Monday, November 18, 2019

Magic items are born not made

"Govannion discovered and set down the high secrets of all crafts. These Arawn stole to hoard in Annuvin where none may ever profit from them." The potter Annlaw's face turned grave. "A lifetime have I striven to discover them again, to guess what might have been their nature. Much have I learned--learned by doing, as a child learns to walk. But my steps falter. The deepest lore yet lies beyond my grasp. I fear it ever shall. Let me gain this lore," Annlaw said, "and I'll yearn for no magical tools. Let me find the knowledge. And these," he added, holding up his clay-crusted hands, "these will be enough to serve me."

Annlaw drew up his coarse robe and seated himself at the wheel, which he quickly set spinning, and on it flung a lump of clay. The potter bent almost humbly to his work, and reached out his hands as tenderly as if he were lifting an unfledged bird. Before Taran's eyes Annlaw began shaping a tall slender vessel. As Taran stared in awe, the clay seemed to shimmer on the swiftly turning wheel and to change from moment to moment. Now Taran understood Annlaw's words, for indeed between the potter's deft fingers and the clay he saw no separation, as though Annlaw's hands flowed into the clay and gave it life. Annlaw was silent and intent; his lined face had brightened; the years had fallen away from it. Taran felt his heart fill with a joy that seemed to reach from the potter to himself, and in that moment understood that he was in the presence of a true master craftsman, greater than any he had ever know. "Fflewddur was wrong," Taran murmured, "If there is enchantment, it lies not in the potter's wheel but in the potter."

Lloyd Alexander, Taran Wanderer

This post is written for a world in which Arawn has not stolen the deepest lore of the crafts to hoard in Annuvin, but where that lore is known by master craftsmen like Annlaw Clay-Shaper. It is also written for a world of rare magic, where magical items are unique and not available for purchase.

This post is a followup to my rules for commissioning the creation of splendid artifacts. These allowed the players to take remarkable materials acquired during their adventures to master craftsmen to have them made into splendid but non-magical items. Splendid items have a unique identity and provide non-magical benefits. They also evoke the achievements and experiences of the party. I mentioned in passing that most splendid items are not magical, but that every magical item is also a splendid item. But how does a splendid item become magical?

A splendid item has been imbued with the idiosyncratic visions of a true artist who employs the deepest lore of his craft to breath life into rare materials. At the highest levels, craft itself passes into a kind of proto-magic, for the artisan speaks the hidden language of things, and composes an artifact set apart from ordinary objects. Such items are receptive to the impressions of remarkable events in which they play a role, which kindles in them their latent magic. Magical items are not made, they are born.

When a splendid item plays a role in a wondrous, epic, improbable event, it becomes magical. The enchantments that results is unpredictable, but the splendid item usually contributes something of its own unique nature, and something of the magic of the events that touch it. A magic item is thus influenced by the kind of artifact it is, the materials from which it is made, the intentions and artistry of its craftsman, and the events of which it has been a part.

Cursed items are kindled in the same way. When they are involved in great treachery, hideous blasphemy, terrible misfortune, or pitiful failures, befitting a tale of woe or perfidy that might be memorialized in poetry or told across the campfire for generations, then they acquire a devious and ruinous nature, weaving such afflictions as befit the combination of their own nature and that of the misfortunes of which they have been a part.

This means that every magical item comes with an origin story. It is a story that begins with the materials of its composition, and the identity of its maker, and ends with the tale that kindles the flames of its latent magic. In a game in which this system is used, spells identifying the nature and workings of magical items (identify) are stricken from the spell list. One identifies a magical object and its powers only by learning the story of its birth. Luckily, I have rules for non-magical research to help uncover things like this.

The Mechanics

When a party member is carrying a splendid item, and the item plays a role in a remarkable adventure, then either the player or DM may propose that its magic has been kindled. Both must agree that the events that transpired were worthy to live on in speech or song. If they agree, the DM should then decide on the magic of the thing in collaboration with the player. As the one who knows the level of magic in the setting and what would be "gamebreaking", the DM has the final say, but should endeavor to incorporate the player's suggestions. As a rule of thumb, the more remarkable the splendid item, and the more worthy the tale, the greater the magic kindled. Try to make the magic unique, fitting some combination of the spirit of the materials, the wielder, the craftsman, and, above all, the event that gave it birth.

What follows is the origin story of a magical item from my dreamlands game. This item is a high-powered magical item that is epic in flavor. So keep in mind that memorable stories come in all varieties, from the humorous tales of a trickster to stories of astounding sheer dumb luck, and many items, splendid as they are in one way or another, are considerably humbler than the war hammer Tempest Revelation.

A Splendid Artifact is Made

A century before Ultan's door opened in the space beneath the stairs of a printshop off Eidolon Alley, an equally incongruous door was seen floating on the oily waters of Lake Wooling by a fisherman heading at dawn to catch two-headed trout. Trying to haul the valuable door out, the fisherman accidentally opened it. This induced the strangest vertigo, for the door seemed to open not into the watery depths of the lake, but rather into airy jungle heights with no land in sight.

Soon word of this impossible portal made its way to the Chatelaine. Her rule was then young, and she had not hardened and been so corrupted by the power she wielded, which was in those days less absolute, more in need of compromise and friendship. But her magic was potent even then, and there was a man who served her, a sworn knight, who drew power from her blessing. His name was Sir Garanax, and he loved her not a little. She knew, or at least suspected, where the door led, and sent Garanax beyond its bourn as ambassador and champion.

In those days, the Zyanese aristocracy still travelled the White Jungle. Thus, in his jungle travels, Garanax came to know the nobles of that city, and eventually found his way to the court of Lathanon, last of the Incandescent Kings. He was often a guest at the King's legendary Hanging Palace in the lower levels of the jungle. It was there that he met Lathanon's concubine, the unparalleled Lady Shirishanu--Guide, warrior, poet, beloved of the Sibilant Maiden. Garanax was won over by Shirishanu's courage, grace, and potent fancy.

Soon she began to eclipse the Chatelaine in his heart. More and more he clung to the oaths he had sworn the witch queen of Rastingdrung as shield to protect himself against these divided loyalties. The Chatelaine was delighted by this connection to the royalty of Zyan, a far more illustrious--and wealthy--lineage than any available to her in the waking world, and encouraged his connection to Lathanon's court and Shirishanu at every turn. But it was not easy for Garanax, who longed more and more to be by his lady of the dreamlands, and who felt even his oaths to the Chatelaine threaten to become hollow words. And he feared that were his vows to become empty promises he would no longer be a knight.

