February 2nd, 2016

The main property of everything in Fairyland, haunting beauty, is hard to get across at the game table. I’d prefer to double down on a more visceral property. Everything is too big (or maybe you are too small).

FeywildFlowers and mushrooms are six feet across. Bugs are the size of horses. (Giant bees and ants, with their neat orchards and farms and mighty queens, can be major fey political players.) Trees are redwood sized or larger. Cliffs and mountains brush the moon, which hangs huge and bright in the perennial dusk.

Narnian talking animals are one size bigger than usual: little animals like foxes and hedgehogs are halfling sized, deer are rideable, and predators are dire (size Large or larger).

Elves are taller in Fairyland, and taller again in their demesne. Your elf PC might stand a foot taller as soon as she steps through a fairy gate. An elf lord on his throne might be ten feet tall. Nevertheless, the whole fey court might fit on the branch of an massive, ancient tree.

Fomorians, the fey giants, should be a big deal in Fairyland politics. I’d also pepper the clouds liberally with cloud giants.

The only small things are the childlike common folk, from gnomes to sprites.

In a lot of ways, Fairyland is like a memory of what it’s like to be a kid: magic and wonder is heightened, you’re not sure what the rules are, time has no particular meaning, and everything is much bigger than you, especially those in power. And bad things lurk in the darkness.

spells for “csi: greyhawk”

January 21st, 2016

Recently I detailed the crime-investigation spells available in 5e D&D, and the takeaway is basically “do whatever you want, the authorities cannot track you down.”

Here are some new ritual wizard spells that might make things harder for PCs – or for the PCs’ elusive enemies.

Level 1: Identify Weapon. Duration: Instantaneous. While casting this spell, you touch a wound or a damaged area on a creature or object. You can visualize the weapon or object which inflicted the damage. Besides knowing its appearance, you are now familiar with the object for the purposes of the Locate Object spell. Countermeasures: This spell fails if the damage was inflicted by a creature’s natural weapons, including fists, or by spells.

Since this is a level one spell, any militia with any spellcasting at all can now trace murder weapons (or breaking-and-entering tools). The prevalence of this spell has the fun side effect of encouraging criminals (including PCs) to beat each other up instead of stabbing each other.

Level 2: Aura Print. Duration: 1 hour. You sense the unique, identifying aura of every mortal creature that you can see. (Undead, fiends, angels, and other immortals have no aura.) You can spend a minute making a written note of an aura’s properties. You or anyone with your notes will be able to recognize this aura if they see it again. Anyone consulting these notes is considered familiar with a creature for the purposes of Locate Creature and Scrying. If cast in a level 3 spell slot, you can see the aura of the last mortal creature who directly touched any physical object within 24 hours. Countermeasures: Nystul’s Aura can be used to create a false aura or mask an aura for 24 hours, or permanently wipe the aura from an object.

I made this spell low-level because fingerprinting is the bread and butter of police procedural investigations, and it should be available even to, say, the authorities in a medium town. It also pleases me to make Nystul’s Aura, a level 2 spell I’ve never seen cast, into an important counterspell.

Level 3: King’s Highway. Duration: 1 hour. While you are under the effect of this spell, all your Locate spells (for instance, Locate Object and Locate Creature) have their range extended, adding “anywhere on a well-patrolled, civilized road or path” (whatever civilized means in your setting). You know the distance and direction of the target. Countermeasures: none, except those that block divination spells. This spell is why fugitives skulk in houses, camp in the wild, jump over paths, and cross roads only late at night and after great hesitation.

I made this spell level 3 so that it would be available to medium-level casters. Even a town guard might have a relationship with a level 5 wizard to track stolen valuables with Locate Object. If the wizard is level 7, even better, now King’s Highway can be used on Locate Creature. (Note that King’s Highway synergizes with Aura Print.)

Level 4: Analyze Species. Duration: instantaneous. You learn the species of animals and plants that make up one non-living target object. For instance, you could determine that a wooden door was oak, the blood at a crime scene was a mix of human and elven, a corpse was a doppelg√§nger, or that a cake contained grain, chicken eggs, sugar cane, and vanilla beans. To identify exotic species, you make a Nature check against a DC chosen by the DM. On a failure, you can only determine an ingredient’s general type (aberration, or leafy plant, for instance). Countermeasures: Prestidigitation will clean up blood stains. Exotic and red-herring ingredients will complicate poison analysis.

At level 4, this is a reasonably high-level spell: if you don’t have a 7th-level wizard on hand, you might have to send evidence to a wizard’s lab in a big city.

Level 5: Teleportation Path. Duration: 1 hour. While concentrating on this spell, you can see the astral rifts left by teleportation magic. Any space that was the source or destination of a teleportation effect glows. If you cast Teleport while standing on such a path, you can follow the teleportation route without knowing its destination. Countermeasures: You can instead use this spell to obscure your teleportation route. While under this spell, you may make an Intelligence/Arcana check when you teleport. The result is the DC for people who try to use this spell to follow your path. On a failure, their teleportation spell fails and its casting is wasted.

I’m making this level 5 because it matches well with Teleport, level 5. Since it’s so high level, only royal advisors and arcane colleges are likely to have it available. (The Mage in the Monster Manual, who offers “counsel to nobles,” has one 5th-level spell slot and can’t cast this and Teleport on the same day.)

