Thursday, June 21, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tomb of Foes (Halflings and Gnomes!)

Where we've been so far: dwarves, elves, drow and eladrin, shadar-kai and the Raven Queen. Where we're going: halflings and gnomes.

If Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes is about the conflicts of the D&D multiverse, halflings and gnomes are the outliers in that they don't have any epic betrayals, civil wars, or unending feuds in their histories. Interestingly, it is posited that their innocence is the explanation for the halfling's supernatural luck: good luck is their cosmic reward for not being shitlords like everybody else in existence.

We're also told that halflings judge people by the content of people's characters--they don't mind a kindly butterface at all. They've also internalized a pile of self-help books, as they're all about "living in the moment."

Halflings love stories, and love objects for the stories they're connected to. They're also animistic, believing that objects have their own spirits. 

Halfling villages are hard to find; they're obscured from view by the primary goddess of the halfling pantheon--which is a far more useful thing than most of the crap D&D gods tend to lay on their followers. Overall, halfling religion is nicely differentiated from the elves and dwarves: they don't see their gods as divine creators, but rather as folk heroes who have ascended to godhood. Halfling gods are basically successful Gloranthan cultists. As such, their gods aren't really worshiped so much as emulated.

Did you know that the rare halflings that break oaths and sever communal ties eventually become twisted caricatures beset with paranoia and misery? The allusion is pretty heavy-handed, right?

On to gnomes then. Gnomes have always had trouble differentiating themselves from halflings and dwarves in D&D. One has the small friendly folk covered, and the other has the stout makers-of-things shtick covered. Whence gnomes?

They have a love of discovery based on a psychology of endless curiosity. From nature to mechanism, from magic to gem-cutting, they want to know how things work. Gnomes are the Mythbusters of the D&D multiverse.

Gnomes also don't mind drudgery, are never bored, and don't feel bad when a research tangent leads to a dead-end. This means that gnomes would be the ideal grad students.

We get a sidebar about the master gnome artificers of Bytopia who make "celestial toys," which are basically as good as magic items. We also get a sidebar about the tinkerer gnomes of the Dragonlance setting. As with an earlier sidebar about kender, the book is really trying not to paint Krynn's races as insufferable.

Gnome religion feels a bit more "realistic" than much of what we get from the other religions, as gnomes don't tend to agree about the "facts" of their gods. Some gnomes see their gods as all male, others see them as all female. Some gnomes see the gods in the guise of animals, others believe they are constructs created by Garl Glittergold. (Sidenote: Garl Glittergold is the worst name in D&D; beats out Iggwilv for the title.)

A sidebar tells us that the kobolds hate gnomes because the Gnome God pulled a prank on the Kobold God. Again, Mordenkainen's inadvertently puts me on the side of the bad guys because pranks are the fuckin' worst so yeah, fuck Garl.

Some gnome communities send the youngins out to explore the world before they're allowed back to Gnomeville. GNOME RUMSPRINGA! Gnomes also sometimes feel a pull to explore the cosmos or the planes--were gnomes a big part of Spelljammer? Seems like a hint is implied there.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Role of Adventurers in Umberwell

My favorite campaign structure for games set in Umberwell is an open table of adventurers for hire—each player creates a down-on-their-luck character looking for work and out to achieve wealth and infamy in the city. Whoever shows up to a session plays their part. To further their reputations as adventurers and bolster their coffers, player characters in Umberwell routinely engage in unlawful enterprises, protect their neighborhoods, fend off predatory gangs and less scrupulous adventurers, and keep clear of entanglements with authority. 

The mindset of a resident of Umberwell can be stark or bleak. Adventurers profit from misery because misery reeks of opportunity to make coin when things have gone horribly sideways. The city’s citizens are vulnerable prey in a metropolis filthy with predators; they suffer when they feed their addictions and when they’re offered false salvation. Credible threats of violence are a functional insurance policy that keeps the city’s machine in motion. When your moral compass points only to the downward spiral, damnation feels like a foregone conclusion.

However, the adventurers created by the players might be a strategic intervention into the black beating heart of the city. Adventurers represent a line of flight away from authority and the depredations of misery. A literally violent break occurs here: an adventurer’s purpose is to disrupt, to tip the balance, to right wrongs—even if only by accident or because there was money in the chase. Adventurers are a fraught crack in the city’s ecosystem because a continual, nomadic becoming-picaresque is a process that veers dangerously toward re-assemblage within the metropolis's appropriated war machine.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Maelstrom: Demonic Cultists

A faction in Umberwell:


THE MAELSTROM
The Maelstrom is a confederacy of demonic cults that believes that fostering chaos in Umberwell is a needed public service. The cults who belong to the Maelstrom sometimes manage to set aside their madness to coordinate acts of public mayhem. Members of the Maelstrom feel that regimented, orderly life is an addicting, stultifying existence—the faction aims to “help” the people of Umberwell by disrupting their lives through harmless pranks and violent pandemonium alike. Of course, due to the tumultuous, individualistic characters of the cultists involved, the Maelstrom’s epic plans for destruction and upheaval are often foiled by their inability to work together to achieve a common end.

Motto
Laugh while the city burns.

Beliefs
  • Life should be interesting above all else.
  • Cause chaos wherever possible.
  • There is no bigger crime than to follow the rules.

Goals
  • Recruit potential cultists from among the terminally bored and ennui-ridden.
  • Shake  the citizenry out of their self-imposed stupor.

Quests
  • Steal a rare manuscript of deadly practical jokes.
  • Switch a wizard’s grimoire with a text that will unleash an uncontrollable tide of magic.
  • Set up an important personage in the city to look like a fool during a prestigious event.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mary Shelley, Suspiria, Mortal Engines, The Little Stranger

Sometimes you find yourself looking forward to movies that might not actually be good because hope springs eternal. Below are four I'm interested in. I have the highest hopes for The Little Stranger; I absolutely love that book--I think it's one of the best modern haunted house stories--so hopefully it follows through on the source material. Mary Shelley looks a little Dawson's Creek. I'm not sure I trust Peter Jackson with Mortal Engines after all those Hobbit movies. And I'm not sure what the point of a Suspiria remake is, but I'm willing to give it a try.

Mary Shelley

Suspiria

Mortal Engines

The Little Stranger

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (Shadar-Kai!)

We've seen dwarves, elves, and some more elves, but where the goths at?

Remember back in 4e when the shadar-kai were emo humans? Well, they're back to being fey-derived as they were in 3e--but now they serve the Raven Queen. Speaking of which, I like this new take on her that makes her creepy as fuck; she's described variously as "a terrible shadow that clawed at their innermost thoughts, pale and regal elf who exploded into an untold number of ravens, a shambling tangle of slick roots and sticks that overwhelmed them with dreador an unknown presence that pulled them screaming blindly into the gloom." 

That's hott.

I think the Raven Queen's origins have also been revised: she was an elf queen who sought to become a deity during Corellon and Lolth's spat so she could make them shut up and come to an accord. The shadar-kai were the elves who were feeding her some of their soul-stuff so that she could undergo apotheosis; unfortunately, they were all betrayed by some evil wizards, the Raven Queen used more of the shadar-kai's souls to rain hell down on them, the ritual went wrong, and they all got sucked into the Shadowfell--where the elf queen became the Raven Queen and the elves who followed her became the gothy shadar-kai.

Oh, by the way, the evil wizards survived but were also changed; they became the nagpa, which are basically the skeksis from The Dark Crystal.

The Raven Queen now inhabits the Fortress of Memories, where she collects the memories of dead gods (!!!) and mortals alike. Best. Wunderkammer. Ever.

The Raven Queen might be crazy or she might be a cosmic sin-eater who purges the traumatized of their pain. She's your goth therapist.

