Thursday, March 26, 2015

Interesting 3rd Party Finds: the Water Chinchilla (Pathfinder)

So over on Drive-Thru RPG I spotted a 55-page setting book for the low price of one dollar, and figured that was more than enough content to justify the purchase.  While I expected a generic desert-themed world, instead I got a book full of rather novel ideas.  So this new 3rd-party find isn't going to focus on one mechanic or idea, but several.

Basically, Eiklatha is an arid desert region which was once ruled by the Thruli Empire who ruled both the surface and subterranean worlds.  The human Nephrites (with elements loosely modeled off of Japanese society) hold several cities renowned for their lore.  The other races are entirely new creations, such as the symbiotic Avialae who are nomadic bird-people with sapient plants sharing their body; or the theocratic frog-like Reskal, who live in stilt-cities on oases and wear shoes made of blessed reed to avoid touching the sand (which they view as the evil creation of the demon kings).

Basically the strong points of adventure ideas involve old Thruli ruins and the secrets and hostilities of competing civilizations.  A good 32 pages are devoted to mechanical information (races, equipment, new archetypes and monsters, etc), while the remaining 23 detail aspects of prominent settlements, history, and culture.

There are several things I can cover in this book, such as the races and racial feats, but for now I want to show the cutest thing ever in a Pathfinder product:

Water Chinchilla CR 1/3
XP 135
N Tiny animal
Init +2

AC 14, touch 14, flat-footed 10 (+2 Dex, +2 size)
hp 6 (1d8+2)
Fort +4, Ref -1, Will +0

Speed 30ft., swim 30ft.
Melee bite -2 (1d3-4)

Str 3, Dex 8, Con 14, Int 2, Wis 10, Cha 14
Base Atk +1; CMB +1; CMD 7
Languages None
Environment River
Organization solitary, cage (3-7), barrel (8-20)
Treasure none
Special Abilities

Purify Water (Su) A water chinchilla placed in any liquid will absorb up to two gallons of the liquid into their body. Once at least one gallon is absorbed in this way the water chinchilla will loose it's land speed but gain +2 natural armor due to swelling. If squeezed, any liquid inside the water chinchilla will be wringed-out, this does not harm the water chinchilla. Liquid that has passed in and out of a water chinchilla in this manner is treated as if it has had the Purify Food and Drink spell cast on it with a caster level equal to the water chinchilla's hit dice. A water chinchilla may only purify 2 gallons of liquid per day in this manner.  A water chinchilla that absorbs a liquid is subject to the same negative effects that would be inflicted upon it if it drank that liquid, though it gains a +2 bonus to Fortitude saves against the effects of those liquids.

Water chinchillas are small, almost spherical creatures with gray fur. They have large rabbit like ears. When a water chinchilla touches water they absorb it and swell up like a balloon allowing them to swim around easily.

This cute, adorable animal is a highly prized creature for its ability to turn brackish water into clean drinking source.  They are commonly sold along the banks of river villages and in adventurer's shops, on their own or in water-filled barrels of 10.

And yes, they can be obtained as familiars.

Even the most jaded of gamers will grow to love these fuzzy little rodents if not for their adorableness, but for their vital function in an arid desert-based campaign.  Just picture it; chefs at restaurants holding the bloated furry creatures over plates, squeezing out soups and drinks for thirsty patrons!  A sudden rainstorm causes the sorcerer's familiar to balloon up in reaction.  This is the perfect way to inject some lightheartedness into a harsh desert setting, and I might just borrow this creature for my home games.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What is a Paladin to you?

Artist Unknown

"Justice and retribution are but trifling things.

There are victories of greater worth.

Someday you will know them."

The paladin is many things to many people.  To some it's a holy warrior, whose main mission is to strike down evil.  Others are paragons of law, caring just as much about tradition and authority as serving the greater good.  Unfortunately many Dungeon Masters take a narrow restriction on the paladin, insisting on placing them in situations where they're bound to fail or applying Judeo-Christian ethos of sin on an already-restrictive code of conduct.  All too often we have DMs willing to strip a paladin of their powers for small reasons which wouldn't land other Lawful Good players in hot water, as demonstrated in this RPGnet thread.  A lot of times this stems from DM and player not being on the same page, having different ideas of what a paladin is supposed to be in the game.

After reading an interesting post over on Bat in the Attic of what a paladin means to him, I figured that it would be a fun idea to get some discussion rolling about not just your imagining of the Paladin, but what existing pieces of media best encapsulate the archetype.  In my view, the protagonist of Final Fantasy IV is one of the best examples of a fantasy Paladin.  Below I'll detail why.

Spoiler Warning: Although this game was made back in the early 90s, to truly get a sense of appreciation for Cecil's trials, I'd suggest playing it yourself or watching a good Let's Play (HCBailly's starting a run on this game right now on YouTube).  I'm also still in the process of playing the game, so it's possible I didn't cover some future character development.  If you have FFIV on your gaming radar, return to this blog post when you've reached that point.

Final Fantasy IV: Cecil's Redemption

Cecil Harvey was a loyal soldier of the kingdom of Baron.  Trained in the ways of the Dark Knight, he draws upon fell powers to strengthen his battle prowess.  In spite of this, Cecil is not a wicked soul at heart.  The game starts out with him leading the Red Wings airship legion to attack and steal magical Crystals from the holy shrines of other nations, ordered to by his King to ensure the safety and security of Baron and its people.  Although he loyally carries out his orders, a seed of doubt spreads in his mind when the people of Mysidia beg him not to take away their Water Crystal and put up hardly any resistance.  Combined with the King's recent strange behavior, Cecil raises his doubts to his lord, which results in his demotion and being sent on a mission to Mist, a remote village of mystical summoners.

His King betrayed him, for the ring he was entrusted with to deliver conjured an army of living monsters of fire.  They slaughtered the people of Mist nearly to the last person, whose magical powers were long seen as a threat to Baron's King.  Horrified at his unwitting accessory to ethnic cleansing, Cecil saves a village girl named Rydia and sets off to the nearby kingdom to spread word of Baron's atrocities and hopefully rally enough support against the crown he once served.

Cecil is genuinely repentant and acts altruistically, but he is still a Dark Knight.  Eventually he arrives alone at Mysidia, the land he once invaded at Baron's behest.  The locals stare venomously at him, but the village's elder believes his words and change of heart and tells him of a trial at Mt. Ordeals.  Those who pass the test can become a paladin, a holy warrior sworn to the cause of good.

The above scene is very powerful.  To become a paladin is a true test; you do not simply begin play as one, but it comes along as the result of the story.  The battle with his evil self is unorthodox because to truly pass the test, Cecil must not strike his alter ego.  It's a way of telling one who did wrong to face what they did to transform into a better person, not condemn and deny it like a foreign entity to destroy.

Cecil is a paladin, but he did not start out as an icon of righteousness.  Even after his class change he still must atone for his past by stopping Golbez from wreaking havoc on the world.  It's all too easy to imagine a paladin as less of a person and more of an archetype.  Before the slaughter at Mist, Cecil was not so much a willing accomplice to evil so much as a good man who did nothing and let his trust in his lord stay his hand for too long.  By resolving to courageously do what's right in spite of one's own fears and doubts, that's what turned him into a hero, long before he took up the title of paladin.

Cecil is my ideal paladin.  He's not an archon of Law forced to respect those in power, nor a crusader motivated to convert others under the banner of one religion.  All that matters is to do good in the world and stop the spread of tyranny and misery.  That's what a paladin should be to me.  All the other aspects of the Code in Editions, such as never lying, upholding Law as well as Good, is unnecessary window dressing to a class which can easily stand on its own feat as a warrior of virtue.

After all, justice is not the only right in this world.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Interesting 3rd Party Finds: Non-magical Potions (OSR, Swords & Wizardry)

Potions picture from Wizards of the Coast

In most games, potions are crafted by spellcasters and thus have the tinge of magic running through them.  They often replicate the effects of spells and detect magic often reveals them as such.

In a rather popular OSR retroclone, Swords & Wizardry Core Rules, I noticed an interesting exception on pages 122-123:

Strange alchemical brews, in dusty, stoppered bottles, are to be found in many of the forgotten or forbidden places of the world. Time has often worn away any markings once left to identify the contents of these mysterious mixtures, if the alchemist ever chose to label them in the first place. The consequences of drinking the products of alchemy can be varied: some of these can produce wondrously useful effects, but others might be deadly poisons!

In general, since potions are the product of alchemy rather than magic, they will neither be apparent to Detect Magic spells, nor easily identified without tasting and experimentation. If the Referee decides that alchemy instead manipulates magic, as opposed to fantastical but otherwise natural chemistry, then Detect Magic and Dispel Magic would work upon potions.

Potions are usable by all character classes. Unless otherwise noted, potion effects have a duration of 1d6+6 full turns.
 I went through some other retro-clones (Adventure Conqueror King System, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Scarlet Heroes, and Spears of the Dawn to name a few) and noticed that while some of them allow non-spellcasting alchemists to independently create potions or with the assistance of a spellcaster, Swords & Wizardry is unique in its default description of potions being non-magical.

In Labyrinth Lord Revised Edition (page 122), potions are a joint effort between alchemists and spellcasters.  In Spears of the Dawn (page 143), magic items are capable of being crafted by noncasters provided they meet skill prerequisites but are still imbued with the essence of ashe or spirits.  In Adventurer Conqueror King System (page), alchemists can independently create potions, but the time and cost is doubled and they're pretty much stuck at the lowest level of power (equivalent to a 5th-level Magic-User).

Intrigued, I grabbed my copy of the Original D&D boxed set and looked through Books I and II (Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure).  I noticed that only magic-users could create potions, and there was no description stating exactly to what extent they were truly "magical."  Are they the result of alchemy and natural law, otherworldly knowledge, or both?

All in all, I found this to be an interesting find.  Potions are a rather unique affair in D&D Editions and retroclones, straddling the line being magic and weird science.  I'm rather curious now as to the design process behind S&W potions.  Perhaps Matt Finch was drawing upon more obscure material at the time, or decided to be different in regards to magic items.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Is there a consumer demand for Death to Alignment for the OSR?

I've never been a fan of alignment in general for various reasons.  First, the changing definitions over the years mean that descriptions such as Chaotic Neutral in 1st Edition mean something entirely different in 3rd Edition, confusing already contentious online arguments when nobody's on the same page for definitions.  Second, it is not a very well-fleshed out or consistent morality system, as most game designers aren't professional philosophers or theologians and go more by "feel" than a solid framework.  One only has to see what elves get away with in settings, which would land other races firmly outside the Chaotic Good camp.

It's rather common for gaming groups to house-rule away alignment, but the rules-heavy pecularities of Pathfinder meant that simply removing it meant that entire classes, spells, magic items, etc become gimped or useless.  So I wrote Death to Alignment, a series of rules changes, alternate morality systems, and mini-essays discussing how to alter or remove alignment in Pathfinder in a consistent, thoughtful way.

I often considered making an OSR version for Death to Alignment, like I did with Playable Monsters Volume 1.  But in comparison to Pathfinder most OSR games do not devote a lot of rules to it.  You might have some fluff personality descriptions, or whether the Cleric harms or enslaves undead, but aside from this there isn't really much ground to cover.  I considered focusing on the retroclones which do have rules beyond this simplistic framework, such as Dungeon Crawl Classics, but overall it seems that a simple house-ruling isn't going to have a lot of ripple effects in a game such as Labyrinth Lord.

If I do an OSR Edition of Death to Alignment, I might try incorporating system-neutral things, such as Corruption Points to represent the taint of supernatural evil warping those it touches.  I might also have a chapter for popular OGL retroclones and view how alignment interacts with their framework.

But more than that, I want to see how much enthusiasm there is among OSR gamers for such a book.

What do you think?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Interesting 3rd Party Finds: the Pantheist Priest (Pathfinder)

The Twelve Olympians

The Midgard Campaign Setting by Kobold Press is a very interesting world.  Quite possibly the best-selling Pathfinder product which isn't a Paizo book, it's easy to see that it has a lot of things going for it.  A clockwork city with a sizable kobold minority, an expanding imperial superpower ruled by a council of great wyrms, deities who wear masks and portray different faces to the world's cultures, and a flat world encircled by the dragon-god Veles whose very flesh and blood suffuse the land with magic are but a few of its iconic features.

One thing which stood out to me was a new rule which touched upon an archetype I wanted to see in Dungeons & Dragons for a long time: a truly polytheist cleric.  Basically, most divine spellcasters in various Editions and retroclones were restricted to the favor of a single patron deity.  Praying to and receiving spells from a host of gods as befit their circumstance is plausible in some editions and retroclones (notably rules-lite games such as Labyrinth Lord), but in 3rd Edition and Pathfinder the one-deity choice is baked into the game mechanics.  For a long time I wanted to emulate a setting where clerics, druids, and paladins were akin to genuine polytheists, honoring an array of deities who granted them specialized blessings in accordance with their portfolio.

Midgard Campaign Setting tackles this hurdle with the creation of the Pantheist Priest.  Below is the following information reprinted from page 227 of the main book:

Pantheist Priest

Though the gods of Midgard are mysterious and sometimes distant, one way for any mortal to compel their attention is to grant his or her small voice and modest sacrifices to another god. All gods of Midgard are jealous to some degree, and this weakness can be turned against them. Indeed, the pantheist priest knows there is more than one way to comfort the grieving, sick, and wounded. All gods might answer a plea. There is more than one set of revealed mysteries of the divine, and many roads lead to the heavens and to the grace of the gods. Why not use all of them?

The pantheist priest worships not a single god, but a set of five related deities, good and evil, male and female, various in their powers and their demands. In every case, these are the gods of that priest’s region or city. As a pantheist priest, you know and follow these gods, and their differing wisdom sustains you and your flock in different trials and different tests.

Creating a Pantheist Priest
Generate a normal cleric, but rather than choosing a single god to worship, choose one of the regional pantheons for a state or polity (City Gods, Crossroads, Dragon Empire, Northlands, or Southern) or choose a city or nation (such as Illyria or the canton of Gunnacks). See the listing for the five gods listed as Great Gods for that place.

You are a priest of this pantheon, and each week you choose one patron god from that pantheon. You must fulfill the god’s demands that week, and in return you are granted access to two of that god’s domains as a normal cleric. These two domains or subdomains are always the same for each of the five gods of this pantheist priest.

Granted Power: You represent many faces of divinity rather than a single voice.
Many Roads to Wisdom (Su): The pantheist priest may use the granted power of any god of his regional or civic pantheon normally. Once that granted power is used, no other granted power may be invoked or applied until the next day.
Note: The dark gods are much too jealous of one another’s followers to permit a pantheist priest among their number. No pantheist priest may follow more than one of the dark gods. If the campaign permits evil PCs, a pantheist priest may substitute one dark god for a regional one at character creation.


The ability to choose a set of five related deities (or ones of the cleric's home culture) is a good compromise between gaining the benefits of all the divine patrons of a setting versus the restriction of a single figure of worship.  It allows for clerics to be versatile and adopt a patron as befits the circumstances of the near future.  Making them follow the dogma  of a different patron is a good role-playing opportunity for players, who must adapt to new standards of behavior which might otherwise be unimportant or even anathema to the previous patron.  As Midgard deities are less focused on morality and more on various archetypes and forces (war, weather, and the like), they have no alignments, allowing for a pantheist cleric more freedom in their choice of deities.

There are many things I like about Midgard, but the Pantheist Priest is one of my favorites; enough that I transplanted the game mechanics into other settings for my own gaming sessions.  It's short and simple enough that it can be inserted into other established worlds with little fanfare, and is especially appropriate for Greek/Roman style pantheons where most religious orders honored the gods in general as opposed to one entity above all others.

Copyright: Pantheist Priest from Midgard Campaign Setting. (c) Kobold Press.

Special Thanks: Wolfgang Baur of Kobold Press for granting me permission to reprint the Pantheist Priest rules.

My Goal This Year: Play New Games

I have an active gaming schedule where I'm the DM for two weekly games.  Going strong several months now, one of them is coming to a close; with that same group I'm planning to run Pathfinder's Kingmaker.  One player from the Pathfinder group is part of my Solo Heroes campaign for Labyrinth Lord, and we are at the point where the game's moving on to domain management (using Kevin Crawford An Echo Resounding).

Late December I made a set of New Year's Resolutions which should reasonably be achieved in 12 months or less.  One of them is to expand my gaming horizons.  Whether it's Pathfinder and D20 variants or Labyrinth Lord, I realize that my primary gaming schedule the past few years ties back into a specific framework of 2 rulesets: Basic and 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons.  Although this is by no means a bad thing or a trend I don't think I'll reverse anytime soon, as a self-publisher of RPG supplements it's a good idea to see how different mechanics shape one's play experience in terms of game design.  And beyond that, it can be fun to go out and try new things!

I with to play these games at least once during 2015.  Whether it's with my own group or another bunch of folks on Roll20, Google Plus, I'd like to sample a bit of each game even if it's just a one-shot.  Although if I really like the game I'd definitely be up for future sessions!  

RPG Wish List:

13th Age
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea
Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Dungeon World (& Monsterhearts)
Eclipse Phase
FATE (Core or Accelerated, either's fine)
Mouse Guard
Spears of the Dawn
The One Ring
OVA: Open Versatile Anime
World of Darkness (Old or New, preferably either Vampire or Mage: the Awakening)

I don't know if I'll play all of these games within a year, but I should at the very least try.  Even if I played one session of each game per week, that would take about 3 months time.

