astral plane: oh yeah, stars

February 7th, 2014 by paul

In my last post I talked about how the Astral Plane takes different forms depending on how you enter it: on an astral ship you sail the Astral Sea; from a Manual of the Planes you explore the Astral Library; etc. But however you experience it, it's all the same place.

I forgot one major incarnation of the Astral Plane: space. (Duh. "Astral" does mean "starry", after all.)

What is the Astral Plane? It's a big bunch of nothing connecting a bunch of interesting nodes (planar gates, or astral islands in 4e). It maps pretty well onto space travel. Now we know another way to enter the Astral Plane: launch ourselves into orbit. Spelljammer's Wildspace is just another manifestation of the Astral Plane.

When your D&D characters steal a spaceship, or hop on the back of a cosmic dragon, or teleport to the Warden colony ship, what can they expect to find out there where no adventurer has gone before? The usual sci-fi fare. A water world. A world ruled by gods. A dead world poisoned by a mind flayer empire. Just the same sort of places you could find by plane-hopping.

i figured out the astral plane

February 4th, 2014 by paul

I've complained about the astral plane before: I never had a use for "a great, endless sphere of clear silvery sky" which is primarily used to get to more interesting places. However, I found myself using an astral plane in the mearls sidebar game, with one little tweak.

Your perception of the astral plane is determined by how you enter it. For instance, in the sidebar game, you dive into a pool to travel to the fairy realm. Along the way, you pass through the astral plane: since you enter it through a pool, it takes the form of a vast ocean. Elsewhere in the world, a forgotten corridor in a library might lead you into the Astral Plane. In that case, you'd experience the entire plane as an infinite, labyrinthine library.

EVENTIDE_by_ANTIFAN_REALThe advantage of this change: Every time you enter the plane by a different method, the DM can describe it differently, coming up with a unique, and potentially flavorful, setting with new puzzles and challenges. An Astral spell might take you to the standard, boring silvery-sky plane. The magical rings from Magician's Nephew take you to a forest, an "in between place" filled with portal ponds. An astral ship takes you to the 4e version of the Astral Plane, a silver sea dotted with islands. If people entered the plane by each of these methods, they might perceive the same group of githyanki raiders as simultaneously flying through the air, running through the forest, and sailing a ship through the ocean. Each perception is 100% factually correct: after all, any physicality in the Astral Plane is just an analogy clothing an ineffable spiritual ideal.

Here's an adventure complication: you find a map of part of the astral plane. It's a classic pirate treasure map, with islands and shoals. When you enter the plane via a library, you have to navigate the Astral Library using your map of the Astral Sea.

guest post: over the top campaigns

January 30th, 2014 by paul

Jason from Two Kings Games / Gygax Fund is filling in for me this week, with three gonzo campaign conceits:

So, I recently had the chance to try Dark Heresy, a RPG by Fantasy Flight Games. Like most other games, it does certain things very well and others could have possibly been done better (which could honestly be said about almost every game out here, I’d think). After sitting down with my group to start playing, the first thing they did was hand me my pregen. Then they began to unfold how my Psyker character fit into the Dark Heresy lore. As they wove the setting’s story and elements it was quickly obvious that there is no shortage of over-the-top dramatic elements that come along with the WarHammer 40K universe. One example was that the books made mention of an undying ever-sleeping emperor who is fed thousands of souls a day to be kept alive and thus, through his "spirit", keeps open the mythical energy that allows interplanetary spaceflight. Sounds like something ripped out of a Megadeth song. This sparked my imagination and I felt it would be fun to come up my own over-the-top dramatic campaign setting elements to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy 'em!

The Nine Dragons of Nol
The Nine Dragons of Nol are as old as time itself and the universe lives and dies by their whim alone. Their breath is the wind, the seas their tears and the stars are the embers of their flames. Some say they are reality themselves. Others say the dragons are merely powerful bullies who feed off of the fear of men. Perhaps there’s a little truth to both stories. Once a week, the Nine Dragons require the Kingdoms of Men to offer up 200 wagons of gold and precious gems (equaling roughly 400,000 gold pieces) or suffer utter destruction. Of course, adventurers are set off into the world to seek and collect treasure as fast and furiously as possible, in order to keep the world safe from the all-powerful Nine.

pitThe World-Eater
You live in a world ravaged by ice and snow. Large woolly beasts roam the tundra and a frozen death is always waiting around every corner. According to legend, the world will stay frozen until Boonz, the god of the underworld, has had his fill of sacrifices. A giant pit, half a mile wide, sits guarded by the Umbrish Monks in the north continent. The monks have taken a lifelong vow to keep the pit safe and more importantly to ensure that the pit is fed flesh, daily. All tribes, kingdoms, and free men must send half of their already scarce supplies of meat and other hunted animals north to the monks for the daily sacrifice. Those who do not comply are held in contempt by the Umbrish and then must be forced to offer human sacrifice. It is believed that one day, with enough sacrifice, the world will once more feel the warmth of spring and the never ending winter will end. Legend dictates that if the offerings stop, the world will become nothing more than a frozen ball of ice, uninhabited by even the hardiest of life. In reality, a world-eater, a planet sized parasite, crashed into the world thousands of years ago and borrowed deep beneath the surface. It feeds on the core of the planet, thus slowly killing it, if not fed regularly.

The Kingdom of Blind Men
The Kingdom of Bray, hidden deep in the valleys of the Bluecap Mountains, is ruled by the enchanting and beautiful immortal elven queen, Queen Raween Belladonna. In fact, the queen is so enchanting that anyone entering the Kingdom of Bray has had their sight removed permanently, either magically or otherwise... Even newborn children are stripped of their sight on the day they’re born. The subjects of Bray, who seem to be fanatics for their queen, are trained at birth to use their other senses so acutely that they're able to function completely without sight and are taught at a young age that the sacrifice they've made strengthens them and brings them closer to the gods.
Oh, also the Kingdom of Bray is well known for its most perfect statues... ;-)

Dinner Rolls: or, this orc is the banana, this orc is the brandy

January 23rd, 2014 by paul

IMG_9064My sister Laura, who's a D&D player and artist, made me these dice for Christmas:

There are 24 dice total, so that means Laura drew 144 tiny, beautiful pictures of food. She tells me that she stole the idea from some other product she saw but didn't buy - presumably Recipe Dice. Laura's dice are more D&D-themed: I bet the Recipe Dice don't have so many forageable plants, mead, and so on.

Laura decided I needed the dice after playing in my food-focused run-through of Isle of Dread. My players were always making Nature checks to find unique toppings for their pizzeria. If only I'd had these dice then!

It's great to have a collection of niche specialty dice, and they'll come in handy whenever the ranger looks for food, but there's another reason why a bunch of these dice made it into my travel dice box:

When I DM, I'm often too lazy to use real minis. I often use d6es instead. With their faces turned to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, it's easy to keep track of who's attacking who: "Which orc do you hit?" "#4." The problems with this classic technique are that 1) no matter how many d6es you have, you're limited to sets of 6 monsters, and 2) the rogue is likely to scoop up your minis to roll sneak attack damage.

fooddiceNow replace the d6es with a large number of non-numeric dice. The images on the dice are irrelevant, just so they're unique. The dice make whimsical minis: "Which orc do you hit?" "The banana." You're limited only by the number of dice you own. You don't need to carefully turn the faces up to specific numbers: you can roll a handful and play them as they lie. And they're useless for rolling sneak attack damage, so the rogue won't steal them.

Laura's not gonna hand-draw you another set of Dinner Rolls dice, and you can't have mine, but you can get most of the same benefits by picking up some Recipe Dice or Rory's Story cubes or similar picture dice.

forgotten 1e spells: part 3, high-level wizard spells

January 14th, 2014 by paul

A lot of first-edition spells never made it to 3e and beyond. The higher-level spells are particularly wacky and might be fun to drop into in a later-edition game.


Glassee: This spell lets you see through four inches of metal, 6 feet of stone, or 20 feet of wood. (When do you ever find a wooden object 20 feet thick?) This is a nice dungeon-exploration spell, an upgrade of level-3 Clairvoyance. Where Clairvoyance is foiled by a thin sheet of any metal or by darkness, Glassee is only foiled by lead, gold or platinum.

At this level, there are plenty of other ways of finding out what's in the next room: passwall, teleportation, disintegration, and rock to mud are level 6 or lower. On the other hand, Glassee doesn't alert anyone on the other side of the wall. The problem is that, since it's a level 6 spell, it's expensive. Even a 20th-level wizard only has 4 level-six spots, and so can be foiled by a dungeon with 5+ rooms.

The obvious way to make this spell useful is to make it permanent, but hold on: the glassteel spell is coming up. We don't want to step on its toes.

Invisible Stalker: If you wanted to summon an Invisible Stalker, you'd normally have to wait until you could cast Monster Summoning VII, a 9th level spell - and even then, you could only control it for half an hour tops. The Invisible Stalker spell is a much lower-level shortcut: it lets you summon an Invisible Stalker and give it a mission of indefinite length. That's cool!

In general, I prefer a spell for summoning a specific creature to a bag-of-tricks random monster spell. For instance, given the choice between a Summon Random Dinosaur spell and Summon Triceratops with a Saddle And The Triceratops Comes With A Barber Pole-Striped Lance And Also A Pair Of Sunglasses, I'll take the latter, even if I'm missing out on a 16.6% chance of a T-Rex.

The Invisible Stalker spell is arguably a better NPC spell than a PC spell. I can see the PCs upsetting a wizard, and then living in fear of the invisible stalkers on their trail. It's harder to imagine the PCs using it, because it moves the action offscreen. Imagine this:

DM: The evil duke has retired to his castle.
FIGHTER: We'll have to assault the castle! We can gain access by fighting our way through the dungeons!
WIZARD: No need! I'll just cast Invisible Stalker every day and send them after the duke. One of them will eventually slip through his defenses!
DM: (crumples up castle map, cries)

Of course, using Invisible Stalker in this way is pretty much equivalent to hiring an NPC assassin, and there are extensive rules for doing that in First Edition, so I guess it's perfectly kosher.

Spiritwrack: This spell has one of the coolest names in D&D. Spiritwrack is an extremely complicated spell for exacting servitude from summoned demons and devils. It could have been a simple spell that specified the chances of enslaving a demon, but it's more than that: it's packed with details, like a little formula for a mini-adventure. The demon's (true?) name must be learned. A vellum document must be prepared, "covered with gold leaf in a continuous border." It requires ink made from powdered rubies and the ichor of a slain demon of type I, II, or III. It ends with a negotiation between the spell caster and the DM playing the part of the demon, with the demon in greater pain each round. It reads as if it were cribbed from Jack Vance or another fantasy author, as it very possibly was.

I'd give this spell out as treasure in any D&D edition, and I wouldn't change a thing. I suppose it was left out of later editions because of the Satanism scare: it is probably the closest thing in the D&D books to the demon-summoning instructions so feared by Jack Chick and his ilk.


Cacodemon: This is another spell for summoning a specific creature type, like Invisible Stalker - in this case, mid-level demons. It was probably left out of later editions for the same reason that Spiritwrack didn't make the cut. It's got lots of details for drawing pentagrams and lighting 5 black candles and other Satanism hysteria fuel. Other spell components include "mercuric-nitric acid crystals" and alcohol, which are actually the ingredients of a real-world explosive, I think. D&D as Anarchist Cookbook!

Cacodemon is actually a likely prerequisite for using Spiritwrack (gotta summon the demon before you can threaten him). A perfectly reasonable spell for a high-level evil spell caster's spell book. The Christian right has pretty much given up on D&D as a threat, so we can be as occult as we want!

Duo Dimension: High level D&D spells in 1e seem to grow increasingly baroque and bizarre, and lend themselves to more and more outlandish gameplay. This spell lets you become two-dimensional, like a character from Paper Mario. You can do anything a paper version of you can do: pass under a door, stand in front of a landscape to make it a portrait, etc. Furthermore, you're invisible when viewed head-on. Although this spell gives you many of the benefits of improved invisibility (which is normally only available to illusionists in 1e) it seems to me that it's primary a puzzle-solving or outthinking-the-DM spell. With creative interpretations of this spell, you can sneak nearly anywhere.

The spell has a downside: while you can't be attacked from the side, head-on attacks do 3x damage to you. I'd love to see this spell in a minis-heavy game with facing rules. In fact, I'd like to see it at all, preferably earlier than level 11. Imagine this as the signature move of some stealthy low-level wizard: an arcane trickster or even a stealth-domain cleric. It might open up the world in interesting ways.


Glassteel: This is basically the permanent version of Glassee. It's the spell you use to decorate your dream castle. You can make glass as hard as steel. Level 8 is kind of high level for such a niche spell, considering that Limited Wish is level 7, but at least it's cheap: its material components are free, so as soon as you hit level 15, you can upgrade home security by installing bullet-proof windows, you can protect your beakers and vials against falls and explosions, and you can provide your fighter friends with stylish see-through weapons and armor, all for nothing! Considering that it's basically a freebie, it's surprising that more high-level magic weapons aren't transparent: a stained-glass Holy Avenger would be a great paladin item.

random unusual steeds for low-level characters

December 19th, 2013 by paul

Here's an idea inspired by a trip to a merry-go-round: who's to say that all the steeds sold by the local ostler are horses? I'm not talking about high-level mounts like griffins and dragons. Maybe 1 out of every, say, 20 riding horses are actually riding goats, rabbits, or the like. The roadways and even the royal cavalry are brightened by the occasional fantastical mount. It makes the D&D world a little more fairy-tale, and what's wrong with that?

There are basically three classes of steed in D&D: riding mounts, war mounts, and exotic mounts (griffins, dragons, pegasus, etc). The last category is already handled adequately by D&D rules. Here are more options for the first two, within the budget of low-level adventurers. Each beast comes with a few variations: alternate animals with the same stats.


1 in 20 of every riding horse for sale is actually an unusual riding steed. Roll d12 to determine the type. Unless specified, riding steeds never engage in combat. Price: The same price as a riding horse or pony.

1: Riding rabbit. Travels in a series of jarring hops, up to 10 feet high and 30 feet long. Unskilled riders with a Dexterity score of less than 12 will fall off (double normal damage) after 1-6 minutes of travel. (The rabbit salesman probably didn't mention this.) Variations with the same stats: grasshopper, flea, frog.
2: Riding stag. Will only deign to bear riders of elf size or smaller, and can carry half as much weight as a riding horse. Makes a charge attack that does 1d10 damage. All other combat will be left to the rider. (10% of riding stags are intelligent and speak elven, although the human salesman doesn't know it.) Variations: ram, goat, antelope.
3. Riding butterfly. Hovers between 3 and 5 feet off the ground. Flits randomly in any direction, making general headway in the direction the rider wants to go at 2/3 the speed of a riding horse. Its unpredictability adds a +2 bonus to its rider's AC. Must be pastured on flowery fields instead of grasslands. Variations: bumblebee, hummingbird, moth.
4. Riding palanquin. A floating covered litter that requires no servants to carry it. It flies 3 feet off the ground, carries half the weight of a riding horse, and moves at half the speed. It requires no food or rest, so it can travel as long as its rider extends the occasional pallid hand to point listlessly in the desired direction. Hit point damage must be repaired by a carpenter at 10 GP per HP. Variations: floral throne, broom, hobby horse, blowfish hot air balloon.
5. Riding mole. It can only gallop at 2/3 normal riding horse speed, but it can also dig through earth at 1/10 riding horse speed (alas, not while being ridden). Doesn't mind dungeons and other confined spaces. Variations: earthworm, gopher.
6. Riding ostrich. If it or its rider are attacked in melee, it will respond with a kick or peck, for 2d6, and then run away until the attacker is no longer in sight. Every turn, the rider can try a Dex or Riding check to bring the mount back under control. Variations: kangaroo, flamingo, chicken, peacock, chocobo.
7. Riding bronto. Huge, peaceful herbivore that moves at 1/3 the speed of a riding horse and can carry up to 4x passengers/cargo. Variations: blue ox, turtle.
8. Riding pigeon. Can fly up to 100 feet high unencumbered, or 15 feet high with 100-200 pounds of weight. Variations: other non-raptor bird, bat.
9. Riding squirrel. Can climb at up to half its speed, and can jump up to 15 feet over gaps between branches or buildings. If it sees or hears combat, it will try to climb and escape/hide. Every turn, the rider can try a Dex or Riding check to bring the mount back under control. Variations: spider monkey, jumping gecko.
10. Riding mouse. Doesn't mind entering dungeons and other confined spaces, but fears open fields. Variations: Rat, fox, shrew, chipmunk.
11: Clockwork mount. Roll d20 on this table to determine the type: any result above 10 means it's a clockwork horse. Has the qualities of the original animal but does not require food or rest, and damage must be repaired in a forge at a price of 10 GP per HP.
12: Exotic mule. Roll a d10 twice on this table and combine both animals (or variations thereof) into a hybrid, with the qualities of both animals.


1 in 20 of every warhorse for sale is actually an unusual war steed. Roll d12 to determine the type. Unless otherwise specified, these animals have the stats of a heavy warhorse and do claw/claw/bite damage equal to the heavy war horse's hoof/hoof/bite. Price: twice the price of a heavy warhorse.

1: War wolf. If a war wolf bites a target, and the unmodified attack roll is greater than the target's Strength score, the wolf pulls the target prone. 5% of these animals talk, but they only say depressing, cynical, or creepy things. Variations: hyena, hound, weasel, badger.
2: War lion. It fights like a heavy warhorse with +1d6 hit dice. For each additional hit die, its price is increased by the cost of a heavy warhorse and the damage of its bite attack increases by +1. Variations: tiger or other great cat
3: War boar. These black pigs often serve witches in black masses. Attack: charge attack that does 2d10 damage, or a gore that does 1d12 damage. Variations: ox, elk, bull, rhino
4: War ogre. An ordinary, poorly trained ogre fitted with a saddle. Has the stats of an ogre instead of a heavy warhorse. If it's subject to any temptation (hit by a new enemy, in sight of meat, etc) it must make a Will/Wisdom check or go out of control. Its rider may force it to ignore that particular temptation by striking the ogre with a whip or other weapon (automatic hit, normal weapon damage). Variations: baboon, bear.
5: War zebracorn. Two-horned zebra, familiar to many from World of Warcraft, but originally appearing (as far as I know) in a Gardner F. Fox pulp novel. The poor man's unicorn. Fights as a heavy warhorse except on the charge, where it does 2d10 damage. Variations: giraffecorn, roostercorn, al-miraj.
6. War frog. A brightly colored poison-dart frog that runs on its back legs. The touch of its skin forces a poison/fort save/Con check or the subject takes 1d6 extra damage. A target may only take this damage once per round, even if hit by multiple attacks. The rider must be heavily clothed and gloved to avoid this poison. The rider may wipe his or her weapons or arrows on the frog's skin to poison them. Variations: Hovering jellyfish (also called war flumph), hovering electric eel (does electricity damage).
7. War wasp. Hovers between 3 and 5 feet off the ground. Makes a single attack for 1d4 damage. On a hit, the target makes a poison/fort save/Con check or takes 1d12 extra damage. The rider should accept that anyone riding a war wasp is probably not one of the good guys. Variations: robber fly, mosquito, also not the good guys.
8. War Beetle. Thick armor gives it a +2 AC. It makes a single pincer attack that does 2d6 damage. On a hit, it can grasp its target and do an automatic 1d6 damage every turn until the target escapes. Variations: ant, beetle, crab, scorpion (a scorpion has a second attack, the same as that of a war wasp, and costs twice as much as other unusual war mounts).
9. War centipede: Makes a single bite attack, which does 1d4 damage. On a hit, the target makes a poison/fort save/Con check or takes 1d6 extra damage. The centipede can carry up to 4 riders. Variation: War cobra.
10. War Wolverine. In addition to its normal attacks, it can release a foul-smelling cloud, straight behind it in a 30-foot-diameter sphere. Anyone in the sphere is stinky for 1 hour. Stinky creatures, and anyone next to them, make all attacks at -1 unless their Constitution is 15 or higher. Variation: polecat, skunk.
11. Flamingo Woman. This sentient tribeswoman has the lower half of a flamingo and the upper half of a woman. She's not for sale; she hires herself out as a steed/mercenary or steed/guide. Variations: centaur, or roll d10 on this chart to determine the lower half of the animal.
12. Exotic War Mule. Roll d10 on this table twice and combine both animals (or variations thereof) into a hybrid, with some or all of the special qualities of both animals. If it has all the qualities of both, its cost is doubled.

Lots of horses rule: You're not going to roll d20 for every horse in a mass cavalry charge. Make the following nonmathematical assumptions: For every 20 steeds, exactly 1 is unusual. Furthermore, for groups of less than 20, if you roll the # of steeds or less on a d20, exactly one is unusual. For instance, for five horses, you'll have one unusual steed if you roll 1-5 on a d20.

two creepy magic items from a dream

December 13th, 2013 by paul

Last night I dreamed that I inherited a haunted house. It was chock full of cursed/creepy objects, some of them good enough to stat up as D&D items.

Oracular Skull: This skull is set into the wall. When you make "eye contact" with its sockets, it says something like "pay me a tribute and I will answer any question you wish." It opens its mouth. If you put money in its mouth and ask a question, it will answer with a high degree of accuracy. The price varies based on the difficulty and importance of the question, from around 50 GP for something like "what is the most common hair color in the country" to 1000 GP for "what is the secret weakness of the lich king". The problem? The skull doesn't specify its price for each question. If you put in too little for a certain question, it gobbles down the money and says, "Not enough, ask again."

For extra creepiness, set this magic skull into a wall made of nonmagic skulls.

In my dream, I asked the skull, "What is your price structure?" hoping that this would be a free question. The skull replied, in an aggrieved tone, "I said, pay me a tribute and I will answer any question you wish." So you have to pay to find out the price of a question. Nice racket, dream skull.

So let's say I use this skull in a game, say on the third level of some dungeon. Let's further say that I make the skull's answers infallible, though brief. Does this break the game? I'd have to try it out to make sure, but I have a feeling it wouldn't. For most PC parties, its answers are extremely expensive, in several ways: 1000 GP is a lot, and it's easy to overpay if you need to beat an unknown price, and it can be somewhat taxing to get down to level 3 of a dungeon, even if you've cleared it before. It's certainly more expensive than the various spells that let you ask questions of the gods themselves.