Something in his troubled mind led him to have the war hammer fashioned. He sought first in the waking world the carvers of Rastingdrung, legendary throughout the Wilderlands for their work with the shining beach, a tree of lustrous wood that glistens like silver when oiled, and grows only in the hills about Lake Wooling. He went to Andori, greatest of the carvers, whom they called the Troubador, for his hands flowed across wood like the fingers of a musician across a fret, calling musical forms from the depths of the wood, and he sang the simple and ancient songs of Rastingdrung with his fair voice as he worked. Into Andori's workshop he went, carry a fine piece of shining birch hewn from a tree split by lightning the night before. From this the Troubador fashion a handle of silver shining wood that flashed upwards like a crackling flash across black stormy clouds to a setting at top into which a hammer head might be placed.

Next, in the dreamlands Garanax sought Lathanon's mason, the incomparable Asmorath Por whom everyone deemed mad, for he gave stones tender alchemical bathes to alter their inner constitution as one would lovingly bathe a baby, and could be caught whispering and cooing to the stones, and wept bitter tears as he shaped their surface with chisel and plane. To Asmorath Por he brought his prize possession, an uncut piece of dusk topaz from the depths of a cumulonimbus mine--claimed as were-gild from a spirit of the air he had briefly imprisoned in one of his many escapades in Wishery. This remarkable stone the mason shaped into the head of the hammer, fitting it into the handle, harder than steel but lighter so that it could be swung with a savage force. The mason's alchemical treatments altered the stone, so that one saw on its surface the colors of a cloud dipped in pink at dusk, but beneath in the depth of the stone one could see the darkness of night or perhaps a storm cloud, which showed through now and again. And in rare moments, the stone would appear to churn or roil. Such was the masterful art of Asmorath Por who understood stones perhaps too well.

Sir Garanax named the hammer Tempest Revelation, for the Chatelaine was a queen of storms, and Shirishanu a font of revelation. Tempest Revelation was a splendid artifact granting Sir Garanax a non-magical +1 to damage. But it was ready to be the stuff of legend, and waited only for its magic to be kindled by a deed worthy of song.

The Magic of Tempest Revelation is Kindled

During one of his many rambles through the jungle, Sir Garanax came upon the unmistakable trail of the Sanguine Wyrm, a terrible serpentine dragon that haunted the jungle's bright groves. Cunning Garanax tracked it to its lair. Returning to the Summer Palace where the courtiers feasted and made merry, he called on them to assemble a hunting party. The bravest of them rode out, the noblemen and women arrayed for hunting on their strange mounts, with a splendid retinue in train.

Surprising the beast, they drove it from its lair. Crafty Garanax attacked always from below, directing Lathanon's noble hounds to chase the serpent ever upwards, harrying him at great cost, for the old Wyrm was desperate in its rage and its thirst for survival was boundless. They pursued it until the great beast, exhausted, was tangled in the densest jungle where the boughs grew in thickets, and had no choice but to face his pursuers, hampered and constrained by the cutting branches that ensnared him. There the Wyrm slew many, as its terrible jaws gnashed the life from many well-clad noblemen and women, and its gyrations sent their splendid retinue spinning into the depths.

Seeing that this must be ended or King Lathanon himself would be slain, Garanax hurled himself at the maw of the great beast. In its rage, the Sanguine Wyrm swallowed him in great triumph, not realizing that it had brought its own doom home. For, as the jaws snapped on him, Garanax slammed Tempest Revelation in a terrible blow on the lower jaw, through the soft muscle of the tongue, shattering the bone beneath utterly. As the beast's head whipped from side to side, Garanax was tossed to and fro in a black and bloody whirlwind, but the others rallied, seizing the moment of vulnerability to pierce it with their long spears, and the teeth of hounds tore its flesh until it no longer moved. As Garanax emerged from the mouth, spitting up blood and covered in bone, the magic of Tempest Revelation was kindled.

The Enchantment

Tempest Revelation is an intelligent war hammer +2/+4 vs. dragons. It is ego 9 and intelligence 13. It does not speak, but can subtly affects the feelings of its wielder. It's powers differ depending on whether it is in the dreamlands or the waking world. In the dreamlands, once per adventure, the clouds on its hammerhead can blacken and roil, releasing a 6d6 lightning bolt with a crash of thunder. In the waking world, once per adventure or downtime, the hammer when struck against unblemished stone, will produce phantasms, calling forth an illusory scene, as a clairvoyance spell. These revelations are chosen by the hammer. Sometimes they provide useful intelligence, but just as often they show the wielder something they would rather not see. For the vision is influenced by the nature of Tempest Revelation, which loves ambiguous relations and divided loyalties, and will often reveal scenes chosen to complicate relationships. For it is a hammer for border crossers, and code switchers, those with conflicted identities who dwell between two worlds. Those who wield the hammer find over time that their heart becomes capacious enough to contain unresolved contradictions, although never comfortably, and they are drawn ineluctably into fraught triangular relationships.

Since Tempest Revelation is a truly splendid artifact, its wielder a great hero, and its birthing an epic event, we know that its enchantment must be powerful. In early editions of D&D, powerful magical weapons are: (1) intelligent, (2) have large bonuses to hit and damage which are often greater against certain kinds of foes, and (3) have multiple powers that can be used once over a given period of time.  Thus, Tempest Revelation has a hefty +2 to hit and damage against regular foes, and a whopping +4 to hit and damage against dragons, since the Sanguine Wyrm was a dragon of sorts. Since Garanax made the hammer as an expression of his conflicted heart, Tempest Revelation bears this imprint in its personality and disposition. Since it was created from materials from both the waking world and Wishery, it has different powers in each milieu, each corresponding to one of Garanax's patrons, for the Chatelaine is a witch queen of storms, and the Lady Shirishanu is a font of prophecy. In the dreamlands, the power is straightforward, owing to Andori's simple and plain songs, but in the waking world, the power is crooked, tainted by Asmorath Por's madness.

Of course, simpler magic items will lack such complexity. For these more humble artifacts, one must choose one or two powers, deciding whether to emphasize the materials, the maker, the wielder, or (most likely) the event kindling the item's magic. The guiding principle is that whatever enchantments are selected should serve as a fitting end to the tale of the item's creation and birth.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Downtime Activities: Cultivating Relationships

This is a continuation of my series presenting a system of downtime activities. The idea is to introduce a downtime minigame that encourages the players to pursue various avenues that make the world a more dynamic place, choosing at most one downtime action. You can find the rest of the series here. I'm going to let you in on a secret. The way I'm developing this system is by asking myself, "What do my most engaged players already do that is generative of dynamic and fun games?" My goal is just to create a system that reminds players who maybe don't intuitively do this kind of stuff that it's always an option.

