Friday, October 10, 2014

What was that person hanged for? A historically accurate gameable for your Renaissance campaign

What was that person hanged for?

Die roll (d%)
1 - food
2 - horse
3 - livestock
4 - money



1 – arson
2 – buggery
3 – breaking and entering
4 – rape
5 - sodomy

These figures, based on data from late sixteenth-century Essex, England, only represent hanging offences and so do not include executions by other means, such as drawing, hanging, and quartering (for treason), beheading (for treasonous nobles), or burning at the stake (for heresy and women guilty of petty treason).

Source: Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England (London: Vintage Books, 2013), 308, citing data from the Essex assizes in F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life, vol. 1: Disorder (Chelmsford: Essex County Council, 1970).

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Errour, a monster

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, considered by some to be “the first major work of fantasy in the Western world,” is an unfinished epic poem first published in 1590. It’s mostly a long — some might say interminably so — allegory exploring various forms of virtue by recounting the adventures of various questing knights. It also contains a pretty kick-ass monster against whom the Redcrosse knight faces off right at the outset: Errour.
Henry Ford's illustration of the Redcrosse knight and Errour
from Andrew Lang's The Red Romance Book (1921)
      Errour is half woman, half snake; for Spenser, she is an allegory for doctrinal error and falsehood. In game terms, Errour is a dream encounter a referee may use to challenge the taken-for-granted or unexamined beliefs of any character. This has obvious applications with regard to clerics and paladins, but could serve equally well against an atheistical thief, wizard, or fighter. Whenever a PC is acting like they have it all figured out (or even just when you're sick of their smug assuredness), let them meet Errour.

Detail from Cynthia Sheppard's cover to the Grindhouse
edition of Lamentations of the Flame Princess (2011)
Errour appears when the target PC — the smug one — sleeps. The PC awakens to see a dark, cavernous hole that has inexplicably appeared nearby. (The referee is advised not to inform the players that this is taking place in a dream.) About 70 ft. down a winding, uneven passage lies Errour, who will sally forth one round later to attack the target PC and his or her allies. During this encounter, all members of the party may act normally save the target PC, who retains her or his hit points but otherwise has only the abilities of a zero-level human commoner. The dream ends when either the target PC or Errour is slain, at which point the target PC wakes up. If the PC was in combat with Errour when the dream ended, s/he gains 1d3 temporary points of Wisdom for the next 24 hours. If the PC was in flight or hiding from Errour when the dream ended, s/he loses 1d3 points of Wisdom for a week. The status of any other PCs involved in the target PC's dream encounter is reset to the moment before the dream; i.e., they retain all the hit points, spells, ammunition etc. from before, as if the encounter had never occurred. The PCs earn no XP from the encounter.
       If the target PC lost points of Wisdom as a result of the encounter, there is a 50% chance that the dream will recur when s/he sleeps again. It is quite possible that in these subsequent dream encounters, the other players will decline to help the target PC for purely metagame reasons; after all, what's in it for them? No treasure, no XP. That's fine! The target PC must nevertheless face Errour as described above, bereft of all abilities save those of a zero-level human. All Wisdom point losses are cumulative. The dream cycle ends only when the PC gains points of Wisdom as a result of facing up to Errour in combat.

Errour for Swords & Wizardry

Hit Dice: One greater than the level of the target PC
Armor Class: 8 [12]
Attacks: Tail sting (1d8 + poison) or constriction (2d4) or or taunt (see below) or vomit (see below)
Special: Poison, constriction, taunt, vomit
Move: 9
Alignment: Chaos
Challenge Level/XP: n/a

Poison: Save vs poison or suffer a -1 penalty to all attacks and saving throws. The effects of multiple stings are cumulative.

Constriction: target must succeed on a saving throw or be held immobile in Errour's coils and take 2d4 points of damage each round. Errour may only constrict one creature at a time and her movement decreases to 6 while doing so. Creatures with combined Strength scores of 30 can force Errour to uncoil and release the victim in 2 rounds, but cannot take other actions during that time.

Taunt: Errour can taunt the target PC, mocking her or his beliefs. This will always be done in the target's native language. The target must succeed on a saving throw or suffer a -2 penalty to all attacks, saving throws, and ability checks for the duration of the encounter.