I once tried GMing a third game.  Even though it was semi-weekly, preparing notes for this in addition to 2 others led to burnout almost immediately and thus the disbanding of the group.  Knowing my limitations, any regular non-one-shot games I participate in I'd like to be a player for instead of a GM.

Monday, March 16, 2015

"Magic" School Campaigns by System and Setting: Pathfinder's Path of War

Footage from Sword Art Online

On the arid plateau of Kremdora, a city of the same name is built in a bowl-like fashion around a vast crater.  What was intended to be an act of utter devastation by the mage-tyrants of Vierks merely created a haze of null magic over the area.  After this act of willful destruction, the Kremdorans knew that the wizards would not stop until they’re either enslaved or destroyed.  Knowing that the anti-magic field would not keep them safe forever, they trained successive generations in the arts of combat, science, and other important disciplines from across the world.  The best and brightest of them founded a training facility for the new generations of Kremdora, the world-famous Battle Academy!

The Battle Academy is an impressive structure built near the central bottom of the sloped city in the Meteor District.  Much like a wizarding school, the building houses hundreds of students, teachers, and staff dedicated to training young minds in the many arts of war.  Over time the Academy accepted foreign students (along with donations from ideologically-minded families and organizations supporting said students) in recent years as well.  Here one can find northern berserkers and ascetic warriors debating the merits and flaws of using anger to fuel one's fighting prowess.  Unarmed nimble monks, confident courtly duelists, and ironclad knights-in-training can be found in this diverse environment, learning both how to improve their own abilities as well as the history and tactics of other martial art forms.

Fighting School Tropes

Panel from Mahou Sensei Negima!

The Path of War by Dreamscarred Press is the spiritual successor to the Tome of Battle.  Unlike its 3rd Edition ancestor, the game mechanics and vast majority of the book is Open Game Content and freely available online at D20 Pathfinder SRD.  It adds a breath of fresh air to non-casting martials, granting them a versatile assortment of special attacks, counters, mobility effects, and fighting styles beyond the repetitive "5 foot step full attack" or "I charge and attack" formula.  I found out that the versatility and overall themes of the Path of War make an excellent base for a "Fighting School" style of game!  Below are various tropes and plot ideas to get your creative juices flowing!

Speak with your Fists! Although social interaction and role-playing is an important part of any psuedo-high school game, a Fighting School campaign is naturally more combat-focused than most.  Although most duels are not to the death, it is a point of pride for a disciple to display his or her skill in a duel with other talented young fighters.  As a result, many students are eager to spar with each other, whether it's to settle disputes, prove their fighting style's superiority, as part of a competition, or just to get a passing grade!

Martial Lore: The Big Dumb Fighter stereotype is absent in a Fighting School game save for a few NPCs, rampaging beasts, and the like.  Stalkers and archers are encouraged to rely upon their senses to strike at their opponents' weak points and to dodge attacks; warlords and gladiators channel their force of personality to inspire witnesses and comrades; tacticians and cerebral warriors plot out quick mental calculations in the middle of an ensuing battle.  Each Path of War class has a mental ability score as an "initiation modifier" to determine the effectiveness of moves; many real-world military orders both ancient and modern encourage the develop of both physical and mental abilities.   The knights, monks, and brawlers of the Battle Academy are just as likely to focus on scholarly classes such as philosophy, military history, debate and rhetoric clubs, and other such vocations to help round out their skill sets and grades.

Show Me Your Moves: Much like wizards researching spells, so too do Fighting School apprentices research styles and attacks within tomes in the Ancestral Halls and under the tutelage of wise mentors.  Much like shonen fighting manga and Pathfinder spells, Path of War's maneuvers and stances have descriptive signature names and "ultimate attacks" capable of only being mastered by the world's greatest warriors.  A stalker doesn't just deliver a poisoned blade to the ribs: he initiates Sickening Venom Strike.  The legendary elven archer not only downs multiple opponents with a flurry of arrows; he can call upon the power of the sun to unleash a cone-shaped volley of blazing phantom arrows with a Solar Wind Nova attack!  Showmanship and cool signature moves are the name of the game here; calling out the name of your attacks are optional, but highly recommended if you want that distinctive genre flair.

The Tournament Arc: It is common in shonen fighting manga to devote a piece of the story to a world-famous martial arts tournament which the heroes and villains join.  It's an extremely useful plot device for various reasons.  One, it's a good way of introducing new adversaries quickly.  Two, time between matches when the PCs aren't participating can allow for a nice change in action as well as some role-playing.  Three, it can allow the PCs to engage in no-holds barred fight scenarios which ordinarily wouldn't come up in a typical campaign, such as with allies, mentors, or even each other (perfect for seeing if your ninja-sorcerer can win against the party's holy knight).  Fighting in front of a crowd of thousands with a colorful announcer narrating the results of the fight in a dramatic fashion, is a great way to add to the fun of an otherwise 'plain' battle with minimal fanfare and showmanship.

Team-based duels should be encouraged, as having one PC do all the fighting while the rest of the players sit around watching the melee can get unfun.

Martial Traditions and Cliques within the Battle Academy

Image from the Irregular at Magic High School

At its founding, the Battle Academy was home to eleven practitioners of renowned martial disciplines who passed on their training and talents to any who would learn.  Their disciples in turn were expected to share their learned wisdom with other prospective students who came to the Academy.  Each teacher had their own way of doing things and reserved their own training centers, eventually turning into full-blown cliques and schools of different martial arts.  Today the school's leaders are part of the Council of Seven, each member a master in one particular discipline.

Classes and courses in the Battle Academy are split into “general studies” which are useful to any warrior, and the seven disciplines representing each martial tradition.  There is nothing preventing a student from taking courses in multiple traditions, but dividing up one’s talents into too many fields is too much for most newcomers and so most students start out with joining one tradition.  In addition to spartan dormitories, classrooms, and training fields, the Academy also houses centuries' worth of books on combat and warfare in its Ancestral Corridor.

