Thursday, March 17, 2022

The d20 lore-for-XP table: from my Iron Age Isle of Dread/alternate Nithia campaign

A while ago, I finished running a campaign set on the Isle of Dread - not just any Isle of Dread, mind you, but a heavily modified sandbox version, incorporating a variety of additional content from modules and my own imagination, and set in the same Iron Age alternate-Mystara setting that featured in my earlier B10 Night's Dark Terror campaign

It occurs to me that I should share here some of the things I ended up doing in that rewarding campaign. Today's post contains a lore-dump. Well, yes, but it's a lore-dump with a point. 

See, for this campaign, I made finding and collating lore one of the campaign objectives: PCs gained XP by finding ancient texts that could flesh out their knowledge of the past. They had two in-game reasons to do so: one character, with a background as a Scholar, learned that his sister had been kidnapped by an up-and-coming potentate who wanted to exploit a new court history for political leverage - so he was told to go research a history in exchange for his sister's return. But the other players were also investigating a series of mysterious, cultic killings around the Sea of Dread, killings apparently connected to a dark group with ties to something from the past. But what was that ancient evil, and what did it have planned in this age? And why had one of the PCs lost a year of memory "between campaigns", and was reported as having been active around the Sea of Dread during that missing time? 

In the canonical Mystara, Nithia was an ancient kingdom that "now" survives in the Hollow World. My version makes a deliberate shambles of the canon, and has the Nithian population as a more self-conscious remnant along the Sea of Dread (the Scholar PC was of Nithian ancestry, and he ended the campaign as the petty king of a new Nithian state on the Isle of Dread. It was pretty epic).  

In our Iron Age "Mystara", the players' antics in an earlier B10 campaign
left "Karameikos" divided in two.

Here's how the lore-tables worked in my campaign. At the start, I gave the players a King-List of Nithia-That-Was from the Great Library of Rothago (Minrothad and Ierendi were fused into not-Phoenician island city-states). The king-list contained the barest outlines of history, and a chronological list of the monarchs of Old Nithia. In other words, the players started the campaign knowing everything that appears below in the non-indented, non-numbered sections, but the rest had to be puzzled out as they discovered lore in random sequence [the notes on absolute chronology ("from 3,000 to 1,800 years ago" were added artificially for player convenience)]. What would make matters more complicated for the players to figure out was that some parts of the old Nithian lands now lay beneath the sea (it took them a while to figure this out as they worked with an old map they found, and tried to reconcile it with their exploration of the Isle of Dread).

Funny, that doesn't look like the Isle of Dread...does it?

As they explored the Isle's ruins and found a variety of preserved ancient texts, the players triggered lore rolls. I needed simply to roll 1d20 and feed them the resulting snippets of history, which they could place in the right chronological spot using their "king-list." When all was said and done, the "full story" below was known, the players confronted the ancient evil and saved the world from another cataclysm, and the Scholar led an assault to get his sister back from the Pirate Queen holding her captive. Amateur RPG archaeology, for the win! 

On my own version of the X1 sandbox, I removed a number of spots, tweaked many others, added in the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (renamed "Tharis"), added two new human settlements to the island and worked out their political relations, and replaced the X1 plateau "finale" with AA 35, Desert Shrine of the Sightless Sisters, also integrating it into the island's political network and the hidden cult threatening the world. THERE COULD BE SLIGHT SPOILERS FOR EITHER OF THOSE MODULES IN THE TABLES BELOW, though these will reflect my own substantial changes. 

Good times. 


First was Nithia’s Golden Age, lasting from 3,000 to 1,800 years ago. 

In this age reigned the kings from Ardaka I to Ardaka XII. 

And in the time of Ardaka I was the Royal Prophecy, that each lord of Nith should reign a century at a time, and their kingdom never fail, except that a firstborn heir fail to take his father’s throne after a hundred-winter reign. 

And from this age forward the Historiomancers of Nithia recorded their lore, hiding it away in deep archives to study and weave its patterns.

And in this age was the Priesthood Undivided, but also there came the Philosopher Kamuan.

+ In the time of Ardaka XI there came the Philosopher Kamuan, teaching that material creation is but a prison for pure spirit. And, said Kamuan, “hate the lusts of the flesh and the flesh itself, for such bring only suffering; but seek instead enlightenment where pure mind wanders beyond the firmament.” And many called him mad, but some among the Priesthood Undivided heeded his words, and began to look to the stars - and beyond.

