Sunday, 19 January 2020

Belswick house rules: lighten up already

After nine months and 13 sessions in Belswick, I'm making some changes to my house rules. Rules overview first, motivation below that. In general, I'm ditching stuff that was a chore to track or that felt like a penalty to the players, and keeping the rules that add to the story.

XP for GP

Will shift to milestone leveling: the group levels up when the DM thinks it's appropriate (mostly after an adventure arc).

Buying status, land and property
Unchanged: you can use your wealth to buy a title, land and property, or outfit a shrine, lab or library.
Shrines and libraries for spellcasters add extra spells on top of what you're already getting for free when you level (see under spellcasters below). Labs add potion recipes, which are about the only magic item you can make yourself.

Doesn't work with milestone leveling and hasn't been used yet. Throw it out. Use the carousing table for big parties or freaky rites when you want a favor from people.

Magic shops

They exist, just not out in every little hamlet. Even out in the wild, there's enough rando wizards, clerics and nobles that you can trade or buy an item if you want to.

Magic item prices
Will keep using the optional price range in DMG p135. Potion prices remain in effect.

  • common: 50-100 gp
  • uncommon: 101-500 gp
  • rare: 501-5000 gp
  • very rare: 5001-50,000 gp
  • legendary: 50,001 gp


Nobles still collect taxes, but I'm not going to bother the PCs with them anymore. We're not playing Dread Accountants of Mordor here. I'll assume that players dutifully pay taxes to their lord and tithes to the Church, and that any treasure they find already has taxes deducted.

Tax evasion
If you want to dodge your taxes, you can add 10-80% to any value found. However, this is also the chance that you draw the tax collector's attention, who will take the entire value you were trying to keep out of their sight.

Healing, resting and Death & Dismemberment
Unchanged. Death and Dismemberment stays in effect. Short and long rests stay as follows:
  • Long rest: 8h comfortable rest and 1 ration to heal up to half your hit point maximum and a level of exhaustion.
  • Short rest: either 15m and 1/2 ration for d4 hp, or 1hr and 1/2 ration for d6+level hp (1/day only).


As in the player handbook. Ability bonuses add to the ability instead of giving a reroll, cantrips work an unlimited times per day, darkvision allows dim perception in utter darkness.

Existing characters
You can now add the benefits of your subrace. Humans and animal folk add 3 ability points to 3 different abilities: don't add these to your two highest stats (I assume you already boosted those at character generation).

All classes now available, including formerly prohibited ones like monk, paladin and sorcerer.
Subclasses/archetypes/feats now available without finding a mentor. Of course you can always work with a mentor for flavor.

As in the player handbook, including each class's rules on (not) needing a spellbook.
Cantrips now function as such from level 1 instead of taking a spell slot to power.

Revert to standard rules (d8 hit dice, armor proficiencies, spellcasting). You still need to be a member of a holy order.

Wizards stay bound to their wizarding college via their debt. Learning spells in addition to those you gain for free still costs time and money: (50 gp+2 hours)/spell level, but you no longer need to check Arcana to successfully learn a spell. Wizard spells still only run up to level 6 (higher level spells prohibited and suppressed by the Church of the Authority).

Unchanged: do favors for your patron in return for quick power.


XP for GP and taxes
This one started to creak pretty fast. I like the idea of nudging the players to explore and loot in order to level, I really do. It also meant that if I wanted them to be able to level regularly, I needed to add heaps of gold and other treasure to the adventures. Even with taxes, it was a bit ludicrous that common farmers brought home a couple of coppers, low nobles were scrounging for 12 gp per month, and the party was pulling hundreds of gold pieces from the ground in a starter dungeon.

I soon started to add favours and blackmail material that had a certain monetary value, but still this just ended up being a lot of work to plan out. Common magic item prices being cheap-ish didn't help either. I could've overhauled those prizes as well, but where does it end? I'm looking for a comparatively easy game to plan and play, and loot planning was becoming a chore.

