Collaboration

Amelia

I recently had the great pleasure of commissioning the very talented Elisa Rio (Twitter|Portfolio) to create a custom character sheet for Amelia and I thought I would share it!

Amelia is a character on the League of Ultimate Questing podcast, and appears in special episodes LLUQ|E01-E04.

I am so over the moon with her interpretation of the character, and working with her on the details was a great opportunity to further refine Amelia’s visual style and add backstory to some of her most treasured belongings.

Want to see Amelia’s completed standard character sheet? Download it here!

announcement, Collaboration

I was a guest on LUQ!

Last week I had a really great time rolling some dice on The League of Ultimate Questing podcast, and if you’ve made your way here around the time of this posting that’s almost certainly the reason why! I just hope you enjoyed listening as much as I enjoyed playing.

By now you may know that I played an 11-year-old wizard named Amelia in the Little League of Ultimate Questing, and I want to talk for a little bit about how I prepared to portray a child character. In these situations, someone invariably has a smarter, more thoughtful take than I do on how to approach the role, and in this case it was Chris Winkle in this article on depicting child characters in writing.

I had a few major takeaways that shaped how I role-played Amelia:

  1. Her outlook on adventuring is based on her ideas about her parents. Both of Amelia’s parents are retired adventurers, and she was raised on bedtime stories about their exploits. I knew early on that she would think of adventuring as being very glamorous, and of the great adventurers as being these larger-than-life celebrities. To that end I decided that she was someone who would absolutely design and accessorize her adventuring outfit to be as much a costume as anything else, and that she would have a tendency to showboat with her magic given the opportunity.
  2. With little experience, she relies on lessons that her parents taught her. Amelia rarely knows what to do right away — she’s one clever girl and she’s good with puzzles, but she doesn’t have the experience and intuition to make quick decisions. I had the idea early on that in those situations she would recite things out loud that her parents had told her and then abide very closely to these neat little soundbites about taking her time or fighting as a last resort.
  3. She’s home schooled, so her magic is limited by what her parents allowed her to study. Specifically, that means no destructive spells. With the exception of one Abjuration spell, Amelia’s spell book is entirely comprised of Divination and Transmutation spells. The closest thing she even has to a damage spell (as far as her parents know…) is Catapult.
Credit: Hero Forge

And I think that’s all I can say without giving some things away! If you have any questions or want to talk about the episodes, feel free to give me a shout out on twitter @MistressDanaRPG!

Craft Projects, DMing

Adventures in Chipboard: Maps & Props

When I started DMing professionally, I decided that if I was to eventually going to make it work as a job then it was going to have to pay for itself. And that meant no more using my primary income for game aids or printing large maps, and no single-use miniatures or terrain.

I started out with a 25×30″ pad of 1″ grid paper and a set of 20 card stands to use for paper miniatures, and by the time I ran my first adventure I found myself scrounging for cereal boxes and toilet paper rolls to tape together three wagons for a caravan ambush encounter. The players really responded to the wagons I’d made, and that got my gears turning.

It Began With the Waaaghon

While I was writing ‘Rumble on Planet Dethtrak’ I thought while looking for second-hand Warhammer 40K vehicles, “wouldn’t it be cool if I asked the players to scavenge car parts out of a junkyard to determine the stats for their racer?” Unable to find anything within my meager budget, it was my wife a few days later who first said “why don’t you have them physically make their car out of craft supplies?”

So that became the plan, and as a part of that I needed to make the enemy death car ahead of time using those same supplies. So I loaded up on things from the recycle bin, grabbed some straws, pens, and masking tape, and went to town designing the Waaaghon (which began its life as a scaled down version of Sir Skofi’s Trukk design):

Credit: Design inspired by Sir Skofis’s Workshop |
http://sirskofisworkshop.blogspot.com/2013/09/how-to-make-cardboard-ork-trukk-scratch.html

I left some tape and original print showing to give it that junkyard vibe, and truth be told I fell in love with it immediately.

And Then the Battlekroozer

During that time I also wrote two scenes that took place in the translocator room of an Ork battlekroozer, but found that on a conventional grid-based map it was a little hard to understand the elevation changes and the cover provided by the stairs (imagine someone lobbing a grenade from the top level, and you’ll see what I mean). I had a couple of extra days and more than a few extra cereal boxes, so I decided to try my hand at my very first chipboard map:

Credit: Paper miniatures by rpgtoons & r-n-w | https://www.patreon.com/rpgtoons

I chose a 3/4 cutaway for visibility and the response to both was overwhelmingly positive.

What Came Next

After that I began experimenting more with different building techniques, and resolved to have at least one 3D map encounter per adventure. Below are some screenshots from the conception and early stages of a prototype for “Belle of the Bloodmoon” that didn’t make it to the final cut.

