Wisconsin Death Trip

Flag_map_of_WisconsinThis is based on truth. I am not talking about the way Fargo or Texas Chainsaw Massacre is either. As far as I have seen the pictures are authentic and the newspaper articles accurate. That makes this book disturbing and a little like a car wreck that one can’t help but stare at.

Wisconsin Death Trip is a nonfiction book published in 1973. The author found a collection of black and white photos all from the same small Wisconsin area dating back to the 1890’s. He then researched newspaper articles from that time and found a place haunted by death and destruction. I don’t know if this was common at the time, and it seems unusual because I don’t have knowledge of what life was like in the 1890’s in a small Wisconsin town. Or this could be the outlier, the one place that had unusual deaths and events going on. Either way a creative GM can take this book and make it into an awesome prop for an adventure or campaign.

“George Kanuck, a laborer, is alleged to have sold his seven year old boy to Italian peddlers who have been working at Manitowoc. The sale is said to have taken place at Kanuck’s house during a drunken orgy that all participated. The Italians, two women and a man, left the town the next day with the boy.”

That is one example of what one will find within the pages of this book. The book just presents the stories. It does not answer any questions. That is what makes this the perfect prop. Are you wanting to run a Cthulhu by Gaslights campaign? There can easily be cultists and something dark and mysterious going on here. Perhaps you want something modern and want the events from the past to be repeating themselves. This would be a great book to present news stories to the players that their characters find in research. Granted, not a lot of written RPGs work well in rural Wisconsin of the 1890’s. That is why I only mention the one so far.

“Eight of the Kaukauna public schools have been closed by order of the district board on account of further spread of diphtheria epidemic. Five or 6 families are now quarantined, and in one of these, 8 of its members have the disease.”

It would be more difficult but this could also serve for a good adventure or arc for a time travel game. There is something odd going on here, there has to be. So of course the TARDIS would show up here. Or perhaps the agents of Timewatch are sent here for a darker type of adventure. I think this approach would be a challenge as the feel of those games is a bit lighter than the events the book describes.

“At Stevens Point an incendiary fire destroyed sale stables and 13 fine draft horses the property of the green brothers….This is the ninth incendiary fire in the city in a week.”

I think it would work well as a historical Hunter the Vigil game. Something wicked is happening in the area so it is up to a small cell of townsfolk to investigate and try to stop something. Not everything has to link together either. Perhaps the fire was just an accident but that doesn’t mean the other eight were. Some of the stories though are much darker. There is an article of a ten year who commits suicide. There are stories of people killing their families and children. There are stories of people being committed into insane asylums. There are stories of wild men living in caves, and bands of hooligans that terrorize towns. Some of the stories are just weird like the owner of a lumber company that started yelling crazy things and then his one thousand employees started to mimic what he was doing.

“A wild man is terrorizing the people north of Grantsburg. He appears to be 35 years of age, has long black whiskers, is barefooted, has scarcely any clothes on him, and he carries a hatchet. He appeared at several farm houses and asked for something to eat. He eats ravenously, and when asked where he came from, points to the east. He secretes himself in the woods during the day and has the most bloodcurdling yells that have ever been heard in the neighborhood.”

Reading through this book is an experience. I am not going to say it was a good one as there are many sad entries in here as well. This is not a book for everyone and is definitely a Cult Classic of literature. There is also a movie made about it and it has influenced other novels and even music.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

A New Kind of Pathfinder Character

pathfinder_core_coverWhen I DM I always like to try something a little bit different. Perhaps a different take on the campaign or the way the characters are built. Some of the ideas work and others do not. I liked it when I started having the players choose the ability scores for their own character. When I tried to have the players describe their character and then have the other players choose the attributes based on the descriptions did not work out as well. I do some different things behind the screen but I don’t keep track of them as thoroughly. I see the more important aspect of the game as player interaction with the rules. It is also very possible I am finding a complex solution to problems that do not exist.

Before I go on to this idea I must stress it is not something for every group. It might not even be a good idea for my own group as this will be the first time it has been brought up to them. For it to even have a chance of working one needs a DM that has a solid understanding of the rules and system mastery. It has to have players that will not abuse the system. The players also have to trust the DM in being fair with his rulings and trust the other players that no one is abusing the system. It does not require system mastery for the players and would probably be better for players who do not have it.

The Pathfinder system stays intact. Characters still have hit points, AC, base attack bonus, saves, etc. The way we get there is going to change though. Before one picks a race, a class, feats, and spells. Depending on what they were it would govern what the numbers were and the options the player had to select from for the character. What a player would do is come up for the concept for their character. It could be as simple as Knight to something very specific like Street Rat raised by a Fire Wizard. A player could have a short concept like that or flesh it out with a few paragraphs of backstory. Then the player would work with the DM to assign all the aspects that a class normally does. It will take a little more work but I think it will get a player more involved in his character and help create a character exactly like they want. Many times in Pathfinder and other similar systems I see players make compromises because they can’t find exactly what they want.

It doesn’t end there, this is just the beginning. I would throw out the skill list and come up with player created skills. A player would just name what they want the character to be able to do again with the DM overseeing everything to make sure it comes out ok. It would help keep the number of skills down and allow for broader skills to exist like Acrobatics. That could cover climb, jump, tumble and similar skills. Or a player could have a skill called Parkour which has some similarities to acrobatics but some specific differences as well. By using the language to pick out these different skills one can add a fine nuance to the game and what the character is able to do.

Each character would get feats, but once again they don’t have to pick off the insane list of all feats in existence. Feats now can also cover things like class abilities. Weapon and armor training would be included here. A character concept of weapons master might know how to use any weapon he picks up. But a concept like Spearman would have a more limited selection of weapons known but would have greater ability and bonuses when using a spear. If the player has trouble thinking up ideas then he can peruse the books and find thousands of different examples in all the classes, archetypes, and feats that are in existence.

Spells is where we really get crazy. Like feats there are just too many spells in the game so we do the same thing and just have the player name his own spells. Or maybe the DM playing the NPC Wizard who the PC is apprenticed to creates the spell. We might have one called Fire. It can be used to create light, spark dried tinder to make a fire, be used as a fire projection like burning hands, or even an explosion like a fireball. Damage would all be minimal since the caster is only first level. But anyway the character can think to use fire the spell can potentially do. As a limit I would probably introduce a spell casting skill or have a spells per day like the standard game.

It will take more work by the players but it allows them to be creative instead of ordering off the menu so to speak. If the player does not like it or is not feeling creative enough to do it then they can use an existing class, feats, and spells. There will be differences between a character done the old way and this way but if the DM is doing his job correctly they should coexist just fine. This system is very abusable and I like that it is. I trust my players with that kind of power and it has yet to blow up in my face. I don’t feel like this is an original idea and I am sure other games approach character creation more like this.

Would a Pathfinder player actually want to do this? I don’t know. It could bethe catalogs of options is what drives players to Pathfinder. I know I might be solving a problem that doesn’t exist but something in thinking on gaming this is what happens.

What do you think, Sirs?

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

Barrowmaze and Labyrinth Lord

Barrowmaze CoverTuesday nights are normally my Dungeon Crawl Classics game night with my online group. Between a vacation for one member of the group and school/finals for another it seemed best to take a two week break from the DCC game. But for the rest of us, we decided to step into the early depths of Barrowmaze for a two week break.

I’ve posted a bit about Barrowmaze here at The Iron Tavern before. Last summer I ran parts of it with the Swords & Wizardry ruleset. Regular readers know I am a big fan of Swords & Wizardry and post about it semi-frequently here. Iron Tavern Press even uses the S&W ruleset as its default rules assumption.

But for this Barrowmaze Delve we will be using Labyrinth Lord. The biggest reason is that a lot of the folks playing already use the Labyrinth Lord ruleset in other games. Their familiarity will let me focus more on the game than on the rules.

Others will notice I released a Labyrinth Lord conversion sheet for Kajak’s Kave. So I thought a little more time with the ruleset could be beneficial if I decide to convert some of the other Iron Tavern Press products to LL as well.

Preparation Steps

So what does one do when they decide to run Barrowmaze about 5 days before game time? Since I’ve read and run it before, a lot of the heavy lifting was done. I just needed to be sure my resources were close at hand and I would have the information at my fingertips. I typically don’t prep a whole lot for games, but I do like to have what notes and resources I do need easily accessible.


First, I needed to re-read the LL rules. Now I started on Moldvay, so LL is an easy fit for me. But I gave the rulebook another read so I had the rules more clearly in my mind and so I could look up rules if I needed to.

Part of this phase also involved started a Barrowmaze Delve info sheet to help my players know which optional rules we’d be using and which we wouldn’t. Nothing major here – no AEC, just the main LL book. Max hit points at 1st level, group initiative, variable weapon damage, and morale checks when I remember them!

Labyrinth Lord CoverSome of the key things regarding surprise and such were jotted down as notes on the folder I will be using to hold some of my printed reference sheets.

Speaking of which – I did grab a Labyrinth Lord screen. It was for the AEC rules, but a few small tweaks and it was good to go. The biggest thing I wanted on hand as the Attack tables and Saving Throw charts. We are using descending AC as written. It has been a long time since I’ve run something with descending AC!

Index Cards

I tend to use index cards a lot when running a game. They make great name displays for face-to-face games, handy for not passing, NPC characteristics, and even session notes. The prep on this front was primarily gathering up my spare index card holder, making sure I had my different colored cards, and pre-labeling one for rooms explored, so I know which rooms need re-stocked. I still need to make up a few initiative cards, but that will likely happen as the hangout launches.

