vary your vampires

March 16th, 2016

With the Curse of Strahd D&D adventure released this week, there’s a chance that you might be fighting vampires in your next 5e game. Here’s some literary trivia that suggests a change to the vampire stat block.

I’m reading this vampire novel, Carmilla, by J Sheridan LeFanu. It was written two decades before Dracula, and it features a female vampire who turns not into a bat, like Dracula and the D&D vampire, but a cat.

That got me thinking: maybe we have vampire shape-changing abilities wrong. Maybe we’re taking Dracula’s bat form and assuming it’s universal to vampires — sort of like if Order of the Stick were our only fantasy reference and we assumed all wizards had raven familiars.

Let’s assume that vampires have varied animal forms. (Are there already rules like this in Vampire: the Masquerade?) From now on, for each vampire or vampire family, roll on the following table to determine the form of the vampire’s Shape Change ability and swarm-summoning ability. (To make this list, I looted the animal section of the monster manual, paying particular attention to wizard familiars and nocturnal creatures.)

Roll d20:
1 Bat
2 Blood hawk (naturally, how is this ever NOT a vampire form)
3 Cat
4 Flying snake
5 Frog (how Arnesonian!)
6 Giant centipede
7 Jackal
8 Mastiff
9 Owl
10 Poisonous snake
11 Rat
12 Raven
13 Scorpion
14 Spider
15 Wolf
16-20 roll twice more on this table (this is how the literary Dracula ended up with both a mastiff form and a bat form)

While you’re at it, surprise your players! Roll up a new animal form for Strahd himself. Or just look at the name of the setting and give him a raven.

In which I risk my life by revealing the mysteries of the guilds

March 3rd, 2016

The guild is an important part of medieval life that doesn’t translate well to d&d’s faux-medieval XPocracy (apart from the thieves and adventurers guilds). After all, what is gameable about, say, the glaziers’ guild?

One thing to remember is that there was no such thing as the ignorant country bumpkins’ guild. Medieval guilds were mostly composed of educated professionals. Scientists. Seekers after knowledge. In D&D terms: magic users.

Furthermore, medieval guilds were shrouded by layers of ritual mystery. Think of the esoteric ceremonies of the Masons. Now let’s D&D it up. Imagine that each guild’s closely guarded secret is actually of world-shattering importance. Everything about a campaign’s cosmology could be informed or subverted by some guild secret.

I’m running a guild-heavy city game right now, so I prepared this handy chart. For each guild, roll d6 to learn the unspeakable secret it guards. Every time you roll up a new set of guilds, your campaign will have new alliances, villains, threats, and planar secrets.

Alchemists guild. The alchemists make anything you can stir, from potions and poisons to beer and wine. They’re the comic relief of the guilds, since they’re always blowing up their own laboratories, but honestly, don’t wizards do that too? And the elders of the guild know secrets that are anything but comic.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1 nitrogen fertilizer. Their secret agricultural compound could triple the civilized population, but they know that a higher population leads to more psionic energy which leads to visits from hungry Others.
2 Potion of inevitable success. A secret brew concocted from waters from the Lake of Illumination gives Fortune’s wheel just the push to spin its drinker to the top. Even a buffoon may lead conquering armies or rule kingdoms. Its effects wear off quite suddenly when the drinker’s ambition is achieved.
3 Gunpowder. The secrets of p 268 of the Fifth Edition DMG could transform warfare. The blacksmiths guild desperately wants to bury this secret.
4 Elixir of immortality. The guild has learned that old age can be bested, but at terrible sacrifice of innocent lives. A series of disappearances can be traced to surprisingly young guild elders.
5 By combining research with the jewelers guild, the alchemists are close to an economy-destroying breakthrough allowing them to turn lead into gold, silver into mithril, or gold into an even more marvelous metal, sungold.
6 Roll d6 twice more on this table.