Snake Ring: This is a big, showy, gem-studded ring, clearly worth a lot of money. Its central gem is a pointy crystal that sticks out like a needle. When you put on the ring, you discover that the central gem wiggles around like the needle of a compass. It does its best to point towards the nearest location of at least 1 pound of food (possibly in your backpack).

If you touch the ring to food, the gem turns into a 1 1/2-inch-long snake, crawls out of the ring, and eats a pound of food. After it finishes, it lets you know telepathically that it will perform a service for you. It can perform any service that a tiny snake can accomplish (1 HP, and with a bite that does 1 point of damage: poison save or the target falls asleep). It will return to the ring after it completes its task or after 1 day of trying.

Here's the weird thing about the ring: after each use, it requires double the food and is double the size: so on its second use it requires 2 pounds of food and is 3 inches long, and on the third use it eats 4 pounds and is 6 inches long, etc. On each use, its bite damage also goes up by 1 point.

In my dream, my friend was excited about finding the ring, but I was deeply suspicious of it. I wondered: once it gets big enough to eat, say, 160 or 320 pounds of food at a time, will it consider the closest person - maybe even the ring owner - to be the closest food source? At some point, is it going to go on some sort of food binge and eat all the food in the world?

Another disquieting thing in the dream, probably sparked by the events of the Mearls sidebar: we found the ring stuck on a weird, leathery, boneless, severed hand. In order to slip off the ring, my friend had to cut off a finger. How did the original owner's hand get like that?

forgotten 1e spells: part 2, mid-level wizard spells

December 5th, 2013 by paul

A lot of first-edition spells never made it to 3e and beyond. Some of them would be fun in a later-edition game. Let's rehabilitate some of the forgotten mid-level wizard spells.


Protection from Normal Missiles: in 3e, PfNM was replaced with the generally more useful Wind Wall - and still nobody took it! Although I never saw anyone cast PfNM, I've seen it used in thought experiments, including one that posited that a magic-user with Fly, PfNM, and a sling could safely rout an entire army, given enough time. In fact, with 1-minute combat rounds and a magic-user's THAC0, a wizard could kill, maybe, 20 soldiers an hour tops, at the end of which the army would have found cover, built big wooden shields, and started construction on a ballista.

In order for Protection from Normal Missiles to compete with Fly, Fireball, and other level-3 spells, it should offer some of the monk's ability to deflect missiles back at the firer. A goblin shoots an arrow at the wizard. He points! The arrow reverses course! That's a spell that's (almost) worth taking.


Dig: Dig lets you excavate one 5' cube per level. It's the Minecraft spell. It has obvious uses for people engaged in construction - NPCs and characters building strongholds - but it also has surprisingly detailed, and powerful, combat mechanics. "Any creature at the edge (1') of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided. Any creature moving rapidly towards a pit area will fall in unless it saves versus magic. Any creature caught in the center of a pit just dug will always fall in."

What does it mean to use your dexterity as a saving throw? Normally, a low saving throw is good, but a high Dexterity is good. Do you roll over your Dex on a d20, maybe? This is a common houserule for making ability checks, but are there any other mechanics like this in 1e D&D?

Between Dig's ability to let you mine your own dungeons and excavate redstone, its complex rules for shoring up tunnels, and its Lode Runner-like combat mechanics, Dig is a pretty cool spell as it is. I might take it instead of Lightning Bolt for my next first-edition wizard.

Fire Charm: Fire Charm is a very evocatively-written spell that "causes a gossamer veil of multi-hued flame to circle a fire at 5' distance." Anyone who views the fire might become hypnotized (if they fail a save) and vulnerable to suggestion (if they fail a second save). The problem with this spell is that it's the same level as Charm Monster, which requires only one saving throw, and which lasts several weeks, which is way better than Fire Charm's 2 rounds/level or whenever the victim stops staring at the fire, whichever is less. Still, I think a wizard using Fire Charm is having more fun than one who uses Charm Monster. A wizard casting Fire Charm is tricking people into staring at fires, throwing pieces of silk into the fire (that's the material component), and composing commands of 12 words or less that all end with "while maintaining constant eye contact with the fire". And you just know that their face is chiaroscuroed with 200% more sinister shadows.

You know what? Make Fire Charm an exotic variation of Charm Monster. There's a single copy of this version of the spell, and it's in the spellbook of the Grand Vizier of the djinn court. It's just like Charm Monster, except if you manage to cast it while going through the throwing-your-handkerchief-into-a-normal-fire rigmarole, the victim gets a penalty to their saving throw.

Fumble: This spell is like "When you cast this spell, the DM can have fun making up wacky fumbles," which is probably why it didn't make it into 3rd Edition. Too silly, and too much improv left to the DM. As a silly improv DM myself, of course, I think it sounds great.