Vomit: Once per day, Errour can spew out 4d10 small, slimy, gibbering creatures that look like misshapen snakes and frogs to harry her attackers. Her vomit spew has a range of 20 ft. These creatures (AC 8 [12], hp 1, Move 6) cause no damage but as long as at least 4 of them are harrying a creature, the latter suffers a penalty of -1 to attacks and saving throws and cannot cast spells. When Errour dies, her spawn immediately explode, covering creatures within a 5 ft. radius in foul smelling ichor.
Arms of the Serpent by Caroline Jambour

Errour for D&D 5e

Large aberration, neutral evil
Armour Class 12 (natural armour)
Hit Points Equal to those of the target PC, plus 1d8 hp
Speed 30 ft.
   STR      DEX      CON       INT       WIS      CHA
14 (+2)   16 (+3)  16 (+3)  18 (+4)  10 (+0)    8 (-1)
Skills Athletics +2, Deception +4, Perception +6
Senses Truesight 120 ft., passive Perception 16
Languages Any known by the target PC
Challenge n/a
Multiattack. Errour can use any two of her attacks each round.

Tail sting. Melee weapon attack: +4 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. 
Hit: 8 (1d8 + 4) piercing damage and the target must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or become Poisoned.

Constriction. Melee weapon attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: Target must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw or become Restrained, taking 2 (1d4) points of damage each round after the first.

Taunt: Errour mocks the target PC's beliefs in his or her native tongue, as long as the target is within 30 ft. The target must make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or have disadvantage on all rolls for the duration of the encounter.

Vomit: Once per day, Errour can spew out 4d10 small, slimy, gibbering creatures that look like misshapen snakes and frogs to harry her attackers. Her vomit spew has a range of 20 ft. These creatures (AC 12, hp 1, Speed 20) cause no damage but as long as at least 4 of them are harrying a creature, the latter has disadvantage on all rolls and cannot cast spells. When Errour dies, her spawn explode, covering creatures within 5 ft. in foul smelling ichor.

Errour, by the book

Errour appears in Book I, Canto i of The Faerie Queene. All references are by book, canto, and stanza.
Medusa concept art from the God of War video game

Errour lives in a "hollow cave / Amid the thickest woods" (I.i.11), which is where the Redcrosse knight finds her. Una, his companion, warns Redcrosse that she is "a monster vile, whom God and man does hate" and Una's dwarf cries, "Fly fly ... / ... this is no place for living men" (I.i.13), but Redcrosse is a paladin with Intelligence as a dump stat, so he goes right in anyway. 
      The faint light of his glistening armour reveals her hideous shape: 
... his glistring armor made
A litle glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the ugly monster plaine,
Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide,
But th'other halfe did womans shape retaine,
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.
And as she lay upon the durtie ground,
Her huge long taile her den all overspred,
Yet was in knots and many boughtes upwound,
Pointed with mortall sting. Of her there bred
A thousand yong ones, which she dayly fed,
Sucking upon her poisonous dugs, eachone
Of sundry shapes, yet all ill favored:
Soone as that uncouth light upon them shone,
Into her mouth they crept, and suddain all were gone.  (I.i.14-15)
So, yeah, she's basically a yuan-ti halfbreed avant la lettre, but with an eery twist: she has a thousand vile offspring that she's nursing and then swallows when Redcrosse shows up, presumably to protect them.
Illustration by Walter Crane from an 1894 edition of The Faerie Queene. Errour can be seen at bottom.