Beggars guild. Besides beggars, the guild includes actors, musicians, prostitutes, and performers.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1 Gateway glyphs. Beggars mark every public doorway with secret glyphs. The reader of this code knows secrets about each building’s inhabitant.
2 Ads. The beggars are close to a breakthrough in the sinister science of advertising, which makes the worse appear better, enriches the knave, and lets the few control the many.
3 Mechanical foes. There are those hidden among us, initiates of the jewelers guild, who have replaced their hearts with clockwork and have given up every emotion except greed. They are locked in an eternal war with the beggars guild.
4. Actors in high places. Many of the world’s rulers have been replaced with beggars guild duplicates. They will give patronage to their own.
5. Tribute game. The thieves guild demands yearly tribute of the beggars guild. The beggars guild thinks it is great fun to cheat them of the tribute in a different way each year.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

Blacksmith guild. This guild includes many adventurers and soldiers in its ranks. Besides smithing, they study personal combat and war tactics.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1. Metallurgy. If they chose, the guild could use its metallurgical magic to arm legions with +1 armor and melee weapons, giant mecha, and animated swords.
2. Fallen devils. According to the devil that the smiths secretly worship, devils are not fallen angels. Rather, angels are devils who fell when they became toadies of the gods. The smiths are forging black metal rings which will “free” the angels.
3. Manual of Conquest. The last few conquerors of the world were guild members who understood the secret blacksmith book, the Manual of Conquest. There are chapters by many founders of bygone empires, including Dar the Shining, Timord the Conqueror and Vorik the Lion. The book has been stolen by the scriveners guild.
4. Glassteel. Members of the glazers guild and blacksmiths guild working together can produce glassteel, strong as steel, clear as glass, and light as mithril.
5. Fire walking. To Guild initiates, every fire is a doorway to every other fire.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

The guild of Carpenters and weavers. The practitioners of these two arts work under one guild to combine their efforts on ship-making, archery, and weaving.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1 The clothes make the man. The weavers can imbue a suit of clothes with magic so that its wearer can take on the appearance and voice of anyone who previously wore those clothes. They are infiltrating the alchemists guild, looking for the secret of gunpowder so that their ships may rule the seas.
2 Men of war. There are plans on the High Carpenter’s desk for a new class of (flying?) ship called the Man of War. It can hold a thousand men and is virtually unsinkable (or the flying equivalent).
3. The seven winds. The corpses of the Wind Dukes of Aaqa are the sources of the 7 winds. If you survive a journey to one of the corpses, you can forever summon that wind. You can speed your own ships and hinder your rivals.
4 The Princess Ark. The guild has pooled its knowledge with the scriveners guild to produce a great ship, the Princess Ark, that can fly to the stars. The ship was lost on its maiden voyage. The guilds are building scout ships to explore the stars and find the Ark.
5 The Loom of Life. There is a huge loom in the Guildhall of the Winds. Cut a thread and someone, somewhere, will die. Initiates know what thread goes to what life.
6 Roll twice more on this table.

Glaziers guild. The glaziers don’t just make window panes: they grind telescope lenses, and peer through them, and learn much that is forbidden.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1. Hostile takeover. One or more of the gods are dead and prayers are being answered by an alien entity with big plans. Step 1: going public.
2. Through the looking glass. A mirror can be made which traps people in a dimension unknown to cosmologists.
3. Secret whispers. Point your telescope at a certain empty point in the night and you will hear whispered nonsense rhymes. Whisper them in someone’s ear and they will die. Whisper them again in the corpses ear and it will live again but follow your commands…
4. Paranoia. The beggars guild inner circle are shapechangers from a distant star. They are replacing rulers and generals with their own.
5. The walls have eyes. To Guild initiates, every piece of glass is a window to every other piece of glass.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

was gary right about gold coin weight?

February 10th, 2016

In Gary Gygax D&D, coins weigh 1/10 of a pound. In WOTC D&D, coins weigh the more historically plausible 1/50 of a pound. Gary’s giant coins have been widely mocked as absurd dinner-plate coins. Imagine a pound of gold only being worth 10 GP! Imagine how big that coin must be!

