Monday, February 29, 2016

Monster Monday: Valraven, the Soul-Eating Raven Wolf

Today's Monster Monday is the valraven, a half-wolf/half-raven beast from Danish mythology that stalks charnel grounds and eats souls, because it turns out that Scandinavians have always been pretty metal.


In Bestiary 5 there is a monster called a vilderavn which is based on one variant of this mythical creature.  The vilderavn is a shapeshifting fey raven knight, but one of the forms it can take (only briefly mentioned) is that of a raven/wolf hybrid.  Honestly, I was more interested in that raven/wolf creature than I was in the fey raven knight, so I had to stat it up.  My valraven is a CR 6 monster, meaning it will likely be of more use to the GM than the CR 16 vilderavn.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2016 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, February 22, 2016

5 Videogame Lessons for the Tabletop

This won't come as a surprise to most of you, but videogames and tabletop roleplaying games are two different things.  As such, they end up doing things rather differently.  But that doesn't mean they can't take lessons from each other.  As roleplaying videogame series like WoW, Fallout, Mass Effect, and The Witcher have grown more popular, RPG-like elements have begun to invade other genres of videogames, to the point where players of popular first-person shooters find themselves spending skill points and leveling up their characters between matches.  Videogame elements can work their way into tabletop RPGs as well, especially as more players enter the tabletop realm through the gateway drug of videogames.  This can have mixed results - some say 4th Edition D&D was an attempt to make D&D more videogamey, and it ended up being the most controversial and shortest-lived edition since the 70s.  But while there are many elements of videogames that would translate poorly to the tabletop, there are lessons from videogames that we can safely bring to the table.

Tutorials
Call of Duty 2
Most videogames have a tutorial level - a soft introduction meant to allow new players to learn the basic rules and gameplay mechanics.  Sometimes this takes the form of a literal training exercise, as in the above screenshot from Call of Duty 2, where Pvt. Vasili Koslov is practicing his grenade potato tossing.  But sometimes it is a short, low-stakes in-game mission that happens to lead the player through many of the common situations they will encounter in the game.

This latter type of tutorial is a great way to introduce new players to the game mechanics.  Send them on a simple mission that exposes them to a simple combat, a skill challenge, and some diplomacy.  For most people, it is a lot easier to learn through gameplay like this than to have the rules explained to them or to read it in a book.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Four New Magic Weapon Abilities - Armor Piercing, Biting, Reaching, and Sundering

The four magic weapon abilities presented below are so simple yet so useful that I am surprised they haven't been made yet.  The first two, armor piercing and biting, alter the traditional +1 to hit/+1 to damage formula; armor piercing grants +2 to hit and +0 to damage while biting does the opposite.  It is a pretty basic trade off, but one that adds a greater degree of customization when creating a magic weapon.  After all, sometimes you just don't need that extra boost to damage but you want to be able to hit more often, or vice versa.

The reaching weapon sprouted from d20 despot artist-in-residence Kent Hamilton's head, and it seems to me to be incredibly useful.  The ability to add 5 ft. of reach at a moment's notice adds a lot of versatility to a given weapon.  The sundering ability is inspired by Sauron of The Lord of the Rings and the White Walkers from Game of Thrones, both of whom are supernaturally good at breaking swords.  It basically gives you the Improved Sunder feat plus double damage against objects, which should allow the wielder to hack away armor, shatter swords, and bash down doors with ease.

The following material given in gold text and its accompanying table is available as Open Game Content under the OGL.  Open Game Content is ©2016 Jonah Bomgaars.

ARMOR PIERCING                +1 BONUS
Aura: faint transmutation          CL 8th
An armor piercing weapon gains a +2 enhancement bonus on attack rolls. 
Construction Requirements
Craft Magic Arms and Armor, true strike

BITING                          +1 BONUS
Aura: faint transmutation          CL 8th
A biting weapon gains a +2 enhancement bonus on damage rolls.   
Construction Requirements
Craft Magic Arms and Armor, inflict light wounds or magic weapon

