Thursday, February 29, 2024

Building Bhakashal - Trust the Process

In a sandbox style game, the referee leaves things open and the PCs actions drive the play. This concept is hard to explain to someone who is used to running a narrative focused game where the DM constantly tweaks things to keep the game going in the “right direction”.

I have no idea what the “right direction” is for the game.

So how do you adapt to this? When I am asked what the role of the referee is in Bhakashal, I tell people it is to interpret prompts, whether these be character actions, random encounter rolls, encounter reaction rolls, etc, etc. The beauty of this is that I don’t know what’s going to happen until the game starts, I have no expectations.

I think many DMs do not work this way.

This week’s session had an interesting moment that shows how this works at the table.

The PCs are trying to find the Forgotten City, located somewhere in the Sea of Dust, a gigantic desert. However, they don’t have a location for the city, they just know its out there in the desert somewhere.

Here’s the key part: I had no idea when we started how they were going to find it, and neither did they. It’s not my job to make this happen for them, they have to create opportunities. It takes a lot of faith to do this, there is a strong pressure on the referee just to tell the PCs what they need.

I have learned over the years to trust that things will either work out (they will find the Forgotten City), or they will pivot. There is no “fail state” here, in a fully sandbox game, you either find what your are looking for or start looking for something else. It doesn’t matter if I don’t know how they will figure out where the Forgotten City is, we just play and find out.

I know this would drive some ref’s nuts, “but what if they can’t find the city”.

But what indeed.

They have been travelling through the mountains to get to the desert. It has been a long journey, 5 days across the ocean, then 2 days to the mountains, and 6 days through the mountains to get us to the beginning of today’s session.

The last thing that happened in the last session was that a group of NPCs robbed the caravan warlock, Mahl Unoss the Puissant. Unbeknownst to the party, Unoss was taking a powerful crystal ball with ESP to another warlock to exchange it for another powerful item. Two NPCs created a distraction and snuck up on the caravan at night, then stole the crystal ball. They had planted a spy on the caravan to watch how Unoss handled the item, and to slip something into his drink so he would be sleeping at the time.

Just like a group of PCs would do!

The NPCs were a dual class warlock (magic-user)/phantasmist (illusionist) and a spider (thief). They fled into the night and Unoss eventually woke up and discovered the theft. He absolutely had to get this item back, and he asked the party Slayer (ranger) to help him track the thieves. Three party members went with him, the party Warlock, Mercenary (fighter) and Slayer. The Slayer took some time to find their trail, and the pursuit was on. The NPCs had mounts waiting in the trees and were quickly on their way.

Then the party made its only tactical error, their Slayer is a Garudin (bird-person) and flew into the air to find them rather than relying on tracking on the ground. People lament how flight is overpowered, but in this case it meant that the NPCs had a chance of spotting him, and they did. If he had stayed on the ground and tracked from there they wouldn’t have known they were being followed. Since one of the NPCs was a phantasmist, he made an illusion to confuse the party and it worked, they went off in another direction.

The party then tried to find the trail again, it took some time, but they did, however the NPCs were now quite a bit ahead of them. Eventually the NPCs made it to their base where the other party members were waiting, then one of the NPCs, Luxifal the Cerulean (the warlock/phantasmist) doubled back with his party and approached the PCs (as an illusion).

Now, both Luxifal and Unoss are Bhakashal warlocks, so they are haughty, arrogant and don’ t take any guff. Luxifal proposed that Unoss and the PCs leave now otherwise he and his companions would have to slay them all. I rolled an encounter reaction roll to see how Unoss would take this sort of threat. It came up very high, so it was my job to decide how to interpret this, why would Unoss react positively to a threat?

My job is to interpret this in a sensible way.

I decided that Unoss is a smart guy (17 Intelligence!) and that he didn’t think Luxifal would just show up on his own to confront the party, thus the rest of his group were probably hiding and ready to ambush them, so rather than pushing back, he would try to talk him down.

Unoss and Luxifal traded jibes for a while, Unoss insisting that he had to have the crystal ball back, Luxifal insisting that it was now his and that Unoss should leave.

Then one of the PCs asked Luxifal if they could offer him loot in exchange for the crystal ball.

That was unexpected. The party had recently scored a huge haul and converted it into precious gemstones. Each one had several thousand GP worth of gems on their person. They pooled their gems and made Luxifal an offer.

One thing I love about this style of play is that it isn’t obvious whether or not a NPC would take what amounts to a bribe. And I don’t have to make that decision, the dice will. The sum they offered was significant, so I added a small modifier and rolled, the result was strongly positive.

So Luxifal agreed to the deal. We spent a bit of time coming up with an exchange protocol, the party didn’t trust Luxifal and they didn’t trust him. Eventually the crystal ball was obtained and returned to Unoss.

You might ask, why did the party voluntarily give up thousands of GP in gems to get an NPC’s crystal ball back?

There are two reasons. First, over the last 6 sessions the party has travelled with Unoss. The party warlock spent time talking to the NPC about magic, they even exchanged scroll spells at one point. Also the party has had several random encounters with Unoss around, they were both impressed by his abilities and Unoss and the PCs had saved each other a few times. They felt a bond with him.

Good NPCs will do that.

Also, the party has learned over and over again that it’s not about YOU being the most powerful person in the room, its about alliances and networks of power. If a powerful person owes you, that’s a win. Unoss is a powerful warlock and they did him a HUGE favor.

However, this is Bhakashal, and a powerful warlock like Mahl Unoss the Puissant does not want to be owing the party a favor any longer than he has to. So I was actively thinking about how he could pay the party back.

On the way back to the caravan, Unoss and the party were talking about whether or not they should have fought the NPCs, and Unoss’ mission. Unoss asked them for more details about their mission, keen to see if he could help and pay off his debt. They mentioned that they were looking for the Lost City, and they didn’t know how to find it.

They were thinking of finding a sage and asking them, or perhaps looking for local guides who knew the desert well who might have stumbled upon it. The problem was, according to them, that any guide they found would claim to have found the Lost City, but the party had no way of knowing if they were telling the truth or just fleecing naïve adventurers.

That’s when the penny dropped for me, I instantly knew how Unoss could help them. I waited to see if one of the players would figure it out.