The Module

I had already read most of Barrowmaze and run some of the early portions of it. I re-read the unique characteristics of Barrowmaze. A few of these items made it to my notes on the folder to remind me of them when I run.

Then of course I read the early sections of it, where they are most likely to go first just to have those sections fresh in my head.


I will be using G+ Hangouts and Roll20. While I don’t use minis when I run online, I do like to have a map for some form of context (though I am tempted to have them map it out, but that takes so much time). So I bought the map pack and then loaded up Gimp to make a Player version of the map to use in Roll20. Now I have a version where the secret doors and trap indicators have been removed. I also split the into two sections to keep things snappy in Roll20.

In addition, since this is only a two week session, I modified a map the party of adventurers will have that help guide them to the main entrance of Barrowmaze. In a longer campaign I wouldn’t do this, but I want to see them get to things quickly – so this modified map they will find in character will help facilitate that.


In the info document I shared with the players already, I also included a map of the starting town, Helix, and listed a couple of places in town. Some of this is so their characters can have a bit of relevant background. And also so we can jump right into the game.



And that is how I prepped for a Barrowmaze Delve. We shall see how it works out, but I think I have things positioned well for a great two weeks of gaming before we return to our DCC campaign!

Aaaaand ACTION!

Spy with GunYou put a whole lot of preparation into the first game. Built the skeleton of a campaign world and some NPC’s, possibly even a few adventures planned. But how do you hook the players? How are you going to get them keen for this game, then the next, and the one after that!

Let me give you a hint. Watch a James Bond movie. Not the whole thing if you are time poor, just the bit before the starting credits. What does every Bond movie have in common to get the viewer into the main movie? Action. Hook them with a good level of heart pounding action.

Don’t plan this action out too much, just some combatants thrown together that might give a bit of a hint of what is to come. Once you have that and a setting (the players find themselves at a dungeon entrance as a swarm of skeletons start toward them from the adjoining cemetery) ask the players why they are there? Give them a bit of power to work out how they find themselves here.

In this initial moment the players will come up with some hook plots that you can use and they will also build a past. A past that gels their characters together. The pressure will be on too. They will want to get into the battle and so the plot will come out nice and naturally. The cohesiveness of the group will build from this point.

The job of the GM at this point is to encourage them to come up with this story and the greatest encouragement is to ask them questions and show some interest in the story they are building. When they tell you a Demon Lord ordered them to the dungeon ask them what the Demon Lord’s name is and why they sent them? What can be found there? As they start talking about how they all got together make sure everyone gets involved. If you have two players building something without starring others turn the focus of the story to them. Ask the other players how they enter the story and encourage them to take it over.

And that’s it! Call Action! Get into the fight. Ask them why they are there and take lots of notes about what the players come up with. You can use this to flavor your main plot or use their material to build some interesting side-plots in the campaign. Just make sure you use it and start as soon as you can because the players will lap up their involvement in the stories that sprout from their imaginations. If they do not get hooked in a campaign they helped shape then they never will! Keep rolling!

Mark Knights is  40 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.

…and Taxes

Taxes - AccountantI have not posted anything gaming for a while because I work in the Tax profession. That means from January through April 15 I can be quite busy working long hours and not finding enough time to do other things. We do have a little slow down here in March so that brings me to one realistic aspect that is rarely seen in games: Taxes!

No one likes taxes. They are a pain in the ass to do and the system, at least here in America, is complex and serves to do more than just collect taxes. It is a carrot and a stick system rewarding certain behavior while punishing other types of behavior. The rewards come in the form of refundable credits and refunds while the punishment is a greater tax liability. Can that be translated into gaming though?

I think the better question is not can it, but should it be? In games like D&D that tend to be a bit of a resource management game a Tax system is just pulling gold out of the PC’s pockets. One would also want to tax the magical assets of the PCs and not just the cash on hand. I like the idea but I don’t know a way of doing so that is fun. I would not want to place a tax system into the game and have the players feel like it is just there to punish them. It would be easy to come up with paper work for them to fill out and get them involved in the taxing process but that just seems tedious and a good way for the players to revolt. Paranoia is the only game I’ve seen that paper work is accepted and even there it is easy to go overboard.

So, how do we make Taxes fun? It can’t be just taxes. I think it needs to be an event like Tax day when the tax collector and his armed guards and mages come around collecting from every poor soul they encounter. It could be like in Robin Hood where they just break into everyone’s place and take a large percentage of anything valuable they find. This does put the tax collector in the villain’s role. I think most players would find that acceptable. You can have the PCs make it difficult for the taxes to be collected or even rob the tax collector making the taxes not collected.

