Saturday, April 22, 2017

Game Ideas from Poetry: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I love this poem by Robert Frost, its simple and clean and evocative. Its been snowing here a lot this winter and I have been going on some hikes through the woods while it comes down. Its very peaceful, and Robert captures that solitary longing to watch this little sliver of the world. So when life gives you poems, make D&D.

Let us ask the question, what if the narrator gives in to the lovely, dark and deep woods? He hops off of his cart into the snow, and he trudges into the forest on the darkest night of the year.

This makes for a great set up to be captured/seduced by the servants of the Queen of Winter and be forced/enticed to celebrate with her and her court as her reign begins for the season. Perhaps he is thus cursed to return to her Court every Winter Solstice and dance with the holly men and the evergreen women, to drink the blood of the feast swine, breath the smoke of the cedar offerings, and wear the wreath.

That's the one night a year he feels alive. And every other night he lays awake, thinking of the smokey hall lit by ruddy flames, his body writhing with half remembered pleasure and tormented by cultural inhibitions. He returns to the dark woods. Year after year.

I would want it to be an adventure like "Over the Garden Wall", an excellent single season TV show from Cartoon Network. Check it out:

What I think "Over the Garden Wall" did well was a sense of dissociation and familiarity at the same time. But instead of kids wandering a weird Victorian era forest land, you are a group on late 19th century New Englanders haunted by the chains of your Protestant upbringings and the pagan blood memories of the Yule Tide. Every session is the night of the Winter Solstice, in between each session a year passes and the bacchanalian revelers age and grow weaker and more tortured. Kind of like a fucked up pagan Narnia.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Bon Appetite: The Dungeon

Okay, here me out:

So you are playing what seems to be a classic dungeon crawl.

There are stone rooms. Some doors. Some of the doors are trapped. There are some things that want to kill your characters. There are some quirky NPCs. Everyone is having a jolly time.

But something is off...

It all seems too easy. Almost as if... someone wanted you to do all of this.

Those goblins from level 1? Wasn't it too easy to push them into their own spinning blade trap?

That psychic fungus on level 3? Didn't it seem too obvious that fire would destroy it? That the journal in the room over would tell you all about how much those weird fungus guys hate fire?

Those demon cultists from level 8? Weren't they too easy to throw into that huge cauldron they were working over?

And as you enter the final room, it all becomes clear.

You played right into its hand.

All along, you were preparing the dungeon for this. All the ingredients are here. The diced goblin, the charred psychic mushrooms, the melted cultists...

The dungeon was a recipe, waiting for a group of capable chefs to work through it. And now your host is ready for its meal, its delicate palate waiting for the feast of the century, and you the chefs must finish what you started...



[Just an idea I had for a dungeon as recipe with the adventures as unwitting chefs.]

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Lessons in Forest Ecology: Pt 2: Mangrove Hell

Mangroves: The Flowing Forest

Every Season of Storms it moves, surging miles across the shallow Sea. The wind and currents drives loose sediment into it's maw, trapping the particles and making the water shallow...and habitable. It's miles across, not quite an island, but not quite just a drift of living wood either.

As the Season ends brave sailors approach with axes and torches to beat back the creeping green death. They have little success, the movement of this motile forest is dictated by the currents and winds. Some have tried, with varying success, appeasing the Spirits of nearby channels to divert the forest to their neighbors and avoid the doom that flows across the Sea.

Sometimes the Flowing Forest runs into an island. It is wrapped in a verdant embrace, and the creatures that call the Flowing Forest home set foot on terra firma for the first time in seasons. Sometimes these islands are inhabited, and those that survive that Season of the Sun and Fear tell harrowing stories of sighting brachiating predators hunting through the canopy, sinieous avians darting between the many loops of root and brach, and dark shapes in the waters beneath the trees...

Adventuring in the Flowing Forest

So there is a horrible massive tumbleweed forest that floats around the world and people hate it. So your players should totally have to go to the center of it to find lost artifact X.

As you pierce deeper into the forest the water is purified by the defense systems of the trees, eventually becoming freshwater. This creates three distinct zones within the Flowing Forest: Saltwater, Brackish, and Freshwater. Each band has a distinct set of tree species, wildlife, and challenges for an adventuring party. Each band takes about a day of travel (8 hours of unhindered movement) to pierce through, and my random encounter tables below assumes 4 two hour chunks of travel with one roll for each chunk and time for a one hour short rest. (I should write a post about how I handle wilderness travel...)

Green: Saltwater Zone, Blue: Brackish Zone, Orange: Freshwater Zone

Same as above, but the Flowing Forest is embracing an island

The Saltwater Zone:

Here on the outer edge of the forest waves and winds are still important factors, forcing open rips in the knot of roots and stems.  Is pretty easy to navigate through, the trees are not super dense, the water is deep, and you might be able to catch a breeze to help propel you on your way. A few small groups of adapted Automata live in this outer edge of the Forest (they have lost their walking speed but have an equal climb speed). But this does not mean that it is devoid of danger...

Travel Notes: You can travel through this zone in a rowboat with relative ease if you stay to the channels and openings through the trees. If traveling through the trees out of a boat you must make a DC 12 Acrobatics check to move at half your base land speed. If you have a climb speed you may move normally through the trees at your full climb speed.

Random Encounters and Hazards: 2d4

2) Hunting group of Automata natives, they are wary of outsiders but will trade with you and give advice about how to survive the Forest. They warn you to stay away from their settlements.

3) You catch an errant breeze that propels you deeper into the Flowing Forest, double movement speed for this chunk of travel (only effects boat travel, re-roll otherwise)

4) You come upon a wreck of a vessel tangled in the trees. Find 1d6+1 rations and roll on your favorite random treasure table

5) You disturb some salt encrusted pneumatophore roots who explosively eject their crystalline casing, 1d4+1 salt spear attacks at everyone in the party, (+4 to attack, 1d12 damage)

6) There are dark shapes in the water, and they are jostling your boat! A gam of 1d4+1 sharks are hunting (stats as Hunter Shark, 5e MM pg330), make a DC12 Acrobatics check to keep from falling in the water and maybe they will go away...

7) The tides turn and make traveling deeper into the forest difficult, half movement speed for this chunk of travel (only effects boat travel, re-roll otherwise)

8) You stumble upon an Automata settlement, made of woven dwellings in the branches of the trees above the high-water mark. They are very protective and the party gets -2 to all checks to try to parlay with them.

Don't pneumatophore roots look like they should have a sheath of explosive salt on them? I think so.

Beware what lurks underneath the water...

The Brackish Zone:

There are no longer any obvious paths through the trees. Each sluggish wave bumps your craft up against a web of roots. The trees are denser, the water is shallower, and the air is still and cloying. Insects are a true enemy, and there are chilling calls of strange birds and the horrible buzzing of insects echoing through the trees. The Automata tend to stay away from here, preferring the more open outer reaches.

Travel Notes: Travel through this zone is difficult. You can remain in your row boat and travel at half speed if you pass a DC 16 Survival/Sailing Check. If traveling through the trees you must make a DC 14 Acrobatics check to move at half your base land speed. If you have a climb speed you may move normally through the trees at your full climb speed.

Because travel through here character consumer double rations and double water to stay fit, if they don't get enough of either they begin to accumulate fatigue.

Random Encounters and Hazards: 2d4

2) Hunting group of Automata natives, they are wary of outsiders but will trade with you and give advice about how to survive the Forest. They warn you that travel deeper into the Forest is very dangerous and even they do not go much deeper than this zone.

3) You come upon a strangely woven mat of branches and roots, decorated with the hides of poisonous frogs, the skulls and feathers of serpent birds, and caked in red mud. It seems to be warning or shrine built by the Automata, if offerings are left the party receives Bless as the spell for the rest of the day, if they desecrate it or disturb it they receive Bane as the spell.

4) A flock of serpent birds bursts out of the trees with a chorus of screams and claw at the party as they flyby! They wheel about and ready another charge... 2d4+2 serpent birds (stats as Pseudodragon, 5eMM pg 254; no limited telepathy, size small, 4HD)

5) As you make your way through to forest you grab a branch and... (DC 14 Dex Save) On success: narrowly avoid grabbing a poisonous tree frog; On failure: grab a poisonous tree frog and take 2d6 poison damage and have the poisoned condition for the rest of this travelling chunk, making travel difficult

6) You disturb a hive of fire honey bees! 1d4 swarms of hornets well out of the hive (stats as swarm of wasps, 5eMM pg 338) Once defeated the hive can be ransacked for 1d3 applications of fire honey, which lends fire resistance for a chunk of travel when applied as a salve or gives 2d4+2 temporary HP for a chunck of travel when eaten.

7) The tides turn and make traveling deeper into the forest difficult, half movement speed for this chunk of travel (only effects boat travel, re-roll otherwise)

8) You stumble upon a random thing in the Forest: 1d3

  1. As the tides turn you see deep in the mud submerged hull of an ancient wreck, somehow wormed deep into this zone, what could be in it?
  2. A small structure suspended in the canopy, does someone live up there?
  3. Massive flowers that lull the smellers to sleep (DC 12 Wisdom save against sleep, on failure nap for the chunk of travel and awake as if had a full nights rest, cannot be awoken), roll again to see what else happens while they sleep.

Totally a serpent bird. But like wayyyy longer.
And they are super agile and can fly no problem through tiny holes like this goshawk

The Freshwater Zone:

As you enter the heart of the Forest all but the foolhardy abandon their boats, though there are freshwater creeks flowing through the mats of vegetation. Here there is almost solid ground now... but every time you trust it or turn your attention away from it you fall into mud and muck. You basically have to climb from root to root to avoid the mud, but the branches are thick and low overhead. There is now abundant if muddy freshwater to refill water skins with.

Travel Notes: Travel through this zone is exceptionally difficult. Its extremely difficult to remain in your row boat, you get stuck in the roots/mud if you fail a DC 18 Survival/Sailing Check, otherwise are able to move at half speed. If traveling through the trees you must make a DC 14 Acrobatics check to move at half your base land speed, every failure drops you in waist deep mud. If you have a climb speed you may move normally through the trees at half your full climb speed unless you make a DC 12 strength check to smash through the dense canopy.

Because travel through here character consumer double rations and double water to stay fit, if they don't get enough of either they begin to accumulate fatigue. There is now abundant if muddy freshwater to refill water skins with, especially if they can figure out a clever way to filter the water.

Random Encounters and Hazards: 2d4

2) Massive flowers that lull the smellers to sleep (DC 12 Wisdom save against sleep, on failure nap for the chunk of travel and awake as if had a full nights rest, cannot be awoken), roll again to see what else happens while they sleep.

3) As you pick your way through the trees suddenly you see them, green-grey furred animals draped in the foliage, massive bodies heaving with calm breath, foot long claws twitching as they dream of ripping apart sweet fruits and sweeter flesh... You've found a female giant sloth sleeping warren! 1d4+1 (stats as giant ape, 5eMM pg 323, 8HD)

4) There is a small grove of fruiting mangroves here! Their boughs are heavy with large juicy fruit, and in the mud their are piles of sickly sweet fermenting fruit. Insects buzz happily around. Fresh fruit makes an excellent ration and there is more that the party can carry, and the fermented fruit juice might make an excellent accelerant for a flame...

5) As you make your way through to forest you grab a branch and... (DC 14 Dex Save) On success: narrowly avoid grabbing a poisonous tree frog; On failure: grab a poisonous tree frog and take 2d6 poison damage and have the poisoned condition for the rest of this travelling chunk, making travel difficult.

6) You hear a crashing through the trees and as the swinging shape bursts into view it bellows a deep yawp. This giant sloth looks inquisitive, and very big... A male giant sloth (stats as giant ape, 5eMM pg 323) has found the party as it hunts for: 1d4

  1. A female
  2. Fruit
  3. The tallest tree it can find to nap in
  4. A protein rich meal...

7) A flock of serpent birds bursts out of the trees with a chorus of screams and claw at the party as they flyby! They wheel about and ready another charge... 2d4+2 serpent birds (stats as Pseudodragon, 5eMM pg 254; no limited telepathy, size small, 4HD)

8) The nests of a group of serpent birds with 1d6+1 eggs and lined with shiny things they have found (roll on your favorite random treasure generator).

The giant sloth...

...the stuff of nightmares.

Other Thoughts on the Flowing Forest:

If your party comes up with clever solutions to the hazards and challenges of travel through the Flowing Forest reward them!
  • They learn to wear gloves so as to avoid the poison tree frogs, turn that entry in the table to simple easy travel.
  • They are a party of sufficiently high level druids and they all turn into monkeys, so of course they swing easily into the heart of the forest!
  • They just fireball the shit out of the trees they could probably boat more easily deeper into the forest.
The intent is to make the forest a challenge, but not impassable. Once you are aware of the dangers you can find solutions to them. Think about this great scene from the Princess Bride:

Travel is and should be difficult, but that also means that it falls to the DM to create an appropriately enticing reason to want to pierce the heart of this hated forest. Here are some ideas though:

  • The center of the forest is the Big Dungeon that the Big Artifact is in. Probably a massive inverted ziggurat with dramatic waterfalls coursing  down the terraced sides to a freshwater lake, at the center of which is the tip of a another ziggurat and the party has to descend its flooded levels and figure out what brought about the ruin of this once mighty empire and steal its shit... or something.
  • A wilderness survival episode of shipwreck on hard mode. They could make a sweet raft.
  • Could be a good location to hunt for rare medicinal plants.
  • Could be tasked with destroying/ diverting the Forest to protect an island. What binds it together? Some wickedly powerful Spirit?
What I like about this wilderness is that it uses things that real mangroves do (form bands based on salinity tolerance, expel salt through their roots, house many various fish in their roots) and cool things about various animals (like the goshawk flying through forest canopies as shown above, some birds really do collect shiny things for their nests, giant sloths existed (but they were not ferocious omnivores), poisonous tree frogs are real and tiny and deadly) as a jumping off point for interesting wilderness travel. Ecology is rad, and reading a little bit about it definitely is a wellspring of ideas.

*Also when this post was in its draft stages this post came out also about mangrove wilderness travel!*

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lessons In Forest Ecology Pt 1

There seems to be an inordinate amount of talk about forests recently on my blog reading list. I wrote a post about them, kind of.

Skerples over at Coins and Scrolls wrote about the implications of a dark forest next to town, and how fantasy forests must be maintained.

Noisms of Monsters and Manuals wrote a companion piece to Cedric P's, of Le Chaudron Chromatique, post (and lovely art) about an elven forest fire fighting game. In both of these posts Patrick Stuart's excellent interview with Dungeon Smash of Dungeon Smashing Empire comes up.

Any way, in the original post I said:
"Now I am not arguing that I want to have D&D accurately simulate or describe forest ecology, I don't think that's especially interesting. What I am arguing for is a more complex look at nature oriented races/classes..."
That's not strictly true. I have thought about integrating the principles of forest management/ecology into the way forests are depicted in my games. This is my first attempt at making forest ecology gameable, if you want to skip the ecology lesson look for the next post!

Principles of Forest Ecology:

To better understand forests lets discuss briefly their ecology. Ecology is the study of a system in relation to other living things and the non-living environment. Below are some examples of each.
  • Abiotic interactions: inorganic soil characteristics, water availability, temperature variability, light availability, slope aspect, etc
  • Biotic interactions: Trees competing for light in a forest canopy, plants using allelopathy (chemical warfare) to inhibit competition, birds dispersing seeds, beavers biting down trees, wolves influencing grazing patterns of deer that eat regenerating trees, etc
When considering these factors that influence a tree through time we can begin to look at the "natural history" of a species. A good example of why this temporal consideration is useful is the dispersal patterns of tree species we find today in North America. Due to the retreat and advance of species through the periods of glacial and interglacial in the Pleistocene epoch some tree species can be mapped back in time as they reclaim historic ranges that up until (geologically) recently have been covered in glaciers.

These diagrams are good examples of how we think about forest migration, they are worth enlarging!
I love reading about natural history, its like the saga of a tree species. I'll write about it some time

All of this information helps us understand what conditions a species is tolerant of and how they cope with the unique challenges of their environments.

Disturbance ecology is the study of how ecosystems interact with disturbances. Wild fire is an easily recognized example of a disturbance; but wind throw, flooding, ice storms, land slides, out of season freezes, insect infestations, and fungal pathogens are also examples of forest disturbances. These are the challenges that forests are presented with and adapted to.

The lodgepole pine forests of the northern Midwestern states in the US are dependent on a high severity (i.e. high mortality) but very long return interval (~100-200 year) fire regime to reproduce, their cones wont open without the heat! The wetter forests of the northeast US are used to wind throw and ice storm events that kill single/small groups of trees to open gaps in the forest canopy. The examples are endless and variable.

This was appropriate in 1988, but the subsequent fires are killing all of the regenerating trees because the fire return interval was too short. Give it another hundred years and it would be ready (ecologically) to burn again. This is a great example of why a changing climate is such a challenge to manage for.
This is also normal/appropriate. Larger and older trees are blown over and clear space for regeneration.
One of the primary objectives of a forester is to emulate the natural disturbance regime of a forest system. Ideally a forester is able to harvest (and therefore manage!) in a way that the forest they are taking care of is capable of reacting to and reforesting after. In the examples above this means that long cycle clear cut systems may be appropriate choices in the midwest, while single tree or group selection methods are more appropriate in the northeast.

Mangroves: A Super Bad Ass Forest

Mangroves are super bad ass trees. They grow in the intertidal zones of coasts from about 25 degrees south to 25 degrees north (tropical and sub-tropical latitudes). They are super bad ass because of their roots. They can filter out saltwater and withstand anaerobic conditions. They have floating seeds that can travel for hundreds of miles and root on a new continent.

Here is their natural range

The primary constraint on mangrove distribution is salinity. They can't compete effectively with species in freshwater riparian zones because they have invested too much in a biology that lets them withstand some intense stresses. This helps explain their species distribution in the brackish zone of estuaries, some species can withstand more salt than others and will form bands of species as you head inland and the water becomes less brackish.

Here are some pictures:

So now we know all of these things about mangrove forests, lets make them a horrible place to visit for your players in the follow up post!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Grandsire's Enclave: A Look at Automata Culture

This is a follow up to this post, it describes the choices my players had when starting a new campaign as a mono-race, classless party.

We had our first session last night (not true, we had our third last night but  started this post three weeks ago), in which my players got to choose which race they all agreed to start play as. This also meant that I couldn't exactly plan super far in advanced with prepping things for them, this was intentional. It meant that I really got to engage with them about what they though this culture should look like.

** Digression: I think this is one of my favorite things about playing these kind of games, collaborative world building. I can sketch a skeleton, but without players it would never have flesh.**

A Proof of Process:

After priming with info about the setting and having them look over and choose a race I got to work creating a community for them to start in while they made characters. I began by using a simple island generator I have been using for shipwrecks/any time the party wants to go ashore while on a voyage to get an idea of the size and ecology (and therefore elevation) of their home. I rolled that it was small sized (1/3 mile-1 mile across) and that is has forests, so I know this is a small and very rugged island with forests at its highest stony hills.

I then rolled on some tables given in the 5e DMG, the Random Settlements Table on page 122. I have never used these tables before and I was pleased with how usable th results I got were. I rolled one on each of them just to give me enough fodder to flesh out the settlement. Here is what I got: that its ruler is a Feared Tyrant, its notable trait is that it is a Major Trade Center, and that it is known for its Great Hero/Savior (I didn't like that, so I threw it out and ran with the other two).

With that information I was able to cobble something together while they rolled their characters.

