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07 December 2018

Can't Play? Build.


Nearly everyone who plays Dungeons and Dragons knows the following truth: The toughest monster to overcome isn’t a rampaging tarrasque, a maniacal pit fiend outfitted with an Unholy Avenger, or a dark and powerful god raising armies of orcs, minotaurs, and more to his service; it’s finding the time to play Dungeons and Dragons.

This is a well-documented phenomenon, from the hundreds of Reddit posts, wishing “I could actually play this amazing character I rolled up/drew/wrote about,” to the grumbling text and Facebook messages between players in my own groups. Especially with the holidays drawing near, those of us who work, go to school, and make time for family lose out on dungeoneering for a few weeks time.

Luckily, there are many ways to appease your inner adventurer during your brief (or long) hiatus from the game you love.

Build Anything


Playing Dungeons and Dragons is merely a single facet of the hobby. During intermediary periods, the single greatest activity you can do is build; build a world, a character, or a monster, a map, a miniature, or a battleground.

Dungeons masters new and old can create worlds. This is what I often do doing breaks from the game; I build pantheons, write history, think-up interesting personalities, and craft locations. This activity involves lots of research and reading and, I admit, it’s subjectively fun. Delving into articles about ancient Egyptian architecture, the Greeks’ philosophy on death, and the tactics of generals like Alexander the Great can be fun to some and a drag to others. That’s okay!

Build a character instead, someone you will play when the times comes for adventuring again. If that doesn’t sound interesting, form your very own creature, a monster of your imagination. Another activity is drawing a map of your world, a battlefield, or a cozy town, something everyone might not be the best at, but is fun nonetheless. For crafty-types, printing, priming, and painting a miniature for a beefy minotaur or a colossal dragon might be your appeasement. Those truly feeling up to the challenge can even create a prop-battlefield!

You might not be able to play D&D, but any of these activities will have you pumped and prepared for your next session.

A short article today, I know. The writing life has been tough, as of late, but I should not let it hinder my creative writing streak. Normal broadcasting shall resume shortly.

Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

08 November 2018

Villains: The Conqueror, The Maniac, and The Corrupted


Artwork is a fountain of inspiration for DUNGEONS & DRAGONS players and dungeon masters. Countless quests, scenarios, and characters can be spawned from art, just as countless stories can be spawned by our said and written words; this article will showcase the former. On the Internet, one of the most valuable resources of D&D players, I’ve found three pieces of villain art. A desert-dwelling human, a crazed lizardfolk warrior, and a minotaur corrupted by earthen elements. Read on to see how each picture transformed from art to words.

The Conqueror


“Most humans are weak. They need someone to command them, to coerce them, to make them do what is right and necessary. I am that man; and no one shall tell me otherwise. To do so is death.”

This is a human man who grew up in the desert of Enoach, among elemental creatures like genasi and salamanders. He was shaped by the maelstrom of war and combat that came with these elemental creatures and the sheer domination they imposed upon humankind. Over time, he came to understand why humans were weak and lost nearly all the territory they once owned. Achai the Red ruled Imixia; he was strong, a good leader, and punished those who opposed him. Vigalok Thakume ruled Ogremocha; he was strict, unbending, but understood the changing times.

The human man knew what needed to be done. He needed to become like the giants that ruled those elemental realms. He needed to be strong and strict, a good leader and unbending. He took it to himself to amass an army, first of mercenaries then of individuals who resounded with his message:

“These lands were once ours; the elementals that conquered them are no better than US but because they were greater than our ancestors, they currently rule. Follow me, and we will rule again.”

Hundreds at first and then thousands flocked to the human’s call. From the elemental realms of Imixia, Ogremocha, Aqor, and Yanis to the outskirts of Enoach in the Stormsteps. The elementals tried to stop him, find him, assassinate him, but he would not be halted. And thus began his conquest in southern Enoach, beginning with an assault on the earthen realm of Ogremocha. Two days ago, the battles of the outer rings ended and already he is known as The Conqueror.

The Maniac


“Understand. Understand me! Understand it! We’ve existed since the beginning in the swamps and bogs and wet places of the world. Yes! Understand it. We’ve existed...forever, and continue to exist we will. Understand it and bow before it!”

Everything changed for this lowly lizardfolk grunt from the Rotwood when he stumbled upon a dark power. Lost for ages beneath the fetid bogs of the Rotwood, a tiny dagger he found changed her life for the worse. The blade broke her mind, convinced her that it was always hers and that it always would be hers. Then it made her turn against everything she had ever known. The lizardfolk slew her comrades who didn’t believe her, stole their spears, and rampaged across the Rotwood. From the bodies of those slain came will-o-wisps that obeyed the lizardfolk’s commands, but only because she wielded the dagger. She still roams the swamps to this day, creating will-o-wisps from all who fall to her cursed dagger.

This villain's main goal is to slay others and do whatever its dagger master commands it to do. Many see the lizardfolk as a maniac, and it is, but the true villain and maniac is the dagger that controls it.

The Corrupted


“It consumed me. From the inside out, my thoughts changed, my heart changed, my skin changed. Everything altered, everything consumed; for the better. And you, it will consume too.”

The minotaur nation of Bapho sits all to close to Ogremocha, the Domain of Earth. It was certain that, after a time, one of the creatures of elemental earth would corrupt and enslave a minotaur who patrolled too far east. A creature powerful enough to inhabit a minotaur, though, was a surprise. This minotaur now inhabits a body with another soul, that of a lost elemental spirit that gave it a new vigor, a new life. The minotaur gained a stoney exterior and powers to bend rock at will. He became a new being and graciously accepted the elemental spirit’s invasion; and now, he roams the few wilds of Bapho searching for more minotaurs to entrap within the stone spirit’s rough embrace.


For this villain, his main drive is to corrupt others. However, it's not out of evil intentions; he truly believes that those who are inhabited or enhanced by this stone spirit are better off. The problem is, from his point of view, is that people don't understand that it will help them.

In Summary


Art holds plenty of inspiration for DMs and players alike. I love to take pieces of art and turn them into villainous characters for my campaign or my world. You should try sometime, too! Search for one or two pieces of art online and then write a little bit about it. There's no need for it to be long, complex, or interesting; just enough for you to portray it as a character at the table.

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

29 October 2018

Clearly Portraying NPCs


It’s Friday night. Into the ancient gnomish outpost (now ruled by a maniacal beholder) the Iskryn group delves, knowing of the brutal ice trolls and sentient soulforged that wait below. Before they are able to descend, a group of the beholder’s minions attacks their fortified resting location, oh no! Alas, they are barely able to fend them off before another squad arrives, led by a distinct soulforged armed with a glowing greatbow and two frosty scimitars. “He’s watched you long enough - Aku, Dani, and Cloud in the Eyes. From afar, he’s witnessed your glorious victories and embarrassing defeats. Now, as you assault one of his lairs, he seeks to speak. You’ll likely want to accept.” The players immediately look to me, asking, “Does he seem sincere? How many soulforged are in his control? Is anyone else coming?” My voice, speaking style, and demeanor all change as I transform from Tamus the soulforged captain to RJ, the dungeon master and deity of this campaign. “First,” I say, “Yes, yes he does seem sincere. You’d better take it to heart because you’re in a difficult, no-good situation...”

The last article I wrote was met with extreme praise, to my satisfaction. Lots of folks resonated with the belief that the world of a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS campaign would feel more alive, connected, and compelling if NPCs held different opinions, told outright lies, and said ‘facts’ that were untrue. However, a few people posed the following question to me:

“How do you get your players to differentiate between you as the dungeon master and you as an NPC in the game?”

This article is the result of answering that query.

Appearances & Voices


The simplest method of distinguishing between you and an NPC speaking is to alter your appearance and voice when you’re portraying an NPC. You could be a spectacular voice actor or you could be me, it matters not! There’s a myriad of ways to affect your voice to make it clear that you’re Torzik the half-orc weapon master and not Natalie the dungeon master. Here’s a brief list to help you out:
  1. Use an accent.
  2. Change your pitch.
  3. Speak slower or faster.
  4. Slur your voice.
  5. Squeeze your nose.
  6. Close part of your mouth.
  7. Repeat a certain phrase.
  8. Wheeze, don’t speak.
Another possible avenue that works well both alone and in tandem with altering your voice is changing your appearance. Most players quickly respond to visual cues: A sinister black dragon mini is pulled out from behind the DM screen - wow! Two handfuls of dice are tossed onto the table when Yeenoghu strikes them with his living flail - oh no! Visual representations can also be used for NPCs. Contorting your face, standing upright, or even harshly closing your eyes can have an extraordinary effect on your portrayal of an NPC and how your players are receiving it. When you’re playing the one-eyed fire giant smith the party needs to reforge an ancient hammer, slam your left eye shut. As you interrogate your group who’s been imprisoned by a maniacal mindflayer, slowly weave around the table, getting uncomfortably close to your players. How does a beholder’s face move? Probably in eccentric, unpredictable ways; show them that as you speak as Zorian the Eye Tyrant.

