Owlbear illustrations and alternative origins

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:

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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?)

  1. 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)
  2. 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
  3. 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.)
  4. 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?
  5. 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 foot in each world

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:

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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?

OneNote for D&D

For a while I’ve been looking for a decent digital tool to organise notes for Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I’ve tried Evernote, Obsidian Portal and Scabard, but none of them have really clicked. (Actually, they’ve all seemed pretty unwieldy.) I think I’ve now found the right tool, and it isn’t the one I was expecting.

A couple of years ago when I returned to using PCs, I found that Windows was now coming with a program called OneNote, which it desperately wanted me to adopt, but failed to explain why I would want to. A couple of months ago I stumbled on this reddit thread, which includes a number of people explaining how useful they’ve found OneNote as a tool for organising D&D notes.

So I tried it out (I now have it on my tablet, PC and phone) and started adding interesting content I found that I might use in D&D Planescape adventures. Last night I used it to run an adventure for the first time and I found it very helpful. It’s very easy to the the coloured tabs to create sections for locations, non-player characters, monsters, spells and then fill each of those sections with the items you need. (I moved some of the items I knew I would need to the top of the list in their sections, so they’d be easy to find.) I found it pretty easy to move between different items I needed in the filing system. By splitting the screen in could have the 2nd Edition module I was using alongside my own notes (including 5th Edition substitute stats).

The one thing I would say against OneNote is that in the tablet version of the app that I’m using it is hard to connect different notes with hyperlinks. I need to spend some time at my PC interlinking a whole lot of the notes, and if I do that it’ll make navigation easier again. (There may be a way to do this on my tablet, but if there is I can’t work it out.)

Slaadi and hybrididity

On Sundays I’ve been posting illustrations I’ve made to use in RPGs like D&D. I’ve started determining what I draw using a Twitter poll, and this week slaadi have been chosen. Here is my illustration of a red slaad, a blue slaad and a green slaad:
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(I expect I’ll come back to these, and add the grey slaad and death slaad at some stage.)

The slaadi are beings from the plane of limbo, which is a chaotic mess of different elements. The look like bipedal, reptilian toads with sharp teeth and claws. One of the things I find most interesting about them is their origin story. They were actually created by Primus, the god of the lawful neutral modron race, in an attempt to bring order to Limbo. instead of bringing order to the chaotic plane, Primus’ intervention created rigidly hierarchical of chaotic neutral beings: the slaadi.

I think it’s often tempting to think we know what is best, and to think we can improve things by recreating others in our own image – seeing them as a blank slate for ourselves to work with. i don’t think this normally goes to plan. folks might take on some of what we direct at them, but merge it with their own identity. in postcolonial studies, Homi Bhabha talks about this as ‘hybridity’ – colonised people will take on the culture of the colonisers, but also find ways of subverting it by mixing it with their own culture. Something like this is has happened in the creation of the slaadi – Primus thought he would bring order to a foreign plane, but instead his intervention created a new chaotic neutral race, who nevertheless reflected the modrons’ rigid hierarchy.

 

Abrahamic faith in D&D is problematic

For a while I’ve been reading though old Planescape material for 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. (I’m interested in running a 5E Planescape campaign, so if you’re in Melbourne and interested let me know.) Planescape is a setting that incorporates the various planes of the multiverse, meaning that adventurers are likely to come across representatives of various gods (called ‘powers’). I find it interesting that the god(s) of the Abrahamic traditions is not represented in Planescape and is generally avoided in D&D, especially since Christianity and Islam are the two most widespread religions. I think there are some good reasons for this. It would be problematic to portray Abrahamic conceptions of God in this context.

It seems that people of the Abrahamic faiths are often offended by representations of their god. I think this is particulalry because of the Jewish tradition of holding the name ‘YHWH’ with reverance and because of the Jewish and Muslim instructions against making images of God. I also think it would be problematic to include Abrahamic concepts of God, because the Abrahamic faiths believe there is only one true god. Monotheists aren’t likely to appreciate a setting where their one true god is actually one amongst many. These might not seem like a big deal for those of us who don’t have a faith or who hold our faith loosely, but for many people it’s very serious to portray the divine incorrectly or disrespectfully. A couple of weeks ago I posted about treating Aboriginal culture with respect, and I think most people who read that article understood this. I think for the same reason we might hesitate to portray Aboriginal culture and religion in a game, we should also hesitate to portray other faiths and cultures, and seek to be respectful.

