How it all goes together

One of the things I said I wanted to do this year was to write regularly – and that has taken different forms throughout the year, but I’ve found it has been really worthwhile. Being a personal blog, the content here has changed over the course of the year. (I’ve also done some private writing for my study, as part of a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church in Australia, and as part of a pilgrimage to Lake Mungo.) On this blog recently I’ve almost only been talking about tabletop roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons, but earlier in the year I was also posting a lot more religious-mythological Bible content, stuff I’d been observing in my neighbourhood, opinion pieces about the proposed homeless ban in Melbourne, stuff about migrant-settler-colonial identity in Australia…

Sometimes people tell me I’m doing an awful lot of different things, but in my mind all of those stuff comes back to one thing, and that’s critical engagement with stories. As my collaborator Matt Valler has been saying,

‘Every city is full of hidden stories that quietly enforce the rules we live by. Labyrinth uncovers those stories so that together we can rewrite the rules.’

We need to be able to engage with stories in a critical way because they can shape our society for better or for worse. (And it’s often a lot more complex than just good stories and bad stories!)

Anyway, that has been my focus, and I hope that gives an idea about what holds my year together!

Religious-mythological story
This year it’s been really helpful having regular contracts with the Victorian Council of Christian Education, illustrating resources written by my friend Beth Barnett. (I also did a little bit or writing for the season of Lent early in the year.) What I like is that VCCE are really in favour of critical reflection on the Bible, not just in academic institutions and not just for adults but for the whole church. Personally it’s also been helpful just having regular stuff to work on so that I can improve my skills and reinforce a regular practise of drawing – which makes it easier to pick up other religious-mythological work with groups like Scripture Union Victoria, Gembrook Retreat, Baptist Union of Victoria, Surrender and Melbourne Welsh Church.

Story through gaming
The discipline has also meant I’ve been able to start expanding into doing tabletop roleplaying illustration through Owlman Press (I’ll be playtesting our new game Phantasmagoria next week) and Encounter Roleplay (my new Dungeons & Dragons adventure King Dawutti’s Legacy is now available to our Patreon supporters). I find there’s often also cross-pollination between the two, because a story from the Abrahamic mythologies might provide a structure or a setting for an adventure, or the elements of a parable might provide an idea for a monster. In the new year I’m excited about some new gaming projects that I’m currently working on thanks to connections with the #DnD community on Twitter.

What interests me most is how our games often draw on stories that are already part of our society, but invite us to engage with the creatively. I think there are also opportunities to experiment in how we cooperate with others or engage in conflict at the table. It’s been great getting back into a regular rhythm of hosting games (and getting to occassionally play!) with a fairly diverse group of players.

While I’m talking about gaming, I also need to mention that I’ve appreciated being able to continue working with Evan at Rival Sky. I don’t play most of the games we sell (I do play Star Wars: Imperial Assault a little bit) but it’s really helpful having something to do that’s regular, dependable and practical. (You might be surprised how therapeutic the physicality of packing parcels can be!)

Story in the real, physical world
I think physicality is really important. I don’t think our engagement with story can stay in the realm of reflecting on Biblical mythology or participating in narrative through games. I think it has to have an impact on our actual world. With Labyrinth we’ve been inviting people to do this kind of critical reflection on stories in the city streets, as we have done in Melbourne for a long time. It’s been great being able to see this practise continuing in Melbourne as Urban Seed (where I learned this practise) has been gradually winding up, and seeing experiments happening in London, Dallas and Washington DC. Reflection on the stories needs to lead to response, and for some of us that has meant engaging with the government and wider community about the homelessness ban that was proposed by the Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.

What we do in our home is also being informed by reflecting on our story. Our household, the Indigenous Hospitality House (named in honor of the hospitality we’ve so often received from Aboriginal and other Indigenous peoples) is a response to the story of our colonial history and the to the question ‘What does it mean to live on stolen land?’ In recent years we’ve been trying different ways of inviting other people to reflect on and respond to that story and question, because we think it’s something our whole society needs to grapple with. Early in the year we released a book as a way of sharing some of our learnings and inviting others into reflection. Mehrin and I got to take some time out to participate in the Yingadi pilgirmage to Lake Mungo with Vicki Clark, a Mutthi Mutthi woman who helped set up IHH at the beginning. As we finished up this year we have a few people leaving our household, but the three of us who’ve been living there for a while feel encouraged to have others joining us – especially since a few years ago we weren’t sure where we’d find enough people to keep operating!

