Saturday, December 29, 2012

Secret Santicore: Rival Adventuring Party

One last Santicore!

THE REQUEST:  An anti-PC/anti-party concept.  Why do these evil adventurer NPCs want to to undo or ruin everything the PCs do?  What sort of people are they?

Our answer comes from Martijn Vos - thanks, Martijn!

Of course the PCs aren't the only adventurers in the world. Other adventuring parties with their own goals, their own motivations and their own patrons may end up in conflict with our heroes. So who are these people, and why are they in our way?

Choose one or roll d20. The lower numbers are more generic and the higher numbers more specific and detailed, so you could also roll d12 or d8+12 depending on your needs.

1: Friendly rivals -- The anti-party has the same goal as our heroes. They want the same treasure, the same McGuffin, reach the same place, talk to the same people; and they don't want to share. They're not particularly hostile, they just want to get there first. They might try to misdirect the heroes, but they won't be the first to attack. They just hope to be smarter, better and faster.

2: Nasty rivals -- The anti-party has the same goal as our heroes. They want the same treasure, the same McGuffin, reach the same place, talk to the same people; and they don't want to share. They want to get there first, and they don't like having competition. If they're ahead, they might set traps or ambushes. If they're behind, they'll follow the heroes' trail and do everything they can to catch up, including ambushing them when the heroes return from achieving some (sub)goal.

3: Rivals for the same boss -- As 1 or 2, but they've been hired by the same patron as the PCs. He may be hedging his bets or doing this for entertainment. In any case, the rivals never intended to be rivals, but now they're after the same thing. Fight? Cooperate? Or team up to pay the doublecrossing patron a visit?

4: Secret rivals -- The anti-party has the same goal as our heroes, but they're a lot more devious about it, and the heroes aren't aware of them being rivals. They'll try to befriend the PCs or act as temporary allies, but inevitably, the betrayal will come. If the losing side survives, you can bet they'll be out for revenge.

5: Unwitting rivals -- The anti-party has the same goal as our heroes, but both parties are unaware of this. They just keep running into each other in various places, and neither wants to explain why they're there. If the anti-party figures this out first, they might turn into Secret Rivals (4).

6: Defenders -- The anti-party has something the heroes need or want. They have the McGuffin, the key to the next adventure, or vital information, and while they're not using it themselves, they don't want to share it either.

7: Hired defenders -- The anti-party has been hired to defend a place against intruders, and the heroes insist on going there. Sure, you could use monsters or undead for this job, but sometimes a party of highly trained adventurers will do the job better.

8: Thieves -- The heroes have something the anti-party wants. They'll first try to figure out if it's really our heroes that have the thing they want, and then they'll try to steal it. If successful, and the heroes want it back, they'll turn into Defenders (6).

9: Robbers -- The heroes have something the anti-party wants. Lacking the subtlety to steal it, the anti-party will try to rob them, ambush them, harass them, until they get what they want, and until they do, they'll keep coming back.

10: Challengers -- The heroes are top-dog (or perceived as such), and the anti-party wants to boost their reputation by defeating the heroes. Preferably in a fair fight.

11: Nasty Challengers -- The heroes are top-dog (or perceived as such), and the anti-party wants to boost their reputation by defeating the heroes. But they're not sure they'll actually win in a fair fight, and don't want to take that risk, so they'll try every trick in the book to gain an advantage.

12: Revenge -- The heroes wronged the anti-party somehow (possibly as the result of any of the other results of this table), and now they're out for blood, or at least a very sincere apology.

13: Thugs -- The anti-party has been hired to harass and intimidate the heroes in order to scare them away from their quest. The BBEG (or a lieutenant) behind this quest is aware of them, and doesn't want them interfering with his plans, so he hopes to scare them off early, and take them out if they don't back off.

14: Mistaken Thugs -- The anti-party has been hired (or has taken it upon themselves) to harass and intimidate the heroes in order to scare them away from what they appear to be doing. Someone unrelated to the heroes' actual quest mistakenly thinks they're about to interfere with their plans (which might be nefarious or benevolent). Of course their attempts to stop the heroes may eventually lead to the discovery of those plans.

15: Pawns -- The anti-party has noble intentions, but has been duped to believe that the heroes are evil. Someone else wants to see the heroes fail, and has manipulated the anti-party to believe that the heroes are up to no good, and shrewd liars to boot. How are you going to prove they've been misled? And who is the real culprit behind this?

16: Avenging Monsters -- The anti-party are relatives of creates that the heroes assumed were okay to kill. Turns out even goblins, kobolds and gnolls have relatives who love them, and who will avenge their deaths. They might even be reasonable enough to accept repayment for their loss, or to bring them to trial. Or maybe they just want them death. But they certainly won't sit there waiting while the heroes wreak genocide on their species.

17: Pure coincidence -- The anti-party is not remotely interested in the heroes or what they're after. They have their own goals which are completely unrelated. It's pure coincidence that makes them constantly cross paths at inopportune moments. They were expecting to fight someone else, and so were the heroes, and yet here they both are.

18: Saving the World -- The anti-party is trying to save the world from terrible disaster. A child has been prophesied to doom the world, or it has been discovered that the child is developing weird powers that will ultimately allow it to threaten the fabric of reality. The child has to be captured or killed. The anti-party will explain this to the heroes, but they're not very patient; they've got a world to save! If the heroes try to rescue the child, then they are also indirectly a threat to the world, and will be dealt with appropriately.

19: Destroying the World -- The anti-party is hatching an evil plot to take over or destroy the world. A child has been prophesied to play a vital role in this, or the child has unique powers, and the anti-party has to capture it in order to bring their evil plans to fruition. They will tell the heroes they're doing this to save the world (see 18: Saving the World), and that they will have to kill the child if the heroes interfere, but they will go to extreme lengths to prevent the child's death.

20: Keeping tabs -- The anti-party are just keeping tabs on a child that has developed unique powers. Possibly a powerful dragon or similar powerful entity has hired the anti-party to do this. The child is not to be harmed, but keeping it safe might require abduction. The anti-party won't explain why they need the child, and would prefer to keep everything secret. They might agree to have the child raised in a suitably safe environment. Or they might decide the heroes know too much. If any party messes up, terrible retribution looms.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Secret Santicore: So You Have A Ship Now...

One more Santicore request for your post-holiday full-of-food fighting-a-cold glad-the-inlaws-are-gone perusal.

THE REQUEST: a table or list of ideas for under-the-table jobs, risky mercantile opportunities, and unfortunate plots to become entangled in that's appropriate for a group of mid-level PCs with a ship and well-armed crew in a sandbox/player-roguishness-driven campaign, in a swords-and-sorcery setting. Some ideas that have positive or problematic repercussions when the game reaches the domain-conquering/thieves'-guild-managing/wizard's-tower-building stage of the game would be great. Also, one entry should deal with a Pirate Queen (whoever that is.)

And here's a fine table of hooks from Adrian Ryan.  It's in google-spreadsheet format, so you can save off an editable copy and tweak to fit your setting, or save as a pdf if that's your bag.

This submission is particularly of interest to me, since Mrs. Wampus gave me pirate-viking books for Christmas, with the admonition that "Wampus needs boats".  And of course, she's right.  Flying boats.

Alignment, Civilization, and Barbarism

Rambling about Alignment.

The idea that the Law-Chaos spectrum in D&D alignment represents the struggle between civilization and barbarism is not new.  That representation makes good sense, especially for a campaign set on the 'borderlands' or frontier, where those two forces meet.  It's a vibe I wanted to explore with Wampus Country - pushing civilization outward into the (presumably chaotic) wilderness, or dealing with frontier characters who strike a tenuous balance between the two.  The frontiersman is too civilized not to leave his mark on the wilderness, but too wild to be comfortable (or perhaps even accepted) in "civilized" society.

Of course, Wampus Country has some additional behavioral concerns that may not turn up very often in most people's games; whether these are alignment-related is a parallel question.  What is it to be "civilized" in Wampus Country?  It's not about cities and established laws or any of that.  It's about how you treat people - and 'people' may have its own definition as well.

If it thinks and talks, it's probably a person.  If it's polite and hospitable, it's probably civilized.

This is not a great philosophical leap.  When you stumble across a swamp-ogre that tries to eat your face, it's obviously barbaric (and, ergo, a guilt-free target for your revolver if you are of Lawful alignment).  If you meet a walking, talking tiger on the road (complete with top hat), he may offer you tea.  He's civilized - or at least pretending to be so.

Some examples from play:

The devil-fairies that pop out of invisibility behind your back and try to shank you?  Barbaric.

The cupcake fairy who pops out of invisibility at parley distance and demands you explain yourselves or leave, lest there be unpleasantness?  Pretty civilized, if you ask me.

The savage poggles who tried to stab adventurers while they slept?  Barbaric.

Hexley, Lord Chuffington, the tuxedoed 'snobgoblin' who claims to be trying to better the lives of his goblinoid brethren through education and employment?  Civilized.  But still suspicious.

Civilized people keep armed conflict as a last resort.  Barbaric people are happy to bash heads if they have the advantage, without announcing themselves.  Does 'Lawful' map to 'Civilized' and 'Chaotic' to Barbaric every darn time in Wampus Country?  Sure seems that way, most of the time.  Now, that doesn't mean folks won't lie, or pretend to be what they aren't, or have complex motivations that skew their behavior.  But it lines up pretty well.

Especially when we consider that a lot of frontier humans - to include the majority of the adventurers I've seen - are Neutral.  "Somewhere in between".

Shifty, the lot of 'em.  Real gentlemen bastards.  Nominally civilized people doing uncivilized things for possibly-civilized goals.  What a mess!

"Look, I know he's disgustingly creepy and exoskeletal and twenty feet long, but he offered us scones and we ate them.  We ate the goddamn scones, Billy.  We can't just kill him now, it wouldn't be right."

Before You Take Down Your Christmas Tree...

Who am I kidding, ours will be up at least another week; we don't even consider taking it down til after Epiphany, and usually laziness kicks in.  Regardless, if you have a Christmas tree up, when you're bored later, walk over to it with pencil and paper and take a good look at the's time for today's stupid/clever idea.

You may recall a brief discussion earlier this year about using amusement park visitor maps as inspiration for creating a dungeon map (or even an overland map).  This is rather like that.  If you have things and relative distances between those things, you have a map, right?

That Christmas tree you're staring at is a map.  Each ornament is a room or encounter.  Seriously.

Two ways to do this come immediately to mind.  The first is to sketch out a conical or ziggurat-style dungeon  by using your tree as inspiration.  You've got larger (more spread-out) levels at the "bottom", narrowing toward the top.  Central axis if you want (the trunk, or in our case, metal pole); that could be a bottomless pit, a massive freight elevator, or you can pretend it isn't there.  This whole tree might be an orbital station if you're doing sci-fi.

The other way is to remove the cone aspect and flatten out the surface of the tree to use as the basis for a one-level deal or an overland section.  Stand in front of your tree and mentally divide it into thirds, like this:

Start jotting down the relative positions of your ornaments on each 'face'.  If you're a garland household, consider using the garland as some sort of flow - a river, a subway, whatever.  Don't worry too much about what's what yet, just note what the ornaments are.  You'll probably want to use a symbol for very common ornaments (in our case, silver spheres).

When I mapped our tree, I had some very common themes, because our tree is done up in blue and silver and penguins and snowflakes.  So I quickly realized I needed a set of symbols to annotate my tree-map:

P for Penguin
I for Icicle
S for Snowflake
SM for Snowman
A for Angel
O for plain old round Ornament
and so on.  I used 'H' for Heirloom/Handmade as well, encompassing both stuff the Boy had made and things passed down from my Mother.  I also had a few ornaments that didn't fit the pattern - the Mouse, Elephant, and Reindeer.

Please forgive me for not trying to add that stuff to the drawing above.  I think you get the idea.

Now you can draw connections between the symbols (draw rooms around 'em first if you want).  Then map the symbols to contents.  Maybe a table for each one, if you're into that and want to generate on the fly.

P (Penguin) = local humanoids of choice
I = trap
S = treasure/valuables
SM = big or unusual monster
A = forgotten temple
O = plain-jane cave
H = ancient paintings
Mouse, Elephant, Reindeer are my 'specials'.  Probably the star on top, too.

Plop a couple entrances at the edge of your triple-triangle and make sure to throw some stairs or slopes on some of those connections, and voila.  Christmas tree dungeon.

Obviously this is not our tree.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Secret Santicore: The Scofflaw's Alphabet

It's Christmas Eve, and Santicore knows whether you were naughty or nice.  If you were nice, have a very Merry Christmas... and if you're the naughty sort?  Check out this guide to criminal behavior from Jeremy Duncan!

If the stars are right, I'll be running a campaign with evil, or at least very selfish, PCs. They will be some kind of criminal organization starting out in the big city. I would like some kind of game aid in running such a campaign.

Enjoy the Scofflaw's Alphabet and its twenty-six pieces of sound advice for PCs considering a walk on the other side of the law.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Secret Santicore: The Griffin Street Angels

To me one of the most exhilarating parts of working as a Santicore's Helper is that there are sometimes requests which need help, so you're first in line to pitch in - sometimes on a short deadline.  I love that kind of pressure sometimes.  Here's one I ended up taking.

THE REQUEST: An adventure involving goblins that are very comical but still effective for a weaker group of characters, perhaps the goblins can serve someone who is a capable villain.
Comical goblins, you say?  Sounds right up my street.

Left to right: Poot, Crybaby, Hamburger Soup, Hooch, and Clown-Shoes.

by Erik Jensen
illustration by Gus from Dungeon of Signs

Five young, mischievous goblins have taken up residence in the attics, eaves, sewers, and barrels of Griffin Street. Having lived here nearly a year now, they have become an acknowledged part of the community, despite being rarely seen. The goblins have christened themselves the Griffin Street Angels, and they fancy themselves a sort of street gang which protects the residents and lives off of their largesse. Local residents and merchants sometimes put out milk or table scraps for the goblins, but the Angels could get by on trash alone if necessary. There is no ‘protection racket’ involved; the relationship is more akin to that of the traditional brownie, where the locals curry favor with the goblins and in exchange are not only unmolested by the dirty critters, but the Angels sometimes help out in unseen ways. The goblins have become fairly protective of their ‘turf’ and the people who live there, and at one point a few months ago drove off a rival (human) street gang. So, too, have many of the locals grown fond of their little helpers.