But hold on. Let’s put aside copper and silver and concentrate on gold. Gold is heavy. Exactly how big would a 1/10-pound gold coin be?

Let’s take the largest widely-used American coin: the silver dollar. The Eisenhower dollar (which is copper/nickel) and its silver predecessors (like the Morgan dollar, which is 90% silver) are one and a half inches in diameter. The Morgan dollar weighed .058 of a pound. Gold is 1.84x as dense as silver. Multiply gold’s density by the silver coin’s weight and you get: 106/1000. In other words, a gold coin the size of an Eisenhower dollar would weigh a tenth of a pound – a little more even.

The silver dollar is a big coin, but it’s not dinner-plate-sized by any means. It fits in your pocket. It was legal tender and it was reasonably common. Even if it weighed twice as much as it did, it would still not have yanked your pants down by their pockets.

If you want to get a sense of how big a silver dollar, and thus a 1/10# D&D gold coin is, look at a poker chip. That’s about one and a half inches in diameter.

OK, all very well and good, but historical gold coins do weigh much less than a tenth of a pound. They tend to be thin little slivers, more like a US penny. Shouldn’t we match historical reality, in which gold coins tended to be about 1/50 of a pound?

holmes_basic_boxI say we should not. D&D economy really doesn’t line up with Earth history to begin with. For one thing, prices are about 10x too high. For another thing, every dragon is sleeping on a bed of gold, even though on Earth, the total gold mined before 1950 would fit in one Olympic swimming pool. Gold is clearly much more common in D&D than on it was in medieval Earth.

Accept that premise and a lot of problems go away. You don’t need to go to a silver standard to match Earth historical prices. Just accept that a pound of gold buys you a longsword; laborers earn a gold piece a day instead of a silver groat; even in a back country tavern, you don’t cause a riot by flashing gold; and for larger transactions, higher currency must be used, like platinum and gems. None of this is absurd. It’s only fantastical. It assumes that, for whatever reason, D&D worlds ended up with heavier elements than did Earth. In such a world, gold coins would be large and heavy, just as silver coins were large and heavy at the time of the Morgan silver dollar.

Of course, my weight calculations only hold true for gold and platinum. Silver coins of 1/10 pound would be bigger than an inch and a half, and copper coins would be bigger still. But that doesn’t really matter. Silver as a currency disappears from D&D at character level 2, and even first level parties disdain hoards of copper coins. It’s not worth the rules weight to assign them specific lighter weights. Just say that coins are 1/10 pounds and all your calculations will be easy.

fairyland and scale

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 doppelgänger, 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
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
Shocking Grasp (cantrip in 5e)
(Tenser’s) Floating Disk
Unseen Servant
Spider Climb (1 in 1e, 2 in 3/5e)

Spell Level 2
Wizard/Arcane Lock
Continual Light/Flame
Detect/See Invisible
ESP/Detect Thoughts (name changed as part of 3e’s war on sci-fi elements)
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)

Spell Level 3
Dispel Magic
Explosive Runes (in 5e it’s folded in Glyph of Warding)
Hold Person (2 in 1/3e, 3 in 5e)
(Leomund’s) Tiny Hut
Lightning Bolt
Protection from Evil/Magic Circle
Suggestion (3 in 1e/3e, 2 in 5e)
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
Dimension Door,
Hallucinatory Terrain
Ice Storm
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)
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)
Stone Shape (5 in 1e, 4 in 3/5e)
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)
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
Power Word Stun (7 in 1e, 8 in 3/5e)

Spell Level 8
Incendiary Cloud
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
Meteor Swarm
Power Word Kill
Prismatic Sphere/Wall
Time stop

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.

Blade Ward
Fire Bolt
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
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.

Click to enlarge

For reference, here is the real thing.

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.


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”.


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: