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!