Staff of the Elemental Master

island-during-golden-hour-and-upcoming-storm-1118873

This is a homebrew item for 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. Modeled after the Staff of Power, it exists to represent the idea of a caster gaining a degree of mastery over natural elements.

Staff of the Elemental Master

Staff, Very Rare (Requires attunement by a Druid)

This 5’ staff is made of the gnarled, petrified branch of an ancient redwood. It weighs over 240 pounds; however, once attuned, it becomes as light as fresh cut timber and can be used as a magic quarterstaff in Melee.

A Druid attuned to the staff can always draw breath in any environment, and gains resistance to fire and lightning damage.

The staff has 20 charges, and regains 1d8+2 charges every sunrise and sunset. The staff can regain an additional d6 charges per day by submerging it in a large quantity of any natural element that is highly active (e.g. a raging river, a burning conflagration, a gale-force wind, etc). If you expend the last charge, roll a d20. On a 1, the staff retains its ability to grant breath in any environment, and damage resistances, but loses all other abilities. On a 20, it unleashes a level 9 lightning bolt directed by the wielder, using normal spellcasting rules.

Lightning Strike: When you hit with a melee attack using the staff, you can expend 1 charge to deal an extra 1d6 lightning damage to the target.

Spells: While holding the staff, you can use an action to expend 1 or more of its charges to cast one of the following spells from it, using your spell save DC and spell attack bonus: Gust of Wind (2 charges) Plant Growth (3 charges); Move Earth (6 charges); Lightning Bolt, 5th level version (5 charges); Wall of Fire (4 charges); Control Water (4 charges); Control Weather (8 charges)

RPG Setting Rumours: street brawler edition

adult-ancient-armor-289831.jpg[NOTE: This post sat in my drafts folder for over a year. No, I don’t know why.]

There are two things I like to do when developing RPG settings:

First, I love to populate settings with rumours and local legends. These give a feel of being living places, and also you never know when a rumour will spark a plot hook that leads to a fun new adventure.

The second thing I love to do is crowd source ideas so that a) I don’t have to do all the work and b) I end up with a more varied and interesting range of possibilities to work with.

This post contains a series of ideas shared on twitter in response to this post:

Continue reading “RPG Setting Rumours: street brawler edition”

‘Uphill Battle’ – my NYC Midnight short fiction entry

Having not written any fiction for some time, this year I entered the NYC Midnight short fiction competition to kick myself into gear.

My prompts were: Fantasy, A picnic, a single mother.

As a result I produced “Uphill Battle”.

Enjoy, critique, ignore at will.

UPDATE: I received an Honourable Mention for this story, being one of the three stories in the heat to receive a commendation but not make it through to the next round. I’m pretty happy with that result, and am currently working with the feedback provided to produce a second draft (which is unbound by the competition’s word limit!)

Continue reading “‘Uphill Battle’ – my NYC Midnight short fiction entry”

The First Singer – A DnD 5e Bard variant

E.g. Chorister / Cantor / Hazzan / Muessin

This Bard is the leader of a religious rite or congregation. Their songs are drawn from the myths, legends, and rituals of a particular god or gods and their chants are part poetry, part prayer or mythic storytelling.

As a First Singer, the bard might be a part of a temple, leading worship and rites for the crowds, or they might be a wandering preacher, carrying the word and songs of their gods across the land. They are adept at engaging a large audience, and capturing a crowd with their mythic storytelling and song.

A First Singer is different to a Cleric, in that they find their inspiration in the stories and music, rather than more devout forms of worship. A First Singer need not even be a true believer, and may find religious songs a helpful ruse as they ply their crowds for donations and rumours.

Inspiration for a First Singer bard can be found in many cultures and times. The ancient greek chorus used to chant and sing and dance their epic tales as part of grand religious festivals, wearing masks and using small drums, cymbals and beat sticks. Among the many variation of Christianity you will find the Cantor, who leads a congregation in prayer. A similar role is played by the Jewish Hazzan, while the Muslim Muezzin leads the call to prayer to bring people to the mosque for worship.

Alignment: A First Singer’s alignment will usually partially align with the god whose stories they tell, or the temple in which they lead.

Instruments: Instruments that keep rhythm, like tambourines, drums, prayer cymbals or bells are very common among First Singers. Some may have stringed instruments, though would favour those like a lute that have a chamber for resonance and can be heard over a larger area.

Bard Colleges:

Bard(Web) (1)
Johan, a Cantor of Pelor. Image by @EthanMAldridge

College of Lore: A First Singer who joins the College of Lore may pursue the greater truth of the universe beyond the teachings of a particular god or belief. They may become mystics or gnostics who recognise a greater mystery of the world beyond a single deity.

