Wicked Wednesday: Monster Manual Impressions

It has been a couple weeks since I finally got my hands on the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual. While I am not going to do a full review, I do have some thoughts on the book as I prepare my convention hexcrawl The Valley of the Tombs for the Carnage Convention in Killington, VT next month.

 

First and foremost, the book is beautiful. The art is top notch (although there are a few re-used pieces, which is not necessarily bad but was unexpected) with a vibe that, like the PLayer’s Handbook, evokes AD&D 2nd Edition more than it does 3.5 or 4th Edition D&D. Just look at this Dragon Turtle illustration:

That’s not to say there aren’t more modern styles of images, such as this ghoul:

 

but the vast majority of monsters fit the high fantasy novel cover vibe of 2nd Edition rather than the video game concept art (and I absolutely DO NOT mean that in a negative way) of 3.5 and 4th Edition. As a lover of 2nd Edition, this pleases me. There is enough variety, I think, to keep everyone happy, though individual illustrations may or may not please. For example, I pretty much hate the Kraken:

It is ugly and doesn’t look a thing like a Colossal Squid of Doom.

 

One thing I found problematic with the 5E MM, especially as I worked to populate the above mentioned Valley of Tombs, was the poor indexing of the monsters. There is no list of monsters by terrain type — or even type in general. Nor is there a list of monsters by Challenge Rating, though a PDF is available on the Wizards of the Coast Web Site. Above all else, a game manual, particularly a Monster Manual, is a tool and it should, in my opinion, be designed for maximum utility both in play and during preparation.

 

On the subject of utility, I really like the statistic (stat) block layout for the 5E MM. It is clean and easy to read with minimum need for reference to other books outside of spell or spell-like ability descriptions (which is a fault, but a minor one). Even high level, highly dangerous monsters are described in relatively simple stat blocks, as evidenced by the Tarrasque:

Compare that to the Pathfinder RPG Tarrasque and you can see what I mean (note the list of Feats you have to look up in addition to all the basic monster stats).

 

The addition of an animal/beast and an NPC appendix are also great, except that it is difficult to find what you are looking for sometimes based on the alphabetizing choices made (ex: all the giant versions of regular animals are listed under “giant x” rather than “x, giant”).

 

One place where the 5E MM pales in comparison to the AD&D 2E version is the lore, or “fluff” that it presented. Lore is certainly presented, and some of it is good, but it does not evoke the complex quality of the old 2E flavor text. I understand that books are different now. If nothing else, layout is different and far fewer words fit on a page. The 2E MM was crammed full of text under a very brief stat block and a small illustration, while the 5E MM uses larger fonts and bigger spacing and much far bigger illustrations. Therefore, in order to fit as many monsters as possible in the book, the text sometimes suffers. That said, so far I have not run across any flavor text I feel is objectively poorly written, though I do find some changes in the lore to be circumspect (Merrow are now demons, rather than aquatic ogres?).

 

Overall, I like the book very much and it invigorates my enthusiasm for 5E. I am especially excited to be running 5, 4 hour session of 5E at Carnage. If you are in VT between November 7 and 9th, be sure to come and check it out!

 

AFTERWORD: I wanted to apologize to me reader (that’s a joke, son) for the sparse updates. Between taking engineering courses, fall baseball for my son and a little bit of writer’s block/insecurity, I have not been great about updating. I’ll make an effort to do better. Thanks for reading!

Wicked Wednesday: Real World Evil

My original plan, with it being October 1st (the unofficial start of Halloween season) was to produce a Wicked Wednesday based on the imagined evils of the season: ghosts, goblins, witches and the like. However, today a real evil reared its head and I feel the need to talk about it. There’s nothing in here for your D&D game, so I understand if you don’t bother reading this post, though I do think it will be of some value to some of you, anyway.

 

In the case you have never clicked my “About” page, I should tell you first that I live in Newtown, Connecticut and my children attended Sandy Hook elementary on December 14, 2012 when Adam Lanza attacked the school and killed 20 children and 6 educators, after murdering his mother in their home and before killing himself as the police arrived. If you are interested in greater detail about what happened that morning, please read the essay I wrote following the event. Suffice it to say, the day deeply affected our family. My children both survived, but my daughter lost many friends, eight of whom were Daisy Scouts in my wife’s troop. My wife was a first hand witness to the carnage and still deals with Post Traumatic Stress from the incident. Since that day, the Sandy Hook Elementary School has been moved to Chalk Hill School in neighboring Monroe, Connecticut. My son has since moved on the our Intermediate School but my daughter remains at Sandy Hook.

 

Today, I received a panicked phone call from my wife. She could hardly speak, barely breathe. The kids had dentist appointments this morning, and I knew she would be dropping the kids off at their respective schools afterward. (As an aside that I did not realize until this very moment, I had a dentist appointment on 12-14.) When she dropped off my daughter, there were police cars with their flashing lights on. She was assured she could leave my daughter at school, however, and did so with some trepidation. By the time she got home, the resurgent terror and helplessness of 12-14 had bubbled up in her beyond control. That’s how PTSD works. She called me in a full on panic attack, certain that she had made a terrible mistake. Excruciatingly, I talked her down and calmed her. A few minutes after I got off the phone, she called back, her panic returned. The school had sent out an alert: there was a threat and our daughter, who had only a little while before been safe with my wife, was at the school. My wife was both terrified and guilt stricken.

 

It was not long before we received emails and phone messages assuring us of the safety of our child. They had been evacuated. There would be an early dismissal. The threat was of minimal or no credibility. All of that was good news, but of no consequence to already traumatized parent who, like my wife and I, had stood in a parking lot on a cold winter day, holding one another against the horror that our children would not come out of that school alive. And that is where the evil comes in.

 

It is impossible to argue that someone calling in a bomb threat is as evil and monstrous as one who kills innocents. That said, the desire to inflict massive psychic trauma upon innocent people is indeed a mark of an evil and monstrous mind. Someone, somewhere (and we don’t know who yet, and perhaps never will) chose to create panic and terror among traumatized children, educators and parents today. Why? To what end? Entertainment? Revenge against some imagined slight? Perhaps it was a Sandy Hook Hoaxer or a 2nd Amendment Extremist who wanted to harm those who were seen as enemies to their world view. No matter that motivation or the identity of the individual responsible, one simple truth can be ascertained: that individual is evil, in the way the real people can be evil to one another every day.

 

If you have kids, hug them. If you don’t, do something nice for a child you do know. Maybe give a little to a PTSD charity or an organization dedicated toward understanding the roots of violence. In any case, do something to make the world a better place.

 

Oh, and if you are the person called in the threat to Sandy Hook today, go fuck yourself.

Magical Monday: Everyday Magic

The Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook is chock full of magical abilities and spells, power at the fingertips of the player characters. While the PCs are arguably the most important characters in their world — at least they should be the most important character in their combined story — they are not alone in the world. Where medieval peasants and feudal nobles exist alongside powerful wizards, where the gods let their might be known through overt action on the world, where mighty dragons and giants spar for dominion, magic would permeate every level of society and every aspect of life. The magic in the PHB may be sufficient for describing warriors and wizards raiding the tombs of long dead kings or bringing the fight to the doorstep of the Dark Lord himself, it does not serve the needs of the everyday world that is the backdrop for the PCs’ grand adventures.

