Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Why I hate Wizards and How to Fix Them.



I hate Wizards. I hate that nerds love Wizards. I hate that they're a nerd power fantasy.  I hate that they're always caster de rigueur, and all casters are compared to them. I hate the tedious smarter-than-thou, arrogant stereotypical Wizard. I hate the 'be a God, use the big dumb fighter' tone implicit in Wizarding and Wizarding-related discourse. Most of all, I hate the fact that Wizards do magic better than people who sold their souls or whose granddad was a fucking dragon. People empowered by Gods are standing alongside someone who studied really, really hard (off-screen, before the campaign...) at some never again mentioned budget Hogwarts.

It's a prejudice, but I'm not ashamed. 
 
You see, almost every other Caster has a built-in DM hook, or connection to the world. A Druid has his forest, or nature. A Warlock has his patron. A Cleric has his god. A Sorcerer has his ancestry. You owe your magic to someone or something, and the significance and nature of that relationship can power your roleplay. You could easily be a reluctant Cleric who doesn't want or value his followers or faith. You could be a Sorcerer obsessed with your Fey ancestry and claiming status in the court of the Fairy King of Woe and Winter. You could be a Warlock who lost his soul to Old Scratch in a game of chance, and be obsessed with luck in such games because if you master that you might reclaim your soul. 






These bonds to the world give your DM a bone to throw your character, and something for your backstory to explain. A Wizard just is. Boring. You level up and you get a new pile of spells and everything is hunky-dory.

I have two fixes.

First, let's give Wizards a Bond. No, not the 5e bond that you wrote down on your character sheet and forgot about. A relationship. Something your Poundland Gandalf gives a shit about.

Roll a D10.

1. You were trained in magic by a mysterious, Odinic wanderer who also imparted to you their cut-throat Machiavellian, magic-makes-right philosophy and expects you to follow it.
2. You trained at a for-profit College of Magic and the fees are exorbitant. You're adventuring to pay off your student loan.
3. You learned at a Monastery where discipline was strict and frugal. You fled halfway through your training. You are scarred by the experience and dread other alumni.
4. You were trained by a Master Mage, who considers you a minion of theirs and will ask for favours. Their morality is flexible.
5. You trained at a state-sponsored Magic Academy, with the expectation your magic would be at the disposal of the government when asked.
6. A local criminal family put you through Magic School in return for a later favour.
7. You were trained by an illiterate hedge-witch. As you could read, you surpassed her mastery and earned her resentment.
8. You learned from a Coven or Magic Circle who are being oppressed by the authorities for illegal magic.
9. You 'borrowed' a spellbook from your Master when you were a servant.
10. You learnt magic from an important campaign villain. 



The second fix is simple: spell-books and spell-scrolls are hard to get. A Wizard has the potential to master almost all magic, if they can get their hands on spellbooks. The easiest way to do this is to appropriate them for other Wizards. As a result, life as a Wizard is incredibly cut-throat, and many people will murder a Wizard just to try and sell his spellbooks on to interested parties. Meetings of wizards are rare and have palpable tension: the arcane equivalent of two bar-fighters sizing each other up. This inculcates enormous paranoia and social darwinist attitudes among most Wizards.

To achieve this, just rule that a Wizard can only acquire new spells by finding them in treasure (for 5e, I'd give them the spells from their School for free). Correspondingly, they can eventually master every spell on the Wizard list (spells prepared remains constant.). This gives them a constant pressure to, through cooperation, coercion or incineration, acquire their magic, and gives them in-game incentives ad roelplay ideas just as the Warlock, Wizard or Cleric have.





Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Let's Read the 5e Monster Manual - The Dragon Turtle



The Dragon Turtle


The Dragon Turtle is one of those peculiar creatures that has been in the game since the days of THACO and 1d4 hit points, yet I have never heard of anyone using one. This is probably primarily because aquatic campaigns, and therefore aquatic baddies, are fairly rare in most people’s gaming. Additionally, our terrible testudines is packing a pretty hefty (and potentially undeserved – more on that later) CR17, meaning it will only show up to hassle high-level parties. 