      So the fight begins, and although Errour seems to win initiative in stanza 16, her tail sting attack misses and in stanza 17 Redcrosse  lands a good blow with his sword. Then she switches gears:
Much daunted with that dint, her sence was dazd,
Yet kindling rage, her selfe she gathered round,
And all attonce her beastly body raizd
With doubled forces high above the ground:
Tho wrapping up her wrethed sterne arownd,
Lept fierce upon his shield, and her huge traine
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stirre he strove in vaine:
God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine. (I.i.18)
 Special attack: Constriction! Cf. Snake, giant (constrictor) in the Monster Manual (1979), p. 88-89.
      Unable to use his weapons, Redcrosse is in dire straits. Una advises him to strangle Errour before she can strangle him, and so he grabs for her throat.  At which point she unleashes another gruesome surprise:
Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw
A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has.
As when old father Nilus gins to swell
With timely pride above the Aegyptian vale,
His fattie waves do fertile slime outwell,
And overflow each plaine and lowly dale:
But when his later spring gins to avale,
Huge heapes of mudd he leaves, wherein there breed
Ten thousand kindes of creatures, partly male
And partly female of his fruitfull seed;
Such ugly monstrous shapes elsewhere may no man reed. (I.i.20-21)
Apparently she has some kind of breath weapon akin to projectile vomiting that includes slimy misshaped sightless amphibians. (Those "bookes and papers" are a reference to the polemical tracts that Spenser associated with religious error.) Redcrosse is "choked with the deadly stinke" and weakens — seeing which, Errour brings forth her offspring once more:
She poured forth out of her hellish sinke
Her fruitfull cursed spawne of serpents small,
Deformed monsters, fowle, and blacke as inke,
Which swarming all about his legs did crall,
And him encombred sore, but could not hurt at all. (I.i.22)
According to A. C. Hamilton, "sinke" here could refer either to her womb or organs of excretion. Considering that she swallowed her kids in the first place, the latter makes more sense. So basically she defecates on the knight. Good thing his armour seems to protect him from the "deformed monsters" at his feet — Spenser takes a whole stanza to reassure us that they don't bother him more than a cloud of gnats does a shepherd. Evidently these are low hit-dice monsters.
      They do get his ire up, however, and somehow Redcrosse gets his sword arm free and lops old Errour's head right off — critical hit! — amidst great spewing of "cole black bloud." Then comes a gruesome sight:
Her scattred brood, soone as their Parent deare
They saw so rudely falling to the ground,
Groning full deadly, all with troublous feare,
Gathred themselves about her body round,
Weening their wonted entrance to have found
At her wide mouth: but being there withstood
They flocked all about her bleeding wound,
And sucked up their dying mothers blood,
Making her death their life, and eke her hurt their good. (I.i.25)
Yeah, that's right: her kids try to regain the protection of her digestive tract but, frustrated, end up drinking her blood. In fact, they drink so much that in the following stanza they explode, "bowels gushing forth." So ends the encounter. The Redcrosse knight remounts his steed and continues his journey with Una and the dwarf in tow.      

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Edited by A. C. Hamilton. London and New York: Longman, 1977.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Vitruvian character sheets for old-school D&D

On a whim I whipped up some OD&D and Swords & Wizardry character sheets for a forthcoming one-shot of Rafael Chandler's excellent Bad Myrmidon. As I had ancient Greece on my mind, it seemed only fitting to make use of da Vinci's Vitruvian man as a template. Those Renaissance guys had Antiquity on the mind much of the time.

There are male and female versions. I wish I could credit the creator of the Vitruvian woman image.  It's from a Hebrew-language website displaying many variations on the da Vinci original but without any attributions that I can find.

The versions for OD&D use a to-hit bonus rather than a THAC0 or equivalent ('cuz that's how I roll). Alignment is replaced by Deity.

Vitruvian OD&D character sheet (male)
Vitruvian OD&D character sheet (female)

In the Swords & Wizardry edition below, the placement of Charisma is open to question, but it serves as a convenient fig leaf if nothing else.

Vitruvian S&W character sheet (female)
Vitruvian S&W character sheet (male)

Since we're on the topic, there's a nifty system-neutral Vitruvian character sheet over at and a charming Tunnels & Trolls sheet at Trollhalla.

Of course I'd really like all my character sheets to look like Logan Knight's, but alas we don't all have that kind of talent.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Great D&D Moments in History: Ritual Casting in 15th-Century France

In March 1408, University of Paris theologian Jean Petit stood before a audience of distinguished notables assembled in the royal residence in Paris and described how an evil duke had had the third-level spell cause disease cast on King Charles V of France:

Charles VI
The duke made the acquaintance of an apostate monk, a knight, a squire, and a servant who knew how to go about the devil’s own work. He ordered them to do a thing that would destroy the king and to accomplish this he gave them the use of a castle at Lagny-sur-Marne.... He also gave them a sabre, a sword, and a gold ring.      One morning at dawn these four men left the castle and traveled a quarter of a league to a field where there was a thicket. The monk told the other three to wait there until he called for them and went a little way off by himself, carrying the sabre, the sword, and the ring. The monk drew a figure on the ground and placed the sword inside it on the right, the sabre on the left, and the ring in the middle. Then he stripped himself to his shirt and began reading aloud from a book. Soon a devil appeared. It picked up the sabre and put it down again. Then came another devil, wearing red. It picked up the sword, swung it around, broke off the tip, and told the monk that the thing was done. After this the monk returned to the other three men, and they all went back to the castle.
The gibbet at Montfaucon (top right)
     The following night, the four men left the castle again and went to the gibbet at Montfaucon, where they cut down the corpse of a newly hanged man and put it in a sack on the back of a horse.... Afterwards they placed the ring in the corpse’s mouth and passed the sword and the sabre into its anus. Then they said to each other: “It is done.” After this they went to the Duke of Orleans and told him that shortly there would be some news.

