The Biblyon Broadsheet

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons
Biblyon, Highland
Friday, May 24, 1985
Jerry Stratton, Ed.
The well of life: the revolution of reliable water—Saturday, May 23rd, 2015
Fréjus aqueduct arches

Impressive. If you didn’t know what it was for and you lived in medieval times, what stories would you create around these arches?

Outside of oxygen, water is probably the most necessary ingredient to human life. You can go without food for three weeks or more, though you’ll be weak at the end of it; if you run out of water you’ll die in three to five days, and you’ll be too disabled to survive after two. In hot or arid environments, you can die in less than a day.

Locating sources of safe water has been part of the human condition for our entire history. In a world without tap water, finding water and making it safe to drink often consumed our lives.

Kathy Jesperson, in the Summer 1996 OnTap for the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse, quotes from The Quest for Pure Water: The History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century about water treatment from 4,000 years ago:

The Sus’ruta Samhita, Sanskrit writings about medical concerns, dates from approximately 2000 B.C. and offers evidence that water treatment may well be as ancient as humans are. The writings declare that “impure water should be purified by being boiled over a fire, or being heated in the sun, or by dipping a heated iron into it, or it may be purified by filtration through sand and coarse gravel and then allowed to cool.”

As long as you’re going to the trouble to boil your water, you might as well make it more interesting by adding barley or other grains to it. This turns it into a very simple beer. Beer has been part of our daily diet since the time of the Egyptians. From the beginning of recorded history to the Middle Ages, brewing beer was a part of the homemaker’s chores. In the Middle Ages hops were used to keep it fresh during transport. As brewers learned more about hopped beer, beer lasted longer, and a trade in beer became possible.

In A world lit only by fire: the medieval mind and the Renaissance, William Manchester describes how common beer and wine were:

Archery contest—Saturday, May 9th, 2015
Woman with a bow

While our group was in Biblyon preparing for a foray into some ruins, we had a player character compete in an archery contest. Upon discovering that Biblyon ran an archery contest every autumn, the player decided that their character needed to take part, and they postponed the adventure a few game-world days so as to stay in town for the contest.

How difficult is it to hit a target in Gods & Monsters? A real target, the kind attached to hay bales?

The first thing to note is that this is not a conflict. It’s a contest, not just in name but in game rules. So it’s going to be an ability roll, against agility. Hitting a small but unmoving target is very easy, so the bonus will be +4. Range, however, is going to make a difference, and in this case the obstacle size will be the range of the bow used, 20 yards for a normal bow. If it’s twenty yards or more, there’s a penalty of one; forty or more, a penalty of two, 80 or more, a penalty of three, and so on.

For warriors, their Fighting Arts field will apply one way or another. A third-level warrior with a 10 agility shooting at a small target 40 yards away will need 10+4–2+3, or 15 or less, to hit.

Players will likely want their character to take some time, going for the +1 for waiting. It is, of course, very impressive to not wait if the shot is successful.

At these high numbers, bonuses to hit make a big difference. The difference between 19 or less and 20 or less is the difference between “might fail” and “won’t fail”. Because of this, higher level warriors and agile characters will be much better at archery contests.

A quality weapon can make a difference, too: bows with longer ranges will gain penalties more slowly.

Because this is not a conflict, but rather a contest, skill at it won’t be limited to warriors. Warriors can, of course, use their Fighting Arts field either with the appropriate bow skill or the weapon fluency skill. But non-warriors may well have an archery skill in Athletic Arts. Their archery skill is worthless in combat, but will help them in sporting events.

This is likely part of the appeal of impromptu jousts among warriors: those early tourneys involved real combat and thus separated the warrior from the dilettante.

Contests are pretty freeform in the Gods & Monsters rules, leaving the details up to you to tailor to the contest in question. I can think of two obvious ways to model an archery contest.

Skin a module 3: Thracia to The Lost City—Saturday, May 2nd, 2015
Ostrusha Mound fresco

(Ivo E. Stankov, CC BY-SA 2.5)

When I first started gaming back in the early eighties, I heard about Judges Guild, but I never saw anything from them. We had no game store near us until my cousins started a game rack in their parents’ dime store, and that contained mostly, if not all, TSR. By the time I got to college, Judges Guild had already lost their license to produce official AD&D products1 and had pretty much stopped publishing. I’m not sure I saw any Judges Guild stuff in the otherwise well-stocked game store on the Ithaca Commons.2

But I had heard about them—supposedly amazing adventures such as Dark Tower, Tegel Manor, and The Caverns of Thracia. I had dabbled in buying gaming stuff over the Internet in the old days of Usenet, when I picked up a zine or two and managed to score an OD&D box set. But it wasn’t until the dawn of eBay that I began to discover these old treasures. And then Noble Knight became a reliable source as well, a kind of Mile High Comics for gamers.

Most of my changes for Thracia (PDF File, 727.3 KB) are changes in names; I added a reason for the lizard-king to be waiting: he’s studying one of the Tablets of Enki. And the means that player characters arrive is by means of the teleport pads; once, all the ancient temples were connected; the controls have been destroyed, but the controls were merely mankind imposing their will on the divine. The pads themselves work still. So they enter the caverns by way of a teleport pad inside of the Temple of Apuiporo in the Yellow Forest on The Road.

Athena became Ishtar, Zeus Dupater, Apollo Sin, and Thanatos Enki, who appears draped in seaweed. These gods are all associated with the older religions, and Thracia is part of the empire of the first city of man. Lizard-men became saurians, not a big change, but the gnolls and dog-brothers became degenerate mananubi, the servants of the dragon Tifá. I already knew that these Anubis-styled creatures wandered the wastes outside of the City, and wanted to introduce them before they reached the City.

Winged Victory became Tifá’s servant, the demon Ebeorie from Helter Skelter.

Skin a Module 2: The Fell Pass becomes Mansio Solis—Saturday, April 25th, 2015
The Claws of Heaven

One of the most surprising moments for me when reading through the Dragon Magazine CD-ROM collection was an adventure in issue 32, The Fell Pass, written by a San Diegan named Karl Merris. I have never met Karl Merris, and the issue was slightly before my time, but I had been through an adventure called Fell Pass and it had been run by a San Diegan. It was in college, too many decades ago, and I was playing a cleric of Ra named Praxos.1

Our Fell Pass resembled Karl Merris’s only in that it was a short cut through a mountain populated with strange creatures. But since our college DM was someone I still gamed with, I asked, and sure enough he knew the guy.

So I determined to run that adventure relatively straight. The chance came when the player characters boarded a train, and the line ended at a chasm in front of a mountain. I needed a mountain with a desert on one side and a jungle on the other, along an old road known as Highway 49. The Fell Pass became an old way station along that road from a culture steeped in the divine and the technological.

If this sounds a bit like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, it freaks me out a bit, too. While I had read the first book in the series before creating the world of Highland, Sai King had taken forever to get the others out, and they are the ones The Road resembles. Even now, reading The Wind Through the Keyhole with its forest of gigantic trees and swampland abutting an ancient bridge over a chasm with tentacles reaching up, and the old way station on the other side I wonder what common source we are obviously stealing from. Mind you, my bridge went through what I call the abyss, but King has that covered too: he’d call it a thinny, and no doubt after the world moves on from young Tim’s time, that chasm will get a thinny.

But, back to reskinning The Fell Pass. This is the most extensive reskin I’ve done, mainly because this was a complicated adventure with warring factions, and I needed reminders of who related to what. The hardest to deal with was the Beholder. Beholders are powerful enough as is, but with minions they’re a real pain. One of the things I did to help was draw a diagram of the Beholder and the area of effect of each of its eyes.

First, The Fell Pass became The Station of the Sun (PDF File, 2.3 MB), or, in the original language of the City, Mansio Solis. You can see that I’ve expanded a bit on the area of the road before the original module.

Three ways to skin a module 1: from Chagmat to Dowanthal Peak—Saturday, April 18th, 2015
Sakmat sigil

Beware the octagon!

I have always enjoyed modifying adventures for cross-genre and cross-campaign use. My second article for Dragon Magazine back in January of 1991 was on reskinning adventures for cross-genre purposes. The basic idea is simple: identify the central characters, names, and items, and replace them with meaningful genre-specific replacements from your own campaign. The same works when using adventures in your own campaign that aren’t cross-genre. Most of the time, you can do this by printing out the PDF and scribbling in the margins (or, if you’re really old-school, by scribbling in the margins of the original).

In our last campaign, I re-used three adventures that were major enough to involve a serious reskinning: Chagmat, The Fell Pass, and The Caverns of Thracia. I re-used these as Dowanthal Peak, The Broken Road, and The Lost City.

Larry DiTillio’s original Chagmat was set in the town of Byr. In Dowanthal Peak (PDF File, 786.1 KB) I replaced Byr with Weaving, to add to the spider-motif. And it is right next to Michael Malone’s The Wandering Trees, which is now set in the weaving wood, also playing on the name.

Because I’m skinning this adventure specifically for my group, it also uses player character names when appropriate—Alvin is the warrior of the group, and the obviously big man.

I’ve converted the language in the original to match the language of the underground in our game. This paid off in spades later, when the mage’s player took the time to decipher the code based on learning a similar language. He recognized that the symbols matched those from a different language, replaced the symbols phonetically, and successfully deduced the trigger words for the Belt of Walking! You can see more of this language in The World of Highland Guidebook.

There are several question marks throughout the reskin. These are things I didn’t need to know right away, either because they pertained more to The Wandering Trees—such as the notes on the Great Ash—or because I didn’t think it worth figuring it out right away. If the question marks are still there, that means I was right. The vision of the ground cracking beneath them, for example, eventually came to light in the mountains to the northwest when they met an ancient oracle.

Drinking from the campaign firehose—Wednesday, April 15th, 2015
Chariot of the Sun

This looks more like the chariot of the moon to me, Giulio.

Here’s a neat variation for The Vale of the Azure Sun based on a trick from Josh Gregal: for characters who take a ride with the Blue Sun, rather than a perception roll to know any answer, give them thirty seconds with all of your campaign notes: the Blue Sun adventure itself, all of the adventures they’ve already run through, whatever world notes or book you use, and all of the adventures you’re thinking of running. If you keep a campaign diary, include that as well.

In Josh’s game, this was the result of “releasing hundreds of years of magical witch smoke at once” by “[boiling] the tent of a powerful witch in order to make an ingredient of Milk of the Crone”.

…the cauldron they were using grew a face, arms and legs, stood up, started screaming “oh no!” and busting through walls. Since I figured they would chase it down to subdue it, I prepared a random table to determine what happens when somebody gets the cauldron’s liquid on them. I stole an idea from The Dungeon Dozen by Jason Sholtis and let a player peruse all of my notes (campaign binder, a tablet with all my stuff in Evernote, and the pocket notebook I carry with me) for 30 seconds after some fluid got in her character’s mouth.

The effect was like drinking from a firehose and I don't think she actually gleaned any info!

The point here is to emulate dangerous cosmic insight by inundating them with far too much stuff in far too little time. If some of your notes are handwritten and your handwriting sucks, all the better!

Bronto burgers for everyone!—Sunday, April 12th, 2015
Grinning Brontosaurus

Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

In my article “The Yellow Forest” for Fight On! issue 9, one of the encounters under the dinosaur breakout table was d6 brontosauri. The editors changed this to d6 apatosauri, keeping the faux-plural but using the generally-accepted replacement of the great thundering brontosaurus with the deceptive apatosaurus.

It’s a disappointment I’ve learned to live with. Ever since discovering that the brontosaurus, the great thunder lizard, never existed, I’ve refused to believe it, refused to replace it in my childish thoughts with the deceptive lizard.

Now I have been vindicated:

After spending more than a century dismissed as a mislabeled Apatosaurus, Brontosaurus may be getting its identity back… The original Brontosaurus excelsus (meaning “thunder lizard”) was named in 1879. But in 1903, paleontologists decided that Brontosaurus excelsus was so similar to species in the Apatosaurus genus that it belonged there as well.

A small number of paleontologists have been campaigning for the dinosaur’s restoration since the 1990s, says Mossbrucker. “I certainly agree with the analysis that Brontosaurus excelsus deserves to be recognized as its own genus.”

The paleontologists pored over 81 skeletons of diplodocids and related dinosaurs, comparing more than 400 features in the animals’ bones. Instead of taking any species for granted, the team tallied up similarities between individual specimens.

“We can see which specimens group together and have particular characteristics that help identify them as a species,” says study coauthor Emanuel Tschopp, a paleontologist at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Monte de Caparica, Portugal. In most cases, the original designations about species held true, he said.

But the original Brontosaurus was distinct enough to deserve its own genus separate from Apatosaurus.

I’ve stuck with the old name because brontosaurus is so much richer a name than apatosaurus. Even its derivation evokes the image of great monsters thundering across the prehistoric world. The derivation of apatosaurus just confirms that scientists are easily confused.

So welcome back, brontosaurus. I knew you had it in you. It is somewhat ironic that this news comes out just a few days after I picked up a “definitive” guide to prehistoric life. In science, a few days is the difference between definitive and overturned.

Now if we can just restore Pluto to its former glory…

Prehistoric life: The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth—Thursday, April 9th, 2015

The opabinia, an invertebrate from the Cambrian, looks impressive here but was only a few inches long. No reason to tell your players that, however.

I remember devouring the dinosaur books in the local library while waiting for my parents to pick me up after school. When I got into D&D they formed a third of the triumvirate of go-to monsters in my adventures: skeletons, spiders, and dinosaurs.

I think one of the reasons I loved Larry DiTillio’s Chagmat from Dragon 63 is the unwritten assumption that the bonesnapper came from some underground lost world beneath the mountains (which, in my reskin, became an underground world ruled by intelligent spiders).

So I’ve been on the lookout for a good dinosaur compendium for a while, no longer having access to the books in that long-ago childhood hangout.

I found Prehistoric life at the Barnes & Noble for DePaul University while wandering Chicago a few weeks ago. At $12.98 it was a no-brainer to pick it up. It’s huge, and lavishly illustrated. And while I have no idea if the strange illustrations match prehistoric reality, they’re perfect for mysterious and dangerous fantasy monsters.

The book is organized by time period, with a short description of the era’s climate, and a drawing of the shape of the continents. Both plants and animals are covered: within each era, the sections are plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates. Some lovely 10–20 meter tall ferns from the Carboniferous are described, for example.

Some of the names ought to inspire some unrelated fantasy creatures, for example, the “Serpent Rock” formed by the Carboniferous coral Siphonophyllia. That’s just the name of one of the fossils, but I can feel my subconscious already trying to churn out a monster called a serpent rock.

The description themselves are fairly sparse. Size is given, for example, but not mass. There is often a comparative silhouette next to a human to give a visual idea of a vertebrate’s size.

Older posts.