Monday, April 24, 2017

Monster Monday: Herne, the Wild Huntsman

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv'd, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.
                 - William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor
Today's Monster Monday is Herne, king of the Wild Hunt.  This ethereal huntsman rides his trusty steed through the woods accompanied by a far-seeing owl and two noble hunting dogs.  His motives are a mystery, but tales of this lonesome rider who hunts across the realms of men and fey have spread far and wide.

The tale of Herne the Hunter is first attested in William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor (quoted above) which tells of a ghostly huntsman who haunts a particular oak.  The story may originate in the execution of a poacher named Richard Horne during the time of King Henry VIII.  The legend of Herne was expanded upon in Harrison Ainsworth's 1843 novel Windsor Castle, whence comes the illustration below.

Illustration of Herne the Hunter by George Cruikshank, via Wikimedia
Therein, Herne is described as:
a wild spectral-looking object, possessing some slight resemblance to humanity, and habited, so far as it could be determined, in the skins of deer, strangely disposed about its gaunt and tawny-coloured limbs. On its head was seen a sort of helmet, formed of the skull of a stag, from which branched a large pair of antlers; from its left arm hung a heavy and rusty-looking chain, in the links of which burnt the phosphoric fire before mentioned; while on its right wrist was perched a large horned owl, with feathers erected, and red staring eyes.
Some have tried to find the origins of the Herne story in the Celtic god Cernunnos.  While both Cernunnos and Herne are antlered huntsman, it seems to me a bit of a stretch to assume that a story first attested in 1597 has its origins in a god not worshipped there for 1000 years.  Nevertheless, it makes for a pretty rad monster.

Herne is a whole combat encounter rolled into one monster, mostly because he is never without his two loyal hounds, his noble steed, and his enigmatic owl.  These ethereal beasts are treated in essentially the same way as a druid's animal companion; the herne is considered a 15th level druid for the purposes of his hunting companions, with those 15 levels divided up between the horse, dogs, and owl.  So when a party fights the herne, they are actually fighting five individual creatures.  Check out the dauntingly long stat block below.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Monster Monday: Shellycoat, the Evil Armored Water Spirit

Today's Monster Monday is the shellycoat, a fey creature from Scottish mythology who is clad in a heavy coat of shells.  Shellycoats are malevolent tricksters, fond of such pranks as pretending to drown and then drowning any passers-by who try to help.  You know that old goof?  Unlike most fey, shellycoats are brutish and strong and heavily armored, making them formidable front-line troops or tough bruisers.

In Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1803), Sir Walter Scott said of the shellycoat, "he seemed to be decked with marine productions; and, in particular, with shells, whose clattering announced his approach."  From the tales recorded about shellycoats by Scottish folklorists, their pranks could range from the mischievous to the deadly.  Scott says that they shellycoat is "a freakish spirit, who delights rather to perplex and frighten mankind, than to serve, or seriously hurt them."  He goes on to describe one of the creature's pranks: calling out to a pair of travelers from a river, pretending to be a drowning person in need of aid.  The shellycoat led them upriver all night until they arrived at the source of the waters high in the mountains, only to laugh uproariously at the would-be rescuers and their wasted effort.  But in 1948, folklorist Lewis Spence described the shellycoat as "gigantic, swift, malignant, delighting in blood and violence."  One tale from Leith describes how a shellycoat seized a local man and threw him around until he died from the trauma.  So we have a picture of the shellycoat as both a prankster and a brutal murderer, both aspects of which I have chosen to include in the creature statted up below.

As with so many spirits and creatures of local folklore, the shellycoat suffered from innumerable variations, mutations, and conflations with other myths and legends across centuries of oral tradition until stories of the creature were finally recorded in the modern era.  One tale of the shellycoat comes to us from Ettrick Water, Selkirkshire, recorded in Allan Ramsay's Poems in 1721:
One of those frightful Spectres the ignorant People are terrified at, and tell us strange Stories of; that they are clothed with a Coat of Shells, which make a horrid rattling, that they'll be sure to destroy one, if he gets not a running Water between him and it...
The rattling coat of shells is there, but in this story the shellycoat apparently cannot cross running water - not an uncommon weakness for a bogeyman, but odd for a creature that is attested in other sources as dwelling in the water.  It is also said in some stories that the shellycoat became powerless if it took off its shell-coat - a trait probably borrowed from stories of selkies.  I have retained that aspect of the shellycoat because of the emphasis in puts on the creature's shell-armor, and because it sets up a combat where the adventurers are trying to sunder the shellycoat's armor before going in for the kill.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Monster Wednesday: Marchosian Hellhound, an Infernal, Flying, Shapeshifting Dog

Today's Monster Wednesday* is the marchosian hellhound, an intelligent flying beast that breathes fire and can shapeshift into an elite infernal soldier.

Marchosias, from the Dictionnaire Infernal, via Cornell Digital Collections
The beast I have statted up below is loosely based on the demon Marchosias (or Marchocias), the Marquis of Hell.  Marchosias comes to us from the great early works of demonology (basically early-modern fanfiction about Hell combined with occult mysticism that some people took too seriously).  According to the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, by Johann Weyer in 1577:
Marchocias is a great marquesse, he sheweth himselfe in the shape of a cruell shee woolfe, with a griphens wings, with a serpents taile, and spetting I cannot tell what out of his mouth. When he is in a mans shape, he is an excellent fighter, he answereth all questions trulie, he is faithfull in all the conjurors businesse, he was of the order of dominations, under him are thirtie legions: he hopeth after 1200 yeares to returne to the seventh throne, but he is deceived in that hope.
In the Ars Goetia of the Lesser Key of Solomon, a 17th century English grimoire drawing on the Pseudomonarchia as a source, Marchosias is described similarly:
The Thirty-fifth Spirit is Marchosias. He is a Great and Mighty Marquis, appearing at first in the Form of a Wolf having Gryphon’s Wings, and a Serpent’s Tail, and Vomiting Fire out of his mouth. But after a time, at the command of the Exorcist he putteth on the Shape of a Man. And he is a strong fighter. He was of the Order of Dominations. He governeth 30 Legions of Spirits. He told his Chief, who was Solomon, that after 1,200 years he had hopes to return unto the Seventh Throne
Marchosias would certainly be a CR 20+ monster, and given that I have no experience running games at that high of a level (nor do I particularly want to), I decided not to stat that up.  Instead, I made a lower-level monster based on Marchosias.

The marchosian hellhound has many of the same attributes as Marchosias: lawful evil, canine, winged, serpent-tailed, fire-breathing, shape-changing, etc.  These creatures make up Marchosias' thirty legions, and can shift shape back and forth between a heavily-armored infernal legionnaire and a winged hellhound.  More powerful than a standard hellhound, more versatile than the giant Nessian hellhound, and far more intelligent than both, the marchosian hellhound naturally makes for a dangerous enemy for any adventuring party.

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Monster Monday: Pangolins, Armor-Covered Anteaters

Today's Monster Monday is the pangolin, also known as the spiny anteater.  Pangolins are small insectivorous mammals covered in thick overlapping scales.  They curl up into a defensive ball like an armadillo, presenting a front of spiny armor plates to any predators trying to bite them.  There are about eight species of pangolins ranging across Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and South China.  The smaller species of pangolin tend to be tree-dwellers, using their sharp claws and prehensile armored tails to navigate life in the branches, while the larger ones are ground-dwellers and burrowers.  Tree pangolins also tend to be good swimmers; they suck in extra air in their stomach and then glide through the water with an undulating motion.

Giant Pangolin, by Joseph Wolf (1865), via Wikimedia
Of course I statted up both the tree and ground pangolins, because more is always better.  Tree pangolins make a great (and adorable) choice of familiar for wizards and witches that hail from tropical climes.

A tree pangolin hanging by its tail, via Wikimedia
Of course, because pangolins are covered with natural armor, they have occasionally been used to make armor for humans.  Consider pangolin hide armor for those who adventure in tropical settings.

Pangolin shield; Wikimedia
Pangolin armor; Wikimedia
The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2017 Jonah Bomgaars.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

APRIL FOOLS - Attack of App-ortunity: Using Microtransactions in Your Tabletop Game

EDIT: This was an April Fools Day post.
Being a Game Master is hard work.  Not only are you creating and sustaining an entire world for your players to mess around in, but you also have to spend a lot of time before each session doing all your prep work.  Add on to that the effort of hosting a group of people in your house, apartment, or parent's basement and possibly procuring and preparing food and snacks or everyone, and you've basically got yourself a full-time job.  Plus, you have to buy books, modules, dice, battle mats, minis, props, and all the accoutrements of GMing.  Nonetheless, running games for your friends is a rewarding hobby.  But if you are like me, you may be wondering: how can we make it more rewarding?

It's time to bring tabletop RPGs into the modern era!  Mobile games have completely changed the gaming landscape, not only by opening up gaming to a broader spectrum of players, but also by popularizing the microtransaction economy.  What are microtransactions?  Basically, they allow the player to spend a small amount of money to purchase items or unlock special benefits in the game.  If that sounds annoying to you, you're wrong: if it were annoying, it wouldn't make any money, but in 2014 players spent 1.33 billion dollars on microtransactions in the game Candy Crush Saga. The free market has spoken!  Microtransactions are by no means limited to games you play on your phone - they are an increasing presence in console and PC games as well.  Heck, in the free-to-play massively multiplayer RPG Dungeons & Dragons Online, players had to pay to unlock fan-favorite races and classes like drow, warforged, monks, and druids.

So what's to stop us from applying the microtransaction business model to our tabletop games?  Ask and ye shall receive, dear readers.  Presented below is the microtransaction system I'm implementing at my table starting with today's game.

The Metacurrency
Metacurrency is a technique that a lot of games use.  This is a type of in-game currency that you buy.  Basically, it's a second level of abstraction to help your brain forget that you are spending actual hard-earned legal tender on fake stuff in a game.  I've implemented three different metacurrencies in my game: Dungeon Bucks, Hero Coins, and Magic Gems.  Dungeon Bucks are the basic metacurrency that you use to buy Hero Coins.  Magic Gems cannot be bought with Dungeon Bucks or Hero Coins, and have to be purchased separately or won in-game.  Here's the breakdown:

Of course, I give each player a starting pool of 500 Dungeon Bucks and 10 Hero Coins - gotta give them a little taste so they keep coming back for more.

Now you may be wondering: how does this system interact with the in-game gold economy?  Can you spend in-game gold to buy Dungeon Bucks?  Of course not.  But you can buy keys that unlock...