making a city more like a dungeon level

August 24th, 2015 by paul

The countries in my D&D campaign world are decaying collections of squabbling bandit nobles, not centralized nations like Louis XIV's France. My dungeons are mostly divided among separate groups, not well patrolled jails or fortresses like Louis XIV's Bastille. But for some reason, my cities tend to resemble Louis XIV's Paris - prone to the occasional rebellion or riot perhaps, but generally recognizing a single civic government, paying taxes, obeying watchmen, and trying to punish breakers of the peace in an orderly way. It's like, when it comes to city design, I didn't get the 4e points of light memo, and I certainly didn't pay attention to the OD&D city-based random monster charts.

What would it mean to redesign my cities to match the post-apocalyptic power-vacuum assumptions of the rest of the setting?

Warriors_007Pyxurz1) gangs and monsters rule neighborhoods. A typical dungeon level looks something like this: "The death cultists are in this part of the level, The Eye of Fear and Flame is in this room, the giants control this area, and these rooms and corridors are empty and patrolled by wandering monsters." Let's make cities look the same way. A gang, an elected official, a hereditary noble, and a monster might rule four neighborhoods in the same city, separated by a no-man's land inhabited by beggars, kobolds, and PCs. One consequence: it's important which city gate you enter. The north gate is held by a different power than the south gate.

2) there's safety in your neighborhood. Cities can't be infinitely dangerous: they contain thousands of citizens who survive year to year. If you pay taxes to your local gang or monster, you might live in relative safety. When PCs first stay in a neighborhood, they might be approached by a representative of the local gang leader and asked for some token of fealty: some shakedown money or the completion of a little task. More than anything, the local ruler just wants to make sure that the PCs are not going to be disruptive. Once the PCs have paid their dues, they can live in the neighborhood without further molestation - they might even be able to call in a favor.

3) rival neighborhoods are dangerous. In an orderly city, the pace of urban adventures is often up to the pcs: barring time pressure, they can usually go home and rest whenever they like. In a "street crawl", unless they're in their home neighborhood, they're basically dungeon crawling through The Warriors. If you're mapping a city, you could treat a neighborhood like a keyed dungeon room: it's a guaranteed encounter.

4) Random encounters take place in the no-man's land. Whenever the PCs travel from one neighborhood to another, they pass through contested territory. You could treat this no-man's land like an empty dungeon corridor: make a random encounter check (6 on a d6). Typical encounters: thugs or guards from one or the other of the neighborhoods; low-level gangs or monsters trying to carve out their own territory; starving or desperate people driven to violence; toll collectors from one side or the other.

5) alliances shift. How can a vampire openly rule a neighborhood in a human city? If her lair in the South Quarter is sufficiently impregnable, she can laugh at the threats of the General in the East Quarter. If the Bishop of Pelor, who rules the South Quarter, sends clerics to attack her, she might enlist the General's help: surely he wouldn't care to be surrounded by a puritanical theocracy to the north and south.

6) there are exceptions. There are some dungeons, like the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, in which all the monsters are of the same faction. There are others, like the Tomb of Horrors, with lots of traps and an absent or hidden bad guy. Similarly, some cities do bow to a centralized authority, and some have no real governance at all beyond some capricious magical punishments for rulebreakers.

OK, here is a tool for generating post-apocalyptic cities.

Each settlement is composed of some number of neighborhoods (1 for village, 1d4 for town, 1d6 for city, 1d10 for megacity)
For each neighborhood, roll on the ruler chart. The first ruler you roll is the most powerful, followed by the second, etc. if you want to know how any two neighborhood leaders get along, make a reaction roll (2d6, higher is friendlier).

Ruler chart: roll d10
1 remnant of the decaying order (knight, baron, duke, king, beaurocracy, rich landowner families)
2 duly elected officials (elder, sheriff, mayor, oligarchy, trade guild, independent neighborhood militia)
3 cleric (priest, bishop, cult leader, paladin, monastery)
4 rogue (thug, godfather, imposter, thieves guild)
5 wizard (archmage, necromancer, institute of learning or research, bard, elementalist whose magic alters neighborhood)
6 fighter (gang leader, general, warlord, humanoid tribe leader)
7 magical effect (prevents entering/leaving under certain conditions, zaps people who break certain arbitrary laws, is a giant game board, slowly transmogrifies inhabitants)
8 lawless slum (weak humanoid tribes, small human gangs, kenku, low level undead, fungus, oozes, diseased, exiles, multiple random monsters, rebel forces, battle ground between two neighborhoods)
9 boss monster who demands sacrifices (dragon, intelligent undead, mind flayer, lycanthrope, fiend, elemental, hag)
10 theme gang (all share a certain characteristic: costume, exotic weapon, race, age, bizarre slang, strange drug use, fearsome magical mutation, magic power)

Example: My city has (d6) 2 neighborhoods so I'll roll d10 twice: (2, elected officials and 1, old order). Reaction roll: 5 (slightly hostile). I'll say the most powerful faction, the elected officials, is a sort of neighborhood watch that arose from the city's vast slum. A young paladin, Sister Bridey, inspired gang leaders and merchants to unite and resist the abuses of the king. The weaker faction, the nobility, is afraid to venture out of the rich quarter. This state of affairs can't last long, as Bridey's rowdy allies are clamoring to loot and punish, and the nobles are looking for agents to kidnap or assassinate Bridey and fragment the slum alliance.

The problem with Tiamat

August 12th, 2015 by paul

Tiamat is a great villain with one major flaw, and that flaw is named Bahamut. What kind of threat is the queen of evil dragons if she is opposed by an equally powerful (or more powerful) king of good dragons?

I haven't played the 5e Dragon Queen adventure path: I hope it answers the question "if Tiamat gets free, why can't Bahamut clean up the mess?" I hope the answer is not "regrettably he is busy on an unspecified engagement" or "he could totally do it but he doesn't meddle in mortal affairs" or "let's hope no one brings it up."

The way I see it, Bahamut needs to be defanged, declawed, and de-breath-weaponed to allow Tiamat to shine as a campaign villain. Here are some ways to do it.

Bahamut is dead

Either just the other day or in the legendary past, Tiamat murdered Bahamut. This one is fun for PCs who worship Bahamut because they get the angsty nobility of championing a lost cause. Bahamut worshipers keep all their powers - he is no less divine for being dead - but his faction is powerless against Tiamat's hordes.

Bahamut is crippled

As above, but Tiamat, unable to kill Bahamut, cut off his wings or blinded him in some ritually irreparable way. This one is nice because Bahamut can still give aid to the PCs and can still match Tiamat in a melee, but isn't mobile enough to force a battle. Bahamut's best move might be to take the form of a human paladin (a blind or lame one - maybe he's Sir Isteval, that guy in all of WOTC's Sundering products) and rally mortal support.

Bahamut is imprisoned

As I understand it, Tiamat is at half-strength and looking for a way to break her shackles and assume her full power. Maybe the same is true of Bahamut. Maybe the siblings imprison each other, like worms of ouroboros biting each other's tails. If The PCs fail and Tiamat gets free, the world still has one slim chance: the PCs must brave Tiamat's draconic dungeon and un-shackle Bahamut.

Fief and business rules so simple that they REDUCE bookkeeping

August 4th, 2015 by paul

I talk about running a D&D business a lot because my players are always involved in some moneymaking scheme above and beyond the usual adventuring. I've tried the 5e rules on my group's pizza joints, designer tabards, and bishoprics, and I've cobbled several sets of business rules together, and I haven't really been happy with any of them. Either they're too profitable or not profitable enough, and they always add a layer of bookkeeping. I think I've got a solution that cuts the Gordian knot.

Business, fiefs, and other investments don't give you money, they pay your lifestyle expenses.

Post-it-note sized rules summary:

Investments (businesses, feifs, etc) pay for your lifestyle expenses. Cost is at the DM's discretion: 1000 gp and 1 month per 1 gp daily allowance is a good starting point. Optional: roll a monthly random encounter check. An encounter means a threat to your investment which might reduce or raise your income.

I like 5e's lifestyle expenses, although I don't recall making my players pay them that regularly. Doing the accounts is a little bookkeeping task that's fiddly enough that it often goes unremembered. What if owning a business (or feif or temple) is a way of buying your way out of this chore?

How much should it cost to invest in a business? As a rule of thumb, say that it will pay for itself in about three years (say 1000 days). That means that a shop that will pay you a modest lifestyle (1gp a day) costs around 1000 gp. A barony that will pay for a low-end aristocratic lifestyle (10gp) is worth 10,000 gp. Let's throw in a time cost too: a month of downtime per 1000 GP. That means that building a baronial castle will take about a year.