What did end up in the final version of that adventure was a boutique for fiends, affectionately named “Hell’s Belles”:

I’m still in the process of discovering where this is going, but one bit of feedback that I really took to heart and would share with any other prospective DM’s is this:

Don’t feel like you need to have professionally made maps and terrain all the time, especially if those aren’t your strong skills. Whatever you do, if you do it your own way it will come across as authentic and people will see that and respond to it.

DMing

Caldera, the Glass City

This is one of my favorite locations in Chelonia, and has often been my launching off point for desert campaigns. It’s bustling and full of life, yet fragile and even delicate compared to the many threats and hardships of the surrounding land.

The Blighted Sands

The Blighted Sands is a stretch of desert in eastern Ashura that was ravaged in ages past by a war fought between the dragons and the archfey. The lattice of magical fields in these lands has been pulled and twisted, knotted and torn, resulting in a chaotic and wild landscape fraught with unpredictable weather, mutated beasts, and wild magic.

Humanoid settlements in these lands are few and far between, confined to those rare spaces that offer protection both from the giant monstrosities that burrow beneath the sand and the rukh birds that hunt and roost in the cliffs. Monsters are of such prevalence and such danger that all people who travel the desert travel in caravans for safety.

Magical effects of the Blighted Sands:

  • Casting any evocation or illusion spell has a chance of producing wild magic effects in addition to the spell being cast.
  • Transmutation spells have a high chance of producing the wrong effects entirely or not working at all.

Caldera

Caldera is a desert city built inside of a glass-lined crater formed millennia ago from a colossal magical explosion. The glass shell averages one mile in thickness and the city’s inhabitants huddle together in relative safety. In the center of the city is a brass spire that pierces the center of its glass shell and transports water from a natural reservoir deep beneath the earth. Caldera’s constant supply of water and natural barrier make it a central hub for travelers and caravans, but the same monsters that its barrier deters prevent its people from spreading further into the surrounding land, growing food, or becoming truly self-reliant. As it stands, Caldera is as dependent upon deliveries of fresh produce, grains, and fibers as its neighboring settlements are dependent upon its fresh water — supply caravans of both constantly moving in and out of the city.

Entrance

The first glimpse of Caldera that can be seen on route to the city is where the endless sand gives way to an uneven and bubbled landscape of smooth, towering, natural glass. A road roughly two-caravans in width has been meticulously carved through the glass and serves as the only readily accessible path inwards toward the center. At the road’s halfway point are stationed city guards, and where the road ends — just before reaching the city — is a guard station equipped for the loading and unloading of supply caravans. Someone approaching the city for the first time may be confused as they reach the station that they have not at any point laid eyes on an actual city, but as they move beyond it they will finally see that the entirety of the city is built into the crater below the level of the surrounding landscape.

Architecture

The city’s architecture is comprised entirely of fixed and hanging platforms connected by rope bridges and densely covered in homes and buildings, one on top of the other. Knowing the geographical size of the city one would not expect it to be home to so many thousands of residents, but upon seeing just how densely packed all of the homes and spaces are it would be apparent. Some of the stronger platforms bear more traditional structures made from adobe or stone, but most are little more than walls, woven partitions, and cloth canopies in a myriad of bright colors and textures. Windows and roofs are rarities, but blankets and cushions are commonplace. A bridge jutting out from the lip of the crater beyond the guard station slopes down and over the city as it leads directly to a platform encircling the top of the brass spire. This circular platform connects to a vast number of smaller platforms that use an elaborate system of levers, pulleys, and tracks to transport people and supplies to the various key hubs and locations. Similar systems and platforms exist throughout the city, but the bridge connecting the lip to the spire is the only way in or out.

Technology

On a day-to-day basis Caldera runs on a mixture of fire magic, brass pipes, and clockwork. Glass globes and ornaments suspended from the bottoms of platforms lit up at night, softly illuminating the city, while the central brass spire draws water that is then transported through series of pipework to basins and faucets throughout the city. The largest water outlets are at the top of the spire and can be accessed from the circular platform. These large outlets are the only ones capable of moving a great enough volume to fill water trucks for transport, but the smaller system supplies each of the city’s inhabitants with reliably clean water. The city’s waste is collected in designated areas and washed away through a separate pipework system. At the lowest level of the crater is a reinforced steel ring, to which are tied overlapping nets secured to the lowest platforms as a security measure in case of a fall.

Caldera’s defense system is comprised of arcane runes arranged in concentric circles on top of the glass shell at fixed points everywhere but the main road. Stepping near these runes produce fire spells directed towards the offending target, with increasing power and lethality as they become closer to the city itself. Interspersed between all but the outermost circle of runes there are also alarm wards which, when triggered, cause all of the glass globes in the city to illuminate with red light.

Commerce

Individual inhabitants of Caldera have little use for gold, gems, or precious metals compared to tangible means of survival, and the city’s economy exists largely on a system of barter and scrip. The value of scrip is backed by the city itself, and is denoted on scraps of linen stamped with the magistrate’s seal. Scrip can be exchanged for goods and services throughout the city, and though it cannot be purchased with gold it may be obtained by donating supplies to the city’s coffers. Conversely, the city has its own supply of gold that its magistrate is always willing to use to buy out any residual scrip.

