Wednesday, March 31, 2021

What You See Is What You Get - Description in D&D

I was asked how I handle description in the game and I thought it would be easiest to blog about it.

There are several “modes” that PCs can be in during the game:

Travelling Mode - Wilderness

Travelling Mode - Urban

Exploration Mode - Dungeon

Encounter Mode - Fight/Parley

Travelling Mode - Wilderness

General Procedure - Describe terrain, visibility, landmarks, weather, flora and fauna, daily

Goal - give the players enough information about variables that would have game mechanical impact (visibility, flora and fauna), and to give some “flavor” to the process by revealing some of the game world to them.

When in travelling mode the PCs are moving from place to place, travel is broken down into days. Start by describing the terrain, weather, visibility, plants and animals and any notable physical features of the geography as they are travelling for each travel day. Mix of visual, audio and olfactory data is given.

E.g. Day 1 - crossing a plain to get to the mountains, start by saying the plains are grasslands, that there are sporadic clusters of forest here and there, that visibility is pretty good as the terrain is flat, the weather is clear and warm, and there are numerous small animals, small birds, hawks and eagles, rabbits, frogs, etc.

When travelling, roll for random encounters. I roll in the open. if any one of the rolls comes up then we shift into Encounter mode. Otherwise I start every travelling day describing what was mentioned above, and answering any questions the players have about the environment.

Travelling Mode - Urban

General Procedure - Describe buildings, parks, roads, people (not specific, but generally, rough amounts, mix of types) as the PCs pass through the space.

Goal - urban travel is less dangerous than wilderness travel, so the goal is to show some of the life of the city, but to also let them know aspects of the environment relevant to what they are trying to do, e.g. if they are looking for a blacksmith I would describe the businesses they pass, if they are looking for a place to hide I will describe the potential hiding spots as they pass, etc.

I run a city setting so the players spend time moving through the urban environment in travelling mode. As they set out to cross the city to a destination I will mention the kind and number of people (“the square is about half full, mostly peasants, merchants hawking their wares, and carts pulled by giant lizards filled with goods for sale”), important landmarks (“you pass the statue of the warrior Cleve the Courageous”) and the activities they see around them (“as you turn into the square you see a troupe of jugglers throwing and catching swords”). 

And sometimes a little detail that had no meaning whatsoever and was introduced just for flavor can become something significant as the ref or the players suggest an important connection or implication of that element. So say I describe a statue of a warrior in the square, not intending it to mean anything, and one of the players remembers that a tarot card reading a few weeks ago that mentioned the "warrior of stone". The advantage to consistently describing the environment is that these things don't stand out through their mention or omission.

I also roll for random encounters in the city, and if one comes up, or if the PCs reach a destination where they will be having an encounter (parley, combat, etc) of some kind, we switch into Encounter mode.

Exploration Mode - Dungeons, Temples, etc.

General Procedure - Describe walls, floors, lighting, sounds, temperature on a section by section basis, e.g. to the next bend in the corridor, noting any anomalies or strange sites like statues or figures.

Goal - to give the PCs enough information to navigate the space and anticipate danger.

In Exploration mode the assumption is that the environment is dangerous, so the PCs are moving slowly and cautiously. The important thing here is not to “give up the game” by either giving no information where you normally would, or giving more information where you normally would not. So it is best to give the same basic info about each area, and then respond to questions about details. I generally do not require a roll to investigate a space unless something is deliberately hidden, but I also require the players to describe how they are investigating a space so I can decide if they find anything.

When they open a door or go into a room I describe what they can see upon opening, which means all the visible contents of the room, from vases to chairs to rugs to whatever else populates the room. If there is a visible monster I would describe it as well then switch into encounter mode.

Encounter Mode - Various

General Procedure - describe distances, positioning of opponents and fellow party members, visibility/line of sight designations, unconcealed weapons and armor, etc. 

Goal - in encounter mode things can switch in an instant, and the goal is to describe what is combat relevant, so the group can decide if they want to fight, talk or run away.

In encounter mode I describe the space and the general orientation of the PCs, and the rest is generally questions asked of me by the players in the attempt to gain comparative advantage through the environment. 

