Sunday, April 16, 2017

In Dungeons & Dragons, every location is a dungeon

Also posted in r/DnD because nobody actually reads this blog

Hugo Darnaut (1850-1937), Dürnstein on the Danube, 1876

In Dungeons & Dragons, “dungeon” refers to any underground or interior system of corridors and chambers: rooms connected by hallways. Their layouts run the gamut from totally linear—just one path through—to bewilderingly labyrinthine. Dungeons have their own ecologies and are often dynamic. That is, those orcs don’t just lock themselves in a 20x20 room waiting for adventurers to wander in; they live there, they move around in it, they engage with other factions occupying the space.
Every DM knows how to run a dungeon. Something about it just makes sense: you go from room to room, you encounter obstacles and traps along the way, you interact with objects and NPCs, you fight monsters, you find treasure. You might even learn something about the history of the setting while you’re at it. It's a self-contained area where adventures happen.
It might be helpful to think about outdoor adventures the same way. When your players strike out into the wilderness, there’s no need to reinvent the game (a lesson I learned from constantly trying to reinvent the game). Just exchange your graph paper for hex paper.
Instead of drawing rooms and hallways, you’re drawing plains, hills, and forests separated by mountains, rivers, and canyons.
Instead of stocking rooms with furniture, artwork, chains on the walls, the vials and alembics of an alchemist, or barrels and chests, you're stocking outdoor areas with trees, plants, logs on the ground, stones, ruins, mile markers, road signs, abandoned wagons, and old campsites.
You still have monster and NPC encounters, just at longer distances. You can still find “secret doors” in the form of treasure hidden inside a tree or behind a stone in a wall or as previously unknown mountain passes and river fords. You may still be confronted by traps in the form of rickety rope bridges held up by worn-out ropes, rockslides, traps and snares set by hunters, or scree that can cause you to lose your footing and go tumbling down a hillside.
I’ve built entire campaigns by drawing a hex map, stocking each hex by rolling on random tables, and then building the backstory by drawing connections between whatever ends up in each hex. That’s a lot of planning up front, both in making the tables and in stocking each hex, but once you do it, you won’t have to prep again for a long time (unless the party makes a beeline for the uncharted corners of the map!). You could even save yourself the up-front prep and just roll on the random tables as the party enters each hex if you are confident in your improvisation skills. But many dungeon adventures involve exploring a specific, self-contained underground area; by the same token, your players could be tasked with exploring a specific 6 hex by 6 hex region of the map, whether to map the area, catalog plant species, prospect for precious metals, or drive off monsters.
When designing wilderness areas, whether it’s just to get the party from point A to point B or to create a wilderness adventure, set it up the same way you’d set up a dungeon. The game is Dungeons & Dragons, but you don’t have to take that phrase literally. Everything is a dungeon if you believe in your heart it is.
This might be met with "well, yeah, no kidding" by experienced DMs, but it's something that took me a long time to figure out on my own, so I hope it is helpful to people struggling with the same questions.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Law and Chaos

“The Weird of the White Wolf,” The Elric Saga, Vol. I, Michael Moorcock

“Despairingly, sometimes, I seek the comfort of a benign God, Shaarilla. My mind goes out, lying awake at night, searching through black barrenness for something—anything—which will take me to it, warm me, protect me, tell me that there is order in the chaotic tumble of the universe; that it is consistent, this precision of the planets, not simply a brief, bright spark of sanity in an eternity of malevolent anarchy.” (315)

“Without some confirmation of the order of things, my only comfort is to accept the anarchy. This way, I can revel in chaos and know, without fear, that we are all doomed from the start—that our brief existence is both meaningless and damned. I can accept, then, that we are more than forsaken, because there was never anything there to forsake us. I have weighed the proof, Shaarilla, and must believe that anarchy prevails, in spite of all the laws which seemingly govern our actions, or sorcery, our logic. I see only the chaos in the world. If the Book we seek tells me otherwise, then I shall gladly believe it. Until then, I will put my trust only in my sword and myself.” (316)

“Know you not that two forces govern the world—fighting an eternal battle?” Elric replied. “Law and Chaos. The upholders of Chaos state that in such a world as they rule, all things are possible. Opponents of Chaos—those who ally themselves with the forces of Law—say that without law nothing material is possible.

