Category Archives: World Design

An Ever Changing Land

I’ve noticed a pattern that shows up a lot in folk tales, legends, and other stories in that style; a hero goes wandering not far from home and stumbles across a mysterious castle, manor, or some other mysterious structure. The location invariably becomes the source of adventure, often as home to some unearthly being or powerful wizard.

What strikes me as odd about this is that castles and fortresses are important landmarks. They confer control of an area, provide wealth to their masters, and are significant to life in the region.

In the case of the peasant-hero, the mysterious castle is understandable. It’s easy to explain that a peasant hasn’t traveled extensively, especially into woods or mountains where danger and the unknown abound. I am reminded of the scene in Fellowship of the Rings where Samwise takes his first step outside of the Shire.

However it makes less sense when reading about knights and nobles. It would be their business to know the people and strongholds of power that surround their world. It’s hard to believe that there would be a castle within a day’s ride of Camelot that an Arthurian knight wouldn’t know about.

Unless their world operates on different rules than ours does.

A common theme in early Dungeons & Dragons, and the Appendix N literature that inspired it, is the conflict between Law, represented by civilization, and Chaos, represented by the wilderness. Settlements are sanctuaries from the unpredictable and unearthly. Perhaps not safe, but their dangers are mundane and rational. Incursions of chaos into a city, through monsters or witchcraft, are treated as abnormal and cause fear in a different way that simple crime or political intrigue.

The wilderness is unpredictable, it shifts and changes when you aren’t looking. Paths in the woods lead to different places in the darkness. Forgotten groves may be both ancient and new at the same time. Those who ally themselves with Chaos may find that they can raise a castle from the darkness, to serve as a base of power or snare for a knight errant.

Through this lens the world becomes a shifting and unpredictable place. Castles, caverns, even entire dungeons may spawn in the dark places of their own accord, or by the will of powerful beasts, cunning Faeries, or sinister wizards. Rarely traveled paths may never lead to the same place twice and abandoned places may vanish entirely as memory of their existence fades.

In contrast, settlements impose order on the world. As they grow they become islands of stability, and well traveled roads become the framework on which Law fences off and restricts the spread of Chaos.

In this world brigands become the unwitting agents of Chaos, for when people fear to use the roads, the realms of Law become disconnected. Road wardens and Templars become paladins of Law, and settlers are the very seeds of Law who must be protected and nurtured.

Even the traditional “Murder Hobo” adventurers would be the unwitting minions of order, for as they plunder the wealth of dungeons and slaughter monsters in the dark places they open up new realms for settlement. No matter what alignment these adventurers claim, they serve the greater cause of Law by blazing trails into the heart of Chaos and opening the way for others to follow.

It would be fun to run a campaign that mixes the multi-generational feudal setting of Pendragon with the macabre sensibilities of Solomon Kane, where the true nature of the world is kept hidden from the players. Over time the characters and their decedents would discover the truth of the world, and how seemingly mundane events are vastly important on the cosmic scale. It would be fun to see how a group of characters would react, especially as they realize that those who know the truth can influence the universe.

Would they form knightly orders to spread Law? Form dark cabals to unfetter Chaos? Or create secret societies to hide the knowledge that reality is a malleable thing?

And my gaming bucket list grows ever deeper.



Posted by on February 3, 2016 in Fantasy, Gaming, World Design


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Phil Plait Broke my Brain

Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer, is a fantastic resource. I’ve been a fan of his blogs and books for quite some time. He has a gift for taking complex astronomy concepts and making them simple and entertaining, and his enthusiasm is contagious. On top of that he’s also a skeptic and spent a few years as the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

He’s also a huge nerd, he’s our people.

For a while now he’s been doing a series of educational videos for the Crash Course YouTube channel, called Crash Course Astronomy. They’re all fascinating and fun to watch, but recently he posted on the topic of binary and multiple star systems. I knew that binary systems were rather common, but I had no idea how often larger systems have been found, and I had no idea that Polaris is a pentuple system.

There’s some amazing stuff in this video, things that could really lead to some fun ideas for sci-fi gaming, What kind of societies would spring up in a system with five gravitationally bound stars and planets orbiting several of them? What might happen in such a setting?

Actually, Issac Asimov did ponder that question back in 1941, with his story Nightfall. It’s a fantastic read.

The video goes on to touch on how these stars can interact with each other, which makes for even more great fuel for adventure ideas.

Give it a look, and then watch more of his videos. It’s well worth the time.


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Living on the Edge of the World, and it’s Sinking

Kivalina is a town living on the edge of the world, and that edge is sinking.

“In this town of 403 residents 83 miles above the Arctic Circle, beaches are disappearing, ice is melting, temperatures are rising, and the barrier reef Kivalina calls home gets smaller and smaller with every storm.

There is no space left to build homes for the living. The dead are now flown to the mainland so the ocean won’t encroach upon their graves. Most here agree that the town should be relocated; where, when and who will pay for it are the big questions. The Army Corps of Engineers figures Kivalina will be underwater in the next decade or so.”

LA Times, Aug. 30th, 2015

Climate Change is a real thing and a source of great concern, but the Belfry is about gaming, and this story offers a lot of inspiration.

People are stubborn. We set down roots, build a community, and that parcel of land and the people who live there become bound to our psyche so deeply that we’ll do whatever it takes not to lose them. Come hell or high…

Well, you get the idea.

This is both a strength and a weakness. Sometimes it makes us stand in front of the oncoming storm until its too late, but it’s also the determination that has allowed us to spread across the globe, push back the frontiers, and go into space. You can be sure that if trouble befalls the first Lunar colony, the people there will risk everything to keep the community alive.

Kivalina is hardly a garden spot. Even before the weather began to warm up, the narrow spit of land was battered by storms and limited in resources, but for 110 years people have chosen to live there, carve out a place in the world, and defy the elements to live the way they want to live. It’s the stuff of which adventurers are made.

“When Hawley is asked why her people don’t move — somewhere, anywhere to be safe — she is polite but firm. The land and the water make the Inupiat who they are. If they moved to Kotzebue, they would be visitors.”

-LA Times, Aug. 30th, 2015

That’s the frontier spirit, still alive and well.

From a gamer geek standpoint it’s hard not to look at this story and think about all its parallels in fiction. From the isolated planetary outpost of sci-fi to the classic Keep on the Borderlands, or even the determination of King Hrothgar not to completely abandon his hall to Grendel in the epic Beowulf, legends are born from people who refuse to leave their homes. Reading through the LA Times story gives those of us living in comfortable suburbia a glimpse of how people on the frontier live.

And if you need more inspiration, just look at this image of the town.

Image by Don Bartletti, LA Times Aug. 30th, 2015

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Posted by on September 24, 2015 in Cool Stuff, History, World Design


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Quixotic Observation

I’ve been looking at city maps recently, particularly medieval maps, and I noticed something. Or rather, I noticed a lack of something.



Taken from a 17th Century map of Paris

Several medieval maps depict windmills in and around their cities, but I can’t think of any maps of fantasy cities that include them. For that matter, I can only think of a few fantasy pictures with windmills and none involve cities. That’s an interesting omission considering the importance of mills to a city. Not every city will be situated in a place where windmills are an option, but their absence in fantasy illustration is interesting.

Windmills2From the same map. I like this one because it shows a large mill within the city walls.

Perfect for the court sorcerer.

This provides DM’s with a quick and easy way to add a bit of color to their cities. Windmills are evocative, like wizards towers, and can be tied in equally well with either magic or steampunk style technology.


From a map of 13th Century Rhodes.

A battery of windmills along a coastal wall could have more purpose than grinding meal.

Historically windmills have been connected to such fantastic individuals as Don Quixote and Frankenstein. Who can forget the climactic end to the 1931 classic Frankenstein?


Good thing there was a Groupon for torches and pitchforks!

This has me thinking about ways to use windmills in game settings. I’ll save that for another post, more grist for the… well you get the idea.


Posted by on July 1, 2014 in Cool Stuff, Fantasy, Gaming, World Design


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Design Ideas from History – No Really, Why is this Here?!

More thoughts about gaming that come from my recent vacation!

In my previous post I talked about the wonderful pioneer village at Spring Mill State Park in Indiana. While there I learned some more things that gave me insight on dungeon design.

I am not a big fan of “funhouse” dungeons, not in their pure form. I like some level of rationality to dungeon design, even if it’s the thinnest of pretexts. It can be as simple as, “The Witch King filled the dungeon with traps so that he could find the greatest tomb raiders,” or even, “The Mad Necromancer loved clowns”. My current sweet spot is Michael Curtis’ spectacular Stonehell Dungeon, which is filled with high weirdness and still built on an underlying logic.

That logic doesn’t need to be obvious to the players. Part of the fun of dungeon delving is unraveling such mysteries. I like it when a dungeon tells a story and through legends, puzzles, and other discoveries the players can figure it out for themselves.

So what does this have to do with Spring Mill?

My wife and I noticed that several of the the large houses had living quarters on the upper floor, but the staircases were outside. Given the climate of Indiana, especially in the winter, this was a strange design choice. The upper floors were clearly not a later addition to the homes, so why put the stairs outside?

The answer turned out to be quite simple, and it applied to a wide range of other features in the town.


Each year the tax collector would come to the people’s homes with and assess taxes based on their belongings. They came with a ledger that included a list of items taxed in the previous year and the tax collector would walk through the house and update it. Many of the taxable items were very specific, leading to curious loop holes.

Having a staircase inside your home was taxable. If it was on the outside it was not. This influenced many people’s decisions when building their homes.

Families used armoires and had shallow closets because a big closet was considered a room and was taxable. Iron tools, such as fireplace pokers or even door hinges, were utilitarian and taxable. But if they had ornamentation on them they were considered artwork and not taxable. Thus the blacksmith added leaves or flowers to his designs. The same was true of mirrors and an unadorned mirror was taxable. An ornate wall hanging that was also reflective was not taxed.

One of my favorite tax dodges involved a low fence near the door to the mill that was used to keep pigs out. The villagers raised pigs for food and each night filling a trough with mash from the distillery. The pigs always came in for feeding but were left free to wander the village and the woods. If the people penned the pigs they’d be taxed as livestock, but by letting them roam free they could call them wild hogs. When it came time for slaughter they could be collected when they came in for dinner.

Instead of building fences to keep pigs in they built fences to keep them out.

From our standpoint as “adventurers” visiting an “ancient village”, these design choices made no obvious sense. They presented mysteries that only became clear as we explored further, and the answers were both fascinating and enlightening.

You can do the same thing when designing a dungeon. A strange series of rounded tunnels and many slime encounters will suddenly make sense when a lost temple is discovered, revealing that the builders were worshipers of Juibilex who were transformed into the slimes. The great aqueducts bringing water from the glaciers were built to cool the prison of a fire giant, who may still be bound in the further depths. The dungeon may have been built as a hidden town, to avoid exposing the people’s prosperity to bandits, monsters, or the High King.

People in the real world often make choices that seem inexplicable to us, until we take the time to dig deeper. There’s no reason you can’t do the same with your dungeons and have a lot of fun in the process.



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Design Ideas from History – Why is this Here?

Greetings Programs,

I just returned from a long weekend of celebrating my anniversary. For the last few years my wife and I have picked a state park lodge for our anniversary and spent the weekend hiking and poking around the area. It’s a nice chance to get away and relax.