With these spells available, PCs have the tools to attack a D&D mystery like a police procedural, with evidence leading to evidence. “Wounds on the victim led us to a dagger at the bottom of the bay.” “Aura Prints on the dagger match those of a known tiefling felon.” “I’ll use King’s Highway to watch the roads. You go to the Mage’s Guild and find out if any tieflings used their teleportation circle. If so, trace the jump.” Each step along the way can be an adventure hook.

If you’re curious why I’m writing divination spells that are of most interest to NPCs: it’s because I’m currently running a heist-based city campaign. My players take note! From next session on, the target of your heist might have access to these spells.

Wizard spells common to 1e, 3e SRD, and 5e SRD – and those missing from the 5e SRD

January 13th, 2016

If you take the common rules of 1e, 3e, and 5e, you get a sort of D&D bouillon cube that is more “pure D&D” than any particular edition (while they’re both charming, 2e is too similar to contribute much and 4e is too different to fit). Let’s take the list of wizard spells that appear in 1e, the free 3e System Resource Document, and the new 5e SRD that was just released yesterday. These are the spells that basically every D&D player is familiar with. With these in your spellbook, you can jump into anyone’s pickup game. This is also a good list of spells to populate NPC wizards’ spellbooks in the edition-neutral adventure you’re writing. I’m declaring these spells timeless classics. After this list, I’ll mention the 15 5e wizard spells that didn’t make it to the 5e SRD (#4 will shock you!!)

I’m not tackling cleric or druid spell lists because, since they only had 7 spell levels in 1e, they changed too much from edition to edition. Wizard spell lists, on the other hand, have stayed remarkably constant. It’s amazing how many common spells there are on this list.

Spell Level 1 (and Cantrips)
Burning Hands
Charm Person
Comprehend Languages
Dancing Lights (cantrip in 3/5e, since no one ever wanted to burn a spell slot on this in 1e)
Detect Magic (cantrip in 3e)
Enlarge/Reduce (level 1 in 1e, 2 in 3e/5e)
Feather Fall
Identify
Jump
Magic Missile
Nystul’s/Arcanist’s Magic Aura (1 in 1/3e, 2 in 5e – only NPCs will ever cast this anyway)
Protection from Evil/Good
Shield
Shocking Grasp (cantrip in 5e)
Sleep
(Tenser’s) Floating Disk
Unseen Servant
Spider Climb (1 in 1e, 2 in 3/5e)

Spell Level 2
Wizard/Arcane Lock
Continual Light/Flame
Darkness
Detect/See Invisible
ESP/Detect Thoughts (name changed as part of 3e’s war on sci-fi elements)
Invisibility
Knock
Levitate
Locate/Obscure Object
Magic Mouth
Mirror Image
Ray of Enfeeblement (2 in 1e/5e, 1 in 3e)
Rope Trick
Shatter (can you believe this made it to timeless classic status?)
Stinking Cloud (2 in 2e, 3 in 3/5e)
Web

Spell Level 3
Blink
Clairaudience/Clairvoyance
Dispel Magic
Explosive Runes (in 5e it’s folded in Glyph of Warding)
Fireball
Fly
Haste
Hold Person (2 in 1/3e, 3 in 5e)
(Leomund’s) Tiny Hut
Lightning Bolt
Protection from Evil/Magic Circle
Slow
Suggestion (3 in 1e/3e, 2 in 5e)
Tongues
Water Breathing

Spell Level 4
Wizard/Arcane Eye
Fear (level 4 in 1e/3e, 3 in 5e)
Fire Trap (folded into Glyph of Warding in 5e)
Fire Shield
Confusion
Dimension Door,
Hallucinatory Terrain
Ice Storm
Polymorph
Remove/Bestow Curse (4 in 1e, 3 in 3/5e)
Wall of Fire
Wall of Ice (level jacked way up to 6 in 5e for some reason)

Spell Level 5
Animate Dead (5 in 1e, 4 in 3e, 3 in 5e)
Bigby’s Interposing Hand/Arcane Hand (in 5e, this encompasses all other Bigby’s Hand spells)
Cloudkill
Cone of Cold,
Contact Other Plane
Hold Monster
(Leomund’s) Secret Chest (5 in 1/3e, 4 in 5e)
Magic Jar (5 in 1.3e, 5 in 6e)
(Mordenkainen’s) Faithful Hound (5 in 1/3e, 4 in 5e)
Passwall
Stone Shape (5 in 1e, 4 in 3/5e)
Telekinesis
Teleport (level moved way up to 7 in 5e – no more free rides)
Wall of Force
Wall of Stone

Spell Level 6
Antimagic Shell/Field (level moved way up to 8 in 5e – no more gimmick dungeons)
Disintegrate
Geas (6 in 1/3e, 5 in 5e)
Globe of invulnerability
Legend Lore (6 in 1e/3e, 5 in 5e)
Lower/Part/Control Water (6 in 1e, 4 in 3e/5e)
Move Earth
(Otiluke’s) Freezing Sphere
Stone to Flesh/Flesh to Stone
Control Weather (6 in 1e, 7 in 3e, 8 in 5e – planning your wedding gets harder and harder)
Project Image (6 in 1e, 7 in 3e/5e)

Spell Level 7
Delayed Blast Fireball
(Drawmij’s) Instant Summons (7 in 1/3e, 6 in 5e)
Mordenkainen’s/Arcane Sword
Reverse Gravity
Simulacrum
Symbol
Power Word Stun (7 in 1e, 8 in 3/5e)

Spell Level 8
Antipathy/Sympathy
Clone
Incendiary Cloud
Maze
Mind Blank
(Otto’s) Irresistible Dance (8 in 1/3e, 6 in 5e)
Polymorph Any Object/True Polymorph (8 in 1/3e, 9 in 5e)

Spell Level 9
Astral Spell/Projection
Imprisonment
Gate
Meteor Swarm
Power Word Kill
Prismatic Sphere/Wall
Shapechange
Time stop
Wish

Now let’s talk about the spells that didn’t make it into the SRD. The following wizard spells are in the 5e PHB but not the 5e SRD.