I might use monster XP as a guideline to stocking adventures, but that's more an aid to the DM than something the players need to track.

Buying status, land and property
Fun way to tie players to the world around them. It stays in!

Doesn't work with milestone leveling and hasn't been used yet. Throw it out. Use the table for big parties or freaky rites when you want a favor from people.

No magic shops
I like that you can't just shop for legendary items in a random village, but magic shops are a cool way to add some flavor to the game. Still won't be like shopping at Walmart, more like having an expert craftsman who can throw something together for you.

The standard D&D rules have magic items as "priceless", i.e. no magic shops. I used the optional pricing rules because under my XP-for-GP rule, only actual value translates to XP, so I needed to find out how much that magic armor was worth.

Still in effect, but behind the scenes. This is just easier on the DM.

Tax evasion
Instead of a deduction on value earned through hard dungeoneering, now you can choose to take a risk and earn a little something extra.

Healing, resting and Death & Dismemberment
Death and Dismemberment stays in effect. I find it hilarious and horrific, while not being more deadly than the standard "death save" rule. In fact, I think it may be less deadly. 

What's more, the Death & Dismemberment table is driving stories: our cleric/bard/warlock is now cursed after an infusion of negative energy and needs to find high magic or an angel's love to be cured. Cool stuff - I'm keeping this over the anemic "three death saves or your die" rule.

As in the player handbook. I had tweaked this because I wanted stats to be lowish, darkness to be a real problem, magic rare and all that. After 12 sessions, I feel like giving the players a little boost.

Same as under races: I'd reduced power levels across the board to make people earn their proper use of cantrips, etc etc. Now that I've gotten the hang of the system, I'm happy to restore all this to the regular rules.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Oneshot report: Shadow of the Crystal Palace

Shadow of the Crystal Palace! I reverse engineered this Call of Cthulhu oneshot from the Critical Role oneshot by the same name, for a game with my wife and her colleagues. Six odd fellows enter into the annual cat exhibition as a way to enter the darkened Crystal Palace museum to find a valuable relic. The more they explore, the more strange things they find...

A great game, even though I only managed to drive one character temporarily insane and everyone made it out alive as the Crystal Palace burned to the ground! Of course, 'everyone' includes an ancient entity now possessing a herd of prize cats and rampaging through the London fog. Still, all the surviving players have earned a free reroll for the next game we'll play.

Movie: map of the Crystal Palace on foamboard, with tiny magnets hidden inside. The Jade Planchette held a piece of flux detector foil: micro-capsules with particles that move in magnetic fields to darken the foil. Too bad that the players didn't discover this in-game, as this would have helped them to find a ton more of wacky items. A great prop idea mentioned in the Critical Role blog about this game's props that I just had to copy!

How on earth did that strange little American know when I was going to burgle his bedroom? The blackmailing scoundrel promises that he'll keep my nightly activities a secret from mama and papa, if I retrieve a certain casket for him from the Crystal Palace exhibition space. Hopefully this won't be a drag. Though the airing of my deepest secret would be detrimental to my good name, and by extension my parents', the tedium of every day life and its endless soirees is worse.

These people with their cats are almost enough to give me apoplexy, and the organiser takes the cake with his monotonous drivel. The tap on my shoulder by the handsome captain Bentley Badger is a welcome reprieve.

Mr Merriweather, and his American accent, greet us - a strange group of people that could only have been gathered by such a strange man. He once again explains the goal of this mission - find a casket made of soapstone with inscriptions - and we move into brief introductions. No time for niceties apparently.

Imagery on the table as we started off. The left image is of the Crystal Palace in its hey day back in 1851. The newspaper clipping uses a photo of one of the Critical Role players to sneakily introduce this player character-turned-NPC due to an absent player.