Inhabitants

The city is home to a diverse population of humans and non-humans from across the continent, but predominantly humans and mir. It is a popular place to visit for aspiring engineers and historians, and its people are proud to call it home. Those who have settled there permanently have a strong sense of community, and there is no shortage of volunteers for community positions such as guards, couriers, lift operators, and maintenance workers. The city is overseen by a magistrate of the crown, who is tasked with preserving the peace, enforcing the law, conducting official matters, and seeing to the welfare and safety of the people. Guards can be identified by short black rectangular cloaks with otherwise no official uniform, couriers can be identified by red cloaks as they leap and climb quickly from platform to platform, and lift operators can be identified by white cloaks so that they can be quickly flagged down as necessary.

Key NPC’s

Magistrate Nadya
An elderly, dark-skinned human woman with her silvery hair pinned up in elaborate braided coils. She wears wide-sleeved robes of deep blue and gold, and on her collar is a gold pin with an intricate design: a sun and hand surrounded radially by twelve six-pointed stars. In place of her left leg is a white porcelain prosthesis, trimmed in gold and delicately painted with dark blue floral patterns.

Her voice is direct, articulate, and kind. She takes her position seriously, and sees to it that all its inhabitants are cared for and fed. She believes in hospitality, but she is not shy about imposing on visiting merchants and adventurers when the city has need.

Intelligence (History) DC 12: The design on Nadya’s pin contains three significant elements. The sun design is the royal seal of Sadira, the open palm denotes her position as magistrate and enacter of the crown’s will, and the twelve stars represent the 12 great cities of Ashura.

Boilerplate Balthazar
A large, muscled human man with a prominent gray mustache and thick accent, he looks like he may have once been a refugee from the Scorched Lands. He is most often found in or around his workshop wearing goggles, a heavy leather apron, and gloves over otherwise oil and soot-stained clothing.

He is one of Caldera’s longest standing permanent residents, and it’s he who designed the spire and the pipework systems. He can be direct and uncouth at times, and despite a love of accolades and the occasional loud complaint to anyone who will listen about his long hours and bad back he cares deeply for the city and all of its people and wishes for it to succeed above all else.

Pazuzu
An agender flame-haired fire genasi with eyes like obsidian and pupils that burn like coals, they are the resident sorceror who lights the glass globes each nightfall.

They are also responsible for the city’s defensive wards and alarms systems, as well as enchanting stockpiles of explosive gems used in mining. Their wild nature and penchant for self-indulgence and sarcasm is off putting to most, and many people simply avoid them or show a grudging sort of fear and respect. They are occasionally jealous of the adulation and praise bestowed upon Balthazar, and are not afraid to antagonize or criticize him openly. They are very skilled with magical reagents and identifying magical items and spells and have a surprising wealth of knowledge about arcane history, however they have little interest in offering assistance to travelers without payment — often in terms of abetting one of their many schemes.

Kippur and Chiffa
A pair of mir couriers and best friends. Kippur is a brown and white tabby with a missing eye. She puts on a tough act and is protective of Chiffa, who she regards as her little sister. Chiffa is a yellow tabby with brass prostheses in place of her right arm and leg. She is playful and naive, is open with her thoughts and emotions, and loves food.

Both are likely to bluntly address their observations and ask questions when they are curious. Kippur was raised in Caldera, while Chiffa was found injured in the desert and brought into town by a merchant caravan. Due to her injuries at that time she wasn’t able to accompany the caravan when it departed, but the people of Caldera took her in and she quickly made a home for herself.

Maliksi
The Captain of the City Guard, Maliksi, holds the position by permanent appointment. He appears to be an orc refugee from the Riverlands, and his olive bronze skin is adorned with cultural tattoos. His salt and pepper hair is elaborately braided into a tight mohawk which gives way to loose beaded braids near the back of his head. Maliksi directs the volunteer guard, tracks the movement of monster populations, and when necessary leads search and rescue parties into the desert.

He is a proud survivor of the Skulltaker Clan, possibly the last of his kind, with strong connections to culture and community. He serves the magistrate diligently and has little trust or patience for outsiders. He is not one to seek out company, but will be courteous if approached and can occasionally be found playing somber music on a small ivory flute.

Gerkin Blackbrew
A old friend of Balthazar who moved to Caldera upon his invitation, Gerkin is the dwarven overseer of Caldera’s refinery. His red and gray beard is famously cropped short for a dwarf, and keen observers can notice irregular burn scars beneath his beard hair around his mouth, throat, and chest.

The only response he will give to questions about his beard or scars is a grunt and a shake of his head. Otherwise he is generally cheerful, and downright raucous after a few drinks. He is helped at the refinery by his human apprentice, Tessa, and on occasion by his husband, Norvald. On days when he is not refining he sometimes visits the nearby mine.

