How To Write Sympathetic NPCs

Player sympathy in tabletop gaming is like a quick DMV line. Theoretically it’s happened somewhere, to someone. But not to me.

Out there, among the thousands of gaming groups, a player has refused to bludgeon an unguarded merchant over his countertop of shiny baubles. Somewhere the pleas of an orphan in the street weren’t met with suspicious purse-clutching. In someone’s game– maybe even your game, dear reader– a damsel was saved because it was the right thing to do.

Those are not my games.

Over time I’ve pulled dirty tricks from the pages of popular fantasy novels to make my NPCs more sympathetic. To encourage the players to do the right thing– or at least not do the absolute worst thing they can imagine. Here are those tricks…

People Like Barely-Sentient Animals/Monsters

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— Google Images/Wookiepedia

Nothing hits the sympathy button like animal cruelty. Even the most reviled creature can touch our hearts, if handled properly. In the movie Cloverfield, the monster was a rampaging alien, demolishing the city, and I had nothing but disgust for the creature as a character…until I read online that it had just ‘hatched’ from its cocoon, and it was searching for its absent mother.

Or consider the Rancor from Star Wars, and how everyone cheered for Luke to drop a door on its head– right up until it died a sad, pathetic, gasping death.

Add hulking monsters into your campaign with clear signs of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment, and give your players the chance to free or redeem the monster. Hand them the keys to the troll’s cage, only to find that its captors have crippled its legs so it can’t run away. The most devastating act of cruelty is to inflict pain upon those that can’t understand why– why this is happening. Let the players see that cruelty, and give them the opportunity to stop it.

A Speech Impediment Can Be Endearing

I admit this is a cheap trick if you can pull it off. I once had a doddering old sorcerer who hired the party to track down his ‘red balloon’ which was a floating magic sphere of red iron that drifted through the city causing destruction. The sorcerer was a confused fool who puttered around his shop, creating nigh-useless trinkets, and referred to everything, regardless of its function, as “m-m-my t-t-things…” which I borrowed from George R. R. Martin’s short story The Pear Shaped Man.

This trick worked so well that when I hired the players to kill the old coot, half of them outright refused. One of the party members was roleplaying an assassin, and he eventually decided his character would take the job even if he didn’t want to. The doddering old sorcerer with the speech impediment was slain, and the party got paid.

Then party then spent several campaign sessions (and a good deal of gold) resurrecting that same old sorcerer after they had turned in the quest.

Nothing reminds us of our own social vulnerabilities like a character who can’t voice his or her opinion due to an unnamed disability.

Ironclad Principals/Morality

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— Google Images/Hannibal Wiki

Think Hannibal Lecter, or Dexter Morgan. These are seriously bad men, but we still sympathize with them as characters because of their ironclad moral guidelines. This tip is a little more trial-and-error than the others, but when it works, it works like gangbusters.

Assign an unbreakable moral code to your NPCs from time to time. Experiment with it. Allow the players to learn that the warlord they’re dealing with has an affinity for animals and refuses to harm a doe in the forest, despite him sitting on a throne of human skulls. Let them meet the Necromancer who won’t take advantage of graveyard full of bodies because they have families. Turn away the players’ stolen goods because their fence refuses to buy anything pilfered from the poor district. You’ll still end up with a few slit throats, and a few forgotten NPCs. But once in a while you’ll strike the right balance of morality, principals, and unique NPC traits that makes a character unforgettable.

Mirror The Values Of The Players

-- Wiki Commons

— Wiki Commons

Did you know that if you mirror your boss’s body language at work, they’ll like you more? It builds trust and displays sympathetic responses to the person you’re mirroring. That, or you come off looking like a creepy robot.

You can also use this basic principal of psychology to foster sympathy with the players, but be warned, this can backfire. If your players roleplay as a marauding band of land-pirates, like mine, mirroring them means you’ll be playing a foul-mouthed NPC of low virtue.

There’s another danger to playing an NPC that shares the same Chaotic-Evil(ish) values as the players. By introducing an NPC with the morals of a chainsaw to the party, you are signing an invisible contract. The players reserve the right to murder-loot your NPC under the same circumstances they would murder-loot each other. So keep your NPC on-guard, and sleep with one eye open, just like aggressive players do with each other.

Show Vulnerability From The Powerful

Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais -- Wiki Commons

Joan of Arc by John Everett Millais — Wiki Commons

A common problem I find in writing sympathetic characters is the instinct to insert the most vulnerable wretches on earth into your game, in the hopes that their lowly plight will bring a tear to the player’s eye and activate their maternal/paternal instincts.

This. Does. Not. Exist.

My players, and by extension some of your players, are riding high on a power fantasy. The last thing they want is to be reminded of how vulnerable fleshy human(oid)s can be. Do not try to jerk at their heart-strings with orphans. Do not tie damsels to the tracks. Instead, make them sympathize with other powerful people (like the player-characters themselves) and then show them that the powerful can be brought low.

-- TVTropes.org

— TVTropes.org

Pictured: Starting low and ending low.

Have a stern, no-nonsense woman of authority, preferably a badass fighter/sorcerer in her own right, and take her out of her element. Let her butt heads with the players early on. Let her push them around, force them to jump through her hoops, maybe even get into a physical altercation with the players. This works especially well if she is a quest-giver.

But after all the quests have been completed and it’s time to pack up and move on to the next town (of victims) let the players see her toppled from her pedestal. Whether through war, political infighting, or the player’s actions, let them see her left in the dust, vulnerable. And if you’ve done your job well, the players will be compelled to lend a hand in mutual respect.

Or they’ll loot her for trinkets. It’s always a gamble for the DM, isn’t it?

Write A Grimoire For Your Game!

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In mythology, fantasy, and D&D, the allure of forbidden knowledge is rife with possibility. Tell someone they can’t look inside a box or push the mysterious red button, and you can see their hands start to itch. Well, here’s an easy way to port that nagging curiosity into your game while simultaneously tricking your players into absorbing some world lore: The Grimoire

We’ve seen it done in all sorts of media. There’s the Book of the Dead from Army of Darkness, the Black Book in Hocus Pocus, the Tome of Hamunaptra in The Mummy, the Aim of the Sage, the Codex Gigas, The Book of Counted Shadows, etc, etc, etc.

Dark books of mystical power are so prevalent in storytelling they’ve become part of the background. I’ve played countless campaigns that introduce magical books as a concept– only to have them forgotten by the players minutes later, filed away in their endless equipment lists.

So why not bring one to the game?

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Here, in anticipation of the campaign I’m about to embark on with a new party, is the Mad Grimoire, and a few tips on crafting your own.

(Note: there are tutorials online for bookbinding recycled paper. I got lazy and bought this off a sale rack at Powells Books. To each his own.)

Have A Template

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First off, you need a plan of action. What will your dark tome be about? More importantly, what’s the goal of the book? I don’t mean ‘What’s the in-game lore you’re trying to foist onto the players.’ I mean, really, what does the book want? Why was it written? Was this book designed to be read aloud to banish the Great Evil at the end of your campaign? Was it written to educate Gnomish scholars about the languages of rats? Start with a purpose for the grimoire and stick to it. If I don’t have a specific purpose when I start a tome, it becomes a rambling affair that scatters lore in multiple directions. You do not want the players to look at this as fluff content.

My grimoire’s goal: Tell the story of a planar scholar who found the final resting place of the gods and went mad.