So here's something that player characters often want to do in downtime in my experience: cultivate relationships with people. Here are some real examples from my game.

  • A player character wants to befriend the guards at the Pagodas of the Hanging Merchants to use as a source of information. 
  • A player wants to spend time with a boy the players rescued from a cult, trying to acculturate him to the waking world, and undo his brainwashing. 
  • A player wants to seduce the Chatelaine of Storms, the evil witch queen of Rastingdrung. 

The basic mechanic I propose continues the use of clocks from earlier posts. When the player announces the intention to cultivate a relationship of one kind or another, the DM should set a clock. Sometimes this clock will be a generic relationship clock. In other cases, where the stakes are higher and the goals more specific, the clock will tailored to the individual and relationship in question.

For generic clocks there are four ticks representing four levels of intimacy of relationship: Acquaintances, Associates, Friends, and Intimates. To advance the clock on a relationship, the player says how their character is strengthening the bond between them. This is connected with one of Vincent and Meguey Baker's koans: "If you want to do the move, do it." In this context what this means is that you cannot deepen a relationship by saying "my character deepens the relationship". You must say how the character does this, how the relationship is deepened. The DM will judge if this makes sense. If so, the player will roll 2d6 modified by charisma, and advance the relationship clock on a 7+.

However, in some cases it makes sense to give a tick for free, as people who share an adventure, for example, will be acquaintances, or someone on whom the character has lavished extraordinary and much needed generosity will be associates. By contrast, for many people and relationships, it makes sense to put a hard limit on the clock, absent an extremely convincing way of deepening the bond. Sometimes it is hard but not impossible to overcome barriers, and so a penalty may be applied. On the other hand, there may be excellent reason for the NPC to be receptive, in which case, there may be a bonus.

Each level allows the character to draw on the relationship for information or favors to different degrees. However, in some cases it says that favors "may come with a cost". In these cases, to draw on this higher level of favor may strain the relationship, and so comes with stakes. The player rolls a reaction roll (2d6) modified by Charisma. On a 6 or lower, the NPC will decline the favor. On a 7 to 9 the NPC will perform the favor with the DM reserving the option to introduce a complication. For example, they might do it, but it might remove a tick from the clock, or they might do the favor but request one in return, which if unrequited will remove a tick. Or they might get the wrong idea about the character and what they want. Or whatever. On a 10+ they will simply perform the favor.

As a side note: You might wonder why not also have a mixed result on a roll of 7-9 for advancing the clock on a relationship? My answer is influenced by an insight of Emmy Allen's on twitter. Old-school D&D is a different game than Apocalypse World and its progeny. The game is not generally driven by escalating consequences of partial success, "faustian bargains", and the like. It is rather a game that is structured around resource management and high-stakes success/failure rolls, and "fictional positioning" is about tactically setting the stakes of those rolls, and avoiding them where one can. One thus must introduce mixed results carefully into this style of game or they will make players feel like their characters can't do anything, since crummy or mixed success is not generally a thing. (After all, Apocalypse generalizes the sole mechanic in old D&D that worked this way: the reaction roll.) In this kind of a game, it's better to reserve mixed result rolls for optional situations that involve pushing the limits, where the players know the stakes and that mixed results are possible as a special outcome. My thought is that merely trying to get to know someone better is not such a situation.

The Generic Relationship Clock

1 Tick: Acquaintances

Someone who you know from around the way.

  • There is an easy opening to casual conversation. General information that the NPC has nor reason to keep secret will be easy to extract. 
  • The NPC will do small and costless courtesies.

2 Ticks: Associates

There is some bond of a lesser kind between you, some shared pleasure, common interest, small shared experience, a minor debt of gratitude, etc.

  • The NPC will share or keep an ear out for gossip. 
  • The NPC will do small and costless courtesies.
  • The NPC will do minor favors, although they may come at a cost. 

3 Ticks: Friends

There is a serious bond between you, real pleasure in one another's company, a common cause, a major shared experience, a debt of real gratitude, etc.

  • The NPC will be willing to share what information they have unless they have a very good reason not to. 
  • The NPC will do small favors.
  • The character may request major favors, although they may come with a cost.    

4 Ticks: Intimates

There is a deep bond between you, like true or very old friends, or those who fought in war together, or lovers, or someone who looks up to you with deep respect.

  • The NPC will share information freely with you.
  • The NPC will do major favors. 
  • The character may ask the NPC to walk into the flames with them, although it may come at a cost. 

An Example of the Use of a Generic Clock 

Suppose Salinger one-eye has decided to cultivate a relationship with a guard named Pergamor at the pagodas of the hanging merchants. Observing the guards, Salinger learns that they gather around the campfire at the end of the day to drink, gossip, and gamble. He decides it makes most sense to bring a gift of drink collectively to the guards, and sit with them at their campfire. He rolls 2d6 modified by charisma and gets a 9. He is now an acquaintance with Pargamor.

In a later downtime at the pagodas, he wishes to deepen the relationship. In a great victory, the party has recently routed the Lurid Toads who were plaguing the guards and the merchant vessels. Salinger's player says he will bring a drink to Pergamor alone, regaling him with the full tale of the routing of the toads. Since this heroic act has left a favorable impression on the guards, the DM rules this overture will automatically advance the clock. He is now an associate of Pergamor, who drinks and listens eagerly with a dawning respect.

The character now uses his connection to get gossip from the guard. This Salinger can do for free. But as it turns out, this is not enough. Salinger wants Pergamor to do a small favor for him, delivering inside information about the manifests and schedule of the merchant ships that sail up to Zyan. He wants the information now, and doesn't want for the next downtime to deepen the relationship. So Salinger decides he will risk the cost for a minor favor. To sweeten the deal he offers to pay Pergamor for the information. The DM allows the player to make a reaction roll modified by +1 for the generous sums in question. The player rolls a modified 7, squeaking by with a complication.

The DM decides that Pergamor will do the job, but that the offer of money has turned the relationship into a business proposition, and that no further ticks on the relationship clock can be gained. Instead of a potential friend, Salinger is now the bank.

Custom Clocks

Fetching to be sure...
...but she's just not having it.

But that was a little prosaic. Sometimes something special is called for. Let us suppose now instead that Salinger One-eye wishes to seduce the Chatelaine of Storms, the powerful witch queen of Rastingdrung in the waking world. The party knows she takes paramours from time to time, including most recently the visiting nephew of the World Emperor. She also maintains a court that full of backbiting shenanigans worthy of a Jack Vance novel. She is fickle and narcissistic and takes pleasure in humiliating people. She keeps a stable of apprentices, whom she pits against one another. She is, in other words, a real dangerous piece of work. When Salinger's player proposes this course of action, I think, rubbing my hands together, "Well, this will call for a special clock."

This is a long term campaign goal for the character. It is also something fun and dangerous and full of potential consequences. As a DM my thought is: let's keep this going for a while and spin out the drama. Let us say the clock will have 5 ticks instead of 4. I also think that this is a peril-filled proposition that will enmesh one in palace intrigues. So merely to advance ticks should come with some danger. So here's what I have come with.

Some ticks in the relationship have a requirement that the player must meet in order to make the roll. Furthermore, the relationship roll comes with partial successes that introduce complications, to be determined by rolling on the "complications table" to come. Remember that "To do the move, do it"--the player must describe how they attempt to deepen the relationship with the Chatelaine.

Tick 1: You've Caught her Attention

She has taken note of you, and thinks of you as at least, maybe, in the space of romantic possibility.

Requirement: You can only roll for this tick if you rise to the Chatelaine's attention. This requires having done something remarkable that casts you in a favorable light with her. Let's get real: her possible romantic partners are nearly unlimited, and this has got to at least seem like it might be interesting for her.

  • You have the pleasure of being seen by a very powerful woman.

Tick 2: Flirting

She takes pleasure in flirting with you. She is enjoying the game.

  • You have the pleasure of perilous flirtation with a very powerful woman. 
  • You and the party receive invitations to special events at the palace.

Tick 3: A Discrete Tryst

The Chatelaine arranges for a single discrete tryst with the character to be described in collaboration between the player and DM.

Requirement: You must bestow a remarkable gift on the Chatelaine. But what can you get a witch queen who already has everything?

  • You may privately communicate with the Chatelaine by passing notes through an intermediary.
  • You may advance the clock on one NPC at court to the level of acquaintance. 
  • The Chatelaine will bestow a single valuable gift upon you. 

Tick 4: Sometimes Lovers

The Chatelaine arranges romantic dalliances with you now and again. Your comings and goings are noted at court.

Requirement: You must do something unspeakably debonair or fetching, such as to awaken the flames of the Chatelaine's jaded desire.
  • You have open access to the Chatelaine's palace. 
  • You may advance the clock on two NPCs at court to the level of acquaintance.
  • You may advance the clock on one NPC at court to the level of associate. 
  • The Chatelaine will perform small favors for you, but they may come at a cost.
  • You acquire one rival for the Chatelaine's affections. (This is in addition to any rivals you may have acquired through the complications table.)

Tick 5: Paramour

You are installed as the Chatelaine's paramour at court. For the moment, you have captured her romantic attention.

Requirement: You must vanquish your romantic rival in a public fashion that the Chatelaine knows about. The Chatelaine must be satisfied that you have defeated them in the struggle for her affection. (Merely making the rival disappear does not suffice, for she will merely pick another.)
  • You now must reside in lavish quarters at the Castle.
  • Each downtime you receive an allowance of 500 GP. 
  • You may advance the clock on all NPCs at court to the level of acquaintance.
  • You may advance the clock on three NPCs at the court to the level of associate. 
  • The Chatelaine will perform small favors for you.
  • The Chatelaine will perform major favors for you, but they may come at a cost.

Complications (1d8)

  1. The Chatelaine gives you an unwelcome gift. For example, perhaps she gives you rare fighting fish from the Silver Skein isles that must be maintained in an elaborate fish tank, and fed rare foods for the cost of 500 gp per downtime. (If you cannot pay, they become listless and then die.) Or perhaps she gives you a cursed locket with her picture that loudly commands you in to look at her face at unpredictable and inopportune times. 
  2. The Chatelaine is receptive, but there is something about you that rubs her the wrong way. She wishes you to correct this flaw. Perhaps she requires you to study tiresome and complicated court etiquette with a private tutor. Or perhaps she wishes you to outfit yourself with a wardrobe up to the latest aristocratic fashions. Whatever it is, it costs an arm and a leg (3d6x100gp) and takes 1d4 downtime actions to complete. You do not receive the tick on the clock until you have improved yourself.
  3. The Chatelaine is receptive, but feels you have been too forward and wishes to teach you a lesson. Perhaps she makes the lives of your friends (the party) difficult, or perhaps she thwarts your other purposes.
  4. The Chatelaine wishes you to prove your affection. She sends you on a perilous and preposterous mission. Perhaps she wishes you to steal back a gift she just gave to the King of Zyan in the dreamlands. Or perhaps she wishes you to recover a paladin's body from the lair of the hydra so that she may question his spirit. If you do not complete this quest by the next downtime action, you do not receive the tick. 
  5. The Chatelaine inserts you into palace intrigue in such a way as to win you an enemy. For example, she asks you to judge the acrimonious conflict between two potentates. Or perhaps she asks you to do the job of someone else in such a way as to humiliate them.
  6. Your rise in the Chatelaine's affection wins you a romantic rival. He or she will stop at nothing to undermine your efforts.
  7. Your rise in the Chatelaine's affection draws the attention of a third party at the palace who seeks to advance their cause with the Chatelaine through you. Perhaps they blackmail you, or perhaps they bribe you, or otherwise incentivize you to achieve their objectives. 
  8. Your rise in the Chatelaine's affection has drawn the attention of a mysterious occult entity. Perhaps it is one of her apprentices, a fairy, a demon, or a spirit. They place a strange curse on you. Perhaps you must insult the Chatelaine whenever you are in her presence. Or perhaps they see through your eyes and ears, using you as a living conduit to spy on her.
Aleks, if you are reading this, this is how we will be handling Salinger's pursuit of the Chatelaine moving forward. In light of his enchanting dance performance at the Festival of the Sybarites, he currently has one tick on the clock. You have her attention! What you do next is up to you.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Speaking of Splendid Items...Check Out These Character Sheets

Since I'm going to be running my three-dimension dreamlands hexcrawl at a couple of cons, I thought it would be nice to have official character sheets for the pregens to put everybody in the right mood, since Zyan is 90% an aesthetic sensibility. (There, my dark secret has been revealed!)

I also use a lot of house rules for hexcrawling in an inverted jungle in the dreamlands, and I want the character sheet to intuitively convey some of that information. So there is an information design angle too. Another question I have is how to combine those two things. How do you get killer aesthetics along with sleek information presentation?

But I realized that I had never taken character sheets seriously before, so I had few models to show my designer, Matt Hildebrand, to give him a sense of what I wanted. So I turned to twitter for help. The results were pretty great, and I'm here to share the wealth with you.

First, the two I posted to get us started. I began with one of Logan Knight's character sheets for his house-ruled LotFP game, Cörpathium. Note that in general I'm using mainly lousy screen shots here, and linking to the sites in question so you can get the originals from their source.

I love this sheet. It's beautiful, with the central esoteric icons, and the elegant flanking circles for ability scores and saves, with the ghostly bubbles for mods. That whole shebang is held in place by the orderly lines above and below. But this character sheet also shines in terms of information design. Logan has a lot of house rules, and they're elegantly represented on sheet. For example, there's the reminder for combat options, and the dices with bubbles for skills (including two blank ones for extra skills), making clear how that subsystem works. You can get it here, and if you haven't check out Logan's blog, Last Gasp Grimoire, you need to rectify that right now.

The second sheet I put out there is for a game I've never played, Numenera. When I was designing the White Jungle, I did look at the bestiary once for inspiration on alien beasts. While not every entry was a home run, it was pretty interesting. But check out this character sheet:

I mean, holy hell! The sheet immediately conveys a weird future vibe with esoteric undertones--the kind of game where you might scavenge alien artifacts used by mechanized angels in some apocalyptic ancient war. I love the way the different parts of the character sheet are connected by illustrations of orbs, chains, gears, and biological bits, like that wonderful eye peaking out of a triangle. The design of a fractured circle with the stats in the middle, and the way the skill section somehow looks like triple mechanical wings is amazing.

Here are two sci-fi character sheets that people posted that stand out for their information design, one for Mothership by Sean McCoy, and the other a redesign of a simplified D6 Star Wars character sheet by Jez Gordon.

This sheet explains everything you need to know to both create and play the character. Mothership is, for a rules light game, on the complicated side. If you look closely at the character sheet, you'll see that it's actually designed as a flow chart to follow. By following the arrows, the sheet itself walks you through a kinda fiddly character creation. Somehow it manages at the same time to look like an array on a control panel in some 1980's imagined future. While brilliantly focused on information design, it also conveys something about the aesthetic and implied setting. Nice.

The simplified d6 star wars sheet is another tour-de-force of information design. Jez designed it for kids with autism, like his 9 year-old son, who do better with a more visual presentation. It's charming, with an adorable star wars icon for absolutely every stat. Maybe it's not appropriate for every game, but if you wanted to play a beep-blooping droid who is a buddy cop to a Mon Calamari Jedi, then this is the sheet for you. It also has simple char gen rules in the fine print at the bottom. (Check out his blog Giblet Blizzard here if you don't already know it. It's a treat.)

Bruno Prosaiko's character sheets are in a class all their own. Check out this character sheet for DCC zero level funnels. (A good scan is available for PWW on DTRPG here.)

That your scores, weapon stats, and so on are written on coiling demon snakes is fantastic. That they're coming out of a 3d box, and that you write you stuff on one side of the box, and money and XP on the other takes it to the next level. Sure, it's a gimmick, but it's pulled off with such panache. Also, it's 100% true to the DCC aesthetic. Having this sheet in front of you would be enough to put your head into the right space from the first minute you butt hits the seat. Also check out these PC and vehicle character sheets by Prosaiko for Solar Blades and Cosmic Spells:

It's the same gimmick, with an elegant design where you're invited to scrawl all over a picture that puts you in the right mood straightaway. It's a different game with a different aesthetic, but it's works just as well.

Speaking of gimmicks here's another class of character sheets folks shared, where the sheet is ostensibly an artifact in the game. For example, here are two character sheets designed as antique passports. The first is for Megamountain Deathcrawl by Slantio. The second is Jez Gordon's design for Hollow Earth Expedition.

Or take this character sheet for Hollowpoint, which is actually just a toe tag. I guess I know how this is going to end up for me. Brutal!

Another genre of character sheet that can be lovely is what I think of as the bespoke, hand-drawn character sheet that hews more or less to the original layout but embellishes it with an artist's sensibility. Here are some nice exemplars of that type. The first is by Gus L of Dungeon of Signs fame. (And a collaborator on Through Ultan's Door.) You can find it here.

What it lacks in ease of information it makes up in spirit in spades. The fact that you write charisma on smiling white teeth, intelligence on the cranium of an alien skull, and inspiration in a flickering flame, combined with the densely packed illustration make this visually arresting.

This two page B/X character sheet by Dyson is simpler, but quite elegant. You can get it, along with a ton of his other character sheets here. 

There's a lot to like about this character sheet. While hewing to more or less traditional layout, it has the clever touch of having you write many things on a curling ribbon. The portrait in the skull-topped mirror is good too. The whole thing has a B/X fairy tale vibe that speaks to me. While I'm talking about Dyson's character sheets, I have to put before his Empire of the Petal Throne character sheet, just because it's my favorite game that almost no one plays. I like his use of Tsolyani script, and the way he let's it bleed over into the shapes of the spaces for stats:

Since I'm not planning (at present) on using a gimmick like these, or even like Prosaiko's delightful schtick (but honestly, shouldn't I ALSO commission a character sheet from him?), more directly relevant for my purposes are some character sheets that are very simple but aesthetically on point. Keep in mind that I know little about these games. Let's start with this neat one from Spirit of the Century.

No, I haven't ever tried Fate. So I have no idea what's really going on here. But I love how they manage to layout all the information as a series of concentric circles. It also has a great pulpy feel, as if the whole character sheet were a Jack Kirby Dr. Strange amulet. Pow! Blam! I will defeat Gorilla Khan with my ray gun and whip.

As long as we're talking about the innovative use of circles, check out this character sheet for 4th edition D&D. It's an edition I never played. There is an equally complicated back side to the sheet as well. I found it here.

I love how the character sheet does everythign with circles. Together they look like floating bubbles , or perhaps planetary bodies in some astrological chart, or maybe even some kind of enlarged cellular structure. In any case, it's definitely arresting and creative in its execution.

More relevant for my less informationally dense nefarious purposes are these two character sheets from In a Wicked Age, a game written by Vincent Baker, who has designed an extraordinary number of very good games.

These are gorgeous character sheets. The Art Nouveau mix of circles and crawling vines is pretty. The layout is innovate too on both versions. Since the aesthetic of Zyan is heavily influenced by Art Nouveaux (among many other things) this spoke immediately to me. And since the White Jungle character sheets should probably have some vines and flowers on them, it's doubly relevant. I was surprised to learn that In a Wicked Age is a sword and sorcery game, since this aesthetic doesn't read that way to me at all. But I dig Baker's stuff and the Sword & Sorcery genre, so I'll be checking it out.

As long as we're talking about circles, who could ignore this beauty from Shadow of the Demonlord?