And they did.

The party mercenary (fighter) got excited and said that Unoss could use his ESP crystal ball to check to see if the guides they found actually knew where the city was. It would take time, many would genuinely think they knew but not actually have any direct experience. It wasn’t a guarantee, but it was a good plan, and it gave them a way forward.

I could have just given them a map (I actually rolled a map in a treasure hoard several sessions ago and rolled a 1 in 100 chance that it was a map to the lost city, it wasn’t!), but instead the game just dropped this into my lap. The possibility of Unoss having his crystal ball stolen was a random encounter option, it might not have come up, then the party wouldn’t have even known he was carrying it. The party helping out, so Unoss owed them a favor was also unexpected.

The lesson here is that I didn’t have to give them anything, the game eventually created the circumstances for success. The best part is that the players were proud of themselves, through their actions and clever thinking they had a plan to find the place they were looking for, and I didn’t just “give” it to them, it emerged organically from play.

This is why travel shouldn’t be “hand waved” just to “get to the adventure”.

Trust the process, and let it happen.



Thursday, January 11, 2024

                                                    Building Bhakashal - Combat!

My Wednesday group started up again this week, and they were giant hunting. I’m going to recount the events, with some gameplay commentary along the way. We have a lot of non-combat time at the table, but this session was all fight.

Their caravan had been ambushed by fire giants, and they had lost a number of mounts, goods and people, but managed to flee. The players decided that the giants might pursue, the caravan was still big and slow, and tempting. So, they doubled back and watched from a distance, the party warlock (magic-user) got to use Wizard Eye to surveil their cave. Eventually two of the giant’s left to go hunting (or so the party assumed) and they came up with a plan. 

Initially they decided to attack the remaining giants while these two were out hunting, so their forces would be lessened. But then they decided to try and slay the giants out hunting first and come back for the giants in the cave. This was smart, smart as they were fighting fewer giants at each interval, smart as they were attacking the giants outside of their lair where they had fewer advantages, and smart because this was their first direct fight with giants (the last time they just fled) and they would learn from a smaller skirmish.

One of the PCs is a Garudin (a bird-person), he tracked the hunting giants from the air, and directed the party to an ambush point. The giants were heading to a forest, the party positioned themselves between the giants and a stream that ran through the forest, assuming they might hunt there or go there for water. They picked a clearing with no large boulders lying around for an ambush. The party tanks hid around the area and loaded up missile weapons. A lower level Thaumaturge (thief/magic user) prepared a scroll with Cone of Cold. The higher-level party warlock prepared to cast Sjin’Saar’s Corrosive Decay, a Bhakashal spell. The party Phantasmist (illusionist) prepared Pharin’s Sky of Bone, another Bhakashal spell. 

Then they waited. 

Given their concealment and the choice of ambush points, they had a 4 in 6 chance of surprising the giants, the giants had a 1 in 6 chance of surprising them. The dice decided, and the party did not achieve surprise, but neither did the giants. I have to interpret that result in a way that makes sense to the players, as they did set up an ambush. I decided that the giants spotted them from the middle of the clearing as the late afternoon sunlight reflected off of the metal of some of the PC's weapons. 

I tend to randomize everything in the game. The party had picked a clearing, and the giants were about 80 feet from the trees, so I rolled to see what the giant’s would do, given that there were an unknown number of attackers and there were no boulders around. I randomize this stuff as it keeps opponents unpredictable. The first giant took out a javelin to throw at one warrior he had seen, the second charged towards the woods nearby, targeting another warrior. 

We do individual initiative, and charging targets deal with missile fire and spells before they reach their target, depending on their speed and the initiative rolls. Crossbows fired. Crossbows don’t do that much damage, but there is always the possibility of a critical hit, in Bhakashal, just like Talislanta, any hit roll of 25 or greater (with bonuses) is a critical hit, and the attacker can choose their impact, pick a weapon critical effect or roll on a list of combat criticals. 

The first shot was a regular hit for minor damage, but the second shot was a critical, and the PC decided to disarm the giant, so the crossbow bolt hit the giant’s hand, causing the javelin to be dropped and the giant to howl in pain. Another crossbow attack missed.

The PC warlock, Borunn the Majestic, took out an iron rod with a drop of mercury on the end of it, whispered the words, “Fürödjön a vas tűzében” three times, and a swirling mass of dark green fire appeared at the end of the rod. The Warlock pulled back the rod and whipped it forward, the emerald sphere flew into the clearing, exploding when it reached the middle and filling the whole clearing with swirling dark green fire. The charging giant was about 30 feet from the trees when this happened.

Sjin’Saar’s Corrosive Decay
hit both giants, the party had picked a clearing they could fill with the spell. The Corrosive Decay causes all ferrous weapons and armor in the AOE to save or disintegrate. Due to the nature of saves and the fact that you roll for each major item, armor, each weapon, that sort of thing, it almost always gets some objects, but rarely gets all. 

The javelin throwing giant lost its armor and a sword, the charging giant lost its battle axe and sword, so was now without weapons. When the giant was 10 feet from the edge of the clearing and was headed to reach in for one of the PCs, the party Spider (thief), the Phantasmist’s spell, Pharin’s Sky of Bone, kicked in. To cast this spell the Phantasmist (Josteloth the Gossamer) took out a bone fragment from a polar bear (this material component is EXTREMELY RARE in Bhakashal, so this was a dear spell to cast). The Phantasmist placed the bone between two flat palms and whispered, “Obloha z kostí, pokryje svět”, three times over, crushing the bone fragment to dust.

I was not rolling well, and each giant failed their save, the sky and surroundings went completely white as if in a furious snowstorm, they couldn’t see properly, they would get brief glimpses of their targets that would then fade to white. The weaponless giant near the trees reached in to try and grab the Spider anyway, and between the tree’s concealment and the hit penalty from the spell missed badly. The Spider then climbed up the tree a bit.
Two of the party tanks sprung from the trees and attacked the disoriented giant. A two-handed sword and a wicked bardiche were wielded, one missed and the other did minor damage, as the giant’s wild gesticulations seemed to have kept it from harm. 

The giant in the clearing took out a new javelin, but the spell made it too hard to target anything. The giant threw its javelin where he thought one of the tanks was and hit the other giant instead (the spell randomizes all missile fire due to disorientation). Unfortunately for the javelin-throwing giant, its armor was gone. The party Slayer (ranger/assassin) targeted him, he got a critical and his choice was to have the giant lose its next attack. Criticals always have to be interpreted, in this case the crossbow bolt hit the giant in the shoulder joint, causing enough pain that an action was taken removing the bolt, this caused the loss of an attack. The party Spartan (monk) charged into the clearing as soon as the bolt was fired. An 8th level Spartan moves pretty fast, and due to the critical got to attack before the giant could respond.

The Spartan delivered a flying kick at its leg, which was another critical due to the modified AC of the giant. In Bhakashal, you can pick from a list of combat criticals, use the critical associated with your weapon, or make up your own critical, as desired. The Spartan picked toppling the giant as his critical effect, this both did damage and lost the giant a round getting back up. The Spartan then ran to the side, as the party Thaumaturge now cast Cone of Cold from a scroll, icing up the side of our now toppled giant. The giant made its save and took less damage, but this was followed up by another round of missile fire from the party as the giant lost its attack. The mighty fire giant was badly wounded, toppled, riddled with crossbow bolts, leg damaged and half its body covered with ice.

The giant near the trees was flailing around, weaponless, trying to hit the two party tanks, both of them landed hits, one for minor damage, one for significant damage. Still, Fire Giants are 10 HD creatures, I roll for HP, and this bad boy had 65 hp to start.

Then the party Spider leapt from the trees with a sword out for a backstab, what we lovingly call a “Crom”. 

That was sweet. 

Morale checks were rolled, the javelin-throwing giant failed and tried to leave, but the Sky of Bone spell had mixed up its perception and it fled in a random direction. This gave the party warlock a chance to cast Magic Missile, which did enough damage to slay the monster.

“Your bright missiles cut through the air and effortlessly reach the target, each one that strikes the fleeing giant racks its body with a shiver of agony and carries the stench of flesh burnt by lightning, a faint smell of ozone permeates the air as the giant topples, lifeless.”

The giant near the trees did manage to land a blow on one of the party tanks, sending him flying into a tree with a critical hit. Unfortunately, the combination of the backstab and the big damage attack last round left the giant vulnerable. One of the tanks finished him off with a cleaving bardiche blow, lopping off its head. Last session one of the giant's had lopped off a PC's head, so this generated a lot of shouting.

The party had a brief celebration then started to plan out the attack on the remaining giants. 

This group has been playing with me for 3 years now, and they really have absorbed a lot of strategy from past experience. They know the value of an ambush, of splitting up their enemies’ forces, and of using distance attacks and spells that do more than just damage. They have learned to sequence, e.g., not always cast AOE spells AFTER your tanks have charged in. They also coordinate missile and melee attacks to avoid friendly fire. Bhakashal’s combat rules allow you to run around between attacks, this mobility is important as it allows more tactical play, the players have absorbed that lesson.

I should add that these PCs are all in the 6-8th level range, so they get criticals regularly in combat, something that was not the case as much at lower levels. It has been rewarding to see the mechanics work as intended at the table. We also got to see some Bhakashal spells get a workout, that was fun. Initially the lads were enamored with the standards, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, big damage for sure, but they have seen the value of spells that disable, distract and otherwise disadvantage their foes. Removing armor and weapons with the Sjin'Sarrs Corrosive Decay made a big difference here, as did the disorientation created by Pharin's Sky of Bone.

Next session should prove to be interesting, as there are 5 fire giants in their lair, when we were wrapping up there was talk of summoning monsters and sending them into the cave to soften them up before the party gives it a go.

They are learning!

Sunday, December 3, 2023


Building Bhakashal – Overland Travel - The Caravan - Part 2

What a session! Sometimes when we play I want to write up a journal for people because the session has great examples of how we handle circumstances that come up regularly in the game. I think people get a lot of odd ideas about how sandbox style games are run, and particularly how games that rely heavily on randomization and dice mechanics work at the table. Also, my games are “full Bhakashal” now, with the custom classes and mechanics, so if you want a preview of what you will be getting, this is pretty good.

My Wed group is on the classic sandbox adventure. After finishing their last adventure (White Plume – they bailed after a few early deaths and had to deal with the consequences for many sessions), they quite literally looked at the Greyhawk map, saw “the Forgotten City” on the map, and decided to go there.

It doesn’t get more sandbox than that.

This involved a week long sea voyage and so far 4 days of overland travel to get to the mountains, across the mountains is the Sea of Dust, their destination. The start of their trip is detailed here:

When we left off in the previous session, they approached the mountains and a Roc bore down on the caravan. The way we run initiative and combat, an aerial attacker bearing down from a distance can be hit by missile fire and spells before they arrive, depending on the distance and speed that can be more than one attack per combatant.

Everyone took out missile weapons and got a shot in before it arrived. However, it was windy, the Roc was coming in fast, and as the caravan was over 500’ long, only some of the guards were in range for crossbow shots. Of the 30 or so that were in range, only 2 hit!

The party warlock cast Magic Missile, at 8th level they get 4 missiles for 2-5 damage each, the thief/magic-user also had Magic Missile, though at a lower level of experience. Together they did a respectable amount of damage, Magic Missile never misses and has a terrific range. In Bhakashal, Magic Missile is cast by touching your forehead and drawing a sizzling energy spike out of your head, then whipping it towards your enemies, and it unerringly finds its target. Big fun.

Still, the huge monster dove, undaunted.

The caravan has its own Warlock (Mahl Unoss the Puissant), and he cast Lightning Bolt at the mighty creature. This was the last defense, fortunately for the party the beast failed it’s save, and the damage was sufficient to bring it between half and one quarter HP, so it could make a controlled dive, but it had to land.

Referee - “Mahl Unoss the Puissant sits tall in the saddle of his giant lizard, wrapping a glass rod with the fur of a slain Chimera, he whispers the words that release the power of the spell. The rod glows bright blue, and lightning appears in the air a full 300 feet from the warlock, materializing from nothing. The bolt shoots forward like a hungry beast released, and after another 20 or so feet suddenly forks into three nearly parallel bolts, all now a painfully bright blue white and ragged. They strike the raging Roc in the side and on its massive wing. The beast screeches in pain, and alternately flaps and coasts towards thick forest of trees, where the splintering of wood and more shrieking from the beast could be heard.”

In Bhakashal substituting material components can get you different versions of the spell, the Chimera skin allows the caster to split the bolt in such a way that it covers more area, and the target takes a -3 save penalty.

That was fun.

The Roc decided to land as far from the caravan as possible, worried that it could be taken when it landed. The caravan leader and the party agreed to leave it be and continue on.

They pressed forward and powered through the rest of the day to get as much distance as possible

They arrived in the mountains and started up the pass. At this point they had socialized with the caravan guards and animal handlers, as well as the Caravan Master Gylevan “the Jackrabbit” Mahgler and Mahl Unoss the Puissant, the caravan’s warlock. Gylevan is a retired 7th level mercenary with a Razor sword, magic armor, and Boots of Striding and Springing (remember that, it will matter later). He likes to gamble and is well liked by his crew. The PCs have gambled with them, exchanged information, and were forming bonds.

Unoss is an NPC warlock that was generated as a PC for a one shot, I kept him around and have used him as a NPC in different campaigns, leveling him up as time passes in between uses. He served as an Akhaada (arena) warlock for most of his career (pre use as a one shot character), since then he has done some adventuring (the one shot and two others, also as a “hired gun” NPC warlock for a run at Forbidden City with my Monday group), worked as a ship’s warlock (for my Tuesday campaign last year), and is now a caravan Warlock for my Wednesday group.

Every day of travel the players tell me  if they want to do RP or not, if they say yes, we will role play out whatever scenario is appropriate, eating at the captain’s table, gambling with the crew, entertaining the crew with illusions, preaching, and converting the crew, etc. Players do fun things when they get the chance to RP “casually”. On an ocean voyage in a previous campaign one player noted he had a fishing skill, and he approached the crew members fishing off the boat and struck up a conversation, they cast nets together and he insisted that we roll to determine success.

Players will “game” anything if they can.

The NPC priest they had brought along, Cyga the Cauled, was becoming popular with the caravan, casting blessings, auguries and minor healing spells for the crew and healing the beasts of burden. A Seer (priest) of Omagh, god of death, she had converted about 10 of the animal handlers and 4 of the guards to her faith. She had also bested one of the guards in a sparring match, the Seer favored a mace in combat, and she bested the guard armed with shield and longsword in three passes. We played that fight, with a player running the Seer and me running the guard.

Day two in the mountains and we rolled an encounter with a wind walker. I adore elemental monsters, and air elementals are super fun, they can cause such havoc! When they rolled the encounter, I initially described it as a loud, howling wind. Then it started to ROAR, and then it became incredibly strong, and then one of the guards was shot into the air, high up, then plummeted down screaming. Oddly enough he made a saving throw and didn’t die from the experience, but the party was frightened.

They didn’t know what it was, and I wasn’t telling them!

The wind walker blew up dust and dirt that blinded the guards and spooked the animals. The party had no idea what they were facing. One of the PCs had a Bhakashal spell, Quen-Tharin’s Baleful Penetrating Gaze. It allows a form of X-ray vision.

When the wind walker picked up the next caravan guard and raised them into the air, the party phantasmist cast the spell and “saw” a vaguely humanoid outline of the wind walker attacking the guard.

That was a cool moment. That guard was dropped but the party slayer (ranger/assassin) is a Garudin (bird-person) and managed to catch them before they hit.

As a ref, I have to decide what the NPCs are doing when an attack happens, just like the PCs have to. But I don’t want to take advantage of my comprehensive knowledge of the situation, so I randomize what the monsters do.

What would the party warlock do in this situation?

Mahl has spells, items and scroll spells. The way the magic item tables in Bhakashal are structured is similar to the way they are structured in AD&D 1e, scrolls come up fairly often, and all mid-level warlocks will have a few scrolls. For Unoss I set up the following odds to determine his response:

1-4. Charm Monster

5. Wand of Conjuration

6. Scroll - Invisible Stalker


Charm Monster would end the fight there and then if it worked so I weighted that heavier. The wand would take time (to take out and use) and had charges he didn’t want to waste, and the scroll spell was a one shot, so he was reluctant to use it.

But it is his job.

I rolled a 6!

Unoss took out a scroll and cast Aerial Servant. He directed the servant to protect him and the caravan, and it attacked the wind walker. Two air elemental beings attacking each other, two raging storms locked in combat. I did a morale check on the walker to see how it would handle something that could impact it directly, it failed and fled, the aerial servant was too tough, and it was used to easy prey. The guards were grateful as the party saved one of their lives. The caravan continued on, and the next two days were tense as we rolled no encounters.

Every time I roll dice for encounters the players get antsy.

The party warlock became friends with Mahl Unoss, they had a few conversations as they travelled. The PC warlock asked Unoss if he was willing to trade spells, and a positive reaction roll led to a discussion. A scroll of Lightning Bolt was traded for one with Wall of Iron. This was a cause for some celebration, as the PC had been looking for Lightning Bolt (or Fireball) for a time, and they all waited with bated breath while he rolled his “to know”. It was successful, and now they have Lightning Bolt in their arsenal!

And you know at some point they will need Wall of Iron and not have it, LOL.

The third day in the mountains a storm hit, it was heavy rain and wind, but they pressed on as the wind walker had slowed them down. They rolled an encounter with fire giants. Given where they were I decided it would be an attack from above, they were in a narrow pass where the caravan had to go slowly and in a long line. The perfect place for an ambush. The rain concealed the giant’s from early discovery.

We rolled for surprise and fortunately neither side was surprised, so one of the caravan guards spotted the giants, 100’ above them. All hell was about to break loose, there were 5 giants, three together, and (unknown to them) two moving to flanking positions. The three together reached for boulders.

Roll for initiative!!!!

It was CRAZY.

The party warlock rolled a 1 and successfully cast Rope Trick, climbing up to safety. Two other nearby party members took their action running to the rope and starting to climb. The caravan master screamed to the whole procession to flee as fast as they could. The caravan has 30 giant lizards, loaded for bear, with on rider each, 50 guards (unmounted), and 10 giant lizard cavalry guards. At full charge they weren’t that fast, and the caravan itself was about 500’ long.

