Wednesday, January 28, 2015

5e Race: Revenant


  • Revenants are those humans who have been raised from the dead but have no memory of who they were in their previous life.
  • They work for the clerics who resurrected them to pay off their debt and buy their memories back, a feat accomplished by only a handful of revenants.
  • Many revenants, after years of thankless toil, find themselves dissatisfied with this arrangement and opt to escape, giving up on recovering their old lives in order to start new ones, often winding up on the margins of society, alive but unable to fully live.

Death, sages will tell you, is not the end. It is an end, yes, but also a beginning: the beginning of an existence that is not life, one indescribable with the broad brush of language, a tool capable of only the most cursory and ephemeral strokes. For as far back as our planetary memory extends, death was a threshold a body inexorably approached but crossed only once. Those remarkable few who have crossed that threshold twice often have a good reason for returning: a heroic sacrifice repaid, an earthly destiny yet unfulfilled, a lust for power that transcends the limits of biology, or simply a powerful ally within the clergy. These are people who return to this world as the same person who left it, their humanity intact. They recall the moments leading up to their death, but have no memory of death or the hours after their resurrection; otherwise they are whole, with a continuous memory and sense of self. It is as though they simply turned in for the night and awoke the next morning. The dead rising from the grave was, for all of human history, a rare occurrence, and the world of the living could be relied upon to provide an interminable harvest of souls to feed the chthonic void.

That longstanding agreement with death, it seems, has been annulled. For the past several centuries, the Priests of the Far Shore have taken upon themselves the task of collecting bodies from battlefields, hospitals, dark alleys of forgotten city quarters, and anywhere else the forgotten fall. They feed those corpses to their Liminal Vaults, the great stone mausoleums that return life to the dead.  The dead return not as human beings but as revenants, without memories of their past lives, without a developed personality, without the skills that defined them in life. Some clerics not associated with this sect have sanctioned this act as a true miracle, while others denounce the act as exploitative, blasphemous, or both.

In order to pay their debts to the Order of the Far Shore, revenants are contracted to agricultural landlords, ship’s captains, mining companies, and other similar ventures. After so many years, the revenants are told, the cost of their resurrection will be repaid and they will be given their freedom and the memories of their previous existence. But after years of toil with no end in sight, many revenants find themselves unhappy with this arrangement and escape the workhouses and plantations to start new lives.  The Apotropaic Order of Mendicant Sorcerers actively recruits from this group, but so do the Silent Quarry, the city’s most powerful criminal organization. No one else will have them.

Situations experienced in life may spark fleeting, nebulous memories in the revenant, but their former lives are never fully recoverable. It always feels like it happened to someone else. Some go mad grasping for those memories, welcoming another death. Others accept their new lives as a clean slate and attempt to make the most of a second chance free of whatever misfortunes led to their first death.

Ability Scores: Their gaunt physiques and wan complexions give them a romantic aura of danger and mystery. Charisma increases by 2. Despite their attenuated appearance, the bodies of revenants are surprisingly durable. Constitution increases by 1.  

Alignment: Revenants often find themselves at odds with a society that distrusts them and has no place for them. They tend towards chaotic and neutral alignments.

The Body is a Machine: The revenant requires no food, drink, or air to survive. They retain the ability to eat and drink, and many do so, whether for the pleasure it provides or to simply feel human once again.

In Death’s Cold Embrace: The skin of the revenant is cold to the touch. They have the ability to intensify this quality, granting them a resistance to cold damage at 1st level as well as the ability to cast the spell chill touch once per day beginning at 5th level. Charisma is the spellcasting ability for this trait.

Languages: The abyss still whispers to the revenant. They can read, write, and speak Abyssal, Infernal, or Celestial, depending on their alignment.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Poe's Names

This isn’t a comprehensive list of every Poe character ever but a collection of the more evocative names, drawn mainly from his poems. The most famous aren’t here (no Lenore or Annabel Lee), nor are the more obvious historical figures (Tamerlane). Some of these names sound like they belong in a sword and sorcery setting (Ulalume, Yaanel), which makes sense considering Poe’s influence on the Weird writers, while others will lend a more traditionally Gothic flavor.

d20 Name
       1.      Ulalume
       2.      Eiros
       3.      Israfel
       4.      Ianthe
       5.      Mendez Ferdinando
       6.      Solomon Don Dunce
       7.      Eulalie
       8.      Irene
       9.      D'Elormie
       10.  Isidore
       11.  Guy de Vere
       12.  Alessandra
       13.  Castiglione
       14.  Lalage
       15.  Jacinta
       16.  Baldazzar
       17.  Auber
       18.  Yaanel
       19.  Ligeia
       20.  Angelo

Speaking as a player, naming my character is often the hardest part of character creation. It's tempting to always go with a goofball name just because it's always easier to be funny than to try to come up with something serious that just ends up being dumb. I like having a list of "flavorful" names to choose from so that I can fit into the overall concept of the campaign and not worry about drawing a blank at character creation and ending up with Crack Skullgood, first level fighter. Something like this sword & sorcery nation generator from Chris Kutalik, but for character names, would be even better than a simple list of names. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thoughts on Research (and Some Other Nonsense)

I’m currently working on a Victorian-inspired campaign setting. I know, there are like at least—and this is just a rough guesstimate (not even a precise guesstimate)—forty eight thousand of these out there already. Why make another one? I’ll get into that later. But right now I want to talk about research.

