Tuesday 26 June 2018

Why Your Travel Rules Suck

I was considering not posting this, I felt it was a little rant-y. But I stand by the general premise, so here we go, see what you make of it. (Also the game I mention at the end has since been streamlined to the point that those travel mechanics are fairly different than how I wrote about them here lol.)


A few times during my GMing... career? Ew. Life? Oh dear...

A few times, I've tried to write specific mechanics, for whichever fantasy adventure RPG system I happened to be running at the time, to deal with overland travel. These, I surmised, would make travel a key component of the game, something to plan for and experience tension through, just like combat.

Crucially, they would make travel interesting, and fun.

Most gaming blogs or video channels or whatnots have a post somewhere about solving, or at the very least easing overland travel in D&D. Some of these thoughts are good, but most devolve into creating a subsystem, or wrangling existing mechanics into doing travel "better".

Here's the thing - within the context of these games, that's impossible. I was wrong, and so is anyone who writes travel rules for such an RPG.


One of the OSR blog posts I keep going back to is from Rogues and Reavers, and it defines the concept of a campaign frame. You can and should read the post here.

The thing I'm concerned with for now is the definition given for a frame:

A. Clear choices for the players to engage in, while still allowing maximum flexibility.
B. A model for the DM which guides them through the process of building this aspect of their campaign.
C. Rules for interacting with the frame in a meaningful way, from arbitration on the DM end to procedures on the player end

That, to me, seems like all the ingredients needed (outside of the mechanics themselves) for a great rule book. As for those mechanics - the only mechanics that are needed in the book are those that facilitate the campaign frame.

That's why I got rid of combat rules in my game about thieves. That's why D&D has rules for dying because a dragon breathed at you, or how likely you are to pick a lock on a treasure chest. Dungeons, and, indeed, dragons, are the campaign frame of D&D. You don't need anything else outside of the frame.


So, what does this have to do with terrible travel rules?

D&D - and by that I mean WotC, pre-WotC and every OSR game ever - doesn't include codified mechanics for overland travel beyond "here's how far you can go in a day, hexes are a thing".

This is not because good travel mechanics are impossible. It's because travel mechanics are not part of the assumed campaign frame of D&D.

"What? What do you mean, travel doesn't fit into D&D? It fits in perfectly! In my campaign, we do travel all the time! And besides, my group loves my travel rules! I added resource management for rations and terrain-based encumbrance tracking and..."


Travel fits into D&D in the same way social interaction does. You can spend all session doing nothing else, but there have never been mechanics for it other than maybe a Charisma roll. Those mechanics are not needed. Your game may well be travel-heavy, but what the rules are about is not what the game is about - as we well know.

Oh, and your group doesn't love your travel rules. Even if they do, they like other parts of the game better. The actual D&D parts. D&D is about the dungeons and the dragons.

This is why the most obvious, and most correct, advice GMs are given when asking "how do I make travel more interesting" is to add an adventure site (dungeon) en route, or an encounter (dragon).

Overland travel is neither a dungeon, nor is it a dragon. Those are codified within the mechanics of the game, they are the campaign frame. Travel is just a thing that happens in between.


Do all travel mechanics in RPGs suck, then? No, of course not.

I'm working on a game - I write a lot of games, and even if they don't go anywhere I learn something from the design process. Anyway, it's a game with travel mechanics.

These mechanics are good. They make travel interesting. They offer, if you'll refer back to our definition of a campaign frame, A, B and C. I hope I can get the other bits sorted out, I'd like to let people play this some time.

The reason the travel mechanics work in this game is because it is a travel game. It's a game about journeys, going back and forth and all around between places on a map, life on the road. They are also, importantly, the only mechanics in the game - because they support the frame. Other mechanics are not needed.

D&D is not about those things - at least not in the way that people who write articles on how to do travel wish it was. When Gygax wanted to run overland travel, he played a whole different game.

Stop trying to make travel in your fantasy adventure game interesting. Unless it's a dungeon or a dragon, I don't want to hear about it.

PS: If you have a sci fi game and nobody cares about the starship mechanics - same reason. Your game probably just isn't really about the ships.