Cantrips
Blade Ward
Fire Bolt
Friends
Poison Spray

Spell Level 1
Chromatic Orb
Find Familiar
Ray of Sickness
Witch Bolt

Spell Level 2
Cloud of Daggers
Crown of Madness
Phantasmal Force

Spell Level 3
Feign Death

Spell Levels 4 and 5 – no spells missing

Spell Level 6
Arcane Gate

Spell Level 8
Telepathy
Trap the Soul

Why are these spells out? For the most part, they’re either 4e or 5e originals (like Crown of Madness and Witch Bolt) or resurrected 1e spells not in the 3e SRD (like Feign Death and Phantasmal Force). In general, the 5e SRD sticks as closely as possible to the 3e SRD, not giving us a lot of new toys to play with. However, a few new spells have sneaked in: Misty Step is in the SRD for the first time.

There’s only one wizard spell missing from the 5e SRD that’s in the 3e SRD: Trap the Soul. I suspect that’s a mistake, since there’s no reason to revoke a spell that’s already open game content.

(Note: I lied: #4 won’t shock you. There are no electricity spells missing from the 5e SRD.)

A dungeon is a snake

January 5th, 2016

From the characters’ perspective, whence comes this natural law that dungeon level 2 is harder than dungeon level 1, and so on?

Here and there, bloggers toy with the idea of the dungeon as a mythic underworld, an actively hostile place with its own rules. This makes sense of the Gygaxian dungeon’s changing layout and the favoritism it shows towards monsters (they can see in the dark and don’t need to force doors). It doesn’t really explain why deeper levels are harder. If the dungeon wants to kill people, why not have level-10 death traps on level 1? If it wants to lure people deeper, why not just have a trail of coins leading to level 10?

How about this: the forward edge of a dungeon wriggles though the earth like a snake, leaving skins behind. The living stone of its chaotic creation is on the deepest levels, those that Gygax refers to in Underworld and Wilderness Adventures as “under construction.” Imagine corridors writhing through the earth, doors budding from walls. The shallower levels are the snake skins, each shed by a younger and weaker version of the dungeon, and each with a relatively fixed map. As you descend into the dungeon, you find archaeological evidence of its increasing wealth, cunning, and strength, in the form of more treasure, more dangerous traps, and stronger autochthonous monsters. (The dragon that’s too big to leave its dungeon room is born of and sustained by the living stone.)

Every once in a while, the snake revisits upper levels, leaving a changed floor plan and new challenges in its wake. For the most part, though, it delves ever downward. Perhaps its increasing power is fueled by the XP it earns killing adventurers.

I don’t envision the living dungeon as manifesting as a literal snake. Instead it’s a nightmarish ever-changing zone of self-digging tunnels, doors that turn into stone walls behind you, and monsters oozing from walls. It can be killed, perhaps, by sunlight, which is a hard commodity to ship to level 10 of a dungeon.

Fantasy map of the Bronx

December 16th, 2015

The Bronx has some seriously D&D subway stops. Kingsbridge? Castle Hill?

I drew a fantasy map of the Bronx, just in case you want to run an epic D&D campaign based on the Five Boroughs. All the locations are based on Bronx subway stops.

broncks
Click to enlarge

For reference, here is the real thing.

subway
Click to enlarge

building the one page spelljammer rules: here are the complete rules!

November 20th, 2015

I’m writing one-page space rules for D&D. I’ve given myself some extra challenges: it must be all-editions; it must be lavishly illustrated; and it must allow procedural generation of solar systems and alien encounters.

So far I’ve detailed the space-travel rules and the alien races. Now it’s time to go planetside: let’s build some solar systems. Obviously, Spelljammer is a primary inspiration here, but I’m also drawing from Star Wars, John Carter of Mars, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, and OD&D’s dungeonbuilding advice.

Star color from Jack Vance: When PCs enter a dungeon room, they can get a lot of information right away (there’s a treasure chest, there’s a monster, there’s a door). What do PCs learn when they enter a star system? I thought I’d use a star’s color as an index of its potential value. From Krypton to Vance’s Dying Earth stories to Dark Sun, red suns represent planets on the verge of extinction. By analogy, young blue stars might host virgin worlds and prehistoric creatures. This isn’t good planetary science, but it’s passable space opera.

Planetary conditions from Star Wars: Spelljammer has a conceit where every planet has an element type: water, fire, earth, and air planets. This is neat and very D&D, but I prefer the familiar Star Wars model: every planet has a prevailing terrain type, largely determined by its temperature. There are cold planets (Hoth), temperate planets (Coruscant), and hot planets (Tatooine), plus a few exotics like Bespin.

Treasure and monster placement from OD&D: In keeping with my “starmap as a dungeon” idea, I’ve used some of the monster/treasure placement guidelines from 0e/1e’s random dungeon generation guidelines. Strategic Review #3 suggests that, for every 20 dungeon rooms, 12 are empty, 3 contain monsters and treasure, 2 contain monsters only, 1 room contains a “special”, 1 a trick/trap, and one room has just treasure. I’ll make my planetary defenses and rewards approximately match this pattern: about 12 out of 20 star systems will be barren, and there will be proportionally similar quantities of monster-, trap-, and treasure-laden planets. Monstrous inhabitants and hazards are determined by the color of the star and the Encounters rules, and treasure by planet type (one in six planets is a “treasure world”).

“Extras” from Spelljammer: Spelljammer has seven page of star-system-building rules, of which the best part is the “extras” table, which assigns moons, rings, colonies, and other exotic trappings to planets. I’ll add such a table.

Here’s are my charts for star color, planet temperature, and moons.

Star Type: Star color dictates tech level. Roll d20.
1 Blue star. Primeval plants/beasts.
2 White star. Stone age tribes/exotic monsters.
3 Yellow star. Civilized planet. Technology supersedes D&D norm (for instance, laser swords, d10 damage). Powerful machine-aided magic. Fleets and armies.
4 Orange star. Declining world. Post-apocalyptic barbarism (like the PCs’ home world). Monsters in ancient dungeons.
5-6 Red star. Dying planet, littered with forgotten dungeons.
7 Exotic system. Asteroid field, planar portal, black hole, supernova, nebula, double or triple star system. No planets.
8 Green, purple, or black star: Sentient star with sinister power (for instance, casts Suggestion 1/day on everyone in system, or implants visitors with slaad). Roll d6 on this chart for civilization level of inhabited planets.
9-19 Any color star (roll d6 for color only): only barren planets.
20 1d4 habitable planets: roll d6 for the star’s color and d6 for each planet’s civilization level (they don’t have to match).

Planet type: roll d6
1 ice world: mix of tundra/ice/mountain.
2 temperate world: forest/plain/hill mix.
3 hot world: jungle/desert/mountain/lava mix.
4 extreme world: too hot/cold for unprotected visitors.
5 exotic world: gas giant; ring world; asteroids; artificial, hollow, or living planet; fungal forest; mercury sea.
6: Treasure world. Around a hot star: hot world. 1d10x100 of gems/minerals on landing site: mining finds 10x more. White star: same, but cold world. Yellow star: temperate world. High-tech analogues of magic items. Otherwise: hot world. 2x times normal treasure in forgotten dungeons.

Moon type: For main planet, and one barren planet, roll d12.
1-6: No moons.
7: Planetary ring.
8: d4 barren moons.
9: habitable moon: roll d6 on Star Color for tech level.
10: Colony/mine (roll d8+3 on Encounters for owner)
11-12: roll d8+2 twice on this table.

Here is the complete one-pager, ready for space adventure.

laststep

Here it is as a PDF.

building the one page spelljammer, part 2: monsters of the deep

November 11th, 2015

I sometimes run D&D as a planet-hopping space opera, so I need simple space travel rules. I believe that, in order to minimize page flipping, rules systems should fit on one page (with illustrations!). I’ve already started: I’ve come up with star mapping rules and space ship travel/combat rules, and I’ve barely covered the edges of a page!. The next most important question is this: what horrible monsters await you in the void between the stars?

When you’re writing rules for D&D in space, you’ve got to at least consider what Spelljammer has to say. Spelljammer devotes many, many pages to the monsters, dangers, and PC races to be found in space. I want to condense that onto half a page max. I’ll convert all that fluff into crunch by putting it into a random encounter chart. Along with each entry, I’ll explain my game design thinking. The design notes are just for fun, and are not necessary for running the game. Oh, and I’ll draw pictures of all the starships and space monsters on the chart. While I have the pen out, I’ll make a Spelljammer-esque logo for “D&D In Space”.

dndinspace

Encounters: Each day, and on entering a system or planet, roll d6. On a 6, there’s an encounter.

To save room, I’ll try to make the same table work for space encounters and encounters on the surface of a planet. I’d also like to have separate encounter probabilities for different types of planets. I’ll make a single chart, with primitive-planet encounters towards the beginning of the chart, advanced in the middle, etc, and then use different dice expressions to generate different encounter types.

Roll d20 in space; 1d4 on a primitive planet; 1d6+3 on a civilized planet; 1d6+8 on a decadent planet; 1d4+14 on a dying planet.

That’s all the rules. Read on for my suggested random encounter chart, and scroll to the end of the page to see the updated and illustrated one-pager.

d20 encounter chart

We’ll start off with weather and natural disasters. Those can happen afloat or on land. On land they’re a very common trope in prehistoric settings.

1 hazard. Planetary/space storm; volcano; earthquake; sunflare.

In Spelljammer, lizardfolk are a surprisingly big deal: despite their relatively low technology, they’re one of the major starfaring races. I don’t see them deserving all that attention, but generalized low-tech anthropomorphic beasties definitely merit 1/20th of the encounters table.

2 stone age beasts. Lizardfolk, etc.

Spelljammer has some good advice for creating alien monsters: use a Monster Manual stat block and change the monster’s appearance. It also has some bad advice: alter trivial parts of the stat block. It suggests doubling or halving the number appearing; adding or subtracting 1 from the AC; and similar undetectable changes. Don’t bother. No one is going to be like “Hey, if this monster’s AC was one higher, I woulda said it was a Mind Flayer!” Just use the original stat block.

I’ll also flog another one of my pet theories here: pokémon as our best representation of alien Lovecraftian terror.

3 monsters. Alien predators. Stats: choose a random monster. Appearance: combine parts of different monsters. In space, they might be stowaways on an abandoned barge or piloting a warship.

Spelljammer asserts that humans are the most common of the starfaring races. This is true in most sci-fi, but I prefer D&D to stick to its Princess of Mars/sword-and-planet roots, in which most dwellers among the stars are humanlike but not human.

Spot 4 on the encounter chart is a overlap area which may be rolled by either 1d4 (on planets more primitive than the D&D standard) or 1d6+3 (for “civilized” planets, i.e. those with higher-than-D&D technology.) Humanlike creatures should be common at both tech levels.

Note: In Spelljammer, there are dozens of pages devoted to the many human-built starships, which are usually shaped like bugs or fish. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s an evocative detail worth preserving.

4 humanlike. Similar to humans in all but appearance (they have forehead ridges or fish heads or unicorn horns or they’re bipedal rhinos). Roll d6: 1 good, 2-4 neutral, 5-6 evil. Depending on tech level, they live in tribes and fly barges, or rule shining cities and fly metal bug warships.

I feel that the galaxy needs a high-level humanoid race. Space-traveling PCs are likely high level, and can’t be lording it over level-1 peons everywhere they go. I’m going to add a new humanlike race to the major races: “godling.” They’re the rich, mighty mortal descendants of the gods of a million prime material planes. They have the stats of humans of character level 8 to 15. I imagine that the various noble godling factions are always warring with each other, especially the scions of good and evil gods. I see them as irritatingly perfect: their heroes are mighty and noble, their villains dastardly, their alliances and treacheries cosmos-shattering, and even their peasants are clean and wise. Now to condense all that gushing into a short sentence:

5 godlings. Superhero descendants of the cosmos’s million gods, godlings (8+ HD) swirl capes in space palaces, sail longships, and ride dragons.

Spelljammer makes up an advanced race of blue giants, the Arcane, who dispense the “spelljammer helms” that allow space travel. That’s a useful role, but very specific to the Spelljammer setting. I want this one-pager to be more of a kit that plugs into the DM’s own setting. If we broaden this category to include all highly-evolved elder races, we make tons of science-fiction stories possible, including like 80% of original Star Trek episodes.

6 elders. Any spiritually or technically advanced race that consorts with lesser mortals. They might trade, advise, or punish.

Mind flayers are one of the big-deal enemies in Spelljammer. This is good. Mind flayers have a sci-fi feel to them, like their appearance in the usual sword-and-sorcery setting is a kind of slumming. Spelljammer mind flayers pilot nautilus-like tentacled space ships.

7 mind flayer. They maintain a slave empire. Their warships catch opponents in tentacles and use Mind Blast.

Beholders are another big Spelljammer enemy: less of a slam dunk than mind flayers, but still solid. Their ships fire large-scale eye-stalk rays. Why not? Disintegration rays seem perfectly at home in a space opera setting. Spelljammer also spends a lot of words on the civil war between the various beholder factions. We don’t have a lot of room here, but we can nod to that.

8 beholder. Their living warships fire eye-stalk rays at everything, including rival beholder factions.

Spot 9 on the encounter chart is another overlap, between 1d6+3 (civilized encounters) and 1d6+8 (decadent encounters). I think of decadent worlds as standard D&D worlds: filled with forgotten dungeons and relics of lost civilizations. D&D elves, who seem like they once had a more sophisticated culture, work in either spot.

Though I don’t like a big human population among the stars, I kind of like the Spelljammer idea of a powerful elven armada. Besides, elves are so central to Spelljammer’s product line that Spelljammer is often described as “elves in space.” Elves stay. Spelljammer actually describes space elves as “effete,” which seems kinda weird: I’d prefer to describe them as “1980s glam.”

9 elves. Warships of the lawful elf navy pursue the sailing ships of the chaotic glam elf pirates.

The neogi, a race of evil wolf/spider/lampreys who sail slave galleys, are another Spelljammer original race. They’re one of two 2nd-edition wolf-spider hybrid monsters, along with the “spyder fiend”, a wolf/spider/tanar’ri. Perhaps both are inspired by the first-edition mention of “Miska the Wolf-Spider.” Chances are you’re not playing 2nd Edition and don’t have neogi stats on hand. I’ll just call these guys “wolf-spiders.” Feel free to use the combat stats of any wolf or spider monster you happen to flip to.

10 wolf-spiders. Slaves work the furnaces in wolf-spider star triremes.

We’ve already said yes to elves in space; surely the other races should get occasional screen time too. After all, Spelljammer took the trouble to come up with lore and space ships for each. I’d like these races to be less common than elves, so I’ll crunch them all into one encounter slot, throw away all of the lore, and make mention of each of their iconic space ships.

11 dwarves, halflings, humans, or gnomes. Dwarf flying citadels, human or halfling merchantmen, gnome steam galleys.

I’ll include the “humanlike” entry again on the chart, because they’re common, and so that they appear in random encounters on “decadent” planets.

12-14 humanlike. As 4. Their sailing ships are wooden cogs and caravels.

Now we head into dying planet encounters (1d4+14). These tend to be from Vancian worlds under red suns, or worlds that have completely fallen to forces of evil or decay.

The first entry is for undead. These encounters tend to be on, or above, nightmare Walking Dead or I Am Legend worlds where the living have been defeated by the dead. Each kind of undead lends its own horror to the proceedings.

15 undead. Remains of a fallen civilization. Ghoul reavers on galleys, ghostly war galleons, and wraiths phasing through ships.

Dragons are solid high-level encounters on alien planets, but they also make great space monsters. They’re powerful enough to challenge ships. Therefore, I’m going to go against Spelljammer lore (which asserts that only its new species, “stellar dragon,” can traverse the phlogiston) and assert that all dragons can fly unassisted in space, and that they search for treasure and lairs all across the universe just as they do in a standard D&D campaign world. I also think that a space setting is better than a standard D&D world as a home for metallic dragons. A gold dragon seems more plausible cavorting through planetary rings under the light of a binary star than it does lording over a few square miles in somebody’s duchy.

16 dragon. A dragon is a match for a ship. 50% are metallic.

For fun, I’m throwing in a non-Spelljammer alien race, the “reptilian“. Some real-world conspiracy nuts, perhaps inspired by the V miniseries, believe that reptilians are a real space-traveling species who live among us, and, in fact, hold key positions in the United States government. In D&D terms, reptilians can be treated as an exotic variant of doppelgangers, but instead of lone opportunists, they’re all agents of a vast conspiracy.

17 reptilians. Shape-shifter lizards in silent longships infiltrate enemy crews.

To fill out the last of the “dying earth” encounters, we’ll throw in monsters again. Because you can never have too many monsters.

18 monsters. As 3.

Spots 19 and 20 are space-only encounters. #19, “space creatures,” is the listing for any of the D&D creatures which might be able to survive on their own in space. I’ve put in some of my own suggestions: I think herds of pegasi galloping through space would be a cool sight, and a herd of flumph, while less majestic, makes more sense in space than it does on a planet. Lurkers Above and other super-weird dungeon monsters might also make just as much sense in space as anywhere else.

19 space creatures. Harmless schools of space fish or flumph, lurkers above who threaten boats, or herds of astral pegasi.

For the last encounter spot, we’ll go for the really big monsters, on the scale of Astral Dreadnoughts or larger. These are monsters at a scale that the PCs can’t generally fight (although, who knows, they might have a Death Star-like vulnerable spot).

20 space leviathan. Living creatures larger than a ship, from peaceful space whales to moon-devouring inimical star spawn.

By now I’ve mostly filled up the one page I’ve allotted for D&D space travel rules. I have some room in the middle of the page to play with, and I still need rules on designing star systems, planets, and moons. I’ll finish those up next week, and I’ll present the finished one-page D&D space travel splatpage.

For now, here’s the one-pager with space travel and random encounter rules:

oneandtwo

building the 1 page spelljammer rules

November 2nd, 2015

My D&D campaign usually keeps its feet on the ground, but I like the idea that it might spontaneously find itself in space at any time. Here’s how I imagine that going: “Oh no, the PCs went through the Star Portal! I’ll break out my copy of Spelljammer. OH NO IT’S 200 PAGES! THIS BOOK IS TAKING TOO LONG TO READ! THE PCS HAVE ALREADY IMPLODED IN THE VACUUM”

So here’s the plan: I’ll start with the Spelljammer rules, simplifying wherever I can, and try to synthesize something more concise, like ONE PIECE OF PAPER. (I think most rules subsystems should fit on 1 piece of paper, with illustrations if possible.) My design musings follow (they’re significantly longer than 1 page). At the end of the process I’ll cook up a 1-page ruleset for D&D space exploration.

OK, first of all, the Spelljammer boxed set spends 7 pages explaining the concept of D&D in space. I think we can do that more economically. At the top of our page we’ll write

D&D In Space

Done.

The next 35 pages are spent on explaining the physics of Spelljammer space. Here’s the short, slightly mangled version: each star system is in a crystal sphere. What we perceive as stars are lights on the inside of the crystal sphere. Outside of the spheres is the phlogiston, a rainbow-colored gas which is difficult to traverse. Cosmic currents connect certain star systems with each other, making travel possible along certain narrow routes.

You know what that sounds like? Rooms, walls, and corridors. Space travel, in the Spelljammer model, is more like dungeon travel than wilderness travel. I like this: dungeon travel nicely limits PC choices, and, in a lot of ways, makes things easier for the DM. A starmap might use a lot of the mapping conventions of a dungeon map. In fact, it occurs to me that you could use any dungeon map as a starmap, with rooms representing solar systems, and corridors representing the twisting paths of cosmic currents.

On the other hand, while I like the travel-limiting implications of the crystal spheres/phlogiston model, I’m aware that the model itself is not for everybody. You might like it fine, or you might want to use a more traditional sci-fi model, where space looks like space, not the inside of a rainbow, and the stars you see are actually stars, not twinkly lights on the inside of a Dyson sphere. Or you might want your starships to sail on a literal astral sea. Basically, every DM is going to use their own cosmology. Rules must be flexible here.

So here are my space physics:

Space is a dungeon. Just as players venture blindly down dungeon hallways, they must chart astral routes (phlogiston currents between crystal spheres? solar winds? hyperspace lanes?) You can even use an existing dungeon map as your star chart, treating rooms as stars, rubble as asteroid fields, stairs as wormholes, etc.

Maybe you don’t have a copy of the Temple of Elemental Evil on hand to act as your star map. In that case, I’ll provide the simplest possible star-map generator:

Star systems are connected to 1d4 other systems.

Travel

The Spelljammer physics section also has a bunch of stuff about how Spelljammer ships work: apparently they have gravity planes, atmosphere bubbles, and different speeds within the crystal spheres and the phlogiston. This is all pseudoscience to explain Spelljammer’s central conceit: D&D space travel works pretty much like D&D nautical travel. Let’s skip the pseudoscience and keep the conceit.

