Tuesday 24 December 2013

World's End

I recently wrapped up a twelve-year long D&D campaign. The finale was a marathon weekender with seven players, and thankfully, it ended very well: everyone was on top form, and it was one of those rare games where the dice just landed right.

Today I'd like to share some thoughts on bringing your own campaigns to conclusion. It's a subject that's possibly worth thinking about, especially with 5th Edition on its way and people turning to new pastures.

Too many of our campaigns end up on the scrap heap. People drift apart, systems change, and friends get tied up in work or parenthood.  This one had almost gotten the same way. We'd started way back in 2001, shortly after the release of 3rd Edition. At first it was a perfect storm of gaming: a close-knit group of friends all living and working in the same suburb of London. Then - such is life - we moved apart, and our sessions fell from once a week to once every couple of months, and then to once or twice a year.

We didn't give up easily (one friend famously flying in from India to attend a rare group session), but overall our great story had lost momentum. This summer, I realised things needed to come to an end. We gathered for one final session, and we put our campaign to bed. It felt good too. Ongoing stories are great, but sometimes what they really need is closure.

Here's what I took from the experience of planning and running this monster final session. 

1: Instill a sense of urgency. 
I'd joked I was going to run the session like a military operation: a tight schedule of encounters, no chit-chat, punishment for not looking up spells, limited toilet breaks, etc. Turning this into a running gag actually had the same effect - people were reminded we needed to keep the wheels turning. I just didn't have to actually slap anyone's wrists!

2: Prepare a written campaign summary.
We usually kick off with a quick "previously on", but this time I took it right back to the beginning. I covered the characters' rise from simple nobodies to heroes of the realm, and laid out the campaign's story as simply as I could. Such sermons are usually bad news at the start of a session, but for the finale I think it's different. It shows your players the scale of their journey, and preparing it ahead of time shines a light on all those threads you need to tie together.  

3: Clearly present the campaign's goals.
I laid them out on cards right in the middle of the table. It seems simple, but with so many moving parts I found my players referring back to them a lot ("Hmm, it's 3pm. What have we got left? Ah yes, 'Close the demon gate and save the world!'").

4: Assign character-specific quests to tie up loose ends.
Most players develop their own threads over the course of a campaign, so this is the last chance they'll get for closure. To wrap those stories up in a single session you'll need two things. Firstly, a setting or event that forces everything together (in our case, a capital city under siege from demons), and secondly, a nudge for players to go looking for them in the first place (hence quests). Quest cards also give your players an excuse to focus on these things without causing arguments ("why am I doing this now? Because it's on this little quest card the DM gave me!"). Oh, and my single best piece of advice for actually running them: just give the players what they want. After all, this their final waltz in the spotlight.

5: Block out key scenes ahead of time, and know which scenes are expendable. 
Big fight against the necromancer overlord? Vital. Awesome skyship battle on the way to his castle? Not so much. Know what you can cut, and keep an eye on the clock.

6: PCs live, NPCs die.
It may be controversial to some, but unless your players are *really* awesome they're not going to appreciate the story ending on their beloved character's death. No, they'll want to bow out on a high. Let them! Instead, create situations where beloved NPCs are in jeopardy alongside the PCs. If a character gets into danger, their ally steps in to take the heat instead. (Our final battle had literally dozens of named NPCs whirling around the battlefield. I didn't roll dice for any of them, just pulled them in and out of the narrative as seemed best).

7: Revelations, not dilemmas.
You'll want to avoid anything that creates logjams at the table. It might sound neat to create an epic final choice between factions, but not if it's going to bog the session down in hours of analysis. Really by this stage it should be clear what's going down, who's to blame, and what needs to be done about it. Instead, focus on inserting twists and revelations that provide wonder without changing the game's overall course.

8: Use cutscenes as callbacks.
As the climax of the session approached, I described a few quick "cutscenes" featuring NPCs that the players had encountered over the years. Placing these old faces in danger really showed that the whole world was at risk, and built gravitas for the final scenes.

9: Give each character their own epilogue. 
This is vital, I think. Once the final battle has been won, go around the table one-by-one and roleplay a quick scene with each player: an epilogue for their character. Jump around in time and place: a wedding, a ritual of ascendance, a ride into the sunset. Best of all, give each player a chance to end that scene on a quote. If you're lucky, those words will go down in history for your group. 

Sunday 15 December 2013

How should we describe NPCs?

Warning: contains SPOILERS for I6: Ravenloft!

This weekend our 1E revival group completed the original Ravenloft module, banishing Count Strahd von Zarovich to oblivion and bringing the sun once more to cursed Barovia.

Ravenloft's tragic villain is one of the greatest NPCs of D&D's early history, coming with a fully fleshed-out backstory, multiple goals, and an ability to really screw with the flow of the adventure. It's a brilliant module - heck, it spawned an entire campaign setting - and Strahd himself is definitely one of the main reasons behind its success.

Flicking through the booklet afterwards, it was interesting to see how Strahd was presented alongside the other NPCs.

As with most old modules, the character descriptions are very game-focused. Strahd's backstory and goals are spread throughout the adventure: his history is explained via a player-handout near the back of the booklet, and there's a single quote at the start to give him a bit of character. For the DM's benefit, it could really use a nice character summary! 

This got me thinking about NPC summaries in my own games. EN World's Morrus has announced he's running an adventure writing competition in January, and my current idea for a submission is fairly heavy on NPC interaction. How all those characters are presented in the text is going to be pretty crucial - both in terms of word count and usability.

Is there a "magic formula" we can turn to when listing NPC traits? What's most important to you - a description of how they look? Their motivations? A flaw? The role they play in the story? A "schtick" you can act out? 

For me, I'm thinking high concept and motivation/goal are the most important NPC descriptors, even for those bit-part shopkeepers. A single-line description covering high concept and motivation is great for most NPCs. In short, it describes what their role is in the story. This said, background can also be important (i.e. how they came to be in the story), and if they're to play a long-term role, ideals and flaws seem like good descriptors too (i.e. how they'll react to changes in the story). That's probably all I'd need for 99% of my NPCs.