Norvald Blackbrew
A dwarven brewer by trade, he has a swarthy complexion and a great braided black beard which he clearly takes great pride in maintaining.

Norvald is Gerkin’s husband and originally of the Stormshod clan. This is somewhat ironic, as the Blackbrew clan has not been in the brewing business for generations and Norvald is currently its sole brewer. He enjoys poking fun at Gerkin on occasion by pointing out that when he accidentally dips his beard in his work it only results in a snack for later. He is also a talented cook, and on rare evenings when the city is oversupplied with perishable goods he enjoys preparing a community stew and proffering ale to anyone who wishes to join in a night of camaraderie.

Tessa Blackbrew
Tessa is a dark-skinned human woman with a head of natural curls which she pulls back and ties up in a bandana while working.

Though not officially related, Gerkin considers his apprentice to be an honorary Blackbrew and daughter. Metallurgy is her passion and she dreams of making her name by one day inventing a new kind of metal alloy. She is generally reserved, but diligent and opinionated. She often assists with checking and maintaining the city’s lifts and pipeworks, for which she keeps precise records.

Key Locations

Armory
The armory is used to store the weapons, armor, and other equipment used by the town guard. Some prefer to use their own, but most borrow from the armory during their assignment. Most of the armor is light, a balance between comfort and protection given the dry heat and relative safety within city walls. Guards are more likely to don light or no armor while keeping the peace and heavier armor while staffing the road and station.

The armory stock is overseen by the magistrate and the captain of the city guard, who are willing to pay scrip for used equipment but unlikely to trade or sell out of it.

Balthazar’s Workshop
Balthazar lives and works out of a large workshop, cluttered with drawings, parts, and in-progress projects. Notably there is a wax cylinder phonograph through which he plays music while he works. The workshop is currently dominated by a large machine covered by a canvas tarp and an unfinished miniature model of an irrigation machine. The workshop contains all the tools he needs to shape the sheet brass from the refinery into parts and pipes, as well as a small attached stone building with a foundry for casting fittings and more complex pieces.

The central machine is one of his numerous attempts to harness electrical energy, or, as he puts it, to “trap lightning in a bottle”.

Brass Refinery
The refinery is built low down near the base of the city and has all of the tools to sift the raw material extracted from the mine, smelt the copper ore into copper and tin, and roll the resulting metal into sheets and wire. The refinery outputs intense amounts of heat, which causes many inhabitants to give it a wide breadth.

Glass-Blowing Workshop
An abandoned workshop that currently serves as storage for supplies and loose ends, brimming with barrels and crates beneath an ever present coating of dust.

It once belonged to the glass blower who crafted all of Caldera’s hanging orbs and ornaments, but now sits empty. Notably, all of the glass-making supplies and fixtures are at a height more suited for a gnome or mir.

Weaver’s Alley
A long stretch of platforms where volunteer craftspeople weave blankets and throws. The city imports raw materials which are processed by volunteer weavers — blankets are kept, stored, and distributed as needed, while the rest are traded or sold to other settlements.

DMing

My Approach to the Monstrous Races

There are some role-playing topics that I can be very opinionated about, chief among them the ways that we can better write our rules and our settings to include topics such as race, gender, and sexuality in a positive and inclusive way. In terms of race, the fantasy genre in particular has not always done a good job at respectfully using non-human races as allegories for non-white or non-Western groups of people. There are a lot of great critiques out there already that delve into this topic much more thoroughly than I could ever hope to, but I would like to consider specifically the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, how they have changed their approach to address some old problems, and where I as a marginalized creator see room for further improvement.

Admittedly I have not read Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and therefore may be missing some nuance afforded to these races following the initial debut of 5th edition. Regardless, the longstanding problem that Wizards had to consider was this: is good and evil relative or absolute? And, if good and evil are relative, how does that affect the player characters’ morality and culpability in a game that is foremost about slaying monsters? When the Warcraft franchise considered that same question, the result was a faction-based series where both sides were afforded playability and narrative perspective. The latest edition of D&D took the opposite approach, which was to use world building to remove the monsters’ agency and distill it down to the simple dichotomy of good vs. evil. If a race of monsters is created by a fiend or an evil god to serve a specific purpose, Wizards posits, then they have no freedom to deviate from that purpose and therefore there is very little moral gray area surrounding the game’s central conflict.

The Player’s Handbook has the following to say about alignment:

For many thinking creatures, alignment is a moral choice. Humans, dwarves, elves, and other humanoid races can choose whether to follow the paths of good or evil, law or chaos. According to myth, the good-aligned gods who created these races gave them free will to choose their moral paths, knowing that good without free will is slavery.

The evil deities who created other races, though, made those races to serve them. Those races have strong inborn tendencies that match the nature of their gods. Most orcs share the violent, savage nature of the orc gods, and are thus inclined toward evil. Even if an orc chooses a good alignment, it struggles against its innate tendencies for its entire life. (Even half-orcs feel the lingering pull of the orc god’s influence.)

Alignment is an essential part of the nature of celestials and fiends. A devil does not choose to be lawful evil, and it doesn’t tend toward lawful evil, but rather it is lawful evil in its essence. If it somehow ceased to be lawful evil, it would cease to be a devil.

WIZARDS OF THE COAST. (2014). DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® player’s handbook® (Pp. 122).

The Monster Manual additionally has the following to say about orcs specifically:

Their lust for slaughter demands that orcs dwell always within striking distance of new targets. As such, they seldom settle permanently, instead converting ruins, cavern complexes, and defeated foes’ villages into fortified camps and strongholds. Orcs build only for defense, making no innovation or improvement to their lairs beyond mounting the severed body parts of their victims on spiked stockade walls or pikes jutting up from moats arid trenches.

Wizards of the Coast. (2014). DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® MONSTER MANUAL (pp. 244).

Overall, this does solve much of the moral dilemma and makes the game more accessible in that regard. However, when the rest of the descriptions for many monsters are still couched in the language of the “primitive other” it can nonetheless be extremely problematic.

A brief aside to include a bit of my own background: I am mixed-race Filipina. My ancestors were from the Cordillera Central areas of Luzon, and whether or not they themselves practiced headhunting they were certainly from a part of the world where many peoples did. Growing up, my Lolo kept a wood carving in his living room of a tribal warrior proudly displaying the decapitated head of a slain enemy. My point is, no matter how you feel about practices such as raiding, razing, and (yes) headhunting, no amount of narrative backpedaling can ever fully divorce the world of fantasy from the real world cultures and dynamics that inspire its tropes. Likewise, we need to be mindful of how and where we use racially loaded language such as “tribe” or “civilization”, and what we intend for those terms to mean. Because of that, we owe it to ourselves and to the marginalized people who play our games alongside us to examine our biases and strive to do better.

Some Points Worth Considering

1. Cultures, not Races

Instead of generalizing the tendencies of a fantasy race, try describing them in terms of their cultural values. Think of it this way: if all humans were Vikings (itself a bit of a misnomer), that does not mean that all humans would inherently tend towards raiding and pillaging. Rather, it is one example of a specific culture that places value in masculine virility, prowess in fighting, and fearlessness as symbols of an individual’s aptitude and worth, in a part of the world where these specific values existed under specific conditions that led to certain practices becoming commonplace. Re-framing how we think about races allows for each member of a society to retain their own agency and individuality. They can have their own immutable personality traits but how they choose to engage or not in those practices is driven largely by their own goals, expectations, and the people they are with, rather than the practices themselves being an insatiable drive within all of them.

2. Conflict Arises from Scarcity and Abundance

Human conflicts are fought over resources: territory, wealth, status, survival, etc, and the same should be true for your monsters. Even for cultures that revel in battle, they do not tend to expend existing resources and court risk unless there is something to gain. Vikings raided for material wealth. Headhunters in the Philippines did so for social status (proof of one’s ability to protect their family and community in an era where “heads or it didn’t happen” had a certain appeal). It’s important to think about how large accumulations of resources can draw the attention of nearby groups, as well as how changes in those groups’ ability to meet their existing needs can embolden them to take greater risks.

3. Language

One thing that’s often overlooked is how the lack of a common language can escalate conflicts. Something I’ve used in my own campaigns to great effect is an intelligent enemy who doesn’t speak common. If an enemy acts with reason and caution — drawing a bow but not shooting, aggressively posturing but maneuvering away without initiating combat — it can serve as a uniquely tense and sometimes unnerving situation for players to find themselves in, questioning in real time what is right vs. what is wrong.

An Example

In my setting, more traditional gnolls are effectively replaced by hyena-like desert raiders called Krokoans. In practice so far I have used them more as a travelling hazard than a central enemy. When I introduce them, often through an encampment ambush, it is usually based on the following conditions:

Krokoans contend for survival with the surrounding apex predators, which include (in escalating order) giant scorpions, sand sharks, and roc birds. Scorpion chitin and sharkskin both make excellent armor, and the armor worn by Krokoan warriors tends to be mismached out of ad hoc additions and hand-me-downs made from these materials whenever possible. The greatest honor that can be awarded to a Krokoan warrior is for having slain a roc bird, and those who have accomplished this feat are typically rewarded with roc feathers that they tie into their waist wraps to display their prowess.

They spend the majority of their time hunting antelope, hares, and other wild game, and can become seasonally nomadic based on their access to water. Krokoans also practice raiding for food, weapons, and supplies, but tend to stay far away from humanoid settlements due to them typically being well armed and potentially wielding magic.

All of that said, my impetus for them to come into conflict with the players is usually a drought. A small group of warriors, whose families and community is rapidly falling ill and potentially dying of thirst, will venture further out and risk attacking caravans to steal their water supply. They do not speak common and the other races do not typically speak Krokoan and while they don’t want to risk a drawn out conflict, walking away with that water literally equates to survival for them and their loved ones. I play them tactically and capably, and if they accomplish their goal they will immediately disengage and flee.