Vecna is her stalker. You know he likes all of her pictures on Instagram. Also, maybe my 'ship is coming in: "Some sages posit that she iusing people as pawns in an inscrutablgame, the rules of which are known only to her and thLady of Pain." RQ + LoP = OTP.

When they are outside of the Shadowfell, the Shadar-Kai look all gothy and hot, but in the Shadowfell they look tired and busted. Anyone who has been in a goth club at the end of the night when the lights come on will be familiar with this phenomenon.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Gang Leader and the Assassin

Two supporting cast characters in Umberwell: the gang leader and the assassin.


Jesephus “Boss” Hobb
Boss Hobb runs the Hobb Street Mafia, a gang of goblinoids, through threats and abuse. Behind his cruelty is a desire to see his people thrive in Umberwell through any means necessary. He would see goblinoids become a dominant force in the city.
Occupation. Gang leader.
Appearance. Hobgoblin, bulge-bellied, scruffy red hair, orange skin, dresses in a top hat and ill-fitted jackets decorated with unearned military medals.
Abilities. Bullying, making one-sided deals.
Traits. Loud-mouth, performs the role of a gentleman.
Ideal. Make Umberwell respect goblinoids.
Bond. Loves—and fears—his wife Kolga.
Flaw. Writes taunting letters to the broadsheet press.

Mei Dowd
Mei Dowd is one of the most feared assassins in Umberwell. Her ability to emerge from the shadows, strike true, and then disappear back into the darkness is legendary. It is rumored that she is responsible for the death of many members of the moneyed elite.
Occupation. Assassin for hire.
Appearance. Human, long black hair in a braid held with sharpened pins, union tattoos.
Abilities. Poison brewing, disguise, stealth, sniping.
Traits. Practical, improviser.
Ideal. Perfect the art of murder.
Bond. Protects her clients’ identities.
Flaw. She fears that her cover as a worm train worker will be blown.



Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (Eladrin and Drow!)

We're back, after covering the Regular Elves and dwarves, so now we're moving on to the Other Elves. First up are the eladrin, which are basically the Most Elvish Elves. Instead of hanging out in the various Prime Material planes of the D&D multiverse, the eldarin put down roots in the Feywild--which apparently is like being on a perpetual ecstasy high in the most-breathtaking natural vista.

The best thing about the eladrin is that they don't give a fuck about Corellon. Rather than holding out hope that Elf God will forgive them someday, they believe that they will go through the cycle of reincarnation until the end up on the Seelie Court, Unseelie Court, or as immortal archfey. That sounds like a much better deal than the Regular Elves get.

Next up, the Bad Elves, the drow. Like the eladrin, the drow found a new home--the Underdark--and it changed them. One thing I like about the drow: their Ride Or Die attitude. Check it: "Drow view
the elves of the surface world as cowardly children who defy their parents when they're not around but cower in the corner when their parents return, terrified of having their bad behavior found out."

Unlike Corellon, who has put the Regular Elves into perpetual Time Out, Lolth is a more hands-on parent when it comes to the drow: "She sometimes tests her most faithful by drawing their spirits to her in the Demonweb to undergo her judgment. Followers never know when or if they are to be tested."

Woah, drow cities are made within giant stalactites or stalagmites? That's pretty dope. The drow practice slavery, which is one of the ways we know that they're villains, but it's interesting that the book points out that slavery is an economic necessity for them because they just don't have the numbers to survive on their own down in the Underdark. But drow are still elves, of course, so they also use slaves as status symbols.

Drow also get a better deal than Regular Elves: when they go into a trance, they remember nothing. No past lives, just the void. That sounds super relaxing, actually. This also means that drow might not reincarnate; instead, Lolth just makes more drow souls as needed. If true, this means that the drow could potentially out-breed regular elves (since there is a finite number of them) and swamp them en mass eventually.

Blah blah #notalldrow blah blah.