Their spell choices will likely favour detection and dispelling, and the ability to perceive and cross into the meta-planes in pursuit of the ultimate, world-creating song.

College of Valor: It’s an easy step to go from leading a choir in song to inspiring an army with a battle hymn. First Singers who walk the path of valor may become the heart and soul of a fighting unit, crying inspirational charges and rallying songs, and soothing soldiers during brief respite.

Spell choices will favour those that inspire others to greater feats of heroism, heal the wounded and aid the Bard’s own fighting skills.

College of Whispers: These First Singers use their knowledge of ancient tales to invoke holy terror in their enemies in order to seek out heresy. Their chants and songs take on a darker tone as they seek out enemies of their god and deliver appropriate punishment. These questioners are not well liked, because they are often the vanguard of a full blown inquisition, and sometimes even their very presence, if known, is enough to create a religious panic and invite all manner of accusations between neighbours.

Questioners learn spells that distract and terrify their targets, compel truth or otherwise give the Bard an advantage in squeezing confessions – true or otherwise – from the subject of their investigation.

Netflix’s Bright and the problems of world building

Netflix’s Bright is certainty getting a lot of attention, as is the division between critics and fans, genre fans and fans of the movie, and just the general disagreement over whether it is actually “the worst film of 2017” or something to be acknowledged for its originality.

I’ll say up front that I’m glad this movie exists, because it’s bringing new attention to genre fiction in film (or, in this case, genre mashup fiction), and that Netflix chose to make its first big budget movie production something of this nature is not insignificant.

As a long time fan of Shadowrun, I’m 100% behind the aesthetic of fantasy races and magic in a familiar urban setting. But from the perspective of world-building and setting development that are intended to inform a cohesive story, Bright offers many examples of the dangers of being lazy in your approach.

The setting of this movie is so incongruous and lacking in internal consistency that I was unable to suspend my disbelief long enough to be taken anywhere by the story. It seems the writer, director and producers just flat out ignored some simple premises of setting development – namely that when you add an element to a setting, it has a ripple effect over time that affects the world around it.

In Bright we see a lot of world-shaping elements added without any evidence of those elements having had an impact on the development of society over time.

In Shadowrun this works because the story is that the world as we know is developed, and then in the early 20th century magic returned to the world, transforming a section of the population into elves, dwarves, trolls and orcs. And as the magic rose, long slumbering dragons woke up.

But in Bright, we hear about the 2000 year long history of the races having lived together, and yet see little to no evidence of those significant changes to human history having shaped the contemporary world in which the story takes place. Somehow, after centuries of social development that includes humans, orcs, elves, centaurs, dragons, magic, fairies and even more magical creatures that are never seen on screen, they still ended up with modern day suburban L.A.

This blog post arose from a conversation on Twitter, and so this next section gathers together the many questions I have of the setting which I just couldn’t rationalise based on the information presented in the movie.

It started here:

We see no evidence of the many races having had even a superficial impact on the shape of society.

‘Elf-town’ is a part of the city, and elves are described as a race of people ‘running everything’. So either they’ve always been around and in a position of influence, or at some point there was a war or some other takeover when elves took charge. As there is no mention of any elf war, or elf take over, or even any great resentment shown towards elves as you might expect of a conquering people, we can only assume that elves have always been there, and yet have had no more meaningful impact on the shape of society than to fence of a section of a large city.

Humans do that without being magical super-beings.

Elves seem to primarily exist in this movie as analogies for the wealthy, and this movie gives them little more depth of representation as a people than to make them look like the high end of New York or Hollywood. Everyone drives a super car and looks like a movie star, but they live in mundane looking buildings on asphalt streets that are identical to contemporary America.

However, in a world with magic and non-human races, why does America exist at all in it’s current form?

Many of America’s early settlers emerged out of the religious turmoil following the reformation, so in this world of magic and elves and orcs, did the Catholic church still dominate Europe for centuries? And was the reformation a multi-species issue?

How did Catholicism, or any form of Christianity, dominate in a world where an actual war was fought against a ‘Dark Lord’ of unknown magical power? We hear mentions of the orc saviour who unified the races against the Dark Lord (and are then expected to ignore the fact that despite this, orcs were still the subjugated race for thousands of years) yet see no evidence of that having any real influence on religion or belief or societal structure.

And then there’s dragons. Are they apex predators or super evolved magical beings?

Either way, for a dragon to fly, unmolested across the city (as shown in an almost throw-away establishing shot) is to suggest it has some accepted place in society, but where is that reflected in any part of the setting we see?

We are shown a dragon flying over a city that, in the movie, shows no sign of accommodating, protecting against, or interacting with dragons. They don’t even talk about them; Will Smith’s character makes a Shrek reference, but no-one mentions dragons.

This same question applies to the design of cars. If giants and centaurs are millennia-long allies of humans and elves, living in an integrated society, why did they develop cars that neither giants nor centaurs could ride in?

While xenophobia might provide an answer (thanks Litza) the movie doesn’t really bear this out.

The races are millennia-long allies, supposedly living with a level of integration that makes the exclusion and oppression if the orcs a singular thing.

The first orc to become a cop is a big deal – it’s a major subplot of the movie – but when we see a centaur cop being part of an orc beating, no-one bats an eyelid. Centaur police are an accepted part of the police force, suggesting that, in contrast to orcs, they’re a more accepted part of society.

In that scene, not one car looks capable of comfortably accommodating a centaur. There isn’t even a contemporary horse float! (something I imagine centaurs might find a bit degrading). Nor do we ever see such a thing anywhere else in the movie.

We know there’s a centaur police officer who, in stature, stands quite some distance above his human colleagues, but every doorway we see in the police plaza is the same width/height as contemporary human buildings. Do centaurs never come inside? Even as part of their jobs?

Was the centaur, like the dragon, just set-dressing without thought given to the implications of what it means to have centaurs in this world?

We simply see no evidence of society accommodating centaurs.

Finally, there are the orcs. As well as being another fantasy race, they’re super-humanly strong. In onc scene we see an orc single-handedly lift a car to retrieve a kid’s ball.

This means that humans, elves and all the other races had enslaved, or at least oppressed, a race of super-strong warriors for thousands of years, and the world they built off the back of that labour force was identical to contemporary downtown L.A.

So what does all this mean…

For a setting to be engaging and immersive, elements that define the setting have to be evident in the details. Sure, there is a certain amount of handwaving that goes on, but when creating a setting in which you want a story to play out, it is worth considering the broader effects of each new element you add. This ads depth that helps bring the setting to life, and it is what is painfully missing from the world of Bright.

In many medieval fantasy settings, different races are often segregated and, while they may trade and interact with each other, it’s more reasonable to expect such a thing as ‘dwarven architecture’ to be different from ‘human architecture’ to meet their different physiological needs in their own, somewhat closed-off regions of the world. But in an integrated multi-racial society that has supposedly developed over centuries parallel to our own society, many of these gaps are simply too big to overlook.

Still, I reiterate that I’m glad this movie exists and that it’s apparently getting a sequel. If it is successful in kicking off a new trend of urban fantasy in big-budget film and TV production, I just hope that there’s a bit more thought given to the details of the setting in future. beyond “let’s throw a dragon in the background, that will look cool!”

Night brings the sun (a tale of heroic sacrifice)

[Image: ‘Night brings the sun’ by Jen]

I’ve been running an Exalted 2E game for about 2 years, in which time we’ve managed 14 sessions.

A recent session included the culmination of several plot lines and resulted in a large battle between the PCs, who were leading a militia of a few hundred hastily trained refugees, and a force of spider-like beastmen created by a sorcerous second-circle demon. The beastment were led by terrestrial exalted who were bound to love and serve the demon by mind-bending sorcery. However, the beastmen were only distraction from the army of war ghosts marching up from a nearby shadowland to overrun the refugee township the PCs were defending.

The fight with the beastmen took a hard toll on the PCs, with most of them drained of essence and suffering a few injuries, but one PC (a night caste martial artist) was crippled in the fight. As they were assessing the outcome of their narrow victory over the beastmen, the PCs became aware of the army of ghosts marching from another direction.

As the army of ghosts approached, the PCs – having recently gained access to a salt mine – tried to build a salt line around the village, but realised they wouldn’t have enough to do so, so instead they built a defensive salt line between the village and the army, planning to use some of their various travel charms and magic to encircle the army of ghosts with salt once they drew closer, and then just wait for the sun to rise.

They didn’t consider that the demon would be leading the ghostly army, and one casting of Magma Kraken (a powerful spell that summons tentacles of molten rock from the ground to fight) was able to disrupt their defensive salt line and gave the PCs the problem of dealing with the tentacles before they did any real damage.

This was when the crippled night caste decided to act.

Previously, the night caste had been having troubled dreams, which had led to learning the first few charms of the Quicksilver Hand of Dreaming martial arts style.

For those unfamiliar, the first couple of charms of this style include the ability to give people specific visions or dreams, and then another charm lets you pull those dreams out of people’s heads and manifest them in the real world. The night caste had not, up to this point, really explored the possibilities of this combo.

Realising the likelihood of defeat at the hand of the ghosts, which would mean a terrible end for the village and its 5000 occupants, the Night Caste PC gave a stirring speech in which he called for a volunteer willing to give their life in defence of their home and family.

