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 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.

Laugh while the city burns.

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

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

  • 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


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.

Monday, June 11, 2018

House Rules for Cinderheim

Cinderheim is a brutal fantasy setting based on the idea of a desert wasteland that has been twisted by the demonic presences of seven demons who each supply an oasis encampment with water and prosperity. I wanted to make some changes to 5e's rules to reflect the danger of the setting, and to tie in the notion of demonic interference throughout the deserts of Cinderheim.

These are the guidelines I use for character creation:
  • I prefer that people use the default array of ability scores or use the point-buy method simply for reasons of parity within the adventuring party.
  • Generally, my stance is that I'll allow any class, race, or background from the official rules and their supplements.
  • I allow both multiclassing and feats in my games.
DESIGN NOTES: These are just my standard preferences for my 5e D&D games.

Traveling across the desert badlands means exposure to extreme heat—and the usual checks for exhaustion that entails. The demon sun that shines above Cinderheim is especially cruel and merciless:
  • Characters must make Constitution saving throws against exhaustion even if they have access to drinkable water as they travel.
  • If they do not have access to drinkable water, their saves are made with disadvantage.
  • Creatures wearing medium or heavy armor, or who are clad in heavy clothing, automatically fail these saving throws. Remind the players that their characters probably want to avoid armor heavier than light at character creation.
  • Resistance to fire damage or adaptation to hot climates does not grant automatic success on these saving throws.
DESIGN NOTES: I use the rules for extreme heat from the DMG as a base, but they're a little too forgiving as presented. Since Cinderheim is a land of absolutely demonic levels of heat, I've made travel more taxing, heavier armors less viable, and closed the fire resistance loophole.

Cinderheim is infused by the magical corruption of demonic forces; every character native to the region is affected, and gains the following benefits:
  • You can increase one ability score of your choice by 4. As normal, you can't increase an ability score above 20.
  • You learn two cantrips of your choice from any class's spell list. Choose Charisma, Intelligence, or Wisdom as your spellcasting ability for the spells granted by the demonic powers of Cinderheim.
  • In addition, choose one 1st-level spell from any class’s spell list. You can cast it at its lowest level. Once you cast it, you must finish a long rest before you can cast it again.
  • When you reach 3rd level, choose one 2nd-level spell from any class’s spell list. You can cast this spell at its lowest level. Once you cast it, you must finish a long rest before you can cast it again.
  • When you reach 5th level, choose one 3rd-level spell from any class’s spell list. You can cast this spell at its lowest level. Once you cast it, you must finish a long rest before you can cast it again.
DESIGN NOTES: And this is the compensation for the extreme heat rules, as well as a way to mechanical reinforce the idea that the demonic energies of Cinderheim affect the characters. With lower ACs due to armor restrictions, fighting types may want to but that +4 to an ability score into Constitution.

I use the optional rules for Renaissance firearms to model the guns found in Cinderheim, with the following rulings:
  • Anyone proficient with martial weapons is also proficient with firearms.
  • Anyone proficient with hand crossbows is also proficient with pistols.
  • A new feat, called Firearm Expert, replicates the effects of the Crossbow Expert feat but for firearms instead of crossbows.
DESIGN NOTES: These rules are adapted from the firearm rules that my friend used in his Umberwell campaign. Thanks, Dan.