This year our destination was Spring Mill State Park in Indiana. Among other features, Spring Mill has a fantastic pioneer village. They have around 16 structures dating back to the early 19th century that have all been restored to wonderful condition. There are several history interpreters on site who are knowledgeable and happy to talk at length on the village’s history, including a weaver who has been with the park over 20 years and a blacksmith who has been at the trade for fifty.

I had to laugh at myself. As I was walking through some of the homes I noticed that the walls must have voids behind them. Looking closer I noticed some walls of a different construction than the rest. I had succeeded in my Discover Recent Woodwork roll, but failed my Search for Secret Doors, as I didn’t see a way to access the voids. No doubt this is due to the restoration process.

After all, it was a large home two centuries old with a walled off room. What else could it possibly be?

The center piece of the village is an amazing three story grist mill. This impressive structure has three foot wide stone walls and a large mill that still functions. The mill is powered by a large fly-over water wheel that drives a maze of axles and gears, all made of wood, to turn the heavy mill stones. The mill is powered by water from a cave that feeds the stream flowing through the village. The stream is dammed and the water directed to the wheel by a long and impressive elevated sluice, with the flow controlled by a lever inside the mill. The whole thing still works and you can see it grind meal at the top of every hour. It is an impressive feat of engineering and I have never had the pleasure of seeing a structure like this in such outstanding condition.

The reasons why the village was founded on that spot and how the resources define its history struck a chord with my gamer-brain. It’s not something we always worry about when we’re setting up a map. Harbors and rivers make good locations, but moving inland we often don’t think about why a town is there. At Spring Mill the reasons are clear, right down to the name.

The heart of the village is the cave and the water that flows from it. It flows in abundance, allowing it to power the mill’s mechanisms. The flow is so strong that the villagers added a second, smaller wheel to power a small sawmill, which they attached to the grist mill. Except during the driest periods of the year the flow allows for both to run simultaneously. The cave keeps the water at a constant temperature, meaning that the water never freezes and the mills can work year round. The water is pure, a boon for the villagers, and proved to be good for distilling whiskey. This was a further draw when the village added a tavern and stagecoach stop. Spring Mill became a place where travelers could stop for lodging, clean water, food, and alcohol.

Everything in Spring Mill revolved around that water supply. It was a treasure worth more than gold.

Adventure Seeds:

Details like this do more than add verisimilitude to your game world, they provide foundations for your adventures. In the case of Spring Mill, the water is the life blood of the town. What happens when the water stops running?

Hobgoblins, Dam It:

The elders of the village approach the adventurers and ask for help. One week ago the water stopped flowing from the cave, bringing life in the town to a halt. A few men entered the cave expecting to find a cave in. They never returned. A larger group entered to search for them. That group also vanished.

The people are desperate and this situation is beyond their ability to handle. The mill has been prosperous, so they can offer a good reward, but unless the water begins flowing again the town will start to die.

Unknown to the villagers, a group of hobgoblins have entered the cave through other tunnels. They are well armed, organized, and well equipped. The hobgoblins have diverted the water so that it pours down a passage deep into the ground. They have set up a camp within the cave from which they manage the water flow. Patrols roam the caverns and traps are set up to deal with any incursions from the village. To save the village the adventurers will have to eliminate the hobgoblins, survive their traps, and destroy the dam. An astute party may realize that the hobgoblins’ attention is focused more on the abyss than the village.

Dwarven Jones Locker:

With the stream restored and the hobgoblins driven off the town seemed to be safe. However, their nightmare was only beginning.

The village was never the hobgoblins’ target. Unknown to the villagers, deep below the cavern that feeds their stream is a dwarven settlement; a temple and seminary for dwarven priests. The hobgoblin’s plan was to flood the settlement, then restore the water’s natural flow and plunder the dwarven treasure.

The first part of their plan was a success. The dwarves were caught unaware by the torrent of water that came crashing down into their town. The caves quickly filled with water, drowning many, and the hobgoblins kept the water flowing long enough to suffocate most survivors who had made it to air pockets. Any dwarves left alive would be weak from hunger and lack of air, making them easy pickings for the hobgoblin raiders.

However, they had underestimated the vengeful natures of the dwarven gods.

The slaughter of his followers angered the deity who placed a curse upon the town. The drowning victims have been empowered by divine wrath, rising up as undead warriors and climbing out of the deeps in search of those who had murdered them. A foe that has already been destroyed.

But the minds of the undead are cloudy and not open to reason. They know only a thirst for vengeance, and finding the upper caves empty some of them have emerged into the forest to follow the aqueduct down to the village.

Only a few will arrive on the first night, terrifying but quickly dispatched. Their bodies collapse into wet clay, their souls fleeing back to their watery graves beneath the mountain. There they will reform and spread the news of the human settlement. Each night more will come until the town is destroyed or a way is found to lay the dead to rest.






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Natural Disasters in Games, Pt. 2

Where were we?

Ah yes! Natural disasters.

One of the most important decisions to make when adding a natural disaster to your game is how it will be unleashed. Building tension is a big part of the fun and how you trigger the calamity will determine the flavor and tempo of the game.

Trigger Points – The disaster doesn’t strike until the characters reach a predetermined point. For example, reaching the last chamber in a dungeon. This is how most computer games handle it and it’s an acceptable gaming trope.

It’s also lazy. An adventure designed this way leaves the disaster sitting there, waiting for the PC’s arrival, and it doesn’t matter how quickly or slowly the players make their progress. It can still be a fun ride, but when the players see it they will recognize that their actions had nothing to do with it.

I am reminded of the Dungeons & Dragons adventure B3 – Palace of the Silver Princess, where no matter when they enter a specific room the party is just in time to stop a magical ritual. It’s still a fun set piece but you wonder what they’ve been doing while the party mapped out the rest of the dungeon.

This setup is good for natural disasters you can’t see coming, like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Though with a little effort and a dose of magic or super science any disaster will work. Also, despite my misgivings about this method, it works with just about any type of game you want to run. It is particularly good for games with a clearly defined objective that will decide success or failure and it gives the GM control over when the disaster will strike. This is helpful if you’re running a plot-driven game.

But still, this is my least favorite method.

The MacGuffin – A variation on Trigger Points is the MacGuffin. This only takes a little more effort but is more engaging for the players. In this situation the natural disaster is omnipresent but held at bay by some force. For example, an eruption is held off by a ritual that keeps the volcano god asleep, or the typhoon can’t reach the harbor while the station’s energy screens are up. The MacGuffin could be an object, a ritual, a computer program, or a person, as long as it is something that the characters can interact with.

In this case the actions of the adventurers are the direct cause of unleashing nature’s fury, perhaps by grabbing a golden idol or killing a temple guardian. Mechanically it’s not that different from using a trigger point, but the nod to player agency makes a difference. However the GM should be prepared for the players not to trigger the natural disaster, or for them to find a way to circumvent the trigger. The GM should reward exceptionally clever players who avoid the unavoidable disaster.

Remember, no plot survives first contact with PCs.

Like the Trigger Point, the MacGuffin is a flexible device. However the GM does need to provide a link between the MacGuffin and the natural disaster, otherwise it’s just another Trigger Point.

Randomized Doom – At the other end of the spectrum the natural disaster can be based on random rolls. In cases like this I recommend a progressive system, where each failed roll builds towards the final cataclysm. This also lets you build tension as you describe how the storm is rising or the tremors are growing stronger.

There are two ways that come to mind for using a random system. The first is where the disaster will provide complications and threats for the characters but not bring the adventure to a halt. This works for objective based games, where the adventure hinges on obtaining an item, defeating an enemy, or crossing through a danger zone. It’s better suited for storms, wild fires, or floods and would not work as well with a volcano or earthquake. In this case the disaster makes things more dangerous, but the characters can still achieve their goal.

