are always popular). I mean stories that people really care about.

And there’s growing theories to suggest that it’s actually these cares that begin to shape stories. A kind of natural selection for the novel.

But there’s a lot that a book can tell about a person. Take genre as a starting point. As well as giving an insight into their interests, it can reveal a lot about character. For example, someone who reads horror is usually pretty good at dealing with a crisis.

I’m Sean Smith. I’m a mindreader, a magician & a hypnotist.

This summer, I’ll be performing my one-man show, MIND WHAT YOU READ, at the Phoenix Artist Club as part of the Camden Fringe. It’s on on the 29th, the 30th and the 31st July, at 9pm and for £9.

I’d love to see you there. There’s a link below to put the show in your calendars and buy your tickets.

I’ll leave you with a gift. Well, until the end of the week. Comment below and tell me what your favourite book is, and I’ll tell you what it says about you.

MIND WHAT YOU READ will be at the Phoenix Artist Club at 9pm between Tuesday 29th and Thursday 31st July 2014. Book your tickets here.

MIND WHAT YOU READ at the Camden Fringe


The trend of social media means that more and more often we are asked to Like things. There’s a brilliant poster floating around the web that I once left up in a too-short-to-remove-it colleague’s classroom that Likens the breadth of Like to George Orwell’s newspeak.

To be fair, I don’t disLike the trend, especially in that I often posture myself to accumulate them, be that with jokes or either of my ungainful employments.

What I don’t Like is the effect it seems to have already had on language. UnLike has ceased to mean dissimilar to in common parlance, and instead becomes a revoking of approval, a cognitive unfriending. Likewise, the accepted status of a Like means that we now have a cache of things we’ve Liked and it’s the past tense that worries me. No longer can we Like things, instead we must have Liked them.

Like, whatever.