The Grandsire's Enclave:

The Grandsire arrived on Nános some five decades ago, finding a lonely and rugged island devoid of inhabitants. They decided to stop their horizon seeking and settle down for a few centuries, and so they set to work making some children. After 5 or 6 variously fecund generations, the appropriate number of automata were made, 186. 186 automata, 31 Circles of 6, one Enclave under the leadership and guidance of the Grandsire.

In their infinite wisdom the Grandsire chose a strategically placed island, right along the trading routes frequented by Minoan merchants and Arsuf auctioneers. They realized the potential to act as a port of neutral ground for these groups to meet, and it quickly spread that if you wanted a fair arbiter of trade dealings you would seek the Grandsire. With a small though dependable silver mine and well stocked fisheries, Nános has become a productive island as well.
As beings made of the varied materials of the natural world automata understand the architectural principle of working with a landscape
The typical form of governance for most automata settlements is Rando-Meritocracy. Every automata upon creation is assigned to a Circle to fill their ranks to a perfect 6. Each Circle is given the agency for internal self governance, as signified by their ranking of automatoa sequentially, ie the First of the 23rd Circle is recognized by their peers as the most capable of their ranks. Being the 23rd is not a ranking, its simply ordinal. At the spring and sall equinox every Circle is assigned to a new task at the Festival of Polyhedrons.

This has the effect that automata are skilled in many crafts, though favorites and specialization are normal, as the saying goes "Not everyone can excel at weaving a net, but everyone must be able to cast one."

The Rando-Meritocracy system is perturbed on Nános. The Grandsire does not rotate. They have favorites that they keep close. Some Circles never do more than menial labor. Some Circles rest on their laurels. Their ego and optimism has clouded their vision. The Grandsire rules with a firm and unyielding hand of living lava rock.

The spare but rich common quarters of a Circle
Automata have no childhood, and their relation with their parent is a less focused on the emotional connection between two egos, more on the ability to identify one's lineage as a product of iterative creativity. An automaton can look at a fine piece of craftsmanship their their great-grandparent made and say "This is a product of the genius that made the genius that made the genius that made my genius." They take pride in this lineage instead of the more commonly recognizable familial bonds of kinship of the biological races.

When an automata dies, either from violence or accident the living take their bodies and repurpose them. Their bronze joints will be re-smelted and cast as fishing hooks. Their basalt torso will be incorporated into the next wall built in the Enclave. Their agate eyes will be recut and set in bands of silver. Nothing is wasted.

Using the local materials an automaton can build an attractive and functional kitchen

Contrary to popular belief the automata are intimately in touch with their environment. They are made of the very bones of the earth (or the flesh of trees or the sand of the sea or the shells of the great beasts of the Channels or the grass of the field or...) Every community has an unconscious population cap that reflects the carrying capacity of their environment, simply no new automata will be created once this limit is reached, no one can "get in the mood" for it. This cap is always a factor of 6.

Because they build their offspring, they can make choices about their body plans, giving them a firm grasp of the elements of evolution. If they live their life wishing their Parent had made them a few inches taller they will make their offspring taller. Those offspring in turn wish that they had a more stable leg system to cope with their height, so they build a generation with a tweaked leg system. These in turn find that the stability system is to limiting in range of motion so they make their offspring shorter... etc.

Every automata is expected to be able to do every task in a community, and so an adaptable body plan prevails; but this is sensitive to the available local materials and environmental requirements. Due to this automata often live where few others can.

Most automata keep Spartan and simple living quaters
In larger automata communities there are larger units of operation than the Circle. A unit of 6 Circles (6^2, or 36 automata) is a Comb. A unit of 6 Combs (6^3, or 216 automata) is a Block. A unit of 6 Blocks (6^4, or 1,296 automata) is a Cohort. A unit of 6 Cohorts (6^5, or 7,776 automata) is a Division. And a unit of 6 Divisions (6^6, 46,656 automata) is a Colony. Anything beyond a Colony is a ridiculous idea and the automaton you suggest this to with grind their joints and quake with mirth.

Automata Racial Trait

As promised, automata have a racial trait that scales with the number of automata present, thus rewading the mono-race party I have always dreamed of, a la these posts from over at Goblin Punch.

Once a day, up to one Circle of Automata can work together to build something. This can be a structure, walls, trenches, or a vehicle. More refined creations require skilled artisans, specialized tools, and more refined materials (hewn and cured lumber, cast nails, kilns, a smithy, sealing tar, a shipwright, etc). It takes 8 hours to create and is constrained by available materials (they can't build a raft out of beach rocks or a tower out of grass). After their building everyone that participated gets a point of exhaustion. If they build the next day they accrue another point of exhaustion even if they got a good nights rest.

The following equations are suggestions, where x= # automata participating capping at 6. The time required can be reduced proportionally if a smaller than maximum object is built (ie if a 10ft long and 10ft tall wall needs to be built across a hallway in a dungeon and 6 automata are available to help it would take roughly 1 hour to build instead of 8).

  • Earthen: x^2*100 square feet
  • Wooden:x^2*50 square feet
  • Stone:x^2*10 square feet
Wall (5ft wide, 5ft tall):
  • Earthen: x^2*40 linear feet
  • Wooden:x^2*20 linear feet
  • Stone:x^2*4 linear feet

Trench (5ft across, 5ft deep):
  • Empty: x^2*40 linear feet
  • Staked: x^2*20 linear feet
  • Raft: x^2/2 person raft (minimum 1)
  • Cart:x^2/3 person (minimum 1)

Bonus Content: Trap-boat

So the main conflict of the first session was convincing two wandering and "adventuring" adolescent Cyclopes brothers to leave Nános after wrecking their raft in a late season storm. They offered to build the brutes a boat to speed them on their journey. They did build them a boat. A trap-boat.

Suntribó, a wretched and quite street sweeping PC automaton, designed a boat with a sail that worked a loop of rope every time it caught wind. This loop of rope was threaded through the mast and spun a dull drill bit into the hull. So as the Cyclopes sailed away in their trap-boat they were sailing to their watery doom...

A horribly awesome way to handle stubborn Cyclopes.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Volo's Guide: A Reviant (Review/Rant) about Firbolg

The newest published book by Wizards of the Coast (WotC) for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is "Volo's Guide to Monsters", it takes a anthropological look at six classic DnD monsters in its first chapter, a summary of monstrous player race options, and then some classic style monster manual entries for new monsters.

I'm going to write some more of these Reviants on some other parts of the book later, but today I'd like to talk about one of the "new" playable races: the Firbolg.

A People's History of Firbolg

The Firbolg makes its first entry into the D&D-sphere in the AD&D "Monster Manual II", and they are consistently presented as a sub-race of reclusive hunter gatherer giants through 3.5 Edition. Come Volo's guide they are introduced to a new generation of roleplayers as a race of nature loving fey related humanoids.

The Firbolg entry caught my eye on my first skim through because of where we get the name of the Firbolg: from Celtic myth. This is the race that inhabits Éire before the Gods of Celtic myth (the Tuatha Dé Danann) migrate to the island and whom they fight for dominion of the island on the Magh Tuireadh, the Plain of Towers (which is a super bad ass name). These are two of six mythic races said to have inhabited Ireland at different times with waves of invasions and exoduses. The Firbolg here are described as a race of giants who themselves migrated to Ireland from Greece, though they are given little other description. Their name may directly translate to "bag men", with fir=man and bolg=bag or belly.

Why did the writers find and use the Firbolg in the First Edition Monster Manual II? I'm not sure, but based on the texts their interpretation seems at least some what coherent. In the same boat are the Fomorians, a monstrous race of giants from under the sea/underground also from Celtic myth; they are also relatively well translated into an early D&D monster.

Firbolg as depicted in T. W. Rolleston's "Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race"

From the Monster Manual II, AD&D

Their description from AD&D's Monster Manual II:
"Of the minor races of giantkind, the firbolg is the most powerful. They are cautious, crafty, and have considerable magical power. They have learned to distrust (and fear) humans, and will be found only in remote and wild places...
...These human-looking giants will not always greet strangers with open arms, but usually firbolgs will not try to kill them (unless given provocation, of course). They do, however, enjoy appearing as little people and duping humans out of their treasure."

From the Monster Manual II, 3.5 Edition

Their description from 3.5 Edition's Monster Manual II:
"Firbolgs are reclusive giants who tend to avoid contact with humanoid races and even other kinds of giants. Unlike some of the more brutish giant kin, firbolgs do not depend heavily on raiding for subsistence, nor do they rely solely on force to resolve problems.
A firbolg looks like a 10-foot-tall human and weighs more than 800 pounds. Its skin is a fleshy pink color, and it can have hair of almost any shade, although blond and red are the most common.A firbolg of either gender wears its hair long, and the typical male sports a great, thick beard."

Annnnd in Volo's Guide to Monsters, 5th Edition

Their description from Volo's Guide:
"Firbolg tribes cloister in remote forest strongholds, preferring to spend their days in quiet harmony with the woods. When provoked, firbolgs demonstrate formidable skills with weapons and druidic magic.
Firbolgs love nothing more than a peaceful day spent among the trees of an old forest. They see forests as sacred places, representing the heart of the world and monuments to the durability of life.
In their role as caretakers, firbolgs live off the land while striving to remain in balance with nature. Their methods reflect common sense and remarkable resourcefulness. During a bountiful summer, they store away excess nuts, fruit, and berries. When winter arrives, they scatter everything they can spare to ensure the animals of the wood survive until springtime.
...Firbolgs who become druids serve as stronghold leaders. With every action the tribe takes, the druids weigh not only the group's needs, but the effect each action will have on the forest and the rest of the natural world. Firbolg tribes would rather go hungry than strain the land during a famine.
As caretakers of the land, firbolgs prefer to remain out of sight and out of mind. They don't try to dominate nature, but rather seek to ensure that it prospers and survives according to its own laws.
Firbolgs use their magic to keep their presence in a forest secret. This approach allows them to avoid the politics and struggles of elves, humans, and ores. Such events concern the firbolgs only when the events affect the forest.
Even in the face of an intrusion, firbolgs prefer a subtle, gentle approach to prevent damage to their territory. They employ their magic to make the forest an unappealing place to explore by temporarily diverting springs, driving away game, stealing critical tools, and altering trails to leave hunting or lumber parties hopelessly lost. The firbolgs' presence is marked by an absence of animals and a strange quiet, as if the forest wishes to avoid attracting attention to itself. The faster travelers decide to move on, the better.
If these tactics fail, the firbolgs take more direct action. Their observations of a settlement determine what happens next. If the outsiders seem peaceful, the firbolgs approach and gently ask them to leave, even offering food and other supplies to aid their departure. If those who insist on remaining respect nature, take only what they need, and live in harmony with the wood, firbolgs explore the possibility of friendship with them, as long as the outsiders vow to safeguard the forest. If the settlers clearly display evil intentions, however, the firbolgs martial their strength and magic for a single overwhelming attack."

