The World of Xoth

Where cold iron meets non-Euclidean geometry!

Archive for the 'Sword and Sorcery' Category

14 January

By these (5E) rules I axe!

The Player’s Guide to the World of Xoth for 5E contains character creation rules, including races and cultures, new classes, new equipment, new spells, and so on.

Here are some additional 5E house rules for my own campaigns:

Ability Scores

  • A high Intelligence score gives bonus languages (and a low Intelligence score reduces the number of languages you know)
  • You can choose to add your Intelligence bonus to Initiative instead of your Dexterity bonus


  • The following feats are considered overpowered and therefore banned
    • Lucky
    • Sharpshooter
    • Great Weapon Master


  • Wisdom (Perception) is used to detect creatures (only), and Intelligence (Investigation) is used to detect traps and secret doors
  • See also 5E skills and how to use them for specific details on skill usage


  • Flanking: This gives a +1 bonus to attack rolls against the flanked creature.
  • Standing up from prone: You suffer disadvantage on attacks on the creature that pushed you down, if it is still within 5 feet of you, for the duration of your turn.
  • Picking up weapon from ground after disarm: You suffer disadvantage on attacks on the creature that disarmed you, if it is still within 5 feet of you, for the duration of your turn.

Damage and Healing

  • If you are knocked down to 0 hp and then get back to positive hp (through healing or by rolling a 20 on a death save), you gain a level of exhaustion.
  • When you roll a natural 20 and score a critical hit, the first damage die deals maximum damage. Roll normally for additional damage dice.
  • If you suffer a critical hit, you can use a reaction to turn it into a normal hit by sacrificing a (medium) shield or a (non-light) melee weapon. You must be holding the item when you are hit, and the item is destroyed.
  • Options for using a healing potion:
    • Drink as a bonus action (roll normally for hit points restored)
    • Drink as an action (max result on all potion dice, ie a regular healing potion restores 10 hit points)
    • Administer to another creature as an action (roll normally for hit points restored)


  • A long rest restores all Hit Dice (not just half your Hit Dice as per the standard rules).
  • Some areas (a swamp filled with biting insects, a dungeon with roaming undead, etc) may not offer sufficient tranquility to provide any benefits of a long rest. In other words, a long rest requires a fairly friendly and safe environment, such as a fortress or a tavern or at a minimum a fortified camp. The GM decides on a case-by-case basis.


  • See the “Sorcery” chapter in the Player’s Guide (link at the top of this blog post) Pfor details on changes to magic and spellcasting.
  • Some additional house rules:
    • Levitate: An unwilling target is allowed a new saving throw each round.

03 April

By these rules I axe!

Worried DM in the front; scheming min/maxing players in the back...

These are the house rules in effect for my World of Xoth campaign.

The World


  • Pathfinder Core Rulebook: By default, everything from the Core Rulebook is allowed, with specific exceptions listed below.
  • Advanced Player’s Guide (APG): Players must get explicit permission to use any material from the APG (but permission is very likely to be given, unless it “breaks the spirit” of the house rules below).

Ability Scores

  • 20 point buy


  • Human only
  • You must select a cultural archetype
  • Special variant “races” (such as pygmies and others) allowed on a case-by-case basis. Note that as a general rule, the party can only include a single non-human (or special variant race) character


The following classes are allowed:

  • Alchemist (APG)
  • Aristocrat
  • Barbarian
  • Bard
  • Cavalier (APG)
  • Commoner
  • Cultist (a variant of Oracle [APG])
  • Druid*
  • Expert
  • Fighter
  • Monk
  • Ranger
  • Rogue
  • Warrior
  • Witch**

Most of the alternative class features from the APG are also available, but ask for permission.

* The Druid’s class features are modified as follows:

  • Wild Shape: The druid class does not gain the Wild Shape ability. The character gets a bonus feat per daily use of Wild Shape instead.

** The Witch’s class features are modified as follows:

  • Healing hex:  “The healing hex can be used a number of times per day equal to 3 + the witch’s Intelligence modifier.”
  • Slumber hex:  “This hex can affect a creature of any HD, but if the target has more HD or levels than the witch, he simply becomes drowsy (treat as staggered) instead of falling asleep. This effect can be removed by the same means as awakening a sleeping creature (ie. rousing the creature using a standard action, or dealing damage to the creature).