 

Practitioners

 

The first issue to address regarding everyday magic in a D&D world is: who are the practitioners of this magic? While clerics and sorcerers other than the PCs surely inhabit the world, those  spell-casters and their kind serve a function usually directly related to the PCs, as either aid or opposition. Warlocks and druids have greater concerns than the peasantry or even the local lord.

 

Most everyday users of magic are specially trained in the use of magic. They are hedge wizards whose powers pale in comparison to that of real wizards but whose art is far more useful to the common man. They are priests and priestesses, and while they do not act as direct conduits to the divine as do clerics and paladins, they provide the benedictions and blessings that the faithful need. They are witches and oracles, not born of or bound to otherworldly powers in the way warlocks and sorcerers are, but still they can hear the whispers from beyond the veil and sell the secrets they learn to the vengeful and the lovelorn.

Religion and Ritual

 

The degree to which religion influences culture cannot be overstated, at least in our own world.. If the goal is to create a recognizable world in which our adventures take place — even if it is an anachronistic and idealized one — then the presence of religion in the lives and cultures of the people that inhabit that world is equally important. That is not to say that a monolithic entity like the medieval Church is required (although for certain sorts of stories, it helps)but rather the religious beliefs of the population must be present. In such a world where magic is a part of the everyday, that religion would be the source of much of that magic.

 

While clerics are the main source of overt, powerful divine magic in a D&D world, not every preacher, priest or friar is a cleric by class. Most are normal, unclassed NPCs, perhaps with proficiency in Religion and a decent Wisdom and/ir Charisma score. They maintain their influence over their flocks with a combination of oratory skill and ritual magic. Unlike clerics, who can heal the sick and create miracles on demand, these religious leaders must engage in religious ritual to invoke even the small magics available to them. Prayers, offerings, sacraments and other accoutrements are all part of the ritual magic and, when performed with precision and faith, they can produce small but notable effects.

 

Blessings: First and foremost, religious magic is used to provide blessings. Usually, these blessings are over a particular action or institution, such as to plead for a fair trial or to provide for a good harvest. In these cases, any one individual involved directly in the execution of the activity may invoke an Inspiration one time with the goal to produce a positive result. For example, a barrister in charge of the trial of an innocent man may use this free floating inspiration on her final Diplomacy check against the jury, or an aged farmer might make his Profession check using inspiration to advise the younger farmers in the town on when to plant. Once any one person has used the inspiration, it is considered exhausted and only a new ritual, if such is allowed, can allow another. Alternatively, a blessing may be granted on a longer term institution or situation, such as a new courthouse or a marriage. In these cases, the blessing grants a simple +1 to any roll by any person involved on any check that will determine the fate of the institution, from the simple (a Charisma save by a husband to avoid seduction) to the complex (the Craft rolls by an architect and builder during the remodelling of a public structure). This sort of blessing is not exhausted upon use, but may only be invoked once per day.

 

Hedge Magic

 

After religious services, the next most common form of everyday magic is hedge magic — the use of so-called lesser magic by trained but ultimately minor magicians to produce limited results. These “hedge wizards” may go by that name, but might also be called magicians, enchanters, illusionists, alchemists and any number of names. Many calling themselves by these titles are likely charlatans, but some few know real magic, however weak, and offer their services to common folk and lords alike for recompense.

 

Hedge magic is similar to traditional wizard magic in that it involves complex formula, strange reagents and esoteric ritual in order to produce real results. The difference is that hedge magic can be performed by anyone with the proper training, while real wizardry is the result of a combination of training, birthright and arcane mystery. Some hedge wizards could have become real wizards if they had been whisked away to a proper academy early enough, rather than having been trained by a hedge wizard master as an apprentice, but most do not possess the magical talent to be real spellcasters. For the commoner, though, hedge wizards are magical enough and anything more spectacular is considered alien and dangerous.

 

Charms: Hedge wizard specialize in charms, magical talismans that provide very specific benefits under very specific circumstances. There are no “good luck” charms that work in general, and any purported hedge wizard trying to sell you one likely also has a bridge you may want to take a look at. Rather, a charm is usually used to provide a small bonus (+1 to d20 rolls) while performing a certain task. A charm might benefit gambling, for example, granting a +1 on skill rolls to attempt to win at gaming. The power of the charm is permanent, but can only be used three times per day. In addition, invoking the power of a charm requires a minor ritual in itself (rubbing the rabbits foot, for example) that while brief (requiring one turn to complete) is obvious to anyone witnessing it. Most charms are made for professional tradesmen who both have the money to purchase said charm and could use the advantage against their competitors. Charms of this sort cost between 1 and 10 gold pieces, depending on their use and the local economy. Note that charms must be related to a proficiency or tool use under a specific set of circumstances; attack rolls, saving throws or other broad categories of action cannot be the subject of a charm.

 

Witchery

 

In the alleys behind the hedge wizard shops and in the shadows of the temples, in the wilds beyond the druid graves and hovels far from village elders, there are places where darker desires can be fulfilled. Not all everyday magic operates in the open, for everyday people often have secrets: secret desires, secret pain and secret sins. When folk need magic to fulfill those desires, to salve that pain or to absolve — or indulge — those sins, they seek the power of the witch.

 

In this context, a witch is any practitioner of everyday magic who specializes in the unpleasant aspects of the art, willing to invoke power from dreadful places within themselves, their patrons, the world itself and even beyond. While some witches claim to be in league with demon lords and dark gods, such pacts are far beyond these folk. Just as priests are taught the liturgy of church rituals and hedge wizards study manuals of complex rules, witches too learn to work minor magic through arduous training at the foot of a mortal master, not a wicked entity. Nor are witches inherently evil, though they are almost always outcast from normal society: trade in desire, whether it be of the flesh or of fate itself, is oft looked down upon, especially by those who trade in the status quo.

 

Brews: While witches are known to offer something like the blessings of priests and craft charms similar to those of hedge wizards, witches are most (in)famous for their brews. Falling somewhere between mundane alchemy and magical potioncraft, the art of the witch’s brew is a closely guarded secret and the origin of much of the mystery behind the witch. Always bubbling and noxious, witches brew is like a bottled ritual or a single use charm, usually offered in return for more than simple gold. Many a maid has sold her beauty or her sweet voice for a love potion. Yet other times, the witch asks no payment at all. A brew is designed to create a specific effect one time. In the case of a love potion, for example, drinking the brew grants the imbiber advantage on any Charisma checks against a single target for one interaction. Other brews are more explicitly magical, such as allowing the drinker to pass as another for a short period or grant one the ability to perceive the true meaning of a liars words. In any case, the powers of a brew are temporary and uncertain and often come with an unexpected price.

 

Ten: All The Cool Kids Are Doing It

I was recently nominated by my good friend Jeff L. to name my ten favorite books. Since it is better than pouring a bucket of ice water over my head (that’s how this works, right?) I have decided to indulge him. Now the rest of you have to suffer. Everyone say, “Thanks, Jeff.”

 

Before I give you my list, I have a couple notes: these are not necessarily my “favorite” books in the sense that I read them a lot (some of them are, but that’s incidental). Rather, they are “favorites” in the sense that I think about them and what’s in them a lot. They made a positive impact on me, in some form or another, even if any given book on this list isn’t “good” by any metric or even if I have never read it a second time. That said, here we go:

 

1.) The Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide by E. Gary Gygax: It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that I am, above all other self identifiers, a Dungeons and Dragons nerd. I am not old enough to be a proper “old schooler” or “grognard.” I came into the hobby in 1985 at 10 years old, ushered in by Frank Mentzer and Larry Elmore. That fabled Red Box didn’t just show me a new way to play, it changed my life. I wrote stories before then, but that game showed me how to be inside them. So why the AD&D DMG instead of the Basic Set? My brothers and I played the Basic and Expert and following sets for years. We played by the rules in a style informed by what was in those sets, and it was fun, but it was very insular and specific. Some years later when I found the AD&D DMG, I was shown a whole different world of play. Moreover, it was introduced by a powerful style, a voice of authority that resonated with me. It forever changed the way I not only ran the game, but the way I viewed the game at its most fundamental level. Before, D&D had been a story construction engine; the realization from within the hallowed pages of the DMg that it could still be a game, that the story was better when it emerged organically from play, was, well, a revelation. No matter what edition of the game I run, I refer to the AD&D DMG for inspiration and as a reminder of what the game is.

 

2.) Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: I was a comics late bloomer. My first comic book was Flash (series 3) #50, which I picked up from the newsstand at the corner store (remember those?) after having fallen in love with The Flash Television Show. I was hooked on comics — the Flash especially — from that day on. For a long time, I survived on typical super-hero books, mostly by DC Comics. At the same time, I was playing a lot of the DC Heroes Role Playing Game by Mayfair Games. Among the many supplements for that game was one for the Watchmen. At the time, at 15 with no point of reference, I did not get it at all. I tossed it in a box, forgotten. But the seed was planted. Soon after, I was skimming through the monthly Science Fiction Book Club order book that arrived at my house. I always scoured the “Alterverse” section for comic books, novels based on games and other media properties, and the like. That day, I saw a hardcover, copy of Watchmen advertised. All I knew was that it was somehow related to the universe shared by Superman and Batman, so I ordered it. Four to six weeks later, my mind was blown. I read Watchmen once a year, and every time I find something I had not fully digested before. It speaks volumes about comics, about comics fans, about wish fulfillment, about sex, about dreams, about life. If ever there was a super-hero comic that could be called capital-L-Literature, this is it. That it inspired a decade of heinous anti-heroes and spiked leather is a testament to how powerful it is, in the same way that a decade of terrible derivative fantasy flooded the bookstores after the Lord of the Rings appeared. Speaking of…

 

3.) Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: I read The Hobbit in sixth grade. It is still one of my all time favorite adventure stories. But (by design) that is all The Hobbit is, a fairy tale adventure for young readers that turned out so well written that it is satisfying for adults as well. The Lord of the Rings, however, is much more. It is an adventure story (a Heroic story, to be more precise) but it is also a universe, a world so convincing that it has created a world around it here in our real world. The power of LotR is in its Truth (rather than its Reality). It was carefully crafted to speak to the deepest aspects of human nature, calling back to our oldest and most universal tales. That is was inspirational on everything from Star Wars to Dungeons and Dragons (both things I love) is just gravy. As a novel, LotR is a great work; as work of Literature, LotR is hugely important. It is also difficult. There are sections that drag, especially if one is looking for a fast paced adventure story. It’s most intricate and well crafted elements are woken subtly so that often scholarship, or at least very careful re-reading, is necessary to tease them out. It is long. It is very Male and very White. But these difficulties merely serve as obstacles in the quest to conquer it and make the prize at the end all that more rewarding.

 

4.) The DragonLance Chronicles and Legends by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman: Perhaps best described as the bastard child of Tolkien fandom and Dungeons and Dragons, DragonLance (DL hereafter) is stilted in its prose, cardboard in its characters, cliched in its plot and ham-fisted in its themes. Nonetheless, it is near and dear not just to my heart but to the hearts of millions of fantasy fans and gamers who came of age in the 1980s and beyond. We laughed when Bupu fell in love with Raistlin. We cried when Sturm and Flint died. We raged when Raistlin betrayed his brother and the Companions, and we cried again when he sacrificed himself to save all of Krynn. DragonLance was, for the 14 year old D&D fan, perfectly crafted and whatever its faults it is forever a part of those of us that discovered it at that perfect age.

 

5.) Incognito by David Eagleman: It is hard to overstate the impact this book had on me when it read it shortly after its release. It reveals so much about our minds and manages, ultimately, to only inspire more questions about who and what we are from a cognitive perspective. The idea than any of us could become a monster due to something as base and material as a brain tumor is terrifying. That we all see things we don’t realize we see and make judgments that we think are just “intuition” but are actually completely analytical decisions is inspiring. That there within each of us is a sort of internal council of Selves that are all Us, while all also being someone Else is mystifying. The machines locked in our skulls from which we emerge are the real Final Frontier and this book serves as a great introduction to if not understanding it, appreciating it.

 

6.) The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: I have loved The Last Unicorn since I was a you child, enchanted by the beauty, whimsy and depth of the animated film. It spoke to me, through the Unicorn’s loneliness, through Schmendrick’s ambition, through Molly’s hope, through Prince Lir’s love and even through King Haggard’s desire to own all the magical things in the world. It is astounding, even to myself, that it took until this year for me to actually read the novel. It was one of those situations, like with, say, Fahrenheit 451, where my familiarity with it through other media and means told me that I did not need to read it, that I would not get much out of it. Perhaps I was even a little afraid that the book would be that rare creature that was worse than the beloved film. Whatever, the case, I avoided the novel, both actively and inactively, for decades. What a terrible mistake. Beagle’s prose is exquisite, a beauty unto itself. That the film hewed so close to the novel was a blessing, for I could immerse myself in the poetry of the language without suffering under the dissonance of trying to square the film I loved with the novel (imagine, if you will, a rabid fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies reading that novel for the first time!). Perhaps it is better that I discovered the novel so late: I think prose is a thing one appreciates more with age, especially if one is a writer oneself. In any case, The Last Unicorn is easily one of the most well written, most powerful novels I have ever read.

 

7.) The Road by Cormac McCarthy: If there is a novel more beautifully crafted than The Last Unicorn, it is The Road. While the film is good, the novel is a near perfect piece of fiction. It was the book I read that made me realize that, whatever I think of my own abilities as a storyteller or a wordsmith, I would never win a Pulitzer Prize because no haphazard combination of nouns and verbs I could throw together could ever hope to equal McCarthy’s prose in that book. Moreover, aside from the craft of the prose, the power and truth in the tale was overwhelming, arresting and at once uplifting and crushing. I do not know that I will ever read The Road again — as a man and a father it strikes so deeply into me I do not know if I could bear the terrible beauty of it again — but I will never forget it.

 

8.) The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe byGeorge Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier: I own and have read a lot of writing guides, especially those that focus on speculative fiction. This one is by far the best — not for its writing advice (it barely gives any at all), but for its comprehensive survey of science as it relates directly to science fiction. A lot of SF writing books talk about incorporating science and about making speculative science or magic consistent, but this book laid out actual science and then extrapolated. It suggested and also warned. In short, it was exactly what it said on the tin, and was superbly indexed to boot. Twenty years after having acquired it, even though some of the science has since been overturned, when I have an idea for a hard science fiction story, the first book I grab and peruse for inspiration and guidance is The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe.

 

9.) Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke: Any number of Clarke’s novels could have gone on this list. Clarke is, by far, my favorite science fiction author, especially among the hard science fiction authors, most because in his work he never forgets that he is talking about Us. There are strange worlds and aliens and objects in his stories, but there are also always people — recognizably human characters that act as we might even if they live a thousand years hence and a thousand light years away. The reason I chose Childhood’s End above, say, Rendezvous with Rama or The Light of Other Days (both of which I adore) is because Childhood’s End left me hurt and uncertain and flabbergasted. Some read the end of the book as an optimistic promise, and perhaps Clark himself meant it that way. But to me, the novel promised an unsatisfying end for our species, an extinction devoid even of the dramatic exit of a hurtling comet. Even the brainless dinosaurs deserved so much. In Childhood’s End, we simply faded away, relinquishing the definition of “human” to our progenitors, but suddenly and irrevocably. It is an existential novel, and one I recall whenever I see great injustice or stupidity commited by mankind.

 

10.) There are so many books vying for this last place, from the beautiful agony of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to the the dense tension of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, from the wit and wisdom of Twain (pick any of them, though my favorite is Puddin Head Wilson) to the visceral, guttural magnetism of Beowulf. As one who possesses a degree in English Literature, I have been exposed to many, many great novels (and some not so great ones that continue to get read anyway). And as a fan of genre fiction, I have consumed a great many rotten apples (and some beautifully crafted works otherwise ignored because they had a dragon or rocket ship on the cover). In the end, what I realize is that all narrative prose, fiction or nonfiction, classical or fresh, literary or genre, has value. We are a species of stories, and while stories in the short form are often satisfying and powerful, only longer tales can delve the complexities of our nature. Our authors create worlds for us to experience, and by that experience we get a clearer sight into our own world and ourselves. So, my final “favorite” book is every book every written, for each one, no matter how terrible or how banal or how shallow, is a window into something of ourselves.

 

I want to thank Jeff L. for nominating me to do this. It was a pleasure, and a bit of a challenge, to really think about my favorite books, and why they are my favorites.

Wicked Wednesday: Traps, Tricks and Trouble Part 2

Last week, I discussed how traps, tricks and trouble can be used poorly. Now, I would like to give examples of how to make them work for you, enhance the fun at the table for everyone invol;ved (including the DM!) and provide an interesting alternative OR enhancement to the usual combat encounters.

 

What Makes a Good Trap, Trick or Trouble

 

When I discussed how the three Ts can go wrong, I broke it down into three main categories: when they are irrlevent, when they are arbitrary and when they are uninspired. This is because it only takes one of those to ruin of trap, trick or trouble. Conversely, when  talking about what makes such a thing work, it isn’t so easy to separate them out — all three aspects (relevance, fairness and inspiration) are important for creating a fun and memorable encounter or challenge.

 

Designing a trap, trick or trouble that is all three relevant, fair and inspired is difficult, but you don’t have to have each in equal measure. A truly inspired trap, for example, can sacrifice a little relevance, even fairness, just because it is so damn cool. Likewise, a very relevant trouble, one that makes sense in the context of the general milieu as well as the particular adventure, enjoys a little leeway in the inspiration department because it adds to and reinforces the reality of the world in which the player characters operate. Fairness (the opposite of arbitrariness) is the hardest to account for, because it is a purely rules specific aspect. For the most part, a D&D world does not care whether characters are 1st or 15th level, or whether they have the right tools for the job. These are concerns for the DM, who has real people at his table (often his friends) he wants both to entertain and have come back again. In that sense, fairness provides the greatest challenge for the trap, trick or trouble designer.

 

Thankfully, though, the new 5th Edition rule system with its bounded accuracy has flattened the power curve, meaning that the difficulty for ability checks and saving throws are easier to determine and can be more broadly applied. One still must be cognizant of how damage is dealt, however, as inflating hit points are a significant measure of balance for higher level creatures and characters alike.

All that said, a lot of DM judgment is required in both designing traps, tricks and trouble as part of the world, and as elements of game play. Experience will prove to be the best teacher in this regard, and the lessons will inevitably differ between regular gaming groups and temporary groups (such as at conventions and game days). Look to published material and confer with other Dungeon Masters online, but in the end trust your gut as informed by your own experiences.

 

Some Example Traps, Tricks and Trouble

 

The intent of the following examples are to provide inspiration, a starting place off which new DM’s can launch their own creativity. Steal them wholesale, sure, but be aware that every adventure and every gaming group will need to tweak them to hit the right balance on the three pillars discussed above.

 

Crazy Carts: Mine cart races are an old trope and therefore score a little low on the Inspiration scale, but they can be a lot of fun for players that haven’t experienced them before, and even for those who have if you mix them up a little bit. In this example, mine carts running amok are the main transport system from an upper level of a dungeon to a lower, serving as an exciting transition sequence. Essentially a multistage trap that requires multiple characters to navigate, Crazy Carts should last 10 to 15 minutes of real world play time and produce plenty of tension without seriously endangering the PCs  — lthough a series of bad die rolls could result in catastrophe!

 

There are three stages to Crazy Carts, each one representing a leg of the journey and at the end of each a danger. Player characters have two chances to avoid each danger, first by picking up on clues and second through direct action and/or saving throws. Multiple characters are affected at once and those characters can work together to avoid danger, or possibly work at cross purposes and end up in real trouble. Note that Crazy Carts is supposed to be fast moving and exciting, so do not allow players to spend too much time debating their course of action. The mine carts of flying fast and the players’ reactions need to be faster!

 

The Setup: Goblins, kobolds or another nuisance race has created a mine cart system to get from one level or area of the dungeon to the next. The monsters have developed a system by which their own kind can determine which mine cart rails to take, which the PCs will have to decipher and act on swiftly. Up to four medium creatures or eight small creatures (or an appropriate mix thereof) can fit in a mine cart, although if there are more than 2 medium creatures of 4 small creatures, all are considered to be “squeezed” in. There is no steering on the carts, but there is a break which requires a Strength DC 12 check to operate. In addition, another character must use a melee attack on occasion to switch the cart tracks (AC 14; at least 4 points of damage must be inflicted, resistance to piercing attacks). Successfully pulling the brake by a character grants the attacker advantage on striking the track switch lever.

 

The goblins or kobolds have devised a simple system for determining which is the right (read: less dangerous) track to take: piles of skulls at the track switch lever. The direction with more skulls indicated more of the little buggers have been killed there and the other direction is the preferred one. Players might miss it or misinterpret it at first, but they should catch on quickly.

