Resurgence of the Illithids

On Friday afternoon I ran Rrakkma!, the Dungeons & Dragons adventure that’s been released to promote Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. (I wrote a review of it last week.) The adventure is about a group of githyanki and githzerai who hope to reunite the two gith races in their struggle against the illithids (a.k.a. mind flayers) who once enslaved them. I’d watched Powerscore RPG streaming a playthrough of this adventure, and they got through most of it in two hours. (I believe they’re going to stream the second session this weekend.) Our group managed to finish in four hours, partly because I kept reminding them that they needed to were racing against the illithids’ plot.

Sadly, in the final stage the whole party perished fighting the mind flayers in the Far Realm. Presumably, the whole gith race was enslave again, and the mind flayers have been able to re-establish their rule of the Prime Material Plane. But, you could say that the gith have been reunited, right? It can’t long until there’s another gith rebellion, and that could be a good basis for another adventure.

In preparation for the adventure I made a whole lot of paper miniatures, and you can find them on the DM’s Guild here. (There’s also tokens and art files.)

Learning (and altering) the D&D magic schools

Over the last two weeks I ran a short Dungeons & Dragons adventure using the Planescape setting. Planescape adventures normally involve travelling between different planes of reality, which often changes the effects of magic. The laws of a particular plane tend to alter whole schools of magic, so this has been a good excuse to brush up on the eight schools. (I’ll often be asked by a player what kind of magic is being used in a situation, and won’t be able to tell them.)

Schools of Magic

Abjuration magic is protective.

Conjuration magic summons things from other places.

Divination magic provides information.

Enchantment magic influences minds.

Evocation magic produces different kinds of energy.

Illusion magic deceives the senses of others.

Necromancy magic interferes with life and death.

Transmutation magic alters the nature of things.

Magical effects on Avernus

As I said earlier, the laws of various planes change the way magic works. There is a whole lot of material from Second Edition D&D that provides information about this, but it doesn’t all translate neatly into Fifth Edition D&D. Our short adventure today was set on Avernus, the first layer of Baator (similar to Dante Alighieri’s conception of Hell), so I had a look at the magical conditions described in Second Edition’s Planes of Law. This is how I adapted the conditions for our Fifth Edition adventure:

Abjuration and Transmutation

Because abjuration and transmutation magic alter the natural properties of things, both of these schools of magic are considered to be in conflict with the lawful alignment of the plane. I decided I would require a successful DC 15 Arcana or Religion check to cast an abjuration spell. (Arcana for an arcane spellcaster. Religion for a divine spellcaster.)

Conjuration

In Baator, conjuration spells require a ritual in order to bind any creature that has been summoned. I decided I would require a DC 15 Arcana or Religion check to determine the success of a binding ritual. If the binding was not successful, the summoned creature would be in control of it’s own actions, and would likely be pretty angry about being summoned to Baator…

Divination

Divination spells cast on Baator always show negative outcomes, with at least a grain of truth. Divination magic is also likely to attract the attention of baatezu (devils).

Enchantment and Illusion

Enchantment and illusion spells are not altered.

Evocation

Evocation spells may be altered depending on the layer and the kind of energy they produce. On the layer of Avernus, fire and earth energy are both more effective. I decided I would probably allow players to cast fire and earth spells as though they were at a higher level, but wasn’t totally sure if this would be appropriate.

Necromancy

Necromancy spells that grant healing require a successful DC 15 Arcana or Religion check. Necromancy spells that cause damage or pain; or that control undead, can function as though they are one level higher.

Wild Magic

Wild magic isn’t a school of magic, but it is effected by the lawful nature of Baator. I decided that the lawful nature of Baator would stop wild magic sorcerers from experiencing wild magic surges or from using any of their wild magic features.

First time DMing over audio stream

On Friday last week (so eight days ago now) I had my first attempt at running a D&D game over audio stream using Discord. (I have run a short game using Roll 20 before, but found it awkward to use on my small computer screen.) One of the things I was expecting was that it might be hard for players to avoid talking over each other. This happens enough when we’re sitting around a table playing, but it’s a much bigger problem over an audio stream. What’s been suggested to me by more seasoned streamers is that, over time, players tend to get better at sharing the stream and and that it can actually help encourage the players to be more attentive to each other’s characters, not just listening for their next opportunity to act.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the adventure happened close to the end, when a devil (we were playing a Planescape adventure and the adventurers had gotten stuck in Baator/Hell) asked our bard what friendship was, so the bard sung a terrible rendition of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ over the stream and made the devil cry. I like the idea that lower ranking fiends can be won over by beauty or kindness, but it will be interesting to see how that devil responds when more powerful devils show up.

Starting a sleep routine

I’ve often had trouble getting sleep. Sometimes it’s because I’ve been working to hard and it’s hard to wind down, sometimes it’s because of stress that I need to get out of my body, sometimes it’s because of noise in the neighbourhood, sometimes it’s because of hot weather or hayfever. However, I’ve recently found something that seems to help.

Last Sunday afternoon, after a few nights not not much sleep, I was watching Ask the Doctor on the ABC. The episode was about sleep and why people have difficulty sleeping. If you’re in Australia (or using a VPN) you should be able to watch it here while the episode is available.

One of the suggestions that I found really interesting was having a wind-down routine before going to bed. They suggested turning off screens at a set time, having a snack (eg. milk and a biscuit), a shower (I normally shower in the morning and not the evening), and reading something that isn’t work or study related.

So I tried doing something like that last Sunday. At 9pm I started getting ready for bed. Most of the stuff I’m interested in reading is on my tablet, so rather than turning it off I put it on night shift (which gives the screen a dull, brownish shade instead of the normally bluish glow). I had some milk and crackers, had a shower and then got in bed to read. I pretty quickly found I was falling asleep. Each night in the last week that I’ve been able to follow that routine I’ve had a great sleep. Even if I have a couple of nights where I don’t get a good sleep, that’s entirely manageable when it’s compared to a week of poor sleep.

Another thing I’ve been trying is sleeping on my side. I haven’t slept on my side since a few years ago when I was very sick and was diagnosed with an arthritic condition. At that time I found that if I slept on my side it was really bad for my joins, so I started sleeping on my back most of the time. However, sleeping on my back was probably making me snore more.

This week I have found that sleeping on my side still causes some pain, and I often wake up for a bit in the middle of the night. However, if I have gone to bed early enough I can manage waking up in the middle of the night, getting up for a little while to rest my joints, and then going back to sleep again. Because I’ve gone to bed early enough, I’ll still get enough sleep.

I’m not saying that this kind of routine would work for everyone, but I’ve found this works for me. I’m interested in hearing what others have found helpful?

Collaborating with players in D&D

I’ve been running Out of the Abyss for my regular Dungeons & Dragons group. The adventure takes place in the Underdark, a vast series of subterranean tunnels and caverns inhabited by strange and often dangerous creatures. The adventure involves a lot of time travelling through caves between settlements, which I’ve found can be a bit tedious. Trips between different settlements can mean weeks of travel, which might mean four or five sessions if you run them as the published material suggests.

The last three sessions, my group has been travelling between the dwarven city of Gracklestugh and the trading post of Mantol Derith. For the start of the journey I useds an encounter from the book involving gnolls and hook horrors. For the next two sessions I tried something different. I gave each player the opportunity to nominate something that I needed to include in the journey. Once I had included all of them, the journey would be finished. Not everyone made a suggestion, and a couple of players gave me more than one option, but the list I ended up with was:

  • an elven community
  • a Belt of Dwarvenkind (which gives the wearer some dwarven qualities such as resistance to poison)
  • a Tome of the Stilled Tongue (a powerful and dangerous spell book associated with the evil god Vecna)
  • more information about the influence of the demon lord, Demogorgon
  • a giant goat

In doing this I wanted to reinforce to my players that they can contribute to telling the story, and that they can set challenges for me as the dungeon master. I’m also trying to find ways to make sure there is something for everyone in the adventurer. I’m pretty happy with how it went, and I would definitely use this method again.

In the first session the party met a group of surface elves who said they were investigating the influence of the demon lords (including Demogorgon) – but they turned out to be controlled by a mad mindflayer. Our githzerai monk ended up tracking down their master, who was unconvincingly disguised as a dwarven doctor, using a belt of dwarvenkind.

During the final journey session I had the party stumble across a disciple of Vecna who was was about to sacrifice a giant goat in a dark ritual. The elf fighter tried to rescue the the goat, which created tension in the group because the party cleric is also a disciple of Vecna and wanted to help her fellow devotee.

Many sessions ago, when the rest of the party had found out that their cleric was a follower of Vecna, they had forced her to eat a Tome of the Stilled Tongue that she had obtained. Her fellow devotee ended up reaching into her body and pulling the book out intact. The cleric then ended up losing the book again, but there’s a strong possibility that the book will be back and will have an important role to play. Interestingly, after that session it seems like the cleric is wanting their character to pursue a new (less evil) direction.

What I liked about these sessions is that they have felt a lot more collaborative and they’ve been unique to our group. I included a little bit of content from the published book we’re using, but the rest is stuff we’ve come up with ourselves together.

D&D player character race options

Even though I run 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons games most weeks, I don’t know all the rules that well. For that reason I’ve just been reading over the Player’s Handbook again. Tonight I’ve been particularly looking over the player character race options. I find that players will have questions for me about their race or class features. Often I can’t answer them because I don’t play as a player character often so I’m not familiar with the races and classes. These are my notes about what I think I need to remember about the player race options in the Player’s Handbook. I haven’t paid as much attention to proficiencies or ability score increases, because I presume players will have these added on their character sheets.

Dwarves

As a dungeon master I need to remember that all dwarves have advantage to saving throws against poison as well as resistance against poison damage. Since a lot of people seem to play as dwarves, I don’t find this is hard to remember.

Elves

Because elves also seem to be a very popular option, I find their features are pretty easy to remember. Elves have advantage on saving throws against being charmed and they can’t be put to sleep by magical means. Elves also don’t need sleep. I find that this feature is really easy to remember because if there’s an elf in the party they will often mention it whenever the party rests

There’s a lot of variance in the elf subraces. High elves gain one wizard cantrip. Wood elves can hide when they are obscured by a natural phenomenon. Dark elves are sensitive to sunlight and gain specific spells at at 1st, 3rd and 5th levels.

Halflings

Even though halflings are one of the most common races, I think I’ve only ever had one regular player choose to play as a halfling, so I’m less familiar with their traits. It’s easy to remember that halflings can reroll attacks and saving throws if they roll a 1. I haven’t always remembered that they can also move through the space of any creature that is larger than them.

The halfling subraces don’t have as much variance as the elf ones do, and I think they should be easy to remember because they are similar to abilities from other races. Lightfoot halflings can hide whenever they are obscured by another creature that is at least one size larger than them, similar to the wood elf’s hiding feature. Stout halflings have advantage to saving throws against poison as well as resistance against poison damage, just like dwarves do.

Humans

I personally think humans are the least interesting player race option. They don’t have any features that make them stand out, other than a boost to all of their ability scores or the variant option that allows for a feat. The party I’m dungeon mastering for does not currently contain any humans, and I’ve rarely had any players who wanted to play as humans.

Dragonborn

As a dungeon master, the main thing I need to remember about dragonborn characters is that they gain a breath weapon (which recharges after a short of long rest) and a damage resistance based on the kind of dragon they are descended from. Since the breath weapon is going to be one of their most effective attacks, I find that players normally become familiar with this feature pretty quickly.

Gnomes

Gnomes are probably my favourite race option, at least among those in the Player’s Handbook. All gnomes have advantage on Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma saving throws against magic.

Both of the gnome subraces in the Player’s Handbook have a couple of features that I think are important to remember. Forest gnomes can cast minor illusion and can also communicate with small animals. Rock gnomes can add their proficiency bonus twice to any Intelligence (History) check related to magical, alchemical or technological objects. Rock gnomes can also use their tool proficiency to make a few different kinds of simple mechanical items.

Half-elves

If you’re familiar with the features of elves, it’s not hard to remember the features for half-elves. Like elves, half-elves have advantage on saving throws against being charmed and they can’t be put to sleep by magical means.

Half-orcs

When a half-orc character drops to 0 hit points but isn’t immediately killed by the damage they’ve taken, they can instead drop to just 1 hit point – but this can’t be repeated until after a long rest. Half-orc characters also get to add another extra damage die whenever they make a critical hit.

Tieflings

Tieflings have resistance to fire damage, and they gain specific spells at 1st, 3rd and 5th levels just like dark elves do.

Having read over these racial features and summarised them, I feel a lot more confident with them and I’ve been surprised at how much was already pretty familiar. Next I’ll probably have a look at some of the class features, because there are some that I’m not currently confident about.

Why demons?

I’ve just published a new set of printable paper miniatures depicting demons, which folks can use in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. (There’s also a set of tokens here, using the same images.)

Some people might wonder why I would want to use demons in my games or why I would want to include them in a product, especially since I’m a Christian from an evangelical background. Some folks have had concerned that the inclusion of imaginary demons in games like D&D opened players up to influence from real life evil spirits. For a while, D&D‘s publishers started calling them Tanar’ri, in order to avoid this stigma.

One of the reasons I don’t have a problem with demons (and other evil creatures) being included in these games is because I think they can be a useful way of depicting human evil. Even in real world scripture, I think that evil spirits are often being used symbolically to talk about social evils.

In the regular game I’ve been running on Thursday nights (we’ve been using the D&D book Out of the Abyss) the party has gradually become aware that the subterranean world of the Underdark is being influenced by Demogorgon, the two-headed prince of demons. In the lore of D&D, the two heads of Demogorgon are divided, constantly scheming against each other, and this is also the nature of the madness he spreads. In two settlements the adventurers have visited, this madness has taken the form of greed, division and paranoia.

The town of Sloobludopp had been divided between two religious sects, led by warring relatives, as though the community had two heads attacking the one body. In this situation, the party ended up siding with one of the ‘heads’ and when the two factions came to blows, their violence summoned the Demogorgon to the town to destroy it.

More recently, the part has been exploring the dwarven city of Gracklestugh, which appears to be afflicted by a similar madness. However, this time they’ve noticed how the madness of Demogorgon is pulling the city apart, and they’ve been looking for a way to unify the city and bring festering, hidden conflicts into the open.

This is all very simple to talk about in a game, but it’s not hard to see that these are dynamics that impact on our real world. It seems like our societies are becoming increasingly selfish, fractured and paranoid. I think these stories can call us to live generously and to find ways to reach out to ideological enemies in the midst of real and serious conflict.

Fungus and the vulnerability of community

I’ve just released a new set of printable paper miniatures on DriveThruRPG, featuring some fungus people. At the moment the pack is US$1, but I’ll put it up to a regular price of US$3 in a couple of days. (I’ve also tried out making some tokens with the same illustrations, and I’m wondering if those are useful for people using virtual tabletops for their games?)

I’ve been using fungus people (in Dungeons & Dragons they’re called myconids) a little bit in the Out of the Abyss adventure I’ve been running for my Thursday night D&D group. There’s been a young myconid accompanying the group for most of the adventure, but in our most recent session the party came across a group of myconids who were acting quite unusually.

In D&D myconids are presented as peaceful creatures who live an idyllic existence in small, subterranean communities where they dream together and seek higher consciousness. This works because each community of myconids submits to a leader. In Out of the Abyss, the close-knit communities of the myconids are used by the demon lord Zuggtmoy to spread her maddening influence through the subterranean realm of the Underdark. This demonstrates that, while we tend to think of ‘community’ as a good thing, it can also be used to spread malevolent influence. (i’f you’re interested in reflecting more on the tensions between community and freedom, I’d suggest looking up the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman.)

Recent work

I haven’t been posting here a lot this year, mostly because I’ve been busy working on stuff that’s being published on other platforms. I thought it would be worth publishing a roundup of D&D stuff I’ve been working on:

In terms of stuff unrelated to roleplaying games, I’ve also been working on:

  • illustrations for some Uniting Church resources, which will be out in time for the season of Easter
  • an intergenerational contemplative space for SURRENDER’s Melbourne conference, coming up just before Easter

Let them eat microherbs!

526913F2-9E8C-446F-BBC0-F1B71E9CF36E

We’re getting bigger!

There’s never been a more exciting time!

He doesn’t make us nervous

What we need is a clean slate

What does this button do?

There’ll be a consultation

It never worked anyway

Need to get rid of the old wood

What we need is a clean slate

Well I’m sorry you feel that way

We don’t deal with that one

He doesn’t make us nervous

ohshitwevefuckedithaventwe

What do you think went wrong?

What we need is a cleans late

There’s never been a more exshiteing time!

Let them eat microherbs!