I personally adore the sea-monster trope, and the Dragon Turtle is competing with some stiff competition in the Kraken or Sea Serpent. Here be monsters…






Art

Allow me to share a fairly pointless niggle or pet-hate. That ship is quite clearly from the later days of the Age of Sail and resembles something from around the time of the Spanish Armada. It clearly has areas for cannon – and fairly advanced, slim cannon at that - in a game that assumes gunpowder is yet to be discovered. This is stupid and inconsistent.

The actual artwork is a nice effort at imbuing the Dragon Turtle with some menace: its attacking an unaware ship, about to snap the rudder, and the art is designed to give the whole piece a sense of scale. There’s a shark helpfully drifting past to show you that the Dragon Turtle is bigger than a shark and nonplussed by a shark.

My problem is that this all seems a little staid; a little formulaic. I like my seas brooding and romantic; my monstrosities thrashing and terrible. It’s a boring composition.  I much prefer the original execution.

It’s also not really giving me much ‘Dragon’ to work with. It’s just a really big turtle, and turtles hardly inspire terror.

Purpose and Tactics




It’s a big monster, with enough intelligence to communicate and be a tool. In your campaign, you could make it a controllable minion of a maritime big bad (essentially the plot of that Pirates of the Caribbean film with the Scottish Mind Flayer) or a major part of a naval attacking force. In this case, finding a method of destroying the Dragon Turtle (avoid fireballs, jump repeatedly on its head) could form part of your quest chain.

It could also just turn up as you cross an ocean to attack the player’s ship. In battle, it seems more Michelangelo than monster, though. It has a big pile of hit-points and fairly high AC, and a multi-attack ability to nail your players. As mentioned with the Red Dragon, simply damage and toughness generally aren’t enough to make a fight, and the Dragon Turtle looks easy to vanquish for any vaguely prepared level 17 party. This is a party with epic spells – multiattack physical and fire damage aren’t going to cut it.

It’s also weirdly slow. (40feet swim? What?)

So it falls to the DM to jazz up this turtle and make it worthy of CR 17. The first way to do this is make the fight occur in water – not at sea, in the water – a Dragon Turtle should make short work with an initial multiattack of most ships, and ensure they’re taking on water. As the fight progresses, the players should be clinging to driftwood, lost barrels, ship fragments – and focussing as much on avoiding the depths as they are the Turtle. This also makes the Tail Attack’s knockback and prone abilities far more meaningful.  I’d add an ability to grab party members in his jaws and subsequently drag them into the depths, so party members will be constantly struggling to combat this force of nature. As with the Red Dragon, use the Reach ability to ensure your Dragon Turtle is attacking from within the water and is outside of melee range and arguably obscured from view. Additionally, it has 120 feet of Darkvision and we’re angling for every advantage we can get, so make sure it’s a nocturnal turtle (nocturtle?).

If you have a little more CR pennies in the bank, pairing it with a Marid or spellcaster of some kind will help enormously.

Despite my complaints about Legendary Resistance, this creature needs it. Otherwise a single successful casting of say, Dominate Monster or Ottiluke’s Irresistible Dance ends the combat.

Fluff

There’s some interesting information on motivations: it covets treasure as much as a typical Dragon, and thus will drag wealthy ships beneath the waves. Additionally, they’re mercenaries or even mounts of intelligent aquatic creatures, giving you a plethora of potential plot hooks beyond the simple “We need a random encounter at sea” impulse. Some of the language here is quite beautiful, and would make for excellent in game description – especially the idea that sailors might mistake a turtle for the reflection of the moon, until….

Plot Hooks
The Most Serene Republic of Firtenzia has been closed out by its mightier rivals, and now its merchants are assaulted, boarded, blockaded and abused by its powerful maritime rivals.  But there is rumour of a way to win back control of the seas…

Your players, after weeks at sea, find a small island jutting from the water. After wandering on the island to search for food, they notice the movement of gentle breathing, and how far they are from land….

Sultan Aquisul, The Most Magnificent Marid-King of the Hundred-Thousand Seas of the Plane of Water, needs a steed to pull his coral palanquin. Could your players tame Tetsuferrax, the legendary scourge of the seas?