In the wilderness, first I roll for surprise, assuming it did not come up, I then roll to see if either party spots the other first. I would look over the PCs sheets and the other party’s abilities to see if anyone had exceptional vision or something like that, and I would consider the environment, indoors or outdoors, if neither had an advantage/disadvantage, I would roll to see which party saw the other first. Straight d6, 1-2 other party see’s first, 3-4 simultaneous sighting, 5-6 party sees the other group first.

Say I rolled a 5, the party spotted them first. I would describe the approaching group generally, e.g. you see what appears to be approximately 10-15 humanoid creatures riding on what appears to be giant, lizard like mounts.

Then the party would decide what to do in terms of hiding before they are seen (not likely in this scenario), firing missile weapons or using spells. Once the opposing group got closer I would fill out details, e.g. as one of the riders charges forward to attack you make them out clearly, the rider is in leather armor with a crossbow loaded and aimed forward”, that sort of thing.

Indoors the procedure is roughly similar with the exception that the groups are not generally as far apart indoors. But I would roll for surprise, if that didn’t happen I would roll to see who notices who first. Otherwise I would answer questions from players about the environment relevant to the scenario.

I think the salient takeaways from this approach are fivefold:

  1. Describe consistently and cover similar aspects of the environment in your descriptions, as you can’t know what will be useful later, and so you don’t tip off players to anything. 

  2. Ensure that the descriptions give them the information they need to make tactical decisions (visibility, objects in the environment, exits, etc.)

  3. Respond to questions in a similar fashion, e.g. don’t “over describe” or “under describe” the environment whenever they ask a question about something dangerous (something related to a trap, or a monster, etc.)

  4. Don’t describe things differently when there is danger nearby, don’t use different voices or more or less description when there is danger nearby. Get into the habit of providing descriptive information generally, so it won’t see unusual when there is an encounter

  5. Remember that anything can become relevant as the game moves forward and that you cannot predict what will be relevant, so even a throwaway descriptive detail could matter to what happens next. So get in the habit of providing detail in a consistent way so you don't telegraph everything, but you give them enough detail to riff on for thier actions.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Building Bhakashal - Generic Magic - The Gyre

I've always liked the idea of a “generic” spell caster, one who could use magic to do things, not with specific spells detailed beforehand, but general effects tied to a theme or kind of magic, something that would scale with level. I have toyed with the idea for a while, and when I decided to move forward with Bhakashal the idea was waiting to be developed.

Then a few months back I had a Twitter exchange with @BrianRideout7 of DeathTrap Games, and he mentioned that there were games that did this, which convinced me it was time to give it a try.

1e AD&D (of which Bhakashal is a hack) actually made this easy. As anyone who has played the game will know, spells are not balanced in power between classes or within them. The classic case is sleep, yes, some creatures are resistant, and yes,it only impacts up to a certain HD of targets, but for low level casters it is gold, so much more powerful than magic missile or shocking grasp. 

All levels have a variation in power, even damaging spells of the same level don’t do the same amount of damage, and some spells have in-game consequences that are bigger than their fantasy precedents. Invisibility is a great example of this, a second level spell that can make you invisible in essence forever, if you don’t attack anyone in the interim.

However, AD&D is not ENTIRELY unbalanced either. Levels mean something. A 5th and 10th level caster using fireball do different damage most of the time, the higher level caster doing statistically better. Lower level spells that don’t scale damage with level generally do less damage than higher level spells. Blink is less powerful than Dimension Door which is less powerful than teleportation which is less powerful than teleport without error, plane shift, etc.

In short, AD&D uses level as a rough guide to power, but not an exact one. So that means that any “generic” magic using class can be built using existing level mechanics, with allowances that sometimes it will be a bad fit and they will end up with a spell that is more or less powerful than most of the other spells of that level they can cast. 

So last month I came up with the class description, and I ran an NPC Gyre in my home game for a few sessions. It went well, and suggests to me that it would be a viable PC class as well.

With this in mind, here is another Warlock subclass for Bhakashal, the Gyre.

The Gyre

A gyre is a warlock who has focused her entire study on one particular element or aspect of the environment/world, and can use magic to influence that specific aspect. 

Gyres are hard to play and require significant creativity on the part of the player and flexibility on the part of the referee. In essence, the player has to think up each spell they cast, and the referee has to adjudicate every spell they cast. This would likely be too onerous on the ref and the players for the majority of cases, but for a single PC/NPC class it is manageable.