That’s when the twist comes in. If not enough taxes are collected then bad things might start happening around the kingdom. The treasury gets smaller without taxes to fill it up so maybe the guards don’t get paid and they go on strike. Or roads and bridges don’t get repaired. We don’t have to make the kingdom good or evil just show that the money is being used for real tangible purposes and when the money goes away it eventually has a very real effect on the setting. Less money in the King’s coffers could lead to inflation. It could lead the King to search out alternative revenue streams and who knows what kind of trouble that could get the Kingdom in.

I would not use taxes as a major plot but I think it would be a good little background detail. If the PCs get great wealth and they pay their proper taxes then the Kingdom might improve. I would start out with a Kingdom that has needs of improvements and then if the Taxes come in show that some improvements happen but if the PCs hinder the tax collection then show things getting worse. Even if one establishes all this it is still very possible for the PCs to really not care. But once they get wealthy if they open a business or buy some property then the DM can hit them up with different kinds of taxes. If they don’t pay them then spend a session taking the PCs though an Audit. They will never complain about going through something like the Tomb of Horrors again.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

Sharing the Fear

Spooky CastleThere are some tried and true methods for sharing the fear, or scaring the living daylights out of your audience. These apply equally well in role playing games as they do to other formats of horror as well. From probably the earliest days of sharing a tale around the fire these techniques have been spreading the joy of being scared down through the ages, so pay close heed reader, lest the darkness swallow you before you finish my terrible techniques…

First and foremost is framing the game. You want the player to know upfront this is going to be an adventure filled with horror. You probably wonder at this point if this is the best way to instill fear but consider an example. Say you are running a game where the fearsome krakledon thought extinct for over a millennia erupts from the earth and swallows whole the birth town of our adventurers. If it is unexpected, i.e. the players think they are in a standard game, the players become shocked at this event, rather than in fear (fear may come later but shock is generally the initial response). If you have framed it (and this does not mean specifically saying it was horror but perhaps scary portents on the lead up) then the event will not take them by surprise it will scare them as they realize the krakledon is some great evil emerging from the ground (note, krakledon is a made up creature. Don’t go looking for it.). Some games do this just by playing them like Call of the Cthulhu and Ravenloft. If you are playing that game you are already in the frame of mind that is required because you expect it to have horror in it.

Lighting can be used to great effect when playing a horror game. If ever there is a time to turn the lights out and use candles it is while you are playing a horror game. Spend some time making sure your candles have built up wax drips down the side, new candles can ruin the effect. Also, use a GM screen and have loads of tea light candles burning on your side so the light from them comes from below your face, casting eerie, scary shadows. You can of course take this further and deck out the table like a gothic nightmare and even get some spray on spider webs to play. If you have a stark basement or a dusty attic, put it to use and play there. If you have a shed and live in a windy area that will make strange noises, all the better.

If you have only a kitchen table to play at, investigate getting a spooky soundtrack to play through a sound system. I have several favorites to use. I have one that is as old as the hills with chains and witches, winds and wolves. All great stuff for traditional horror. Being a bit of a horror video game nut I also have several horror video game soundtracks that spook the nerve from my players! I have one in particular that spooks my (15 year old) daughter so much that I have been banned from playing it due to the nightmares that follow! If you can, have a generic soundtrack just looping but if you want to get specialized, cue up the tracks you need and use them at predetermined points in the story to send your players packing!

Narration techniques also come into it. Make sure you overplay your big baddies and have them become unforgiving nightmares in your portrayal. If you want to hit them with something new start describing the leadup a little quieter so the players have to really concentrate on what you are saying and then when you want to surprise them BOOM! Make it loud and use large hand gestures! It should unnerve them. Also with a horror game make sure you are descriptive. Don’t say “You look in the ballroom and see a vampire with his two thralls in tow” say instead “A gaunt pale figure walks to the table. He spies an open curtain reflecting the scene and hisses something to the misbegotten pale man that stands next to a second beautiful but tragic figure of a woman. The pair react quickly and run forward closing the curtain and then move to the table to snuff out two of the candles near where their master will sit. The pale figure then moves so quickly, almost at an inhuman speed to seat himself at the table. He waits for the woman to come forward. She grabs the crystal wine glass and draws out a bottle from inside her cloak, unstoppers it and pours a thick red wine into it for him before withdrawing to the shadows with her male counterpart.” Description is key here. Never, ever, name your creature types. Let the players work it out. They are likely to decide that this is a vampire but they will never be 100% certain because you never stated it was.

Draw on your own experiences. If you have ever been on camp and told ghost stories around the campfire then remember what scared you. That style of tale sharing is the oldest that exists and the tropes it uses are easily translated to the table for scares a plenty. Remember also that people love to be scared. The adrenaline rush they get from having their heart quicken, even the appearance of goosebumps make the player alert, aware and in a heightened state. Don’t tame it down, pile it on!

