Friday, September 27, 2019

The forest: trees, plants, herbs and more

As a dungeon, the wilderness is a potential source of great adventures and resources
Dressing up the wilderness is sometimes tough, but we're lucky enough that the OSR blogs provide plenty of random generators and materials.

I like this first link very much. It contains a couple of nice tables ("Application/Delivery" and "Form/Part of Plant") which can serve as a useful reference even if you don't want to roll.
Also, the big d100 table contains a lot possible names, possible locations/hits about the presence of the plant (where to find it) and its effects.
The only drawback, with so many random options, is that you must keep a record of each combination, as they come into play, so that you will have some consistency when these plants will come up again.
Also, note the suggestion at the beginning of the article: maybe use herbs and natural healing as the only source of healing for a low-fantasy campaign.

Herb & Plant Generator
by ktrey
Here’s another bit of Google+ Content that I threw together a while back and forgot to share here. It's a Herb & Plant Generator that I whipped up based on some scattered notes and previous practices. I'm sure that Rolemaster 2nd Edition's juicy “list of Herbs, Breads, and Poisons” provided some inspiration here. I seem to recall it had some stern admonishments against having only magical sources of healing in your campaign, and since I acquired Character Law years before coming across Spell Law, for the longest time Herbs and Natural Healing were the only systems I had.


From the same author, here is another random generator, this time only with names and trees.

See The Forest For The Trees
by ktrey
Here's another handy-dandy table for adding some more botanical flavor to your fantasy wildernesses.

The next link shows different approach, and while I don't want to sound too critic, I think this might go a bit too far with details, at the expense of usability. The thing is, this page with many herbs is the material of a large campaign, and while I am sure it serves the GM well, it is hard to use for others (unless someone is willy to put in several hours of study).
Some issues that I see with this sort of long, detailed lists:
- It is difficult to find something right away (what herb will someone give you to cure you?)
- It takes time to write it (if you want to make your own), it is very hard to customize (with so many entries, it's hard to understand if changing something has an unwelcome effect on something else), it is very long to study and almost impossible to reference on the fly unless you're already familiar with it

On the other hand, if you simply open it up, read a description or two, and manage to pick up something for your own campaign, and use it as it is or with a little change or two, it might serve as a valid source.

Beasts and Herbs
by Dragonsmarch
Descriptions of trees, plants, herbs and mushrooms are given wonderful attention in modern computer RPGs.  This same amount of detail and immersion can be lacking in descriptions written for table top games.  I was inspired by video games like Skyrim and Witcher 3 to create my own plant and flora descriptions for the Dragonsmarch.
I try to incorporate these plants, trees and animal descriptions into the wilderness notecards I create for each type of terrain.  Not in every case but at least in half of the cards I include a description of a useful plant or some interesting group of trees whose bark or wood or sap has some special value or application in potion making, herb lore or adventuring in general.
Abbot's Thistle
A broad bushy thistle which grows in hills and grasslands.  The edges of the leaves of this plant are tinged a brilliant crimson.  Abbot's thistle is valuable in potions which lessen the potency of natural toxins and poisons.  While this plant grows wild it can be difficult to find as it is a favorite food for a number of grazing animals in the region.
Value: 1 Gathering = 2 Plants = 1 electrum piece
Apple Leaf
Apple Leaf is a form of tobacco widely grown throughout the lands North of the Sea of Harlots.  It is relatively inexpensive.  50 units is usually packed into a cask and sold at a value of 25 gold pieces or about 5 silver pieces a unit.  A unit is sufficient to pack the pipe of a human one time or the pipe of a small folk or dwarf twice.  Apple Leaf has a pleasant apple aroma but does not hang as well as the more expensive forms of pipe weed for smoke ring competitions.
1 Gathering = 5 Units = 2 Gold and 5 Silver
Butcher's Grass
Butcher's Grass grows in broad sharp stalks often as tall as a man's hip.  The edges of these sturdy blades of grass are a light green but the center of the grass stalk in a deep red growing more black in the center.  Butcher's Grass grows native in the far East, in places like The Necrogarchy of Leng or the Ancient Kingdom of Petrurias.  It is believed that seeds of this grass were carried in the rotted armor and rotten clothing of the undead army driven into the Kingdom of Daria by the Necromasters during the Nightshade War.  Today Butcher's Grass can be found in scattered patches wherever the ground is soft and damp and where shade is abundant.  Butcher's Grass does not grow in dry or sunny locations well.  
Butcher's Grass is tough and resists cold and even the heat created by a natural fire.  Harvested with a scythe it can have the sharp edges trimmed away and be woven into sturdy baskets or twisted to create fibers for making rope.  
Butcher's Grass has a reputation for growing where a considerable amount of blood has been shed, usually through some violent deed.  It is believed to commonly grow around gallows or in patches where battles have been fought.
Herb Lore - When boiled Butcher's Grass releases an agent which can add to the potency of salves and potions which heal wounds.  Herbal wound salves and potions generally add 1 or 2 points to the rate of natural healing over the course of a full days rest with limited or no physical activity.
Value: 1 Gathering = 3 to 5 plants = 3 silver pieces.

Note that each of the over 70 plants mentioned in the Dragonsmarch campaign site, can be combined with another. The author provides a table with all interactions, and with effects such as:
- NA
- Curative
- Sublimate
- Fulminate
- Reagent
- Additive

I guess NA is a valid result (you can't mix everything) and the others follow a regular pattern. This means that while a long time was spent writing up descriptions, the effects and combinations are somehow random (they might not make sense).
Still, I like the idea of combining more herbs for an effect, instead of having a single plant or herb have a specific effect.
The idea of combining elements is what makes alchemy and brewing potions different than simply finding a healing plant which alone functions as an magical healing potion.

This is another example of how multiple plants and herbs combine their effects together.
This blog post is a little more precise in terms of rules and describes clearly how to find and gather herbs (called reagents if they have magical powers), presents a table with the difficulty of finding such reagents (a target number for a d6 roll), and describes how to combine them to have a specific spell.

Reagents in Wilderland
by Josh
[...] This post is concerned with enchantments. That is, the type of spells one might work if one is a magical professional, i.e., a wizard. These are intentional workings of magic, separate from the natural magic a supernatural creature may intuitively possess or ritual expressions of magical craft.  
It does not seem that Gandalf casts his spells one after the other. There seems some limiting factor as to when he unleashes his potency. Vancian spell casting (for all its charms) seems inappropriate for the Wilderlands setting. Therefore, what is the limiting factor? 
Therefore, we limit enchantment to the tools that the wizard has at his disposal. It's the old D&D inventory management sub-system: a pack can only haul so much, and wizards have additional inventory management concerns. 
The magic of the Wilderland is hidden in its wild spaces. Wizards collect the strange, the uncanny, the weird, and the unpleasant to weave enchantments.
Reagents are items that, at their basic level, have small magic. When combined together, however, their alchemical potential become unlocked. 
The known reagents are nine herbs, and are:
1- Mucgwyrt; a root that grows in marshes and is good in beer
2- Attorlade; a tall grass that grows in cultivated lands
3- Stune; is an bitter herb that grows in soggy turf
Finding Reagents
Searching for reagents is a hex action. It takes about as much time and effort as hunting or camping. A gather components hex action allows a number of rolls equal to the wizard's Intelligence modifier, with a minimum of one.  A relevant skill such as Herbalism yields an additional +2 rolls. 
A reagent takes up one slot in a pack. 
Weaving Enchantments
A wizard can weave an enchantment if they have two reagents to mix together. 
A combination of two reagents creates the components for a single spell. This component must be held in the hand when cast. Weaving an enchantment takes one exploration turn and combines the two reagents into a component, which takes up one pack slot. Weaving multiple enchantments in this way may be done as part of a camping hex action. 

In a similar way, I built a little sub-system for alchemy, combining parts of dead monsters, which you can find in the Black Dogs 'zine - issue number 8.
It's not the same as this sort of tables, but still requires two elements, taken from different monsters; one element has a power and another has an activation method, and you must combine an "activator" with a "powerful" element to release its effect.