  • No item creation feats, except Brew Potion and Scribe Scroll


  • No changes


  • Regional equipment (more on this later)
  • Weapons and armor created by master-smiths get “quality” bonuses that are equivalent to enchantment bonuses in all respects. Such equipment is very rare and expensive.


Magic Items

  • True magic items are very rare, usually unique relics from older civilizations. The art of crafting magic items has been lost.

Character Improvement (Training)

  • Characters can spend time and money on “training” to increase ability scores or gain permanent bonuses to saving throws, armor class. (This will be further explained in a separate post.)

Other Rules

  • No alignment
  • Players roll all the dice
  • Hero Points from the APG (just the points; not the feats, spells and items)
  • If an item/equipment is not on your character sheet, then you don’t have it. If the party has a list of shared treasure, the list must specify which party member carries each item; otherwise the party has lost the item.
  • By group agreement (majority vote), the Coup de Grace action cannot be used (exception: NPCs can use it against each other).
03 April

The mysteries of magic

“And having written, I shall enclose the pages in a sealed cylinder of orichalchum, and shall cast the cylinder from a high window into the sea, lest that which I am doomed to become should haply destroy the writing. And it may be that mariners from Lephara, passing to Umb and Pneor in their tall triremes, will fnd the cylinder; or fishers will draw it from the wave in their seines of byssus; and having read my story, men will learn the truth and take warning; and no man’s feet, henceforward, will approach the pale and demon-haunted house of Avyctes.” — Clark Ashton Smith: The Double Shadow

The core magic rules of the Pathfinder system are based on the assumption that magic pervades the world and is used almost as a substitute for technology.

But, ironically, having too much magic takes away much of the wonder and awe of magic.

At the same time, taking away too much magic or making the magic rules overly restrictive and harsh tends to alienate players, who might consider it unfair that only non-player character should have access to powerful magic. Plus, tampering with the magic rules puts an additional burden on the players, who have to learn the new rules.

Thus, the philosophy of campaigns in the World of Xoth is to change as little as possible of the actual magic rules. The sword and sorcery feel can be achieved in a campaign by restricting or changing a few key elements of the core rules which interfere with the low-magic paradigm, without totally abandoning the fantasy that players expect and enjoy.

Restricting Spell Lists

First of all, certain spells from the core rules simply do not fit well in a sword and sorcery world. Any class with access to spells should have a spell list

customized for the proper atmosphere. Spells can be excluded if they fall into any of the categories below.

Artillery Spells: Avoid spells that turn the spellcaster into a walking piece of artillery, able to wipe out a small army of opponents with a single spell. Fireball and its derivatives (delayed blast fireball, meteor swarm, flame strike, etc.) fall into this category (but burning hands does not). On the other hand, note that certain fire-cults are able to use spells such as wall of fire and flame strike, because that is their special niche and such awesome displays of power remain closely guarded secrets among them.

Life-Restoring Magic: Death is final, and characters cannot count on being raised or resurrected. In the extremely rare cases where someone is brought back from the dead, it will always be through black magic (probably requiring blood sacrifce), and always as some hideous mockery of their former selves, whether a soulless zombie, wizened mummy, or restless, mad spirit.

Convenience Spells: Rope trick is only a 2nd-level spell, yet it creates an extradimensional space where an entire party can hide from the rest of the world; hardly fitting for gritty sword and sorcery. The spell create water is certainly convenient, but the wilderness becomes a more dangerous (and interesting) place without such spells. Similarly, characters should rely on their swimming skills and their Constitution scores instead of depending on water breathing. And so on.

Instant Transportation: Teleport and its varieties make a mockery of long wilderness treks and quests into uncharted waters. Neither should dimension door and other short-range teleportation spells be allowed, because they make it too easy to circumvent defenses and penetrate castle and city walls. In a low-magic world, there are simply no adequate countermeasures against such spells.