Make It Boring (At First)

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All serious tomes and texts have a mission statement or thesis. They will oftentimes, and in the most delightful way, get derailed by the end. Remember, you planned for this. You’re telling a story within a story. So start with an adventurer’s log about sailing. Or an academic study of native dragon species. Or goblin culture. Whatever. You know, and I know, that by the end of this book your ‘author’ will be miles away from their original subject.

For this grimoire I chose a religious scholar, visiting various sites of worship. I also borrowed heavily from Lovecraft, and from ancient Greek poems for filler– the stuff in the finer print that makes up huge blocks of easily-skipped text. Whereas the journal entries are legit world lore, short, and easy to read. Quest clues (and madness) come later.

Add Pictures And Filler

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You don’t have to be a good artist for this part. In fact, it helps if you get messy and rough. Have a double espresso and put on some heavy metal, and start filling your book with strange images. The less comprehensible the better. Think Joker’s hand-written messages in The Dark Knight. Or the notebooks from Seven.

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You can also damage pages in a number of ways that will add character to your tome. Remember, this book has been through the wringer. Crack a red pen in half and give it bloodspatters. Tear pages out. Write notes on slips of paper and stuff them in. Add leaves or dried bits of local flora. This book should look like a real journal.

Let The Design Of The Book Tell Its Own Story

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As I mentioned in the planning phase: this book has a story to tell. Make the script and the typeset change over time. Switch from casual cursive to a Gothic font, or elvish, or Google some made-up magic lettering. Let the players know that the author evolved over time, or that his mind started to break, or the writer died and was replaced. You may not have time to fill every page (lord knows I didn’t) but a variety of typesets, images, and trinkets can really convey the book’s lengthy journey and changing state.

My example, of course, is about an author going completely mad and engaging in blood rituals by the end.

Pack It Full Of World Lore

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Don’t just use filler for filler’s sake. Anything you wrote for the game that’s too dense, too detailed, or too complicated to explain to the players at the table– add it to your book. Give the players who are actually interested a way into your world. Seventy-five percent of my players are murder-hobos who couldn’t be bothered, so I won’t force them into my world’s inner-workings. The odd player who actually wants to know the religious structure, calendar, and culture behind my storytelling can pick up bits and pieces from the tome.

Give It To The Players IRL

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Here’s the hard part. The painful part. You have to give up your tome.

To absorb the information in the book, to make it available to the players, you must let them borrow it in real life. By the time you finish your grimoire it will be too dense, too sprawling for them to really absorb its full meaning at the table.

Let trustworthy, curious players take it home to look it over. By the time your next game rolls around you’ll find not only did they appreciate the effort that went into your tome, they’ll also have a better understanding of how your world works. And the biggest reward is when they share that information with other players, and everyone comes back to your game with theories and questions. That’s what an actual, physical prop like this can do for your D&D campaign: you can make it real for your players.

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“Portal made of giant’s teeth? I have a whole sack of NOPE for that.”

Cheap Insect Miniatures

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Some years ago I purchased a bag of toy insects from the dollar store by my house. In part because I have the mind of a small child. But also because I harbored hopes that I could turn these tiny malformed bits of plastic into table-worthy miniatures. This is the tale.

Step 1) Mangle Some Grey Foam

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In the past I’ve mentioned using interlocking foam tiles for wall and base material. The foam mat is firm enough to hold its shape, bonds with hot-glue, and is easily cut with an exacto blade. I used this as my foundation, socketing the insect legs into the foam and setting it with drops of hot-glue. This also helped to align the limbs. As you can see in the very first image, without a firm base the insects prefer to do a horrific boneless dance whenever they’re not being held in place.

The foam mat comes in 2′ x 2′ squares, usually for around 20 bucks for a 6-pack. For this project I used less than 6 inches of foam from my scrap-bin, which I cut into vague, rough rock-shapes.

Step 2) Prime and Paint Black

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Because of the details in the ants’ antennae and mandibles, I chose to use a thin acrylic. The other bugs, being rather formless and sad where details are concerned, I primered and tarred black with great prejudice.

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Except the cockroaches, whom I treated gently.

Just masking the garish neon colors was enough to give me hope to continue this project. Sort of.

Step 3) Dry Brush and Clear-coat

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The real Step 3 involved whiskey, a beehive, and a crippling leg injury. But because I don’t want to encourage the recreation use of bee venom, I’ll skip to the dry-brushing.

If you’re unfamiliar with dry-brushing I suggest looking it up on Youtube. In short it involves dipping a broad brush in paint and rubbing the majority off on a towel, then jabbing at the model with the brush to get a light color-fade or shading effect.

Step 4) Reconsider Your Life Choices And Start Again

After looking at my new insect army I had two simultaneous realizations. Neither of which boded well for my insects.

1. I had purchased scorpions, centipedes, and cockroaches. However, SPIDERS have the most variants of stats in the books, of which I had none.

2. The lightweight foam I used was un-paintable. Crafters who use EVA foam online first coat it in plasti-dip. Otherwise the foam shrugs off most acrylics.

So it was back to the dollar store for more neon bugs.

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Step 5) Use Gloss Black As A Time Saver

With later iterations I’ve relied more and more on gloss black spray-paint for my only coat, aside from the red of the black widow’s hourglass, or joints on the brown spiders. This saves a tremendous amount of time and money since there’s no need for a clear coat, and you don’t have to break out the expensive miniature paints.

Warning: Apply the black gloss from a considerable distance. If you’ve used spray-paint before use the arm-length rule, and make several passes between drying/re-positioning. The gloss will give the insects more of a wet shine, which is creepy, and they won’t lose detail if the gloss layers are thin enough. If you see any drips whatsoever, you’re doing it wrong.

Step 6) Use Extruded Polystyrene Instead Of Garage Foam

I’ve recently fallen in love with a super-cheap, easy-to-bond foam called Extruded Polystyrene. It’s rigid. It’s durable. And for around 10-bucks you get a 4-foot by 8-foot slab that’s 1-inch thick (perfect for 1-inch grids) and easy to cut. I prefer a long bread knife since it doesn’t wrinkle the cut as much, but an exacto or box-cutter works fine too.

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Take a 1.5-inch square, hack the corners off, give it some irregularities for charm, and glue the insect’s legs into the base. My only word of warning is that hot-glue works best with polystyrene. Two pieces of pink foam, once bonded, will not become un-stuck unless you rip the whole thing apart. However, once my larger glue-gun reaches maximum heat, it will melt through the hardy foam. To prevent this apply the glue to the insect’s leg first, count to ten to let it cool, then socket the leg. Paint the foam black, sponge on some grey, and you’ve got a rock base.

Step 7) Accent The Joints, Or Nothing At All

My last piece of advice for the final painting is this: Use sharp lines and accent the joints with bands of color. You’ll notice the featured (cover) image has insects with solid dry-brushing down the legs. The cheap plastic, however, has a gradual bend. This does not flatter the miniature, or make the legs look jointed. To overcome this I’ve taken to painting bands and stripes where the joints should be.

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If you’re not looking too closely, which is easy when facing a hoard of insects, you can almost pretend the limbs aren’t bendy pieces of plastic garbage hot-glued into wall insulation.

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You can also vary which legs you glue into the stands. A few front legs left loose on the spiders and it looks like they’re lunging. Let a few legs on the ants dangle and they look like they were caught mid-stride.

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If you can forgive the odd leg-bend here or there, the upshot is that you can crank out armies of these suckers for almost nothing in a very short time. With paint, foam, and toys, this build came to about 10-cents per critter. Not bad for making the players wish they’d purchased a can of Raid at the potion shop.

Of course, the favored enemy of every character will forever after be insects. But that’s a bridge we’ll burn when we come to it.

5 Facts About Arrows D&D Players Neglect

You’re wandering through the badlands when Orcs ambush your party. You, as the party tank, stroll confidently forward and deliver your battle-cry; “For Procrastinitus The Unfinished!” and in return you’re struck by an arrow.

DM: Take 5 hitpoints.

No problem. You’ve got over 60 HP total, an unspent surge, and the Cleric still has healing spells. A minion’s arrow is a drop in the bucket. You raise your sword to the heavens and charge into battle.

DM: Take 2 hitpoints, and move at one-half speed. The arrow was a bodkin point and it pierced your thigh, meaning your leg-meat is stapled to the inside of your armor.

Okay, now the DM is just being petty and pedantic, but whatever. Fine. You remove the arrow and…

DM: Make a constitution check. Removing the arrow without pushing it through shreds tissue on the way out, and you could only push it through if you removed your armor.

Whatever. Fine. Fine. Fine. You make your check and you’re still conscious. You use the surge to heal some damage, and we’re back in business. Now on to the Orcs–

DM: You’re dead.

What?

DM: You’re dead.

The hell you say!

DM: Yah. Dead. Like, giant bag of uncooked hamburger inside a 3mm-thick steel suit, dead. Apparently archers are opportunistic as hell, and they’re not shooting the armored soldier to outright kill. See, the first few shots are called ‘controlling fire’ which is meant to make the tanky fighter stop in their tracks, move into a less advantageous position, or slow their charge across the killing field.

You stopped, you died. The end.

Google Images / Quickmeme.com

Alright, I’ll admit it– I’m not that much of a jerk when I run my games. But sometimes I’m tempted. Usually when a player takes arrow damage and doesn’t ask “Where?” or “What kind of arrow?” or, god forbid, “Is it still in me?”

So today, to sooth my anger over players who don’t respect archery, I present 5 facts about arrows in combat that D&D players couldn’t give two twiddly-figs about.

1) Different Arrows Have Different Purposes

Crécy-en-Ponthieu_24-09-2008_12-11-33

Wiki

Not to be confused with in-game ‘effects,’ different arrow heads, weights, and woods all carry different consequences. I know what gamers are thinking when I mention this concept; we already have mithril arrows, enchanted arrows, cold-iron arrows, etc…

What if I told you that you don’t have to limit yourself to rare metals and enchantments to damage higher-level characters? What if I told you you’re allowed, as DM, to introduce a bit of reality to your game? Here’s how it could play out:

Scenario 1 – The Bodkin: The player is struck with standard 1d6 arrows, except the enemy used bodkin points (see picture above, top right two) specifically designed to puncture armor plates. The arrow heads are heavy (1,000 grain) and when falling on an enemy at 45-degrees, ignores a few points of armor. Now your squad of faceless, single-hp minions actually stand a chance of doing real damage against the party tank– if they’re all shooting at the same target.

Scenario 2 – The Broadhead: The player is struck with an arrow that can’t penetrate armor, but if it penetrates flesh will be near-impossible to remove without a toolbox and a team of surgeons. The broadhead (above picture, far left) has too wide an impact surface to bite into metal, but it will slice through organs, tendons, and veins. And it can’t be yanked out without turning the wound into diced Mongolian beef. The arrow has to be pushed through the body and out the other side to dislodge it.

It may seem petty, but reminding a player that their character has an arrow sticking out of them, getting in the way of their actions, mucking up their dexterity checks and lowering their spell concentration, adds a very real psychological burden to an otherwise forgettable (in D&D) injury.

Scenario 3 – The Poop Arrow: Sure, there was probably a more grown-up way of titling that, but it’s too late now. And when I say “Poop Arrow” what I mean is any wooden arrow with a shaft that’s been soaked or treated with a decaying organic substance designed to infect. Bear in mind, I specifically mean ‘infect’ and not ‘poison’ in a game-mechanics sense.

Characters immediately know when they’ve been poisoned, and will take action accordingly. Infection is more devious. If the character doesn’t use magic to heal to full (which removes the infection according to game rules) then make it a point to tell the player that their fighter is still missing one or two HP’s even after a long rest. The wound never closes. That last hitpoint never comes back naturally. And, over time, if the player doesn’t consult an actual healer, they start experiencing flu-like symptoms, which can lead to septic shock

2) Arrows Are An On-Going Problem (And Almost Always Kill)

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Bowhunter-ed.com / Google Images

The link and picture above are from a very well-written Michigan bowhunting safety website. And, as their website mentions, arrow wounds are frequently less painful and less startling than bullet or blade wounds. It’s quiet. It’s sharp, which means less pain and ripping. And it’s almost always deadly over time.

An arrow on the battlefield isn’t necessarily intended to outright kill. An arrow is not like a bullet. Instead of shredding tissue and creating cavities in the body like a passing bullet, an arrow lodges in the body and plugs the hole it made. This means there’s not a lot of blood. The really sinister part of an arrow wound comes in the removal of the arrow, and the gradual slowing effect it has on a charging army.

If you’re running up a hill with an infantry 1,000-strong, one man getting hit with an arrow isn’t the end of the world. You may shrug it off, or wrap bandages around it and fight on. However, if every third man in your 1,000-man army has a leg that suddenly limps, or an arm that can’t support a shield, or a sucking chest wound, suddenly a large portion of you army is devoted to keeping that wounded one-third mobile.

Reenact this with the players. Tell the injured fighter he can only move 10 feet per round unless aided by the barbarian. Tell the wizard he’s too distracted to cast spells unless the thief applies pressure around the arrow wound in his shoulder. Suddenly half your party is devoted to keeping the battle going, and all it took was a few cannon-fodder Orc archers.

3) Not All Bows Serve The Same Function

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Wiki

This one seems pretty simple, but most tabletops completely ignore it. Ever wonder why a hunter in the woods doesn’t arc his shot (fire into the air at 45-degrees)? Why doesn’t the archer on the battlefield just wait until the enemy gets closer, and shoot in a straight line without holdover? Why doesn’t the horse-mounted Mongolian rider use a body-length longbow instead of a horned recurve bow?

Simple questions, right? Yet I’ve never seen this come up in a game.

Here’s what I propose; Don’t let the players use a 6-foot longbow from horseback. Don’t let players steal a hunting bow and use it as a long-range phalanx bow. Make them decide on a style of bow based on the type of combat they plan to get involved in, not just whether they want to roll a 1d6 or 1d8. That’s nonsense.

4) Archers Don’t Fight Alone

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Google Images / LOTR / Braveheart

Yes, there are circumstances where lone archers can kick lots of ass. Yes, there are times when we’d rather stand back and plug the troll with arrows rather than get clubbed to death. But here’s the thing; lone archers hanging back and supporting a group of swordsmen should be the exception, not the rule.

In modern terms think of the fantasy trope of the lone-archer as a sniper, instead of the much-more-common rifleman. Aragorn up there is going for kill shots, while avoiding his companions. That takes a lifetime of training coupled with incredible natural talent. Not everyone can be an Olympic sharpshooter. So having one or two Orcs with short-bows hanging out behind a squad of melee skirmishers is suicidal and counter-productive. Remember, your archers are trying to Stop/Slow/Move the enemy. This can’t be done with a couple of jerks wielding hunting bows.