Adjust this ballpark price based on circumstance and player cleverness. A fief with a mouldering castle might be given free as treasure, but it might still take 50% of the normal downtime and cash to get it running. An ice-cream shop in Al-Qadim will be more profitable than one in Icewind Dale.

Upgrading a business is easy - pay 1000 gp and 1 month, more or less, to add 1 gp to your living expenses, or if you need 1000 gp in a hurry, do the reverse (no downtime required).

Every business has growing pains

Here's one bit of optional bookkeeping: every month, roll a random encounter check for the business/fief (17-20 on a d20, or 6 on a d6). An encounter means an event that requires the players' attention: bandits move into their fief, for instance. If the players don't deal with the situation, their daily income goes down by, say, 1 gp. If they deal with it adequately (kill the bandits) the problem goes away. If they deal with it cleverly (convince the bandits to join the militia) their living allowance goes up by the same amount.

I recognize that this monthly die roll reintroduces some of the complexity I removed. But it's less like bookkeeping and more like a source of adventure hooks.

play this fighting game i wrote

July 27th, 2015 by paul

printscreen
I wrote a silly but totally playable fighting game. Play it!

Backstory: Last Sunday my wife and kid were out of town. I woke up from a dream where I had been playing a D&D-themed fighting game. I thought, I have nothing to do today. Can I code up that dream game in one day? By the end of the day I had a complete game with 13 opponents, but I had run out of time for art. Everyone was stick figures. Over the course of the next week I drew some sketchy opponents and balanced gameplay - plus I obviously spent tons of time on that awesome intro.

Longer backstory: in 2002 or 2003, on another lazy Sunday, I wrote a stupid flash game which I called Quest for the Crown. It was a one-joke game: the joke was that the intro and credits were very long and the gameplay was short (you just walked past some rocks and picked up the crown). Hilarious! However, due to a totally unintended bug, the game had a little depth.

If you finished the game and sat through the credits, you got the option to play again. The bug: on the second play through, I accidentally added a second keystroke listener without removing the first one, so when you pressed a directional arrow, you moved two squares instead of one. You can still get to the crown easily, but you have to bounce off a wall.

On the third play through, you move three squares when you press an arrow key, and so on. It becomes harder to get to the crown. But because of the random location of rock obstacles, you can bounce an increasingly convoluted path to the crown. Sometimes you have to jam two keys at once. Chance and accident made a game out of what I had meant as a non game.

There's a message for you: if you make something with rules, gameplay will emerge! Maybe not the gameplay you intended, but maybe something better.

all trolls are scrags

July 17th, 2015 by paul

In folktales, trolls traditionally live under bridges. Why is that? It makes the most sense if trolls are amphibious creatures who paddle around in the water between their feasts on merchants, PCs, and billy goats.

Making all trolls amphibious makes sense of their hairless, rubbery, froggy skin and their weakness to fire. It also lets them catch some of that "Zombie Survival Guide" horror: you can't escape from them by land or sea. In fact, trolls are much scarier on the high seas: they're nearly invulnerable to fire under the sea and on dangerously flammable ship decks.

Get rid of the scrag, the D&D aquatic troll variant. Instead, give all trolls a swim speed and water breathing. Put troll dens near rivers, lakes, and bogs, where they can retreat, Grendel-like, when they need to regenerate for a bit.

Exceptional leaders for every monster!

July 8th, 2015 by paul

There's plenty of evidence in OD&D that all humanoids - not just PC races - can advance in level. Every humanoid race has extra-HD leaders. I'd kind of like to extrapolate those rules and apply them to all monsters.

the OD&D rules

Let's start by looking at the human baseline. In OD&D, bandits, berserkers, brigands, dervishes, nomads, buccaneers, pirates - basically all humans - use the same rules: for every 30 there is a bonus 4th level Fighting Man; for every 50 a 5/6 level FM; for every 100 a, 8-9 FM; if 200 + there are chances for wizards and clerics. That's a lot of characters with levels.

Humanoids use much the same rules but their leaders are frequently statted as the next strongest humanoid type: 40-400 1-1 HD goblins have 5-30 leaders with the stats of 1+1 HD hobgoblins; 20-200 hobgoblins have 3-5 leaders as 4+1 HD ogres; gnolls have troll-like 6+3 HD leaders; and orcs have complicated rules giving chances per 100 orcs of having actual monster leaders: ogres, trolls, balrogs, dragons, or level 7-11 fighting men and wizards.

How about demi-humans? For every 40 dwarves/gnomes there's a level 1-6 fighter. For every 50 elves there's a 2-4 F/2-5 MU, and for every 100 there's a F 4/ MU 8. Pretty wimpy compared to humans, but that's to be expected in a level-limits world.

That's all the monsters that come in groups of more than 100. They all have powerful leaders, usually many HD higher. We can assume that all intelligent races introduced in later books/editions should be treated the same way. And furthermore - and I find this idea exciting - probably every species has exceptional individuals, but since the number typically appearing is so low it's not worth it to detail them. But if you ever did get 100 15-HD Purple Worms together, maybe 1 in 30 would be 20 HD, 1 in 50 would be 25 HD, and 1 in 100 would be a purple worm 30/Magic User 11.

boiling it down

The OD&D rules feel right power-wise, but I don't want all sorts of lookups. I want a memorable rule that I can apply on the fly to 20-person bandit camps, 1000-person church heirarchies, armies of 10,000 - any vaguely meritocratic force.

After working at this for a while, and rejecting all sorts of things - every 30 of these gives you this, every 50 of those gives you that - I found that there is no universal best fit, and I realized that I didn't really want to be dealing with 5 different power levels in a bandit camp anyway. I basically want two things: a bunch of lieutenants and a leader.

The monsters with powerful leaders (humans, orcs) have about +8 HD per 100. Let's extrapolate from there:

In every double-digit group of creatures, the leader has +4 HD. Add +4 HD per extra digit.

That sounds pretty good, and it's reasonably scalable. In a barbarian horde of 100,000 (the size of Genghis Khan's and Tamerlane's hordes, and probably the largest reasonable in a dark ages world) the leader would have +20 levels.

As for officers, I don't want to deal with Tamerlane's 10k corporals, 1k sergeants, etc. Let's just do the leader's important bodyguard/lieutenants. According to OD&D rules, a group of 100 humans has 5 sub-leaders around 5 HD; hobgoblins and orcs might have half as many. Extrapolating:

Every leader has 1d6 lieutenants who are 4 HD weaker.

In practice, this rule means that only groups of 100+ have lieutenants with bonus HD; groups of 10-99 just have the leader. Good. Every 10 orcs doesn't need a giant chain of command.

There are much higher-level guys acting as OD&D leaders - dragons leading 100 orcs, for instance. Anyone can go slumming. But I propose that, in D&D, you need officers and leaders of around this minumum level to keep a non-civilized tribe or mercenary army running. (Civilized armies and countries can be ruled by level-1 leaders, which is both civilization's weakness and its strength.)

A fun repercussion: around level 5, PCs should be able to keep 10+ hirelings in line. At level 9, they should be able to command 100+ troops - which they can! That's around name level, when 1e fighters automatically get armies numbered in the hundreds.

Now let's apply this to all D&D encounters. Throw a fireball into a room of 30 orcs, and one of them might survive. If you run into 10 hill giants, one of them has stats more like a cloud giant. Watch out for the shambling minotaur in the zombie horde. And if you're pursued by nine 4-HD wraiths, chances are that one of them (the Witch-King) is a 8 HD badass.

Hot swapping

OD&D freely uses different races as leaders. Orcs, for instance, have ogre lieutenants and human leaders. Make an army more interesting by swapping any lieutenant/leader with a monster or human of around the requisite HD. Thus a hundred elves might count 4-HD centaurs among their lieutenants and be ruled by an 8-HD ent.

How to level up monsters

So far I've mostly been talking about OD&D. Leveling up monsters in earlier editions is easy - add 4 HP/level and have them use the appropriate attack matrix - and 4e is easy with Monster Manual on a Business Card. But these days I mostly play 5e, which uses monster creation rules I haven't internalized yet. Here's how to make leaders and lieutenants in 5e. We'll be using Challenge Rating instead of Hit Dice.

From consulting the "Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating" chart in the 5e DMG, and adjusting it based on actual monster stats in the Monster Manual, it's clear that, up to about CR 20, AC and attack bonus go up a little under 2 every 4 CRs, HP goes up 60, and damage goes up 40. Feel free to use those stock numbers. I'm going to tweak them all a little to my taste.

AC, attack bonus, skills, saving throws, and checks: I'm going to bump this up to +2 every four levels: exceptional monsters who made it to high level probably have extra-good starting stats too. Besides, I want the difference to be noticeable.

HP: Most horde monsters are going to be Small or Medium and thus use below-average Hit Die sizes. Let's reduce the standard HP bump to 40 every 4 levels for typical horde leaders; double this for large monsters.

Damage: I love that big +40 damage swing per four levels. PCs will feel the weight of that. The DM can decide how to assign that damage, but an extra attack per 4 levels is a good place to start.

So here's how to add 4 CR levels to a 5e monster:

+40 HP (or +80 HP if Large or larger), +40 damage, +2 everything else (AC and all d20 rolls)

OK, let's put all the rules together into a bite-sized rulelet:

Monster Leaders up to CR 20
In every double-digit group of creatures, the leader has +4 HD. Add +4 HD per extra digit. Every leader has 1d6 lieutenants who are 4 HD weaker.
Adding 4 levels in 5e: +40 HP, +40 damage (+80 for Large), +2 everything else (AC and all d20 rolls)

some magic rivers

June 25th, 2015 by paul

Whenever the PCs come across an uncharted river, roll d20 on this chart (or d100 for a more mundane setting).

1: Holy. This river flows from a sacred spring and actually runs with holy water. It might be a magical forest brook or it might be a major trade river, with fervently religious cities on its bank, hordes of pilgrims rafting down its water, and holy-water bottlers and distributors driving ritualist clerics out of business.

2: Deep. Whatever its width, this river is so deep that it's navigable by sea-going warships. In fact, its depth is unplumbed. It's rumored to go all the way down to the Plane of Water. Every once in a while, bizarre sea monsters surface, snatch a ship, and disappear.

3: Magical border. One side of the river is reasonably civilized, with the occasional village and farmhouse along its bank. The other is monster-haunted wilderness, from which blood-curdling howls can be heard at night. How is it that such a long, meandering, un-patrolled border can hold back the forces of evil? It's because these monsters can't cross running water (they're vampires, witches, or other such creatures) or because the other side of the river is the borderland of another plane (faerie or Ravenloft for instance).

4: Fertile. The farmland around this river is incredibly economically important. Like the Nile, it can support an unusually dense population and produce enough excess food to sustain the rest of the kingdom. Possession of such a river is worth warring for.

5: Not water. Blood, wine, mist, lava, mercury, acid, liquid sunlight, potion of delusion, stars, sighs, dreams - whatever it is, you can build a bridge over it and you might be able to sail on it (although you might need a magical boat).

6: Roll d6 twice more on this chart.

7+: Just a river.

Edit: Check out the comments for some more good ones!

using monster trophies to create magic items

June 17th, 2015 by paul

Brandes at Harbinger of Doom has some good thoughts about 5e magic item creation. He points out its problems: creating a cool item is not a good time investment (it takes 5+ years of downtime to make a very rare item and 50+ years to make a legendary one), and, once you've created it, you sell it at a loss.

Harbinger's solution is to add optional item creation ingredients, some of which speed up and some of which cheapen the process. This strategy has a bunch of benefits.

  • It potentially matches item creation to the time scale of a D&D campaign.
  • It cheapens item creation to the point where you might make a profit from it, while limiting such profit by the supply of rare ingredients.
  • It introduces new types of loot for the DM to give out.
  • It lets you subdivide magic items, so that, if you wish, you can have frequent rewards without overloading the players with treasure.

    A DM can dream up all sorts of magical ingredients: rare herbs, star metal from a fallen meteor, that sort of thing. But right now I'm primarily interested in trophies - that is, harvestable pieces of monsters. Trophies come with a whole list of extra benefits.

  • They let players make decisions up front. Normally treasure is a sight-unseen reward bestowed on players after the fact. But a pair of highly enchantable gorgon horns, for instance, is a treasure that you can see approaching with a gorgon under it - treasure on the hoof, as it were.
  • They give characters an in-game reason to kill monsters, supporting the meta-game reason (earning XP).
  • They validate an intuition many players have about the game world ("Surely I should be able to sell this wyvern poison!")
  • They potentially add player-directed objectives to the game world map. ("There's a place called Valley of the Chimera? I could use some chimera horns for my Ring of the Ram!")

    When collecting monster trophies, you have to steer clear of some pitfalls. It won't be fun if:

  • it seems morally repellent. Collecting trophies from innocent intelligent creatures should be treated as an evil act.
  • it seems too much like ingredient farming in an MMO. Make sure that you don't introduce any grindy MMO stuff like low drop rates or stacks of required items. You should only have to kill one wyvern to get your wyvern ingredient.
  • it introduces too much bookkeeping. Players have no objection to keeping track of treasure, but to make things simple, you shouldn't have to render a dragon into like 10 things. Each type of monster should only have one trophy.

    OK, on board? Good! Brandes is writing up a more detailed set of magic item ingredient rules, but in the meantime, here are my simple trophy rules, which you can bolt right on the existing 5e item creation rules.

    First, I'll summarize the official DMG rules (pp 128-129):

    It costs 100 GP to make a common item, 500 for uncommon, 5k for rare, 50k for very rare, and 500k for legendary. It takes 1 day per 25 GP of cost. You must be 3rd level to make any magic item, and 6th, 11th, and 17th for Rare, Very Rare, and Legendary respectively.

    What can you make with a trophy?

    Let's make the new rules tidy enough to fit on a Post-It note:

    An item's cost and creation time can be reduced by 1/5 with a trophy from a thematically linked and level-appropriate monster (treat the item's minimum creator level as the monster's minimum CR). You can use multiple trophies if they're from different species. You can't lower creation cost below 100 GP.

    For instance, a trophy suitable for a "very rare" item - monster CR 11 to 16 - will take the place of 10k GP of cost and 400 days of labor.

    This means that a trophy is worth 1/3 of a level-appropriate treasure - so it's a pretty big reward. But it isn't just a generic cash coupon. It can only be used in thematically appropriate recipes. A hellhound's fangs, for instance, might only be useful for making items with fire powers. Furthermore, more appropriate is better. Here's another rule for the Post-It: The single most fitting trophy for a certain magic item counts double, and the CR restriction is waived. For instance, a troll heart would pay for 2/5, not 1/5, of a Ring of Regeneration, even though trolls are CR 6 and very rare items normally require CR 11 trophies.

    Do the characters know these recipes? I'm thinking of trophies as "player empowerment" treasure. If the players kill a monster and ask whether any parts are valuable, the DM should freely tell them which piece is used in item recipes, and then flip through the DMG and tell them one or two item recipes in which it could be used. (There may be more which the players can discover through experimentation or research.)

    Where do you get a trophy?

    If the players want to make a specific magic item, and they ask about searching for ingredients, the DM should flip through the Monster Manual and tell them one or two monsters thematically related the item. The DM should also provide a world location or two (not necessarily nearby) where these monsters can be found. Tracking down a monster doesn't always have to be huge production. It might be a single incident during the course of a larger journey, a sort of player-selected random encounter.

    Not every monster is magical enough to warrant taxidermy. Let's go through the 5e monster types.

    Inferior types:
    Aberration: Not a good candidate for trophies. Your magic items would have too many mouths. Only a few oddball items like the Tentacle Rod require aberration trophies.
    Beast: Beasts aren't suffused with magic. You can't get any magic trophies from killing a beast, even a big one like an elephant or a weird one like a winged snake.
    Construct: Constructs might use trophies in their creation, but they don't leave any when they die.
    Fiend: Fiendish trophies are good only for a handful of evil items.
    Humanoid: Like beasts, you can't get trophies from humanoids.
    Ooze: Oozes are practically garbage. Not much value can be extracted from them.
    Plant: Not much to be gained by messing with twig blights and the like either.
    Undead: Undead are sort of like constructs - they've had two lives already and are pretty much used up. There are a few exceptions for powerful undead: lich phylacteries, demilich gems, and mummy lord wrappings can be useful for some high-level items.

    Superior types:
    Celestial: Pegasus wings (brooms of flying) and unicorn horns (periapt of proof against poison) are highly sought after by evil wizards who must be thwarted by PCs.
    Dragon: A dragon's trophy is its scaly hide, which can be turned into a suit of armor.
    Elemental: Every elemental, except summoned ones, leaves behind an elemental mote. These are good for dozens of magic items, including the various elemental-command items and anything that shoots fire, pours water, grants flight, or is carved from stone.
    Fey: There are only 7 fey creatures in the MM, of which the most common PC targets are hags. Their evil eyes are used in items related to sight and disguise.
    Giant: Giant hearts are used in lots of magic recipes, including ogre gauntlets, giant belts, frostbrand and flametongue swords, and, from troll hearts, various healing items. Harvesting pieces of good or neutral giants is evil.
    Monstrosity: This is the main trophy-bearing monster type. There are no less than 50 monstrosities in the Monster Manual - hey, it's practically in the name of the book - and each bears a different trophy. Peryton shadows, purple worm stingers, umber hulk eyes, displacer beast hides, rust monster tentacles, and all the rest fetch good prices from the wizards in the city.

    Speaking of prices: how about buying and selling trophies? When ready-to-loot dungeons aren't available, I imagine that monster hunting is the next most lucrative career for adventurer types. You might have a 1 in 6 chance of finding a buyer for each trophy in each big city. Here's another rule: If you do sell a trophy, you typically get half its item-creation value (50 GP for a CR 3+ monster, 500 for 6+, 5k for 11+, and 50k for 17+). On the other side of the bargain, if you're trying to buy an item to speed up your magic item creation, you might be able to get it at half price - if it's available. In a major city, the DM should flip the Monster Manual open to three random pages. If any of the monsters on those pages have trophies, they're available.

    This mini-economy solves the 5e rules problem that prices an item at less than its creation cost. The monster trophy market means that people rarely pay full price to create a magic item.

    OK, that's all the rules I've got. Let's see how we'd make a random legendary item. I just flipped open the DMG and found the Rod of Resurrection. OK, what creatures of 17+ CR could make generous donations to its creation? Obviously, a phoenix feather is the most appropriate trophy. The Phoenix isn't statted up in the 5e MM, although the DMG suggests it as a monster you could easily make by modifying a roc or giant eagle. Because it's such a fitting monster, I'll make the phoenix feather worth 40% of the item creation cost - 200,000 GP - and waive the normal 17 CR requirement for a legendary item. Other good ingredients for this item are suggested by the item's illustration in the 5e DMG, which shows a gemmed rod with a skull on one side and a winged head on the other: a demilich is CR 18 and a solar is CR 21. Either a demilich gem or a solar's last breath can be used to reduce the item's cost by a further 100,000 GP. (Killing an angel for its last breath is quite evil.)

    So far everything I've said has been focused on monster parts. A lot of it is just as applicable to other magical ingredients. Herbs, rare metals, and relics might have levels too, based on the dangers of their area, and provide exactly the same magical benefits. Their locations should be reasonably transparent to the players, at least in terms of general area, and finding the items needn't always be a game-session-devouring quest. Making magic items can be flavorful and fun without needlessly derailing the campaign.

  • catastrophic psionics

    June 10th, 2015 by paul

    Yesterday Mike Mearls publicly mused about psionics on Twitter (which I assume means that some psionics-friendly publications are coming up).

    He started with a question: "Agree/Disagree: The flavor around psionics needs to be altered to allow it to blend more smoothly into a traditional fantasy setting."

    Psionics has always been peripheral in my games because I haven't figured out how it is different from magic in an interesting game-world way, so my inclination was, "Disagree: Psionics does not need to be MORE blandly medieval-fantasy."

    Mearls went on to say, "I think a psionicist should be exotic and weird, and drawing on/tied to something unsettling on a cosmic scale."

    Sure, I thought, psionics is tied to mind flayers and stuff. It's kind of Lovecraftian. But, story-wise, how will it differ from the 5e warlock's star pact, which name-checks eldritch horror without necessarily telling a story about it?

    Mearls: "One final note - Dark Sun is, IMO, a pretty good example of what happens to a D&D setting when psionic energy reaches its peak."

    And this is when I *got* psionics.

    The existence of psionics is a sign that something is catastrophically wrong. Waking up with psionic power is sort of like being a little deep-sea fish who suddenly sees light: it probably means that one of those creepy predatory anglerfish is swimming up behind you.