“Some stand apart, believing that a balance between the two is the proper state of things, but we cannot.” (329)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Keep Githzerai Chaotic

In the Fiend Folio and the Planescape Campaign Setting, the Githzerai are both monastic and chaotic. The FF Githzerai are chaotic neutral, while Planescape Githzerai PCs can be of any nonlawful alignment. I like the idea of a chaotic monk, or, at least, someone of an ascetic disposition who is at home in the fluidity of chaos. I get the idea of a lawful neutral species refining their disciplined minds by giving structure and order to the chaos of Limbo, but that’s not what I want from Githzerai.  The Githzerai in my 5e Planescape campaign are nonlawful in nature. The following is an attempt to flesh out their philosophy a little more, written from the perspective of a sage from Sigil. I should probably refine this further before posting it, but I can always come back to it later.

Max Ernst, "Europe After the Rain," 1941

The Githzerai: Brothers and Sisters in Limbo

“To be in Limbo”: in the Common tongue, the phrase usually connotes a state of inertia instigated by uncertainty or mental paralysis: we cannot decide; the process is in limbo. The process has momentarily halted its deliberate movement.

But for the Githzerai who dwell on the Plane of Limbo, the phrase has a much different meaning. While still connoting a state of uncertainty, that uncertainty results not in stasis but in boundless possibility.

The name “Limbo” derives from the common language of a Prime world long forgotten, but scholars of the planes hold that its literal definition was “boundary.” In that sense, the Plane of Limbo is the boundary between Ysgard—a realm of individualistic creativity in the name of selfless benevolence and live-giving renewal—and the deranged, vile, and destructive chaos of Pandemonium. The Plane of Limbo, then, is a realm of amoral chaos: no meaning, only information; no objects, only matter; no telos, only process.

The challenge of taming such a realm has drawn many Lawful sentient species to Limbo. Those of a Lawful predisposition come to order the chaos, to divide its swirling intensities into islands of stability, outposts of sensibility in a nonsense world. The geometric monuments to cosmic Law rarely last more than a few generations, however, as Limbo’s accelerated entropy tears mortar from stone and batters stone to dust. It seems Limbo actively opposes any attempt to structure it.

The Githzerai of Limbo have learned to live with the chaos rather than struggle against it. Their communities are unlike any other in the multiverse, different even from those of the Slaad. Those with the will to survive the vortices of plasma and other strange states of matter eddying through the void find themselves transformed, deconstructed, reshaped.

For the Githzerai, one result of living in such a place is the realization of the multiplicity of the self. Limbo isn’t merely a static buffer between “good” chaos and “evil” chaos but a catalyst for transformation, an edge of perception beyond which anything is possible. Even the body itself is a “Limbo,” a boundary or limit, that exists to be overcome. The monastic Githzerai warriors and assassins have learned to overcome that boundary through the science of psionics. They also possess a curious incompatibility with magic. The nature of this aversion still requires additional study.

It is disorienting enough to parley with a Githzerai from Sigil or one of the Gate Towns, but to meet a Githzerai in Limbo is even stranger. Their humanoid bodies are stretched and flattened into formless blobs by the winds of chaos. They can physically and mentally combine with one another into a single entity, and when they reform as individuals, their personalities may be completely altered by the agglomeration and disaggregation of  many minds. They reproduce through a similar process of sedimentation: a dozen Githzerai assemble and then disassemble into thirteen individuals, each of them transformed in the process. It is said that the human mind contains multitudes; this is literally the case for the Githzerai.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

PC Race: Revenant (Fantasy AGE Conversion)

Savor the flavor here
Mario de Maria, Vecie straze al ciaro de luna (1918)

Modify your character as follows:

·         Add 1 to your Constitution ability
·         Pick one of the following ability focuses: Constitution (Drinking) or Strength (Might)
·         Your speed is equal to 10 + Dexterity (minus armor penalty)
·         You require no food, drink, or air to survive. You retain the ability to eat and drink, and many do so, whether for the pleasure it provides or to simply feel human once again.
·         You can speak and read Common and either Abyssal, Infernal, or Celestial.
·         Roll twice on the following table:

2d6      Benefit
2          +1 Fighting
3-4       Focus: Constitution (Stamina)
5          Focus: Communication (Seduction)
6          Focus: Strength (Climbing)
7-8       +1 Constitution
9          Focus: Willpower (Courage)
10-11   Focus: Dexterity (Stealth)
12        +1 Strength

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

De Origine Draconum II: Axolotl

“And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he's making up a story, he's going to write all this about axolotls.”  
Rebecca Guay, "A Blessing of Leeches"

Before becoming a dragon, one must form a symbiotic bond with creatures called axolotls. This process may take years or even decades, and all but the most robust, most intelligent, and most wise among those who attempt the transformation will survive.

Axolotls are spontaneously generated by the collision of arcane currents that surround portals between planes. On the Prime Material Plane, these portals are found in the most extreme environments: the deepest ocean trenches or most remote mountain lakes might hide a portal to the Plane of Water; volcanic wells plunging into the churning ocean of molten rock below the earth might lead to the Plane of Fire; the thick mist and fog that obscures the highest mountain peaks might lead to the Plane of Air; a labyrinthine cave complex hidden at the bottom of a great canyon may lead to the Plane of Earth. Where these planes collide with and overlap the Prime Material Plane, great energies are released, energies that tear open the veil between worlds and engender all sorts of bizarre phenomena. These lizardlike creatures, with their pearlescent skin that seems to glow with an inner light like a gemstone and their probing, curious fingers, are just one of the many creatures that may result from a puissant confluence of arcane energies.

After finding these rare creatures, the potential dragon must entice the axolotls onto their body, which is not an easy task since the axolotls are naturally aggressive and seek to destroy any heterogeneous substance it encounters. In order to survive this ordeal, the host must make a series of saving throws: a charisma save (DC 20) to entice the axolotl colony onto the host’s body; constitution and wisdom saves (DC 20 each round for the 1d4 rounds it takes for the axolotls to cover the body). Those who succeed move on to the next step, while the rest succumb to any number of terrible fates, as outlined on the table below.

While the personality of the host determines the genus of dragon (chromatic or metallic), the type of axolotl the host bonds with has an even greater role to play, determining the species (most commonly identified by color).  

Mirra Gray, "Shining Axolotl"
Climate/Terrain: Portals between planes
Organization: Colony
Diet: Scavenger
Intelligence: Varies
Treasure: None
Alignment: Varies (elemental axolotls are unaligned)
Number appearing: 8d8+10 (1 colony = 18-74 axolotls)
Hit points: 2d10
Armor class: 12
Speed: 20ft
Saving throws: Wis, Cha
Damage resistance: Varies by type
Damage immunity: Varies by type
Condition immunity: None
Special abilities: Regeneration. An axolotl regains 5 hit points at the beginning of its turn.
Senses: Darkvision 60’, passive perception 16
Languages: none
Challenge: ¼ (50xp)
STR 6 DEX 14 CON 11 INT 2 WIS 16 CHA 4

When axolotls are generated by the confluence of interplanar energies, they immediately seek to consume any substance different than that of the plane from which they originated. Whatever they consume is excreted within minutes as the substance of their associated plane: Water axolotls turn matter into water, Air axolotls turn matter into air, Ethereal axolotls turn corporeal substances ethereal. It does this without thought or malice.

Axolotls are always found in colonies. One axolotl alone poses little threat to anyone, but a colony of 15-20 could pose a threat to most creatures. This is because axolotls in close proximity to one another form a hive mind and become a swarm, acting as one creature with one intelligence. Though a single axolotl has an Intelligence of 1, four axolotls together have an Intelligence of 2. Add another four and the swarm’s Intelligence increases to 3, and so on, with no upper limit. A colony of 72 axolotls possess the intelligence of the sharpest humans, along with all of the language and magical capabilities such an intellect would bestow upon a creature. This networked intelligence is what makes bonding with a colony so difficult and dangerous. 

Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: Axolotls | Part 3: Wyrmlings | Part 4: Dragonborn | Part 5: Dragons

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

De Origine Draconum

Abstract: A dragon is the result of a long process of self-transformation. A wizard who wishes to become a dragon must carry out the following steps: 1) Seek out axolotls, 2) Enter into a symbiotic relationship with the axolotls, allowing them to colonize the body, 3) feed these symbionts so that the humanoid body may transform into a dragoniod one.

Jakub Rebelka, "Witcher Memories"

Part 1: Introduction
It is inevitable that each of us will, eventually, become subjects of Death’s Empire. Mortality is our fate, whether due to an accident of nature or the design of the gods, such that it defines us and sets us apart from the fay creatures. If indolence is the curse of fay immortality, restlessness is the curse of human mortality, for we have but a limited span in which to leave our mark on the world. This immutable fact, however, has not prevented the powerful and ambitious from seeking to lengthen the wick of their life’s candle. Since humans are, by definition, mortal, the only way to attain immortality is to shed one’s humanity. There are a few paths open to those mad and avaricious enough to undertake such a journey: become a lich, become a vampire, or become a dragon.

Each of these apotheoses comes with its particular curses: to see your human flesh slough and rot while your quintessence clings jealously to a phylactery; to take the moonlight as your betrothed and the blood of the living as your only milk; to become huge and monstrous on a scale unimaginable to the human mind. To further complicate matters, vampirism is not a choice, but a condemnation: it is often the case that only those who truly wish for death above all else are granted that eternal life-in-death. This peculiar predicament fuels the hatred of the vampire. The lich, likewise, is caught in a trap: neither living nor dead, neither human nor beast. These transformations seem to foreclose as many possibilities as they open up.

Wyrmhood is a more ambivalent prize. Both the lich and the vampire are compelled to take the lives of others in order to sustain their own. As such, they are creatures of hate and hate alone, tax collectors for the Emperor of Death. For all of their fearsome powers and conniving intellect, they are  but uncomplicated creatures. There are as many varieties of dragon, on the other hand, as there are planes of the multiverse. There are dragons who protect the weak and dragons who choose to dominate them instead, dragons who care only for treasure, dragons who prefer parley or trickery to physical force, dragons who cloak themselves in flame, who are at home among the glaciers, who breathe in and out the miasma of the swamp. The type of dragon a host becomes depends, in part, on the personality of the host.  In leaving behind one’s humanity and embracing wyrmhood, all of the myriad shining facets of the gem that is the human personality are reduced to a single burning ember. If mortality defines the human, and hate defines the lich and vampire (albeit in different ways), it is this single-mindedness that defines the dragon. 

Part 2: Axolotls | Part 3: Wyrmlings | Part 4: Dragonborn | Part 5: Dragons

Monday, June 27, 2016

1d8 Magic Items from a Decadent Wizard's Hoard

By way of “Beauty’s Anadems” by John Barlas

1.   A dagger-hilt crusted with flaming gems:
2.   A queen's rich girdle clasped with tiger's claws;
3.   A lady's glove or a cat's velvet paws;
4.   The whisper of a judge when he condemns;
5.   Fierce night-shade berries purple on their stems
6.   Among the rose's healthsome scarlet haws;
7.   A rainbow-sheathed snake with jagged jaws:
8.   Such are queen Beauty's sovran anadems.
      For she caresses with a poisoned hand,
      And venom hangs about her moistened lips,
      And plots of murder lurk with her eyes
      She loves lewd girls dancing a saraband
      The murderer stabbing till all his body drips,
      And thee, my gentle lady, and thy soft sighs.

What do any of these things do?
The tiger-claw girdle: a girdle that grants the wearer some or all of a Rakshasa’s abilities and vulnerabilities?
The whisper of a judge: a bottle that, when opened, releases a whispered voice that can curse or banish anyone within earshot (5’)?
The rose’s healthsome scarlet haws: that one’s easy; they’re small red berries that cure wounds.

Queen Beauty’s sovereign anadem: a crown that grants a bonus to Charisma? Or something more sinister, like the last six lines of the poem…

Gustave Moreau, "Salome Dancing Before Herod," 1876