Action Scene Generator

I’m gearing up to run Robin Laws’ most excellent Feng Shui 2 and I was inspired by the need to have a way to produce buck wild action scenes on demand. So I made this table! Enjoy!

To make a wacky action scene, roll once for each column. Shake well. Serve over ice.

Location Enemies Complication
1 Chinese Restaurant Ninjas Everything’s on fire!
2 Cubicle Offices Cyber-ninjas They’ve got hostages!
3 Ancient Temple Oni It’s collapsing!
4 Neon-Drenched Night Market Triad Goons There’s explosive stuff all over the place!
5 Building Under Construction Drug Runners They’re already fighting someone else! (Roll another enemy!)
6 On Top of a Submarine Heavily Armed PTA Members They’re about to launch the missiles!
7 Suburban Culdesac Cultists Tornado!
8 Factory Nazis They’re conducting a horrific ritual!
9 Laboratory Pirates It’s a raid! (The police are involved!)
10 On Top of an Elevated Train Robots Crashing spaceship!
11 Docks Men In Black There’s a bomb!
12 Hellscape Aliens The eggs are hatching!
13 Jungle Dinosaurs It’s sinking!
14 Outpost Paramilitaries They’re weird! (Roll another enemy and combine them!)
15 Pirate Ship Swordsmen The scene’s weird! (Roll another location and combine them!)
16 Castle Rednecks The scene is mobile!
17 Space Station Spacemen It’s complicated! (Roll an additional complication!)
18 Alien Planet Lizard-people So many doves!
19 City Freeway Post-Apocalyptic Raiders There’s a ton of poisonous stuff around!
20 Trailer Park Cyber-Apes From the Future Everything’s weird! (Roll another everything!)

How about an example? I just rolled 8, 14, and 4. Looks like our heroes are about to fight a bunch of paramilitaries in a factory that’s full of explosives!

Action Scene Generator

Story vs. Plot

A while back, I had a really interesting conversation with a friend about the concepts of story, plot, and player agency in roleplaying games. The conversation started with them asking me about techniques for keeping players on track story-wise without railroading. Which struck me as kind of an odd question. It seems to presuppose a directed, largely immutable story that the players are expected to follow.

That kinda sounds like railroading.

So, this has led me to a couple of new questions. How do we think about “story” and “plot” in a roleplaying game? And, furthermore, are these concepts compatible with the level of player agency that we’re looking for in our game?

I believe that, as with so many things, this is — in no small part — a problem of language. So let’s start by laying out some definitions. Many of these ideas come out of literature and I’m going to knowingly abuse the hell out of them for my own nefarious ends. Deal with it.

Story. The story of your game consists of everything that will happen if the player characters do nothing.

Plot. The plot of your game is what happens when the player characters interact with story elements.

Static events. Any event that cannot be changed by the player characters is a static event.

Dynamic events. These are everything else.

Excellent. So what do we do with these things?

Well, first off, I’d like to observe that static events should probably be used sparingly. If there’s a bunch of stuff going on that your players can’t change, they’re not going to feel like active participants in the game. If I have to explain why that’s bad, you might be reading the wrong blog. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that static events should only be used as “setup” and placing static events in an ongoing game will feel like railroading.

For example, if you want your game to revolve around the players investigating the assassination of the king, that assassination will be a static event that occurs before the player characters arrive on the scene in the first session. However, if you’re running an ongoing game and your players have been dealing with the king a lot, making his assassination a static event won’t seem fair to your players.

Also, it’s worth noting that a “dynamic” event that doesn’t include the player characters will feel like a static one. To return our earlier example, if the players “had a chance” to learn of the planned assassination of the king earlier in the adventure, but missed the clues, your players will still feel cheated if the king dies off-screen. See, they don’t know that they missed the clues. From their perspective, the king died basically out of nowhere with no chance for them to intervene. And that sucks.

Fortunately, the fix to this is fairly simple. According to the definitions and observations I laid out earlier, all plot-relevant events should not only be dynamic, but must include the player characters in a meaningful way. To continue with our regicide example, instead of having the assassination occur off-screen, have the assassin make his attempt while the player characters are in a position to do something about it. Maybe they’re having an audience with the king and he decides they should walk the city so as to be seen by his subjects. Then, the assassin can spring a trap along the route. The player characters’ job (protecting the king) might be a hell of a lot harder than it would have been if they had advance warning about the attack, but they’ll still have a chance to save the king’s life.

I think this should probably extend to all villains and opposing NPCs, as well. Basically, the general rule is if you want on of your bad guys to fuck with the players, their favorite NPCs, or their stuff, the players must have an opportunity to intervene.

These concepts also tie in really well with my notions of planning and preparation. Before you start running the game, you should probably have a notion of what your story looks like (i.e. what will go down in the game world without the players mucking about in it), but once the players start doing stuff, all bets are off. That’s why I write characters, rather than plot. Well-written NPCs are easy to improvise around and can easily be transplanted from place to place (or story beat to story beat) in your campaign with little more than a simple re-skin. If all you have is “A happens, then B happens” and your players do something that doesn’t fall into this mold, you’re hosed.

Story vs. Plot

Beastmen in the Deep

A month or two ago, I ran a Shadow of the Demon Lord one-shot for some friends. I’d been jonesing to give the game a shot for a while, and it did not disappoint. The system is insanely slick and it almost perfectly recaptures the feeling of the old Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I recommend that anyone who enjoyed WFRP back in the day or enjoys OSR games check it out post-haste.

This adventure turned out to be perfect for four or five starting, zero-level characters. Be sure to note down the professions each character has, so that you can provide appropriate information and embellishment. Also, be sure to be liberal with the boons and banes. They’re the meat and potatoes of the system, so don’t skimp. The adventure concludes with a handful of plot hooks to kickstart a campaign. At the end, everyone should gain their first level.

Now, without further ado…

*   *   *

Beastmen in the Deep

You are riding with a trade caravan on a risky rout deep into the frozen south. Why are you with the caravan? What drove you to brave the danger and the cold? Who or what did you leave behind?

The caravan is moving through a mountain pass. The clouds sit low and the snowfall is heavy. You know that through this pass lies your destination and a not-insignificant reward. It is nearly nightfall when the jotun raiders attack. The first sign is boulders falling from the sky, thrown by frost giants on the mountainside. Then the raiders rush your caravan, their numbers far larger than your meager guard can hope to repel. The situation seems hopeless until you spot a cave entrance a short ways off. What do you do?

There are a large number of jotun (around two dozen, if anyone asks) and a pair of frost giants. They are thoroughly occupied with sacking the caravan. The cave entrance is maybe twenty yards away, but there’s plenty of cover on the way (snow drifts, errant boulders, etc.).

The cave inside is fairly small (no larger than 10 ft. wide and deep) and plain, but there a small passage that heads deeper (~4 ft. diameter, ~20° down). Once the party is assembled inside, unless they do something clever, two jotun raiders follow not long after and attack. If the group lingers, more raiders attack periodically (every few minutes or so).

[The map below is courtesy of the unparalleled Dyson Logos! Cartography is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.]

Hopefully this is mostly legible. The players enter through the doors at the bottom of the map.

The passage opens up into the antechamber of some sort of ruins. The stonework is magnificent and well-preserved (canny observers will note that it’s dwarven in origin). There’s a single passage leading deeper into the ruins. Immediately inside the passage is a corpse. Old and desiccated, its been perforated by a dozen or so small, bladed darts. Nearby (perception challenge) there is a broken tripwire. He was a human male in his mid-twenties. He is wearing a still-serviceable suit of hard leather armor. By his right hand is a pistol (discharged) and by his left is a small wooden puzzle box (this minor wonder vibrates slightly when within 100 yards of a troll or giant). He is carrying a belt pouch containing 1 ss, 7 cp, two loads of powder and shot, a healing potion, and an incantation that bears “enhance senses” and “arcane armor”. His sword and lantern are also close at hand.

The ruins are occupied by beastmen (fomor) led by Rhoderic the Cruel, a doomsday cultist (use cultist stats, but he has Power 1 and the following spells: Harm [1], Arcane Armor [2], Magic Dart [2], Unerring Darts [1]). They are assembled here to use the portal to reach the portal to the Bone Marsh (in the Northern Reach) to attack the coastal city of Derge.

See the map for descriptions of the dungeon. Several rooms are detailed below.

Burial Chamber: The far end of this room is dominated by a large stone coffin. Resting atop it is a jeweled hammer. The coffin is adorned with the likeness of a dwarf in heavy armor and this inscription: “Disturb not the rest of Kurag Trollsbane, lest ye face his wrath.” If the hammer is removed, a Barrow Wight emerges from the coffin and attacks. It will not surrender or retreat.

  • (Perception challenge) The door to this room has not been opened in quite some time – at least dozens of years.
  • This is the only door in the complex that locks from the inside (i.e. it is safe to sleep with the dead).

“Abandoned” Room: The door to this room is blocked, but the bottom has been smashed away. A small character could crawl through. This room is the home of Snot Spittle, a goblin man who got lost in the tunnels years ago and ended up here. Snot will probably ambush whoever comes through first with a wooden mug, but can easily be subdued or talked down. He’ll agree to give them his life savings (~2 ss in assorted coins) if they help him escape.

Locked Chest: This chest contains a bag of coins (3 ss, 11 cp, 87 bits), a suit of brigandine armor, a ritual blade, and a gold-framed mirror in a black velvet bag. The mirror looks directly into the Void. Looking into it confers 1 insanity. If the viewer succeeds a Will challenge with 1 bane, they learn one secret. This can be a new school of magic or an immediately useful piece of information, the viewer’s choice. It only has this beneficial effect once per character.

Kitchen: The beastmen keep a slave here to cook their food – a large, four-armed clockwork named Ohm. It doesn’t want to stay, but cannot conceive of leaving. A successful Intellect challenge or a reasonably compelling argument will convince it to join the party.

The Letter: Rhoderic, I am pleased to hear that preparations are nearing completion. All is ready here, and your arrival is much anticipated. Altheon and I are confident that Derge shall be ours within the month. Be sure to keep my mirror safe. I long to look upon His face again. -Dannika


Beastmen in the Deep

The Temple of Elemental Weirdness

What up, nerds? As a creative exercise (and to force myself to write more), I’m trying to take more of my idle day-dreaming and shape it into something that one might actually be able to use at the game table. What follows is something that I’ve been kicking around in the ol’ back-brain for a while now. If I like what pops out in this post, I may even develop it into a full adventure.

Recently, I got my hands on a copy of Princes of the Apocalypse, one of WotC’s official adventure paths for D&D5. It’s… fine? I mean, it’s mostly uninspired stuff, but there are some quality ideas kicking around in there. With a fair amount of tweaking and rewriting, I think it could be perfectly playable. However, it got me thinking about the old T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil modules. I’ve always been a huge fan of ToEE. It’s goofy as hell, but a ton of fun. Not only do you get a completely bonkers funhouse megadungeon, but the adventure is packed to the gills with implied intrigue and hints to a broader cosmic conflict playing out in the background.

One lackluster read and a fair dose of nostalgia later, I find myself inspired to try to put together my own adventure in this vein. The basic premise is ToEE with weird fantasy and Lovecraftian horror themes. For now, I’m going to call this project the Temple of Elemental Weirdness.

Some Brief History

Millennia ago, long before the age of men, the gods of old longed to know their nature, purpose, and place in the universe. Thus, they forged a mighty lens with which to gaze into the cosmos. Each of the gods of old poured some of their power into the lens so that their vision might penetrate even the fabric between worlds, secure in the knowledge that they were the most powerful beings in the multiverse. This hubris, however, proved to be their undoing.

As the aperture of the lens opened, the gods of old gazed into worlds undreamed of and, beyond that, a luminiferous void, vast beyond comprehension. And there, lurking within the void, something gazed back. In witnessing the existence of such entities, the gods of old inadvertently gave them life and, in naming the shapeless horrors of the void, alerted them to the existence of our world. Azathoth, Lord of the Nameless Void, was born.

A great battle raged. Many of the gods of old perished at the hands of Azathoth and his vile spawn. With a tremendous expenditure of power and lives, the gods of old were finally able to close the aperture and seal the horrors of the void from our world. Unable to unmake that which they had wrought, the survivors dubbed the lens the “Chaos Gate” and sealed it in the Eyeless Chamber deep within the earth.

The ages rolled by.

As the gods of old faded into history, then into legend, all knowledge of the Chaos Gate was lost. However, the horrors of the void never forgot about us. Over the millennia, they have found innumerable methods of projecting their power into our world. Slowly, but surely, they were named and found followers among mortal madmen and those who hunger for power. Finally, mere months ago, Azathoth – empowered by years of unwholesome worship – summoned all of his might to draw a mortal to the Chaos Gate.

Recent Events

Francis Waddleton was a miner by trade. For years, he toiled in the Iron Hills, scratching his meager fortune out of the living rock. Two months ago, however, on a starless night, he dreamed of gleaming diamonds in the dark. When he awoke, he knew precisely where to dig. That very morning he began his search for the Eyeless Chamber.

As he worked, tirelessly digging for the Gate, others arrived to join in him in his quest. The first was a strange sorcerer from the South, garbed in tattered yellow and wearing a pallid mask. The second was an astronomer from the East, leading a legion of dreamers and carrying a telescope that looks into other worlds. The last was a mad fisherman from the West, bearing forth the blessings of Father Dagon and Mother Hydra. The sorcerer spoke to Francis of a prophecy carried to this world from dim Carcosa.

When the charnel star is sighted in the lightless sky, a lone visionary will undertake an impossible task and his coming will herald the return of Azathoth, He Whose Name Endeth the World. Seek ye the Herald and serve them as you serve the spawn of the Nameless Void.

Thus, was Francis declared the Herald of the Apocalypse.

Supported by the Cults of the Nameless Void, the Herald’s excavations proceeded apace. Meanwhile, around the site, a great Temple was raised in honor to the dark gods. All manner of monsters and brigands were attracted by this monument to unwholesome power. To fund these activities, the Cults sent forth groups of bandits and monsters to harry caravans and sack villages. The seemingly random nature of these attacks have made it nigh-impossible for local authorities to mount a proper response.

Last week, deep beneath the earth, the Herald and his servants finally broke through into the Eyeless Chamber. Those who bore witness to that most hideous lens were changed forever…

The Cults of Nameless Void

I’m still working on the specifics of the four cults attracted to the Temple, which I think certainly warrant their own post. So, for now, here are the names and subjects of the four cults:

Lords of the Drowning Deep – Cult of Cthulhu, That Which Dwells Beneath

Explorers of the Boundless Void – Cult of Nyarlathotep, The Crawling Chaos (Stalker Among the Stars)

Servants of the Stranger – Cult of Hastur, The Unspeakable One (Lord of Carcosa)

Princes of the Apocalypse – Cult of Azathoth, Lord of the Nameless Void (He Whose Name Endeth the World)

Starting the Adventure

The players are likely going to be hired by a local lord to figure out who’s attacking caravans and villages in his demesne. Savvy players can investigate the scene of an attack and follow the bandits back to their base of operations, in which they’d find clues leading them to the Temple itself. Hell, you could probably throw the moat house from T1: The Village of Hommlet in here wholesale. Just make sure to re-skin things to match the new themes discussed above. Maybe the bandit leader and his lieutenants are mutants? Instead of a Giant Crayfish in the caves underneath the Moathouse, you could have some sort of squamous horror? This definitely bears further consideration.


The Temple of Elemental Weirdness


Among the twisting canyons of the Fractured Stone badlands, orc tribes have waged war for centuries. Once every few generations, a leader of unparalleled skill and ferocity will emerge from the fray to unite the tribes and lead an invasion of the realms of men. What distinguishes these warriors from their lesser brethren?

All are Chosen of HORG.

None know consciously of their blessing. Subconsciously, they are aware that their prowess is somehow due to an otherworldly power, but even if they become aware of this, they will blame some deity or other source of power. Even if asked about HORG outright, they will ask the simple question…


HORG is not a god. HORG is not a man. HORG isn’t even an orc.

HORG is a natural force, not unlike gravity or thaumaturgic symmetry. HORG is the raw spirit of the orcish horde, born of their boundless self-loathing and insatiable lust for violence.

Only the mightiest among the orcs have ever directly experienced the touch of HORG. When Red Hand used his own severed arm to beat the Silver Knight of Castaar to death, his mighty thew was guided by HORG. When Gork and Mork laid a cunning (yet brutal) trap for the dwarven armies of Artrius Longbeard, they were inspired by HORG. When Gnarl Grimteef ate the face of the elven sorcerer Zastriel, his hunger was deepened by HORG.

The Chosen of HORG

The Seven Oracles of Brighthome have had a shared vision of a blood-stained hand reaching out of the badlands. All awoke simultaneously from their dreamsleep screaming, “HORG HAS COME! HIS SHADOW RISES IN THE NORTH!” Even the foremost scholars are unable to determine who or what this HORG is, but certainly the prophecies of the Seven Oracles are not to be ignored. Thus, the nobles of Brighthome have posted an open offer to all adventurers willing to take up the cause. A 500 GP reward is to be given to any who can find information about this “HORG”. The more pious (and paranoid) among them have begun the arduous process of rallying their levies.

Meanwhile, in the north, a new champion has risen to lead the orcish horde. Agog the Many-Sighted has slain the nineteen chieftains and united the tribes. It was in this moment that he felt the touch of HORG. Armed with this horrifying new power and an army ready to kill and die at his command, he makes final preparations to march south to conquest and slaughter.

Assuming no interference, in one month, Agog will have fully assembled his armies and will begin his march. Without warning or aid, the nobles of Brighthome will be unable to assemble their armies in time to successfully oppose the horde. Brighthome will be destroyed and Agog will continue his march into human lands. There is no telling what horrors will be wrought before an army of sufficient strength can be raised to stop him.

Agog the Many-Sighted (Armor: as plate, HD7, HP35, move 30′, d10 Harvester)

Agog is scarred, intelligent, and bloodthirsty. He has felt the touch of HORG as a divine mandate to slaughter, permitting all manner of forbidden magics. His first act as the empowered Chosen was to summon the Carcerian demon, Kkz’laarog, and bind it into the demon-scythe, Harvester. If the demon were to ever break free from the scythe, he will exact his vengeance on Agog, then wander the world attempting to find a way back into Hell.

Using foul blood-sorcery and the demon-scythe, Harvester, Agog has added the eyes of numerous slain foes to his head. He can see in all directions and detects cowardice as a paladin detects evil. When Agog slays a foe with Harvester, it shears off a body part of his choosing, which he may add to his body for 1d4 days. If the appropriate ritual is conducted (requiring the appropriate blood sacrifices and devil worship), the addition becomes permanent.

However, Harvester is always hungry. Without a consistent flow of blood, the scythe will begin to drain the life of it’s keeper. Unless someone is killed with Harvester once every 1d4 days, 1d8 HP is drained from its keeper. The character’s HP maximum is reduced by this amount until Harvester’s thirst is slaked. If the character’s HP maximum is reduced to zero in this way, the character is immediately slain, their soul consumed, and Kkz’laarog breaks free from his bonds to rampage across creation.

If he knows battle is immanent, Agog will slay his mightiest orc warrior and perform the vile ritual to add their strongest arm to his torso. This improves his to-hit and damage with Harvester by +1. Agog is empowered by HORG, Kkz’laarog, and repeated blood sacrifices. He has the following spells prepared: Enlarge, Cause Fear, Summon, Enthrall, Phantasmal Force, Stinking Cloud, Cause Disease, Drain Life, Divination, and Insect Plague.


Simplicity and Brutality: The Attraction of OSR Games

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about “old-school” games. It’s almost become an obsession. And for a quite a while there, I had a really hard time figuring out exactly what was attracting me to these games. However, while on a trip to New York for a buddy’s bachelor party last weekend (sweet, merciful Satan, I drank WAY too much), I had a conversation with one of his friends in which I was finally able to articulate what about these games really gets my motor running. So, please join me for a brief journey into my wannabe-game-designer-brain that I like to call…

Simplicity and Brutality: The Attraction of OSR Games

For the uninitiated, “OSR” refers to the “Old School Revival”. More specifically, updating the rules and concepts of the earliest days of our hobby for modern use. In practice, this ends up with games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The rules for all three of these games are free online (click the links above), so take a few minutes and have a look. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Pretty simple right? It probably looks like your favorite version of D&D, but with a hell of a lot less stuff. And that’s the first major draw. The simplicity of these games lends them a certain beauty. Instead of having rules for every damn thing, the GM is expected to make rulings. A lack of skill lists or task-resolution mechanics can be incredibly freeing. So, instead of juggling a long list of modifiers and then figuring out if “athletics” or “acrobatics” is more applicable to the situation, the question becomes, “Can your powerfully built, athletic warrior jump the chasm?” Almost certainly. The drunk halfling, on the other hand, probably can’t. Furthermore, your character’s stats are way less important in these games. Because attribute modifiers are usually somewhere in the vicinity of +/- 1, you can’t just brute-force dice-roll your way through problems. The game mechanics are intentionally left fairly abstract to encourage creative problem solving.

Honestly, unless your GM is a huge asshole, if you come up with a decent solution to a problem, you shouldn’t even have to look at dice.*

The lethality of these game systems has always interested me, too. At first glance, I didn’t really understand how these games were playable. Like, how do you survive fights? Then it dawned on me – you survived fights by avoiding them entirely or only fighting when you knew you could win. It was a staggering revelation. Since the ’90s, RPGs have had an insane emphasis on combat. And most of that is the fucking boring, grindy, tactical combat, which I’ve already spilled plenty of ink complaining about. Fights in OSR games tend to be quick and brutal, and the smarter, better-prepared group almost always wins.

Really, what strikes me about these games is how the their mechanics incentivise certain player behaviors. A common feature of a lot of these OSR games is that experience gain from monsters tends to be quite low, but when you escape a dungeon (or other adventure site) with a bunch of loot, you get an equivalent amount of experience points. So, in addition to combat being quite deadly, you’re further incentivised to avoid fighting or come up with a creative solution. Are there some orcs guarding a chest? Instead of fighting them, maybe you could bribe them into momentarily leaving their post. Or maybe you know that the orcs have long been at war with the gnolls that live in a different part of the dungeon complex. If you could lead some of the gnolls to this room, the problem might solve itself. Or, failing that, make the drunk halfling finally earn his keep and sneak by those orcs. Once there isn’t a simple mechanical solution (a boring tactical fight), creativity is forced to take center stage.

Perhaps the best thing about these games is the community that’s sprung up around them. Take a while to dig through the archives of Goblin Punch, Playing D&D With Porn Stars (just make sure to skip the drama), Dyson’s Dodecahedron, Deeper in the Game, and I’ll See It When I Believe It, just to name a few of my favorites. These guys are making amazing, cool, weird stuff and dumping it online for anyone to use FOR FREE.

Now, of course, this style of game isn’t for everybody. Some people don’t feel comfortable without well-defined mechanics to fall back on. Also, when GMing an OSR game, the Wheaton Rule applies double. You have to be tough, but fair. When your players come up with a reasonably cool solution to a problem, let it ride. But if they fuck up, make sure they feel it. If you never let your players’ creative solutions work, you’re the one who’s fucking up the game, not them.

M. Hamhock out.

*A lot of GMs house-rule some simple task resolution mechanics in order to fix edge cases. One of my favorites is the simple “when in doubt, roll under the applicable attribute”. Another really good one is Akratic Wizardry’s saving throws as general task resolution mechanics. In fact, I really dig all their house rules. Definitely take a look.

Simplicity and Brutality: The Attraction of OSR Games

GM/Storyteller’s Screen for Exalted 3rd Edition

Hi everybody!

I’m getting ready to run an Exalted 3rd Edition game and there’s enough going on in this system that I thought having a well-crafted GM/Storyteller’s screen at the table would be really useful. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find one out there in the wild. So I made my own!

It’s in landscape format and covers the most complex and commonly referenced rules in the game such as character advancement, combat (mostly initiative, actions, and complications), and social influence. Please note that it includes my group’s house rules for character advancement and XP rewards and I generally use “GM” instead of “Storyteller” (for brevity, mostly).

Here’s the PDF version:

And the original .docx version:

Please have a look and let me know what you think. Feel free to download a copy to edit to your heart’s content. If you improve it or add cool art, please drop a link below! I’d be pumped to see it. I’m also planning on making a version in portrait format, so when that’s done, I’ll edit this post with the link.

M. Hamhock out.

GM/Storyteller’s Screen for Exalted 3rd Edition