THE WHEEL OF TIME: Domain Cycles

Like this, but the figures represent levels
(the nice calendar from
The Blacktongue Thief)

In my ideal D&D ruleset player advancement would stop short of 10th level. I think the 9th-level domain goal is a wonderful one and any advancement after 9th by the player should feed into that. And in fact, I would try to being domain leveling into lower levels in my ideal D&D.

Then the play loop begins again in a (hopefully) changed the world.

But this got me thinking that a table could refer to these loops as "cycles"-- spongy units of time that more mark change in the game state than they do in actual specific amounts of time per se.

I could imagine a table saying remarking something like this: 

"Ha ha remember in the 2nd Cycle when Susan leveled her fighter far enough to get that sweet keep, but we never found the lich so we started the 3rd Cycle trying to mount defences against an army of the undead?"

 Marcia of Traverse Fantasy had the suggestion of also doing a sorta interlude to discuss the implications of the end of one cycle to the beginning of another cycle-- Like a "Cycle Downtime?"

I think this would be a good thing too. In this sorta downtime setting maybe each character NOT at domain level could gain something of value or maybe it allows full development of a downtime institution or relationship:

  • Building investments complete
  • PC gain a non-landed title status
  • Guild standing increases
  • A crucial piece of research is completed
Basically something cool that is not quite a level gain, domain attainment, or a +2 sword but still intersting and adds to the world.

NIGHTWICK ABBEY: The Purple Eater of People Session 36


For a far fuller session report, checkout Mycelium Mischef for Session 36

After stealing an intriguing juicer from the bowels of Nightwick (Session 35 Fresh Juice), the party returns in search of the often talked about but never seen garden that is located within its depths.

(PC NOTE: I have been lax on also providing some extra commentary about rule changes and such as of late. This week the group talked about a couple of things: (1) Party size maximum, which in Session 35 was 17! and (2) Shields Shall Be Sundered. 

Party Size Max: Okay, I brought up the issue that 17 PCs and hirelings (see Session 35) were actually starting to impede both PC actions in game and player actions on a meta-level. Basically physically organizing all the tokens on Forge was eating up delving time with little benefit. Especially given that a lot of players are now 3rd level and we have a fair number of clerics and changelings ("elves") so when all 10 players are present we roll with some firepower. Solution: One player suggested that maybe over 10 people, we maybe have twice the number of random encounters representing the party is making just that much more noise. Perfect! Its a real consequence, but doesn't artificially cap the total party.

Shield Shall Be Sundered: A second suggestion is that if the hireling number is reduced how about some compensatory mechanisms for fighters (who especially see heavy combat) to prevent so much death and therefore the desire to have more cannon fodder. Solution: DM not so much in favor of SSbS, but proposed we could break armor and weapons to avoid injury on our death & dismemberment table we roll at 0 hp.)

The party completes a set of downtime activities (PC NOTE: This is now handled over Discord which is very convenient). Mayfly spent 40 SP to learn that a wizard Eldric left a spellbook containing the method by which they created all manner of strange creatures.

  • The party's aim is the fabled gardens of Nightwick, but they are brought up short by a mob of cultists of the Lady. The party's arrows fly! And Luminal cast Hypnotism ordering one cultist to hug another-- snarling their ranks with love. And love truly conquers all as the cultist are slain.
    ⚔️ 11 swords are gained!

  • The party continued easy, then turns south to head to the second level. But before they can, they are confronted by the cries of a captured monk. "Help me good folk! I was captured by horrible devilmen!" Half the party is suspicious and half the party decides to help-- resulting in the monk, transforming into a crazed, profane Abbey denizen! Quickly slain.

  • Fed up with the surprises Mayfly casts ESP and begins a sweep of the second floor where the juicer was located. A crude map of bizarre minds is made which allows the party to avoid both the devil men and something stranger on the floor. Exploration to the west reveals a secret door- but with a little focus, Mayfly is sure nothing good can come of going through it. The party votes to continue to the third.

  • On the third level, the party stops in front of two pillars made of skulls that cackle loudly upon their arrival: "Somebody's doorbell...". The party turns west into a room with profane art depicting the supremacy of the Pit over Heaven. With caution, the party turns south then west again which causes them to stumble upon some manner of foul ritual!

  • The party formed up for a tough fight, but with initiative in their favor, the party struck quick! Sotar cast Hold Person on the silver-masked leader and the cultist rushed into an onslaught of arrows from Anston and Blossom. What ritual were they performing? What evil could have been unleashed? We'll never know. What we do know is quite a bit of treasure was found:
    🛡️ Plate, 👺 silver devil mask, 🗃️ gold box, 📖 and a tomb
(PC NOTE: I think the most notable thing here is the value of ESP as a way to detect not just enemies, but possible secret doors. Because if you can sense thoughts through a wall, sure there might just be a hallway connecting, but there might be another way. This had never really occurred to me. So I think Mayfly's spell compilation still fits him more in an exploratory position than anything else. My loadout is usually: Light x2, Charm Person, ESP (we use a spell point system).)