In 2018
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that this year I participated in a Period of Discernment with the Uniting Church. My sense throughout this period has been that what I need to be doing is spending time near the boundaries of the church and out in the wider world, where people are engaging with and responding to the stories of our world. (I think that fits within the scope of the Uniting Church’s understanding of what a deacon does.) I expect I’ll be continuing these practises and seeing where they lead.

Here’s the Chant: Santa’s warlocks, rules lawyers and windmill cultists

I try 😂 to post a weekly roundup of tabletop roleplaying game content (particularly about 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons) each week, but it’s getting to that time of year and it’s been hard! Nevertheless, here is this week’s roundup:

For players:

For players or dungeon masters:

  • ‘Storytelling In Tabletop Campaigns’Stronghold Media – this post is about the central role storytelling plays in tabletop roleplaying games
  • ‘Kenku’Bell of Lost Souls – this article looks at things like how kenku moved from monsters to a popular character race and how they lost their wings – speaking of kenku, here’s one I drew to use at PAX Australia:
  • ‘The Dreaded Rules Lawyer’The Yawning Portal – this article talks about the difference between being helpful with rules and being an irritating rules lawyer, recognising that we can all be both
  • ‘Gender and Sexuality’The Yawning Portal – this article is about the importance of including characters of diverse gender and sexuality in our games
  • ‘Upcoming D&D Products for 2018’Tribality – here is some speculation about official D&D releases what we may be able to expect next year. (I’m hoping they’re right about the modron march.)

For dungeon masters:

For anyone who wants to reflect more deeply in the themes of our games:

  • ‘The F-Word: The Arms Race’Legendary Pants – this post talks about the historical development of medieval arms and armour. I also talks about how we might be able to incorporate the idea that different weapons are effective against different kinds of armour into our games.
  • ‘Essential Equipment’d-Infinity – this article os about the likelihood of adventurers developing alcohol dependency and how this might impact an adventure

My recent content:

Bargaining with hags

On Thursday nights I’ve been running Out of the Abyss with my Dungeons & Dragons group. Tonight a number of players weren’t able to make it, so I decided to run a little side adventure for the three players who were available, rather than advancing the main plot too much. Only one of the players is an evil character, but I was basically able to get get them all to make deals with a sea hag, Auntie Pong. It was a lot of fun trying to trick the players. One of the players was suggesting that the hag should be giving them cursed items, but my hunch was that she’d be more likely to give them things that she’d find amusing (like the cloak of displacement that looks like a frog onesie) or information that wouldn’t actually be very useful. But who knows, maybe the ‘croak of displacement’ will turn out to be cursed?

Here’s the Chant: Xanathar’s Guide, Mystara, firearms

I believe I’ve missed a couple of weeks again (due to urgent assignments and commissions) but this week I’m back with another roundup of content related to Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games. The first major rules expansion for 5th edition D&D has just come out, so there are a few posts about that.

I’ve also just started writing for Encounter Roleplay, so make sure you check out the site and Twitch channel.

Related to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything:

For players:

For players and dungeon masters:

For dungeon masters:

My recent content:

Dealing with slavery in D&D

Warning: this post deals with the topic of slavery, and it also contains spoilers for Out of the Abyss.


The last few Thursday nights I’ve been running Out of the Abyss for our Dungeon’s & Dragons group. Out of the Abyss is set in the Underdark, an immense and labyrinthine network of caverns miles below the earth and deals with a number of sensitive themes, including madness and slavery.

The adventure starts off with the player characters imprisoned by drow slavers, waiting to be transported to Menzoberranzan. The first part of the adventure is occupied with escaping the drow outpost. I expect a lot of parties would just try to get as soon as possible, but my group decided to fight the drow, despite being hugely outnumbered. (The reason was because they wanted to get their items back, which seemed to have been confiscated when they were captured.) After a lot of drow had been killed and the remainder were cornered in a tower, the dwarf druid brought up the possibility of negotiating with the drow in order to get the items back, but there was disagreement about whether it was okay to negotiate with slavers.

After the party (including a number of non-player escapees) had left the outpost and headed out into the Underdark, they ran straight into a group of goblins transporting two slaves. (We had a couple of new players joining the game, so that’s who the two slaves were.) After a little negotiation, the party ended up fighting the goblins, and once they had killed the leader, the others ran away. However, they managed to figure out that the goblins were a family group (the leader was their mother) and that they may have been acquiring slaves for the drow because their leader knew the drow would take her children as slaves otherwise. (Evil, but complicated.)

Later on, when they discovered a member of the party (a character belonging to a player who could no longer join us) had been brutally murdered in his sleep they began to wonder whether some of their fellow prisoners might have been imprisoned for legitimate reasons. (They know that one member of the party stands accused of murder in Menzoberranzan.) Since they don’t know who killed their friend, they’ve tied up the two main suspects and are marching them through the Underdark. They’ve figured out that this is likely to make them look like slavers themselves. Perhaps next session we’ll find out whether that’s helpful or unhelpful?

Cyborgs in D&D 5e

Today Nick from Owlman Press was asking me about how I would represent cyborgs in 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It wasn’t something I had thought about before. I don’t think I’ve actually used any constructs in my games so far, although I have included some elements that border on science fiction. A couple of times I’ve run adventures that involve spaceships (like the ones from the Spelljammer campaign setting) that crashed centuries or millenia ago.

I was thinking that to make a cyborg I’d probably start with stats for some kind of humanoid or beast, amke them a construct instead, raise their armor class and change some of their damage vulnerabilities, resistances and immunities. I thought I’d probably remove their regular attack abilities and give them an attack ability resembling one of the futuristic weapons from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I also thought of just giving them a set amount of damage for successful attacks, which is based on a planar effect applied on the plane of Mechanus in 2nd Edition.

This got me thinking about how I could incorporate a cyborg (possible from a crashed Spelljammer ship) into an adventure, so I had a go at making one:

Cyborg Rabbit

Small construct, lawful neutral

STR 15 (+2)   DEX 10 (+0)   CON 10 (+0)
INT 16 (+3)   WIS 14 (+2)   CHA 12 (+1)

Challenge: 1 (200 XP)
Armor Class: 17 Half Plate
Hit Points: 27 (6d8)
Speed: 30 ft.
Skills: Deception +5, Insight +4, Investigation +3, Perception +4, Persuasion +5, Sleight of Hand +4, Stealth +4
Damage Vulnerabilities: Lightning
Damage Resistances: Force
Damage Immunities: Poison
Condition Immunities: Poisoned
Senses: Darkvision 60 feet, Passive Perception 16
Languages: Deep Speech, Undercommon

Cunning Action. On each of its turns, the cyborg rabbit can use a bonus action to take the Dash, Disengage, or Hide action.

Actions

Laser. Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 40/120 ft., one target. Hit: 10 radiant damage.

Combat in Limbo – beware the chaos beasts!

Today I was involved in running a Dungeons & Dragons event at Games Laboratory in Melbourne CBD. Our previous event was a cooperative evnt, so this time we ran a tournament intead. Competitors formed teams of three, with each player creating a fourth-level character. We had four rounds of three-on-three combat, in arenas designed by the dungeon masters. After the fourth round, the top four teams fought it out in an arena based on the Alchemist’s Refuge (Games Lab’s bar) complete with shelves full of random potions.

I decided that my arena would be on the plane of Limbo, which consists mainly of elemental chaos. There are a whole lot of rules in 2nd Edition D&D about the environmental conditions in Limbo. The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide also has some suggestions. I wanted to keep the rules simple so that we could get into combat quickly, so I only used some of the rules from the 5E DMG.

Elemental chaos

If a character entered the elemental chaos or started their turn in the elemental chaos, they would take 1d6 damage. I would roll 1d10 to determine the kind of damage:

  1. Acid
  2. Cold
  3. Fire
  4. Force
  5. Lightning
  6. Piercing
  7. Poison
  8. Radiant
  9. Slashing
  10. Thunder

Stabilising terrain

I decided that each player could use their bonus action on their turn to try to stabilise some of the elemental chaos, so that they might have some safe terrain. In order to suceed, they would have to make an Intelligence check, with the difficulty class depending on the size of the area they were trying to stabilise. To stabilise an area that was 5 feet by 5 feet it would be DC 5, to stabilise 10 feet by 10 feet it would be DC 10, et cetera. If they rolled a natural 20 for the Intelligence check I would let them choose the kind of terrain that was created. Otherwise I would roll 1d6 to decide what kind of terrain was created:

  1. Open terrain – this was just flat terrain, probably grassy.
  2. Watery terrain – this was difficult terrain, covered by waist-deep water
  3. Boggy terrain – this was difficult terrain, covered by stagnant, waist-deep water, providing half cover, but also producing toxic gases. If a character entered boggy terrain or began their turn in boggy terrain, they had to make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw. On a failure they too 1d6 poison damage.
  4. Rocky terrain – this was higher ground. If a player was standing on rocky terrain, they could have advantage on attack rolls against characters in another kind of terrain. Rocky terrain also provided full cover for characters on either side of it.
  5. Leafy terrain – this was terrain covered by trees, providing half cover
  6. If I rolled a 6 I would let the player decide the kind of terrain

Players could choose to stabilise terrain anywhere on the table. They could choose also use the same mechanic to try and transform already-stabilised terrain.

To represent stabilised terrain, I cut up about 50 basic land cards from Magic: The Gathering. (I also stuck coloured stickers on them, to make them easy to identify.)

Chaos Beasts

I also adapted a monster from 2nd Edition D&D to use in my arena: the chaos beast. Chaos beasts don’t do a lot of damage, but the real danger they pose is caused by corporreal instability. Contact with a chaos beast can cause a player’s character to destabilise, losing a lot of their abilities and eventually becoming a chaos beast. A lot of the players freaked out when that started happening!


To represent the chaos beasts I used eldrazi miniatures from the Magic: The Gathering board game, Arena of the Planeswalkers, but I also prepared a few weird-looking paper minis in case player characters were transformed, as chaos beasts can take all kinds of weird forms:

Here’s the Chant: darkling player race, narrative preparation and a massively multiplayer tabletop RPG

For players and dungeon masters: 

For players:

For dungeon masters:

For anyone who is interested in reflecting more deeply on the themes of the games we play:

Some of my recent content:

  • on the weekend I was dungeon mastering with D&D Adventurers League at PAX AUS. (Merric has written about the event here.) I haven’t written about the event yet, but here are some monster illustrations I used in one of the adventures I ran: 

Here’s the Chant: scaring your players

Each week I post a roundup of roleplaying game content, mostly for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. This week I’m posting from PAX Aus, and following a horror theme, since Tuesday will be Hallowe’en.

For everyone:

On Ravenloft and vampires:

For dungeon masters:

Here are a couple of zombie illustrations I’ve made to us at PAX Aus this weekend:

Zygmunt Bauman, social division and flesh golems

A couple of weeks ago I was reading Zygmunt Bauman’s book Community – Seeking Safety in an Insecure World in preparation for a book review. It was the same week that I first tried streaming my illustration process on Twitch. In a conversation with my friend Nicholas Moll (from Owlman Press) I mentioned that once I’d finished reading Bauman for the night I’d probably jump on Twitch and start drawing requests. Nick suggested I draw a flesh golem, and somehow we ended up with the idea of a Zygmunt Bauman flesh golem. (A flesh golem is basically Frankenstein’s monster – a person made from the parts of deceased people and animated through the power of ‘science’.)


I decided to draw the Zygmunt Bauman flesh golem with a third eye surgically added in the middle of his head, suggesting that his mind has been awakened. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the ‘monster’ is more enlightened than the scientist who created him by the end of the novel. From reading Bauman’s book, I think he is also pretty awake to our current global situation. Bauman talks about how global elites have refashioned our society to suit their own ends. The problem is that because society has become very fragmented it is now very difficult to organise effectively. I think what my own country’s government is doing at the moment is exploiting some of these divisions through the public debate about marriage, in order to distract from the growing economic inequality, which I think is the real threat.