Give some of these a try at your next horror game and let me know how it went! Until then, keep rolling, but look over your shoulder. Because I heard once that a GM dared to roll the dice in jest of the gods of horror and his soul was sucked straight from him. Now when a GM stands and sits three times while waving his d20 in the air saying Dire Derek Rolls they are struck down within 8 hours by an accidental death. Of course no one can prove that it is this same GM but better safe than sorry, right?

Mark Knights is  40 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.

Things That Go Bump In The Night

large_dead_treeMy fantasy games would mostly fall under the headings of fantasy horror if a genre was applied to them. I love the feeling I get when a player is creeped out by my game or they get involved, reacting with fear or horror at the game. It is largely why my favorite fantasy game is Earthdawn (I know I only play it via email at the moment and Pathfinder is my main game) where it is all about the darkness and the things that live there. Not to mention what they can do to you once they find you. This turns me to the point of my blog today. There are two definite streams of horror, the traditional path or the worlds of Lovecraft inspired weirdness.

Whichever style of horror you like is what you should concentrate on presenting to your players. I love Lovecraftian stuff but I do use the more Gothic Horror style on occasion to mix things up. Knowing the difference is the key to the way you get the players involved.

Traditional refers to those works of horror that became widely popular through mass media and literature. These tales were popularised by the Gothic Horror writers in the 18th century but their fodder for their novels was well established by this time. It stemmed from folklore and stories shared with a basis in religion or even pagan ritual. Largely, the novels written at the time were written by women and targeted at women focussing on a female protagonist that was caught in a spooky mansion with elements of the supernatural that tested them.

These initial stories were very popular in their time but few have common appeal today. It was not until Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that we see titles that are commonly thought of as traditional horror today. Writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson amongst others that turned the idea of Horror into a creature feature, or horror of a deeper darker nature designed to scare the reader to the core. These titles endure to this day and scare every new generation. They endure because at their heart are tales of human vice and virtue played out in a fantastic way.

The traditional horror tack in fantasy games normally takes a known trope of the genre and plays it up to the group of players. As a GM you want the players to recognize the threat early and for the players knowledge of the threat to spur the horror. For example, using a vampire in a game causes all of the players to sit in a group and talk about what they know and what they need to do to survive. They treat every situation with kid gloves and wonder at the power of the creatures that they are facing. Will it die in sunlight? Can we get close enough to stake it? Has it got brainwashed spawn in the local community? The very presence of this type of creature almost dictates an investigation before the ultimate confrontation. Are the players up to the task? As they stare down the vampire they will feel their own hearts in their mouth as they roll the dice for initiative.

An off shoot of this style is to use creatures that has been made famous by the game itself. Consider the Beholder from Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). This creature is now synonymous with the game and nearly anyone that has played even a modicum of D&D knows of the floating eye tyrant. The responses tend to be the same so that we can recreate the idea of a traditional horror experience. I am sure that the first time the Beholder appeared that it was really quite a Lovecraftian style encounter though.

Lovecraftian horror is a newer version of horror and stems from the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft who was an unsuccessful but prolific horror author whose works are now strong influences on most major horror writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Herbert to name a few. Lovecraft wrote horror stories that focused on strange, alien forces that had little or no cares for humanity and the madness that they caused in humanity when they found them. Each power was a unique thing that existed with the knowledges hidden in the Universe. Almost all of these powers or creatures were extremely destructive in a way that humans are destructive when they tread on an anthill. That is these creatures are completely oblivious to the suffering or destruction that they cause and even when or if they do notice they have no cares for it. This horror style focuses more on the insignificance and horror of the unknown than it does on fear of a particular type of creature.

As Lovecraft was never a full time author and died young in 1937 it has taken some time for his works to become influential. In fact he was largely unheard of in the 1970’s but started to gain a following as influential authors started to site his name in their list of influences. Lovecraft focused on this alien style of horror but as his creations become more mainstream (e.g. Cthulhu) some of his writing would also work in games of traditional style horror with the more popular of his creations.

But it is this style of game that appeals to me. Lovecraftian horror is definitely a different feeling of horror. It contains an element of the hopelessness of humanity against the never-ending Universe. It highlights how little we know, and when used creatively, how desperate and offensive we can be in pursuit of this knowledge. It is why Earthdawn appeals to me. There are a loosely affiliated group of astral creatures called Horrors. If you want a traditional game you can use a Horror that is common in type but the games that commit to memory are the ones that use the unique, bizarre and most alien. Also these creatures live off emotion and the manipulation of humanity for the purpose of feeding is truly disgusting and alien to take on as well.

