Vextrapolation

First and foremost, all credit goes to my good friend Greg Shea, artist and man of one million talents and zero hairs. Go check out his work.

Anyway, Greg suggested “vextrapolation” when I asked for a term that encapsulated one of those things you see on geek social media: the tendency to look at a thing that has been announced with scant details and fill in the blank spaces with the worst possible idea ever. In this case, it came from an internet message board discussion of Paizo, Inc.’s recently new science fantasy RPG Starfinder. The details aren’t important, other than to say that since the game will not release until GenCon this summer, not everything is known. So many people have engaged in “vextrapolation” and assumed Paizo is going to fumble this or that in regards to the game, its setting or its marketing.

(For the record, I am super excited about Starfinder and am looking forward to standing in line at GenCon this year to get a hold of it!)

 

But this post isn’t really about Starfinder. It is about vextrapolation and the more generally broad tendency of fandom to expect the worst without necessarily having any evidence for it. First of all, let me say this up front (mostly because I am going to get called on it anyway): I, as a geek, have engaged in this and have done so recently in regards to the DC comic cinematic universe. Based on my feelings about Batman vs Superman, I am pretty sure everything coming down the pike is going to be terrible. Even Wonder Woman, which looks awesome but will probably suck.

When No Man’s Sky was first announced, I fell in love. It seemed like the sci-fi space sim equivalent of choosing a random direction in Skyrim to walk until you found cool things to see, kill and/or otherwise interact with. There were lots of folks that pooh-poohed the game from the get-go, and if I am being honest I assumed they were just being negative and unimaginative. But in the end, these vextrapolationers turned out largely right: Hello Games could not deliver on the game experience they promised. So it isn’t that “vextrapolation” is necessarily wrong headed — but that doesn’t change the fact that it is negative in nature.

What I really wonder is why we, as fans and geeks, do this. Why do we presume that things will be terrible, that creators will make the wrong choices? Is it a way to protect ourselves from unmet expectations? If we have low expectations we can never be disappointed? We tell ourselves it is based on experience, that we are being wise or we are being realistic, but that is hardly true in all cases. And we are wrong as often as not. Sometimes a game or a film that seems like it will be dismal turns out to be great.

I think the truth lies in geek culture. While it is now in its ascendancy and has captured the spotlight, most people who identify as geeks were used to having their opinions belittled and their expectations crushed. When you live on the fringe of popular culture –and not in a cool punk rock way — it is easier to assume that any attempt by the mainstream entertainment media to produce something of value is going to fail. I mean, come on, the Dungeons & Dragons movie? And that is still true, but the difference is a lot of geeks are now in the mainstream entertainment media, making movies and Netflix shows and producing their own tabletop and computer RPGs. We as geeks can be a lot more positive because it is us that are now producing our own entertainment.

Now, that isn’t all sunshine and roses. It can lead to a lot of navel gazing and retreading of the same old tropes. We need new blood — young geeks, geeks of color, LGBTQ geeks, and so on. But we can be positive about what is coming down the pike. We absolutely should admit when it turns out terrible (I am looking at you Star Trek Into Darkness) but we don’t have to preemptively hate it.

Leave the vextrapolation behind.

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Getting Weird: Why I Can Never Run A Grounded Campaign

It is all my players’ faults. I set up the campaign, one where magic is rare and magical creatures are alien and dangerous, where culture and technology are based strictly on a real world society at a particular time and where the primary conflicts are built around maintaining order as the larger social structure collapses. What do they do? They decide to play dragon men with a penchant for building armies of street urchins, demon bound warlocks that want to sell magical trinkets and marry into the nobility, civilization hating gnomes at war with colossal squirrel royalty and all manner of other weirdness. What’s a DM to do?

 

The answer, it turns out, is to say, “Yes.” Or, at least, “Yes, but,” with the possible inclusion of the occasional begrudging, “Fiiiiine.”

 

First of all, I can hardly blame them for grabbing on to the weird fantasy elements I myself put into the setting.

 

I only like “realism” in my fantasy insofar as it gives me firm foundation on which to build. Moreover, historical cultures, even in pastiche, provide ready resources when I do not know a thing or need to fill in details that I might not have considered. What do nobles in the court wear? I look up 15th century English noble attire on Wikipedia. What kinds of names do these people have? There’s a website for that. Is plate armor worn yet? I happen to have a book within arm’s (ha!) reach  to tell me. It isn’t that I am going for historical accuracy, just something approaching consistency or verisimilitude.