Verdict: I think this has the nucleus of a good idea but is one of the most poorly executed monsters in the entire book. Use a Kraken instead. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Let's Read the 5e Monster Manual - The Red Dragon

Red Dragon
A foe so bone-deep in the game's lore it is in the name. When we say 'dragon'; these are the dragons we mean. Imperious, furious: a crocodile's savagery carried with the regality of a tyrant. The literary bedrock we can mine is extensive: Smaug and F√°fnir exemplify this trope. Where there are heroes, there must also be The Dragon. I have some strong, unbendable principles (or prejudices) about dragons that may need to be born in mind whilst reading this review.*

It is almost challenging to review a monster which is so integral to our conceptions of monsterdom. Here be dragons.... 



Artwork:

An excellent piece; dynamic and furious. The red-gold colouring captures every sense of the vainglory and conceit which typify the beast. There's some excellent, loving attention to detail: the beady, vehement, cruel little eyes, the glowing inferno of the mouth, the grasping claws. Its stance manages to emphasise that peculiar junction of frenzy and poise. 

Behind the stat-blocks, obscured is a hint of a reddened, sweltering lair. Another great piece which I wish gained more exposure. 

Purpose and Tactics. 

You gnobbled goblins, assaulted orcs, mangled Mind Flayers, battered a Behir - all to climb to this zenith, and there do battle with a monstrosity incarnate. This is it: Act Three. The final boss.
I'll review the Ancient Red Dragon, as I rather imagine the developers brewed that up first then doled out the dragon-juice into smaller and smaller containers like Russian dolls in order to give us our other necessary stat-blocks (Toddler Dragon, Prepubescent Dragon, Tween Dragon, Mid-Life Crisis Dragon etc). 

As a final fight, this is largely about throwing the Action Economy rules out of the window. It is for lesser mortals to wait for their turn, and you have a pile of legendary and lair actions to keep you scrapping. An initial Frightful Presence will probably not disrupt the players too much (the save is difficult, but a high-level party have a a number of spells, magic items and buffs to make it trivial), but then follow up with your multi-attack. Other methods of disruption include the Volcanic Gasses Lair Action, which is potentially huge even though it is an easy save. A huge portion of this fight rests on grouping and ungrouping the players - isolating them to eat your multiattack and then targeting them with your Fire Breath to rack up damage. 

You should be conscious that your attacks have pretty huge reach (20ft for the tail - and you can do that as a Legendary as well!) so there's no reason for you to land and scrabble in the dirt when you can fight from the air and preserve your draconic dignity. More importantly, it will stop you eating a barrage of readied actions and opportunity attacks when you make your majestic sweep. 

The Red Dragons' saves and senses are brilliant, so the biggest threat posed by spellcasters will be non-save debuff spells such as Forcecage** or Ottiluke's Irresistible Dance. In terms of support, some kind of spell-caster to disrupt this: a crazed dragon-worshipping Cleric, for example. Without this, the Red Dragon will suffer from only really being able to deal direct hit-point damage with a lack of utility, and the fact that most of the damage is easily resisted. 

Much of this fight will depend on the window-dressing. Noone with any self-respect fights a Dragon in a field. People fight Dragons whilst flying through a thunderstorm, deep in the caldera of a volcano, in a firestorm in the centre of the capital city or in an ocean of blood and magma on some plane of the Abyss. Make sure the terrain is a persistent hazard and adds to the drama of the conflict. 

In terms of a campaign role, the Red Dragon is clearly a major villain. However, I don't feel it works as schemer or plotter. Your Red Dragon is a warlord, a conqueror; you have fought his armies since you were a level one Fighter with less hit-points than sense and you've built to this since the beginning. 

Fluff
Firstly, did they need to include any? This scene tells you everything you need to know, and the archetypical dragon is so huge in the collective imagination that anyone could write some fluff for it.

The fluff focuses on their vanity, vainglory and endless hunt for prestige: I personally love the idea that for a Dragon this toxic insecurity is almost biological, and it really cements their motivation without humanising too much. 

The author makes a strong effort to describe the Desolation around a Red Dragon's lair, which I love: populated by rogue fire-creatures, sulphurous wastes, monuments to the dragons' hubris, and miserable minions and slaves. Somewhere between Mordor and Bosch's Hell sits our Red Dragon upon its mountain-throne. 

There's some excellent detail in the physical description which really captures the imagination, and they're the kind of small detail you could definitely drop into your description of the scene to dazzle your players. 