...BACK AT THE MEDUSA'S HEAD  Mayfly will try and translate the book to see what powerful knowledge can be gained. Especially since Halfdan's Tower is closed, much to Mayfly's frustration.

SPEAK! SPEAK! Rules for Talking Animals

I really like this post from Rotten Pulp about talking animals.

When thinking about my own campaigns set in fairytale-like settings, I too have thought about talking animals. And here are my "rules" for them:

  • About 1/6 can talk, but don't always immediately lead with this information
  • Another 1/6 have the intelligence & communication ability of a "Disney animal companion"
    • These creatures come from the union of a talking animal and a regular animal under unique circumstances
    • Knights love having intelligent horses and loath talking ones
  • Most animals will only talk to a trusted human companion out of the earshot of others or when in need
    • Frequent enough that people know animals maybe can talk, but infrequent enough that most folks still think you are crazy for suggesting such
    • Talking animals are not to be trusted- this is common knowledge
  • Talking animals find it very hard to overcome their animal natures and certainly give advice and aid through that lens. So, if you are drowning and you ask your talking animal friend to save you:
    • A lion would go to the road and demand with a kingly air that someone else help you
    • A fox would go to the road and lie saying you are a prince who can give a reward
    • A bear would just push the first carriage over and then motion for people to follow
  • Most talking animals don't have the desire to be any more human/civilized save for foxes, cats, 50% of toads/frogs, 25% of dogs, and swine (this is very dangerous)
  • Monkeys hate other talking animals and the feeling is mutual
  • Talking animals can be hirelings, but operate with a -1 moral and always want payment in something bizarre
  • Snakes, owls, and ravens are connected to magic and occult knowledge
  • Mice are surprisingly good tailors if motivated
EDIT: Why are talking animals not to be trusted? Well, because one never knows if the animal is talking because:
1 | It is just a talking animal
2 | A good person cursed by an evil person and needs help
3 | A bad person cursed by a good person and needs a fool to help
4 | Someone who tried to trick a fay and was too dumb to do so
5 | It is hungry and humans, fascinated by talking animals, are an easy snack
6 | It is a jealous animal and wants to steal your station in life (swine are notorious for this)

NIGHTWICK ABBEY: The Purple Eater of People Session 34

After many absences, the famed (in his own mind) conjurer Mayfly returns to delve once again into the horry pits of Nightwick Abbey!

My last post was Session 27, but if you would like to see what has happened since, the cleric Sotar has taken up the pen over at Mycelium Mischef. And is chronically the party's adventures in the underbelly of hell. I am going to try to blog a shorter format of the sessions until Sotar wants to pass the pen back.

At the tavern, two new joiners of the party are a fighter, XXX, and a frogling, XXX.

In the depths of the Abbey:

  • The goal is for the party to get to the 2nd level of the Abbey and find the bizarre lightning-producing machine. Wrench it out. And sell it! 

  • Alas, the party gets caught up talking to manimals, then Mayfly is tricked by his talking gold skull into saying the wrong thing: "You're as dumb as Bloatus!" cackles the golden skull.

  • A fight ensues! Sotar almost dies, but the party defeats 6 manimal men: two by weapon, one by Light, Hypnotism, and the rest broke as their morale faltered.

  • The party screws around with the switches a little. Clicking one causes much hooting from a distant hallway. They don't touch the one with the "brain" and "potion" symbols. Enough puzzles! The party wrenched the coil out of the ground, loaded it on a Floating Disk, and made a hasty exit... just in time to see the glowing malignant form of Bloatus coming toward them on so many hands.
Back to the tavern, now 1,016 SP richer after selling the coil to the wizard Halfdan.

And in case folks are curious, here is the current body count for Nightwick Abbey:

I BEAT MOLDVEY BASIC D&D: And Leveling to “Conjurer” Was No Cheap Trick

Recently, I planted my magic-user’s  XP total firmly north of 5,000 brining my PC to 3rd level- a conjurer*. I have won Moldvey Basic D&D. Suck it Basic! Get gud. 

I am being facetious of course. There is really no “winning” of D&D unlike playing Metroid or Souls games. Which is part of its allure. But I did want to reflect on what it means to reach the technical end of Moldvey’s Basic Dungeons & Dragons (1981). 