Badger's Burglars

  • Capt. Bentley Badger - ex-British Cavalry captain, now butler and manservant of Mr. Rupert Merriweather. Bad memories of the cave creature with shining eyes that shattered his leg and sanity in the Second Anglo-Afghan War
  • Hanako 'Hana' Hayashi - socialite daughter of the Japanese ambassadors to the UK, secretly a thrill thief and looking for an intriguing electrical generator of Japanese design
  • Ida Codswell - electrical engineer who is along for any mechanical issues - and to steal back the advanced Stirling engine model her former boss stole from her
  • Dr. Mason Pocket - disgraced historian at the British Museum, wrote a delusional pamphlet about shadow entities and arranged the paperwork to move the casket to the Crystal Palace
  • Septimus Goodfellow - celebrity spiritualist and expert in all matters occult, along to provide security against any entities from the other side. Secretly a con artist called Archie Orlick with zero occult abilities but mucho interest in talking the rich and gullible out of their money and secrets

One player couldn't make it. I turned the last of the six pregen characters into an NPC stuck in the hellish spirit mirror trap that is the Crystal Palace:

  • Alexandra O'Neill - famous traveler and adventurer in the Orient, looking for a jade planchette to help the monks of Likir track down hungry ghosts.

The first barrier to be overcome was the guard, my first instinct was to sneak, but the talkative academic (he would not shut up about this pamphlet he had written..what a bore) had the right paperwork and browbeat the poor man with inane babbling. We were quickly let through.

The first thing that is very clear is the lack of any organisation in the Crystal Palace. The place is a mess, and it needs to open soon..wondering if they will make it for opening day. Boxes are everywhere, and there is no system to discern, and the atmosphere is so weird that I think I see ghosts...I'm sure there is someone sitting at the desk in the Babylonian court. Terribly creepy and not at all boring.

The Automated Scribe. If the players had experimented with it, I had a bunch of fucked-up fortune cookies ready. But the players bolted at the sight of this thing's silhouette, sitting stock still in a darkened room. Can't imagine why.

Electrical Arcade

We locate the Electrical Arcade and I hunt for the Elekiter. Meanwhile, Ida is jubilant to retrieve her stolen electrical generator.

Under the elekiter - yes I opened the glass show case - I found a puzzle box, and opening it (an easy task) revealed an obsidian mirror. Dr Pocket immediately burst into one of his inane spells of academic babbling at the sight of the mirror. The accompanying text in Japanese (writting by a person from china and translated in to Japanese by what must be a brit) reveals that this mirror "reflects the wish for your safety". The captain manages to find something else in the box, a roman key of sorts - perhaps we will find something in the roman court that can be opened by this key.

Two-compartment puzzle box and a 1800s mirror we found in the flea market. Rolled up paper with Japanese text courtesy of Google Translate.

Looking into the mirror, I had a glimpse of fingers reaching scared me terribly, I don't know what is going on with me this night.

Our resident spiritualist Mr Septimus Goodfellow - terribly handsome and walks the right circles - briefly inspects the mirror and immediately is asaulted by - what looks like - the ghost of Alexandra O'Neil, she disappeared quite suddenly from the face of the earth. Hopefully she is still alive, she would be a hoot at parties.

Alexandra seemed to be very adamant about us moving to one of the bigger windows in the arcade, and sure enough when we did she appeared there. By breathing fog on the windows and writing on them we were able to communicate with her.

Alexandra: Can you see me? burglary accident - hungry ghosts - need to get an item to Tibet

I immediately try to write something back, the glass however feels very gooey, like I would have little trouble trying to pass through to where Alexandra is, but I steady myself and press on.

us:what item
A: jade planchett 
us: where
A: somewhere, looked in all courts

she mimics the size of it, around handsized but she hasn't seen it.

us: how did you get there
A: walked into glass wall or door in the Egyptian court

We need to be wary, if this is indeed real. Part of me hopes we can help her get back to the real world...if indeed this is not some mass hysteria.

The players promise to get Alexandra out of the mirror, but first, their mission! However, in the excitement of the night, nothing comes of the solemn vow.

Office space

There is currently no idea in the group where the casket could be, so to the offices we go, in the hope that the right papers are found quickly.