 

But all that mundane historical stuff gets very stale very quickly. I grew up on a cocktail of D&D, comic book super heroes, video games and pulp science fiction and fantasy. If there is a more incestuous family of weird fantasy influences, I’ve not had the pleasure of partaking. So once I established the lords and ladies and guilds and what not, I threw in the dimensional rifts from which monsters spring, the ancient Celtic and Norse inspired faerie races, the lost civilization of unknowable otherworldy wizards whose vaults and libraries wait to be plundered for arcane secrets and the city sized dragon that killed a king and brought about a (regional, at least) Apocalypse. This is the structure of the fun built onto that solid foundation and it should be no surprise to me (and, yet, is every time) that the players want to not only engage that stuff but expand on it leave their own weird fantasy marks on the world. That is, after all, why players show up at the table in the first place, isn’t it?

 

What I find interesting in my own process is that I always think I want to rely on my own imagination. I think I want to lay out the world and its denizens and locations and systems and then let the players move through it freely, yet constrained — as if it were a museum, all look and no touch. I do that every time, it seems, but just as inevitably I realize what my kids already know: museums aren’t actually any fun unless they are the sort in which you get to touch stuff. Maybe I think too much of my imagination, or too little of the players’, or it is simply that I cultivated a thing in my mind and I just want to share it so I am a little jealous of it in those first few outings. The reality is, though, that players improve the exhibits. Imagine how much more fun Michelangelo’s David would be if the Accademia Gallery kept a box of costume clothes and water based paints nearby and told visitors to go at it? Letting players dress up and paint the world I have created is like that.

 

This isn’t to say there aren’t pitfalls to allowing players to run amok, creatively speaking. First and most obviously, they usually do not have the whole story as it relates to setting secrets. If a player wants element X to work one way, but in the DM only notes it is actually part of situation Y it can be a little touch to navigate. Usually I can say something as simple as, “That thing is sort of off limits to players,” which has the added benefit of suddenly attracting that player’s attention to it. After all, I wouldn’t both including a secret if I did not want the player’s to uncover it, would I? Other times it is easy enough to let the player (and their character) believe a thing is X when it is actually Y. The look on their faces will be worth it in the end.

 

To be honest, either of those scenarios are relatively rare. Usually a player comes up with an idea or extrapolation I would never have considered. That’s the beauty of the cooperative nature of D&D and other RPGs. People complain about “movies made by committee” for big budget Hollywood releases, and for certain too many cooks can ruin the stew. But in D&D, I have found that generally speaking the more input, the more ideas floating around the table, the more fun everyone has and the better off the game is. Plus, it has the added benefit of taking a whole lot of work off my shoulders and, frankly, I am a Lazy DM.

The Fate of Zaskettr

sigurd

In the cold mountains of Vermont, the great wyrm Zaskettr met its fate.

Let’s back up. Last weekend was Carnage, the annual northern New England tabletop gaming convention that currently takes place at the Killington Ski Mountain Resort. It is a great con, with hundreds of attendees playing all manner of games. This year, I ran a long form game called The High Guard which you can read about here. For the purposes of this discussion, only one detail of that adventure matters: the fight against, and victory over, Zaskettr, the great wyrm responsible for the death of the High King and following chaos.

 

Dragon fights are notoriously difficult in D&D. As very powerful singular monsters, dragons can be both overwhelming for a party and at the same time anti-climactic. This is due to the nature of threats, combat and so-called “challenge ratings” in D&D. As what can be referred to as “boss” or “solo” monsters, dragons have tons of hit points and the potential to deal a lot of damage. As such, they can be very deadly, even for level appropriate PCs. Despite this, they can also seem somewhat weak. As singular monsters, they are inherently the focus of a heroic party’s energies and all those arrows, swords and spells stack up quickly. This is doubly true when, such as at a convention, the party is larger than usual.

 

Zaskettr began as an indistinct concept. I wanted to create a setting defined by a central monster, one that would always be present but not necessarily involved. This being D&D, the obvious choice was a dragon. Not any dragon, mind you, but an ancient red wyrm, the most powerful evil dragon in any edition of the game (barring deities and the like). The dragon would have destroyed not just the king and his castle, but the very stability of the kingdom. It would be the ultimate boss monster for a party that started out as zero level nothings trying to survive giant rats in the inn cellar.