INT: 15 WIS: 12 CON: 12

HD: d6

Level Progression: As Warlock

Saves/To Hit: As Warlock

Weapons/Armor: As Warlock

Gyre Power

Gyre’s get their narrow but flexible magic powers through a special conduit to the forces of magic. Normal casters tap into that with specific spells, Gyre get access to this power “in the raw” and then shape it to their desires. 

When a PC becomes a Gyre, they are tattooed by their patron/teacher with powerful, ancient runes, these runes mark the Gyre and help to make the magic they tap into more amenable to their shaping. These tattoos are permanent and magical. 

Typical Gyre Aspects

Here are some examples of aspects that a gyre could focus on. Any other area that the referee and player can agree is also fecund for adaptation. The important point to remember here is that the player will have to come up with applications for the magic, so if they can’t find inspiration in the aspect they have chosen it will probably not work that well. 

Be open to abstract aspects as well, it doesn’t all have to be tangible, material stuff like water or earth, it can be emotions, abstract concepts (time), whatever inspires the player and ref to be able to come up with fun applications.

  1. Animals

  2. Fire

  3. Water

  4. Air

  5. Earth

  6. Lightning

  7. Light

  8. Body

  9. Mind

  10. Space

  11. Time 

  12. Inspiration

  13. Emotions

  14. Plants

  15. Objects

  16. Life/Death


1. Gyres can create [X HD / Y damage / +Z] magical effects based on level of experience, where X and Z are the Gyre’s level, and Y is d2 per level.

2. Gyre spells get an indoor range of 1” per level, outdoor range of 3” per level

3. Gyre AOE spells are 1” per level in radius

4. Gyre spell durations are 1 round / level or 1 turn / level depending on the nature of the spell 

5. Spells that impact the Gyre get no save (e.g. body alteration)

6. Spells that amplify existing tendencies in targets do not get a save (e.g. magnifying emotions, growing a fire)

7. Otherwise all Gyre spells get saving throws, and any with AOE damage get saves for half. 

8. All spell parameters associated with the Gyre can be split up in any way desired within an individual casting, e.g. if the Gyre is 6th level and can charm up to a 6HD creature, they could also charm two 3HD creatures.

9. Objects created by the Gyre that need to have HP assigned to them (e.g. a wall of stone) get [d2 per level + the Gyre’s level] in HP, e.g. a 5th level earth Gyre could create a wall of stone that was 5’ across, 5’ high and 5” thick that could absorb 5d2+5 damage. Generic creatures not detailed in the monster books get HD like normal monsters, so for example a light Gyre could create a “light elemental” with 5HD, e.g. 5d8 HP.

10. As the Gyre increases in level their penalties/bonuses get quite high, meaning that by name level many Gyre spells are effectively no save as the penalties are so large. 

So for example,

1. A 1st level Gyre who specialized in animals could:

  1. Summon or charm a 1HD animal

  2. Grow wolf fangs that would do d2 damage on a bite

  3. Increase the ferocity of a guard dog, adding +1 to its damage. 

2.  A 2nd level Gyre who specialized in Fire could:

  1. Create a 2HD fire creature that does 2d2 damage

  2. Make a fire sword that does 2d2 damage

  3. Add fire to an existing sword to do +2 to damage

3. A 3rd level Gyre who specialized in Water could:

  1. Summon a 3HD sahuagin

  2. Make an ice shield that absorbs 3d2+3 damage, or adds +3 to their save versus fire

  3. Create a patch of ice 30’ in radius which forces a saving throw versus petrification to cross without falling, save penalty of -3.

4. A 4th level Gyre who specialized in Air could:

  1. Make up to 4HD of creatures fly

  2. Allow the Gyre to fly for 4 turns

  3. Create a wind that would slow down flyers to a ¼ of their speed

5. A 5th level Gyre who specialized in Earth could:

  1. Create a 5HD rock creature that could fight, doing 5d2 damage in total per round divided between attacks

  2. Create a wall of stone that can take 5HD damage

  3. Kick up a storm of dust that would blind all opponents for 5 rounds

6. A 6th level Gyre who specialized in Lightning could:

  1. Sheathe themselves in lightning making their touch do 6d2 damage, or anyone hitting them saves versus spell or take 6d2 damage

  2. Shoot chain lighting that magnetizes 6 targets in plate mail armor, or one target at a save of -6 

  3. Absorb up to a 6HD lightning bolt and fire it back at its caster

7. A 7th level Gyre who specializes in Light could:

  1. Create the illusion of a 7HD monster

  2. Envelop all targets in a 7” radius in darkness

  3. Make themselves so bright that all attackers take a -7 to hit against them

8. An 8th level Gyre who specializes in Body could:

  1. Paralyze up to 8HD of targets within a 8” radius

  2. Enlarge to become 8’ taller than they already are

  3. Grow 4 extra arms that each get a +2 to hit

9. A 9th level Gyre who specializes in Mind could:

  1. Charm up to 9 targets of no more than 9HD total

  2. Cause a target to forget the last 9 minutes

  3. Read their opponent’s mind, giving them a 9 point bonus on their armor class versus attacks from that opponent

10. A 10th level Gyre who specializes in Space could:

  1. Dimension door 300 feet (3” per level for range)

  2. Make themselves appear to be 10’ away from their actual position (like a displacer beast) for 10 turns

  3. Clear a 10’ radius of all objects and targets within


Note that any Gyre can transform themselves into an animate/monster version of their aspect, if one such version exists in the game, upon reaching the level equal to their HD. So for example, an animal Gyre could transform themselves into a 1HD wolf at 1st level, a 3HD wererat at 3nd level, a 4HD werewolf at 4th, etc. A space Gyre could transform into a 4HD blink dog at 4th level and a 6HD displacer beast at 6th. A water Gyre could transform into a 3HD water weird at 3rd level, or a 8HD water elemental at 8th. However, they are allowed only one such transformation per day when they are less than 5th level, two from 5th to 9th, and 3 per day from then onwards.

Spell Casting Progression

The listed HD/Range/Effects listings by level are the maximum castable, a 6th level Gyre can charm no more than 6HD of creatures, no more than 6 creatures at a time, do no more than 6d2 damage, etc. 

The Gyre gets one casting at their level of power (e.g. for a 6th level Gyre, charming up to a 6HD creature) per level per day.

So, for example, a 3rd level water Gyre could summon a 3HD sahuagin, charm a 3HD merman and create a 3HD water elemental (that does 3d2 damage per attack) in one day. 

A 10th level Gyre could summon a 10HD creature ten times. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Building Bhakashal - Outdoor and Urban Chase Rules

Going through the mounted chase rules I made up on the spot reminded me of the rules I came up with for chasing through open areas or crowded / indoor areas. Both were essentially home brewed at the table at different times, the first years ago, the second about 3 years ago.

There have been a few pursuits in open areas, or on roads, when the action is essentially linear, I wanted an easy and simple way of resolving those that didn’t reduce to comparing movement rates. Similarly, I have a lot of urban encounters, so there are a lot of chases around in alleys and stuff. I wanted a system to determine when a party of pursuers has caught up to a fleeing party that wasn’t just comparing their movement rates and somehow captured something about the nature of urban chases. 

Open Areas

When chasing through an open area, with no meaningful obstacles (a road, an open field), consider the speed of the fleeing party. If it is more than 6” faster than the pursuing party, the fleeing party will outrun their pursuers in 3 rounds of flight. 

If the difference in speed is 6” or less, start as follows: the faster party must roll a d20 under their movement rate, if they fail they lose half their lead that round, if they succeed they gain a half of their current lead again. Bonuses for INT and CON apply to lone riders or groups with a designated leader.

Next round the slower party must roll under their move on a d20, if they fail the faster party gets another bonus of a half their regular lead. If they succeed the faster party loses half of their regular lead. Bonuses apply for INT and CON for lone riders or groups with a designated leader. 

Then the faster party rolls a save again, if they win they get an extra half of their movement rate divide, if they lose they lose half. Then the slower party rolls again, etc. When the faster party’s lead increases by 6 times (six cumulative half leads) they have outrun their opponents

Example - Party A - Faster 

Round 1

Faster party fails first roll, lead reduces to half

Slower party makes first roll, lead reduces half again, slower party overtakes

Example - Party A - Faster

Round 1

Faster party makes first roll, lead increased by a half

Slower party fails roll, lead increased by another half

Round 2

Faster party makes roll, lead increased by another half

Slower party fails roll, lead increased by another half

Round 3

Faster party fails it’s roll, lead decreased by half

Slower party fails it’s roll, lead increased by half 

Round 4

Faster party makes its roll, lead increased by half

Slower party fails its roll, lead increased by half, now it has increased by half 6 times, so the faster party has got away.

Those rules work for open areas with no obstructions.

When you are indoors or in an outdoor area with many obstacles, the challenge isn’t just speed, it’s cornering and maneuvering around obstacles without slowing too much. So the rules see if you make a misstep, and if you do your pursuers get a chance to grab you.

Bhakashal Indoor or Urban Pursuit

  1. Note base movement rates for all involved in pursuit, if the leading party’s movement rate is more than 6” faster than their pursuers, their pursuers can be shaken off after 3 rounds of flight.

  2. Otherwise, all those in pursuit pick a target (random roll) from the fleeing party, then compare results pair by pair (fleeing party/pursuer).

  3. First map out the route of the fleeing party, to the end of the fastest base movement rate member of the group (e.g. 12” if the fastest member of the fleeing party moved at 12”)

  4. Then note the number of obstacles on the route, obstacles include objects in your path (barrels, wagons, poles) or corners where you have to make sharp turns. 

  5. Take the number of obstacles [“O”] and the per round distance of the fleeing party [“D”], and this gives you O/D, the odds that you will be delayed by an obstruction (fail to make the turn and crash into something, trip when you try to jump the barrel). 

  6. Now, compare pairs, if the fleeing party is faster than the party in pursuit, then the fleeing party rolls the O/D odds of being delayed by an obstruction. Deduct one obstacle per day for every bonus point of DEX or INT as desired. 

  7. If they roll that they are delayed, the pursuing party gets to attack or attempt to restrain/tackle the fleeing party and they are in melee.

  8. If they are not delayed, they move to the end of their distance for the round with their pursuers hot on their tail.

  9. If the pursuing party is faster than the fleeing party, the pursuing party must roll the O/D odds of being delayed by the obstacles in place (use the distance of the fleeing party and the number of obstacles on that much of the route), and if they are delayed then the fleeing party has evaded them this round. Deduct one obstacle per day for every bonus point of DEX or INT as desired. If they are not delayed then the pursuing party gets to attack and they are in melee.

  10. If a fleeing party is faster than their pursuers and they have made three successful obstacle checks in a row, they pull away and cannot be caught, or can hide without being seen to do so.


The party was investigating an elevator shaft when displacer beasts appeared and set chase. The party members had movement rates of PC1 - 20, PC2 - 16, PC3 - 16, PC4 - 12, PC5 - 12 and PC6 - 12. The displacer beasts had movement rates of 15, there were 5 of them. Each picked a target (random roll) and they were off.


PC1 - DB 3

PC2 - DB 1

PC3 - DB5

PC4 - none

PC5 - DB 2

PC6 - DB 4

Down the line.

The route (pictured here) had 5 potential obstacles. It started at "S"

The party monk was the fastest and went the furthest of the party members being pursued, so I mapped out the route ending at his maximum range (point M). There were 5 obstacles in his path (labelled 1-5). He was faster than the displacer beast following him, so he had to make the roll. His max range was 20”, so that gave him a 5 in 20 or 1 in 4 chance of being delayed by the twists and turns in his path. He rolled a 2 and was fine. So his displacer beast failed to catch him and he finishes this round at “M”.

The next up was the party ranger, she was slower than her pursuing displacer beast, so the displacer beast rolled to see if it was slowed by the route, the distance was 12” for the ranger (up to point R on the line), so the displacer beast faced 3 obstacles on the way to capture the fleeing ranger, a 3 in 12 or 1 in 4 chance. It rolled a 3, so was not delayed, caught the ranger, and attacked. It hit the ranger for minor damage and they were now in melee.

Next up was the party fighter, who was just faster than the displacer beast, so he had to roll to see if he would be delayed. His distance was to F1, 16”, with 4 obstacles, so 1 in 4 chance of being delayed, he was not, and ends up at F1, with the displacer beast in hot pursuit.

Then came the other party fighter, moving at 12”. He was slower, so the displacer beast had to make the roll, it was successful, so it wasn’t delayed, and it attacked the fleeing fighter, doing damage and knocking him down.

Now, the party priest was being pursued as well, he had a movement rate of 12”, so the displacer beast had to roll as it was faster, in this case it was delayed, so the priest got away. However, he saw his comrade down, and ran over to join the melee there.

Finally, the party magic user was not paired with a displacer beast, and moved her full 16” for the round, being beside the party fighter at F1.

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