The ideas herein do not constitute an adventure on their own, but rather a short toolkit to create one, especially on the fly. Add a reason for the PCs to be on Griffin Street, or seeking the goblins, and perhaps a map of a steep and winding road, and improvise away! You may also want a handful of local merchants and residents handy, or ready for improv. Although written for use in a medieval or faux-Victorian fantasy city, a quick reskinning could make the Angels into escaped lab rats of extreme intelligence (for a modern or supers game), gremlins of some sort (horror), or even fluffy kawaii aliens (sci-fi).


The Griffin Street Angels should be a bit difficult to locate, then very difficult to pursue. The goblins themselves are no match for even novice adventurers in a straight fight; they are “just goblins” after all. However, dealing with the Griffin Street Angels may prove quite a challenge for any party seeking to avoid collateral damage or angering the local city-folk, who have come to appreciate the hidden goblins. To create this effect, the encounter is best run as comedy, and as broad as you care to make it, within the context of your game. Tussling with the Angels should be a bit cartoony, whether it’s comical combat or a hot pursuit through the streets. Below, the goblins and their unusual powers are described; several tables are provided to assist you in generating a madcap goblin encounter mid-game (and heaven help the party if they split up). You may also wish to employ the “Ouchies & Boo-boos” table, elsewhere in this volume, to amp up the cartoon feel.


1 - Information. These goblins know something the PCs need to know.
2 - Their stuff back! The Griffin Street gang has pickpocketed (or blatantly stolen) money or an item the characters care about (perhaps a magic item, badge of office, or MacGuffin).
3 - Someone else’s stuff back! A non-Griffin Street resident claims “those blasted goblins” stole something of his...
4 - Directions. The Angels possibly know a secret way into some building to which the PCs need discreet access; could be sewer, secret door, etc.
5 - Something hidden. A treasure map or will sewn into an old coat donated to the goblins, for example.
6 - Mistaken Identity. These are not the goblins you’re looking for. Move along.


All of the Griffin Street Angels are plain old goblins, with all the requisite statistics; however, each of them has a comical quirk which may come into play (typically non-lethal in nature). The Angels can all speak Goblin and a smattering of Common (especially Hamburger Soup, who is near-fluent in Common). They can be Neutral or Evil or Chaotic (or a mix) as suits your game.

Hamburger Soup - the self-proclaimed leader of the gang, Hamburger Soup galavants about in a busted top hat and torn suit-jacket, constantly coming up with new schemes. He is quite selfish and vain, but also the cleverest of the goblins, and quite skilled at both trap-setting and the navigation of Griffin Street (optional: when Hamburger Soup is pursued, roll twice on the Pursuit & Mayhem table and choose the “better” result for the situation).

Crybaby - although his fellows often tease him for his childish ways, Crybaby is perhaps the most ‘angelic’ of the Griffin Street Angels. He is the goblin who leaves gifts or candy for children, or sneaks into their rooms to tell them stories late at night (often he is just a voice from the closet, or under the bed). Whether there is any real philanthropy in these acts is subject to debate - Crybaby loves positive attention, and he doesn’t get any from the other goblins very often. If cornered or wounded, Crybaby is certain to emit an ear-splitting wail which could daze or deafen those standing too close.

Poot - a rather tubby goblin in a dirty shirt, Poot enjoys eating, snacking, trying new ingredients, and eating. He has a bad habit of filling his constantly-empty stomach with chalk from the chalk processing facility at the low end of Griffin Street. This practice combines explosively with his eponymous flatulence; when he is frightened or under duress (for example, when in combat or held aloft by an angry adventurer) he may release a noxious cloud of gas and copious tiny chalk-particles which destroy visibility within a five foot radius of his position for 1d3 rounds.

Clown-Shoes - despite wearing an oversized pair of human boots (and large ones at that), Clown-Shoes is just as stealthy and sneaky and his fellows. He is the enforcer of the gang, and easily the most belligerent of the bunch, always willing to bring his massive clodhoppers to bear in a ruckus. Assume most attacks from Clown-Shoes are either foot-stomps or crotch-kicks, either of which may cause a temporary stun effect (and possibly loss of movement rate for a few rounds) to his victim.

Hooch - so enamored of drink is Hooch that he’s practically pickled; some spells (including sleep and most mind-affecting or fear-causing sorceries) may just plain not work on him, or have altered effects. Hooch generally has some sort of bottle. wineskin, or stein in his hand as he stumbles about, and one might think this would make him an easy target and less stealthy than his companions, but it just isn’t so. Hooch is like a tiny, burping drunken master. Should he release an immense belch directly into the face of a melee opponent (an act which inevitably solicits a unison “Good one!” from any other goblins about), the victim must save vs poison or be nauseated (50%) or even become temporarily intoxicated themselves (50%; lasts 1d4 rounds).

(when it is obvious the PCs are seeking or pursuing the goblins)

1 - Belligerent (tough guy). “Oi! What you doin’ over there? You mess wif dem gobs, you mess wif alla Griffin Street, boyo!”
2 - Belligerent (matronly). “You cad! How dare you! What have those poor wee goblins ever done to you!”
3 - Subtle assistance (pro-goblin). “Ooh, so sorry, how clumsy of me! Am I in your way?”
4 - Neutral. “Meh. Goblins.”
5 - Subtle assistance (anti-goblin). NPC says nothing, but points furtively to a cabinet, then leaves the room...
6 - Hater (anti-goblin). “Too right! Get ‘em gobs up outta here! Little blighters...”

DMs should improvise results and add stat checks or saves as necessary for various implied effects.  Be sure to describe the environment of the street in a way that incorporates people, places, and things that just beg to be exploited by your players during a chase.

