Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Belliserum’s Mind Palace (1/2)

by Bruce Pennington

 All credit to my wonderful girlfriend, who inspired and basically co-authored this entire dungeon.

EDIT: Part 2 is up

Our tale begins, as all tales in fantasy roleplaying games must, with a wizard. Belliserum of the Vaste was a master of the arcane arts, yet she was a human wizard with human limitations, and the mortal mind only has so much space for arcane formulae and esoteric knowledge. Worse still, in her advanced age, Belliserum found herself plagued by pathological forgetfulness (her contemporaries had no name for this phenomenon at the time). In typical wizardly fashion, Belliserum devised a solution bordering on madness: a physical castle within which her memories could be safely kept.

The Mind Palace was designed as a direct extension of its master’s brain. Information was encoded in every book, brick, and tapestry, which were carefully copied and restored by a retinue of curators. Belliserum could then access this knowledge from anywhere on the material plane via a phenomenally clever bidirectional scrying spell, the nature of which has been lost to history.

Of course, she’s dead now—has been for many centuries—but the palace remains. It was originally sealed in an underground cavern below the Vaste, until a sudden sinkhole and subsequent excavation revealed its ivory-white spires to the world. Nowadays, scholars and thieves alike delve into the Mind Palace to translate its arcane secrets... or sell them to the highest bidder. These mercantile agents don’t take kindly to competition, but perhaps they are preferable to the palace’s original inhabitants: curators of the upper cortex, and nightmares born wholesale from the dead wizard’s malfunctioning brain-castle.

Perhaps your party is on the payroll of some ambitious merchant-lord, or perhaps they seek forgotten truths for their own sake. Roll a d12 to see which potentially game-ending information they’re hunting for.

Dead Wizard Secrets
The true name of a real bastard of a devil
The favorite foods of each member of the faerie judiciary (as with most elements of faerie culture, the judiciary’s membership has not changed in centuries, trapped in whimsical torpor)
Where the giants went
Blueprint: anachronistic technology (gunpowder/telegraph/tandem bicycles/really anything your players want)
The location of an unguarded hellhole not even Satan knows about
Blueprint: The original Bag of Holding
Ritual of the Covenant of Accursed Mortality (allows gods to be killed permanently)
Recipe: Immortality elixir, but with a catch
How to raise/train/befriend/debate your own dragons
Lyrics to the Song of Twilight’s Revival (restores elven fertility)
“Unbody me tomorrow” (memetic cure-all vaccine)
Spell: Belliserum’s Bolster Intellect (allows information exchange between the caster and the Mind Palace, forever)


Giulio Camillo Delminio's "theatre of memory"

There are four dangers inherent to the Mind Palace. I’ll discuss two of them here and follow up later this week.

The Palace

The Mind Palace is an architectural abomination, a mass of bone-white turrets and bartizans at odd angles, as if a thousand castles were swept into a pile and mortared together where they lay. The inside is a labyrinth of stairwells leading to gardens leading to master bedrooms leading to wine cellars, connected by a confounding array of vertical corridors and twisting crawlspaces.

Every square inch of the palace is crawling with information—books full to bursting with loose pages, paintings and carvings so intricate they make your head swim—and if you watch closely you’ll see it all changing in waves. Tiny ripples in the masonry pass from room to room, leaving the engravings ever so slightly different from what they were. These ripples accumulate in size, and if a big enough ripple forms, entire rooms will move.

Whenever the party rests in the palace, there is movement. Roll twice for extended rests. These apply to previously explored rooms unless otherwise stated.

Palace Movements
The room the players are resting in drops one level down.
An explored room disappears. The players may rediscover it later, repopulated.
A connection between two explored rooms disappears.
4 - 7
The movement occurs somewhere else in the palace (no effect on the known map).
8 - 9
A connection to a new room appears.
A connection to a new room on a different level appears.
A new room appears between two explored rooms.
The room the players are resting in raises one level up.

