Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Plying the Seas for (Some) Adventure and (Mostly) Profit

"Hey kid, wanna buy some sheep?"
So I have a player in one of my Ánemos games that worships Oros, god of trade and mercantilism. Literally ever time they are in a port or meeting a random guy on the ocean he trys to make a business deal, its great. I didn't really have a good way to handle this at first, so I wrote up a random goods table, assigned each good a value per ton and a rarity and have been using it ever since. And since I wrote it I guess I could share it here, I even mentioned it in a post from months ago!

I use these by rolling on the d100 table when the party encounters a merchant ship (most of these are either common galleys (150 tons of cargo space) or trading cogs (300 tons of cargo space)) (ship stats here) to figure out what goods they have aboard. If you want to really systematize this you could roll a d100% to determine how full the trader's cargo hold is and roll on the goods table and the quantity per rarity table to fill up their hold to their current level, but I have found that that level of detail is often not super important.

I have found this table to be pretty useful for determining the primary industries of islands or even the domains that Gods and Spirits are interested in. So that's cool.

Random Good Table:
Livestock Head to Ton Conversion Rates
Quantity Per Rarity Rates
I also wrote a little calculator using Excel's random number generator to simulate a variable price when selling goods in market. The math is pretty simple, and it seems to work well:
Selling Price= Common Price*(1+x)
Where: x=(random value between -25% and +25%)/y
Where: y=1(if very rare), 2(if rare), 3(if uncommon), 4(if common) 
[I especially like that the rarity controls how big the price variation is. Common goods are only ever -6.25% to +6.25% above or below the common market price, they are more stable good because they are common. Rarer goods can have bigger swings in price, like in real life! Economics simulation tirade over]

Or you can just say fuck it, Connor you wrote a god damned math for D&D what the fuck, give me the math in a little calculator for fucks sake. Okay.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Some Thoughts On: Story Telling, the Novel and the Epic, Oral Traditions, and their Roles in TTRPGs

A Brief History of the Novel and Storytelling

Novels are a relatively modern form of storytelling. Since the inception of language stories had been told orally, then suddenly the story became fixed in written word by an author with a very small audience who was assumed to be reading it individually or listening to it being read. This presupposed audiences that could read, means of producing copies of a text, and the cultural onus to create them. The novel appears in a few different places and times: in 17th century Europe with the publishing of Don Quixote, in 11th century Japan with the writing of The Tale of Genji, and even some Greek and Roman prose narratives being called precursors to novels.

Don Quixote, by Scott Gustafson

This contrasts with the oral traditions that is inherently mutable from Teller to Listener, and between tellings from the same Teller. It was this tradition that gave us the Poetic and Prose Eddas, to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (though each of these works are of course know through the written incarnations, not an intact oral history). Works of similar tone or content or form where also composed as a piece of written narrative poetry, a good example is Dante's Divine Comedy (perhaps the first great trilogy). Many of these classic epics come in the form of verse, with the Prose Edda being the glaring exception.

Illustrations to The Elder Edda by Boris Zaborikhin

I listen to a podcast, Myths and Legends, and the host Jason Weiser made an interesting point in a recent episode about Paul Bunyan. He retells myths and legends (duh), but in his retelling he edits for clarity and elaborates as he sees fit. He asserts, rightly so I think, that this is very much a part of the traditions that these stories were forged in. The epics listed above would be very strange to the audience they were originally told to, sometimes written hundreds of years after they where being told and often with heavily editorializing by the transcriber to make them a cohesive narrative (for example the Iliad) or to sanitize and Christianize them ( for example the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda). These are bizarre static stories of a time and place far removed at the time of writing, not composed works like a novel.

Aren't we as roleplayers participating in a modern oral tradition through roleplaying? Right now I am running a two groups in the same setting with no over lap in players, and in the retelling of the aspects there is drift/editorial adjustment between the groups as the encounter similar situations/locations/challenges. These are exactly the kind of adjustments that a story teller would make to improve each retelling and to tailor it to their audiences.

Roleplaying Games as Story Telling

When describing D&D to people I usually fall back onto the analogy of a novel. The players are the main characters in the story, the DM/GM/Referee is everyone and everything else. "You get to play Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring!" I tell them.  Yes there are dice. Yes, some people use a board and little figurines. But those things aren't the point (not necessarily, there are beautiful and deep sub-hobbies around the crafting and enjoyment of gaming artifacts; just look at all of the gaming table or dice tower designs on the web, miniature painting, or novelty chocolate dice). The point is to get together with your friends and collaboratively tell a story.

***Thats at least what I tell people. I have seen mummers of contention about this explanation, though only second hand, that we can't play out stories, its only a story if we tell people about it after! I've never seen a convincing argument for this, so if you have some counter points I'd love to see see them.***

It seems to me that pretty damn near EVERY TTRPG game I have played or that I can think of the essential elements of the story. So I'll use some classic examples of D&D modules and other games to demonstrate:
  • Characters: Duh, we literally call them that most of the time. Whether they are Player Characters or Non-Player Characters, they are still characters. No example needed really, characters are ubiquitous
  • Setting: The place where the events of the game happen. People produce setting documents for their players to orient them to how weird their version of fantasy medieval Europe is. This can be exhaustive (I'm looking at you Greyhawk) or sparse (I'm looking at you Keep on the Borderlands). 
  • Plot: This is the arc of the narrative, with the beginning (Adventuring around the small hamlet of Hommlet) the middle (Delving into the Temple of Elemental Evil) and end (Visiting the Elemental Nodes to get the key to defeating Zuggtmoy). There is progression and escalating tensions
  • Conflict: The reason the characters are involved at all, the tension to be resolved (Delving into the Tomb of Horrors to destroy the demi-lich Acererak) (to stop the horde of Hobgoblins bearing the Red Hand of Doom). 
  • Resolution: Through playing resolution is achieved, even if that results in character death or unexpected outcomes, at least the game went somewhere.

To the Matter at Hand

So my question is this: do the stories generated through table top role playing games really most closely resemble novels? Can we play out other forms of narrative, like an epic poem? I've seen some very good arguments that the OSR school of thought encourages a more picaresque style of narrative with roguish motivations, so other genres and scales of narrative interest are obviously viable.

I suppose what I want to get at is this: can we explore wider genres with broader scopes of ambition than the novel? Can we play the heroes and gods of Myth and not just characters of Mythic Fantasy? Can we use these games as a vehicle for a modern oral tradition? Is D&D and its many children the system we want? Or is a more narrative focused system like Hillfolk or Skulduggery (both of which are well described here) better suited?

I don't know, but I sure think we should try. Let us set our sites on the horizons and venture into realms that we haven't been to yet. Let is push the limits. Let us engage in an ancient tradition and tell our own epics. D&D may not be the vehicle, though this does seem the realm of epic level play (something I have never seen done well). Let us look for an alternative because old stories deserve to be told, not just read and new stories deserve to be explored, not just dreamed.

Saturn by Peter Paul Rubens; don't you want to play in a game where you can eat your divine spawn to keep them from over throwing you?
Source, lets play more games with the Morrigan as a character!
Source, or Morgoth!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Bard Colleges

This is the second of my follow up posts to this project, today's class is the Bard. The goal of this project is to create a "minigame" of sorts for each sub-class for D&D 5e that allows the character to grow in ways not directly tied to their level progression and that makes each sub-class feel unique and interesting.

College of Lore:

Original Idea: "Your mind is a well from which you can draw history and knowledge from the depths of the past. Your long study has given you an unrivaled grasp of Lore. For every lost secret that you unearth your knowledge deepens."

So the idea with this sub class is to be an searcher for Secrets, the better the Secret the more revelatory the discovery. Perhaps this is a more story/adventure based advancement than the other sub-classes, but I think its a fun way to make an investigative and lore driven bard. These are the kind of characters that want to delve deep into ruins of ancient civilizations so they can learn more about their plumbing. Not all Secrets are arcane and world shattering...

So as the Lore Searcher finds secrets they act like subtle Wish spells. The Bard discovers something in the dungeon they are delving in and the player gets to decide what exactly they discovered! I want the onus of this to fall on the player, not the DM, so its up to the player to declare when they are discovering a Secret, the DM just lets them know when they have delved and studied enough to merit a new Secret discovery. Below is an example, but this should be super fungible.

DM, ConBon: CWilly, as you are lowered down the shaft you start making out some inscriptions in the stone, you flickering lantern dimly illuminating them...

Player, CWilly: I holler up to the Barbarian, "STOP!!! This could be what I've been looking for! These look to be diagrams to the Ancient Yuan-Ti super weapons..."

ConBon: No they aren't dude, its just like a shaft leading down to the next level... Why would they put super weapon plans here?

CWilly: Okay, okay. Then they are graffiti from the Yuan-Ti's slaves, it says the name of their God-Ruler and that he was afraid of fire.

ConBon: Alright, that sounds good, but it'll be a while till you get another Secret, okay? The name of the God-Ruler was Issak the Cruel, and he was deathly afraid of fire...

In the example above the DM lets the player  have a say in defining the final boss of the Dungeon, giving him a weakness to fire. There is some negotiation involved, as there should be.

Not a wizard! A bard!

College of Valor:

Original Idea: "You thrill in the heat of battle, pounding a martial beat as you urge your allies on. You have taken to the sword as a duck to a pond. Keep track of every bardic inspiration die that is the difference between life and death for an ally or foe."

You've chosen a path of empowerment, a martial archetype for a musical/performance based class. There is a rich tradition of these kind of characters across cultures: the skald (warriors and storytellers), the samurai (meant to be masters of martial and sensitive arts), the knight (the chivliric ideal has knights that write poetry), etc.

The original idea was a little boring I think, and I have been playing a loosely Redwall based game recently, we sing a lot of songs, shout a lot of battle cries, and describe feasts often; its all been really fun. So the Bard under the tutelage of the College of Valor seeks out greater and greater conflicts to participate in so that they can write sagas about their exploits. Think of it like you get to play Homer writing the Odessy while its happening!

The Bard gets to write a new bad-ass song for each new scale of conflict they are embroiled in. A computational way to represent this would be CR (Challenge Rating), the metric that describes how much XP should be awarded for a combat encounter. There is all sorts of arcane maths behind this computation, so the leg work is done for us, we just get assign rewards for writing poems.

Of course to use these the player actually has to tell a story/sing a song/recite a poem! For example the Heroic Ode should be written for each party member you want to use it on, "Oh Scar-Faced Johnny, Slayer of Naga Queens and Terror of the Eastern Wastes, you story cannot end here...!", therefore each party member has to have done something Ode worthy for this to work. The format doesn't have to be these forms of course, this isn't some stupid creative writing class, let the player have some fun with it.

CRSaga Unlocked
0-4 (Amateur hour bub)Campfire Story
5-8 (Wow! You sound like some kind of hero!)Folk Song
9-12 (Hear anew the voice! O hear and listen!)Heroic Ode
13-16 (And so Hercules slayed the hydra...)Legendary Story
17-20 (Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices...)Epic Poem

Campfire Story: You can tell a Campfire Story of one of your Party's exploits while taking a long or short rest, this allows your allies to re-roll all 1's on their HD rolls when regaining health.

Folk Song: When you sing your Folk Song in public you get advantage on preform checks when trying to make money in down time

Heroic Ode: When an ally is making death saving throws you can take a full round action to recite their Heroic Ode to instantly stabilize them at 0 HP as long as you are within 30ft of them.

Legendary Story: During combat you can make begin to tell your Story, for every round that you recite your allies get +1 on attack/damage/saving throws (each party member chooses which one they want for the duration) for every round that you continuously tell the story, as a concentration spell up to 1 minute (can use Battle Magic while doing this), usable 1/week

Epic Poem: This is effectively a ritual spell (takes 10 minutes to cast) that can be used to cast any spell on any class's spell list lower than 6th level, and the epic poem must some how relate to the spell being cast. For example a Create Undead spell could go like this:
Facing to the northern clime,
Thrice he traced the Runic rhyme;
Thrice pronounced, in accents dread,
The thrilling verse that wakes the dead,
Till from out the hollow ground
Slowly breathed a sullen sound.

This is usable 1/week.

Cult: You have accumulated enough of a cultural impact that you now have a whole cult devoted to the contemplation of of your art and the mysteries contained within. When ever you come into a settlement that is a town or larger roll to see how big your following is here, using your Preform skill. Depending on the success of the role, your Cult could be very developed in a way to aid you. At the least you get a fan club most places you go.


I think the Secrets mechanic is especially interesting, giving the PC a way to color and change the world in creative ways. It gives some of the DM's agency to the player, which is fun. I haven't thought of a good way to standardize it, though I am not too worried.