Firbolg as a Case Example of the Shitty Way Folklore is Diluted and "Nature" is Depicted in D&D

So other than being much more verbose than is probably necessary, the above quoted text from Volo's Guide highlights some things that bother me about the depictions of certain themes and ideas in D&D: creatures from folklore and nature/ecology.

So I write about different folklore on this blog. I don't think it is bad or not creative or appropriative (necessarily) to borrow ideas from many traditions and use them as inspiration. What bothers me is when the kernel of weird genius gets lots in the sanitizing process of writing RPG material. My preferred format is a candid presentation of the source material and then an interpretation and application to RPGs, like when I wrote about the Blue Men of Minch or adventures based around Scottish wedding traditions. Its like citing your sources, just tell us who came up with this thing so that we can interpret as we see fit.

While I don't really mind the first two experts above, I don't think they are especially interesting either. Sure its not far off from how Firbolg are presented in legend, but you could have also just called them Forest Giants or something and changed nothing else but the name. The whole point of invoking an obscure reference to some myth is because that myth is interesting and awesome and you want to ride that thunder a little. In a way this is part of how these stories and ideas are continuing to breath and grow through time, as they did in their original incarnation as oral traditions. Don't settle for sanitary boring corporate crap, let them breath.

Get yourself a copy of this book if you can, I highly recommend it to the novice (like myself) with an interest in Celtic myth

Now to the part that really gets my goat. I am a forester by profession, a field of applied ecology focused on the management of forest ecosystems. Its hard to read the passage from Volo's Guide above because my eyes keep rolling.

Forests, like all ecological systems, are dynamic. There is no harmony. There is no peace. There is only a shifting and flowing equilibrium that experiences flux at the whim of weather, climate, fire, wind, geologic events that occurred epochs ago, interactions with wildlife, and intervention by humans. The fir, a shade tolerant group of trees, does not take its place in the forest canopy for granted. Given the chance it would, and does, shade out its shade intolerant competitors the pines.

Now I am not arguing that I want to have D&D accurately simulate or describe forest ecology, I don't think that's especially interesting. What I am arguing for is a more complex look at nature oriented races/classes. Arnold K does a wonderful job of taking this complexity and nuance to a useful place with his re-imagining of Druids.
Oo, this druid is EVIL because he likes fire! Fire isn't part of a healthy forest landscape in some regions of seasonal rainfall!

In summary: Nature, like folklore, is depicted in a reductionist way in most published D&D material. That's bad, because nature is an absolute font of inspiration that should be taken at face value and not romanticized or sanitized.

**Disclaimer: I like Volo's Guide, I really do. Its a cool new way to look at monsters and is actually breaking ground with its first chapter instead of keeping the formula of creating endless Monster Manual iterations with more and more generic monsters.**

Friday, March 3, 2017

Attack of the Cranes, or Re-skinning for Ánemos

I am getting ready to start a new campaign in Ánemos (weird Greek mythic fantasy) for some folks I've played with for a while but never DMed for, and I've decided to do some aesthetic touch ups for them. One of the things that has bothered me is that a lot of the stock standard D&D playable races don't fit well into the setting. The Greeks didn't have and dwarfs or halflings or gnomes or elves or druids. These are all products of Celtic/Germanic folklore, not Greco-Roman folklore.

But not really, for the most part I just re-skinned them for a more coherent aesthetic... or I got rid of them. I run my games in 5e D&D, so the following list is my replacement lore for the standard races, I didn't feel like any mechanical changes were important, except for introducing some new character creation tools, see the bottom of the post.


Good ol' humans, they had those in Greece. No change.

Nymphs (Elves)(Heavily inspired by this post from WWCD?):

Nymphs are a seasonal race of Spirits who have gone dumb and weak, locked in a physical form. They begin life saturated and full of vitality, a barely restrained energy. As they approach their 100th joyous year they begin to change. Their skin and minds darken, becoming bitter and cruel. The light in their eyes goes out and they gather together to resent the world. But, as their 150th cursed year creeps on, the sunlight returns to them and the cycle begins anew. The timing is not exact, and Nymphs that cohabitate tend to fall into synchrony with each other.