NPC archers in your game should be three things;

1) Lightly armored.

2) Squishy.

3) Numerous.

5) The Goal Of Battle Is To Rout Or Stall Enemies

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Wiki

The picture above is from  the battle of Agincourt, 1415. It was a conflict in which the French should have dominated the English, because they were a) on French soil, b) the English were exhausted, and c) the English were suffering starvation and dysentery.

Oh, and the French had about 50,000 men. Whereas Henry V commanded a paltry 8,500, more than half of which were lightly-armored, namby-pamby archers.

If this were a game of D&D a party of 8 exhausted players would be squaring off against 50 Orcs with advantage rolls. The players would flip the table and spit on the game pieces. So how did Henry V win without fudging his dice rolls?

Stop, slow, and move the enemy with arrows.

The Battle of Agincourt is the supreme example of what battlefield planning and controlling fire can do to an enemy force. Henry V positioned himself on the other side of a freshly plowed field, which turned to a quagmire of mud after the first few lines of French cavalry and infantry tried to cross it. Spoiler: they got shot.

Volley after volley from the Welsh bowmen stopped, slowed, and moved the enemy around the field of muck until it was practically quicksand, with lots and lots of dead Frenchmen in the middle. This is the true power of arrows on the battlefield. Even conservative French estimates give the English a 6:1 kill ratio. This would have been even steeper if the English had pursued them in a rout. A rout, by the way, happens when the enemy breaks formation and runs in the opposite direction, giving the victor an “attack of opportunity.” Which historically accounts for more battlefield deaths than men who died of actual hand-to-hand combat.

Keep that in mind during your next tabletop game. When the demoralized Orcs flee from the party, less than 20% of them would have died during the actual fighting. The rest would have been shot, in the back, by the players, well after they reached the end of the table.

Mizuno_Toshikata_-_The_Fall_of_Fenghuangcheng-_Putting_the_Enemy_to_Rout_-_Google_Art_Project

Wiki

“Don’t let him escape! He might have trinkets we can sell!”

Scratchbuilding A Spelljammer

For anyone unfamiliar with the Spelljammer expansion, back in 1989 the writers of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons decided that their vast libraries of middle-earth-like modules wasn’t expansive enough. So they took us to space.

Dungeons and Dragons…in space. Just let that sink in. Illiterate barbarians operating complex space-faring machinery. Sorcerers throwing fireballs into the dark depths of the cosmos. Bards no longer limited to creepily hitting on wenches from their home planet. It was beautiful, and it was ridiculous.

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Google Images / Spelljammer.Wikia

But one facet of the Spelljammer expansion stood out; The ships. The Spelljammer ships were a signature of the series. You can’t go into space without a ship. And for Dungeons and Dragons that doesn’t mean getting a bunch of Wizards together and inventing NASA. It means magical sailing ships that can fly, and all the beautiful and wondrous variety that brought with it. But I digress. If you want to see a lineup of Spelljammer ships, from the sleek and steady to the ridiculous, a quick Google search will suffice.

Here, for the first time, I’ve posted my attempt to create my own Spelljammer Helm from scratch.

Step 1: Ship Shape

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Ransack your house for objects to trace…

Materials: Foam-core Board, Straight Needles, Exacto-Blade, Tape Dispenser (no tape used), white glue.

Recently my local Dollar Store started selling white foam-core board. Which means this project cost me a single foam board and half a bottle of white glue, so about $1.50 total.

For my Spelljammer, which I wanted to be on the small size for a 6-man crew, I started hunting around for oblong objects. See the tape dispenser on the left? Kinda looks like a boat deck, doesn’t it…?

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Next I cut a keel (left) by tracing the middle of the deck and measuring out a prow and bow that would extend past the deck by another inch in the front, and half an inch in the back. I also cut 1-cm strips of foam-core for the hull. More on those later.

Step 2: Quarterdeck (And Wheel, Possibly)

Above you can see the initial quarterdeck as well. AKA where the captain stands and pilots the ship. Note that I don’t have a captain’s wheel. Some Spelljammers have wheels, others are piloted by magic or telepathy alone. I chose the latter for my ship.

For the initial cut I made a quarter-length tracing of the tape dispenser and layered it 5 times. 4 layers for the quarterdeck, and 1 thin layer for the railing.

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Gouge fingers with knife as necessary.

I waited for the quarterdeck to dry before tapering the layers together for a more gentle curve.

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I then cut the railings into tapers as well, and sliced into the front protrusion to form the steps. Note that any surface I glue to another piece of foam-core, I first strip away the outer paper layer.

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Once I had the quarterdeck where I wanted it I set it with white glue, glued the keel to the deck, and pinned everything together.

Step 3: Hull

With the pins in place I didn’t have to worry about waiting for the glue to set. I moved on to the hull right away.

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Here I set the first two hull planks on. It’s easiest to squirt the glue on the deck’s edge before wrapping the hull around it. Remember; using straight pins makes every part of the process easier and more forgiving.

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At this stage I let the ship sit overnight, because building out the hull below the deck-level is a monstrous pain, and it will test your patience. Make sure everything at this stage is very secure, and re-glue any gaps or wiggles.

Step 4: Beveling the Planks

Remember those 1-cm strips from above? Now it’s time to cut a 45-degree bevel along the planks on both the right and left sides. This will help the planks seal together. If you’re looking at the plank from the end it should look like a trapezoid.

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“Don’t look up at the TV… Don’t look up at the TV…”

If your bevel isn’t perfectly straight, don’t worry about it. Foam-core is soft and forgiving, meaning you can mash two segments together with glue and pin it into place anyway. Like puzzle pieces made of dish sponge.

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See where the planks fit together, there isn’t a massive gape where two 90-degree angles meet? Bevel it, baby.

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When you reach the underside you’ll start to test the bend limit of foam-core strips. If you’re careful a 1-cm strip can make a 45-degree turn over a few inches. I needed a boatload of straight pins to manage it though, so go slow and be careful not to snap your plank.

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Finally, for the bottom hull (the strips touching the keel) I used 1.5-cm strips and wedged them under the oblong gaps. I then traced the inside gaps and cut the foam-core to size.

I also re-glued the gaps between the planks, beveled where the planks met the keel, and cemented the upper limb of the double-prow (seen left, on top of the 5E character sheet)

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Of course it has fins…

With the ship mostly complete I started building the fins. My plan was to give it a narrow fish-like profile, which means multiple fin sails. I also wanted it to stand without extra sprues so I made the larger fins load-bearing by shoving straight-needles without heads into the foam and securing it with more glue.

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Here she is; the HMS Fishgun (name pending)

Next; the grates, portholes, paints, and the EULA my players have to sign.

Step 5: The Grate

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Sure, there are easier ways to get flat, thin bits of paper or wood, but why use the correct materials when we can perform unnecessary surgery on our fingertips?

For the ship’s grate I measured out a 1-inch by 1-inch square, glued it to a cardboard backing, and filled the inside with tiny grids of flattened toothpicks. Like a window pane. The background was painted black (with the rest of the ship’s initial coat) and secured with standard Elmer’s white glue. If you end up with minor gaps between the toothpicks don’t worry. A heavy paint will fill that in.

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Step 6: The Portholes

Because the initial planks were measured to 1cm width I could have stacked a few 3-ring paper reinforcers onto the hull and painted over. But because I’m impatient I cut my portholes out of cardboard.

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Note: You will have to re-edge and re-cut these many times before they look vaguely circular. Or just, you know, have steadier hands than me.

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Step 7: The Anchor

Given the shallow bottom of my ship and the overall ‘pointed’ shapes, I went with a wedge anchor. Again, I used cardboard, Elmer’s glue, and salty tears.

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I then attached a small segment of cheap  jewelry chain, available at any craft store. Here it is on 1-inch game grid, for scale.

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I used multiple layers of glue where the anchor’s stem met the chain. For added strength, and to hide where the chain should be welded or looped to the stem. Then I glue the loose end into the front port, which was cut smaller than the other portholes for this purpose.

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Step 8: Paint

For the hull I chose a base coat of light tan. I knew I wanted a light cherrywood deck and hull with a slightly darker red trim. To achieve this I used a thin terra-cotta paint by Game Color.

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Note: It’s very important to have light, consistent brush-strokes when you’re using a thin paint to build wood grain. Go slow. Paint in one direction for every plank. And don’t go over your old brush strokes too much.

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Finally we get to the rear castle, the portholes, and the trim. Remember; metallic paints are usually thicker, so they can really fill in gaps and blemishes.

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Lastly, because this is a magic ship, I used a silver-metallic paint by Game Color to add magic symbols to the captain’s ‘ring’ and the larger fins. The symbols themselves were taken from the mumbo-jumbo language I filled my grimoire with a few months back.

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Volla! The HMS Fishgun is ready to set sail. All for about 3 bucks in foamcore, paint, and white glue.

Your Fighter Would Be A Terrible Soldier

A few weeks back I talked about how archery is misunderstood by fantasy gamers. And wouldn’t you know, someone disagreed with me. But the respectful counter-argument raised about my archery post wasn’t in defense of rangers in D&D. Or much about archery at all, really. Our discourse seemed to focus on the plausibility of small, elite groups, like a party of adventurers, having a fighting chance against ranks of archers or a phalanx of spearmen.

So here, for the first time, I will post the rebuttal points about why your average D&D character would be diced into Gnomechow if they went up against a real organized military unit.

Mizuno_Toshikata_-_The_Fall_of_Fenghuangcheng-_Putting_the_Enemy_to_Rout_-_Google_Art_Project

Wiki Commons

To catch you up, here’s what I wrote about stray archers in a group of otherwise melee combatants:

Yes, there are circumstances where lone archers can kick lots of ass. Yes, there are times when we’d rather stand back and plug the troll with arrows rather than get clubbed to death. But here’s the thing; lone archers hanging back and supporting a group of swordsmen should be the exception, not the rule.

In modern terms think of the fantasy trope of the lone-archer as a sniper, instead of the much-more-common rifleman. Aragorn up there is going for kill shots, while avoiding his companions. That takes a lifetime of training coupled with incredible natural talent. Not everyone can be an Olympic sharpshooter. So having one or two Orcs with short-bows hanging out behind a squad of melee skirmishers is suicidal and counter-productive. Remember, your archers are trying to Stop/Slow/Move the enemy. This can’t be done with a couple of jerks wielding hunting bows.

And here is the response (approximately) of my longtime acquaintance/fellow history lover/war romanticist. I asked him to paraphrase his argument in an email after the fact, so this might not be exact.

Historically we see instances where small groups of highly trained soldiers make a world of difference in major conflicts. I know you were trying to correct the misconception that archers roamed the battlefield like disorganized pot-shotters. But I believe small elite groups do exist, and that’s what we’re role-playing as. I bet if we stepped into the shoes of Thermopylae’s 300 or the Heavy Water saboteurs, we’d probably feel the same kinship and professional courtesy as any elite band in fantasy ever did.

I could quibble about the difference between saboteurs and marauders (which is how D&D players exclusively operate) Or I could argue that the Spartans’ 300 was a rear-guard, not an offensive force, and they were joined by about 1,500 Greek fighters who also fought as an organized phalanx… Instead I’ll argue that the real problem with heroes in D&D parties is that they fight like individuals.

D&D characters fight like a disorganized raider band. And any equal number of warriors, be it archers or spears, would grind them into the ground if properly organized.

Last year Cracked put out an article on this very subject, focusing more on movie combat. You can read about it here. In short the article talks about how film would have us believe that medieval combat started with a volley of arrows, followed by a furious charge, and then all the warriors split into individual melee duels. Just like Lord of the Rings or 300.

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That’s why we see individual badasses getting into small personal skirmishes in movies, fiction, and gaming. It’s dynamic. It’s fun. And it gives our hero an opportunity to shine while surrounded by gore. As the audience (or player) we want to see big clashes and incredible feats of strength and prowess by small heroic groups. But the reality is that if the heroes are running into the fray like berserkers they’ve already failed at war.

Here’s the problem: throughout history ranks of moderately trained, moderately fit, well-organized soldiers slaughtered disorganized groups of elite warriors almost without fail. This is how the early Roman empire conquered so much of the Mediterranean. Phalanx lines are slow-moving, simple, and boring to watch. But they are effective.

Wiki Commons

Wiki Commons

Pictured: Extremely boring yet highly efficient warfare.

As Dan Carlin pointed out in one of his Hardcore History episodes, hoplites (Ancient Greek spearmen) were usually farmers who were required by law to practice military formations once or twice a year. They weren’t career soldiers or battlefield uber-men. They were regular dudes who carried very long spears, and they marched in a big square with the veterans on the outside edges. Having veterans to box in the conscript farmers kept them from fleeing. This tiny bit of organization led to unprecedented Greek victories.

So what happens if you increase the skill and prowess of the men in your phalanx? What happens if you hire professional soldiers instead of farmers? You conquer the world, that’s what. Just as Alexander the Great, who used Pezhetairos–hoplites with super-long spears, accomplished.

Wiki Commons

Wiki Commons

Having a higher degree of training and ability doesn’t magically turn you into Jet Li on the battlefield. An elite group of fighters wouldn’t abandon formation for the freedom to kill dudes in flashier ways. Better training, food, and experience makes you more effective at fighting in a phalanx. And this applies to every pre-gunpowder era of war. That picture above could be a bunch of level 1 goblins, and they would still slaughter a party of level 10 fighters no matter how “elite” they are.

So why don’t the players organize? Why don’t we see more phalanxes on the Dungeons and Dragons grid? I argue that the players are capable, but the game itself discourages good fighters from being good soldiers. Let’s first look at what makes a good soldier: discipline, rigorous training, consistency, the ability to follow orders, and courage.

Now we compare these to how D&D rewards its players…

Discipline: This is the capacity to remain in formation despite fear or anger. If a ball of fire from a wizard or trebuchet hits the center of your phalanx, D&D rewards those who act with the highest self-interest. The characters scatter and the formation evaporates. Also, because loot from corpses is a first-come-first-serve affair, being near a dying enemy is preferential to being elsewhere–like locked into a phalanx that’s on the march.

Rigorous Training: No, I don’t mean the sort of rigorous training a D&D party goes through. Killing an endless assembly-line of monsters doesn’t constitute “training.” Military training would require the party to drill together regularly, to focus on the same types of exercises, and to specialize in their role within the formation. Instead we have one character leveling his diplomacy skill, another specializing in dual-wielding swords, and a ranger whose animal-handling is so high he could open an underground dog-fighting ring without the actual ring.

