Category Archives: House Rule

Wandering Monsters as an invitation to role-play

For or against wandering monsters? Are they an important part of the game or are they disrupting the game?

In my previous post I spoke about viewing equipment as a limited resource in the game, and that any part of the character sheet could be seen as a resource to be spent. Another resource-influencing element of the game is the wandering monster. So, let’s have a look at the phenomenon.

In some games, I have no use for wandering monsters. When running Transhuman Space or Delta Green, I don’t use wandering monsters, and when playing a character-driven drama using the D&D 3rd edition rules, I do not use wandering monsters.

In other games wandering monsters are disruptive for the flow of the game. Playing D&D 4th, where each combat easily eats up two hours of game time, you never get anywhere, when checking for wanderers for every 30 minutes of in-fiction time. One time we attempted to run module B4 The Lost City using D&D 4th, and due to wanderers, we never got to anywhere in the adventure. That made us abandon D&D 4th and move on to play older editions of D&D.

In yet other games, such as AD&D, D&D 5th (we are two thirds into Curse of Strahd) and The Hinterlands (Hinterlandet) – my own retro-clone – I do happily make use of wandering monsters.

There is a time and place for wandering monsters, and what I want to do here is to have a look at using them at the right times.

When Wandering Monsters

Wandering Monsters can serve as a timer in the game forcing the players to move on and making it difficult to rest after each encounter. The resources are dwindling, and you have to explore as much as possible, before you run out of time.

Wandering monsters works well with versions of D&D or clones thereof, when combat lasts no more than about 15 minutes of game time – and this is something I strive for. Once combat is initiated, I want it to end as fast as possible (and this, the why and how of it, I will explain in a following post, so bear with me right now and focus on the wandering aspect).

Wandering monsters work even better, when used as random elements to generate play. With this I mean that rolling on random tables, be it weird spell effects or critical hits can create unforseen elements, that creates opportunities for role-playing. For instance, I am running The People of the Pit using Dungeon Crawl Classics right now, and the strange random elements creates events for us to role play around from critical hits almost pushing a character off a steep ledge to a bloody nose making a player speak with a nasal voice for a while to the mercurial effects of the wizard’s spells to the gods’ response their clerics’ spellcasting. These things add color or create situations, that gives us opportunities to roleplay and do more than just fight monsters. This is what I want my wandering monsters to do as well.

This works best, when wandering monsters are perceived as anything but a combat. Many adventures have monsters to show up, 2d4 orcs, 1d6 goblins etc. and then it is supposed to turn into a fight: ‘Three orcs appear. Roll initiative’.

This is one of the things I like about Curse of Strahd, where the wandering monsters table contains several entries, that are either strange objects found or evocative, brief meetings (like a skeletal rider on a bone horse passing by). This is also one of my own guidelines, when writing The Hinterlands modules, and that is, that every encounter must foremost be an invitation to role-play, where any combat occurring is ideally instigated by the players.

Now it is easy to say ‘that is how I always do things’, when monsters appear at random – but it is whole lot easier, when the entries on the wandering monster-tables gives you the inspiration and the ideas.

Setting up Wandering Monsters

Creating entries that allows for more than combat the entries can be strange events (like a wind whispering their names and the last person, they dreamt of) or foreshadowing of coming encounters (for instance using the foreshadowing, the first result generates the boot prints of a nearby band of orcs, or the bloody victim of an owlbear or the leftover rust from a rustmonster’s meal).

  • Foreshadowing
  • Strange events

Another way is to give the wandering monsters an errand. They are not here to fight the adventurers, nor are they looking for them. Instead they chance upon them, as they are on their own way. By giving each entry a reason to be out walking, you can give the players a chance to role play and find alternate options, when they encounter them, to solve in the problems.

  • The monsters are minding their own business being on an errand

When setting up errands look at the dungeon and try to imagine the daily activities of the dungeon. Are goblins going hunting? Are kobolds cleaning areas for ritual activities?

Now include faction-life and intrigues. Consider anything you would like to reveal to the players about the life in the dungeon, especially things they can use to ally with factions or play them out against each other. Perhaps they overhear the bandits gossiping about dividing the spoils, and how there are grumblings among the bandit king’s lieutenants? Perhaps they overhear that the orcs are planning to hire the services of the local hag?

  • Reveal factions, secrets and daily life through their activities

To keep this easy to use and create, it is my advice to try and keep each entry as a single sentence.