My personal opinion is that the Biblical concept of God is pretty messy. (I’m not familiar with the Quran, so I can’t comment on that.) I don’t think the Bible has a consistent way of portraying God, but brings together various complementary and contrasting portrayals from different communities in different eras. I don’t personally find this very bothering, but I do think it is a reason why there is so much scope for conflict – some people will focus on one idea of God that they find in the scripture, and others will focus on a contrastic idea about the same, one God. If one were to include an Abrahamic depiction of God in Planescape, creative decisions would have to be made about which Abrahamic ideas to emphasise, and those decisions would be bound to offend some people who emphasise other parts of the tradition. Of course, I don’t people who are happy to explore these ideas playfully and creatively (which is what I prefer) would have a problem with this.

I was talking with one of my friends about this topic and he suggested that another problem might be that it’s hard to portray a god who is understood to be transcendent. I don’t really buy into the idea of God being transcendent myself – I think it has become commonplace in the Abrahamic tradiitons because of Platonic philosphy. That’s why I like what Neil Gaiman does with Jesus in his novel American Gods. Jesus doesn’t directly appear in the novel, but it’s mentioned that he’s been seen hitchhiking in Afghanistan, where he’s not so well recognised. It seems not so transcendent, and more like the itinerant rabbi found in the gospels. My understanding is that in the TV show there’ll be different depictions of Jesus, recognising that different cultures at different moments reshape their images of the divine.

If I was going to include Jesus as a power in the Planescape setting, I think I’d be most likely to portray him as a wandering stranger.

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More thoughts on nonviolence in D&D

Last Saturday I posted about a new Dungeons & Dragons player’s question: Can I play as a nonviolent character? I was preparing an introductory, one-shot adventure for some new players. I ran the adventure on Monday night. In my post last Saturday I suggested that there were a few options available for a ‘nonviolent’ character, depending on what they mean by ‘violent’. This player ended up choosing a bard and was happy to assist the rest of the party in combat. (This meant creating an illusion of an attractive rocktopus, to distract a particularly threatening rocktopus.)


As I mentioned in my post last week, the four options I suggested really just call us to ask questions about what we mean by nonviolence. Are we really being nonviolent if we’re seeking to control other’s actions and attitudes. Are we really being nonviolent if we use combat to overpower others? (Not really!) The game isn’t really designed to support nonviolence. (I have been thinking about what it might be like to develop a satyagrahi class though.)

For players who hold an ethic of nonviolence (and want the characters they make to reflect this) I think there’s a benefit in playing D&D. Anyone who plays D&D has to work out to what extent they can work with others who don’t share their values. With the main group I DM for, I’ve really enjoyed seeing how this works. We’ve had a very loosely knit group playing the Tyranny of Dragons expeditions. Two of our most regular players have tended to pull the group in different directions. One has a character who’s very conscienctious, wants to avoid combat unless it’s necessary and wants to keep prisoners alive. Another character will want to kill the bartender if he gets a bit lippy.

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I think it’s more helpful seeing if we can work together with people that we don’t agree with. If you start with a harmonious party who all share the same philosophy, a successful adventure is not as great an achievement. That’s been a question that’s come up for me in real life, as I’ve worked out who I can work alongside in response to Melbourne City Council’s proposed rough-sleeping ban.

Ithink I still have a little bit more to write on this topic, so I expect I’ll return to it soon.

The nurturing crocodile

On Sundays I normally post a monster illustration that I’ve made for Dungeons & Dragons games that I run. Today’s illustration is of a crocodile. In our society (particularly in Australia, where now and then someone is eaten by a crocodile) crocodiles are feared as monsters.