At this point I had to make a few hard decisions. In a situation like this, do NPCs protect themselves or protect others? Do they flee like everyone else, or do they do “heroic” things? I’m a firm believer in rolling for things like this. I want some spontaneity in my game.

I construct a set of weighted options based on the NPC’s profile, class, etc. So, for example, the caravan master Gylevan Mahgler  was a retired 7th level mercenary (fighter), so he wasn’t easy to scare. I gave him these odds:

1-4: stand ground and direct flight of caravan

5: fire crossbow at giants

6: flee and try to seek shelter in the Rope Trick with the party


I rolled a 1, he was focused on getting everyone to flee as fast as possible, and he stayed his ground, shouting at the beasts and riders to move. The whole party except the Justiciar (paladin) ran towards the Rope Trick. That was noticed by the guards, animal handlers, caravan master and Mahl Unoss.

Unoss has his aerial servant (still around) lift him up into the sky, making him “hover” in the air far from the caravan line of fire. He then prepared a spell.

Cyga the Cauled, Seer of Omagh, was another example, what would a priestess of death do in a situation like this? I gave this some thought, what does a priestess of a death god think about death? Would she be indifferent to it? Would she seek to deal it out to others? Would she feel compelled to not interfere with death when it occurred? I decided that one of the options would be the priestess *courting* death.

So she might flee, cast Light on a giant to blind it (she was in range), use her Crossbow of Distance (good odds to hit but not much damage) or cast Sanctuary on herself, making it less likely the giants could hit her, and draw their fire.

1. Flee

2-3. Cast Light to blind a giant

4. Use Crossbow of Distance

5-6. Cast Sanctuary on herself and draw fire


I rolled a 5, and she cast Sanctuary on herself.

The party Justiciar was another problem case, he could have headed into the Rope Trick for shelter, but he would have had to abandon his special mount, in Bhakashal you get a mount as your “warhorse” based on your deity, his was Iospha, god of fire, so he rode a giant boar.

No getting that up the rope!

They were sitting ducks under the giant’s rocks, and a giant’s rock thrown from above like this does enough damage to slay a party member in terms of HP alone, also, if they roll a critical it is instant death, crushed by a giant rock. But he wasn’t abandoning his special mount. So, he rode along, picking up guards fleeing on foot along the way who jumped and clung to his mount (giant boars are big), riding like the devil to get away from the giant’s rocks. He rescued 5 guards this way.

Then the rocks flew. Three huge boulders came down. There were 30 gess (giant lizards) each with a rider and 1-2 guards on foot, each grouping of gess, rider and guard(s) was counted as one unit. The party represented an additional 8 (all mounted), and there were 10 mounted caravan guards, as well as the caravan master and Unoss. A total of 50 targets sorted by mounts. I assigned numbers to everyone, and I rolled a d100 and divided it into two.

The rocks targeted two gess/rider/guards and one of the mounted guards. What the party didn’t know was that mounted guard was a high level NPC mercenary that was fleeing from a death sentence, he was posing as a guard to get smuggled out. They might never find this out.

The giant rolled a 2 to hit and missed. There were howls and screams when that happened.

The second and third boulder rolled a regular hit, the damage wounded the beast of burden and killed the guard and the rider on the second by HP alone, and a critical on the third slayed them all instantly.

Other than the Justiciar, the party had all fled to the Rope Trick, Mahgler the caravan master screamed, “UNOSS, stop them!”

I rolled again for the Warlock’s actions,

1. Magic Missile

2. Charm Monster

3-5. Lightning bolt

6. Aerial Servant

I rolled a 3, Unoss cursed the giants in the dead tongue of the necrovores of the underworld, the Vorunn, and he cast Lightning Bolt again, this time above the giants and against the loose rock of the mountains, triggering a small avalanche that blinded them and did minor damage.

This delayed their next attack, and more of the caravan made it out of the pass.

That was one round. 

The next round, the Justiciar made it to the end of the pass with his rescued guards, who he released, and he turned around to get more guards.

Cyga the Cauled turned to the giants and cursed them in the name of Omagh, challenging them to target her, trusting the Sanctuary spell of her god to protect her and draw their fire.

She’s a badass.

Caravan master Gylevan Mahgler, in a move that convinced the party he was mad, jumped from his mount and used his Boots of Striding and Springing to run and leap along, periodically shouting at the beasts to urge them on, and twice picking up fallen guards to spring them over to a fleeing mount that stopped to grab them. 

I rolled to see who the giant’s would attack, 5 attacks this round as the flanking giants were in place above them.

1-8. Unoss

9-12. Cyga

13-16. Paladin

17-18. Mahgler

19-20. Beast of burden

They wanted to slay giant lizards as food, and to get whatever goods they were carrying.  I rolled and the giant’s targeted Unoss, Mahgler, Cyga and two giant lizard teams, all rolled randomly.

The boulder hurled at Unoss had no chance, as the Aerial servant could easily move him out of the way, and it did. Mahgler was jumping around in a crazy pattern very quickly with his boots, so the giant took a penalty on the shot, it whistled overhead (missing by 1) and the Jackrabbit was safe! Cyga’s Fire Giant failed its save against Sanctuary, so it could not attack her, instead bellowing in a rage as it smashed the boulder into the ground at its feet, unable to cast it at her.

Cyga shouted praise to Omagh while shaking her holy symbol (her mace) in the air, “Omagh is my armor foul one, your rocks will break on my body!”

Two giant lizards and crews were pasted by boulders, but by now more than half of the caravan was out of the pass and harm’s way.

The Justiciar picked up several more guards and turned to get them to safety.

Unoss then cast his second spell, Stinking Cloud, this one was memorized. It hit the three giant’s standing together, and one of them plummeted off the mountainside when racked with coughing. The other two were incapacitated. I rolled and the two flanking giants headed back to save their comrades.

Mahgler waited until the last gess departed the pass, and he sprung back to look for survivors. The Justiciar and him cleared the pass and fled ahead. Cyga went with them, and the party closed the Rope Trick.

Then things got interesting.