    Maybe we can take this analogy literally. A world's budding psions, along with increased mind flayer and beholder sightings, are signs that some eldritch horror is drifting towards us through some unfathomable gulf. Maybe the eldritch horror will pass us, or maybe it will swallow our multiverse in one gulp.

    I think this idea has emotional resonance because, just as zombie stories tap into our real-world anxieties about overpopulation, Catastrophic Psionics mythically transforms our environmental anxieties. People born with psionic power may use it for good, or they may use it for evil, but either way, they're tapping into a power that's consuming the world. It's possible that psionic powers are merely a symptom, and using them does no harm; it's also possible that using these powers accelerates the cataclysm.

    What do psionic monsters want? Let's take a look at Dark Sun, which Mearls identifies as the psionics endgame. For some unexplained reason, Athas has no gods. Maybe a world's gods are like a beacon that attracts - whatever is coming. Maybe it eats gods.

    generate npcs in two dice throws

    June 4th, 2015 by paul

    Here's a DM trick I picked up a few years ago from Tavis Allison of themuleabides: Generate NPC age/gender by rolling d6. Odd numbers are male, even female; higher numbers are older. In more cumbersome chart form, that's

    1 male youth
    2 female youth
    3 male, prime of life
    4 female, prime of life
    5 elder male
    6 elder female

    Define "youth" and "elder" according to the context: in a town, "youth" might mean a 7 year old; in a guard patrol it might mean an 18 year old; in an elven camp it might mean an 80 year old.

    I like this die roll because it automatically creates predictably weighted demographics while shaking you out of NPC ruts. I should probably 5e it up by changing the roll to a d7 and reserving 7 for non gender binaries.

    You know what? I also have trouble coming up with spur-of-the-moment NPC race. Let's see if I can't come up with a second die roll for that.

    roll 1d10:
    1-6 human
    7 dwarf
    8 halfling
    9 elf
    0 other (choose from the uncommon races)

    I like the demographics here: humans make up more than 50% of the population and most of the rest is made up of the 5e "common races" (also the OD&D/basic races): elves, dwarves, and halflings. Each of these is about as common as all of the uncommon civilized races together: gnomes, half-elves and -orcs, 4e tieflings and dragonborn, underdark drow and duergar, plus weird exotic and monstrous stuff like goliath, minotaur, kobold, changeling, gold dragon etc. I won't make a chart for the uncommon races because it would be impossible to remember. I'll have to trust my spontaneity here.

    There's a problem here: NPC generation is common, and no one is going to keep a printout of this chart handy throughout every game. I can't make the race roll as elegantly memorable as the age/gender roll, but perhaps some mnemonics will help.

    Let's look at the chart again.

    Roll d10.
    7 dwarf. Easy mnemonic here. Seven dwarves.
    8 halfling. 8 is an important number for halflings because the phrase they most commonly hear is "You ate all the..." An 8 also looks like two fat, half-sized guys standing on each other's shoulders.
    9 elf. I guess a 9 looks like a backwards e for elf. Best I can do.
    0 other. O for other.

    And then everything else is human.

    I'm going to give it a try! I'll add the random-race d10 roll to the random-age-and-gender d6 roll I make for each new NPC. I'll just repeat to myself: Seven dwarves, the halfling ate, 9lf, O for other.

    Then if you still have bandwidth for a third NPC die roll: remember to make a reaction roll for every NPC (roll 2d6: low hostile, high friendly, modified by PCs' charisma).

    OK, let's try making a random shopkeeper: A (roll d6: 2) young female (roll d10: 0) uhh, dragonborn. OK, that's kind of a crazy NPC. Let's say that her egg was picked up as a curio by a human caravan and sold to the previous shopkeeper, who was surprised when it hatched into a potential apprentice. Reaction roll (roll 2d6: 5) She doesn't particularly like the PCs - maybe she doesn't like curio hunters - but doesn't try to cheat them.

    OK, now let's do the leader of a hostile army. A 5 and a 2. An old man. Nothing super interesting there. Reaction roll (roll 2d6: 11) is a surprise: He likes the PCs a lot: maybe he's heard about some particular exploit which he admires. He'd love to convince the PCs to switch sides, and if he can't, he'll give them all the respect and caution due to a worthy foe.

    OK, two NPC rolls, two reasonably inspiring prompts. Good enough for me.