In case you don't have yet enough plants, these are enother couple of links...
The first can be used as a reference of peculiar plants.

by hyophexia
Lenticulating oats: A cereal grain inedible by humans, the seeds of which are translucent. When the seeds are dehusked and rolled or cut, the flakes refract recondite portions of the superspectrum, allowing e.g. some invisible things to be seen through them. You have to figure out how you're going to effectively look through a pile of transparent oatmeal.

Rusk: A low, sparse bush that grows relatively high on some mountainsides. Its buds, when harvested and ground, can be mixed with an equal measure of sand and left covered overnight; in the morning the mixture will have congealed into a solid piece of dark glass. The glass is difficult to see through, like overly-dark sunglasses, but allow the wearer to see through one meter of solid stone. The glass is coveted for use as lenses in stoneshades.
Algamb: A dangerous, fast-growing algae; quickly spreads through any fresh water into which it's introduced like Ice-9 and converts it into saltwater, then dies. Effective siege weapon, difficult to find as it so quickly destroys the fresh water it needs to survive.

Drytouch: A small tuber, the inside of which is intensely hydrophobic. Ground and turned into a paste, this can be used to coat equipment with a waterproof layer. If eaten, death is nearly assured.
Hapax: There is only one hapax, period. No one knows where it is or what it looks like. Touching it lets you make something unique; i.e. there used to be many of something and now there's only one.

The last link is about Dolmenwood - a beautiful OSR setting covered by several issues of the Wormskin 'zine by Necrotic Gnome. See more about Dolmenwood here:
In this article, Brian presents many trees for the different areas of Dolmenwood (easy to adapt to your own campaign) with some descriptions and lore.
Note that the article contains also a little sub-system on asking information about these plants (i.e. from Friars, from Hunters, from Woodcutters, etc.) and which sort of false information you might get.

Dolmenwood: Notable Trees of the Dolmenwood & Their Uses
by Brian Richmond
When attempting to examine or search for one of these sublime trees, consult the following information for sake of guidance:
Friars: 4-in-6 chance of valid information (location, type of tree, strange effects).
Hunters: 2-in-6 chance of valid information (4-in-6 chance for location of "the weird tree")
Drune: 1-in-6 chance of valid information (they wish you harm, but if you are friend to them, 5-in-6 chance of valid information.)
Woodcutters: 3-in-6 chance of valid information, 5-in-6 chance for location (Backenwold, High Wold, Hag's Addle).
Generic NPC from Region, 1-in-6 chance to know location, always wrong information [see below]
Notable Trees of the Brackenwold
 1. Brackenpine 
Appearance: Pine with curled frond-like needles. Sweaty bark.
Lore: Notable for its needles which bend and curl like the fronds of a young fern. The wood of such pines carry far more moisture than they need to, and pulping said tree can produce a powerful earthy-tasting syrup which is used in many hermetic remedies; particularly for toothaches. 

 2. Sweet Monkswood  
Appearance: Oak with wide boughs, lacking leaves at the top. Smells sweetly.
Lore: A malady which effects young oak trees around their fortieth year, causing all leaves above a certain height to fall off and never grow back which in turn creates a strange tonsured look to the tree. Tea brewed from these "bald" twigs are sweet like candies and worth a fare amount on the spice market.
Notable Trees of the High Wold
 1. Subtle Birch Hornwood 
Appearance: Birch whose branches sprawl out like antlers. Pungent spice smell to the bark.
Lore: A specific form of birch tree, mutated by the longstanding and capricious presence of goatmen. Branches grow gnarled and smooth rather than straight like a traditional birch. When peeled, the bark can make a soothing tea and the wood cannot be stained, remaining white as snow.
Notable Trees of the Tithelands
 1. Goman's Spine
Appearance: Off-grey Ash which grows with spiky nub-like branches towards its base. Smells of cowardice.
Lore: These ash trees grow in the gaps between burial mounds or on the scrubland of ancient battlefields where the Goman invaders were beaten back by the men of Tolmenwode and Goatmen natives. Tapping a foot before the top of the trunk will allow a syrup of glooming green to flow, which if applied to weapons can rip at the spectres of spectral undead as though they were physical. Armor or weapons made of this tree are said to always break upon striking at a True Emeraude warrior.

