Monday, May 30, 2016

Review - The Iron Ship by K.M. McKinley

The Iron Ship bills itself as the story of the six Kressind siblings drawn by fate and ambition toward a great destiny, inexorably linked with the adventure of the titular iron ship.  More accurately, it is seven stories - loosely connected at best - following five of the six Kressind siblings and two other people with whom they have a passing acquaintance; the iron ship doesn't touch water until the last 50 pages of this 650 page book.

Just enough so that the cover art isn't wholly misleading.
Published in 2015 by Solaris Books, K.M. McKinley's debut novel deserves high praise for its rich descriptions and unique worldbuilding.  The Iron Ship is an industrial fantasy novel set in a world of magic and science, a world that grabs the reader's attention and doesn't let go. A mysterious dark planet called The Twin plays havoc with the earth's oceans; high tides push thousands of miles up great rivers and lap at the lowest reaches of cliffside cities, while low tides reveal temporary islands and ghost-haunted marshlands. Archaeologists vie to discover ancient cities of lost civilizations and the valuable technology and mysterious architecture they left behind.  Free-thinking women challenge a social order that treats them as less than their male counterparts. The old aristocracy looks down its collective nose at the nouveau riche industrialists who are quickly coming to dominate high society in the 100 Kingdoms. Downtrodden pioneers populate a boom-town mining magic ore from a dangerous black desert to power the engines of industry.  Also, horses are extinct and some dogs can talk.  Bet you didn't see that one coming.

If you are like me, you'll keep reading just to find out more about the world.  McKinley blends familiar aspects of our own history with fantasy tropes, subverting both in the process and crafting a world both accessible and regularly surprising.  Unfortunately, if you are like me, you will also look up at some point and realize that three quarters of the book have gone by with barely anything happening in the story.  It all feels like set up with no pay-off; like the first third of a bunch of stories, bundled together and stretched out into a full novel.  Each story has its climax, of course, but some of them feel forced, like they were tacked on simply because the book was ending.  Two of the climaxes are simply twists that set up further conflict for the next book, and two of them involve previously established characters that have made the switch to cartoonishly evil villains simply to provoke a violent confrontation.  Moreover, even though the book is pretty long, it feels like every story gets shortchanged, with the narrative dipping in just enough to show how things have progressed before jetting off to another corner of the world.

Story problems aside, I'll be grabbing the next book in the series - The City of Ice - when it comes out late 2016 or early 2017.  But would I recommend it?  If you like worldbuilding, give it a read, but if you're expecting a gripping story, it's probably safe to pass this one up.

The more in-depth and spoilerific review is below, so if you want to read it and hate spoilers, go no further.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Gods and Religions, Part 3: Domains and Pantheons

If you read my previous article advocating for creating multiple co-existing pantheons in a single campaign setting, you may have thought to yourself, "Wait, you want me to make multiple pantheons?  Won't that get boring?  How many different fricking thunder gods does one setting need?  Damn you, d20 Despot, you ask too much of me!"  Okay, first of all, please let go of my shirt collar.  Secondly, I think you might want to read this very article.  That's right, it's time for another installment of Gods & Religions, and this time we'll be talking about different structures that a pantheon can take, and how to spread domains around creatively so that you don't get stuck with nine nearly identical gods of war.  And, as is so often the case, we can find the inspiration for such diverse domains and pantheons in our own history.

Pantheon Structure
In the first article on the subject, I touched on the idea that there were more options for a religion than your typical eight-to-twenty-member pantheon: many polytheistic religions are centered around a few core deities but include hundreds of gods and god-like beings among their pantheon; others (like Zoroastrianism) acknowledge only two gods, often representing opposing worldviews and locked in eternal struggle with each other.  So when making your pantheons, don't feel obligated to fulfill a certain minimum (or maximum) number of gods.

Aside from numbers, another way to differentiate your pantheons is by structuring them differently.  What do I mean by structure?  Well, your typical D&D pantheon (think the gods of Golarion detailed in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook or the Greyhawk deities found in D&D 3.5) is fairly level, with all the gods on relatively equal footing, ruling independently over their own sections of the outer planes.  Other pantheons have more of a hierarchy.  Take the Classical Greek pantheon as a familiar example: Zeus rules over the Olympian gods as king, with his wife Hera.  They, along with the rest of the twelve Olympian gods in turn are superior to the remaining gods and demigods, like Herakles and Asclepius and the Muses.  Hades, meanwhile, reigns over the realm of the dead, and the overthrown Titans are condemned to Tartarus.

The Ancient Egyptian religion provides an example of an alternative structure.  Depending on what time you are looking at in Ancient Egypt's 3000 year history (and who you are asking), the chief god might be the sun god Ra, or the falcon god Horus (who merged with Ra), or the dead god Osiris, or the sun disk Aten (if you ask Akhenaten), or even the dreaded Set (if you ask the Hyksos).  The primacy of the gods depended on the whims of the ruling pharaoh and the power of the various cult centers (like Heliopolis, the House of Ra, or Thebes, where the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu held sway).  Where the Greek gods were like a kingdom, the Ancient Egyptian gods were more like Hollywood, with different actors rising and falling in popularity over time and being called upon to fulfill different roles depending on the needs of the director.

There are many possible structures a pantheon could take.  Maybe the eight major gods each govern a strictly defined domain, and turn either to the god of balance or the god of treachery when conflicts arise between them.  Or maybe three major gods hold primacy over a cavalcade of lesser gods with more focused domains, like the god of the sea or the god of disease.  Perhaps the pantheon is divided into competing halves, with each god and goddess facing off against their polar opposite on the other side.  Mix things up and throw together a wide variety of ideas to make your pantheon as simple or complex as you want.  As cliché as it may sound, the only limit is your imagination.

Immigration and Absorption
One thing that really shakes up real-world pantheons is the addition of other gods from other religious/mythological traditions.  The Greeks were always receiving popular gods and goddesses from the East and adding them to their theology.  The Romans did their fair share of that (as attested by the popularity of Isis, Sol Invictus, Jesus Christ, and Mithras in the Late Roman Empire), but they also tended to absorb the gods of their conquered subjects into their own gods - a process called syncretism.  The ancient Egyptians, meanwhile, were constantly syncretising their own gods together - combining Ra and Horus into Horus-re, for instance.

If one of the civilizations in your campaign world has close contact with another, through trade, war, or conquest, consider adding one or more gods from one of the pantheons into the other.  Consider what gods fill a 'gap' in the theology of those peoples.  Consider also how the god might change as it is absorbed into a new culture.  For instance, imagine a desert people who are conquered by a seagoing foreign race.  The seagoing race's primary deity is Sha, the god of the sea, storms, and physical might.  As the desert people begin to worship Sha, they focus more on the storms and might than the sea.  Perhaps the desert people already had a minor deity of storms and lightning named Surru.  As Sha takes a leading place in the desert peoples' pantheon, Sha absorbs the less-important Surru and becomes Shasurru, mighty god of storms and floods.

Real history is full of political changes resulting in theological changes.  Gods gain power in the heavens as their supporters gain power on earth - though in a fantasy world, which causes which is a matter up for debate.  Perhaps the earliest example is the Enuma Elish, a piece of Babylonian literature describing how Marduk, the patron god of the city of Babylon, came to overthrow the pre-existing hierarchy and dominate all the other Mesopotamian gods.  Real history is also full of examples of gods being absorbed into other pantheons from outside, adding variety and exotic flavor to an established pantheon.  Incorporating such things into your own world makes the pantheons feel more real.

Leaving Things Out
One great way to make all your pantheons seem very boring and cookie-cutter is to always have every domain represented by a major deity.  Not every religion has to have a god of animals and a god of war and a god of fire and a god of weather and so on ad infinitum.  In fact, not every domain needs to be represented in each pantheon at all.  Some societies might not even have a god of, say, evil.

Think about what sort of gods the civilization would worship.  Take the aforementioned hypothetical desert civilization.  They might have a sun god, since the sun is so omnipresent in the desert, and they might have a water god because water is the source of all life.  They probably would not have a god of the sea (although you might be surprised - Tiamat, who plays such an important role in Mesopotamian mythology, was the goddess of the ocean).

Sometimes domain gaps are filled by the inclusion of foreign gods in the pantheon, as mentioned above.  Other times, other god-like but non-divine forces can fill that role.  It is quite easy to imagine, for instance, a pantheon which has no evil deities; worshipers of evil in such a society might be forced to throw in their lot with demon lords or Old Ones or other such malign forces.

The God of What and What?
This may seem counterintuitive, but don't think too logically about which domains you assign to what gods.  When creating a goddess of the sea, you might give her the water domain of course, plus the weather domain because weather is so closely associated with the sea, the travel domain because ships travel on the sea.  Maybe add in the chaos domain, because the sea is ever-changing, and the destruction domain because of the great destruction the sea can wreak, but also the animal domain because the sea supports so much life.  Sounds pretty good, right?  Okay, now create a sea god for the next pantheon who feels like a completely different god.  If you go about each god logically, you will end up with a bunch of sea gods that seem pretty much the same.  Real deities have so much more variety.  Mesopotamian sea goddess Tiamat is associated with creation and dragons, while the Greek sea god Poseidon is also the god of earthquakes and horses.  The Irish sea god Manannán mac Lir is associated with the afterlife, necromancy, and trickery, the Norse sea god Njörðr is associated with wealth and good cropland, and Ōyamazumi - one of several Japanese sea deities - is also a god of mountains and war.  And those are just sea gods!

In practice, gods tend to accumulate odd associations that we probably wouldn't think of if we set out to create them logically from scratch.  Sometimes this is just due to the unique nature and character of the god - The Norse thunder god Thor is also a war god and a fertility god, because that's just what Thor is.  Sometimes it is because the god absorbed the role of an earlier god who fell out of favor (or a vaguely similar foreign god) picking up strange traits in the process - when Marduk defeated the sea goddess Tiamat, he usurped her role as creator by paradoxically (re-)creating the earth out of her mangled body, and in the process he also seems to have gained an association with the sea.  Sometimes the domain of one god rubs off on their parent, child, or spouse - Apollo, for instance, is associated with healing because of his son Asclepius, god of medicine.  Whatever the reason, gods often come with a plethora of seemingly odd domains which make them unique an interesting.

One easy way to simulate this in your fantasy pantheon is, once you have established your main deities and assigned them a few basic domains, randomly assign the remaining domains to those deities.  Then you can work backwards to create myths that explain why that deity is associated with those domains.  Let's say you have a triad of gods - the god of the sky, the god of death, and the goddess of the sea.  You randomly assign some spare domains to them, and the goddess of the sea gets stuck with love and knowledge.  You decide that her association with love is because the gods of death and the sky are constantly competing for her affection.  Maybe her relation to knowledge comes from the loss of a great library when a once mighty city sank beneath the waves - now all that knowledge lies on the sea floor, where she jealously guards it.

Shake your pantheons up!  Make them feel different from each other.  Above all, make them seem interesting enough that your players will engage with them rather than just ignore them as part of the backdrop.


Hi all you loyal readers!  You may have noticed that there was no post last week.  I'm sorry about that - this month has been very busy, partly because I am on vacation and partly because when I was not on vacation I was working very hard on non-d20 despot related stuff.  So I have decided that this month I will only be posting every other week.  My $5+ patrons on Patreon can still expect all the promised Monster Mondays, but they will be arriving in a lump at the end of the month rather than weekly (except for the awesome leather golem which I posted in the first week of May).  Check back on Monday the 30th for the next post!

-your syncretic d20 despot

Monday, May 2, 2016

Monster Monday: Strix Harpy, Doom-Singing Owl-Witch

Today's Monster Monday is the strix harpy, a savage, doom-singing owl-witch who feeds on fear and blood.

Back in January, I gave my patrons on Patreon a preview of all the rewards tiers available for backers.  Those who pledge $5+ per month get access to a new Monster Monday every week, and $8+ backers get to vote on the final monster of every month.  At the end of January, backers chose the strix harpy (which won out over the bone thief and the pricoloci) and they got it!  Now, three months later, you're getting it too!  Big thanks to my patrons - if you'd like to join their ranks in supporting d20 Despot, head on over to and make a pledge.  Or if you'd like to help us out without spending any hard-earned copper pieces, like d20 despot on facebook and share us with your nerdy friends!

Okay, enough self-promotion; here's your strix harpy.

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

Harpy, Strix               CR 6
XP 2,400
CE Medium monstrous humanoid
Init +3; Senses darkvision 60 ft., low-light vision; Perception +15
AC 18, touch 14, flat-footed 14 (+2 armor, +3 Dex, +1 dodge, +2 natural)
hp 68 (8d10+24)
Fort +6, Ref +9, Will +9
Immune disease, fear
Weakness light sensitivity
Speed 20 ft., fly 80 ft. (average)
Melee 2 claws +10 (1d6+2 plus 1 bleed), bite +5 (1d4+1 plus 1 bleed)
Special Attacks doom song (DC 17), rend (2 claws, 1d6+3 plus 1 bleed)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 4th)
   at will – ill omen (DC 14)
   3/day – cause fear (DC 14), charm person (DC 14), hold person (DC 15)
   1/week – augury, bestow curse (DC 16)
Str 14, Dex 17, Con 15, Int 8, Wis 16, Cha 17
Base Atk +8; CMB +10; CMD 23
Feats Dodge, Flyby Attack, Great Fortitude, Toughness
Skills Fly +13, Intimidate +11, Perception +15, Perform (song) +5, Stealth +15; Racial Modifiers +4 Perception, +4 Stealth
Languages Common
Doom Song (Su)
The strix harpy’s song has the power to instill the chilling fear of death and ill-omen in all who hear it.  When a strix harpy sings, all creatures aside from other harpies within a 300-foot spread must succeed on a DC 17 Will saving throw or become shaken.  A creature that successfully saves is not subject to the same strix harpy’s song for 24 hours.  The effect continues for as long as the strix harpy sings and for 1 round thereafter.  This is a sonic mind-affecting fear effect.  The save DC is Charisma based. 
Environment any
Organization solitary, pair, flight (1-3 plus 2-8 harpies), coven (2-8 plus 1 spellcaster of at least 3rd level)
Treasure Standard (leather armor, other treasure)

More bestial and hideous than even normal harpies, the strix harpy is a bloodthirsty creature who delights in inflicting fear and torment on her victims.  She resembles an owl, with large eyes set in even larger sockets and a hooked nose that gives the impression of a beak.  Her wings move as silently as an owl’s, allowing her to sneak up on prey without warning and adding to her species’ ghostly reputation.  Strix harpies are renowned for their cunning and brutality.  With their chilling doom song and host of spell-like abilities, they like to toy with their prey’s emotions, letting them stew in fear before swooping in to tear them apart with sharp teeth and talons.  Even more than other harpies, strix harpies revel in blood.  Their attacks leave seeping wounds, which the strix eagerly drink from.  By the time the strix harpy is finished feeding, she is red with gore and truly terrifying to behold. 

   Strix harpies are loners by nature, but sometimes see the benefit of joining together in hunting pairs or even covens to better prey on sentient life.  Some normal harpies seek out strix harpies to flock with, for the strix harpies’ doom songs make their prey more susceptible to the harpies’ captivating song.  Sometimes a brave mortal will seek out a strix harpy and placate it with gifts in hopes of gaining an augury from the creature.  According to legend, a strix harpy’s feathers can be used to brew a potent love potion, but such a love is doomed to a tragic end.  

-your ominous d20 despot