Monday, August 20, 2018

A City of Entertainment and Perils

Love takes your eyes first.                       

 – Mandolina Sweet, tea merchant

There are a million ways to be entertained in Umberwell: all-night cabarets, theater and opera, sporting events, veil-dancers and burlesque, pub singalongs, etc. But the most invigorating performances are those of the Ritual—gladiatorial events in which ostentatiously-arrayed warriors bolstered by otherworldly pacts fight each other to the death in bouts that are part of some larger occult significance. 

The Bullroarer is a combination of tavern and sauna operating in Redgutter that is mostly frequented by picaros and crypt-kickers. The Bullroarer is run by Wick, a succubus who tends the bar and keeps a sharp ear out for gossip and lucrative work that would interest adventurers. Because Wick cannot stand cold weather, the interior of the Bullroarer is kept sweltering and humid—even during the balmy summer months. The Bullroarer serves an infamously spicy goat curry. Near the Bullroarer is the Gilded Tom, a brothel run by the secretive, kimono-clad Mariska Magwitch—the two establishments share a clientele. 

Some speak of the Slumgullian Warrens as a sovereign nation within Umberwell—the “city below the city’s streets.” Residents of the subterranean depths—such as kobolds, dark elves, gnomes, and goblins—find curious ways to adapt to their environment despite the hardscrabble existence of each island’s portion of the under-city. Luminescent foolfire fungi is cultivated in the Slumgullian Warrens for the benefit of those races not blessed with darkvision.


The candlekin are the degenerate descendants of renegade engineers who were imprisoned deep below the earth in disused train tunnels by the Ministry of Wands. They are supplied food and candles from a mysterious benefactor or jailer. The candlekin keep thousands of candles burning at all times within their lairs; their domains are coated with lairs of cooled, lumpen wax. The constant exposure to intense candlelight has rendered the candlekin blind, and the light within their lairs makes it difficult for others to see. Although their blindness renders them relatively harmless on an individual level, they tend to attack in great swarms of broken-bodied madness when encountered in the undercity.

There is good money to be had for adventurers willing to clear out nests of blood-seeking stirges or infestations of giant rats. Wolfcove & Sons is a trusted name in the vermin removal business. The exterminators employed by Wolfcove & Sons are recognizable by their covered wagons which display the image of a roach being crushed by a warhammer on their canvas sides.

Friday, August 17, 2018

RIP Jill Janus

Jill Janus, frontwoman for the band Huntress, passed away recently. Best to remember her through the scorching records she made.


Eight of Swords

Spell Eater


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Maximum Dragon 345: Excursions, Sea Serpents, Underdark Animals

I get the best gaming value-for-the-money out of old issues of Dragon magazine. No matter what edition the magazine was currently supporting, there's always at least three ideas worth the price of admission--and in almost every issue the density of ideas-to-dross skews in the right direction. In this series of posts I'm going to pick back issues at random, give them a read-through, and point out the things that (hopefully) illustrate why I think picking up old issues of Dragon for a couple bucks when you see them in the wilds is damned worthwhile.

This issue begins with a somewhat ominous editorial by Erik Mona about Dragon's difficulties in navigating the contemporary marketplace and the toll that has taken on the magazine's visual presentation. The covers of modern Dragon issues are crowed with tabloid-style cover lines and buzzwords because they magazine has to work harder to sell itself in the era of third-party d20 glut, free content available on the internet, and WotC's overly aggressive publishing schedule. The editorial ends with an almost-admonition to ask your local retailer to carry Dragon; the magazine would cease print publication the following year.

But on to the content.

"Excursion: Four Ways to Travel the World," written by Martin Ralya and illustrated by Jeff Carlisle, is one of those articles that gives you a full package of things you can use in your home games. (Wait a minute, Martin Ralya? I know that guy from online! Excellent.) The article details four conveyances, their crews, and their captains: a three-masted sloop, a submersible, a caravan, and an airship. The included schematics for the conveyances are super helpful (and easily re-purposed), and the included adventure seeds could be used as handily for a random encounter while en route or a full session of play.

It wouldn't feel like an issue of Dragon without a few new monsters being added to the mix. It's always seemed strange to me that D&D has a million kinds of dragons, but has traditionally done very little with sea serpents. "Sea Serpents: Dragons of the Briny Depths," written by Morgan and Tracey Peer and illustrated by Atilla Adorjany, aims to cross the streams by offering four draconic beasts of the deep sea. "Underdark Animals," written by Ryan Nock and illustrated by Tom Fowler, offers four mounts and beasts of burden that might be used by the drow of the Underdark. I dig the wild "hollow earth" vibe of these creatures; we've got a giant snake, an eight-foot tall velociraptor, an ebony lizard, and massive albino apes.

Although not particularly useful for any edition of D&D, it is interested that the "Equipment Array" article by Christopher Wissel, illustrated again by Tom Fowler, offers pre-priced packs of adventuring gear--a concept that would become heavily emphasized in 5e's core character creation rules.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Umberwell: Humans, Jinnasi, Kobolds, Lizardfolk

Races that populate Umberwell:

Humanity, in all its varying splendor and depravity, rubs shoulders with a melange of heterogeneous citizenry. Generations of immigration and intermarriage has resulted in a human polity united more by the common culture of Umberwell and its imagined community than along ethnic lines.

The jinnasi are hybrid beings afflicted with a strange, supernatural malady; they are humans possessed by elemental spirits. This possession is generally regarded as a spiritual disease that alters both body and mind to reflect the elemental power they are imbued with. Eventually, most jinnasi learn to to live in a state of symbiosis between their human side and the primordial spirit that dwells within them.

Kobolds are regarded more as pests than as true citizens of the city. No one knows where they originate from; they simply seem to spring up and multiply like vermin. They are mostly found employed as messengers, couriers, and mail carriers in Umberwell, but some kobolds evidence a degree of mechanical acuity and find work as tinkerers, inventors, or factory repairmen. Kobolds are infamous for their vulgar humor.

The reptilian lizardfolk originate from the jungles and deserts of Hygaea, but in Umberwell their savagery makes them a natural fit for urban life; their hunting instincts and competitiveness serve them well in a metropolis that often pits its citizens against each other in a hard-scrabble contest for daily survival. Lizardfolk frequently find work as bodyguards or bounty hunters.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Let's Read Wayfinder's Guide to Eberron: Dragonmarks and Magic Items

Dragonmarks are a unique facet of the Eberron campaign setting; they are essentially tattoo-like markings that appear on people related to specific bloodlines that manifest magical powers. To bear a dragonmark means that you belong to a familial dragonmarked house. The dragonmarked houses function much like megacorps in cyberpunk games: they represent powerful dynasties whose powers have enabled them to form monopolies over their areas of expertise. Not everyone born to a dragonmarked house has a dragonmark, but those who do gain powers related to the house's economic and political purposes. 

The dragonmarked houses of Eberron include:

  • House Medani, the Mark of Detection, detectives and bodyguards, half-elves.
  • House Tharashk, Mark of Finding, detectives and bounty hunters, humans and half-orcs.
  • House Vadalis, Mark of Handling, animal breeders and trainers, humans.
  • House Jorasco, Mark of Healing, healers and hospitals, halflings.
  • House Ghallanda, Mark of Hospitality, inns, taverns, restaurants, halflings.
  • House Cannith, Mark of Making, manufacturing, humans.
  • House Orien, Mark of Passage, land transportation and the lightning rail, humans.
  • House Sivis, Mark of Scribing, communications, gnomes.
  • House Deneith, Mark of Sentinel, mercenaries, humans.
  • House Phiarlan, Mark of Shadow, entertainment and spying, elves.
  • House Thuranni, Mark of Shadow, assassins, elves.
  • House Lyrandar, Mark of Storm, sea transportation and weather control, half-elves.
  • House Kundarak, Mark of Warding, prisons and security, dwarves.

As you can see from the list of dragonmarked houses above, each house is linked to a D&D race from the 3.5 Player's Handbook. The integration of dragonmarks into character creation is actually quite slick. In a previous Eberron Unearthed Arcana, dragonmarks were feats, which didn't serve the setting very well. Since only the variant human race begins play with a feat at first level, this restricted dragonmarks to fourth level characters, which didn't fit the setting's lore. Wayfinder's Guide presents each dragonmark as either a mechanical replacement for a character's race or subrace, which opens up the possibility of starting a game as a member of a dragonmarked house.

The powers granted by a dragonmark include a mix of ability score increases, special powers, spells, and intuition dice. Intuition dice begin as d4s that get added to ability checks with skills and tools that are pertinent to a dragonmarked house's specialties. For example, halflings with the Mark of Hospitality get a bonus to Charisma, the friends and prestidigitation cantrips, and intuition dice on persuasion checks and checks that involve brewer's tools and cook's utensils. Each entry on a dragonmark is about a page long and gives a good overview of the house connected to it, a few ideas for characters who might possess that mark, and the abilities associated with it.

At eight level a dragonmarked character can forgo their ability score increase to take a feat called Greater Dragonmark that increases the power of their mark. Their intuition dice increase from d4 to d6, and they gain the ability to cast a few higher level spells through their dragonmark. Some of these spells are quite high in level, but since they aren't combat-centric spells they don't seem likely to create balance problems.