In one game session I can recall a tense moment where two of them were spotted by a party member (they were aiming to cause a distraction while the other half of their group flanked the supply wagon from the opposite side). The player drew their bow without firing, and so the Krokoans also drew theirs without firing. I described the one in front, “she is an older, grizzled warrior with graying fur around her muzzle and scar over her missing right eye. Her good eyes gleams with intensity in the firelight, but so far she is holding her arrow.” The player called out to them but it was apparent they didn’t understand, and I could feel the palpable weight he was feeling as he realized that they had little choice but to fight these creatures that were fighting for their own survival. During the battle, the players did suss out what the Krokoans were after, but the simple fact of the matter was that there was only enough water for their immediate journey — that both groups desperately needed it for survival, and there was simply not enough to make an easy compromise.

Credit: SinopaRapax | https://twitter.com/sinoparapax

I present this example not as the be all end all, but to illustrate how all the points I listed can be used together in writing your adventures. Personally, I love me some moral gray area and I do so while acknowledging that a black and white approach is both more scalable and more accessible to new players.

My only ask would be that as we continue to create races of monsters that are irredeemably evil, to please take a critical eye to the tropes underlying their depiction so that we as a community can avoid the continued othering and dehumanization of the real world people we unconsciously base them on.

Work

Upcoming Adventure Titles

As a quick update while I’m busy putting the finishing touches on my first Orcs! adventure for next week, I thought I could give you all a taste of what I’ll be running over the next three months. So without further ado, here are some brief descriptions of the adventures that I’ve scheduled so far:

July 8, 2019
Orcs! #32: Cosmic Cruise
Rumble on Planet Dethtrak
Caught in a dispute with a band of spacefaring Ork Boyz and their Battlekroozer, there’s only one way this can end for the heroes: in a cosmically broadcast, no-holds-barred death race on a junkyard planet.

August 12, 2019
Orcs! #33: Orcs in Hell
Belle of the Bloodmoon
Fledgling succubus Lily desperately needs some help in order to be crowned prom queen at this century’s Bloodmoon Ball. She needs the outfit, the style, the poise… and maybe some help dealing with all the other demons who want to stop her.

September 9, 2019
Orcs! #34: A City That Never Sleeps
Devils of Liar’s Night
On holiday in a magic-fueled city of non-stop faerie fire and cantrip-boosted synthwave, trouble finds our heroes as they have just one night to track down a missing person and unravel a conspiracy. But amidst all the parties, the neon lights, and the psionic vapors, who can they really trust?

If you miss out on any of these, don’t worry! I’ll definitely be running all of them again at some point (maybe next year) and I’m always happy to run specific adventures upon request. Until next time!

DMing

D&D 5e Race: Mir

In my homebrew game, the mir are a race of cat-like wildlings — a category of (usually) small animal races with human-like qualities including speech, opposable thumbs, and the ability to move bipedally. Mir are the most common of the wildling races, and fill the role in my setting of more traditional small races such as halflings or gnomes. Other races such as kenku and gnolls, in my setting, would be considered wildlings as well.

I based the 5e conversion for mir on the existing write ups for halflings and tabaxi, as well as the Monster Manual entry for cats. I actually love the Halfling Nimbleness trait, and to be completely honest I would have been perfectly happy swapping out the halfling’s Brave for Darkvision and calling it a day. However, I wanted to come up with something a bit more interesting for the blog — I don’t imagine other DM’s will be quite as keen to fully replace halflings, after all, so the mir deserve to be a bit unique.

Right away I knew that as a small race I wanted to include some sort of movement ability, and while reading through the rules for jumping in the PHB I noticed that both long and high jumps require a 10′ running start. To my knowledge, unlike humans, cats tend to come to a full stop and coil their muscles beneath them before executing a powerful leap. That inspired me to design Wild Agility as a racial exception to those rules. Kitten’s Claws is more straight forward, simply a lesser version of the tabaxi’s Cat’s Claws. It didn’t feel right granting the same damage and climbing speed bonuses to a small race with a lower base speed, so I made this version.

Versatile Limbs is where it gets a bit weird, and it’s the part I expect to spend the most time defending. Here’s the short explanation of where it came from: the base speed for most medium sized races is 30, while for short and small sized races it is typically 25. However, the base speed in the Monster Manual for domestic cats is 40. Wolves, horses, and other animals also tend to have base speeds that start around 40. Because that trend includes animals of all sizes, my takeaway is that quadrupeds tend to have a naturally higher base speed than bipeds. So I thought it would be cool if the mir had that as a situational option, and I felt I needed to make it require a bonus action to prevent abuse.

Credit: SinopaRapax | https://twitter.com/sinoparapax

I feel like this race is decently balanced, but I haven’t gotten the chance to playtest it yet. If you give the mir a try, I would love some feedback! In the future I’ll continue this series with another wildling race: the krokoa.