Then, using an ancient artifact (Wings of the Raptor… a magic cloak turns into giant wings), the night caste flew high into the midnight sky, and with their last remaining essence used a combo of Martial Arts charms charms to give the person a waking dream of the rising sun that burns away the undead.

Then, knowing full well what it would mean to touch the surface of the sun, he plucked out that dream, letting the sun shine brightly for a fraction of a second before it incinerated both the character and his volunteer, but also destroying the entire army of ghosts in a blinding flash.

Between the player first proposing the idea and the final execution, we had a bit of discussion about the implications of the action and the ultimate finality of attempting to hold the sun in the palm of your hand. After considering some alternatives, the player decided to commit to it and we played out the final moment which brought a quick end end to the character and the battle. To background this event, we used the soundtrack from Sunshine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_b6C0PHXkQ

The final serendipity of the moment was the fact that the group had only just recently learned of the fate of the character’s first age incarnation, who had similarly died when a solar circle spell he had been casting to slay a horde of demons had been disrupted, and he similarly exploded, taking many of the demons with him, but ultimately killing himself and a circle-mate.

Heroic sacrifices are rare moments in roleplaying games – and need to be rare moments in order to maintain the weight and impact of the decision by the character/player – but when they come up in an appropriate moment it can be a real highlight to a game session, and even a whole campaign.

This moment was a great example of the collaborative storytelling of roleplaying, and one of many examples of why I love this hobby.

The GM & the Tarot: 5 – long-term plots and event timelines

<<<Previously: Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

Arising out of the request that led to Cytherea’s Civil War was the need to create a way to use the cards to create significant plot events that could define a campaign. In order to provide enough complexity and variety, and ensure it was a sustainable system that could be used repeatedly without too much chance of repetition if used repeatedly in the same game.

In devising this particular use of cards, I drew on a couple of assumptions:

  1. These plot events were primarily to involve the Player Characters (PCs), rather than define a timeline of events that would occur no matter what.
  2. That every plot event should have some point of conflict at the core. Conflict is what drives stories and either forces the PCs to react or is the result of the PCs actions.

I maintained the rules for interpreting cards that any Major Arcana meant there was some relation to one of the major NPCs (and if it was an actual NPCs card then it related to that characters) and that the court cards (Page, Knight, King, Queen) meant a significant NPC, even if only in the context of that story arc or event.

I also retained the idea of using inverted cards to indicated that something was hidden or secretive, though in this case I would not be drawing an additional card to ‘mask’ the hidden action or intent.

With those ideas in place, I settled on the following approach:

Draw 3 cards

  • First card – defines the main plot event
  • Second card – modifies the main event
  • Third card – identifies the point of conflict

It is up to you whether you interpret the cards in sequence or together, through my preference in this instance is to take them all together and consider the interactions between cards rather than adhere to any strict sequence of events.

As an example, here’s the first plot event from Cytherea’s Civil War:

First, draw 3 cards:

  1. Princess of Pentacles (inverted); explore and seek new things, but in secret.
  2. 2 of Pentacles; balance, equilibrium
  3. 6 of Pentacles; generosity of spirit

An interesting twist of coincidence (or poor shuffling) that three Pentacles cards came out together. Pentacles, despite the often mystical associations of the 5 pointed star, is most commonly associated with the material world and physical aspects of life. Money, property, business, etc.

That the key event is to revolve around a significant individual provides a sound introduction to a new story, and given the plot ideas already set in play by the draw of NPCs and their relationships to the characters, the element of secrecy is also quite fitting.

As it’s the opening of a campaign involving characters in a foreign land, there are some elements that seem unavoidable. Arriving, establishment, meeting locals. However the nature and style of these events are shaped by the cards.

So here’s how I defined the opening event…

Plot event outline:

The Vermillion legion (PC faction) arrive in An-teng and are welcomed by the matriarch of a village (the Princess card) in the outer regions where they set up camp. The PCs faction have been sent in support of House Ledaal’s legion who are there to help quiet tensions in the area after a minor uprising in one of the outer provinces (restore balance/equilibrium). Their true mission, however, is to seek out the location of a rumoured first age weapon that would give house Tepet a significant advantage, but the leadership of the legion are under orders to keep the true nature of their quest strictly need-to-know (seek new things, but in secret). Therefore, only a few of the legion’s ranking officers know the true objective. A conflict arises early between the two generals when the Ledaal general takes a very forceful approach to engaging with the local populace and the Tepet general intervenes at the behest of the Matriarch (the general’s generosity of spirit provoking conflict).

This approach seemed to work fairly well for its intended purpose, so the next step in finalising the Civil War plotline is to generate a series of events to provide the opening structure of the campaign.

<<<Previously: Cytherea’s Civil War (Part 1)

Coming soon: Cytherea’s Civil War (part 2)