Animals as Living Traps for D&D

5 Interesting Facts About Reef Stonefish | Hayden's Animal Facts

I always struggle with traps, as I’ve written here before. Hard to come up with ones that are interesting and make sense in the world’s ecology. Who built them? Who resets them? What makes them interesting? And so on.

I was watching a show about milking the venom from stonefish, and it occurred to me how living things could function as traps. I mean, a stonefish is basically a deadly trap that re-arms itself that would fit in any coastal environment.

The traps below are based on living creatures, assuming that there are fantasy versions of each of them in your setting. I’m also creating 5E rules for each that are modeled after the creature’s capabilities, including lethality, even if this contradicts weaksauce 5E rules for things like poisons.

For each of the following examples, assume that the creature in question is somewhat more potent than the ones found on Earth.


Stonefish might be encountered in any shallow salt water or estuary. These stonefish are larger than the Earth version, and their spines are able to pierce boots, though a character wearing boots has advantage on their saving throw. A DC 15 Survival roll will reveal the presence of a stonefish if a character is searching the area. Otherwise, they are easily mistaken for a stone and might be stepped on by any character. When stepped on, their victim must make a DC 20 Constitution saving throw, taking 5d10 poison damage on a failed save and half as much on a successful one. They pain also causes one level of exhaustion on a failed save. This exhaustion can be relieved by a DC 15 Wisdom (Medicine) check to treat the wound immediately after it occurs.

Recluse Spider

AKA fiddle-back, brown spider, or reaper. When bitten by a recluse spider, a character must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw, taking 3d10 poison on a failed save and half as much on a successful one. On a failed save, after an hour has passed, the character must make a second Constitution save against a DC of 20 or take 3d10 necrotic damage and have their maximum hit points reduced by that number. This reduction can be negated by lesser restoration or a similar spell. If the bite is treated with a DC 15 Wisdom (Medicine) check, this necrotic damage is avoided.

Blue-Ringed Octopus

Not generally aggressive, but potentially fatal. When bitten, the victim must make a DC 20 Constitution saving throw, taking 3d10 damage on a failed save and half on a successful one. On a failed save, after one minute, a second DC 20 Constitution save must be made to avoid taking a level of exhaustion. This exhaustion will continue to accumulate, one level per minute, until either the victim succeeds on a DC 20 Constitution saving throw or the bite is treated with a DC 18 Wisdom (Medicine) test.

Sea Wasp/Box Jellyfish

This might be a large Fantasy box jellyfish but the normal ones can be fatal on their own. They are translucent, and hard to see, requiring a DC 15 Perception check to notice floating nearby. Their trailing tentacles have a reach of 10 feet to entangle a swimming creature. Once entangled, the victim must make a DC 18 Con save or take 3d10 poison damage and becoming poisoned, or half damage and no poisoned condition with a successful save. Escaping entanglement requires a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check. If a creature begins it’s turn entangled it takes another 1d10 poison damage.

Bullet Ant Swarm

The sting of a single bullet ant has been described as a 12 hour tsunami of pain, and bullet ants live in colonies of 1,000 to 3,000 individuals. A bullet ant swarm only fills a 5 foot square, and can move 20 feet per round.

When in the area of a swarm of bullet ants, a creature must make a DC 20 Con save or take 2d10 poison damage. They are then stunned until the start of the swarm’s next turn, and take one level of exhaustion. On a successful save, they take half damage but still take the level of exhaustion from the agony. On any consecutive turn that begins in the swarm, the creature must make a new DC 20 Con save to resist a further 1d10 poison damage and another level of exhaustion. On a successful save, they take no further damage, but still take another level of exhaustion.

Piranha School (Swarm)

This description has more to do with the legend of the piranha instead of the actual fish. Blood in the cloudy water of a river is enough to attract this school of fish which functions as a swarm. The swarm is 20 feet square and has a swim speed of 30 feet. When a creature starts it’s turn adjacent to the swarm or enveloped by it, they must make a DC 15 Strength save or take 2d10 slashing damage.


