After dedicating this year to playing games (as opposed to writing them) I’ve been reading through my backlog of games and adventures.
There I discovered that Zak Sabbath had dominated my library. In particular there are three books that I’m going to gush about in this article:
All three are united by fantastic layout, weirdness, and evocative writings. More importantly, each book contains hundreds of story seeds that will make your games feel fresh and weird.
When I say “seeds”, I mean nuggets of ideas with incredible potential. These are the kinds of ideas that you could build adventures and campaigns around…and each book contains hundreds of these seeds! When I read through Zak’s stuff I have to keep a notebook nearby lest these seeds fall from my brain. There are so many!
As I go through each book I’m going to list off some the seeds that I remember. I’ll do this entire article without looking back for examples. Hopefully this will demonstrate how well these ideas can stick in your brain and germinate.
I could show a bunch of pictures here, but this video review by Questing Beast is a far superior way to get a feel for this book. Purchase a copy here.
Vornheim is a toolbox for making cities. Not just connected roads and shopkeepers, but cities that thrive with political scandal, feuding factions, and vibrant characters.
In this regard Vornheim is a rousing success. I’ve always hated running cities because they all end up looking the same. But Vornheim makes me excited about what the players will find down the next alley.
However I want to show off the seeds Zak has planted in Vornheim, rather than the city-specific stuff. Some of the seeds are scattered among the random tables, but the big ones are right in the descriptions and details of Vornheim.
First three Seeds I remember:
- Snakes can be read like books. Different kinds of snakes contain different kinds of information, and when they shed they grow new content. Libraries are filled with snake tanks and breeders. You could run an entire campaign based on hunting down specific kinds of snakes for information.
- The nobles show off their wealth and free time by walking large slow pets. Giant lobsters or huge turtles. A simple adventure could be escorting an eccentric noble as they slowly walk across the city.
- The laws in the city are in a constant state of flux. Officials claim it’s to prevent criminals from gaming the system, but really it’s to give the nobles an edge over the uneducated masses. The players are caught by the city guards and must wade through a complex and convoluted legal system.
I can think of about 10 more off the top of my head, but this article will be long enough as it is.
I whipped up a one-page reference for Vornheim.
A Red and Pleasant Land
Another excellent video from Questing Beast to start things off. Purchase your own copy here.
A Red and Pleasant Land details another world that runs alongside our own. A world filled with strange and bizarre sights. A world overrun with vampires that have decimated the human race.
The pitch I give is “Alice in Wonderland + Vampires”, but that’s not completely accurate. Instead the book is filled with tables and procedures for evoking that feeling of Alice. It’s not just a re-hash of sights and characters from the story, but a twisted reflection of them mixed with new ideas. Everything is “consistently weird”. Just as players start to get a feel for the logic of this place something new and strange pops up.
If you’re looking for a world that will constantly surprise, delight, and terrify your players, this is the setting for you. Now let’s talk seeds.
First three Seeds I remember:
- When vampires run out of hit points they revert to small chess pieces or cards while they regenerate. They can only be truly killed with a stake to the heart or direct sunlight. In my current game the players have collected a pile of chess pieces they don’t know what to do with. These pieces will turn back into vampires very soon….
- Shrinking down to a small size allows you to speak with animals. The group always keeps one member small so they can sneak around unnoticed and talk to animals. They have to constantly protect and carry around the small player.
- The Heart Queen is ruthless and quick to anger. She loves chopping off heads. The Heart King is timid and merciful. When she’s not around he will spare her victims. The players are spared by the King, but are forced to take on new identities and perform missions for him.
Again, that’s just a small taste of the great ideas planted in this book.
I whipped up a one-page reference for the different vampire factions.
Maze of the Blue Medusa
Maze details an inter-dimensional prison made up of 300+ rooms filled with strange and dangerous beings. The warden has built the Maze more like a gallery than a prison, and each room is written as if to feature a work of art rather than a monster.
Although the number of rooms can be overwhelming, the layout and writing help keep everything together. Each room offers something surprising. The best part of the Maze is that, while dangerous, combat is not the best way to overcome most obstacles. Creatures in the Maze are more like people than monsters, and knowing their motivations is the key to survival.
First three Seeds I remember:
- One of the first beings you encounter is seeking something within the Maze, but is so powerful that they can’t move through the hallways without destroying them. This characters gives quests and rewards to the players.
- One of the random encounters is a group of monks who maintain the Maze. They put monsters back in their rooms, clean up messes, and offer supplies to any trapped within the Maze. The players could track these useful monks back to their lair, and maybe find some supplies
- A room contains a light source at its center. Any shadows cast on the floor become holes that anyone can fall into. Players can become trapped here by falling into holes, and must ambush whoever comes along next. This effectively turns the players into a random encounter for the monsters!
I haven’t made a reference for Maze…not yet anyway!
Steal Zak’s Brain
If you need weird, evocative story seeds for your table, then try to steal as much of Zak’s brain as you can handle. You won’t regret it.