Then was the Age of Division, lasting from 1,800 to 1,300 years ago. 

Then reigned Ardaka XIII.

+ In the time of Ardaka XIII, some among the Disciples of Kamuan made contact with beings who claimed to be extra-firmamental spirits; and from these, the Disciples harnessed strange new powers, thanks to which the Disciples’ influence began to spread widely.  

Then reigned Ardaka XIV. 

3 + Ardaka XIV was the first king to patronize the Disciples of Kamuan and to fund their research with royal resources. He took from the Order of Historiomancers their Archive at Tharis in the southern highlands, and gave that site to Kamuan’s Disciples. There, they began their experiments in projecting consciousness. 

Then reigned Ardaka XV. 

4 + In the time of Ardaka XV, the Disciples learned the arts of necromancy from their spirit allies. Seeing that they had such powerful knowledge, the king gave to the lords of the Disciples command of the armies of Nithia; and the sorcerer-generals pushed the royal banners deep into the northern mainland.

5 + But the son of Ardaka XV, being devoted to the order of creation, without his father’s permission selected for himself a private reserve among the army’s officers. And naming them his Falcon Guard, he charged them to uphold Order in the empire in wholesome ways, and to keep watch against any evil by the waxing Disciples.

6 + And Ardaka XV learned what his son had done, and was wroth; and he ordered that the Falcon Guard be disbanded after the execution of its leading men. But the king’s son defied his father, and vowed to share his officers’ fate. So for love of his son - and because of the Royal Prophecy - Ardaka XV relented, and the Falcons continued their watch. 

7 + But meanwhile, even as they grew in temporal power under Ardaka XV, the Disciples were frustrated in their greatest goal. So they began to dabble with flesh itself, thinking that by thus understanding the limits of flesh, they might better escape it. Thus they gained the name Flesh Lords, who wove themselves the more into aberrations of flesh, the more that they struggled against embodiment.

Then reigned Ardaka XVI, and the Falcon Guard with him. 

8 + When Ardaka XVI came to the throne, he gave to the Falcon Guard direct command of his armies; and he severed direct royal patronage of the Flesh Lords. But the Disciples now were too strong to force them to disband; and there was muttering against the king. 

9 + Because Ardaka XVI had robbed the Flesh Lords of their armies, they made dark experiments in laboratories in the priestly highlands and along the empire’s northern rim. And thus they bred vile armies of their own, crafting inhuman aberrations from human stock: beast-men, and snake-men, and jackal-headed legions, and the gobrach hordes. And these forces they held ready.

Then reigned Ardaka XVII.

10 + Ardaka XVII maintained his father's policies, yet with less zeal. Mainland barbarian tribes in the northeast threatened his coastal holdings and consumed much attention and many resources; and so he was distracted, and unprepared for civil war when it came. 

11 + Seeing that Ardaka XVII would not reverse his father’s decisions, the Flesh Lords despised the court. But they judged, too, that their age-long central aim - spiritual transcendence - had failed only due to a lack of adequate power. Therefore the Flesh Lords unleashed upon their Nithian brethren their undead and humanoid forces. Breaking like an unexpected wave upon the empire, these hordes slaughtered all in their path as human sacrifices; and with dark relics they gathered life force as they slew. Whole provinces were razed, and across the north, nearly half a million were slain.  

12 + At the time of the civil war under Ardaka XVII, the Flesh Lords also seized the southern Priestly highlands, and directed the war from their strongholds there. From that fastness they unleashed all the life-force they had stolen, hoping to rip apart the firmament itself and to cast themselves beyond it. But, wary after many setbacks, first their twelve lords anchored their consciousnesses to a simple brazen hand mirror; a way back, should they fail yet again. 

13 + The Flesh Lords’ bold venture against Ardaka XVII failed. The firmament held - though not a few star-elementals were knocked to earth, and some burned in the sea, while others wrapped themselves in the hatred of the Flesh Lords and became hidden tyrants of dark cults; and the wise say some linger to this day. The Flesh Lords themselves, however, achieved nothing, and as their strength was spent their wrath was impotent. 