I studied a lot of 19th century British literature (not just Victorian) in grad school, even published a paper, so I’m having no problem finding source material. I’m going as far back as the Romantic era, Coleridge in particular, since Gothic literature continued to influence poets and artists up to the turn of the 20th century. Poe’s in there, too, and all of the French poets he inspired, and Marx’s Capital (lots of vampires and werewolves and ghosts in control of the arcane constructs that are colonizing humanity); I’ve been reading everything from Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna to China Miéville.
I’ve got about 30 books, articles, poems, and films in my “Appendix N” right now. It’s like writing my thesis all over again, and it’s easy to get bogged down, or just to get so into reading and learning and absorbing information, that I never get around to actually writing. So here’s what I’m doing about it: I read a source, I take some notes, and then I don’t look back at it again.

I’m trying to keep the research at arm’s length for a few reasons. Most practically, constantly referring back to what I’ve read means I’m not writing. But I also don’t want to just put a fantasy paintjob on the Victorian era, faithfully reproducing historical details in D&D terms. What I want is to get a feel for the time and to capture the major themes without just doing “Fantasy London” or whatever. I have zero interest in steampunk; my interest lies more along the lines of the use of Gothic aesthetic figures as a way to describe and come to terms with the new social and economic order taking shape in this era. Hopefully this approach will result in a game more interesting than gears on a corset and goggles on a top hat, but steers clear of a super serious, not-your-grandma’s, grim’n’gritty reflection on class struggle, slavery, imperialism, and patriarchy.  It’ll be pretentious1, how could it not be, I’m making it, but shit, I like games that let you go into a cave and kill everything and not have to think about the orc babies.

So anyway, the research I’m doing will help me get into the thematic space I need to be in to write this thing, but I don’t want to be shackled to notions of historical accuracy, so once I’ve read something, I’m not going back to it.  I have to remind myself that this isn’t scholarship; it’s a game.


1. Pretentious, like having footnotes in a blog post. Reminds me of this classic from Jeff Rients. God, I can’t believe that post is almost a decade old. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Dice Probability Calculator

Here's a useful site for calculating the probability distributions for any number of dice with any number of sides. Great for determining where the Common, Uncommon, and Rare encounters/items should fall on any table you might be making.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Quality of Edition = How Dead the PCs on the Cover Will Be: An Experiment

Let’s put the theory to the test. Editions are not listed chronologically but by how dead the PCs on the cover will be once the next round of combat starts.  The deader the character, the better the game. I’m sure anyone reading this knows what the artwork associated with each edition looks like, but if you need a refresher, here’s a link to most of them.

Companion D&D: Holy shit is this dude toast. That giant sword has him feeling confident, but that dragon is about to wreck him straight up.  Our hero made it at least to level 15, though, so he can meet death with his head held high knowing they will sing songs in Sto’Vo’Kor and the women shall weep and his vassals shall raise the banners and avenge him and all that stuff you're thinking when a green dragon is about to poison you, swoop down and claw/claw/bite you, and then toss the rattling, leaky metal can of bone fragments that used to be you off of a cliff.

Mentzer Basic D&D: That red dragon looks positively gleeful, wiggling his claws in anticipation of the bounteous meal he is about to receive. Praise Tiamat.

D&D 5e: Pretty sure the character leaping at the giant is about to get the treatment Saturn’s son got in the Goya painting (or Reubens, if you prefer).

Rules Cyclopedia: I see a distinct lack of confidence on the face of that horse. That's the face of a horse that has just shit himself for the last time. He’s knee-deep in water, he’s got 250 lbs of armored warrior on his back, and that creature doesn’t look like it’s going to run out of neck anytime soon.

AD&D 1e (wizard cover): This wizard seems to be fucking shit up, but it’s just him out there and he’s surrounded by imps or mephits or whatever. He’s got that look of grim determination, like he’s buying time so his party can escape and he’s come to terms with his impending demise.

Holmes D&D: Tough to say. I have a feeling these guys might make it. The fighter has his bow drawn, wizard’s got a spell cooking, they’re on the attack. But still, two dudes against a red dragon. Tough call.