Black Seraph: No longer a discipline taught at the Battle Academy, its founding teacher left the school in exile after his harsh training regimen resulted in the insanity and death of several disciples. Rumors among the student body say that the surviving scrolls and tomes of the Black Seraph disciples lie hidden in encoded messages and secret passages within the Ancestral Corridor, detailing forbidden secrets and blood oaths of power to otherworldly patrons.

Broken Blade: Those who join the disciples of the Broken Blade are expected to live meagerly in all aspects of life.  Forced onto a bland diet and plain training uniforms to wear, they learn to overcome both combat and life’s struggles with nothing but their own training and force of will.  It is taught that coin, wine, and earthly pleasures weaken one’s body and soul, softening them physically and morally.  Unsurprisingly it is not a popular school, but nobody can deny that its students are some of the most resolute and hardworking at the Academy.

Golden Lion: Clad in black and yellow uniforms, the Golden Lion disciples understand better than anyone that no true warrior stands alone.  Students are encouraged to put their trust in each other, and everything is done communally; newcomers are paired with an older classmate to serve as their “shield-kin” and the junior as a “sword-kin.”  Both are responsible for each other’s welfare, although the shield-kin’s senior position raises their duty to a higher standard.

Golden Lion classes place a heavy emphasis on social skills as part of their curriculum, including theater and debate clubs.  There is a fierce rivalry between them and the Scarlet Throne school, in part due to their shared affinity for regal command and their differing ideologies of collectivism versus individualism.

Iron Tortoise: Its founder a valiant knight who guarded a bridge against a goblinoid army outnumbering her forces ten to one, Iron Tortoise training uniforms are literally clothed padding one usually wears below metal armor.  "Being able to defeat one's enemy is a necessity in battle, but so is protecting yourself and the ones you love."  Iron Tortoise classes grade students on defense as well as offense, with sport-like training courses where opposing teams do their best to guard detachable flagpoles, zones, and designated "VIP" apprentices from the other side.  By themselves, Iron Tortoise apprentices are resolute, strong-hearted warriors.  Together, they are an unyielding wall.

Primal Fury: The Council seat now vacant, the apprentices of Primal Fury are an urban legend among Kremdorans.  It is said that they live in the caverns beneath the city where the null magic zone does not reach, either stalking the tunnels for hapless spelunkers to kill or hunters of fell abominations and spies from Vierks.  The truth is that the subterranean disciples recruit from Battle Academy apprentices who seem the most worthy of their training.  They view the city as a temporary shield against Vierks and a willing prison for its inhabitants.  As such, they teach that true warriors only improve when they're out living in a hostile world.  Disciples live a vagrant lifestyle in the tunnels and surrounding plains, learning the behaviors of animals and how they survive to supplement their fighting arts.

Scarlet Throne: The Council member a sultan whose skill with the blade matches his wit for governance, Scarlet Throne apprentices are disproportionately drawn from the aristocracy and society's well-to-do.  Emphasizing light weapons, quick strikes, and superior mobility, this flashy yet efficient fighting style has a tendency to attract students whose egos and desire for attention match their talent.  Whether this is due to such folk gravitating towards more "showy" styles, or the Scarlet Throne engendering confidence in its training, depends on who you ask and whether or not the one who answers is a Scarlet Throne disciple.

Silver Crane: Many cultures understand that heavenly entities watch over mortals, and this is just as true in magic-less Kremdora as it is anywhere else.  Although no known members of the Battle Academy practice this style (in part due to its dependence on supernatural maneuvers), students who show traits of compassion, mercy, and a desire for justice receive visions in their dreams of a masked celestial clad in silver.  Those who accept her offer to learn the secrets of the Silver Crane often go on to lands where virtue and value are most needed.  Along the Kremdoran-Vierksian border many folk report witnessing masked silver soldiers distracting Freedom Guard patrols and spiriting away refugee families from the watchful gaze of the mage-tyrant's minions.

Solar Wind: Students of this discipline hold classes in the Academy's towers and open roofs, where the view is greatest and the winds are strongest.  The floating paper lanterns, decorated hanging circles, and other targets are what the apprentices test their bows, firearms, and throwing weapons on, trusting in the light of the sun and moon as well as their own instincts to guide their aim.  Although such activity is punished by teachers, it is popular for Solar Wind practitioners to stand upon the roofs of the school, tie a written message to a blunted missile, and initiate a dazzling maneuver while firing it at some they intend to receive the message.  Most disciples ask students if they'd like to participate in the "Solar Delivery Service" as a way of testing their willingness for this fun diversion.

Steel Serpent: Clad in dragonbone masks and bearing strange titles in lieu of names, the disciples of the Steel Serpent train in a reclusive tower in the Academy's southeast.  There are lots of rumors about what goes on inside the walls, from prayers to foul patrons, murder for hire, and the raising of venomous beasts for poison.  The masked practitioners are tolerated because their killing arts grant them significant medical insight, and graduates go on to be accomplished herbalists beloved in the city.  In spite of the disciples' reputation, the Steel Serpent Council member is loyal to Kremdora and would fight to the death to protect its people from Vierks.

Thrashing Dragon:  Although one member of the Council of Seven represents Thrashing Dragon, in practice this discipline is taught by two teachers with very different philosophies.  The Council member is Sedef Mataraci of the Bronze Reach, a seemingly emotionless and jaded woman.  The other teacher is Nurullah Uzun the Bold, a joyful and headstrong warrior who most students can't remember ever seeing him frown.  Classes are an improvisational, chaotic affair as both teachers encourage students to adapt to the changing environment of battle (even during midswing!) instead of sticking to a single plan.  As a result, even the stoic apprentices of Sedef are as unpredictable in tournament matches as Nurullah's brash daredevils.