I'm not totally satisfied with how tied to level advancement the Sagas mechanic is, but I think it makes some sense. That they have to recite their work makes it fun, hopefully. Perhaps encourages players to do some riskier things than they normally might, all because it would make a great story. And that is awesome.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Thoughts on Megafauna

Megafauna are large animals. Examples include loins and tigers and bears (oh my), and for the most part in the modern day they are pretty severely limited to the African continent. There are still megafauna found elsewhere in the world, just simply not the levels that the fossil record indicates we should could seeing (for example most deer count as megafauna, kangaroos count, bison count, cows count,  cassowary count, etc). Megafauna are not only cool things to hunt and see on safari, but they also do some very import ecological work. There is super interesting ecological restoration work going on trying to reintroduce megafauna to areas they have gone extinct in to restore some semblance of a healthy (according to a historic standard) ecosystem.

There is an interestingly high levels of representation of dinosaurs in D&D. The AD&D Monstrous Manual has 28 entries, the 3.5 edition Monster Manual has 5 entries (but many many more in the next 4 Monster Manuals), 4th edition has none (weird...), and 5th edition has 6 entries. All of them that have dinosaurs have the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Triceratops listed, which doesn't surprised me as they seem to be the most commonly recognized dinosaurs out there.

See? They are classics! (Source)

While having the stats for your favorite dinosaur is great if you want to run a anachronistic primal game what I would like to argue for is a more geologically recent cast of beasts. Ones that our lizard brains  (no pun intended...) remember hunting or hiding from. There is an uncanny familiarity of the megafauna of the last geological epoch, because humans actually co-existed (and hunted and ate and ran from and...) with all of these animals, unlike dinosaurs. There is of course the classic wooly mammoth, or the saber toothed tiger, or the giant ground sloth. But there is a huge diversity of other fauna to tap into and explore.

Cave paintings found in the Lascaux Caves of France depicting megafauna from ~17,000 years ago 

There was an attempt, at least to my eyes, to introduce the concept of megafauna into D&D terms with the advent of "dire" animals. Don't get me wrong, I love dire animals in D&D, but I think that just taking a currently living animal and making it bigger just doesn't take that much imagination. For example I suspect the whole trend was started by the real life dire wolf, a larger and more muscled close relative of the wolf (Canis lupus). But even this prehistoric example is way cooler! They are like giant crosses between hyenas and wolves, not just big wolves that have spikes growing out of them... or something.

Dire wolf, Canis dirus

WHY DOES IT HAVE SPIKES??? (to be fair it would be cool if we explored Dire Animals as having messed up metabolisms that leave calcium deposits all over the body that look like armor plates/spikes/tusks/etc and other weird metabolic relics, but no, we just get spiky wolves)

So for your gaming pleasure here is an (seriously incomplete) list of Pleistocene megafauna and some recommended stat blocks to borrow (most of them don't need their own), as well as some interpretations of their ecology for making them more interesting:

Arctodus simus, Short Faced Bear
Stats as: 8HD Polar Bear, 5eMM pg 334 (60ft movement, no swim speed)
Ecology and Quirks: With its long legs and sharp teeth the Short Faced Bear is a fast and brutal carnivore, they run down large herbivores and frightening off smaller predators (this is the original interpretation of their fossils, more modern studies conclude they are opportunistic omnivores, but that's boring).  Unlike their small cousins Short Faced Bears are very poor climbers and can often be foiled by climbing a tree.

Castoroides ohioensis, Giant Beaver
Stats as: Giant Boar, 5eMM pg 323 (20ft walking speed, 50ft swim speed no charge, tusk is bite attack, gets tail slap: +5 to hit 10ftx5ft area, 3d6+3 bludgeoning and knocks foes prone (Str/Dex Save DC14))
Ecology and Quirks: Stupid and huge compared to their smaller relatives, the Giant Beaver is an excellent swimmer and grazes the rivers banks and wetlands like bison graze the prairie. Their migratory patterns are erratic and they will descend upon settlements in droves in the winter months eating away at wooden buildings and crops alike. Their pelts are highly prized.

Aiolornis incredibilis, Giant Condor
Stats as: Giant Eagle. 5eMM pg 324 (on a successful talon attack the foe is grappled, DC 14 Str/Dex to break free, half fly speed while grappling, can grapple medium and smaller)
Ecology and Quirks: A lord of carrion birds, the Giant Condor is the largest flying bird known. With a massive beak and weighing more than 60lbs they could easily fight off most other scavengers and smaller predators.  Their favorite tactic is to swoop down and carry away foes, then drop them from a great height.