Plot Hooks


Aurumvorax rules all the territory west of the Titanheart Mountains; an endless expanse of magma and poisonous mists where his chattel skitter beneath his baleful eye. Unseat the tyrant of the west, take his treasure-hoard and all will know your name.

Fraguth plundered the territories of the North for a generation, and his hoard grew immeasurable. Then he returned to the Plane of Fire to slumber on his ill-gotten riches. We would forget The Burning Wyrm were it not that he took the eight Sealing Jewels that are needed to prevent the rise of the Lich-King...

Draguragoth grows fat and ancient in his stolen mountain, wrapped in a hoard of such tremendous enormity as to defy imagination. As he ages, he sends to the vassal kings and subjects of all lands: now, not demanding tribute, but something else. A conversation. Draguragoth believes himself to have produced in his long tyranny the perfect philosophy of rule and society, and he wishes the philosphers come hear the Dragon discourse. 

Verdict: The concept is so strong I don't see how anyone could mess this up, but the execution is strong and overcomes the weaknesses of a solo monster in 5e. The fluff and artwork are still engaging even though we've all seen a panoply of Dragons. An excellent effort. 




* Dragons are primal terror. You do not ride them and joke with them. Noone knows dragons intimately enough to differentiate between blue and green: dragons simply are.

Noone fights an Ancient White Dragon. They fight Kauldrvist; Shield-Taker; God-Breaker - the White Death, The Bleeding Ice, Sovereign of the White Sea, the Terror of the Aurora, The Cold Hunger, who has ruled the ice-floes since time immemorial. Your dragon needs a rep. 
I am dead-against letting players feel like big boys because they offed a Dragon that was still in nappies. You don't get to fight Dragons with training wheels. For me, the stat-blocks start at Adult. 

Dragons don't get comedy roles in my campaign. There is no relief. Their mythic status largely comes from the fact that dragons don't make jokes. 

**Well actually no, you're too big to fit in. Back to the arcane drawing board.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Magic Weapons! (5e Homebrew)

If you play in my campaign, please don't read this. You're only cheating yourself.


I really dig magic weapons, I like them an absurd amount and make them endlessly, and have to keep myself form Monty Hall-ing my Player Characters.

One reason I dig them is they're a great segway into the world's history and can form the basis of an adventure themselves.  If you tell your players about the ancient wars between the Giants and the Elves, they won't listen to you. If you give them an enchanted longsword inhabited by the spirit of an Elf-supremacist aristocrat which can grow in strength by slaying giants, they may stop deleting those emails you send full of setting details. Ditto doling out exposition through Speak With Dead or any other player-originated tool.

In short, never tell your players any exposition. Make them work for it or listen to dead Elf racists.


These magic weapons, being from my game-world, have a tonne of lore which you can file off and replace, which I have left in for flavour reasons.

Heedless
Short Sword * Finesse Weapon
1d8

Heedless is a sentient silver short-sword with a brass hilt. The blade is engraved to resemble a feather. On the hilt is carved I AM HEEDLESS; BREAKER OF BONDS, SOVEREIGN OF DUST.

Bonuses:
There is nowhere I fear to tread.: Once per day, you may choose to deal Radiant damage with any attack using Heedless. Additionally, Heedless may make an attack action without your consent once per day. This need not occur on your turn.
Thousand-Lifetimes-of-Duelling: Whilst wielding Heedless, your proficiency bonus with the Short Sword is doubled.
No Man Can Tame Me: Only female characters – or those characters who have no gender – may carry or wield Heedless.

Heedless can only be wielded by a hero of its choice and it will reject heroes who it feels do not mesh with its interests.
Heedless adores liberty, the wind, women, violence, water, flight, vengeance, honour and speed.
Heedless detests tyranny, the earth, peace, patriarchy, age, masculinity, lycanthropes and the undead.

Secret: Heedless contains a part of the fallen angel Heedless. If placed in water, Heedless will point to the nearest other part. Revealed on a 22 Religion or History check.  Assembling all parts will allow you to resurrect Heedless


Voidwalker

Greatsword * 2d6
The sword is a single hilt of bone. The blade is not visible. When held aloft in darkness, a series of glowing runes are visible on the blade. In Infernal, they read: THE GREATEST WARRIOR FIGHTS AS THOUGH ALREADY DEAD.
Voidwalker.
Powers:
Stillness: Once per day, the wielder of Voidwalker may use his move action to make an additional attack with Voidwalker.
Brightest Candle, Longest Shadow:  If the wielder of Voidwalker hits 0 hit-points, they may instead choose to stay standing at 1hp and gain a random curse.