Nymphs are flighty creatures with few ambitions other than to haunt their woods, stream, and beaches in peace. Though functionally immortal they aren't as concerned with death as one might assume. When an nymph eventually succumbs to some gruesome death from magical disease or a gutting, a new one springs up somewhere in the world where there are other nymphs, fully formed. Not even the Nymphs are entirely sure where they come from.

They are like Talos but smaller and self replicating

Automata (Dwarfs)(Also inspired by WWCD?):

Automaton is automaton.

Automata are genderless. This means they don't have sexual organs or reproduce as other living things do, they are made by their Parent. Making an automaton is a very personal experience for the Parent, it requires a safe place where the sculpting can take place. Here the Child automaton will take shape from metals and jewels and cloth and bone. Once finished a new full grown and fully mature automaton will be born, turn to its creator and exchange a nod of mutual respect. Since they don’t have sexual organs it also means instead of urinating they excrete through sweating. This explains their odor. Automata often eat gems and rare metals as a food replacement, and in fact they far prefer the taste of these to mundane food, perhaps due to their inorganic origins.

Occasionally the automaton is struck by an intensely artistic mood; a primal desire to create something beautiful and highly specific. The notion springs fully formed into their heads, the how’s and what’s of it, that this will go here and that will go there and on top we will menace it with spikes. Exactly what it will be isn't necessarily known, but hunches will evolve as the piece does. If the automaton does not complete their masterpiece by the time another mood strikes they will be blighted by melancholy. Until the next fey mood the automaton is tormented by the guilt of their failure, by the shapes and textures they could not realize. This manifests as a tangible malaise.

Don't mess with him. He'll eat out your eyes.

Pygmies (Gnomes):

No one knows where or when the pygmies came from. Where they raised up from the brute earth, now soil made flesh? Were they badgers gone smart and wily? Or perhaps they are long lost cousins of humans trapped in caves beneath an island of some cruel god? It doesn’t really matter, and all of those little people look the same to the taller races any way.

They have magnetic beards which help them choose mates and see in the darkness. Sculpting this facial hair indicates profession by the shape of their primary sensory organ and they are mostly blind in light (they only have cones in their eyes). These bearded little persons are fond of goats and are known to ride them into battle.

The most legendary pygmies have been locked in their glorious and eternal war with the cranes. They say a jealous goddess sent the filthy feathered beasts against the Pygmy Queens of Old for their great beauty and have warred ever since. And so they ply the tidal wetlands in flat bottomed canoes during nesting season to find and destroy crane nests. In turn any crane that sets its beedy eyes on a pygmy will go into a mindless rage until they pluck out the eyes of the pygmy or they are slain.

Demi-Gods tend to die pretty horribly

Demi-Gods (Aasimar):

The offspring of the many and varied gods, these mortals have a spark of the divine in their breasts and it shines through their faces. These rare individuals are born for lives of adventure and tragedy, for they are often cast out by their divine parents that fear that their children will usurp them.

From the stellar Matthew Adams

Demi-Daemons (Teiflings):

Counter to their bright and lovely cousins, these damn souls are the result of the unholy union between a Daemon and some poor mortal tricked or forced into the union. They wear their sin in their flesh.

Sunfolk (Dragonborn):

Some just call them lizard people, they lay out in the sun all day barely moving on islands that few would call habitable. They lick the morning dew off their scales and eat mostly seaweed and small fish. They form loose societies based around where one sun baths and many fights break out over this social hierarchy. When they can be roused from their lethargy to care about other races they are fierce warriors capable of belching forth the flames of the Sun itself.

*Note on Halfbreeds: Whether they are half-nymphs, half-pygmies, demi-gods or demi-daemons, all are mules. They are the byproducts of strange and taboo unions and should be shunned accordingly.

**Note: These are all of course loosely inspired by Greek myth, but most of the content of Greek myth have been drawn out and over used. So I am borrowing the aesthetic as a vehicle for the weird.

Character Creation and Goals

For this new campaign I am having my players try some things that I have been thinking about but have never gotten to see played out:
  • Rolling their stats in order (a la Joseph Manola) to create flawed/interesting characters, not well built ones
  • Having the whole party start as one race (a la Arnold K) to create a point of common origin and to really explore how these race's cultural implications play out
  • Starting without a class (the logical extreme of having certain classes unavailable at the start of a campaign), their defining features will be 5e's character backgrounds
  • Bringing a season for adventure and a season for being home for domestic issues and adventure prep into play (again, a la Joseph Manola) to change the pacing of the game
(Depending on which race my group decides to start play as I will make some "racial synergy" type abilities as Arnold describes in the post linked above)

I have done a similar re-skin some of the classes: wizard(s)= mágos (mági), druids (oak knower, Celtic) = drysgnós (oak knower, Greek), etc. Look forward to updates on how all of this is being executed and fleshed out in the coming weeks!