Horror Gaming

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) - Wikipedia

I think that the hardest kind of RPG experience to create at the table is horror – by a significant margin. I’ve been alarmed, worried, disgusted, and so on at the table, but very rarely frightened. The most frightened I remember being was in an Old World of Darkness game using Kult’s setting. The game that is always recommended is Dread, which is a great use of Jenga to create tension at a table whether you want it or not. It still requires more elements to approach horror.

I wonder – it’s pretty easy for a movie to scare the crap out of me. Why is it so much harder at a table?

Players Must Buy In/Session Zero

I’m pretty funny – I can coax someone into participating in a funny game. I can coax someone into participating in a heroic adventure game. I even know how to design specifically for either goal, among a few others. Horror, though – I don’t know how to coax someone into a horror game, and I can see ways that horror more than other genres would press against players’ lines and veils.

For this reason, a Session Zero for a horror game is necessary. The discussion of what you want kept out of the story needs to be had, because it will likely be the job of the GM in a horror game to suddenly introduce disturbing imagery and themes. It also occurs to me that a tool like the X-Card should be available, but in the context of a horror game, I can see that using it would potentially take people out of the moment – like pausing a horror DVD to answer the phone. And of course we shouldn’t harm each other for the sake of playing pretend, but if we can figure things out ahead of time, that is especially good in the context of a horror game.

Hope Must be Limited

The reason we sat down and designed Reckoning, a dice-less horror RPG, was because of the problem of dice. As long as you can roll dice to have a chance to triumph, horror is almost impossible. Our players would grin their way through horrific scenarios, or so we thought them, rolling dice all the way. My friend Jason says that a horror game can therefore never use dice, but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just that dice can’t be an option for triumphing. Stakes have to be set carefully, perhaps.

Reckoning limits hope by having a scene count-down which will end with something horrific happening. Each time a card gets turned, you know something else bad is going to happen, all getting closer to the worst thing happening. I think that some kind of countdown, some kind of visibly growing threat, could be necessary. The proverbial ticking time-bomb that the players know about, even if the characters do not.

Doom Must be Foreshadowed

Continuing on with the previous thought – when you go to a horror movie, or pick up a horror novel, you know what kind of story it is. This has to be clear from the start with a horror game as well. Even if not from the literal beginning, there should be a big reveal at some point, early. Ideally, all of the players should think, “Oh crap, this is going to be deliciously bad.”

If possible there should be foreshadowing both in the fiction and outside of it – in the room where the game takes place. On the character sheet. On the pages of rules you reference during the game. On the art you use to represent what the characters see. In the music you have playing while you game.

A Strong GM Seems to be Necessary

I asked Twitter to let me know about any APs tweeps are aware of that represent a horror game that seemed to really foster fear and horror on the parts of the players. I enjoy APs, but they are generally what I end up doing when I run horror – some moments of squick and then dark humor the rest of the time, bordering on outright zaniness. Even for AP groups that focus on horror gaming, this seems to be where they max out as well. When done well, the squick is very squick-y and the dark humor is dark and funny, but would I call it horror? I’m not sure.

One thing I’ve noticed is that horror gaming, even the squick/dark humor kind, seems to demand a strong GM. I would love to see an attempt at a GM-less (or GM-full) game that does horror consistently well. My guess would be that if it does, it is simply a game (like many GM-less/full games) that attracts a bunch of GMs as players. I think horror gaming will simply depend on GM skill + player buy-in, full stop. I don’t see a way around that, and I don’t see any game that gets around that, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong by some genius game design. As I sit here, that game design is beyond me as a designer.

It’s Cthulhu and Footnotes

The last thought I have about horror gaming is that Call of Cthulhu dominates horror gaming the way D&D dominates fantasy adventure gaming. Clearly, there are other popular horror games, like All Flesh Must Be Eaten back in the day, or Bluebeard’s Bride; various Worlds of Darkness, or of course the often-mentioned Dread. There is also Monsters and Other Childish things, perhaps, or Clockwork: Dominion. But Call of Cthulhu looms over all of these, and when horror gaming comes up, CoC will almost invariably come up as well.

What is the difference here? What makes Call of Cthulhu stand out, despite being temporarily supplanted by Vampire the Masquerade for example? I think one difference is that many of those other games are also about adventure and the chance to triumph. Not Bluebeard’s Bride, and mostly not Dread perhaps, but otherwise, those games listed above can be played as adventure or comedy pretty easily. Really, the one that would be hard to play that way would be Bluebeard’s Bride – I think one could easily hack Dread to tell a Fiasco-style story, as an example.

I think that the key appeal of Call of Cthulhu for horror gaming might be that it is common knowledge that CoC is not about triumphing, or even in many cases surviving, a horror story. It is about going insane and/or dying horribly. The worst things you’ll encounter you cannot possibly overcome no matter what you do. So the game is about progressively learning what those awful things are, and then having a good time on the way down after that. This, even more than the Mythos, is what keeps Call of Cthulhu in that top slot, I think. At least, when I look at horror APs and talk to people about horror gaming.

What Did I Miss?

These are just my thoughts, neither exhaustive nor meant to be so. What did I miss? What has been your experience of horror gaming?

Save Against Fear 2019


Once again, I’m headed to Save Against Fear, The Bodhana Group‘s annual convention. As I’ve said before, if I can only make it to one convention in a year, it will be this one.

I’m going to be busy there, but hopefully not too busy. I’ll be running two demos of games I’ve designed and helping with two panels during the event.

First Game: Reckoning

Reckoning is a diceless horror game that my friend Aric and I have been working on for…years now. Maybe 10 years? What happened was that Aric runs awesome horror games for Halloween. He found that there just wasn’t an existing horror RPG that suited him well. We tried All Flesh Must Be Eaten and other D20 systems, as well as others I can’t remember at the moment. But nothing seemed to fit quite right. One problem we ran into was that dice gave players a way out – it meant that every moment was potentially hopeful, and allowed some goofy possibilities.

The core of Reckoning is in character creation, though, more than the resolution system, which is a pretty standard number comparison with cards to modify. But our thinking, or focus in design, was how could we simply portray psychologically plausible characters on the one hand, and how could we represent the things that enable characters to survive horror stories.

Second Game: Iron Pax

Iron Pax is my OSR hack that is honestly just a OSR version tuned for the Midnight setting, or a similar setting. It is a colonialist dystopia as written, and the published version is more of an OSR rules-set engine with a chassis made of random tables for setting design. Players roll dice for all tests, similar to how Dungeon World does it, and the basic system is a roll-under D20 system. One original element is Heat, a combination of the effect of spellcasting being exothermic and also ‘heat’ in terms of negative attention from the authorities.

So far I only have one player signed up, and she’s a friend of mine, and I’m wondering if I maybe have the wrong title or description for the game, or maybe there just isn’t much of an audience for OSR. No worries. If I only have the one player, I’ll let her level up her pregenerated character a bit and see how she does rescuing this halfling from the Iron Pax.

First Panel: Game Designers

This year, we have a total of at least nine game designers who are special guests, and they are going to be part of a few game design panels over the course of the con. In the past I’ve helped facilitate the discussion on behalf of Bodhana, but honestly I don’t think that’ll be needed this time around, as these folks have been on more panels than I’ve run.

Second Panel: Spirituality in Games

At GenCon, I met this cool Rabbi named Menachem Cohen who uses games in spiritual direction as part of his practice. We came up with an idea to run a panel/workshop on spirituality in games, but without necessarily using the word “spirituality”, as that word can give people a wide variety of impressions that might not be correct. I think the way we talk about it is that we will look at how you can use games, design games, and hack games to access deeper elements of life. I’ve never done this kind of thing with Rabbi Cohen before, but I’m looking forward to it because he seems like a really interesting person who is knowledgeable about games.

You Should Join Me


Re-Skin, Drift, Hack

There are a few terms used to describe changes made to a tabletop game. Sometimes they’re used interchangeably. I just wanted to mess around with definitions – at the very least, to explain how I would use these terms to describe the various things I do to games.


A re-skin is when you don’t make significant changes to the actual mechanics in a game, but change the “color” – that is, the descriptive text or “fluff” that surrounds the mechanics and gives them meaning. The dice rolled or cards drawn don’t significantly change, but what the player or GM describes in the fiction changes.