Most talk of low-level characters is mainly in terms of an ignominious death: giant rats, insect swarm, pit trap, gnoll axe, or crushed by a giant’s rock (or roc). DCC has made a whole genre out of this fate. But that was not my experience getting Mayfly up to 3rd level. Here is a brief outline of Mayfly’s action from level 1 to 3:

  • Used Fireball scrolls at level 1 on two occasions to burn a dining hall and dance hall full of skeletal dead- roughly ~18 skulls (underworld). Then Ventriloquism scroll at 2nd level to distract the third group of skeletal dead, by mimicking the war cries of  their former foes, from cornering and murdering the party (underworld)

  • Traded (possible) souls for magical mentorship (overworld)

  • Ingested a fairy skeleton at the behest of one fairy, then hours later vomited forth a new fairy losing a level in the process, but gaining a favor-owed from the first fairy (and the second) (overworld)

  • Used a fairy favor to gain the “smallest, but most valuable thing” possessed by a bandit lord– his only remaining eye (overworld)

  • Saw an angel at a once-lost-but-now-found shrine (overworld)

  • Blinded the ogre-sized Butcher of Nightwick Abbey with a Light spell to the eyes (it rolled a “1” to save), who then was hacked apart by hireling woodsmen (underworld)

  • Cut a deal with werewolves to capture that eye-less bandit-lord, but also now marked by those same creatures for death (overworld)

  • Come into possession of a golden skull that can psychically communicate and calls itself “The Master”(underworld)

  • Alignment changes from “neutral” to “evil” by the setting’s standards but entirely due to in-game actions (underworld)

All this was done while having 11 hp. A heap of credit for this fantastic experience goes toward Miranda Elkin’s creativity in constructing her Nightwick Abbey campaign. I think this speaks to the robustness that low-level play can have when in a “shananigans-rich” environment. As a hobby, we should strive to build better low-level campaigns. So what does that look like? Here I am speaking more about the larger meta-structure, not what makes dungeons good.

First, I think we should change the view of Levels 1 through 3. They should not be viewed as a waiting or containment period to higher tiers. This is very firmly how 5e seems to view them. Further reinforced by placing most powers in 5e behind a 3rd-level wall. Conversely, in old-school D&D systems, most “powers” are all present at 1st-level. The tools are there from the beginning, but the players need a rich environment to use them in. Which is where old-school D&D adventures can falter. Many adventures still try to make rats-in-a-cellar or orks-in-a-hole the starting milieu. Let’s instead bring the fantastical to them. Decks of Many Things! Magic swords that demand! And wicked dragons that speak from the shadows! I think we worry to much that somehow the party will become unkillable if they get a sword +2 but often they still only have ~5 hp! Sure they can mow down 3 goblins in short order, but the last two throwing spears is what kills ‘em. And with my own experience above, far from killing giant rats, my character has cast powerful magic, traded souls, birthed spirits, blinded an ogre, and changed alignments. That is an awesome story. Sure, I’ve not killed a god, but all those exploits would make a pretty good episode of The Witcher

Second, 4th-level, not 3rd, is a more natural break point for Basic D&D. At first, 3rd-level seems like a fairly understandable break point. BX D&D, as the editions before, it talk of a domain-building ability for most classes around 9th-level. So, natural dividsons: 1-3 low, 4-6 mid, and 7-9 high or “domain”. But this might not be exact “grain” of D&D.

I am a firm believer that D&D is not a wargame. If it were, it would play something more like Warhammer 40k. I subscribe to the idea that David Arneson’s Blackmoor game and David Wesley’s preceding Brownstein game formed the initial important genesis seed. However, it is pretty clear Chainmail informs the maths of D&D and some of its language.

And when you examine Chainmail, you come across an important title: “Hero” conferred at 4 HD and followed by “Superhero” at 8 HD. The hero title is important because the character is represented by its own miniature on the battle field, it can now engage in “fantastical combat” against monsters, it can perform multi-attacks on regular man-type units (less than 4 HD), and improves morale. This also aligns with some vestigal elements of that same designation that crop up in two of the most powerful Basic spells– Sleep and Charm Person. These spells do not effect creatures greater than 4+1 HD and therefore represent a limit to the power of a Basic D&D magic-user’s spell list. 4th-level is when all of the classes have their combat bonus increased too. Additionally, I think its important that point out the shift in creature number from the dungeon levels to the wilderness levels. Bandits roll 1d8 for number appearing in a dungeon but in the wilderness it's 3d10! That is a vastly different scope of what the players have to take on even from low-level monsters (Side note: this is also why I think fighters do need some form of multi-attack be it a cleave mechanisms or extra attacks equal to level against 1 HD opponents).

