Monday, May 7, 2018

Hellscapes: a review

Hellscapes: A Review

Hellscapes, from Scrivined, is a post-apocalyptic add-on for fifth edition D&D.  It's a good product, far from perfect, but worth the money if you like 5e mechanics.

The Good

Hellscapes is fun to read. Its style is conversational and peppered with sly asides. The writing needs polishing, but it gets the job done with enough panache to cover the rough patches.

There is no section on how to play.  Hellscapes is not a complete game; it is a post-apocalyptic tool kit that uses the D&D 5e rule set. It offers interesting player options, rules for vehicles, scavenging and crafting and a monster section.

The classes in Hellscapes are explicitly based on D&D classes.  Each class has access to gambits: non-magical powers that can be used a limited number of times between rests.  The gambits are a clever and well-implemented alternative to spells.

Origins replace D&D’s races.  These include bestial (uplifted animals), mutant, and tribal. My favorite section is Tribal Ways, traits that define the character's tribe. Players pick three ways (We Ride On, We Hunt Prey, We Worship, etc.) that give their tribe various personal advantages. Tribal ways also provide advantages for visiting the tribe's home settlement.

If all the PC’s come from the same tribe, they can pick a fourth way.  This builds an attractive home base into the setting, which can be a story investment for GM and players alike.  Having characters come from different tribes, however, adds more settlements to the map and creates opportunities for faction-based play.  Either choice is strong; tribal ways is a great mechanic for kicking off a cooperative survival experience.

Vehicle combat in Hellscapes looks simple but satisfying.  The core conceit is that vehicles in a combat behave like a hybrid of monsters and terrain, and the rules built around that idea make for exciting and hazardous combats without adding unnecessary complexity.  It plays like D&D, not Car Wars.

The monster section balances DIY advice with a broad selection of creatures to inhabit various post-apocalyptic scenarios: aliens, mutants, raiders, and zombies all get a fair portion of the section, which is simultaneously lean and robust.

The Bad

Apart from the advice given in the early part of the book, there are no mechanisms for creating an actual Hellscape.  There are no mapping tools or hex-crawl suggestions, no random ruin tables, no mission generators.  There is a certain synergy to Hellscapes that becomes clear after reading the entire product, and your Hellscape will eventually emerge from that.  For a product named for a type of space, however, it offers very little in terms of defining the geometry of your wasteland.

The Ugly

The illustrations in this game are beautiful and skillfully done, but the palates are more appropriate for space opera or cyberpunk.  That and some truly baffling graphic design choices make the game’s art direction seem tone deaf.  I’m not saying Post-Apoc products must have The Road’s Pennsylvania winter palate-WOTC’s Gama World was always colorful, if not garish.  However, the graphic choices made in this game leave me feeling confused rather than immersed.
The crafting system is…well, it’s weird.  Objects and locations can be broken down into raw materials.  These are used to customize gear, create Personalized Items (the game’s version of magic items) and to fuel gambits.  There’s a lot of “it’s up to the GM” language, which assumes a reasonable and cooperative GM. “Hard-nosed and oppositional" is a better assumption, in my experience. Nevertheless, the alternative of “a rule for every situation” is untenable. Perhaps a GM’s section on how to cooperate with players and encourage their creativity is in order.


I like Hellscapes.  It uses the 5e engine to create deep interesting characters for action-oriented post-apoc gaming.   Its 5e foundation allows me to cherry-pick mechanics and use them with Pugmire, which I greatly appreciate. Despite some missteps in art direction, Hellscapes is a welcome addition to my post-apoc toolbox.

Hellscapes at DriveThruRPG

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Of Weapon Damage and Catfish Ogres

Greetings, wastelanders! Today, I bring three complementary creatures for your terror and amusement. I also wax philosophical about weapon damage and why one base damage die is enough.

Thoughts On Weapon Damage Dice

In ICRPG, basic weapon damage is d6. Longbow, crossbow, laser, club: d6. Variety comes through stats and gear, some of which increase die type or add bonuses to rolls. Blood and Bone uses the same idea: what you can do with a weapon make the difference, not the weapon itself. In Blood and Bone, your traits make your weapon choice matter.
The first time I saw d6 weapon damage was in the D&D Blue Box. I was about ten and I didn’t know much about weapons or fighting. D6 damage for everything from a butter knife to a bec de corbin seemed boring and lame.
Now I know that a dagger can kill you as dead as a great sword. I know that a fighter’s strength, skill, speed, experience, and luck matter more than the weapon of choice. I know that weapons do damage when they skirt your defenses and deplete your luck, blood, and stamina.
You can argue “yes, but with all things being equal…”, but they never are. A knife is better than nothing, a club is better than a knife, and a gun is better than a club…sometimes. Ranged beats melee…sometimes. Knives are harder to disarm than clubs or guns…sometimes. Clubs and knives tie in skill investment vs. return on trauma; you need very little skill to win with either. We’re not even talking yet about terrain, lighting, psychology, adrenaline, armor or any of the other factors that influence combat. There’s no such thing as a fair fight unless we work hard to fabricate one. We do this by removing variables. We provide a clean flat surface, weight classes, rules, cut men, referees, coaches…fighting is brutal, but it’s not combat. Combat is deadly chaos. Who does the most damage is more complex than rock-paper-scissors. D6 for base weapon damage works for me because it allows other factors to matter more.
Enough theory. Let’s look at some monsters!

Monster Sets
Monster sets are trios of monsters that complement and build on one another's strengths. ICRPG's streamlined monster design makes it easy to dovetail their concepts an mechanics.
The monster set concept comes from Hanerin Ferinale, the inestimable force behind the Runehammer brand. Monster sets was a topic on his Patreon, linked to below. For a buck a month, you get access to some of the most innovative gaming tools and theory around. A worthy investment for newbies and grognards alike! On to the beasties.

Channel Lurkers

These are the foot-soldiers. They live to feed.
  • One heart (ten hp)
  • Rolls: +2 Str, Con, weapon damage
  • Tough bastards. Melee attacks against them are always Hard.
  • Swat, swat, bite: weapon damage
  • Taste the air: No combat penalties for darkness
  • Taste the blood: When any character loses half their hit points, channel lurkers gain +2 to hit  them for the rest of the encounter.

An unused catfish mirelurk concept from Fallout 3

Blasphemous Croaker
These are the leaders, the ones who give purpose to the lurkers.

  • Two hearts (twenty hp)
  • Rolls: +2 all stats, weapon damage
  • Really tough bastards. All attacks against them are always Hard.
  • Glow-touched: magic damage (radiation burn)
  • Taste the air: No combat penalties for darkness
  • Pheromone frenzy: One target gains +2 to hit and damage
  • Blasphemous Croak: All non-catfish within far range make Cha saves or may take no action and may only move Near for the next turn.
Another Fallout catfish variant

Big wretched Science Machine (BWSM)
This is the thing they worship, guard, obey…
  • One heart
  • Rolls: +4 to all rolls
  • Hard to kill: ignore damage under 10, take only one damage per hit.
  • Lightning arc: Magic damage, damage above six arcs to another target, re-roll to hit. Above six arcs to another target, etc. 3 attacks per round. If the arc hits a channel lurker, it is healed instead of harmed.  If an arc hits a blasphemous croaker, the croaker can automatically direct an arc to another target regardless of how much magical effort it absorbs.
  • Floats on air: grav-based crackly giant sphere
  • Seismic thud: all save vs. prone and basic effort damage, close range
  • +3 to all attacks and damage
  • Horrid keening: All non-catfish within far range make Cha saves or may not move and all attempts are Hard. If already hard, add +1 to difficulty.

Channel lurkers can be the orcs of a PA campaign: expendable, bestial and reliably malicious. Maybe the BWSM is in a food depot, originally an AI with an altruistic mission-driven slowly insane through isolation and trauma. Some good dogs may be able to restore or re-program the BWSM for its mission of food security.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, wastelanders. Let me know in the comments if you’ve found anything useful along the way! I’m also interested to know what content you’d like to see explored on the Ragged Road: more maps? A Car-based loot table? Systems? More monsters? Spit your need and be witnessed!

Don’t forget to share!


· Runehammer Patreon, the inspiration for monster sets
· Other Dust, a great PA resource
· Pugmire, a game about good dogs in a bad world
· Blood and Bone, a gritty, low-magic Sword and Sorcery RPG that delivers the Sword & Sorcery vibe.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Harvest of Doom! Part 3: A Post-Apocalyptic Adventure

Harvest of Doom! Part 3 – The Hub (Target: 11)

This is the final segment of Harvest of Doom!, an adventure based in a ruined aquaponics farm. In the prior segment, I detailed the last living tower, a vertical farm worked by robots. The PC's goal was to ascend the tower and open the giant aperture in its floor. The open aperture leads to this segment's goal- a priceless cache of seeds.
The control room at the top of the living tower in part 2 is the main boss fight of the adventure. When they get to part three, the PC's should need rest and low on resources. If they have been able to recharge, increase the difficulty.
When the aperture opens, PC's may lower the freight platform into the hub (10 effort). PC’s with a prosthetic link or a farm-linked datapad do magical effort (d8). (Part two explains the Effort mechanic.) The party can also lower themselves using ropes, levitation, etc.
The hub has two levels: operations at the top, and distribution on the ground floor. The operations catwalk is twenty feet from the aperture; the ground floor is forty.

Operations Level

On this level, a catwalk encircles the main shaft. Six sets of double glass doors open to the farm's operational facilities:

  1. Robot repair shop. The lights flicker; otherwise, the shop is pristine. Two repair robots are working on a self-propelled tractor. Tools, materials, parts litter the room. The robots ignore the players unless attacked. This room contains three type A power cells and one type B cell.
  2. Chemical storage room. Two hazmat suits. Neat and clean, but dark. Open flames here are a bad idea.
  3. Fertilizer mixing lab. Almost identical to Chem Storage, but with workstations. Makes chemical mixing Easy for characters with appropriate skills or background.
  4. Fisheries management. This room is for monitoring aquaponics and catfish health. Catfish swim through the three aquaponics tubes running through the room. Monitors and diagnostic equipment crowd the space. Looping video shows a four-legged catfish leaping off a table and scuttling away.
  5. Dispatching office. Bones, manifests, coffee cups. Treasure: Farm-linked datapad. Includes shipping manifests that reveal locations of other hubs, farms and distribution depots. Effort 10 to unlock. A Hard check and twenty points of effort deactivate the robots on the hub floor. In the back of this office is a tram tunnel that leads to a small parking lot. The tram’s type B power cell is dead.
  6. Pesticide lab. Three monitor-bots are here, refilling with pesticide. They will ignore the characters unless attacked. Mixing chemicals in the lab is Easy for characters with appropriate skills.

Ground Level
On this level, eight openings lead away from the central hub. A low dais edged with safety lights marks off the circumference of the freight platform. Self-driving electric flatbeds stacked with crates sit in three of the tunnels. The others hold only darkness and a musty smell. Robot loaders stand motionless near the three trucks, covered in dust and cobwebs.
If the freight platform touches the dais, the robots power up and start moving crates to the flatbeds.

Timer 1 (d4)

There are three timers on this level. First timer: D4 rounds until five giant ants spill out of one of the empty tunnels. The ants go for the crates and PC’s; the robots attack the ants (unless the PC's deactivated the robots in the Operations office). Every round thereafter, d4 ants show up and attempt to take crates and small PC's back to their nest.


Giant ants! The PC’s must find the seeds and escape!


The seed crates are sealed and stamped with a symbol of a green sprout. (illo). Produce crates are open-topped and contain only desiccated compost. (Sharp PC's will see value in this as well.) The seeds are a great treasure in the famine-stricken wasteland. They will open doors for the PC’s to prestige, power and wealth. The robots will attempt to prevent the PC’s from taking the seeds and compost.

Timer 2 (d4)

Second timer: after the ants appear, roll a d4.  In that many rounds, three myconid scouts appear from another tunnel and try to make off with the seeds. The robots will resist them.

Threat 2

Now the PC’s are in a three-way battle. The myconids carry shards of crystal that emit radiation. Treat them as rods/wands of poison. If the myconids take damage and have managed to grab a seed crate, they all run into a tunnel. If anyone pursues them they find only a weird door-sized tracery of mold on a solid wall.

Timer 3 (d4)

Third timer: after the myconids appear, rolla d4. In that many rounds, the giant aperture creaks to life and begins to close. The aperture works like an elevator; even slight resistance will open it again. The PC’s don’t know that, though. Hee, hee, hee…


As soon as the PC’s hit the ground floor, the first timer starts. D4 rounds later, the ants arrive. They go for the crates and PC’s. The robots resist the ants if the robots are active.
As soon as the ants arrive, the second timer starts. D4 rounds later, the myconids arrive. They try to steal three seed crates and escape.
As soon as the myconids arrive, the third timer starts. D4 rounds later, the aperture begins to close.
This encounter is more about discovery and disruption than danger. There’s a lot going on, but nothing catastrophic. If the PC’s dally at the aperture before they descend, deciding to rest, have it sloooooowly begin to close. Emphasize how loud and massive it is. Even if the PC's discover how to reset the aperture, its closing routine is on a short, regular timer. The only way to keep it open is to jam it. Once the aperture is jammed, a crew of four spider bots will appear in 1d4 rounds to clear the jam and will fight to do so. Don't let the party rest if you can help it!

Other treats

Ingenious players will see many crafting opportunities on the Operations level. If they try to craft weapons out of chemicals or robot parts, let them! These are one-use magic items. Use effort to make crafting timely. If they spend too much time in Operations, roll the first timer and have the ants go for the seeds. Also, let them know what an explosives-crafting critical failure looks like. They may not even want to chance it. (Or that may be an incentive; players are nuts.)

The Tunnels

The tunnels can lead to food distribution depots anywhere in your wasteland. Mandate bases, population centers, research facilities, other farms, are all possibilities.
The tunnels are also a good way to connect locations in your wasteland. They can be a fast travel mechanism, providing safer camping. The tunnels can introduce different rules, challenges and subterranean encounter tables. What other things have discovered these efficient pathways? How have they adapted the tunnels for their own purposes?


Harvest of Doom is a great way to introduce Runehammer’s timers and effort to your game. These little tweaks will add tension, narrative gravity, and an element of fun to skill use. Try them out and see for yourself!

If you dig Harvest of Doom or Ragged Road in general, please share or pass a link along to your friends. Thanks!

Runehammer (Support his Patreon for a buck; it's a steal.)

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Bonus: Bullet Journal Myconid Page

Stop and Smell the Rad-Roses! adding a sense of wonder to your wasteland

A radioactive myconid from my sketchbook
It’s easy to lose a sense of wonder in the irradiated grind of a post-apocalyptic RPG. Wonder is what we feel seeing the Grand Canyon or a cool mushroom: it’s a deep reminder that the world is more beautiful and strange than we can fully grasp. It balances the bullet-counting ruin-crawls and keeps the players hungry for more.
Science often inspires wonder. Science-based world building adds weirdness and awe without breaking immersion.  Websites that highlight new discoveries or cutting-edge technologies can send your mind off in wild directions that will amaze and intrigue your players, keeping them curious about what is below the next bunker.
Another sketchy myconid. Watch the bumbershoot!
An article on using slime molds to discover Roman roads (link below) got me thinking about myconids, who I had always dismissed as kind of silly.  What if myconids moved through space and time in a unique way? I like the thought of players pursuing a myconid scout only to see it vanish through a fungal threshold outlined on a solid wall.  What if I never said “myconid scout”, describing instead a misshapen figure in a conical hat that randomly showed up, helped or hurt them, and then disappeared before they could interact?
Then they would have a mystery on their hands, and mysteries are hooks. Hooks keep players hungry and they'll keep coming back to the table.
Disappearing mushroom folk raise the question: where do they go?  In other articles, I learned that mushrooms have the same pigment-melanin-that adds color to human skin.  Some scientists surmise that mushrooms us their melanin to convert radiation into growth energy. Do myconids thrive in radioactive necropoli, feeding on radiation and the dead? Can they grow large at will like Duergar?  Do they clean up hot zones or do they just multiply and scheme? Are the glowing remains of urban centers, the hottest of hot zones, ground zero for a new myconid supremacy? Some quick web research has transformed myconids from hippy root-huggers to an inscrutable emergent species slowly but inevitably filing the human niche.  Following a Myconid back to its home base will be a terrible, memorable adventure.

Role-playing games run on bloodlust and wonder; if your players don’t stop to smell the rad-roses, they’re missing out on half the fun.  How do you infuse your wasteland with wonder and keep your players coming back for more?  Comment below!

Don’t forget to like and use the share buttons!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

It's a TRAP!

Trap Generators:

Here are some random generators to help you danger up your ruins.  Perhaps a group or trap smith favors one trigger, trap or damage type: you know you’re in Brass Skull territory when everything is a rockfall.  Maybe the ruins were originally full of laser tripwires to keep thieves out of the gene labs.  How will you use these generators in your wasteland?