Consistency: The only thing consistent about D&D players is their chaotic behavior and lust for gold.

Following Orders: See above. I argue that if the pay is high enough some players will actually take orders for a brief period of time. Once they get paid (or bored) all bets are off.

Courage: This is the only one I will admit witnessing at the game table. Just as some players display Walter White levels of cowardice and self-interest, other courageous outliers have been known to take up the d20.

Wiki Commons

Wiki Commons

D&D players operate like marauding bands not because it’s efficient or historically accurate, but because the game was designed by people who watched Conan the Barbarian. The fallacy of the small elite group dominating a corner of the battlefield is just that–fallacy.

And we’re finally starting to see movies and fantasy catch up to this notion, too. How many people watched the Battle of the Bastards expecting Jon Snow, The Onion Knight, and Tormund to put their backs together and form a human lawnmower? But it doesn’t matter how awesome your small elite group is, does it? Because military organization and discipline will triumph every time.

Historically Accurate Loot In Tabletops

Note: This article was written by J, a guest writer from our old website, and it was too good to let it go to waste. It has been reposted here with his permission.


Let’s face it: your players are thieves. Sure, they may wait until after they murder someone to take their shit, but take their shit they will, and afterwards they’ll complain that the shit they took was barely worth the effort to commit those murders. Worse yet, players have a tendency to view any loot they acquire like prepaid debit cards. Each with it’s own gp value and easily stored in a backpack or bag of holding for its inevitable sale at the nearest village general store. Tell the players “the bandit leader’s corpse is wearing a tarnished hack silver bracelet coiled like snake around his left forearm worth about 12 sp” and your players hear “loot = 12 sp”.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but if you encourage bad behavior, bad behavior is what you shall get. If you want good behavior then you must both reward good behavior and discourage bad behavior. If this sounds like I’m treating players like kindergartners, it’s because I am. By the way, it also works on world leaders. Just saying.

Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin

Tell me these assholes don’t act like children.

So while you’re discretely handing out little inducements to reward good behavior, here’s a way to subtlety discourage the bad behavior of murder-hobo looting at your table: make your players feel like scum. “And just how do I do that?” you may ask. By carefully preparing the loot your players will have their PCs picking over.

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, in my experience players generally view their campaign setting with modern eyes. They expect people to carry currency with them. They expect that currency to be accepted everywhere unquestionably. And they expect that currency will be based on a decimal system of values.

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I’m looking at you D & D

Though all of these are unquestionably convenient, not one of them are historically true. Furthermore, inconvenience begets opportunity for conflict and adversity, the bread and butter of RPG adventures. This is why you shouldn’t have the victims of your players’ greed walking around like medieval ATMs–that is, don’t have them carry coinage. And don’t put an upfront cash value on the loot you’ve taken the time to painstakingly describe in detail.

Remember: “Don’t Tell, Show”.

But beyond that, make the loot that is available something other than desirable. Make them feel like the petty thieving low-lives they’re behaving like, by offering their murder-hobo characters less liquid and less valuable kinds of loot than straight up gold coins and gemstones. Speaking of which, here come some examples now:

Salt

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The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt because Rome sometimes payed its legionnaires with it. At times it has been worth it’s weight in gold. That’s because setting aside its value as a seasoning, salt is one of the world’s oldest forms of food preservation. And for a world without refrigeration food preservation is a priority!

This one is a good introductory commodity because it’s likely to be overlooked the first time or two as actual loot. You might have to hike up the price of salted meat at the next village to drive home the importance of salt to pre-modern economies. Furthermore salt, like hack silver, is a medium of exchange that can easily be portioned. Making change in a world that is cash-poor can be a bitch. Ever try to buy 2 1/3rd apples? Salt, like silver, can be measured by weight, doesn’t spoil, and has inherent utility value. But while almost everybody wants gold, not everyone wants to trade for a handful of salt.

Soap

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Soap production was important enough by the 6th century that virtually the whole industry was controlled by a Soapmakers Guild. By the 8th century it was profitable enough to draw the eye of Charlemagne, who commanded the royal stewards to keep a tally of it. Even the famous pirates of the Caribbean Sea made a priority of stealing the soap from their captured prizes.

Soap is one of those things that players don’t usually realize is missing. Even if they remember to schedule a weekly routine of personal hygiene for their PCs they’re more likely than not to assume soap is a readily available material provided gratis to customers of the inn or boarding house they’ve just fronted coin for. And as a rule, they’re wrong. Make sure of it.

Glass

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Your players are likely to view a necklace of colored glass beads sans precious metals or actual jewels to be worthless. And the old yarn of the evil white man swindling New York from the noble first nations with beads and whiskey would reinforce that notion. However, such pretty bead jewelry was actually quite valuable in Norse lands throughout the middle ages. This “cheap stage jewelry” was prized enough to be stored with solid gold cups and gemstones.

Like chain-mail, glass bead jewelry was a labor intensive product. Every hour spent fashioning glass beads was an hour not cutting wood, fishing, or doing anything else that would actually help pre-modern people survive the winter. Of course this is an eye-of-the-beholder kind of treasure. Some frontier folks may pay hefty sums for such a piece, while the nobility at the royal court may view it the same as your players no doubt will: cheap bobbles.

Honey

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Mead may very well be the oldest fermented beverage in the world. The earliest evidence of mead production comes from Africa some 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. To put that into perspective, even from a conservative estimate, that’s more than twice as old as the earliest sword (3,300 BC), the earliest wheel (3,500 BC), or even agriculture (9,500 BC).

“Yeah, we get it. Mead is old. So what?”

Oh, well, nothing. I just thought that was interesting.

But mead isn’t just old. Mead, when properly made, is a refined and expensive beverage. A golden sweet liquid to fill the cups of kings. There was such demand for it in northern Europe that citizens could (and were sometimes required) to pay taxes in honey, just so the king and his guests could drink more of it. And though honey makes a fine brew, a top notch sweetener, and has medicinal benefits to boot, its use as a preservative is where it truly shines. Honeyed foodstuffs have literally been preserved for centuries. And unlike food immersed in salt or brine, food submerged in honey doesn’t require soaking to draw out the excess salt. It’s ready to eat straight from storage.

Cloth

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You’re probably thinking I’m referring to silk, but you’re only half right. Medieval textile fabrication was a labor intensive process. It took 35 hours of labor to produce enough thread for a single day’s weaving. A single day’s weaving would produce a bolt of linen only half a yard long. To give you an idea of just how valuable cloth was, consider the fact that a sail for a Norse longship cost almost as much as the rest of the ship!

In some areas quality cloth was so prized that it could be used in place of silver for payment of taxes or debt. In 11th century Iceland 1 oz of gold was worth 8 oz (1 mark) of silver. A mark could buy you 4 milk cows, 24 sheep, or 72 yards of homespun cloth– that would take a person 3 YEARS of full time labor doing nothing but making thread and weaving!

Furs / Hides

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I’ll let you in on a secret. The French trappers didn’t canoe across half a continent to properly redistribute firewater to the natives. They were there for the lucrative fur trade.

Before super models started doing nude advertising to shame the practice, quality furs were a highly prized commodity. The nobles and monarchs of England wore robes featuring the fine fur of the ermine. The demand for European mink pelts among the wealthy was so great that the species was nearly hunted to extinction. Even the poor-folk prized furs for their warmth. Ask anyone who has wintered over in Antarctica. Modern high-tech synthetic fibers can’t compare to the insulation of natural furs.