  • Keep the description to one sentence

They can look like this:

  • ‘two almost adult wolf cubs comes bouncing loudly playing with each other, if disturbed they will run off and warn the pack returning with additional 1d4 wolves’
  • Five kobold slaves replacing burned out torches while loudly complaining that the bugbear chef favors the goblins with the best food
  • 1d4+3 orcs with fishing rods each bragging about the size of their latest catch
  • 1d6+1 goblins running off with wine from the cellar willing to bribe the PCs to keep silent on the theft
  • Orc chieftain and bodyguards on the move, while the kobold butler is loudly complaining or advising the chief to look proper before meeting with the slavers.

There is nothing to stop the players from declaring initiative, if they want to fight, but you have opened the door for them to do other things, and it is easier to use alternate strategies, when the situation includes more than ‘2d4 orcs appear’ – and you can breathe life into your dungeon.

Wandering elsewhere

Once you have this praxis in place, you can use it in villages and towns to create encounters there as well:

  • 7 drunk members of the city guard extortion a dwarven goldsmith
  • Two competing town criers trying to outdo the other yelling still higher trying to present the most sordid gossip for a few coppers.

From here it is a small step to introduce wandering monsters or random encounters or events in other games such as small towns being investigated in Call of Cthulhu by investigators.

  • Two villagers appears idly talkning but they become silent the moment, they see the PCs, and only the word ‘the hollow’ is heard.

My Final Wanderings

This is how I like to play out and use my wandering monsters. They are not combat encounters appearing at random, but tools to create life in the dungeon, and they are invitations to roleplay. By setting them up head of the game or writing them into adventures, it becomes easier for the DM to improvise and create exciting situations – and the players can still declare initiative any time they want.


Counting Arrows, Tracking Rations – Survival Horror in the Dungeon

This is a follow-up post to my last post about The Light spell: Cantrip or 1st level spell?

It was about how much the game changed, when the light spell went from being a 1st level spell and thus restricted to become a cantrip spell, that can be used without limits. If darkness and survival in the dungeons are not of importance, it makes sense for light to be easily available, but if surviving the dark is a part of the game, then a limit on equipment and magical ressources means a lot to the game, and having to choose between utilizing your light spell to blind a foe or replacing a lost lantern can become an interesting choice. If focus is for instance on encounters and the next combat, then worrying about how to get there, may be an unwanted challenge in the game. When dungeon crawling survival is a part of the game for me.

A part of this is tied to the concept of ‘attacking the whole character sheet‘, the idea that any part of the character sheet is vulnerable to losses, manipulation and change. Just as a character can loose hit points or suffer an ability score drain, the same character’s age can be influenced (earlier versions had monsters or spells aging the characters), levels can be drained (a dreaded attack back in the day) and equipment destroyed (e.g. the rust monster). This opens for new can kinds of threats from monsters and traps, as there more things, that can be removed from the characters without outright killing them.

  • Any part of the character sheet can be attacked.

Likewise any part of the character sheet can be considered a resource to be spent during the adventure, and knowing when and how to spend is a part of the challenge in the adventure. This is why it is interesting to have rope, torches, flasks of oil and rations. Not as things to keep track of, but rather as resources to be spent: You want to douse the graves of the ghosts with oil? Spend your oil on the character sheet. You want to construct a rope bridge across the rift? Mark off your ropes. You want to bribe the animals? Give them your rations (do you have enough left for the journey home?).

  • Any part of the character sheet can be spent as a resource.

And don’t forget considering age, name, background, social status etc. as resources to be spent! Perhaps the sage demands a character to forgo their name in order to gain information, a noble may have to relinquish his or her title in order to stop a foe, and the ghost demands 10 years of your life in order to find rest. A shaman may demand, that a character add a tatoo in order to have a malign spirit removed, and another shaman may demand, that a tatoo is removed in order to receive a blessing.

Again having the players worrying about these aspects add difficult choices to the game (and difficult choices are fun and often help develop the characters’ personalities).

Attack of the Accountancy

What I am not arguing for is keeping meticulously track of ammo (I like the idea of the Usage Die from The Black Hack and that you can carry a number of items related to your strength value), nor tracking encumbrance.

I am still looking for a simple rule to deal with this – right now we simply use the state ‘not heavily loaded’ and ‘heavily loaded’, and the last part is activated, whenever a character is carrying an obviously heavy object or an obviously large amount of objects, for instance when a character want to store an extra plate mail in the back pack or drag home a bag of 2000 silver pieces. When Heavily Loaded the DM can impose disadvantage (from D&D 5th) to physcial acitivities as it seems fit. I have also considered experimenting with the equipment rules from Lone Wolf Adventure Game from Cubicle 7, where you can carry two weapons, 50 coins in a pouch, 8 items in your back pack, and for any ‘special’ equipment it is stated, where/how it can carried/stored (i.e. backpacks on your back). Basically LWAG makes equipment a matter of restricted choices, that are less about handling encumbrance and more about having the players plan what kind of ressources, they want to bring along.

  • A character is either Heavy loaded or Not Heavy Loaded. When heavy loaded the GM may impose disadvantage (0r a -4 penalty if you do not use the advantage/disadvantage system) on physical acitvities, where relevant.



Sound and Noise in RPGs – When magic and monsters can hear you

Sometimes they hear you. Then they come for you.

This is an article on how sound and noise can play a role in your game. Below are presented three magic items, that one way or another encourages players to talk or stay silent. Likewise are below three phenomena or techniques that are tied to the words and the sound the players use. These ideas are based on materials from the Hinterlands Adventures (which you can find at RPG Drivethru and at DMs Guild). The descriptions below are kept somewhat D&D agnostic, so that you can easily use them in your D&D 5th, Labyrinth Lord or AD&D game.

Magic Items

  • Potion of Roaring Strength
  • Powder of Silent Wandering
  • Whispering Skull

Potion of Roaring Strength

The potion comes in an iron flask with a depiction of a roaring lion. The liquid is golden, sweet and strong, and it gives of a musky smell.

This potion grants the imbiber +4 bonus to strength tests, +2 to melee attack and damage rolls, and doubles the changes of opening doors, lifting gates etc.

While under the influence of the potion the imbiber cannot whisper, and the imbiber must speak yell, when speaking, otherwise the effects of the potion disappears immediately. The player must speak loudly, when speaking for his or her character, or the effects of the potion ends. Otherwise the effects of the potion lasts 2 hours.

The potion can be found in The Flooded Temple.

Powder of Silent Invisibility

This fine, glittering white powder usually comes in a cloth bag containing 1d3 potions. When thrown in the air it turns all creatures in 10ft diameter circle invisible for as long, as they are silent, or until they attack. Once turned invisible the creatures do not need to stay together to remain invisible.

Any creature who speaks, immediately become visible, and this applies to the players too! Any player who does not merely neutrally describe their character’s actions will see their character turn visible again (in some instances you might even want to have the players write down their actions, as they may difficulty coordinating their actions, when unable to speak).

The Powder appears in the adventure Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart.

The Whispering Skull

Wondrous Item, rare

A gold plated human skull with a cruel smile. Imbedded in gold plating are tiny swirls hiding enchanted symbols, that any arcane spellcaster can identify as arcane symbols related to arcane spells.

If you listen to the skull, you can hear it whisper secrets. If you attune to this item, you can use its two powers.

The secret of wizards: Each whispering skull recites one particular arcane spell, and if you spent 15 minutes listening to the skull, when preparing spells, a wizard can memorize the spell from the skull as if the wizard was studying his or her own spellbook. The skull’s spell cannot be transcribed.

The spell the skull recites is 70% of the time anecromancy spell of level 4-9, and the remainder 30% a divination spell.

The secret of adventurers: If you listen to the skull for 15 minutes before entering a dungeon, the skull will tell you a secret about the dungeon – but only if you whisper a valuable secret to the skull, that you have not told it before.

DM rolls hidden on the table:

1-25 The skull reveals the whereabouts of a treasure in the dungeon
26-70 The skull tells about a mystical danger or a hidden trap in the dungeon
71-85 The skull reveals the whereabouts of a hidden treasure in the dungeon
86-00 The skull lies

The Whispering Skull appears in the adventure Tower of the Star Watcher.

Techniques and Mechanics

  • Wandering Monsters
  • Song Lock
  • Curse of the Faeries

Be silent – or the troll comes for you

Whenever the players are noisy, they risk attracting monsters that may attack their characters. If they do not act and play quietly as their characters would do when moving through caves and grottoes, they will allow the GM to use wandering monsters against them.

Place a cup or glass on the table and have a collection of counters, dice or crystals ready.

Tell the players that their noises are reflective of the noise their characters make.

Whenever a player is noisy or makes a noisy activity (dice clattering, a chair creaking, a bag of chips rustles), you grab one of the counters and put it into the cup. Make sure the PCs see it. Allow the players to whisper loudly without being penalized (unless they overdo it), so that you still can hear them, when they are planning things or talking to you.

Whenever a certain number of objects are in the cup, a roll on the Wandering Monster table is triggered. Then empty the cup and begin collecting again. A fitting amount might for at start be 5 counters, and then you can increase or reduce the amount as needed.

Certain actions are pure and simply noisy. Combat with weapons and armor banging against each other, people yell in anger and fear, and magic roars through the area. Whenever combat begins, just add a single counter to the cup and allow the players to speak freely.

Sing Friend and Enter

The magical stone door is hardened through enchantments to resist most attempts to break it or force it open, and yet, there is a simple way to open the door, that may confound most adventurers. It is known as a Song Lock.

Etched into the surface with silver runes is an ancient song, and merely singing the text is what is needed to open the door, however the players must sing the text. For each being wanting to pass through the door, it must sing the text written on the door. Give the players a simple text to sing, and have them sing it together to open the door. Until it is sung, the door does not open.

A variant of the Song Lock appears in the adventure Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart.

Faerie Curse: Bound Tongue

The Knights of the Flower are champions of the faeries, and they master both the art of combat and magic. Their task is to challenge mortals, and to do that, they must master many different arenas, not merely combat using sword and lance, but also riddles, puzzles and magic.

The Knights of the Flower are encountered in the Hinterlandet woodland adventures – to be translated and published later – and among their abilities is the curse Bound Tongue, they often use when they challenge mortals to solve riddles.

The curse is tied to a specific word, and every time the player uses this word, their character suffers a bloody slash on their tongue, as if an invisible knife had cut it in punishment. The DM keeps an eye out for the words, the player uses, and every time the player speaks the chosen word (which might be ‘sword’, ‘initiative’, ‘but’ etc.), the character suffers 1 point of damage or 1d4 points (dependent on which version of D&D, you are playing. Up to AD&D 2nd edition it is suitable with 1 point of damage, and from 3rd edition 1d4 points of damage is typically suitable).

The curse is lifted, once the puzzle is solved, or if the Knight of the Flower is satisfied with the adventurers’ actions.

Hinterlandet (The Hinterlands) adventures contains more of these meta-play elements using sounds and voices, and more examples will appear in later adventures.

#RPGaDay2015 – Day 24: Favorite House Rule

rpg-a-day-2015Today the challenge in #RPGaDay2015 is favorite houserule, and I will pitch in with a few thoughts on my own. Houserules are interesting but sometimes also controversial, but to my mind most controversies around house rules are related to how they are broadcast to the group, and the purpose of houserules. To some a houserule is used to mend a perceived flaw in the system, whether there is a flaw or not, and careless applied houserule might in such instances make the game less appealing for the other players thus hurting their game experience and creating a controversy.

Day 24 – Favorite Houserule

I like houserules, and we use them a lot. We usually play with two kinds of houserules: 1) Campaign house rules (tailored rules) and 2) Houserule of the day.

Tailored rules are houserules, that are added to the campaign to make the rulesystem help focus on certain aspects of the game. In a Mystaran D&D Glantri campaign, where all the characters were wizards attending The Great School of Magic, all XP were gained from passing courses in magic, not from killing and looting, which forced the players to divide their time between attending classes and going on adventures.

Houserule of the day is a favorite among my players. In this instance a rule is introduced, that only applies for one session (unless it becomes such a succes, that it becomes a permanent feature of the campaign). Houserule of the day is a specific rule introduced to support a certain event or feature during a session (just as when an episode of a tv-show is filmed entirely in black/white or as a muscial). One such houserule during the wizard campaign was A Night at the Opera, where the wizard students when to a yearly major opera and the action alternated between the story of the opera and the backstage intrigues among shady wizard nobles.

In this case the rule was: Everytime you want your character to do something at the opera (a clandestine meeting, conspirering, gaining intel etc.), you must play a scene from the opera, and the scene must last two minutes.

This meant that the action alternated between the play on the stage and the intriques behind the stage and among the nobles on the balconies at at opera house, and we had some great fun at seing the players act out the different roles of the opera struggling to keep a scene lasting two minutes (this required a lot of repeating the same lines “I love you … I love you … I looooooooooove you …” giving the events on the stage a feel of being an opera play).

So the opera house might have been a favorite, but mine would in this case be the following:

Play a scene, gain a bonus

This is the most basic version of the scene, but we use it in a variety of ways. In The Great School of Magic campaign, the rule was formulated as follows: Play a studyscene with another play to gain a bonus to pass an exam.

Passing exams was the source of XP and thus levels, and the players would do their best to gain as many bonuses to these rolls as possible – and one source was studyscenes. In a studyscene the player’s character would be studying together with a secondary character belonging to another player, and what happened during the scene was open, and was mostly being used to develop characters and explore aspects of their personalities. It allowed the players to shine, and was important for the development of the characters.

We use this kind of houserule in many different versions, and it works great to put a focus on the small things, but stille those that develop characters and settings.

[Delta Green] Creating Leads

This here is another one of the special rules in our Delta Green-campaign. The rule relates to investigation, and its main purpose is to circumvent investigation, or rather those situations, where the players get stuck in the investigation for one reason or another. Secondly the rule allows player to make their interpretations count – it is not uncommon that GMs replaces elements of a plot with the players ideas, if their idea is good – and with this rule, the players can choose to let their ideas be the correct independently of GMs ideas.

Here is how it works

For 5 sanity points a player can define a link between two facts. In other words a player can construct a connection between two clues, that otherwise does not exist, but becomes real once defined.

There is a third reason for the rule. A part of the Cthulhu Mythos is, that it operates by a different logic than humankinds, which is why the mythos seems so maddening. By sacrificing logic and sense (paying 5 sanity points) the players can tie clues together, that otherwise would not be related.

  • In one episode (The Subterraneans, ep04) a player paid 5 sanity points to discover the secret ghoul tunnels in the subway, and thus allowing the players to track down their foes.
  • In episode Black Santas, White Snow, ep11 (our second Christmas-episode) one of the players chooses to interpret a madman’s pentagrams as an Elder Sign, and uses it as a cue as how to defeat the villains.
  • In a third episode, Is It Haunted?, ep13, using one of the published modules from Delta Green: Count Down, Night Floors, one player creates a lead to retrieve an agent stranded in Carcosa by using The Author’s typewriter to change “the script” bringing the lost agent back to the building.

The rule is rarely used, but it allows the players to create a certain kind of meeting and solve challenges for a price. This does not make the missions less dangerous, but it allows the players to create meaning, where meaning otherwise does not exist.

It does however require that you as a GM accepts, that your scenario can be changed in ways, that you had not planned or foreseen. It requires a somewhat open design, but it suits our play style rather well.

The Hit Points of Heroes

I got tired of players rolling a 1 for hit points when levelling up – especially the warrior-types, as they need a lot of hit points to function in an effective manner – and because I want to be able send monster after monster after the PC’s, and this works best if their resources are not too low.

Once the resources of the PCs are spent, they retreat and rest – that makes sense – and if the warrior of the party hardly any resources have (in the shape of HP’s), they are likely to retreat early. The resources of the rogue, the wizard and the cleric are in a sense stable, as they gain a fixed number of spells and skill points, when gaining levels, just as the fighter’s combat abilities improve in a stable manner, but when characters rely on a variable, things change (and since everything else is fixed, i.e. no variable amount of new spells, feat or skill points, why is it that hit points are not, besides tradition?), and things change especially when you roll abysmally.

Thus I presented the following rule:

Heroic Hit Points

Half the hit die is rolled, the other half is gained automatically. This results in the following changes:

  • d4 = d2+2
  • d6 = d3+3
  • d8 = d4+4
  • d10 = d5+5
  • d12 = d6+6

This ensures that the fighter gains between 6 and 10 hit points at each level. This works for us.


The Art of Whining

This is a peculiar rule. In part it is inspired by annoying teens in popular media, like Harry Potter in book 5, like Angel’s son the Angel-tv series, and Buffy’s sister in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. There was nothing more irritating than the pouting teens complaining the injustices of the world. However, since the wizard-campaign is about a teens attending The Great School of Magic, we of course had to have a rule allowing the players to whine in the same manner. If pouting teenagers are part of the parcel, we had to have it too.

Before the rule were implemented we had a series of sessions, where the group was split up, and the characters were stranded in strange and dangerous realms, where time moved in a different manner, so what were days or weeks in the prime plane were months in the outer planes. These imprisonments gave them good reason for having something to whine about.

The Rule of Whining

Here is the first part of the Whining:

  • The rule is valid until summer (in campaign, that is about half a year)
  • The character’s can at any time choose to whine. The whining must include references to the harrowing experiences in the outer planes.
  • After whining the player earns a Dark Plot Point (and they are cool!).

Yes, this means that the players can earn lots and lots of Dark Plot Points, and yet there is a hindrance. Actually there are two hindrances

Notice that the rule introduces a new kind of Plot Points. These are not the same, as the basic Plot Points (covered in this post), and the Dark Plot Points exists besides the regular ones.

The Price of Whining

One hindrance is a side effect of the Dark Plot Points, the other is the nature of whining. It is rather simple, the players can’t stand it. At first it was fun for them whining about the harsh reality of teenage wizards, but at length it became exhausting for the players to whine, and thus they toned down the amount of whining. It is quite fun to see a rule limited mainly by how draining it is to use. The other hindrance is covered below, and it comes from possessing Dark Plot Points

The Reward for Whining

So let’s tak a look at Dark Plot Points. They are used next to regular Plot Points, that I described only in the most basic terms earlier. Dark Plot Points also last one season and they are part of the same theme as the whining rule.

Dark Plot Points

They have two effects. One is activated, once you posses the point and the other, when the point is spent.

For possessing Dark Plot Points

  • For each Dark Plot Point possessed the character have -2 CHR. This represents their glum and dark outlook. At 0 CHR the character is unable to act due to his or her depressive mood. Charisma is regenerated 1 pt a day after the point is spent.
  • With 1 or more points, the character have -4 on all social skill checks involving children or animals (this includes familiars). Combined with the charisma penalty the character is easily estranged from his familiar and any other pets.
  • With 1 or more points you gain +1 caster level, when creating magic items (yup, magic items become more powerful, when created by an emotionally charged wizard)
  • With 2 or more points, the caster gains +1 caster level with spells (yup, they become more powerful spell casters) [remember this stacks with Thing’s My Master Taught Me and The Art of Doing it Cool]

Dark Plot Points can be spent for the following effects

  • Magic of the Darkened Mind (cost 1): Add a Fear Effect to a spell
  • Prophetic Dream (cost 1): GM creates a prophetic dream, the player suggests theme and/or subject
  • Networking with the Underworld (cost 1+): The PC gains a contact in the criminal underworld
  • Contraband (cost 1+): The character acquires an illegal or restricted product (drugs, poison, holy symbols – since religious practice in Glantri is forbidden).

Two of the options have a variable cost. It is a difficult to set the exact price for various substances and contacts, so they are based on a negotiation between player and GM. The player informs the GM, what he wants, and GM presents a price.

The Right Amount of Whining

As the points work right now, it is an advantage to have at least two Dark Plot Points, as this adds a caster level, but this also means the character have -4 CHR and additionally -4 on social checks dealing with e.g. his familiar. Of course it is even better to have more points, so you both can have the extra caster level and spare points to spend, but will you pay the price in glum looks and whining?

Why oh Whine ?

Now the purpose of the Dark Plot Points is to play a bit with the conflict between mastering dark powers and being an empathic person. How much will you sacrifice for power? The other purpose is to point ahead in the campaign. The prophetic dreams allow the players to choose subjects, they have an interest in, and then the DM can create hints of what is to come.

Likewise the opportunity to gain a network with the underworld represents the characters’ growing involvement with the intrigues and dirty tricks, that is a part of their world. Few wizards are above employing thieves, smugglers and others for their intrigues. When all your opponents master’s magic, you need alternative resources.

Finally it allows us to explore the whiny aspects of teens, and the idea of estrangement as the price for power. We are having fun.

[Delta Green] Cell Phones – GM’s Great Joy

The Delta Green-campaign takes place in the present, and since we skip from episode to episode without commenting on the spend between the episodes, we are always in the present, and in the present cell phones are common. Very common, so that when I last fall played a brief Trail of Cthulhu Bookhounds of London-campaign playing in a society without omnipresent phones was notable. The players could not easily split up, but had to plan ahead where and when they met.

Splitting up the party

In our campaign the players continuously split up their party and they usually go investigating in pairs – and in episode seven Dirty Jobs they actually went on two different missions at the same time without ever meeting (described here) – and they continuously brief each other and each other updated on their latest discoveries. This makes for fast and efficient investigation, and they can solve problems twice as fast as Mulder and Scully.

Cell phones are in other words great for the game, and with cell phones help is always just a call away.

For some this is interpreted as the loss of isolation, and without isolation there is no horror. This however is not how it works. Cell phones are great tool for the opposite, as once you are used to always being in contact, then the loss of the phone becomes unnerving adding to horror of being isolated.

Loosing contact

There are many easy ways to temporarily rid the agents of phones, but they should be used sparingly, as less is more, and if the phones malfunction every session it just gets boring.

When a villain shoots at an agent, he may accidentally hit the phone instead of the character, when he agent stumbles, the phone may fall from the pocket, and when tackled by cultists, the phone may be damaged.

I use the following approach, if I need a phone (or some other piece of equipment) ruined as part of the events:

When a player fails a skill check, I choose a consequence – this may be that the action fails, or that the action succeeds, but something else goes wrong. The player fails a dodge-check, but instead of the character getting wounded, the opponent destroys the phone, or when the player fails a Library Use check, he is still succesful, but displaces his phone during the search. For people familiar with Mouse Guard, this approach is easy to recognize.

Now that is the easy thing to do. But cell phones can be so much more fun, when they betray, their owners so let’s have a look at that.

Episode Four: The Subterraneans

The agents explore ghoul tunnels under Manhattan. As they enter the tunnels, they end up under so many tons of dirt and concrete, that no signal is available for their phones. They are isolated, as they crawl through the tunnels.

Episode Five: The Red Tears of the Black Madonna

The agents travel to South America (and they don’t worry about roaming) on a black op to stop drug barons. They encounter a fertility cult worshipping what on the surface seems to be a syncretic product of Catholicism and local non-Christian beliefs, but it is also a cult worshipping an aspect of Shub-Niggurath. The aspect can at any time manifest through phone calls, so when the agents begin to receive phone call from the demonic entity using the voice of their loved ones, it begins to unnerve them. It gets worse, as when they handle the phone to somebody else, it is not the demonic entity, but the relative on the phone, and the phone calls them, even when it is turned off.

(Check the episode guide for Season One)

Episode Eight: So Big and Green the Forrest is

A Lloigor king is breaking free from its ancients bonds, and it is beginning to mentally control all children in the region etc. Another effect is that the Lloigor can be felt through the phone, as an intense pulse beat, that pulses through the phone user establishing a contact between the phone user and the Lloigor. Furthermore it disturbs the signal making it difficult to hear each other on the phone. The agents stopped using the phones, during the mission, as they felt the was too dangerous, not wanting to see what happened, if they stayed on the phone.

Episode Ten: The House on the Heath

The agents confront a Serpent Man Sorcerer, and he masters an alien technology, that is able to override mechanical and technological devices, so suddenly the agents are without phones, computers and firearms confronting the monster. Quite the unpleasant situation for them.

The Cthulhu Mythos

The mythos exists in many variations, so whenever it is needed, the agents can be derived of their phones or their phones becomes the tool of their enemy. When Shub-Niggurath manifested through their phones, it more or less resulted in the agents called off the mission and went back home.

[Delta Green] Traits and the Corruption of Traits

My Delta Green-campaign uses a bunch of different rules and mechanics. In this post I’ll cover traits, the corruption of traits, Fortune-points and Insight-points, and how these mechanics keep the investigators alive long enough to be alienated.

The rule in brief

  • Choose three traits – positive or negative
  • Each trait can be used once pr. session to flipflop a skill check.
  • The player can earn a Fortune-point, if the trait is used to hinder the skill check.


Flipflop is borrowed from Unknown Armies. With a flipflop, you shift the numbers on the percentile die, so 73 becomes 37, 81 becomes 18 and 55 is still 55.

The idea that a trait can be used in both a positive and a negative manner is borrowed from Mouse Guard. So the trait clumsy is no worse than the trait dextrous, since the player chooses when the trait is applied.

The rule in detail

Each character possesses three traits. A trait can either be positive or negative, it can be physical, social, mental etc. Since the Call of Cthulhu is not about playing crazy people battling horrendous beings, but about people having mindshattering revelations about the truth of the world, they live in, the players cannot choose insanities

When a roll is failed, the player can choose to activate a trait, and then briefly describe how the trait plays a roll in granting the character succes. The dice are then flipflopped.


The player can choose to gain -30 penalty to the skill check or to force upon himself a skill check (GM is final arbiter here) in order to earn a Fortune-point. This is chosen before the dice are rolled.

Fortune-points can be spend, when a critical failure is rolled. This changes the critical failure to a regular succes, and this is due to some outside factor randomly helping the character. Critical failure is when a pair is rolled, and the skill check is failed, e.g. rolling 88 on a Driving Car-70%. Again this is borrowed from Unknown Armies.

Corrupting the trait

This is second part of the rule, and this rule is invoked by the GM, when a character looses 5 or more points of sanity in one go, and the situation feels right. At present this is a very soft way of handling the rule, and it needs some development, but that will have to come in later.

When a trait is corrupted, it is replaced with a new trait, that reflects the mental stress the character have been through. This can be anything from mental stress to a guilty conscience, as long as it is a negative trait. The original trait can be regained in the same manner as characters can be cured of their insanities.

A corrupted trait can be used to flipflop failed rolls as a regular trait, and it can be used to earn points. The player earns Insight-points instead of Fortune-points.


An Insight-point can be spend instead of paying 5 sanity-points, when using spells or magical items. This allow the character to cast spell without loosing sanity.

The purpose of the rule

One aspect of the traits are simply to grant the players more successes, and to have them describe their characters’ traits in the process. Secondly it encourages the players to risk failing once in a while in order to earn points, that protects them from critical failures.

The second aspect is more important. The corrupted traits represents the alienation of the character from his surroundings, and in part from the player himself, as the character’s traits are replaced with new traits dictated by the GM, and at the same time making the original traits unavailable. Futthermore the Insight-points encourages the use of spells and magical items, which in themself brings the characters closer to the hidden world of the Cthulhu mythos.

[Delta Green] Agent Points – Resources and Missions

Today I’ll cover Agent Points, which allows the players to buy missions, equipment and connections.

When watching shows like X-files or Fringe or even Supernatural I am not worried whether or not the protagonists can finance their equipment, nor do we see them worry too much about it, even shows where the protagonists or chronic poor, they always manage to the necessary equipment.

That’s why I like abstract mechanics for equipment such as the Circles-mechanic in Burning Wheel/Burning Empire/Mouse Guard. The bookkeeping in D&D is a boring chore, even though the collecting of treasures is the source of much fun.
For the very same reason I had no interest in wasting time managing the economies of the characters in the Delta Green-campaign.

Agent Points

  • One point is earned after each mission
  • Acquire equipment: 1+ point
  • Buy connection: 1+ point
  • Buy mission: 2 points

Acquire equipment

When equipment is not trivial, it must be acquired through the expenditure of agent points. Trivial equipment is any common equipment for a federal agent or the equivalent – laptops, firearms, basic surveyllance-equipment, first aid-kit, blackberry or some other cell phone.

The specific piece of equipment is not important to the mission, and so only unique, rare or cutting edge-equipment costs points, equipment such as false ID-papers, cutting edge surveyllance-equipment, unusual or illegal types of firearms.

Most equipment costs one point, extreme costs two or more at the GM’s disgression, and otherwise a mission is required to pick up the equipment, such as a magical artifacts and mythos books.

Buy Connection

During missions the agents can employ their connections to relevant people. The player pays an agent point and suggests a relevant PC, who can give the agents access to certain kinds of information, produce permits and contact to witnesses and other plot-relevant NPCs. Most connections costs one point and are directly connected to the PCs. For more points the connections can be connected to other persons (a chain of connections) and these other persons can be more powerful.

So far connections has been employed in mission four ‘The Subterraneans’ to introduce a contact, who happened to work among the witnessess (a caretaker of a soupkitchen for homeless), and in mission eight ‘So Green and Big the Forest is’ an extra-loyal and very strong parkranger, who didn’t mind keeping the lid on certain witnesses to avoid CDC taking over the case. Futhermore it was used to buy a connection to the District Attorney in LA in mission nine ‘Dolphin Birth’ in order to allow the DG-agents to infiltrate a case giving them a clear way into the mission.

I was inspired by Covert Generation-rpg for the idea of buying connections or constructing chains of connections.

Buy Mission

The campaign is episodic in it’s nature, and each mission lasts 1-3 sessions. The missions are designed by the GM, but the players can spend Agent Points to buy a mission. After each mission I ask if any of the players wants to buy a mission and if so, then the player and I meets or corresponds about the mission.

When buying missions the players get the opportunity to follow up on leads, they want to explore, to expand on their backstory (each agent is recruited after a mysterious encounter, which is normally unresolved) or simply to introduce certain themes or elements, they want explored.

The player chooses whether DG assigns the mission, or if the character suggests the mission to DG and is given a green light, or if the mission is on the agents own initiative without DG’s sanction.

The player suggests elements, that the player wants included in the episode, such as place, theme, relation to backstory etc.
From that material the GM creates an episode, so even though the player knows about the mission, it remains a mystery and there is plenty for the player to explore.

Bought Episodes

So far two episodes has been bought: Episode five and episode nine.

Episode Five: The Red Tears of the Black Madonna

The player wanted a mission in South America. The idea was that he earlier had been involved in clandestine missions in South America against drug lords. and that he recently had come across some new and mythos-related material. He tricks his fellow agents along. In part he wanted the mission to take place in a South American city and he liked the idea of a jungle mission.
I planned that the mission would be in two stages. First a city part, where they spend their time waiting for a contact and they pick up intel and clues. During their time the encounter The Cult of The Black Madonna with the Red Tears, which is a strange and weird fertility cult honoring ancient deities disguised as a local Catholic cult. In the second part they were supposed to go into the jungle further exploring the plot, but the mission was called off, as the agents panicked due to the pervasive presence of the Cthulhu Mythos, and they discovered that they had been manipulated on to the mission, and that they were working without the sanction of DG.

Episode Eight: ‘So Green and Big the Forest is’

After episode seven Dirty Jobs the agents of Cell S were in a bad standing with DG. One agent decided to follow a series of leads in order to find a scientist, who had dabbled into the Mythos-mysteries, and placate DG by resolving the case (this scientist was first mentioned in episode one and then again in episode three).

The player wanted a mission about the scientist, and that the mission took place in the backyard of one of the other characters (this part was cleared with that player). The episode gave the players the opportunity to catch the scientist turned sorcerer, and to stop a Lloigor-invasion. The last part was accomplished, but the scientist hidden behind a fold in time got away (folds in time is another theme in the campaign, which we will revisit later).