14 + Then in dire anger, the Falcon Guard of Ardaka XVII moved against the Flesh Lords in their strongholds. Those they found they slew with cleansing flame and beaten bronze and the bright power of Order. Other Flesh Lords, hidden in a deep secret vault beneath their stronghold at Tharis, the Falcons could sense but not find. Reaching out with power, the Falcon Guard spent most of the might allotted to them to trap and bind the Flesh Lords where they lay hidden, and they sealed them beyond the reach of mortal man. 

Then reigned Namak-Ardaka, the Peerless King, who wed twenty-seven times, and sired no children. 

15 + Two-score years into the reign of Namak-Ardaka, a scavenger looted an old brazen hand-mirror from a ruined highland stronghold, and carried it away north to the plains. Through this theft, men unwittingly renewed contact with what should have been locked away, and with enslaved minds, men began secretly to worship hidden lords, and plot how to free them. 

16 + Meanwhile Namak-Ardaka continued to produce no heir, though he promised twenty-seven times that a new bride would ensure his legacy. More and more desperate he grew, until he welcomed those who whispered quietly of lost Flesh Lord arts, and he allowed their secret ministry even at his own court.

Then was the Cataclysm, and the Breaking of the World. 

17 + In the last year of Namak-Ardaka, the Flesh Lords’ puppets made dagger-wands from a Soul Worm’s fangs, and etched in them a labyrinthine glyph of life-binding. With these tools they secretly marked many, and through their marked vessels they grasped the life force of whole towns and city neighborhoods. Then, after the appointed year’s time, there came the second Great Killing. And the king himself was among the slain, and the line of true kings of Nithia failed; and all the life-force of that cull the cruel Flesh Lords drew through the mirror and turned against their bonds. 

18 + With Namak-Ardaka slain and the world in the balance, the Falcon Guard poured forth all its remaining power to keep the evil ones imprisoned. So terrible was that struggle, in which both sides exhausted their might, that the land itself was cracked and drowned around them, and the lands of the empire were overthrown, and chaos filled the earth, and waves overrode most of the empire. And the Flesh Lords failed and fell back into their prison, and their mirror was lost in a city drowned upon the plain, and forsaken beneath the sea. And the Falcon Guard spent nearly all its strength, and most of them perished in the strain of that contest. And now the world is broken. 


Tuesday, March 8, 2022

My House Rule for Identifying Found Magic Items

 In our current campaign, I've hit upon a convenient house rule for the identification of magical items found in treasure. I know that a purist would demand that players use trial-and-error to figure out what every potion, wand, and suit of magical armor does -- or use magic/pay a magic-user to tell them. On the other hand, my group has limited real-world windows for play-time, and I'm not really keen on spending those few hours playing "drink the potion and see whether it levitates you or kills you."

I used to 'solve' this problem by just telling the players what they'd found, and how it worked.  

This saves a lot of time, but it also means certain magic items just don't work - namely, cursed magic items, or even magic items with some unusual wrinkle or hidden cost of use! [Or, uh, I could just lie to my players, which I don't want to do]. 

But recently I hit upon a compromise solution that I've started using, and am pretty happy about. I don't know whether others have used it, but I'll share it here in hopes it helps someone else. 


When the players recover a new magical item, I roll a d6, where the players can't see it. 

+ If the die shows 2-6, I tell them exactly what the item is and does.

+ If the die shows a 1, I tell them they can't figure out what the item is, and they'll have to hunt someone down who can tell them - or experiment.

+ If the item is cursed or harmful...I roll the d6 anyway, but regardless of its result, I tell the players they can't figure out what the item is.

I'm not misleading the players; I've told them explicitly how the rule works. They know that in the rare cases that I won't identify a found magic item, it means either that it's cursed, OR they got a 1 on the 'identification' dice roll, and it's not cursed but something potentially quite useful. 

In play, this means that the players can decide when something is worth experimentation, but it becomes an unusual and interesting quandary, not a recurring grindy drag. 

So far, this rule has led to one cursed item that I refused to describe; there were enough contextual factors around it that the players fortuitously decided to destroy the item instead of trying to use it. Then, in our most recent session, they found a useful magic item but I rolled a 1, so now they've got an amulet pendant of unknown properties (a player tried it on, and nothing happened, so they'll have to try something else to see what this thing go pay a sage to identify it). 

Meanwhile, we can get on with the business of looting dungeons, without nerfing cursed or poisoned items. Yay!

Happy gaming!