Trigger Type
Pressure plate
Laser tripwire (alarm, triggers mechanical trap or activates robots)
Tension trigger (on doors, containers)
Proximity trigger (mines)
Motion activated (turrets, snares) *
Touch (Dex to avoid. Tin can chimes, bone chimes, electrical current)
Weight/gravity (pit, bear trap)
Spotter (box trap, cage, rock fall)
Energy (shooting, flame, electricity ignites gas cannister, ambient gas, oil)
Prop (deadfall, rock fall, pillars)
Treacherous interface (doorknob, terminal, AR, a live wire in a toilet)

Trap Type
Explosive (device, container, gas, EMP)
Relocator (breakable floor, trapdoor, transporter, piston)
Projectiles (arrows, darts, bullets, lasers)
Deadfall (rocks, stone block, log, shipping container, car)
Snare (holds and harms if passed through.   Steaked bear trap, whip snare, taser floor)
Hobble (hampers movement: drag snare, leg-wounding trap, punji steaks, caltrops.  Easily combined with poison.)
Immobilize (holds fast without ongoing harm.  Cage, cell, stasis effect)
Swinging ram (disrupts movement; displaces characters. log, engine block, dead cow)
Pit. Roll again and combine results.
Gas (poison, explosive, soporific)
Creature release (swarm, hungry, territorial, poisonous, disease-bearing)

Damage Type
Electrical (lighting)
Radiant (frickin’ lasers)
Ballistic (frickin’ bullets)

* In post-apoc games, some security measures can be controlled by computer terminals or Augmented Reality. You can treat those controls like ICRPG’s chunks: hacking the controls with effort neutralizes the threat.  Hackable traps should be least Tech Level 3. Use this to spotlight characters who have invested in pre-catastrophe knowledge or skills.

In Fallout 4, trap components such as spotlights and turrets can be traced to their controls via red wires.  Providing this kind of visual cue to your players can enliven play and deepen their setting immersion.

Trap Examples:


Weight/gravity, hobble, thunder.

  • Shallow foot-sized pit lined with downward-pointing spikes.  1d10 damage; Dex save or Lame.  Pressure plate at bottom of hole wired to concussion grenades that destroy or block off part of the path from rest of the party.


Laser tripwire, snare, electrical

  • Laser tripwire activates taser plates above and below characters.  Con save vs. paralysis

Tripwire, relocator, cold.

  • Tripwire floods the room with freezing water, water lifts PC’s to another level or triggers floor drain that pulls them downward.
  • Alternative: Room is a flash-freezing facility; tripwire is a trigger mechanism for the room.  Not originally a trap, but a food or scientific sample preservation asset. Characters take cold damage and save vs. sleep.

Thoughts on traps in play:

Most traps are the security measures of the ruin’s past or current occupants. These measures have an in-world logic: they provide safety for people and their possessions. But what value do traps add to the play experience? Here are some ideas:

1) Change or direct the space in an encounter. This can: disrupt the characters’ movement, physically contain them, or herd or transport them to another part of the space.
  • Transport characters to another location (pit, collapsing floor, transporter)
  • Change terrain (collapsing pillars, walls, and doors; cave-ins, rising water, avalanches)
  • Lure and immobilize (Humane mouse trap; bear trap for bears)
  • Lure and destroy (Deadly mousetrap; bear trap for humans)
  • Drive or herd and catch (Driving ponies into a corral)
  • Drive or herd and destroy (chasing a mammoth off a cliff)
2) Spotlighting character’s abilities: Puzzles, feats of strength, thief skills; magical, psionic or tech solutions to traps that:
  • Keep intruders out
  • Keep something in
  • Concealment, disabling, circumventing
3) Depleting resources and controlling rest to intensify a climactic encounter. **
  • Cause wounds, disease, poison
  • Kill
  • Demoralize or deplete resources (punji steaks wound soldiers, necessitating a change of mission, medical transport and evac, renew morale)
4) Setting a tone
  • Alarm: a silent alert or loud claxon draws enemies
  • Creating a sense of danger and trepidation
  • Giving setting context: old tech, new uses for old tech, primitive new tech

Any of the above can also harass, deplete or affect the morale of the characters and players.

Hazards that are concealed, have triggers and can be countered are functionally traps. Steam geysers, lava jets, and crumbling walls full of spider swarms or explosive have a different narrative feel from deadfalls and tripwires.  Like man-made traps, they can be spotted, avoided, and even disarmed, perhaps by unexpected use of skills or magic by the PCs.

Trap links:

Here’s an interesting article on traps for 5e:

Here is an infographic of Viet Kong tunnels and traps. There are plenty of ideas here for ruins and cavern complexes:
Infographic of Viet Kong tunnels and traps.

Here's a link to Runehammer's video on rest, where I got the idea for using traps to control rest.  Runehammer is great, and if you support his patreon, you get a podcast, previews and access to a great RPG thinker. Take a look!:
Runehammer's Rest mechanics video. Yee haw!

Make sure to +1 if you found this post useful and share if you think others will as well.  Thanks!