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.

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.

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.)

Here’s the Chant: Ixalan, the Far Realm and Tiamat’s Faerûn

Each week I’ve been posting a roundup of online content related to tabletop roleplaying games, and 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons in particular. Here’s this weeks:

For players and dungeon masters:

  • ‘The Origin of Elves in Dungeons & Dragons’D&D Beyond – this video (a full transcript is included) explains the backstory of the elves in D&D and the importance of their relationship with their deity Corellon and the demon lord Lolth
  • ‘Arcane and Divine Magic in Dungeons & Dragons’D&D Beyond – this video (also with a transcript) explains how magic works in D&D and the differences between divine and arcane magic users
  • ‘Plane Shift: Ixalan’Wizards of the Coast – this free PDF includes material for running D&D adventures set on the plane of Ixalan, currently being featured in Magic: The Gathering. I’m hoping to run a short adventure in this setting soon, and this is a trilobite I’ve drawn to use when I do:
  • ‘Know Thyself: The Importance of PC Familiarity’Nerds on Earth – this article is actually just as helpful for dungeon masters, offering some suggestions for players who struggle to work out what to do on their turn
  • ‘Does D&D Warp Our Ability to Tell Truth from Fiction?’Nerds on Earth – this article looks at the persistent rumour that tabletop roleplaying games make it difficult for players to differentiate between fiction and reality, with an overview of how we actually do differentiate these things around the table
  • ‘Breaking Down the Monstrous Water Races in D&D’The Game Detective – this post looks at the commonalities between bullywugs, koa-toa and sahuagin. These monsters have a lot of similarities, which can be confusing.

For players:

For dungeon masters:

My recent content:

  • ‘Xanathar’s Guide to Everything: Monks’Encounter Roleplay – in this article I’ve had a look at the two new monk subclasses in Xanathar’s Guide and explaining why I think Charlie Chaplin and Legolas are both monks

Here’s the chant: randomised beholders; defiling and preserving magic; and Nentir Vale

Each week I post a roundup of content about tabletop roleplaying games, particularly 5th edition Dungeon & Dragons. Here’s this week’s roundup:

For players or dungeon masters:

For players:

  • ‘Why You don’t Need a Backstory’Cup of D20s – this article suggests that rather than writing backstories for new player characters, we should let their stories emerge and develop through play

For dungeon masters:

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

  • ‘Existential D&D’Cup of D20s – this post looks at connections between roleplaying and existentialist philosophy

My recent content:

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.

One week, four different games

Last week I ran three D&D games and played in one, and they were all pretty different. (In contrast, I’m probably not playing D&D this week because a lot of folks are away on holidays!)

Tuesday night I ran a table at Games Laboratory’s Christmas event. Since it was a novelty one-shot game set in a fairly whimsical location, it lent itself to humour. IT WAS a good opportunity for mischief, jokes, carolling and trying things that might otherwise seem silly. (Beers probably helped create that atmosphere too!) At an event like this it’s also important to make sure the story moves along at a decent pace because you need to finish the adventure in one session.

Wednesday night I playtested a time-hopping adventure I wrote for Encounter Roleplay. With this game it was a lot more important to make sure the story made sense and that it was clear what was going on and what the characters should be investigating. I needed to make sure I got feedback about whether it was fun and engaging and whether it made sense. Because I’d based the setting (and elements of the story) on mythology that I know pretty well, I was also able to come up with improvised content when my players asked about things that I hadn’t planned to cover.

Thursday night I ran a session of Out of the Abyss for my regular group, which is fairly loose-knit. They witnessed Demogorgon rising from the Darklake and destroying kuo-toa city of Sloobludop and two of them accrued some madness before the made the decision to escape rather than try to fight.

Friday morning I jumped into my first live-streamed game on Encounter Roleplay at short notice. (Last 30 minutes are on Twitch, here.) What I found was that playing in a live-streamed game is a lot different to playing at a table (or playing a private game online). If anything, I think it was more like playing at the Christmas event. In hindsight, I think when your game is being broadcast live it’s important to have a character concept that will be interesting and entertaining, but also easy to get across to everyone quickly. That wasn’t something I thought about when I chose to play as a goblin druid! But once I realised that this was important, I did work out some ways to make it clear what my character was on about and ways to make him entertaining.

Here’s the Chant: Hogwarts RPG, gith and Dark Sun

Each week I normally post a roundup of content related to tabletop roleplaying games (particularly 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons). Here’s this week’s roundup:

For players and dungeon masters:

  • ‘Githyanki and Githzerai’D&D Beyond – this video (there’s also a transcript) looks at the backstory of the two gith races and their relationship with the mind flayers and Tiamat. (I wonder if this might give us some ideas of how the gith will be used in future storylines?) Here are some githzerai I’ve drawn for Planescape adventures I’ve run this year:
  • ‘The Dark Sun of Athas’Bell of Lost Souls – here’s an overview of D&D‘s Dark Sun setting. The article suggests that the conflicts built into this world helped to draw players in.
  • ‘The Harry Potter Tabletop RPG Guide’Google Drive – here are some revised rules for running 5th edition D&D adventures set in the world of Harry Potter, including a comprehensive list of spells

For players:

  • ‘The Dark Sun Mystic’ThinkDM – here is some speculation about what we might be able to expect from the new mystic class option when it is officially released. (I also covered this topic at Encounter Roleplay a little while ago.)
  • ‘Determining Ability Scores’The Kind GM – this post looks at the pros and cons of a number of different ways of generating ability scores in D&D. (Make sure when you’re determining scores that you know what the agreed options are for your group!)

For dungeon masters:

My recent content: