Tag Archives: 5e

Magic of the Elves

handsquareThinking a little bit more about the elves. I haven’t got a good hook for the gnomes yet, so their status is in limbo. They may just be mixed in among the halflings, but that’s a little bit too easy.

Dragonborn (along with kobolds and others) are created races, made by the dragon princes as servants and ambassadors. I figure each dragon prince rules a small realm, which the elves respect, partly because the Dragon’s have a mutual alliance against invasion, partly because they’re at a fair remove from the elvish proper holdings, so most of the conflicts with the dragons are with the human or dwarf nations. Exactly who and what people live in a given principality is a reflection of the particular dragon prince. Some them are definitely island nations, because the prospect of dragon born pirate captains with a ship full of kobold crew absolutely appeals to me. The upshot of this is that dragon born are rare but not unheard of, usually traveling as merchants, messengers or ambassadors from their respective principalities. Occasionally you find one who goes looking for “freedom”, but that can be a messy business, since the people most interested in a rogue dragonborn are elvish flesh crafters.

Speaking of which, it is well known that most monsters of the world are results of elvish efforts, whether through experimentation, breeding, summoning, transformation or other means. Among the elves, this is a fringe hobby, unless your creation is particularly compelling, in which case its terribly popular. The kennel that produced the first blink dogs is still renown, while the creator of displacer beasts is still bitter about being labeled a “creepy weirdo”.

Of course, not every elf has stopped with animals, and there have been attempts to breed servants and soldiers in the past, and the consequences of this have been problematic enough that the practice is now strongly discouraged. But its legacy remains, and in the darker corners of many elvish cities, you can find brutes, misshapen humanoids bred for war, and discarded.[1] They are not actively persecuted, of course – it is not their fault that they were born monstrous abominations – but no amount of sympathy makes them suitable for polite company.

With the races out of the way we come to the issues of magic and religion. There’s a temptation to give the elves a clear gap in their magical acumen, such as saying they don’t practice clerical magic, because reasons. That could be fun, but it’s a bit too on the nose, and more, given the value the elves place on their lives, clerical magic would be too big a deal to leave in anyone else’s hands. [2]

Perhaps even more critically, religion as a whole is an important topic and one which is part of elvish culture. The elves certainly have many gods. They have, in fact, the full suite of gods, enough so that they barely merit mentioning.

Other peoples within the empire largely worship the elvish gods, though there are a handful of racial gods as well. The dwarves still worship their golden king, and the humans have shrines to Rounus Knight and Farl the Traveller, and they reinforce the greatest human virtues (Strong, loyal service for Rounsu, trade and flexibility for Farl).

Of note is also Cuth, the human god of cleansing. The story goes that Cuth was the bloody god of the humans before the elves ascended, and now he seeks nothing less than the death of all non humans. Cuth cultists are something of a boogey man in elvish realms, and the elvish response to signs of Cuth worship is so severe that human nations treat it as harshly as possibly in order to head off any elvish action. It is possible the priests of Cuth might tell a different story if you could find one, but even looking could cost you your head.

Among the elves themselves, matters of faith follow a pattern, but not a strict one. Broadly speaking, the drow tend towards clerical magic, the wood elves to druidism, and the high elves towards ancestor worship. But while those are certainly generally true, exceptions abound.

A wag once described the drow as “farthest from heaven, closest to god”, and the description has long since outlived the speaker. The drow would tell you that spending lives surrounded by the world gives them greater appreciation for the divine touch in all places. “Only in the darkness, can you see the light” is a common drow aphorism. Cynics point out that there are a lot of drow aphorisms, and that it is not that the drow are particularly devout, just that they seem to relish the trappings of religion. From ceremony to cathedrals to scripture to pointy hats, the drow really go all in on their faith. Faith fills the role of government as easily as it does local sports team. Almost every element of drow society ties back into religion, and it remains an open question whether this is the most profound faith or the most profound cyncism.

The druidic traditions of the wood elves offer less interesting fodder for the gossips, if only because they are largely practiced in isolation. As with the drow, their faith is nearly ever-present, but it is simply part and parcel of living in the wild places. To outside observes, the druidic tradition is largely monolithic, but within its confines it is incredibly fractious. There are dozens of druidic sects, each with a different focus and set of priorities, all claiming to speak most purely for nature. More, the wood elves are more than happy to test their hypotheses out in real world conditions, and more than few adventurers have found employment cleaning up after (or causing) some deliberate ecosystem disruption.

By contrast, the high elves seem far less religious than their brethren, but one need only scratch the surface to put the lie to that. The high elves are organized into great houses, each of which was founded by a great hero[3] from which the house takes its name. Not every high elf claims membership in a great house, but those who do not are usually only one or two steps removed by blood. The houses have little formal power in any direct sense, but the law gives them greater leeway and the nature of collaboration translates into very real power.

What is not discussed openly with outsiders (not because it’s shameful, but because it’s deeply private) is that house members are ancestor worshippers, offering prayers to their founder o their house. They still give honor to the other gods, and even enter the priesthood, but to be a member of a house is to have a straight line to something akin to a guy on the inside, someone to intercede with the gods on your behalf. This is pretty valuable, since gods are pretty busy.

If this sounds matter of fact, that’s because it is – the house founders actually do answer the prayers of their followers (at least sometimes) and can offer advice, and even power to those willing to enter into pacts with them. Note that while others might consider this a bit warlock-y, to the elves, it is a matter of faith, and warlocking is something else entirely.

Speaking of which, warlocks? Tacky. Tacky tacky tacky. Elves value patience and the appearance of effortlessness (they have about a dozen words that expressed differently nuanced versions of that last idea) and becoming a Warlock is largely an admission that you couldn’t hack it with real magic, and had to get help. Which is fine if you’re one of the lesser people – one can hardly expect much more of you, can hardly hold it against you – but an elf who goes this route is not getting many party invites. He or she won’t be punished or shunned or anything, but will be treated like they have a problem. Overt mockery and bias can happen, but condescending help and pity are more common. There have been exceptions of course – famous warlocks who have overcome this stigma, but they are largely held up as the exceptions that other Warlocks can’t live up to.

Now, wizardry? That is the true art in all its infinite diversity. It rewards patience and deep thought and allows those virtues to be expressed in concrete ways. It’s a popular metaphor for almost everything that elves value, and it is an absolute bedrock part of their culture. Magical societies, academies and salons are the places to be found, even among non mages (though most elves have at least some magical schooling, unless they’re a complete hick). Naturally, there is no shortage of fierce academic and personal conflict within this community, but that is half the fun.

Sorcerers rest uneasily in this space. On one hand, a natural talent for magic feeds into the elven respect for effortless grace, but on the other hand, it seems like cheating. As a result, sorcerers are often viewed as curiosities – a welcome addition of spice and art to more serious circles. Now, outsiders view this tension as something akin to artists (sorcerers) and craftsmen/scientists (wizards) but that ignores the fact that to elves, wizardry is art. A closer comparison can be found in the history of art between any established school and the new upstart school. Sorcerers who buy into the established model can do well for themselves, but those who try to express new ideas or present sorcery as somehow equally valid of respect will find themselves laughed out of every party that matters.

  1. While this is a placeholder for half-orcs, obviously it has a potential for explaining almost any monstrous race. This is the tip of its own rather gigantic iceberg, given how messed up the idea of monstrous races is, but how consistent it probably is with the elvish perspective of the world.  ↩
  2. Unless clerical magic is something new to the world. if one wanted to go that route, then elves are all ancestor worshipers (that is, warlocks) or Druids. In that case, clerical magic might be underground magic.  ↩
  3. The process of being recognized as a hero is similar to canonization – it has a high bar and is also profoundly political  ↩

The Elvish Throne

A little bit of setting noodling that has been rattling in my head. It may go too far, but it’s proving a curious experiment on a particular hypothesis.  Nominally it’s for a D&D style setting, but most of it is pretty much generic fantasy.  Very incomplete for now – just races.  Classes and gods will need their own noodling. 

At some point, the elves grew tired of all this and took over. Stop and consider that their average lifespan is something in the order of 2000 years if they don’t do much of anything about it. If they want to spend some of that time looking into ways to extend it, then that’s no great problem. Then adopt the D&D logic behind XP and levels and it’s not hard to end up with Tolkein-esque elves where is it largely a race of badasses, with only the very young coming in anywhere below 20th level.

So, start with that – the elves are not in decline. They are not in retreat. They are not teetering on the edge of collapse. They are strong and vibrant and their hand extends to cover much of the world. Those parts that they do not rule are largely those they have deemed unworthy of the effort, either because the cost would be great (as with the Dragon Princes’ domains, or the Maddest Depths) or the because the prize seems unworthy (as with the Bleaks). Some of the old kingdoms still stand in a recognizable form, but their kings bend knee to the Elvish throne, and have for generations.

Even the divisions among the elves are no great source of tension. The drow, rather than maligned outcasts bound to a monstrous goddess, are the lords of the underworld in all its splendor. The wood elves are lords of the wild, while the high elves rule over the civilized races. There is rivalry and tension, certainly, but open warfare between elves is something only the mad would propose. All things come in time, and only a fool would risk so much rather than be patient.

That is, of course, what the little people are for. For all their power, elves are also very conservative about any risk to their lives. The lifespan of an elf is a treasure, and the idea of wasting it is repellent to most any elf. This does not mean they are necessarily fearful – even a single elf is a mighty combatant, and willing to fight to show it – but when dealing with matters of risk, they are more than happy to let others do the dirty work.

An extension of this is that elvish conflicts are almost always through third parties. The greatest rule of elven society is that elvish life is sacrosanct, but that does not somehow make them better people. They just find other ways to play out the petty rivalries and conflicts that we all recognize.

As a result, there are plenty of adventurers in the domains of the elves, and it is a highly regarded career. Some elves have stables of their own adventures, but there is always great demand for freelancers, and it’s a good (if dangerous) living. The work is familiar, but the reasons for it may less so. To the elves, and ancient, forgotten dungeon that has sat untouched for centuries is roughly the equivalent of the attic that they stored stuff in years ago, forgot about, and just don’t want to touch. It’s just that where you might be worried about wasps or raccoons, they’re concerned about goblins and hags.

After all, consider how much crap you accrue in just a few years. Elves do this for centuries and there is nothing so crass as “U Store It” facilities to put these things in, and you can’t have them cluttering up the place, so a well secured little cave somewhere (spruced up, of course) with some basic security precautions is really the best option for those things you just can’t bring yourself to throw away.

And, of course, if you have a rival you want to stick it to, a little looting is a wonderfully indirect route to pursue it. Nothing says “screw you” like showing up at a party in your rival’s former favorite hat, after all. There can be a bit of an arms race to this, so some “dungeons” are real deathtraps, but they really run the gamut.

The lifespans of elves also means that there’s some element of sport and entertainment in playing adventurers against challenges (and each others) as it’s own sort of game. But it is not just for play. Adventurers are dangerous individuals granted a lot of leeway, and even freelancers must be accountable to some elf. While some elves maintain private household adventurers, others effectively support guilds of freelancers for their own purposes.

All of this may suggest a very callous attitude on the part of elves towards the short lived races, but that is a gross simplification. The elves assume a position of superiority, certainly, based on their lifespans, but that does not equate to indifference. Elves may become very emotionally attached to other peoples, and the idea of being needlessly cruel to them is largely frowned upon, but the relationship is largely at arms reach. No matter how attached an elf becomes to a human, that human is unlikely to live more than 70 years or so, and for much of that time they will be old (something elves have no real context for, and can be put off by). It will end in tragedy.

Obviously, in a game like this, elves are not a playable race. Any elf that might be an adventurer is going to be so young that it would be outright irresponsible to send them into the field. Certainly some elves enjoy “going on adventures” but in that case the rest of the adventuring party is something more like a retinue.

Humans are by far the most numerous and varied people. They still have many cultural and political distinctions, but over time those have altered to reflect elvish patronage. Certainly some elves maintain entirely human households, but more often things are more indirect – it is rare that a large or powerful human leader or institution not have some manner of elvish patron, sometimes more than one. And, of course, “elvish” equates to power and prestige, so many of the trappings of elvish culture have been adopted by the upper tiers of human society. Sometimes this is blatant sycophancy, but more often it is unthinking – that certain elvish rules of conduct are simply how things are.

As a people, humans are well regarded by elves, and the very best of them are “almost elvish”. This sometimes goes to far, as evinced by the half elvish. Half elves are rare and precariously placed. To a human family, the birth of a half elf is cause for celebration, as it will almost always improve the fortunes of the family, and to humans, the half elf is seen as something exciting and exotic. To an elf, it’s a profound embarrassment, a point of shame for the parent. There is effort not to blame the child too much for the union, but the taint is hard to shake. Half Elves frequently end up in trusted service roles – messengers, majordomos and such – in elvish households if they are willing to behave appropriately elvishly. Those less willing to do so often end up as adventurers or in positions of prominence in human communities. Often, humans will treat half elves as proxies for their elvish parent, offering gifts to the child that would be too little for the parent. While half elves benefit from this, it is rare that the parent look to favorably upon this.

There are two great dwarven kingdoms, each occupying both surface and underworld. They are far enough apart that they interact very little. Both kingdoms are very stable, almost to a fault. The elves have propped them up, helping deal with underworld menaces, but have also established the limits of both kingdoms. Dwarves are greatly respected by the elves, but not necessarily well liked. Elven political language gives great respect to Dwarven title and rank, speaking glowingly about millennia of alliance, and in almost any situation involving the lesser people, the dwarves voice is the first heard. But for all that, there is a hollowness to it. For all the show of respect, the words of the dwarves carry no great weight, a fact that the dwarves either accept (as a sign of how in alignment the two peoples are) or resent.

The little folk of the south are barbarians, plain and simple. Some few of them trade with the elven nations, but the further it is from the bleaks, the more of a novelty they are (something that cunning little folk have used to their advantage – mysterious halfling magics can command a great price from the cullible). There was a time when the elves went to war upon the Bleaks, and they did not once lose a battle, but neither did they hold the land they took very effectively. The little folk were tenacious and decentralized, unwilling to commit their forces to battle. The elves determined that the harsh land of the Bleaks was hardly worth the trouble, and in a grand treaty, ceded it to the khan of the little folks. This was curious because there had not previously been a khan – rather, the Elves simply found a local ruler who was willing to take elvish aid and use it to fight his neighbors. Since then, there have been many khans, and the elves have a habit of backing winners in order to maintain the peace and keep the halflings fighting among themselves.

The elves still have a few holdings in the Bleaks – mines and other useful resources – and there are occasional conflicts, but nothing major. Cynics suggest that the main purpose for the elvish presence is to make sure there is always a worse job to threaten people with.

The Touched were a nation of humans who sought to rise up against the elves, turning to dark powers to do so, powers which twisted their bodies unnaturally. They failed, of course, and it is only by the infinite mercy of the elvish court that they still live today. Their nation has been erased from the histories, its lands given to loyal kings, and its people scattered to the wind. Tradition (and law, in many places) demand that they be covered at all times, that the marks of their abomination be hidden from the eyes of the world, and now that covering is one of the signatures of their people, usually very ornate and colorful, but also conveying rich information to those who know how to read it[0]. Many people do not even know what they look like beneath their hoods and veils. They are not well regarded, and many unwelcome jobs of society fall to them, including waste handling and certain entertainments. By extension, they have a reputation for criminality (one which has become somewhat self-fulfilling) . But their reputation far exceeds the reality, as every Touched community knows that they are only a well placed accusation away from the drowning pits. Many Touched communities are nomadic, traveling as migrant labor or entertainers, in hopes that the ability to keep moving will keep them safe.

[0] Visually, I’m thinking of Mass Effect’s Quarians here.

The Thaw: Episode 4

An Investment Opportunity

Things took an interesting turn in terms of attendance. Yesterday morning the expectations as that I’d get 3 players, and one of them would be new (we’d be getting a Dragonborn Bard). When we started today, we had lost the new player to car trouble[1] but picked up several other players due to schedule changes. So where I had initially prepared for a skeleton crew, I actually had a very healthy 5 member party on hand. This was good, but forced some hasty refactoring.

Of course, it did not help that while I was preparing, Rat Queens Volume 2 arrived. Stopped all prep to read that, and while it was inspirational (Brad, Brad, Brad, Brad Brad….) it meant that actual prep was a bit rushed. I fell back on the time honored tradition of picking a keystone monster or two (hmmm, what’s a CR 5 look like…) and building out from there. I actually had a couple possibilities when we started, though they all skewed demons or undead.

So, for the day we had

  • Tuaq, the ice elf warlock,
  • Sul, the wood elf sorcerer
  • Nato, the halfling cleric
  • Weaver, the human thief
  • Israfil, the high elf paladin

So things began with Theodorus, a Bezant merchant and sawbones (and spy) who has connections to many of the PCs approaching Weaver because he had a job to be done quietly. Theodore had several vials of something he described as “Salamander blood” that could melt ice and speed excavation, and he wanted to use it on the DL. He needed the crew to find a claim that was promising but untapped because it was too dangerous to work for an extended period so they could swoop in. This was agreed to.

There was a bit of a sidebar here about how claims worked. There’s something of a market in them – once a claim is made, it needs to be maintained, but they’re hard to work, and their value increases as the ice line recedes, so there’s something of a speculative market. So if you register a claim, you can leave the clerk a note saying how much you want for it, and they put it in their book, and other people can buy it. As with any speculative market, a lot of money changes hands, but it’s the house that profits, with a fee on each such transaction.

With that in mind, the players first looked into the possibility of a “Ghost Ice” claim. Those are known, haunted claims where is it believed there are dead bodies beneath the ice whose spirits make trouble. They’re presumed to be valuable (since people are probably near things of importance) but can often be gotten on the cheap because no crew will work them. The other prospect was a patch that Tuaq knew about, which had been said to be very promising, but had had a run of bad luck in the form of two dead crews.

This lead to another sidebar on what made a claim valuable. treasure, sure, but that was almost secondary. Right now, the geography of Carta is largely unknown, so when a dig finds anything, it gets combed over for any hint of where in the city it may have come from. Based on that, people update their theoretical map of where the city might be today, which in turn can trigger runs of enthusiastic speculation.

Anyway, Sul listened to the voices beneath the ice, an they guided him to a particular patch of ghost ice, or to the claim Tuaq mentioned (and to some other places, too far to get to casually). The ghost ice claim could be had for a fair price (50gp, plus fees) but the other claim was currently held by Lucius Tanner, the richest man in town.

Since Lucius was actually in the tannery, not every character was willing to deal with the stink, so negotiation fell to Weaver, Tuaq and Sul, which had interesting consequences. Lucius wasn’t incline to sell, but he also pretty clearly felt that these guys wouldn’t know how to work a claim if their lives depended on it so he made a “generous” offer – for 200g, they could work the claim for 9 days. Anything they found was theirs. He (very reasonably) expected that in 9 days they might find their ass with both hands, and they were happy to play along with that.

Theodorus was a little less copacetic. This meant a larger outlay, and it meant the gig would be pure salvage rather than salvage plus a real estate flip. The salamander blood had not come cheap, so he would have to risk he (and his guards) meeting up at the claim to be within sight[2].

Not AT the claim though. That’s what adventurers are for.

So they all set out. The claim was an iced-over valley, with not clear indicator of how deep the ice went. The plan was simple – find a flat spot, pour out a bottle of the blood and let it do its work.

Now, you’d think that the problem was the vampire spawn that was watching the claim, hiding, planning to kill the intruders. But in fact, the problem was that rather than pouring the blood in the manner instructed, they tried to experiment with the first bottle, and discovered that if you let it pool, it becomes an actual salamander. An angry, stubby salamander.

The good news is that the Paladin had detected the Vampire earlier (though he hadn’t spotted it) when he also detected fiends beneath the ice. So he was on the lookout when the Vampire decided to take advantage of the Salamander’s attack to pitch in.

This fight almost took a really bad turn. The salamander is on the high end of CR5, and his damage output was really gross. Weaver went down immediately, and it was only the excess of ice damage on hand that gave the party any kind of chance (the dice were also very much not with with them – I was rolling very well for the bad guys). That fight alone could have been a wipe, but the addition of the Vampire (also CR5) could have really screwed things. Thankfully, it was the Paladin who engaged the Vampire, and while that was ugly, it meant a lot of radiant damage, enough to keep the fight at an even keel until others could join in (the Warlock’s moonbeam, acquired through his pact, was very handy in this). It was a nearer thing than I think the party realized, but they got through ok and took the lesson to follow the instructions.

Now, I had absolutely not planned on throwing two CR5s at the party at once, and if they had not already seen the vampire, I might have been tempted to hold it in reserve to hit when they were resting. As is, it was definitely nastier than I’m comfortable with, and revealed that I still don’t have my hands around the pacing of damage in 5e. I like bounded accuracy a lot, but it seems to have come with a lot of extra damage, enough so that it’s really an range of 1–3 hits before a character goes down, and that seems really low.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may be that I just need to adjust my thinking to something more akin to Rolemaster, where combat is less about the dramatic give and take and more nasty, brutish and short. I certainly enjoy that sort of play, I just don’t necessarily expect it from D&D.

I admit I expect something more akin to a CRPG, where monsters get tougher (more HP) but their damage doesn’t scale along with the characters. Your character might have 9999 hit points, and hit for 9999 damage – monsters had WAY more hit points, but also did not hit nearly as hard, so the economy of the fight was all about that ratio. 5e’s ratio seems to scale towards brutality in both directions, which seems fair until you realize I am not actually interested in a fair fight, only a fun one.

Anyway, one long rest later, they begin again. This time the blood melts down into the ice, and they are prepared for the fiends that Israfil detected. Nor were they disappointed when a Barlgura (giant ape demon) and a squad of Dretch emerged.

Now, I had hoped this fight was going to be a little more interesting. The Dretches are only CR 1/2. but with 18 HP and a poison cloud attack, I figured they’d tie up the Battlefield while the Barlgura jumped around hulking out. Unfortunately, this did not exactly work out. Israeli got the Dretches to cluster, and Naoto obliterated them with a maximized Shatter (which we’re beginning to call “clerical fireball”). So, ouch. The Barlgura seemed like a reasonable threat – when things went bad, he cast Invisibility, prepared to smash someone hard. Unfortunately, he did not roll above a 6 for the duration of the fight, so he got murderized pretty fast.

So, yeah. Swingy

The rest of the excavation went well enough, with a time pressure brought in by an approaching storm. They realized the Vampire had been wearing contemporary clothing, but decided that hunting for a lair was maybe to a great idea, especially when there was treasure to be found. There were also indications (beyond the demons) that someone had excavated this in the past, then filled it back in with water to re-freeze. They found a minor statue (a potential landmark, of great interest to Theodorus) and some actual treasure. Someone had scattered the contents of a treasure chamber, clearly looking for the contents of one of the chests (no indication of what it contained) but amidst the gold it turned out that one of the bags was actually a bag of holding with some sweet loot in it (Potion of Hill Giant strength, Boots of Striding & Springing and a Rapier of Warning).

I like the rapier of warning a lot, and it (as well as the fight) reminded me that I need to get some +0 weapons into circulation soon. I am getting frustrated with the fact that monsters who are immune to normal weapons are coming much faster than the magic weapons themselves. And yes, I know that’s something of an arms race, but if I do something interesting (like have weapons that do elemental damage rather than p/s/b) then it’s a little bit less of a done deal.

It was a fun, if compact session. No advancement, though they’ll almost certainly make it to 4th level next time. I still need to tune the fights better, but I think that’s largely on my head. Still having fun with 5e. Still wish there was a license to write for it.

  1. Which made me sad because I really wanted to see a bard in action.  ↩
  2. A big reason why Theodorus was hiring the team was so he was not seen acting directly. If someone caught wind that he was speculating, then it would impact profits, especially since it was hoped that the speedy turnaround of the salamander blood would allow him to act quickly.  ↩

The Thaw: Episode 3

I made the mistake of finishing last session mid-action (with the group going out to deal with some Halfling claim jumpers) which is a problem when the cast of player’s changes. Mostly it was resolvable with a little bit of a retcon (some folks had to escort the wounded group back to town, and Kit had been in the area investigating the claim jumping claims) but I am going to need to do a sidebar with Naoto, who implicitly was doing something related to her sister offscreen. I used a light hand, so there’s a lot of flexibility, but it’s the largest disconnect.

So, as we left the group, they were en route to drive out some claim jumpers who had set up camp on the Marjan embassy’s claim. They had encountered the previous group that had tried to do so, badly injured, and were warned of undead and ambush, so they were ready when the halflings and undead started firing from the trees, especially since Kit warned them by sniping one before they could close.

The fight wrapped up reasonably tidily, but with a few complications. Sul ran after one of the fleeing halflings, and Kit followed. Sul was paralyzed by someone else (figure in black who looks like it was probably Naoto’s sister), and when the figure was about to attack Kit, lightning struck and no one was quite clear what was up with that.

Meanwhile, the dice took an unpleasant turn on the battlefield. Hazla, the fighter, had managed to piss off most of the skeletons, and the dogpiled him. The very last one got a crit on Hazla, which dropped him. It was sufficiently dramatic that, in feng shui terms, that skeleton just got a name. It ran off and it is absolutely going to come back someday.

The party regrouped and scouted ahead. The remaining halflings were at a drained beaver pond, with two lookouts, and one down in the pond, overseeing an excavation by an undead work crew. The pond itself was overgrown with unnatural grass. They managed to surprise the sentries, then snipe and charge into the bowl. The enemy leader took some early hits, got behind cover, and threw up a Sanctuary while he healed, and it bought him some time, but in the end, he got ripped up before he could do much.

With the Cleric’s death, the working undead stopped (separate from the fighting ones). The party recovered a talisman to control them from the cleric’s body, but they opted to destroy them rather than put them to use. Which was possibly a shame when they reviewed the notes in the halflingss camp and discovered (on a high elf journal with wood elf writing) that the halflings had been trying to excavate an ancient research facility where "Sample #7 (robust, but unstable) was being stored).

The party studied the excavation for a time, until a telepathic voice contacted Israfil, addressing him as “Warden”. The voice identified itself as “unit 15A17” and it was apparently responsible for maintaining the facility. Beyond that, however, it was not terribly helpful, in a “unless you have a warrant, you’re getting nothing”. sort of way. Eventually, the party opted to camp for the night (away from the unnatural growth) but when they woke, the entire bowl of the pond was full of the unnatural grass.

At this point, Unit 15A17 reached out again regarding a “small containment breach” and he was ultimately willing to bend his rules to see this matter resolved. He opened the door, the players started to clear it, and that’s when he pond full of overgrowth wove itself into a dragon, and violence ensued.

The fight was somewhat lopsided. The dice really resulted in huge damage output, and the critter never stood a chance (it did not help that it’s legendary action – regrowth – rolled terribly for its healing). Once that was resolved, the overgrowth all rotted. The rot lead back into the otherwise empty facility, where the Spectator allowed them to confirm destruction, then politely asked them to leave (especially their “pets”, the humans).

That pretty much wrapped things up.

Mechanically, it was interesting to tune down to the fights to the smaller number of players. By chance, we had no clerics, so there was very little healing available, but it turned out that the damage output was more than enough to compensate for that. Party is level 3, and so I went for more CR 1/2 creatures, supplemented by CR 2s and 3s for named opposition. The cadence was interesting – I judge fights by how many swings they take, and that maps somewhat loosely to damage. On some level, I am never really very happy at opponents who consistently have 2 or 3 hit points left when they get hit. Feels weird. But it’s part of the price of the damage system I suppose.

We did get to see something I’d been really curious about, as our Battle Master fighter (Kit, the archer) had hit level 3, so we actually got to see the Maneuver dice in action, and holy crap, it pretty much illustrated that Archers are as awesome as they seemed. Specifically, pairing the Sharpshooter feat (take –5 to hit to do +10 damage) with Precision Attack (roll a d8 after your attack roll and add it to the attack) was brutal. If the sharpshooter attack went off, then great, but if it didn’t, the extra d8 had a pretty good chance of offsetting a near thing. Just one trick among many, but it really underscores how much I am loving 5e fighters.

Anyway, fun session. I’m still loving 5e. I need to sharpen things a bit – pacing could have been better – but it’s great to be playing.

The Thaw: Session 2

WeaverWe had one new player, so we opened up with another round of chargen. We now have Weaver, a CG urchin turned thief whose background got delightfully complicated by the spread. Initially, he had run with a gang which has become a church (or cult) to “The Storyteller” with his one remaining childhood friend as the high priestess. He left the imperial capital because while he believes in the Storyteller, things were getting weird.

But then the Past card came up The Bear (really, the dancing bear) and it evolved from that the Queen (the emperor’s daughter) had been taken by his stories and made something of a pet of him. This had many upsides, but also was full of problems as he blamed the imperials for the loss of many of his childhood friends. He also stole a book of unknown provenance during the wyvern attack.

And that’s when we flipped the present, and it came up The Twin, inverted. We described a few possible interpretations, and opted for something literal – while Weaver was uncomfortable with his growing prominence in the cult and the court, someone else saw it as an opportunity, and the final problems that drove him from the city were engineered by a changeling, who has since taken his place.

And when the future came up  The Empty Throne (curiously, also Arasthel’s future) it became pretty clear that Weaver’s role in this changeling plot is far from over.

We then pulled together some backgrounds. It turns out Weaver was the guy who recognized Hazlam, and who was persuaded to keep it to himself by Hazlam and Israfil. It also turned out that Weaver had a hand in the activation of Tuesday – the stolen book is actually full of warforged lore, and Sul Taeres’s ‘accidental’ activation of Tuesday was quite intentional on their part (albeit with a limited understanding). Taeres and Weaver have absolutely fallen together as partners in crime, and I’m pretty happy with that.

All of which lead to session start. We had 8 players, and while it’s more manageable than 10, it was still enough that it created some problems. Not enough to tank the game, but definitely enough to muddle some things.

Since everyone was up to speed on rules, we had a little bit more opportunity to build out the setting, so things began in the Smokey Yak with Lefty telling a story of how the ice came to be. The Yak is the tavern that grew up next to the smokehouse, since it was one of the central locations in town, and Lefty got his name when something (the story changes) took off his right hand in one bite. It is a running joke among trappers that when they gut a creature, they’re looking for Lefty’s ring.

The story went that when the armies of darkness rose up, the Gods could not stop them, and the Titans were deaf to the pleas of mortals. But when those armies grew bold enough to challenge the heavens, that was enough to interest Dogan the Devourer, who relished the battle and laid waste to the enemy, but also to the world. So great was the devastation of this that two of the kinder hearted Titans intervene. Fafnir the great ate up the enemies challenging Dogan, and Tetra froze the world, sending Dogan to sleep beneath the ice. And to this day, at the very center of the ice, he sleeps, and woe be on us all if the thaw ever reaches him.

But, of course, that’s just a story. Tuesday noticed the proprietor was looking concerned about something, and checking outside regularly. Uncertain how to address this, she grabbed some other characters to go talk with her. It turned out that her cousin should have been here already with the yak herd. A trivial concern in most places, but Placeholder is incredibly dependent on the herds for its food supply (since it is at a remove from any substantial agriculture). They players agrred to investigate.

Sadly, this was complicated somewhat by Glemmer, Taere’s and Weaver putting on a show inside, a purse getting stolen, and a very large, angry man pursuing Weaver out the window and onto Hazlam’s sled. Hazlam & Weaver took off as Naoto attempted to get the man to stand down and got kicked for her trouble. She took it poorly, drew steel and violence ensued.

Now, this was education on a few axes. First. I dropped the ball as GM in making it clear what was happening where. We had a lot of characters in different places, and I hadn’t made it clear enough what was going on where.

Second, the dice were unkind. The guy got initiative, got two attacks off, hit on the first, critted on the second and dropped Naoto in one round. That was, frankly, not a super satisfying outcome. Now in fairness, I had intentionally statted the guy as tough because I figured he might become a recurring NPC, and if he was tough now, then surpassing him later would be satisfying. I had not, however, expected things to be quite that lopsided. Put a pin in that, it comes up later.

The NPC ended up getting a name (Gaston) and stormed off to find Weaver, so he didn’t notice the group stealing his wagon to go catch up in the other direction.

The group met up, headed out along the trail and found a dead yak and clear sign of an attack (distance was about one long rest, so Naoto recovered in the wagon). Clearly the attack was made by some burrowing creature, and the herd had been lead off the road towards rocky terrain. Also, there were signs that someone had been watching the fight. The group followed and were within sight of the rocky outcropping where the herd and herder had sought refuge when they were attacked by the young Remorhaz.

Now, again, this was educational. The worm is a CR 5 encounter, and it’s mostly made nasty by its ambient damage (7 points when you hit it[1]) and the fact that it shrugs off cold and fire damage. It also had a lot of Hit Points, but an only OK armor class. Balanced against this, the party was operating short handed, since some took off in pursuit of the observer, who was watching from a hilltop abut a quarter mile off.

For all this, the deciding factor ended up being luck – the worm could not roll for crap, and landed only one hit in the entirety of the fight, though despite that, the party was pretty roughed up by the ongoing damage. The observer got away (he had plenty of time to do so), though he left a little bit of evidence (tobacco ash) and the party took a short rest with the herd before deciding to lead it back to town, expecting to rest along the way.

Naturally, they got attacked while camped. I tuned the encounter a bit more this time, with one CR4 Shadow Demon and 3 CR2 Ice Gargoyles (regular gargoyles, but vulnerable to fire). While not super dangerous toe to toe, the demon wound have the advantage of surprise, and the Gargoyles were not intended as a threat to the players, but rather, to the herd.

I’m actually pretty happy with how this fight went. The demon one shotted Tuesday (a surprise to me – turned out she’d been conservative with her recovery dice during the short rest) and there was a brief stealth duel with Weaver until the thing was revealed enough for Israfil to go full Paladin on its ass, backed up by the party clerics. A lot of radiant damage makes for a very dead Shadow Demon.

The rest of the party dealt with the gargoyles,and a Gust of Wind kept them from damaging the Yaks as much as they intended, buying time for fire and ass kicking to do their job. The fight definitely got pretty straightforward once the party could bring their strengths to bear. I could certainly have made it harder, but I think it felt about right.

They got back to town with the herd, and Gaston was bought off with the meat from the one yak the gargoyles had killed and by being given credit towards the Remorhaz kill (the head went up by the gates). We still had some time so there was some investigation that followed. The town, it seemed, had been having a lot of supply problems. Nothing too overt, but enough that everything was running low, and the yak herd going missing would have potentially been quite disruptive. No headway on who the mysterious smoker was, but it did put Lucius Tanner (owner of the town’s largest trading post) on their radar as the likely source of the tobacco. He’s also a potential suspect as someone who benefits from scarcity. The problem is that Lucius is making money hand over fist, and disruption might hurt that.

Out heroes’ acclaim for besting the Remorhaz also got them attention from the Aide to the Marjan ambassador, who needed someone to drive some claim jumpers off his recently acquired claim. At first, the group thought he was a potential mark, but then after spotting his bodyguard, wondered if he was a honeypot. After Sul Taeres agreed to help, Arasthel stpped in and insisted they needed some time. The diplomat seemed put off, and pointed out that they had been discussing this for several hours already, and if they were adamant (they were) he woudl seek elsewhere.

So the the diplomat hired Gaston and his crew, and set off. The party was still curious, and investigation seemed to suggest that if the diplomat was not on the level, then at least his con was much deeper than just ripping off a few adventurers (the Marjans had bought out numerous contiguous claims since the accord was signed, greatly overpaying in almost all cases). The set out (for a number of sometimes conflicting reasons) only to encounter a badly injured Gaston and crew on the road coming back. They’d been ambushed by undead halflings. A negotiation was made with the Marjan diplomat, and the job of clearing out these apparent claim jumpers is now theirs again.

Ok, numerous takeaways from this one

  • It is difficult to write about the DMG and prep for a game simultaneously. Sorry about that, but I will be back on it.
  • This game finally named and loosely identified the other dominant human empire, loosely based on the Persians with some Ottoman flavor. That they are Marjans is something of a personal joke.
  • We tried a new rule that we’ll be testing for a while which i call the “heroic death rule”. Any time you would go down because you’re at 0 HP, you can opt to stay on your feet, but you immediately mark off one failed death save. You can act on your turn, and if you’re still standing at the end, mark off another failed death save. The net result is that you always have the option to go full Boromir and fight to the death. More critically, it introduces choice to the most boring part of play.
  • The new rule has some knock on effects. We’ve tweaked the stabilization cantrips (they now heal 1d4, but only for a target at 0 hp) and there are certain abuses that could theoretically come up that we want to head off. There are also some situations (like when Tuesday got backstabbed) where it’s not 100% appropriate. For the time being, it’s a work in progress.
  • I also need to come up with a rule for failed death saves turning into injuries, but that’s phase 2.
  • What it does, however, is mitigate one of my big concerns with combat so far. I’m still working on balancing for a bigger group, but one thing I run into a lot is monsters whose basic hits pretty much promise to one shot most of my part. That’s dangerous and all, but not exactly fun – one and done really drives home the swinginess of things.
  • Beyond the heroic death rule, I am also going to try to address this more in encounter design. One big takeaway is that I’m going to be a lot more free in pulling from the ranks of CR1 and 2 stuff to build the foundation for an encounter. I’m also going to turn my eye towards things with more (and more interesting) attacks than things with big damaging whammies.
  • That “more interesting” is something I really want to ruminate on. A lot of what made 4e fights fun (and they were super fun for me) was that there was a lot of non-damage stuff going on. Similarly, a lot of the best practices of Dungeon World were all about doing things over and above raw damage. I don’t know where all of 5e’s hooks are for that, but my hunch is that the secret is getting a lot more robust with advantage and disadvantage.

  1. Reading the monster ability, one could conclude that the 7 points is done every time a hit lands, but I opted for a kinder interpretation that limited it to once per action because the lack of a save or any other potential mitigation is crazy nasty otherwise, especially considering how many hit points the thing had.  ↩

DMG – Product and Introduction


For folks playing at home, this kicks off my dive into the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, similar to previous dives into the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual. I originally was going to pass on this one because I felt I would be starting to late, but some nice folks persuaded me that the book is fairly evergreen, so the window is much wider than I may have thought.

The Dungeon Master’s guide is, physically, about what you would expect from the series so far. The weirdness with the flame on the binding seems to have been a function of the third party book, so nothing stands out as a problem, and it’s got that nice mix of gloss and matte that makes all these books a joy to pick up.

I’m a little torn on the cover. On one hand, it’s another book without a dragon on the cover, but I don’t actually mind that. My first DMG was the 1e printing with the Elmore (I think) (edit: Nope, it was Jeff Easely. I’m a bad nerd, and thanks to @newbiedm for the correction) painting of the cowled figure opening the door. That one’s iconic for me, so I admit it’s on my mind as I look at this.

The choice of a Lich makes sense, especially if you’re not going to use a dragon. As with the Beholder on the cover of the Monster Manual, it’s another iconic, scary creature. And this one definitely looks lich-y. But for all that, the cover leaves me a little flat – the color is such a uniform wash of purple tha nothing stands out. I have to actively remind myself that there’s a second figure on the cover. None of that is great. I suppose the thinking was to give it a strong sense of color (to differentiate it from the red of the PHB and the – blue, I guess? – of the DMG. There might be some branding genius to it that I don’t get, but ultimately its much more blah than it could be.

Thankfully, the interior has no such problems. Like the other books, it’s well laid out and awash with art. It’s roughly similar to the Players Handbook in this regard, but there is (appropriately) less of an emphasis on characters and more on items and maps. The maps, in particular, warm my heart. They are many and varied, including an entire appendix of just random maps (I assume people have already posted adventures that use them) though my favorite is the town on page 115. It’s hard to see something like that an not want to use it in a game.

The art is full of great classic nods to things like Baba Yaga’s Hut and The Tomb of Horrors, and ranges from epic full page splashes to elemental vistas to an utterly adorable rendition of the great modern parch. My sense from the PHB that WOTC was really investing in a different artistic feel had been reinforced by the MM and it feels fully cemented here. The only complaint I could raise is that it lacks the diversity that was so much the signature of the PHB. It is not terrible in this regard – there is definitely some diversity, and the comparative lack of character images means that there’s no way it could possibly compare to the PHB. But at the same time, the PHB set the bar high enough that it’s noteworthy that the DMG passes under it (if only by a bit).

Credits page includes a nice genealogy of the DMG in its attribution, which is pleasant to see. It also includes a bit of a humorous disclaimer[1] which I’m confident will rub some readers the wrong way. I actually am not sure how to take it – it’s a joke, of course, but is it a flag that we’re going be getting a conversational, jocular kind of DMG, or is it just a one off?


When the first line is “It’s good to be the Dungeon Master!”, that seems to argue for “jocular”. There’s an interesting point in the first paragraph that explicitly note that this book assumes rules familiarity. That’s an interesting message, but one that’s consistent with how 5e seems to have been split up. As has been the trend, more anymore of the essential rules of the game exist in the PHB, but that makes the decision of what to keep in the DMG all the more interesting.

I have to admit that I am poring over every word in this introduction in an attempt to capture the underlying message. “What is the GM’s role?” is one of those questions that can spawn any number of arguments, and the position that D&D takes on this carries massive weight. It is the primary example, and even the smallest shift from the past is noteworthy.

The best summary for the expected role of the DM can be found in the three subheaders of this section. They are, in order. Master of the World, Master of the Adventure and Master of Rules. That’s a curious order, and it is hard not to wonder if it reflects relative importance. If so, there are two interesting things going on here.

The first is that mentioning rules last sends a number of interesting messages, not the least of which is that the rules are not the be-all-end-all of play. That is not exactly revolutionary, but it is controversial on more than one axis. That the book describes the GM as a “mediator between the rules and the players” is also kind of interesting as it supports the idea that the GM’s job is different than that of the players, but does not necessarily suggest a power dynamic. That kind of nicely walks a line that is classically rife with trouble.

The second, and more interesting to me, is that worlds are given pre-eminence (in both position and wordcount) over adventures. Now, in terms of difficulty, this seems backwards – running adventures is tricky business, and it takes work – but I think it reflects a different priority, one that I respect a lot. For me, the master of the world subsection speaks to is one of the most fun elements of GMing. Crafting a setting (alone or with feedback) populating it, thinking long and hard about it, then offering a window into it through play is an intensely satisfying experience (at least for me). I have to give big props to the book for focusing on why it’s fun to GM before getting into why it’s work.

The introduction ends with a single page on knowing your players which is surprisingly well crafted. Most critically, it does not talk about types or players, but rather, about thinks your players may enjoy doing[2]. On one level, this is a fine distinction – one could have talks about “actors” rather than “acting”, but by couching these things in actions, you get much closer to the reality that your players are more complicated than any type, and that they can probably have fun in a lot of different ways.

Even better, these action are also accompanied by straightforward, actionable advice. For example:

Engage Players who like exploration by…

  • dropping clues that hint at things yet to come
  • letting them find things when they take the time to explore
  • providing rich descriptions of exciting environments and using interesting maps and props
  • giving monsters secrets to uncover or cultural details to learn.

Those are not Principles from Apocalypse World, but you would be forgiven for seeing a family resemblance. Now, there’s a whole philosophical discussion to be had about what it means to include these things as guidelines rather than “rules”, and I’ll happily leave that to those more invested in the distinction. I’m a big fan of guidelines, especially when well articulated, and as a single page of advice goes, this is pretty good.

All in all, it’s a promising start, and for the people who need them, the red flags have already been raised, as is only fair.  I very much look forward to getting into the meat of it.

Because the universe has a sense of humor, at the same time I decided to pick this up, Bruce Baugh (of Adventure!, Wraith and about a bazillion awesome thing) also started doing his deep dive on the DMG. You should absolutely check it out over on google plus.

  1. To quote – Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast does not officially endorse the following tactics, which are guaranteed to maximize your enjoyment as a Dungeon Master. First, always keep a straight face and say OK no matter how ludicrous or doomed the players’ plan of action is. Second, no matter what happens, pretend that you intended all along for everything to unfold the way it did. Third, if you’re not sure what to do next, feign illness, end the session early, and plot your next move. When all else fails, roll a bunch of dice behind your screen, study them for a moment with a look of deep concern mixed with regret, let loose a heavy sign, and announce that Tiamat swoops from the sky and attacks.  ↩
  2. Acting, Exploring, Instigating, Fighting, Optimizing, Problem Solving & Storytelling. Of these, the presence of instigating (being able to impact the world) probably pleases me most as an idea that is prevalent in play but often underrepresented in advice. It also dovetails well with the idea of the DM’s role being tied to the world.    ↩

The Thaw: Session 1

Ok, on one hand it is great that 5e supports 10 players, but on the other it is not an experience I wish to repeat too often. I am wiped (and I realized in retrospect that I’ve had much less coffee than usual today). But I should at least start the recap while it’s fairly fresh in mind.

We had 3 players who missed the previous chargen, so that was the first thing we knocked out.


HazlaNG Byzant Soldier, Level 2 Fighters

Past: The Survivor, Inverted (Sole survivor of a brutal battle between the empire and a melted shire. To the empire he’s a hero, to the halflings and others, he’s the butcher).

Present: The Owl, inverted (He was given a claim near placeholder as retirement, but it’s still frozen over. The Empire made it clear to him they’d like an agent, but he told them to piss off. Now he lives with his dogs and drinks his pension)

Future: The Carnival (Will he be drawn back into the politics of the empire, or will he be their bane in Placeholder?”

  • Butcher of Kellam Pass
  • This is my damn claim
  • “Retired” “Hero”
  • Agent or Enemy of the Empire


ClaudiusNG Changeling Charlatan, Level 2 Diviner

We decided that changelings operated secretly among the other races, especially humanity, but their numbers were few.

Past: The Carnival (The politics of the Changelings is brutal and messy, and while Claudius wants to trust, he cannot. He has been blackmailed by a contact in Placeholder into altering a map)

Present: The Bear, Inverted (There is a key that he’s looking for, to restore the Changelings, for they once were linked in such a way that they could trust each other. There is a key to finding one of the ancient changelings, who may still yet live beneath the ice)

Future: The Locksmith (Will he empower his people, or reveal them?)

  • Web of Lies
  • Searching for the Key
  • Secret Identity
  • Fate of the Changelings


TuesdayNeutral Warforged Reborn, Level 2 Monk

Warforged are sometimes found in the Ice, and Tuesday was one such example.

The Past: Foreign Trader (She had been found further north and sold as a curiosity, until she found her way to a tavern in Placeholder)

The Present: Avalanche (Something woke her, and it was violent. She did substantial damage before she came to her senses, remembering nothing of her own past. She’s been effectively indentured by the town to pay off the cost of the damage done. This is also where here name came from – she awoke on a Tuesday, and that is a shorthand explanation of events.

The Future: The Sickness (How long can she remain functional? – I’m not super happy with this one)

  • It must be Tuesday
  • What Was I?
  • What does this Button Do?
  • What Keeps Me Ticking?

Then a quick round of connections with plot twist cards.

Hazram & Israfil (The Snitch): Hazram’s identity is something of a secret, but Isafil learned it over his cups. When a traveller threatened to reveal Hazram, Israfil scared him out of town.

Hazram & Arasthel (Sickness): When sickness struck the sled dogs, Arasthel did what she could, but was out of her depth, so it was a great surprise that the crazy drunk guy outside of town proved to be an able doctor to the beasts.

Tuesday & Sul Taeres (Schaddenfreude): It turns out that Seul Taeres was the one who jumostarted Tuesday. He doesn’t feel responsible per se, but he’s curious.

Tuesday & Naoto (Nightmare): Tuesday is the answer to Naoto’s visions. An army of Warforged would be enough to protect the Sunset Shire, certainly!

Claudius & Tuaq (Magic moment): Put a pin in this for the future – Tuaq’s pact blade is absolutely tied to Claudius’s key.

Claudius & Kit (Love Triangle): Kit has a suitor from the empire who still persists at times, much to her annoyance. What she doesn’t know is that the suitor is a changeling, who has been pressing Claudius for information.

Claudius & Glemmer (Embarrassment): Both came to a party disguised as the same person, complicated further by the original arriving. However, they managed to pull it off with some ad hoc teamwork.


And with that we launched into play. With 10 players, it was pretty much necessary to launch into thing in media res. Party was earning three weeks pay for two days work, going to a known ruin and just making sure it was still clear, since the Empire wanted to build a for there. Now, we had 10 level 2 PCs, so I was figuring the fight centerpieces would be CR4ish, but I had to be careful with that – a lot of CR4 stuff could one shot these PCs. So as a warmup, I opened with a peryton attack in a storm on the mountainside. 2 CR2 Peryton’s were not a huge threat, but they were airborne in a storm, and their ability to dive bomb and get away made them disproportionately dangerous.

Fight went ok. Lots of use of advantage and disadvantage, and I think it let everyone shake out their characters a little bit. I let them take a long rest before the centerpiece fight – I had 4 Azer (CR2) who had a Helmed Horror (CR4) in a box. I’d been planning for the Horror to be a follow up fight, but player actions lead to them hitting the panic butting early, and the Horror joining the fight in round 3. The Azers themselves were tough but manageable, and after some initial dice luck (two crits in close succession) things turned around slowly. The Horror was another story entirely – since I described it activating, I had not considered that one of the players might grab his sword before he fully awoke, but that is exactly what Tuesday did (taking advantage of the Diviner’s 20 to do so) and so the Horror was much less dangerous than it should have been, since it kept failing to get the sword back, something the party helped with via illusions, hexes and general misdirection. By the time the thing was ready to just tart punching stuff, they’d finished it off.

Turns out there was a secret chamber the Azer had been sent to open up, and the Horror was going to be the muscle in dealing with it. So, naturally, the party cracked it open and went toe to toe with a Zombie beholder. It was CR5 and had the potential for some big hits (and, in fact, dropped Sul Taeres and reduced Israfil to 1HP) but the party managed to eventually take it down (that zombie resilience ability is kind of nasty).

We wrapped up, got a little bit of treasure and I let everyone advance to level 3. I don’t intend to be that generous with advancement in general, but level 3 is when a lot of classes cement themselves, so I felt good getting to that point.

All in all it was fun but fatiguing, and I have a few random thoughts:

  • Having printed out the characters as physical cards was a huge boon, since i just used the stack for initiative (inserting blank index cards into the stack for monsters)
  • I had not missed the d20’s swinginess. Kit has the single highest attack bonus in the group with a +7, and she could not hit the broad side of a barn
  • Diviners seem as fun as I had imagined
  • I need to retune the aspects. Some of them are good, but many are flat, and most of them lack an immediate hook (most have good story hooks).
  • I think my group is playing D&D more than I’m running it, which sounds weird. On some level, I’m running a game that kind of just uses the cards as character sheets, that also happens to have some D&D.
  • Warlocks have many moving parts, but they come together interestingly.
  • Making the most straight up human fighter still makes for a fun character.
  • 10 characters is what I would call technically doable, not optimal.

The Thaw: Session 0.1 – Connections

Once we had characters created, we did a quick round of connections to establish a little bit of backstory between the characters.

First we sketched out a shared adventure. Collapsing ice, emerging Giant spiders, fighting the spiders, exploring the revealed ruin. very loosely sketched, but it now gives something concrete to throw flashbacks at in the future.

Next, I just assigned everyone a number, rolled a die twice, then flipped up a Paizo plot twist card (from the flashbacks set – yes, this is turning into a little bit of an ad for Paizo’s cards). I pretty much just did this until almost everyone had at least two, then did a quick one for the remaining 3 people.


Naoto & Tuak drew “Lost”, so we talked about how they had gotten seperated in the dungeon and got Lost together. Because Tuak is kind of a jerk, we decided that they got to a point where a halfling could get out. Naoto did, but came back for Tuak. Without payment even!

Glimmer & Treewind drew “Life Changer”. The card has the image of a newborn on it, so we went literal, and in the midst of the ice spider attack, they delivered a baby despite having no idea what they were doing. Glemmer managed to fake it, but Treewind got the credit, and the baby’s name was Tree.

Glemmer & Arasthel drew kept secret, so we zeroed in on the Fire sister. Glemmer knows he Cambion she was with, and remarked to the investigating Arasthel that she didn’t seem kidnapped. Arasthel asserted she was charmed, but Glemmer knows she’s lying, and she knows he knows, so they have this little shared secret.

Naoto & Israfil drew Lacunsa(Memory), so we talked about the way they met, and decided that Naoto was the one who had opened the watchtower and released Israfil. They share the secret of the watchtower’s location.

Kit & Arasthel drew “reunion”, so Kit had visited the wood elf kingdoms in her youth, and had learned the basics from Arasthel.

Israfil & Glemmer drew “repressed memory”, which was kind of a weird one, so we decided that Glemmer had found the watchtower as well, but failed to open it (possibly because he’s not particularly pure of heart). However, that added Glemmer to Israfil’s sleeping awareness, so he dreamed of Glemmer’s defeat of the sleeper, though he doesn’t fully recall or understand that.

For the last one, Kit, Tuak & Treewind drew “Regret”, which ended up being a little bit tricky, since Kit is LG, and Tuak and Treewind are N and CN respectively, so moral regret was a little hard to come by. So it turned out they had cost the town something – they were attacked by a Rehemoraz, which would pretty much chew them up and spit them out. They were saved by Marshall Atwood, the hero/lawman of the town, but in doing so, Atwood was horrifically injured and crippled. Kit feels horribly responsible and Tuak and Treewind feel horrible that other people blame them for it.

And that is where we left it. If people had not needed to get home, then I suspect we would have insisted on starting play right then, which is (I think) a good sign.

New Faces

  • Baby Tree
  • Marshal Atwood

The Thaw: Session 0

Woo, Chargen. That was a Hell of a ride.

Ok, to frame all this – this was Chargen for a straight up 5e D&D game. There were a few mechanical changes based on the setting (tweaks to Drow and Tieflings, new Warlock pact, new Sorcery power source) with the biggest change being that we replaced the background stuff with 4 aspects. The aspects weren’t just pulled out of the air though – after we finished chargen we sat down with each character, asked some questions, then did an Everway-style card read (Past, Present, Future) for each character using the Harrow Deck(fn).

For the unfamiliar, you use tarot like cards for the process, flipping one for past, one for present. The last one is played sideways, and it represents the future, and something that might go either way. If that’s unclear, the photos should clear it up.

Procedurally, there were just a few tweaks. I emphasized backgrounds over classes, asking for background decisions before class decisions were made. It only makes so much fo a difference, but I think it helped cement the characters in useful ways. We also explicitly have not defined much more of the setting than I laid out in my previous blog post, so there were one or two points where we stopped to answer things about the world, but those weren’t any real slowdown. The main thing was that when someone introduced a god, they had to choose which of the two characters from the Dungeon World game that god is the offspring of.

We also did a round of connections after charge to cover the trip from level 1 to level 2.  Those might be their own post though.

Ok, all that said: The Characters

Kit, Lawful Good Byzant Folk Hero, Level 2 Fighter (Aspects: No one says no to the emperor, Hero of the empire, Keeping Secrets, Liberator or conquerer?)

The Byzant are one of the two major human cultures in the south, and as the name may suggest, they are roughly modeled after the Byzantines.

Kit is an archer (and is,I think, going to ge tto showcase just how good 5e made archery fighters) who pulled a Bard the Bowman when a Wyvern attacked the Emperor and dropped it with a lucky shot. This lead to accolades and the close personal attention of the Emperor, which dangerous. It also drew the ire of whoever unleashed the Wyvern, and Kit had to start looking out for assassination attempts. This provided incentive for her to get out of town, and by some coincidence, the emperor needed someone he trusted (or maybe “someone he trusted”) in Placeholder to report on matters of Imperial interest should the Empire ever decide to annex the place. As a result, Kit is something of an unwilling spy.


Kit’s Past it the Trumpet, which reflects her heroism, which is genuine, and drew great attention. Her present is the Cyclone, inverted – making order out of chaos. This represents the imperial interest in Placeholder and gave us reasont o name her contact, Theodoros, a travelling doctor/merchant. Her future is the unicorn, and it seems likely she will either liberate Placeholder, or she will rule it.

Arasthel, Chaotic Good Wood Elf Noble.  Level 2 Druid of the Moon (Aspects: Under the shadow of your father, Family entanglements, Noble ties, Rule or Ruin)

The wood elves live in small forest communities ruled by councils.  Arasthel is the eldest daughter of two councillors, and it was expected that she would follow in their footsteps, but her choice of druidic initiation was a mild embarrassment to the family.  Thankfully, the second child (attuned to Fire as Arasthel is attuned to Earth) was much more promising.


Arasthel’s past, the Inqusitor, suggested that she had done something which brought suspicion upon her.  It turned out she had given safe harbor to woodcutters who had cut down wood elf trees because they were in need. By the law, their lives were forfeit. When asked who pursued the matter, the answer was her father, who still seeks to punish her for this (and, implicitly, for the shame of her going druid).   When we pulled Eclipse for her present, that seemed very loaded, especially with her being a moon druid.  This could have gone a lot of ways – it’s an evil, unpleasant card, but also represents the moon triumphing over the sun.   I leaned towards the darker interpretation, noting that the moon may also be eclipsed.  This was to be about the second sister, the one touched by fire.  Atasthel’s player had previously talked about the reason she was in Place was that she was looking for the missing sister, so we drilled into that, specifically asking what terrible thing her sister did that Arasthel let happen. It was decided that she had run off with a “man” – in quite because he’s a cambion – and Arasthel has covered her tracks, even when she and her brother were sent on this “rescue” mission.

With all that, the empty throne made for a wonderful pull.  She is either going to return home to leadership someday, or the leadership of the wood elves will fall.

Sul Taeres, Chaotic Neutral Wood Elf Entertainer. Level 2 Elementalist Sorcerer (Air) (Aspects: Conceal don’t feel, Profound Disgrace, Voice under the Ice, Power of Dark or Light?)

Sul Taeres most often goes by Treewind because humans can’t pronounce his name right. He is the youngest of the three wood elf siblings, and naturally attuned to air. His sorcery is viewed as outright freakish by the wood elves, and he kept it secret of many years, revealing it only to his sisters. They both supported him, but the second daughter was especially supportive.


His past came up as Hidden Truths, inverted, so we talked about how his magic was revealed – it happened when he had to save the life of another elf, and that elf was his father (who, if you’ll remember, is a bit of a jerk). He was practically disowned on the spot, and after the disappointment of the eldest child, this turned even more attention on the second daughter.  We determined that Sul Taeres is unaware that she ran away voluntarily, and genuinely thinks he can save his sister.

Which spills into the present – The avalanche, inverted.  Things settling into place I asked what was keeping Sul Taeres in place.  Duty and the quest for his sister, sure, but what else?  The answer: A voice from beneath the ice.  Obviously, I’m delighted with this.

So when the eclipse came up again for the future, it was too perfect. Again, that is so much the card for the missing sister, and it raises the question of whether Sul Taeres will follow her down that dark path, or find a new one.

(Mechanical note: I’m writing up the elementals sorcerer for this. I have  no published reference.)


Tuak Pel, Neutral Drow Bounty Hunter. Level 2 Warlock. (Aspects: Combat capitalist, Renegade elf of the ice, Questionable relationship with Glemmer, Binder or Opener?)

I have no great love of the drow, but in the absence of the underdark, they are elves who live on the ice. and have adapted to it through dark magics (and they use Inuit names).Pel is one such elf, and the intent of the character is to be a melee warlock, so he’ll be going Sword Pact at level 2.  The idea was that he had sworn fealty to a dark power but due to the nature of the pact (and the amount of drinking involved in that evening) he was a little shaky on which one.  We talked a little bit about bounties – he cheerfully works for all authorities in Placeholder, and when manhunting work is not available, he collects rare herbs on the ice for Theodorus.


For the past, we saw our old friend the inquisitor, but we could not use it in the same NPC for it, so instead we talked about who among the Drow might be pursuing him, and form this we determined that while there are many warlocks among the drow, they do not pact with Sleepers (things beneath the ice), and that is exactly what Pel did.  So far as they are concerned, his should has been ripped away, and his old Mentor (Uglo) now hunts the abomination who wears his old apprentices skin.  This, of course, not so healthy for Pel.

For the present, the Cricket, inverted, was a bit os a head scratcher at first. I looked at it hard before it struck me that it was absolutely representative of Glemmer, the Tiefling charlatan and another member of the party. The players had been discussing some history, so it cemented on this – Pel had “Killed” Glemmer to collect a bounty, and in doing so allowed Glemmer to establish the identity he currently operates under.  Perl got paid by Glemmer and by the dwarven marshall who had put out the bounty.

The future came up The Dance.  Looking at the card, it really felt like the it was going to be about Pel’s sword, and thinking about what that meant was inspired by the suit of the cards. I was struck by the image of the key, and it clicked – his sword will be a key, but the question is whether it will open something, or lock it away.

Naoto the Thunder, Lawful Good Halfling Soldier. Level 2 Cleric of Storms (Aspects: Last hope of sunset, The thunder and the executioner, Quest for the blade of storms, A sword has two edges)

Naoto is from he Sunset Shire, a halfling shire not far from Placeholder which has half thawed.  Naoto herself is a warrior priest armed with a hallooing scaled naginata.  At first, the idea was that she had been sent out to find an army to protect the Sunset Shire. That lead to the question – this seemed like a mission doomed to fail, so who was getting rid of her? We flipped the first card to help answer.


The flip was The Beating, and that upended things wonderfully.  it was not that they needed an army, it was that they had one already, and it was BAD.  Naoto’s sister (So Mei, the Executioner) had turned to necromancy, and had convinced the shire that an army of “ancestors” was the path to safety.  Naoto desperately seeks some way to defeat her sister and restore the Shire.

The present revealed The Forge, inverted. That suggested a classic theme, a broken weapon. Naoto seeks the Blade of Storms, but so does the executioner.  The blade was revealed to Naoto in a vision that she assumes came from her goddess (Inazuma, daughter of Fafnir and Tetra) but these things don’t exactly come with an SSL certificate.

The future was the Demon’s Lantern, effectively the will o the wisp.  This suggests that she’ll find the blade, but the question is whether it will save the Sunset Shire, or doom it.

Glemmer, Chaotic Good Tiefling Charlatan. Level 2 Cleric of Trickery (Aspects: Clarion: hero of the ice, Secret Identities, Awkward entanglements, Who the hell am I?)

I should note that Glemmer’s player rolled insanely well for stats. one 13, everything else was 15+.  Tieflings are apparently badass.

Thankfully, there aren’t many of them, and they don’t get along very well. Compound this with being a priest of Ngaro (Child of Jack and Job, God of Ice and Shadow) – a god the tie flings mostly pray to only to avoid the ire of, and Glemmer had every reason to head towards the thaw. This was clinched when he received a vision that he presumes form his god (sound familiar) that told him that Placeholder must remain free.



When the past flipped up The Trumpet, it was one of those moments that are exactly why  I love the unexpected things that come from this sort of charge.  The Trumpet (which we’d previously seen with Kit’s heroism) was totally at odds with Glemmer as we had described him so far, so we kicked this around a bit.  It turns out Glemmer had done a great act of heroism in the past, slaying a Sleeper (albeit by accident) under his old name, Clarion. In fact, it was Clarion who Pel had “killed”.

The Present, with the Theatre inverted, was much more in line with what we had described, as  it touched upon the complex web of deception Glemmer was building, including three separate identities. It’s all tenuous, and in his merchant guise he is doing business with Theodorus. He also has discovered another Trickster priest in town, but has not discern their identity, and there is a cold war of mischief afoot.

Having the Liar come up for the future was pretty much exactly right. The question is, ultimately, whether Glemmer’s lies will overwhelm him.

Israfil, Neutral Good High Elf Hermit. Level 2 Paladin of the Thaw (Aspects: Bringer of the Storm, Placeholder hero, Life is but a dream, Left by my Lover)

Israfil has been dreaming for two thousand years. He was sealed in a high elf Watchtower. He expected to pass on to the Fae with the fountains of wine and beautiful gardens, but something went amiss.



The Wanderer, inverted meant that for the Past we focused on how he ended up int he Watchtower. Turns out, he wasn’t supposed to, but his lover had asked him to meet him there, and he got stuck. Maybe it was an accident, maybe his lover didn’t fancy the idea of skipping out on the wine and gardens in favor of millennia of duty.   Israfil was not a Paladin when he entered, but he was when he came out.  He doesn’t know if this sis a function of the Watchtower itself or if it’s related to the Thaw (his code is going to be the Green, as a manifestation of the Thaw). The player compared it to the Greatest American hero – Great power, no manual.


For the present, The Big Sky inverted was another blow against freedom, so we talked about what bound him.  It turns out he’s explicitly bound to the thaw, something he discovered when he tried to find his old lover and could not.  We talked a bit about his authority, and while no one (except maybe high elves) would recognize it, the natural world would.

For the future, the cyclone suggested that he would either reign order or destruction, or as the player summarized “Bringing the storm”



Starting Faces

I need to make sure these get names and faces, but we have some decent starting NPCs

  • Theodoros, the doctor/Spy
  • The Wood Elf Councillor and Father of the three
  • The Sister of the three, attuned to fire
  • Fire’s Cambion boyfriend
  • The dwarf marshal
  • The Executioner
  • The Unknown Trickster Priest
  • Israfil’s Lover

We got a few more when we did background connections, but at this point I am crazily tired, so that will have to be another post.



Chargen Notes for the Thaw

Doing chargen today, so just throwing up some notes.

The ice came north maybe 2000 years ago. Before that time, things were normal enough fantasy, largely dominated by a number of human cultures, regular D&D races, stuff liek that.  The Advancign ice changed all that, rolled over the bulk of “civilized” land, pushing them north to the edge of the desert and into a very narrow band of livable land. This lead to a lot of conflict over limited resources, and by the end there were only three major human cultues left (one of which being those who live north past the desert) with remnants of a few more.  As the ice receded, these human nations have aggressively expanded to fill the space.

For ease of use, we’re going to use real world culture as touchstones for the humans.  One will be roughly Byzantine, one is TBD but India and the Americas have been floated.  The cuture north of the desert may or may not enter into play, but in my mind they’re Mali.

Other peoples found solutions to the ice.  The Dwarves simply dug.  Some stayed close to the surface, but others dug deep,founding great cities in the warmth and light of the depths. The dwarves are doing ok. 

The Halflings found some way to shape the ice (or bargain with it, some say) and it formed great bubbles over their shires, turnign them into a combination of fortresses and arcologies. Culturally, the Halflings are going to be very cinematic-Japanese influenced, and yes that means halfling Samurai.

The elves split. The High Elves withdrew from the world save for a handful of watchtower. The Wood Elves adapted to the tundra and desert. Some elves walked out onto the ice and were changed by it. The elves do not speak of them.

Some humans apparently found life on the ice as well, but they have been changed by it. Blue of skin, with demonic features, they were the stuff of stories for centuries, but with the thaw it is beginning to appear that the tieflings have established a seriosu presence on the ice.

The thaw started about 50 years ago, and had proceded at a startling pace. Fast enough that stretches of land are still muddy barrens, and the very edge of the ice is a no mans land. The humans have expanded, the halflings are emerging, the elves are returning and the Dwarves are takign an interest in the surface again.  Treasures lost to the ice have emerged, but so have unexpected things, frozen elsewhere and pushed north to thaw. 

On the edge of the thaw is a town called Placeholder (a bureaucratic slip up that has stuck).  It is unclaimed, contested territory, and it woudl be of little note save for that fact that it is suspected that it is somewhere near the site of the city o [TO BE DETERMINED], the crown jewel of the old world.  Finding it and claiming it will be a triumph and, more important to the people of Place, will be an opportunity to strike it rich.  So the town has grown in fits and starts, and every year, the ice recedes a little more, people dig a little deeper and the town grows. And, of course, as it grows, so does foreign interest. No nation has a clear claim on Place, and nothing found yet has been worth pushing the issue, but they’re all watching very closely.

We have not explicitly decided what’s up with other races, though I’ll be shocked if we don’t see Warforged (whose origin will be a mystery). We’ve discussed the gods some (the original pantheon is based on the charactes from the Dungeon World game) but it (and the geneal role of magic) i still fuzzy.

Mechanical things I shoudl do:

1. More Warlock pacts

2. More Sorcerer options, because man, the PHB ones are way too little.