Saturday, September 12, 2015

Non-Human Animals in D&D 3.5e

This post is aimed primarily at a lay audience, and therefore I'll be defining a lot of terms that many of my readers will already be familiar with and take for granted.

In this post, I will default to the style of capitalizing in-game terms with defined meanings. This is most relevant example is the difference between animals (the normal scientific real-world definition of "members of the animal kingdom") and Animals (the D&D 3.5e definition of "members of the Animal Type").

--- Introduction

In Dungeons and Dragons, one rarely encounters actual living animals, except when a local cat elects to leap up on the table to play with the dice and miniatures. However, the game's treatment of fictional animals reflects our thoughts about real animals, and is thus worth contemplating.

--- Animals and Types

In D&D 3.5, all nouns are either Creatures, Objects, or Conditions. (There's some debate as to which category some things fall into and whether a thing can be both -- for example, it's not entirely clear whether a corpse is an Object or simply a Creature with the Dead condition. While it is clear that Intelligent Items are Creatures, it's not clear whether or not they are also Objects.) Note that the Creature/Object dichotomy is not the same as the Living/Nonliving dichotomy -- there are nonliving Creatures (such as zombies and golems), and there are living Objects (such as trees and bushes). A Creature is defined as anything with a Wisdom and Charisma score. A Condition is something that affects a Creature or Object, such as Paralysis or Disease.

Of the fifteen Types in D&D (Aberration, Animal, Construct, Dragon, Elemental, Fey, Giant, Humanoid, Magical Beast, Monstrous Humanoid, Ooze, Outsider, Plant, Undead, and Vermin), all real-world animals, past and present, are distributed between three: Animal, Humanoid, and Vermin.

The only real-world animals with the Humanoid Type are humans and neanderthals (Neanderthals are treated as somewhat of an afterthought in the D&D canon, mentioned only in one of many supplements, so I will mostly treat them as an afterthought as well). Other Humanoids include elves, orcs, dwarves (which are distinct from dwarfs), gnomes, halflings, and so on.

Vermin comprise, more or less, invertebrates. Most Vermin species are fictional, including such varieties as spiders, centipedes, and scorpions ranging from Tiny (the size of cats, just this side of realistic for some examples) to Colossal (the size of a smallish house). Vermin are often Mindless, which means they have no Intelligence score. More on that later.

The Animal type comprises, more or less, all real-world non-human animals, past or present. There are a few fictional species in the Animal type, mostly limited to the Dire Animal category (Dire Animals being creatures that are larger and stronger than their regular counterparts, but which still have the traits and features of Animals). From cats, dogs, and horses to apes, sharks, elephants, squids, and so on, the Animal type is what I will mostly be concentrating on today.

There are some animals that might not be considered Creatures at all. Tapeworms, for example, are not (to the best of my knowledge) given statistics or game effects anywhere in published materials, but if they were, I would lay at least even odds that it would be treated as a Disease (i.e., a Condition) and not a Creature.

The most salient trait of the Animal type is "Intelligence score of 1 or 2 (no Creature with an Intelligence score of 3 or higher can be an Animal)." (I could also run with "Alignment: Always Neutral", but that would make for a much more ethics-heavy post.)

--- Animals and Intelligence

In D&D 3.5, every creature has six Ability Scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The most morally salient of these scores is Intelligence (and, to a lesser extent, Wisdom), so this is what I will be concentrating on.

"Intelligence determines how well your character learns and reasons." It also determines how many languages you know (a Creature with an Intelligence of 2 or lower knows no languages; most Creatures with an Intelligence of 12 or higher knows more than one language.)

"Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings. [...] If you want your character to have acute senses, put a high score in Wisdom. Every creature has a Wisdom score."