1While you were looking at one goblin, another one tied your shoes together.  No laces on your boots?  That’s fine; he tied fishing line from your belt to something heavy.
2Goblin effortlessly scoops up a road-apple and flings it - rather accurately - toward the pursuer; alternately, a banana peel is tossed underfoot.
3Goblin makes a sharp turn, causing pursuer to nearly barrel into a (small child, elderly lady) at top speed (a save or DEX check might be valuable here; neither Little Sally nor Granny Knickerbocker react well to plate mail collisions)
4The goblin nonchalantly grabs a stray cat and flings it right at your face.  Being a cat, it adheres nicely and wails and claws nonstop
5Bouncing around, goblin knocks over (or pulls down) something heavy or awkward - a gargoyle, a rain-gutter, etc.
6Goblin slithers into a manhole in such a way that the heavy metal cover spins about noisily then slams down again just as you get there
7Goblin grabs fish from a cart and flings it like a boomerang; if it misses, make another attack roll as the fish boomerangs back at the target
8Goblin scrambles up a rooftop, knocking ceramic shingles down upon you
9Goblin shoves a pram (complete with baby) so that it begins rolling out of control down the street, picking up speed
10Goblin whistles, calling over a rather mean dog on a chain; whether the dog or the outstretched chain is the more serious issue is a matter for debate
11A pair of workers carrying (1-2 long ladder, 3-5 pane of glass, 6 something ridiculous like a piano or Christmas tree) between them steps between you and the goblin
12Goblin hides in a barrel, giant wicker basket, or large clay pot, one of several.  Somehow he can stick his head out of a different pot while you’re checking the first one; you know how this goes.
13Is that a procession up ahead?  Oh, crap, it’s a funeral.  The goblin weaves in and out of the wailing mourners and even hops on (or in!) the coffin/bier if the opportunity presents itself.  This is an opportunity for the PCs to be “those jerks who ruined that funeral” for years to come.
14Goblin hurls fruit or a dead duck (hanging in a stall) at a hulking thug, then ducks behind something so when the brute turns, it appears as though a PC threw the food.  Trouble ensues.
15Goblin upsets an cart full of oranges or other reasonably-spherical fruit, with predictable results as the death-trap fruits cover a large area  (time for DEX checks)
16Goblin sneaks under the skirts of (1-2 attractive young lady, 3-4 tremendously round lady, 5-6 nun)
17Goblin kicks the rickety wheel of a dung-cart, causing a nasty spill (and potentially a Biff Tannen incident if you’re not careful)
18Goblin grabs a bag of spices (1-4 black pepper, 5-6 crazy-hot pepper powder) and hurls it into the air, in someone’s face, or against a building as necessary to produce the desired sneezing or OH SWEET ODIN IT BURNS
19Goblin climbs up the beard of a passing wizard who was reading half-aloud from a book and not paying attention to where he walked; the book drops, spell components scatter everywhere from pouches, a bunny leaps out of a conical hat, and the old wizard blurts out random words of power.  If you have a Wand of Wonder table handy, go for it.
20Goblin scurries up under the eaves of a building and disappears, ending pursuit.

The Griffin Street Angels might be more than they seem; here are some ideas.

Mysterious ‘benefactor’. Hamburger Soup has been enlisted (and plied with wine and silver) to be on the lookout for a particular person (man dressed a certain way, child with a strange birthmark); if spotted, he has magical or mundane means of communicating with his patron - who may have evil designs.

Accursed. The goblins are actually people (knights? adventurers?) who were transformed and memory-wiped by a witch or other villain. If they manage to perform enough small good deeds (or one big one!) their bodies and minds will revert to normal.

Undercover. The Angels - all of whom are Lawful or Neutral in reality - are special agents of the monarch, a secret police, or are associated with one of the local churches, and are on a top secret mission...

Kid Brother. One of the Angels has an older brother who is a guildmaster, assassin, warlord, crazy shaman, or similar Person Who Would Be Very Cross You Killed His Kid Brother.

Wannabe. One or more of the goblins would desperately love to be the sidekick to an adventurer, or becomes obsessed with the idea of apprenticing under the party mage or cleric.

Secret Santicore: The Plot Thickens

This morning I figured I'd share one of my own Santicore contributions before we run out the door to a family party on the other side of the Chesapeake.  Some blathering about conspiracy and mystery plots and techniques for weaving them into your game.

THE REQUEST:  I would really love something that would get a simple, straight-up combat oriented group involved and interested in some deep intrigue or mystery. Doesn't matter what: an encounter, adventure outline, maybe even an item, but it should get even the most hardened hack & slasher interested in finding out more.
using classic mystery and conspiracy gimmicks

There’s no one-size-fits all way to get players (or characters) who aren’t into grand mysteries to fall in love with that sort of campaign, but thankfully there are myriad ways to try to hook their interest. When PCs come across a grand conspiracy or weird mystery, it’s evidence of a larger world beyond their own in-game actions. They may choose to ignore it or address it, but the mystery chugs along regardless; and in fact sometimes the best intriguing mysteries are those which aren’t real at all - constructed in the characters’ heads out of fear and coincidence. The central trick is to strike a balance between the characters learning more and more about the mystery, and the characters realizing that the mystery is broader and deeper than they had imagined. A good large-scale mystery is just another kind of labyrinth to be navigated by curious adventurers.


* Make it personal. Tying the mystery to the characters’ allies, relatives, or the PCs themselves may be the surest way to engage their interest. It doesn’t guarantee they won’t try to stab the problem, but at least they’ll be addressing it. In some cases, the goal can be personalized in a more mercenary fashion - solving the mystery is the key to getting what the protagonists want in a material sense. You have to know the PCs goals and “care-abouts” before you can threaten them properly.

* Actual importance. The grand mystery has to matter enough that if the PCs don’t investigate to some degree, bad things could happen. This doesn’t have to be world-shattering stuff - and perhaps shouldn’t be - but the mystery has to exist for a reason, and the reason must hook the characters. “Oh, a multi-generational shark cult that’s been pulling the strings in this city for a century? Yawn.” For a mystery to be engaging as an adventure hook or the understructure of a campaign, it has to be more than just set dressing.

* Balance the deepening mystery with real progress. As PCs go down the rabbit-hole of mysterious conspiracy, they must be both impelled forward by a desire to see what’s next but also confident that they are, in fact, making actual progress. The illusion of progress isn’t enough - most players will not put up with endless sleight-of-hand, nor should they. If the mystery is a labyrinth, they should be constantly finding new levels and rooms, not just wandering the corridors aimlessly.

* Don’t bait-and-switch the tone. If your campaign began as one of heroic fantasy and action, don’t switch horses midstream and start running a completely dark, on-the-run conspiracy thing. If you change campaign tone before you have (explicit or implicit) buy-in, you will alienate players. If you’re mashing tones together, you have to blend them so you don’t abandon the original vibe of the game. Players who aren’t super-intrigued by the mystery will better ride along for the story arc if there are still strong features of the stuff they came for - action, adventure, combat. Try to balance the unknown with the familiar.

* Paranoia and Claustrophobia. If you’re going for a conspiracy-theory vibe, then at some point the PCs need to feel like their invisible adversaries really are everywhere, even if they’re not. The sensation of being watched; little things askew (“I thought I left my keys on the other table, but --”). Pairing this with a sense of claustrophobia - metaphorical or literal - will have the characters (and maybe the players) feeling trapped. And if you’re running a conspiracy/intrigue scenario, that’s a good thing.


Below are some examples of classic gimmicks you can use to try to hook players (and their characters) deeper into an overarching mystery plot. I refer to them as gimmicks because they are just that - easy techniques or cheap narrative trickery which, combined and layered, can help in presenting a grand conspiracy, or making a minor mystery feel much larger.

* the mysterious symbol - “Wait, didn’t those other guys have scorpion tattoos as well? What does it all mean?” A mark on a fallen foe, a strange symbol pressed into the wax seal of a menacing missive - introducing a mysterious symbol is a great first revelation of a wider mystery, as it not only ties things together visually as the symbol shows up in different places, but it also characterizes the nature of the mystery through the connotations of the symbol.

* improbable repetition - “I see it everywhere - on clock-faces, street addresses. Yesterday it was in my lottery ticket.” Whether it’s the number 22 or the phrase ‘Naughty Coyote’, when the same words or images just keep turning up, inexplicably, characters will likely begin to draw connections between the appearances. Are they reading too much into it, or is there really a cosmic puppet-master behind the messages? A more mundane version of this trick is essentially “they’re everywhere” - the townsfolk turn out to be secret cultists, the villain actually owns the megacorporation you’ve been working for, all manifestations of sinister synchronicity which can make the characters feel like reality itself is out to get them.

* the not-a-map treasure hunt - When characters are following clues hidden in something which is not-quite-a-map - encoded in an old book, following the movements of a strange pocketwatch, etc - there’s automatically an extra layer of secrecy added to the quest. Not only is the “treasure” hidden, but the “map” is also obscured in one or more ways - how much more fantastic must the goal be with all of this secrecy? Bonus points if special or secret knowledge is required to understand the map in the first place.

* the multi-part coded message - You can get some good mileage out of an encrypted message, especially if it’s multi-part; like an A-B-C quest, but to unlock a single message. The characters must accomplish various things in order to break each part of the code, or there’s a code within a code. Imagine the PCs having to find and assemble the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, only to find that they now must extract coded meaning from the picture revealed.

* the race against time - A deadline adds tension if the characters care about the results. Running to stop something from happening, or guarantee it, cranks up the excitement if done sparingly and meaningfully.

* stolen faces - Nothing freaks characters out like learning their companion or trusted friend was a doppelganger or simuloid all along. When were they replaced? For what purpose? Or perhaps someone is masquerading as the PCs! Related to this is the mistaken-identity or face-swapping problem; maybe the PCs get dragged into the conspiracy by accident, or have to abandon their old identities while on the lam.

* the dark mirror - Having a professional (or romantic) rival involved on the other side of the mystery is a classic means to increasing character investment. Indy would’ve tried to stop the Nazis anyway, but having Belloq involved made it personal and put it over the top. The more alike the PC and rival are, the sweeter the hatred; it’s the Spider-man vs Venom angle.

* I know your secrets - Being faced with a foe who somehow knows things about you which nobody else knows is disconcerting at best. Who is she, and how does she know that? Why didn’t they kill us when they had the chance? Even better is the foe or wild-card who claims to know things even the PC didn’t know - the identity of their real father, or the key to clearing someone’s name. This sort of thing is a massive tease, and if you use it, make sure you remember that it is a tease and shouldn’t go on forever.

* going legendary - Sometimes an effective reveal involves upping the stakes mid-mystery as the protagonists discover that what they thought was a small-scale problem is potentially a much larger-scale problem. That bandit king they’ve been working against just so happens to match the characteristics of the prophesied Doom Messiah; or the amnesiac girl they rescued bears a birthmark which just might suggest she’s the lost Venusian princess everyone’s talking about. Escalation is a window to bringing in new factions who care not only about the mystery, but about the PCs, as well.

* wheels within wheels - There’s nothing wrong with retcon if it’s done well - by which I mean, plausibly and in a way that doesn’t invalidate anything established so far. Perhaps an ally betrays the PCs, revealing not only that they were working for the conspiracy all along, but that everything the protagonists have been through has all been a part of this same scheme, even their seemingly-unrelated early adventures. The pinnacle of this technique is the “everything you know is wrong” reversal, which potentially flips everybody’s motivation upside-down.

* friend from the futurepast - Want to really mess with characters’ minds? If your game’s genre allows, introduce an NPC version of one of the PCs, from the future. How and why did he come back in time? What does he want with us? What happens if he kills his younger self? Did he come back to stop us from succeeding, because he’s seen the world that results from our success? This also works with a mysterious past version of a PC showing up, but as you can imagine it’s a bit trickier to explain away without doing memory-wipes or parallel timestreams. Imagine a scene where the younger version gets wounded, and a scar appears on the older version immediately; even better, the PC asks his older self where he got that bullet scar, and the older version replies “You gave it to me” and shoots the PC in that exact spot! Not to mention the potential Heinlein hijinks and assorted classic paradoxes.

* refugees from choices untaken - similar to ‘the time-travel thing’, you could also introduce an NPC who was a PC or PC ally, but from a parallel universe or alternate timestream where things occurred differently and other choices were made. “Admit it, you guys are starting to like Nazi me better than actual me, aren’t you. What is it, the cool leather trenchcoat?”

* flashback - Everybody’s seen flashbacks in movies and on TV, but not everyone uses them in their campaigns, especially traditional-style games. But when you’re pursuing a grand mystery, a flashback sequence can be a good way to reveal extra details (especially if you’ve just added them in hindsight!) or remind the players of something they’re discounting. In fantasy and sci-fi games, you have added ‘flashback’ potential in the form of speaking with the dead, reading people’s minds, and the like. And don’t forget dream sequences have their place as well, especially in a mystery - the subconscious mind may very well assemble clues in a very different manner than the waking PC. Or even “past life” shenanigans! These techniques can be something the GM narrates to provide detail, or in some cases it might be appropriate to actually play out the scene in some way.

* flash-forward, or “splash page” - The flash-forward is a narrative technique that doesn’t always work at the table - there, you’ve been warned. Basically the gimmick is thus: you open the session (or the entire campaign) with a drastic cut-scene; an example would be the villain standing triumphant atop the corpses of the PCs. Then you announce “Five hours earlier...” or “Two years ago...” and start your regular campaign action. Some players will eagerly work to get themselves in a position to “see” the flash-forward actually happen, although it may turn out the ‘splash page’ image wasn’t telling the whole truth; other players just plain won’t bite (this is why it doesn’t always work without player buy-in). Regardless, the idea is to sort of set an extra goal for the players to head for, to keep them moving forward even if they’re not sure what they want to do next. You can use this technique to snap a particular player to attention, as well - imagine if you started a session with “Bruthark the Reaver stands, bloody and beaten, in the driving rain, one eye nearly swollen shut; his grip on his famous axe is slack. Then the voiceover: ‘I am Bruthark the Reaver, most feared warrior in all the five realms. And this is the story of the day I died.’” You’d get Bruthark’s player’s attention right quick. Keep in mind I’m not advocating railroading any particular results here other than generating an eventual scene that looks similar to the flash-forward. Maybe Bruthark “dies” for an instant before being resuscitated, perhaps we’re just seeing him during a moment of self-doubt; maybe they end up faking his death for some scheme, or he dies metaphorically by starting a new life as Bruthark the God-King - anything’s possible.

Below is a random table with bits of mystery and conspiracy tropes and gimmicks, which may prove useful for brainstorming or - if you’re brave - rapid plot-turns at the table.

