E: Ettercap

Ettercap

I love the ettercap. Well, that’s not perfectly accurate: I love spider monsters, and this is our first spider monster, and it has a name that’s fun to say. And what a spider monster the ettercap is, because they have an intelligence of 7 and speak no languages. These creatures substitute for the bugbear: stealthy, vicious, low intelligence, nets and garrotes.

3.X/Pathfinder suggests several traps they might build around their lair, capture-nooses and deadfalls and such. I like the idea that the ettercap lays traps, and indeed the 5e ettercap entry has a variant box with web garrote, which works just right (roll20’s copy has the garrote included). These previous editions also let the ettercap speak common, I note. How do they learn common? Who is holding conversation with them in their parlors? Are they up-to-date on slang?

I’m betting if they have treasure, it comes entirely from selling rope, silk, 50 ft. coils; I’m betting that they sneak into cities under cover of night and under a coat, all glowing eyes in the wrong places and mandible-based speech impediments.

Variant: Ettercap Trader

Speaks common and can craft goods from its silk and, to a lesser degree, chitin. They wear filthy silk cloaks and wraps to pose as humanoids.

Spiders are arachnids. Crabs are arachnids. Aquatic ettercaps, with one big claw and one little claw and a shell made of an old tin can?

Variant: Marine Ettercap

Has a swim speed of 30 ft., an AC of 16, loses its climb speed, traits and actions. It has multiattack (big + little claw). Its big claw deals 11 (2d8+2) piercing damage and a grab; its little claw 7 (2d4+2) damage. At the beginning of its turn a creature grabbed by its big claw takes 11 (2d8+2) damage.

On the other hand, you are what you eat:

Variant: Spider-species Ettercap

Some ettercaps adopt the features of their spider-charges. In particular, you might give the ettercap a CR of 3, and one of the following traits based on spider type:

  • Phase spider: Ethereal Jaunt. As a bonus action, the ettercap can magically shift fromt he Material Plane to the Ethereal Plane, or vice versa.
  • Giant wolf spider: Paralytic Poison. A creature failing the save against the ettercap’s bite by 5 or more is paralyzed while poisoned. A creature reduced to 0 hit points is poisoned for 1 hour, even after regaining hit points.
  • Leaping spider: Standing Leap. The ettercap’s long jump is up to 30 feet and its high jump is 15 feet, with or without a running start.
  • Spitting spider: Venom Web. Any creature beginning its turn in contact with the spider’s web takes 4 (1d8) poison damage and must succeed on a DC 11 Constitution save or be poisoned for 1 minute. A creature no longer in contact with the web can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of tis turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.

Per wikipedia, “It has been suggested that ettercaps are the descendants of a group of mad druids”. I’m not sure I’d really want to chase that line of plot where it leads, because druids just don’t scream spiders to me. But I guess if you have humanoid and bestial features, druids beat alternative origin stories.

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E: Elf (Drow)

Elf (Drow)

We’re all agreed this should be a fey creature, right? Yeah. So that’s obvious. These don’t count as humanoids, since they’re fey, so I can fit them into this series.

Call this thing we’re making here Elf (Eldest).

Trow: Nasty, Brutish, and Short

A digression on etymology. The word is older than gaming and, like many references to “dark elves” seems to point at what D&D ends up calling dwarves or goblins. Or, frankly, mythologically-speaking, trolls. They do live underground in “trowie knowes”, so I can understand the underdark connection, but it’s at best a jumping off point.

I’m not interested in using the drow to rehabilitate that sensibility. We can just use goblins or something. I’m more interested in using the drow’s stats to represent the same niche the non-SRD Eladrin points at: the sidhe, the Fair Folk, the Others. Call them “Eldest”, the unbroken culture of Chaotic Neutral True Elves.

Elfshot: Drow Sleep Poison’s Mythological Basis

So where did Greyhawk’s drow get their sleep poison? Anglo-Saxon medical journals on elfshot. Why does it knock you unconscious? So that the unfair drow ambush doesn’t end the campaign.

But for the Eldest, that doesn’t work for me. So instead of envenoming their weapons, elven ranged weapon attacks gain this trait:

Elfshot. A creature taking damage from an elfshot weapon must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or else become magically intoxicated for 1 minute (1 hour if the saving throw is failed by 5 or more). While intoxicated, the creature suffers disadvantage on intelligence, wisdom and charisma checks and saving throws.

There are countermeasures:

Elfshot countermeasures. If an elfshot wound has iron or steel touched to it (as an action), then the victim can repeat their saving throw against the effect.

Mechanically Modeling the Elvest Eldes

They don’t live underground.

That means they get regular 60 ft. (instead of 120 ft.) darkvision, lose their Sunlight Sensitivity trait, and don’t cast darkness.