Another feat, Aberrant Dragonmark, is offered for characters who wish to obtain a dragonmark that is unconnected to any of the dragonmarked houses. This feat grants a cantrip and a first-level spell from the sorcerer's spell list, and the ability to spend hit dice to increase the level you cast your spell at--at the cost of taking damage equal to a roll of however many hit dice you spent on it.

Magic Items
Most settings with "magical technology" also feature magical fuel; Deadlands has ghost rock, Malifaux has Soulstones, and Eberron has dragonshards. Dragonshards come in three types. Eberron dragonshards can used in place of material components in spells, to create magic items, and to fuel lightning rail trains and elemental airships. Khyber dragonshards are used for binding planar entities, phylacteries, and necromantic rituals. Siberys dragonshards are used for dragonmark focus items, eldritch machines, and for the creation of legendary magic items and artifacts.

Dragonmark focus items are usable only by people with the relevant dragonmark; they are either standard magic items that are cheaper to produce because they are attuned to a specific mark or they amplify the power of a mark for a related purpose. Eldritch machines are plot-point devices, such as magical seals keeping cosmic evils at bay. This chapter also includes some magic items that are common conveniences in the setting (such as stones that clean your body and clothes when you touch them), arcane foci (and rules for wielding them two-handed to get some rifle vs. pistol differentiation), and warforged components (arms blades! wand sheaths!).

Monday, August 13, 2018

A City of Authorities

A shared love of getting absolutely tossed to the rats on hard drink is one of the great harmonizers of Umberwell’s disparate peoples. Dwarves and catfolk couldn’t be more different in temperament, but put ‘em in front of a pitcher of grog and soon enough they’re laughing together, crying together, thick as thieves.   
 – Padma Gulch, curry house proprietor

Franziska Corvinus, a powerful tiefling sorceress, is the democratically elected Lord Mayor. She receives council from the city’s Ministries, who exercise authority over their areas of legislative expertise. Corvinus’s governance has been controversial due to her infernal connections, yet she has proved canny enough to keep the city from descending into utter discord. The assassin responsible for the previous Lord Mayor’s death was never apprehended.

Due to a culture the prizes parish sovereignty above metropolitan cohesion, Umberwell has no official city-wide police force. A number of independent thief-takers, borough watchmen, river wardens, parish beadles, and phrenological detectives (those who detect crime by studying features and head-shapes) operate as law-for-hire. The truly desperate turn to the members of Blind Justice—though they do not see, they sense crime and purge it with great violence. The most dangerous criminals in Umberwell are incarcerated in the supposedly inescapable Bleakbone Gaol in Rendchurch.

Traditions handed down from Umberwell’s fractious past have resulted in a population legally permitted to arm and armor itself. Because of the legal enshrinement of these traditions it is not uncommon to see fully armed people walking Umberwell’s streets. It is for this reason that Umberwell is sometimes colloquially referred to as the City of Shanks instead of its usual appellation—the City of Rust.

Although Umberwell is governed by a Lord Mayor, her power is limited by ancient legal traditions, the anarchic composition of the city, and the strength of the ten Ministries that possess legislative authority over important facets of life in the metropolis. Each Ministry has its own goals; the fact that the city’s Ministries often work at cross-purposes is one of the major reasons why Umberwell holds a reputation as a barely governed city-state held together by will rather than law.
    • The Ministry of Altars. Oversees matters of faith, the licensing of places of worship, and the removal of forbidden religions from the city.
    • The Ministry of Arrowheads. Oversees the city’s parks, preserves, and refuges. 
    • The Ministry of Coins. Oversees the city’s economy, regulates the banking industry and craft guilds.
    • The Ministry of Gavels. Oversees Umberwell’s courts and judicial system. The Ministry of Gavels attempts to steer the city toward codified, encompassing laws has met with stiff resistance. 
    • The Ministry of Horns. Oversees “vice” in the city, but is a very weak Ministry that rarely regulates anything.
    • The Ministry of Scythes. Oversees food production and agriculture within the city.
    • The Ministry of Shields. Oversees the Umberwell Militia and Navy. The Ministry of Shields wishes to create a city-wide police force, but are hampered by the long-standing tradition of each borough maintaining its own independent watch.
    • The Ministry of Stilettos. Oversees the city-state’s intelligence agencies and coordinates Umberwell’s spies.
    • The Ministry of Wands. Oversees the use of arcane magic and artificer technology, as well as civic engineering and major construction within Umberwell.