What sort of wrong information was given? [d6]
 1. You were told to consume the wrong part of the tree, which in turn will cause rashes, hallucinations, and general sickness what with you having consumed a hearty amount of wood.
 2. You were given directions to the wrong tree, and thus you've harvested components from a completely normal version of the sublime off-shoot. You have nothing of additional worth and consuming it will grant no great effect.
 3. You have been informed that the tree and its components are horrifically poisonous unless you perform a ritual of salting wherein you beseech the Faerie Princes to let you consume the item in question properly. 

Design notes:
- Wilderness is a potential source of great adventures and resources
- Use random generators and lists, to spice up wilderness descriptions and resources
- Use random tables also as a reference to design something original (uses, descriptions, locations, effects and so on)
- In a low-fantasy setting, consider using herbs and plants as the only source of healing, for example
- If you use random generators, remember to keep track of your results; have the same results to come up again in the future for consistency
- Very long and detailed lists with be unnecessary and even conterproductive (it takes a lot of time to write them, they are hard for others to study, for you to remember, and to customize, plus they are also difficult to reference on the fly)
- A good idea with herbs and plants might be to combine two (or more) of them together to obtain a certain effect (instead of having a single plant to have an effect like if it was a magical potion)
- When gathering information about plants and herbs, you also might be given false information, or you might have to do experiements to discover the effects of a single herb or of a combination

Friday, September 13, 2019

Languages in OSR games

Languages are something I've rarely seen used in OSR games, either ran by me or others... More often than not, these rules were ignored. Either because the game was played with humans only and then game location was not too relevant (and so the common tongue) - or more often, because it was more interesting to allow comunication than block it because of the languages.
I believe this is not typical - probably some of you or many of you actually use the rules for languages, and consider them an integral part of the game... but this was not my experience.

When I've read LotFP the first time, I immediately noticed how the game changed the approach to languages.

Most Characters are assumed to begin play being fully fluent in their native tongue, and are literate as well if they have an Intelligence of 7 or greater. Elves and Dwarfs will know the local human tongue in addition to the tongue of their particular clan (Halflings use the local human language).
When a character comes into contact with another language, his chances of knowing the language is 1 in 6, with the character’s Intelligence modifier applying. If a character has a Languages skill at a greater level than 1 in 6, use that as the base chance instead.

What is quite elegant here, is that you need to make no list in advance. No need for the GM to make a list of languages, no choices to make at character creation.
You know I am a big fan of such flexible and fast approaches, and this is good enough for me. It is not perfect, of course: sometimes it may block an interesting conversation just because no character succeeds in the roll, and still leaves room for frustration for players... How many times did you improve Languages on your character sheet, as a player, giving it skill points or whatever your system used, only to have the campaign and the GM never make this relevent in play?
Still, I feel this is better than the standard lists used in most OSR games.

If instead you want to add more details to language rules, here are some suggestions.
The first is by Rocinante, and presents different levels in languages: it makes sense, if you want to simulate something more realistic.
Indeed knowing a language for basic comunication is one thing, while being fluent or able to read ancient, academic or highly specialist texts are definitely more challenging.
I personally don't like too much the idea to add this level of complexity, but I see how it could be useful if it made most characters able to speak many languages at the basic level (thus reducing or eliminating language barriers). But while I see the potential benefits of this, I still do not like too much having to track different levels for each language - and I guess it would create a discrepancy with other skills in the game... If we introduce 3 levels for languages, why not have for example: Novice/Skilled/Expert for all other skills?