Secrets:
Arcana (22) Voidwalker is cursed and will compel the owner to accept any offer of a duel as though under the Geas spell.

A History (25) will reveal Voidwalker to have been the sword of Musashi, who founded the Dameshti Swordfighting college that offers the swan-pendant for excellence in combat. Musashi was gifted Voidwalker by a representative of Dispater after triumphing in 66 duels to the death. A great reward would be offered if it was returned to the College.

A History (28) check will reveal Voidwalker to have been recently in the ownership of Sejuren. Aware of a curse on the artefact, he gave it as a gift to Tyruk. Not trusting Sejuren, Tyruk gave it as a gift to Lomorit.

Religion (28) will reveal that Voidwalker is supposed to be wielded by a Herald (The Dancer in the Darkness) of the end of the world according to Order orthodoxy. To that end, they want the sword to destroy it.


Whisper
Rapier * Finesse Weapon
d8
Whisper is an enchanted sword cane. As such, it can be concealed as a walking stick. The pommel and hand-guard resemble the mouth of a serpent.
Bonuses: Even if drawn - and pressed against the throat of a foe – opponents will not recognise Whisper as a weapon unless actually attacked.
Once per day, Whisper can inflict the Paralysis condition on an opponent (DC 15 CON save. Save ends.)


Dunorbrandr
Greatsword. * 2d6
I SPIT THUNDER WITH A TONGUE LIKE MYTH is written up the blade in Giantish.

Bonus: 
Dunorbrandr may cast Thunderclap on a successful attack once per day. Instead of the usual sound of thunder, the weapon will simply roar DUNORBRANDR. Dunorbrandr deals lighting damage and stuns on a critical.

Secret: History 16 to reveal that Dunorbrandr once belonged to DRANG-WHO-ROARS, a Giant king who fought the first Elven Emperor of Damesht. If DUNORBRANDR is used to kill an Elf, it will reawaken, and speak to its owner.

Secret: History 22 to reveal that the Giant Chiefs in Zunia greatly desire the sword and will come for whoever wields it.  

Yilidrim
Longbow * 1d8
This bow is made of springy ash-white wood, and is intricately carved with an Aarakocra creation story, featuring the first male Aarakocra being born from a thunderbolt striking a man. The second image features him wearing a crown of thunderbolts and roaring. The third shows him prostrating before an unseen figure.

It grants the ability to fire an arrow once per day which functions as the Thunderbolt spell, as an attack action.

A History (22) will reveal that this bow has a sister, Firtina, which features the other half of the creation story. Both are important relics of Aarakocra culture and their return would be highly sought. 

Ghost-Tamer Staff
This staff is wooden, and along it, totem-like, are carved faces snarling and roaring.

A Religion (18) check will reveal that this is an Exorcist’s Staff, and will grant +2 to any roll pertaining to an exorcism or binding of an extraplanar spirit.

A Religion (26) check will reveal that the staff itself contains the spirits of minor celestials. They are the ancestors of the original wielder and can be communicated with by the wielder but are under no obligation to be truthful, helpful or polite. 

Lizardfolk Race (5e homebrew)

I see those presumptuous coastal wizards have finally got round to releasing playable Lizardfolk. Some of us have had playable Lizardfolk for ages, here's my take:

Lizardfolk are the scaled denizens of the swamps, mires and lowlands of Damesht. These creatures rarely leave their homes to adventure, and are thus considered oddities in most civilised regions, especially as their civilization lacks the refinement of other races: a contempt for luxury and a Stoic outlook have made them content to fish, hunt and praise their gods as they have for millennia. Most Lizardfolk are Rangers, Clerics or Druids.



