The Black Powder Manifesto

Black powder is comprised of three basic parts: charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur. Apply a bit of fire and not only do you get an explosion, you get a big puff of smoke and an aftermath of highly corrosive residue. This "explosion of consequences" can be found at the heart of most memorable and frequently retold stories. The death of Caesar. The choice of Paris. The storming of the Bastille. In each case, a powder keg of decisions, relationships, beliefs, debts and random chance ignited and we retell the stories of the explosion's flash, smoke and caustic consequences to this day.

This book, The Dark of Hot Springs Island, contains the materials to make powder for your table top game. 270 detailed rooms and locations provide plenty of flammable surface area. 7 factions, 87 detailed NPCs and 300 problematic treasures quickly lower the flash point of the status quo. A web of interconnected back story and NPC relationships ensures the burn is a messy affair with lingering repercussions. Your players of course are the spark, and with 448 random events and encounter motivations, every play through on the island can explode into wildly different outcomes from the same basic parameters.

But, like a tub of colorful plastic building blocks, the total number of bricks isn't as important as their modularity, so ignore pieces. Add new ones. Throw things out, or change them up completely. Combining the ingredients in different ratios should still lead to plenty of explosions. All that is really needed to run this hexcrawl is characters, the map, and the hex key [PAGE]. Everything else exists solely to provide consequences for the decisions your group makes as they explore. Every monster, NPC, treasure, dungeon room and overland point of interest is webbed together, but unlike Ariadne's thread, following these leads deeper into the labyrinth.

This setting is system neutral, so there are no stats for monsters or prepackaged treasure parcels. No levels are assumed, and there is no path of expected advancement through this tropical wilderness. The monsters will likely be tough, and the intelligent factions even tougher, but the motivations for (and thus potential leverage against) everything with a modicum of intelligence has been detailed. Combat is expected to be approached like war, and not a perfectly balanced arena skirmish. Crack the mountains. Flood the dungeons, and set everything on fire to survive.

On Hexes

Hot Springs Island is made up of 25, 2 mile hexes. Each hex contains three points of interest for players to discover and explore. These points are all physical locations that can be revisited and are not one time events or encounters.

There are three locations per hex in an effort to make the wilderness feel dense, but these do not have fixed coordinates within the hex to keep things abstract. Each location is numbered (1, 2, 3) and when a party arrives in a hex they will generally encounter the first point. This first point is normally an obvious natural feature or settlement, while the second and third points are typically less obvious, but noteworthy locales. These additional locations are best discovered by parties that have become lost in the jungle, spend time exploring, or are revealed by an NPC guide or object.

Players should have access to a map of Hot Springs Island as they play the game, and the enclosed map has blanks to fill in as points of interest are discovered. This way, in addition to the points becoming destinations, they can act as a sort of collection mini-game showing players that more is out there, waiting to be found.

On Time

The game master is strongly encouraged to use time as an enemy. As the players ignite the island's status quo time crunches, paired with distance, help make choices meaningful and help the island feel alive. Both the Fuegonauts and the Night Axe hold important events on nights with a new moon, and their bases are 8 hours away from one another on foot, so a plan that requires being at both events becomes much trickier to pull off.

In an effort to simplify tracking time for overland travel, we use a unit of time we call a watch. A watch is 4 hours long, meaning a day is made up of 6 watches. Traveling from a point of interest in one hex to a point in a neighboring hex takes one watch. Exploring a hex to find one of its other points of interest takes another.

Assuming 2 mile hexes of overgrown, often mountainous, jungle with no roads or trails to speak of, spending 4 hours to get from point A to point B and deal with an encounter felt like the right amount of abstraction. It also makes a day easily divisible. With this system if an NPC demands something "in three days time" it becomes very simple to set up three stacks of six poker chips and show your players their deadline. Removing those chips, one at a time, as they make decisions and come across new encounters has proven to be an amazing motivator.

On Tables

For the wilderness (i.e., the hexcrawl), motivation and encounter tables answer the age old question of "What did you just find and what is it doing?" These tables use 3d6 and they are stacked, or nested. For example, if the adventurers are in an area of Heavy Jungle you will roll 3d6 on this table:

Heavy Jungle

All of these results (elemental, intelligent, beast) tell you which table to roll on next. If you get a result of beast you would roll 3d6 on the Heavy Jungle Beast table, and then another 3d6 on the beast motivation table. A roll of intelligent on this table requires a couple more rolls to determine faction and party size and then a roll on the intelligent motivation table.

