Theros: What Is Ashiok Up To?

It’s astonishing to remember that Magic: the Gathering’s first foray into the Grecian myth inspired plane of Theros was six years ago… actually closer to seven, and for those of us who are interested in the lore and the ongoing narrative, there has been a lot crammed into that time! The formation of a new set of core-heroes, there war with the Eldrazi and Nicol Bolas, two of the biggest foes to threaten the multiverse, culminating in a war that resulted in some big, high profile deaths among the ranks of the Planeswalkers.

In all that time, we still don’t have a damn clue who or what Ashiok is, or what he/she is up to.

Also, I’ve seen references to Ashiok as male, or at least male pronouns so male pronouns is what I’ll be using, but still, let’s put that down as one of many markers that build upon the mystery of his identity and nature. There are no fixed points upon which to stand with the Nightmare Weaver, his face is a wisp of black vapour, pouring from between a pair of slender horns like a shroud, the lack of eyes making him inscrutable and disquieting. We do not know his plane of origin, but I’ve seen some solid support to the idea that he’s a former vizier of Amonkhet, his attire has similar designs, and his horns have a similar curve to God Pharaoh Bolas.

During the previous events of Theros, Ashiok managed to manipulate the particularly potent dreams of the polies (the people) and briefly created a god. He started wars, played puppetmaster to people in positions in power, and endeavoured to put the entire plane to sleep so that he could harvest their dreams forever. In a world where dreams can create deities, Ashiok is at his most powerful, which raises questions to his efforts in the War of the Spark, but presumably he simply answered the same call that summoned the others… actually, who’s the Wanderer- y’know what, that’ll take me too far off topic.

So, new Theros block, the land of the dead is “leaking” souls, following the return of a mysterious God of Destiny, Elspeth is also returning, a zombie planeswalker with a grudge against the gods. And Ashiok, he’s back, and appears to be better than ever. Having been rendered invisible to the gods, he’s free to pursue whatever machination he pleases, and I can damn-near guarantee that he’s got something to do with the return of the new god, and his affiliation – if not outright allegiance – with Phenax, the god of lies and his host of zombies, will no doubt be working in his favour somehow.

This looks like a mythological zombie apocalypse story, orchestrated by the god of lies, the real villain of the whole piece. That’s cool, undead centaurs, minotaurs, sirens, the works, it’s going to be great. But ultimately, there is a mystery that appeals profoundly to my sense of aesthetics, a creature that manipulates nightmares, it has no origin, and yet it has impossible power to manipulate minds and it toys with the motives of gods, all with a faint and disquieting smile. I like mindscapes, and the creatures that haunt them, I like the idea that belief creates gods – it’s the Pratchett fan in me – and I like blue/black mana decks. Ashiok is my kind of mystery, and I look forward to knowing more.

A brief moment of conjecture before I wrap this article up. I suspect that Ashiok is building a weapon, a new mega-horror like an Eldrazi but totally under his control that he can take home and seek revenge against… something. If he did come from Amonkhet it may be that he wants the world brought under his control and the remaining gods wiped from his path, but there are other planes, many others, and there are a handful that have been hinted at in a few post-war releases.

And a lot of Planeswalkers died recently, leaving the multiverse highly vulnerable, the Gatewatch is shattered and picking up their own pieces, Elspeth is going to have some personal stuff to deal with by the looks of things, confronting her own death and a few of her old Phyrexian demons… but there’s someone back in the picture with experience and talent for killing planeswalkers. And he’ll probably be keen to get into a fight with anyone screwing with people’s minds.

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.

My Magic: the Gathering Commander Pet Cards

Guest contributor Murray Butler is back once more, this time providing us with an explanation on Pet Cards in Magic: the Gathering:

As is evidenced by an article on this very site, and to anyone who is near me for even the shortest amount of time, my favourite way to play Magic: the Gathering is in the Commander format.

I’ve already talked about it before, but I’ll quickly recap the rules:

  • Legendary Creature(s) or Legendary Planeswalker(s) as your “Commander”
  • 99 card singleton (one copy of each card) deck (You can have duplicate basic lands)
  • 40 life starting life
  • Being dealt 21 points of combat damage by a single commander is an automatic loss
  • Traditionally played multiplayer but is viable in 1v1

Continue reading “My Magic: the Gathering Commander Pet Cards”

Board Games Focusing on Set Collection

Recently, I was talking to a colleague who agreed that it would be a fun concept to have a board game similar to Pokémon. In other words, a game where you have to collect a large number of objects, or creatures, or something. It could be that you had to collect a large variety of gems, or as mentioned, creatures. Whatever it is, we couldn’t find many board games out there that filled this strange niche. As such, I thought I’d look into it and this is the best I could find.

Recently, I was talking to a colleague who agreed that it would be a fun concept to have a board game similar to Pokémon. In other words, a game where you have to collect a large number of objects, or creatures, or something. It could be that you had to collect a large variety of gems, or as mentioned, creatures. Whatever it is, we couldn’t find many board games out there that filled this strange niche. As such, I thought I’d look into it and this is the best I could find.

Continue reading “Board Games Focusing on Set Collection”

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.

Top 10 Space-Themed Games

Space: the final frontier that we’re aware of, but among hypothetical frontiers, barely breaks the top 10. Oh and while we’re on the subject of top 10s…

Games, be they video or board, are so often inspired by the big black void that engulfs us and the possibilities that may await beyond, opportunities, horrors, exploration and adventure. While we had options beyond counting, we somehow managed to drill down to a mere ten games themed in and around space.

GeekOut Top 10s

Space: the final frontier that we’re aware of, but among hypothetical frontiers, barely breaks the top 10. Oh and while we’re on the subject of top 10s

Games, be they video or board, are so often inspired by the big black void that engulfs us and the possibilities that may await beyond, opportunities, horrors, exploration and adventure. While we had options beyond counting, we somehow managed to drill down to a mere ten games themed in and around space.

Continue reading “Top 10 Space-Themed Games”

Top 10 British Myths

Behold, the mighty myths of Britain. Whether they originated in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales, we’ll be looking at some important myths that have become more well known not just here, but further afield. From simple spirits, through to heroics that have been told throughout the ages, this week, we’re checking out our Top 10 British Myths.

GeekOut Top 10s

Behold, the mighty myths of Britain. Whether they originated in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales, we’ll be looking at some important myths that have become more well known not just here, but further afield. From simple spirits, through to heroics that have been told throughout the ages, this week, we’re checking out our Top 10 British Myths.

Continue reading “Top 10 British Myths”