The other way is to make the disaster a time bomb. This works well with the cataclysmic disasters and is ideal for a good old fashioned dungeon crawl. Use this method for a game that isn’t about reaching an objective or saving the kingdom, but about the players pushing their luck and risking their lives to grab as much treasure as possible before the hammer falls.

For example, a sleeping volcano has rumbled back to life and the tremors have broken the seals on an ancient temple. Legends say it is filled with countless riches and unknown dangers. When the volcano erupts it will destroy everything, but if you act quickly and luck is on your side then fame, power, and glory will be yours.

It sure is getting hot in here, but maybe just one more chamber…

Timed, Blind – In practice there isn’t a lot of difference between a randomized disaster and one on a hidden time limit. The GM has control over the length of the gaming session and the players can assume that they have a reasonable amount of time before the disaster strikes, but beyond that the same basics apply. The players can try to guess how much time they have left based on clues from the GM and reading his or her intentions, but they are still pushing their luck.

Randomized Doom is a natural disaster game of craps, the Bind Timer is poker.

Timed, Known – Taking the “time bomb” idea quite literally, you put the disaster on a countdown. With a known time limit the players are aware of how long they have before the disaster strikes and can act accordingly. Decisions are made based on how many precious minutes they have left and unexpected problems will drive the players to new levels of urgency. Side goals must be weighed, a process which itself costs time. Analysis Paralysis becomes a more dangerous enemy than any monster.

You now have 30 minutes to reach maximum safe distance.

Known time limits are good for the disasters you can track, particularly things like hurricanes and sand storms, though more cataclysmic disasters like asteroid strikes can also be used. This setup is well suited to tournament play or any other situation where the session is limited to a specific length. It’s also a good match for “caper” adventures. Anything that has your players humming the Mission: Impossible music should be right at home with this setup.

How you implement natural disasters will determine the atmosphere of the game. Is it a race against time? A tense gamble? Or a brooding menace hanging over everything else. Whichever you choose, it can add a refreshing challenge to your games.

I think we stayed a few rounds too long.


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Natural Disasters in Games, Pt. 1

Last night we were watching a documentary on the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption called Volcano! Nature’s Fury.

It was an excellent documentary containing a lot of interviews with vulcanologist who were on site during the eruption and it focused on their attempts to ascertain what the mountain was going to do. The show did a great job of capturing the tension felt by everyone involved and the tremendous stress the scientists were under. They were mostly certain that the mountain was going to erupt and that there was a good chance it would be enormous, but how soon and how powerful the eruption would be was nearly impossible to ascertain.

Their base of operations was at Clark Air Force Base, well within the radius of the planned evacuation zone, where the team had to convey the vagaries of the mountain’s behavior to military personnel used to dealing with specifics, a military staff facing the monumental task of evacuation of staff, civilians, and materials.

The mountain was not being helpful. One scientist recounts heading to a briefing expecting to tell the military to commence evacuations, only to have the mountain calm down while he was en route. He delivered his briefing, now counseling against evacuation, and returned to his facility to find that seismic readings were now off the scale. Nervously he debated calling the base and telling them to evacuate, knowing that being wrong in either direction could spell disaster. When he couldn’t stand it any more he went to contact the base, only to see the readings drop back to normal again.

That’s the greatest source of stress in such a situation. Make the call too soon and thousands of people are displaced, possibly for nothing. Make the call too late and people may be killed. It’s easy to say, “better safe than sorry,” until you’re faced with the reality of evacuating a major population.

In the end they did make the call at the right time. The public was evacuated early enough and the military kept a skeleton crew on site with the scientists until after the major eruption occurred. The remaining personnel evacuated under a driving rain of pumice and ash, more than a little worried that they’d waited too long and a pyroclastic flow was bearing down on them. The Air Force general in command later joked that he knew it was time to go when one of the scientists ran past him saying, “I hope you have jam in your pocket because we’re about to be toast.”

It was an excellent show with great details and had more human drama than any “reality” TV could hope to conjure.

Of course this got me thinking about gaming.

Using a natural disaster for a backdrop is something that shows up frequently in fiction but not so often in adventure design. Dangerous environments are common, but even the most dangerous settings for gaming are still usually a stable system. You can plan for them, the risks are known. Conversely a natural disaster is a time bomb that forces the players to work quickly to achieve their goals.

The type of disaster will have an effect on the flavor of the pressure it exerts on the game. A volcano or earthquake provides a building menace with lots of warning signs but no way to predict when the cataclysm will strike. Throw varying levels of tremors onto your random encounter chart and watch the players squirm in their chairs. Make them roll Dex checks to stay standing for good measure. I am definitely doing this if I ever get to run The Halls of Beoll-Dur.

A hurricane is another matter. These disasters can be seen coming and they can be monitored and tracked, providing a more definite time limit and replacing the tension of uncertainty with anticipation. Can they complete their objectives in time? Do they try to ride it out? Describe the wind picking up, the increases in the storm surges, the screaming sound outside as the adventure progresses. Another advantage of the hurricane is that the players could conceivably strive on as the storm is raging around them. It’s not an advisable course of action, but then few things that adventures do are advisable.

Tornadoes and tsunamis are two different flavors of more rapid, uncertain disasters. These are good for sudden games, where the players are given little time to act. A location under a tsunami warning will be unnervingly calm, with beautiful weather and people going about their lives as normal. There is no reliable long range way to tell if a tsunami is bearing down on a coastal site and when the warning signs do appear there is little time to act before a wall of water comes crashing in. Conversely a storm system that generates tornadoes makes its presence clearly known, but where the tornadoes will form, what path they’ll follow, how many will appear, and how strong are all unknowns. Adventurers facing such a challenge won’t know what they are up against until the funnel cloud is ripping its way across the landscape.

These and other natural disasters offer a GM new ways to challenge players and shake things up. In part two I’ll talk about different ways to integrate them into a game, specifically regarding how the disasters can be triggered. I also have some adventure seeds swirling around and urging to get out.

Are there any published adventures that you’ve come across that use natural disasters?



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Dwarves of the Purple Wurm

The dwarf kingdoms are renown for their mastery of mining and delving into the deepest roots of the mountains.  So too are their warriors famous for their strength and audacity.  Perhaps none are more legendary for their fearlessness than the Knights of the Wurm.

Purple worms are among the most feared denizens of the underworld realms.  Adult specimens grow to frightening size, 50′ in length with maws large enough to swallow an armored knight whole.  These monsters burrow through the ground with frightening speed allowing for swift and terrifying attacks.  Their jaws are so strong that they gnaw through the hardest bedrock.  The beasts are further armed with a sharp stinger filled with a deadly venom, a weapon they can use on creatures who come at them from behind in their dark tunnels.  The rare cases of such monsters reaching the surface are the stuff of legends and adventurers who have survived such encounters have rightly earned their place in story and song.

Challenging a purple worm on the surface is foolhardy but seeking the worm out in its lair is suicidal.  Yet that is exactly what an order of dwarven knights do.  These warriors track the leviathans to their nests and, if they find young worms within, slay the adults.  Any dwarves who survive then capture the juvenile worms and take them back to the citadel of the order where the worms will be matched to a knight who will raise and train it.  The process takes close to a century, but dwarves are a patient, determined, and a long lived species.  The final result is a knight’s steed of horrifying power.

Through secret means the dwarves restrict the growth of the worms, holding them to roughly half the size of a normal full sized adult.  Worms that grow larger become uncontrollable, their skin too thick for the prods used to control and guide them and their appetite too voracious for the dwarves to assuage.

Finding a dwarf capable of being a worm rider is as rare as finding the worms themselves.  Such a candidate must possess a sense of direction and depth far beyond that of their kin in order to guide their mount through the ground. A Wurm Knight must be ever mindful that even a worm they’ve raised and ridden for decades has not been tamed, it has been subdued and can never be trusted.  Knights who forget this will meet a quick and gruesome end.

The Knights of the Wurm wear special armor, with a curved carapace-like shield rising up from their back and over their helmet.  This allows the dwarf to cling to the side of the worm as it burrows, sliding through the shattered stone cascading around them.  When dismounted this shield is ungainly and blocks the warrior’s peripheral vision, so they have fashioned a quick release to allow its speedy removal.

By necessity the Wurm Knights eschew the use of shields or two handed weapons.  Instead they use single-handed weapons that clamp onto their breastplates so that they will not be ripped away while riding the worms.  Many Wurm Knights fight with two weapons and train with throwing axes.

Wurm Knights generally ride alone, but when going to war they will be accompanied by as many as a dozen fellow riders.  These will be composed of two types of warriors.  Sergeants are warriors of the order trained to care for and ride with the worms, but who lack the sense of direction necessary to guide them.  Squires are candidates who have passed the tests of the Order and are training to become knights.

When a Knight of the Wurm becomes involved in the affairs of the surface dwellers they can change the course of wars.  A single Knight and his or her mount can undermine the walls of a city or kill the roots of an elven forest.  Even dragons have been put to route by a sudden assault from beneath the ground.

The Knights of the Wurm represent the mastery of the dwarf people over their underworld realms.  Dwarven adventures may spend much of their careers seeking to earn enough renown to be considered for their ranks.

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Posted by on December 2, 2013 in Fantasy, Gaming, World Design


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Monster Musings – Whales, Gas Spores, and Beholders

Recently posted a short story and video about an exploding whale.

No, not the famous Oregon exploding whale.

No, not the exploding whale of Taiwan.

This was a whale in the Faroe Islands that exploded due to a build up of gasses within its corpse, with the resulting explosion caught on film.  While not as dramatic as the Oregon whale, who was blown up with a ton of high explosives, the Faroe Island footage is much more goopey.  Warning, the link leads to a sceen that would make David Cronenberg proud.

Click Here For Whale Guts

Believe it or not, this got me to thinking about gaming.  Specifically, the creature known as the gas spore.

The gas spore first appeared in the Monster Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition.  The creature is a fungus that looks just like a beholder.  The idea is that an unwary party encountering what appears to be a powerful monster will launch into a surprise attack, hoping to kill the beholder before it can destroy them.  But upon striking the gas spore, it explodes and covers the party with a choking cloud of fungus that will infect the characters and kill them within 24 hours, unless they can cure the infection.  New gas spores grow within the victims’ corpses and drift off into the dungeon, waiting for more hapless adventurers.

In other words, the gas spore is one of those creatures that lives in a Gygaxian world for the sole purpose of letting a DM screw with the players.  This is something I’m okay with.  Fantasy worlds and faerie tales are filled with creatures whose existence makes no logical sense.  I don’t understand why some gamers have a problem accepting the gas spore but have no problems with the beholder.  Still, humans are pattern-seeking primates and I am no exception, so I came up with a new relationship between these two creatures.

Beholders are powerful beings, but not immortal.  When a beholder dies due to age or sickness, its corpse undergoes a transformation.  It continues to float mindlessly through the dark underground places, rotting inside and building up pressure until it is ready to burst.  When an adventurer or monster strikes the corpse, it explodes and infects the attacker.

The mature gas spore is a beholder’s corpse.  The new gas spores born from the bodies of fallen adventurers are the larval forms of new beholders.  This forms a grotesque circle of life and death where dying characters become the birth place for all new horrors.


Posted by on November 27, 2013 in Monster Musings, World Design


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