OK, what did I take away from all this? Mainly it was fun to see what other folks were up. But, if I had to draw lessons, here are a few.

  1. Landscape orientation has serious potential. The Numenera, Spirit of the Century, Empire of the Petal Throne, and In a Wicked Age character sheets show just how striking changing up the orientation can be.
  2. Circular designs are underutilized. Spirit of the Century, In a Wicked Age, Numenera, and the 4E sheet all employ circular design elements in unexpected ways to striking aesthetic effect. Even if we're playing variants of the oldest RPG, we aren't beholden to the columns of circles for stats and saves, or the pentagons for AC, and all that. Think in other geometric arrangements of shapes. Space can be divided in infinite arrays of tessellated geometrical divisions. Don't fear the curves. 
  3. If those delightful Prosaiko sheets teach us anything, it's that it can be aesthetically pleasing to imagine possibilities other than writing on top of a line, or in a straight row of circles. Any enclosed white space can be designed as the receptacle of information about the character. Don't be afraid to have the players write on top of a figurative drawing, or on the teeth of a smiling mouth, or on a curving ribbon that winds its way through the character sheet.
  4. The Star Wars, Cörpathium, and especially Mothership sheet shows us how much information design you can actually fit on the sheet. 
  5. Consider making rules legible on the character sheet in a variety of ways. The innovation of the Mothership char gen flowchart stands out here as especially creative. Also the Star Wars and Cörpathium sheets that shows you at a glance what kinds of dice you need to roll on a stat, and maybe what number you need to hit to succeed. The Cörpathium sheet shows that something as simple as including house rules in a box can look good too.  
  6. It's possible to both have killer information design and convey the look and feel of your game. It may not be easy, but the aesthetic sensibility of a game can be conveyed in a form that is also super usable. Corpathium, Jez's Star Wars, and Mothership all do it.  
Thanks for sharing with me everyone. If you have other striking sheets, don't hesitate to put then in the comments.

Special thanks to @chthonstone, @JasonAbdin, @wldenning, @heckmueller, @DonoghMC, @kurpotts, @GibletBlizzard, @ItsDanPhillips, @NateTreme, @ossianboren, @superbigrobot, @umbral_aeronaut, @fabneme, @hawklord2112, @rudyriot, @scarvis, @jtkercado, @slantio1, @GameDevTeacher, @wrpigeek. If you use twitter, follow them all!

Addendum: In the comments, Gus pointed out that the sheet of his I link above was a send-up, putting a British Punk spin on the very different aesthetics of 5E. But in his comment, he also drew attention to many of his other character sheets that are character specific. This brings up a whole other class of individualized sheets with character portraits that really deserve some blog space. Since this was less relevant for my purposes, I didn't think to include it. But it definitely belongs in this post.

So let's start with Gus' sheets. Here's one for his longest running PC, Beni Profane the ratcathcer, in Brendan S.'s old Pahvelorn game from the early days of G+. You can learn about Beni and see several iterations of his sheet here.

Here's one he did of Brendan S's character Zoad in the Dungeon Moon Campaign by Nick of Papers and Pencils blog, and also a blank do it yourself sheet for use with LotFP.

In this same vein, here is one iteration of the character sheet of Nick Kuntz' long running FLAILSNAILS character Magic Meryl. Check out how the stats are in the flames of burning candles that surround her most metal incarnation:

Here are a couple of nice ones by Logan Knight. The first is from Mateo Diaz Torres' Flowerland game

And this is was a commission, I think:

You can see some of the same design elements from Logan's Cörpathium sheet.

Here's one by Sam Mameli who takes commissions for character sheets. It's a 5E warforged. You can check out his Patreon here.

A more polished, less artisanal, but quite nice version of this genre from the RPG hello, world, a Forged in the Dark sci-fi game about memory collectors in a post-scarcity world.  is the following sheet for the Blade character:

If you have a beloved character sheet, of any of these varieties, or do commissions for character sheets, please post in the comments below with links!

Addendum 2: Check out this cool character sheet that Emmy Allen made for use with the incomparable Gardens of Ynn!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Downtime Activities: Splendid Items

In my last post I discussed my rules for non-magical research. I also mentioned that the rules would work best if there were tradeoffs with other downtime activities in a kind of system. So I thought I would take a crack at assembling and expanding what house rules I have into something resembling a system. So this will be an ongoing series. Let's start with preliminaries.

Downtime: the Very Idea

In the sense that this post is concerned with, downtime is time between adventures, when characters are still acting but not on an adventure. This immediately raises the question what it means "to be on an adventure".

This concept is clear in games that have rules about where the adventure is. For example, in a West Marches style game, the adventure always begins when the party leaves town. Downtime, in a West Marches game, is time in town. Similarly, in the brief phase when every session of my game involved a new trip through Ultan's door, beginning and ending in the waking world, downtime was simply time spent in the waking world.

Adventures are not to be had here.

In some games, instead of events that happen in certain a place, all adventures are a certain sort of activity. For example, in Blades in the Dark, adventures are always (criminal) scores, so downtime is what happens between scores.

Things are more complicated when adventure is to be had, potentially, in any locale, and in a variety of different kinds of activity. Which is how I assume most of us play most of the time. For games like this, we need to move to a less rigid conception of an adventure.

Adventuring here means something looser like entering interesting situations of hazard and peril where small scale decision-making and roleplaying are important. Downtime occurs when the characters are in a safe place for an extended period of time, say, one week or more. During this time they're live whatever passes for ordinary life amongst adventuring types, or engaging in sorts of activity that we're happy to abstract.

The Rules

If the characters are in a safe place for an extended period of time then they may perform one downtime action. The length of time required for downtime protocols to be triggered depends on the rhythm of your game. The whole thrust of "downtime actions" is to abstract calendar keeping and turn it into a mini-game. So it rejects Gary's (in)famous injunction that the foundation of any campaign is the keeping of proper time records. Instead we think in terms of abstract downtime actions.

Characters are not limited to downtime actions. They may choose to perform no downtime actions. They may also choose to perform any other actions they wish, provided the DM rules that they have the time and opportunity to do so. But they may perform at most one downtime action from the following list each downtime. Last time I discussed non-magical Research. This time I want to talk about commissioning the production of splendid items.

Splendid Items

A splendid item is not just an expensive or fancy version of the item: it is a thing of rare wonder. To have a splendid item made for you, you must first find a master artisan who is willing to make it for youTo this artisan, you must bring remarkable materials to be incorporated into the item. You must also pay the artisan a fee whichever is higher: 1000 GP or 200 times the normal cost of the item.