D&D space travel works pretty much like D&D nautical travel. Translate space ships into equivalent sea ships (cog, warship, galley, etc).

What does it mean for space travel to be like nautical travel? Are we talking rocket ships or sailing ships? Cloth sails? Oars? Water?? Can you stand on deck and breathe the star wind, or will you implode in the vacuum? The answer to all these questions is “dunno, maybe!” It’s up to the DM’s cosmology. In mine, sailing ships are pushed through space by solar winds. Galleys aren’t driven by literal oars, but by other labor-intensive or fuel-intensive methods of propulsion: stokers who shovel coal in steamships, for instance. The important distinction between sailing ships and galleys is that the latter are less dependent on the weather. I think that it’s good to preserve these two ship categories.

Astral forces push sailing ships, while galleys are self-powered.

I’d also like the space travel rules to be consistent with existing ship travel speeds. Every D&D edition measures ship speed in miles. You should still be able to use all the data in a ship’s stat block, even though the distance between stars might actually be billions of miles.

For every sea mile a ship can travel, it can move 1 “star mile”.

Exactly how big is a star mile? Who cares?

I’d like to add a tiny bit of crunch here: what are the distances between stars, and thus, how long are space journeys? The Spelljammer book doesn’t actually get into that, leaving large-scale mapping entirely up to the DM. My intuition is that traveling from planet to planet should be sort of like walking between nearby villages, and travel between stars is like journeying from town to town. Travelers should be able to reach their closest astral neighbor in a few days, and go from from outer planets to the sun in a few hours.

Systems are 1d20x10 star miles apart and 2d10 wide.

Combat

Spelljammer spends thirty pages on rules for space combat. (Space combat is remarkably similar to D&D naval combat.) All the usual suspects are here: ramming, boarding, ballistas, Greek fire, etc. In fact, Spelljammer has one of the best D&D naval rulesets! But, since it’s so similar to standard naval combat, which is discussed in more or less detail in various D&D editions, I don’t need to spend much room on it here. Personally, I’ll be using my one-page naval rules.

Space ships use D&D ship combat rules.

D&D editions tend to have roughly the same types of ships, with a few name changes. In the interest of cross-edition compatibility, I’ll list all the ship classes and their variant names.

Ship types: keelboat/barge, small galley/longship, large galley/trireme, merchant/sailing ship, warship.

OK, so far we’ve got a rough idea of how space ships travel and fight, how star systems are connected, and how to make a star map. And we’ve filled way less than a page.

steponeeI think it’d be cool if my space rules end up looking like one of those Copernican solar system diagrams. I’ve sketched out a sun in the middle: I’ll fill that with rules about star systems. I’ve left room for planets orbiting the sun: I’ll fill them with planetary rules. (What’s on each planet? Who inhabits it?) And don’t forget moons! And random space encounters!

That means that all the rules we’ve come up with so far – the general space-travel, combat, and starmap rules – should be tucked into “outer space” in the corners of the page. As you can see, they fit with plenty of room to spare.

Next time I’ll get into random space encounters, and maybe draw pictures of some deep-space D&D monsters.

the cuteness rule

October 20th, 2015

In a Fourth-Edition-era podcast, one of the game developers complained about his character’s lame Figurine of Wondrous Power, the “Pearl Sea Horse.” The devs ribbed each other about how this magic item managed to get published. At the time, I thought, wow, this dev team needs more perspectives. I know plenty of players who would love that sea horse.

The Pearl Seahorse was one of the few cute elements that slipped into a very macho edition. The 4e designers avoided anything cute or whimsical as if they were afraid of D&D backsliding into My Little Pony – as if they wanted to make the statement that D&D was a grown-up, serious, spiky fantasy game. In doing so, 4e missed a cue from the most influential grown-up serious spiky fantasist of our time, George R R Martin, who literally started Game of Thrones by giving every character a puppy.

Brain stirrers

There’s something about the fantasy of acquiring money: the desire is so strong, and the payoff is so sweet, that it’s as if the smell of gold reaches straight into the brain, bypassing reason and decision making, to stir the grey matter to action. That’s a major reason why the old school D&D treasure hunt is such a heady brew. Even in 5e, where you don’t get XP for GP and there’s virtually nothing to spend your money on, many players – myself included – rapaciously hunt down every silver piece they can find. For these players, all that’s necessary for a game is for the DM to say “there’s money in this hole in the ground” and step back. The players will make their own game.

For a smaller subset of players – again including myself – the desire for cute things is as hardwired as the desire for money. For a brief period while playing through the 3e Red Hand of Doom module, acquiring an intelligent giant owl mount became more important to me than saving Elsir Vale. In the game I’m DMing now, the party cleric will do anything for the safety and comfort of her oracular otters.

If you’re a DM lucky enough to have one of these – let’s call them “cuteness sensitive” – players in your group, you have a powerful tool at your disposal to increase everyone’s investment in your campaign world. All you have to do is introduce an animal, a kid, a unicorn, or a pseudodragon – in any capacity – and step back. The cuteness-sensitive players will be sucked into the narrative and pull the rest of the players along with them. They’ll make their own game. They’ll come up with plans to befriend this creature, protect that creature from those potential dangers, and, in general, save you a lot of work. (I spent my most recent D&D session assassinating a Fever-Dreaming Marlinko NPC because we’d heard that her orphanage charity was insufficiently charitable.)

