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!

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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.

GenCon!

I’m at GenCon! As awesome as that is, it means updates are going to be sparse, including the final installment of Vicious Variants. My apologies to that one guy looking forward to Bursting Zombie stats!

Magic Monday: Arcane Auras

In worlds where magic permeates the very earth, air and water, it is not surprising that some places become so infused with magical energy that they are overcome by it. These are the places where ley lines cross, where the membrane between dimensions is weak and where events so fateful have occurred the laws of nature themselves are twisted and tainted. These are areas where Arcane Auras are found.

 

An Arcane Aura is a zone of magical energy with a particular nature. It may be that the aura is caused by the very close link between the Prime Material Plane and the Elemental Plane of Fire, so the effects of the aura are based around heat and flame. Or it may be that the location was the site of a battle between sorcerers that was so fierce it broke the laws of normal magic and now wild magic rules there. Some rare Arcane Auras do not remain in place but move, following the lines of magical energy called ley lines or orbiting some other more “massive” center of magical power. No matter the specific nature of the arcane aura, a single fact is true for each one: the normal rules regarding the way magic works in the world are altered. This fact makes Arcane Auras highly sought after by scholars of magical study, as well as any who might benefit from a given aura’s effects.

 

Three factors define an Arcane Aura: its scale (how widespread the aura is in a geographical sense), its scope (how specific or general its effects are), and its power (roughly the equivalent of spell level, defining in game terms its Challenge Rating). Note that many Arcane Auras have additional descriptors, such as energy types or alignments, but these aspects are not required and vary widely between Arcane Auras. In addition, an Arcane Aura may itself change over time in any of the three factors, some regularly (for example, with the phases of the moon) or randomly by the whims of fate. Finally, most Arcane Auras are permanent (that is, player characters have no hope of changing or dispelling their effects) but some few can be modified with the use of strange rituals, powerful artifacts and other quest-worthy efforts.

 

General Rules: Each Arcane Aura is different in scale, scope and power as well as specific effects. Generally speaking, however, Arcane Auras operate by the following rules: the effect of the Arcane Aura occurs on any subject that enters the area affected by the aura. If saving throws are called for, they are made immediately upon entering the area. If a saving throw is called for every turn, it is rolled when and if the character or creature starts its turn with the affected area. All saving throws are against a DC of 10 + the Aura’s Power; the ability score of the save is called for in the text. Unless otherwise noted, the effects of the Arcane Aura leave the affected creature or character as soon as they leave or are taken out of the area of effect. If th effect of an Arcane Aura mimics or closely resembles the effect of a given spell, treat it as that spell and/or school of magic in regards to resistances, immunities, vulnerabilities and other special rules (i.e. if an Arcane Aura puts creatures to sleep, it does not affect elves).

 

An Arcane Aura is intended to be a unique effect based on a unique location that injects something of the weird or strange into the adventure and setting. The origin of every Arcane Aura need not be given to the player characters, or even necessarily developed by the Dungeon Master. These magical worlds have thousands, perhaps even millions, of years of lost history embedded within them, dominated by races and civilization incomprehensible to those that scour their ruins for gold and glory. The DM should allow his imagination to run free with Arcane Auras (indeed, with all aspects of setting and adventure design) and trust that the players will be suitably awed, terrified and/or impressed that the questions of “how?” and “why?” are moot, or at least satisfying in their unknowability. Certainly it is worthwhile to use an Arcane Aura as a plot point or a way to build the world in a knowable way, but the DM should be careful not to shackle themselves too much to the explainable.

 

With all that out of the way, here are some examples of Arcane Auras for use by the DM:

 

Ley Junction: Ley lines are the arteries that carry the power of magic through the world. Certainly, magic flows freely outside these ley lines, but its potent force is concentrated in the ley lines. Those with knowledge and means can discover the location of ley lines and sometimes build their towers and laboratories along them. True power is found where ley lines cross and meet, however. These ley junctions are rare, as most ley lines runs nearly parallel, but sometimes powerful magics can cause lines to bend and thousands of miles away they cross. In the most rare of instances, perhaps only at one location per world, three, four or even five ley lines cross at a single point. At these places, magical energy seethes and flows like water.

Scale: A ley line junction creates an empowered magic zone in an area 10^Power Level feet in diameter, centered on the point of junction or crossing.

Scope: Ley Junctions affect all magic within the area of effect.

Power: The power level of the ley junction is equal to the number of ley lines that cross. All ley junctions, by definition, consist of at least two crossing ley lines. To determine additional crossing ley lines at the junction, roll a d10 10. On a 1, the number of ley lines at the junction increases by 1 and the die is rolled again. For example, if the die is rolled and comes up 1, then rolled again resulting in another 1, followed by a 5, there are 4 ley lines crossing at the junction and the power level is 4.

Effect: Raw magical energy pulses at a ley junction, there for the taking of any arcane caster. The DC of all saving throws against spells cast within the radius of the ley junction is increased by the Power level of the junction. In addition, the Power level adds to any total damage or other effect roll (add it in just once, not per die). Finally, an arcane caster in the area gains a free spell slot equal in level to the Power of the junction while within. This slot is always available, but comes with a danger: any time a caster uses the slot gained from the ley line and rolls a 1 on an attack roll or a target rolls a 20 on a saving throw, the caster over channels magical energy from the ley junction and takes 1d10 arcane damage per power level and uses up all remaining spell slots. The caster may still use cantrips, if any, but gains no benefit from the ley junction. These effects end after a long rest.

 

Elemental Node: There are places in the world where the membrane between the Prime Material plane and the Elemental planes is thin. Magical energy of the elemental type leaks through the membrane and a small part of the Prime becomes very much like the elemental plane and elemental magic is empowered. Those arcanists that specialize in elemental magic often build bases of operation within arcane auras of this sort, as do creatures tied to the element in question (either of the Prime or the Elemental plane itself).

Scale: An Elemental Node has a radius equal to 100 feet times the Power level of the node.

Scope: The magical effects of the node only function for a single element (earth, air, fire, water) but its effects are conferred not only to spells of the specific type, but the special attacks of creatures with that type and weapons that deal elemental damage of that type.

Power: An elemental node has a power level of 1d4+1.

Effect: Any damaging effect or spell of the proper elemental type used within the node is increased by the Power level of the node. In addition, any creature that has resistance against element loses that resistance while within the area of the node. Immune creatures are reduced to having resistance. The saving throw DCs for all spells and abilities of the elemental type are increased by the node Power level. Creatures of the elemental type gain 5 x Power level temporary hit points while within the node and an increase to their Proficiency bonus equal to the node Power level. The area of effect of the node is often hostile to creatures not of the elemental type of the node. Every 10 minutes within the node, unless protected by some form of magic, such creatures must make a Constitution saving throw (DC 10+Power level) or gain a level of exhaustion.

 

Temporal Rift: This kind of arcane aura is almost always caused when great magical powers — gods, demons, or archmages of supreme power — battle in the mortal realm. Whatever other destruction their wrath causes the world, evidenced by shattered mountains and dried seas and deserts turned to glass, time itself is torn asunder. Those that wander into a temporal rift may never find their way out as they are caught in a loop of a small amount of time, doomed to repeat the same actions over and over without memory of the relative eons they have spent trapped within. From the outside, a temporal rift appears to be something of mirage, within it just the briefest glimpse of those trapped inside, so subtle and quick that the viewer can never be sure they saw anything at all. On rare occasion, an evil spellcaster or other creature finds the temporal rift and turns it into a trap for its enemies, even going so far as to build its entire fortress around the affected area.

Scale: A temporal Rift arcane aura is relatively small, just 5 feet in diameter per Power level.

Scope: Time only. Unlike other arcane auras, the Temporal Rift is very specific in effect.

Power Level: A Temporal Rift has a power level of 1-6. The higher the power level, the greater the event that spawned the Rift and the more apparent that events impact on the land for miles (1 per power level) around. At power level 6, the destruction is evident even thousands of years afterward.

Effect: Any living thing that enters the area of the Temporal Node is likely lost in a short time loop. the creature is allowed an Intelligence saving throw DC 12+Power level. On a successful save, the creature manages to pass through the rift and out again, completely losing the time it was within the Rift. To determine how long the creature was lost in the rift, roll 1d6: 1=1 round x Power level; 2= 1 minute x Power level; 3=1 hour x Power level;4=1 day x Power level;5=1 week x Power level; 6= 1 month x Power level. On a failed save, a creature is lost in the Temporal Rift forever, never to return to the normal time stream except through the use of a wish or divine intervention. Inside the Rift, the creature experiences a number of rounds equal to the Power level of the Rift, during which it may act freely. At the end of those rounds, the creature returns to the exact place and state they entered the Rift with no memory of any time passed within the Rift. Even death does not free the creature, as it just returns to its living state at the point it entered the rift once the appropriate number of rounds have passed. While within the rift, the creature is invisible and inaudible to those outside it and is considered to be on another plane of existence to determine what spells and other magical effects allow others to interact with those within the Rift.

 

Little Stories

For some months, I have been having trouble with Writer’s Block, especially when trying to write fiction. But here’s the thing: as soon as I decided to refocus this blog on 5th Edition D&D, I have written over 8,000 words — I know, that is not a lot compared to many of you, but compared to the 0,000 I was writing before, it sure is. A small portion of that has been my Guardians of the Galaxy review, but the majority has been writing game related articles. At first I was surprised,a nd then I was concerned: am I incapable of writing fiction? Have I exhausted my ability to create stories? Don’t get me wrong: I love game writing. I cut my professional writing teeth on game writing, for White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted and for Sword & Sorcery Studios’ Gamma World d20. But real life intervened and it has been a very long time since I have done any professional game writing. And, if I am being honest, I do not foresee a career in writing game material at $.04 per word.

 

Then, something occurred to me: the little articles I have been writing here for D&D 5E are stories. More specifically, they are made up of many little stories. I am not a game designer — they do math and play test things and generally make games work correctly. I am a game writer — I come up with some wacky stuff that makes for a fun experience around a table with a bunch of your friends. When I write about Fantastic Fountains, Vicious Monster Variants, or Pommel Stones of Power, what I am really doing to creating a handful of small stories in each of those articles and asking you, the reader and game player, to jump into that story. I could limit my Vicious Variants to a couple of sentences adjusting the monsters’ game statistics — after all, the stated goal is simply to provide more utility from those creatures while awaiting the arrival of the official D&D 5E Monster Manual — but instead each one gets a couple hundred words. Why? Because tabletop role playing games like D&D are themselves stories, series of linked tales that comprise one grand epic (which may or may not end with the “heroes” in the stomach of a hungry troll).

 

Realizing this has been helpful. I know that I am not stuck in the ghetto of game writing instead of writing actual stories. I am writing stories, and it is a short step from here back into the world of prose fiction. And, just as importantly, there’s nothing wrong with being here in the first place: game writing isn’t a lesser form, and even if the pay isn’t as good, well, no one is paying for my fiction at this point either. ;)

 

Thanks for reading, and if you are enjoying what I do, don’t forget to Share and Like.

Wicked Wednesday: Vicious Variants Part 2

Let’s continue with our Vicious Variants to get more use out of the monsters provided in the Starter Set.

 

Giant Spider, Wicked

 

As terrifying as they are, most giant spiders are simply animals: merciless predators indeed, but motivated only by hunger and other base responses. The Wicked Giant Spider is different — it is an intelligent, malevolent being, motivated by greed, hatred for all things that walk on fewer than eight legs, and, yes, hunger — an insatiable thirst not merely for blood, but also the fear that consumes the victim as it is devoured paralyzed but alive.

Game Rules: Wicked Giant Spiders are highly intelligent and have the following ability scores: Int 14 (+2), Wis 12 (+1) and Cha 10 (+0). They are telepathic and can communicate with any creature within 100 feet, regardless of language, and have blindsight to 60 feet. Wicked Giant Spiders do not produce webs and lose the Web Sense and Web abilities. It does have a special ability called Fascination (Rechard 5-6): As an action, the Wicked Giant Spider may use its telepathic ability to fascinate any living, sentient creature within range. The victim must make an Intelligence saving throw versus DC 12 or be paralyzed. Maintaining the fascination requires concentration by the Wicked Giant Spider. Wicked Giant Spiders are invariably evil and tend to also be chaotic.

 

Goblin, Winged

 

No one is sure where Winged Goblins came from. One theory posits that they were created by a witch who sought evil and highly mobile minions. Others believe they are a mutant offshoot of true goblins, exposed to some arcane energy that spawned a handful of Winged Goblins that bred true. In any case, Winged Goblins inhabit similar terrain as their earthbound cousins, from underground caverns to jagged badlands to dark forests. Winged goblins rarely interact with “normal” goblins, and when they do it is usually in conflict. Very rarely, a goblin tribe will have a Winged Goblin chief or shaman.

Game Rules: Winged Goblins are exactly like other goblins, including their Nimble Escape ability, save for two differences: first, they are able to fly at a speed of 30 feet, and second their wings prohibit the use of armor (AC 13 instead of 15). Winged Goblins rely heavily on ranged weapons, for obvious reasons, and may also use an action to make a diving attack with a melee weapon, which, if successful, does an additional d6 of damage. Note that due to the force of their collision, the goblin takes half of the total damage from the attack. For this reason, some refer to Winged Goblins as Suicide Goblins.

 

Grick, Arboreal

 

The grotesque monster known as the grick has a tree dwelling cousin that makes remote, dark forests as dangerous as any winding cavern.

Game Rules: Arboreal Gricks have Forest Camouflage — granting advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks in forests — instead of Stone Camouflage. In all other ways they are exactly like other gricks.

 

Hobgoblin, Bogeyman

 

Most hobgoblins live in the highly militaristic clans of their kind and enforce a (not undeserved) stereotype as a disciplined, mighty goblinoid warrior. But not all hobgoblins are made for living in that rigid caste system, and while most of these are culled early on, a few escape hobgoblin society and live alone in the dark places of the world, away from their kin and on the fringes of civilized lands. Unfortunately, their disdain for organized society that caused their exile in the first place did not tame their wicked hearts, and these hermit hobgoblins, in their depredations, become the stuff of tales meant to terrify children into behaving. They become Bogeymen.

Game Rules: Bogeyman Hobgoblins reject their militaristic call. They do not posses the Martial Advantage ability, have an AC of 12 (leather armor) and carry only a short sword (+3 to hit, 1d6+1 damage). However, they have mastered skulking and sneaking (Stealth +6 and Perception +4/14) and are capable of making a sneak attack as a rogue (+1d6). They have a black magic in them and can cast Charm Person (save DC 12; recharge 5-6), which they often use to draw innocents away from their homes before slaying and eating them. Bogeyman Hobgoblins are Chaotic Evil.

 

Nothic, Blinding One

 

Not all secrets of the multiverse come from dark sources, but even the righteous truth is far beyond the mortal mind to comprehend.. Just as the common nothic was once a wizard who peered too deeply into the unknown abyss, a Blinding One Nothic was once a divine, good spellcaster that sought forbidden truth in the heavens. Having flown too close to the sun, the Blinding One was consumed by the radiant truth and turned into a overflowing vessel of divine power.

Game Rules: Blinding One Nothics are similar to their arcane cousins in most respects. They have an Int of 10 and a Wis of 13 (+1) and Religion +3 instead of the Arcana skill. Instead of the Rotting Gaze ability they have a Blinding Gaze: if a single target within 30 feet fails a DC 12 Wisdom save, the victim take 1d8 radiant damage and is blinded for one round. A Blinding One Nothic retains the Weird Insight ability but the knowledge gained by the Nothic is always a secret the victim has told no one, which the Nothic immediately exposes in mad whispers. Blinding One Nothics are chaotic neutral — they were once good but have been driven completely mad.

 

Ochre Jelly, Goblin Jar

 

Not a monster specifically, these are small clay jars filled with Ochre Jelly and used as grenade like weapons by goblins. The clay jar is bound with rope which leaves a short “tail” by which goblins swing and throw the jar (+4 to hit, range 10/30 feet). When the jar lands, regardless of whether it hits, it shatters, releasing a Tiny sized Ochre Jelly. Tiny Ochre Jellies have 5 hp and do only 1d6 damage on a successful attack. They have advantage against any enemy hit by the jar from which they were released. Ochre Jellies from jars that did not hit are released and immediately move toward the nearest jelly in order to merge with it. If 4 Tiny Jellies merge, they form a small jelly (10 hp). If two small jellies merge, they form a medium jelly (pseudopod does 16d+1 plus acid and 20 hit point) and if 2 medium jellies merge they form a large jelly (per page 60 LMoP). The DM should increase the XP award of the goblin encounter by one full CR level..

 

Ogre, Hagborn

 

Normal ogres are a race of marauding giants. They are a true breeding race (though one shudders to imagine the coupling) with their own culture, such that it is. Hagborn Ogres are not ogres at all, nor are they giants, but they are often mistaken for true ogres due to their size, malevolence and stupidity — each of which rivals or exceeds that of the true ogre. As their name implies, Hagborn Ogres are the spawn of hags, a race of monstrous humanoid witches of terrible cruelty and wicked cunning. When a hag uses deceit or magic to trick a noble soul into wedding her, a Hagborn Ogre is always conceived on the wedding night (before the hag reveals herself and the father is either murdered and devoured or is able to escape). A year later, on the anniversary of the deed, the Hagborn Ogre is born. Hagborn Ogres have the same coal black eyes and dark green skin of their mothers and are always massive in size and musculature. They retain some semblance of their father, often facial features or the color and texture of their hair (unkempt as it often is). Hagborn Ogres are unflinchingly devoted to their horrible mothers.

Game Rules: Being of more magical stock, Hagborn Ogres are slightly less dim than normal Ogres (Int 6 and Wis 10). Their parentage also gives them greater Strength (21) and they have 10 HD (hp 80). Most Hagborn Ogres wear chainmail armor (AC 16) and wield giant greatswords (+8 to hit, 4d6+5 damage) and javelins. While fighting in defense of his hag mother, a Hagborn Ogre has advantage against the character or creature that last attacked her. If she is killed, he falls into a raging despair, fighting at disadvantage until he is killed or all enemies are destroyed. It is extremely rare but not unknown for an orphaned Hagborn Ogre to seek out his father, either for vengeance or in an attempt to join his family.

Magical Monday: Pommel Stones of Power

Magic swords are perhaps the most iconic of items found by adventurers. Their presence in Dungeons and Dragons is based on some of the oldest myths of mankind. The sword, in all its various forms throughout human history, has been a symbol of power. In the world of myth, where power is granted (and sometimes revoked) by the gods, so too are swords. Unfortunately, magical swords have become rote in D&D. Forgotten are their names and the list of their deeds; all that seems to matter is the type of weapon, and the bonus conferred to the wielder.

 

Some years ago, I created a system by which to create one million magic swords, complete with names and histories.  I won’t repeat that here. Instead, this article looks at accoutrements to be added to an otherwise bland “+1 Sword” — specifically, in the form of pommel stones meant to be attached to the base of the sword handle. These magical gemstones confer special properties to the blade, but not simple numerical bonuses. They are intended to add flavor and utility.

 

Finding and Using Pommel Stones of Power

 

While it may be that the player characters find a magical sword complete with a powered pommel stone attached, I think it is more fun and interesting for characters to find the stones separately. In some cases, the stones might be found on existing swords that have lost their magic through destruction or dispelling. Pommel Stones of Power cannot be disenchanted, but must be attached to a functional magical blade in order to provide any benefit. This requires a craft check (DC 20) as well as an Int (Arcana) check (also DC 20). Failure on either means the craftsman failed to successfully link the Pommel Stone of Power to the magical sword. If either roll results in a natural die roll of 1, the sword is disenchanted during the process.

 

Once a Pommel Stone of Power is successfully attached to a magical sword, it’s benefits are conferred any time the sword is wielded (not simply carried). A Pommel Stone of Power may be attached to any one or two handed sword that is of +1 or higher magical enchantment.  The Dungeon Master is the final arbiter of what sort of weapon qualifies as a “sword.”

 

Example Pommel Stones of Power

 

Amber: After an amber Pommel Stone of Power is attached to a magical sword, the weapon has a unique property: on any successful critical hit, the target is not damage but instead is temporarily covered in a translucent orange glasslike material. The target is paralyzed and has damage (any) resistance  for the duration of the effect. Every round after the first allows the victim a Strength saving throw (DC 14) to break free. Three consecutive failed saves results in permanent encasement in amber (the character is effectively dead, but preserved).

 

Bloodstone: This red flecked green stone is polished to a sheen. Once it is attached to a magical sword, it absorbs the life’s blood of enemies killed by the sword. Each enemy killed by the sword adds 1 “blood point” to a pool accessible by the sword’s wielder. Each such point may be spent to add either +2 to hit or +2 to damage. More than one blood point may be spent on a single attack. The bloodstone holds a maximum of 4 blood points. The wielder must choose to spend one or more blood points at the time of making an attack, prior to the rolling of the dice. Every day the bloodstone goes without gaining a blood point creates a deficit in the bloodstone (effectively, a negative blood point) that must be filled before usable blood points are collected, to a maximum of 4.

 

Fire Opal: This orange, red and white stone seems to glimmer with an internal flame. When attached to a magical weapon, it confers upon the wielder resistance to both mundane and magical fire. In addition, the damage caused by the sword is considered magical fire for purposes of determining vulnerability and resistance or immunity.

 

Moonstone: Under the light of the moon (the new moon portion of the cycle does not count, nor does it work underground regardless of the cycle of the moon), a magical sword fitted with a moonstone Pommel Stone of Power confers advantage to all attacks by the wielder.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

 

I don’t normally do reviews on this blog, but I had to make an exception for Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s most recent summer blockbuster.  First and foremost, just to get it out of the way, the movie is AWESOME — 9.9 out of 10 (and the .1 is only deducted due to the pointless post credit’s scene, but I’ll get there eventually). The second thing to know is that GotG is not, in any way, a super hero movie. It inhabits the same super-heroic setting as the rest of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, and given the presence of big-bad Thanos in the film, I am sure it’s plot will tie directly into said universe (my guess is it comes to a head in Avengers 3). Guardians is  a science fiction movie. More specifically, it is a big dumb Space Opera populated by planet destroying super weapons, ships the size of cities and mining colonies in the severed skulls of cosmic beings.

 

ALso, I suppose I should give a good old fashioned SPOILER WARNING: I will be speaking freely about plot elements from the film.

 

Guadians opens with perhaps the saddest introduction since Up! by Pixar: young Peter Quill is present when his mother dies of cancer and is so distraught by her passing that he runs away from the hospital. Until the very end of the film, this is not only the most powerful emotional moment of the film, but arguably the only emotional moment of the film. Even so, it serves to establish a powerful motivation in the character of Peter Quill/Starlord for making many of the decisions he makes in the film, without seeming overwrought or silly. I went to see the film with my son, who is about the same apparent age as the young Peter and found myself choked up at the idea of having to say goodbye to him in that way. It was simple but also powerful. That scene ends with the boy being abducted by an alien craft, and from there the fun begins.

 

I want to be clear about this: Guardians of the Galaxy is, above all, a fun movie. It is a big summer tent pole sci-fi-action-comedy with a budget bigger than the GDP of some countries. Nary a mention is made of how all these weird alien species apparently speak English as a universal language, nor should it. There is nothing in the construction of the civilization as we are shown it that makes any sense in a “hard sci-fi” kind of way, and this is a feature, not a bug. Space Opera has been stagnant in cinema since the original Star Wars trilogy, populated either by poor imitators (including the Prequel Trilogy, IMO) or deconstructionists. Guardians of the Galaxy embraces is big dumb space opera roots unapologetically and in doing so creates some of the best space opera ever depicted on film.

 

The other thing about GotG is that not only is it fun, it is funny. While appropriate for most kids in the 10+ range, it is just profane enough to give it an adolescent sensibility. The main character of Peter Quill/Starlord is a rogue through and through, including criminal activity and debonair womanizing, but both are merely suggested at. Much of the humor comes from the inherent ridiculousness of the characters — a walking and talking tree than can only speak three words, a cybernetic raccoon bounty hunter, a femme fatale assassin turned good, and a musclebound seeker of vengeance incapable of understanding or communicating in anything but the literal — but never turns any of them into a clown. There is no C3PO in this movie, and for that I am grateful. Secondary and side characters are treated with the same degree of quasi-seriousness: they are often quirky and strange, but never stupid.

 

The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy is fairly straight forward. Multiple groups are after an orb of (at first) unknown nature, including the main villain Ronan the Accuser (played with grandeur by Lee Pace, currently of Halt and Catch Fire) who has a grudge against the planet Xandar and wants to basically kill everything. People are willing to pay for the orb, thus driving much of the action by our “heroes” and it is eventually revealed that the orb contains an Infinity Stone. This is the part that is going to eventually bring Thanos to bear against the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the context of GotG suffice it to say that Ronan really, really wants it — and manages to get it, in one of those interesting story decisions that happens in movies sometimes, which in this case totally worked. One of the nice things about Ronan as a villain is just how bad-ass he is, so powerful that none of the heroes pose a threat to him. Of course, they do defeat him eventually, with something that looks like a bit of deus ex machina if you weren’t paying attention at the beginning of the film, but even in doing so he is never diminished. I personally hate it when a villain is supposed to be extremely powerful, but just a little extra effort because they really really mean it by the heroes is enough to defeat the villain. That doesn’t happen here and it is refreshing.

 

The movie is fast paced and clever with big explosions and striking visuals. I saw it in digital, without either IMAX or 3D and never really felt like there were scenes foisted upon me to fulfill the ticket prices of those formats. Nonetheless, it was beautifully rendered and the different environments were given distinct visual styles (very important in space opera).

 

The only failure of the film, in my opinion, was the post-credits scene. Marvel has taken pains to train us to sit through the credits and expect something of value, or at least something clever and worth the three to five minute wait while scores of stuntmen and digital artist names scroll by. I won’t spoil the post credit scene for GotG, but I will say, “Don’t bother.” Once the scroll starts, you are free to leave and can Google the scene spoilers on the way home. It will be faster and you will miss nothing of value.

 

Overall, I think GotG qualifies as the second best sci-fi film of the summer (the winner is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — that movie is just great) and the best space-opera since Return of the Jedi. Go see it.

Game Mastering, Conventions and The Valley of Tombs

 

Table top roleplaying games in general, and Dungeons and Dragons in particular, represent my most beloved past time. There are lots of reasons for this, from the creativity involved to the social aspects to simple nostalgia. Within the scope of TTRPGs, though, there is one element which I love most: running games for others, or Game Mastering as it is generally known (Dungeon Mastering when talking specifically of D&D).

 

The art of Game Mastering is equal parts creation (coming up with plots, settings, characters and conflicts) and improvisation (reacting to both the responses of the players and the rolls of the dice) with a side of personnel management (players don’t always work smoothly together) and customer support (nor does the game itself always work as intended). It is a challenging and rewarding experience that lets me flex my creative muscles and receive immediate feedback in a way that other creative exercises, like writing, do not. In short, it’s fun — often exhausting fun, but fun just the same.

 

Broadly speaking, GMing comes in two flavors.  The usual kind is you and a group of friends that get together at least somewhat regularly and play an ongoing game (called a campaign). You know everyone at the table and their preferences — what they like, what they dislike and what they are looking for in the gaming experience. Because these are your friends and it is an ongoing activity, if problems arise you can discuss them and find solutions that work over the long term. And make no mistake, like any activity involving multiple people, problems will arise, from scheduling conflicts to interpersonal disputes and misunderstandings and miscommunications.

 

The other sort of GMing involves groups of strangers coming together for individual, short term play. It can be a game day at a store, an organized play event, or, more commonly, a scheduled slot at a game convention. Up to six or eight people who most likely do not know each other (you might get two or three people who regularly play together signing up together for such an event, but rarely a whole table full) sit down with a GM they also most likely do not know, to play a game they either aren’t familiar with (it is common to try out new games at conventions) or perhaps are masters of (some people only play one game and do so with an almost religious zeal), all in a noisy room under a time limit and the added stress of the players having paid good money to be there. Convention GMing is difficult and stressful and not for everyone, but I love it.

 

Two Great Tastes…

 

As conventions I regularly attend and run games at approach (Carnage in Killington, Vermont, and TotalCon in Mansfield, Massachusetts) and at the same time I have chosen to go “all in” with the new Dungeons and Dragons, I realized I want to try something new: I want to mix some of the elements of the ongoing game into the experience of running a convention game. When players and GMs think about the game beyond the immediate moment at the table, they make different, interesting decisions (either because they are considering consequences or laying groundwork in a way they wouldn’t when they know there is no follow up, no tomorrow as it were). By hopefully adding that level of consequence, that tomorrow, from an ongoing game into a convention game, I hope to produce a richer, more fun experience for all involved. To make that happen, my plan is simple — at least, it sounds simple on the surface:

 

I am going to run the same adventure continuously throughout the duration of the convention. Now, many convention adventures have multiple slots, where Part One of the adventure might be played on Friday, Part Two on Saturday and the finale on Sunday morning before everyone drives home. That’s not quite what I mean. Instead of an adventure with a multi-part plot, I am going to create an environment with a lot to do, a “sandbox” full of enough locations, characters, monsters and treasures to entertain  multiple groups of players over 16 or 20 hours of play. That sandbox is called The Valley of Tombs:

 

“For thousands of years, the Valley served as the resting place for tribal chiefs and god-emperors alike, for in it was a magic that promised great reward in the afterlife. But a calamity centuries ago cut off the valley from the greater world and its location was lost. Only a few years ago, the Valley was rediscovered and now hungry adventurers and crypt raiders have descended upon the valley in search of lost lore and buried treasure. But not everything rests in peace in the Valley of Tombs. Can your heroes overcome its insidious perils as well as rival tomb raiders, and still find fortune and fame?”

 

Players can sit in on as many slots as they like, keeping their characters and tracking treasure won, enemies overcome and experience gained. But even if no players play for more than one slot, continuity will remain — whatever players do in the slot before remains done in the following slots. A player updated map and a player written journal that stays at the table will ensure the next slot’s adventurers know what came before. My hope is that some players choose to play multiple sessions and others who only play one session look at the map and journal and choose to go after, for example, a treasure that was hinted at but not found by an earlier group or to take out a monster or villain that killed a previous adventuring party.

 

Testing:

 

I signed up for GenCon 2014 too late to submit any events. Even so, I plan on planting myself at an open gaming table with the Valley of Tombs — or some pieces of it anyway — to work through some of the concepts and ideas. I am hoping that there will be enough demand for D&D 5th Edition play that I’ll be able to fill a table a couple of times. After GenCon, I will use what I learned there to craft the Valley in full for Carnage and run a few test sessions with my local game groups. Carnage will be the first full “beta” test at a convention and should help me work out the bugs for TotalCon, where I plan to dedicate my entire time at the convention to running The Valley. Assuming it goes well and everything works as intended, I hope to be able to keep honing and running it into next con season, perhaps even at GenCon 2015.

 

Over the course of the development and testing process, I will be talking about the Valley of Tombs here on occasion, so stay tuned!