Mirrors

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The modern aluminum-coated glass mirror didn’t arrive on the scene until the 19th century. But mirrors have been a treasure for at least 8,000 years. Polished copper, brass, silver, gold (and obsidian if you’re going way back) mirrors represent a significant amount of manual labor for pre-industrial societies. It is telling that Yata no Kagami, one of the three sacred treasures of the Japanese imperial regalia, is a mirror. Is it any wonder that Snow White’s nemesis possessed a magic mirror?

So the next time you sit down to write up your NPCs for the week, maybe leave their purse empty, and their saddlebags full of soap.

Excuses To Fill Your Dungeon With Monsters

Why are there so many monsters in your dungeon?

I realize there are certain expectations in tabletop games. I understand that a dungeon in Dungeons and Dragons is bound to be harboring horrible beasties–otherwise why play the game? I get that every RPG, from Pathfinder to Savage Worlds, must feature subterranean labyrinths from time to time. But why the hell are they always brimming with creatures?

Do monsters in the RPG world eat rocks? Undead warriors guarding crypts, I understand. But what business does a Hellhound have roaming the blank, featureless corridors of an isolated cave? Why is a goblin tribe living so far underground, away from a ready food source, or inside a glacial mountain with nothing growing on the surface? Or, an even worse offender; inside an active volcano? What are the giant spiders eating? And what does the Minotaur do for fun between murders? Does he just stare wistfully at the bloodstains in his corner of the cave, year after year, reminiscing about adventurers he’s slain?

Why are there so many monsters in your dungeon? This is such a tiny, insignificant question in the grand scheme of the game. Yet 90% of dungeons I encounter have a bafflingly diverse array of subterranean life, which seems to have no biological imperative to eat, reproduce, or nest. It’s as if their entire existence is centered around their desire to kill player-characters.

Please, for logic’s sake, for sanity’s sake, tell me why there are so many monsters in your dungeon. And if you need an excuse to give to your players, consider one of the following…

There’s A Plentiful Food Source

Caves in real life can be incredibly dangerous and teeming with life. But this comes with one important caveat; there must be a plentiful food source. With food comes danger. If there’s a huge colony of bats nesting in the cave, we can reasonably assume something is feeding off the piles of guano they leave behind, or on the bats themselves…

And that giant mound of guano–that’s a cave monster in of itself. Caves rich with guano have a tendency to build up toxic gases, attract dangerous parasites, or even poison the air with bacteria capable of infecting the lungs and causing wounds that calcify as they deepen. I was going to post a picture of Histoplasmosis lesions, but I’m not that cruel.

Nutrient-rich fungi can play a part in cave growth too. And so can the source of your water. The key word here is ecosystem. Ecosystem is how R.A. Salvatore turned mega-caves into vibrant and populated habitats in his Underdark novels, by adding jungle-like varieties of fungi.

I know it’s tempting for simplicity’s sake to tell the players that the stone walls are bare, dry, and boring, but by stripping away the life within your dungeon you remove natural threats.

Make your dungeon rich with creatures. Even if it was originally hewn by hand. Have the dwarven holdfast overgrown with mineral deposits, bacteria, and some type of vast, poisonous animal that poops constantly, like bats. Now the players can’t ignore your boring dungeon corridors. Now they have to consider what they’re stepping in, brushing up against, and reaching into.

It’s Mating Season

— Wiki

Pitch Black had it right.

The huge flying hammerhead lizards that infested the world of Pitch Black could only emerge from their caves once every [insert arbitrary number of years] in order to feast, mate, and return to their hole before the sun rose. It gave the movie a sense of frenetic violence and desperation, and it mirrored a few real-world species.

Enter the Cicada, our version of the Pitch Black monster. Cicadas might not have venomous fangs, deadly claws, or hard heads (hammer or otherwise) but they do mirror the monsters from Pitch Black in a more significant way. They hibernate for years at a time, and emerge from the ground in massive swarms to feast on local flora and make bug whoopie. They travel by drunkenly jump-gliding across the landscape, seemingly at random, while natural predators make a meal out of the helpless insects.

How frightening would it be for your players to encounter a dungeon that’s vast and barren, where all the traps have been sprung, and the doors and chests lay smashed and useless. Then, as they adventure deeper, the first trill of a giant insect echoes down the halls, and it’s answered by a mate somewhere back the way the party came. That’s when the swarm begins to emerge, and sing, looking for a mate…or an easy meal.

Someone Is Using Lures and/or Rifts

Pokemon / Google Images

I missed out on the latest Pokemon-catching craze. Mostly because my phone is so old it’s only capable of calling telegraph offices from the early 19th century. But I understand that Pokemon Go is both a) a game, and b) all about dog-fighting.

A key element of Pokemon Go that made headlines was the abuse of Pokemon lures. CNN reported on thieves and con artists who used lures in dark parking lots to attract Pokemon, which in turn attracted Pokemon players with expensive phones and disposable incomes. This is the example we should all be following. (The lures, not the robbery.)

Why is your dungeon full of monsters? Because a magical rune has been stashed at the heart of the labyrinth, and it’s attracting swarms of ghosts. Or there’s a fogger full of dragon pheromones puffing out the top of the mountain. Or someone dragged an organ sac full of queen ant jelly through the dungeon. Or a rift into the Jell-O dimension was opened in the caves and it’s spilling gelatinous cubes everywhere. An unnatural explanation is just as good as a natural one. Just make it interesting.

A Literal Dungeon Master Did It

Another option that dovetails neatly with the last example is the old “Dungeon Master” excuse. No, not you. Another Dungeon Master. One that lives within your game, and takes just as much pleasure watching party members die as you do.

Think medieval Saw. Give them an observation post hidden within the dungeon itself. Give them scrying pools or mirrors so they can monitor the party at all times, and levers to operate the monster cages sprinkled throughout your maze. The best way to rationalize to the party why your intricately-planned, intelligently-designed, grid-drawn kill rooms seem more deliberate than what should naturally be expected, is because they were deliberately designed. Wizard H. H. Holmes did it. Not you, the DM.

As for the motivations of your evil dungeon overlord, any old reason will do. They’re performing necromancy and need fresh bodies. They’re looting the corpses of their victims. Hell, just plain old sadism works fine too.

A Temporary Ecosystem Sprang Up

Wiki / Google Images

Nature abhors a vacuum. You know what nature also abhors? Passing up a free meal. The picture above is of a natural oceanic event known as a Whale Fall. This should be the model for your next dungeon.

You see, whales don’t naturally explode when they die. The gases trapped in their guts make them float for a short period of time before their mass comes crashing down to the ocean floor. That’s when a single organism–the whale–becomes a vast and diverse oasis of life, surrounded by dead sands and cold waters.

A whale fall in the ocean attracts literal monsters from the deep, albeit small monsters who pose little threat to humans. Monsters like the Osedax,

— Wiki

The osedax sports a root-like mouth structure that secretes acid, so it can burrow through bone. It also carries 50 to 100 tiny underdeveloped males inside its tube-like body, just in case it wants to get freaky on-the-go with its pocket harem. If that’s not a D&D monster, I don’t know what is.