 

Stage 1 — Duck and Jump: The first branch in the track comes up as soon as the PCs have got a good head of speed. They see the switch only a moment before the choice must be made and every PC has a single action they may take (all essentially simultaneous). The switch is set in the “dangerous” position with a small pile of cracked skulls that way. If the characters switch the track to the “safe” position, they careen madly but otherwise safely around a sharp bend. Otherwise, they swoop down a tunnel only to see a break in the track over . The cart can jump the gap but it flies precariously close to the ceiling. Characters must make a Dexterity DC 10 save or take 2d6 bludgeoning damage; small characters have advantage on this roll. If the brake is successfully applied, the cart slows enough to eliminate the potential for collision with the ceiling. In either case, the tracks soon merge with the main track.

 

Stage 2 — Lean into it: This time, the lever is in the “safe” position. Switching it to the “dangerous” position causes a malfunction and switch track misaligns. The Players must force the cart to tip up on one side to clear the misaligned track. Doing so requires a combined Strength roll. The DC is 10 and three successful rolls by separate individuals are required to avoid the hazard. If the brake is applied, this Strength save is made at disadvantage. If only two successes are achieved, the wheels of the cart don’t quite clear the misaligned track and the riders are jostled hard: anyone holding an object must make a DC 12 Dexterity save or drop what they are holding. If there is only a single success, the cart wheel snag on the misaligned track and is stopped suddenly. Everyone inside takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage, plus 1 for each medium occupant plus 1 more for each occupant wearing medium or heavy armor. If no success are made, the cart flips and all occupants take 4d6 damage (Dexterity DC 14 save for half). Surviving characters can, with effort, right the cart and get it onto the track after an hour or so of hard work (causing them to gain a point of exhaustion).

 

Stage 3 — Don’t bug out: The final stage of the run is a bit of goblinoid or kobold cruelty. The switch itself is trapped, set purposefully in the “dangerous” position. If it is switched to the “safe” position, the tracks do not switch but a concealed barrel of very sweet but also revolting good pours into the mine cart. The track then leads through a tunnel swarming with hungry insects. Characters are covered in a stinging swarm, which causes 1d4 poison damage each round for the three rounds of travel through the hive tunnel and an additional three rounds afterward (the cart reaches its destination one round after exiting the hive tunnel). A DC 12 Constitution save reduces damage by half and must be rolled each round damage is sustained. Any three failed saves results in the character being Poisoned as well. If the character takes at least 5 points of damage from an area effect fire or acid spell, the stringing damage ends immediately.

 

Although a bit convoluted, Crazy Carts illustrates a way to incorporate a lot of different game mechanics as well as some cinematic adventure into trap design. Not all traps, tricks or trouble are going to be so involved, of course, but I thought it best to start with an example of just how far you can go as a DM during trap design.

 

Following are a few less complex examples that still hold to the design goals of relevance, fairness and inspiration:

 

Trap: This trap is found in an ancient fortress that was once occupied. In ancient days, it was designed to ensure the guardians were true. At a door that leads deeper into the fortress, perhaps into the throne room, the treasure vault or the private suite of the former rulers, there are three pressure plates and on the door three giant turning wheels with which to open the door. The pressure plates are separated from the door by a curtain wall, so one cannot see between the two. One guard knew which pressure plate to stand on and another knew which wheel to turn, and only with the correct combination could the door be opened. The incorrect combination actually locks the door (which can then only be opened from the inside) and releases a noxious cloud equivalent to a cloudkill spell (though not magical so it cannot be dispelled or countered). In order to bypass the trap, the PCs must decipher, perhaps through Intelligence (Investigation) DC 20 to notice wear on the correct plate and wheel, or employing divination magic. There is no way to disarm the mechanism itself.

 

Trick: In the wilderness, far from civilization, travelling or lost PCs happen upon a circle of standing stones. There are 6 stones in all, forming a circle 25 feet in diameter, and one each stone is etched a glyph representing one of the 6 Primal Sins. Dark rites were undertook here by the foulest of cults. Each Primal Sin is keyed to a specific ability score (Strength=Wrath, Dexterity=Greed, Constitution=Gluttony, Intelligence=Pride, Wisdom=Envy, Charisma=Lust). If a good character touches a standing stone, the character immediately loses one point from the keyed ability score. If a non-good character does the same, they immediately gain one point to the ability score. In either case, a character can only activate one stone per month in this fashion. In addition, as soon as any character that has been thus affected attempt to leave the circle, a powerful evil outside (determined by the DM; use guidelines for a “difficult” encounter) appears and attacks that character until destroyed (and thus sent back to its home plane) or the character is killed, at which point it plane shift to its home plane with the corpse in tow. DC 15 History, Religion or Planes skill checks will reveal the nature of the circle should characters attempt to discern it, and both Survival and Investigation checks at DC 15 will reveal signs that terrible things happened here.

 

Trouble: Once, a minor god of Winter was jilted by a beautiful dryad. In his despair and anger, he cursed the glade over which she watched to be forever in the grip of an icy blizzard. The PCs stumble across a copse of trees, perhaps 200 feet in diameter, caught in perpetual winter. AT its center is a dryad turned mad (Chaotic Evil in alignment) by her curse, who also had immunity to both fire and cold damage. Although she attacks any who come near her tree (she can cast Ray of Frost for 2d8 cold damage at will and Cone of Cold 3/day) she can be talked (DC 20 Diplomacy check; the check can be made DC 15 with a DC 15 History or Nature check first, revealing her story) into revealing the name of the offending minor God and from where it originates. Clever PCs might find a way to free the dryad, whether by destroying the lesser deity or by somehow blocking his influence. Failing that, if they destroy the dryad, the curse ends and natural seasons and weather return to the glade.

Magical Monday: Tons of Tomes

A wizard’s spellbook is her greatest treasure, the link between herself and the very fabric of the cosmos. It is no surprise, then, that spellbooks often outlive their owners, turning up in ancient libraries, dusty tombs and dragon hoards. The existence of these lost manuals often motivates other wizards to adventure, pulling them out of their cramped laboratories and thrusting them into danger  in the company of swordsmen and thieves.

 

What follows is a system by which the Dungeon Master can create, in short order, such a lost spellbook with just a few dice rolls.

 

Step One: Determining the Spellbook Owner/Creator

 

Who owned the spell book before it was lost? What sort of wizard amassed the knowledge within before the perils of wizardly life consumed him? To determine, first roll a d10 with the following results: 1-4: Apprentice 2); 5-7: Journeyman (4); 8-9: Master (7); 10: Archmage (9). The number in parentheses indicates the highest level of spells found in the book.  The DM may either determine the actual spells found in the book by random roll or assume that all spells of that indicated school (see next paragraph) are found in the book.

 

Next, determine what sort of Wizard created the book by rolling a d8 and using the following results: 1: Abjurer; 2: Conjurer; 3: Diviner; 4: Enchanter; 5: Evoker; 6: Illusionist; 7: Necromancer; 8: Transmuter. This determines both the kinds of school of spells found in the book as well as the impact on arcane abilities granted by the book.

 

Example: If you roll a 5 on your first d10 and a 3 on the following d8, the owner of the spellbook was a Journeyman Diviner, meaning that it contains Divination spells up to 4th level and any other abilities the book has or enhances will be limited to the Divination school of magic.

 

Step Two: Determine the Name of the Spellbook

 

Roll 2 ten-sided dice separately to determine the two parts of the name of the spellbook. The name has no mechanical effect, but is a lot of fun to create:

 

Name Part 1 (d10)

1: Arcane; 2: Bewitched; 3: Eldricht; 4: Esoteric;5: Mysterious; 6: Mystic; 7: Orphic; 8: Sorcerous; 9: Uncanny; 10: Weird

 

Name Part 2 (d10)

1: Book; 2: Codex; 3: Compendium; 4: Lexicon; 5: Manual; 6: Omnibus; 7: Primer; 8: Tome; 9: Treatise; 10: Volume

 

Example: Rolling two d10 and getting 7 and 9 results in Orphic Treatise. So far, we have the Journeyman Diviner’s Orphic Treatise.

 

Step Three: Determine Additional Abilities of the Spellbook

In addition to merely containing spells of the associated school, all found spellbooks possess additional traits and abilities. Roll a d8:

 

1) When using the spellbook to prepare spells, the wizard may prepare one additional spell. The spell must be one found in the book.

2) When using the spellbook to prepare spells, the wizard gains an additional spell slot. Unlike other spell slots, the spell to be cast using this slot must be pre-determined. It must be a spell found in the spellbook, must be a lower level than the max spell level found in the book, and must be able to be improved by casting it using a higher level slot. Ex: Using a Journeyman Evoker’s book with this ability, the wizard can prepare magic missile using a 4th level spell slot for free.

3) When using Arcane Recovery, the total level of spell slots the wizard can recover is increased by 1.

4)  Any spell prepared from the book has its save DC increased by 1.

5) The wizard may choose one spell when preparing spells from the book. That spell may be cast once without expending a spell slot.

6) The spellbook grants one additional known cantrip, which must be from the associated school. This cantrip is lost if the spellbook is lost, sold or destroyed.

7) When casting any spell prepared from the spellbook that has requires concentration, the wizard gains +1 to concentration checks to maintain the spell.

8) Possession of the spellbook enhances one of the wizard’s Arcane Tradition abilities:

Abjuration: gain an additional use of the Arcane Ward ability per long rest

Conjuration: Minor Conjuration may be up to 5 feet on a side and 100 lbs.

Divination: gain an additional d20 Portent die.

Enchantment: Hypnotic gaze may be maintained up to 30 feet away and the subject need only see OR hear you

Evocation: the number of creatures included with Sculpt Spells is increased to 3 + Spell Level

Illusion: increase the duration of minor illusion to 10 minutes

Necromancy: Hit Points gained from Grim Harvest a doubled

Transmutation: Minor Alchemy no longer requires concentration

 

Step Four: Determine Spellbook Quirks

 

Whether due to the eccentricities of their former owners, magical mishaps, or just the march of time, many spellbooks posses strange quirks or even dangerous curses. Roll a d20:

1) The spellbook emits a powerful, pleasant perfume.

2) The spellbook emits a powerful, disgusting stench.

3) Whenever opened, the spellbook makes a clearly audible, lovely tone.

4) Whenever opened, the spellbook makes a clearly audible, painful noise.

5) Candles, torches and other natural sources of firelight within 30 feet of the spellbook dim to half their usual illumination.

6) Candles, torches and other natural sources of firelight within 30 feet of the spellbook brighten to half again their usual illumination.

7) The wizard enjoys pleasant dreams every night while in possession of the spellbook.

8) The wizard suffers constantly from surreal nightmares while in possession of the spellbook.

9) So long as the wizard has a spell prepared from the spellbook, all food tastes like sweet buttercream.

10) So long as the wizard has a spell prepared from the spellbook, all food tastes like rancid milk.

11) The owner of the spellbook needs half as much food as normal and can go twice as long without food before suffering Exhaustion.

12) The owner of the spellbook needs twice as much food as normal and can only go half as long without food before suffering Exhaustion.

13) The clothes of the owner of the spellbook never get wet from the rain.

14) The clothes of the owner of the spellbook do not dry after having gotten wet from the rain.

15) Animals are attracted to the owner of the spellbook (+2 on Animal Handle rolls).

16) Animals are repelled by the owner of the spellbook (-2 on Animal Handle rolls).

17) While preparing spells from the spellbook, the wizard speaks loudly in an incomprehensible tongue.

18) While preparing spells from the spellbook, the wizard enters a deep trance and is unaware of his surroundings. If the wizard takes damage he emerges from the trance but no spells are prepared.

19) Opening the spellbook (such as to use it to prepare spells) requires a minor sacrifice of 1 hit point of damage. This sacrifice need not come from the wizard.

20) Roll twice, ignoring additional results of 20.

 

Final Step: Put It All Together

 

Once you have rolled or chosen all the traits of the spellbook, see if a story emerges from the collected results. Do the results suggest something about the owner that would make for an interesting future adventure? If you are designing the book ahead of time, consider what the results suggest about where it might be found; if you are rolling up the book afterward, what to the results say about how it got there in the first place? Consider also who might want the book once word gets out. Will a rival of the PC wizard come looking for it, or will a collector want to buy it off the character? Would either resort to outright theft, or worse?

 

Wicked Wednesday: Traps, Tricks and Trouble

Although Dungeons and Dragons is and has always focused a lot of its energy, both in the rules and at the table, around combat, battles are not the sole challenge inherent in the game — even the most kick-in-the-door style play. Next to battles with goblins and specters and (of course) dragons, nefarious tricks, traps and other trouble have always played a large role in D&D. And while 5th Edition is no different, it would seem by reading the Lost Mine of Phandelver Starter Set adventure or the Hoard of the Dragon Queen mega-module that traps are limited to pts and tripwires, tricks are limited to secret doors and there’s little more troublesome than some odd fungi. It may be understandable to try and convey simple concepts like falling damage and the “poisoned” condition in introductory products, but I think it leaves the wrong impression: Dungeon Masters, newbies in particular, might not realize that traps, tricks and trouble are where they (as opposed to the game designers) really get to shine. These elements of adventure design are pure, malevolent creativity molded like clay into jaw dropping surprises and sweat-beading-on-the-brow tension, at least if they are done right.

 

What, What and What?

 

Let’s first define traps, tricks and trouble:

 

Traps are elements that are likely to cause some form of harm to the player characters, usually in the form of damage or other ill effects, that were engineered by some force within the context of the game world. This could be members of a lowly kobold tribe or the very God of Trapmakers herself.Traps might be mechanical or magical. They might be easily bypassed or terribly complex. In any case, a trap was created with an intent to harm.

 

Tricks are similar to traps except that they are not necessarily designed to cause harm and may in fact be beneficial in some way (and are often both). Like traps, tricks were designed and implemented by some force within the game world, though the original use of the trick may be far from what purpose it fills in the context of the adventure. For example, a fountain that changes the skin color of any who drink from it may serve as little more than a fun trick now, but when it was enchanted thousands of years before it might have been used as an oracle, with different colors associated with different astrological signs or fates.

 

Trouble, as I define it here, is a trap or a trick that was not created with intent within the context of the game world. A ceiling that collapses when a wire is tripped is a trap; a ceiling that caves in when a loud noise is made (ex: any thunder spell) is a trouble. Likewise, a sleep fountain in the temple of the God of Dreams is a trick, but a similar fountain located where the Prime and the Dreamlands touch is a trouble. This may seem like an unimportant distinction, but it does actually matter: engaged players will often note and even attempt to follow up on the story details traps, tricks and trouble add, and DMs who take a moment to consider those details will have a leg up in meeting that player expectation.

 

Bad Traps, Tricks and Trouble

 

First thing is first: it is important to define what kinds of traps, tricks and trouble are not good, that either slow down the game or create the wrong kind of tension (i.e. between the DM and the players). When done poorly, traps, tricks and trouble can derail a game session or even an entire campaign, create feelings of frustration and unfairness, and result in actual real world interpersonal issues(if you scoff at this, consider how intimate RPGs are: we not only allow other people into our daydreams but willingly give them the opportunity to screw them up). Even in the best case scenario, poorly designed traps, tricks and trouble are boring, adding nothing to the play experience and eating up valuable play time.

 

There are many ways this poor design can express itself, but here are a few basic categories:

 

They’re Irrelevant: Relevance is a dodgy aspect, especially in the sort of open world sandbox adventures D&D is so good at, but in this context it means that the trap, trick or trouble is meaningless. Whether the player characters overcome it or even encounter it at all makes no difference, either on a game play level (treasure or experience points, for example) or on a story level (it doesn’t say anything about the scenario or world at large). The falling rock trap in a dead end passageway is a perfect example of an irrelevant trap.

 

They’re Arbitrary: Player’s like agency, the ability to make meaningful, informed decisions for their characters that have consequences. Arbitrary traps, tricks and trouble rob the players of this agency by removing the element of meaningful and informed choice. Traps with no forewarning and/or that are impossible to bypass, which usually result in an unavoidable consequence or which can only be avoided by blind luck, are arbitrary in this context.

 

They’re Uninspired: By itself, there are few things more boring than a pit trap in a hallway. Even more elaborate and complex traps, tricks and trouble can feel uninspired if they have become an overused trope. Creativity can be a hard point to nail down, but use this rule of thumb: if the trap appeared in any Indiana Jones movie, either change it up to make it more original or leave it out entirely (unless, of course, you have players you are sure have never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which case use that rolling boulder!).

 

There are, of course, corner case examples of all sorts of bad traps, tricks and trouble, but those three broad categories cover the majority of problem examples, I think.

 

Next week, I will discuss what makes a good trap, trick or trouble, and produce a number of examples. As an aside, I missed Magical Monday this week simply because the idea I had and began work on turned out to be too cool rush through. Expect awesomesauce come next Monday!

Wicked Wednesday: Vicious Variants pt 3

Here is the final group of variant creatures from the Starter Set. Since last time, not only has the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook dropped, but so has the adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen and with it a web supplement including all sorts of new monsters. There is in fact only a small amount of overlap between the Starter Set monster list and the ones from the PDF supplement, so in total there are over 60 D&D 5E monsters with which to create adventures already! As such, this exercise seems superfluous, but I am enjoying the creative process so I will finish it off here. After this week, Wicked Wednesday will focus on new creatures, NPC villains, tricks and traps and other wholly original perils.

 

Orc, Berserker

 

Orcs are known for their savagery, but some of their kind truly embrace their wild side. Bred and trained by shamans who learn dark secrets from the orcs’ montrous gods, Berserker Orcs are stripped of all desires but for battle. When not in combat, they seem slothfull and dull, massive tattoo covered orcs standing stupidly outside a cave or drooling with idiocy as they look into a camp fire. But the moment battle begins, something emerges from deep with the Berserker’s mind, a wild rage coupled with such martial precision that Berserker Orcs have been dubbed Tiger-Boars by those that have faced them and lived. Once they have destroyed their enemies and the battle is over, Berserker Orcs return to their witless state until the next battle.

Game Rules: Berserker Orcs as much stronger than other orcs. They have Str 20 (+5) and Con 18 (+4) and 30 hit points (4 HD). Berserker Orcs are skilled dual weapon fighters and use a battle axe, morningstar or longsword in each hand with no penalty (+7 to hit, d8+5 damage each). Their wild mental state makes them immune to charm, fear and sleep effects of all kinds and they have advantage on Wisdom saving throws to resist all other mind affecting magic. A Berserker Orc is CR 2 (450 XP).

 

Owlbear, Flying

 

The only thing more terrifying than a 2000 lb raptor-ursine hybrid bearing down on you is one doing so from the sky. Very rarely, an owlbear is hatched with fully functional fore-wings. These creatures quickly become the apex predator in an area and drive out everything short of dragons. Flying owlbears and griffons compete over hunting grounds and will usually attack one another immediately (the loser, who is likely to flee when half its hit points are gone, moves onto another area).

Game Rules: Flying Owlbears are exactly like their land bound kin except they have a fly movement speed of 80 ft.

 

Skeleton, Fossil

 

Bone is hard, but stone is harder. The calcified remains of the ancient dead can, too, be reanimated by powerful necromantic forces, whether by the whim of some demonic being, in the service of a mortal practitioner of the dark arts, or simply the thin border between the Prime Material Plane and that of Negative Energy. While some Fossil Skeletons are recognizable in form, many are strange and evoke a long forgotten age when wicked serpent folk ruled over the brutish ancestors of modern peoples. There is something of the primordial time in the cruel, if dull, wit of Fossil Skeletons, something savage and primal.

Game Rules: Fossil Skeletons do not wear armor scraps as normal skeletons do, but posses AC 14 due to the natural hardness of stone. In addition, Fossil Skeletons do not suffer from vulnerability to bludgeoning attacks and in fact have resistance to slashing and piercing attacks. Their Hit Dice equal 4d8+8 (27 HP). They are most often armed with spears (+4 to hit, 1d8+2 damage) but are sometimes unarmed (1d6+2 damage). Fossil Skeletons are CR ½.

 

Spectator, Larval

 

Imagine a bulbous globe of slimy flesh, covered in viscous ooze, with one worm like appendage protruding from the top. At the end of this appendage is a single, unblinking eye that glows with foul magic. Now imagine this globe sits on the shoulders of a humanoid form, perhaps a goblin or an innocent miner or even your fellow adventurer, where the head should be. The Larval Spectator is the immature form of a full grown spectator. Spectators lay eggs inside the skull of a dead or dying victim, which hatch within hours and begin to devour the brain. After a day, the brain bursts the skull, having been completely transformed into the Larval Spectator. Only a single engorged eye of the host’s head remains, now on a prehensile stalk. The Larval Spectator is able to control the host body and attempts to locate other Larval Spectators, because only when four Larval Spectators come together — each with a different eye stalk power — can a full grown Spectator form, at which point it is drawn into the Far Realms where it belongs.