Describing how they look and act certainly feel distinct from these story elements: even superfluous. Most DMs probably just go with what works best for them at the time. Even so, for the most important NPCs of all, I feel a good module should offer some guidance on these areas.

In short, I think a good NPC description depends on how important the NPC is to the story, and should expand accordingly. Here's what I've come up with so far (with help from the kind posters at EN World!):

1: Simple named NPCs are described in a single sentence: 
[Name] is a [high concept] who [motivation/goal].
"Arik is a dour barkeeper who has lost the will to fight against Strahd's evil."

2: Characters with an important story role have expanded detail on their goals: 
[Name] is [high concept]. He/she has [short-term goal], in order to [long-term goal]".
"Ismark the Lesser is the determined elder son of the late Burgomaster, and the brother of Ireena Kolyana. Ismark is determined to reveal Strahd's evil to the Count's latest victims, in the hope they can save Ireena's life and avenge his father's death."

3: Characters with a dynamic role have additional background and personality traits: 
[Name] is [high concept]. He/she has [background]. He/she has [ideal] but is hampered by [flaw]. He/she is [short-term goal], in order to [long-term goal].
"Ireena Kolyana is the unwittingly reincarnated form of Tatyana, Count Strahd's ancient love. Ireena was found by her adopted father in the woods beneath Strahd's castle, lost and with no memory of her past. She loves her adopted family, but is terrified of what her past may reveal. With Strahd closing in, Ireena offers to join the adventurers, hoping they will help unravel the mysteries of her past and free her from the Count's evil."

4: The most important characters of all include details on behaviour and appearance:
[Name], [Quote]
Paragraph 1: [Name] is [high concept]. He/she has [background]. He/she has [ideal] but is hampered by [flaw]. He/she is [short-term goal], in order to [long-term goal].
Paragraph 2: [Name] has [sensory cues]. When met, he/she is [behavioural cues].

Count Strahd von Zarovich
"I am the ancient. My beginnings are lost in the darkness of the past. I am not dead. Nor am I alive. I am undead, forever."

Count Strahd von Zarovich is the scheming vampire overlord of the cursed barony of Barovia. Centuries ago, the mortal Strahd made a pact with darkness to reclaim his youth and win the heart of the beautiful Tatyana: an act that ended in tragedy. Strahd longs for power, but is cursed to endlessly replay the events that led to his immortality - falling madly in love with the reincarnated forms of his lost love Tatyana. Strahd is currently luring adventurers into his realm so he can murder them and steal their identities, extending his malign influence far beyond Barovia.

In his human form, Strahd is tall and lean, dressed in courtly black silk, with a gaunt face and eyes like two bottomless pools of darkness. In person he is darkly courteous with guests and cruelly mocking to victims, flying into a bestial rage if his evil plans are foiled.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Scotch Egg Beholders

Few snacks are more quintessentially British than the Scotch Egg: a deep-fried hard-boiled egg encased in crumbed sausage meat. Few monsters are more quintessentially D&D than the Beholder: a floating, many-eyed aberration whose gaze destroys. Combine the two, and you create a singularity of hateful, sausagey deliciousness.

This ritual summons two Scotch Egg Beholders. Preparing the ritual takes roughly 30 minutes. Invocation time is between 10-20 minutes, depending on how many Beholders you can fit into your cauldron.

Ritual Components 
2 large eggs
220g/ half a pound sausage meat
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 spring onion (scallion), finely chopped
salt and pepper
dash of Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1 whole nutmeg (optional)
plain flour seasoned with salt and pepper, for dusting
24 cocktail onions
12 wooden cocktail sticks
1 egg, beaten
50g fine white breadcrumbs
vegetable or corn oil for frying
1 small slice of cheese (Cheddar, ideally). 
Preheat your furnace to 190C/374F/Gas mark 5.
1: Place the eggs in a pan of boiling water and cook for exactly eight minutes. Plunge into cold water and then carefully peel and place to one side. 
2: Place the sausage meat in a bowl with the thyme leaves, parsley and spring onion and mix well, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a generous grating of nutmeg, if desired.  
3: Tear off roughly 80g of sausage meat and place to one side (this will form the Beholder's eyestalks). Divide the remainder in two and flatten them into fleshy discs.  
4: Dredge the eggs in a small handful of seasoned flour, and then carefully wrap the sausage meat around them to form a smooth surface. Make sure you've concealed all of your Beholder's eggy innards. 
5: Take 12 of your cocktail onions and impale them on cocktail sticks. Encase each onion in a thin coating of meat, with a smaller coating wrapped around roughly 2.5cm/1 inch of the stick beneath. It's fiddly, so be patient.  
6: Dip the Beholders and their eyestalks into their embryonic birthing pool (the beaten egg), and then carefully roll them in breadcrumbs. Press gently to ensure a good stick, and ensure every inch of their foul flesh is covered. 
7: Heat 4cm/1.5 inch of oil in a deep pan, until a piece of bread sizzles and turns brown when sacrificed inside. Now carefully deep fry your Beholder's bodies using a slotted spoon for about 4 minutes apiece, turning regularly until they're nicely browned. Place on a kitchen towel to drain, and then repeat with the eyestalks.
8: Transfer all parts to the oven and bake for about 5 minutes, or until golden brown. 
9: This is the trickiest part. Carefully cut a central eyehole into each Beholder's body using a sharp knife or scalpel. You're aiming to cut through the egg white into the yolk, which will form its pupil.   
10: Cut a leering mouth just underneath, but only deep enough to separate the breadcrumb crust. Use slivers of cheese to create horrid teeth (if you find them difficult to stick, use a dab of beaten egg to fix them in place). 
11: Now carefully cut a small eyehole into each eyestalk, exposing the pickled onion deep beneath. For extra measure, squeeze a second onion into each eye socket. 
12: Impale each Beholder's body with six* of the eyestalks, laughing maniacally as you do so. Place on a dish and serve warm (or cold, both work). 
*I know Beholders have ten eyestalks, but they don't fit. If that bothers you, you'll need to use an ostrich egg or something. 

Monday 9 December 2013

Dungeon 220: King of the Wolves

Beth Trott's gruesome rendition of Isarr Kronenstrom, scourge of Icewind Dale.

November's Dungeon is a special one for me. As well as featuring my latest adventure, "King of the Wolves", it also contains my first guest editorial! It's been quite a prolific year for me in the ezines, so Wizards kindly asked me to put together some thoughts for this month's editorial. I wrote a brief piece about the creative process, focusing on where I draw inspiration for adventure ideas ("King of the Wolves", for example, is a mash-up of Rambo: First Blood and the legend of Beowulf - or more specifically, the movie 13th Warrior).

Although the adventure presented my tightest deadline to date, it ended up being the easiest to write - everything just fell into place. I'm probably getting better at writing to schedule, but in this case I think I just got carried away by the idea. It's quite a simple plot, drawing inspiration near the end from Aeryn Rudel's "Dead by Dawn", one of my favourite 4E adventures. Overcomplication is an easy trap to stumble into when writing adventures, and can be tragic when you're up against the clock. I guess I'm learning to keep it focused.

"King of the Wolves" ties into the "Legacy of the Crystal Shard" D&D Encounters series. At the moment I'm torn between running this and "Murder at Baldur's Gate" for my next home campaign: while I love the intrigue of "Murder", it sadly carries some plot holes and lacks player agency in places. "Legacy" is more dramatic, I think, so that probably sways it for me. Interestingly both have the same format: three factions that the players clash against, dynamically whittled down to one over the course of three acts. It's a nice model, and marks quite a departure from previous seasons.

If you like "Legacy of the Crystal Shard", "King of the Wolves" lets you carry on your adventures in the Dale once the season is complete. If you do get to play it, I'd be delighted to hear how it panned out (for us, it was nearly a TPK)!

Sunday 8 December 2013

Dragonmeet 2013

Yesterday we attended our first RPG convention: Dragonmeet 2013, which was held in Kensington Town Hall. It's only a day-long affair, but it's been running for decades and tends to attract quite a buzz. This time I couldn't resist attending: I'd heard that 4E lead designer Rob Heinsoo was going this year, along with my childhood superstars Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, co-creators of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Stacey and I packed a bunch of books on the off-chance of getting them signed, and headed up to London. Funnily enough, we found ourselves next to Rob Heinsoo on the tube to Kensington, but didn't introduce ourselves as we were only half sure it was him (choosing instead to eye him suspiciously).

Dragonmeet has two gaming slots: morning and afternoon. We skipped the morning slot to catch the Games Workshop seminar and take in the stalls, picking up this fantastic art print from D&D regular Ralph Horsley (apparently it was scheduled for the Elminster's Forgotten Realms book, but somehow never made the cut!). The Games Workshop seminar itself was unmissable stuff. It was fascinating to hear how humble the company's origins were: with Jackson and Livingstone sleeping for months in a camper van parked outside their office, using the local squash club to shower and shave (apparently they got to be pretty mean squash players!). Their many anecdotes were accompanied by a set of slides, which included a rare showing of the original Talisman playtest, and early photographs of Steve and Ian alongside US contacts such as Gary Gygax and Fritz Leiber. Their passion for the hobby really shone through during the talk, and reminded me what a great debt we UK gamers owe to them!

After lunch Stacey got her Player's Handbook signed by Rob Heinsoo, who kindly took a few minutes to talk to us about 4E and 13th Age, his latest project. He came across as a really charming guy, and it was fascinating to hear his own thoughts on 4E's strengths and weaknesses. I picked up 13th Age a while back, so I'll have to give it a spin when we get the chance!

In the afternoon we played in Rich Green's 4E game "Flotsam and Jetsam", which was staged in Parsantium, a city of his own creation. Parsantium draws heavily on Indian and Asian mythology, featuring crazed cultists of Kali, the monkey god Hanuman, and Rakshasa overlords. I've always preferred Eastern over Christian myth for my fantasy, so I really enjoyed this setup. I also got to play a gnoll fighter, which was awesome because - well, gnoll fighter! In the end, "Shak" got to claim some heads, Stacey's Eladrin wizard got to cast some fun illusions, and our merry band saved the slums from slavers, Thuggee assassins, and various Underdark ne'er do wells. I was pleased to hear that Rich was the co-author of the wonderful 4E Midgard Bestiary, and is soon to be kickstarting the Parsantium city book (or more accurately kickfinishing, as it's already written!). You can check out his blog here.

Overall we had a great time, and are definitely up for more. My only criticism would be that attending both gaming slots means missing the stalls, so it would be nice if they stayed open a little later. Other than that, it was a real blast!

My signed original of "Forest of Doom", and Stacey's signed PHB! 

Monday 11 November 2013

Dungeon 219: Blades of the Stygian Masque

The fiendish Contessa Volto, masterfully painted by Chris Seaman.

The Halloween issue of Dungeon features my latest adventure: a hellish dungeon crawl for 27th level characters entitled "Blades of the Stygian Masque". Originally conceived for Fourthcore fans, I decided to take a punt and pitch it to Wizards before writing. Given its lethality I was quite surprised they ran with it, and especially pleased that it sailed through without a great deal of mechanical change. In the twilight of the edition, it's great to see some experimentation occurring within the e-zines.  

For those who don't know, Fourthcore puts the deadly back into 4th Edition, featuring truly lethal traps, cunning puzzles, and combats poised to punish poor tactics. I wanted to create a Fourthcore adventure that focused on combat over puzzles: in a sense, a "Tomb of Horrors" with deadly monsters instead of traps. 4th Edition does combat so well, so I wanted this to be my tribute to that.

My core mechanic was the hundred howling daggers: a set of flying blades spread throughout the dungeon, with each devilish "boss" carrying ten to twenty daggers. The PCs claim the daggers by slaying the bosses, enabling them to turn them against the others. Mechanically, each bound dagger adds one point of damage to every successful attack (whether ranged or melee). If assigned to a single party member - a striker, say - he or she can end up dealing an additional 80 damage per turn by the final boss encounter. The risk comes from that character then dying or falling unconscious - as this causes their daggers to fly wild, automatically dealing damage to every creature nearby until they're rebound. This created some beautifully desperate moments during playtesting, as PCs and enemies alike scrambled to bind the daggers before they eviscerated everyone on the battlefield.

