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Fey Nightmares

I began prep for the Horn & Crown story arc fresh off of Mark Chadbourn’s third Swords of Albion novel, the Devil’s Looking Glass.  As four of the seven PCs in the witch hunter game are from England, I had always planned on having part of the campaign take place in the British Isles.  And to me, that meant involving the fey.  The question became how to approach faeries in the world of Witch Hunter.

I’ve loved the imagery and spectacle of Guillermo del Toro’s take on the fey in Hellboy 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth.  But most RPGs treat the fey as beautiful wish fulfillment.  So game-able details on spooky, creepy, otherworldly fey that adhere to folklore (and the Monster Manual 12) are hard to come by.

Recently, two OSR blogs have touched on the subject: Elfmaids and Octopi and They Might be Gazebos have posted articles on making elves alien again.  Of course, they are working at something of a disadvantage, from my perspective anyway. They are trying to maintain the feys’ playability as a race.  Therefore, most of the recommendations they put forward were cosmetic at best.  With Witch Hunter, I don’t have any such restrictions.  There are no elves or dwarves.  And the fey are free to be as alien and hostile to humanity as the GM pleases.

So herein are a collection of various articles to give the fey and those who serve the Summer and Winter courts a real shot in the arm.  Apply liberally.  Most Witch Hunter players are probably coming from other RPGs that present the fey in more favorable terms.  You’ll need to shock them out of that misconception quickly.  They fey of the Invisible World are not your friends.  They have an agenda, one most of us would probably find horrifying or just downright queer.  Even their best habits should be unsettling.

The Unseelie of Swords of Albion

Mark Chadbourn does a good job of injecting the fey of his novels with unsettling creepiness.  Granted, they are the villains, monsters in vaguely human guise.  Some of his stuff works, some of it doesn’t.  But it’s a great place to cull from for our purposes.  Granted, the Seelie should hedge towards more alien beauty, which when done right can be just as unsettling as the grotesqueness of the Unseelie fey.

The voice was like the wind across snow.  In the corner of the hall, a woman stood, motionless, shoulders slightly hunched like an animal on the brink of attacking.  Her hair hung lank around a bloodless face, her eyes red-rimmed, unblinking.  There was something of the grave about her.  With excruciating slowness, she stalked towards him.

— Mark Chadbourn, The Silver Skull


“Do you hear music?” Mayhew cocked his head.  “Like pipes playing, caught on the breeze?”  As he breathed deeply of the night air, he realized the foul odour of the city had been replaced by sweet, seductive scents that took him back to his childhood.  A tear stung his eye.  “That aroma,” he noted, “like cornfields beneath the summer moon.”  He inhaled.  “Honey, from the hive my grandfather kept.”

— Mark Chadbourn, The Silver Skull


In the sweet places inhabited by the Unseelie Court, there is always music in the air, and beauty, and joy, and the haunting fragrance of honeysuckle.

— Mark Chadbourn, The Scar-Crow Men


Their clothes, while of the finest material, appeared to be on the brink of rot, stained here and there with silvery mildew, the style harking back to a distant age.  A scent of loam accompanied them.  Their cheekbones were high, their hair long, their eyes pale, but there was an odd quality to their features that meant they rarely registered on the mind; once they had passed from view it was almost impossible to recall the details of their appearance.

— Mark Chadbourn, The Silver Skull


As the doors to the State Rooms swung open, the light from the candles grew dimmer, although the flames burned as strong.  Shadows fell at strange angles, and a suffocating atmosphere descended.  Here and there across the room, blood began to drip from noses.

— Mark Chadbourn, The Silver Skull


Fey Interests

Polemic, 10′ did an interesting article on the topic of weird fey variants.  Rather than mess with keeping dozens of variants, it was easy enough to distill them down to their base interests.  When you want to flesh out a faerie (villain, lieutenant, or hero), simply choose one from the following list or roll a d10 and assign the result.

  1. Stealing children
    These fey use their powers of persuasion to part the starving poor, or otherwise misfortunate, with their offspring.  Perhaps they steal an infant from its crib, replacing it with a grotesque (a changeling).  Either way, the fey views this as a proper exchange.
  2. Magical trinkets and relics
    These fey might collect magical devices from throughout the Invisible World (including the mortal realm), stealing them when necessary or trading and bartering for them.  Or perhaps they make mischief by circulating powerful cursed items (a monkey’s paw) among mortals.
  3. Perform “miraculous” deeds for the dispossessed and easily duped
    These fey answer the desperate cries of those in need, but at a hefty the price, whether it be a soul or firstborn son (daughter, or child).  My like a daemon, the fey will arrive to collect its prize at the appointed time without fail.
  4. The unfinished task, cut short by the bent nail or the wrong screwdriver.
    These fey become invisible to make mischief by bedeviling craftsmen with broken tools, changing measurements, and all other manners of misdeeds.  Naturally, they always fix what they have broken after the craftsman has gone to sleep.  Those whom these fey take a liking too, they sometimes aid in their craft during these times.  These fey are particularly sensitive to offers of gifts!
  5. Following after the wayward with wolfish intent.
    This fey is driven to inflict pain and mischief upon foolish women, men, or children who wander alone after dark.  The hunt, the gnawing fear of its victim, is intoxicating for the fey.  Some have learned to brew this into a tonic that is in high demand throughout both faerie courts.
  6. Visit villages on cold moonless nights, tapping thin fingers on windows as they create intricate traceries in the frost.
    This fey is an artist and graces those who please it with wondrous images born of frost traced on a window.  Of course, the subtitles and nuances of this art is sometimes too great for human perception.  Sometimes this serves as a warning of bad things to come.
  7. Yearn merely to caress the placid faces of the wayward dead. Living beings are too coarse and earthly for them.
    This fey will lead the wayward, lost, or foolish to an early death for its own romantic (or carnal) pleasures.  While usually a trait of the Unseelie fey, there are those of the Summer Court who share this trait, though not in the same malicious sense.
  8. Shambling about in the twilight seeking the unwary with groping fingers and muttering dark lullabies.
    Locks of maiden’s hair; this is a desired commodity, even a currency, for whole communities of fey.  The more pure (or more tarnished) the maid, the more valuable the hair.  This could be the Focus of the fey (Focus Bound Price).
  9. Isolation
    These fey dwell apart from their brethren, whether out of fear, grief, or animosity. Their loneliness (their tendency to drink immoderately) makes them unpredictable.  They might invite a wayward soul in out of the rain, masquerading as a simple hermit, offer him food and drink (never take food or drink offered from a faerie – it gives them power over you) and then torture the guest for their amusement.
  10. Fingers tipped with gossamer strands float down, touching skin through fabric and causing tiny itches that are all too easily scratched. Wake too soon and you might feel it crouching on your chest, trailing its subtle threads across your face and ears and throat. Hide under the covers and it will crawl in with you.
    Dreams and nightmares; this fey will steal into the home of a sleeping victim, crouch upon his chest and lay its long, delicate fingers across his sleeping face.  The victim is visited by intense and realistic dreams or nightmares.  The fey might drink from the intoxicating emotions that these dreams cause, or perhaps it is simply curious and wishes to understand humanity better.  These fey are sometimes confused with the more horrid (though not necessarily more thoroughly evil) incubus.

Weaknesses and Wards

These are culled from folklore.  They are useful as superstitions surrounding the fey.  Consider changing them up in strange, unexpected ways for the fey of your game.  Also remember, each fey is unique so no two will be exactly the same.  Still, I would settle on a few constants (like vulnerability to Cold Iron), if only to make those variations more dramatic.
  • On entering a Fairy dwelling, a piece of steel stuck in the door, takes from the Fairies the power of closing it till the intruder comes out again.
  • A knife stuck in a deer carried home at night keeps them from laying their weight on the animal.
  • A knife or nail in one’s pocket prevents his being `lifted’ at night. Nails in the front bench of the bed keep elves from women `in the straw’, and their babes. As additional safe-guards, the smoothing iron should be put below the bed, and the reaping-hook in the window.
  • A nail in the carcass of a bull that fell over a rock was believed to preserve its flesh from them.
  • church bells
  • the bells worn by morris dancers
  • the bells round the necks of sheeps and oxen
  • one can leap to safety across running water, particularly a southward-flowing stream.
  • descending to the shoreline below the high-tide mark. The Fairies were unable to go below that tide mark.
  • Fire thrown into water in which the feet have been washed takes away the power of the water to admit the Fairies into the house at night
  • burning peat put in sowens to hasten their fermenting (greasadh gortachadh) kept the substance in them till ready to boil.
  • fire was carried round lying-in women, and round about children before they were christened, to keep mother and infant from the power of evil spirits.
  • When the Fairies were seen coming in at the door burning embers thrown towards them drove them away.
  • When sprinkled on one’s clothes or carried in the pocket no Fairy will venture near (it was usual with people going on journeys after nightfall to adopt the precaution of taking some with them).
  • Oatmeal, taken out of the house after dark, was sprinkled with salt, and unless this was done, the Fairies might through its instrumentality take the substance out of the farmer’s whole grain.
  • Oakmen are created when a felled oak stump sends up shoots. One should never take food offered by them since it is poisonous.
  • Four-leafed clover: brake fairy glamour, as well as the fairy ointment, which was indeed said by Hunt to be made of four-leafed clovers.
  • St John’s Wort, the herb of Midsummer: potent against spells and the power of fairies, evil spirits and the Devil.
    • Red verbena was almost equally potent, partly because of its pure and brilliant colour.
  • Daisies, particularly the little field daisies, were protective plants, and a child wearing daisy chains was supposed to be safe from fairy kidnapping.
  • Red-berried trees were also protective, above them all rowan.
    • A staff made of rowan wood, or a rowan cross or a bunch of ripe berries were all sure protections
      • it was customary in the Highlands to plant a rowan-tree outside every house.
    • Where rowans were scarce, ash- An ashen gad was supposed to be protective of cattle.

Power & Price Descriptions and Variants

With the above guidelines, here are some Power and Price variations you can apply to fey creatures in your game.

Debilitative Aura (Veneficum/Sorcerous): Describe the suffocating aura that accompanies the fey, as if a heavy weight pressed on your chest; the instinctive urge to avert one’s eyes from their presence; the heady scent of honeysuckle or the grave; the sensation of blood dripping from your nose.

Mortal Mask (Corpus/Body): The fey know their appearance is unsettling to mortals, and will quickly shift to a less alien appearance.  A brief glimpse of their true form might be allowed to cow or intimidate the mortal(s) in their presence.  This isn’t on the official list of powers, but is simple enough to add.

Allergen (Corpus/Body): includes church bells, iron, and salt.

Atmospheric Disturbance (Veneficum/Sorcerous): The appearance of any fey is preceded by the faint sound of pipes, and a sweet, seductive aura that is as peaceful as it is unsettling.

Avoidance (Malus/Offensive): Mystical plants (oak, holly, rowan, ash, thorne, sage, sweetgrass, four-leafed clover, St. John’s Wart, daisies), oatmeal

Damage (Corpus/Body): Cold Iron

Repulsion (Malus/Offensive): Church bells, Inverted clothing

Restriction (Cursus/Movement): Hanging an iron instrument (bell, cross, fence, horse shoe, scissors, etc) above a arch or doorway will bar the passage of a fey being.  Mystical plants (see Avoidance) and salt may be used as a substitute.

Weakness (Malus/Offensive): Cold Iron



The Devil of the Sea

Has it really been 3 weeks since I last posted here?  Sorry about that.  I blame potty training.  Let’s get back into it shall we?

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend everyone take a moment to check out The Demon Hunter’s Compendium.  It’s a very cool blog that does a great job compiling info on various monsters and legends from folklore.  It isn’t updated very often, but when it is, it’s usually a doozy.  If you are running a low-fantasy or horror game (any era), 2/3 of your monster research will be done for you by just this one blog.  This month the profiled a Scottish legend: the Nuckelavee.

According to Orcadian legend, the Nuckelavee (pronounced nuh-kel-ah-vee) is a horrible sea faery or a demon that comes out of the sea when darkness falls to bring sickness and death to humans, animals, and the very land itself. The beast then feeds upon the lifeforce of everything it has killed (Bane 220). The Nuckelavee is thought to be a member of the Unseelie Court, which is a court of evil faeries in Scottish folklore. These faeries are said to be the evil souls of the damned, and actively seek to do as much harm as they possibly can to humans, rather than just causing random mischief like other faeries (Franklin 260; “Nuckelavee”, Monstropedia). The beast is also thought to belong to the Fuath, a collective term for a wide variety of malevolent water faeries in Scottish and Irish folklore (Franklin 102). The name nuckelavee is thought to be derived from a corruption of the Orcadian word knoggelvi which, according to Orkney resident and folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, means “Devil of the Sea” (“Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia; “The Nightmarish Nuckelavee”, EsoterX). In Shetland, the same creature is known as a mukkelevi(“Nuckelavee”, Wikipedia). The word itself may very well be a variation of the Norse word nokk or the Icelandic word nykur (“The Nightmarish Nuckelavee”, EsoterX). But wherever the name comes from, they all more or less describe the same terrible creature.

So yeah, this has Witch Hunter monster written all over it.  So, without further adieu…

Nuckelavee (Beast)

Huge Creature

The Nuckelavee (pronounced nuh-kel-ah-vee) is a terrible abomination that comes out of the sea when darkness falls to bring sickness and death to humans, animals, and the very land itself.  They is most common to the southern coast of Scotland, though encounters have been recorded throughout the British Isles.  These creatures are associated with the Unseelie Court of the Fey, though they are not faerie spirits themselves.

Fear Rating: 4
Hell’s Favor: 3
Pace: 6

Initiative: Reflexes 6d
Melee: Claws 8d (+6 damage), Bite 6d (+8 damage), Trample 6d (+8 damage)
Ranged: None
Defenses: Avoidance 2, Discipline 2, Fortitude 5
Armor: 1
Health Track: 9/9/9/9

Talents: Grand Fury, Reel-In Attack, Slam (Sweep)


  • 10d: Endurance, Athletics
  • 6d: Command (Intimidation), Notice,Reflexes, Resolve, Stealth


  • Debilitative Aura (Breath) / Blocked from the World (Active at night only)
  • Durability / Vulnerability (Iron)
  • Carnivate / Obvious Appearance
  • Regeneration / Allergen (Fresh Water)
  • Shape Mask / Reveal Nature (Always casts a shadow of its true form)
  • Apparition / Restriction (Running Water)
  • Swath of Destruction (Breath) / Weakness (Burning Seaweed)

Story Ability: Nightmares / Restriction (Iron)


The nuckelavee’s body is essentially that of a horse. Along its flanks flap vestigial fins.  Growing out from where the horse’s head should be are the head, torso and arms of a man.  The head is overly large, with a shark-like mouth filled with sharp, jagged teeth, and a single bloodshot eye that glows red in the presence of light (like a cat’s).  It’s man-like arms are long and gangly, with bony knuckles that drag the ground, and tipped in sharp, rending claws.  The beast is has no skin, and muscle, sinew and bone are all exposed.  Standing out amid these are sickly yellow veins and arteries, pumping with black blood.  The putrid stench of sulfur and decomposing fish surrounds the creature, as does the foul, black miasma steadily belching from its gaping mouth.  The dreadful smell is known to drive entire herds of animals off of cliffs to their deaths.  As the creature runs, its massive head, lolls about on its neck as though the muscles are too weak to support its weight.


While a formidable monstrosity in its own right, it is the nuckelavee’s foul breath that is the source of much of its woe.  Described by witnesses as a “foul, black reek,” it causes plants and crops to wither, animals to sicken and die on the spot (Swath of Destruction).  It infects humans with a deadly wasting disease, known as Mortasheen (Debilitative Aura).  In the most powerful specimens, this power is powerful enough to create lasting periods of drought, leading to famine.

Like most of the creatures associated with the fey, it is vulnerable to iron, steel, and Cold Iron in particular.  It has some shapeshifting capabilities, but always casts its true shadow.  Fresh water is an anathema to it.  Likewise, the stench of burning seaweed can drive it back into the sea.  Many towns and villages along the southern Scottish coast perform “kelp-burnings” on nights with new moons to dissuade predations by these creatures.

Those who survive a brush with these creatures will be visited by vivid and persistant nightmares of the encounter.  An iron cross or scissors fastened above the bed will prevent these.






Over on For Honor…and Intrigue blog, Gaston’s Hat has been teasing for some time about his creepy animated scarecrows.  And while I understand the cloak of secrecy, I was very eager to see what they were…made of, so to speak.  Well, the veil has been lifted.

And so, with Mr. Hat’s blessings, I present to you these creepy bags of nasty in full Witch Hunter glory.

But first, some mood music.

Devilish Scarecrows


There are several ways to include scary, animated scarecrows in your Witch Hunter game. Let’s start with a simple band of minions, perfect for Villains with an unusual Dark Flock ability, or for weird one-off encounters.

Hay-Men (Minion)

Threat Rating: 2 or 3
Hell’s Favor: 1
Pace: 3
Special Attack: Fists +2/+2
Talents: Night Vision, Fearless

  • Immunity (Bullets and Piercing Weapons)/Damage (Fire)


Then we move up the chain a bit.  The truly frightening scarecrows are simulacrums created by a diabolist or witch.


Create Grave Scarecrow (Villianous Rite)

Traditions: Diabolism, Witchcraft
Mastery: 4
Time: 30 minutes/2 rounds
Duration: 1 week
Strain: 2
Description: With this profane rite, the sorcerer binds the tortured spirit of a murdered sacrifice to a horrid, straw-stuffed simulacrum (other vessels, such as puppets or dolls, though uncommon, are not unheard of).  The scarecrow must be specially prepared with gylphs and sigils to make it a proper vessel.  The heart of the victim, sacrificed by the sorcerer’s own hand, is placed within the chest cavity of the vessel.  The simulacrum is then placed within a Summoning Circle for the rite to be performed.  Successfully completed, the spirit of the sacrificed victim is bound to the heart within the scarecrow, animating it and under the complete control of the sorcerer.

A sorcerer may command a number of these simulacrums equal to his or her sorcerous tradition skill rank.

  • Boost: Increase the Mastery of the Rite by 1 to extend the duration to 1 month.

Grave Scarecrow (Lieutenant)

Fear Rating: 2
Hell’s Favor: 2
Pace: 2

Initiative: 6d Reflexes

Melee: Fists 6d (+4 damage)
Ranged: None
Defenses: Avoidance 3, Discipline 3, Fortitude 4
Armor: 0
Health Track: 5/5/5/5

Talents: Fearless, Fury, Night Vision, Shattering Attack

  • Immunity (Bullets and Piercing Weapons)/Damage (Fire)
  • Gestalt Body/Weak Spot (“Heart”)
  • Durability/Reveal Nature (Glowing Eyes)
  • Ultimate Master


  • 10d: Endurance
  • 6d: Reflexes, Notice, Unarmed
  • 5d: Stealth
  • 4d: Command (Intimidate), Resolve

Dramatics: Grave Scarecrows are a construct of diabolism or witchcraft. They are very strong, able to break down doors and shatter furniture, fixtures, even weapons! They move with a lurching, shambling gait and their motion sounds like boughs creaking and sighing in the breeze. They obey the will of their creator and can be summoned to their creator from a distance.


The Scar-Crow Men

8391189The insidious doppelgangers of Mark Chadborne’s The Scar-Crow Men are created through ancient fey glamours, unknown to men and highly guarded by the fey (both Summer and Winter Courts).  They are created to serve as spies and saboteurs among the mortal realm.

Scar-Crow Man (Lieutenant)

Fear Rating: 1
Hell’s Favor: 2
Pace: 3

Initiative: 6d Reflexes

Melee: Rapier 6d (+4 damage)
Ranged: Pistol 6d (+4 damage)
Defenses: Avoidance 3, Discipline 3, Fortitude 3
Armor: 0
Health Track: 6/6/6

Talents: Appealing, Cheat, Slam, Unreadable

  • Mimicry Mask*/Reveal Nature (Do not bleed)


  • 8d: Charm (Gossip, Persuade), Notice, Stealth
  • 6d: Empathy, Reflexes, Melee, Notice, Ranged, Resolve
  • 4d: Endurance

* This power is part of the glamour that disguises the true form of this creature.  Unlike the normal version of this power, the scare-crow man may not change its appearance once it has duplicated a target subject.

** Scare-crow men are generally crafted by fey sorcerers to closely match the skills of the target they are meant to imitate.  The skills listed here are merely examples.  

Dramatics: Scar-crow men are nearly indistinguishable from the subject they mimic.  In reality, they are little more than well crafted bags of straw cloaked in a veil of glamour.  When wounded, they do not bleed, but leak tuffs of straw and stuffing.  Only in “death” is the veil lifted and the true form of the scare-crow man revealed.


More for Minions

Minion Talents

In addition to the minion talents from the core book and the Grand Tome of Adversaries, these are some homebrewed minion talents I’ve been using in my game to give minions a bit more bite.  They are designed with the idea that no minion will possess more than one such Talent, so use a light hand with them.

Disciplined: In the company of a skilled Lieutenant or Villain, these minions receive +1d to all dice pools.  If the leader is slain, this bonus is lost.

Formidable: Formidable minions get +1d to all attack rolls.

Merciless: Merciless minions double all damage dealt.

Opportunistic: Whenever an opponent attacks and misses, or fails to kill at least one minion in this band, these minions may make an immediate counter-attack at –1d as a Trivial Attack Action.

Overbearing: This band of minions specialize in overwhelming their foe with numbers and wrestling them to the ground.  When attempting to bring down a lone target, these minions roll an opposed Attack roll with a +2d bonus. If successful, the target is considered grappled and pinned.  This tactic is opposed normally, but may not be reversed. Minion bands may not be overborne, though a single minion can.

Resilient: Resilient minions are treated as one threat rating higher (max 4) against attack rolls directed against them.

Swordsmen: These highly trained minions are skilled in at least one Fighting Tradition. An opponent who is not trained in a Fighting Tradition (ie. lacks the Basic Talent) suffers –1d to all attack and damage rolls against this band.

Treacherous: Treacherous minions always roll at least 4 dice, regardless of how few are banded together.

Unruly: This band of minions add +2d to all attack and damage rolls, but immediately flee after the first casualty suffered.


Wild Talents

Wild Talents are meant for animal minions (or lieutenants).

Poison: This creature is venomous. The potency of the venom depends on the creature. Usually, the target must suffer damage from the animal’s primary attack to be poisoned (a snake’s bite, a scorpion’s sting). When exposed to a poison, you roll Endurance against the poison’s potency. If you fail the Endurance roll, the GM adds the difference between your roll and the poison’s potency to its DM, and then rolls damage as usual.

Poison Potency DM
Scorpion 2 +3
Rattlesnake 3 +4
Cobra 4 +6


Morale for Minions

Sometimes the GM knows when a group of minions will break and run.  Sometimes it’s more fun to let the dice decide.

After the first casualty suffered, the band must make a D1 Morale roll. Roll dice equal to the bands Threat Rating x the number of remaining minions.  If they succeed, they stay in the fight.  Otherwise they flee.  The GM can raise the difficulty of the roll as he or she sees fit, though keeping it at D1 will reduce the amount of time spent counting successes and thus keep the combat flowing quickly (these are minions, after all).

When reduced to 2 or 1 members, mortal minions will automatically break and flee.

Bands with a Threat Rating of 2 or greater, or who possess the Disciplined Talent (above) will  defensibly disengage and withdraw in the most tactically sound manner.  Others will simply break and run.

Tripping over History (or Salt Mummies Must Die!)

One of the things about running a game set in the real world, even a slightly alternate version as with Witch Hunter, sometimes you have to trip over something to realize it’s there.

Last week, in the run up to the kickstarter for The Thin Blue Line: A Detroit Police Story, Jason Marker, the writer/publisher, posted a scenario/encounter based around the haunting of the salt mines beneath Detroit.

Now first, holy crap Detroit used to be a salt mine?  Who knew?!

Ok, put your hands down, jackasses.  Doesn’t matter, salt mines beneath a city that won’t exist for a couple centuries doesn’t really help me with my Witch Hunter game.  But hey!  Salt people!  Creepy dehydrating mummies!  I can work with that.  I just need a different location.

So, one google search later and PRESTO!  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…the Wiedliczka Salt Mines of Southern Poland.

You want some details?  Of course you do!

  • Built in the 13th century, these mines produced table salt until 2007!
  • It was one of the primary sources of income for the Polish crown until 1772.
  • One of the Royal Salt Mines maintained by the Zupy Krokowskie Salt Mining Company, whose headquarters is a CASTLE in…Wiedliczka!
  • The mines are 1,073 feet deep and 178 (!!!) miles long.
  • The mines contain dozens of statues and chapels carved out of the rock salt by the miners.
  • The mines include a freakin’ underground lake.  How much more can this place scream dungeoncrawl?!?!

But there’s MORE.  A legend and lost treasure built in:

[Princess Kinga] was about to be married to Boleslaw V the Chaste, the Prince of Krakow. As part of her dowry, she asked her father for a lump of salt, since salt was prizeworthy in Poland. Her father, King Bela, took her to a salt mine in Máramaros. She threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts before leaving for Poland. On arriving in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. The people found a lump of salt in there and when they split it in two, discovered the princess’s ring. Kinga had thus become the patron saint of salt miners in and around the Polish capital.

Now if this were your bog standard fantasy world, sure you’d probably cook this up in an afternoon.  But this is the real deal!  You can still visit the place!  You can buy souvenirs at the gift shop!  No comment if it is still the bulwark of the Polish economy, though that answer may lie in a joke book from the 70’s.  So yeah, this is a prime example of tripping over something you never knew existed, and would never have even imagined existing if you hadn’t gone looking for it.

As it is, you can find a handy list of world salt mines on wikipedia. But few of these have the same gamer allure of Wiedliczka.

Now.  For those of you who have yawned through this history lesson, here are salt people for Witch Hunter!

Salt People (Lieutenant)

Fear Rating: 3
Hell’s Favor: 2
Pace: 2
Initiative: Reflexes 4d
Melee: 6d Claws (+6 damage)
Ranged: None
Defenses: Avoidance: 3; Discipline: 3; Fortitude: 4
Armor: 2 (flesh infused and hardened by salt)
Health Track: 6/6/6
Talents: Burst of Speed, Disorienting Strike, Night Vision, Slam
Fundamental Power/Price: Burrow/Lair
Additional Powers/Prices:
• Iron Body / Obvious Appearance
• Sap Ability (Toughness) / Weakness (Water)
Suggested Skills:
9d: Command (Intimidation), Endurance
8d: Stealth
6d: Notice
4d: Reflexes

Salt People (Minion)

Threat Rating: 2
Fear Rating: 3
Pace: 2
Special Attacks: Claws (+4/+4) (Dehydrating Touch)
Talents: Burst of Speed, Disorienting Strike, Night Vision
• Burrow / Lair
• Sap Ability (Toughness: Dehydrating Touch) / Weakness (Water)
Skills: Command (Intimidate) +6, Endurance +7, Stealth +5

Description: Salt People stand roughly as tall as a grown man, but have a crouched, hunchbacked posture that makes them appear much shorter. They have thin, twisted limbs, emaciated faces with sunken cheeks, a withered slit for a mouth, and sparkling silver eyes. Their bodies are covered in powdered salt, which they shed with every step, and their thick white skin is completely hairless. Whether salt people are actually the restless spirits of dead miners or some creature native to the mines is unknown.

Dramatics: These creatures move with a slow, shuffling gait most of the time, but are capable of intense bursts of speed over short distances. They can also burrow through the walls of the salt mine, and even through soil, allowing some of them to surface throughout the surrounding community.  When attacking, a Salt Person uses wild punches and powerful body blows to pummel its opponent. In addition to the damage caused by the physical assault, the creature’s touch absorbs the water in a target’s body, causing immediate, debilitating dehydration. Salt People rarely fight to the death, and on those rare occasions where one has been captured or killed, their bodies melt quickly into the Earth, leaving only a salty residue behind. They hate light and loud noises, and usually flee into the darkness or burrow into the sand rather than fight. When cornered, spooked, or if flight is otherwise not an option, a Salt Person attacks quickly and viciously, attempting to overwhelm or kill its target quickly so that it may flee.

Once again, thanks to Jason Marker for the original concept.

Epic…Fail? (Game Master’s Roundtable of DOOM #6)

Wait! What? #6? Where did this come from? Where are 1–5? Sorry, folks.  I’m late to the party on this one.  It has not escaped my notice that, despite my focus on whatever I’m playing at the moment, the most popular posts on this blog have been pretty game agnostic.  So I’m only happy to spout off more about GMing.  I’ve been doing it for long enough, I should have SOMETHING to say about it.  So I fell in behind this blog caravan a bit after it began.  I may go back and revisit the earlier topics, but for now upwards and onwards!

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker of Starwalker Studios (and the Gamemaster’s Journey podcast):

Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure.

We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.

Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?

So where to begin?

First of all, of course there needs to be a chance of failure.  There is a reason they are called GAMES.  A roleplaying GAME without chance is a terribly boring, pretentious affair.  Some people may liken it to playing a computer game with a cheat code.  But those who do that get off on the CHEATING aspect.  Tabletop RPG’s don’t offer that sort of satisfaction.  So a chance of failure needs to the there.  Its a vital component for creating tension and excitement in play.

Now all that said, there are a few circumstances in which that chance of failure can make the play experience tedious and frustrating to players and GM alike:

  • When failure brings the game to a screeching halt.
  • When failure takes someone out of the game completely.
  • When there is no room for alternative approaches to the problem.
  • When failure is…lame!

Let’s address these one at a time, shall we?

1) When failure brings the game to a screeching halt
Progress in play should never be tied to a single die roll.  Not only is this poor design, its poor GMing on top of that.  This is one of the things that makes running a traditional “mystery” so difficult with RPGs.  I heartedly subscribe to the GUMSHOE philosophy that the first clue should always be free.  Success with the dice brings additional information.  Failure should have the consequence of raising the stakes, heightening the tension.  Failure should say, not this way, try something else.

2) When failure takes someone out of the game completely
Anything that drops a single character from play for the rest of the session is a big no-no in my book.  I’ve been guilty of it plenty of times, don’t get me wrong.  Kidnapping the character of an obnoxious player to serve as a sacrifice for an evil cult, trapping a character in an impenetrable bubble at the bottom of a lake.  Just because you do it doesn’t make it a good practice.  This goes double with character death, especially if you are playing a RPG with complex character generation rules (GURPS, for instance).

3) When there no room for alternative approaches to the problem
As I said in #1, failure shouldn’t be a dead end.  If you can’t pick the lock, you should be able to try and kick it down.  Can’t charm or cajole the information from a captive or informant, you can always try interrogation.  Failure with no alternative means of redress is no better than failure that stops the game cold.  Of course, as GM, it isn’t your responsibility to spell out the players’ options for them.  Let them do the work.  If they come out with something cool and outside the box, reward it with a hero point, a benny, or an XP bonus.

4) When failure is LAME
And by that I mean when failure adds NOTHING to the experience.  It adds nothing to the narrative, doesn’t add tension or raise the stakes, doesn’t even offer a moment of levity other than, “What are the f**king odds?!?!”  Think of it like that last hurdle in a side-scrolling video game just before the boss where you always seem to hurtle off the ledge because your timing is just a bit off.  LAME!  Usually, lame fails come from things that shouldn’t even require a die roll.  Think about it.  Which of these scenarios sound better:

  • “You fail trying to climb the 15 foot stone wall.  Take 3 points of damage and try again.”
  • “You struggle to climb the 15 foot stone wall.  After a few tumbles you make it over.  Take 3 points of damage for your trouble.”

Every repeated roll costs you time you could be doing something else.  And wouldn’t you rather your players be duking it out with that ogre horde in the next valley than trying to catch and skin rabbits to offset their provisions?  Sometimes it’s better to either let the players win, or let them succeed with consequences.  It’s the whole “yes, and…” / “yes, but…” approach to GMing.

Ok.  Right.  Right.  Yes.  Success.  Failure.  Yadda yadda.  Get to the question, Mr. GM!  Should challenges be measured against the party’s capabilities or not?

Don’t hate me, but when it comes to combat encounters, my answer is, “it depends.”  I hate to admit but I’m a soft touch.  I’m the sort of GM who will dial down an encounter on the fly if the players are having a rough go for no other reason than the dice aren’t going their way that night.  I’m a lamb in wolf’s clothing.  I am ashamed.

But hey, that’s for set piece encounters.  Plus, remember Rule of Fail #2: Avoid failures that take people completely out of the game.  And character death does that.  It’s one thing when you are playing B/X D&D or Savage Worlds where a player can whip up a new character in minutes and jump back in.  Any game where chargen takes a considerable time investment (say, like, Witch Hunter!), you should be conscious of character death.  Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen, but when it does it should be memorable!  I have an unspoken rule in my games: character death should be spectacular!  It should be an event!

No one complains when Lucifer shows up, rips the paladin’s beating heart from her chest and uses it as a grisly prop for a Shakespearean soliloquy.

Everyone complains when a scraggly band of goblins delivers a TPK.

Guess which one I’m more likely to cheat in favor of my players on?  Does it cheapen their experience?  Not that I can tell.  This is why I like games with minion rules.

Now I’m more than happy to give my players all the rope they need to hang themselves with.  The initial premise mentioned the random encounter with a black dragon.  The players are 1st level.  Sure, why not!  As long as they don’t have to fight it (Rule #3), I’m perfectly happy to throw that at them.  Let’s see what they do with it.  Run away.  Evade.  Distract it.  Parlay.  These are all perfectly acceptable alternatives to a face to face confrontation.

Presenting an insurmountable challenge to the players does not make a bad GM.  Demanding that they approach that challenge in the most disadvantaged way to be sacrificed on a capricious whim to fuel the GM’s ego is (damn, was that purple enough?).  That breaks every single rule.  I WANT my players to approach things with outside of the box thinking.  If they do something stupid, that has consequences too.  But I find that the people I play with are smart enough to rise to the challenge, and there is no shame in running away (or coming back with reinforcements).

So if they choose to fight fight that dragon on its own turf, on its own terms…well…sometimes Darwin wins.

But to measure every encounter against the PCs’ capabilities in some tedious game of resource management?  Where is the fun and excitement in that?

That soft touch thing? I’m working on it.

All of this applies apply to my style of GMing, which is a witch’s brew of sandbox and matrix/funnel design. And there are always exceptions to these rules.  Not all of them apply 100% of the time.  However, upon reflection, I just find that when I don’t apply these points, the game suffers for it more than not.  It doesn’t go off the rails or anything, but the player experience is rougher than I prefer. And, as a GM, player experience means everything to me.

Curious what others have to say on this topic?

Interested in adding your voice to this cacophony of thought?  It’s easy to join the chorus.

Three Coffee-Infused Scenario Ideas

7-Foot Tall Hellhound Skeleton Found Buried Near Ancient Monastery

On the Paradigm Forums, Henry Lopez (the Big Cheese) posted an article to thrill and inspire Witch Hunter players and GMs alike.  I’ve seen this article turn up before.  Very cool and creepy.  So in keeping with that spirit, here are three potential adventure seeds based on this old yarn:

The cadre arrives at the remains of an abandoned village surrounding a ruined monastery.  Looking about, they find evidence that the people of the village came to a bloody and horrifying end.  Anyone not dead left long ago.  At night, a strange transformation comes over the ruins as the place is cursed to relive that fateful night over and over again (Groundhog Day style).  And now the cadre finds themselves trapped in this accursed place.  Their only hope in leaving is to break the curse and discover the secret of the hellhound that haunts the place.

Rumors of a terrifying black dog draw the witch hunters to a village where a monstrous hellhound haunts the place by night.  The beast is focus-bound and returns ever night.  Not even death can stop it.  What is it searching for?  Twist: the beast isn’t a hellhound at all, but a fae creature in a terrifying glamour seeking a vile creature that hides amongst the villagers.

The cadre is dispatched to an old ruined monastery to retrieve an item from its reliquary.  They discover the monks of the place came to a grisly end.  After leaving, they learn they are being trailed by a fierce beast whose evil seems to twist and corrupt the very forest around them.  The beast could be following the relic, or perhaps there is darker magic at work here.