Veiled Moon: Like Primal Fury, the disciples of Veiled Moon do not practice their techniques within the city proper.  A strange and elusive bunch, the elder members are actually comprised of planar scholars and spellcasters who found themselves cut off from magic after the meteor fell.  They found out that they did not need spells to tap into the Astral and Ethereal Planes, as their lore about the mortal and spirit world allowed them to bridge the often-misunderstood gap between what is natural and what is supernatural.

The Veiled Moon warrior-mystics have an alliance of sorts with the Battle Academy.  They visit the city at rare times, but do not linger for long as they find the null magic zone disconcerting to their senses.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Interesting 3rd Party Finds: the Kapre, a Huge-sized PC race (Pathfinder)

Recently this week I took advantage of the GM's Day Sale on Drive-Thru RPG and snagged a couple of things on my wish list.  One of them was Little Red Goblin Game's Racial Guide 4: Nontraditional Races.  The aim of the book was to create 32 all new PC races unconnected to previous traditional fantasy material, and they're full of creative ideas.  For exampl, there's the crystalline Chel who can record their surroundings to a limited extent and turn them into light projections, the blubbery Wugs who can inflate their own bodies and appear more threatening (complete with Intimidate and fear DC increases) and increased buoyancy, and the Tarrasquelings which are literally cast-off bits of the legendary beast's flesh given humanoid shape and form!

It's a pretty cool book, but one race in particular jumped out at me, the Kapre.  Basically the pitch is that they're a race of Huge-sized giants (20 to 30 feet tall) who are actually rather easygoing and frail for their size.  They used to live in jungles, picking the fruit off of tall trees for sustenance, and migrated to other forested areas over time.  Unlike most giants, they are peaceful and do not prefer battle, living in tight-knit nomadic bands.  A few live in settled towns known as lungsons, but their buildings consist of little more than tents held up by very tall poles which can be easily uprooted.  Drugs such as ganja (re. marijuana) and khat are an integral aspect to their culture and are frequently used to wind down after a hard day's work.

Like the other entries, the kapre's write-up is rather brief, but what is provided is rather interesting.  Their generally nonviolent nature makes sense when we look at their stats below.  Still, the benefits of Huge size probably means that a lot of players are going to make them into melee fighters of some sort.  And mechanically speaking this is an optimal route for them.

When it comes to most Pathfinder races, both first and third party, virtually all of them are Small to Large size.  The associated benefits and penalties for further deviations from Medium end up causing quite a bit of complications for both traditional adventuring and game balance purposes.  Little Red Goblin Games, however, play-tested the race to make sure it would be balanced in combat.  And from a glimpse at the stat block, they're not as overpowered as you'd think they'd be for a creature of that size.

Racial Traits

Ability Score Racial Trait (-3): Kapre are enormous but their frailty makes them weaker than other creatures of the Huge size category. This makes them rather limber (comparatively) and light on their feet for such large creatures. Their giant roots assure that they are not particularly bright, though this doesn’t seem to hamper them. They gain -4 Strength, -2 Intelligence, +2 Dexterity.
Design Note: After adjusting for the ability score racial trait and size, a kapre has +0 Strength, -2 Dexterity, and -2 Intelligence.
Size (10): A kapre is a Huge (tall) creature. They gain a +4 size bonus to Strength and a -4 size penalty to Dexterity. Huge races take a -2 size penalty to their AC, a -2 size penalty on attack rolls, a +2 bonus on combat maneuver checks and to their CMD, and a -8 size penalty on Stealth checks. A Huge (tall) creature takes up a space that is 15 feet by 15 feet and has a reach of 15 feet.
Type (0): Kapre are humanoids with the giant subtype.
Base Speed (0): Kapres have a base speed of 30 feet despite their great size, due to their long stride and small feet.
Languages (0): Kapre begin play speaking Giant and Common. Kapre with high Intelligence scores can choose from Halfling, Gnome, Elven, Goblin, Orc, and Dwarven.
Small Hands (-1): Despite being of Huge size, kapres must use weapons sized for a large creature. Likewise, a kapre deals damage with unarmed and natural attacks as if it were a large creature.
Pharmaceutical (3): Kapre gain a +2 racial bonus on Craft and Profession checks related to the creation and sales of drugs as well as a +2 bonus on all Heal checks.
Hyper-Hallucinogenic (2): A kapre’s mind reacts differently to a recreational hallucinogenics. Whenever a kapre takes a recreational drug (worth at least 2 sp), its mind expands and accelerates, gaining a +2 racial bonus to Wisdom and Charisma, but a -2 penalty to AC due to an increase in lethargy. This benefit lasts for 1 minute after they take it.
Racial Points: 11 RP

The Kapre are rather lacking in variety in terms of beneficial features in comparison to other races, both Core and the other Nontraditional entries.  Their Huge size and modified Dexterity penalty precludes a lot of sneaky builds and ranged combat.  The hallucinogenic mental boost is actually quite short for everyday spellcasting, but in terms of combat it can actually be doable as most battles in Pathfinder do not last beyond 10 rounds.  Still, the cost for every dose, and the -2 armor class on top of the -2 for Huge size is a pretty big kicker, which makes it an overall inferior choice for an inherent mental bonus other races get.

Regarding the melee department (the one we've all been waiting for), it's not what I'd call overpowered, per se, except potentially in the area of reach.  The lack of Strength bonus means that they're getting a net -2 on attack rolls due to size, and the fact that they can only use weapons sized for Large creatures (or one size category smaller) means that the massive damage bonus you were thinking of with that 4d6 greatsword is only going to be 3d6.  So in short, you're still getting a nice damage bonus, just not a gigantic one. 