The only tweak I'd make: allow it to be cast on an object as well as a creature. Whoever holds the object becomes clumsy. When you fumble the object, it tends to end up in the hands of an enemy. Cast the spell on a coveted mcguffin during a big battle. Then you end up with the opening scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with an object that changes sides multiple times during a battle.

Massmorph: Now we're talking. Massmorph is one of the classic forgotten 1e spells. From hearing its name, you'd think it's a mass version of Polymorph. That's basically what it is. You can make 70+ people look like anything you can think of - as long as all you can think of is various species of trees.

Like Dig, this is one of those spells that is clearly designed for mass combat. In fact, the level-4 spell list has a lot of spells that would be useful on the battlefield: clearly, around this level, the characters' focus is meant to change from dungeon-robbing to wider concerns. Confusion, Fear, Fire Charm, Ice Storm, and Plant Growth all affect large areas or large numbers of targets. Dig, Wall of Ice and Wall of Fire slice up the battlefield. Hallucinatory Terrain and Massmorph allow large bodies of troops to hide in ambush or to approach enemies in secret. Malcolm's army in Macbeth presumably had a seventh-level wizard along.


Distance Distortion: This is a very strange spell. "This spell can only be cast when the magic-user has an earth elemental conjured up." It expends the elemental. For the expenditure of a fourth-level spell AND an elemental, what do you get? You can make 100 yards seem like 50 yards or like 200 yards. What's it for? Making confusing dungeons? If it were permanent, yes, but it only lasts for 1 turn per level.

One change would make this into a spell worth transcribing. Make it permanent. Now a wizard can use it to build all sorts of architectural tricks and hidey holes into his or her wizard tower. A DM can use it to justify that map mistake that put four 10x10 rooms next to a 20' length of corridor. A New Yorker can use it to make their two-bedroom apartment big enough for 2 people. Hey-o!

the 5e races redone as backgrounds

November 20th, 2013 by paul

I'd like D&D race to have less mechanics attached. I'm perfectly happy to play a halfling thief without the Dex bonus nudging me into it. But on the other hand, I want some rules behind race: if being an elf just means writing "elf" on my character sheet, the "race" box is as irrelevant as those "weight" and "eye color" boxes that I haven't filled out since high school.

What's the lightest possible representation of, say, a dwarf that still feels like a dwarf? Attribute bonuses and weapon proficiencies can go: I'm going to give Bimli, my dwarven fighter, an axe and a high Strength because that's how I picture Bimli. What about the other dwarven traits? I don't need darkvision: dwarves carry lanterns. Dwarven resilience? Stonecunning? Sure, I'll take those: I'd like the rules to acknowledge my hardiness and my knowledge of underground places.

At this point, I could represent a dwarven character with a 5e background. (A background gives you a single trait, a few skills, and a few other miscellaneous pieces of junk.)

Background: Dwarf
Trait: Dwarven Resilience. You have advantage on saving throws vs poison.
Skills: Athletics, Dungeoneering, History
Languages: Dwarven

Note that I've added Dungeoneering back to the 5e skill list, and that it's a perfectly acceptable representation of Stonecunning.

Here are some things I like about this solution:

  • The Dwarf background is now mutually exclusive with other backgrounds: if your background is Dwarf, you studied mining and other dwarfy stuff, so you're not a peasant or a jester. On the other hand, if someone wants to be a dwarven sage, they can take the Sage background. They're mechanically the same as a human sage, except that they write "Dwarf" on the Race section of their character sheet.
  • It posits a world where, apart from a zany magical trait or two, "race" differences are explicitly cultural differences. This sidesteps a lot of fantasy-racism creepiness.
  • It removes a step from character creation: instead of race/class/background, you just choose class/background.
  • It makes character creation easier in other ways. You don't have to adjust your 3d6 or 4d6-drop-lowest attributes in any way, and you don't have to find a place to write five racial traits on your character sheet.
  • 18 is the highest starting strength, and it's rare!
  • For the first time ever, humans are reasonably balanced with other races. A dwarf character has access to exactly one more background than humans do. (And if a human character was raised by dwarves, I'd be OK with her taking the Dwarf background.)

    OK, here are the 5e races as backgrounds:

    Dwarf Heritage
    Trait: Dwarven Resilience. You have advantage on saving throws vs poison.
    Skills: Athletics, Dungeoneering, History
    Languages: Dwarven

    Elf Heritage
    Trait: Fey Ancestry. You have advantage on saving throws vs charm effects, and you do not sleep.
    Skills: Perception, Nature, Stealth.
    Languages: Elvish.

    Halfling Heritage
    Trait: Small and Lucky. You cannot use large weapons. Reroll a natural 1 on any d20 roll.
    Skills: Acrobatics, Diplomacy, Stealth
    Languages: Halfling.

    There is no Human Heritage background. Humans can choose any of the standard backgrounds.

    The latest playtest document also includes a bunch of "unusual" races. Many of them are exceptional in that they have magic powers. You might rule that some of these races must take their racial background: for instance, a dragonborn must take the dragonborn background - otherwise where did the breath weapon go? - and no other race can opt into the dragonborn background - humans can't breathe lightning.

    Trait: You have a breath weapon, which has complicated rules spelled out in the Races document.
    Skills: Athletics, Animal Handling, Intimidation.

    Trait: Infravision. You can see in the dark. You're visibly uncomfortable when in direct sunlight.
    Skills: Stealth, Perception, Intimidation.

    Gnome: Just like Halfling. Let's not split hairs here.

    Half-Elf: Just like Elf. Let's not split hairs here.

    Half-Orc: Just like Drow. Let's not split hairs here.

    Kender: I'm tempted to say "just like halfling", but the kender race description does actually suggest its own mechanics:
    Trait: Little Pest. You can't use large weapons. If you taunt an opponent, that opponent hates you the most, and the DM should have it act accordingly.
    Skills: Deception, Perform, Sleight of Hand.

    Trait: Hellish Resistance. You are resistant to fire damage.
    Skills: Perception, Religion, Intimidate.

    Trait: Construct. You do not eat, sleep, or breathe.
    Skills: Athletics, Arcana, History.

    Full disclosure: I won't play exactly this way myself: although I like backgrounds, I don't really like skill lists. I think I'll give players two skills: one is their class and one is their background. What that means is up to the DM and players. A fighter with the Guild Thief background will be good at climbing across rooftops, but not necessarily climbing trees. A fighter with the Elf background will be good at climbing trees, but not necessarily rooftops. This approach requires more negotiation between the DM and players, but it more closely approaches my ideal of D&D: "I lost all my books, but I found my dice. Let's play D&D!"

  • the dungeons are in the mountains

    November 14th, 2013 by paul

    There might no Underdark. Every dungeon in the world could be above sea level: in the mountains. Every mountain could be riddled with stacks and stacks of dungeons, goblin caverns, and general mythic underworldliness.

    I get the feeling that that's the case in Tolkien's world. The dungeons are all in mountains: Bilbo's goblins, the mines of Mordor, the Lonely Mountain, Mount Doom. There is no chance that there's a dungeon under the Shire or Rohan.

    If you jam-packed a mountain with mythic underworld, what would its population be? As high as you needed -- or higher. Manhattan is 33 square miles, and, generously, 1/3 of a mile tall from the base to the tip of the Empire State Building. Mount Everest is about 580 cubic miles. That means you could easily fit Manhattan 50 times in Mount Everest. Everest alone could fit 75 million cosmopolitan goblin residents, and up to half a billion goblins during the weekday (commuting by goblin subway from less desirable mountains).

    OK, that upper limit is pretty ridiculous. But we can safely assume that, if the mountains are reasonably well-riddled with dungeons, there are many more monsters in the world than there are people.

    Fantasy is, in my opinion, a conservative, maybe even Tory literary form, and a direct descendant of the British imperialist adventure format familiar to many early fantasy writers. (Sir Richard Burton was a relative of Lord Dunsany. Tolkien was born in South Africa, and mentioned H Rider Haggard as one of his favorite authors.) The premise of imperialist history/fiction is this: a handful of civilized people set out into the wilderness, and, through superior organization, defeat overwhelming numbers of native peoples. It's usually accomplished by neutralizing barbarian leaders who could bring about the ultimate disaster: uniting the numerically-superior hordes under one banner. That's what Aragorn and Gandalf are up to, and it's also how the British saw their role in India, Africa and the Middle East.

    The role of civilization in D&D is no different. Adventurers go out and kill goblin kings and evil necromancers before they can gather their power. (This theme is complicated by the Howardian branch of American fantasy which pits, not civilized folk, but barbarians against the wild. D&D is big enough for both strains.)

    The mountains are a nice place for this imperialist war against chaos. The mountains are nicely laid out on the world map, not like subterranean Underdark which requires a separate sheet of paper underneath. They're impassable; they're strung together in great malignant walls; and they loom on the horizon like thunderclouds threatening to spill forth a storm of war onto the world.

    With so much room for evil in the mountains, it makes me wonder what's under the good honest dirt of the Shire and other civilized places. More dirt? Hell? Sunless seas sailed by the dead gods?