      Soon afterwards, when the king was at Beauvais, he fell gravely ill, so that his hair and his nails fell out.... And from that time on the king was ill, as is known throughout the whole realm, which is a pity. And it is well-known to everyone that the Duke of Orleans was to blame for this illness.
And you thought the sorcerous rituals in Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa were weird


The evil duke in question was none other than Louis d'Orléans, the king's own brother.   According to Petit's line of reasoning, Louis' heinous use of sorcery (among other crimes) justified his murder, in November 1407, by associates of John of Burgundy in a Paris street.

Most everyone else thought it was rather because Louis had slept with John's wife and siphoned off the financial support John had formerly received from the royal treasury.


A report of Petit’s speech by Thierry Le Roy in Louis Douët-d’Arcq, ed. “Document inédit sur l’assassinat de Louis, duc d’Orléans (23 novembre 1407),” Annuaire-Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de France 2 (1864): pt. 2, 6–26, quoted in Eric Jager, Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014), 194–95.

Image credits

Charles VI of FranceCodice Ms. Français 165, Maestro di Boucicaut (detail). Biblioteca Universitaria di Ginevra. Reprinted in De Vecchi-Cerchiari, I tempi dell'arte, volume 2 (Milan, 1999) via Wikimedia Commons.

Montfaucon: Execution of disciples of Amaury de Chartres outside Paris, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, illuminated by Jean Fouquet of Tours circa 1455–1460.  Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, département des Manuscrits, Français 6465, folio 236.

Murder of Louis d'Orléans: Meurtre du duc Louis d'Orléans, par le Maître de la Chronique d'Angleterre, circa 1470–1480.  Paris, Bibliothèque National de France via Wikimedia Commons.

OD&D character sheet for new players

This is a character sheet I created for a game I ran at GottaCon in March 2014 using the Dungeons & Dragons booklets from 1974, recently reprinted by Wizards of the Coast.  I advertised the game as an homage to a classic and, anticipating that some players might be unfamiliar with old-school practices, wanted a character sheet that explained as much as possible.  I also wanted a sheet that might be appealing and useful to younger players, three of whom showed up at the table.

OD&D character sheet

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sabres & Witchery Character Sheet

Free for download!

A character sheet for use with Simon Washbourne's Sabres & Witchery, a variant of Matthew J. Finch's Swords & Wizardry with some influence from Marv Breig's "Whitebox" edition of the latter. Sabres is well suited for any game set in early modern Europe (ca. 1500-1800), especially the last bit of that period. In order to provide some historically appropriate flavour, I used a modern digitization of some late seventeenth-century English types created by Igino Marini.
      Like the game itself, the character sheet is intentionally spartan. The equipment list ("Worldly Possessions") is numbered for ease of use with simplified encumbrance rules. I've also retained the conventional gold/silver/copper coinage system as opposed to the Marks, Groats, and Pfennigs proposed in Sabres

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Akwamu's way, pt. 8

The End.

I am aware of being. At some point I seem to have stopped being, but now I have resumed being. 
      All is stillness. I have not opened my eyes. Indeed, I am not entirely sure if I have any eyes to open.  Or ears to hear. I am only aware of breathing… perhaps mine, or perhaps that of a greater being of which I have become a part. I do not know what or where I now am, yet I feel no urgency to discover what has become of me. All is tranquility, all is peace. It is good to be dead.
      I know I died because I remember the events that led up to my dying. Or most of them, at least. Having been released by the Lord Commander of Chailhelm, our group — the Cuthbertian cleric Bakari, the woodsman Devlin, the stealthy Synast, the valiant Rowan, the Syndar elf Meliusine, and myself — made its way to the wizard Damas who agreed to teleport us to Koidarra to investigate the portal we had discovered in the headquarters of the Nerullite cultists. To our shock, we found the partially ruined city under threat once more, this time from a lurid orange vortex in the sky—the very thing the survivors had described seeing when the place had been set ablaze. And hovering above the town square was the Mysteriarch we'd been so desperate to track down! He cast down the bag of Oeridien's bones, saying that they were useless to him. He denied creating the vortex, blaming it on Kirinafor. And finally he threw down a key to the portal, warning us to stay out of Ifium. He said he would just as soon as killed us (and he certainly has the power to do so), but some other person had placed us under protection —who, he would not say. And then he was gone.
      Despite his great age, Damas became like an excited schoolboy at the prospect of being able to activate the portal. We made our way to Kirinafor's rooms in the cult complex without difficulty. Bakari cast a divination and was told by celestial powers to "Put aside the cloudiness of your mind / And you may be rewarded with what you seek." Damas investigated the portal and concluded that it was a gate to the astral plane. After some debate we decide to use the key to open it. We saw a metallic pearl-covered pool beyond... and events began to occur very quickly. Devlin and his animal companions, Tala the wolf and Alfie the cat, immediately fell under a compulsion to enter the portal. Bakari managed to restrain the ranger, but the animals ran in and disappeared. Without hesitation, Damas followed them. The rest of us hesitated, looking at each other, and then one by one stepped into the gate.
      Shit got weird.
      I found myself standing beneath a bright red sky. Every so often a silver star would shoot across it, and various structures floated here and there in the ether. Before me stood the monastery I trained in… only it was alive. The walls were breathing and were like flesh to the touch. There were sounds, too. Screams. Familiar screams. The voice of my sister, screaming for help! But my sister was long dead.
      The gate behind us had disappeared. We stood on a path that led to the monastery. There was no sign of Damas.
      We soon learned that this plane reserved other surprises for us. It turned out that each of us experienced it differently. What I saw as my monastery was, to each of the others, some other location that had been important in their life. The phantasm of my sister's voice was, to each of them, someone else's voice. Moreover, I was no longer able to hear the voices of some of my companions, though they were clearly speaking.
      There was little choice but to enter the building, the door of which closed behind us and disappeared.  Inside we found many strange things: desecrated altars and shrines. Skeletons of long-dead priests. Statues that appeared differently to each of us. Pools of blood. Cruel traps. Rooms where gravity was reversed. Containers of powerful acid. Pools of brown sludge. Fantastic creatures of nightmare that attacked upon sight. Our spells often produced unpredictable and dangerous effects, as did the "chaos wine" we discovered in some barrels. Devlin turned bright red while Bakari's gums swelled and rotted. Time and time again we found that there was but one way forward: twice it involved stepping into pulsating uterus-like tunnels that closed in about us, pulling us through while strange voices spoke in our heads.
      Clearly we were being guided and tested, but to what end? And by whom?
      The traps and the monsters gradually ground us down, as did accidents from spells and the chaos wine. There was no end in sight, and we grew desperate. At one point, I made a fateful decision. It had occurred to me that despite the Mysteriarch's claim to the contrary, the bones of Oeridien still constituted a danger to our world. We had no certain way of re-sealing the bones within the crypt and Meliusine gave us little reason to believe that the elves could help. Indeed our party was divided internally as to what course to follow. Under the circumstances, it occurred to me that the best thing for me to do would be to hide the bones where no one would find them, perhaps in a lead-lined box. If I told no one, not even my comrades, there would be less danger of the secret being revealed. Now, trapped on another plane, my chance presented itself. At one point, while Devlin was unconscious from his injuries and the others were busy searching for something or other, I took Oeridien's bones from the Bag of Holding that Devlin carried and bore them to the container of acid we'd investigated earlier. I plunged them in and heard a satisfying hiss as they were consumed. I felt a great peace come over me. Previously I'd vowed not to rest, nor even to cut my hair or beard, until Oeridien's bones were safely beyond the power of the Nerullites. Now they were. I told no one in the party. They would learn in time, and for the moment our priorities were elsewhere.
      It may have been that my satisfaction at having accomplished that task made me careless. In the next battle we faced two horrific constructs of flesh. I rushed to face them, heedless of the danger. Flattened by the blows of their great fists, I lay unmoving on the floor until, the battle over, my comrades tended to my wounds. We began casting spells to heal ourselves but the evil effects of the wild magic betrayed us. A huge pit suddenly appeared beneath us, some 12 or 15 fathoms deep. I tried to slow my fall as best I could in my injured condition. The last thing I saw was Devlin, twisting in the air to cushion Rowan's fall with his own body. And then, blackness.
      Now, all is light. Or seems to be. I am not conscious of actually having seen anything. I feel no need to even try to open my eyes; perhaps I never will. My mind tells me that this is not the Enlightenment I have been seeking all my adult life; it is merely another step on the path toward it. But there is no rush. For now, I will simply be.

Image credits: Buddhist samsara, uncredited; "Old Merlin" by Richard Svenssen via; Gibbering Mouther, artist uncredited, via; Flesh Golem by Blazboros via