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

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Worldbuilding With Players in Mind

Summary: Since I’m playing with people I don’t really know, and the desire to play Dungeons & Dragons—and not some other game or some homebrew bastardization of D&D—is what brought us together, and because I don’t want to say “no” to anyone’s character idea because it doesn’t fit with my selfish vision of what the campaign should be, I’m taking a more improvisational and collaborative approach to worldbuilding in my current campaign.

I’ve created a number of “conceptual” campaign settings over the years, most of which required mechanical alterations to the game. Usually, these changes are restrictive: no gnomes, no single-class spellcasters except for rangers or eldritch knights and the like, no plate armor. Others are cosmetic (“imaginary” rather than “symbolic” to use the psychoanalytic jargon): these elves are aliens, these orcs and dwarves are created by currents of chaos energy and law energy pulsing through the depths of the planet, all spells must be cast as rituals.

When such restrictive alterations amount to small ideas revealed through gameplay, the players might just go, “oh, that’s cool,” because that’s all it is: a twist on something we all already know about D&D, a sigh of new life breathed into a well-worn concept. But when they are big ideas that require major mechanical changes, or when they restrict the choices a player can make about their character, the results are a little more mixed. You start to realize why certain mechanics exist in the first place. It is rare that a player who is not a good friend will say, “sure, I’ll read your 50 page word document before the first session!” And when it’s already hard enough to find players, I don’t want to tell that player who loves gnomes for some reason that there are no gnomes in the world.

So with this most recent campaign I’ve taken a much more improvisational and collaborative approach to worldbuilding. I’ve ditched the preliminary worldbuilding along with the question, “what is this game about?” in favor of allowing a constellation of small ideas to cohere through gameplay. I’m playing with the races, classes, and rules presented in the core rulebooks (D&D as gaming lingua franca). My preference is for human-centric (anthropocentric?) parties and worlds, but my players came to the table with their own ideas: an elf ranger, two halfling bards, and a gnome druid. They all have great backstories, too: an elf supremacist death cult, a halfling sibling rivalry, a community of gnome druids chased from their forest. Since I’m trying to be a good DM, my first thought was not, “ugh, this is messing with my idea for this campaign.” It was, “in what sort of world could these characters and backstories coexist?”

I can’t come to the table with such rigid ideas about what my world is like that I reject player input. I can’t expect the players to play the game the way I want to play it while ignoring the way they want to play. I can’t force them to respect the integrity of my precious creation while stifling their own creativity and asking them to compromise their own creations. So those backstories and all of the assumptions that go along with an elf, two halflings, and a druid becoming friends gets woven into the fabric of the world.

This doesn’t require too much radical change if I don’t bring my preconceived notions of what this campaign setting should be like to the table in the first place. Worldbuilding is fun, creating campaign settings is fun, but it’s fun mostly for the person doing the creating, especially if that world does more than just tweak players’ understanding of what a D&D world is supposed to look like. So for this new campaign I’m running, I’m implementing only those “cosmetic” changes, bringing out what’s weird or interesting in the default assumptions of the game as presented in the three core rulebooks, and integrating the implications of character backstories into the fabric of the game world. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Easy Map Making

Crap, I need a map, and I need it by tonight.

My players are about to sneak into a pirate den and attempt to steal a ship. They have no idea how to sail a ship, but luckily for them, there is a good chance that the ship will be out to sea anyway. As a consolation, the pirates' treasure horde, if they find it, will contain books on sailing and a map of the local coastal area.

I have a hex map, made with Hexographer, that I use for overland travel, but I wanted to give them something more in-universe for their characters to find. So how do I go about making a map that looks somewhat realistic?

Because I want realistic maps with believable geography, the first thing I do when making any campaign map is consult Google Earth for an interesting location. For this map, I turned South America upside down:

Then I messed with the contrast to make it more traceable and printed out a grayscale version. I made a makeshift lightbox by putting a lamp under a glass table so I could easily trace the outline of the coast. There is a sheet of white printer paper over the printout of the map.

I traced the map:

As you can see, I moved the Falkland Islands up and to the right and fudged the coastline a little bit. I also added an archipelago extending from the tip of Tierra del Fuego almost to the South Sandwich Islands. Hopefully at this point it is already unrecognizable as upside-down Patagonia.

The next step involved roughing up the map a little:

The thing that makes this post great is the beautiful photography. Next I scanned it and opened it in GIMP (Photoshop? Aren't you fancy). I'm going for something similar to a medieval portolan chart:

I fiddled with the brightness and contrast, used the scissor tool to select the land areas, and colorized them. Next I added some rhumb lines and filled in a few cities. Because I'm lazy and didn't want to come up with 50 city names on the fly, I decided that at some point they will learn that the map is magical and perhaps events, spells, or interactions will reveal hidden names and rhumb lines in the future. Here's the map:

I used miles and an approximate km equivalent because this is a roll20 game and my players are in multiple countries. I debated using an in-world measurement (leagues? li? let's just keep it simple). Not brilliant, but good enough, right? With a little effort, you could do something great with this method.