Lizardfolk Traits
Ability Score Increase:
Your Constitution Score increases by 2 and your Wisdom Score increase by 1.
Age: Lizardfok reach maturity around the age of ten, and generally live to thirty or forty. This may be due to the stresses of their prelapsarian lifestyle, however.
Alignment: Lizardfolk communities revere tradition, custom and individuals, and do not have formal laws or government, and thus tend to be Chaotic. Lizardfolk fall fairly evenly on the Good-Evil axis.
Size: Lizardfolk are roughly human in size, and are thus Medium.
Speed: Your base walking and swimming speed are both 30ft.
Scaled Skin: Any damage you take from nonmagical bludgeoning, piercing or slashing is reduced by 3.
Languages: Lizardfolk do not have their own tongue, and may speak one of Draconic, Common, Goblinoid or Elvish.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Loquista Session Six - "Reaping the Whirlwind".

Reaping the Whirlwind

Dramatis Personae
Callie, Halfling Demon-hunter (Ranger)
Shousa, Lizardfolk Elder (Ranger)
Vaina Moiynen, Half Orc Thug (Barbarian)
Kavarus, Tiefling Cloak-and-Dagger man (Bard)
Landar Farsheild, Half-Elven Assassin (Rogue/Fighter/Warlock)

The Heroes of North Corner set about ehir next plan: they would rely on Three Times Jack to fabricate an order implicating Grand Marshall Tyruk in an assassination of Dean Cerelesta – hoping this would result in further fighting between the Tyruk and Sejuren-supporting factions in the Despotate, and ideally weaken Sejuren’s dominance in the Council of Nine.

After a brief fight in the arena where they made short work of a rival adventuring party from Zunia, they began to plan their attack on the University tower. Reconnaissance came in two forms – Kavarus using his Disguise Self to uncover a series of trapped steps in the tower as a failsafe, and Shousa inhabiting the sense of minor insects to see that an aerial support on the tower faced a powerful static cloud. They knew Cerelesta was a mage of considerable power as well as a Cambion with the ability to fly or beguile mortals.

The plan: Callie, Vaina and Shousa would enter under false pretences and position themselves as best they could, signalling for Kavarus in Giant Eagle form to strike Cerelesta whilst carrying Landar to prevent an airborne escape.

After an unconvincing bird cry, Kavarus flew through a window, magically resisting the static cloud. Landar’s deadly swords flashed, dropping a flurry of deadly sneak attacks on the frail Cambion. Cerelesta unleashed her Dimension Door, positioning herself at a  distance to gain her vengeance, not realising her current guests were in league with her assassilants. Vaina Moiynen convinced her of her mistake, viciously cutting her with Voidwalker as he flew into a rage.  The swarm of imps that accompanied the fiendish witch covered him, ant-like, and stung relentless, and Vaina roared in pain at the sheer number of stings, breaking through even his iron constitution with infernal poison.

With the force of a hurricane, winds flooded out of the portal and assailed our heroes and imp alike, and Cerelesta’s ally, Hazik, Knight of the Nine Winds, a mighty air elemental, strode forth to do battle. Cerelesta quickly conquered Landar’s mind with Dominate Person, and set his knives-for-hire at Vaina’s back. Shousa and her undead servant Zathras set to cutting down the imps as tornado winds flung the party around the room, growing ever stronger.

As the battle wore on, Cerelesta leapt the window, choosing instead to assail the party from the open air as the Elemental Plane of Air disgorged its fury in the tower. Landar, freed of his mental dominion, attempted to leap the window and cut her down. A leap of faith.

Faith misplaced – Landar plummeted downwards and was only saved by Kavarus’s quick wits and quicker wings. Shousa’s deadly scythe eviscerated Hazik, and imps fell like corn before the thresher as the party rallied. It was Callie’s well-placed arrow that ended Cerelesta as she flew to the window to strike once again with a Fireball. A single arrow through the eye, and Loquista was ruled by a Council of Eight.

Cerelesta’s once composed self rocketed to the roof off the university, her bones shattering like glass. Landar and Kavarus scaled the tower’s exterior to loot her magical treasures – and the party loaded up on fine opiates before fleeing the scene of their second high-profile Loquistan assassination. In his haste to claim the accoutrements of Loquista’s premiere sorceress, Kavarus slipped, and got an impressive scar to show the more daring ladies of the Mucky Duck Tavern.

“I never let going to school interfere with my education.” Mark Twain.

Villains Vanquished: 16.
Pensioners Mugged: 1.
Dramatic Rescues: 1.
Treasures:
 - A ring of the Cult of Ourboros.
- A glass earring.
- A collection of hallucinogenic opiates.
- A pendant.