Humans have ability scores ranging in a bell curve from 3 (abysmal) to 18 (just this side of superhuman), with the mode, median, and and mean being 10. The most common method for generating ability scores for normal humans is to roll 3d6 -- which is to say, roll three 6-sided dice and add the results together. This approximates the given range and average. (Exceptional humans -- such as most player characters -- use other methods. Non-humans use the above method and then add Racial Modifiers to some Abilities and subract Racial Modifiers from others. For example, an elf adds 2 to their Dexterity but subtracts 2 from their Constitution, so an elf would have 5-20 Dexterity but 1-16 Constitution.) (Intelligence, being a range with a bell curve, can be mapped to IQ, but doing so is beyond the scope of this post.)

A Creature can have a Nonability in some score, which is usually indicated by "--" or "Ø". A Creature that cannot move, for example, has a nonability in Dexterity and Strength. A Creature that is not alive (such as a zombie) has no Constitution. A Creature that cannot think and is as an automaton has an Intelligence nonability. (Note that this is distinct from having 0 in an Ability. A Creature never naturally has 0 in an Ability, but it can have its Abilities reduced to 0 through Ability Damage or Ability Drain -- in which case it is paralyzed, unconscious, or dead, depending on the Ability affected.)

Which brings me back to "Intelligence score of 1 or 2 (no Creature with an Intelligence score of 3 or higher can be an Animal)." If an Animal should gain Intelligence of 3 or higher by any means (usually magic), it ceases to be an Animal (the rules are unclear on what it becomes, but many players hold the interpretation that it becomes a Magical Beast). Similarly, Vermin are usually Mindless (they techniacally can have Intelligence scores, and can even have Intelligence in excess of 2, but all published Vermin have a nonability in Intelligence), meaning they are no better than automatons.

This means two things with which I intend to take issue: First, that the most intelligent Animal is considered less intelligent than the least intelligent human; second, that the wide range of animal intellects is confined to the range of --, 1, and 2, whereas the (perhaps relatively narrow) range of human intellects is given the broader numerical range of 3-18.

Dogs, octopuses, corvids, parrots, monkeys and apes, elephants, dolphins, and rats are all widely considered very intelligent, capable of tool use, complex communication, and problem solving -- quite probably more intelligent than many very young or severely handicapped humans. And yet these creatures are all considered to have the absurdly low Intelligence score of 2.

Bees are hardly automatons, being capable of complex "dance" to communicate the precise location of desirable food sources. Other eusocial insects, such as ants, termites, and some wasps, are similarly gifted in organization. Some spiders are capable of weaving complex webs in unlikely places, or of lying in ambush. A defense of the "Vermin are Mindless" school of thought might be to observe that these behaviors are instinctual, preprogrammed into these animals by evolution, and not learned -- which is probably fair, and I don't know that I have a strong position on the subject one way or the other.

The numerical range of --, 1, and 2 is much narrower than the numerical range of 3-18. The game's focus is, naturally, on playable characters, so it makes sense that the range of human experience would be given finer degrees of distinction than the range of animal experience, but I would argue that the difference between the least intelligent human and the most intelligent human is less great than the difference in intellect between, say, a leech and an elephant.

The Wisdom of published animals, on the other hand, ranges from 8 to 17 (with an average of just over 13), so the general consensus at Wizards of the Coast appears to be that the average Animal is wiser than the average Human (though the wisest human is slightly wiser than the wisest Animal). This undoubtedly has something to do with Wisdom's connection to the senses -- many animals certainly have a variety of keener senses than humans do. It likely also reflects the perception that animals are more "in tune" with nature than most humans are (Wisdom is the primary ability score for Druids and Rangers, the two classes designed around being in tune with nature).

--- Animals as Trade Goods and Carrying Capacity

Animals also appear in the section Wealth and Money, under Trade Goods. In the same chart as "one pound of wheat", "one square yard of linen" and "one pound of platinum" are entries such as "one chicken", "one pig", and "one ox". This serves to emphasize the use of animals as objects, rather than subjects.

Similarly, it is possible to buy a mule to carry your loot. With a carrying capacity of up to 690 pounds and a cost of only 8 gold pieces (less than a pound of saffron or a flask of acid), mules are among the best methods to carry stuff around (until you start picking up extradimensional storage space like Bags of Holding and Portable Holes). This reflects their use for this purpose in the real world, but barely acknowledges their status as living beings, much less their status as beings of moral concern.

--- Animal Companions, Special Mounts, and Familiars

Some Classes gain a companion animal as a class feature. Druids and Rangers gain Animal Companions, Paladins gain Special Mounts, and Sorcerers and Wizards gain Familiars. These all begin as regular Animals but gain features as the character with which they are associated levels up.

Animal Companions are drawn from a list of Animals including wolves, owls, badgers, snakes, and so on, and never gain intelligence, though they gain strength in other ways.

Special Mounts begin as warhorses or warponies, but they are treated as Magical Beasts instead of Animals.

Familiars begin as animals such as bats, cats, owls, ravens, and weasels, but they become Magical Beasts when they become Familiars, and they gain, in addition to other abilities, Intelligence. This means that, at very high level, the Wizard's or Sorcerer's Familiar might wind up being among the most intelligent creatures in the party. And yet, despite being the most intelligent creature in the party, the Familiar still tends to be sidelined in favor of the main player characters.

--- Handle Animal and Wild Empathy

There are two main ways of interacting with Animals.

Most characters use the Handle Animal skill, which deals primarily with training animals to do Tricks (such as "Attack", "Heel", or "Track") and "pushing" them to do Tricks they don't know.

Druids and Rangers, on the other hand, can use their Wild Empathy class feature, which allows them to improve the disposition of Animals towards them, for example to make a Hostile Animal Friendly. This functions in the same way as the Diplomacy skill works on creatures with an Intelligence of 3 or higher.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

XP in Pathfinder

I'm on the record (more than once) as thinking that D&D 3.5e's experience system is "a work of sublime genius", and I stand by that. But I don't think that this carries over to Pathfinder.

You see, the main genius about experience is that it catches people up when they fall behind. 3.5e provides many ways to fall behind: death (and being resurrected by any means other than true resurrection), spending XP on crafting magic items, casting powerful spells with an XP component, being level drained, and the obvious missing a session.

But in Pathfinder, only one of those applies. They changed level drain so you just keep a permanent negative level instead of ever losing a level. They changed death so that it just gives you permanent negative levels instead of taking away a level. They changed crafting and spells so they cost more gold and never cost XP. The only one that applies is missing a session (and I'm lucky enough to be in a group where people hardly ever miss sessions, and if one person is going to miss a session, we don't play Pathfinder, though sometimes we'll play something else).

This is why, when called upon to run a Pathfinder game some time ago, I decided -- blasphemously! -- not to use the experience system at all. Which happened to be what the group was used to -- we'd just played through Rise of the Runelords without experience, leveling up only when the adventure path said we should, and it worked out fine.

How, then, do I determine when the players ought to level up? Well, I take as my baseline the line from 3.5e's Dungeon Master's Guide (page 41, Behind the Curtain: Experience Points sidebar) that experience "is based on the concept that 13.33 encounters of an EL equal to the player characters' level allow them to gain a level". So if I'm stripping out XP, I can just go straight back to that baseline. (I don't know what Pathfinder's experience guidelines are based on, especially because there's three different experience tracks to muddy the issue, is why I go back to 3.5.) To wit: players should level up once every 13.33 encounters.

Except I round up to 14, which more readily divides in two. It's become my habit to prepare 7 encounters at a time, which the party generally gets through in one or two sessions, leading them to level up once every 2 or 3 sessions. You can, of course, use a higher or lower number than 14 if you want your players to level up more or less frequently.

You can get fancy -- a particularly easy encounter counts as 1/2 an encounter, a particularly difficult encounter as two. You can choose to count encounters that the party bypasses entirely, or not count them, or count them as half. What matters is you pick an "every X encounters, the party levels up" and then mostly give them encounters appropriate to their level.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Leveling Up Without A Rest

So most tables I've played at use the house/variant rule that you can't level up in the middle of a dungeon; you only level up if you get a proper 8-hour rest. This is so common at tables I've played with that I don't think people realize it isn't the standard rule. And it just sort of makes intuitive sense, at least to me (perhaps because it's how I first learned to play).

But I've come to the position that there's not really any reason to use this rule after all.

Realism? Is it really so much more realistic to be suddenly better at whatever it is you're doing after an 8-hour rest than in the middle of doing it?

It's a holdover from the way some video games work? One can probably name as many video games where you level up immediately when you have enough XP (e.g. Angband) as games where you need to return to town to do so (e.g. Mordor/Demise). (And some, like City of Heroes, where you immediately get some benefits of leveling up but have to visit a trainer to get the rest of them.)

Confusion over whether you have your new hit points and prepared spells? That's easy enough to answer: yes, you immediately gain your new hit points. Your new spell slots can be filled if you take the requisite 15-minute downtime for filling empty slots if you're a prepared caster wizard; you immediately get your new spells per day if you're a spontaneous caster. (Your existing depleted HP and used spells aren't restored.)

Don't want to spend half the gaming session leveling up characters? Especially in the middle of a fight? That's fine, just hold off on delivering XP until the end of the session, and certainly never deliver XP in the middle of a fight. (I've still got some players who, in their own words, "can't be assed" to level up in the week between sessions, and spend the first few minutes of some sessions leveling up, but that's fine, I like to give plenty of time at the beginning of a session for players to settle down and settle in anyway.)

Further discussion can be found here.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The World of Dryspace

The world of Dryspace is several days journey from the Orange Expanse and the asteroid station of Texas in one direction and the worlds of Golarion, Greyspace, and the Dracosphere in the other. Dryspace is, as the name implies, a world almost entirely composed of various desert, pocked only by the occasional oasis. Sandy desert, cactus desert, cold desert to the far north and far south.

Two nations rule this world, both human (there are no non-humans here), in a constant state of cold war. The Malikid Sultanate and the Latifid Emirate are more alike than they are different. Both have absolute sexual equality. Both frown on sex outside of marriage, but both polygamy and gay marriage are perfectly accepted. In both civilizations, all people wear tagelmusts when not in private dwellings.

The people of the Malikid Sultanate, ruled from the capital of Kemmet by Sultan Malik X, worship the hippopotamus goddess Tem-Et-Nu. Their uniforms are purple, and their weapons are bronze.

In the Latifid Emirate, ruled from Qarya by Emira Duqa IV, worships the sun god Aurifar, and their uniforms are orange. They have a slight edge in the war, for their weapons are iron.


Countless centuries ago, before the desert came, there were two civilizations, also at war with one another. But one of these civilizations devised a terrible superweapon, a scroll of great power, which scoured the world of their foes, but also made the world unbearably hot and dry, crumbling the civilization into dust.

After the war's end, two factions arose: one which thought the scroll was too dangerous to ever be used again, and wanted it destroyed; and the other, which thought the scroll should be held in reserve in case some terrible threat should appear.

As a compromise, the scroll was torn in two. Half of it was destroyed, the other half stored in a tomb protected by many traps and curses. The scroll is unusable in this state, but a team of science-mages could potentially reverse-engineer the rest, given years of study.

Centuries later, these two factions are now known as the Latifid Emirate and the Malikid Sultanate.


My players, although initially on a mission to retrieve the weapon for Sultan Malik, decided in the end to destroy it so neither side could recreate it and use it, effectively siding with the Latifids. (The detail that the two factions of the ruined civilization eventually became the two modern nations was one that the players filled in themselves: it hadn't occurred to me, but it made so much sense that I ran with it.)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Amorphidon the Shapeless One

Although the scro are, by and large, obsessed with rules and obedience, some exiles are found living outside of scro space, on their own or in enclaves such as the grubby asteroid station Texas. Some of these exiles are godless, others still worship the primary scro gods, but many choose to worship Amorphidon, the Shapeless One, whose doctrines are as ambiguous as its form.

Amorphidon is depicted in any number of different ways, frequently as something on the order of an ooze, gibbering mouther, or chaos beast. It is a god of whatever you happen to need a god for at any given moment, but could be more clearly conceptualized as a god of change.

There is no set hierarchy in the church of Amorphidon, though clerics and petitioners often bow to the wisdom of more experienced clerics. Nor are there set dogmas, worship texts, songs, or even method of worship. Amorphidon accepts homage in whatever way one wishes to offer it.

Oozes, blobs, jellies, and anything formless and shapeless are sacred to Amorphidon.

Amorphidon is chaotic neutral. Its clerics may be any chaotic, but they may also be true neutral (despite the normal restriction that prohibits clerics from being neutral unless their deity is neutral).

Amorphidon has no set favored weapon. A cleric of Amorphidon may choose any weapon as a favored weapon.

Amorphidon's holy symbol is an irregular, blobular shape, no two holy symbols the same.

Amorphidon's primary domains include chaos, decay, liberation, madness, slime, and trickery. A cleric of Amorphidon must choose one domain from that list, but her other domain may be chosen from any available to a cleric of her alignment.

Amorphidon allows its clerics to change, much as it has been known to changes itself:

  • Every three cleric levels (at 3rd, 6th, 9th, etc.), a cleric of Amorphidon may change their choice of favored weapon.
  • Every four cleric levels (at 4th, 8th, 12th, etc.), a cleric of Amorphidon may change a single choice of domain, while still obeying the rule that at least one domain must come from Amorphidon's list.
  • Every five cleric levels (at 5th, 10th, 15th, etc.), a neutral or chaotic neutral cleric of Amorphidon may change their choice of whether to channel positive energy and spontaneously cast cure spells or channel negative energy and spontaneously cast inflict spells.

Monday, August 4, 2014

DM as Provider of Information

When a player asks, "What do I see?", the average DM finds this a perfectly reasonable question, and attempts to answer the question (unless it's dark, or the relevant character is blinded, or whatever). Same with "What do I hear?" These are your standard-issue primary human senses, how we get most of our information about the world, and thus naturally how the DM conveys most of the information about the characters' world to the players. The DM might reasonably call for a Search/Spot/Listen/Perception check, if there's information that would be available only to particularly observant characters.

When a player asks, "What do I smell?", "How does it taste?", or "How does it feel?", the DM might be a little taken aback, as these are unusual questions, but will generally still attempt to answer the question. Again, perhaps with a Perception check, though one might be at a bit of a loss for what skill to use in 3.5 -- probably a basic Wisdom check. It's been said before (probably by me, among many others) that a decent DM will volunteer sight and sound data, while a masterful DM will neglect no senses when giving information. (This can be overdone -- nobody wants to hear a full discourse about how the air feels and tastes on every room their characters enter -- but underdoing it is a much bigger risk in practice.)

I leave as an exercise to the reader coming up with situations in which lesser-known senses, such as proprioception, might come up in play.

But when a player says "I cast detect magic", the common DM reaction is frustration or annoyance. Especially in Pathfinder, where cantrips/orisons like detect magic are at-will, so players have been known to "spam" them. The ubiquity of detect magic is, in fact, quite a common complaint I hear about Pathfinder. (To a lesser extent, the same goes for paladins and detect evil, even in 3.5.)

I've seen more than one DM frequently resort to "The area in general is so powerfully magical it gives you a headache and you can't pick out individual magic effects." This is may be a legit technique for lending particularly epic or eldritch locations an extra element of "you're dealing with things you can't understand", but, if you use it, you should definitely reserve it for, say, the final dungeon of the campaign, where you're walking into the lair of a physical god. (But even then, if you're high enough level where you're a reasonable challenge to said physical god, one would think your techniques for casting detect magic would have advanced along with everything else on your sheet, so even in the presence of supremely powerful magic, you can still pick out details.) Fun fact: There are, in fact, rules for detecting "Overwhelming" auras with detect magic, but they're limited to epic-level spells and artifacts.

And if you do that, you should do it for other senses, too. A mission to the elemental plane of light, where everything is so bright that it gives you a headache even if you keep your eyes closed and there's no way to pick out visual details. Or the plane of darkness, where no light sources function. A cacophonous factory floor, where you can't discern individual sounds. Perhaps even your sense of proprioception fails when you come in contact with stuff of the Far Realm. The one such example that I have seen DMs use fairly often in practice: stenches so strong they make you gag.

As with most DM sins, I've been (partially) guilty of this one myself. I have been known to say "This entire area is permeated with an ambient aura of evil", in the case of an area proximate to a permanent portal to the Abyss, when paladins were using detect evil. But! This is a case of more information, not less: the ambient evil didn't render them unable to pick out finer details of evil. When there was a demon in the next room, they could still pick out the demon's evil aura from the dungeon's ambient evil aura. And meanwhile, they had the information that there's something so evil that's been here for so long that the evil has soaked into and permeated the very stones themselves.

Anyhow: why is the DM reaction to "What do I see?" so different from the DM reaction to "I cast detect magic"? They're both usage of the character's defined abilities to gather information about the world. Perhaps it's that the rules for detect magic are slightly complicated and the DM doesn't feel like dealing with them. Perhaps it's that detect magic, unlike sight/taste/proprioception/etc, is not a standard-issue primary human sense in the real world, so it seems more legit to deny characters the full use of detect magic than it would to deny them the full use of their other senses.

As I alluded to two paragraphs ago, it's about information. As I see it, one of the DM's primary roles is to provide information to the party. (There's also some business with deciding what information is available, and under what circumstances, and of course deciding what the information consists of in the first place, but the primary business, for the purpose of this post anyway, is providing the information to the party.) Any situation where the party requests specific exposition (that their characters would reasonably have access to) is an opportunity for the DM to maximally fulfil this role.

So whenever a player asks for information, it warms my withered black heart, because it's an opportunity to provide exposition (and, often, to come up with information on the fly, which I enjoy and am decent at). Some DMs will try to restrict the flow of information, either because they think it increases the challenge or because they're just not good at or don't enjoy coming up with new information on the fly. I don't have much to say about the second thing, but I'll digress for a paragraph on the first:

Security through obscurity can make for an interesting fight, if used sparingly. Trial and error can make for an interesting battle. The minionry of Dr. Blelyj once fought a monster that, unbeknownst to us, was made more powerful when it was subjected to magic missile. Many lulz were had at the expense of the poor sorcerer who'd thought his magic missile was a sure thing. There are many clever monsters of this sort: albino red dragons, those gas spore monsters that look like beholders, mimics (and the general venerable and well-populated genre to which they belong, "monsters that look like harmless objects"), shambling mounds ("oh, it's a tree monster, trees usually get wrecked by lightning, right?"), and so on. Withholding one key piece of information can be a fun lark. (If you do this much, you should also make sure that your monsters don't always act as though they have complete information about the party.) But many players (myself included) don't care for every battle to be trial and error. Usually we just want to deploy our tactical abilities against the monsters' tactical abilities, and prefer to have more complete information rather than less (and sometimes invest substantial character options into perception and knowledge abilities, and it's generally not a good idea to deny players the fruits of their character building without a good reason).

Which brings me to knowledge skills! There are rules for knowledge skills, which you would do well not to ignore. The rule of thumb is "one piece of information for a DC of 10 + the monster's HD, and an additional piece of information every 5 thereafter". You don't need to indulge player requests for specific bits of information ("What kind of DR does it have?", or even "Any major weaknesses?"), but it never hurts.

My main beef with the knowledge system (in fact, one of my beefs with d20 in general) is that knowledge skills can't be used untrained. My beef with this is threefold: one, it restricts me as a DM from being able to give out information, and I always love giving out information; two, it restricts me as a player from acquiring information, and I usually love acquiring information; three, it forces me as a DM into a position where I have to say "no", which is Bad. I keep thinking of instituting a "you can use trained-only skills untrained at a -10 penalty" houserule. Other DMs I've played with have dealt with this by expanding (usually on the fly) the list of relevant knowledge skills for a piece of information: to identify a given undead creature, you might be allowed to use Knowledge(dungeoneering) or Knowledge(arcana) if you don't have Knowledge(religion), for example.

Anyway, I generally encourage players to invest points in and use the Knowledge skills, because I enjoy providing exposition and it's a good tool for that. And yes, like everything, it can be overused -- I play with a druid who tends to ask if she can use Knowledge(nature) to identify everything she encounters, no matter how obviously non-natural. But, in general, allowing players to roll Knowledge checks is generally better than not allowing it.

Do note that "Knowledge" isn't just book-larnin'. It isn't always "I read about this in a book once" (though for some characters it might be). It's a combination of that, practical knowledge ("I encountered something like this once"), observation and extrapolation ("Look, it's got flattened teeth, it's probably an herbivore, though that doesn't mean it's necessarily harmless"). So think twice before using the "Nobody has seen one of these for centuries, you can't make a knowledge check" line. (Nobody's seen the Others for centuries, but people still figured out they have DR/dragonglass or Valyrian steel, through practical observation and also it was in at least one ancient book.) Actually, that's a general principle: a thing being difficult means you should pile circumstance modifiers on to increase the difficulty, not "you can't do it". If you can swim up a waterfall with a high enough Swim check, you can deduce the properties of an ancient monster with a high enough Knowledge check. "Don't even bother to roll" is if it's too easy to fail, not if it's too hard to succeed.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Giant Space Hamsters

So I was doing a bit of research into running a possible Spelljammer one-shot or campaign, and I came across this:

"[Giant Space] Hamsters are domesticated, used as both pets and livestock, and are also used to power gnome sidewheelers, an inefficient form of space ship that is powered by a series of gigantic hamster wheels."

"Characteristically, the tinker gnomes did not stop there, and continued to breed many forms of hamster, including the sabre-toothed giant space hamster, the carnivorous flying giant space hamster ("a regrettable if understandable line of inquiry"), the fire-breathing phase doppelganger giant space hamster, and the miniature giant space hamster (a dwarf variant, indistinguishable from ordinary hamsters)."

"The most infamous (and to gnomes, most feared) giant space hamster was 'Wooly Rupert,' the Tyrannohamstersaurus of Ill Omen."

This is among the most wonderfully preposterous things I have ever encountered, and I no longer understand why anybody would ever not play Spelljammer.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Book of Perfectly Acceptable Latin

Much of the online D&D community refers to Libris Mortis as "The Book of Bad Latin". This is because they are not in the intersection between the set of people who know Latin and the set of people who have read the introduction to Libris Mortis -- an intersection that seems to consist solely of me.

The community assumes that the title is supposed to translate to "The Book of the Dead" -- a not entirely unreasonable assumption. If this were the intended title, then it's true, it should be Liber Mortis, not Libris Mortis. Nominative.

But it just isn't so. Open your copy of Libris Mortis to Page 4, the very first page with actual content. Look at the bottomof the page, where it says "This book takes its name from a set of tomes penned in a dialect of Celestial [...] Roughly translated, it means 'From the Books of the Dead'". This is interesting for two reasons: 1.) the title isn't in Latin, it's in (possibly bastardized) Celestial -- which is to say, Celestial is Latin, which I've taken as canon for my games -- and 2.) it's intended to mean "From the Books of the Dead", not "The Book of the Dead".

Now, if I were to try to translate "from the books of the dead", I'd say something like "ex libris mortis". But the ablative form "libris" already implies "from", so the preposition "ex" isn't, strictly speaking, necessary. Of course, "mortis" is singular genitive of "mors", so it means something more like "of the corpse" or "of death", but that's still pretty close.

So the title Libris Mortis means just about exactly what it's intended to mean. It's the Book of Perfectly Acceptable Latin. It's the Book Of At Worst Slightly Idiosyncratic Latin. Now you can look down your nose and feel more educated than anybody who utters the phrase "Book of Bad Latin".

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why Peacock Has Cyclops's Eyes

In the olden days, cyclopes, favored by (and probably descended from) the Burning Hate, had half a hundred eyes each, all over their heads. Peacocks, favored by Sequoia, had only the regular two.

But once upon a time, there was a huge battle between priests loyal to the god Numiel, defending a town under their protection, against a huge band of marauding cyclopes.

Things looked grim for the defenders; the cyclopes came close to victory.

But then a flock of passing peacocks, who had a preëxisting grudge against the cyclopes (who were in the habit of raiding nests, not for food, but to smash the eggs out of pure malice), joined in, and turned the tide of battle.

The defenders defeated and drove off the cyclopes, and the town was saved.

As penalty for their wicked ways, Numiel struck all but one eye from each cyclops. As a reward for their assistance, he bestowed all the eyes upon the peacocks, instead.

This is why cyclopes only have one eye, why peacocks have many extra eyes on their tails, and why peacocks are among the creatures sacred to Numiel.


What prompted this revelation? Well, it all has to do with the Reaper Bones kickstarter. (I was one of the silly few who didn't spend the whole $100, because I knew I wouldn't have the patience or sticktoitiveness to paint all hundred gazillion minis. Instead, I spent somewhat less, for a much worse value. Oh well!)

In particular, it has to do with this guy. (No human being can paint that intricately. Their examples are obviously painted by unseelie creatures of fey.) I took one look at him, and decided he's a paladin. And, of course, in my world, paladin means Numiel. (Even though Sequoia, Urmaggr, and Dalya are also compatible with paladinhood.)

But what's that on the back? A peacock? ...obviously, since this is a paladin of Numiel, peacocks must be sacred to Numiel. Done. But why? And so a little story struck me. So here you go.

And the moral of the story is: no matter how little and silly and nonsensical an idea might seem, add it to your campaign setting as soon as it strikes you. Campaign settings often seem generic and boring and soulless, and seemingly incongruous little details like this are a good way to combat that tendency.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Infamous Dr. Blelyj

I've recently been having a fair bit of fun in Pathfinder playing one Dr. Blelyj, a tiefling witch who behaves in an emphatically Good way (usually Lawful, but with enough Chaotic moments that his sheet says just Good), but who is absolutely convinced that he's actually Evil. He calls the rest of the party his "minions", and he gets offended whenever anybody says detect spells say he's not Evil. Also, he laughs maniacally all the time (The fact that they made maniacal laughter a class feature is perhaps the biggest reason I decided I'm okay with Pathfinder). He justifies everything he does on Evil grounds.

Donating to the orphanage is "investing in potential future minions". He helps defeat the goblins who are harassing the townsfolk because nobody gets to harass the townsfolk but him, plus the townsfolk exist to serve him. He declares surrendered foes his "minions" and just lets them go (it helps that the only foes to surrender so far have, with maybe one exception, been the most hapless of mooks).

He always coöperates with the rest of the party as much as possible, often giving up his share of the loot (usually when it involves coppers or silvers, so he doesn't have to carry it) and using most of his wealth to craft potions and wands for the party's use, on the grounds that such trivial matters as wealth are beneath him and that making his "minions" more effective is a more efficient use of his resources.

Killing, too, is beneath Dr. Blelyj: he's never defeated an enemy himself, has only cast maybe two damaging spells in his life, doesn't even carry a weapon, and he usually only debuffs the foes and buffs his "minions".

If there's anything morally questionable -- or just funny -- that I can't think of a specific eeeeeevil reason why he would oppose, I fall back on the catchphrase, "_____ is beneath me." A not remotely exhaustive list of a few other things that Dr. Blelyj has declared to be beneath him: jaywalking, theft, racism (though he did announce himself to be "racist against cops"), alcohol, prostitutes (but not in the literal sense), piracy, and deities.