Game Rules: Larval Spectators are essentially one quarter of a full grown version of the abomination. When a Larval Spectator is created, it possesses only one of the full grown Spectator’s eye stalk powers (roll 1d4 to determine which). It has no bite attack, though it may attack with unarmed strikes, including grappling, nor can they create food and water (they are slowly devouring the host corpse to which they are attached). Also, they only have 2d8+2 (13) hit points. The CR of a Larval Spectator is 1.

 

Stirge, Swarm

 

When a party of adventurers stumbles across a nest of stirges and must fight off a dozen or so of the blood suycking monsters, it constitutes a bad day. When those same adventurers manage to find and disturb and entire colony of stirges, it is positively apocalyptic. Stirge Swarms usually form during the colder months, when stirges leave their relatively small nests in favor of caverns, ruins and other unattended places. It is believed they do so in order to go into hibernation, reducing their body temperatures like bats to make it through the lean season.Unlike bats, disturbed stirges are immediately consumed by hunger for blood and attack whatever is nearby (other than stirges) in huge numbers. Most Stirge Swarms include thousands of individual stirges but some have been recorded including over a million stirges. The larger the swarm, the more likely it will not be sated by whatever is in the immediate area and will flow like a black river of death into the night sky, in search of the closest feeding ground, be it wild herd or rustic village.

Game Rules: A Stirge Swarm is not a monster, it is a natural disaster. Individual Stirge “encounters” are a constant threat, of course, including 6-12 stirges attacking any given part on any given round on the periphery of the swarm. Anyone entering the swarm is unable to fully resist and takes 5d4+13 damage whenever they start their turn within the limits of the swarm. Of that damage, the initial 1d4+3 is piercing (the rest is due to blood loss). If a character is somehow immune to piercing damage in a way that completely avoids the initial damage, the character avoids all damage for the round. A Stirge Swarm can be dispersed if the PCs cause a total of 100 points of damage over no more than 4 rounds (if 4 rounds go by and 100 damage has not been caused, remove only the hit point total damage from the  first round of damage. The Stirge Swarm is immune to piercing, resistant to all other weapons as well as spells that require a to hit roll or have a line area of effect. One the upside, the Swarm is vulnerable to fire and poison damage. If a Stirger Swarm is dispersed, treat it as a CR 3 encounter.

 

Twig Blight, Kindler

 

When a wild fire ravages a forest, many twig blights are destroyed along with ordinary plants. However, for some the fire changes them and although it destroys them like the others, they seed as they die. These seeds grow into Kindler Twig Blights, who resemble their parentage in all ways but one: Kindler Blights thrive in fire, much to the surprise and terror of otherwise experienced adventurers who would use flame to stamp out the monstrous plant creatures.

Game Rules: Kindler Twig Blights posses immunity to fire, both mundane and magical. In addition, if a Kindler Blight is damaged by magical flame it becomes itself a torch and causes an additional 1d6 fire damage on any successful hit or to any creature that begins its turn in contact with the Kindler Blight (such as when grappling). In all other ways they are identical to regular Twig Blights.

 

Wolf, Alpha

 

Although no more than animals, wolves suffer a terrible reputation among the common folk of the world. Due to their predatory nature and their chilling howls in the night and mist, many people attribute evil to the wolf. It is true some elder, darker breeds of wolf do serve evil, such as the warg, there are also wolves that are noble and good. Alpha Wolves are one such breed, though in reality they are not a breed apart such as wolves but rare wolf pups that are blessed with great power, wisdom and nobility. As they grow up, they naturally take command of their packs, and often attract the attention of good fey, druids and rangers. Their primary interest is in preserving their native habitat and protecting other wolves, but they do so by combatting evil wherever it infects the wild. They are great enemies of the aforementioned wargs, as well as werewolves and other evil wolves and wolf like creatures. they may aid good characters who serve similar interests, or direct their packs to destroy those that oppose them.

Game Rules: Alpha Wolves are Neutral Good. They are Large creatures with 6d8+12 HD (43 HP) and possess the following stats: Str 14 (+2), Dex (14 (+2), Con 15 (+2), Int 8 (-1), Wis 16 (+3), Cha 10. Their bite is at +6 to hit and does 4d4+8 damage. Against evil creatures, it is considered both magical and silvered. In addition, an Alpha Wolf may expend an action to bolster all allies within 30 feet, allowing them to recover 1 HD immediately and granting +2 on their next attack roll, saving throw or skill check. This ability has a recharge of 5-6. An Alpha Wolf is CR 2.

 

Zombie, Bursting

 

The corpse of the villager shambles forward. It is bloated by decay, stomach distended and eyeballs bulging. It is not until your sword is already swinging that you realize that its mouth is sewn shut or that its nose and ears and sealed with great globs of wax. You try and stop your swing but it is too late. As soon as the steal cuts into its sallow torso, blood and bile and something far more foul spew everywhere. You can barely hear your own screams as you collapse and frantically try and wipe the noxious goo from your skin. Bursting Zombies are used by wickedly clever necromancers as traps, knowing that adventurers are often quick to fight when confronted with undead minions. Filled with one of many possible dangerous compounds and sealed against”leakage” the Bursting Zombie is essentially a walking trap.

Game Rules: Bursting Zombies are like other zombies in most ways and retain their usual abilities and limitations. However, when a Bursting Zombie takes damage, roll a d20 and compare the result to the total amount taken by the bursting zombie. If the d20 roll is under 20 AND less than the total amount of damage suffered, it is immediately reduced to 0 HP and explodes. A Bursting zombie reduced to 0 HP always explodes. Every creature within 10 feet of the bursting zombie is affected by the substance with which the zombie was filled. Possibilities include poison gas (Constitution DC 12 save or be poisoned for 10 minutes), alchemists fire, green slime, rot grubs, explosive powder (3d6 fire damage, Dexterity DC 13 save for half), and others. The base CR for a Bursting Zombie is ½, but my be increased for especially dangerous explosive attacks.

 

GenCon Ate My Brain!

With apologies to Ninth Level and Dork Storm…

 

It’s Magical Monday and I have nothing for you. ::sad face::

 

Although I am home from GenCon 2014, travel fatigue and “I really shouldn’t have eaten that” have me weak as a kitten and dumb as a rock. I promise Wicked Wednesday will finish off the Starter Set monster Vicious Variants so we can move forward with new and strange monsters, traps and tricks.

 

In the meantime, I wanted to point out a cool new game I found at GenCon called Run, Fight or Die. Unlike the now venerable Zombies!!! or its close, shinier cousin Zombicide, RFD is not a tile based exploration game, nor is it co-operative. Each player is an island unto themself* and must defend against an unending horde of the hungry dead. It is fast and fun and comes with a bajillion awesome zombie figures. Given that I had to pay the box price (minus a generous GenCon discount for buying all the expansions as well) I am reminded I should make an effort to check KickStarter for cool upcoming games and maybe save a few bucks.

 

rfd

 

It is a fun game that you should consider buying if you like the “gaming zombie” genre (which like the “gaming fantasy” genre has morphed into its own breed over the years), have a notable amount of money to spare ($50 for the core set alone) and are tired of the usual adventure/crawl board game most common among zombie board games these days.

 

*I’m not an idiot. I am using the singular “they” pronoun for inclusiveness.