EXUVIAE: Relics of House Dragonfly; halfway through Kickstarting

It’s the forties. You live in a bayside city that’s secretly under the control of an insect cult, and tonight you’re going to prove it.

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So, EXUVIAE has been up for two weeks on Kickstarter, happily having hit 156% of its initial target. We’ve passed one stretch goal already, so have almost half a dozen cocktails inspired by the game going into the final book, and we’re edging towards a point where we’ll be able to share the short film that Tom Thornton and I are working on with all of the backers.

If you’ve yet to back EXUVIAE and love playing investigative RPGs but lack the time to develop sufficiently interesting stories, then EXUVIAE is the game for you.

You’ve even a couple of weeks to try out the game by backing a single pound before deciding how much you want to invest.

Have you played EXUVIAE yet? I’d love to hear how your games went in the comments!

EXUVIAE: Relics of House Dragonfly; halfway through Kickstarting

INTO THE CARD — a variant for fifty-two friends

I’ve shared before how much a fan I am of Chris McDowall’s INTO THE ODD.  It remains my go-to when I’m interested in light-investment exploratory roleplay.  Coupled with the fact its rules can fit entirely within my mind and that I tend to run dungeons through a memory palace anyway, I’ve been looking for a way to make the game more portable.

I don’t tend to carry dice with me.  (If you’ve seen my Slick Thames hack of ITO, you’ll see how I also collapse the 3d6 stat generation into d4+d6+d8 {that way I only need one set of polyhedrals}.)  I do tend to carry playing cards.

INTO THE CARD

Take a regular pack of playing cards.  Remove the twelve court cards (each Jack, Queen and King).  Introduce one of the jokers (I recommend the guarantee one).  This will form a communal pile that’s drawn from whenever players would roll a dice.  Once a card is drawn, a communal discard pile builds; this is shuffled whenever the joker comes up in play.

  • Aces are always low (they always score 1).
  • The joker will always be the optimal value for the task at hand (4, 10, or 14 damage; 1 for Saves); drawing the joker also shuffles the discard pile into the stock (as in Savage Worlds).
  • If you would roll d20, instead draw two cards and combine the values.
  • Ignore differences in weapon strength.  All weapons draw one card for damage equal to the value.
  • If a draw is Impaired, instead use the suit as value: spades have 1 point, hearts have 2 halves, clubs have 3 segments, diamonds have 4 edges.  With weapon attacks, look to Impair many more than you usually would.  Players should be encouraged to use their weapons effectively and imaginatively.
  • If a draw is Enhanced, instead add the suit value to the pip value.  (The 10♦️️ is the best card in the pack: ten pips plus four edges for a diamond.)

Character Generation

  • Draw seven cards.
  • Create three pairs in any order that you choose & assign each score to STR, DEX & WIL.
  • Treat the unpaired card as Impaired.  This value becomes hp.
  • Consult whichever INTO THE ODD starter package system you are using.

This is slightly meaner than regular ITO.  The probabilities pool towards the middle of the spread (essentially 2d10 vs 1d20, though that shifts as the discard pile grows) and more damage is likely to be dealt.  Consider having it that Critical Damage will typically enable only an Impaired draw’s number of actions until you pass out.

INTO THE CARD — a variant for fifty-two friends

d6 encounters, probably

In the National Gallery, a lot of the paintings’ information panels describe their name & “probably 16–“.  It doesn’t take long to stop seeing the date, and seeing a suggestion of the content instead.  These encounters are taken verbatim from the NG information panels

1. Man transcribing lion-skin, probably

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A sage is hard at work transcribing the spell tattooed on the back of a (thankfully, sleeping) lion.  If you come back later, he will have made you a further copy he’d be happy to sell you.  The sage, a slovenly chap named Jerome, doesn’t know what the spell is (it’s Flight).  If the lion bites anyone, the spell is cast on the bitten.

2. Witches trying to slack off in front of their skeletal overseer, probably

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A coven of witches (Nigella, Theresa, Margovia) are working at their incantations under the watchful eye of a skeletal ostrich.  A perceptive viewer might spot that they have hidden the ingredients and vials required to make a strong healing draught.  If the bone-ostrich is distracted, they will hurry to make another batch and slip it to one of the players.

3. Needy naked ladies, probably

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A short distance away from a pile of discarded clothes, just off the path, three naked women are arguing over whose body is best.  One of the players is asked to come to a final judgement.  Unless skillful wordplay allows her to escape, the women will attack the players and try to eat their eyes.  If a judgement is made, the other two women will curse the chooser.

4. A young child empties the ocean, probably

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A young child (Minerve) is working to empty a large body of water into a hole in the ground.  If the players help, the water empties with remarkable speed; Minerve takes advantage of their becoming trapped in the mud and steals an inch of skin from each of them.  If the players investigate what’s in the hole, they find a simulacrum of Minerve himself.

5. The fin-de-siecle paper shortage, probably

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In a large pit just off the road, a group of people are working to treat and bleach some irregularly shaped pieces of material.  They are prepared to sell some finished paper (more of a vellum really) to the players; if a map is drawn on the paper that shows where the owners currently are, their rest will never be interrupted.  (The paper is made from the skin of criminals.)

6. Messianic cockblock, probably

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A woman on the road (Ellipse) is frantically running from person to person, begging them to show her some intimacy.  Her husband believes he is the reincarnation of the messiah and as such has taken a vow of celibacy.  He is accurate in his beliefs.  Ellipse is a very skilled lover.

All images taken from the National Gallery website under a Creative Commons license.

d6 encounters, probably

PIER — a one-dimensional dungeon for INTO THE ODD

If you’ve yet to read the wonderful series of essays at The Alexandrian called Jacquaying the Dungeon, you should line that up.  Its findings aren’t mindblowing, but the clarity of dungeon design logic contained within is not to be missed.

One of the key tenets of that series is that the best dungeons have multiple paths through the space in order to reward exploration.

This is an attempt at inverting that truth.

The Hook

Heading directly into the mists off the lower coasts, there exists a pier.  No-one has gotten to the end of it.

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How does it work?

There are a number of truths about the pier.  For the first time they are encountered, they are true.  For each subsequent time the players venture along the pier, whether or not they are true is a matter of luck — a roll of 1-3 means truth; 4-6 gives the players a respite.

Before venturing onto the pier, players can spend time and effort collecting rumours about the pier.  Make a WIL save — unsuccessful rolls mean players only receive the first truth; success means players receive another random fact.

  • You can’t look back.  Looking back to the shore means you teleport back to the start of the pier.
  • Bottled water turns brackish.  You can’t take short rests.
  • It’s impossible to catch up with the pier train.
  • The train doesn’t take you to the end.
  • The third rail is alive.  (Third Rail: STR19, Armour 2, d4 coil & throw; driven to keep people off the pier; if it causes Critical Damage, it throws the target off the pier.)

The pier is cloaked in mist.  It’s only possible to see 50′ in all directions.

If a player falls into the water, the wash up on the shore a week later with an oddity.

Reaching the end

To reach the end of the pier, each of the following events must have been encountered.  With the exception of #1, each encounter is unique — if you’d encounter the same result twice, instead move up to the next undiscovered entry.

  1. CRAB BATTLE!  d8 crabs scuttle up from the underside of the pier.  They are armed with knives and like to move to the shoreside side of the players.  (Crab: STR8, 8hp, d4 weapon / d8 claw; so long as they are armed, all attacks against them are Impaired; driven to collect small weapons.)
  2. A 20′ section of the pier is missing.  There are still handrails.  The train tracks have vanished.
  3. There are two women at the edge of the pier.  One of them is crabbing, the other sells candy-floss.
  4. At the edge of the mist, floating above the sea is a firm wooden door.
  5. One of the passengers of the train offers the players a ticket stub.  For as long as it is dry, it negates any one of the pier truths.
  6. There are names engraved on the planks of the pier.  For each name that is read, that person appears from the mist and attacks the players.  The second named folk to appear begins to read the names from the planks.  (Named folk: STR12, 0hp, d10 unwieldy ghost field weapons; driven to add names to the roster {by killing people here}.)