1 mistaken identity - the target isn’t the target
2 mysterious symbol - villain wears a strange mark linked to the mystery
3 I know your secrets - villain or wildcard has unusual info about a PC; blackmail?
4 dark mirror - a PC’s despised rival plays a role
5 more than they seem - PCs uncover new info about an NPC which changes the whole picture
6 mistaken identity - a PC is thought to be someone else
7 break-in - PC HQ is ransacked, either searching for something or for intimidation
8 pack your bags - fresh info suggests the PCs are completely in the wrong location, and time is short
9 you’re off the case - any authority the PCs had is taken from them
10 for your own good - an NPC screws over a PC, but in the long-term it’s helpful
11 claustrophobia - opportunity to get locked up or otherwise trapped, ramping up tension
12 paranoia - sense of being watched or followed, or tangential evidence of same
13 right in front of us the whole time - an important clue is hidden in plain sight
14 one of us - allies are actually in league with villains, try to ‘convert’ one or more PCs
15 dying messenger - information is passed, but what does it mean?
16 mysterious symbol - a location is marked
17 vanishing village - a massive cover-up erases the PCs best evidence
18 the game is afoot - a spectacular chase or race-against-time
19 stolen faces - someone is masquerading as a PC
20 we have your sister - villains threaten PC dependents or allies
21 wheels within wheels - ally betrays the PCs
22 this goes all the way to the top - an authority figure is corrupt and involved
23 this is not a proper map - good information is encoded in something unusual
24 more than they seem - a legendary revelation (new info) raises the stakes dramatically
25 narrative revelation - a flashback or cut-scene adds details previously unknown
26 infiltrator - a PC or ally is actually a villain/monster
27 paranoia - the PCs risk ending up on the wrong side of the law or hunted by authorities
28 wildcard - an NPC arrives on the scene, but which side is she on?
29 hello again - someone from a PCs past shows up
30 duck! - they’ve sent someone to kill you

Friday, December 21, 2012

Secret Santicore: Magical Mists

This Santicore request is a fun one; we often think about magical stuff you wear, read, or even eat.  What about stuff you smell and inhale?

THE REQUEST:  A set of 12 magical mists and fumes that affect you by breathing them in...

And here it is:  Magical Mists by Tim Knight!

Only two remain from my batch...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Secret Santicore: Cornelius Rattlebag's Magic Emporium

Steampunk has gotten huge, so it should come as no surprise that we would get a Santicore request dealing with such themes...

THE REQUEST:   A selection of magitech devices that might be sold or built by the rogue artificer or his friends back in the crazy land of magic and steampunk.

Our Santicore today is Stacy Dellorfano, who brings us a dazzling display of gadgetry both large and small.

Cornelius Rattlebag's Magic Emporium!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Secret Santicore: Less-Than-Marvelous Magic

Throughout their careers, adventurers wield and encounter lots of strange and powerful enchanted items.  Below, Tom Hudson reminds us that not all magical items need be the stuff of legend.

THE REQUEST: A list of magical items that seem useless but aren't (or have very situational uses).

Sandstone Bactrian: the possessor of this friable statuette of a camel will not be attacked by wild camels, and can spit prodigiously twice per day. The figurine itself - being made of sandstone - will degrade over time with rough handling.

Withered Branch: this gnarled wand, covered with near-dead lichen, will infallibly lead the wielder to the nearest source of nonpotable, contaminated, or poisoned water.

Speckled Cloak: once an unjeweled broach is used to close this cloak, the wearer will have +4/+20% to conceal their movement through sandstorms. They also leave a thin trail of sand which makes them easy to track over wood or stone floors and similar surfaces.

Cross-Staff of Inestimable Brilliance: a hardwood navigator’s tool with thin inlaid gold bands near the ends of each arm, the subtle enchantments on this item give a navigator who can see the sun certain knowledge of their location but leave them blind for 2-5 hours. With multiple uses in the same day, save vs. permanent blindness.

Carnelian Whistle: if this loud whistle is sounded between dusk and midnight, 40-240 crickets will show up before dawn.

Shangarf Powder: anyone who eats this cinnamon-scented powder risks having their internal organs turned to stone, but scattering a handful of it over sand will create a medium-sized patch of quicksand in 1-4 minutes.

Tariq’s Staff: this flimsy, ivory-tipped 8’ wooden pole will dry any fabric hung from it in seconds.

Thresher: this oversized magical flail does double damage to plants but half damage to all other targets.

Thatcher: a small bronze sickle bearing the same enchantment as Thresher.

Homeknife: the foot-long serrated blade of this knife never dulls; when used while cooking food, it increases the number of servings produced by 10%. Any missed attack against a target who is fighting back requires a save or the wielder nicks themselves for 1-3 hp of damage.

Ebony Whisk: most flying insects will not willingly approach within 10’ of the wielder of this item’s densely-engraved black handle or two-foot-long bundle of white horsehair. Its powers are only active while it is held.

Mottled Wafer: whomsoever eats this red- and green-marbled biscuit fails all saves vs disease for the next week.

Portal Charm: when nailed to a door or a doorframe, the door is mundanely unopenable so long as somebody is touching the charm and reciting an appropriate passage of scripture or myth. Magic will open the door, but also cause a backlash harming both the charm’s invoker and the opener.

Whitespike: so long as this unique scrimshaw dagger is driven into the ground, snowfall within 120 yards increases significantly (at least double, often more)

Noor’s Doomcaller: while this huge horn of an unknown beast is blown into, the user finds themselves unable to move their legs; if there is any overhanging or unstable mass of snow nearby that could avalanche towards the horn, it will, and in such case the user must save to be able to stop blowing before the slide settles.

Frost Queen’s Ornament: this shimmering opal-carved locket, meant to be braided into a fall of hair, causes the wearer to suffer double any effects from cold environments. Staring into the opal hints at snowglobe-like visions of faerie.

Surefoot Boon: a simple wooden prod, warm to the touch; if used by the rider of a yak or other shaggy mount to guide their beast, the beast slows down 15%, but becomes stolid (+2 morale) and steady (+4 appropriate saves).

Arvicoline Belt: made of pleasingly supple, tawny fur, this belt has a less than pleasing influence on their wearer: every dawn, he must save or feel compelled find a high place to throw himself from or a wide body of water to swim across, as appropriate to the local terrain. The wearer does gain a +2 reaction adjustment from rodents.

Irthuq’s Pick: this small, one-handed climbing pick has a wooden handle and a blade made of blue-green ice; if taken into warm climes, the blade will melt and the enchantment dissipate. As long as it stays in the high mountains, it isn’t much good at digging into rocks or ice, but it easily finds purchase in ethereal surfaces.

Essence of the Final Season: three drops of this potion cause any evergreen tree to drop all its needles; six to drop its branches and stand as a bare trunk; nine to slough off its bark in a single joined sheet; twelve to explode in a fatal storm of splinters.

The Last Blue Ribbon: throwing one end of this 30’ thin silk ribbon across a snow crevasse will cause an ice bridge to form - obviously too thin to bear human weight.

Somnambulist’s Ease: the wearer of this heavy wrought armband of a curious silver metal takes -4 to all saves against sleep and similar enchantments, but is completely protected from nightmares.

Polyniscent Stool: a folding wooden camp stool with silver inlay in the seat. Touching the inlay produces a mildly disturbing shock. A spellcaster who meditates or studies while sitting on it only gets half benefit (8 hours of time pass to learn 4 hours of spells), but cannot be surprised by visible, audible creatures.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Two Trees Challenges

One of the reasons I love Santicore, and crowdsourcing, and contests, is that placing artificial constraints on something can be very stimulating to creativity.  By forcing yourself to think about things in a new way, you're  going to end up with something very different than the "same old", whether it's something like "use only monsters from this one book for a while" or "riff off the plot of one of these movies".  While it's often just a thought-experiment to get the creative juices flowing, sometimes I find the products of these challenges are my favorite work.

In that vein, here are two challenges I'm thinking about.  Not contests, not dares exactly - but personal challenges of the New Year's Resolution variety almost.

aka "Use What You Get"

My lovely wife picked me up some Christmas presents at the local game store already, and they're vintage 1e/2e AD&D stuff.  I know this because she told me so, and further informed me that the stuff was "sort of themed together".  That could mean anything.  It could all be Dark Sun stuff, or Spelljammer.  Or all Complete brown books, or Historical green ones.  Or a mess of Dragon magazines, or Dungeon.  From any pre-4e edition, actually, those could be 3e-era magazines.  No idea.

So here's the challenge: everything under the tree gets used, mashed up, together, somehow.  On Christmas I'll artfully arrange whatever it is and snap a pic, pledging to use something from everything in the stack, ideally together in some way.  Charlemagne's Paladins vs. Night Below?  Who knows what it will be.  If there are Dragon magazines in there, I'll aim to use significant chunks of each of them.  Mash mash mash.

Dare you attempt the Under the Tree Challenge?

aka "Use What You've Got"

There's quite a bit of gaming material on my bookshelves (I wager yours look similar).  A good chunk of it is vintage stuff I picked up at a con ages ago (for a song) that I still haven't used in any real way.  Shouldn't I be using some of this?  Sure, I'll cannibalize maps or flip through old modules for inspiration, but what about actually running the darn things?

And therein lies the second challenge: something - or several somethings - get pulled off the shelf and used.  As in actually run.  Run straight, run as a one-shot, run adapted to Wampus, whatever - but run.  It could be War Rafts of Kron or Greyhawk Ruins or Dragons of Midsummer Angst or That One Eberron Thing I Forgot I Picked Up or who knows what else.  It could mean taking an adventure from one game (Island of Dr. No, I'm looking at you) and adapting it to another game, but still trying to run it using as much material from the original as possible.  This is a throughout-the-year challenge, to utilize and repurpose the stuff I already have.  Ghost Tower of Inverness, adapted to Wampus Country?  Yes, please.  Could also be a good opportunity for folks to play through 'classic' modules...

Dare you attempt the Save A Dead Tree Challenge?

Christmas Elves

Throughout the multiverse, on countless worlds, there exists Christmas - or something very like it.  Spreading this cheer hither and yon are the Christmas Elves, who live to make merry, please children, and generally do Nice Things.  Although found in many realms, the Christmas Elves trace their origin to a timelocked, always-winter factory world invisibly orbiting the star Polaris.

Although most Christmas Elves are mere workers (0-level) who use the intrinsic magic of a Workshop to create toys, particularly talented elves can make toys anywhere - and it is these happy-go-lucky phenoms who tend to leave their workshop of birth and search for adventure...

"But don't you see?  The ridiculousness only fuels the paradox which is my power!"

THE CHRISTMAS ELF (a variant Elf for Labyrinth Lord)

HD, saves, and xp requirements as per usual race-as-class Elf; prime requisites are INT and CHA

The Christmas Elf does NOT get the usual Elf racial traits except for infravision.  Whether they count as elves for the purposes of activation (“can only be used by an elf”, “does double damage against elves”) is subject to DM interpretation. Christmas Elves are typically Lawful, but there have been a few rogue elves of Chaotic nature, chiefly occupied with ruining Christmas.

Instead they get this ability:
Naughty or Nice: A Christmas Elf may know alignment, as per the spell, once per day per level.

And this restriction:
Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: A Christmas Elf may only use their Toymaking ability if they are properly attired.  An elf outfit is the default (and a 1st-level Elf begins play with one for free), but anything appropriately Christmassy will do.  For example, the Elf may use his powers when wearing a three-piece suit, if that suit is red velvet and there’s a sprig of holly on the lapel.  Etc.  Armor may be made suitably Christmassy at an added cost.

In lieu of normal elfy spellcasting, the Christmas Elf gets the Toymaking ability.

Christmas Elves can produce magical toys from thin air (or a sack, or their pockets); they may do so spontaneously, as the situation demands, but can only create so many toys a day (see chart).  Although a spontaneous “spell”-caster, the Christmas elf is limited in that he must constantly be inventing new toys and cannot repeat himself; and some toys have obvious weaknesses which may be exploited or have unintended side-effects.  At the DM’s discretion, the Elf may also manifest “Christmas-themed” stuff such as a tree, colored lights, fruitcake etc in addition to summoning toys.  Or perhaps only during the winter or something.

All elf-made toys fall into two categories: basic toys, and constructs.


Toys are generally temporary manifestations which replicate the effect of a spell (marbles underfoot acts as a grease spell, etc).  The player is encouraged to be original and creative in these uses, and reskin spells with abandon; the DM is expected to penalize boring cosmetic repetitiveness (which would never be encouraged back at the workshop).  Christmas Elf PCs who visit the campaigns of multiple DMs (a la FLAILSNAILS) are on the honor system not to repeat themselves.  If the Christmas Elf cannot come up with something new, they may miss their chance to act that round.  

Toys may be somewhat anachronistic, so long as they are obviously toys (a beeping toy robot is fine; a useful tool or weapon masquerading as a toy may not be).  It is suggested that the Christmas Elf be limited to the spells his toys can mimic; uncommon and unique spells are the domain of a proper wizard, not a Christmas elf.  

A Christmas toy mimics the effects of a spell but is still subject to any weaknesses of the form in which it is summoned.  For example, calling forth some brightly-colored telescoping stilts to count as levitate sounds like a great idea - but your enemies can still attack the stilts themselves.

(Note - I don’t want to give too many examples; you can come up with your own easily; just think of toys you had as a kid and what use they might be in a dungeon.  Remember, you chose this class because you like to improvise...)

read languages - decoder ring; Child’s First Dictionary; Scrabble tiles
detect magic - Junior Detective Kit (with magnifying glass and deerstalker hat)
floating disc - frisbee flying disc
magic missile - playground ball; other sports equipment; lawn darts(!); beanbags
charm person - pretty pretty princess costume jewelry; superhero cape
hold portal - teddy bear who leans on the door; silly string to gum it up
light - plushie glow-worm; Lite Brite
shield - wall of Play-Doh or LEGO or wooden alphabet blocks; hula hoop
sleep - lullaby music-box; soap bubbles
ventriloquism - kazoo; rubber duck (squeezing it produces a voice elsewhere)


At third level, the Christmas Elf gains the ability to make more permanent toys, and invest them with a semblance of life.  He can create animated teddy-bears, dolls, or toy soldiers, or even build large (but still undersized) vehicles.  Such constructs last longer than basic toys, and have increased capabilities, but use up more Toymaking ability.  Constructs last til dawn; you may continue the existence of the construct the next day, but must re-spend the toymaking ‘slots’ to do so.  At the DM’s discretion, each time you build the same construct, it is the same creature with the same personality (ie every time you summon a huge toy soldier into combat, it’s Lieutenant Happy).

Two spell levels = 1 HD of creature or 1 special ability.  Reskin monsters as appropriate.
So to create Flippy the Back-Flipping Dog (stats as guard dog, 1 HD) or a Tin Soldier (1st-level fighter, or maybe “orc” would be easier) would cost a second-level spell.