The Rope Trick would last for two hours and 40 minutes. Would the giants still be around at that point?

Questions like this are a frequent occurrence at the table, there are no rules to turn to.

When something like this comes up, I throw it to the table, and we talk it out. I do this to be fair, to give the players a chance to make their arguments, and I do this as it’s fun. Players love to argue about stuff like this. I told them they were in the extradimensional space and couldn’t know what was happening outside. Should they “peek” and see? Would they be spotted?

They surmised that after the caravan was gone from the pass, the giants would come down to check on their wounded comrade, retrieve the dead for consumption, and to grab whatever cargo was not destroyed by the boulders.

How long would that take?

We talked it out and knowing the size of the giant lizards and the giants themselves, each giant could drag one dead giant lizard up the mountain to their lair at a time. There was also some retrievable cargo that wasn’t destroyed. They would assign a giant to watch to see if the caravan master or warlock returned. The party didn’t know if the giant’s knew they would eventually come out. They might just sit around and wait to see.

I rolled to determine what they did. The party decided to wait until the 2 hour mark then “peek” out. I rolled the odds that they would be spotted, and they managed to be unnoticed, what they saw was that all but one of the dead gess were removed, two giants were here, as well as about 5 hell hounds, and some cargo remained unmoved.

The closed up and waited until the spell was soon to end. When they peeked out again I rolled to see if they were noticed, and they were not. This time there were two giants remaining, one dead giant lizard, and one intact container of caravan goods.

They now have to decide how to get out of the Rope Trick without being noticed, as the giants were still around. If they manage to escape they have to ask themselves if they want to continue with the caravan or track down the giant’s in their lair to hopefully steal their loot.

Decisions, decisions.

As you can notice, I randomize a lot of the game, this keeps things unpredictable and inspiring:

I know a lot of DMs wouldn’t have had the party travel for a few days without encounters. The advantage to what I do is that they never know when an encounter is going to happen, and when it does, it won’t always happen in the “optimal” environment for a fight.

Many DM’s would “balance” their encounters by calibrating the monsters/NPCs/animals to the party’s level and power. Instead, I roll on pregenerated random tables that pay no heed to the party’s makeup or level. The Wind Walker encounter could have been a TPK, so too could the giant encounter.

Many DM’s would ensure that PCs were not targeted in that giant encounter, as it was randomly rolled and they didn’t have an opportunity to avoid the encounter, so it wasn’t “fair”. But that’s the nature of travelling through dangerous areas!

Few DM’s would randomize the actions of NPCs or monsters, they would instead pick the actions to ensure they were “optimized”, I prefer to roll randomly and see what happens as it’s unpredictable and it can lead to results that are even more awesome than what you planned.

Many DMs would not have bothered to have NPCs taking on prominent roles in the adventure, or interacting with other NPCs (e.g., the Seer converting guards), as the adventure is “all about the PCs”, but Bhakashal is a living world, and the PCs are but one tiny part of that world. NPCs aren’t cardboard cut outs or clusters of stats to occupy space, they have agency, perform heroic (and cowardly) acts, are sometimes irrelevant to the fight, and sometimes crucial. Nothing makes the game duller than “in the background” predictable NPCs that either contribute nothing or run everything.

Many DMs would have “hand waved” the travel portion of this adventure, fast forwarding the party to their destination. Not us! Travel is part of the adventure too! The party has had such awesome RP over the last few sessions, they have made friends, learned things about the game world, created stakes and formed alliances.

Unpredictability through randomization is, IMO, key to three very important aspects of the game:

1)     Surprising EVERYONE at the table. The referee controls so much of the game world, it is important to have things that even they can’t predict. An “omnipotent” DM that knows everything gets bored fast.

2)     When aspects of the game are unpredictable, including the actions of NPCs, the game world seems more REAL. Stories are often noticeably curated; you can often predict what will happen in the next part of the story because that result is “what the story demands”. Randomization throws a spanner in this, and just like real life, things rarely progress as planned.

3)     Randomization creates tactical opacity, the inability to predict what your opponents will do. Of course, it works both ways, your opponents are less likely to predict what you will do, and vice versa. Predictable combat is the height of boredom, and one of the reasons why many people complain that combat “takes too long”.

I have no idea if the party will pursue the giants or just continue on, and more importantly I DON’T WANT TO KNOW! Part of the fun is me not knowing what will happen next.

Onwards to adventure!

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Building Bhakashal – Overland Travel – The Caravan

I see a lot of posts on social media suggesting that many DMs fast forward travel, and that it is a distraction from the game.

I disagree.

My Wednesday group is currently travelling overland with a caravan, and it’s an opportunity to review this kind of play and how it works for us, as it is a ton of fun. I’m using Bhakashal rules at the table, so anything I discuss here will be represented in the setting guide. You can generate a caravan for the party to join in about 20 minutes or so. The setting guide will have both the method and several sample caravans to be used if you are pressed for time.

Overland travel can take a few forms, from on foot, to mounted to a caravan. My players defaulted to on foot or mounted for the longest time, but in a recent game they talked about how dangerous it had been the last few extended trips they took, and how much they liked being on a ship with armed sailors and a ship Warlock rather than doing the overland portion, which they did alone to “get there as fast as possible”. One of the players turned to me, in part due to the fact they had passed a caravan a few sessions back and asked if the party could join a caravan.

“If you like”

First step was to find a caravan heading to the mountains and beyond to the desert. This was a big ask, there were plenty of caravans going a shorter distance, but they were adamant that they wanted to stick with one group not switch between multiple caravans to get where they were going.

I asked why.

My players are at the point where they have come to realize that loyalty rolls are crucial to the game, they are the cement of faction play and come into play quite often (Bhakashal also has a “repute” mechanic). So, a longer trip where you get to know your allies and generate goodwill, and thus loyalty bonuses, is worth more to them then switching constantly and encountering new people. Any work you have put in is lost when you do that.

In short, they are getting better at the game.

They did the legwork when their ship first arrived and found only one caravan that was going all the way across the mountains to the desert, and it was very big. The party had to convince the caravan master to be allowed to accompany the caravan, they were already well armed and had their own Warlock, so the party wasn’t seen as needed. Also, adventurers who want to leave town in the company of a caravan are not infrequently on the run from someone and might bring their own trouble. The caravan master brought up both of those concerns in the discussion.