However, it's still pretty good for melee builds for one big reason: reach.  The kapre's 15 foot reach is a boon, and when combined with a reach weapon you can increase that up to 20 feet!  Combine that with enlarge person (which now works on giants in Pathfinder due to them being humanoids now), you can get a Gargantuan Kapre with a Huge glaive dealing 3d8 damage plus strength up to 25 feet away!  That +2 Strength you might get from a human or half-orc option is a small price to pay, given how important reach is for many melee builds.  This might sound like a lot, but keep in mind that melee's a rather underpowered option in Pathfinder sans a few min-maxed builds in comparison to what spellcasters can do at middle to high levels.  I don't fear that a kapre PC's going to to unbalance the game except at the lowest levels where that 2d8/3d6 damage can one-shot a lot of challenges.

TL;DR The Kapre are a neat idea, and can be a useful springboard for other designers thinking of creating a Huge race.  I like the limitations placed on the kapre to avoid turning it into an overpowered damage-dealer, such as Small Hands and no Strength bonus.  I would've preferred if it had at least an inherent mental score bonus (or at least hallucinogenic buffs with a much longer duration for out-of-combat casting), and maybe bonuses to some skill checks beyond Craft and Profession for some variety.  Although reach is its greatest asset and I can see most players going for a Barbarian/Fighter/etc build, the Kapre can make for passable Clerics, Druids, or Rangers which don't rely upon stealth.  The Charisma bonus from hallucinogenic drugs might make for a neat Paladin build, too!  The intelligence penalty's going to hurt Magus builds hard, though.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Let Them Play Drow

A recurring element I see in the Dungeons & Dragons fandom is one of apprehension when it comes to drow, namely the inclusion of them as a playable race.  The most recent example witnessed was while browsing Paizo's Pathfinder forums, but they're far from the only player base to do this.  I find the issue rather peculiar for several reasons, which makes it rather different than a player desiring a goblin, orc, or similar antagonist-race PC.

First off is the classic Drizz't conundrum, of gamers copying mostly or whole-sale from an existing fictional character.  Understandably many players have a problem with this, although I think it's less due to a lack of originality (basing PCs off of existing fictional characters is nothing new) so much as the repetition it engendered across the decades of play.  Secondly is the problem of an antagonist/monstrous race in a party of humans, dwarves, halflings, and the like.  The fact remains in most published campaigns the drow are pretty much universally vilified.  PCs with one in their group are going to encounter torch-wielding peasants and armed militia whenever the party sets foot in a town or city.  Barring that, the other assumption is that a non-Drizz't drow PC is going to be played like a backstabbing sociopath who is eventually going to offend or turn against the rest of the party.  In short, the baggage is such that the mere option of wanting to play a drow causes lots of groups to jump to the worst conclusions.

And yet that very same fandom can't get enough of them; drow are just plain popular.  They're common antagonists in adventures both modern and classic.  The Drizz't saga is one of the most popular D&D book series.  There's a lot of third party sourcebooks devoted to them as villains, PC options, and cultural detail from Green Ronin's Plot & Poison for 3rd Edition to Barrel Rider Game's Dark Elf base class for Labyrinth Lord.  At least six adventure paths center on them in some way: TSR's Against the Giants series,  Wizards of the Coast's City of the Spider Queen, Paizo's Second Darkness, Adventure-a-Week's Rise of the Drow, Mongoose Publishing's Drow War, and Fire Mountain Games' Throne of Night.  They've been an option for playable characters in official material as early as 1st Edition's Unearthed Arcana, and 3rd, 4th, and now 5th Edition makes them available in setting supplements or even as "core options."  This is not even touching fan material like Drowtales, a webcomic which got popular enough that the creator can make a living off of it.

So this ties back into a common conundrum.  You got all this material for players and DMs alike, scattered across Editions about an elven subrace that a lot of gamers find appealing for various reasons.  And given they're humanoid and have several neat aesthetics (spider motif, underground cities, a magically advanced society, etc), it's inevitable that people are going to want to play as them.

I think we should let drow be playable options.  More than that, I think that we need more original settings and material to make it so they aren't near-universally reviled and evil, as well as tackling the above-mentioned problems.  The thing is, a huge amount of D&D material goes out of its way to show them off as a depraved society.  Orcs and goblins raid and kill, but depictions of drow  have them torture for fun, engage in rape and pedophilia, lack a conscience, and is mentioned in various sourcebooks (like 3rd Edition's Drow of the Underdark) that their society is so unstable that it would fall apart without Lolth micro-managing everything and intruding into her followers' lives.  In some material (Complete Book Elves, 4th Edition Forgotten Realms) the text even links their physical traits like skin color as proof of their evil taint.  This is part of several problems regarding related uncomfortable subject matter underlying their portrayal, as has been noted by others.

Like I noted in my Pathfinder/OSR monstrous PC books, the society of a PC belonging to an "evil" race needs to be more nuanced and three-dimensional beyond the whole 'depraved, violent, and wicked' aspect in order for smoother games.  Otherwise every trip to a non-drow town becomes a potential series of combat encounters.  In my current magic school campaign setting I made the decision to make drow non-evil, or at least as evil as humans are.  They still live underground, have a fondness for spiders and the like, but the major difference was that they were another fantasy civilization in a cosmopolitan metropolis (albeit in the undercity).  They belonged to an old clan of elves who once lived in the mountains, but had to retreat underground from a surface-world disaster.  One of the teachers at the magical academy is a drow, Professor Shadershin, responsible for teaching the Amateur Adventurers obstacle course and gearing the PCs up with equipment.  Another is Gazerlin, a martial artist who wears a mithril power suit in battle; she came to the city avenge the people of her city who were slain by the machinations of Theopolis, a surface-world crime lord.  Other than these two characters, drow have not really played much of a role in my games.  However, the characters I designed were meant to be more than just a straight trope.  Even Gazerlin, who seeks vengeance, does it because everyone she knew and cared about was taken from her by the ambitious greed of one wicked man.  A more typical drow wouldn't feel sorrow for the loss of her fellows.

I think we're at the point where a societal face lift would be the best option forward, both to feed the demand for drow PCs as well as assuage the common fears of DMs and play groups of coping with such an option.  Perhaps we can make their societies varied.  One stalactite city might be under the iron fist of a fascist tyrant whose upper class follows the God(dess) of War.  Another community might live amid a mushroom forest, where their druids and alchemists use the fungus for delicious food, giant specimens hallowed out to live in, and even dangerous mold as weapons against invaders!  A few isolated cities might preserve the old ways of surface elves, worshiping the pantheon like their ancestors did thousands of years ago.  Not only does this move the majority of drow beyond 'elite cannon fodder' and 'evil geniuses in training,' it also adds more variety to the potential backstories of drow PCs beyond the typical rebel/sociopath schematic.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Magic School Campaign Inspirational Material: Harry Potter Series

Universal Studios Picture

For this series, I am going to cover various novels, shows, movies, role-playing supplements and other media for ideas and tricks to add to one's magic school campaign.  And what better fictional world to start with than the most iconic and well-known series?  Harry Potter is a very good series because many people, gamers and non-gamers alike, are familiar with the source material and the use of a similar backdrop can help ease players into your setting.  Thriving fan communities on the Internet for children and adults alike mean that plenty of information about the series is available at one's fingertips.  On the other hand, its familiarity can be a double-edged sword, in that some players might not appreciate it if your setting feels too unoriginal or copying too much.  There's a difference between a teacher who's a hard-nosed disciplinarian, and one who copies Professor Snape's mannerisms down to a tee!

A Hidden World

The Harry Potter series takes place in our own modern society, albeit one with a secret community known as the Wizarding World.  Those who cannot cast magic are known as Muggles, and are separated from the magical communities via a series of spells meant to alter perception, erase memories, and the like along with general secrecy.  Witches and wizards learn magic through training and study, but the gift to be able to do it at all is an inborn trait which can never be learned by Muggles.  Magic is an all-purpose power which acts more or less as a substitute for modern technology such as light generation charms, travel by teleportation or broomstick, and of course offensive spells such as the summoning of a patronus (a kind of guardian spirit) or the forbidden killing curse.

Campaign Ideas: Even beyond the marvelous school of Hogwarts, magic was omnipresent.  It wasn't out of place to see schoolchildren eating animated chocolate frogs on the train to school, nor for large sports stadiums to hold Quidditch tournaments between international teams.  Perhaps your magic school campaign takes place in a setting where the benefits of magic spread across all social strata.  The local blacksmith uses minor repairing spells to supplement his work, while village militias stock their arsenals with healing potions and silver and cold iron weaponry.

It can get easy to get carried away with this, and if magic seems too omnipresent the PCs might not feel so special in comparison.  To rectify this, have the majority population of spellcasters know magic focused for their trade and little beyond that.  Another idea is to borrow the concept of reusable cantrips from games such as Pathfinder and 5th Edition D&D, and hand out a few to most NPCs.  That way, the more powerful magic of Vancian casting can remain within the hands of important characters with class levels.

Hidden Portraits and Passages

Hogwarts' full environs have not been entirely mapped out in the series, and in virtually all of the books Harry and his friends utilized many secret tunnels to get around the school.  One such pathway in the Chamber of Secrets leads to the lair of the vicious basilisk.  Another was the Room of Requirement in the Order of the Phoenix, which would appear people in an hour of greatest need and was used for the clandestine training of Dumbledore's Army.  And even the very environment itself has a tendency to change, like stairs spanning several floors moving to other doorways of their own accord!

Campaign Ideas: In the creation of your own magic school, you should draw out a rough draft of a map.  Leave plenty of empty rooms and space so you can develop rooms and places as the need arises over the course of the campaign.  Consider the benefits of illusion magic and spells such as Magic Aura and Detect Secret Doors.  Think of the original purposes for secret rooms and passages in the school's original design: that tunnel leading out of the school and into that unassuming shop might have once been used to smuggle people into or out of the academy.  That sealed door might hold a vicious monster trapped in stasis.  Rival houses might have secret passwords to get into their dorms.

Death, Power, and Limitations

In spite of its great power, magic can only do so much.  Wizards need wands to focus their magic into reliable spells (wandless magic is possible, but often so hard and unreliable most don't bother using it).  Magic cannot bring the dead back to life.  The Rule of Conjuration makes it such that items made out of thin air tend to better fit general uses than specific ones, and Gamp's Law makes it such that food cannot be made out of nothing (along with four other Principal Exemptions).

Although most fantasy worlds have some sort of principal laws governing magic, the world of Harry Potter's is interesting due to the fact that it cannot master death itself; even spells which can extend one's lifespan come at a cost.  The inability to spontaneously create food is another one, as it would otherwise eliminate a primary need for living beings.

Campaign Ideas: The limitations of magic in OSR games tend to be more broad than Harry Potter's.  The granting of wishes, the possibility of continual energy sources, and resurrection magic are some of the greatest powers and thus the ones most capable of changing society.

And the disparity climbs even farther in Pathfinder.  Although OSR games tend to have binary either/or conditions for things such as material components, spell slots, and casting in armor, most of these limitations are done away with or can be circumvented in Pathfinder.  Eschew Materials, reducing Arcane Spell Failure, and leaving spell slots open to fill in with spells later that day are valid tactics.

In comparison to most fictional fantasy worlds, D&D mages tend to be broad, unlimited, and multi-disciplined in how they can use their magic.  The imposition of limitations should be done so as to not be too harsh and ruin the player's fun, but be able to reign in some of the more extreme shenanigans.  Perhaps magical effects cannot be permanent or retained indefinitely, and thus require the expenditure of ritual energy and material sacrifices?  Maybe spell energy's principally tied to the planes or the land itself, and overuse can drain the land of future spell use.  Or maybe certain materials are strongly anti-magical in nature, and thus can be used to block against scrying and other useful applications of spell energy.

Thanks: the Harry Potter Wiki was instrumental in helping me search for and remember events from the series.

Harry Potter is a long and popular enough series that I could go on, but right now I feel that this post is long enough, and to move on to other forms of lesser-known media for the time being to mine for inspirational material.