Constructs may also be vehicles, such as a cart (minimum 2HD, more for bigger), boat (minimum 2HD, more for bigger), bicycle/unicycle/amusingly-small-tricycle (1HD), or even a brightly-painted (but still comically-small relative to size of the pilot) biplane (4HD).

Christmas Elves can combine spell levels as necessary (a 2nd-level spell and two 1st-level spells burned = 2HD of Construct).


The Christmas Elves believe that every world - throughout time and the various dimensions - deserves a Santa. No matter how dire the planet, how far-flung the pocket realm, Elves will attempt to gain a foothold there. To establish a proper colony, the Elf must gain personal power and become...a Santa.

Upon reaching 9th level, a Christmas Elf undergoes a significant physical transformation.  The abdominal organ which powers his elf-magic begins to swell, giving him a tubby appearance; and his hair goes grey, then white.  Some Christmas Elves begin to grow beards at this stage.  At this level of fame and accomplishment, the Christmas Elf has earned the title ‘Santa’, and is ready to construct his own Workshop, and will recruit one or more helper species appropriate to the area in which he settles.  This Workshop need not be located in the traditional tundra; for example, Santa Ming built his workshop on a tropical island and staffed it with festive-minded howler monkeys in Hawaiian shirts, while Santa Grox built his workshop in a seemingly-bottomless ravine on the vampire world of Proxima Sanguinus, and recruited android centaurs to be his workers (he also flies around in a sleigh pulled by flaming skulls, so he’s pretty obviously not an orthodox Santa). The point being, the trappings and cosmetics do not matter - it is the core of the Christmas message and culture which the Elves care about in the long run.

Apparently "Holly Jolly" means "Kinda Slutty" in Middle English.  Who knew?  That said, "Holly Jolly" might be a pretty good character name for this young lady.

Secret Santicore: Moonlight Pathways

Sometimes a Secret Santicore request is deliciously vague - something that could potentially be satisfied by a map, a random table, some adventure hooks, who knows?  Today's offering is one such kernel.

THE REQUEST:  A series of moonlight pathways throughout the multiverse.

Florian Hubner answers the call with these tables and seeds for several different cross-dimensional pathways.

The Way Over The City of Dreams

Walking on top of the clouds above the city of dreams, every cloud a different dream. The peaks of the houses poke trough the clouds and weird little fish swim trough them, brushing past the legs of those that walk above.

Random encounters
-1: Floating dream matter dissolving everything in its path
-2: The red warlord of the kingdom of Aum
-3: The child witch Yrsa with her murder of raven
-4: The dream-stealer, a huge purple spider
-5: A swarm of rats, agitated by the Piper
-6: Snagbar the goblin alchemist with his floating gondola of wonders.

Random Dream
-1: Help the dark emperor to raze the white Kings citadel.
-2: Search for the lost child in the witch wood
-3: Climbing the endless tower, using long hooked staves
-4: Race on top of big wild boars through the mushroom forest
-5: Repairing the rampaging clockwork tower of the dwarven Machinist
-6: Escape the Fire Giant prison that was built in the crater of an active volcano

Random event
- 1: The awakening: The cloud starts to fall apart as piece by piece it gets replaced with the reality of the dreamer.
-2: The nightmare, an enormous black horse with burning hooves races over the heads of the dreamwalkers. In its wake, creatures sprung from horrible dreams.
-3: A building or part of a building springs to life and attacks the dreamwalkers
-4: a cold whispering mist creeps out of the ground, trying to eradicate every source of heat.
-5: Two dreams collide and merge, roll again on the random dream table.
-6: Dream shuffle: The roles of the dreamwalkers in the current dream get shuffled around or reversed.

The Temple Way to Father Mountain's Peak

Hundreds of little shrines, sepulchers and imposing temples seam the way up this treacherous mountain, the way going around, under and sometimes even over some of the buildings. Gods new and long forgotten are worshiped here but there are also countless temples that have fallen into disrepair, posing quite a hazard for pilgrims and other visitors.

Random encounters:
-1: Wind wraith
-2: The crazed monk
-3: animated pages of a holy book
-4: The false Avatar
-5: A group of frightened pilgrims
-6: The stone guardian, covered with moss and lichens

Random Events:
-1: An inscribed golden gong of unusual size comes crashing down the mountain.
-2: A rickety bridge between two temples collapses
- 3:The wind rotates ancient prayer wheels and the ancient prayers:
- curse the ones who dared to defile the temple with a withering curse
- bless the visiting pilgrims, granting them a longer life by
making them younger
- make the wheels rotate faster and faster till they break apart
into hundreds of whirling pieces.
- have no noticeable effects but disorient the travelers, making them to go back to the previous temple.
- make the trees and other plant life grow with an unbelievable
speed before granting them a will of their own for a short while.
- Try to put the trespassers into a century-long sleep.
-4: The long dead priests of the temple rise again to continue to serve their deity
-5: The current temple seals itself, forcing the trespassers to find a way out
-6: An ongoing schism is about to turn violent. two factions in the temple are ready to fight for the true beliefs

Random Temple
-1: An abandoned mausoleum dedicated to an obscure death god who was worshiped by sentient undead
- 2: The sun temple dedicated to the golden one, the only inhabitants are bald priests trying who try to eradicate every last shadow in the temple with candles.
-3: A wooden tower where the wild hunt was worshiped before it fell into disrepair. Lots of taxidermists must have toiled for ages to put all these animals into the tower.
-4: Water temple dedicated to the god of frogs and eels.
-5: Creepy old temple dedicated to the nameless one..
-6: Bathhouse of a thousand gods, countless little shrines between the hot tubs.

Through The Ships' Graveyard in the Sargasso Sea

Within the bowels of a deep sea canyon lies the ship graveyard of the Sargasso Sea. Blue moonlight filters trough the water above where a strong current makes travel impossible.
Random encounter:
-1: The one eyed barracuda
-2: a huddle of small skeletal Hammerhead Sharks
-3: A huge but slow Anglerfish
-4: Ghost of a drowned pirate still seeking treasure
-5: The Sea Dragon on his way back from plundering the galleon of the king.
-6: A group of merman and mermaids

Random places
-1: The carrion fields: an open space between the ships where the current collected floating corpses.
-2: A gigantic sunken Man-o-War from the Kingdom of Latem
-3: A coral reef full of sentient plants
-4: The sunken remains of a pirate fleet
-5: An old underwater ziggurat
-6: The lair of the water spider queen

Random events
-1: A freshly sunken ship comes down, some of the crew still alive
-2: An earthquake shakes the canyon, huge cracks appear on the ground letting out gas and scalding go water while large chunks of rock fall down from above
-3: The massive swarm. Countless little silvery fishes swim trough, obscuring the vision of all divers. From what are they trying to escape and what are the darker shadow that hide within it?
-4: The Kraken floats over the canyon, making all sea life hide as quick as possible.
-5: Dark clouds obscure the little bit of moonlight that was filtering trough, plunging the canyon into the blackest pitch.
-6: A strong current catches the swimmers at a bad moment.

I could totally see replacing bog-standard planar travel (portals, "poof") with something that required a short journey like one of these.  "I can get us to the Abyss, but...the path I know takes us through a pretty strange place..."  -E