The end of the pier

Once all of the entries have been met, it’s possible to get to the end of the pier.  This is expedited by players asking “are we there yet?”

Inside a small amusements arcade, there are a number of shove ha’penny machines.  They are rigged to never pay out.  The machines are very easy to smash open.

There’s a lady here who will sell you a suit of crabmail — name your fee.

There’s also a mystic in a polythene tent.  She invites one player to name a truth about the world.  From this point onwards, it has always been true.

PIER — a one-dimensional dungeon for INTO THE ODD

Exuviae: A Mother’s Interest 

There’s a secret scratching beneath the surface of this town.  A secret that Annie Bishop and “Big Al” Halifax are going to split open for the whole world to see.  A secret powered by my completed EXUVIAE rules, within two and a half hours and with no preparation whatsoever.

Annie Bishop works the taxidermy store at the top of town.  It’s a stuffy job, but she’s got the stomach for the work and the intermittent deliveries of Big Al.  So, Big Al pulls up outside her house one morning, having “hit something” on the freeway again, but there’s something up with this moose.  Intricate patterns have been carved into its skin — though clearly not by any knife or claw that Al’s familiar with.  He hauls the carcass into her house — the symbols are weirdly familiar both to south American ancient cultures, but also European and Asian paganism too — though what’s less than familiar is the fact the moose’s liver has calcified into a lump of granite.

The two are both hot up on their conspiracies — Annie reads a ton of occult books and their authors tend to take too much seriously, and Al is a regular listener of those radio stations where you’re allowed to speak out against the vampire lizards.  This stoneliver is clearly a sign: and probably tied to the fact that the florist opposite Annie’s taxidermy shop was broken into a few days back, but still no cops have turned up to turn the place over.

So the two hit up the florist: Al taking his usual subtlety with a heavy kick to the door.  Inside is dark, and the place stinks of rotting lilies and bloating flesh.  There’s a body on the floor and someone rooting through the pockets, but this guy stands up and holds his hands into the air.

But then, see, the body on the floor, it sits bolt upright.  Al spooks, throws his wrench at the guy with his hands up — guy whose head snaps back with a flailing proboscis.  Annie flees the scene, but is barged to the floor by some heavy who steps into the doorway.

The clearly-not-a-corpse has gotten to its feet by this point and grabbed Al, who stares transfixed at the empty eye sockets of the thing.  By the time he breaks free, a steady stream of mosquitoes pour from the sockets, and Annie’s looking through Al’s truck for something to lever open the nearby hydrant.

Except that she sees someone over the road and is promptly interrupted by her mother, who’s not only clearly friends with the brute who knocked Annie to the floor, but also friends with Al’s ex-wife who also crosses the road.  The brute grabs Annie, Big Al runs into the brute’s mate out the back of the shop, and the pair wake up tied to chairs in a dockside warehouse.

This first act of the game led to the players uncovering almost half as many truths as they needed to win: and after escaping the warehouse and resting up at Al’s contact, they researched an abandoned truck-stop at the edge of town.  Eventually leaving that in flames and with the corpse of a hybrid human insect in the back of a truck, the pair fled along the coast road to Annie’s father, where they eventually learned the truth of her mother’s involvement…

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EXUVIAE is currently in the run-up to a Kickstarter later this year.  I’m organising artwork, layout, printing, &c.  However, if you want to get access to the beta reader rules then send me an email at SEANatBOOKSEANSMITHdotCOdotUK.

 

Exuviae: A Mother’s Interest 

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

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.

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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.

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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