Whenever the party enters an unexplored room, roll a d6. On a 1-3, it’s a scriptorium, an etched stone chamber full of bookcases and tables for copying manuscripts. Roll on the encounter table to see what’s up in there. Otherwise, the room is one of the following you haven't explored yet:

Rooms in the Mind Palace
The Pit: A 40’x40’x100’ hole where a room should be. There are 2-4 doors visible on the walls and ceiling, all leading to different rooms/dungeon levels. The walls are slick with shadow, and a low moaning echoes from the horribly dark pit floor. There is no monster; it is an aspect of the decay, calling hungrily for more knowledge. If you feed it, you’ll gain its favor. If you fall in, you’ll be in the deep palace, and that’s probably punishment enough.
The Market: An open plaza dominated by a circular meeting table. Doors in all 4 cardinal directions. 2d6 curators are here, split evenly between two factions (roll 1d4 for each side’s identity). They’re trading heavy parchment strips and book binding materials for gear clearly looted from another adventuring party. If the players play their cards right, they can barter for anything on the table. The parchment strips are more valuable than they appear: they’re components for creating a new curator.
The Elevator: A 10’x10’x50’ vertical stone shaft with unusually high ripple activity. The door to the next room is at the top of the shaft, overlooking a sheer drop. An enormous book is affixed to the central lectern which, when opened, poses a series of nonsense riddles. The palace accepts any answer, raising or lowering the floor by 20’ per answer depending on its plausibility. Two plausible/implausible answers in a row should be enough to go up/down a floor. With repeated suggestions via this Q&A process, the chamber can be coaxed to produce a single mundane item per day.
The Garden: A dimly lit room full of tattered, translucent fabric growing in sheets from the ceiling. 1d4+1 curators are here, two of whom are harvesting the fabric while the rest transcribe memories. They complain about the absolute state of the place and how myelin once grew thick and healthy. If you do them a favor or offer enough stuff, they might let you take a few napkins’ worth. Wearing myelin around one’s head grants a +1 vs. fear/charm/mental enchantments in general.
The Cradle: An unsettlingly organic room, where the stone and brick flows like flesh into twisted spires. Tendrils of stoneflesh descend from the ceiling to converge into a throne in the center of the room, within which rests the remains of a human in fine silks. In his hand rests a locket, which contains two feathers of different colors. If you lie in the cradle and recount one of your memories, the memory will disappear from your mind.
The Gate: A tall, dark room with a tall, dark gate. There’s a normal exit to the side that you really should take instead. Ignore the tall gate. There is nothing behind it worth seeing. There is nothing behind it you want to see. There’s seven great stone locks, and all the keys have been hidden and broken and destroyed. (Behind the door is tiny pamphlet of memetic curses wrapped in rose petals the size of wagon wheels. Reading it grants visions of the future (advantage on all rolls) and sets your health to 0 for as long as you know the secret. If you tell someone else the secret, you no longer know the secret. Alternatively, it causes instantaneous brain death, depending on your DM style.)

Whenever the party searches a room for the first time in the Mind Palace, they find a stone key. They can also find stone keys in the bellies of monsters, or in unique rooms.

The Monsters

The upper levels of the Mind Palace are, for the most part, as they were during Belliserum’s life: immaculate, structured, and full to bursting with concrete information. The deep palace, however, is dirty, disorganized, and overrun with concepts and emotions given form. This is what happens to information in the Mind Palace when it decays: between an illegible jumble and nothingness, the idea begins to revolt against its slow demise and leaps from a symbolic existence to a literal one.

Down in the deep palace, where the decay is most prevalent, there are very few salvageable memories. What remains of the place is overrun with instincts, primal urges, and reflexes made manifest. That doesn’t mean its entirely devoid of interest—it’s a curator-free shortcut between most locations, and loose memories tend to fall down there when no one is paying attention—but you’ll want to steer clear unless you have a really good reason to wander into monster territory.

Luckily for the DM, monsters have none of the same qualms about wandering into your territory.

Deep Palace Monsters
Phantom Limb: In the corner of this room is an incomplete suit of armor kneeling on the ground next to a handful of phalanges. The first character to approach it looks down and watches their arm come right off their body, no save. The disembodied limb will hover near its owner, stealing from/attacking them and generally being a nuisance. Damage dealt to the limb is also dealt to the original owner… because its still attached. The monster is a tangle of invisible tentacles spilling out of the armor. It tricks your brain into thinking of your own limbs as a hostile entity in the hopes that you’ll cut it off and leave it behind.
Amygdala: A large, spindly, eight-limbed humanoid with a head like a sopping wet sponge. It waits in the corner of the room, hunched over and shivering with what appears to be excitement, staring at the party with unblinking intensity. It’s deathly afraid of you, and fights like a cornered rat. Behind it is the door to the next room. If you start attacking from outside of its range, it’ll fly into a frenzy and leap at you (HD 8, or whatever seems appropriately unreasonable). Getting its blood on you (its constantly dripping out of its sponge-face) provokes pure fear; save vs. charm or be piss-your-pants terrified of it and anything that reminds you of it, forever.
Earworm: A flying, pink ribbon worm humming at a strange frequency. It hunts by vomiting its branching proboscis in a cone and drinking blood through it. It’s slow, soft, and collapses into brackish sludge when slain. Any living being who hears its song must save vs. charm or become a host for the Earworm. When the host goes to sleep, the earworm rematerializes from their dreams and begins to feed on them as they sleep. The only way to get rid of it for good is to remove it from your memory.
Isnt: You aren’t alone, but nothing is in the room with you. One of Belliserum’s mostly-intentional creations, designed to guard the palace from intruders. It’s an anti-mimetic, a self-censoring idea you can’t think about for more than a few seconds at a time. Stats as whatever you want it to not be. It can only be described in terms of what it is not: It isn’t blue. It isn’t small. It isn’t next to our fighter. It isn’t dead yet. It won’t attack unless you’ve wronged the palace in some way, but you can’t loot this room while it isn’t in a different room. (Pinning down its location is the first challenge, but once your players figure out a strategy, you can assume they know where it is.)
Homunculi: Diminutive humanoids with oversized hands, feet, lips, and genitals. They typically travel in packs of 2d6 and move like toddlers in clown shoes. Whatever they feel, the rest of the world must feel as well: hurting them will make everyone in a 40’ radius hurt, and caressing them will make everyone in a 40’ radius uncomfortable. Constructs are immune to this effect. They’re attracted to light, warmth, music, and smiling. 50% chance to be encountered as 1d4 Homunculi accompanied by a patrol of curators, who find them repulsive and use them as meat shields/anti-human grenades.
Oblitus: An old hag with milky, vacant owls eyes, cackling to no one in particular. Those who meet her gaze are stunned (save vs. charm), standing dazed as their party members appear to be fighting an empty room for no reason (on a successful save, they are slowed instead. make another check each turn they meet the hag's gaze). If all party members are stunned at once, go ahead and fast forward to the moment where the party collectively snaps out of their daze and realizes their pinky fingers have been bitten off. The Oblitus can see into the minds of those she locks eyes with, gaining access to their spells. If you’re harboring a memetic disease/parasite, she’ll take it from you (often to her detriment). The curators can’t see her.

by Brendan McCarthy

 History of the Palace (DM stuff)

The Mind Palace was more than a simple vault. It was capable of learning, constantly sprouting new towers and hallways to accommodate the wizard’s intellectual appetite. Eventually, Belliserum learned to sublet sections of the palace to perform complex calculations for her, allowing the architecture to think without direct supervision. Sometimes, it would even surprise her.

Right before Belliserum’s death, the palace was doing most of her thinking for her. At the time, she likely attributed her sense of self more to the palace than to the decrepit old woman it was attached to, whose gradually encroaching senility she so feared. Those who visited and cared for the physical Belliserum in her final years observed that she spoke of herself in the third person, and of the palace in the first.

It is unclear when exactly the switch occurred, but at some point the Mind Palace disconnected itself from its master. The old woman died peacefully in her sleep.

Some curators attest that Belliserum lives on in the circuitry of her creation, keeping herself busy with logical puzzles and theoretical doomsday devices. It would certainly explain all the new artifacts appearing in the palace; she’s prototyping.

After the death of her body, Belliserum lost her primary means of perceiving the outside world. She’s definitely gone a bit insane after a few centuries of near sensory deprivation. Whether or not she is aware of the adventurers wandering around in her brain is unclear, but the riddles she poses to the palace’s inhabitants seem to suggest that she’s probing them, either for knowledge or entertainment. 

Next Post (hopefully): Curators, Outsiders, Treasures, and The End

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

5 Sewer Rave-inspired monsters to invite to your rad houseparty

Acquired Sewer Rave in an itch.io bundle, and it’s great. There’s something about the discordant rave music, the flat character sprites, the endless teleporting from room to room (all doors, even the ones you just came out of, lead randomly to all other rooms) that's so wonderfully weird.