Your voice, mouth, eyes, nose, cheeks, well, everything you use daily as a person can be used to portray an NPC well. It’s up to you to make it happen.

Telling and Trusting


Lucky for some of you, being able to change your voice and demeanor in the span of a second isn’t at all necessary to convincingly portray an NPC. Alternatively, you can either outright tell your players when you are a certain NPC, or trust that they’ll understand when you’re playing one. If you can’t or refuse to do voices, I’d recommend the former tactic. To let players know you’re not speaking as the dungeon master, say something like:
  1. I’m speaking as Crath, now.
  2. Crath says…
  3. The battle master interrupts you…
  4. Crath shouts…
When you’re playing this way, you’re more of an author than an actor. You may be speaking as these characters: The battle master, the pissed off red dragon, or the sobbing elf, but you are not showing your players how they speak. Instead, you’re telling them. You don’t need to shout; you simply state, “Crath shouts.” There’s no need to use a gravelly voice; instead, you tell your players, “Crath’s voice is deep and gravelly, but unshaken and strong.” Some people prefer this style of NPC portrayal, others do not. Use whatever suits you and your group.

Further Examples


Associating voices with an NPC can be difficult for the DM, as you usually play a huge variety of characters; thus, I recommend you write short descriptors of what they sound like beside an NPC’s notes. Here’s a few examples:
  1. Nastodon. Minotaur forgemaster. deep, cracking voice; snorts often.
  2. Hector. Dwarf merchant and councilor. Bellowing, cheerful voice; Scottish accent.
  3. Boss Vicoutl. Yuan-ti pureblood weapon master. Slight lisp, emphasizes s’s, Southern accent.
  4. Tick. Half-orc looter. Slow, seductive, and deep voice.
  5. Cyclon. Aarakocra druid. Caws at the end of sentences, quite loud.

In Summary


Making it clear that you’re playing as an NPC and not yourself, the dungeon master, is key when attempting to lie outright or mistakenly as an NPC in your world. To do so:
  1. Change your appearance or voice when you’re portraying an NPC.
  2. Not a voice actor and don’t want to try? Don’t worry, simply tell your players that a certain NPC is speaking to them.
  3. Ensure you remember what an NPC sounds like by writing descriptors of their voice in the NPC’s notes.
Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

22 October 2018

No One Is Omniscient

Image result for wizards of the coast artwork dnd

It’s Friday night. The Iskryn group has spent the past eight sessions on the hunt for a gnomish artifact, device, prison, or person. Every step of the way, the people they’ve met and discussed this ancient gnomish thing with have had conflicting viewpoints on what it is. Gitro, a human researcher from a powerful mage tower claimed it was a relic of the gnome’s first days in Iskryn. Magus Sint, a halfling archmage and warlock was sure it was an entire prison, trapping the souls of long-dead beasts. And Voros, a red dragonborn knowledge-savant, thought this sought after gnomish thing was an actual gnome that’s somehow survived millennia after his race’s apparent extinction. Slowly, they’re delving deeper into the mystery of this gnomish thing, learning of its deadly history and purpose. Still, though, they’re unsure who to trust.

I have my players in a pickle; who do they trust, and how do they determine if what that character thinks is the truth is the actual truth. Well, as the dungeon master, I know who’s right and who’s wrong, because of course some of them are incorrect. In Dungeons and Dragons, as in real life, no one is omniscient. Using this truth and technique is a great way to make your game and NPCs feel alive. The trick is learning how to do this well.

Anyone can have NPCs tell their own truths. The blacksmith can think the town’s priest is working alongside the goblin tribe harassing traveling townsfolk, while the cleric can believe the same about the blacksmith. Having this scenario work successfully, though, requires finesse on your part. This week, you’re going to learn how to portray conflicting viewpoints convincingly.

Portray a Character, Not a Deity


The first obstacle you’ll have to surpass, especially if you’re playing with newer players, is the fact that you’re portraying a cast of characters. You, the dungeon master, are not in the game. Tales, facts, and opinions you state as a character in the game should not be held as absolute truths by players. You can gently remind players that this is the case, but, eventually, they should understand that your knowledge is not the same pool of knowledge as the blacksmith. Don’t think you’re off the hook, though. You need to remember that you’re playing characters, environments, and monsters and that their knowledge is limited. Sure, sometimes you might give a character a piece of information you didn’t plan on them having when the PCs first interacted with him, but if the world around your group is acutely aware of everything that’s going on and they’re always right, you’re doing something wrong.

Portray a character, not a deity. Embody the blacksmith, become the priest; live inside the character’s minds, not your own.

Give NPCs Reasonable Perspectives


Every NPC should believe what they’re saying for a reason. Most people in your world shouldn’t simply spout information just to enhance your PCs knowledge. Instead, they should make claims and spew facts because they believe in what they’re saying. This is key; if your NPCs aren’t believable, your world and your game will fall into the same trap. The blacksmith needs to have a reason why he thinks the cleric is in cahoots with the goblin tribe. He might have witnessed the goblin’s drinking healing potions similar to the ones the priest makes. Vice versa, maybe the cleric noticed the short swords and metal shields the goblins were wielding had a resemblance to the equipment forged by the blacksmith. Or maybe the blacksmith committed a fault against the cleric long ago, and he’s looking for a way to get back at him, no matter the cost. Even the divine can be corrupted.

The point is, NPCs should hold differing opinions for a reason, not ‘just because.’ If you make two characters at odds for drama and don’t have any substance behind it, the story and enjoyment of everyone at the table will suffer. However, if you manage to do this, create characters that disagree and give the party various pieces of information that contradict AND they’re believable, you’ve succeeded and the game will become far more interesting.

Let's expand on the blacksmith-priest scenario, just to get you started.

The Goblin Problem


The party knows that a goblin tribe has been harassing travelers on the outskirts of town, but recently, they've been targeting specific, empty locations at nighttime, avoiding guards and easily breaking into the locations. People inside the town suspect foul play. This leads to the party perusing town and searching for someone with the motive to work with the goblins. Time to obtain evidence.

First, the party heads to the town's temple, eager to speak to the people's figurehead, Priest Bishop Cardinal. In 'good faith,' he tells the party that the wound's he's healed were caused not by the usual spears and slings used by goblins, but well-made steel blades. In fact, he points out some of the weapons seen being used by the goblins are similar to those made by the resident blacksmith, Vorgaf Woodgash. He seems to hint toward Vorgaf being the goblin conspirator but says nothing outright. He also claims that Vorgaf's left town multiple times in the past two weeks, which does somewhat coincide with the goblin attacks.

Satisfied, let's say the party leaves the temple and heads for Vorgaf's workshop. Assuming they're level-headed and not wholly convinced that Priest Bishop Cardinal is telling the absolute truth, they speak with the blacksmith. Of course, the situation will unfold differently depending on what information the party withholds from the blacksmith. If approached "appropriately," Vorgaf will willingly admit he's heard his weapons are being used by the goblins, but he's unsure how they obtained them. As for leaving town, he won't readily say where he's been going, even that he's left at all, citing that it's none of their concern. 

Truthfully, he's been visiting the grave of his recently killed mother that's a few miles outside of town. On top of all this, he'll recite what he heard from a guard who fought a few of the goblins two days ago: "Ten of 'em, there were. Almost killed one of 'em at the fight's start, but he scurried off and gulped a potion that sewed his wounds right up! Couldn't get another hit on that one; most of 'em got away." The only source of healing potions for leagues around this town is Priest Bishop Cardinal's temple; perhaps Vorgaf knows this, perhaps he doesn't. It's up to you.

Now, who's working with the goblins? One of them? Both of them? A different individual? Perhaps your party decides more information is needed before they accuse a townsfolk of working with the goblins. That's for you to decide.

In Summary


Your world should be living and breathing. As a consequence, the people within it should have differing opinions and viewpoints on issues and quests that concern the party. Remember:
  1. You’re playing a cast of characters and environments. You might be omniscient, but none of them are. Don’t portray them as such.
  2. Ensuring characters the party interacts with entertain opposite or contradicting facts and opinions makes progressing through a campaign more interesting and requires the party to go the extra step when roleplaying. Not everyone can be trusted, be that because they’re lying or believe they’re telling the truth and they’re wrong.
Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

25 September 2018

Group Size, Enjoyment, and D&D


Different dungeon masters have different tolerances. Some can handle ten, fifteen, or even twenty players at a time; others have a maximum of two or three players. Recently, I discovered what my limit was, and had to take a few unfortunate measures to remedy the problem. ‘Twas necessary. Since performing this surgery on one of my Dungeons and Dragons groups, my enjoyment of that particular campaign has gone up immensely. I no longer dread playing with that group, thinking, "I am the one solely responsible for keeping each and every one of my players entertained for four to six hours." Now, I can focus on making each player feel special, among other things.

Regardless of my limits, from my personal experience and conversations with others, there’s a couple of boons from playing with large groups. But truly, small groups reign supreme. This week, we’re exploring group size and how it affects our enjoyment of D&D.

By the end of today’s article, I hope you walk away with a good idea of how to handle a big & rowdy group, why a small group is better for pleasant play, and how enjoyment based on group size is utterly subjective. Let's roll.

Large and In Charge


From experience: Big groups are rowdy, allow little time for character moments, and usually rife with disagreements. Unless everyone at the table works well together and have meshing personalities, the former statement is nearly always true. However, you can stabilize a larger group using a few different strategies. Be warned: Some of these strategies upset certain players if they’re used. Yet, if you want to ensure the table remains the same size, utilizing one, a few, or even all of the tenets described below will help you accomplish that.
  1. Turn Timers: Encourage players to know what their characters will be doing on their turn in combat. If players take too long on their turn, begin to use a turn timer with a limit of 30 seconds to 1 minute. When folks spend 10-15 minutes deciding what they’ll be doing on their turn, there’s a problem.
  2. The Talking Wand: If your group is experiencing issues with people speaking over one another, enstate ‘The Talking Wand.’ While the Wand is in play, only the person holding it may speak or converse with NPCs. This gives everyone (hopefully) a chance to speak and lets everyone hear what the person speaking is saying. If no one can hear what the wizard is telling the angry rakshasa, it will negatively impact everyone’s experience.
  3. Decision Democracy: When players have fierce disagreements over which course of action their characters should take and it leads to constant party splits, enforce democracy. If an important decision must be made by the party, hold a vote. The party must go with the majority’s decision; those who refuse can leave the group. For D&D to work, there cannot be constant party splits. Half the group can’t travel to the orc encampment while half decide to sail the longship across the river.
From what I’ve ascertained, the key to running a successful, sizable group is to use the aforementioned strategies, make sure everyone is on the same page, and, most importantly, to be able to take lead as the dungeon master. If you want to get anywhere during D&D with an enormous group, you’ll need to be able to drive the story forward. Players will get off topic, they’ll play on their phones, and they’ll have side conversations; this can put a dampening on the entire night if it goes too far. Sometimes, I see it as a domino effect. One player will whip out their phone, another will wander off into the night, a third will begin to talk to another player, and on goes the chain. Thus, another responsibility of the dungeon master (or an astute player) is keeping everyone engaged. This, arguably, is the most important part of D&D: Keeping players engaged. With giant groups it’s hard, with smaller groups, it’s easier. This is a huge topic itself, so we won’t be delving into its rich and profitable mines today, but know this: Keeping many people entertained, especially in a turn-based game, requires the dungeon master to think up new and interesting ways to keep everyone’s eyes on the table. For example, during battle, constantly use effects that affect an entire area, ensuring everyone gets to roll before/after their turn. The earth splits, belching out thick dust! Flames burst from the fire elementals inner being! Waves crash onto the stone platform from the surrounding sea!

If everyone at the table is engaged, you’re doing what you’re supposed to; and, I stoutly believe, it is much more difficult with a large group. Some people may be up to the challenge and the stress involved; others won't.

Small but Steady


Little groups are intimate, let characters develop, and progress at a more satisfying rate than large groups. I may be somewhat biased since my experiences with larger groups have been mostly negative, but from speaking to a bunch of other dungeon masters, I think my thoughts are generally correct. The argument for playing as a small group can be made with a few, simple points. The most important of these is play-time; while playing with a small group of players, everyone gets many more changes to roleplay, roll dice, and interact with each other and the dungeon master. This leads to everyone being far more engaged in not only the gameplay, but the story as well. Building on this, more time to play as their character gives their character more depth and development.

When playing with little groups, ensure your story isn’t completely based on a plot of your own design. Instead, it should be built around the player characters. Their background and actions should have a substantial impact on how the tale unfolds. With a tiny group, basing plot elements on parts personal to each, individual character is far easier for both the dungeon master and the players.

Enjoyment


Group size and enjoyment levels during D&D are completely subjective. Some folks enjoy sneaking through a kobold’s lair, arguing geopolitics with wealthy aristocrats, or sailing across the Elemental Plane of Water with colossal groups of six to fifteen people. Others savor exploring the ruins of an elven village, explaining simple economics to a hill giant, or assaulting the infamous City of Brass on the Elemental Plane of Fire with more intimate groups of two to five players. I’d argue that this game that we love to play, Dungeons and Dragons, is vastly more fun with smaller groups. These parties allow everyone to speak & play more, on top of giving more time for their character to evolve. But you might not agree, and that’s fine!

If you’re on the other end, let me know why, I’d love to read other folks’ perspectives.

In Summary


Large and small D&D groups have a variety of varying characteristics. I hope today’s article helped you outline a few:
  1. Large groups are usually rowdy, difficult to plan with, and rarely progress through the story or campaign at a reasonable pace. To make them work, you’ll need to enstate rules.
  2. Small groups are intimate, progress at whatever pace the group prefers, and allow everyone to participate.
  3. Every dungeon master has a different tolerance for group size; some can live and thrive with groups of fifteen people, some can’t. Don’t go above your limit, and don’t stress yourself out attempting to please fifteen people in a game meant for four to six.
Until the next article, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

10 September 2018

Building and Preparing


Dungeons and Dragons can be a full-time hobby. Sure, most of us spend the majority of our time playing the game with our friends and acquaintances, building the story, world, and characters in real-time, but there are others who arrived at this amazing pastime for a different reason. They didn’t pick-up D&D to simply prepare and play; they started playing D&D because they sought to create a world. I’m one of those folks.

Alas, I’ve learned that those two aspects of dungeon mastering correlate greatly. Building a world helps you prep for a D&D campaign and preparing for D&D helps you build a world. How, exactly? Well, in a few hundred words, you’re going to completely understand why.

Having a Foundation


Most dungeon masters, at the very least, have a vague understanding of the world they’re playing in. If you’re exploring a premade setting like the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Dark Sun, you have plenty of material to build upon this understanding. However, when you’re utilizing a world of your own design, you usually have much more to do. Once you learn and read about a published setting, or create a skeleton for your own world, you’ll have much less to prepare for. There’s no need to have a list of deities handy if you already have them in your head, or are perfectly fine with creating one for your world on the spot. The land to the west doesn’t need to be left unnamed and unknown if it comes up during the session, instead, you’ll already know what it is! Reading about the published setting you’re using before play or building up your own world before your first session makes preparing and improvising much easier. It also has the added benefit of giving your players a sense of realism and immersion. If they ask what the population makeup of the city they’re exploring is, and you shoot back an answer, they’ll be impressed.

At this point, I know you’re thinking: But how can I prepare for everything? Do I have to read every tome about the world of Krynn or the starscape of Spelljammer? Must I know where the commoners get their food and what the climate was like in this region 100 years ago? Well, well, well...that’s where understanding how and what to prep comes in.