However, the party offered to hire an NPC Seer (priest) for healing purposes as the caravan did not have one, and that, along with the party thief’s high charisma, sweetened the deal enough to be allowed to join. Each of the PCs had to pay for a mount as well (they had traveled here by ship, so they had no mounts). As they were going through plain, marshland, hills, and mountain, they settled on Saan (giant lizards) as mounts as they can swim rivers and are excellent climbers.

The agreement was that the party would defend the caravan as they travelled, and once they made it to the desert they would part company, the caravan would continue on its trip to several of the larger desert cities, and the party would veer out into the unknown to find the Forgotten City.

The party found a temple to Omagh, god of death, and found a mid-level priest named Hurna Gamelin who was intent on looking for sacred items in remote and dangerous locations, she readily agreed to join the party for a share of the loot and first dibs on holy items. With the NPC in tow, they left on the 2-week journey. They could have travelled on their own on mounts and made better time, but that was the trade off.

They found a caravan with the following details:

1.      Caravan master: 5th level Saan (lizard-folk) Mercenary named Gogluk Maka

2.      (30) giant lizard beasts of burden, half with carts, half with basket back slings

3.      (50) foot guards

4.      (30) animal handlers

5.      (5) merchants and their retinue of 2-3 1st level henchmen each (10 mounts, one for each merchant, one for each retinue)

6.      (10) mounted guards )1st level

7.      (2) 2nd level mounted guards - lancers

Whenever the party encounters an institution/organization like a guild, a Noble House, a ship or a caravan, Bhakashal assigns that institution an alignment. The alignment determines how the institution works. In this case, the caravan was Lawful Neutral, which meant that the caravan rewarded rule following behavior, and was not inclined to either harm others for gain or to sacrafice to help others. Individual initiative was not rewarded by the caravan unless it was strictly in the service of the caravan’s interests. Essentially, the caravan master ran a tight ship. Most ships and caravans are Lawful.

I also roll for the caravan’s internal factions, and how they would perceive each other and the party. This roll produced tension between the animal handlers and the foot guards. I decided this was due to concerns about wages, the animal handlers had a lot of work to do on every trip, and they felt the caravan Warlock did all the heavy lifting with bandits and such, so they were resentful that the guards were so well paid. The food guards in turn were insulted by this, as they felt they were brave, and their mere presence deterred enemies, making them worth the pay.

I rolled a negative reaction to the party from the guards, I interpreted this as them feeling that the party offering their services was a challenge to their competency. The animal handlers, however, were happy to see the party arrive, as this might make the guards look foolish or redundant.

The party was unknowingly stepping into a rivalry and being assigned to a side.

I also rolled to determine what goods the caravan was taking, half the beasts of burden carried three pairs of “sling baskets” across their backs, as well as one animal handler rider. The other half, the largest beasts, drew carts full of goods and had sling baskets, with one rider, and in emergencies both could take guards on their backs.

Finally, I determined a few random important things about NPCs in the group. I picked the caravan master and the warlock. The caravan master had a secret goal to his travels, to transport a very wealthy merchant who has a contract on his life to safe haven in a desert city. The merchant (an Emberi – human – named Evai Redda), is a level 2 mercenary (fighter) and is posing as one of the two 2nd level mounted guards. Gogluk does not want anyone to know about Evai, so he never speaks to him, even in private.

The caravan warlock, Mahl Unoss the Puissant, is delivering a rare Crystal ball with ESP in a chest that is pulled in a cart behind his giant lizard mount. Unoss and the caravan master know what is in the cart, the guards and animal handlers all gossip about it. One guard, Tivak Ruggle, a 0-level Chitin (insect-person) foot guard, has briefly glimpsed the crystal ball one night by chance when Unoss was checking on it. He has told no one, and puts out false rumors, he plans to tail Unoss when he leaves to deliver it and attack him by surprise to steal it.

Depending on how the party interacts with the group, all of this or none of it might come up in play. It’s NOT my job to make that happen, it happens if the party’s choices and the dice decide that it happens.

The Trip

With all that sorted, the party started out, the weather was clear, hot, and windy that first day. The caravan travels for 6 hours and breaks for 1 hour, travels for 6 hours and breaks for the night, watering and feeding the beasts of burden, and leaving the caravan guards time to do some hunting and water gathering. They bring food and water, but with a caravan of this size it never hurts to supplement.

Every game day the party tells me if they want to role play at all, or just roll for an encounter. Role play can consist of their characters eating, talking with the guards/animal handlers, gambling, hunting, talking to prominent NPCs (the caravan master), training, healing, etc.

The first day there were no encounters in the morning. In the afternoon the party had no encounters, but chose to interact with the guards, asking questions about the monsters they might encounter on the route. There were a few veterans in the group, and with some modest offers of payment for information, they were a few silver lighter but found out about wolves, ogres, and mountain lions on the route forward. They decided not to splash around too much coin but given that the guards were ill disposed towards them (unknown to the party) and thus reluctant to share (known to the party as they asked questions), some sort of payment was a good idea.

The evening of day 1 passed without event, as did the night when they camped. The party phantasmist (illusionist) entertained the guards with some recreations of the party’s past exploits in the evening of day 1. There was some good-natured banter between the adventurers and the animal handlers, and some positive encounter reaction rolls combined with the entertainment, led to a good impression. I add this to the existing modifiers and use the revised number to govern any reaction rolls in the future.

The next day the party continued West across the scrubs and plain, a beautiful clear day. As this was far from Bhakashal I used the wilderness tables in the back of the DMG, which are customized for the setting. In the morning they encountered nothing, in the afternoon the party Warlock struck up a conversation with the caravan Warlock, hoping to sus out what was in the crate. The encounter reaction rolls were poor to average, so the Warlock was not forthcoming, but there weren’t any hard feelings. They did agree to “split” any monster carcasses (for spell component harvesting) if either of them slayed one, that was an ask from the PC Warlock!

That evening they rolled an encounter with a pack of wolves. However, this is a large, armed caravan, so when I rolled an encounter reaction roll, the wolves decided to watch from a distance for a while then leave. This is an important part of random encounters in Bhakashal, they are ALWAYS accompanied by an appropriately modified encounter reaction roll, which can lead to potential foes fleeing instead of attacking. It’s never automatic. Sometimes the party will pursue the attack, but my players, after a few years of play in Bhakashal, don’t borrow trouble.

At night time I will roll for potential thievery. I rolled that one of the guards tried to break in to the cart that the caravan Warlock pulled along. A Magic Mouth went off and the culprit was easily captured. The Warlock demanded justice, the caravan master gave the guard a crossbow with three bolts and a sword and he was sent off into the wilderness on his own. The consensus was that he would be dead by the end of the day unless he was very lucky.

The night time passed without incident. I made a roll to see if anyone on the caravan would target one of the party for attention. One of the animal handlers decided he was interested in the party Warlock’s potential magic items and was “casing” him. I rolled to see if he tried to steal anything, but that came up negative.

Day 3, the weather is windy and raining heavy at the start of the day, a storm passing overhead. The caravan master ordered a push onwards, giant lizards with huge talons rarely slip and slide in the rain. All mounts had canopies on them (used for the extreme heat in Bhakashal, the party brought a supply of them on the ship with them planning to sell or trade them, they repurposed them here) to fend off the rain. The guards marched in turns, going on the backs of the lizards for periods to get respite from the rain. The caravan was also slowed, making their journey longer.

The morning saw our first encounter with a large group of pilgrims, mostly Togmu (frog folk), heading to the mountains for a ceremony in honor of the god of the wind, Uvir. Dressed in dark orange pantaloons and vests of sapphire blue, they hailed the caravan, exchanged pleasantries with the caravan master in the driving rain, and moved on. Togmu do not shelter against rain, they are frogs, so they were happy to chat! The party did not want to engage them or gather information from them, as they had with the guards.

Afternoon passed without RP or encounter.

Evening saw the weather clear up and cool off. The party joined some gambling between the animal handlers. They were positively disposed to them, so when a PC started a conversation, the NPC mentioned that they played cards. Caravaners would LOVE to have PCs gamble with them, adventurers are always loaded, LOL.

So they asked to play hold’ em. The kids had been playing it for a while after watching on Youtube, so we got out a deck of cards, three players wanted to play, two did not, the two that did not played hands for the caravaners, as did I. We played about four hands, the party members tended to stay in no matter what they had as they were flush, and were vocal and obnoxious about it, the reaction roll was not great, and the caravaners ended the game after the fourth hand, dispersing.

The night came and an encounter came with it! This time it was a group of Kutya (dog-people) hunters. They were travelling to the marshlands (the next stop on the caravan’s trail, they were taking a short cut through the marshlands as their giant lizards could handle it).

The party Slayer (ranger) interacted with the hunters for a bit, asked questions about the marshland threats, and he gave out a +1 dagger he had recently found to the hunters as a goodwill gift, as they would be in the area for a month or so before returning home.

The next morning it was cloudy and cool. They had arrived in the marshlands, and travel was slowed a bit. They rolled an afternoon encounter, this time with a giant bloodworm. Less intelligent foes like this aren’t as deterred by a large group, the bloodworm picked off a guard who was walking beside the caravan, and the other guards in the area attacked it with a combination of crossbow bolts then spears. They lost one guard to the encounter, but the bloodworm was easily routed. The caravan master asked the priest to preside over a funeral rite, and the corpse was cremated. No leaving the body for necromancers! I like it when NPCs get to be both vulnerable (shows the game world is deadly) and effective (shows that even low level NPCs can sometimes kick ass). The caravaners were also grateful for the priest’s rites, so that helped out the party’s rep.

That took up the rest of the afternoon. They decided to travel through the evening and stopped around midnight in a small forest in the marshlands where they found enough solid, dry ground for everyone. They added extra watches as they were in a forest, which is always concerning!

There was no nighttime encounter.

They headed out early, wanting to be out of the marshlands before sundown.

My after-school players run some custom Bhakashal classes, there is a Myrmidon in this group who is the first one to be run anywhere! A Myrmidon is a fighter/magic-user, or more precisely, a fighter/alchemist. They brew potions and have spells that allow them to alter, extend, magnify, and combine their effects, they focus on training their bodies and perfecting potions to give them magical power.

The party Myrmidon had brewed up a batch of potions before leaving on this adventure, several for trading purposes, and he sought out the caravan’s Warlock. After some chit-chat he asked outright about a trade, a potion for the Warlock in exchange for him casting a spell for him. He had seen the Warlock’s Magic Mouth spell work when the guard tried to open the cart he was towing. The Warlock was offered a potion of Fire Resistance, and a positive reaction roll led to him agreeing to cast the spell.

The Myrmidon had his backpack, where he stored his potions, covered with a Magic Mouth, which would sing a sweet, haunting melody whenever anyone except for the Myrmidon opened it. There were no encounters that day, and they made it out of the marshlands to camp in the hills that night.

The next morning it was dull and overcast, and fairly windy, hinting at rain. They headed out and I rolled an encounter in the morning, at 10 am.

A Roc.

No surprise was indicated, so the caravan saw the Roc before it was close, the guards took out crossbows, as did the mounted warriors. All of the party took out missile weapons, and the spell caster all lined up spells. The Roc has no distance weapon, so all of the crossbows, bows and spells got to fire off before it arrived. There were a lot of misses, a few hits, and of the three spells cast, two did damage.

But a Roc is an 18HD creature, so it was not stopped.

The game however, ended at that point, this week we will pick up and the Roc gets it’s turn!

I don’t see how anyone would find this to be a “waste of time”, a constrained environment like a caravan, that moves through the game world, is a vibrant, dynamic experience. The party has forged friendships and created enmities in the caravan, they have gathered information, exchanged items and had a few good fights along the way. Next week will be a corker for sure, as the Roc tries to snatch one of the giant lizards for food.


The presence of a group of NPCs provides a background for regular social RP, something that really makes the game world come alive. It will take a number of sessions to get to their destination, and I’m looking forward to them all.

Building Bhakashal - Trust the Process In a sandbox style game, the referee leaves things open and the PCs actions drive the play. This conc...