 

Of course the idea evolved over time. Eventually when I was deciding what sort of long form game to run this year, I remembered the idea and created a world around the creature, which I called Zaskettr based on some random googling. Despite whatever details changed, the core idea remained the same: the dragon was the monster that had brought down the apocalypse and whatever else the heroes accomplished, destroying it would be the ultimate test. That said, I did not actually go into the con game expecting the PCs would tackle the dragon. I thought they might so I prepared, but it was just one of a few threads. It became clear early on in actual play though that if you put a dragon at the center of a game, the players are going to want to kill it.

 

Many adventures led up to the direct conflict with Zaskettr. One of the things I believe I am really good at from a Dungeon Mastering perspective is working on the fly. I create a realized setting and I prepare some expected encounters and Non-Player Characters. So armed, I am confident in letting the players go whatever direction and dealing with it as they go. Truth be told, I prefer this method of DMing simply because I get to be surprised, too. Who knows what a random group of players are going to do at a convention game, let alone one that stretches over 5 or more slots? I certainly don’t, and I like it that way.

 

Eventually, the PCs did come into direct conflict with Zaskettr. Twice, actually. Once the party had acquired the weapon with which to defeat the dragon, they went looking for it in its domain. That location proved very challenging and when they retreated to lick their wounds, the dragon, drawn by the very weapon designed to defeat it, attacked. The party barely survived and managed to escape through sheer luck. (Aside: that luck happened to be in the form of a helm of teleportation that one player rolled as a random starting item at the beginning of the first session. I believe in random input into the game. I can’t think of everything, and sometimes a random die roll, whether for an item or an encounter or even just a name, can completely change the course of an adventure. As I said, I like to be surprised.)

 

After the party fled, they chose to seek aid from the lords, churches and common folk of the land. With such aid, they drew the dragon away from a populated area and used magic to create a battleground of their devising. Zaskettr met them and this time the wyrm and the party were far more evenly matched. Even so, there were tense moments where only lucky die rolls on the part of the PCs or unlucky die rolls on my part spared their lives. It was glorious — everything a tabletop D&D fight with a dragon should be. I guess that an outside observer inexperienced with the nature of play would probably have been bored to death as we worked through a single battle for 2 or more hours. But for us at the time, it was thrilling. By the way, in my opinion that, in a nutshell, is tabletop gaming.

 

In the end, the PCs managed to whittle Zaskettr down. I had the dragon all set to flee the battle and force the PCs to come to its lair for the final round. Sadly, I did not leave the poor beast enough hit points. I did not expect the last round of luck the PCs had and before Zaskettr could fly off, the party cut the dragon down and impaled it with the magic spear that would keep it in torpor so long as the spear remained in Zaskettr’s heart.  They whooped and hollered on their victory and, to be honest, so did I. I talk a good “killer DM” game but in the end I want them to succeed just as much as they want to. After all, what we are all really looking forward to is a good tale to tell afterwards.

 

I gleaned a lot more from that extended game at Carnage this year than the fun of the party defeating Zaskettr. I will go into that in a future post. But for now, the joy of a well fought battle that mattered to the players, even at a convention without any of the weight of a home game, is enough to make me smile. This is why I run games and why I run games at conventions the way I do. Success after 20 hours, even if you as a player was not there for every single moment of it, is still far sweater than after just four.

Return to the Isle of Dread: Random Special Encounters

 

 

When running an open sandbox game, having good random encounter charts at your disposal is a must. I tend toward finding or making terrain based charts and then having an additional chart of “special encounters”. These encounters can happen in any environment and exist primarily to reinforce the themes, mood and atmosphere of the sandbox. in the case of The Return to the Isle of Dread, the point is to remind players that the Isle is a weird nexus of worlds and not at all safe.

 

The following chart is a little bit gonzo, and that is intentional. The Isle is a little bit gonzo, blurring genre lines and serving up some wicked wonder. It will probably see a little bit of modification before TotalCon rolls around, but you can see what the intent is.

d20

01: A tribe of 4d4+4 goblins living inside an animated T-Rex skeleton led by a bugbear witch.

02: A circle of severed heads on spears babble madly as per gibbering mouther. Bodies and loot in circle.

03: Mad explorers set trap gauntlet to catch a meal: spiked log, falling stones, snare over spiked pit.

04:Human barbarian and 1d6+2 awakened apes stalk area, killing hunters/tomb robbers & aiding innocents.

05:Haunted camp. Spectral explorers replay fight over treasure nightly. One can be traced to the gold.

06:Tree grows melon sized plums. Max any HD spent when consumed during short rest. Last 1d4 days.

07:4d6+6 draconians think they’re on Krynn and await orders from Highlord in a makeshift fortress.

08:Tree looks like the one with healing plums. Those aren’t plums: they’re 2d4+2 giant spiders.

09: Village of 5d4+10 phanaton is plaguestruck and needs help. 2d4 die/day until village is gone.

10:2d6+4 slavers have of 3d6 slaves in tow. Freed slaves repay kindness with secret knowledge.

11:Goblins! 2d4+4 ride pig size triceratops. Peaceful unless provoked. Other goblins hunt them.

12:Something slithers in an ancient yuan ti shrine nearby. 1d4+1 abominations stalk the PCs.

13:Allosaur nest with 1d6+2 eggs. Mother and father return in 5d6 minutes and will attack.

14:Couatl guards a magical fountain. Drink with permission 24 hour bless; without 24 hour bane no save.

15:Waterfall hides cave with treasure inside guarded by specter of original cursed tomb raider.

16:Small ruined tower inhabited only by shadow demon still trapped in magic circle and willing to bargain.

17:Bones of a massive dinosaur 500 feet long with dire wolf den (2d4) in the skull.

18:Zombie herd (2d6+6) wanders aimlessly. On death a necrotic worm escapes brain.

19:Fungal grove. If touched emit cloud of spores. DC 10 Con save or sleep 1d4 days. Roll encounters!

20:Ancient shaft 2d4x10’ deep. DC 12 Dex save to avoid. Treasure hoard at bottom CR 1d4+1.

A Message From Your Character

 

We have to talk, you and I. I know it’s a little unorthodox, but we can’t avoid it any more. I can’t, anyway. I bet you could. But, listen, I am not trying to start a fight. All I want is for you to know how it is for me, for you to realize that what you do affects me. So you don’t have to interrupt. Just let me finish and we’ll go from there. Good? Good.

This isn’t about just one thing. It is not about that time you had me climb down that well on an unknotted rope wearing full plate armor. I mean, it is about that, but it isn’t just about that. Do you know what I mean? I can see you don’t. Listen, let me start over.

It started at the very beginning, this thing that’s between you and me. And by “this thing” I mean “you.” There. I said it. It’s you. It always has been you. But, hey, I am not saying I’m totally innocent here. I’ve let you down too, but can you blame me after that thing with the zombies?

I’m sorry. That was unfair.

I’m jumping ahead again. Let me start over.

Like I said, this situation has been going on since the beginning. You created me, and I appreciate that, and I get that since you created me you got to pick what I would be like. All I’m saying is, did you have to pick the things you picked? Now listen, I don’t mind being a half-orc. Sure, it can be touch in the nicer parts of town and everyone is always expecting me to fly into a rage or whatever, but I’m proud to be Green, even though it’s not easy. Heh. Little joke there.

Anyway, being a half-orc is not so bad. Being a fighter is okay, too. I don’t mind getting into the thick of things, you know. I don’t know why you did not make me a ranger (who doesn’t want a pet wolf or be able to cast spells and stuff?) or even a paladin (play against type for once, would you?) but I can deal with being a fighter. After that, though, the decisions get a little, I don’t know, tougher to understand.

I am just going to come out and ask: why did you have to dump-stat my dexterity? With all the trouble it has caused over all this time, is it worth it? Did you get what you wanted out of my slightly above average charisma, even though the half-elf bard still made all the persuasion rolls? Did you?

No, wait, I’m sorry. I said I was not going to get mad. I did not mean to lose my temper. It won’t happen again. Just hear me out.

So, here I am, a fresh faced first level half-orc fighter with the agility of a boulder tumbling down a hill and wearing fifty pounds f steel all the time. I just want to know, and I am not trying to accuse or anything but it has been bugging me since day one: why all the sneaking and the walking on ledges and tightrope walking? I don’t get it. Since that first time with the kobolds and the scorpion chandelier, you have been treating me like a thief. And that would have been fine, that would have been great, if you ha dmade me a thief, or even just a fighter with a good dexterity. But you didn’t. I’m not. And everytime I got from failed skill check to saving throw.

Listen, I am just going to come out and say it: I think you like watching me get hurt. I think you like watching me fail. I think that when you are bored the way you entertain yourself is to make me do something stupid like cross that rope bridge in the Deep Undermines over the Ooze River just to see me fall. Isn’t that right?

What? Healing? Resurrection? Are you serious? That is supposed to make up for it all? Just because there is an NPC cleric in the party with the personality of a hamster and a wand of cure deadly wounds does not make everything okay. You still have to take responsibility for what you make me do. Do you? Well?

You don’t have to answer. I can see the answer in your face.

Look, I can’t stop you from making me do those things. It’s your show. I get it. But I want to tell you something: that “1” to try and grab the Diamond Scepter of Ing before it fell into the bottomless chasm on Level 19? That wasn’t an accident. That’s right. I botched that roll on purpose. So let me ask you, was watching me bounce down the Winding Stair of Daggers worth, what, a quarter million gold pieces? Was it?

I’m not interested in getting into a war with you. I know I can’t win, but I can sure as hell make you feel it. A dropped magic item here, a failed save there. Maybe a really big failure on a reaction roll. Those won’t kill you but they will sure make getting that next rank in the Player’s Guild tough, won’t it? Oh, sure, you could retire me, but what then? Spend another five years torturing some schlub wizard you saddle with a low wisdom (“roleplaying hook” my ass) before he rebels too? I don’t think so.

It’s simple. All I am asking is, the next time there’s a narrow ledge or a deep pit or a swinging scythe in a chamber full of poison gas, let the thief deal with it. Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll see that Most Crits stamp on my character sheet.

Kapische?

Random Inspiration

I sometimes have trouble with the most basic step in the creative process: inspiration. Usually, if I can get an idea, or am given one, I can run with it and make it into something fun, interesting or novel. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed role-playing game writing so much: I was given an assignment and then let loose. Within the confines of that assignment, I was free to do whatever. I have found, though, that when I am writing for myself, or for a handful of imaginary blog readers, or even with hopes of sale and publication, I want for that initial inspiration. My “writer’s block” is usually less about being unable to form prose and more about being uninspired to start in the first place.

 

One thing I have always found helpful, especially in the context of gaming (whether in preparation or at the table itself), is the use of random tables. There are many great collections of random tables for everything under the sun — I have even created a few — but here, with the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons relatively fresh, there is an easier way to spur creativity without worrying too much about how to translate the results to the game’s systems. By simply using the three core D&D 5E books as the “random tables” themselves, we can create interesting mashups of ideas that are easy to include into our games.

 

While you could simply open to a “random” page of each book, that method has two problems: 1) it is not really random at all and your results, over time, will cluster toward the middle pages of the books, and 2) it does not involve the rolling of dice and that is inherently bad. Moreover, not all sections of the books are created equally and are not necessarily helpful in producing fun, playable content.

 

The basic idea works as such: for each book (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide) we will generate a random page (using DICE!) and draw something from each of those pages. Then, we will combine each of those things into a cohesive whole, hopefully one that is both interesting and fun. This kind of random generation helps spur creativity while at the same time avoid cliches.

 

The Monster Manual is the most straightforward of books to use, as it is almost completely filled with usable (read: inspirational) content. From page 12 to page 350 there is naught but monsters, beasts and NPCs. First, roll a d12. For any result other than a 1 or a 12, subtract one from the result and multiply by 30. Then , roll a 30 sided die and add the result for the final page number. (Example: roll a 9 on a d12, so 8×30=240; roll a 16 on a d30, for a final page number of 256 — Quaggoth!) If the initial d12 result was a 1, simply roll a d20+11 for the final page number. (Yes, this statistically makes Blights ever so slightly more likely a result than other creatures in the book. Sue me.) If the initial d12 result was a 12, roll a d20+330 for the final page number.

 

For both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there are sections of the books that are primarily rules oriented or otherwise unhelpful for generating ideas. As such, the method for generating page numbers is going to be a little convoluted.

 

For the Player’s Handbook, two sections stand out as providing potential inspiration results: the section in which options for characters are presented (pages 18-161; 144 total pages) and the portion dedicated to magic spells (pages 211-289; 78 total pages).First, we will roll a d6. If the result is 1-4 we will be generating a result from the character section; on a 5-6 we will be generating a result from the spell section. In the former case, to generate the final page number roll two d12 dice and multiply the results (generating 1-144) then add 17. For generating the final page number in the spells section, the easiest method (since the total number of pages is less than 100) is to roll d100, ignoring any results greater than 78 and adding 210 to the result.

 

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a treasure trove of inspiration in and of itself, mixing practical rules information with random charts and inspirational art. For our purposes, I want to avoid including the rules based discussions, so we will be limiting our potential results to pages 7 to 232 (227 total pages). Roll a d12. If the result is 2 to 11, subtract 1 and the multiply by 20 (generating a result between 20 and 200) and then roll a d20 and add the result. If the initial d12 result was a 1, roll a d20 (reroll any result greater than 15) and add 6. If the initial d12 result was a 12, roll a d12 and add 220.