Returning to BX D&D, I see a break at 4th level as more natural for Basic/Expert D&D’s two-book format too. Basic D&D would cover 1st to 4th Level dungeon crawl/ “Hero” tier. And Expert D&D would cover 5th to 8th hexcrawl/ “Superhero” in tier, plus an additional 9th level representing domain attainment.  In my ideal ruleset, the basic level would stop at 4 HD. This would denote “hero” status and confer a lot of historic benefits from Chainmail: morale bonus, fear resistance and denoted as a stand-alone figure in a skirmish situation. I would further enhance this level by adding a multi-attack for fighters and also allowing a single 3rd-level spell slot for magic-users. This increases a party’s capacity to deal with the wilderness tier’s large enemies numbers and more strongly signals a move into the next tier. (Side note, this does not then eliminate the place of dungeons in a campaign. Just merely signals the player can now range farther and handle a lot tougher threats. And they should be experienced enough to weigh risk better as players.) And if your game has to end at a 6 to 12-month mark, ending at a 4th-level “Hero” feels like a better end. Like Mayfly above, I bet in general, you will have accomplished some amazing feats and you too will have a script for The Witcher.

But simply agreeing to hit 4th-level before venturing out into the wilderness is not enough. I think a couple of important tools need to be pulled into the 4th level to really complete this hero tier and establish the next phase.

Third, I would add is some sorta domain component or “mini” domain situation. It cements a change in the DM’s world driven by player action. It allows movement into a skirmish/wargame component of D&D and this can help provide a break from standard forms of play. I think the results of these battles could also be an awesome emergent change for the DM’s world too. A domain component would also provide resources and reasons for players to think bigger beyond just the party or if there is a +2 sword in their hand (Another quick word, actual Chainmail plays pretty quickly and dare I say is even a lighter ruleset than modern editions of Warhammer 40K.) And given modern constraints on time and entertainment abundance (remember in the 1970s there were only four TV networks), I would not wait until the traditional 9th level for domain building. I think it is just too far away in terms of old-school GP:XP leveling. It will take time most groups don’t have. Better to have players see the effect of their actions on the world more quickly.

And this idea is not without precedent, nor am I alone in this line of thought:

  • The Rules Cyclopedia has an interesting distinction of “traveling- title” versus “landed title”. Maybe we can employ those as a sorta level 5 and level 6. This can signal the quest for a permanent place (traveling) and the establishment of a seat of power (landed). Now with established domains, a skirmish game kicks in. At this point, whoever establishes the domain could potentially be playing a 6th-level landed-title character in various wargames while starting back at level 1 or 2 with the followers and such that the landed character has attracted.

  • The often lauded B10 Night’s Dark Terror is a “Basic/Expert Transition module for Levels 2-4” which I think lends a historical aspect to the split I champion above. Included in this module were several cardboard chits for a skirmish scenario within the great adventure.

  • Nick over at Paper & Pencils also has been putting domain play early into practice with his On A Red World Alone game. Even in his 3-hour game, the first hour is devoted to domain-level procedures which impact the game world and party.

  • And Ben L has some thoughts on “mini-domain” play via institution building over at Mazirian’s Garden. This gives the party someplace to put large amounts of coin and also demonstrates not all domains need to be castles. It can just be the tavern they favor.

This domain building could be a good refresh for the group as a whole because what class builds the domain might help sculpt the next cycle in the world. For instance, a landed thief might signal the start of a heist campaign in a big city. A landed cleric could spur a holy campaign against some blighted area. The Rules Cyclopedia as a funny note that landed-magic-users build dungeons to attract monsters, maybe a new campaign is players as chaotic humanoids farming these monsters in the dungeon below.

In summary, the time constraints and entertainment options of modern life leave little room, in my opinion, for the slow burn build of traditional D&D leveling which positioned low-level play often has a risky but fairly mundane grind that should build to grand domain play. Therefore, as a hobby, we should reframe low-level play with the fantastical in terms of adventure design by bringing "high-level" elements into the lower levels. Also, demarcate the end of "basic play" as the acquisition of limited tools to tackle RAW wilderness encounter design (e.g. multi-attack fighters; fireball/lightning casting magic-users). And drop domain-style playing also into lower levels to increase player impact on the world by reintroducing newer players to a core part of the D&D tradition. Time is too short, let's not wait for the players to level high enough for the "real adventure" to begin, stead let's begin it at XP = 0.

*Here is the character currently

MAYFLY, Conjurer (HP 11): STR 07 (-1) INT 15 (+1) WIS 08 (-1) DEX 16 (+2) CON 16 (+2) CHA 08 (-1)

  • Spells: [1] Light, Protection from Evil, Read Magic, Floating Disk, Charm Person; [2] ESP

  • Notable Treasure:

    • Scrolls (x5): Protection from Demons, Light (x2), Read Magic, Charm Person

    • Silver Daggers w/ Deerman Antler Handles (x2)

    • Silver Basilisk Star Necklace

    • Soul Coins (x10)

    • The left horn of The Butcher

    • Magic ring (maybe cursed)

    • Gold skull (psychic)

  • Hirelings Total: 7 (2 Alive + 5 Dead)

  • Total Explored Rooms of Nightwick Abbey (megadungeon): ~45

  • Game Time: ~26 games