Cultists fall into both categories. If they are cultists of devils, demons or angels then they fall much more under the traditional category of horror. This is because these creatures, weird as they are, are all in place around humanity to teach them of sins which are known impulses and urges. Whereas a cultist of a Horror may worship it so that it can turn all snow purple. nobody knows why. But on investigation your hero may discover that the blood of living sacrifices is needed to turn the snow purple. These motivations are alien and therefore the horror much more different and the cultists will be much more random to portray than a devil worshipper.

In my next post I will look at the ways that you can begin to instill this feeling of horror into your game. There are techniques that work really well and get the players to feel the fear that their characters are. The techniques for both of the above streams of horror are largely very similar and I offered the description above as a primer for you. So until next time keep rolling!

Mark Knights is  40 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.

Naked and On Fire

photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Naked and Dead

Back in early 2005 I got a group of people together to play some D&D. It had been awhile since I had played an RPG so I built the group from scratch. There was a guy I was good friends with locally, a guy from work, and two guys found on message boards – one from EN World and one from Wizards. This group is still intact for the most part since its formation with some member changes due to folks moving, etc.

Since I was starting the group I took on the task of DMing. It helped me set the tone for the type of game I wanted to play. Well, my turn in the DM’s chair ended right around six months ending in a TPK (well, near TPK that weirdo wizard with a rat in his pocket fled back into the labyrinth of caves while the arachnid mouther made a meal of the others.)

That probably wasn’t my most glorious moment of running games – though probably my most infamous! In retrospect throwing an arachnid mouther that had 15’ reach and 8 attacks a round against a 3rd level party likely wasn’t the wisest choice. To top it off, that was the first session for one of the players and he lost his character that very first night. (Don’t worry all you folks who are exclaiming how dare I scare someone off from gaming, he is still with the group today).

But that is not Naked and On Fire. That is Naked and Dead.

Learning About Naked and On Fire

Despite not losing anyone from the group, it was decided to not let Jeff run anymore games for awhile. So Chris (a.k.a. Crothian), guest blogger on occasion here at The Iron Tavern, stepped up to run for us. His wealth of RPG experience and memory for things of past dwarfed pretty much what the rest of us had played, run, or knew about RPGs in total.

He brought a homebrew world to the table. A homebrew world with an extensive history shaped by campaigns that had been run in it in years past. He gave us a feat every level. We were rich beyond our wildest dreams by the time we hit 2nd level (like 100,000 plus gold pieces for the party). Behind his back we talked about how this was going to be fun, but man – what a monty haul campaign. We thought we had this campaign locked up!

Then he taught us about naked and on fire. Oh – we didn’t know that is what it was initially. We were too distracted by all these feats! All this gold! Magic weapons getting crafted. Nothing could touch us. Wrong.

No amount of gold or feats could protect us from campaign world decisions by our characters setting off chains of events that shaped the entire campaign. Deals with dragons (we were always making deals with dragons) to keep from dying or to gain in power (though I am not sure it ever really worked like that). Thefts of seemingly innocent artifacts triggering entire wars that spread across the land. And trifling in the affairs of gods. No amount of gold, magic weapons, or feats could solve some of these problems. We were constantly going from one frying pan to another and occasional excursions into the fire itself.

That campaign ended in a TPK around 18th level or so as we fell to a deity, Ftaghn, in battle. Some want to blame Taegan the dwarven cleric, but we know that wasn’t the case (the group doesn’t like it when I play clerics either). The whole campaign was naked and on fire. We still talk about this campaign. We still secretly hope that Chris will show up one game night and tell us our characters that fell to Ftaghn were warped to some other dimension or disruption in time and are still alive – ready to finish what they started.

Running Naked and On Fire

Fast forward to present day and I like to think I run a naked and on fire campaign. The realization sort of hit during one of my online DCC RPG sessions when I commented the group was a bit resource starved and that those times would pass. One of the players immediately commented ‘but Jeffrey, we are *always* starving for resources!” I think that is when I realized I had hit the naked and on fire stride.

Actions in the game mean something. Their effects spread. That sword that was stolen from the crafting wizard’s shop? Yeah – that was being made for a high ranking thieves guild member. Those gems you pried from the statue? Caused the statue to animate and search out the thief – eventually leading to the gems to be returned to the statue. Dead bodies showing up on the doorstep at your favorite local hangout? That can’t be good.

The other element, at least in my game, is a bit of resource starvation. At 5th and 6th level in a DCC game and I am pretty sure my players would love to obtain a magic weapon that did exactly what they wanted. Not one that may or may not be their preferred weapon, with goals of its own.

There is also the always possible element of character death. The characters are high enough level that it takes a lot more to outright kill a character. But the road is tough for the lower level henchman. And we’ve had a wizard or halfling knocked down to 0 off a really good hit or two on just a regular enough basis that the possibility is still present.

Why Naked and On Fire

This style isn’t for everyone.

If you want to always go into a fight knowing your character you built up an intricate backstory for or have adventured with for months and months is going to come out okay on the other side, you aren’t going to like naked and on fire. If you want every problem you face to be solvable or work out your way in the end – every single time – you aren’t going to like naked and on fire. If you want to know that in the end of the campaign you are going to emerge victorious, because that’s how happy stories end, you aren’t going to like naked and on fire.

But if you are someone that ends up on the other side of a fight still alive and feel like they earned it – naked and on fire is for you. If you enjoy complex problems, possibly caused by innocent actions many sessions ago that you have to solve – naked and on fire is for you. And if you emerge victorious at the end of a long campaign and you want to feel like you earned it and it wasn’t a give – naked and on fire is for you.

Naked and on fire can be frustrating at times. But in the end, the campaigns that I have played in or run that have been of the naked and on fire vein have been the most memorable.

Part 1: Quick NPC Parties


Done by the book, you can easily spend 2 hours making up just one character in Pathfinder or D&D, even with software like Hero Lab to help.  While this might be acceptable for a player who has just one character to make up, the poor DM who wants to make up a whole party of NPCs might need to spend 8 hours!

But before we discuss quick stats for NPCs, let’s first discuss the NPC party itself.

1. NPC party’s primary and secondary mission

Why does this NPC party exist?  Who are they working for?  What are their primary and secondary missions?  This will help fit the NPC party in with the campaign’s plot.

Example: The NPC party are members of the Mercati, a smuggling operation based in the Badlands.  Their primary mission is to smuggle some goods through the Badlands, so their merchant client can avoid Baron Imoldo’s onerous import tariff.  Their secondary mission is to oppose any Impuniti, a rival group, they might meet along the way.  The PCs run into them by chance while exploring the Badlands.  To add spice, the NPC party mistakenly identifies the PCs as Impuniti and draw their weapons.

2. NPC party’s primary and secondary archetype

I define “character archetype” as a specific class (or subclass) along with either a specific gender, a specific race, or both.  All characters with that archetype have those same characteristics, but can be of varying levels.

Each NPC party should have primary and secondary archetypes, and they should make sense for the party’s mission.

Example (cont’d): The NPC party’s primary archetype is human smuggler (rogue).  Its secondary archetype is human scout (ranger).  Gender is not specified for either archetype.  The smuggler(s) handle the financial and law evading aspects of the mission: forging papers, sneaking into the destination city, and selling the smuggled goods on the black market.  The scout(s) lead the way through the Badlands, help the party survive the rough terrain, and look out for enemies with their keen senses.

3. The party leader.

The leader of the party has the highest level and always has the primary archetype for the party.  If you want the NPC party to be a challenge for the PCs, make the level of the NPC leader the same as the highest level PC.

Example (cont’d): The PCs are averaged at 5th level.  The highest level PC is 6th.  So we make the leader of the NPC smuggling party 6th level also.  He/she has the primary archetype of human smuggler (rogue).

If race is not part of the primary archetype, roll for the race of the NPC leader:

Table 3.1: Race of NPC leader (d10):

1-5: Human
6-7: Elf or half-elf
8: Gnome or halfling
9: Half-Orc
10: Dwarf

If gender is not part of the primary archetype, roll for the gender as follows:

Table 3.2: Gender of NPC leader (d8):

1-5: Male
6-8: Female

Example (cont’d): Race (human) is part of the primary archetype for the NPC party, but gender is not.  So we roll for the leader’s gender.  We roll a “7”, so the leader is a female human.

4. Additional NPCs

Number and Level

First, roll 1d4 to decide how many additional NPCs there are.  This will create a fairly small party, so adjust upwards if desired.

Next determine the level of each of these NPCs.  If the leader is 5th level or higher, subtract d4-1 from the leader’s level to determine the level of each of the other characters.  If the leader is 4th level or lower, subtract d3-1 from that level (minimum 1st level).

Example (cont’d): We roll a 3 on a d4, so there are 3 additional NPCs besides the leader for a total of 4 members in the NPC party.  Since the leader is 5th level or higher, we roll d4-1 and get 3, 3, and 2 levels lower than the leader.  So the additional characters are 3rd, 3rd, and 4th level.


Next, determine the class of each additional NPC.  There must be at least one party member with the secondary archetype, though it need not be the NPC with the second highest level.  Determine the class of additional NPCs as follows:

Table 4.1: Class of additional NPCs (d20):

1-5: Class from primary archetype
6-9: Class from secondary archetype
10-11: Mage type (wizard, illusionist, or sorcerer)
12-13: Cleric type (cleric or druid)
14-17: Fighter type (fighter, warrior, paladin, ranger, or barbarian)
18-19: Rogue or bard
20: Aristocrat, expert or commoner

Example (cont’d): The first additional character (3rd level) is of the secondary archetype (don’t need to roll since we must have one).  So he is a 3rd level scout (ranger).  For the second additional member, we roll a “20”, so we decide he’s a 3rd level expert (the merchant client whose goods are being smuggled).   For the third additional NPC, we roll a “12”, so a cleric type.  Since its an outdoorsy party, we decide its a druid.


If you rolled an archetype on Table 4.1 and race is part of the archetype, use the race for that archetype.  Otherwise, roll for race using Table 3.1 above.


If you rolled an archetype on Table 4.1 and gender is part of the archetype, use the gender for that archetype.  Otherwise, roll for gender using Table 3.2 above.

Re-roll race and/or gender if you get results that seem odd for your campaign, such as a halfling barbarian.

Example (cont’d): The scout is an archetype that specifies human, so we don’t need to roll for race.  But we must roll for race for the expert and the druid.  The archetype doesn’t specify gender, so we roll gender for all three additional characters:

  • 3rd level scout: Rolled “3” for gender. A male human.
  • 3rd level expert: Rolled “4” for gender and “5” for race.  A male human.
  • 4th level druid: Rolled “7” for gender and “5” for race. A female human.


Now you know the purpose of the NPC party and its makeup: how many are in the party, their level, class, race, and gender.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss different techniques for quickly creating stats for each member of the NPC party.

In Part 3, we’ll cover quickly generating equipment and treasure for the NPC party.

About the Author

Ed Larmore is a long-time GM of the Eraven Campaign.  He is also the developer of Scabard, an RPG campaign manager.

Blinded By The Light


Illustration by Wayne Reynolds – used under Paizo Community Use Policy

Conditions in a game can play as big or as small a role as you would like as a GM. It is pretty rare in a fantasy game that some kind of exotic creature does not have some way to cause an issue to the character they target. Conditions can be great equalizers to power players and awesome factors for players that want to puzzle their way around things.

A quick proviso: We all know I am a Pathfinder player for my fantasy largely, so I am going to describe the conditions here that are pertinent to a Pathfinder game. It is likely that your own game system has rules covering these same things but if I do slip and talk about statistical effects I am coming from a Pathfinder perspective.

Have a two-handed weapon specialist who sneers at the rogue every time they drag out a short sword or a dagger? Well do I have the condition for you! Swallowed whole. Hit them with a big creature that has a penchant for not chewing its food. Have the character slip down the gullet of the creature. Inside the gullet of a creature it is much easier to harm BUT the character can only attack with a light one handed weapon. Seleca, the Cavalier in one of my games, is the two handed specialist and she has recently just scored level 18. She is capable of cutting a twentieth level fighter down with over 300 hp in one round. She has just taken to carrying a dagger as she has now been swallowed around seven times and been able to do absolutely nothing until her companions cut her out.

A condition that hampers nearly every type of character is the blinded condition. In Pathfinder Blindness/Deafness is a second level spell and is a permanent effect! While running the Reign of Winter adventure path for Pathfinder I have blinded a Paladin twice in the campaign. The first time this occurred he remained blind for about four sessions and the condition really hampered his ability to be effective. The second time lasted only a single combat (in which he hilariously got eaten by an oven) but it caused a big drama as he struggled to be effective against the witch that had caused the blindness. This condition also seriously hampers a magician. A magician that cannot see is severely hampered in creating lines of effect for spells or using a lot of the spells in their repertoire.

Continuing on with the spell caster perspective you also could use deafness. Deafness causes any spell with a verbal component a chance of failure as although the magician can think of the correct words the brain cannot tell if the mouth is verbalizing them correctly. Tonal information is important to the casting of spells and this feedback to the brain is important to ensure the tone and pitch is correct in the delivery.

Creatures that can cause confusion or stunning effects are also good to have. If they can cause these conditions for multiple rounds it can turn a powerful enemy into their own worst nightmare! Confusion gives the player a random chance of what they are going to do for the round. There are four different options in Pathfinder. They can continue as normal, babble incoherently, attack themselves or attack the nearest living creature, regardless of who it is! As you can see, two of these outcome (50% of the time) the player will likely be doing awful things to themselves or possibly their companions! Stun on the other hand is effective against characters that get a lot of attacks per round with a weapon. It causes the player to drop anything that is held. That means to become effective again the player needs to pick up the weapon (which draws an attack of opportunity) or draw a new less preferred weapon (no AoO) before they can be effective again. The player is also unable to act for a round which means the creature can attack for that round. It is likely confusion will last multiple rounds while stunning is very rarely any more than one round.

Just a quick post today. Use your creatures wisely to inflict interesting conditions. There are far more conditions that exist in the game than what I have listed here, but the ones above are always a good place to start. The players will remember these combats for the way they overcame them regardless of the ‘x’ condition they were carrying. it makes for more interesting combats and more heroic actions from the players. Keep rolling!

Mark Knights is  39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.