Making Languages Make Sense
[...] Basic: You can discuss the weather and order a drink or ask for directions in this language. Anything else is beyond you, and Charisma checks are made with disadvantage if using this language. (1 point)
Fluent: You can make alliances, chat someone up and get by in almost all day-to-day situations. (2 points)
Scholarly: You can read ancient, academic or highly specialist texts in this language and understand them. Think reading Foucault in the original French. Only ‘scholarly’ classes (Wizard, Cleric, Warlock, Bard) or those with a relevant background (Scholar, Sage etc) may choose this option. (3 points)

I guess there might be a way to use this concept, somehow keeping the game still simple, if it would be paired with something easier like the default LotFP Languages skill.
An idea could be to allow characters to comunicate with other humans and humanoids in most cases (thus leaving room for role playing and negotiations and interactions...) and test the LotFP Languages skill for reading/writing/other advanced uses of languages.

The next link is instead an analysis of alignment languages - although the post starts with a few considerations about languages for the various game's species (elves, dwarves, etc...) and the "common" tongue which may be used to avoid language barriers.
The alignment language is another interesting topic because it could be used to make possible to sustain many more interactions than the regular language list would... but on the other hand, if used between NPCs and/or monsters, would make it possible for characters to guess someone's alignment very quickly.
The article suggests several alternatives, which are a mix of alignment and other languages - and they have a certain flavor to them, but again I fell like they push too far in terms of world-building and GM-prep and details for the players to remember... especially if they are presented before the start of a campaign, rather than as details that come up later on in play, little by little.

[...] B13 has a list of languages that is not specially interesting - you've got languages for elves, dwarves, lizard men, etc. It makes sense that every creature would have their own language [...]
This is not particularly useful when running a game. so we get a "common" language that 20% of people speak, thus avoiding to deal with language barriers all the time (still too often, probably) [...]
Modern D&D does something like that, while reducing the number of languages and alphabets to more manageable levels - maybe goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears all speak the same language, for example. Again, works well, but feels a bit artificial and it's not something I feel particularly interested in.
Now, alignment language. It certainly has its fans, but it has plenty of haters and has been mostly abandoned in modern D&D, as it makes little sense unless you see alignment as factions. The main inspiration for the concept is probably Black Speech.
Another problem with alignment languages is that, in theory, it could be used to identify anyone's alignment in seconds, making some interesting interactions impossible.
Darkspeak: the spoken/written language of demons and the mightiest inhabitants of the Abyss. Only chaotic characters can learn it without a significant risk of going mad, and even them will avoid using it unless they are also demons.
Bastard tongue: the gutural, often unpleasant spoken language of goblins, orcs, minor demons and beings that associate with chaos.
Devani: the spoken/written language of Elysium. Learning this language for any character that isn't lawful is like looking directly into the sun, and many will not survive the experience. Every mortal uses this language with reverence and awe and avoid speaking it out loud - even if they can understand it when it comes form the mouth of an angel.
Prisca: the spoken/written language of the fallen Empire, specially common in religious (lawful) texts and legal documents.
Fae: the spoken (sung) language of fairies and the spirits of the wild. Anyone can learn it, but characters that are not Neutral are suffer greater risk of being charmed by sylvan spirits if they understand their words.

Another interesting take on alignment languages is to consider them specific dead languages in the campaign world. This means that they can be learned and therefore someone's alignment is not necessarily indicated by the alignment language that they speak, and that having a mix of alignments in the party is useful if you need to be able to read or write or speak a specific dead language.
This feels again like an additional layer of complication, to me, but it's interesting (and probably more reasonable than the secret code languages as the original alignment languages were).

Alignment languages?  Yeah.  Let's talk about them. [...]
Alignment languages will be specific dead languages in the campaign world.  They're not secret.  They're not exclusive.  They're not even really designed to be used as a secret code language or shibboleth.  But whatever alignment you choose determines which of the three (luckily for me, I run Classic D&D with Law-Neutrality-Chaos only) your PC knows, in addition to Common and any demi-human languages. 
This means you can't necessarily trust someone just because they happen to speak Ancient Gardelish and so do you (not that you should implicitly trust someone of your own alignment anyway, even if you're both Lawful).  It also gives a reason why adventuring parties might actually WANT a range of alignments in the party. [...]

If this sounds interesting to you, you may read more in the second part of the blog post.

[...] Anyway, my point tonight is to restate my idea in simpler terms.
"Alignment languages" in my game will CEASE to be alignment languages as commonly understood.  They will be dead languages within the campaign world: the cultures that spawned the languages have disappeared, and the successor cultures may speak a language based on them, but they are still different languages.  People use them for various purposes (religious, mercantile, academic, etc.).  Most educated people (and all adventurers) know one or more of them, but rarely use them in everyday life. 
For example, let's say I've set up Latin as the language Lawfuls start with, Ancient Greek as the language Neutrals start with, and Ancient Egyptian as the language Chaotics start with.  Bob rolls up Gargamel, a Neutral Magic-User with a 17 Int, entitling him to two bonus languages.  He gets French (Common, everyone has it) and Ancient Greek (for being Neutral).  He wants to speak to dragons, so he takes Dragon as a bonus.  He then decides that communicating with any humanoids he charms would be useful, so he decides that for his second bonus language he will learn Ancient Egyptian. [...]

After reading all these, I am inclined to keep the simple approach of Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
If you want your players to avoid wasting points on the Language skill if you don't really know if it will ever come into play, you could simply grant all classes (not just the Specialist) some sort of automatic progression (i.e. a point in this Language skill every 3 levels or something).

Thinking about it...
I guess Languages are not something that the characters will necessarily get better at, with adventuring - or instead, if you want to look at it from a different point of view, all characters, regardless of their class, will improve with Languages with travel, adventuring, contact with other populations and perhaps with contact with monsters and creatures (if they speak at all).

So my proposal would be to use the LotFP rule and to set the Language skill to 1, but at character creation also add to it the INT or CHA modifier (whichever is higher, and only if positive). Then do not change it anymore (smarter characters or those more inclined to social contact, will have better language skills).

As an alternative, use the LotFP rule and set the Language skill to 1, then every time a character gains a level, roll a d6. If they roll higher than their Language skill, add 1 point to it. As they get better, it becomes less likely that they will add another dot.
There you go; all classes get their fair chance of improving with languages and players do not need to waste points in this skill that maybe you as the GM will never bring into play...
You know what it looks like to me? Saving Throws: Save vs. Dragon Breath increases also if you don't have dragons in your campaign. And if you decide one day to bring one into the game, your characters have a score to save against it.

Design notes:
- Languages are for me a sore topic: they require attention at character creation, and they usually present a difficult choice for players, because selecting languages is often a blind bet
- To help players to make this decision in an informed manner, the GM should prepare in advance a list of available languages and somehow explain to the players which could be more relevant
- Also, selecting languages when afterwards the GM (or the style of the adventures/campaign) does not bring them into play becomes a waste of time at char-gen or even worse, a waste of skill points
- LotFP has a single skill which is tested once for every new language, eliminating the initial choice (but still the skill requires players to invest points in it, so it is still potentially a waste if languages then do not come up)
- If you want to keep it simple, just make this Language skill to progress automatically for example every 3 levels, for all classes (not just Specialists)
- Languages, in real life, have "levels": you can be able to sustain basic conversations or complex ones, you may or not have an accent, be able or not to read and write; this level of complexity seems like an overkill unless languages play a really important role in your campaign
- An idea could be to use a skill like in LotFP but only for advanced uses: i.e. when reading/writing or sustaining a complex conversation
- If you use alignment languages, be careful because it makes it possible for the characters to determine someone's alignment very quickly
- Languages, and also alignment languages (or alternatives to them) help to generate a credible, detailed setting for your campaign, but they might become an additional burden for the players if they are presented just as an info-dump at the start of the game
- If you use alignment languages, you could consider them to be specific dead languages in the campaign world
- My personal preference is to use the LotFP simple approach, but with some sort of automatic progression (i.e. every X levels, or with a d6 chance to improve the skill at level-up)