REACHING                   +1 BONUS
Aura: moderate transmutation CL 10th
As a swift action reaching weapon can extend to gain an extra 5 feet of reach.  The weapon can be retracted again as a free action.  Hafted weapons (such as spears, axes, and maces) only threaten the final square of their reach, but weapons with a greater effective portion (such as swords, daggers, and quarterstaves) threaten all squares within their reach.  Reaching can only be applied to melee weapons.  This enhancement can be applied multiple times to the same weapon; each time it increases the weapon’s reach by 5 feet, and the wielder chooses the weapon’s length within that range each time it extends or retracts. 
Construction Requirements
Craft Magic Arms and Armor, enlarge person

SUNDERING                            +2 BONUS
Aura: moderate transmutation CL 10th
A sundering weapon is particularly effective against inanimate objects.  It grants its wielder a +2 bonus on sunder combat maneuvers and such maneuvers never provoke attacks of opportunity when made with this weapon.  In addition, a sundering weapon deals double damage against objects. 
Construction Requirements

Craft Magic Arms and Armor, break or shatter

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My ideal name for the biting ability would have been wounding, but that has already been taken by an ability that deals 1 point of bleed damage.  Alas.

-your biting d20 despot

Monday, February 8, 2016

Monster Monday: Funayurei, the Japanese Ghost That Sinks You With a Spoon

Today's Monster Monday is the funayurei, a drowned ghost from Japanese mythology.  In the stories told by Japanese sailors, funayurei are the restless spirits of dead seamen who take their frustration out by sinking the boats of the living.  One of the spirits appears by the boat and asks for a spoon or ladle - a simple enough request, but one with deadly results.  As soon as the funayurei has the ladle, it multiplies it a thousand times over, and a thousand funayurei hands appear and begin to ladle water into the boat with alarming speed.  Soon the boat is swamped, and the funayurei drag the crew down into the depths to join them in their watery grave.

Amusingly, Japanese boats that sail waters said to be haunted by funayurei carry ladles with holes in them specifically to foil the funayurei's evil spoon-based plans.

via Wikimedia
My wife brought this monster to my attention while she was reading an interesting book called Yurei: The Japanese Ghost, by Zack Davisson.  On its own, the undead spirit of a drowned sailor is a pretty good monster, but the weird spoon thing really makes this myth stand out, so I determined to incorporate it into their stat block.  You can see the result below.  I think the abilities of the monster allow it to pose a serious threat with a spoon, but they are versatile enough that they can be deadly on their own with nary a ladle in sight.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2016 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Where Are All the Halfling Kingdoms? A Call for Demihuman Diversity

Think of the main races in your basic campaign setting.  Humans always dominate the world with a wide variety of kingdoms and cultures and ethnicities.  Then you've got your dwarves in their mountain holds: a proud, Scottish-accented race of perpetually bearded miners who write in runes and love axes almost as much as they love grudges.  Of course you have your elven kingdom too, often tucked away on an island to the west where they are free to be mysterious and haughty.  Don't get them started on their evil cousins, the drow, who worship demons and spiders deep in their subterranean kingdoms conveniently located wherever the plot needs them to be.  The orcs live in barbarian tribes just on the other side of those mountains at the edge of the map, but they're always coming over to raid the civilized lands.  Halflings and gnomes?  Oh, they are around somewhere too.  I guess they live in little villages inside human kingdoms, where they just sort of hang out, practicing with their slings and talking to badgers.  Maybe the gnomes are, like, steampunk inventors or whatever.  And the halflings are... well, you read The Hobbit, right?

RPGs these days are getting better at representing real-life human diversity, which is great.  Astute worldbuilders make sure to fill their campaign maps with a wide variety of human kingdoms representing any number of ethnicities, cultures, and government types.  But what about diversity for the other races?  Are there any feudal halfling kingdoms?  How about dark-skinned elves?  (And I don't mean drow).  Are there dwarven merchant republics?  Oriental gnomish dynasties?

Sometimes you'll get a bit of an explanation.  'The special thing about humans is how diverse they are!  All those other races are just too set in their ways to have a wide range of languages, cultures, and ethnicities.'  I call that BS.  It's just a way to excuse lazy worldbuilding.  I know why it happens: humans are real.  We can look to our own history for inspiration when creating the human kingdoms and cultures of our fantasy settings.  But elves and dwarves don't exist.  Most of the fantasy races are only around because of Tolkien.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with halflings, who owe their entire existence to Tolkien.  In fact, the basic D&D halfling, with its love of adventure and skill at thievery, is based not so much on the pastoral hobbits of the Shire, but on one hobbit in particular: Bilbo Baggins.  When humans can draw on 10,000 years of real history but all the other races are tethered - directly or indirectly - to a handful of books or even a few beloved characters, it's easy to see why the fantasy races get such short shrift.

How do we fix it?  To start, throw Tolkien out the window.  The man is the father of modern worldbuilding; let's honor him by making our own worlds, not copying his.  Start with all of the base races on equal footing.  Think about what defining characteristics they would have in your setting.  If you just can't find a place for one of the races, toss it out and consider replacing it with an alternate race.  When you start filling in your map with cool country ideas, think to yourself, "Does this country need to be human-dominated?  Is there another race that fits it better?"  Draw on human history and diversity for inspiration not just for your human cultures, but for your dwarves and elves and halflings and gnomes as well.

In the 'India and Southeast-Asia' region of my campaign setting, Chattara is an empire ruled over by a warrior caste of dwarves (an amalgam of the Mughals, the Rajputs, and the Sikhs).  Chattar dwarves descended from a race of surface-dwelling dwarves in the hill country to the north.  They have bronze skin and black hair, which they keep wrapped in a turban in public.  They have an abiding love of wine and poetry.  They are skilled with the falchion and the chakram, and they ride into battle on the backs of woolly rhinoceroses.

Chattar dwarves bear little resemblance to Gimli, son of Gl√≥in, but they are distinctive and interesting nonetheless.

For your inspiration, here are a few more ideas for non-human-centric kingdoms and civilizations:

The halfling kingdom of Amall has a reputation for chivalry.  They have fought long and hard to keep from being overrun by the 'big folk' and have adapted well to their style of warfare.  Amallish castles are built with high walls to repel human attackers.  Amallish knights on purebred war-ponies train constantly at tournaments.  The elite knights of the Order of the Giant's Skull only earn their spurs when they have fought a giant and lived to tell the tale.  Aside from their knights, Amall is renowned for the quality of their gourds and squashes - every Amallish housewife has a well-guarded recipe for pumpkin pie.

The wood elves of Cythnemoria hold insanity to be a gift from the gods.  Before making any important decision, they consume a potent hallucinogenic drink to 'bring them closer to the wisdom of the mad ones'.  In battle, they paint their bodies with natural dyes and strike with poisoned weapons.  Cythnemoria is divided into a dozen chaotic elvish clans.  Alliances shift rapidly at the whims of the clan elders who, if not actually insane, manage a fair impression of it.

In the swampy islands of Pindalang, human and gnomish slaves work under the rule of the lizardfolk warrior class known as the Chonggai.  Katana-armed Chonggai maintain a tightly structured society that ensures that their slaves can never hope to rise up.  The lizardfolk, in turn, carry out the orders of a shadowy cabal of serpentfolk working toward inscrutable goals.  The slaves, meanwhile, live lives of toil in rice paddies and copper mines, more afraid of the terrifying monsters that haunt the night than of their scaly overlords.

The Falan are a race of black-skinned gnomes from the coast of Tong.  They live most of their lives on their boats, fishing or carrying trade goods down rivers and up coasts to port cities.  It is taboo in Falan culture to speak while on land, for fear that evil land spirits will fly into your open mouth and turn your heart away from the water.  As such, the Falan have devised a sign language that they use to trade in human markets, and many humans believe the Falan to be mute.  The most honored gnomes in Falan culture are believed to be able to call fish to the surface with their songs.  These Sea-Callers are forbidden from ever setting foot on land, lest they inadvertently open their mouth and lose their precious gift.

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Just as a reminder, my patreon has switched to a monthly schedule, and there is a whole new set of rewards tiers to choose from.  $5+ patrons get a new monster every Monday, $8+ patrons get to vote on the final monster of the month, and $12+ patrons get access to a monthly playtest document full of all the open game content I worked on that month.  In January, as a special preview, I made all reward tiers available to every patron.  January's monsters were the rustbound skeleton, funayurei, valraven, and the patron-voted strix harpy.  January's playtest document added three new monsters (goo bat swarm, ikuchi, and pit mimic), a giant-blooded playable race (the Grenn), and a new spell worthy of a Disney princess (animal servants).  Check out my patreon if you like what you see here!  I don't mean to beg, but please give me all of your money!

-your perpetually bearded d20 despot