Locating a master artisan can be a campaign goal in itself. It's an opportunity for the DM to introduce a memorable NPC for the players to interact with. The point here is to simultaneously world-build and invest the players in the setting of a dynamic sandbox by tying it to things that players are likely to want.

It might involve traveling to a remote location, or convincing a Hattori Hanzo figure to break his vow and come out of retirement, or rescuing a former master artisan from the depths of squalor and criminal entanglements. Or perhaps the artisan will only perform services from those who somehow prove themselves worthy of receiving the products of their rare talents. "What master artisans are there in a your setting and under what conditions will they work?" Is a good candidate for inclusion of Jeff Rients' 10 questions about your setting.

The requirement for remarkable materials ties the splendid item to the memorable achievements of the party. Some examples of remarkable materials might be a star opal pried from a mummy's crown to set into the pommel of a dagger, or dragon scales to make armor, or bolts of cloud silk from the floating manse of a spirit of the air for the purposes of making glorious evening wear. Each of these items is a part of their history and is imbued with the relish of their exploits.

As for the process of fashioning the splendid itemit must be made to suite the personality of the owner, and so they must be intimately involved in its production. (Hence the use of an entire downtime action.) Upon completion, the player must describe the item to the group and name it. Others will notice the item and speak about it. It will become an object of envy, desire, and respect. Strangers may recognize the artisan's work.

Any splendid item must be cared for each downtime following an adventure in which it is used for 1/10 its cost in order to keep its advantage. The stewardship of such an item is a heavy burden.

Although it has special properties, a splendid item is not magical. However, only such an item may receive further enchantments, so all magical items are also splendid items. (In a later post I will present a system for turning splendid items into magical items that ties them still further to the exploits of the party.)

Here are some advantages a splendid item might accrue, although the DM can be open to other suggestions. (Be careful not to break the game here.)
  • Splendid melee or thrown weapons either are plus one to hit or plus one to damage
  • Splendid missile weapons are either plus one to hit or add 20% to each range category
  • Splendid armor is either one better AC or one class lighter
  • Splendid shields are one AC lower or incorporate another item such as a lantern or flintlock pistol
  • 2000 GP worth of splendid clothes increase the CHA of the wearer by 1 point
  • Splendid holy symbols increase the HD of undead one can turn by 1
  • Splendid thieves tools grant +10% to lock picking and find/remove traps
  • Splendid assassin's disguises grant +10% to rolls or allow one to pull off implausible disguises
  • Other splendid items will have a special advantage agreed upon by the player and DM before purchase. Try not to get silly with this: there are no splendid wineskins or flints, but there certainly could be splendid lanterns, or books, etc. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Downtime Activities: Non-magical Research

I came up with a system I like for non-magical research in OSR-type games and I want to share it with you.

One of the player characters in my dreamlands game has a longstanding interest in the Treaty of the Farthest Shore, an ancient contract between the spirits (demons) of the Endless Azur Sea (i.e. the sky) and the Sky Singers, the ancient mariners who founded the monarchy of Zyan. Her interest was peaked by two things: having read the passages about the making of the treaty in the classic history of Zyan by "the utmost chronicler" Medes, and having perused a considerably less reputable diatribe titled, Secrets of the Treaty of the Farthest Shore Revealed, That All May Learn of The Treachery of The Demons of The Air, and Power May Be Gained to Overcome Our Present Troubles! by the wide-eyed Zamore Zuft. These texts suggested to the player that this treaty could, theoretically, in some way, be weaponized in the party's long struggle against the Hidden King of Zyan.

Disputations of the Squamous Jurists. Or is it the Talmud? You be the judge

In a remarkable turn of events, the party recently slew the Prince of the South Wind, a potentate of the spirits of the air, and looted his library, where they were finally able to attain a complete 20 volume set of The Disputations of the Squamous Jurists. This text contains the treaty of the farthest shore as well as copious surrounding commentary from the titular Squamous Jurists, the greatest antique legal scholars of the spirits of the air.

I was now confronted with what appeared to be a nightmarish problem of explaining what was in this impossibly dense and alien legal treatise. Since the player, Nick, was clearly intending to go all the way down this rabbit hole, I needed a way to handle this.

Studying this vast, alien legal text was going to be difficult. So I didn't want to hand out information so easily. But nor could I even if I had wanted to, since the 20 volume commentary of the Squamous Jurists so far outstripped anything I could possibly know. This situation militated against my simply answering at length whatever questions the players posed about the contents of the book: it would be too easy for them and too hard for me. It also would be the mother of all information dumps, which would turn the fun of discovery into a kind of setting homework for both me (to produce) and them (to read). Uggghhh.

But, luckily for me, I had been recently reading Meguey and Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World, and it's roguish stepchild, John Harper's Blades in the Dark, both justly famous story games. Among many other innovations, Apocalypse World introduced us to "Clocks". The idea of a clock is that you have something that will happen: an objective, or a condition, or a looming event. And there's a certain amount of "progress" that has to occur before the objective is reached or the event occurs. This progress is abstracted into "ticks" of the clock. So if something requires quite a lot of progress before occurring, we might set the clock with eight ticks; if less, four ticks, and so on. In Apocalypse World, clocks are used for approaching hazards.

Some of John B.'s clocks 

Blades in the Dark turned clocks into a versatile mechanic for all situations. Suppose the PCs are involved in a heist, looting a well-guarded mansion. The DM might say, "I'm setting a clock for you alerting the guards. It has four ticks." Then if the PCs make a loud noise, or in some other way draw attention to themselves, the DM will advance the clock one (or more) ticks. When the clock is filled, the guards show up. Blades in the Dark uses this mechanic almost everywhere, for combat with an especially tough foe, with the relation between gangs, etc.

So I decided to use clocks to solve my problem, but I took it an OSR-ish direction. Here's a slightly more systematic and developed version of the clocks-based solution of I've been using in play.


To research a topic in downtime, the player character must have access to a trove of information. In the most straightforward case, this will be a library, or a difficult grimoire, or an archive of some sort. But the trove could actually be any source of information (e.g. contacts in the criminal world, a method of divination, etc.). The trove always has a subject matter (it can have more than one). The player formulates a question they would like to investigate that falls within the subject matter of the trove. This is called opening a question.

The DM then writes up a clock for that question in advance. This clock is kept secret, since it represents the revelation of information through the progress of the investigation. The clock works like this: each tick is an entry that reveals progressively deeper information in answer to the question. The final tick for the question is the deepest layer of information that investigation will reveal. Once all the segments of the clock have been ticked, the question is closed.

For any open question, a PC can spend a downtime action investigating the topic to see if they can make progress on it. Ideally this will be a cost that would involve forgoing other downtime actions. (For full use this would require a system of downtime actions--a kind of resource mini-game happening in the deadtime between sessions.) To see whether they make progress, I am using the "reaction roll" mechanic that Apocalypse World lifts from early D&D. You roll 2d6 and add your intelligence modifier. The results are the following:

2-6 No progress
7-9 Shaky progress: the DM reserves the option to introduce a falsehood along with the truths uncovered, or to slightly distort the truths, or make things a little ambiguous. Note that the DM doesn't have to do this, but they can if they want to. Don't do this so much, or in a way that nerfs and discourages research.
10+ Progress

For the purposes of this system the DM keeps the size of the clock secret. The players don't know if this is a shallow topic, quickly exhausted, or whether it leads to hidden vistas. But the DM does NOT conceal whether the question is closed or open. If the question is closed after completing a tick, the DM tells the player "You have exhausted this question." If the question is still open after a tick has been completed, the DM tells them "You feel that there are further depths to plumb here."

For this mini-game to work, the ticks need to be interesting, enticing, and promise at least perhaps some actionable intelligence. If the answer to the question is quotidian or irrelevant to their interests, then the DM should make it a 1-tick clock and give them the full answer to the question they are investigating with a single 7+. Save the multi-tick, real deal clocks, for things it's fun to reveal in bite-sized bits.

When done right, my limited playtesting suggests that this turns a homework assignment into a tantalizing, tension building, slow burning reveal. Along the way, the players will form theories and speculations that race ahead of what they have revealed. The urgency of investigation will increase. And maybe, just maybe, something big will come of it in the end.

There are some nice twists you can put on this.

For example, you can have branching clocks, where a tick of one question opens another question for the party with its own clock. (Players will also do this organically as further information suggests other lines of inquiry that they might initiate by spending a downtime action to open a new question.)

You can also set up walls that require the players to acquire new sources of information in order to make further progress. For example, the text being consulted might refer to another text, and the DM might declare that to make further progress (check the next tick) on the question, the party will have to consult this other text. Or the wall might be one that can be circumnavigated by locating and consulting with a known expert. Or, perhaps, the only way to surmount the wall is having undergone a certain experience, as one might have the meaning of a certain religious mystery revealed to one only if one has been initiated, or has taken the right drugs, or communed with the strange writings on the black obelisks in hex 04125, or whatever. For this to work, the DM should simply tell the players what their research reveals they have to do if they want to make further progress on a question.

Another possibility, is to modify the roll based on a set of conditions. For example, you could apply a penalty for anyone who hasn't consulted a certain other text, or give a bonus for those who had. No doubt further variations exist.

An example will help to illustrate the method. Unfortunately I can't use the real example from my game, since all the questions they are investigating are still open.

Example: The Puzzle Scrolls

Suppose the party has liberated an artifact known as "the Fourth Puzzle Scroll" from the manse of Vermagin Eleazar, leader of the Withered Nightingales. It is written in an inimical eldritch code, and it seems both dangerous and powerful. The party suspects that to unlock the full power of the Fourth Puzzle Scroll, they will have to acquire a full set. Luckily, the PCs have access to a trove of information on magical subjects, since the party has access to the library of a certain obsessive collector of arcane wonders having added to certain delicious and irreplaceable items to his inventory in the past. The party's magician decides to use this trove to inaugurate a line of investigation by opening the question: "Where can the other puzzle scrolls be found?" Since this is a major artifact with a long history, I decide that the it will be a five tick clock.

"Where can the other puzzle scrolls be found?" five ticks

Tick 1: Most references to the puzzles scrolls are offhanded and obscure. But in certain very old texts you find some useful information. There were seven puzzle scrolls in total. As to their location, a chain of textual references lead you eventually to the section of the Testimony of the Senses that discusses the wonders seen by Balzabo the Theoricus in the legendary Library of Worms at the Monastery of Larsa. He describes in detail a complete set of the Puzzle Scrolls, unfortunately dwelling more on aesthetics than substance. So it seems that a complete set existed at the Monastery of Larsa two centuries ago.

The Ignotaur
Tick 2: Your researches inform you that a century ago, the Monastery of Larsa was looted by the People of Ash, fire worshipping minotaur berserkers. It is said that in those flames were consumed the knowledge of a thousand thousand generations, and that the oily smoke of the slaughtered tomes was a pleasing sacrifice to their burnt gods. However, Captivity Amongst the Savage Bulls, an account of Umut, a librarian who served for 10 years under their harsh dominion, testifies that certain treasures were rescued from the fires by the Ash Scholars, including all the puzzle scrolls but one.

Tick 3: Later, some say under a curse, others from paranoia, the Ignotaur turned the power of his nomadic empire to building the Labyrinthine Ziggurat, a maze of dizzying volcanic glass hidden in the Desert of Shifting Sands, near the ancient city of Qaz. The Ziggurat is said by Nabi, the court poet of the Ignatur, in his Songs of the Zigguratto be guarded by the ghosts of fallen minotaur warriors, and the crimson demons of his flaming deity. According to the poem, the Ignatur hid all his greatest treasures here, safe from his enemies. As it happens, the Withered Nightingales were rumored to have recently returned from an expedition to the region where the ruins of Qaz are said to lie. Perhaps if you consult your underworld contacts, you could open a question on what happened on the Withered Nightingales' Recent Expedition to Qaz. (Branching clock.)

Tick 4: You strike gold: a lead on the puzzle scroll that did not make it into the Ignotaur's collection. The missing scroll was not burned! Twenty years before the burning of the Library of Worms, the wizard Alangstrum, Piercer of Veils, quietly removed the fifth puzzle scroll from the library. Some say that he did it in the conviction that the world was not ready for the terrible hidden wisdom of the fifth scroll, others that he wished to seize its powers for himself. But here the trail runs cold. Several of the texts you have been consulting refer you to Alangstrum's introduction to Priaducts and Other Ways Hither and Yon, a book sadly not found in the collector's libraryPerhaps you could make further progress if you could locate a copy of this exceedingly rare text. (Wall)

Tick 5: In the introduction to Priaducts and Other Ways Hither and Yon, Alangstrum obliquely suggests that he opened a priaduct to Wishery, the dreamlands. There he placed the fifth puzzle scroll in a shaded grotto on the Hooded Isle in the Sea of Palimpsests, where the veil of reality wears thin, and four worlds flicker through like flames behind a thin parchment.

As you can see from this clock, a mix of history, possible adventure locales, the names of tomes, and so on are all introduced slowly over an extended period of time, perhaps mixed with the occasional rabbit hole or canard on a shaky roll. I think this is a player driven way to make a fun, sandbox oriented downtown minigame out of lore in your setting.