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In ancient Egyptian society they were seen differently. They were respected as fearsome predators, but they were also associated with fertility and admired for the way they take care of their young – something that most reptiles don’t do. I wonder if there are any ways that this could be reflected in a game? (I have an idea that I’d like to try out, so when I’ve tried it out I’ll write about it to let you know how it went.

Four options for nonviolence in D&D

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I recently had a new Dungeons & Dragons player ask about whether they can play as a nonviolent character. I appreciated the query because it’s something I’ve thought about a bit, but haven’t really tried out. One of the things that makes it less straightforward is that so much of the design space in the game is given to combat. But I do think there are a few approaches that could be tried.

  1. Cleric
    You could play as a cleric and assist your comrades during combat without actually fighting. If you’re just concerned about keeping your own hands clean, this could be an option. However, you’d still be enabling others to act violently.
  2. Monk/Fighter/Paladin/Barbarian
    You could play a combat-focussed class and participate in combat, but not fight to kill. I can particularly see this working well narrative-wise for a monk.
  3. Bard
    You could make your character a bard who uses their charismatic presence to influence, inspire or manipulate other people.
  4. Mystic
    You could use the playtest rules for the mystic class. It looks like the most recent iteration has a lot of options for using psychic power for material or mental manipulation.

I think all of these options bring up questions about what we mean by nonviolence or satyagraha (‘truth force’) as Mahatma Gandhi called it. If we’re just keeping our own hands clean, are we really nonviolent? If we choose to overpower others but not kill are we really being nonviolent? If we choose to manipulate others are we being nonviolent?

I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes when we play. (My player ended up choosing a bard.) I’ve got some more thoughts about violence and nonviolence in the game, so I plan to write some more soon.

Beware: Frog

On Sundays I’ve been publishing monster illustrations that I’ve been making for Dungeons and Dragons games that I’ve been running. Today’s illustration is a giant toad. Now when I came to drawing this I was thinking, Giant toad, what the hells is that? I find a lot of the giant animals in D&D a bit hard to take seriously. Reflecting more on the giant toad, I have noticed that it is more interesting than I initially thought.

As I reflected a bit on the idea of a giant toad as a monster I started to wonder about how you might end up with a giant toad. One of the things about frogs is that they are very sensitive to changes in their environment – particularly water pollution. If there are plenty of frogs around that is a sign that they water is healthy. This line of thought got me wondering, What if the giant toad is a mutation caused by water pollution? Or what if the giant toad is nature’s vengeance against civilisation for polluting the environment?

Another thought that came to mind was ‘The Gitrog Monster’, a recent card from Magic: The Gathering. The card basically represents a giant poisonous frog that destroys your lands.
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I had a read of ‘Sacrifice’, the short story written by Michael Yichao about this particular giant frog and that has given me some ideas too. The story starts off with fishers’ tales, about horrors that might be lurking under the water’s surface. I think the story helped me recognise that a monster which might not seem so impressive can be really dangerous if there are enough villagers who are afraid of it…

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Update: Here’s someone else’s attempt to translate the Gitrog to D&D.

On connections through parcels

As I write this morning I’m on the way off to pack parcels this morning. On Mondays I normally pack parcels for Evan’s online retail business, Rival Sky Games. We’re sending miniatures for gaming to customers around the world, particularly Wings of Glory, Star Wars: Imperial Assault and various Axis and Allies lines. Obviously one of the reasons we do this is because we both need to be earning some money, but I have been thinking about the other reasons for doing the work.

One of the things that immediately comes to mind is that the business connects us with a whole lot of people all over the country and overseas. I also find that playing games is a great excuse to stay in touch with people and maintain connections, as well as make new ones.

When I was talking with Evan about this last week he mentioned that one of the reasons he got into selling games was because he was into the game Wings of War (which is now Wings of Glory), but there weren’t a lot of people into the game in Australia, and so it was hard to find people to play with. (I know what it’s like to have a game you’re really into, but struggling to find other people to play!) For that reason I find it encouraging when I notice two customers in the same city buying the same product, and wonder if they’re friends who’ve both just gotten into the game and will play together?