Example: games like Savage Worlds and BESM invite re-skinning their various abilities, so that a ranged attack might be a jet of flame, a magic missile, or a thrown spear, all with essentially the same mechanics (dealing damage at a distance).


A drift of a game is a change to the mechanics, kind of an intermediate step between a re-skin and a hack. A drift is a departure from the apparent intent of the original writer/designer(s).

Example: using Mouse Guard to play Jedi traveling a galaxy far away, or Rangers in the North of Middle-Earth. In a way, many Powered by the Apocalypse games are drifts of one another.


A hack is a new version of a game when the game’s history can still be recognized. Most of the mechanics are retained in some form, but they are adapted, and new mechanics might be added. It is common to take mechanics from one game and put them into a hack of another game.

Example: I just wrote up a hack of the Clockwork: Dominion initiative system for use with D&D 5E.

So, designers and gamers, what about you? How do you use these terms? Do you think they’re just synonyms for each other, or are there significant differences?

Parsec Revised

I’m thinking of revising Parsec and re-releasing it as a PDF. Probably with the same wonderful art; hopefully with similar layout and graphic design, just wrapped around the new and updated text. I’m thinking of this for three reasons:

Errata from the Original

Because I was the designer, writer, and primary editor of the original, there were a number of mistakes. I’m proud of the work, but at the same time it could have been better, and in a way should be better. The game deserves an edition that I can look to and say “That’s pretty much what I wanted it to be.”

I’ve Learned In the Last 12 Years

When I started writing Parsec, it was the second half of 2007. The game design landscape was significantly different then, and in the 12 years since then I have learned more about writing, editing and game design. I can make a better game today than I could then.

Parsec is also now entirely mine. The rights to the property, as it were, have reverted back to me entirely. A few years ago, actually. I got great advice, and had it written into my contract as we negotiated that the rights would revert to me if the game was out of print for a couple of years. It has been out of print for a while now. This means that, for better or worse, I can write and design exactly the game I want to. I can update the setting, add elements that interest me, etc.

Therapeutic Use Through the Bodhana Group

Parsec could be really useful for therapeutic gaming. If nothing else, name a hard sci-fi roleplaying game. Even 12 years since I wrote Parsec, there aren’t that many out there. Parsec still does things that no other game out there does, and includes some elements like player-defined goals and obstacles, secrets and scars, that have obvious, powerful therapeutic applications. I’d like to revise Parsec with input from Bodhana this time around, not as Therapy: the Game, but to perhaps include more elements they would like to see that makes it a better therapeutic tool.

RPG Setting Round-Up #2

Arcano-Futurist Warforged

In Eberron, and in other places I’ve seen them mentioned, the source of warforged has been left open-ended. I like the idea that warforged are artificial bodies that the wealthy have their consciousness downloaded into. I think it’s a great opportunity to delve into interesting questions raised by post-humanists now. What if the wealthy can download their consciousness into bodies that don’t age, and be continually repaired and upgraded? What if they start doing the same with powerful golems or warforged titans? What if a powerful wizard copies her consciousness into multiple warforged, replicating herself?

Arcane Unitary Intelligence

Following on the above idea, what about artificial intelligence in a fantasy setting? Magic that affects the soul might be what can affect consciousness. A powerful wizard could create an artificial mind, and the mind might learn to replicate itself and spread to new hosts. How would your standard group of PCs fight an enemy like that? Or even be able to detect its presence.

Why We Don’t Meet Interstellar Species

I think it’s because, for any sentient species to develop to the point of interstellar travel, they have to have industrialized, despoiling their own planet and probably others, creating artificial intelligence, relentlessly harvesting materials from their solar system. Whatever space-faring species we might meet is composed of those who flourished in these circumstances. There is very little chance they come in peace. But most species will be destroyed on the path to interstellar capability.

I think it would be interesting if this was a reason why some version of the Cthulhu Mythos is found to be correct. There are beings out in the darkness of space with a boundless hunger, whose thoughts are inscrutable, and whose arrival on Earth would signal the end.