Moldvay/Cook Basic D&D: Another one that is up in the air. That fighter with the spear doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Expert D&D: Depends. Who is this wizard? Is he making that face because he’s scrying like, “oh shit, my buddies are about to eat it”? Or is he all like “muahaha my plans are coming together”? This is the type of mystery and sense that anything can happen that makes B/X so great! But I’m ranking editions according to the criteria above, so I have to put this one near the bottom.

OD&D: This PC is decidedly not dead—unless he’s about to fall off of that horse.

Master D&D: Guy’s riding a dragon. He is the master. He’s mastered stuff. Stuff like dragons. He lives.

AD&D 1e (Trampier cover): You can tell these guys are true dungeon badasses. Their shit is 100% together. They’re making a map and everything.  You just know they’ve got 10’ poles, they’re checking for traps, they’re only fighting when they absolutely have to. They are utterly competent, but not flaunting it like the 2e guys below.

AD&D 2e: This is just a hi-fi version of the dude from the OD&D cover, helm wing’d, upon his steed, but also not about to fall off of it.

AD&D 2.5e (black cover): Even less dead than his 2e counterpart. There are about to be some dead orcs in that room. He is almost totally unarmored because those are +5 bracers of armor he’s wearing.  I mean, must be, right? He might even be yelling, “eighteen double oh!”

D&D 4e: That dragonborn is pissed, and that wizard is just annoyed that she even has to bother blowing up another gang of 1 HP “minions.” And lo, the tradition of frownyfaced heroes is born, the era of the frownyface hero reaching its apotheosis in the petulant countenances of anyone who has ever held a weapon or cast a spell in a Pathfinder book.

Immortals D&D: The dragon (presumably the one from the Holmes box, long after eating those two PCs) sits pensively on a cliffside on a distant planet, all like, “nope, not fucking with the guy in a loincloth with Psylocke’s psychic knife, not at all.” That character is going to live—he is immortal, he has inside him blood of kings.

Exempt: D&D 3e and 3.5e, which didn’t have people on the cover of the Player’s Handbook.

So there you have it, a total waste of time.

The Vampire Muse

Vampire Muse
Medium humanoid, neutral evil

AC: 12
HP: 54 (8d8+16)
STR 10 DEX 12 CON 14 INT 14 WIS 16 CHA 18
Saving Throws: Int +6, Cha +8
Resistance: Cannot be charmed
Skills: Perception +7, History (art) +9, Persuasion +8
Languages: Common, Elven (or the dominant artistic language for a particular culture)

Innate Spellcasting:
2/day: charm person, energy form, misty step
1/day: Visceral art

Mind blast: recharge 6. DC 15 Intelligence save or take 22 (4d8+4) damage.
Slam: Melee weapon attack, +4 to hit, 2d8+4 bludgeoning damage. While in ethereal form, the Vampire Muse can strike out with a wispy tendril up to 10’ long that affects both corporeal and noncorporeal beings.

Onaya: You already have the talent inside you. I can see it. You just need someone to help you bring it to the surface.
Jake: How?
Onaya: There are ways. Exercises...techniques.
Jake: Can you show them to me?

The pen of the poet, the brush of the painter, the chisel of the sculptor, the voice of the singer: the acts of creation of great artists release arcane energy into the world. There are beings that feed off of this energy. They are called Vampire Muses.

Vampire Muses are aesthetes with a great appreciation for beauty in all its forms. Their charisma allows them to easily forge relationships with young artists who are still full of potential and eager to prove themselves.

Vampire Muses usually reject overt violence, but if attacked, defend themselves with their mind blast, use their energy form ability, and try escape the confrontation.

Visceral Art: With a touch, the Vampire Muse unlocks the target’s latent artistic potential. Establishing contact takes one round. The target does not make a saving throw if he willingly submitted to the Vampire Muse’s touch, and the Vampire Muse cannot use this ability on a creature against its will. As the target creates its work of art, the Vampire Muse surreptitiously saps the target of his power. As the target’s magnum opus pours from the his pen, the Vampire Muse draws sustenance from the target’s mind. Roll on the following table each day that the target is under the spell to determine the spell’s effects:

Roll (d8)          Effect
1                Target loses 1d4 points of Intelligence
2                Target loses 1d4 points of Constitution
3-5             Target loses 1d4 point of Charisma
6                Target loses 1d4 maximum hit points
7                Target takes 1d6 psychic damage from pushing too hard
8                No effect

While in the visceral art trance, the target will actually be creating his finest work of art; it is not a trick or an illusion. The target can see the results. The target does not, however, realize that he is slowly being drained of life until the effects become obvious to him. At the end of each day that the target suffers a negative effect, roll a DC25 perception check. On a successful check, the target may then roll a DC18 Charisma save to break the spell. If the target’s Charisma, Constitution, maximum hit points fall to zero, the target dies.  If the spell is broken while the target is still alive, the target regains any lost ability scores and maximum hit points.