This is, absolutely, a lot of rolling to determine a single encounter. Because of this, there is an interactive digital map so you can touch the hex your party is in and have your computer, phone or tablet roll for you if you like. But why do it this way and require multiple tables and multiple dice for each roll? Because of probability, territory and to establish a sense of "normal" that the game master does not have to keep track of. By nesting the tables and breaking them out by terrain areas can be differentiated by encounter. For example, coppermane prowlers live and nest in the mountains while broadbacks live in light jungle where they have room to move around. Additionally, the party will likely encounter Night Axe ogres around the north side of the island, and Fuegonauts around the central volcano.

Pseudo-naturalism sometimes gets a bad rap in table top games, but here on Hot Springs Island its purpose is to  establish that this world doesn't need the players. It has its own rhythm and system, and the players are the intruders. By defining normality it becomes easier to show what is strange, and it enables the game master to show the player's impact on the island by tweaking a few results on a sub table. For example, should the players decide to side with Svarku and his Fuegonauts and begin killing every Night Axe ogre in sight, as time goes by, Night Axe results on the intelligent tables can be replaced by Fuegonaut. If the players decide to establish a town and bring in their friends, "Adventurer" and "Intelligent" results can be increased and "Elemental" and "Beast" results can fade before the onslaught of civilization. Additionally, by pegging certain results to certain terrain types, misplaced monsters become a call to adventure. "What has driven the coppermane prowlers down from the mountains?" Likewise, A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island details out all the monster body parts that have value to the various factions. So now, a party that wishes to get into the good graces of a faction can take the knowledge they have gained of the land and go hunting.

In dungeons, villages, ruins and other "roomed" sublocations on the island the tables are slightly different. For these areas there are only three 3d6 tables, with no nesting. The first table, called "What's happening?" defines a zone wide event, or context for the area. Then there is an encounter and motivation table. The probability afforded by using 3d6 tables, when paired with motivations, helps establish the vibe of the sublocation. In dangerous, war torn areas there are much higher chances to get motivation results like fighting, fleeing or dying. Whereas in areas that are more stable, the local inhabitants have a higher likelihood of being found eating/drinking, repairing/maintaining, or social/creative. This effect can also be used to create places of transition where most of the creatures encountered are just passing through. As with the overland hexmap, establishing normal enables abnormal results to stand out as hooks to adventure.

NTRPG Con and a Zine

This past weekend I had a vendor table at NTRPG Con 2016. I was mostly stuck to my booth, but I met quite a few awesome people hustled a few copies of A Field Guide to Hot Springs Island. On Saturday Evan and Donnie made it up (and promptly took this awesome picture of me not looking at them after they handed me awesome magnets to look at) and ran an impromptu game of Hot Springs Island using D&D 5e.

By all accounts it went well!

As it stands now, we're short a few maps and illustrations for the Hot Springs Island project, and we're (hopefully) looking at an end of summer completion date.

Since artists like to get paid, I whipped up a quick zine called Toxic Elven Smut to sell at NTRPG Con. I have a few copies left (9 at the moment I write this post). It's 28 pages long and contains: a brief illustrated history of the elves, a map of the elven ruins of Hot Springs City, and 5 monsters found therein. All funds raised from this zine will be going directly to those artists. Shipping is only set up for the US right now, but if you're located elsewhere and would like to snag a copy, PM me and I'm sure we can figure something out.

If you'd like to snag a copy head over to

Chupacabra Con - Recap

Swordfish Islands at Chupacabra Con 2016 - A Recap

The Good Things:
People said some very nice things about Hot Springs Island, the highlights being: About The Dark of Hot Springs Island (The GM book) "I've never been so excited about a book I can't have". About the Field Guide (paraphrased) "[The Game Master at my table] said your book was the best $20 he's spent at this convention and that I needed to buy a copy too, so tell me about your game."

If people would give me 10 seconds, they'd almost always end up giving me several minutes of their time, and probably money or at least an email address. They also appeared to be legitimately enthused when they walked away, or at least more animated.

