Christmas Saga

The last week or so in the UK has been pretty damn grim, and while I am hideously behind on my Christmas shopping, there is at least one part of the season I am ready for. World building is something of a passion, and over the last… let’s see… eight years? I have been building a world, a mythology of Christmas that I use for a host of role-playing games over the festive period. It’s a story I have told over and over again, adding a little more every time. Here is the story to date, concisely summarised for you.

The Archipelago of Misfit Toys

A band of slightly broken toys escape solitude and captivity among the broken and discarded things of the world, and in their bid for freedom they come across a freedom fighter, Bannock, Gingerbread King of the candyfolk, the only creature capable of evading the elfen wild hunt, dashing through the clouds on their one horse open sleighs. By helping one another they overthrew Santa and his hunt, sneaking into his feasting hall through a tunnel opened by the Muffin Man, driving the Slaver of candy, the dark lord of festivity, into the darkness and obscurity.

The Castle of Teeth

In a faraway village the children brave the cold and the dark to do mischief, acts of rebellion, fights, gorging themselves on sugary treats. Only tooth fairies could cause such havoc, finally freed from the service of Santa Clause, they can do whatever they please. Fortunately King Bannock has friends, the ones who taught him to sneak and creep, a group of Bogeymen whose duty it is to keep children safe and fearful in their beds, to teach them the wisdom of caution. Through the hall of lanterns where teeth burn, revealing the disposition of each child – be they naughty or nice – and into a secret cellar, the Bogeyfolk halt a plot to build a Krampus of their own, that would abduct children and feed them to the fey.

Long Live the King

King Bannock is dead. His champions take the long climb up Mt Verdance Eternal, a conical mountain fraught with beguiling hazards, baubles that dangle your greatest desires before you, twinkling lights that are malevolent fey that would lead victims into deep gorges, and the twisting, shimmering, Tinselworms. At the top, an angel, of the order Solar, who alone may declare the name of the heir to the Sugar Throne. Only a deceptive and cunning confection can keep his people safe, a member of the resistance… the Muffin Man… now the Muffin King. Only one champion crawled down from the sacred mountain to share the news.

Unholy Night

A prison of festivity hides deep in a cave, in which the words “HO HO HO” are gouged with deep claw marks upon the walls. A handful of Santa’s truest disciples climb down to try and free the Fey Prince who once ruled the solstice. Through malice and carnage they work their magick upon the locks, dragging a sacrifice behind them, and conduct a powerful ritual, hanging stockings with care, ensuring that nothing stirs, leaving an offering before the fireplace… but the creature that stepped free of the chimney was not who they expected to find, a puppet and his master, a servant of the Black God of Candy, the Bittersweet, Bartholomew Basset.

The Factory Awakens

A hidden fortress in the snow has sprung to life, brightly coloured packages loaded into the back of a cart that already has a team of reindeer tacked and harnessed ready to fly, but no elves work here. A team of assorted Christmas Champions attempt to sneak their way inside to learn more, fighting their way past the clockwork guards, sneaking into the factory floor to find the place overrun with long-legged scaly creatures that laugh and sing, and giftwrap chaos for a whole new year to begin!

This Saturday… the story continues. A nightmare being guides the hand of cruel old St. Nick, and despite the best efforts of good, and honest heroes, it’s looking less and less likely that there will ever be a silent night again.

Review – Eberron: Rising From the Last War

Hmm… ok…

Eberron is certainly the first and may be the only campaign setting to see a physical print in fifth edition. While the edition as a whole has held up Forgotten Realms for campaigns, and of course draws a great deal upon Dragonlance and Greyhawk to build a “core” of information, cosmology, gods, and history, the big settings have received little supportive nods here and there in sidebars and appendices and the like, but Eberron has also seen some pretty thorough Unearthed Arcana support, followed by a small, cheapish pdf publication late last year… or maybe early this year? I forget, I’ve been busy.

Rising from the Last War is double the length in terms of pages, with written content padded out with artificer rules only slightly modified from the last playtest edition, some pretty artwork, a few rule ideas, monster statblocks, and a few extended descriptions of factions, regions, history, and essential details.

Which begs the question… is it worth it?

 

Financially, that’s a maybe, the books aren’t cheap, let’s be realistic here. If you bought the Wayfinder’s Guide (the pdf I was talking about) you might have enough, but it’s better if you have access to some of the third edition lore books that can help pad out Keith Baker’s world with locations and people, although it’s not strictly necessary, just interesting.

In terms of content, well certainly the new book has some rules updates, and while I haven’t been through everything yet there’s certainly a few notable examples I’ve picked out.

Warforged rules have been altered, although I might argue that the rules from either book are balanced sufficiently to use, and given the manufactured nature of warforged I’d also make the case that you could use either rule-set in any given game, rather than choosing one or the other. Changelings have been simplified, perhaps diminished having lost an ability that makes them a little harder to hit, Kalashtar don’t appear changed from a quick once-over, and Shifters have been altered a little to make them notably more diverse depending on the subtype. On the subject of racial rules, the rules for building dragonmarked characters have been altered, and certainly the new rules seem simplified, but I’m still undecided on which rules I prefer.

So far as the artificer goes, I have to say that the artwork really helps bring the subclasses to life, I wasn’t entirely certain about translating some of the rules into narrative components. Seeing things like the alchemical homunculus and the artillerist’s collection of wands given artwork is far more evocative, and I say this as someone who loves artificers whatever the edition.

Points of interest, there is a section on choosing a patron that reads as advice for players and dungeon masters alike, and I love the notion of using it as part of a session zero character building discussion because it gives players ideas on the kind of games available to them and what kind of world they’re stepping into. If you run a game that’s faction-heavy it’s easily worth a read for ideas on how to market those factions to your players.

In terms of building the themes of the major continent, Khorvairre, I love the flavour texts. Where previous books have included annotations from famous NPCs, here we have newspaper cuttings to drive home the modernity of Eberron life. Propaganda pieces, inflammatory and fear-mongering snippets that read like they were written to panic the populus, but instead give the DMs and players some twisted ideas. Tales of drug abuse in the city of towers, living weapons and armour forged in the dwarven annex – the Mror Holds – painted as grotesque abominations, but written in a paper sold to the nation that raised its own dead in the last war.

Certainly the book goes into far greater detail than the Wayfinder’s Guide, and presumably it supersedes the majority of the content being the newer publication, and while I’ll never be satisfied with the amount of detail (having read most of the Eberron companion books from 3.5) it’s certainly quite a thorough volume, and to go properly in-depth would have required a far bigger, and more expensive book. I was also saddened by the absence of psionic rules, however…

A new Unearthed Arcana came out recently giving subclass options for fighters, rogues, and wizards, that focus on psionic power, and Eberron is not the only major campaign setting that could warrant a full-sized publication. There is another for whom psionics are a far bigger deal…

Taking the Tarrasque Seriously

The highest challenge rating in D&D, dropped into every monster manual, the fantasy Godzilla, has become something of a joke. Everyone who’s been in the game long enough has a “Tarrasque plan” or a story of how they one-shot or would one-shot the Tarrasque, and every DM has thrown the word around as the monster equivalent of “Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies”.

It appears in no famous campaigns, it has very little by way of back-story, it just sleeps beneath the world waiting for the time when it must rise and destroy, a thing as old or perhaps older than gods, with no motive other than to smash and destroy. And to be honest, by the time your party have reached an adequate level to defeat it, it’s actually pretty easy because it’s incredibly dimwitted, sluggish, and while it has hit points for days, a bucket of resistances, and can deflect certain magical effects, it can be overwhelmed and destroyed in time.

Now, fifth edition did a lot to lend personality to monsters, to contextualise them in potential scenarios and use evocative descriptions to bring out the best in even the most obscure creatures, such that one could imagine including them in any number of adventures. And yet the Tarrasque remains a law unto itself, the party benchtest, the DM’s biggest and nastiest threat, that arrives without warning, wants nothing but destruction, and needs to be put down the old fashioned way.

Let’s do some work:

People Are Crazy

The Tarrasque represents a force of nature, if you’re looking for a story, look no further than Godzilla for some ideas, although more specifically look at the human elements. The stirrings of the Tarrasque might raise cults or dark scholars who embrace the idea of a world-wide extinction, or perhaps there are lunatic agents who believe they can control the rampaging beast. Necromancers – hells, Vecna himself – might invoke the beast to rise to cause untold death to swell their ranks.

In this scenario we have cults of madness and death, possibly demons, likely necromancers. Players will have to prevent them from seeking rituals, or journey to the place where the Tarrasque slumbers, and go to war against the creatures that wish to awaken it, without doing their job for them.

Times Are Strange

The ground shakes, sinkholes swallow entire forests, hurricanes scour cities, mountains fall, the underground spills out into the overworld, bringing with it every nightmare that had previously remained hidden.

You could run a perfectly ordinary campaign filled with enemies and disasters, all of which stemming from mysterious natural disasters, or perhaps riddled with villains who seem desperate and fearful, or knowing and gleeful. The whole campaign would be almost “business as usual” but riddled with hints at a greater evil or some bigger disaster still to come.

And that’s what the Tarrasque should be, a disaster, not just a big monster, but surrounded by fear, and chaos. Perhaps it’s right that there’s no reflection in the monster’s stat block, that the awakening of the Tarrasque causes the ground to heave and shake, but the concept of the creature is that it is as much a disaster as a tidal wave. Consider adding regional effects, except that its “region” is the size of a continent, and the effects get progressively worse the closer it comes to awakening.

King of Monsters

Go leafing through monster manuals and you’ll find a lot of monsters that could rival the Tarrasque in power, although very few of them are material creatures. Elementals like the Leviathan and the Phoenix, weapons of the gods like the Kraken or the Empyrean, demon princes, arch devils, aberrations, and of course ancient dragons. Want to cast your players in the roles of hapless victims of a war between titans.

There’s potential in that campaign, the desperate struggle for survival, the search for a solution, that ultimately culminates in titan after titan being killed or returned to its slumber through ancient rituals, or cunning on the part of the players. So long as they feel they have some agency in the war, they’ll slowly gather in power until they are ready to murder the king of the monsters himself, Godzi- the Tarrasque.

Changing Things Up

Quick last thing, lets throw some ideas of how to make the Tarrasque more horrifying… because that’s a good idea.

Anti-Magic Breath Weapon – It’s different, it imparts a limitation on the antimagic ability so as not to make it too potent, but it also adds a layer of intimidation to the wizards hiding behind layers and layers of protective magic. It also suggests that the Tarrasque in question is a force designed to end magic in the world, it could herald a time of diminished magic in the world.
The Lionfish Problem – Give it poisonous quills on top of the impervious carapace to casually remind your group that there’s always a bigger fish.
Ranged Weapon – The biggest weakness of the Tarrasque is that it is heavily reliant on its melee reach to have any effect. Maybe just a thrown rock, but with a several hundred foot range, and with an area effect.
Or Burrowing – The ground’s already shaking, and why wouldn’t the Tarrasque be able to tunnel through the ground like it was swimming through water? That bite attack becomes far more harrowing when it’s rising from beneath you.
Corrupted – I included some ideas above for Tarrasque cults, they could probably change the creature into something more demonic, or even undead.
Flying Tarrasque – Why not, that’s hilarious.

Oh! Last thing, someone’s trying to get a Tarrasque mini kickstarted, and the stretch goals are “bigger mini” which I like. Not a fan of the design myself, but I respect the idea and what they’re trying to do. Here’s a link, check it out, no doubt other people will like the design.

Oswestry Library 2020 – Shropshire DM

At the time of writing, I’m about an hour away from publishing the dates for next year’s games at Oswestry Library, currently my most dependable source of income, and at this point places are so hard fought for that I am going to be disappointing more people than I will be entertaining… which is nice… I think.

By the time this article is published, this will already be plastered all over the local Facebook pages:

Here’s a quick rundown of the plans:

Wizards Only, Fools: January 11th, under 16’s D&D, and it’s an all-wizard party. Currently I’m thinking level 6 so we have lots of spells to play with but not so many that we’ll be overwhelmed. And of course with everyone playing as students of the arcane, something magic is bound to go wrong.

Bury Me Deep: January 11th, over 16’s D&D. An odd stipulation to find in someone’s will, a ten foot deep grave and a lead sheet over the coffin. Players will be a standard team at level five, and they might need a few extra magic items to get to the bottom of this mystery.

End of the World: A three session D&D game for the under 16’s, 8th and 22nd of February, and the 14th of March. Over three sessions a group of level 5 players will witness the beginning of the end, and maybe there’s nothing they can do about it.

Bear Hunt: A three session D&D game for the over 16’s, 8th and 22nd of February, and the 14th of March. Mighty hunters (level 4) will face a pack of bears that cooperate too well, fight too ferociously, and threaten a local settlement with complete extermination.

Sci-Fi Month, Era the Consortium: 11th of April, and yeah, I think April will remain sci-fi month for the foreseeable future. Another team of expendable mercenaries take up a job for one company in order to screw over another.

Night of Demons: 9th of May under 16’s systemless game. From the pit arise a new host of demons, insubstantial wisps of malice barely capable of influencing their surroundings, but bent on causing chaos however they can, in order to grow in power and return home stronger than ever.

The Train Heist: 9th of May, over 16’s systemless game. Flat caps a must, because a band of gangsters are hopping a train to lift something priceless on board. Screw this one up and you’ll end up on the wrong side of the next train going through, capeesh?

Dungeon: Now with Real Dragon! A three session D&D game, 13th and 27th of June, and the 11th of July. It’s a straight forward dungeon crawl for level 6 characters. Light on the story, heavy on the monsters and traps, possibly a dragon, I guess we’ll find out! You might even make it to the end.

Character Building Workshop: Twenty spaces in the morning and twenty in the afternoon, 25th of July. We’ll spend some time creating characters for roleplaying games, but easy on the rules, heavy on the roleplay, psychology, and creative writing.

Improv Month: 8th of August, D&D. Who wants to see me winging a whole game? Utilising some limited random writing prompts and a few suggestions from the players, I’ll be pushing my DM skills to the limit, with zero prep-time and all made up on the spot. Coherence is not guaranteed.

Dungeon Master’s Guide: Twenty spaces in the morning, twenty in the afternoon of the 29th of August. Ever wanted to do what I do? Good, everyone should at some point, you’ll finally appreciate how much furious paddling is going on behind the screen. Everyone will leave the room with an idea for an adventure, ready (or nearly ready) to run!

Weird West: 12th of September for both the over and under 16s, let’s dabble in Savage Worlds and the Weird West, a jaunt into a version of nineteenth century America, but we’re not just talking guns and gold. This frontier is crawling with stranger things than scorpions and bandits.

The Thing in the Ice: A three session D&D game for the under 16’s, 10th and 31st of October, and the 14th of November. Humans will raise a town just about anywhere, and while you’re stuck in a frozen port town in the middle of nowhere, strange occurrences surround the iceberg that’s floating in the middle of the bay. Characters should be 4th level.

Grave Dirt: A three session D&D game for the over 16’s, 10th and 31st of October, and the 14th of November. The death of a senior in the church hierarchy starts arguments about who is best to bring spiritual guidance to the people. Players will be required to keep the peace, as society begins to crumble during the “debate”. Level 5 characters most likely.

Christmas Special: 12th of December, another D&D game with a shameless seasonal theme because good goddamn I love Christmas and I love writing Christmassy games. Character levels tbd.

Now, I mention character levels for a reason, a lot of you have been asking about bringing your own characters. I’ve planned out as much of the year as possible because I’m usually happy for people to bring their own sheets but I rarely knew this year what I’d be running from month to month. If you want to bring your own character, talk to me first, I reserve the right to make alterations or outright veto a character but I’d still prefer you had characters that you really wanted to play.

And on the subject of reserved rights, a couple of important notes: All of the dates and game titles are subject to change and availability is extremely limited, in fact in the last hour and a half since I started writing this piece I’ve sold most of the under 16’s places for the year.

Kickstarter Highlight – Kingdoms And Warfare

The oft-promised followup to Matt Colville’s Strongholds and Followers began it’s Kickstarter campaign on Monday, and simply put it’s a prime example of a creator with a great relationship with his fan/customer base.

Strongholds and Followers gives options for players to build fortresses and bases of operations for their party complete with class-specific annexes, a host of artisans, assistants, and military units to help maintain your stronghold and protect it from attack. Kingdoms and Warfare will go into rules about keeping political rule over your stronghold and environs, and how to assault your neighbours on a political and military front.

If you’ve followed Matt Colville for a while (I have) you know that he is incredibly learned on the nature of politics and war, certainly learned enough to introduce verisimilitude to nations in his campaigns, and that he has been practising on his friends during the streamed game on Twitch that was also funded as part of the Strongholds campaign, along with a few exclusive minis. Whatever rules come out the other side of this campaign will be tried, tested, and fun, and the book will also be building on a few other fan favourite elements.

New creatures, including new courts and more units for the existent courts, groupings of unique creatures aligned with one another to serve a greater power. My personal favourite – the court of All Flesh – was aligned to chaos, impermanence, and change, and I look forward to seeing new members join them… but the campaign is rather cunningly teasing its newer horrors…

A: Very pretty
B: Horribly tantalising
C: If you would like to see any of these pieces of art in full along with some lore behind each, there’s plenty of that on the Kickstarter page.

All of these will be available as miniatures that can be added to your pledge after the fact, as well as appearing in the new book. Following the success of the miniatures in Strongholds and Followers, MCDM will be working with the same company again to produce more high quality products, and the same will be true of the completed books. I have a lot of respect for the planned distribution times, because while they could use their experience and new business connections to promise a faster turnaround, kudos for allowing a bit “wiggle room” on their deadline to ensure that the final product is as good as it can be.

The rules will be scalable from the smallest of factions and guilds, all the way up to continent-spanning empires, making it useful for whatever style of campaign you’re running, and making it easier for DMs to manage large-scale activity without micromanaging the activity of every individual concerned, and I cannot emphasise how much that notion appeals to me.

Pledges will get you the book as a pdf, hardcover, nicer hardcover, a t-shirt, and of course an exclusive dragon miniature, most of the delights available above are purchasable with the pledge manager after the fact but it appears that they will also be made available on the MCDM shop.

At the time of writing the campaign is already a long way through its $300K goal as you can probably tell by the stretch-goal image above, so this is not a campaign desperate for your support. It may not see as monstrous a final figure as the two million dollar debut, but… well we can’t rule it out. What this will be is an excellent product worth pre-ordering, I highly recommend watching the introductory video and possibly skim-reading the rest of the information if you’re interested because I’m summarising heavily here.

The Dungeon Master’s Curse

Ok, so we have another late article, but for once it’s not because I have very little to talk about, I have a great deal of RPG things I would love to be discussing right now. I’ve started a new home campaign, I have a Hallowe’en game coming up, and I’m staring at a list of plans for a whole year of games at Oswestry Library ready to submit some extra dates because people are desperate to start booking in advance… which sounds like a complaint, but I’m actually really pleased.

Add to that a long list of subjects that are bit-by-bit being turned into YouTube videos, I’m sitting on a lot of scripts, preliminary notes, and a folder of images for simple video creation purposes (not that it’s making the job much easier or faster), and I don’t want to duplicate too much work.

This is something I can’t believe I’ve not addressed in the past. I’m a Dungeon Master, most of my friends are players, most of my social circle includes players in various games and campaigns, so all of the ideas that I would really love to talk about, I simply can’t because if I do I give too much away. I mention a great idea for a narrative point or a trap, or clever monster design in anything less than the most general terms, then suddenly I have no surprises left in my arsenal.

But oh dear god do I want to talk about things! I can’t help that, I’m a writer with a lot of ideas that I want to talk about, and that’s a good thing! Narcissistic, sure, but talking about ideas helps you and other people because it encourages them to share their ideas with you, ultimately building better writers and creators, we’re all learning from one another ultimately, by reading, watching, listening to anything created by anyone you learn something from them… y’know what, I’m wittering, you get the idea, art is a collaborative and nebulous thing.

So here’s a shallow dive on some of what I’ve got in the pipeline with very little context:

Killing with Confidence – I’ve been playing some Call of Cthulhu of late, a game that one expects to lose, you can only strive to do enough before you lose your mind to… I don’t know, protect the world, keep a tenuous grip on reality. It takes conviction to kill a player character, one should never be afraid that a character’s death will impact their enjoyment, and it takes some practice and confidence to kill someone’s character. Depending on the game, the death could be a glorious, noble, and heroic, or perhaps gruesome and unpleasantly descriptive, so long as the fallen player appreciates what has happened and why.

Collaboration – An idea I rather blatantly stole from Matt Colville, because “Wooh! Sharing ideas!”. Some of us have players who have left us for the other side of the country or maybe to another country, or continent. And yeah, maybe you miss playing with those people but don’t like normal online role-play, or maybe time zones are just against you? Not a problem, employ them as a powerful NPC so that your villains have distinct motivations, and might kill your party with far less remorse than you might have. Delicious verisimilitude…

Roll for Knowledge – Most games with a list of skills include a diverse range of skills that describe a character’s studies and learning in particular fields, like history, anthropology, the natural world, technology, you get the idea. You can roll multiple skills while studying the same thing, and that can and should yield different results. For example, if you are analysing a mechanism, rolling technology when looking at a computer would tell you how it works and what part serves what function, rolling psychology might help you learn something about the person who owns the computer by perusing the files, rolling arcana would lead you to every kind of wrong conclusion but all of them involve magic in some way, and as a result is fundamentally flawed.

There’s a lot of these, I stop now or I give too much away. Besides, I have to get back to work on this…

Unearthed Arcana – Class Abundance

So Wizards of the Coast are busy pouring out Unearthed Arcana articles, their playtest material articles that give us access to things like new spells, rules, magic items, races, and subclasses that allow us to make an ever more diverse cast of characters to bring to the table. And currently subclasses is the key term, the pace of articles has picked up with a new subclass introduced for two classes a time, so far: Continue reading “Unearthed Arcana – Class Abundance”

The “Level Up” Illusion

It’s a staple mechanic of so many games, a simple metric for measuring advancement, a point of comparison to where you were compared to where you are, and where other people are around you. Levelling up unlocks new skills and powers, grants access to new gear, and ultimately makes the whole process of murder-hoboing through life a far flashier affair.

But here’s the thing… Continue reading “The “Level Up” Illusion”

Dungeon Situational – Ten Ghosts (pt 2)

More ghosts, here’s part one.

… And One for the Man in the Corner

In the Ox and Puncheon there’s a table with a candle that’s never lit, a cup that never empties but is regularly refreshed, and chairs that are never moved and never sat in except by those approaching the end of their tether. The old barflies know to get one for the man in the corner, the publican and her staff invite all new patrons to add an extra cup to their order, with a furtive nod to the dark table where no one sits and nurses pint after pint of Pig Iron stout. Continue reading “Dungeon Situational – Ten Ghosts (pt 2)”

Dungeon Situational – Ten Ghosts (pt 1)

Three short of a mediocre film.

Also this is going to have to be a two-parter by necessity! Expect part two on Thursday, and then a pause on Dungeon Situational for a few months while I get a few other article ideas out into the world. Here are the first five examples of ghosts, hauntings, and other untethered spirits.

Here again I will be using rules for 5th edition D&D but should be easily adaptable for other systems. Continue reading “Dungeon Situational – Ten Ghosts (pt 1)”