Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Carl's Creatures pt. 2 - Shadow Octopus

(See pt. 1 for the general intro)

In part the second I want to introduce a really scary monster that I have not actually had a chance to inflict on my party yet.  Having just blogged about attribute attacks on my other blog, this seemed especially apropos.  Had my Mutant Future party continued to head out into the dry sea instead of investigating a magical portal tree, they might have run into this bad boy if the dice rolled just wrong...

Shadow Octopus

HP: 75 - 100
AC: 4
Size: 3' long head, 9' from tentacle tip to tentacle tip when not extending shadow tentacles
Movement: Swim: 150', Land: 30', Sudden Jet Escape: 300' movement for 1d4+1 rounds (must rest motionless for 1d4 rounds after using this ability)

Attacks: 8 x DEX15 range 50' (shadow tentacles) (see my blog post about attribute attacks on my other blog to make sense of this)

Damage: 1 temporary Dexterity attribute drain (lost attributes regain at the rate of 1 per hour outside of the dry sea, but never return in the dry sea or in any other area of strong shadow concentration) + the shadow octopus gains a corresponding point of Dexterity (making subsequent Dexterity attribute attacks more likely to succeed...)

The shadow octopus lurks invisible and nearly insubstantial in the shadowy currents of the immaterial sea.  It can extend its tentacles out to 50', stretching impossibly far, and twinkling ghostly lights from the rims of each suction cup.  It lures prey with the curious glimmering, separating comrades until it begins draining the very quickness from their muscles.  With each point of Dexterity that it drains through its tentacle attack, it becomes more colorful and corporeal.

Special Abilities:  Roll its 8 attacks in two sets of four labeled A-D as shown on the drawing above.  If both tentacles in a matched set hit, the shadow octopus can choose to instantly teleport the two targets into the space occupied by the other (no save to avoid).

When the shadow octopus reduces any target to 2 or fewer Dexterity,it can immediately attempt to engulf the target with a CON15 ATT.  If successful, the target is destroyed and the shadow octopus regains 50 HP.  If this attack fails, the shadow octopus can forgo its tentacle attacks in subsequent rounds to repeat the attack.

Special Defenses: The shadow octopus can only be damaged by mutations, magical attacks or magical weapons.  Normal physical damage has no visible effect on it.

If the shadow octopus is reduce to 20 or fewer HP, it will emit a 50' radius shadow ink cloud, obscuring all normal and magical vision for 1d4 rounds while the shadow octopus uses its sudden jet escape movement ability to disappear into the darkness.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Where does magic come from, Pa? (And how does it work?)

As much as I am a free-wheeling, seat-of-the-pants, gonzo, over-the-top DM, I actually have an underlying desire to have it all make sense.  I make up the weirdest monsters you cannot imagine, but there is always a perfectly reasonable explanation for how they came to exist and what they are doing where the party ran into them.  Evolution is a crazy thing - give it enough time, and throw magical abilities and pressures into the mix, and everything is fair game.

At the same time, I try very hard not to let any more slip out about the method in my madness than the characters would have learned in play.  I love nothing more than listening to the group after a session as we are all wrapping things up, getting our stuff, grabbing another slice of pizza, finishing the beer and soda... I love testing my poker face as they throw hypothesis after hypothesis out there, sure that THIS TIME they have finally figured it all out.

I don't care if the players know how it all makes sense, and sometimes they don't either.  But sometimes they do, and they start prodding and asking and pretty soon they start figuring out that there are underlying logical principles and secrets to uncover.  This is especially the case when it comes to magic.

I have never been willing to accept "its just magic" as a good explanation for magic.  I need something that is not self-referential.  I need to fit magic into the logical framework of my rpg multiverse in a way that can translate across different systems.  I need magic in the Mutant Future to work the same way as it does in my D&D 4e game.

Magic is a name for the ability to manipulate energy directly without bothering with a stage by stage transformation of the current form it is taking.  You and I have to painstakingly flake away wood with a knife to carve a perfect miniature poodle - a magician can just cause the energy forming the wood to take the form of a wooden poodle.  Or the energy in the air to take the form of a living poodle.

The question isn't where does magic come from, it is where does energy come from?  And while I have answered that in my own campaign cosmology, I don't believe it needs to be answered once magic is understood to be simply another form of energy manipulation that follows rules (albeit different ones) just like dropping a ball or lighting a match.  You don't need to know where energy comes from to accept that there is energy in the universe and it can be manipulated.  You just need to know how to do it.

There are many different forms that energy can take.  There are many different ways to manipulate it directly.  These are magical traditions.  Some claim that the ultimate source of their power is divine, others that it comes from hours of meditation on musty tomes, memorizing arcane formulas.  Some promise magical power at the cost of sacrificing your immortal soul.  Most cultures have at least one cooking tradition that imbues magical properties into food.  There are those who have taught that magical energy can be manipulated through controlled physical activity, graceful movements that trigger magical effects.  Others invite ancestral spirits inside themselves and assert that the spirits are the ones doing the magic.  All are correct.  Each is one way to manipulate energy, one small facet of the truth.

I have created and explored many different optional magical systems for characters in every edition of D&D that I have run.

Creatures often have magical powers as well.  Where does the magic come from in this instance?  Intelligent monsters have their own cultures and are little different from humans in that regard.  Magic often comes from diet in the case of animals, and from the land in the case of plants.

Animals feed on magical plants and seek out magical elements and trace minerals to lick at.  What they do with this magical energy, how they evolved the ability to perform that particular manipulation of energy and why that ended up being a competitive reproductive advantage varies from species to species.  The greatest diversity in form and magical function is to be found (not surprisingly to those in the insect know) in the Insect Kingdom.

Plants absorb energy directly from the sun and the earth.  Plants contain more genes than animals.  Many of these genes code for plant structures that produce magical effects; plants are always the greatest factories of the multiverse, both chemically and magically.

When I create creatures or jot down notes on areas for my campaign worlds, I also might jot down some notes about organs and their uses in the case of animals, or uses for various plant parts.  These components can be discovered and eventually utilized by the clever player.

As a result of this, the last few sessions in my 4e game I have seen my players dissect several genetically engineered, partially-robotic insect warriors, harvest their energy-retaining cell tissues, remove the blasting systems from two insect-robot legs, hook the cell-tissue up to the "dark organs" that they had harvested sessions ago from the larval spawn of an elder god to create a magical energy circuit (they had already discovered that the dark organs would accept energy in almost any form as an input, and would then generate invisible broadcast power that could be used to power devices within a short range), in an attempt to make two laser cannons (the bugs shot off a nasty blast of energy when they were alive, and the party wanted in on that action once they were dead!).

Roll your Nature and Arcana checks, guys...

Of course they succeeded wildly.

At the end of last session there was talk of mounting what have proved to be rather unwieldy and impractical weapons for melee combat (although they certainly did a ton of damage the couple of times anybody ever managed to get a shot off that hit anything) onto the party's hot air balloon.  The party is talking of recruiting some of the Yanomamo to accompany them as gunners on the hot air balloon.  Oh shit.  I just realized that I never posted about the session Beautiful Bob talked a bunch of lonely miners into making him a hot air balloon.  Maybe next time...

Carl's Creatures pt. 1 - Thraxian Hive Soldier

I collect monster manuals.  I never use them, but I collect them.  Every now and then I might page through one looking for inspiration, but that really doesn't happen often when I am actually running a game, which I have been doing pretty solid now for the last three years.  So why do I buy monster books if I never use them?  I dunno.  I guess I like monsters.

My campaign worlds always end up becoming more and more bizarre through a process of accretion.  I make up some weird ass shit, my players do things I didn't expect, I riff of their actions and come up with more weird ass shit, and pretty soon there are so many original creations in play that the standard D&D monsters just don't get into the game anymore.

I make up at least 95% of the creatures that my players encounter in game, be it Mutant Future or D&D 4e (the two games I am currently running).

I end up scribbling out crude illustrations for most of my creations, and I thought it might be fun to share some of them with y'all.

- Disclaimer -  I am making no effort to present these according to the standard stat block for either Mutant Future or 4e.  I use THAC0 for my Mutant Future critters, at least in part because I don't use HD (instead writing down a HP range when creating creatures).  I may not use the correct syntax for the 4e creations.

Carl's Creatures

part one

Thraxian Hive Soldier 

(for Mutant Future or any pre-3e version of D&D)

(I love this picture, because it started out as a quick sketch so the players could get a better idea of what the alien bugs looked like, and then one of the players at the table doodled on it and shaded it.  Apparently, Thraxian Hive Soldiers are polka-dotted!)

HP: 100-150
AC: 2
THAC0: 9
Movement: 150'
Attacks: 4 or 1
Damage: 2d6 x4 (tentacle arms) or 4d12 (bite) or by weapon (see below)
Saves: Level 12

Thraxian Hive Soldiers can survive in a vacuum without sustenance for years, if that gives you a better picture of these tough son-of-a-bugs.  Although fond of and brutally effective in hand to tentacle combat, Hive Soldiers also carry disruptor pulse weapons.  These resemble a large circular shield grasped with all four tentacles (these contain an extremely dense and heavy power core, and each weapon weighs nearly 200 pounds!), concave side facing the target, which emits pulses that molecularly destabilize the target.

Disruptor Pulse Weapons: Range 1000', half damage to 4000', damage: 5d6, special: Save vs. Energy Attacks or the target suffers an additional 5d6 damage at the beginning of its next turn.  This continues until the save is made.  When not in use these weapons are slung over the back of the first body-segment of the Hive Soldier.

Little is known of Thraxian Hive Society; it is unclear if the bugs are telepathic, or use scent and chemical markers to communicate, or if they are simply so single-minded of purpose and unified in goal that they can act with incredible synchronized precision without any need of communication at all.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ethnographies! A DM's best friend

I admit it.  I have totally lost focus.  I had a specific purpose in mind when I started this blog.

I wanted a blog that I could freely publish on without having to censor myself.  I wanted a place where I could reveal the unfinished side of the DM's screen, the teetering construction of notes, drawings and inspiration that existed  in the moments before game night.

I wanted to talk about the thought processes that led to the fun times.  I am a good DM.  I say that without false modesty, and with a confidence that can only be won with the experience of pulling off the successful juggling act literally hundreds of times.

My other blog had become a place that only reflected the amazing polished creation, the session, the actual living drama, the flesh of the god of RPG's.  The ongoing story, narrated by players and DM alike.

No, I wanted a blog that I could publish the unfinished bits and pieces to, without fear that a player might stumble across the blog and learn the secret before I figured out where exactly to insert it into the ongoing campaign.

As it has happened, this blog has kind of become my default 4e blog, because I was just beginning to dabble in playing and DMing D&D 4e when I first started writing this blog.  This has meant that I have, indeed, been censoring this blog so as not to blow some major secrets of the campaign.  It has also resulted in some session recaps, which are (of course) exactly the finished process kind of stuff that I was trying to avoid with this blog.

I want to get back to the unfinished and process-oriented goals of this blog.  This will probably mean less material directly focused on the unfolding events of my 4e game, and more posts on my observations as a DM and wanna-be game auteur.  Or maybe it will mean that I quit giving a shit if any of my 4e players see this and post anyway!  Maybe a simple warning at the beginning of a post.

But enough about that.  Today I want to talk about ethnographies.  An ethnography is a written description of a human culture distilled from the research of an anthropologist.  You can find ethnographies at any used book store in a college town.  They almost invariably look like the one below, varying only in the subject matter and the color of the cover.

I collect ethnographies, and I think any DMs reading this out there in blogland would be wise to do so as well.

You see, the thing is, people are crazy.  You may think you have a wild imagination.  Your late night inspiration, your fantasy creation, pulled from literary inspirations, movies, from past campaigns... sorry to tell you, it doesn't hold a candle to the real thing.

With that in mind:  Ethnographies are the DM's best friend!

They will typically be about 100 pages in a format very similar to the LBBs.  They will contain a distillation of a human culture which can easily be grafted onto any race in your campaign world.  They contain a cosmology, not just gods and spirits, but a description of how the divine is viewed, and interacted with, and impacts day to day life.  They will tell you about a human adaptation to an environment, culturally and technologically, that enables the culture to derive sustenance from the land.  They will contain descriptions of ceremonies and feasts.  They may contain titillating details of secret societies, fraternal organizations, magic spells and witcrcraft.  But most importantly, they will teach you that EVERYTHING that we take for granted as "normal" would most likely be completely different in a monstrous or alien culture.  What does brother or sister mean?  I assume that you and I share a similar definition for that term.  What does marriage mean?  Are humans immortal (can they die from natural causes)?  If it surprises you that the answers to all of these questions vary dramatically across human cultures, than I suspect the fantasy cultures and monsters in your RPG life are probably far too vanilla.

I use my ethnographic collection much more often than I use my vast RPG library, and I have never paid more than $10 for a single one (and most were far cheaper, if you don't mind a dinged up cover or high-lighter covered text).  As an example, the players in my 4e campaign have been getting to know the Yanomamo indians of Brazil and Venezuala as they are presented in Napolean Chagnon's famous ethnography, Yanomamo: the Fierce People (at the time of my typing, this link leads to an page for the exact same edition I own, pictured above, used, 11 copies, starting at $1.90!).  

The party has been staying in a Yanomamo village for several weeks of game time, and one party member has even completed the ritual fasting and drug taking requirements to become a shabori (sort of like a shaman, basically someone who has invited a spirit or hekura to live inside him [this is a male tradition] which can then be exhorted to cause harm to enemies or protect allies).  I have implemented the Yanomamo cosmology with the 4e mechanical engine quite easily and effectively.  Hekura cost the permanent loss of a healing surge when they call your chest their home.  They grant an encounter power that can be used as a minor action, and in my game, that encounter power is related to the particular manifestation of energy that the hekura represents.  I tend to use real world sources as inspiration, not doctrine, so I riffed on the idea of hekura a little bit.  In my 4e world, hekura are tiny spirits that each represent one particular form that energy can take - so there are lightning hekura, curative hekura, disease hekura, fire hekura, dance hekura, song hekura, etc.

This post has almost made me want to do a series of posts drawing from my collection of ethnographies. A distillation of the ethnography into the bits that are most interesting for game play.   I would probably start with the Igbo of Southeast Nigeria.  Or possibly the Mardudjara aborigines of Australia.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why you roll the dice.

My 4e game has become such a whirling engine of death, destruction and cultural exploration that any kind of meaningful session recaps are next to impossible.  There is simply too much going on.

Loyal blog leaders may remember that early on in my adventures as a 4e DM my players found four shrunken heads in a clay basket.  When the party removed the shrunken heads from the basket (which turned out to be an anti-magic basket [if there is one thing I actually hate about 4e it is the treatment of magical items, so I make up my own and have also used a ton of magical plants] that temporarily nullified any magical effect of level 20 or lower within the area enclosed by the sides of the basket), the heads and the party formed an uneasy relationship that has maintained, more or less, to this day.

The exception would be that one of the skulls, Xbalanque, the self proclaimed Keeper of Secrets, disappeared of his own volition a while back.  In exchange for Xbalanque raising a deceased party member, the group agreed to carry a skull-corder enchanted by Xbalanque into a temple they were exploring so Xbalanque could see the carved glyphs that covered the walls (an intense field of magical energy that permeated the temple prevented the shrunken heads from animating within it).  Xbalanque made a point of teaching the party the glyphs that signified the beginning of a long date in the Chitlan calendar, and instructed the party to make sure they recorded everything in a room that contained dates.

The party later learned that an ancient form of celestial magic native to the region is tied to particular dates when cosmic alignments happen.  Vast structures, so large that their shape could only be identified from high in the air, were designed by long dead hands to harness celestial energy and activate when the stars came together in just the right order.  And they had handed the keys to this system to Xbalanque.

Luckily for the party, events in my Mutant Future campaign recently have resulted in the stars "going out" in my 4e campaign, as the 4e campaign world is currently being removed from space and time.  As the stars disappear, the celestial power that makes the monumental magic constructions work has also failed.  A magically engineered insect army that had arisen from the ground under the command of Xbalanque now rampaged out of control on the other side of the mountains from the party, and a lone squad of the insects (I have code named them "Brood X" until the party learns more about their origins) was sent out by Xbalanque, controlled with a magical jade mask mounted on the head of one larger member of the soldier caste.  The party intercepted this group of giant insects as it headed straight for Gadoro island at the confluence of the two rivers that drain the highland areas of the rainforest that the party has called home for the last fortnight.

The party has been getting more and more self-righteously angry at Xbalanque for several sessions now, as he has been totally incommunicado since his disappearance.  You see, as much of a prick as Xbalanque was, and as much of a shrewd bargainer he was when it came to prying out some bit of information from him, the party had grown used to having the long dead sorcerer's shrunken brain to pick.  The party had bent over backwards to accommodate him, had given him everything he had ever asked for, and they have never quite forgiven him for just ditching the party.  Worse, the other shrunken heads had shaken the party with tales of Xbalanque's megalomaniacal tendencies.

Their worst suspicious were confirmed when they discovered that the giant four legged metallic insects that had been carving a path of destruction through the jungle were controlled by their old friend.  Xbalanque did not stop his insects as he barked through the jade mask that he had no time to stand and parlay.  He had to get through the hole in the roots of the universe and undo what had been done.  The stars must shine again.  I am losing control... losing power... I don't have much time

And then Xbalanque ceased communications through the jade mask and the party suddenly found themselves confronted with a bunch of out of control killing machines.  If a soldier lands all four legs strikes in a round and rolls decent damage, it can drop some of the party members in one round.  The smaller bombardier caste were annoying with their chemical heat aura, their stinking gas clouds and their energy laser slices, but in the end their damage output paled next to the whirling blades of destruction that were the soldier caste Brood X.

The last two sessions have been bug hunts.  The title of the blog post comes into play due to a peculiarity of the soldier caste of Brood X - any soldier can spontaneously become a new brood mother, gaining the allegiance of all Brood X members closer to it than the old brood mother, and gaining the capability to broadcast a new brood of tiny larvae across the landscape in a great explosion.  The party did not know about this capability.  The exact mechanic is tied to a recharge 6 power I gave the soldiers called "X Blast".  A close burst 5 targeting all enemies in the burst with a single roll for 5d6 damage and curing all allies in the burst of the same amount - but if a natural 20 is rolled on the attack, all soldier Brood X allies recharge their X Blast and use it as an immediate reaction.  If any of those soldiers also roll a natural 20, it spontaneously becomes a brood mother, exploding in a magical blast that first destroys all Brood X insects within 500' and then sucks all that energy back into the new hive mother, who swells, shedding her legs, sticking her head into the ground and raising a steadily growing giant sack of squirming life into the air.

So while the party was dicking around out in the jungle, licking their wounds after their first bug combat, I was rolling to see how often the power recharged as the remaining soldiers rampaged through the landscape, then rolling X Blast attack rolls and looking for natural twenties.

It only took 13 total rounds of player actions (including a five round short rest) before I got the double 20 combination on a recharge 6 power and a tremendous explosion occurred to the south.  A new brood mother had formed, and the pair of soldiers the party had been hunting suddenly reversed course and headed back toward the explosion. The party hightailed it there themselves and beat the incoming soldiers, gaining several rounds to attack the hideous pulsating blob they found in the middle of a totally leveled blast clearing.

And that is why I am glad I actually rolled the dice to see when the new hive mother occurred instead of just going with the statistical average time.  You never know what will happen when you roll the dice.  And often, what happens is sheer dramatic genius.  If I had gone with the average time, it would have been hours until the new brood mother formed, and by that time the party would probably have hunted down quite a bit more of them in the mean time, reducing the probabilities even further.

As it was, we had a great session that ended with the last two Brood X insects psychically dominated by Beautiful Bob and serving the party as mounts as they returned to the native village they have been calling home.  And for once, the party saved the area they were adventuring in instead of scarring it forever!
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