Don’t think of this as a lever to manipulate players but as a spring that generates gameplay, like the players’ desire for money and mayhem. And it’s an underused spring, because of the cuteness-negative DMs who think that everyone would be ashamed to ride a seahorse.

the cuteness rule

Now that I’ve made a case for the cute in D&D, I have to add a warning. Movies generally abide by a narrative rule about what you’re allowed to do to cute things. This rule carries over to D&D. I DMed one game where some players intended to cut off a cow’s legs to jam it, still living, through a sewer tunnel. A cuteness-positive player objected with real anger and nearly attacked the other characters. Beneath the anger was a sense of betrayal that I, as the DM, could countenance such a should-be-impossibility. On their side, the cow-threateners were perfectly aware of the narrative rule, and were titillated by the idea of breaking it.

The Cuteness Rule is this: don’t kill or torture innocent things onscreen. Don’t demonstrate a villain’s evil by having him kill a baby, or introduce a little lost pseudodragon so that you can have a monster jump out and eat it before the players’ eyes. You might make the players mad, but it will be an immersion-breaking anger at the DM. If the players have no hand in the death, it’s not the players staking something valuable, it’s the DM using an emotional trick to bludgeon them.

So does everything cute get a free pass? No sir. You can slaughter all the adorable little NPCs you want under the following exceptions to the Cuteness Rule:

You can kill combatants. A player buys a war dog. Even if he says it’s a sweater-wearing war dachshund with one ear flopped over, and even if he loves his pretend dog, it’s a combatant and he’s offering it up as stakes every time he takes it into battle.

You can put cute things at risk. If Cruella de Vil gets her hands on some puppies, she’s going to try to turn them into coats. ¬†Cuteness-positive players will make a lot of sacrifices to stop her, including storming her house, which is good because Cruella’s house is probably a great, creepy dungeon worth exploring. The important thing is not that the puppies live, it’s that the players had a chance to save them. Even if the players try their best and fail, that’s the game rules killing the puppies, not some jerk of a DM.

You can kill a killer bunny. Players will happily slaughter anything, no matter how cute, if it does a heel turn first. Carbuncles, for instance, look adorable but turn out to be dicks. Don’t overuse this trick or players will write off everything cute as a probable villain.

You can do whatever you want if you’re that good. (moldy old spoilers ahead) Atticus shoots a dog, Sophie chooses a kid. George R R Martin kills puppies. If you think you’re good enough of a storyteller to turn a dead owl familiar into an emotionally transcendant moment, then do whatever you want. Otherwise, stick to the Cuteness Rule.

(xposted from Thought Eater)

hardcore mode d&d

September 24th, 2015

My two-year-old daughter plays let’s-pretend, but she also has a more immersed mode of roleplay where she says, for instance, “I’m really a rabbit. Not pretend!” It’s her way of controlling the “immersion dial” of her game.

In D&D, adults control their “immersion dial” by adding the two mainstays of adult living: bookkeeping and fear. As Agent Smith says, “Human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world is a dream that your primitive cerebrum keeps trying to wake up from.”

This misery-and-suffering dial needs a couple of settings. Most gamers require rules to make their fantasy worlds seem real, but some don’t like their role-playing investment wasted by arbitrary character death. More jaded RPGers need increasing risk of death to reach the same imaginative high. From session to session I vary from one pole to another.

Here’s a way to crank up the dial on a session-by-session basis: make a Hardcore Mode character.

Hardcore Mode on a post-it: You must follow 3 rules: one Hardcore character at a time, Decide before character generation, and Start at level 1. Your character may change DMs, campaigns, and editions at will.

One Hardcore character at a time. You can have as many casual D&D characters as you want, but you may only have one Hardcore character at a time: that’s your “official” character until it is permanently retired (often because the character died and can’t afford a Raise Dead). Once a Hardcore character is retired, it must never be played again.

Decide before character generation. You can’t look at stat rolls of all 18s and decide “This is my hardcore character.” You declare Hardcore Mode before character generation, and you live with whatever you get. However, the method of generation is up to you and the DM: 4d6 drop the lowest, 3d6 in order, point buy, DCC’s multi-character funnel, whatever.

Start at level 1. No matter how bored you are with level 1 of D&D, or what level the other characters in the game are, a Hardcore Mode character must start at level 1 and earn their way through every level. If your 15th-level Hardcore character dies, you can either create a casual 15th-level character or try to survive as a Hardcore 1st-level character in a high-level campaign. The way that the character earns XP is up to the DM, of course: XP for monsters killed, XP for GP, “it’s been a couple of sessions so you all level” are all fine.

Multiple DMs and editions are OK. You can import your Hardcore Mode character into the game of any DM who will allow it, jump willy-nilly from one campaign setting to another, and convert from any D&D edition to any other. You can rebuild the character according to local rules, but must start with your most recent six attribute scores and progress towards the next level (for instance, 1/3 of the way to level 5). Thus, a 1e character could be rebuilt in a 4e game, but must have the same Constitution: its HP would be recalculated by 4e rules. A character who leveled up to 4 in a 5e game would get a stat boost, which they would get to keep on return to an OD&D game. Possessions from another game may be temporarily re-interpreted or ignored by the local DM. Hardcore Mode doesn’t imply any particular level of lethality or treasure stinginess.

Here’s another fun option, but I won’t hold you to it: when you say “let me tell you about my character” (and you will), you can only talk about your Hardcore Mode character. By the way, I consider my “hardcore” character to be Roger de Coverley, my 6th level OD&D thief from Mike Mornard’s campaign.