Aepyornis maximus, Elephant Bird
Stats as: Allosaurus, 5eMM pg 79 (60ft move speed, no pounce, gets an claw attack against any creature in its path if it runs in a straight line for more than 40ft)
Ecology and Quirks: The largest bird to ever live, the Elephant Bird is tall, fast, and has a wicked beak. Its favorite tactic is to do a series of charges at any foes and closing in to finish them with its beak when they are weak. Its eggs are highly prized, one could feed a whole adventuring party for a day or two. If they think their nests are being threatened they will flee straight to them, ignoring all dangers... and pit traps.

Megaloceros giganteus, Irish Elk
Stats as: Giant Elk, 5eMM pg325
Ecology and Quirks: The male Irish Elk are the only ones that will fight you. The females are huge, sure, but the males are over sexed, their huge antlers are for two things: impressing the cows, and fucking up anyone that gets in their way. There is of course an easy way to deal with them, simply rush into the nearest thicket of willow and the low and dense branches will keep them from following.

Paraceratherium transouralicum, The Near Horn Beast
Stats as: Elephant, 5eMM pg322 (12HD)
Ecology and Quirks: A lumbering hulk, the Near Horn Beast wanders the world is search of the ultimate: the next yummy leaf. No tree too tall, no shrub too low, no grass too bitter, and no predator big enough. The Near Horn Beast wanders on. They could perhaps be tamed, taught to be ridden, but the amount of forage an individual would need it a serious logistic challenge. Due to their massive size their legs are fragile, and even a small jump and stumble might fracture their bones.

(Also check out the Siberian Unicorn!)

As I note above, many of these don't need their own stat block, but that doesn't mean they should just be interchangeable big beasties! This is why included some notes on their ecology and quirks, make them falvorful and interesting damn it. You might consider thinking about them this way.

Oh familiar old friend,
embraced in the dark of night,
fighting tooth and claw
Primordial enemy,
Now just dust and memory.
There is no treachery 
Only blood thundering in the dark.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Grey Devil of the Desert

A few months ago I heard about this press release from the US Department of Agriculture while listening to This American Life. It describes in detail the epic 1921 hunt for "the World's Greatest Animal Criminal", the Custer wolf, a wolf from South Dakota who's "cruelty [was] only surpassed by his cunning." Below are some clips from the episode with a voice actor reading the release in a wonderful gravely monotone, sure to make any cowpoke shiver.





It seems that the trick to making your dread and hated beast a folk legend is to anthropomorphize it, to make it more man than beast in its intent. The Custer Wolf isn't horrible because its a predator that eats cattle, its horrible because it breaks their legs with wanton blood lust. Blood lust is a human emotion, the Wolf is just the canvas we are throwing the paint on.

When you are playing your Pathfinder Western game, or your D20 Modern Archaic game, or your Dealands game, or... what ever you are playing, think small when you are dreaming up monsters (at least at first). If this shows us anything its that even a normal grey wolf (it was even smaller than an average male) can scare a few states worth of ranchers out of their boots.

He even got a book! "The Custer Wolf, Biography of an American Renegade" by Roger Caras 

To further the point, some more choice quotes from the press release:
"Credulous people said he was a charmed thing. Others attributed his immunity to a wisdom greater than beast ever possessed. Still others said he escaped by plain luck-- the mysterious thing that adheres to some animals as to some men..."
 "This thin, they said, was a not a wolf -- not merely a wolf. They believed that nature had perpetrated a monstrosity, half wolf and half mountain lion, possessing the craftiness of both and the cruelty of hell. In public opinion he had all the qualities of the Were wolf of Old World legends..."
That any of this was ever published about a real animal by a real agency of the United States tickles my fancy something ferocious. The podcast implies that the reason for the dramatic press release was to show the hardworking American taxpayer that the Federal Government was working hard to tame the heathen and dangerous West.

Also, how amazingly terrifying would a half wolf/half mountain lion be? It would have to have a good name to stick in the American folklore of course, perhaps the Mountawolf (a la Jackalope), or perhaps the press release already gave us the best possible name: The Grey Devil of the Desert.


Just a quick post that explores some ideas from real life about how to build up a monster hunt, something I don't think D&D as a medium especially lends itself to.

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.