Powerful Low-Level Divinations: Detect magic might seem innocent enough, but in the hands of power-gamers it tends to be used as a “radar” to scan areas for anything interesting (such as magical items or traps). Roleplaying improves when there is no such clear distinction of what is magical and what is not. Detect evil does not apply to a world without alignments. Comprehend languages is a mere 1st-level spell, but allows you to understand all written languages. That might not seem very important when dungeon-crawling, but if such a spell exists, there is little point in learning ancient and forgotten languages, and the role-playing aspects of trying to decipher ancient grimoires are lost.

“Superhero” Spells: Flying (through the fly spell) and turning invisible (through invisibility and improved invisibility) are examples of powers rarely seen in sword and sorcery stories. These abilities are especially powerful (and therefore unbalancing) in low-magic settings, where there are few countermeasures available.

Magical items that duplicate these types of spells do not exist either (although there are no rules without exceptions).

It becomes apparent that in many cases, skills become more important for characters when magic spells are restricted. Skills such as Climb, Heal, Linguistics, Perception, Sense Motive, Survival, Swim, and the various Knowledge skills are good substitutes for many of the spells listed above.

21 October

Undetectable Alignment

I’ve never cared much for the “alignment” system that has been a part of our favorite roleplaying game from the early days.

Therefore, in the World of Xoth campaign setting, just like in our own world, the behaviour of individuals are shaped by their culture and personal beliefs, ambitions and ethics, rather than by some artificial “alignment” system that divide people conveniently into groups of good and evil. Having characters act according to their own motivation creates far more interesting situations than a simplistic “I’m good, you’re evil” worldview.

Think of it as “shades of grey” rather than “black and white”.

18 October

The Sign of Xoth

At another house, where people were stirring, he asked questions about the gods, and whether they danced often upon Lerion; but the farmer and his wife would only make the Elder Sign and tell him the way to Nir and Ulthar.

— H. P. Lovecraft: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Many spells and other rules are based on alignments, and they need some adjustment when the alignment system is not used.

Let’s start with Protection from Evil. In the World of Xoth, this common warding spell is called Protection from Witchcraft, and is also known as the Sign of Xoth.

The spell is identical to the description in the rulebook, except replace all instances of “evil creatures” with “magic-using creatures and supernatural creatures”. Note that any spellcaster is a “magic-using creature” under this definition. A “supernatural creature” is a creature that has one or more supernatural (Su) or spell-like (Sp) abilities.

Magic Circle against Evil is called Magic Circle against Witchcraft (or simply Magic Circle).

13 October

The Cultist class

The Cultist class is a variant character class for the PathFinder RPG, based on the Oracle class from the Advanced Player’s Guide (APG).

A Cultist is a member of a religious organisation devoted to the worship of a powerful entity, such as a god or demon. The Cultist starts out as an acolyte, whose duties include studies of the cult’s secret texts, as well as guarding the cult’s temple and protecting its interests. As he rises in the ranks of the cult, the Cultist becomes a teacher of acolytes, standing at the center of rituals of worship and sacrifice. Eventually, he may become high priest of the cult, with full and undisputed control over its temples, treasures, relics and priests.

Class Features

The Cultist class is identical to the Oracle class, except for the differences described below.

Cult Membership (Ex): At 1st level, you must select a cult. Assuming that you pass the Initiation Rite (see below), you become an acolyte of the cult. As an acolyte, you receive free food and shelter in the cult’s local temple, and receive a +2 circumstance bonus to Diplomacy and Intimidate checks in areas where your cult holds power, as long as it is apparent that you belong to the cult.

At 7th level, you become a cult priest. You gain Leadership as a bonus feat, with followers drawn from the cult’s acolytes. You can stay as long as you want in any temple belonging to your cult, and you can also bring up to one guest per Cultist level, who will receive basic food and shelter for free. Your circumstance bonus to Diplomacy and Intimidate rises to +4.

If you leave the cult, you lose all cult-specific benefits, including Cult Spells and Cult Secrets. If you try to join another cult, you are declared anathema and no member of your old cult will rest before you are dead.

[This class feature replaces Mystery.]