The Bad Things:
Chupacabra Con has an innate hierarchy. Attendees -> Vendors -> Guests -> VIPs (and it may actually be that Guests are the top of the food chain). Ostensibly these distinctions are not inherently bad, but here's an example of how it plays out. On Friday night, around dinner time a staff member of the convention began walking from vendor table to vendor table, or so it seemed. I couldn't tell what they were doing 'till they got to the table immediately to my left. Then I could clearly hear them ask the vendor how things were going, if they needed anything, and then offer them water and snacks. The staffer then walked directly past my table, without even looking at me, to the next table, where they repeated the pleasantries. Feels bad man. On Saturday, the same thing happened, only the staffer passed me from right to left, and was going around to have people sign a shirt for the silent auction. At this point I realized that they were only going between Guests. These were literally the only interactions (non-interactions?) I had with staffers aside from signing in at the convention, and one "hey how's it going?" in passing. Is it a big deal? No. Did it feel like I'd paid for the privilege of being pseudo-shunned? Yes.

Possible solutions: There were only about 20 vendor tables, and you can buy packs of water and snacks in 24 packs. Why not just offer it to everyone? If that's too much to ask, why not arrange the vendor tables in such a way that guest vendors and paid vendors on opposite sides of the hall, instead of interspersed?

The Terrible, Horrible Thing I'm Ashamed Of.
While at the convention, I saw a young artist approach the creator of a million dollar kickstarter and _I think_ (but am not 100% sure) to check out the portfolio of work she was holding. I wasn't paying attention to the conversation until I heard Mr. Kickstarter saying (paraphrased) that if he looked at an artist's resume and saw that they did small amounts of work for lots of different people that he would assume they were a bad and/or difficult to work with artist. A good artist should be called on repeatedly by the same clients. There's nothing inherently wrong with this but it made my ears perk up because of the finality(?) of the statements. Over in the DIY pits, I see freelancers doing work for many different people, constantly, because no one has the budget to pay for an artist repeatedly. So someone good, in a year, could do work for many different people _because that's where the money is_, and not because they're a bad artist, or difficult to work with.

Mr. Kickstarter then asked the artist if she knew who Alphonse Mucha was. She didn't , and he said "Alphonse Mucha _invented_ art noveau, but he didn't do art. He did advertisements." And then I started feeling ill as all of Mucha's beautiful work was dismissed as just "coke ads", to build up to the whole point of the conversation being: "As an artist you give the people what they want because they're paying you for it."

And I did nothing. I sat there, a lame ass eavesdropper, and felt sick, and pulled up the wikipedia article on Mucha because I was pretty sure he wasn't just an "ad man", but wasn't fully confident, and didn't want to interject on a million dollar earning authority without all my ducks in a row. So I was a coward, and I still feel awful.

I should have stood up and said "Hold on guys. The stuff about Mucha is bullshit, and there is another way. The artist does _NOT_ have to be subservient to the writer/creator. It can be a collaboration. In fact, a collaboration between an artist and creator from the beginning is where you can get your strongest stuff. Form a feedback loop. Be equal partners. A writer can allow themselves to be pushed into strange and wonderful new directions by the art they receive, instead of saying "this is beautiful, but not what I wanted so here's your $10 kill fee." And I could have fought a fight that needs fighting.

But I doubted myself, and the thing I was making, and the system I believe in, and said nothing. And they went to lunch. And all I did was publicly overshare on the internet.

Notes on the Florida Keys - Part 7

Chapter 7: Naval Indian Hunters



During that time, her sailors helped the citizens clear the woods at the edge of town to hamper the Seminole's ability to launch a surprise attack.

The Key West Inquirer lamented, "We have no cannon, but must depend solely on the muskets without bayonets, rifles, pistols and a species of short broad swords or, more properly, cane-knives, for our defense."

Jacob Housman was not about to abandon his forty-thousand dollar empire to the savages. He formed a twenty four man militia comprising all the able-bodied white males and six negro slaves. He advanced them pay and subsistence at regular Army rates, assuming he would ultimately be repaid by the government. Not surprisingly, the militiamen elected Housman their captain. With the help of all the settlers, the militia constructed defensive embankments and mounted six cannon at strategic points around the island.

In the meantime, the islanders saw more and more signs of the presence of warriors in the upper Keys. [so cryptic... what signs?!]

When the fire reached the lantern room, it broke the glass and set Thompson's clothes on fire. Thompson decided to end his suffering by throwing a keg of gunpowder down into the inferno. But instead of killing him, the explosion blew out the fire.

To vary their dull routine and diet, the crew had planted a farm-garden on Key Largo. On October 5, 1836, a band of about seventy natives crossed Florida Bay to Key Largo and destroyed the garden and storage buildings.

The Seminoles looted the vessel and then burned her.

At the time he was trying to get Indian Key designated a port entry so he could bring wrecked ships and cargoes to his domain instead of to his rivals in Key West. In his typical scheming fashion, he offered each sailor and marine a glass of grog in return for a signature on his port-of-entry petition. Nearly all signed happily, some more than once.

On the morning of June 23, 1837, a band of natives ambushed and killed the captain of the Carysfort Reef lightship and one of his crewmen as they stepped ashore on Key Largo to gather wood for the ship's stove. [There it is again. Stove wood - the ultimate call to adventure]

Coste sent a boat with muffled oars (wrapped in canvas to reduce noise from rubbing in the rowlocks) to investigate.

Afraid the sickness would spread to the Poinsett's crew, Mayo sent the surgeon and his assistant, together with several nursing attendants, ashore to set up a hospital. Sailors erected a large tent made from sails. In a short while, the medical staff became ill, and one of the nursing attendants died.

On Tea Table [Key], sailors and marines underwent intensive training in handling the small boats and canoes and in firing small arms. They also set up a hospital for possible future casualties and for men who might come down with malaria.

...the crew's standard fare was beef, pork, bread, and cheese with a daily ration of whiskey. On rare occasion the monotony of the menu was relieved by the receipt of fresh turtle meat.

One disgruntled seaman deserted while the Wave was taking on supplies at Key West - a poor choice for a place to escape. Three weeks later he was back aboard, lashed to the gratings, with all hands mustered to witness punishment. The log entry simply read that he was "punished with the cats for desertion."

Over the next six months McLaughlin led his men on probes up rivers and streams along the southern coast and into the fringes of the Everglades. No Seminoles were found, but the sailors and marines learned how to paddle and pole their boats through dense sawgrass and muck, and how to live, eat and sleep onboard their tiny craft for days on end.

McLaughlin went to Fort Dallas to try to obtain John's services as a guide but was refused. He was allowed to talk to the prisoner, who was cooperative and even volunteered directions to Chakaika's island deep in the Everglades. Armed with this information, McLaughlin led an expedition to try and find Chakaika's hideout. But after just seven days of wandering in the sawgrass wilderness, his men were exhausted and he realized it was hopeless without a guide.

When they saw the Wave, crowded with men and canoes, sail away, they knew the moment had arrived to launch their attack. At 2:00 the next morning August 7th, 1840, the warriors beached seventeen dugout canoes on Indian Key and crept silently among the houses. Only the chance sleeplessness of a carpenter saved the inhabitants from annihilation. Looking out his door, he saw the canoes pulled up on the beach and awoke his neighbor. Together the headed toward Housman's house to spread the alarm. On the way, the accidentally stumbled across the warriors lying in wait to mak their attack. Shots were fired, which awoke the settlers. In the darkness and confusion, most of the inhabitants found hiding places or escaped in boats, but the attackers discovered and killed five of them.

...two turtling boats from Key Vaca foolishly ventured into Florida Bay. When they were near Sandy Key, just south of Cape Sable, a band of Indians in dugouts and boats began chasing them.

The razorsharp sawgrass cut their uniforms to shreds and inflicted festering wounds. ... Heat, mosquitoes, exhaustion, and fever were the real enemies. One officer's report read, "Private Kingsbury fell in his trail and died from sheer exhaustion". Passed Midshipman Preble returned from a fifty-eight day scout with his legs so badly infected from sawgrass cuts and mud that the navy surgeon at Indian Key prepared to amputate them. Fortunately for the midshipman... the surgeon reconsidered, but it was two years before his legs healed.