Thursday 21 June 2018

Announcements: A Playtest! A Guild!

tl;dr: play my game here, help me make it here.


is a gothic fantasy heistcrawl RPG, with a feather-light ruleset inspired by the OSR.

Things I've written about it on this blog can be found here.

The Current State of the Game

Some folks have been expressing an interest, so I figured I might as well put the rules up, such as they are. You can get what I'm calling the Player Starter Sheet right here in a lil google doc.

The Player Starter Sheet has everything a player needs to know to make a character and play the game. As a GM, all you need to do is:

a) prepare a situation (a heist)
b) decide when to call for rolls (bearing in mind how the rules work)

I feel like anyone who's GM'd an OSR game before can do this competently enough.

The Future of the Game

I'd like to eventually release a finalised ruleset, in a document along with GM advice, at least one starter adventure, various example hacks for the game, and a few of the most pertinent posts from this blog, rewritten to be relevant to Graverobbers specifically.

Any updates to the rules, additional content, and previews on a final product will be shared through the Graverobber's Guild.

art by Nicoletta Migaldi

The Graverobber's Guild

I'm setting up a Patreon, intended to:

- Support the making of Graverobbers and other games I'm working on
- Direct access to all updates on those games, and a direct channel to me for your feedback
- Serve as a kind of tip jar for folks who like this blog
- Develop a community, so you can talk to each other and me about ideas
- Provide me with a direct line to the folks who most want to support me, so I can give you stuff

The Guild can be found right here. The only pledge level is $1USD per month.

This is not a payment for a service - it is an optional way for you to help me if you are able to and want to. I hope you will consider sending a little bit of spare change my way if you like what I do :)

PS: If you don't want to commit to a dollar a month, you can give a one-off donation by spending an amount of your choice on any of the products on my Gumroad online store.

Wednesday 13 June 2018

Bastard Magic

I've written before about how I like practical magic in RPGs. Magical effects that feel real, occult, that affect things within the game world rather than the mechanics. Spells made of words, not bonus numbers and damage dice. Magic that feels like magic.

With that in mind, here is a new magic system of 30 spells that I'm calling Bastard Magic.

art by Eleanor Bergmann
I wrote it as a magic option for my own game, but it's completely system neutral and fits into any fantasy RPG.

Each of the 30 spells comes with a full description that works as a guide for the GM, the player and the characters within the game. Each spell also comes with suggestions on how to begin thinking about using magic creatively.

You can download it for free right here.

Friday 8 June 2018

The Postbox in the Woods (An Adventure)

Every child in the village knew the legends of Taro-Taro. Half human and half spirit, a boy born of a peach pit that hatched on a mountaintop, he was a hero who bridged our world and the spirit world. When there was trouble with mischievous ghosts, or the forest gods grew angry, Taro-Taro performed feats of cunning and strength to restore harmony.

There was a shrine to Taro-Taro, long ago, in what is now the Old Town Forest. Priests tended the holy ground, and there was a sacred wooden box containing the wishes of children, scrawled on paper leaves. For Taro-Taro had sworn an oath to answer any honest request by the pure of heart.

However, the oath of a spirit is binding, and Taro-Taro soon began to grow weary. Every child is pure of heart, and their prayers came in great number at each festival and blessed day. While many were impossible requests or fell outside the hero’s purview, he still found himself forced by his own word to deal with every spiritual problem the locals had, no matter how inconsequential.

Before long, Taro-Taro had had enough. In a tantrum, he grew a forest around the postbox overnight, enveloping the old town and forcing the villagers to leave. They settled the new town by the forest’s edge, cursing Taro-Taro. The once lauded hero, now left in peace, rested within the trunk of an old tree, paying the monkey god twelve gold coins to guard him as he slept.

The Adventure

The players are travellers from a nearby town, which is suffering under a spirit’s curse. They hear the old legend and travel to Old Town Forest to try and find Taro-Taro’s mailbox, and get the legendary spirit-boy to help them.

If a message is written down and posted inside the box, Taro-Taro appears, bleary eyed. He begrudgingly agrees to do what he is asked, on the condition that the players smash the postbox to pieces.


1: Taro-Taro is dead.
Hide your swords from the wooden priests! They hate the glint of coin, too. Offends them.
If you find the old monkey statue, give it a gold offering. The spirits might leave you be.
Oh, you’re going into the forest? Sweet… Could you get me some of those mushrooms?
Some have gone wandering those woods, never to return. Maybe the monkey god cursed ‘em.
The forest is magic… It feels. Don’t hurt it. In fact, don’t hurt anything in there. It’ll get angry.

The Map

Cut out the crossword from a free newspaper. This is your map of Old Town Forest.

White squares are natural paths, littered with occasional undergrowth and rubble. Black squares are “walls” formed of the crumbled buildings of the old town, overgrown with dense foliage.

The central square is where the old shrine is, and within it the mailbox.


Roll 1d4 on the table below each time the players enter a crossword square with a number in it.
Whenever an encounter ends in violence or wanton destruction of the forest, increase the die rolled for the next encounter (1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10).

1: Butterflies.
1d4 deer.
A wild boar, angry.
Wooden priests. Make hollow knocking noises. Love quiet, hate metal.
A cursed monkey-man. Tells lies to get someone close enough to bite. The bitten grow tails.
A monkey who has found a cloak of invisibility. Harmless but annoying.
1d4 savage, sharp-toothed apes.
Animated sap monsters, dripping from the trees.
Monkey mages. Mischievous. Can cast spells to cause deafness, blindness or muteness.
An animus of the forest, shambling piles of dirt and plant matter. Angry.


Roll a die that encompasses as many of the numbers on the crossword squares as possible (probably a d20). Cross out the number you roll, and put a symbol in that square instead.

The symbol corresponds to one of the following features. Keep rolling until you’ve added all four.

1: A small, stagnant pond.
A stone totem of a fat monkey. Put a gold coin in its mouth and primates won’t bother you here.
Mushrooms grow here that cause a happy, light-headed haze when eaten. Monkeys love them.
A termite mound, the remains of its last victim cleaned to the bone. Best to find another route.


If the players search the ruined and overgrown buildings of the old town, they find:

1: Insects living in the dark corners.
1d4 copper coins.
A doll. There is an old man in the village who will recognise it from his youth.
A beehive.
Mushrooms growing from a dank patch of filth.
A child’s letter, intended for the postbox at the shrine. It asks Taro-Taro for a baby brother.
An old lucky charm, whittled into the shape of a monkey.
A gold coin.

Old Magic

If the bodies of a boar, deer and butterfly are offered upon a desecrated shrine, a powerful demon will appear to offer magic in exchange for gold. He can grant one person a spell that lets them exhale a cold and mighty wind, and teach the secret commands that all mountain birds heed.

The players learn of this ritual later in their adventures, and recall the broken shrine to Taro-Taro, deep in the forest they visited all those weeks ago.

Friday 1 June 2018

The Graverobber's Guide to Gardening

I like magic to be made of actual words, rather than a set of mechanics, numbers or bonuses to this or that.

One of the many reasons for this preference is that players can read a spell description both in and out of character. The magic exists within the fiction of the world, rather than as a little meta note on a character sheet ("1d6 damage, 60ft range", that kind of thing).

Same with magic items. There are a bunch of strange plants in my world, so here's a guide to those that might be useful for the players to know about.

It's written as an in-universe artefact that players could buy in a shop, or find in a greenhouse. Also serves the added bonus of getting across worldbuilding info in a gameable context - the only way that worldbuilding ever really matters.

I'm always adding to it, so feel free to do the same.



by Pirro, amateur gardener and retired graverobber


pot golems
Little round chaps made of clay, these are handy for adventurers to plant things in. They follow you around, and protect whatever’s growing in them.

Casts a tiny bit of light that seems to work just like sunlight. Handy for growing in dungeons or catacombs.

tajirian staff
A sanctified butterfly net. Bugs caught within it become loyal, insofar as a bug can hold allegiance, until it is next used.

wise man’s glass
Sunlight, shone through this little magnifying glass, turns to moonlight, and vice versa. Might be good for growing certain faerie plants.