Stories

That Time My Players Invented an Urban Legend

This one goes back to my first D&D 5e campaign. There was a fairly straight-forward bad guy encampment: a semi-circle of tents, a food prep and supplies area, and guards who patrolled in shifts throughout the day and night. My players at the time had a proclivity towards stealth, but while I fully expected them to hit the camp at night there was no way for me to anticipate the sheer lunacy of their plan.

Warlock: I send my familiar to perch in the trees above the camp. Once he’s there I’ll watch them through his eyes.
DM: You see two guards sitting around a campfire. I third guard is walking the perimeter. As he finishes his patrol he joins the others, and then one of them stands up a minute later and starts walking the same perimeter.
Paladin: I’m going to hide behind some trees on the farthest side. When he gets within range I’m going to cast Charm Person.
DM: The guard fails his save. Brief recognition seems to cross his face and he waves to you like an old friend. “Oh, hello! I’m glad to see you!”
Paladin: “Come with me, I want to show you something.”
DM: You’ve successfully persuaded him. He protests a bit, insisting that he needs to return to his patrol soon, but he follows you.

She proceeded to lead him out into a field, where the Warlock cast Silence on him and the rest of the party beat him unconscious with non-lethal damage. The Rogue then used a magical ability to take his form and finish his patrol.

DM: The two guards narrow their eyes as you approach the fire. “Is everything okay? You’re late coming back.”
Rogue: “I had to take a piss.”
DM: “Right now, on your patrol?”
Rogue: “Yes, goddamn it. It’s been a long day and I had to take a piss.”
DM: You’ve persuaded them. They nod, “No shit. Just had to ask.” One of the guards gets up and gestures for you to take his seat. He starts around on the same patrol you just finished.
Paladin: We’re going to do the same thing with that guard when he comes around back.

And they do so, this time simply leaving him unconscious with the other guard.

Druid: (sighing) I’m going to wildshape into a bear and put on a fez. This is demeaning. I’ll circle around and approach the camp from the front.
DM: As you step forward you’re illuminated by the light of the fire. The remaining guard starts to draw his sword and grabs onto Rogue. “Oh, shit,” He takes a deep breath and starts to yell–
Rogue: “No no no! Shh! I’ve heard about this!” (His eyes widen in faux-awe) “I’ve heard tales of an escaped circus bear who ran away from its cruel masters and now roams these woods. People say that, still longing for human company, it wanders into camps and performs tricks in exchange for food.”
DM: “Bullshit.”
Rogue: “No, I’ll show you!” I take a cooked fish off of the smoking rack, break off a piece, and hold it out. I wave it a bit and call the bear over. “C’mon! Who’s a good bear? Can you sit?”
Druid: (sighing) I sit.
Rogue: “Good bear! Can you shake?”
Druid: (pantomiming shaking hands) Yup.
DM: His eyes light up with wonder. He’s delighted. What do the rest of you do?
Warlock: (who has been whispering with Monk) we’re going to use stealth, quietly cut through the back of the first tent, and slip inside.
DM: No problem, you’ve made all your rolls. You see a young man in armor sleeping and snoring quietly.
Warlock: We cover his mouth and slit his throat.
DM: Jesus, okay. Good rolls. He dies silently and nobody is aware of your presence. What’s next?
Warlock: We go down the line and keep doing it.

They continue to be successful.

DM: What are Rogue and Druid doing? The guard is still amazed but losing his wonder. He might notice something’s up soon.
Rogue: (to Druid) “Can you dance?”
Druid: (pantomiming glaring and dancing)
Rogue: I turn to the guard. “Do you want to try?”
DM: “Can I? What do I do?”
Rogue: “Here, take some fish and hold it out. You can pet it if you’d like.”

Druid ate the fish and let the guard pet her. Warlock and Monk successfully slit the throats of every enemy until the last two tents, where one of them tripped on the way in and woke up a sorcerer. The sorcerer started calling for help.

DM: Upon hearing cries for help, the guard’s neck snaps around towards the sorcerer’s tent. “What the hell-?”
Druid: I bite down on his arm and don’t let go. Then I maul him.

And with that, the party had little trouble cleaning up what remained of the camp.

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DMing

Fire and Water: A Game of Chance

You step beneath the overhang of a nearby building, out of the bustling street and away from the moonlit crowds. A cacophony of laughter precedes a group of children racing past you in festival masks, the wind from their stampede gently rattling the multi-colored blown glass lanterns above your head. Beaming merchants and boisterous fair folk call out to passersby to tempt them with hot meals and games of skill, while sword jugglers and fire dancers perform their crafts to cries of delight.

You observe the crowds for a while, taking a deep breath of the crisp night air, when a nearby voice calls out to you softly. “Fire and Water, friend” you follow the voice to an old gray Tabaxi who sits innocuously at a small round table around the edge of the building, “do you throw?” With a shake of your head he finishes packing a long silver pipe with gold-flecked herbs and beckons you over.

