On Sundays I’ve generally been posting some of my illustrations, which can be used for miniatures in Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. This week @sethnidilaw mentioned on Twitter that he and his kids like seeing my drawings each week. So I asked if his kids would like to choose some monsters that I could present as options for this week. Folks ended up voting for owlbears, so here are a couple of owlbear drawings:
As you can see, one of them isn’t like a standard owlbear – it has fully-formed wings. I’ve been thinking about how to alter the stats for a regular owlbear, to make it a majestic, flying owlbear. I think I’d give it a flying speed of 60 feet, less hit points (to reflect a lighter creature, with a flying ability), as well as decreating strength and increasing dexterity. This is @sethnidilaw and his daughter’s take on the magestic owlbear:
(If you’ve got any suggestions, let us know in the comments.)
While I was drawing these I was thinking about the origins of owlbears. It seems like most editions of Dungeons & Dragons suggest that owlbears were probably created by a wizard. But what other possibilities are there? (Some of these are a bit odd. But may I remind you that we’re talking about owlbears?)
- Mutation caused by a magical accident – owlbears could conceivably have been created by wild magic, or by fallout from a magical, industrial disaster (a fantasy equivalent of a nuclear meltdown)
- Missing evolutionary link – if you’re up for something absurd or surreal in your setting, you could suggest that owlbears are the common evolutionary ancestor of both owls and bears
- Polymorph chaos – sometimes, when an owl and a bear really love each other… Okay that’s a silly idea. But if you wanted to go with it, you could say that an owlbear is a bear who had a ancestor who was an owl polymorphed as a bear. (Similar to how tieflings, aasimar and genasi’s odd appearances reflect their planar heritage.)
- Planar influence – in issue #12 of Dragon+, Adam Lee described a pocket dimension inhabited mainly by cats. What if there were also similar dimensions for bears or owls? Maybe an owl who had grown up in a bear dimension, or a bear who had grown up in an owl dimension would become something like an owlbear?
- Fey origin – the 5th edition Monster Manual suggests that owlbears may have come from the Feywild, where it’s said that they’ve always existed
A little while ago I published a few dinosaur illustrations here and some suggestions about how they could be used in Dungeons & Dragons adventures while we await the release of Tomb of Annihilation, which will feature a lot of dinosaurs. One of my suggestions was based on Jurassic Park, and I got to weave this idea into a short Planescape adventure that I ran on Wednesday night.
To set up the adventure, I had the adventurers meet in Sigil, the City of Doors, with a dwarven scientist called Yon Garamond. Yon said he wanted some mercenaries to protect him on a quest the Beastlands, to study lizards that are hard to find on the Prime Material Plane. One of the adventurers (who had levels in the mystic class that is currently being playtested) was able to probe Yon Garamond’s mind and find that he wasn’t entirely telling the truth. When they arrived at the top of the Forbidden Plateau it became evident that Yon just wanted them to help him steal some dinosaur eggs, hoping to create a dinosaur theme park on the Prime Material Plane.
The main challenge, as I had planned the adventure, was crossing the Beastlands and getting to the Forbidden Plateau without succumbing to the plane’s primal influences. One thing I think I could have done better was to make it clear why the party might need to do survival checks in order to travel to the plateau, when they could see it looming on the horizon. (My thinking was that a survival check might help them choose a safe route, considering they knew there were lions, snakes and who knows what else around, but that didn’t come across clearly.)
But there was a lot I was happy about. I found that I had prepared plenty of content to occupy the time I’m allotted for the adventure – in fact I needed to cut out some of the encounters I’d prepared. However, I found that one of the player characters ended up doing something that fitted with both my plans and the source material. Once the party had arrived on the Outlands with the dinosaur eggs, one of the player characters decided to do a runner with the eggs. I’d planned to have the party ambushed by fiends who wanted to steal the eggs so that they could use dinosaurs in the Blood War. (There’s an adventure completely based around this idea in the Planes of Chaos boxed set from 2nd Edition Planescape.) I ran out of time to run that encounter, but this player ended up doing what I’d imagined the fiends trying to do. It’s also kind of similar to what Dennis Nedry does in Jurassic Park – stealing dinosaur embryos be cause he feels like he’s underpaid by John Hammond.
I also found, once again, that there were plenty of opportunities to improvise. This led to the creation of a couple of unplanned non-player characters – an angry lizardfolk and a talking snake. I also received feedback (from a player who said their character would later go back to the Beastlands to return the extra egg she’d secretly stolen) that they appreciated the mystical and ethical elements of the adventure.
This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis, and on Thursdays I’ve been reflecting here on what I’ve been reading.
Today I’ve been reading about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving Egypt and heading back to thew location between Beth El (a city named after a Canaanite god) and Ai, where Abram had build an altar to his god, YHWH. Abram and Lot come into conflict because they both own so much livestock that their herders are fighting over pasture. In order to resolve the conflict, Abram suggests that they separate. Lot chooses to reside among the cities on the well-irrigated plain of Jordan and Abram chooses to live in the land of the Canaanites. It seems sad to me that the family group has been divided by a sense that there aren’t enough resources to share.
YHWH promises Abram that he will give the land of the Canaanites to him and that his descendents will be like the dust of the earth. He ends up settling at the oaks of Mamre – a place that I think could also be associated with a Canaanite god. Again, Abram builds an altar to YHWH in a location that may be sacred to a Canaanite god.
One Wednesdays I normally post a roundup of content related to Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games. Here’s this week’s roundup:
For Players or DMs:
- ‘5th Edition Achievements Update’ reddit/DND – provides a list of video-game-styled achievements that players can work through (this is couple of years old)
- ‘Arcana Checks and Spell Use’ Power Score – explains what went wrong with arcana checks in 4th Edition, and how non-combat spells should often replace them in 5th Edition
- ‘Player Notekeeping’ Marauding Owlbear – looks at why it’s important to keep notes as a player, and what things are good to make a record of
- ‘Frontier 5e’ Tribality – introducing a non-magical American West historical setting
- ‘A Slew of Ones’ Kobold Press – some suggestion about how to save the game when players keep rolling critical failures
- ‘Using Intellectual Property’ Gnome Stew – some suggestions for running games using settings from TV shows, films, novels, et cetera
- ‘Player-awarded XP’ Dwarves in a Trenchcoat – looks at a few ways of letting players divide up experience points
- ‘Puritans and their Weird Names’ History of Nothing – provides a list of historical Puritan names, which could be useful for non-player characters of a certain variety
For anyone who wants to reflect more deeply on D&D and other RPGs:
Content I’ve published this week:
- ‘Sigil, the City of Doors, in 5e’ – reflection on my first experience running a Planescape adventure in Sigil
- ‘A Foot in Each World’ – some tiefling illustrations I made over the weekend, and some reflections on these creatures
- ‘Death in D&D’ – some thoughts about how we can give death more weight in games, and use it as an opportunity to reflect on our own mortality
Last week I wrote a bit about Henri Nouwen’s suggestion that we try to avoid recognising our mortality and our limitations by thinking of ourselves as immortal, invulnerable beings. (He wrote about this in his book Reaching Out.) If we trick ourselves into thinking we can completely control our environment and the people around us we end up doing violence to them.
I think the way we’ve often thought about prayer has been as a way to control things, like a religious version of the law of positive attraction. It can be just another way of pretending we’re in control of the universe. A while ago I knew a guy who repeatedly asked me why I prayed. He saw it as a selfish thing to be asking God for things. I think I get where he was coming from.
Nouwen’s challenge is to try and pray without an agenda. He describes this as waiting on God rather than rattling off a shopping list. It’s making space where God’s presence may (or may not) show up. He suggests paradoxically that we find God in God’s absence. Our experience of God’s absence leads us to search for God. That search for God is what prayer is. This approach comes across to me as a lot more humble. It’s not pretending we have God on call.
I don’t what to throw out the idea of asking God for thing either though. I think those kind of prayers do seem pretty selfish when if it’s a wealthy person asking God for more stuff, expecting the universe to revolve at our convenience. I don’t think it seems like that when people who are in serious trouble ask God for help (not knowing if God is even there) because there is no other option available. For those of us in more comfortable situations, we might find ourselves praying in that way too, if we open ourselves up to people who are suffering.
On Thursday night last week I ran a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Adventure using the Planescape setting for the second time. During the first adventure, the players didn’t arrive in Sigil, the City of Doors, until right at the end of the adventure, so I didn’t need a lot prepared. This time, however, the adventure was set almost entirely in Sigil. If the adventure had played out differently, we might not have actually left Sigil. I think this time I felt much more stretched, because Sigil is quite complex. Here’s a list of things I’d like to remember next time I run an adventure in Sigil:
- Get familiar with the the Cant, berk! Characters from Sigil use a very distinctive dialect of urban slang called the Cant. Having non-player character use this vocabulary really helps get across the feel of the city. I was able to slip in a bit of Cant, but would like to be more familiar before running another adventure in Sigil.
- Use lots of random encounters. I prepared a short table of random encounters that I could use while the adventurers were travelling between locations in the city. I used this once, early in the adventure. I wish I’d used it a couple more times, in order to give the sense that there are crowds of people everywhere and that there’s always stuff going on in the street.
- Get clear on how day and night works. Since the city is on the inside of a giant ring, it’s artificially lit. I needed to look into more detail about how this works.
- Get a good idea of where things are in relation to each other. The adventure only took part in one ward of Sigil (the Hive Ward), so I didn’t need to have a precise idea of where the Hive was in relation to other parts of the city, but I think it would have been helpful to have a map handy.
- Prepare some incidental NPCs – during the adventure I needed a few incidental non-player characters, because players asked who was around in the street, or because they decided to go and knock on the doors of neighbouring hovels. I managed to make stuff up okay on the fly, but it probably would have been helpful to have some prepared.
That said, there were also some things I was pretty happy about:
- Factions were an important part of the story. The adventurers came into conflict with representatives of three of Sigil’s factions, and I think the players got the idea of what those factions were on about.
- As I said, I had to make up some incidental nonplayer characters on the fly and they worked well. I mentioned that some of the adventurers decided to go knocking on doors in the Hive Ward. One of the people they met was a rather zealous worshipper of the god Pelor, and one of his co-religionists became important in the story later on – something I hadn’t expected.
- I was able to turn around a mistake to advance the plot. At one stage an adventurer asked if another character seemed to be telling the truth, and I said they did, when I should have said they didn’t. The adventurer who asked the question then wondered about whether the other character thought they were telling the truth but were mistaken. I ended up going with that, and their mistake gave the adventurers an opportunity to bargain for a solution to their quest.
- I was able to use my mistake to advance the setting. A lot of the early travel around the city went on across the rooves of buildings, so later on when I wanted a rival character to ambush the adventurers, I described him jumping out from behind a chimney. However, most of the adventurers were under the impression that they were now travelling at street level – so what was a chimney doing in the street? I was able to think quickly and said that there was a chimney coming up out of the pavement, suggesting that the houses and streets of the Hive Ward are simply build over the top of previous buildings. I decided to repeat this idea when some of the adventurers went door-knocking, by having a chimney coming out of the floor inside the house, making the occupants unhealthy.
- Using my dungeon master’s screen to show who the important non-player characters were. I attached my drawings of the main non-player characters to my screen, to remind the adventurers of who I wanted them to keep in mind. I also included Tony DiTerlizzi’s illustration of the Lady of Pain, in order to remind the players of her tyrannical power over the city – which nevertheless brings a certain level of stability.
I’m running another Planescape adventure this week, but I’m planning that this time we’ll spend more time on the Outer Planes again, but I’m also looking forward to running more adventures in Sigil.
On Sundays I’ve been posting some illustrations I’ve made for use in Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games, based on what folks on Twitter choose for me. This week tieflings were chosen, so here are three I’ve drawn, representing three of the factions (Dustmen, Athar and Anarchists) from the Planescape setting:
Tieflings have become a staple of D&D, but when they first appeared in the Planescape Boxed Set they were a fair bit different to the current 5th edition. Some of them have goat legs or spikes or scaly skin. In The Planewalker’s Handbook there is a one-page table to generate random tiefling features. It gives more of a sense that a tiefling could have any kind of bizarre planar heritage. In contrast, 5th Edition tieflings seem to all be pretty similar. (To be fair, Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide explains why they all look similar in the world of Faerun, and also allows for more diverse tieflings.)
Back to what I like about Planescape is that the diverse appearances suggest to me that although tieflings are often distrusted because of their fiendish heritage and appearances, they can’t all be put in the same box. A neat stereotype can’t be so easily applied. This line of though got me wondering about how the fiends see tieflings – do they see them as suspicious, just like humans do?
I’ve been thinking about death in Dungeons & Dragons, partly because of a funeral I went to a little while ago. My understanding is that the person whose funeral we were attending shouldn’t have died. He wasn’t very old. There’s a suspect being tried in relation to the death later in the year. So you would be able to understand, there was a lot of grief.
Reflecting on the funeral got me thinking, How is it that we can sometimes approach death so blithely in a game? Normally what you do is just write up another character sheet and continue the adventure with a new character. If you put a lot of work and time into the character you’d proabbly be annoyed, but that’s it. I wonder if there are any ways that we could remind ourselves of the gravity of death when we play?
These are a few ideas I had:
- We could suggest that surviving adventurers attempt to return the dead to their relatives. This would probably mean having to face the anger and grief of bereaved loved ones.
- We could roleplay a funeral for the deceased character.
- We could have each surviving character make a speech about the deceased.
- We could roleplay a wake after the funeral where the characters speculate about what happens to the souls of the dead.
- We could allow the death of an adventurer to direct the future path of the story, by having the surviving characters drawn into a quest for restribution.
One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this is because of Henri Nouwen’s ideas about the illusion of immortality. He believed that our society often tries to avoid recognising the transience of life. Just like attending a funeral should help us to come to terms with our own mortality (as well as expressing our grief for the dead), roleplaying could give us opportunities to reflect on our own mortality. (Not everyone’s game needs to do that – but the opportunity is there.)
Can you think of any other ways to make death carry weight in the game?
Earlier in the week I noticed Kaitlin Curtice’s blog post, ‘People Who Hold Space Will Heal the Church’, and I’m interested in what she says about holding space. She basically says that the church (and I think a lot of other institutions too) like to try and manage people rather than holding space where transformation could occur. (Reminds me a lot of the stuff I’ve been re-reading in Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out.
On a similar theme, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be present to someone.
Sometimes it just means what some of us might regard as trivial bullshit. Talking about the weather, exchanging friendly banter, talking shit…
But we need to be alert to when that’s not what’s needed, when our guest has something deep they need to talk about – illness, love, death, family…
We’ve also got to be attentive to when someone just needs silence or space.
Sometimes presence means sitting with someone. Something it means banter. Sometimes it means politeness. Sometimes it means eye contact. Sometimes it means (thank God) no eye contact. Sometimes it means depth. Its just being present to the person and situation and responding as appropriate.
This year I’ve been gradually reading through the book of Genesis. On Thursdays I’ve been posting some reflections here.
Last week I posted about Abram, Sarai and Lot leaving their new home on Haran (in modern-day Turkey) and travelling to the great tree (maybe an Asherah tree?) at Shechem, where Abram build an altar to YHWH. In the section I’ve been reading today, the family group travel further, to a location between the cities of Beth El (‘house of El’) and Ai, where Abram builds another altar to YHWH. Again, it seems (to me) that Abram is building an altar in close proximity to a site dedicated to a Canaanite god – El, the king of the Canaanite gods.
After this the text says that they gradually moved into the arid region of Negev, and eventually had to go to Egypt because of famine. Abram says he’s worried that the Egyptians will kill him because Sarai is beautiful. (I wonder why he thought this?) He asks her to pretend they are siblings instead. When they arrive in Egypt, Sarai is taken to live in the Pharaoh’s house (presumably as a wife?), and because of this, Pharaoh deals well with Abram, providing him with livestock and slaves.
It doesn’t go well for Pharaoh though. YHWH afflicts Pharaoh and his household with plagues. It seems Pharaoh realises what has happened, and he tells Abram to take Sarai and leave. Even so, it seems like Abram is leaving Egypt a rich man.
Having read this little snippet, I wonder why it was that Abram presumed the Egyptians would kill him? It’s actually Abram who deals dishonestly in the story, denying his marriage to Sarai and benefiting from her presence in the Pharaoh’s household.
I find it interesting that this story has been preserved even though it shows the patriarch in a negative light.