Friday, July 28, 2017

Sins and the Dragons They Birth

The screencap to the left is of a Twitter conversation between Mike Mearls and Jon Dilley that is particularly useful for some world-building I wanted to do with Krevborna, a setting where dragons are born from horrific instances of sin. As such, Mearls's mapping of dragons to the "seven deadly sins" is a good starting point for what kind of dragon would be created from which human sins, but it leaves some sins and some types of dragons in the Monster Manual still on the table. Since metallic dragons aren't actually good in Krevborna, we can throw them in the mix as well--but we'll need to move beyond the "deadly sins," which is fine because there are all sorts of sins one can get up to in Krevborna. 

Rounding out the current list of dragons in the Monster Manual adds:

Brass: Neglect
Bronze: Vainglory
Copper: Sloth
Silver: Lust
Gold: Hypocrisy
Shadow: Heresy

We can also expand the palette by including dragons from Kobold Press's Tome of Beasts:

Cave: Cruelty
Flame: Manipulation
Mithral: Theft
Sea: Neglect
Void: Apostasy
Wind: Tyranny

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Four Courts of Scarabae

Although the most obvious figure of political power in Scarabae is the Lord Mayor, it would be vastly unwise to discount the might of the Four Courts. Each of the Four Courts functions as an ur-guild, controlling and regulating a powerful facet of life in the city. 

The Court of Wands oversees the use of arcane magic, and the creation and sale of magical items. 

The Court of Cups holds sway over hearts and minds through their control of religious practice in Scarabae, and regulates hospitals both mundane and divinely-empowered. 

The Court of Coins holds all aspects of commerce--the minting of coinage, setting the norms of the services illicit such as assassination and prostitution, and trade agreement--in the palm of their well-greased hands. 

The Court of Swords provides what passes for law and order on the streets of the city, as well as command over the city's mercenary armies and naval forces.

The internal power structure of all of the Courts follows a similar structure: a Court's leadership is elected by its voting members to fill four positions at the top of a court's hierarchy. The positions, and their duties, include the King and Queen (who share final decisions and must agree before ratifying important legislation regarding Court business), Knight (who is charged with protecting the Court's interests and assets), and Page (who is entrusted with representing the Court to other Courts, city functionaries, and foreign powers).

My current vision of who fills those roles within each Court is to use well-known, or at least recognizable, characters from D&D's "canon" while twisting them into fresh faces based on this new context. Everyone old is new again! You can bet that my "version"of each of these characters is likely to give a purist apoplexy; in Scarabae, for example, Elminister's reputation for being goddess-favored, all powerful, and a total lady-killer is absolutely the end product of a massive propaganda campaign (that no one believes).

On to the Courts:

The Court of Wands
King of Wands - Mordenkainen, human wizard
Queen of Wands - Shandril Shessair, human sorcerer
Knight of Wands - Emrikol the Chaotic, human sorcerer
Page of Wands - Raistlin Majere, human warlock

The Court of Cups
King of Cups - Verminaard of Nidus, human cleric
Queen of Cups - Goldmoon, human cleric
Knight of Cups - Strongheart, human paladin
Page of Cups - Eclavdra, dark elf cleric

The Court of Coins
King of Coins - Harkon Lukas, wolfwere bard
Queen of Coins - Lidda, halfling rogue
Knight of Coins - Zarak, half-orc rogue
Page of Coins - Annah-of-the-Shadows, tiefling rogue

The Court of Swords
King of Swords - Jarlaxle Baenre, dark elf fighter/rogue
Queen of Swords - Kitiara Uth Matar, human fighter
Knight of Swords - Morgan Ironwolf, human fighter
Page of Swords - Peralay, high elf fighter/mage

Some interesting ideas arise from the names chosen for the above lists and how I imagine they relate to each other: 

The leadership of the Court of Wands is a very mixed group of magic-users...perhaps this degree of variance in approach carries over into internal Court politics and their is a lot of intrigue and infighting in the Court of Wands. Also, note that every member of the upper hierarchy is human! Is there some sort of human-centric bias at work within the Court that spills out into their policies as well?

The thing that strikes me about the Court of Cups is that its two pivotal members, Verminaard and Goldmoon, are absolutely opposed in religious belief and personal ideology. To me, this says that the Court of Cups is locked in stasis due to the inability of these two high-ranking members to come to compromises on policy.

The Court of Coins is the only Court to feature a list not dominated by humans. I want to think more about why this Court is more of coalition of differences than the others. The answer might be obvious: profit doesn't care about race.

Interestingly, the Court of Swords has a preponderance of broken, mercenary-minded people at its head. Does that change the nature of the kind of wars the Court is willing to fight or even in the ways it chooses to deploy military force? 

Also note that the more "rural" classes (barbarian, druid, monk, ranger) are effectively shut out of power currently. That probably says something about the urban nature of Scarabae.

(Shout outs to everybody on G+ who helped me populate the Courts: Clint Egger, Jurgen Mayer, Paul Vermeren, Scott Martin, Jeremy Murphy, Craig Hatler, Brian Mathers, Matthew B., Trey Causey, Daniel Davis, Path, Eric Diaz, Gustavo Iglesias, Tim Other, Chris P., Ahimsa Kerp, Dennis Laffey.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Boss Fights and Solo Monsters in 5e D&D

I've run a lot of 5e D&D at this point, so I feel confident in my anecdotal evidence when I make this statement: 5e isn't really built for party of adventurers vs. a single foe in combat. 

The reason why these fights don't work well in 5e D&D boils down to the "action economy"; a group of player characters will simply wear down a single foe because they have more actions (which equate to raw hit point damage and chances to inflict debilitating conditions) than their enemy (even if it has multiattack it likely can't output enough damage or debilitation on its own to keep up). Combat in D&D is essentially a war of attrition, so whoever has the upper hand in the action economy is going to grind down their opponent first--and when a party of adventurers has more actions to throw at a single foe, that beast doesn't really stand a chance.

I've got some ideas on how to even the scales to make for more exciting Big Fights, but first it's worthwhile to check to make sure that we aren't already tipping the balance toward disappointment by using a monster that isn't suitable as a boss. A "boss" or "solo" monster probably shouldn't be a "Medium" difficulty encounter according to the guidelines in the Dungeon Master's Guide. As the DMG defines it "A medium encounter usually has one or two scary moments for the players, but the characters should emerge victorious with no casualties. One or more of them might need to use healing resources" (82). In practice, it's highly unlikely that a party of adventurers will break a sweat in a medium combat, even against a like number of enemies, and you want your boss and solo fights to carry more weight than "they might need to use some healing resources." With that in mind, a boss or solo fight should start with a base difficulty of Hard or Deadly if you want it to have some dramatic impact and genuine struggle.

Now that we're clear on the base difficulty, we can consider modifying a creature to work better as a solo combatant. Consider adding a combination of the following to the creature's base stats:

Extra Hit Points: Since a solo monster has no minions to soak up damage, it will take every bit of damage the characters can toss its way. When I'm adding hit points to a boss monster, I tend to go with about 5 extra hit points per character for characters of 1st-4th level, 10 extra hit points per character for characters of 5th-9th level, 15 extra hit points per character for characters of 10th-14th level, and 20 extra hit points per character for characters of 15th-20th level. Those are just ballpark figures, you might use more or less depending on how many hit points the opponent has to start with. You want to add enough hit points to help the monster stay in the fight long enough to get its licks in, but you don't want to turn the fight into a grind.

Actions Outside Its Turn: The best solo opponents in the Monster Manual have Legendary Actions, a set of actions they can take in response to the players' turns in a round of combat. Adding these to monsters that weren't really intended as solo fights works really well in my experience. Personally, I like to use Legendary Actions as a way to add more color to a fight as well. For example, if a creature has a tail that it doesn't have a normal attack with, its fun to make a Legendary Action that lets it take a tail swipe in response to being attacked.

The Power of Nope: If you're adding Legendary Actions to a monster, you might also consider giving it Legendary Resistance as well: "If the monster fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead." It's best to add this modification sparingly; at low levels, or in parties with few spellcasters, one or two instances of Legendary Resistance are fine. 

Bloodied Power: This is also a good place to steal one of 4e's better design elements--monster abilities that kick in once the players have reduced the beast to half its original hit points. Again, this is a place to add flavor--a fire elemental might get to drop a free fireball at half hit points, a giant might stomp the earth sending out a earth-rending tremor, a yuan-ti sorcerer might exude a miasma of poison, etc.

Better Defenses: You might also consider raising the creature's armor class and giving it bonuses to its saving throws, but in general this is my least favorite solution. In my experience it just tends to add more grind to combat and doesn't offer enough in return to make it worthwhile in most cases. If a monster has a naturally low armor class, though, it might be worth considered.

Let's put this all together and give an example of what a boss monster might look like:

Solo Basilisk
Size Medium, Type Monstrosity, Alignment Unaligned
AC 15 (Natural Armor), HP 72, Speed 30 ft.
STR 16, DEX 8, CON 15, INT 2, WIS 8, CHA 7
Senses Darkvision 60 Ft.

Passive Perception 9, CR 3


Petrifying Gaze: If a creature starts its turn within 30 ft. of the basilisk and the two of them can see each other, the basilisk can force the creature to make a DC 12 Constitution saving throw if the basilisk isn't Incapacitated. On a failed save, the creature magically begins to turn to stone and is Restrained. It must repeat the saving throw at the end of its next turn. On a success, the effect ends. On a failure, the creature is Petrified until freed by the Greater Restoration spell or other magic.
A creature that isn't surprised can avert its eyes to avoid the saving throw at the start of its turn. If it does so, it can't see the basilisk until the start of its next turn, when it can avert its eyes again. If it looks at the basilisk in the meantime, it must immediately make the save.
If the basilisk sees its reflection within 30 ft. of it in bright light, it mistakes itself for a rival and Targets itself with its gaze.

Miasma: When the basilisk is reduced to 36 or lower hit points, it immediately exudes a cloud of poisonous miasma. Any creature who starts their turn within 5' of the basilisk must make a successful DC 12 Constitution saving throw or become poisoned. This poison effect lasts for one minute, and an afflicted character can make a saving throw to end the condition at the end of their turn.

Bite: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 10 (2d6 + 3) piercing damage plus 7 (2d6) poison damage.

Legendary Actions
The basilisk can take 2 legendary actions, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature's turn. The basilisk regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.

Claw: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft. one target. Hit: 2d6+3 slashing damage.
Tail swipe: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 10 ft. Hit: 2d4+3 bludgeoning damage and plus DC 12 Dexterity saving throw or be knocked prone.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Shooting at the Walls of Heartache Bang Bang

Nadya looks a bit like Kolin from
Street Fighter V, but her accent
is even worse.
I had the pleasure of helping playtest Paul V.'s GRIDSHOCK role-playing game. My character is a Soviet defector named Nadya Sibirskaya who joined the a secret organization who saw the SHOCK coming; she was trained as an agent of Harvest, placed in cryogenic suspension to ride out the apocalypse, and is now read to begin rebuilding the world. She's got psychic powers and is trained in Systema, so look out, evildoers. 

Here's what happened:

Vat a time! I awoke inside a Supremacy military vehicle, shackled to the wall with some sort of headgear placed on head. With me are talking dead man, American barbarian who makes smells, man who is cactus, and girl. Supremacy robot is standing guard. We struggle with shackles, eventually break free when vehicle is attacked. We feel vehicle lift from ground, we hear gunfire and yelling, explosions. I punch robot but is no good--metal body too strong for fist. Others deal with. We find our belongings; is good thing, Pat Benatar tapes and Walkman very rare.

We are greeted by large man call himself SlimJim. He is hulking brute, but is rescuing brute at least. He want to take us to his lead in Yankee Lake, is good. But his group going to execute Supremacy soldiers. Nyet! Is no good. Girl uses powers, crushes us all with heavy gravity until SlimJim relents. I control mind of man with blaster because he is weak to my superior mental powers. Now I have blaster. We negotiate deal. Supremacy prisoners go with us to Yankee Lake.

At Yankee Lake is Truck Night. Am disappoint that is not person named Truck Knight. We meet leader, Alpha Dog, and girl child who seem to call shots. Vat a place, this Yankee Lake. Alpha Dog vant us to go to Prism and find whatever Supremacy searching for. 

But this is problem because we see people of Yankee Lake treated horribly by Alpha Dog's gang. Is no better than treatment of Supremacy. Convening with new comrades we agree to overthrow Alpha Dog. But when? Is difficult situation. Is like how the Bruce Springfield say, we are dancing in dark.

Alpha Dog invite us to Truck Night. We watch truck with large tire crush other vehicles. Is stupid, decadent American entertainment. After truck crushing show, Alpha Dog have arena built--is going to make Supremacy prisoners fight exhumans. Nyet! Is also no good. Barbarian possess Alpha Dog, send him out window. Dead man also fly out window. Cactus punch SlimJim. I turn on Walkman, tape begin playing "The Warrior" by Scandal. It does me much inspire. I wrestle SlimJim, getting him in gulag leg-lock, but have feeling that he is strong like proud Russian bear. Vat vill happen next?

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Final Programme

Michael Moorcock is one of the most influential science fiction and fantasy authors of the latter half of the 20th Century. Chief among his contributions to speculative fiction is the creation of the Eternal Champion, a hero "doomed" to save the world. One such manifestation of the Eternal Champion is Jerry Cornelius, the central character of The Final Programme, a book deemed too psychedelic for publication in 1965 but finally unleashed upon the world in 1968. Jerry gets wrapped up in a wild scheme concocted by sinister computer scientist Miss Brunner to steal documents created by his dead scientist father from the clutches of his drug-maddened brother Frank. What starts as a heist story quickly reveals itself to be something far more bizarre.

How do ultra-decadence and flashy modernity mix? Which is more exciting: World Ice Theory or radical gender fluidity? Where does pro wrestling fit into all of this? Is Michael Moorcock a time-traveling wizard? Find out the answers to all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Intro/Outro music: "Christ You Bring the End" by Sabbath Assembly

Find us at, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our reading list.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Witch's Guest

† Interview with a Vampire soundtrack - Theatre des Vampires †
† Penny Dreadful soundtrack - Mother of Evil †
† Sleepy Hollow soundtrack - Into the Woods/The Witch †
† From Hell soundtrack - Death Coach †
† The Wolfman soundtrack - The Funeral †
† Van Helsing soundtrack - Attacking Brides †
† Dracula soundtrack - Vampire Hunters †
† The Village soundtrack - It is Not Real †

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Rise of the Forgotten Fangs

Campaign: The Forgotten Fangs (Scarabae, 5e D&D)

- Kaldwyn Nessilnor, half-elf sorcerer
- "King" Rance, cactusoid fighter
- Nestor, shadar-kai wizard
- Bellwether Hooks, human rogue
- Ambrose Lynch, human ranger

Objective: Steal Bargle's stash of opium and cocaine from the Mentzer Distillery.

Events: There's a new gang in the Toiler's Ditch area of Scarabae: The Forgotten Fangs. The Fangs' leadership is comprised of Kaldwyn Nessilnor, the nominal brains of the operation--a disowned son of an elf shipping magnate; "King" Rance, the gang's muscle--he claims that in his home country he was king until he was ousted by a coup; Nestor, the group's schemer--he's an acolyte in a horrible Cthulhu-worshiping cult; Bellwether Hooks--she says she's a society lady, but her accent and skill with lock picks say otherwise; Ambrose Lynch--a traumatized former soldier. 

The Forgotten Fangs want to enter into the local drug trade in a big way, but that niche is already filled by dealers working for Bargle the Infamous, an intoxicant-peddling wizard who is the current drug tsar of the district. Rather than take on his dealers in the streets and fight for territory, the Fangs decide to move in on Bargle's supply. 

Greasing the right palms in Toiler's Ditch gives them a lead: Bargle is storing his wares in the old Mentzer Distillery, a disused booze-yard at the edge of the ward. The locals who aren't on Bargle's payroll and aren't addicts are only too eager to help; it turns out that Bargle was responsible for the murder of a much-loved local cleric who always gave alms to the poor. The upstanding citizens of Toiler's Ditch would love for the wizard to get some comeuppance for that.

The Forgotten Fangs make their move at night. The sentry at the distillery's back door, a bugbear thug with a pet wolf, is taken out quickly and quietly. Inside, things are quiet. Too quiet. Disturbingly quiet. Where are all of Bargle's henchmen? Who is guarding the stash?

Opposition first comes in the way of a group of skeletons that Bargle had animated to scare off any trespassers. The Fangs manage o bottleneck themselves in a narrow hallway; Bellwether furiously tries to pick a lock so the gang might make their stand under better circumstances while the group's scrappers hold off their undead assailants. They make a hash of it, honestly.

Things get even worse when the gang is ambushed by Bargle's trained darkmantles. The darkmantles cut the lights, then begin to pick off each member of the Forgotten Fangs one by one, knocking them unconscious. When the Fangs awaken, the snickering, goatee'd Bargle is standing over them. He has an offer they can't refuse.