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:

2 owlbears

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

D&D & Dinosaurs

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.

Here’s the Chant: jungle giants, combat systems and failing forward

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:

For Players:

  • ‘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

For DMs:

forest giant

  • ‘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 D&D 5e

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Running Planescape in D&D 5e


Illustration by Tony DiTerlizzi

As I mentioned yesterday in my post about OneNote, I’ve been reading Planescape content and taking note of stuff I’d like to use in adventures. I’m hesitant to start a campaign unless I know that there are players enough who are interested in persisting with a campaign. I also want to make sure I’m confident that I have a handle on the setting. So during the week I ran a short Planescape one-shot using 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. (Planescape material was originally published in 2nd Edition.)

I chose an adventure for low level characters, ‘To Baator and Back’, from the book Well of the Worlds. I didn’t find that it was a lot of trouble to run the adventure in 5th Edition. Most of the monsters I needed were in the 5th Edition Monster Manual, and I was able to find homebrew stats online for the mosnters that weren’t. I had to work out some details for the environmental hazards (eg. random fireballs and rivers of blood) on the plane of Baator. Neither of these hazards are really ‘traps’, but I was able to use the trap table on page 121 of the Dungeons Master’s Guide to make sure the difficulty and damage of the hazards was approrpriate for low-level characters.

I also found it was relatively easy to get into the feel of the setting. While I enjoy playing games set in the Forgotten Realms, I haven’t felt as well equipped to improvise on the fly when I’m running the game. My hunch is that I may have found my favored setting. I’m planning to run some more one-shots over the next couple of weeks, and then consider starting a campaign.

Displacer beast, and the normalisation of the bizarre

On Sundays I normally post a monster illustration I’ve made to use in Dungeons & Dragons. Today’s monster is a displacer beast:


One of the things this monster got me thinking about is how the most bizarre monsters in D&D can become normalised. It’s basically a panther with six legs and clawed tentacles, but any seasoned player is going to know what makes this monster tricky to deal with. Displacer beasts are based on extraterrestrials called Coeurl, featured in the work of sci-fi author A. E. van Vogt. In his writing, humans who first encounter them don’t realise that they’re dangerous or even sentient. I think in D&D it can be hard to recreate this kind of situation with seasoned players if you’re using monsters from official books. Dylan has suggested using some features from Dungeon Crawl Classics, which allow the DM to generate monsters with random features so that the players can’t predict the creature’s behaviour. (If you can get a hold of the DCC core rulebook, check out the section called, ‘Making Monsters Mysterious’.)

Facing the bull

On Sundays I normally post a monster illustration I’ve made for Dungeons & Dragons games I run – but because yesterday was Easter Sunday I decided to hold this one till today. (I’ll probably be using it in the adventure I run at Games Lab today.) Today’s illustration is another more mundane monster: a bull.


Since ancient times many gods (Zeus, Dionysus, Mithras, Baal, El, Shiva) have been associated with bulls. Bulls have been understood to symbolise virility and fertility. In the ancient world fertility meant prosperity. If your crops grew well you’d prosper, if your livestock bred well you’d prosper.

It’s interesting that in our globalised society the bull has been retained as a symbol of economic prosperity. Tourists to New York City will often visit Arturo Di Modica’s sculpture Charging Bull (which represents the aggressive and unpredictable nature of the free market) and rub its testicles for good luck.
Last month, just before International Women’s Day, another sculpture, Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl was added, facing off with Charging Bull. It’s been interesting to see that the bull’s sculptor has been quite upset by the addition. Perhaps he’s unsure about the bull’s power?

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.

Frozen flame elemental

On Sundays I’ve been posting monster illustrations I’ve made for Dungeons and Dragons games I run. For the last few weeks it’s been monsters I’ve made or adapted, so I’ve also been including stat blocks. Today’s monster is a frozen flame elemental that I’ve made for the adventure I’ve been running over Twitter. You can download a PDF of the stat block, along with a bit of background, here. Let me know if you have any feedback.