Initiation Rite: Before you can become a proper Cultist, you must undergo the cult’s initiation rite. This is different for every cult; see the cult’s description for details. Until the rite has been successfully completed, you cannot use any Cultist class features, except the hit dice, base attack bonus, saving throw bonuses, weapon and armor proficiencies, and class skills that are not cult-specific.

At the end of the initiation rite, a sufficiently high-level cult leader has the option of casting a special Mark of Justice spell upon you, to ensure your loyalty to the cult. This works as per the spell description, except that your own spells (such as Break Enchantment cast by you) are always ineffective against it.

[This class feature replaces Oracle’s Curse.]

Cult Secret: As you advance in levels as a Cultist, you learn new secrets that grant you powers and abilities. At 1st level, 3rd level, and every four levels thereafter (7th, 11th, and so on), you select a new secret from the list of cult secrets listed in the cult’s description. Unless otherwise noted, activating the power of a cult secret is a standard action.

[This class feature replaces Revelation.]

Cult Spells: At 2nd level, and every two levels thereafter, you learn an additional spell taught by your cult. These spells are in addition to the number of spells given on the Spells Known table. They cannot be exchanged for different spells at higher levels.

[This class feature is similar to the Bonus Spells feature of the Oracle’s Mystery.]

Cult Hierarch (Ex): At 20th level, you become the leader of your cult, with full control of the cult’s temples, treasures and relics, and you can command the lesser cult members as you desire. As a cult hierarch, the social circumstance bonuses you receive on Diplomacy and Intimidate checks increase to +8.

If there is already a 20th-level Cultist in your cult, you must defeat him to gain your title and privileges. Likewise, you must be prepared to defend your position against those that rise in the ranks below you.

[This class feature replaces Final Revelation.]


Each cultist must choose a cult. For examples of cults, and their initiation rites and secrets, see the cults in the World of Xoth.


21 March

SPQR d20

Now here’s a little something to impress your gamer friends with: A twenty-sided die from the second century AD. A tad expensive, though…

The notes tell us that “Modern scholarship has not yet established the game for which these dice were used.” But we know better, of course…!

19 March

Cultural Archetypes

In a typical sword and sorcery campaign such as the World of Xoth, the traditional demihumans do not exist, and the majority of player characters and non-player characters are human. The following broad cultural archetypes can be used to distinguish between characters who would otherwise have the same racial abilities.


Savages include warriors from the frozen north and witch-doctors from the snake-infested jungles of the south. Savages tend to have a close connection with nature, but remain ignorant of many developments that more civilized people take for granted.

Savages have the following racial traits:

  • +2 to Strength
  • Sturdy: Permanent benefit as per the endure elements spell, and a +1 natural bonus to Armor Class.
  • Feral: Savages gain a +2 racial bonus to Perception checks.
  • Superstitious: Before attacking any supernatural or magic-using creature, the savage must succeed on a Will save (DC 10 + half level or Hit Dice of creature) or suffer a -4 penalty to attack rolls against that creature until the end of the encounter. Exception: If the character has more levels in spellcasting classes than non-spellcasting classes, the character instead casts spells with a +1 bonus to effective caster level.


Nomads roam the empty wastes beyond the civilized cities; quick to strike and bound by no laws. Nomads live with their animals and usually ride into battle with them; they feel ill at ease without them.

Nomads have the following racial traits:

  • +2 to Dexterity
  • Proud: Iron Will as bonus feat.
  • Unpredictable: The character gains a “wild card” feat. As a standard action, the character can select any feat for which he meets the prerequisites. The selected feat remains active for the rest of the day. After the character rests for eight hours, the wild card feat slot resets to empty.
  • Bowlegged: Base land speed 20 ft.


Savages and nomads eventually gather together to cultivate the land, build great cities, develop trade, and study medicine, mathematics and languages. In the civilized lands dwell noble knights, wise kings, and learned sages — as well as greedy merchants and cunning thieves.

Civilized people have the following racial traits:

  • +2 to one ability score: Civilized characters get a +2 bonus to one ability score of their choice at creation to represent their versatile nature.
  • Educated: One bonus feat at first level, and one extra skill point at each level.
  • Frail: Civilized people have a -2 penalty to saving throws against poison and disease.


A few great civilizations rise above others and gain half-mythical status. Learned beyond normal men, people of enlightened cultures are builders of cyclopean pyramids and towers that pierce the skies. Their magnificent buildings can last forever, and likewise the flesh of the enlightened ones can withstand the passage of time like no other mortals.

Enlightened people have the following racial traits:

  • +2 to Wisdom
  • Uncanny: Once per day, the enlightened can re-roll any dice roll, but must keep the second result, regardless of the outcome. Also, enlightened characters who reach at least 2nd level before the normal human Middle Age (35 years) gain longevity and use the following age categories instead: Middle Age (100 years), Old (200 years), Venerable (300 years), Maximum Age (300 + 3d100 years).
  • Expert Builder: Enlightened ones receive a +2 bonus on Perception checks to potentially notice unusual stonework, such as traps and hidden doors located in stone walls or floors. They receive a check to notice such features whenever they pass within 10 feet of them, whether or not they are actively looking.
  • Conceited: Too confident in their own abilities, enlightened ones often underestimate their enemies. They suffer a -4 penalty to Initiative checks.


Great civilizations reach their peak and eventually start to decline. Such fallen empires are ruled by jaded nobles, corrupt priests and wicked slave-traders. Demon-worship, human sacrifice and drug abuse is all too common in these cultures.

Decadent people have the following racial traits:

  • +2 to Charisma
  • Insidious: +2 bonus to Bluff, Knowledge and Stealth checks, and an additional +1d6 of sneak attack damage if the character has the sneak attack class ability.
  • Arcane Adept: Add +1 to the DC of any saving throw when casting spells.
  • Corrupt: -2 penalty to Will saving throws.


The last survivors of decadent civilizations start to feud over dwindling resources, or are driven away by stronger cultures. Fleeing into the wilderness, or deep underground beneath their ruins, they start to inbreed and devolve into something no longer entirely human. Degenerates may outwardly resemble savages, but they carry the evil taint of fallen empires.

Degenerates have the following racial traits:

  • +2 to Constitution
  • Nocturnal: Degenerates can see twice as far as normal humans in conditions of dim light.
  • Ferocious: Once per day, when a degenerate is brought below 0 hit points but not killed, he can fight on for one more round as if disabled. At the end of his next turn, unless brought to above 0 hit points, he immediately falls unconscious and begins dying.
  • Unwholesome: Degenerates always have a physical deformity or a mental illness, caused by inbreeding, that sets them apart from other humans. This unwholesomeness can never be fully concealed. Degenerates suffer a -4 penalty on Bluff and Diplomacy checks (except when interacting with other degenerates), and the initial reaction of other cultural archetypes will never be better than Unfriendly.
11 March

Echoes of Ibnath

Just came across a mention and short review of Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia, a book I wrote for Necromancer Games back in 2004, over at the Planet Algol blog.

Bill Webb, co-founder of Necromancer Games, approached me back in 2003, and, based on my work on the Hyborian Age Campaign Website, basically gave me free reins to write whatever I wanted. After digging through my old files, here is the initial outline for a book that I submitted to Bill:

I’d like to present to you an idea I have for a mini-campaign. The main concept is the exploration of two lost cities connected to each other by magical gates (although they can also be reached by overland travel).

“City one” is a dead city of the great desert, buried for centuries beneath the desert sands. At the beginning of the campaign, a great sandstorm uncovers the ruins of the city. It is first discovered by desert nomads, but soon attracts the attention of adventurers, including the player characters. As they explore the ruins, they slowly uncover the history of the city and learn of “something” of great power buried in the tombs beneath the city. The ruins are crawling with undead and other foul monsters, of course.

Possible supporting material for “city one” includes:

  • The trek through the great desert, where perils include sudden sandstorms, desert raiders and predatory beasts.
  • Defeating monsters and finding treasure in an oasis near the lost city.
  • Interacting with the desert tribe that first discovered the city.
  • Hearing legends of an immense sand-worm that lives beneath the sand near the city, rumored to cause earth-quakes unless appeased with sacrifice by a worm-cult.
  • Exploring outlying towers or other outposts of the city itself.
  • Interacting with and/or defeating various kinds of undead and monstrous inhabitants of the city, such as a ghoul-queen, a terrible one-eyed bat, an immortal sphinx guarding secret wisdom, and spectral priests haunting the city’s temples.
  • Exploring the cyclopean architecture of the lost city, learning its history. The principal locations of the city include a great temple guarded by undead clerics, an artificial sacred lake, several gargantuan obelisks inscribed with powerful sorcery, and the trap-filled tombs beneath the city.
  • Finding the gate that leads to “city two”.

“City two” is a hidden city of the jungle, inhabited by a race of serpent-people and ruled by a powerful sorcerer (the grand villain of the mini-campaign). The city is surrounded by the lands of cannibal tribes worshipping foul, alien gods. The city itself is an immense labyrinth where all chambers are interconnected. During their explorations, the player characters might discover that the key to defeating the sorcerer-king of “city two” is to be found in “city one” (the desert city). The existence of a gate between the two cities allows the player characters to travel back and forth between the two settings, while also allowing the main villain to send his servants to harass intruders anywhere.

Possible supporting material for “city two” includes:

  • The lands of the cannibal tribes, with shamans worshipping strange gods.
  • A lake inhabited by a monstrous being whose strange dreams draw humans to it.
  • Labyrinthine, interconnecting chambers inhabited by serpent-people with strange magics and treasures; shrines dedicated to the ancient serpent-god; and sacrificial pits where huge snakes slither across the yellowed skulls and bones of countless victims.
  • An undercity inhabited by slime-covered, tentacled beasts, and albino savages who were once men but are reverting to ape-kind.
  • The deadly lair of the city’s sorcerer-king, guarded by his serpent minions.

The two cities of the mini-campaign will be set in a generic sword-and-sorcery location which includes barbarian warrior lands to the north, a great but corrupted city-state on the central plains, a great desert inhabited by nomads to the southwest, and savannah fading into dense jungle to the south.

I’ll be aiming for a feel combining elements of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, mixed with the usual elements of fantasy adventures. The world will be dominated by humans (mighty warriors, evil sorcerers and beautiful women) and filled with exotic locales. Standard D&D magic rules apply, but magic items and flashy spells will be uncommon. However, there will be no shortage of tentacled gods, powerful necromancy and strange relics of bygone ages.

As it turned out, “city one” was enough for one book by itself; it became Ibnath, “a city of unspeakable antiquity”, also known as “the City That Worshipped a Thousand Gods”. (Side note: Perhaps if you want to use the original idea of two linked cities, you could use Dwellers of the Forbidden City as that second city, it would fit the bill quite nicely.)

Clark Peterson, the other co-founder of Necromancer Games, listed Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia as one of his all-time Top Five books from Necromancer Games. He also happens to own the original cover painting by Rick Sardinha (hey Clark, if you ever need money, I’ll give you a good price for that painting! :-).

Inspired by a certain big award ceremony,  I’d like to take this opportunity to send a big thank you to Bill and Clark for giving me the opportunity to write a “real book” back in the heydays of Third Edition D&D. Who knows when Necromancer Games will be resurrected from the dead? You know, that is not dead which can eternal lie….

10 March

The Dungeon ABC

Got my copy of The Dungeon Alphabet from Goodman Games today. There’s already a long list of glowing reviews of this book, so I’ll just join the choir of praise: This is a great book! Well worth 10 bucks.

My bookshelf includes a couple of other (more or less) system-neutral books that I have found useful when designing dungeons and wilderness encounters, including (in no specific order):

  • Toolbox from AEG
  • Wilderness & Wasteland from Sword & Sorcery Studios
  • Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook from TSR
  • Book of Challenges from Wizards of the Coast
  • Gary Gygax’s Insidiae from Troll Lord Games

Some of these may be (long) out of print, but are worth hunting down if you are interested in dungeon and adventure design. Most of them include a lot of tables for random generation, just like the Dungeon Alphabet.