These huge plants grow from the silt in still water. Their leaves float atop the surface and are huge and hardy enough to carry a person’s weight.

brambleroot tree
Its thorny roots lie close to the surface, animating to snare those who step over them unwillingly. Called the “flamingo tree” because of how its white leaves turn red after it feeds.

crabshell mushrooms
The cap of this fungus is round, flat and hard. Good for a makeshift shield.

A riverside flower whose thick pollen stains the skin like dye. Traditionally used in makeup and facepaint, these days only really seen during the three Festivals of Masks.

The pale elves of the northern woods make traditional clothing from the leaves of this plant.

gant’s root
This fiery and bitter root, when chewed, is said to allow the user to speak with spirits of the dead. Some legends vary and state that it simply keeps vengeful dead at bay, its strong flavour stopping them from sucking one’s soul out through the mouth. Either way, popular at Spirits’ March.

Grows a foot a day, straight up a wall or surface. Climbing it is as easy as walking up stairs.

A plant whose flower contains a key matching the lock its seed was planted in. The little plant normally takes a week to flower.

The leaves are thick with a fleshy substance that fills them like gel fills aloe. Can be dried and made into jerky.

Rank in taste but nutritious, it grows like mould on stagnant water. The principle diet of trollspawn before they grow legs and emerge from their birthing ponds.

shaking vine
These dry and brittle weeds susurrate at the presence of certain magics, such as things turned invisible.

Carnivorous plants that wander around on their roots, searching out small creatures to digest in their acidic, mouth-like flowers. Grow them, with caution, for their roots as a potion ingredient.

sweetheart plums
Woodland elves brew a wine from these fruits that functions a little like a love potion.

The unplanted bulb emits a glow, too faint to notice in daylight but such that it can be seen in pitch black darkness. (I am attempting to grow a variant that casts light like a candle flame.)

wall anemone
A strange and fibrous plant that grows in canyons. What appears to be its flower is in fact a fleshy, poisonous appendage.

Called tournescalier by the elves, its plucked flower swivels around when held, always pointing to the nearest staircase. The flower dies and withers one hour after being picked.


bug ghosts
I don’t believe in them, but the old gnome who runs the supply shop in Last Chance sprinkles his vegetable patch with holy water every new moon, and his cabbages are flawless.

corpse bees
A grim but necessary part of gardening in dungeons. They brew crimson honey in ribcage hives. Supposedly if you can stomach it, it has healing properties.

pixie moths
The powder scales from their wings can cause everything from itchiness to drowsiness to hallucinations. Lead them away with the glint of gold instead of a flame.

tantalian slugs
They secrete a goo that increases the sensations of pain and touch. Supposedly a party piece at elven orgies. Keep the greedy beggars out of your plants with a little salt on the soil.


Most legends don’t specify the myriad flowers that bloom wherever Alda, Lady of Spring, walks upon the ground. The few legends that do mention one that has never been found in reality; a white hibiscus whose petals are fine as glass. Could it really be a fiction?

divine pomme
An apple with skin like alabaster and flesh like pure gold. The dish that the great hero Kyros served to the ocean spirit Selene in the old legend that inspired the modern Sellenic Games, held biannually in Meriscella. In the modern trial, champions must bring the finest dish they can to a great feast at the end of the Games’ second week. (Once someone tried to claim they had actually found the apple, I think? It was an illusion or something.)

Not so much a legend any more as we know it’s real, but the world of the fey contains innumerable plants still not discovered! If I were still in the graverobbing business I’d happily lose myself in that place… though I suppose that’s the trick.

An old dryad, the only male one and said to be the kindly king of all their kind. The sap from his luxuriant beard bolstered heroes’ strength in old tales. One of the principle servants of Cairen, Prince of Autumn, just like Selene is for Alda.

the world tree
Supposedly far beyond the eastern steppes, an enormous tree holds up the sky. Travelling rabbitfolk tell of roots like hills, and branches so big that entire forests grow on them.