Learn to Understand, Learn to Prepare


More experienced dungeon masters abide by a simple rule of D&D: Even the best-laid plans of dungeon masters don’t survive contact with players. Unfortunately for those who like to control various aspects of the game, this means that you can’t prepare for every possibility. During play, events are going to unfold in untold ways, battles are going to be won by underdogs, and items are going to go unfound. However, once you understand this and you understand your players, preparation and worldbuilding become much easier. Emphasis on that second half of the previous sentence: You must learn how your players operate. It will make your life much easier. Once you understand how they play, what decisions they’ll likely make, where they’ll probably go, building locales, NPCs, and items become way easier. When you know a captive scenario that the last session ended with will likely end with the PCs surrendering, you’ll probably need to flesh out their captors’ personalities, the area they’re being taken to, and various methods of escape. If the opposite is true and you think the session will start with a fight, create a fantastical battleground and tactics for the enemy.

To use a real-life example, in my elemental desert (Enoach) campaign, my party is dead set on controlling the now-defunct temple of a storm deity. However, the town’s officials seek to reclaim the temple because it’s the largest stone structure inside the town’s walls. The last session ended with a declaration to make this temple their own, so I plan on next session beginning with an emergency hearing held by the town’s leading council. I’ve created a few previously unseen personalities, a special location for this hearing to take place, and a few awesome scenarios that can happen. I am 95% sure they’ll go to this hearing, but, if I’m incorrect, that’s fine; I’m quick on my feet.

In Summary


I hope you took away a few important lessons from today’s article. In particular:
  1. Preparing for D&D and improvisation during the game is far easier if you have a firm foundation of the world you’re playing in.
  2. If you know what to prep, you know what to build.
  3. Learn what kind of players are within your group. It will help you flesh out your world and hone your campaign to make it the best it can possibly be.
Until the next article, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

04 September 2018

Sources of Inspiration


It’s Thursday night. My surroundings are serene: A lovely lamp emits a faint glow over my paper and pencil, calming, old music plays in the background, and my kitten, Kaya, sleeps beside me, feet in the air, eyes heavy and closed. I’ve sat down to build my world, Aelonis, an ancient landscape rooted in magic, rife with wilderness, and teeming with adventure in dungeon, urban, and rural environs. However, my mind is aching after an arduous day of work; I need a source of inspiration, a helpful key to unlock the thoughts deep within my mind. Luckily for me, inspiration is found everywhere.
___________

Where do we get inspiration for our Dungeons and Dragons games, campaigns, and worlds? The answer is obvious: Everywhere.

This week, we’ll be discussing the best places to gain inspiration for D&D. Of the myriad of places where we can find it, we’ll take a gander at the top three: D&D sourcebooks, works of art, and our world’s history.

Let’s roll.

Ideas From D&D Sourcebooks


If you’re feeling uninspired, pick up a D&D sourcebook. Within these tomes written specifically for our favorite roleplaying game, you’ll find plot hooks, characters, pieces of art, and more. Generally, there are a few different types of books created by Wizards of the Coast and other third party content creators; with each, you’ll need a different mindset when poring for ideas.


Adventure modules are books rife with story and character ideas. Content from these can easily be pillaged and repurposed for your own campaign. It doesn’t matter if a specific character, location, or monster is located in the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or Eberron; that thing can exist in your world as well! Take Waterdeep, the City of Splendors - it’s fantastic - a fleshed out city with tons of opportunities for fun and excitement in D&D. What makes it impossible to put in your world, my world, or anyone else’s world? Nothing. Read about the city, do a bit more research, and plop it onto a coast in your world. The same goes for any character, monster, or plot. Are you in love with the Lord of Blades from Eberron? Steal him and make him yours! You can do this with anything unless you’re publishing it and selling it as a product. However, if it’s only being used at your home table, pillage away.

Player resources are full of lore, mechanical inspiration, and art. When considering these, you’ll usually need to use the mechanics, art, and lore as a baseline and then build on it. For example, in the Player’s Handbook, the barbarian class is flavorful and interesting, but it’s simply a diving board. From it, you can pursue a plethora of topics: Barbarian tribes, a specific barbarian hero, a legendary weapon wielded by a barbarian, or even creating barbaric monsters. One of my favorite journeys to embark on is crafting unique monsters for my PCs to fight using character classes. Human barbarians are swell, but troll, giant, and dragon barbarians are wicked.

Dungeon master resources are filled with ideas aimed toward the dungeon master: Monster concepts, plot hooks, colorful history, and more. Since these are already tailored for those creating worlds, how to use them is self-explanatory.

Inspiration Oozes from Works of Art


Pieces of art not directly related to D&D are rich with inspiration for this RPG.

Oftentimes, ideas spring from the pages of fantasy and sci-fi works. Whether it’s the evocative and awesome-sounding names of places like Lothlorien and Dol Guldur (Lord of the Rings), to convoluted plots like the backstabbing, political, and epic story of A Song of Ice and Fire, you’re sure to gain at least a point of inspiration from these books.

Staring at beautiful or horrid drawings or paintings can also stir feelings and thoughts inside you. Search Google, pick up a book, or even visit a museum to accomplish this, but be sure to take notes. Writing down what you’re thinking is key to remembering it.

Music also oozes inspiration. Listening to soundtracks from Lord of the Rings, Neverwinter Nights, and Baldur’s Gate inspire me constantly. Video game music works especially well because they are meant to fade into the background while you focus on another task. Usually, they do less storytelling than movie music.


Other works of art include video games, movies, television, and plays; from all of them, you can garner a sizable amount of content to use in your games. But, alas, they’re not the sources with the most abundant of information...

Become Enlightened by Our World’s History


As dungeon masters, players, and creators, our largest source of inspiration is Earth’s history. We absorb everything from this wonderful planet, from entire cultures and scientific facts to larger-than-life legends and fantastical places. Not convinced that these aspects of our world can be used in our fantasy lands? Allow me to change your mindset.

Some cultures are absolutely perfect for D&D campaigns; take the Aztecs, for example. This culture of South Americans were exotic and brutal. From the massive temples and floating cities they built to their vicious high priests who sacrificed thousands of innocents and criminals atop altars, their culture oozes ideas. The legendary city of Tenochtitlan can easily be remastered as the heartland of a jungle civilization of tabaxi, yuan-ti, or lizardfolk and the Aztec’s vile religion can be transformed into the tenants of a demonic cult.

The Aztecs are only one example. Pull from Norse mythology when creating lore for your northern regions; use pictures of amazing landscapes in China and India to describe exotic locales in your own world; base a vicious conqueror in your campaign on Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great; rework real-world science and call it magic in your own world.

Our world has no limit of awesome to steal. Utilize it.

In Summary


The inspiration for our D&D games can be found everywhere. When I prepare for a session or am building my world and my creativity is lacking, I search through a variety of sources to gain inspiration. You should, too. Remember:
  1. D&D sourcebooks - both old and new - contain a wealth of D&D specific inspiration, and they were written by experts of dungeon, story, and world building.
  2. From The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire to the illustrations of Frank Frazetta and the plethora of other art found online, pieces of written and drawn art are excellent sources of inspiration for your D&D world and campaigns.
  3. The history of our world is rich, engaging, and, best of all, plentiful. Use the greatest resource at your disposal, Earth, to create your world and story.
Until next time, fare thee well!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

20 August 2018

All About Monstrous Player Characters


It’s Saturday night. The players of my Yatar group have gathered around the table, prepared to face the wilds of Zaza Isle: Poisonous plants, cruel creatures, and an insane grung tribe. However, there’s a new face at the table, my friend, Anthony, and he won’t be portraying a normal player character. We’ve planned something special. As everyone settles (for the second time), I recap last session’s events, reminding them of their unpleasant airship crash, dead crewmates, and grung enemies. The party ended the last session in their makeshift camp, constructed between enormous, steady trees and smoldering airship wreckage. As we begin, their characters converse about the next course of action: They need to assault the grung village and recover what remains of their crew. The plan starts to take shape, but then, from the thicket surrounding them, they are attacked by grung! Venomous, wooden arrows fly, red-skinned spear wielding tree-frogfolk charge in, and a burly grung riding a bulbous, giant frog leaps into the fray. Following them all is another red-skinned grung who commands this force. It’s Dung-Ziki, as portrayed by Anthony. The combat dies down after the party is surprisingly overpowered and taken captive by the grung. En route to their village, the party escapes thanks to the dramatic spawning of a red slaad. Dung-Ziki returns to the village and its ruler, Chiefess Vung, who scolds him (an act done in front of the players, not their characters) and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t return with all the party intact. Dung-Ziki solemnly leaves, bowing a final time before the chiefess’ throne of skulls and bones, but he doesn’t plan on returning. Not on Vung’s side, anyway. It’s time to introduce this new player character, a monster of the jungle, to the rest of the party. It’s going to be difficult, but it’s going to be awesome.
________________

I’m a stout believer that any intelligent creature in Dungeons and Dragons can be turned into a player character race. Goblins and giants, dragons and derro, beholders and birdfolk, and many more. However, you need to have the right dungeon master, player, and campaign.

In this week’s edition of Legendary Lessons/Musing Over Monsters, I’ll be discussing monstrous player characters in D&D; specifically, what they are, when to use them, and how to implement them. In addition, I’ll espouse ideas about a few monsters that could make compelling player characters.

Let’s roll.

What are Monstrous PCs?


Wizards of the Coast has introduced a wide variety of playable races into fifth edition D&D. Players can choose from classic fantasy races like humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings, to unique and scarce races such as triton, yuan-ti, and genasi. Compelling characters, interesting plots, and epic stories can be found in each playable race, but sometimes players - and DMs - can be left wanting something unordinary to play with. This is when monstrous player characters charge into the playing field.

Monstrous player characters are any race that is not defined as playable per Wizards of the Coast but does exist in the Dungeons and Dragons multiverse. This category includes azer, beholders, devils, fairies, giants, and more. Pick up the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, or Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes and flip to the monster section; almost anything found within is, by definition, a monstrous PC. It is worthy to note that with the latter two books, Wizards of the Coast gave stats to a few notable typically monstrous races, including goblins, kobolds, orcs, and yuan-ti. They are, however, still considered monstrous PCs.

Simply thinking about this concept may have your mind spinning. When my players approach me with an idea as irregular as this, my first thought is, “No, no, no. Why in the world would a grung survive in society? Think of all the troubles it would have in cities! How would it communicate with the common folk? Who would trust a grung?!?” 

But alas, I calm myself, look the player in the eyes, and pledge that I’ll make it work - under a few conditions.

When to Use Monstrous PCs


We’ve already established that your player wishes to play a monstrous PC in your campaign. Being a DM and understanding that the world your group parades and fights across is living, breathing, and has societies and cultures of its own that either despise or kill most creatures on sight, monstrous PCs might be a hassle. You know this. Your player might not. Thus, before they embark on this arduous journey, they need to comprehend the consequences that might be in store while playing a monstrous PC.

  1. Monstrous PCs may cause other players and their characters discomfort. Before creating your creature posing as a PC, you should both ask for your group’s permission, especially if the creature is wacky. I’m dreaming up something like a tiny beholder, a crippled dragon, or an awakened dire bear. Don’t just parade into session zero with a flamboyant monster; ensure it’s okay with the players of the campaign first.
  2. There will be roleplaying consequences for playing a monster. Especially in the beginning of a campaign, a monstrous PC might not be welcome in town - or even killed on sight. What militia would allow an ogre to jolly through their village? Would a lord surrender to the whims of a ‘friendly’ gnoll? The answers are none and no. This phenomenon should gradually disappear as the character becomes renowned across the land, assuming they’re doing good and not evil.
  3. The stats of a monstrous PC will not be superior to those of an already playable race; they will be on par with them. Unless you want to anger your entire group or everyone is playing a statistically powerful monstrous PC, do not bolster the stats of this special type of character. In addition, don’t give it any insane abilities. These disabilities can be worked in via roleplaying to give the PC more flavor. For example, the tiny beholder’s eye stalks were severely charred not too long ago, causing their powers to fade. Perhaps the dragon’s wings are badly torn and their flying speed is 5’ (hilarious to imagine, I know).
If the player understands these terms and the group is on board, it’s time to create the monstrous player character.

How to Implement Monstrous PCs


‘Tis time to get creative, folks. To create a monstrous player character, you need to think unusually but also within the realm of reason. First, it’s important to not give the race too many or too powerful special abilities. One or two interesting actions or skills should do; think about dwarves’ innate resistance to poison, elves’ proficiency with a longsword, or dragonborns’ breath weapon. All of these are great examples of how powerful monstrous special abilities should be. Second, don’t cut and paste another race, change its appearance, and call it a monstrous player race. Give it unique benefits, a little blurb of lore even, and provide information about it in your world.


Let’s demonstrate this process in action.

I’m not going to use the grung druid example I’ve referenced multiple times throughout the article; instead, I’m going to build a character I want to play, but will probably end up being an NPC in one of my campaigns.

Xoriat, The Frenetic Frenzy


My favorite monster is the beholder, and I’d love to play one, especially in a strange role. Before we get to that, let’s design the ‘beholder’ race.

Let’s start with a bit of lore. This lore should communicate to the players what the creature is and what part it plays in your world. “Beholders are fleshy, spherical creatures with a massive central eye and a patch of eyestalks sprouting from their body. They range from tiny spheres to large hunks and hover above the ground using natural telekinetic powers. Most beholders are vain, feared by society, and live in the depths of the Underdark. However, some have been known to rise to the surface to control criminal organizations, interfere in everyday life, and become familiars of powerful spellcasters."

Using this as a baseline, players should be able to come up with an interesting reason for their beholder to even want to become an adventurer. Perhaps his master was killed, but he has her spellbook? What if all of his eyestalks are missing and he's come to the surface to bargain for peace and a way to get them back? Maybe she's tired of being bullied by a nearby beholder hive and seeks to forge an alliance with adventurers to destroy them. It'll take a bit of thought but that's what comes along with wanting to play as a monster.

With their general lore finished, we move on to their traits. These are aspects like stats, age, weight, and special abilities. For beholders, usually powerful monsters, we need to tone down their innate characteristics without removing them entirely. To move, they need to float, but they shouldn’t be able to fly. Thus, climbing cliffs and such will be difficult for them. Their eye rays should do something, but not too much. Let’s take a look.

Beholder Traits


Beholders have a variety of innate abilities.

Ability Score Increase: Your Intelligence increases by 2.
Age: Beholders mature quickly and live to be incredibly old. Most beholders die around the age of 120.
Alignment: As most beholders care only about themselves, their race tends to be more chaotic than not. They also have no qualms about hurting other creatures for their own benefit, either by killing or enslaving them. Thus, the majority of beholders are Chaotic Evil or Chaotic Neutral, though exceptions do exist.


Size: The diameter of a beholder ranges wildly between 2 feet to 30 feet. Most of this has to do with the beholder's age, diet, and environment. Most playable beholders will be around 2 feet to 4 feet in diameter.
Speed: Beholders will their body to move rather than walking or flying. Your walking movement speed is 30 feet.
Darkvision: Accustomed to a life in the deepest reaches of the world, beholders have the ability to see in dark and dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Levitation: Beholders float above the ground using magic created inside their spherical shape. While walking, standing, or running, you float 5 feet above the ground.
Bite: Beholders possess a maw full of sharp teeth. You can use your action to make a melee attack with them using your Strength modifier. They deal 1d6 + STR modifier Piercing damage.
Eyestalks: Typical beholders have 10 eyestalks capable of powerful abilities. However, as a PC, you only have a single capable eyestalk. You may choose or roll on the following list of abilities to grant this eyestalk:
  1. Telekinetic: Using this eyestalk, you can wield a single melee weapon as any other humanoid character would. Instead of using your Strength modifier to hit and deal damage, you use your Intelligence modifier.
  2. Energy Blast: As an action, this eyestalk can shoot a beam of energy that deals 1d12 + your INT modifier in Force damage.
  3. Charm: As an action, you can cast charm person with a DC equal to 8 + your INT modifier + your Proficiency bonus.
  4. Blind: As an action, this eyestalk can shoot a thin, black ray that causes a single target to go blind with a DC equal to 8 + your INT modifier + your Proficiency bonus.
Languages: All beholders innately know Common and most speak Undercommon due to their life amongst Underdark entities. You know both.
Common Names: Bakavlack, Dortex, Halas, Nevrek, Xoriat, Zus.

And there it is: A beholder playable race! It’s unique, maintains its monster abilities, and isn’t too powerful. As a disclaimer, I have not playtested this yet (I might soon), so perhaps there are a few builds that can be completely broken using it. However, you wouldn’t be playing this in Adventurer’s League, but a home game, so it’s not too bad.

Back to Xoriat. He’s going to use this race and choose the telekinetic eyestalk variant. His class? Barbarian. Xoriat is going to wield an immense, stone maul using his eyestalk when he soars into battle, prepared to crush any who insult his antimagicless central eye or missing nine eyestalks. I’ll spare you the details of Xoriat’s background; how he was thought into existence by a dying beholder who was being assaulted by a legion of duergar; how Xoriat went into a frenzy just to survive, thrashing duergar with his teeth, losing nine eyestalks and his ‘parent’ during the combat; how he became a...barbarian. That’s for another day. Perhaps when I play him in an actual D&D campaign…

But there! We have it: A fully fleshed out monstrous player character. I hope you enjoyed the creation process and I hope it inspired you. Was it not enough? Well, that’s okay...

Crazy Monstrous PCs


Not inspired yet? Prepare to feel inspired. Here’s a list of monstrous PCs I’d greatly enjoy to play or DM for. Feel free to leave your own ideas in the comments.

  1. Kiboko Darkstone, a stone giant warlock cast out from his society for making a pact with an elder fey. He’s roamed the rocky landscapes for years, searching for those who will accept him and his fairy patron. Can he find friendship in material beings?
  2. Tinglewing, a faerie dragon sorcerer descended from the line of Tiamat. She struggles with the urge do forgo her goodly nature and give into to Tiamat’s desires. How can she break her bloodline’s evil curse?
  3. Kramerj, an ogre bard who’s learned how to play war drums - and use their sticks - to perfection during battle. His tribe was slaughtered in a battle with fire giants, and he was taken as their plaything, a jester in the court of fire giant loyalty. Luckily, a group of adventurers saw his gentle and musical nature and freed him from the giants. Can he survive in a world without his kin, in a world full of hatred for his appearance?
  4. Silent Fang, a gnoll monk devoid of Yeenoghu’s constant call. She was born in a roaming horde of gnolls, one that she quickly left after witnessing multiple mass killings of innocents. Deaf to the Gnoll Father’s screams, she couldn’t partake in the feasting of innocents and pointless slaughtering of countless others. Can she step out from her understanding monastery and find a life amongst others?
  5. Coralius Neficus, a barbed devil fighter forced to live on the Material Plane for a thousand years by his superiors. He must learn to survive alone in the wilds, or work with the creatures of the world, lest he dies and becomes mere dust in the wind. Can he live out his sentence?
  6. Kuunavus, a gold dragon wyrmling druid destined to preserve the Circle of the Moon by her ancestors. Her parents and clutch were killed in an attack by the Dragonblood Cult; somehow, she hid from their attack underneath a leafy tome about the Old World. Once they were finished, she emerged from her family’s lair, tome beside her, and entered the world. With druidic knowledge, can she avenge her family’s death at the claws of the Dragonblood Cult?
  7. Russ Ell, a vegepygmy rogue who stole his tribe's cure to russet mold disease and decided to assist those afflicted with the foul sickness. Though he cannot speak, his demeanor seems kind. Folks are mystified by this moldfolk's desire to help them; is there a deeper reason for his sudden kindness - or madness?
  8. Magaricus, a myconid wizard who's mastered the mixing of weird and exotic fungi to amplify his spells. She rarely leaves the study of her mentor, a powerful archmage, but has an aching to interact with the outside world and share her strange plant-arcane-magic mix. Will she ever see the light of day, or will her mentor keep her locked in his tower forever?
  9. Goooothanis, an imprisoned aboleth mystic able to control a humanoid indefinitely. He is actually controlling a dwarf fighter, slowly leading the party to his cage deep in the Underdark. Can he keep up the facade long enough for the party to free him, and will they be benign to this aboleth who only wishes to be free of chains once them find him?
  10. Chi-cothi, a githyanki storm zealot barbarian who utilizes the psychic storms of the Astral Plane to disorient and destroy his enemies. She's on a mission to recover a lost gith blade somewhere on the Material Plane - before a group of gith she sees as foes. Will she find allies in her quest, or be forced to face her people alone?

In Summary


Monstrous player characters have the possibility to be dramatic and interesting. From beholder barbarians to giant warlocks, the range of compelling player characters is limitless. Remember:
  1. Monstrous player characters are PCs that don’t use the races standard to PCs, such as humans, halflings, tieflings, dragonborn, and goliaths.
  2. Only use monstrous player characters when you know your player(s) will be able to handle and enjoy what can be an arduous task.
  3. Creating monstrous races isn’t too difficult; try not to give the race too many special or unique abilities, but don’t carbon copy another race and rehash it as a monstrous race.
And, if you're not feeling up to creating playable monster races yourself, you can check out this fantastic supplement on the DMs Guild that provides statistics for all of the creatures in the D&D 5E Monster Manual: Monstrous Races.

Expect the next article to be about monsters again, as we’re continuing the rotation and heading back to Musing Over Monsters. Although this was a blend of Legendary Lessons and Musing Over Monsters. Nonetheless, which monster(s), though? Well, they come in many colorful varieties and some are more prominent than others. 

Let’s delve into the less famous hues, shall we?

Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

15 August 2018

Acute Adventures: Down the Wishing Well


Townsfolk who wander near Westport’s wishing well have been experiencing strange occurrences: Feverish dreams, rampant sleepwalking, and more. A wizard of Westport suspects the worst, and calls out for adventurers to delve into the wishing well to discover the source of this peculiarity.

New adventure today, folks. It's based on last week's article all about aboleths.

It involves a crazy halfling wizard, scaling a deep well, and fighting an immature and vengeful aboleth. 

Here's the link to the .pdf of Down the Wishing Well, if you'd like to read/print it.

Enjoy!

Down the Wishing Well


Townsfolk who wander near Westport’s wishing well have been experiencing strange occurrences: Feverish dreams, rampant sleepwalking, and more. A wizard of Westport suspects the worst, and calls out for adventurers to delve into the wishing well to discover the source of this peculiarity.

NPCs


  1. Talon Windrite: An eccentric halfling wizard
  2. Traechnaa-vu: A relatively young but blind aboleth. She occupies the wishing well of Westport and seeks to blind as many residents as possible, trying to find a specific citizen.

Part I: The Wizard’s Suspicions


Something foul is afoot in Westport and Talon Windrite believes he knows the source. Anyone who answers his call (seen on sign posts, message boards near the town) will be welcomed into his short, stone tower. Once inside, the halfling explains the strange occurrences in Westport and how they all stem from the town’s wishing well. Folk are experiencing terrible dreams, random sleepwalking, and some are going blind. Talon suggests that the PCs delve into the wishing well. He suspects something arcane and malign to wait below. If treated fairly, he will give the party 10 potions of waterbreathing. If the PCs are not interested in this odd situation, he’ll curse them, throw them out, and start the search for others that’ll help.

To give flavor to Talon’s tiny tower, use these details about it:
  • The entryway in the tower requires those taller than halflings to duck; the ceiling within is only about 5 feet tall.
  • Scattered about the few, openly connected rooms of the tower are tables with scrolls, potions, and spell ingredients such as bat guano, sand, and crystals sitting on them.
  • Holding a prominent location in the tower is a broken wand made of wilting, white wood. Its hung above a fireplace espousing purple flames.

Part II: Scaling the Well


The wishing well sits in the town center, amidst a bazaar of food, cloth, and metal trade. During the day, it’s quite busy; at nighttime, the bazaar is silent. The well is 10’ in diameter, 300’ deep, and carved straight down into the stony ground. Scaling it will require the PCs to survive a barrage of psychic attacks from the aboleth, as well as combat a few of her minions.
  1. 50’ down, the aboleth assaults two PCs with a long range, 3rd level sleep spell.
  2. 100’ down, the aboleth casts hold person on a single PC (WIS DC 16). This causes them to fall; someone catch them!
  3. 150’ down, a dominated roper awaits intruders. Its primary goal is to pull PC’s off their scaling equipment.
  4. 200’ down, the aboleth casts hold person on a single PC (WIS DC 16). This causes them to fall; someone catch them!
  5. 250’ down, three chuuls attack the party.
The bottom of the well is filled with water. It’s about 2’ deep. A single, large passageway leads to the aboleth’s lair. As the PCs move toward it, the aboleth will barrage their minds, saying:
  1. “I only do this because of what’s been done to me.”
  2. “I can’t see myself; you must understand my pain.”
  3. “Leave my lair or face my wrath.”
  4. “I feel your every step. If you come forward, you will never move backward.”
With that final line, the party will reach the end of the passageway.

Part III: The Lair Below


About 60’ down the passageway, the water deepens to 3’, and the corridor opens up to a large chamber covered in a thin veil of otherworldly mist. Traechnaa-vu and five chuuls await the party here. She is an aboleth with half the hit points. She will allow her chuuls to assault the party head on, then she will attack from afar, behind a patch of 10’ tall stalagmites. The aboleth will fight until her chuuls are killed, then she will attempt to parley with the party. She doesn’t want to die; she’ll plead with them, asking if they know someone with a golden falchion, a gravelly voice, and the body of a lithe orc.

This half orc is the one who slaughtered her parents and left her blind. She believes he lives in Westport and desperately wants him dead. She offers to bless the party with her parents memories and show them her parents lair. She is true to her word.

Aftermath


The party can kill the aboleth, ridding Westport of the strange dreams and problem in the well. They can also listen to the aboleth and attempt to find the half orc, get her parents’ memories, and discover their lair. Does the half orc live in Westport? What memories did her parents possess? Where is the lair? That’s up for you to decide.

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

06 August 2018

Aboleths: Deities of the Deep




Listen. Follow. Attack. Kill. The voice continued in the barbarian’s head, drowning out all other thoughts. Her legs kept moving despite her best attempts to cease all movement; her head remained steady and forward facing even though she tried to lower it; her greataxe stayed firmly held in her hand though she tried to drop it. Listen. Follow. Attack. Kill. The voice bellowed again, shattering another piece of the barbarian’s sanity. She felt herself fading. The final front, her mind, and consciousness waned with every word. The beast of the deep was taking her, taking all of her, knowing with her body and abandoned mind, it could easily tear her party apart. Her pace quickened as if anticipating the proximity of the slimy creature. Listen. Follow. Attack. Kill. The barbarian’s eyes went white and her body completely stiffened. Nothing real was left inside, no mind, no heart, no soul. ‘Twas gone. Dead, as her party soon would be... at her puppet hands.
______________

Yep. You read that correctly; that was not a story from one of my home games or my own personal musings during prep. That was a piece of fiction. A story.

That’s because I’ve never used aboleths. Ever. None of my friends have used aboleths. And aboleths aren't featured as the primary antagonists in any official, modern adventure, although they are present. Today, we’re going to change that.

This week’s incarnation of Musing Over Monsters is about aboleths, creatures of immense power that live in the world’s deepest trenches and coral covered caverns. 

We’ll start out learning how they first appeared in Dungeons and Dragons, then we’ll uncover their juicy lore bits. Afterward, I’ll relate a few slimy aboleth NPCs, plot hooks, and campaign ideas to you thirsty adventurers and DMs.

Let’s roll.

Aboleth Edition History


Aboleths have existed since the beginning; inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft these eel-creatures first appeared in the 1E module, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, in which they were one of many monsters that the party could pit against each other. Other beasts included yuan-ti, bullywugs, and bugbears. They were the most powerful things you could recruit. 1E expanded on the aboleth in Dragon magazine, creating multiple subraces like the grand aboleth, the ruler aboleth, and even the noble aboleth. 2E included the aboleth in the Monstrous Compendium Volume II and the Monstrous Manual. Their psionic abilities are explained in detail in The Complete Psionics Handbook and a new variety appears in the infamous Night Below: An Underdark Campaign, the savant aboleth. 

3E doesn’t truly build on the aboleth, but 3.5 does, in which the aboleth receives its own chapter in the wacky and wonderful book, Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations. To learn in depth about the aboleth, view some awesome art, and immerse yourself in illithid, beholder, and other aberrational lore, check out this tome of knowledge. In it, the aboleth was given aerial, amphibious, and stygian varieties. 4E included the aboleth in its primary Monster Manual, in which the aboleth lasher, slime mage, servitor, and observer are detailed; all of these are great additions to the aboleth pool. Finally, 5E gave us the current version of the aboleth in the first Monster Manual. And, in two 5E adventures, aboleths are present - but I won't spoil where. Thus, as the aboleth progresses in age, it gains more and more subtypes and varieties for DMs to use in our campaigns, but it doesn’t happen. Aboleths remain relatively unused. Perhaps their description and lore will change folks’ minds.

Aboleth Lore and More


Aboleths are large, fish-like creatures ranging from 15 to 20 feet long. These creatures never stop growing as they age, a pinnacle few reach: infinity. Some folk would describe them as fat eels with insect appendages, though I’d argue that their body is akin to a worm, segmented, slimy, and thick. Sprouting from their faces are multiple antennae; they also have fins across their body, from their tail to the dorsal on their back. Their most defining feature is their face, which is dotted with three glowing eyes and slithering with a mess of tentacles. They’ll eat anything. 


Aboleths have strong memories, being able to remember the entirety of its ancestors' memories; in some cases, they can relieve their ancestors’ lives as well, especially in vivid dreams. They also have psionic powers, similar to illithids. In addition, aboleths are able to release a foul, grey fluid that transforms air-breathing creatures into an aquatic thrall. A terrible fate for an adventurer.

Aboleths are self-centered. They assert they were one of the first beings in existence and see all other creatures as subservient to them. Due to this, they have no gods, believing their own kind are as powerful as the planar entities that they claim to have witnessed the creation of. Their cities are located deep underwater, in areas of extreme pressure and danger, such as trenches in the ocean or remote areas of the Underdark. Reaching an aboleth city is an extraordinary feat; surviving inside it is an impossible task.

Aboleths are credited with creating the chuul, a race of crab creatures with hardy armor and a will to get things done.

In my world, aboleths descended from krakens. Krakens that emigrated from the depths of the ocean to the bowels of the Underdark slowly transformed, shrinking to fit their cramped caverns. They also learned from the beasts surrounding them: illithids and beholders, drow and duergar. Over time, they became less and less like their kraken ancestors and became their own being: the aboleth. Still, some aboleths warrant their existence to krakens and hold them as high as their own folk and deities.

Aboleth Story Beats


Do you desperately want to include an aboleth or an aboleth inspired story beat in your campaign but you can’t think of how to accomplish this? Don’t worry, I have you covered. Ponder over the content below and attempt to drop them into your adventures. I’ll warn you, though: Aboleths are bound to wriggle their madness and tentacles into the hearts and minds of your PCs and NPCs. Use them with care.

NPCs

  1. A relatively young but blind aboleth named Traechnaa-vu. She occupies the wishing well of a coastal town called Westport and seeks to blind as many residents as possible. When she was but a tadpole, adventurers stormed her birther’s lair. Only she escaped; during the combat, though, a scimitar struck true and caused her vision to completely fade. The aboleth learned to thrive in the deep passages of the Underdark, dominating creatures of lesser intelligence. She always remembered her ultimate goal: To avenge the death of her birthers and curse all humanoids with the plight of blindness.
  2. A parrot dominated by an aboleth. The aboleth can embody the parrot at times, causing its voice to deepen and body to grow tentacles.
  3. A barbarian controlled by an aboleth. Her party was annihilated at the hands of the aboleth and his minions a few days ago, and she is returning to town claiming to be the only survivor. She’s ‘searching’ for more heroes to avenge her fallen friends. Will folks be able to see through her facade?

Plot Hooks

  1. A young aboleth inhabits a town’s wishing well. Those who wander too close or drink from its waters have horrible nightmares and fits at night.
  2. Squads of chuul are killing all the wildlife inside a local jungle. They leave strange eggs inside their corpses, leading some to believe they’re attempting to breed. However, they aren’t chuul eggs, but the eggs of a new aboleth abomination.
  3. A village of undersea-living triton is dominated by an aboleth. It utilizes the usually friendly fishfolk as assassins in its sahuagin horde.

Campaign Ideas

  1. A cabal of aboleths attempts to raise the first kraken from the deepest trenches of the ocean. They need assistance in the form of power and wealth. Their minions, sahuagin, kraken cultists, dominated triton, chuul, and beasts from the Elemental Plane of Water rampage across coastal areas, enact evil plots and prepare for the return of the world’s oldest kraken.
  2. A party of adventurers failed to defeat an ancient aboleth horror. The aboleth raised the party as thralls with a conscious of their own; while performing tasks for this aboleth, the party constantly attempts to free themselves from the being’s yolk. This campaign would have to be kind of an ‘evil’ campaign, as they aboleth most likely would want the party to do innately evil things - although it could be spun. Perhaps the aboleth despises sahuagin, triton, merrow, and more…

In Summary


The aboleth is an interesting creature. Innately fishy, capable of powerful psionics, and able to remember back to the dawn of time, this monster can be a formidable foe. Remember:
  1. Aboleths have existed since D&D’s first edition and are inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
  2. Aboleths are immense, fish-like beings that wield psionics, can create thralls with ease, and societies in deep sea trenches.
  3. The aboleth can be the source of a brilliant villain, whether it's the aboleth itself or a thrall of the being; and it can be a great catalyst for an adventure.
Until next time, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

25 July 2018

Acute Adventures: Into Toko Hill


Good day, folks. Today brings the second of my adventures. Into Toko Hill can be played as a continuation of last week's The Horror of Kwaka; both can be effortlessly weaved into the Tomb of Annihilation module by Wizards of the Coast.


Enjoy, everyone!

Into Toko Hill


In the jungle of Iwanagig, human natives and vegepygmy invaders vie for dominance over a mystical spring. Terrified of venturing into the moldfolk’s domain, Toko Hill, the village seeks braver souls to take out the vegepygmies for them.

Note: Into Toko Hill can be played as part two of the prior adventure, The Horror of Kwaka, or as a standalone adventure. Feel free to use NPCs or encounters from the Horror of Kwaka in this adventure to further flesh it out.

NPCs

  • Eztli Ka: A beautiful but grizzly human female of Kwaka. She leads and trains most of the village’s warriors, and has fought the most with the vegepygmies of Toko Hill.
  • Agari the Azure: A navy colored myconid covered in bubbly fungi. He is a prisoner of the vegepygmy, able to provide false visions and create a cure to russet mold with his spores.
  • Ciss the Overgrown: A hideous vegepygmy chief covered in thorns and russet mold. He fiercely controls the vegepygmy tribe of Toko Hill.

Prelude


The villagers of Kwaka constantly fight over a mystical spring with a tribe of vegepygmies who live in a great, jungled mound they call Toko Hill. The villagers fiercely believe a natural spirit resides within the spring and blesses their water - they worship this spring. As of late, the vegepygmy tribe has viciously contested their trips to the spring, which has lead the villagers to grow more and more tired of the vegepygmies presence. In addition, they believe the moldfolk to hold the cure to a terrible sickness plaguing villagers. They seek adventurers to eliminate the tribe from their source: Toko Hill and recover this supposed cure. The vegepygmy tribe, however, is lead by a powerful chief with a lemur thorny companion.

Part I: Finding Toko Hill


The adventure can begin in the village of Kwaka, where the party can converse with the locals about the vegepygmy threat and the location of Toko Hill, or the group can begin outside the moldfolk’s lair, prepared to enter it. If you decide that the PCs must find Toko Hill, they must succeed three skill checks. If they fail a skill check, they face an encounter.

You or your players can debate about which skills can be used to find Toko Hill; here are a few example checks and encounters:

Skill Checks

  1. Perception DC 12: Someone finds a trail of mold that leads through the jungle.
  2. Nature DC 13: Someone notices peculiar scrapings on various jungle trees that seem to lead somewhere.
  3. Survival DC 14: Someone spots a patch of quicksand before the party enters it, and sees a trail through the foliage around it.

Encounters

  1. 2d4 vegepygmies burst from the bushes, sharpened branches drawn!
  2. 2d6 velociraptors rush through the jungle and attack the party’s weakest members!
  3. The party stumbles upon a toppled over, stone shrine covered in russet mold. If they successfully clean the mold from the shrine, a soft wind blows and sun shines through the thicket onto them. Each party member is affected by the effects of a bless spell for 1 hour.
  4. The party discovers a small child from Kwaka, starving and infected with russet mold disease.

Part II: The Upper Passages


The entrance into Toko Hill is a small cave mouth draped in vines and guarded by 4 vegepygmies. If assaulted and allowed to escape, one will retreat into Toko Hill. The rest of the upper passages are detailed below.

Antechamber (1)


“You stoop under the foul vegetation hanging over the cavern’s entrance and find yourself in a natural chamber of dirt and moss. The scent of decay pervades this dark place.”

Interactable features include hanging vines, loose dirt, and russet mold patches. 4 vegepygmies guard the room.

Thorny Creation Room (2)


“Animal remains litter the cold floor of this cramped room.” 

Interactable features include capybara bones, rotting meat, and flammable moss. 2 thornies, 1 vegepygmy, and 1 sun bear (use brown bear stats) in the process of being converted to a thorny are in this room.

Human Captives (3)


“Trapped in primitive cages are three humans, similar to those of Kwaka. They appear to be starved, dehydrated, and scarred by vegepygmy teeth.”

Interactable features include cages of bone, mounds of dirt, and patches of russet mold. A single vegepygmy sorcerer with the thunderwave spell guards the prisoners.

Resting Caves (4)


“Vaguely rectangular mats of moss are sprawled across the brown floor of this expansive cavern. Beside each of them is a small bowl carved from wood, filled with peculiar ornaments.”

Interactable features include moss mats, wooden bowls, and unused bone spears. At any time, 1d8 vegepygmies are in this chamber, resting.

Thorny Cages (5)


“Sharp hissing noises emanate from this cavern corridor. As you make your way down the passage, the source becomes apparent: Four thornies trapped in crude cages of wood.”

Interactable features include wooden cages, vine whips, and thorny collars. The 4 thornies trapped in cages block off a smaller cage that holds a myconid named Agari. In addition to the vial found later in the adventure, his spores are the only way to cure russet mold disease. He’ll work with the party if they treat him kindly. He is able to cure russet mold disease 2 times per long rest.

The Depths of Ciss (6)


“The corridor gradually slopes downward and twists around a bend. Instantly, nearly all surfaces around you become covered in blood-red moss. This must be the vegepygmies’ inner sanctum.”

Following the final, winding passageway brings the party to the lower level of Toko Hill. Every surface of this large, natural cavern is covered in russet mold. Ciss, the chief of this vegepygmy tribe, waits for the party here. Accompanying him is his lemur thorny (use monkey stats) and 2 vegepygmies, prepared for battle. As the party moves through Toko Hill, Ciss refuses to leave his mold-filled chamber, certain that any creature that fights him in his domain is doomed. Is he correct? Use the following tactics and effects as inspiration for the final battle of Toko Hill:
  • Ciss’ lemur thorny will always use the Help action to give Ciss advantage on his attacks. Flavor this as the lemur leaping around the combat and distracting party members.
  • 80% of this chamber is covered in russet mold; Ciss, though he has no ranged attacks, is not afraid to retreat into mold patches to recover.
  • Someone might spot a vial of blue liquid held by a vine during the battle; it’s the cure to russet mold disease. In it, there’s enough for 6 doses.
Scattered around the russet mold patches is a variety of treasure found by Ciss’ tribe, including: 21 gold pieces, 2 emerald idols (30 gp each), a soiled wizard’s spellbook (thunderwave, charm person, magic missile, and scorching ray), and a silver greataxe.

Aftermath


Luckily, the adventure ends with the death of Ciss; with his death the vegepygmy tribe falls apart. Any moldfolk who weren’t in Toko Hill never return, leaving Kwaka safe to use the mystical spring. If the PCs return to Kwaka, they are hailed as heroes. The village will be forever grateful to them, they are gifted a sacred gold idol of an ape (200 gp), and are always welcome to stay in Kwaka - for no cost.

Kwaka is safe and sure to be thriving with free access to their mystical spring. This area of the Iwanagig jungle is serene and moldfolk free -- for now. There’s a few ways to build on this adventure. Perhaps the PCs did not rid Toko Hill of russet mold and it begins to spread. Maybe one of the escaped vegepygmies stumbles upon an ancient artifact and gains new power. Or maybe the leader of Kwaka has another task for the PCs, a journey that will take them to a mystical, yuan-ti ziggurat deep within Iwanagig.

Whatever you or the PCs decide to do, know that you saved Kwaka from a slow, mold-caused demise, and that the stories that shall stem from this victory will be sung by the folk of Kwaka forevermore.
________________

I hope you enjoyed Into Toko Hill! Again, here's the .pdf link if you'd like to download it.

Next week's adventure will be about next week's Musing Over Monsters article. What could it be? Power and water, control and domination...

Until then, fare thee well!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

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