Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Age of Teleportation

One of the things that clearly distinguishes life in the Wild West from the "default setting" of D&D is the availability of rail transportation ... and the unavailability of magical transportation.

For those who can afford it, a 9th level sellspell would charge 450gp to teleport 3 passengers up to 900 miles in the blink of an eye. In a small city (population > 5000) there is an 86% chance of at least one 9th or 10th level wizard, or 10th level sorcerer (3.5ed DMG, p139). Of course, there's also the chance of a teleportation mishap, but every mode of transport has its downsides.

For everyone else, wagon trains and riverboats are still the norm. A long-haul stagecoach can cover from 70 up to 120 miles per day over well-maintained roads.



Charles O. Paullin (1932) Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, the University of Michigan.

Michael Graham Richard (2012) How fast could you travel across the U.S. in the 1800s?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Demographics, continued

"The power of the sword is more sensibly felt in an extensive monarchy, than in a small community. It has been calculated by the ablest politicians that no State, without being soon exhausted, can maintain above the hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness. But although this relative proportion may be uniform, its influence over the rest of society will vary according to the degree of its positive strength. The advantages of military science and discipline cannot be exerted, unless a proper number of soldiers are united into one body..."
Edward Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume the first, chapter V, page 106. Printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, London 1776.
If each of the Imperial Legions under the Immortal Emperor Drakus Coaltongue numbered 10,000 troops, that would imply that the population of Eastrealm would be at least 7 million. Given that the population of Europe at the time of Charlemagne (9th century AD) was around 25 to 30 million, that actually seems a little low. Bachrach estimates that, out of a population of 7-8 million in the Carolingian regnum north of the Alps (575,000 sq. miles), there were 2 million men between 15 and 55 years of age (ie. fit for military service). Assuming that 4% of this age cohort was mobilized for expeditio (military service), Charlemagne commanded about 100,000 troops.

The Imperial Roman army (14 AD) numbered some 250,000 men, equally split between 25 legions and 250 units of auxiliaries. The population of the Roman Empire (2 million sq. miles) during that time is estimated to have been between 50 and 60 million.

Bernard S. Bachrach (2001) Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire, University of Pennsylvania Press.

John D. Durand (1977) Historical Estimates of World Population: An Evaluation, Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, pp. 253-296.

J.C. Russell (1958) "Late Ancient and Medieval Population," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 48(3), pp. 1-152.

Monday, July 23, 2012

D&D cities should be like icebergs

The majority of what happens in a fantasy metropolis should be "beneath the surface": whether literally (sewers, catacombs and ruins below the city streets); or metaphorically (secret plots and political machinations).

I've mentioned the city of Marchion (in Splintered Peace by David Chart) before. The megadungeon beneath Mage Hill is mostly implied - it is up to the individual DM to populate that location with specific dungeon levels and denizens.

The site of Marchion was settled in the distant past, but no one knows by whom. Sometimes strange artifacts are unearthed by people digging foundations for houses, and many think that Mage Hill isn't a natural feature. However, these inhabitants, whoever they were, were long gone before the first recorded attempts to settle the site. Local folk tales tell of the buried complexes they left behind, but no one knows whether these stories have any substance.
Aboveground, most of the mages' towers still stand, and some are still empty - guarded by the traps and wards that their erstwhile owners established. Over the centuries, parties of adventurers have cleared out many of the towers, and thus the residences of mighty wizards have been reduced to cheap housing for the lower classes. Some of the towers are still closed, either because no one has tried to enter them, or because the groups that did go in didn't come out. They provide opportunities for a classic dungeon adventure, with the ability to go home at night and sell the dungeon afterwards; Marchion law gives ownership to whoever clears them. One of the closed towers is Pharran's; it has claimed dozens of adventuring parties over the years, and thus has an ominous reputation.
Another good example is Ptolus (by Monte Cook) with its banewarrens and spire. However, that setting perhaps has too much detail. If I was going to run a campaign set in Ptolus, I think I would want to spend at least a year familiarizing myself with the 672 pages (6.8lbs hardcover) of material. Also, I'm not about to pay $45 for a PDF version of a book that I already own, and these days I DM almost exclusively using searchable ebooks on my laptop.

On the opposite end of the spectrum (in terms of volume, at least) is Vornheim, by Zak S. This is not a pre-packaged city sourcebook, but rather a collection of random tables for running an "urbancrawl" (as opposed to dungeoncrawl) adventure on the fly. There are lots of weird and colourful details here - sprinkle liberally through your own city, as needed.

In the real-world archaeological record, there are plenty of examples of cities built atop old Roman ruins and suchlike. In the Middle East, Jericho has consecutive layers of habitation built up over time, all the way back to 9,000 BC. In the archaeological site of Troy, the layers are numbered from Troy I (the oldest) up to Troy IX, just like the levels of a dungeon.

In D&D, with monsters (undead, constructs, dragons, etc.) that can live for thousands of years, there is no reason why these subterranean cities wouldn't still be populated.

If you want a city that will capture your players' imaginations and fuel adventures, then you need to go beyond simple demographics, innkeepers and merchants. Inject some mystery into your urban setting.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Default Setting

The "default setting" of D&D is the context that is implied by the Rules As Written. This doesn't refer to any specific fantasy world, like Greyhawk or Mystara. Rather, it takes the "core rules" as a whole and explores the implications and assumptions inherent in such a system.

This article in the D&D wiki is a great example:
"D&D represents a period in history that is most closely identifiable with the Iron Age: the landscape is dotted with tribes and aspiring empires, the wilderness is largely unexplored, and powerful individuals and small groups can take over an area without having a big geopolitical hubbub about it."
In my opinion, it also closely resembles the Wild West (or rather, its fictional depiction) but with swords and sorcery instead of six-shooters. When adventurers reach "name level" they will tend to migrate to the frontier of civilization to establish their stronghold in unclaimed territory. The discovery of an ancient dungeon and its promise of income mobility might spur a gold rush, similar to Dakota in the 19th century. Deadwood and Tombstone are good models for the type of boom towns that would spring up in the D&D wilderness.

One thing that the default setting does have in common with the (pre-feudal) dark ages is a post-apocalyptic element: echoes of the fall of Rome, or the destruction of fabled Atlantis. Major cities will be built on the ruins of former civilizations, when epic magic and artefacts were commonplace. After the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410AD, its population gradually declined until it was reduced to a few scattered settlements amidst sprawling ruins. Most other former Roman cities were in a similar condition. The closest metropolis (population over 25,000) was Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire. The Byzantines viewed the inhabitants of western Europe as illiterate savages.

I'm not saying that this default setting is necessarily any better than any of the other published settings for fantasy roleplaying. However, it is certainly very different from the feudal, agrarian society that is described in many sourcebooks. Other RPGs, such as Blue Rose, Ars Magica and even Rolemaster, are much better at portraying a High Medieval or Early Renaissance setting consistently.

However, I like the default setting of D&D. If you're going to create a homebrew campaign, then I think it's a good place to start.

The secret history of the Pirates of Knossos

Cap'n Carver and his crew were smugglers and river pirates who regularly made the journey from Knossos, all the way up the river Brallen from Laveril to Helsmuth. They never went as far as Qualinost, even before the elves closed the border, because elven customs inspectors were known to use divination magic to scan cargo. They wouldn't be as easily fooled by the illusions that the wizard-navigator, Mixail Elets Zaitsev Beloi, cast on the ship and her crew to escape detection.
These are the voyages of the pirate sloop Ocean Spray:

Captain's log, the 5th of Metageitnion waxing
Last summer, while we were docked in Helsmuth, a fresh-faced band of young adventurers hailed the ship, seeking passage downriver. They didn't look like they had much worth stealing, but they might fetch a good price in the slave markets of Knossos. We told them to meet us at the Saucy Wench, a tavern by the docks, at midnight. The bosun, Max the Ax, took a group of swabbies with him to set up an ambush. They never returned. By interrogating the bartender, we learned that only 3 of the targets had shown up: a second-rate performer from the theatre; a young, oriental lad; and a noblewoman wearing scale mail and carrying a bastard sword. It was she who had fought Max and vanquished him, cutting off his head.

Captain's log, the 4th of Maimakterion waxing
On our next trip up the Brallen, three months later, we stopped off at the village of Fernquay to trade some illicit substances with our contact there. A capable young lass by the name of Deborah sought me out, asking to join our pirate band. Since I still hadn't replaced our bosun, and she passed all of the tests, she was welcomed into the crew. She told a sad tale of woe: formerly the leader of the thieves' guild in Sweetmead, she had built up a successful racket of extortion, gambling, bootlegging and prostitution. The incompetent village constables were completely unaware, being far more concerned with a series of disappearances. However, that all changed when the young lordling of house Atronan returned to claim his birthright. She tried to use his mistrust of the village mayor to lure him into an ambush, but that plan backfired spectacularly. Somehow, Lord Martok and his companions managed to locate her hideout, killing all of her guild enforcers and taking her captive. Fortunately, one of Martok's allies disagreed with the way that she was being treated, and allowed her to escape. With nothing left for her in Sweetmead, she headed instead to Fernquay, to seek her fortune there.

Captain's log, the 17th of Maimakterion
Deborah never expected that she would face her former captors again so soon, but it was barely a fortnight later that they showed up at the Pickled Otyugh in Marchion. Martok wasn't there, but Deborah recognized Gerald, one of the ones who had tied her up and tortured her. With some fast talking, Lukwind the bard managed to calm everyone down before violence erupted. The Otyugh was meant to be neutral ground, where the various underworld factions of Marchion could meet and do business. If we had attacked without provocation, we might have been banned from the establishment. Reluctantly, I allowed the adventurers to leave with their lives, but grew to regret the decision before too long.

Captain's log, earlier 10th of Maimakterion
When Lord Martok returned to Marchion, he was given a hero's welcome. I sent the swabbies to find out where Martok was staying, but it was soon evident that the nobleman was too popular to be assassinated without repercussions. An army of orcs had blockaded the river to the south, which seemed like a golden opportunity.

Captain's log, the 8th of Maimakterion waning
We stayed in town for 4 more days, but when I heard that Martok was raising an army of mercenaries to attack the orcs, I realised that we had some information worth selling. Sailing to Auldhame, I met with Gnod Yriah, the orcish chieftain. The information about Martok's army was enough to convince him that we were reliable. He asked us to supply him with alchemist's fire and other munitions, for which he was able to pay a premium. I promised that we would sail to Laveril and return with the goods.

Captain's log, the 6th of Poseideon waxing
When we returned to Auldhame a fortnight later, there wasn't a single living soul left in the village. The charred corpses of the orcs - men, women and children - were piled high in the village green. This Lord Martok was clearly more evil than I had given him credit for. As for us, we were left with a cargo hold full of military ordnance and no buyer. Arms smuggling was a more legitimate business than what we usually engaged in, so I suppose it serves me right for compromising my principles and getting involved in politics.

Captain's log, the 7th of Poseideon waxing
We tried to sell the munitions in Marchion, but soon discovered that we had become persona non grata. The story in the Docklands was that Deborah and some hobgoblins had been making trouble, intimidating people and roughing them up. Of course this was impossible, since she had just spent the last two weeks sailing to Laveril and back. Deborah was furious and I had to order her back aboard the ship, otherwise I don't know what she would have done. At least Helsmuth was now open for trade once more, although it was still under martial law. We decided to sail north and sell the munitions there, before returning to Knossos. Winter was approaching and I didn't want to remain in Eastrealm any longer than I had to.

Captain's log, the 9th of Elaphebolion waxing
Having spent three months in the tropics, it was quite a shock to return to the much chillier clime of Eastrealm. Barely a tenday from Ostara, the vernal equinox, but we shivered as we sailed through the estuarine lagoon at the mouth of the Brallen. At least we could console ourselves that the weather should soon be getting warmer. We carry a secret cargo, the details of which I must not discuss here. Suffice to say that these land lubbers will soon feel the wrath of Davy Jones.

Captain's log, the 18th of Elaphebolion
We delivered the first of our "gifts" to our contacts in Helsmuth. There is so much overwhelming evil in the city that one more cursed artefact will hardly even be noticed. What was once the slums is now a quarantine zone where nobody ever goes, at least nobody living ... and dead men tell no tales.

Captain's log, the earlier 10th of Elaphebolion
There was nobody left in Marchion who could be relied upon to guard their "gift" until the moment arose for its use. Our allies the wererats were all dead, but their lair remained vacant. Reluctantly, I left some of my men behind to stand vigil in the darkness. After the treatment we received the last time that we were here, there were no shortage of volunteers to repay the people of Marchion for their "kindness".

Captain's log, the 8th of Elaphebolion waning
Alewyfe is a city of rules and regulations, but little imagination. As long as you maintain the illusion of propriety, nobody looks too closely at what you are up to. With the Ocean Spray disguised as a humble mercantile vessel, we had no trouble convincing the customs officials that we were on legitimate business. As long as we have filed the relevant paperwork, we can come and go as we please. Of course, many of those who maintain a fa├žade of decency behave quite differently behind closed doors, and there is no shortage of demand for our product. We store all of our contraband in a rented warehouse by the docks, secure in the knowledge that the vigilant city guardsmen will keep it safe for us.

Captain's log, the 6th of Elaphebolion waning
Vincenton exists as a holiday destination for the decadent nobility, who all own opulent villas in the nearby countryside. We are always treated like kings by our allies, who have infiltrated the highest echelons of the aristocracy and know the dirty secrets of every duke and duchess for miles around. The city is almost depopulated during wintertime, but in the spring thaw the fat cats will all saunter back again and the time of our revenge will be nigh.

Captain's log, the 5th of Elaphebolion waning
In Katavia, it is all about commerce: anything can be bought for a price. I contemplated simply selling our "gift" to the highest bidder, but for the possibility that the buyer might then seek to have it valued and thus discover its true nature. Instead, I stored it in a private vault, supposedly impregnable, beneath one of the auction houses. I have left instructions so that, when the day comes, it will be brought out and put on public display for all to see.

Captain's log, the 4th of Elaphebolion waning
At last! When we arrived in Laveril, it pleased me no end to discover that Martok, Lukwind and the rest were also in town. In the morning, once Mixail has memorised his spells, he will cloak us all in invisibility and we will seek a reckoning with these scum. We have only one "gift" left to deliver, then at last we can return to Knossos and leave Eastrealm to its doom.


Friday, May 11, 2012

War of the Burning Sky

set your campaign world on fire...

A 12-part adventure path for both D&D 4E and D&D 3.5.  Including veteran authors such as Ari Marmell (Heroes of Horror, Tome of Magic) , Wolfgang Baur (Editor DUNGEON® Magazine 1992-1995), Wil Upchurch (Midnight®, Champions of Ruin) and Darrin Drader (Book of Exalted Deeds, Serpent Kingdoms).

The trailer above is relatively spoiler-free, unlike the website or the forum on EN World.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Monster Slayer


In a society where vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night subsist parasitically on the blood of innocents, hunting such creatures can be a lucrative career. When citizens are faced with a threat far beyond the capability of their local militia to handle, they would willingly pay a hefty ransom to have it taken care of. That is where the professional slayer steps in: an individual familiar with a wide variety of monsters and trained in the effective means of killing them.
Hit Die: D8
Requirements:

  • Alignment: Any non-evil
  • Base Attack Bonus: +4
  • Skill: 8 ranks in Profession (slayer)
  • Psionics: Must have a power point reserve of at least 1 power point.
  • Special: Must have the Collector of Stories skill trick
Class Skills:
Balance (Dex), Climb (Str), Concentration (Con), Diplomacy (Cha), Disable Device (Int), Hide (Dex), Jump (Str), Knowledge (arcana) (Int), Knowledge (dungeoneering) (Int), Knowledge (local) (Int), Knowledge (nature) (Int), Knowledge (religion) (Int), Knowledge (the planes) (Int), Listen (Wis), Move Silently (Dex), Open Lock (Dex), Perform (sexual) (Cha), Profession (slayer) (Wis), Psicraft (Int), Search (Int), Sense Motive (Wis), Spot (Wis), Swim (Str), Tumble (Dex)

Skill Points at Each Level: 6 + Int modifier

Table: Monster Slayer

LevelBABFortRefWillSpecialPowers Known
1+0+2+2+2Slayer Contracts, Slayer Lore
2
+1

+3

+3

+3


+1 level of existing manifesting class

3

+2

+3

+3

+3
Detect Evil
+1 level of existing manifesting class

4

+3

+4

+4

+4


+1 level of existing manifesting class

5

+3

+4

+4

+4
Aligned Attack
+1 level of existing manifesting class

6

+4

+5

+5

+5

 

+1 level of existing manifesting class

7

+5

+5

+5

+5

 Speak with Dead

+1 level of existing manifesting class

8

+6

+6

+6

+6

 

+1 level of existing manifesting class

9

+6

+6

+6

+6

 

+1 level of existing manifesting class

10

+7

+7

+7

+7
Track Evil
+1 level of existing manifesting class


Weapon and Armor Proficiency: Monster Slayers gain no additional proficiency in any weapon or armor.

Powers Known: Beginning at 2nd level, Monster Slayers gain additional power points per day and access to new powers as if they had also gained a level in whatever manifesting class they belonged to before they added the prestige class. They do not, however, gain any other benefit a character of that class would have gained (bonus feats, metapsionic or item creation feats, psicrystal special abilities, and so on).
If a character had more than one manifesting class before he became an Monster Slayer, he must decide to which class he adds the new level of Monster Slayer for the purpose of determining power points per day, powers known, and manifester level.
If the character did not belong to a manifesting class before taking this prestige class (for example, if he was a soulknife or a ranger with the Wild Talent feat), he does not gain manifesting levels.

Slayer Contracts: By making a Profession (slayer) check, Monster Slayers can find out about any bounties offered for slaying monsters in the area. The size of the bounty reflects the degree of success, but it is normally limited by the wealth of the population center (the citizens of a thorp can't afford to hire a Monster Slayer, no matter how desperate they are).

Slayer Lore: Whenever a Monster Slayer fights a creature, he may make a Knowledge check based on its type, as described on page 78 of the Players Handbook, provided that he has at least one rank in the appropriate Knowledge skill. The DC of the check is 10 + the monster's hit dice.
If the check is successful, he receives a +1 insight bonus on attack rolls and damage rolls against that creature type for the remainder of the combat. For every 5 points that his check result exceeds the DC, this bonus increases by +1, up to a maximum of +5.
The Monster Slayer can only make one Knowledge check per creature type per combat. If he fights creatures of multiple types during the same combat, he can make one Knowledge check per type, thereby possibly gaining different bonuses against different opponents.
The Monster Slayer can use his bonus from the Collector of Stories skill trick for this check, but only once per encounter.
This benefit is an extraordinary ability.

Detect Evil (Sp): Starting at 3rd level, a monster slayer can use detect evil at will. His caster level equals his class level.

Aligned Attack: To use this ability, you must expend your psionic focus. When you make a successful melee or ranged attack, you deal an extra 1d6 points of damage, and your attack is treated as good-aligned for the purpose of overcoming damage reduction.You must decide whether or not to use this ability prior to making an attack. If your attack misses, you still expend your psionic focus.

Speak with Dead (Sp): Starting at 7th level, a monster slayer can use speak with dead once per day. His caster level equals his class level.

Track Evil (Su): A 10th level monster slayer can use the Track feat to track an evil creature by its lingering evilaura, making a Wisdom (or Survival) check to find or follow a track. The typical DC for a fresh trail is 10 (nomatter what kind of surface holds the scent). The DC for tracking a normal aura increases by 2 every10 minutes, for tracking a strong aura by 2 every hour, and for tracking an overwhelming aura by 2 every day. This ability otherwise follows the rules for the Track feat. The monster slayer can ignore the effects of surface conditions and poor visibility.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Awaken

An awakened animal gets 3d6 Intelligence, +1d3 Charisma, and +2 HD. Its type becomes magical beast (augmented animal). An awakened animal can’t serve as an animal companion, familiar, or special mount.
A bummer about that last sentence, but anyway this remains a fun spell that nevertheless creates headaches for the DM.

The augmented subtype states:
A creature with the augmented subtype usually has the traits of its current type, but the features of its original type.
An animal has the following features:
—d8 Hit Dice.
—Base attack bonus equal to 3/4 total Hit Dice (as cleric).
—Good Fortitude and Reflex saves (certain animals have different good saves).
—Skill points equal to (2 + Int modifier, minimum 1) per Hit Die, with quadruple skill points for the first Hit Die.
A magical beast possesses the following traits:
—Darkvision out to 60 feet and low-light vision.
—Proficient with its natural weapons only.
—Proficient with no armor.
—Magical beasts eat, sleep, and breathe.
So let's take an example: a giant squid with 18HD
Huge Magical Beast (Augmented Animal, Aquatic)
Hit Dice: 20d8+26 (116 hp)
Initiative: +3
Speed: Swim 80 ft. (16 squares)
Armor Class: 17 (–2 size, +3 Dex, +6 natural), touch 11, flat-footed 14
Base Attack/Grapple: +15/+35
Attack: Tentacle +22 melee (1d6+9)
Full Attack: 10 tentacles +22 melee (1d6+9) and bite +16 melee (2d8+4)
Space/Reach: 15 ft./15 ft. (30 ft. with tentacle)
Special Attacks: Constrict 1d6+9, improved grab
Special Qualities: Ink cloud, jet, low-light vision, darkvision 60ft
Saves: Fort +13, Ref +15, Will +7
Abilities: Str 28, Dex 17, Con 13, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 5
Skills: Listen +18, Spot +18, Swim +25
Feats: Alertness, Diehard, Endurance, Toughness (2), Power Attack, Blind-Fight
Challenge Rating: 12
Since this creature could now potentially be advanced by character class, there is the question of Level Adjustment. But I'd rather not go there ...

Sunday, January 09, 2011

You look around the dismal hut and jump as you see three ugly faces gawping at you! The room is untidy and contains little more than a straw mattress and a low table. The three creatures, a group of BLACK ELVES, are staring vacantly at you. A heavy, sweet smell hits your nostrils and explains their lethargy. They are puffing at a hookah containing Smoking Weed. One of them gathers himself together enough to talk to you and asks you to join them. What will you do?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Poison Elves

(originally posted at the RPG Stack Exchange)
A new player character race for D&D 3.5, modeled after the Poison Elves of Drew Hayes' comic book series.
The diametrical opposite of the Grugach, Poison Elves are the urbanized, hookah-smoking assassins of Elvenkind. Prone to substance abuse and impulsive actions, they are nevertheless very capable survivors. Most Poison Elves are Neutral Evil alignment, and their preferred class is Rogue. They are originally descended from the Qualinesti, but were disaffected with the insular nature of their bretheren. Living in Human cities, they gradually developed into a separate race. Many expect the Poison Elves to breed themselves out of existence by intermarrying with Humans, but it is little known that many of them also have Shadar-Kai parentage. LA+0
These traits are in addition to the high elf traits, except where noted:
  • +2 Dexterity, -2 Wisdom, -2 Charisma. These adjustments replace the high elf’s ability score adjustments.
  • Immunity to nonmagical poisons. This replaces the high elf's immunity to sleep spells and similar magical effects.
  • +2 racial bonus on saving throws against all diseases, including supernatural and magical diseases. This replaces the high elf's +2 bonus on saving throws against enchantment spells or effects.
  • The poison elf is not automatically proficient with any weapons. This trait replaces the high elf’s weapon proficiency.
  • Automatic Languages: Common, Elven. Bonus Languages: Any (other than secret languages, such as Druidic). This trait replaces the high elf’s automatic and bonus languages.
  • Favored Class: Rogue. This trait replaces the high elf’s favored class.
My acknowledgements go to John McKnight & Kwi Kim, who introduced elf (poison) as a player character race for 2nd edition D&D, back in the summer of 1995. I would also like to acknowledge the members of the RPG Stack Exchange for their valuable contributions.