A Congressional committee... made a number of allegations against McLaughlin, including unnecessary and extravagant purchases, collusion with a merchant on Indian Key, double issue of rations for sick men, misuse of government property, profitable speculation in currency exchanges, and improperly receiving pay as a captain instead of as a lieutenant in command.

Notes on the Florida Keys - 5&6

Chapter 5: Mexican Interlopers

As one officer wrote, "We march into the country and play them all sorts of pranks." In one of these pranks, a Mexican landing force went ashore a few miles from Havana and captured a mule train carrying coffee. [a whole mule train aboard a shipwreck. or other animal train. camels! rhinos! a circus! mythical beasts!]

While the captain held the men at bay with cocked pistols, David and Simms fastened irons on their wrists and removed the bayonets they found hidden in their shirts. But now there were only six men to handle the schooner and still keep guard on twenty-three prisoners. The captain solved this problem in a unique manner: He had twenty-three pairs of holes cut in the cabin roof, put the prisoner's feet into the holes and chained them together.

Hopner... was deliberately wrecking his prizes on remote Florida Keys. He would sell their cargo to Joshua Appleby, proprietor of a small wrecker's settlement on Key Vaca. This was a violation of international law and an evasion of customs duties.


Chapter 6: Revenue Cutter Men

The cutter's boat crews also boarded and captured a nearby schooner that proved to be a Spanish vessel the Bravo had captured. Passengers who had been on the Spanish schooner told the cutter's officers that the pirates had robbed them of all their possessions, including the clothes they were wearing. When the female passengers had begged the pirates to let them have something to cover themselves, the cutthroats had simply drawn their swords and cursed them.

The Marion, built on the lines of a Baltimore clipper, was sixty-five feet long and displaced seventy-eight tons. ...captain and two lieutenants... manned by a crew of twenty, including a boatswain, gunner, carpenter, sailmaker, cook and steward.

The following year, with Doane still in command, the Marion was asked to provide assistance in an entirely different situation involving slaves. A Spanish slave ship had wrecked on the reef off Key Largo while being chased by a British warship. The Spanish crew seized an American wrecking schooner and an American fishing smack and forced them to carry 398 of the captive Africans to Cuba. A wrecking sloop, which had taken 121 slaves off the wreck, escaped seizure and carried them to Key West. ... Some local residents made attempts to bribe or force the marshal to turn the slaves over to them. The marshal sent an urgent plea for help to the captain of the Marion. ... When it became apparent that the Africans would not be safe in Key West, they were taken to St. Augustine with the Marion serving as escort.

He said the Marion would be ready to begin operations as soon as the crew finished gathering stove wood and filling water tanks. Pickney advised Jackson to be on the lookout for certain wreckers from Indian Key whom he suspected were smuggling cargoes they salvaged from wrecks by hiding them on remote Keys.

... search along the north coast of Cuba for a pirate schooner that had taken four American merchant vessels and killed their crews.

The sloop's captain told the boarding officer that he was bound for New London from Key West in ballast.... This aroused the officer's suspicions because the Dry Tortugas are not on the route between Key West and New London. Upon opening the cargo hatches, he saw a number of cotton bales.

The cutter's crew subsisted principally on pickled or salted beef and pork, beans, and bread, but occasionally dined on fresh turtle or fish they caught. A daily ration of whiskey helped to break the monotony of the diet.

She furnished food and water to the starving crew of a brig, sent medicine to the sick captain and mate of a schooner, helped free a vessel that was aground, and arrested the leaders of a potential mutiny on an American merchant ship at Havana.

[aground but not wrecked. sounds relatively common]

[prisoners as cargo]

Two seamen caught hold of a small canoe that floated free and, after two days and two nights clinging to it with the waves washing over them, were picked up by a passing vessel.

Great Hurricane of 1846.... water in the streets rose to five feet.

Fearful of parting the anchor chains, the captain ordered the mainmast cut away. The mast fell but failed to go over the side because the triatic stay... had failed to part. [ordering damage to ships to prevent them from wrecking and to recover stuff from wrecks is something that I don't think about enough]

Later examination revealed that the Morris had stranded in water normally two feet dep and had bilged (her underwater hull was torn open). She was a total loss, but mercifully, all her crew had survived the terrible ordeal.