It sort of reminds me of the “mythic underworld”. Some of the rooms are just tunnels with rats and stinky water, but lots of them are ~special~ or downright batshit, connected to the other rooms not by logic but by association with a goofy, rat-filled, “mythical shithole”.


Possum Queen
HD 2  Defense unarmored  Bite 1d4
Move 25  Int 10  Morale 4
Special speaks with rats

A hairless, bloated possum-human-hybrid, reclining in a pile of trash and wearing a little silver crown. Hangs two different keys around her neck, but will only trade for other unique keys. Loves fruit, disdains gossip, demands respect. Worshipped by rats; if you harm her, be prepared to fight 2d6 rats for every room on this dungeon level.

Hoarding Snake
HD 4  Defense as chain  Bite 1d12
Move 10  Int 12  Morale 6
Special harmless swallow

A massive brown python in a pit full of (illusory) gold. Extremely lethargic, mostly eats greedy humanoids. Hungry, deceitful, and dismissive of anything smaller than her. Complains constantly about the pain of indigestion. Will trade whatever loot the last adventuring party was carrying for meat or companionship. Can hold up to three small humanoids in her gullet harmlessly; a nameless gnome is in there right now, mashing up and cleaning the snake’s food before she swallows it.

The Subway

Not a monster(?), but a room that extends into absolute darkness, impenetrable by torchlight. If you brandish a key, close your eyes, and walk straight into the darkness, you have a 70% chance of finding the matching door at the end of the tunnel, and a 30% chance of finding a totally different, unlocked door at the end of the tunnel. 10% chance the door leads to a lower dungeon level, 5% chance it leads to the surface. Offering a sacrifice to the darkness improves your odds of finding the right door (you’ll hear it eating messily; it sounds like fabric tearing).

HD 3  Defense as leather  Claws 1d6
Move 20  Int 10  Morale 8
Special pocket dimension

Tall anthropomorphic cats with spiral eyes and zero concept of lateral thinking. Pull you into extradimensional mazes to solve puzzles for them, either as a punishment or in trade for something. Solutions to these puzzles are monitored and recorded, then traded between outsiders as currency (basically fantasy bitcoin miner cats). Offer silver tools in trade (silver is an outsider metal), mostly for extremely specific uses like dream extraction and pore filling.

In combat, they’ll try to slap all but one party member into extra dimensional mazes. You can always escape the maze if you have the solution (they don’t make the mazes, just send people into them), but by that time your companion is probably slashed to death. Travel in teams of 1d4+1.

HD 1  Defense unarmored  Bite 1d6
Move 30  Int 14  Morale 2
Special can move through small gaps, repelled by Turn Undead

Appears as a faun with wide eyes and opposable thumbs. Disdains torchlight. Hovers on the periphery of your torch radius, waiting for it to go out. Disintegrates into smoke when cornered/slain, leaving behind a despicable onyx shard which must be consecrated in holy water before the Totekni reforms. Bifurcated lower jaw.

Picks up abandoned loot, so keep an eye on inventory/encumbrance in the deeper levels. The more manufactured goods it picks up, the more human it becomes. Curious and quick to learn. Potentially useful as a native pack mule, although getting the loot back can be tricky. Whispers in the darkness: “share? won’t you? share?”

no description could do justice to stabby possum
no stats, because he'll whup your ass, end of story

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Gorgons & Gazebos

So in a recent post I mused about sonic medusas: a medusa who petrifies with her voice instead of her gaze. Then I mused some more about it, and realized it was a bad idea because that’s basically a siren (the gameplay implication is the same: plug your ears). Then I thought, “wait, why should that stop me?”

I think the answer lies in the name.

Everyone knows who Medusa is, either from the original greek myth or one of its many cultural derivatives. As a culture, we share a general sense of how a monster named “Medusa” looks and behaves. The word “medusa” signifies something outside of the scope of D&D, and we bring those preconceptions with us when we sit down to play. This meta knowledge of medusa and fantasy and the real world is what allows players to fill in the gaps between DM-mediated setting information, allowing everyone at the table to take part in the same campaign setting without enormous discrepancies in perspective.

probably not who you were thinking of

Meta knowledge informs a player’s decisionmaking, consciously or otherwise. So, the moment a player sees a petrified statue in a dungeon and says “oh, its a medusa,” all that prior information jumps to the forefront of their mind and coalesces into in-game decisions. Players who hear the word “medusa” will search for mirrors, ready blindfolds, and keep their guard up around anything vaguely snake-related, regardless of whether their character would think to do these things.

[This is similar to the troll dilemma: anyone with a modicum of experience in the genre will know about and act on a troll’s weakness to fire… even if trolls aren’t weak to fire in your campaign.]

To be clear, I don’t care about players metagaming, which is rarely as big a deal as the DM perceives it to be. What I do care about is players being blindsided by information they would never have thought to question. A sonic medusa is a betrayal to players who hoarded mirrors and blindfolds in anticipation for a traditional medusa, punishing them for using common sense in a fantasy setting.

which of these do you think of when I say "goblin"?
thought so, you dirty so and so

Without clarification, linguistic misunderstandings open rifts between what the player/DM believe is occurring, breaking the fiction. Classic Monster Manual examples include: the gorgon (who is not one of medusa’s sisters but a giant metal bull with petrifying breath) and the lamia (who is a snake-woman pretty much everywhere else and a lion-woman in D&D). The tale of Eric and the Dread Gazebo also applies.

A D&D campaign is a fragile thing, existing only in the shared consciousness of everyone at the table—It’s honestly kind of miraculous that it holds up at all. If communication breaks down, the whole thing can unravel, so proper use of terminology and names and all that boring shit is ESSENTIAL. This is why we use orcs and goblins instead of nothics and akhlut (which are fucking cool, btw, and criminally under-appreciated in fantasy). It’s why we’re chill with owlbears and laugh at octowolves. It’s why dragons are color coded.

To answer my own question: A monster by any other name is NOT the same monster. Don’t call it a medusa unless it petrifies with a gaze. Don’t call it a siren unless it charms with a song. If nothing else does what it does, make up a name, and let players build their own frameworks around it. 


HD 4  Defense as chain  Stiletto 1d6
Move 15  Int 16  Morale 8
Special petrifying song, can cast Message

A bald, scaly woman with no visible ears and boa constrictors instead of legs. Her chin slopes into the neck, which is brimming with dull orange plumage.

Her singing is irreproducible with human vocal chords, punctuated with spitting and hissing, but the song is mesmerizingly beautiful. Mammals who listen are first slowed (no save), then save vs petrification every round afterwards. She can use Message to deliver her petrifying song to a specific target, regardless of whether they are blocking their ears.

Massive inferiority complex or enormous ego, no in-between. Probably the product of some sort of curse (she seems to have once been human, and royalty no less), although she claims there are others “of her kind”. Has a python’s metabolism, requiring no more than a human child’s worth of meat every month or so.

oh, and try an akhlut on for size. they're killer whales who shapeshift into whale-sized wolves
by Alector Fencer


Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Writing Modern Cults for Fantasy Settings

by Jon Torres

Cultists aren’t crazy.

Let’s ignore the devils and demons and minor eldritch monstrosities for the moment. Cults are purely manmade constructs. The only reason a cult exists is because enough ostensibly normal human beings thought it ought to.

This is something that’s lost on most D&D cults. Seems like a lot of folks in Faerun/Eberron/wherever are really down to join doomsday cults with no benefits. The Temple of Elemental Evil is perhaps the most egregious example, with four “unique” factions each trying to bring about their own flavor of apocalypse… because they can? It’s a miracle they manage to attract recruits with all the elemental terrorism going on; each of these cults is a serious PR nightmare.

So if you’ve ever been irked by the state of cultist rhetoric in D&D, or wanted to write/run a cult informed by real world cult psychology, or are just tired of more of the same ToEE nonsense… well you’ve come to the right place. In this post, I’m going to look at cults in the real world, find out what makes them tick, and try to apply my findings to my next campaign.

Joseph Manola already did a fantastic breakdown of D&D cults over on Against the Wicked City. Consider that post required reading for this one.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

1d12 Magic Items That Encourage Teamwork

Try these out in your game if you find yourself/your players forgetting about their +1 swords or whatever.

Sweet Loot
Slingin' Buckler - A circular bronze shield with two crossed swords on its face. The subject of legend among the pirates of Naga’s Choke Bay. Well-balanced for projectile applications (as throwing hammer). When thrown, the wielder may name an ally for the buckler to ricochet towards, regardless of whether it hits its target. The ally can catch the buckler with ease unless their hands are full. If they fail to catch the buckler, it hits them without fail.
Brothers of Tempest - A hammer and short sword that crackle with blue lightning. Said to have been forged instantaneously when two lightning bolts struck the peak of Mt. Tyrem. The weapons are paired, dealing bonus lightning damage if a single creature is struck with both weapons at the same time. If both weapons are being held by a single wielder, they’ll deal the same damage to them. Can also be used to light fires/power electrical circuits (if your setting allows for that).
Collars of the Faithful - Twin silver collars worn around the neck. Traditionally used by the moonfolk to spirit-link with blinkdogs. The items are paired; when one collared creature takes damage, the other is instantaneously teleported to a random unoccupied nearby location.
Hythria’s Splinters - Two wands carved from a dark, near indestructible wood. When activated, the wand/s emit a faint red beam indicating the location of the nearest inactive Hythria’s Splinter. If the wands are used to cast spells simultaneously, one spell (chosen at random) will consume the other and gain its spell levels (i.e. a level 5 fireball and a level 4 magic missile could become a level 9 fireball). When seven Splinters are gathered, something crazy happens.
Mason’s Belt of Becoming - A heavy belt lined with basilisk scales. Stolen centuries ago from the Etched Tomb of Eternity. When activated (command word chosen upon attunement), transforms the wearer into a perfect diamond surrounded by a 10ft cube of inanimate stone. The wearer has some control over the shape of the stone, and may add stairs or engravings as they wish. Touching the diamond reverses the transformation and dispels the stone.
Peluah, the Wooden Quiver - A thick disk of ringed wood on a cord with a target painted on its face. Designed by some sick elvish fuck. Any arrow fired with the intention of striking Peluah will strike it without fail, curving in midair if necessary. If a creature is wearing or carrying Peluah, the arrow will critically strike the creature instead.
Windswept Tower Gate - A tower shield emblazoned with three arrows pointing skyward. A holy weapon once wielded by the siege-knights of Tusikk. Once activated by its wielder (command word chosen upon attunement), the shield accelerates objects in contact with its front face in the direction of the arrows. With a running start, allies can use it to leap great distances.
Quill of Dimensionality Reduction - A brilliant blue quill that writes without ink. Made from the feather of a fourth-dimensional raptor. When a certain glyph (chosen upon attunement) is drawn, the wielder becomes an appropriately-sized two-dimensional ink figure on any surface they can touch with the quill. They can hear and see the outside world perfectly well, but can only move in two dimensions  (see: A Link Between Worlds). They return to the physical world once the glyph is erased by another person.
Veil of Enormous Illusion - A bejeweled headdress made of gossamer golden thread. Originally woven by the giants of Hagra Sha. Disguises its wearer as anything so long as both the wearer and desired disguise are 8 feet tall or taller. The veil does not discriminate between a single very tall adventurer and two adventurers on each other’s shoulders.
The Music Cow - A four-chambered nightmare bagpipe from hell. Said to have belonged to Demogorgon himself. It has two mouthpieces, and requires simultaneous checks and a lot of practice to play “well”. Songs written for the Music Cow have spell-like properties. The sound carries for miles over open land and is literally poisonous to angels/devils.
Bands of Fate Intertwined - Two rings made of red thread and identical sapphire teardrops. Worn by shadeling lovers on the steppes of Ravenna. When two players make simultaneous attacks or skill checks, they may agree to exchange d20 values (after the roll but before hit confirmation). If one player rolls either 20 or 1, both players take that value. If both 20 and 1 are rolled, the rings disintegrate.
Light of Day - A marble-white longsword which glows like the sun. Wielded by three generations of deva royalty in the forgotten age, only to be lost in a feud for inheritance. Its so juiced up with magic that it cuts just as well as a mundane sword from inside the scabbard. Deals a shit-ton of damage, but drawing it from the scabbard blinds the wielder to all living things.
btw i stole this formatting from Grindstone Games. Go check them out.

"dammit, another fucking +1 sword"
by Denman Rooke