Ultimately I ended up removing some of the deadlier Fourthcore elements, but I kept the daggers at the adventure's heart. I also put a lot of work into designing the opposition: giving them traits that split the party and keep the battlefield in flux. In the end I came to look upon "Blades of the Stygian Masque" as being more akin to one of the "Lair Assault" Encounter seasons, rather than a pure Fourthcore adventure. Hopefully I found a happy balance - but I'll let you be the judge of that!

Sunday 15 September 2013

Aegis of Ages Artifact

Gom Vardae, the Aegis of Ages.
I've a lot of love for the 4th edition artifact rules. They're basically a streamlined version of 3rd edition's Weapons of Legacy, with a nod to the old Ego rules for intelligent items. There are two things about the new system I really like. Firstly, an artifact's magic is built around its "Concordance": meaning more powers unlock the more you appeal to its goals, and vice versa. Secondly, they're not built to last - they're supposed to hang around for a level or two and then move on to a new owner. While this means they don't permanently unbalance your game, it also gives them a more credible role in your story. (Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium features artifacts that abandon both of these rules, and I think the system as a whole suffers for it).

In my own HPE campaign I've started featuring two artifacts per adventure. So far we've had the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd, the Orb of Light (which we modified to fit into the pommel of the paladin's sword), the Head of Vyrellis, the Hand of Vecna, and two artifacts of my own devising: the Deck of Illusions and the Rhonic Saddle. Now we're cycling back to the beginning, which means a new artifact for Bravus Boulderborn - Stacey's dwarven warrior.

Stacey fell in love with Gom Vardae as soon as the party pried it from its previous owner's fingers, and she's carried it for well over a year in the hope it will become her next artifact. With its big carved face and telepathic interjections, it's her perfect fit. She's one of those player types who just loves NPCs, and goes out of her way to befriend them (one of her old 3E characters even adopted a whole team of sidekick characters, including a robot, a dog, a wind mephit, and a jungle boy who was essentially Mowgli). The Concordance system was basically built for her.

In our last session Gom finally awoke for real, and allied itself to her cause. This meant finalising its artifact rules, which I share here for your own use. The Aegis of Ages worked out pretty well in combat, but we've yet to trial its later powers. So - for my own players only - keep out! 

Sunday 8 September 2013

Walking With Drakes

A Goliath Drake (Argentinosaurus)

Oddly enough, I happen to know quite a lot about dinosaurs.

Roughly a year ago, the company I work for was approached to pitch a dinosaur-based game. I didn't know much about dinosaurs beyond what I'd learned in school; in fact, I was a little worried by how sparse my knowledge actually was. Still, we managed to get the contract, and for the past twelve months or so I've been cramming my head full of facts while trying to turn our game into a reality.

It's actually turned out to be remarkably interesting. Did you know, for example, that palaeontologists have learned more about dinosaurs in the past decade than the entire century preceding it? We've all heard about the discovery of feathered dinosaurs, but did you know that a feathered cousin of T.rex has been found in China (or that, due to the incomplete nature of fossils, some scientists now believe all theropods may have been feathered?). Did you know that T.rex had South American and African cousins that were equally big and mean, such as Carcharodontosaurus or Giganotosaurus, but who hunted in packs? Or that there were sauropods so huge - like Argentinosaurus - that smaller dinosaurs actually drowned in their footprints?

It's been a fantastically fun game to work on. With my head so full of prehistoric thoughts, it's only natural that some of it should spill over into my RPG campaigns. So here, for your gaming pleasure, I present "Walking with Drakes" - four new reptilian monsters for use in your D&D 4th Edition games. Some are hybrids of existing monsters, but I've tried to include a few original tweaks in each - and provide some factual details about the dinosaurs they're based on. Hopefully each can find its place in your own lost worlds.


Sunday 30 June 2013

Dungeon 215: The Rolling Tomb

William O'Connor's depiction of  Sacrademus, a villain from my "Rolling Tomb" adventure.

Around this time last year my first adventure pitch was accepted for "Tears of the Crocodile God". The last twelve months have been amazing - I've written four adventures for Wizards of the Coast, and I'm currently wrapping up my fifth. My third adventure - "The Rolling Tomb" - has just now been published in Dungeon 215. It's a piece of writing I'm quite proud of, and I really hope you get the chance to read through and play it!

"The Rolling Tomb" was based on one of Chris Perkins' ideas: a moving pyramid that crushes everything in its path. I'll admit taking on an epic-tier adventure was a bit of a challenge - I hadn't much experience running high-level games under 4E, so I had gravitate back to my longer-running 3E campaigns for inspiration. If you read through the encounters, you may notice nods to my favourite sourcebooks: "Sandstorm" and "Dungeonscape" in particular. For encounter construction I owe a lot to Sly Flourish's "Running Epic Tier D&D Games", whose advice inspired a number of villainous twists. Mike Shea is a top-notch designer, and I'd recommend his guide to DMs tackling high-level adventures in any system. "Running Epic Tier D&D Games" is currently being given away for free, so there's no excuse not to check it out!

Speaking of freebies, I'd advise any 4E fans here to check out fellow blogger frothsof's awesome fanzine "4E Forever": a mammoth 154 pages of houserules, monsters, traps, adventures and other crunchy goodness, dressed up in a pleasing OSR style. Frothsof really liked my Scalemail mass combat system, and asked me if he could include it in the fanzine - for which I'm very honoured. He even did a guest interview with me over on his blog, which you can check out here.  Scalemail has been reflavoured to fit the fanzine's own in-house world, and is now the chosen mass combat system for further submissions. Thanks frothsof! 

Thursday 27 June 2013

Maps of the Drowned Kingdoms 6: Bastion

A village in the Stonewold.

Bastion nestles in the pinewoods at the head of the Sob river. It is said the stone thanes have forgotten its existence - or shun it lest they awaken the horrors hidden in the mountains behind. 
Population: 93 (57 human, 23 dwarf, 13 halfling). Though the village is mostly inhabited by humans, dwarves have settled here too, drawn by the promise of mountain gold.  
Government: Bastion resides in the shire of Groal, yet its giant rulers claim no tribute, nor have they sent a governor to lead its people. Since the last giant left two hundred years ago, the villagers have elected their own headman to settle disputes and marshal supplies. Such responsibilities usually fall to the eldest resident, so the dwarf Bhaldur is the current headman, having lived here for over a hundred and fifty years. 
Inns and Taverns: The halfling-run "Weeping Giant" is the village's only inn. Years of harsh winters have driven the villagers closer together, and now the inn serves as a communal feasting hall, with residents pooling their produce and paying the halflings to cook stews. Visitors to Bastion are likely to find its entire population eating in here most evenings. 
Supplies: Bastion has no shops, but the villagers come together every month to hold a small market. Iron mined from the mountains is worked by the dwarves into simple farming tools, or when needed, weapons.  
Temples: Most villagers keep small shrines in their homes, but there is no central place of worship. An ancient menhir dedicated to the Wild Sisters stands in the market green, and offerings are sometimes laid before it if the weather is particularly bad.     
The Gate: Bastion's vast gate is said to lead under the mountains to the cities on the coast, but nobody has passed through it for hundreds of years. The portal was kept closed even under giant rule, leading some to suspect that something terrible is kept beyond. Sometime lights are spied in the darkness, causing the villagers to stay in their homes and lock their shutters.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Drowned Kingdoms Gazetteer 2: Familiars of the Sea

Meet Castavan, Murl, Gurgo and Wodlock! 
The wizards of Ebb are known to take their familiars from the sea: choosing crabs, turtles, lobsters, or seabirds such as penguins or gulls. Each wizard imbues a portion of his or her soul into their familiar, forming an arcane bond between them that can never be broken. In doing so, they also take on a measure of their familiar's own primal essence, mutating their mind and body in subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - ways.

Those who choose the gull sometimes grow sleek feathers on their forearms, or develop a gnawing hunger for raw fish. As their arcane bond grows, some even learn to project their own voices on the winds, calling out over many leagues.

The penguin grants their master unmatched underwater prowess. Such wizards may grow scaly webbing between their fingers, but this is purely cosmetic: their watery skills are entirely magical. These wizards also gain the ability to hold their breaths for longer, allowing them to dive below the surface for extended periods of time.

Those who take the crab as their familiar may find themselves inadvertently walking sideways rather than turning, or subconsciously developing a grumpy temperament around other wizards. Their most striking ability is their grasp, which is said to be as strong as the grip of an umber hulk. These wizards' hands are always flushed red with blood, and may even develop chitinous lumps and blisters.

Similarly, those of the turtle may find their skin becomes leathery and wrinkled in places. Such wizards typically have enhanced endurance, and sometimes develop a minor magical resistance to blows (offset somewhat by their unnaturally languid gait).    

Friday 29 March 2013

L is for Linnorm

"Doesn't matter how many legs we've got, we'll still give you a kicking!"

Linnorms are powerful monsters closely related to dragons. Like dragons, they also come in different breeds: forest, frost, land, grey, and so on. While none have wings, there's an inconsistency about how many legs they have: with some having just two, and others having four. Again, this could have something to do with real myth, as the linnorm (or "lindworm" to us English) can represent a variety of mythological dragons: whether wingless, legless, or bipedal. 

My personal favourite is the Lambton Worm, a monster from County Durham that grew inside a well after being dumped there by a young fisherman. Eventually it started eating children and livestock, forcing the lord of the manor to appease it with vast offerings of milk. Numerous villagers died trying to slay the beast, until at last it fell to the young fisherman who caught it - now a knight back from the crusades. He fought it wearing a specialised suit of armour covered in sharpened spear heads, which cut the worm to ribbons as it coiled around him. Now that's a D&D plan if ever I've heard one!  

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Maps of the Drowned Kingdoms 5: Odinessa

The legendary City of Ropes welcomes a new dawn.
I think this is the first map I've drawn that really hits the "big story" of Drowned Kingdoms: a world ruled by an ancient order of giants, perched on the brink of a new age.

Locked away in their towers and embroiled in petty politics, the giants have unwittingly ceded control to trusted stewards from the "mannish" races. I can picture the Groaning King tramping through his ramshackle hall, tended by degenerate servants, while his scheming steward runs the busy metropolis below. Odinessa also gives me a chance to explore one of the new classes from the latest packet - the warden - which manifests in Next as a "green knight" variant of the paladin. For Drowned Kingdoms I've made these the guardians of the city's great roc, which protects Odinessa from attack by scooping up ships and dashing them against the cliffs.

This is also the last map I intend to draw from the Widowing Sea region. Next up we're going on a trip to the mountains, where we'll explore some of the Highland Kingdom!

The "City of Ropes" is the gateway between the Widowing Sea and the upper reaches of the Highland Kingdom. Its citizens belong to the Groaning King of the stone giants, who rules from a castle overlooking the city.  
Population: 8,434 (85% human, 10% halfling, 5% other). Humans make up the vast proportion of Odinessa's population, with most indentured into service with one of the great guilds. The city's halflings are a throwback to the grim days of giantry, when most inhabitants worked as slaves in the king's castle (and halflings were prized as cooks). 
Government: The Groaning King may govern in principle, but the city is ruled by his steward: an office currently held by Bourne Cavendish, baseborn son of the late Lord Cavendish. "The Bastard" rules with an iron fist, and has brought the city's guilds to heel through a winning combination of threats, bribery and murder. Rumour has it that he clamours for yet more power, and is turning his eyes overseas in search of conquest.  
Inns and Taverns: Most of Odinessa's inns and taverns are found in the Wash: the tangle of streets honeycombing the city's crowded docks. Ragwork's mighty meadhall still does a roaring trade, even though the drink now comes at a price (under giantry, each of the king's slaves was granted a free flask of mead at the close of each day).  
Supplies: Odinessa was once a thoroughfare for highland merchants, with goods hoisted up and down its cliffs on massive rope lifts. Such industry collapsed along with the king's court, and now its ropes hang rotten. Today the city's trade is tied up by the guilds, with Odinessa supplying a steady stream of valuable ores and minerals to the economy of the sea kingdoms. Visitors should seek out the Crown Market, where trade goods can be purchased from all over the ocean.   
Temples: Temples for most modern faiths can be found on Burnt Hill. Chief among these is the Temple of the Sky, whose silvered dome is polished to a mirrored sheen that can be seen for many leagues. Sky priests are a growing power in Odinessa, and in recent years have even infiltrated the steward's hold.  
Laws and Customs: Guildrule holds sway in the city, with each guild providing their own tunics to maintain peace and dispense justice. Knights swear fealty to their steward, or tend the king's eagle (a giant even among its own kind). The mysterious Knights of the Roc are said to watch over a clutch of eggs that have lain dormant in its eyrie for almost two centuries.   

Friday 15 March 2013

K is for Kenku

"Check it out, Pa - I'm gonna be a god!" 

Kenku are naturally drawn towards thievery, forming underworld gangs within the larger cities of the world.  These crafty birdmen earn their living through rigged card games, confidence scams and backstreet ambushes, sometimes using their talent for disguise to pose as humans (though their "telltale large noses" give them a mere 50% chance to pull it off). Infant Kenku quickly mature into criminals, with the younger members of the gang carrying out the most daring and audacious plots (such as "posing as a god"). Gold given by a Kenku crumbles into dust soon after it's received, and their advice is always misleading. A gibberish language of chirps and squawks masks their true method of communication: telepathy.

Kenku often feature in Far Eastern adventures, as they're loosely based on Japanese folk spirits called Karasu-Tengu: a race of mystical birdmen who supposedly taught martial arts to man. Interestingly, traditional Japanese depictions of Tengu have become less and less birdlike over the years, ultimately ending up as angry red-faced men with really long noses. I wonder if that's why the D&D Kenku disguises itself as a man?

Sunday 10 March 2013

Maps of the Drowned Kingdoms 4: The Sunken Citadel of Ebb

What secrets lie hidden within the drowned fastness of Ebb? 

Aspirant wizards of the Widowing Sea are taken by sail to the Lullen, a vast stretch of water where no wind blows. Marooned on its edge, the aspirant must row alone into the doldrums, until they come at last to a place where bubbles break the surface. Quaffing the water-breathing draught given to them by their master, they dive down into the inky depths, where they are inducted into the sunken citadel of Ebb.

Ebb was once the home of a powerful storm giant wizard. By day her tower overlooked a windswept valley, but by night it tumbled through the planes on her command. Powerful wards protected it from the elemental chaos, allowing the wizard to explore the furthest shores of the cosmos. Nobody knows how her tower finally collapsed, or what fate befell the wizard herself, but Ebb had long fallen into ruin by the time of the deluge. Its magic still held though, stilling the wind for miles around its foundations, and holding its walls fast against the crushing pressures of the abyss. Filled with artificial gravity and flooded with fresh, cool air, the sunken citadel was found by adventurers of the Widowing Sea, who turned it into a grand college of magic.

A wizard of the sunken citadel dresses in blue, aquamarine or purple robes, often decorated with wave or tentacle motifs. Their staffs are surmounted by shards of coral or mother-of-pearl, and they typically take oceanic creatures as familiars: crabs, seabirds or snapping turtles. Graduates serve the navies of the Widowing Sea as war wizards, or carry out their studies in solitude from remote hermitages. Others quest in the company of sell-swords and sea reavers, searching for sunken secrets to carry back to their masters in Ebb.

Thursday 7 March 2013

J is for Jackalwere

"No, boy. This form was made for killin', not playin' ball."

Absent from Wizards' recent article on shapeshifters was the notorious Jackalwere, a savage monster that preys on humans by masquerading as one of their own kind. Yes, that's right. The Jackalwere is actually the humorous opposite of a werewolf: an animal (in this case a jackal) that transforms into a savage human. They can also assume a halfway house between both forms: the half-human, half-jackal hybrid that Stacey's illustrated above. Somewhat surprisingly, this monster has infiltrated every edition of D&D to date.

In fairness, Jackalweres aren't proper lycanthropes. Great though it would be, they're not created by the infected bite of ravenous human: instead, they're a crafty race of jackals who can shapeshift at will to hunt down their prey (like that's any less silly). Of course, it works best if their prey is human. Isn't it strange there aren't any monsters that only transform into elves, dwarves, or gnomes? I suppose a Werehobbit doesn't have quite the same ring!

Monday 25 February 2013

Dungeon 211: Glitterdust

This morning my latest Dungeon offering went live: a strange little adventure called 'Glitterdust', which is designed for a party comprised entirely of pixies. I had a tremendous amount of fun writing this, and it's great to see Wizards of the Coast experimenting with such oddball concepts. Hopefully you'll get the chance to run it too - we played it as a one-shot for playtesting, and it made for an interesting change of pace from our normal campaign.

I'd originally intended the adventure to be dark and mysterious throughout, much like Pan's Labyrinth, but it actually ended up much closer to a Disney movie - featuring talking animals, a bumbling human adventurer, and a wicked hag. This spirit is certainly reflected in the maps they did for the adventure, which have a pleasing cartoon style.

Let me know if you like it!

Thursday 21 February 2013

I is for Ixitxachitl

"Now what did I tell you about eating blowfish?" 

The supposedly-terrifying "Demon Rays" use slaves to tunnel out labyrinthine underwater cities in the coral. They're small, basically the size of a normal ray, with a poisonous barb on their tail, just like a stingray. In fact, they are stingrays. But with fangs and a silly name. You can get vampire ixitxachitl too, which seems like a slightly desperate addition to make them scarier. Best of all, we're told that for every 50 ixitxachitl there will also be a high priest and two guardians, all with Type U treasure ("magical items that can be used without hands"). Imagine that - a stingray wearing a gold chain. Or a cloak.

The Monster Manual helpfully informs us it's pronounced "ish-it-SHACH-itl", "icks-it-ZACH-it-ul", or "icks-it-zuh-chit-ul", which is basically an admission that you should say it however you damn please. Doesn't matter now though, as some bright spark eventually realised that ixitxachitl fulfil the same role as aboleths, and ditched them from the game.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Maps of the Drowned Kingdoms 3: The Pinnacles of Song

Dare you scale the windswept Pinnacles of Song?
So we needed a monk to test out all of the classes in D&D Next. I've never been big on monks; in fact, I don't think any of my previous campaigns actually supported them. Coming up with a monastic order for Drowned Kingdoms was going to be something new for me.

If I have any advice on campaign building, it's to draw inspiration from real life. History books are an obvious source to mine, but you can glean a lot just by listening to the news, browsing the internet, or flicking through back issues of magazines like National Geographic. Start thinking consciously about adapting real-life stories to your games, and it's amazing what you'll find. Give those stories a fantastic tweak, and you'll often end up with something truly original.

The idea of a monastery carved into a sheer rock face is hardly new - in fact, the internet is crammed with awesome pictures of them. However, I couldn't resist, as nothing says "monk" better than a precarious mountain sanctuary. This wasn't my only inspiration for the Pinnacles of Song though: somewhat surprisingly, most of it came from a short news story about the use of satellite dishes in Iran. It turns out that satellite TV is illegal under the regime, yet over half the residents still own dishes. The police swoop in and tear them down, a few people get fined, and then the residents wire them up again. Best of all, most people aren't using them to listen to foreign news or tune into pirate political broadcasts - they're using them to watch Turkish soap operas, comedy shows, or American serials dubbed into Persian. You know: basic feel-good entertainment. It was this story that gave me the idea for the Song Monks.

The wood elves of the Kithweald lived in harmony with the Four Storms - the untamed, magical winds that rumble over the seas of Diluvia. Looking out over their forest was like gazing over the rolling waves, the song of its shuddering leaves matching the endless rise and fall of the tide. It's said the elves learned to whisper on these winds, casting their voices for miles in a primal tongue that only they could hear.  
For centuries the giants had left the Kithweald alone. When they finally came, they took hundreds of captives, loading them onto their longboats and stealing them away to serve as their slaves. Lost and afraid, far from home, the captives listened to the winds but could no longer hear the song of their countrymen. The giants told them they had burned their forest, and put their people to the sword. But they were liars. When the spring winds finally blew, the elves heard the distant voices of their people, and though they couldn't talk back, they could listen - a secret that kept them warm through all the dark days of their slavery. Now, whenever the spring wind blows, they are reminded that their people are still out there. 
In time the cruel giants were overthrown, and kinder masters took over. Freed from the shackles of slavery, the elves went in search of their lost homeland, but were scattered even further by the Four Storms. Today they gather at the Pinnacles of Song to listen to the voices of their lost kinsmen - the songs, laughter, and whispered secrets of a life beyond their grasp. The winds moan weirdly as they sweep over the pinnacles' warped surfaces, amplifying the voices better than any other place. Those bold enough to live a life of hardship here can train as a song monk: contemplative warriors who seek mastery over the Four Storms. The monks learn to channel the winds over their bodies, tapping its power to perform amazing feats of physical mastery. The most powerful can even bend the spring wind to their will, tuning into its song at any time.
Every year, one of these adepts is dispatched in search of their lost homeland, guided by the Spring song. To date, none have found their way through the storms.  

Monday 18 February 2013

H is for Huecuva

Who'd have thought that priests cursed by their god to wander the world as undead could be so cute? Huecuvas first appeared in the original Fiend Folio, and have since shown up in every edition of the game bar fourth. When a paladin fails his vows, or a priest commits an act of heresy, their god can curse them to come back as a huecuva (pretty harsh, if you ask me).

The monster's original entry comes from a magazine called "Underworld Oracle" (check the old-school pictures!), where they appeared in a Mesoamerican-themed adventure called the Forests of Yurupari.  "Huecuvu" are indeed part of South American myth: a type of plague spirit that can choose to appear in a variety of ghastly forms. Though the original adventure kept the monster's shapeshifting powers, these were ditched for later incarnations. Not so for their plague-tainted touch, which started out as yellow fever in the original adventure, changed to "acute cardiovascular-renal disease" in the Fiend Folio, and ended up as plain old "Heucuva Blight" in 3rd Edition.

Why would a good god curse its own worshipers to spread deadly diseases? It doesn't make much sense (unless it's to keep their other clerics busy!), yet I kind of like it. I prefer my gods terrible and unfathomable, rather than benign and predictable.    

Thursday 14 February 2013

Drowned Kingdoms Gazetteer 1: Pickbill

Lots of odd little ideas have emerged as we've been mapping Drowned Kingdoms: thoughts about characters, customs, creatures - even sports. I'm going to try and capture some of these here on the blog as the weeks go by, starting with this cantankerous little fellow - the pickbill.

When I drew the Fathomdeep map, Stacey asked what birds were nesting on the giant trident. I didn't have an answer, so she came up with this creature. It's not a monster, and it doesn't come with an adventure hook - but I think stuff like this adds valuable flavour to my world. I'm reminded of my favourite RPG world book - Titan, the Fighting Fantasy World - which featured all sorts of wonderful cultural details, from orcish campfire songs through to starcharts of the heavens. These are the details that cement your world in the imagination of your players.

So let's hope this blog series can provide something similar!

These large seabirds have toughened pick-shaped bills and powerful clawed feet. They use the points of their bills to crack open barnacles and shellfish, allowing them to gobble up the tasty meat inside. Combs of fibrous 'teeth' span the front of the bill, allowing them to filter plankton from the water. 
Pickbills are clumsy flyers but agile swimmers. They live in large waterside colonies, but are extremely territorial over their own patches. As a species they are found all over southern Diluvia, nesting in sheer cliff-faces or abandoned seaside ruins.  
It's not advisable to eat a pickbill as their meat is extremely tough and salty, and can leave you with a nasty case of food poisoning. Some sailors view them as good-luck charms, as in bad weather their long, honking calls can be used to guide vessels towards (or away from) land. 

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Maps of the Drowned Kingdoms 2: Salvation

Welcome to Salvation, sailor!
The port of Salvation nestles in the towering ruins of an abandoned storm giant temple. Those who live here swear fealty to the stone giants of Haggard Rock.
Population: 823 (60% human, 25% dwarf, 15% other). Humans residents are typically shopkeepers or tradesmen. Dwarves belong to the jewellers' guild, and rotate in shifts between here and the Fathomdeep mining platform.
Government: Salvation is ruled by the Tulán, corrupted half-giant governor to the thane of Haggard Rock. His masters rarely visit, so the mariners' guild keep him in a state of drunken revelry - allowing them to get on with the business of running the town.  Mikkel Shar is the current guild head; youngest ever to be appointed his station. While the Tulán is rarely seen beyond the walls of Fort Orison, Mikkel Shar is a well-respected face around town.
Inns and Taverns: The three-storied "Merrymeet Inn" slumps atop a fallen pillar near the docks, and is most popular among visitors. Locals prefer the raucous "Scrambler's Alehouse" on the quayside, or the dusky "Hanged Monkey Tavern". All three are cheaply priced, with plenty of rooms to spare.  
Supplies: The guilds haven't gripped Salvation as they have in the larger cities. The mariners' and jewelers' guilds both hold offices in town, but all other business is unrestricted. Independent fishmongers, craftsmen and blacksmiths ply their trade from windows along the boardwalk, while visiting merchants sell direct from the decks of their ships.  
Temples: Though Salvation has no temples, most dwellings have makeshift shrines to one or more of the main pantheonic gods. Townsfolk arrange their own communal worship, gathering at different houses to sing and pray.   
Laws and Customs: A cadre of twenty guardsmen uphold the laws of the town, which are pretty simple: don't steal, beat or cheat. Relaxed trade laws mean even pirates and smugglers are tolerated, so long as they don't break the rules. If they do, the community is quick to rally against them.     

Friday 8 February 2013

Badger Badger Badger

The Beastly Badger is hungry, and YOU'RE on the menu.

Wizards of the Coast has a pretty cool art competition going on at the moment to tie in with the relaunch of Against the Slave Lords. Anyone can enter - all you have to do is submit a black and white picture of a character or scene from one of the adventures and then enter it via their Facebook page. This is Stacey's entry - the "Beastly Badger" from Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Once the submission period is up (this Sunday I think) Wizards will select up to sixty winners and publish them in the adventure! Facebook users can also vote for a fan favourite, which is guaranteed a place!

So - get yourself over to their Facebook page and give the badger a vote! It'll make our day!

Thursday 31 January 2013

Maps of the Drowned Kingdoms 1: Fathomdeep

Fathomdeep - click to make bigger!
So it's the dawn of a new year, and a brand new D&D campaign rises on my horizon.  For a while now I've been drawn to the 5th Edition playtest - I admit I wasn't impressed initially, but I'm really liking the direction it's taken in recent packets. I'm going to give it a proper chance. Or at least, lay down preparations for a proper campaign. Which means a new campaign world!

I'm also aware Beholder Pie has been gathering dust recently. Though I've hosted my fair share of aborted serials here on this blog, it's time to gear up for a more regular posting schedule, and a new campaign world gives me something fresh to talk about.

So, welcome to Drowned Kingdoms! I'll be posting maps for this new world every week*, building it up map-by-map into a proper setting. I've always wanted this blog to be packed with original art, but actually getting artists to provide artwork (for nothing!) does mean it's been rather stop-start. Maps, though, I can do myself (to a degree - Stacey colours them!).

The idea for the world is pretty simple. It's the dying days of an empire of giants, decimated long ago by a great deluge. They still rule the archipelagos, but the flood has robbed them of their glory. The storm giants are forlorn drunkards, haunted by lost glories. Hill giants have descended into savagery, while stone giants are a beaten race hiding out in the mountains. Fire giants? Just a legend, supposedly fled to the Elemental planes. Beneath them all are men, elves, dwarves, and halflings - the subjects of the empire. And now, their time has come!

Stacey and I had the idea for Fathomdeep after watching the Hobbit (which we loved, in case you're wondering!). That scene at the start where the camera dives into the depths of Erebor, past clanking chains, to a lone dwarf miner uncovering the Arkenstone - now, just imagine if that was underwater? That same dwarf with his beard floating around him, fish flitting past, a flare hissing in the rockface at his side, working on a rockface of coral - well, that's Fathomdeep!

Fathomdeep is a deep sea mining platform perched atop a giant statue in the ruins of a flooded storm giant city. The dwarves mine the sunken city for pearls, gold and gemstones, using waterbreathing potions to survive the crushing depths.
Population: Up to 300 dwarven workers can be found here at any one time. Roughnecks, roustabouts and miners work the rig in rotation, spending roughly a quarter of the month onshore. Servants and managers stay full-time on annual contracts. Supply ferries make the journey to the mainland on the first day of every week.
Government: The platform is owned by the Jeweller's Guild of Salvation, a nearby town. The current "toolpusher" (foreman) is called Torgi:  a grizzled veteran who commands his men's respect and is fiercely loyal to the guild.
Inns and Taverns: Rum is generously meted out every night in the "Crab's Taphouse": an annex of the rig's mess hall. Visitors are welcome to stay in the taphouse's rat-infested bunks, but may prefer the comfort of their own berths. The taphouse is run by Bald Olli, a merry dwarf who's always interested in tales of distant shores.
Supplies: Fathomdeep is a regular stop-over for sea traders, so it keeps a good supply house. Visitors can be sure to restock on fresh water, timber, hardware, and other shipping goods, but can also find a fair supply of adventuring gear. After all, the sunken city is home to worse things than fish.
Temples: The platform maintains a small shrine to the old gods of the sea. It's a dangerous job, so miners usually pay a visit to the shrine before "going below". Visitors can buy simple curatives from Ocram, the platform's crippled ritual worker. Ocram was lamed by a shark, whose teeth he now uses as runestones to predict the weather.  
Check back next week for a map of Salvation!

*Okay, maybe every other week. Let's just see how it goes.