Sunday, August 2, 2020

His Brother's Keeper

I wrote this a couple months ago for a micro-fiction (under 100 words) contest.  

I didn't win– that is, it wasn't one of the top three entires out of the hundred or so that were submitted.  Reading it, you can see why– I have a good concept and I think the first two paragraphs and the last paragraph are pretty good, but the middle is ruined by an over-reliance on expository dialogue and narration.

I think I did an okay job of seeding it with open loops that make the reader want to know more– but in hindsight, maybe that was debatable as a goal for a micro-fiction contest.  

I'm expanding it into a short story that will probably be two or three thousand words; hopefully it will work better at that length.  But enjoy my interesting yet flawed first attempt at it.  


From the palace roof, Chief Scholar Farzad observed the encroaching nightmare legions of the Iconoclasts, their countless war-engines and gene-boosted hoplites faintly illuminated by amaranthine moonlight beyond the redoubts of The Perpetual City.

Furtively he crept to sub-basement nineteen.  “They’re here.  I need–”

“Curse you!” howled the room’s manacled inhabitant.  “You took everything– my face, my position, my family, my very name!”  A pause.  “Does Parisha know?”  

“She’s home, with the children. Where is The Forbidden Grimoire of Kal’Zakan?”

“You know the price,” the real Farzad snarled.

There was no alternative.  Hands trembling, the chief scholar unshackled his prisoner.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Esoteric Enterprises Near-Future Cyberpunk Rules & Setting Resources

Once upon a time, back in the olden days of February, I was preparing to run an Esoteric Enterprises campaign set about 10-20 years in the future, blending some cyberpunk elements with the default concept of the game. 

I actually got to the point of getting a group together and nailing down a day and time we'd meet...and then covid hit.  I don't feel like running online so I've been playing a game run by one of the guys who was going to be in my group.  

I'd been waiting until I was ready to actually start my home campaign before posting some of the Esoteric Enterprises Stuff I've written, but it looks like that won't be until sometimes between September and March, so screw it, here you go.  

Esoteric Enterprises Cyberpunk Game Rules


San Francisco, in the 2030’s. Alternate history where magic exists but is semi-secret, almost entirely illegal and underground.  Most people have heard of magic but many dismiss it as a dumb conspiracy theory.  Cyberpunk stuff like genetic enhancement and cybernetic implants is just starting to hit the market, but is still very rare.  There’s no “matrix,” but augmented reality interfaces are common. 

No corporate extraterritoriality because that’s always been a bit silly; it’s more like real life where the rich and the big corporations frequently get away with crimes, but in principle the law as written mostly applies to everyone.  Only, like, more so; corporate lawbreaking is often concealed with only the thinnest layer of plausible deniability.  Corporate espionage and sabotage are still uncommon but becoming more common, and everyone knows they happen.  

The campaign concept is a mix of underground exploration as expected in Esoteric Enterprises, and cyberpunk corporate shenanigans like in Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020.   

The closest cultural touchstones here are probably the movie Strange Days, or the Detective Inspector Chen novels by Liz Williams.  If anyone else has any good near future fantasy cyberpunk suggestions, please share in the comments.       

Core Mechanics

Adding in advantage/disadvantage as in D&D 5E.

For skill checks, particularly difficult or easy tasks will have modifiers to your chance of success.  

Under consideration: replacing the old-school saves with attribute-based roll-under saves, so like DEX for dodging stuff, WIS for resisting mental compulsions, INT for seeing through illusions, and so on.  Need to do more thinking about how balanced that would be; in general it would make characters tougher at most levels but a bit weaker at the highest levels, even with ability score advancement tests as described below.  

Skill System

Tech skill split into two INT-based skills– 
Electronics, which covers hot-wiring, computer hardware and other physical electronic stuff
Software, which covers programming and hacking.  Basic computer use does not require a skill.

Contacts skill split into two CHA-based skills– 
Contacts–Legitimate For businesspeople, journalists, cops, and generally law-abiding people
Contacts–Criminal for criminals and the occult

Vandalism skill is gone- breaking stuff with brute force is now a straight attribute (usually strength) test unless you’re using a specific skill for it. 

In place of vandalism is the Larceny skill, which covers lockpicking, safe-cracking, and the like.  Also can be used for hotwiring cars and basic knowledge of security systems, even though that overlaps with the electronics skill.  Mostly DEX-based.  

Characters and Classes

Every time you level up, you can test two attributes for advancement.  Pick two attributes and roll a d20 for each.  If you roll less than the attribute, it goes up a point. 

Every character receives two skill points at first level to assign as they see fit, and one at every level thereafter.  No skill can be raised above half your character level rounded up (not including attribute bonuses) using these skill points, unless you’re a criminal.  


Smart phones are ubiquitous and everyone gets one for free, except non-human spooks.  They are common items.  They’re similar to real-life smartphones, but more powerful in every respect and capable of being operated by natural-language voice commands.  They also have two cameras each on the front and back, allowing them to take crude 3-d images.    

Augmented reality rig: common item.  Consists of glasses or goggles, a pair of gloves, and optional microphone.  Used to operate a phone or laptop in augmented reality.  

Simple drones are common.  They’re like real-life drones, but with better sensors and longer battery life.  Prices range from 50 to 10,000 dollars.  

Cybernetic implants are still uncommon, but becoming more common as medical devices.  Implants that enhance human performance, rather than correcting medical issues, are cutting-edge and not quite yet on the market, but just about to start being sold.  No implants may be taken at character creation; they will become available as the campaign progresses both as they come on the market and as the party gets special hookups for items that aren’t commercially available.    

All kinds of other equipment exists that’s not in the book.  If it exists in real life or would most likely exist a decade from now, it exists in the game.  If you want to buy it just say so, we’ll determine the price, and you can try to buy it.  

Note: I don't have a list of cybernetic implants or anything like that.  I'll introduce them one or two at a time as the game goes on, pulling from a mix of Shadowrun, Stars Without Number, real-world news and science articles, and this list.

Wealth and Purchasing

Windfalls of cash will confer a temporary boost to your resource level (just realized this is actually in the rulebook and I overlooked it).  A big windfall will boost it until your next level-up or until you spend a lot of money.  Getting paid up front for doing a job will boost your resources for the duration of that job, helping you buy equipment for that job.

When buying things, the “budget” below which you can automatically afford things is rules as written; the mechanic for buying more expensive things is different.

Roll 2d6 and add your wealth level.  The DC is 6 for a ten dollar item, 9 for a hundred-dollar item, 12 for a thousand-dollar item, 15 for a ten-thousand dollar item, and so on.  Big purchases may temporarily reduce your wealth until you either level up or get a big cash windfall.    

Wealth is no longer capped at 9.

Spook characters whose wealth is stuck at zero can’t have band accounts or credit cards but can still carry cash around, although spending large amounts at once anywhere law-abiding will be nearly impossible.  

Setting Generation Resources

The setting generation resources in Esoteric Enterprises are amazing, but I added a few more things, for three reasons.  First and most obviously, to match the futuristic setting.  Second, I wanted to incorporate surface locations directly into the map.  And third, I'd like the game to occasionally get outside the city.  

Can't share my physical and faction maps unfortunately, since I am going to use them eventually.  

Alternate surface locations (rolled with different-colored dice)

1- Skyscraper, mostly business use 
2- Mall
3- Transportation infrastructure
4- Large house or small condo building
5- Government building
6- Warehouse
7- Park
8- Museum
9- Empty lot or ruined building
10+: Apartment/condo building, this many stories (larger ones will have shops on the lower levels)

Color-coding for connections between map locations
Surface- Purple
Natural caves- Blue
Subway- Brown
City infrastructure- Orange
Ruins- Green
Mines and artificial tunnels- Red

Note: I didn’t end up with any direct connections between surface locations.  Obviously getting around the surface is normally easy, so if two surface locations end up connected then say they’re connected by a special tunnel or skyway, or maybe they’re both in the same corporate compound that isn’t open to the general public. 

Alternate Factions (rolled with different colored dice)
1- Tech company- small
2- Tech company- large
3- Biomedical company- small
4- Biomedical company- large
5- Other company- small
6- Other company- large
7- Law enforcement
8- Other government
9- NGO
10- Wealthy collector
11- Academic institution 
12- Social club
13-20– Rival adventuring party.  Contains this many people, minus ten.

Color-coding for connections on the faction map
Open war- Red
Shadow war- Orange
Non-violent competition or exploitation- Yellow/Pink
Neutral or subtle manipulation- Green
Friendly Trade- Blue
Alliance or control- Purple

Locations outside the City

All locations generated using Silent Legions system.  Can't say much about this without either giving away too much about my setting, or plagiarizing the book.  I have three small town locations with 3 location tags each, and three isolated locations with 2 location tags each.  All within a couple hundred miles of San Francisco, and most within like 50 miles.

Overall I doubt the whole map will ever get used, but it was easy to generate because I can wait until the players get close to a given location or faction before I flesh out the details.  

That's it for now; I might post some other stuff like a review of the game, some short adventures, or the mission generator I wrote, sometime later. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

How to Make Beholders Cool Again

Like dragons, beholders are awesome and iconic, but they eventually get boring because you know what powers they have and so there's not much mystery or suspense in fighting them, so now most OSR referees don't even want to use them.  Like dragons, this is easily solved by randomizing some of their abilities.

Artist: David Griffith

Beholder base stats:
10 Hit dice, 50 HP, AC 14 (or as chain), Morale 8, Flies 120’ (40’)
Attacks up to twice per round, either with eyestalks or a bite
Bite: 1d8 plus target must save or be grappled
Can’t use the same attack twice in the same round

Random Central Eye Powers d8

All powers affect a 150 foot cone.  They are always active as long as the eye is open and intact.  

1-3 Antimagic field.  Magic doesn’t work, no save.  

4 Fear.  Save or run away.  

5 Slow.  Everyone in the cone can move or act, not both, and loses initiative if you’re doing round by round initiative.  No save.  

6 Clumsiness.  Everyone in the field has disadvantage on any test where coordination is important, and must pass a DEX check to not fall over if running.  

7 Anti-language.  Nobody in the field can understand or use language.  

8 Fatigue.  Everyone in the cone must save or take a level of fatigue each round.  How that works depends on your system, but usually either a -1 to all tests or to all ability modifiers.  

Random Eyestalk Powers, d4 ten times

No eyestalk can be used two rounds in a row.  Eyestalk attacks at point blank range are made with disadvantage unless they're AoE.  The beholder is not immune to its own AoE powers.  

1– One of the ten usual powers a beholder has, unlimited uses

2– Random 1st level spell, unlimited use

3– Random 2nd level spell, three times a day

4– Random 3rd level spell, once per day

Henchmen, d6 

1– 2d4 Human thugs.  Mundane but well-armed.  

2– 2d6 Goblins armed with McGuyvered together goblin gadgets.

3– d4+1 trained giant spiders.  Poisonous.  

4– Two spectators (those mini-beholder things) 

5– d4+1 drow exiles with swords and poisoned crossbows.  

6– 3d6 kobolds.  Weak but tricky. 

Random Special Thing, d6 

1– Lair is filled with traps, plus knows the surrounding region like the back of its own hand.  

2– Regeneration, d4 HP/round

3– Venomous bite, anyone damaged must save or be paralyzed.  

4– It’s wearing a beholder-sized monocle!  Looks super cool, but also gives it X-ray vision and the ability to zoom in at long ranges like a telescope.

5– This beholder is a freaking wizard, casting spells as a 5th level mage.  Casting a spell replaces one of its attacks for that round.  Can’t cast twice in the same round but can cast plus use an eyestalk or bite. 

6– Despite being a “monster,” it’s actually a citizen in good standing of whatever polity controls the local area– you can’t just murder it without legal repercussions.