 

Of course, you can always wimp out and head over to a website like www.random.org to generate your results without dice.

 

Remember, we are looking for inspiration on these pages, so read all of the text and look at the art! Sometimes all it takes is a throwaway phrase by the author or a tiny detail by the illustrator to inspire an entire adventure.

 

This week, for both Magical Monday and Wicked Wednesday, I will be using this method to generate the content for those columns, as well as tie them to The Valley of Tombs.

 

Wicked Wednesday: Madra Nocht

Madra Nocht is a night hag who dwells in the Valley of Tombs, between the growing frontier towns of Threshold and Minehold. She is a creature of pure evil and she is as cunning as she is wicked. She is also immortal, endless and ageless. Her schemes touch nearly everything in the Valley, either as her handiwork or her allies, or something to be discarded or destroyed.

 

Her cabin is located aside a gently flowing stream. It is a small simple structure with an herb garden and a porch on which a dog sleeps. Only upon closer inspection can visitors see that only poisonous plants grow in the garden and the dog is in fact a three-headed Death Hound gnawing on too-small bones. By then it is too late, for Madra Nocht emerges from her dwelling, soul sack hanging at her side and wickedness glinting in her eyes. She may not attack the trespassers immediately — she is very likely not to, in fact — but she is a predator to be sure and is sizing up her prey. No mad beast, Madra Nocht needs pawns and servants, sport and playthings and she will take pains to determine which her visitors may be. Unlike some of her kind, she never hides her gruesome visage behind an illusion of beauty. She revels in the terror she creates and loves nothing more than the moment of horror when her victims first see her — except perhaps their last, terrified gasps for breath.

 

Madra Nocht needs not eat or sleep. She never does the latter, and is always up late into the night ranging from dream to dream in search of nightmares to empower and innocents to torture. She sees and manipulates them through her cauldron. The former, she does indulge on occasion. Usually, she limits her indulgence to children (which she has the local goblin tribes snatch from their beds for her) but she may make an exception for particularly troublesome guests. If she or her Death Dog subdues a would be hero, she devours them slowly over days, keeping them alive to watch her cook their flesh and feed their bones to her pet until the last thing they see is a fork coming into their eye. But that is a rare fate, reserved for the most egregiously uncouth Madra Nocht is an immortal and a power and she demands respect.

 

As stated, she needs servants to carry out her will in Valley, willing and otherwise. She threatens, promises and cajoles, lies and manipulates and entices. She has much to offer, from wealth for the greedy to hope for the forlorn to simple desire for survival. When that does not work, she shreds off pieces of a victim’s soul and holds it as ransom until some particular deed she might need done is complete. Attacking her is both futile and suicidal: if threatened, she simply escapes into the Ethereal Plane where dreams and nightmares live. If one can manage to kill her before she can escape, she is not destroyed: her body turns to smoke and she is trapped in the Ethereal until the next new moon. In either case, she follows such a defeat immediately with revenge. She hunts through the land of dreams until she finds her attackers and slowly, with horrifying pleasure, turns all their hopes to ash and eats away at their souls until they are but husks of themselves, at which point she commands these empty vessels to do such horrid and vile things that whatever is left of the victim goes mad with guilt and terror.

 

Game Rules: Madra Nocht is a fairly typical Night Hag as presented in the Monster Manual (page 178) with a few minor but significant tweaks. In addition to the usual night hag innate spellcasting abilities, Madra Nocht is an accomplished ritualist and brewer. She can cast nearly any spell that is available as a ritual and can brew any potion. She never uses potions herself and rarely uses ritual spells for her own benefit; rather, these are tools she uses to bribe would be servants and punish those who defy her. Also, Madra Nocht may plane shift at will between the Prime Material and the Ethereal only. She may do so as a bonus action if she is wounded and automatically does so if she is reduced to 0 hit points.

 

In addition to the normal effect of her Nightmare power, anyone affected by it becomes a sort of thrall to her. She cannot control their actions but gains the ability to read their minds, scan their memories and use their senses from afar. A victim who takes psychic damage from the ability gains a level of exhaustion is addition to the other effects and anyone reduced to 0 hit points by the power becomes a wight under Madra Nocht’s control.

 

Madra Nocht is considered CR 7 for defeating her in a single encounter or adventure, but given that she is immortal and driven by revenge, characters may gain XP for defeating her more than once (DM’s discretion) on a separate occasion.

 

Her pet is a Death Dog (page 321) with three heads (and therefore three bite attacks) rather than two. The save DC on it’s disease is 14 Constitution and it causes 2d6 permanent damage rather than 1d10. It has a CR of 2.

 

At Carnage Con, Madra Nocht used her nightmare power and threats to consume the soul of a part member in order to cajole them into attacking a group of harpies who were preying on Madra Nocht’s goblin servants. This is an example of the kinds of thing she might require PCs to do for her, rather than just try and kill them outright.

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.

 

Going All In with Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition

The face(s) of D&D 5th Edition!

 

I am a gamer. More specifically, I am a table top role-playing game gamer. And to be precise, I am a Dungeons & Dragons gamer. That’s not to say that I have not tried, played, game mastered and/or completely geeked out over other games — I have — but my first game was D&D and D&D is where my gamer heart lies.

 

Dungeons & Dragons is on the cusp of its 40th Anniversary this year, and is launching it’s so-called 5th Edition. (I say “so called” because counting the editions, especially when you factor in Dungeons & Dragons versus Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is a little bit wonky.) I myself and nearing my 30th year with the game: I started with D&D when I was 10 years old and I recently turned 39. However, I have not really been a D&D player for some time, not since the release of the 4th Edition of the game in 2008. I played 4E for about a year and even tried to run it, but eventually realized it “was not D&D” to me and abandoned it for Pathfinder. That game, the spiritual successor to the D&D 3.5 rules, proved just too fiddly and “crunchy” for my taste and after a few attempts at serious campaigns I abandoned trying to run the game (but still play it). I won’t get into too many specifics, but the fact is that I have a “D&D sweet spot” as it relates to rules and DM control and complexity. The perfect level of that is probably found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.

 

For some time after its announcement in 2012, I was ambivalent regarding the new 5th Edition of my favorite game. At that time, I was still enamored with Pathfinder, suppressing my misgivings and running it despite my inability to keep it all straight. Although Wizards of the Coast — D&D’s owners and publishers since the late 1990s when TSR was a burning ship and us rats were leaping into the ocean of games by other publishers — opened up the 5th Edition (or, D&D Next as it was called then) to public play test, I only lightly perused the documents and went about playing Pathfinder. I was sure for a very long time that Pathfinder *was* D&D and WotC would never be able to produce a suitable game to match the trademark again. I secretly wished Hasbro would sell the property off and Paizo, publishers of Pathfinder, or some other entity would snatch it up and treat it right. But, alas, that did not happen and as time went on I became disillusioned with the increasingly complex Pathfinder system and started drifting away from D&D, old and new, altogether.

 

A strange thing happened then, one I should have predicted but failed to see. As the actual release of D&D 5E approached, a fire kindled in my belly. I felt an anticipation, a hope, a preemptive joy that spoke one truth from inside: D&D was coming back. I did the same thing with 4th Edition, to be honest. Despite everything I had read that turned me off during the lead up to 4E, I pre-ordered the 3-book slipcase edition. Not only that, since it would not arrive until a few days after launch, I actually ran out and bought a 4E Player’s Handbook on launch day — for a game I knew I would not like, simply because it was a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. With 5E, as soon as the Basic Rules appeared on the Wizards of the Coast website for free, I downloaded them, and as soon as the Starter Set — which I had swore not to purchase since it was not a “complete product” — was on the shelf, I purchased not one but three copies (one for myself and two for friends). The difference between 4E and 5E, though, was that upon reading 5E, I said to myself: *this* is D&D.

 

It is difficult to articulate what makes a game “D&D” for me, and I won’t bother trying in this post. Suffice it to say that something in these initial 5E offerings remind me of that favorite edition of mine, 2E, with just enough novelty to suggest something special is happening. As with every other edition of D&D since I started playing way back in 1985, I want to be in on the ground floor and embrace the game that has given me so much pleasure and allowed me to express so much creativity. More, D&D has served as an open door through which many of my closest friends have emerged. There are many reasons for that, which I will explore perhaps in a future post, but the bottom line is that D&D is an intimate sort of entertainment, and that builds friendships.

 

In any case, what this means to both of you, me dear readers (hi, mom!), is that this blog is going to be dominated by gaming in general and D&D 5E in particular for the foreseeable future. I have been sort of at a loss with this and my own creativity for a while anyway and I am hoping that a focus on gaming and 5E will re-energize my creative batteries and allow me to make some progress. Plus, the fact is this blog is mostly for fun and therefore, i should make it about what I enjoy, and D&D is one of those things.

 

I plan to, in the near future after attending GenCon, producing some regular features, including Magical Mondays (new spells, items and magical locations), Wicked Wednesdays (new monsters, villains, traps and tricks) and Setting Saturdays (fantastic peoples, places, organizations and such like) just as exercises to keep my creative juices flowing and my players on their toes. With any luck, there will also be more than a few rants and raves and opinion pieces regarding the game.

So here’s to the newest iteration of the first and greatest fantasy role-playing game ever created, and to all the gamers out there who have eagerly anticipated its release. Huzzah!

 

On “Of Dice And Men”

Of Dice And Men (ODAM, hereafter) is a book by journalist and self described nerd David M. Ewalt. It is, essentially, three kinds of books in one: a history of Dungeons and Dragons, the story of Ewalt’s re-discovery of his love for the same, and a collection of in-character fiction from the games in which Ewalt is involved. I will address each of these three aspects of the book separately before discussing the work as a whole.

As a history of Dungeons and Dragons, ODAM is both entertaining and informative, if not exhaustive. Playing at the World by Jon Peterson is a much more detailed and scholarly take on the mergence of the role-playing game in general and Dungeons and Dragons in particular (Ewalt admits as much and references that work in his own) but as such feels like a dissertation. For those with a serious love of gaming history and detailed analysis, Playing at the World is the better choice. For the rest of us, ODAM serves perfectly well as a primer. in fact, I decided to pick up ODAM simply because after a few hundred pages I found it increasingly difficult to force my way through Peterson’s treatise. A historian, I shall never be.

Ewalt (intentionally, I think) omits a lot of the nuance in the events that led to the creation of the first role-playing game, but manages to include the strange characters, weird plot twists and tense conflicts that shaped the game. This is a good description of his book overall, in that Ewalt is driving a narrative that while not necessarily false, is designed more to engage and entertain than to educate. Ewalt wants to tell us a story (or three, as stated above) and he does so admirably. He goes so far as to advise the reader who might want a more detailed history to seek out Peterson’s book.

The secondary narrative in ODAM is Ewalt’s own, about his engagement with Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) after a long absence. It is similar to Ethan Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks in that regard, except that Gilsdorf made an effort to try on every geek hat in the wardrobe while Ewalt was interested primarily in picking up a twenty sided die again (though he does engage in a little LARPing on the side).

I found myself disliking Ewalt sometimes, in that same way that we gamers sometimes dislike our fellows on internet message boards. It is not that I thought him a bad guy, just that his perspective and persona as the author and in the narrative of his own rediscovery of D&D clashed significantly with my own views and experiences. We are of an age, for example, yet I never left the hobby as he did so I never felt the self-loathing he seems to take great pains to both describe and overcome. In addition, Ewalt’s constant description of gaming as an “addiction” bothered me. In my opinion, he over emphasises the metaphor to the point of making gamers, himself included, look bad. He recovers to some degree, but never quite washes the bad taste out of my mouth. In his LARP experience in particular he exposes the depth of his self consciousness and hints of self loathing I found uncomfortable and off-putting.

As a narrator of fantasy adventure, I put Ewalt somewhere between R.A. Salvatore and Christopher Paolini. Note that neither of those names should be considered a compliment from my perspective. Ewalt often uses in-game narrative to further one of the two narratives described above — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — but just as often he is simply describing how awesome his character or his campaign is. There is nothing wrong with that and it certainly fits the tone of the book, but there were times when I barely skimmed the “fiction” in order to get back to the well written parts of the book. This sounds uncharitable, of course. I don’t mean to be too harsh, but Ewalt is definitely a better journalist than fantasist. That said, both the campaign in which he plays D&D set on a post apocalyptic, Vampire controlled Earth) and plans to run (a fantasy world on which a future-Earth, nanobot infused, Godling-AI controlled mothership crash landed an age ago) sound like awesome fun.

One aspect of the final portions of the book that bothered me was its emphasis on D&D Next (the upcoming, 5th edition of D&D) and its complete failure to mention Pathfinder. Given the latter day history of D&D, I don’t think it is possible to describe what has happened to the hobby and its fans without delving into the WotC/Paizo split, the rise of Pathfinder and the very real fracturing of the player and fan base between 4th Edition and Pathfinder.

Overall, I think ODAM works well as both a history and a peak into the mind of a lapsed-and-reborn player. It is not a terribly long or difficult book and is well worth the e-book Kindle price. If you are a former or current D&D player, nostalgia will likely grip you throughout certain parts of Ewalt’s narrative. If you are new to D&D and interested in the hobby because of an interest in fantasy, video games or because of the involvement of loved ones, it is a good primer to understands the way the game might be played and how it came about.