Villains by Necessity Multiverse

The novel Villains by Necessity is hard to come by, and interesting. Not amazing literature, but a premise that has stuck with me over time. In brief, the Dark Lord is defeated by the heroes of Light, and then the world becomes bland and boring as there aren’t villains anymore. But then it turns out that the last remaining villain-adjacent people have to band together to save the world from powerful, misguided do-gooders. I’ve run a fun D&D campaign in a similar homebrew setting.

I thought it would be interesting if the defeat of the Dark Lord was so momentous that it created a set of alternate universes where the Last Battle Against Evil turned out differently. It was a Pyrrhic victory that scoured the land. The Dark Lord won – and it’s the Midnight setting. The Heroes of Light won – and it’s on to Villains by Necessity. The battle tore a hole into the Astral Plane, and now good and evil had to unite in order to fend off invaders from the planes.

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #12: D&D Again

Time = XP

In D&D and similar experience-driven systems, xp roughly represents time spent playing. This is true when WotC says that Adventure League standards should be about 4 hours to level to 2nd, and then 8 hours to 3rd and the same for 4th, etc. This is what it has always meant, and the way it functions is to incentivize certain behaviors and play styles.

Why not just have XP = time played? This would work equally well for your home game as for organized play, and would work better than every system for leveling in organized play I’ve ever heard of. It would be easy to track across games, including for players and DMs without consistent play-groups.

This system can be hidden behind a milestone leveling system, and just have milestones equal X time played. Honestly, it’s what most DMs and GMs who use a milestone system are doing anyway, and is the thinking behind xp going back to the beginning. In terms of design, experience points are a reward for the player, so why no reward the players for their time? This would also unhitch xp from certain behaviors. So PCs would not need to go out and kill things and take their stuff. They would level just the same for RPing, or shopping in town, or exploring new places, or doing upkeep on their holdings. They can do whatever they find to be fun in game.

Yes, this drifts D&D significantly from its design, but I don’t think that’s a problem.

Using 5E Exhaustion More Often

Exhausting is an interesting mechanic, and almost never gets used in games of D&D 5th Ed I run and in which I play. I think it was used for the fist time in the 10th session of our current home game, and it was funny because I was the only player who even knew about exhaustion rules. So here a few other times to engage the exhaustion rules, imposing a level of exhaustion for each of the following:

  • When you are dropped to zero hp, even if immediate raised back up (i.e. by Healing Word)
  • When you take damage in excess of a threshold (maybe that threshold = 2x your Constitution score) to represent a sudden, significant injury
  • When you roll a 1 on a saving throw
  • When you fail a high-risk skill check, but the DM wants to let you fail forward (you miss an Athletics roll to jump a chasm, so the DM says you cling to the far side and drag yourself up, but it costs a level of exhaustion)

Healing Potions

As written, healing potions in 5E restore 2d4 +2 hit points per level of potion (i.e. 4d4 +4 or 6d4 +6). Why not have a healing potion instead restore 2 hit dice +2 for each level? This would mean that higher-hp classes like Barbarians would benefit more from a healing potion. As it is, past level 1 or 2 a barbarian won’t want to use an action to restore 7 hit points on average, and higher level barbarians who have more powerful potions won’t bother using them either because they’ll make such a small difference.

  • Healing potion: 2 hit dice +2 restored
  • Greater healing potion: 4 hit dice +4 restored
  • Superior healing potion: 6 hit dice +6 restored

Stolen Skill Challenge Idea

This is an idea my friend Brett, who is our current DM, stole from another DM, and I’m stealing it as well. The idea is that for shared skill challenges (like the ubiquitous Dexterity (Stealth) checks made to let the party sneak around), you set a total that they have to hit with their rolls.

  • Relatively easy challenge: 10x number of characters
  • Opposed challenge: passive score x number of characters
    • Ex: if the PCs are all trying to sneak past a guard, and the guard has a passive Perception score of 14, then their Dexterity (Stealth) rolls would have to total more than 14x number of PCs
  • Normal (?) challenge: 12x number of characters
  • Really challenging: 15x number of characters or higher