Whale falls also attract hag fish, sleeper sharks, bristle worms, and crabs. About 75% of those already have D&D stats. And if you aren’t convinced already, consider that China Mieveille, award-winning novelist of Perdido Street Station and King Rat used this very notion to introduce magical elements to his fictional city. One of the notable features of New Crobuzon are the spires of bone that jut up from the ground and tower over neighborhoods, giving off dark magic and evil vibes. Like a whale fall, denizens of the city crawl among the remnants of that gigantic beast who died eons ago. It’s poetic. It’s interesting as a concept. But more importantly, it’s a believable excuse why there are so many monsters to be found in the labyrinth of his overgrown metropolis.

Google Images / Pintrist / Perdido Street Station

No, those aren’t from the Monster Manual. Those are just some of the dark horrors that fell out of China Mieveille’s head.

Do yourself a favor. Next time you plan out a dungeon for your players, start with why the dungeon exists in the first place. Give the party an excuse for why there are so many monsters roaming the maze, looking for bones to melt with their acid-spewing root maws. You’ll find that the dungeons practically design themselves if you start from why and move forward from there.

The Kitbash Weapon Master & Scratchbuilt Ice Golems

Today I’m getting back to my roots; Dungeons and Dragons. Specifically miniatures in Dungeons and Dragons. The gluey, messy, break-the-bank and bash-the-kit kind of Dungeons and Dragons.

First up: The Ice Golem Army. This will be my 2nd attempt at cheap ice golems. The 1st attempt, while attractive, yellowed over time due to the epoxy I used.

This build requires acrylic fish rocks, superglue, lightweight insulation foam, and some acrylic paint.

The rocks can be found at a craft store, online at Amazon, or in your kid’s goldfish bowl. The glue and insulation were, naturally, stolen from my neighbor’s garage.

This one’s kind of a no-brainer. Affix smaller rocks to larger rocks to recreate Gorignak. Try different variations of rock golem.

Warning: don’t use epoxy as the glue. As I mentioned up above, epoxies yellow! I’ve discovered through trial and error that only a few jeweler’s epoxies keep their clear coat over the years. Trust me, you don’t want your kickass Ice Golems turning into Yellow Snow Golems.

I also realized I would need a boss to head up my pack of frozen friendos. So I made a big ol’ fat daddy golem. You can be pretty careless with the shape of the feet, since we’ll be sinking those into the foam.

Since these guys come out to be less than 5 cents apiece, I decided to error on the site of “Way, way too many. Unstoppable waves, too many.

The one mistake I’ll admit to is gluing them onto the bases before painting around the feet. If possible, paint the feet first, otherwise you’ll catch glimpses of pink foam in the clear rocks. For this reason I had to paint higher up the leg with my initial blue uncercoat, followed by some white sponge painting.

Next, I was inspired by the art of Fate Stay Night: Infinite Bladeworks. I thought it would be neat to play a fighter who could, on the fly, swap between a landscape of discarded weapons at his feet.

To accomplish this I cracked open my craft box, which is brimming with unused weapon variants from Warhammer models I’ve worked on over the years. I wanted my fighter to be a Great Weapon Master, so I focused on the comically large weapons. I also wanted a gladiator body with a vicious fighter helmet. So some kit-bashing was necessary.

Read too much Sanderson and you might try licking the pewter for strength.

And yes. I made fun little screaming sounds as I beheaded the miniatures with wire cutters.

The sockets were cut with an exacto blade. The rare earth magnets (extra small, $1.99 from the game store) were super-glued into the plastic.

I also wanted a crossbow. Because some enemies aren’t kind enough to remain in crowbar range.

Next, for the base, I scratched up the plastic to give it some tooth and applied a mound of plumber’s putty. I wanted a slight incline to the bank, that way I could affix jagged bits of metal around the fighter’s feet. Both to enhance the “Rough” feel of the mini, and to magnet the usable weapons to the base.

The usable weapons are grey for now, but we’ll put some red and brass paint on them to make them stand out later.

I went with a parchment yellow base to give the bleed-through a sepia tone. I wanted the paint job to feel Silent Hill adjacent. Second cousin to Pyramid Head, maybe.

Pictured above is the figure before the final few dry brushes and black acrylic wash (20% paint, 80% water).

And here’s the final product…

It’s all about the accessories, isn’t it?

Batman Definitely Has Rabies

Batman has always been the serious, gravel-voiced billionaire crime-fighter we know and love…as long as you discount the time he was turned into a walking rainbow. Or a tree-man. Or a block of ice. Or an actual bat. Or chain-gang prisoner. Or a toddler. Or a baby.

babybatman

— Google Images

I was going to say that Batman has always been his cool, crime-fighting self, but that just isn’t true. Nevertheless, Batman is (usually) an awesome detective-turned-ninja-playboy with near limitless resources and complete neglect for who his company hires (see; every villain hired by Wayne Corp) (Hint; It’s all of them)

But I got to wondering, with as much time as he spends in the Batcave, how often does he contract rabies?

-- Google Images / Scientific American

— Google Images / Scientific American

You’ll notice I said “how often” and not “if ever” Batman has contracted rabies. Allow me to explain.

I’ll start with a compilation of bat facts I found in an article called Bat Rabies in New York State, because I couldn’t find a real-world data sheet for Bat Rabies in Gotham. Of the nine urban species living in New York, all nine are capable of spreading rabies. But the most common carrier of rabies among the nine was, far and away, the brown bat. Also, the most common overall species to be roosting in New York was… the brown bat.

Of those caught and tested the percentages of rabies-positive bats hover between 4.5% in the early 1970’s, and 3.5% in the 1990’s. This was not a decreasing trend, however, and there are lower and higher numbers in the intervening years.

So let’s be generous for this hypothetical and assume 1% of the brown bats Bruce Wayne exposes himself to are carriers. There’s also the question of viral transmission method. Bats don’t necessarily have to bite to spread the rabies infection. Because of the way they groom, rabies can be spread through a scratch or direct skin contact. Good thing Batman never comes in contact with large numbers of…

batbegins

Oh, come on!

At least we can rest assured that Bruce Wayne has his cowl on in this pictures. What with all the wild bats living in his manor, it would be super negligent for him to sleep in an exposed position…

batsidedown

Ok, that’s just one time, right? I’m sure Batman has some kind of sound-based gadget to keep the bats as far away from him as possible…

batcall

— Google Images

Oh, right. He built a device to call the bats to him; to surround himself in bats, as well as scores of innocent people.

And remember, 1 in every 100 of those bats are potentially infected, and they’re none too worried about scratching the skin of the dumb pink ape amidst their cloud of leather-winged fury.

On the off-chance that Bruce Wayne has never contracted rabies, I’m willing to bet some bystander caught in his bat-cloud has. Because when he calls for “backup” he never says they’re tame bats that have undergone veterinary checkups. In fact, we’re led to believe the opposite– that Bruce is using his device to call all the wild bats in the nearby vicinity to him.

Well, at least it’s only rabies, a 98% fatal disease, right?

“Even though rabies and histoplasmosis can be found all over the world, some diseases associated with bats are found exclusively in certain regions of the world. Notably, research suggests that bats might be the source of several hemorrhagic fevers, which affect multiple organ systems in the body and often lead to life-threatening diseases.”

— CDC.GOV

At this point I’m convince Alfred’s job isn’t to clean the guano from the bat-lavatory, but as a lifelong nurse to administer regular rabies vaccinations to Batman and all the civilians exposed to his bat fetish. Alfred is a cross between the cleanup crew from Men In Black, and a veterinary assistant.