Onaya: They all died in the end...but look what I gave them in return: immortality. Their names will live forever because of me.

One thing though: “Vampire Muse” isn’t a very cool name. Aesthetic Enervator? No. Art Sucker? Nope. Poiesophage? Ehhhh.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Adventure Hook, via Charles Baudelaire

Le Mauvais Moine
Les cloîtres anciens sur leurs grandes murailles
Etalaient en tableaux la sainte Vérité,
Dont l'effet réchauffant les pieuses entrailles,
Tempérait la froideur de leur austérité.

En ces temps où du Christ florissaient les semailles,
Plus d'un illustre moine, aujourd'hui peu cité,
Prenant pour atelier le champ des funérailles,
Glorifiait la Mort avec simplicité.

— Mon âme est un tombeau que, mauvais cénobite,
Depuis l'éternité je parcours et j'habite;
Rien n'embellit les murs de ce cloître odieux.

Ô moine fainéant! quand saurai-je donc faire
Du spectacle vivant de ma triste misère
Le travail de mes mains et l'amour de mes yeux?
— Charles Baudelaire

The Bad Monk
Cloisters in former times portrayed on their high walls
The truths of Holy Writ with fitting pictures
Which gladdened pious hearts and lessened the coldness,
The austere appearance, of those monasteries.

In those days the sowing of Christ's Gospel flourished,
And more than one famed monk, seldom quoted today,
Taking his inspiration from the graveyard,
Glorified Death with naive simplicity.

— My soul is a tomb where, bad cenobite,
I wander and dwell eternally;
Nothing adorns the walls of that loathsome cloister.

O lazy monk! When shall I learn to make
Of the living spectacle of my bleak misery
The labor of my hands and the love of my eyes?
— Trans. William Aggeler

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Central Asia-influenced Campaign Setting

  • Imagine if the Plague of Justinian (541-542) wiped out 75% of the population of the Roman Empire, sending the Mediterranean and Europe back to the Neolithic Era. (think Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt)
  • The starting town could be in a Kashmir/Hindu Kush/Torugart Pass-type crossroads where there is something interesting in all directions
    • East: The western frontier of China
    • Northeast: Smaller warring kingdoms
    • North: the endless steppes, nomadic tribes
    • Northwest: more steppes
    • West: desert, scattered city-states
    • Southwest: the Sasanian Empire
    • South: Hindu Kush Mountains (Dwarves?)
    • Further South: Greco-Indian Kingdoms of Punjab: remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire—this is where you have statues of the Buddha done in Greek style. Descendants of an ancient elven empire?
    • Southeast: Tibet
    • Silk Road: Desert oases, caravanserai, cave monasteries.  Nomads settled into cities built by older civilizations. 
Wizard, hireling, fighter, cleric

·         Cleric:  I can see the cleric’s role in society being the disposal of corpses in towers of silence (give them a spell to summon scavenger birds?) in addition to their traditional function as fighters of the undead. Fire and Water are agents of purification. Corpses are a host for druj, which reanimates impure corpses.
·         Fighter: Cataphracts, nomadic mounted archers, guardians of caravans, bandits.
·         Magic-User: The Greeks and Romans claimed Zoroaster invented magic and astrology.  Ostanes introduced it to the West by accompanying Xerxes in his war against Greece. 
·         Thief: Explorers, merchants, highwaymen, among other things.
·         Elf: The Xian, celestial beings said to live in the Tian Shan mountain range
·         Dwarf: The Yaksha of Hindu mythology (caretakers of treasure buried below the earth)

·         Law: Asha, created in the world through good deeds, etc.
·         Chaos: Druj, the opposing force that seeks to destroy the world (Although I personally don’t like the use of “law” and “chaos” as synonyms for “good” and “evil”: Maybe instead of the Law/Neutrality/Chaos system, a simple Good/Evil system to reflect the dualism of the religion?)

Thursday, January 1, 2015


This is not the first time I've tried to do this blog thing. My original first post was going to be a prospectus of sorts, outlining what it is I intend to accomplish in this blog and why reading it wouldn’t be a waste of a reader’s time. But that's just my academic impulse to justify what I’m doing, particularly in terms of rectifying some oversight or filling a particular niche.  This, however, is a blog, and the subject being interesting to me is justification enough. So there’s going to be a lot about my various homebrew projects, some reflection on my current campaign, and some analysis of literature, both gaming literature and the fiction that inspires it.  

I hope readers coming here get out of this blog what I got out of so many great OSR/DIY D&D blogs over the years: a tingling in my imagination parts, a creative kick in the ass, and an expanded sense of what the game we love can do.