“It’s simple” he says, placing two identical dice on the table for you to inspect. Carved from bone and lovingly worn, one face is marked with a flame and opposing it is rippling water. The other four faces are bare. The old cat gives you a chance to look for a while before continuing to explain. “First we agree to the wager, and then you roll the dice. Fire is what you want to see. See one flame and double your coin. See two flames and see it quadrupled.” Taking one and pointing out the faces, he continues. “Water puts out your fire. When you see water, you always lose. Blank faces count for nothing, and two blank faces mean you walk away with nothing.” Crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes crinkle through his fur as he smiles and takes a long drag from his pipe. “Want to play?”

“Fire and Water” is a gambling game that I invented for my setting. I wanted to design something simple that could be picked up quickly and would add to the setting’s immersion, but that wouldn’t take too long to play or distract too much from the actual adventure. At first I was going to design a card game, but while I was sifting through loose game supplies to see what I could mock up I came across dice from Magic: the Gathering’s Planechase format.

The most recent version of Magic: the Gathering’s Planechase dice.

I noted that someone who wasn’t familiar with M:tG might see the two symbols as fire and water, and the idea developed from there.

The rules are simple: you pay your wager and roll two dice, called a throw. The passage above reflects how I typically explain the rules, but ultimately one fire face and one blank face scores a payout, two fire faces scores a jackpot, and everything else is effectively a loss (because throwing both fire and water means that the fire is negated).

I like setting the typical payout to a neat 2x and the jackpot to 4x. Admittedly, at those payouts the odds give the house a much higher edge than a typical casino game would, but my reasoning is two-fold: (1) the prospect of doubling or quadrupling their wager should be more than enticing enough to draw in players without needing to balance it in their favor, and (2) once they get a handle on the game they’re going to want to cheat, which I’ll cover later. Here are some quick and dirty odds for the curious:

Result 1 Result 2 CombinationsFrequency Payout
FireFire12.78%4x
FireBlank822.22%2x
BlankBlank1644.44%0
WaterBlank822.22%0
FireWater25.56%0
WaterWater12.78%0

Chance of winning a single throw: 25%
House edge: 44.44%

Formats:
Queen’s Table: this is the only format I’ve tested in game. The player sits across from the dealer and pushes their wager to the center of the table, the dealer will take and count the wager, hand the player the dice, and subsequently handle any payout. The player may play as many rounds as they desire by pushing additional wagers to the center of the table and repeating the above steps. This requires someone to bankroll the house, so this format is the domain of casinos, thieves’ guilds, and persons of means.

Commoner’s Table (untested): this is a hypothetical format that characters might play in a tavern. Played between two or more participants (though two is the most common), all participants agree on an amount of coin, put that amount of coin on the table (their “purse”), and four times that much coin into the center of the table (the “pot”). Play proceeds clockwise, with each participant throwing once on their turn by wagering from their purse and taking payouts from the pot. If someone has no coins in their purse then they are out of the game. The game ends when the pot is empty (being shortchanged on the final payout is called “catching the cat’s tail”), or when all but one participant have nothing left in their purse (in which case they claim the remaining pot as well). It’s customary in some places for the starting player to pay additional ante, or for players to pay additional ante according to their position at the table.

Traveler’s Table (untested): a hypothetical format similar to Commoner’s Table except played by anteing items instead of coin. All participants ante an item of value — a trinket, a weapon, a piece of jewelry, etc. If an item does not fall near the perceived value of the other items, the other participants at the table may call for that person to “sweeten the pot” by adding an additional one along with it. The game is played as above, but with tokens or chits in place of coin. If the game ends by emptying the pot, each player who has tokens remaining may choose their prize from the ante in the order of most tokens. If items still remain in the ante then the participant with the most tokens chooses again and the process repeats until no items remain. If the game ends with only one player remaining then they take the entire ante.

Cheating:
Sleight of Hand. It’s right there, resting provocatively on the skills list between Religion and Stealth. Your players will absolutely want to use it, and I suggest you let them try. Once per throw, after their initial throw they may attempt a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check vs. the highest Passive Perception among dealers/participants at the table. If the player is successful, they can re-roll one of the two dice and must accept the new result. If they did this completely optimally, it would increase their chance of winning a single throw to 40.74% and decrease the house edge to 11.11%. If they fail to pass the check, then they’re caught cheating and in the best case they’ll be expelled from the table, their winnings forfeit to the house or returned to the pot. Additionally, if the dealer or other participants start to become suspicious that they player is cheating they may start using active Wisdom (Perception) checks (or other measures) in place of Passive Perception on the player’s turn. A more boisterous NPC might accuse the player outright and force them to deescalate the situation with a Charisma (Deception) check.

That’s it! Let me know what you think. If you get a chance to use it in your game or playtest some variants, I’d really love to hear your feedback.