None of our group seems to be able to pick a simple lock. After a bit of pushing and a totally uncalled for comment by Captain Badger - he was clearly informed by his employer on my extracurricular activities - I was able to open the door. Looking for the papers looked like it was going to be a tediuous and terribly soul destroying, thankfully Dr Pocket knew what he was looking for and was quick about it. Ida had much less luck and managed to mess up the papers and was not able to find whatever it was she was looking for; documents to prove that her competitor Jasper Stagwells had entered her electrical generator into the Crystal Palace exhibits under his own name.

Into the Courts again

We quickly move on to the Greek and Roman courts, and indeed a keyhole is found in the roman court and a red stone of power is revealed - cue the good doctor and one of his academic babblings. Septimus senses (very theatrically, how immensely thrilling) that the casket has passed through the Greek court, however no trace is found there.

Septimus is a fucking fraud, and I love how he's milking the creepy atmosphere! 

Coming to the Egyptian court tension rises, this is the place that the image of Alexandra claims she disappeared from. We find something that could potentially be such a doorway.

The doctor appears to be mesmerised by the statue of Isis with its head-mounted sun of black glass, however he is roused by the captain and whisked off to check the bazaar for the casket. They come back with the Jade planchette instead, which they find in one of the exhibition cases around the fountain area.

There seems to be a strange attractive force between the planchette and the obsidian sun on top of the Isis statue. Septimus takes a closer look but is not immediately forthcoming with what he sees. (later he confided that he saw the most disturbing thing of gathered people that wanted to come through to our reality, a hungry people that meant to do bad things once set free)

Lucky fuckers that they are, the players avoid my nudging to steal the obsidian mirror. I'd have had it shatter and unleash a sea of shadow ghosts on them from any shadow in the darkened building.

Casket found

We continue our search for the casket and eventually find it in the Nineveh court. Between the stacks of cats, all looking at us with their eerie glowing eyes, we finally found the Casket we'd been looking for! I wanted to get the casket back to Merriweather very quickly, but my curiosity got the better of me. I could not resist to open the lid of the casket, it was almost like it wanted me to.

A big cloud of mummy dust spews out of the casket and envelops us before moving to the cats who inhale it. The cats high on the mummy dust go literally insane and try to claw their way out of their cages. I have never seen anything like it, and it highly motivated me to get the casket out of the museum and back to Merriweather. This is most definitely not boring.

We tried to get the casket out, but the cats are organising and try to get our lights. We are attacked and I have sustained some heavy scratches. Badger throws down his lantern and sure enough, the wooden floor catches fire. 

First cats, now smoke and soot. This dress is done for.

Make for the exit!

When they attack Septimus, who carries the light, captain Badger finally showed the skill of the army man he is and fights them off with the sword that was originally his cane - what an exciting piece of weaponry. Dr Pocket and me are carrying the casket, but I trip, damn these shoes. With a feat of immense strength the doctor carries the casket out of the Nineveh court by himself. Very impressive.

We make a beeline for the guard post and the exit that has the coach - hopefully - ready for us. The guard post is empty, and strangely enough it looks like the guard left his post quite abruptly.

The immediacy of the cats prowling around us, just out of sight, in the shadows makes us run even faster. However seeing the guard standing just ahead looking out of the window like nothing is happening startles us. What is more, he does not appear to have a reflection in the very window he is looking out of. It is very unnerving.

Our exit door is locked, but with a little luck I manage to open it. What would they have done without me? The promised coach was indeed there, we deliver the casket and the driver takes all of us back to a location of our choosing.. Time for a stiff drink and some time to put this behind me. It was not boring, but I'll be glad if I never have to go through such an ordeal ever again.

In hindsight, I overestimated both the size of the elekiter, and the opportunity to return to the electric arcade...circumstances arose, as they say. Fortunately the museum burned down for the most part and thus no one will have the elekiter. And the favor for Mr Merriweather means my secret identity is still safe. All in all, a good night!