Instead of darkness, they cast misty step 1/short rest. There are other abilities we might prefer (particularly invisibility (self only)), but for compatibility with The World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game, this is probably the right move.

But they absolutely need a vulnerability to iron. Damage vulnerability would be overkill (literally; they have only 13 hit points), so instead let’s give them a trait:

Iron Sensitivity. If the elf touches iron or steel, they cannot use their Innate Spellcasting trait, cannot use Elfshot, and has disadvantage on concentration checks until the end of their next turn.

Elves use a lot of brass and bronze and silver and mithril, is all I’m saying.

They don’t envenom their weapons with drow sleep poison, but instead use elfshot, as above.

The arms of the Fair Folk

Standard D&D drow gear is often made of “underdarkium”, and rots on contact with the sunlit lands. So too with the arms of the Eldest; it’s stuff which is enchanted by the glades of Arborea or the moonlit nights of Arvandor, but the same principle applies; 1 hour of sunlight destroys them, as does going more than 30 days without being exposed to moonlight.

The songs of the Fair Folk

Perhaps your drow deal poison damage on their attacks. I recommend that they simply substitute psychic damage (creatures resistant to fear or charm take half damage, creatures immune to fear or charm take none).

This still leaves a band of fair folk in a weird place, because I’ve given them this elfshot ability that makes targets susceptible to mental attack, but have NOT given them any ability to leverage this. Sure, disadvantage on a raft of checks is itself pretty bad; it covers Wisdom (Perception) checks so maybe they can sneak around, etc. Sure, it means that a band of Eldest carries a harpy or a satyr piper or a wizard in their number and makes hay out of the weakened stature of their victims.

But I still might let a band cooperatively create a hypnotic pattern:

Hypnotic Song

A band of at least 5 elves within 30 feet of each other can use their actions to sing and dance cooperatively, concentrating on the effect. If they do so, one of their number casts hypnotic pattern without using a spell slot (if the elf does not already have a saving throw DC, it is 11). An elf may cooperatively concentrate on the effect by spending a bonus action on each of their turns to continue singing and maintain the effect; they cannot rejoin if they stop for any reason and the effect ends if there are not at least 2 elves concentrating on it.

Once an elf has participated in the song, they cannot do so again until they finish a short rest.


E: Elementals

Elementals

5e returns to Empedocles and (4/5ths of) Aristotle’s elements of pure fire, water, earth and air. They are all CR 5, the better to serve as targets for 5th level’s Conjure Elemental spell, though (confusingly) that spell summons the creature type “elemental”, not the creature named “elemental”.

I am not inclined to support this model. I really liked 4e’s cosmology, for the most part, and particularly around the elements. I am okay with the Land of Pure Fire, but I don’t stop there — I want the Land of Always Winter and the Land that Swamp Thing Comes From and the Place of Astral Magic and so forth. Creatures that come from these places, that are made of their stuff bound into a form, are elementals. Ice, Wood, Lightning; Bone and Blood; Ether.

I’m not going to bother with mentioning the language swaps. They all speak Primordial; the various dialects don’t have any mechanical weight in 5e.

Air Elemental Variants

Storm Elemental

Related to air elementals and use their statistics except as noted. Their bodies are made of slowed lightning which crawls forward as they move, arcing to ground when they deign to touch down. Summoning one requires a ten foot cube of “storm energy”, created with alchemical apparatuses involving amber and fur, or else quantities of fulgurites, blasted trees, or other storm-scarred landscapes.

They have immunity to lightning and thunder (instead of merely resistance).

They lose all traits. Instead they gain:

Lightning Form. The elemental can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch wide without squeezing. A creature that touches the elemental or hits it with a melee attack while within 5 feet of it takes 5 (1d10) lightning damage. In addition, the elemental can enter a hostile creature’s space and stop there. The first time it enters a creature’s space on a turn, that creature takes 5 (1d10) lightning damage and cannot take reactions until the start of their next turn.

Illumination. The elemental sheds bright light in a 30-foot radius and dim light in an additional 30 feet.

Iron Grounding. If the elemental touches at least 1 pound of metal, it is weighted down by it. Its speed is reduced by 20 feet until the end of its next turn, and it cannot fly higher than its current altitude.

Actions

Multiattack. The elemental makes two touch attacks.

Touch. Melee Weapon Attack: +8 to hit (with advantage if the target is in metal armor or water), reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 12 (2d6 + 5) lightning damage, and the target cannot take reactions until the start of their next turn.

Earth Elemental Variants

Ice elemental

Related to water elementals, but use the base statistics of earth elementals except as noted. Like earth elementals, they are crudely humaniform, but made of gleaming ice and snow.

They have damage vulnerability to (magic) bludgeoning and fire (instead of thunder).

Their speed is 30ft.

They lose all traits. Instead they gain:

Ice Glide. The elemental treats movement over ice, snow, and the surface of water specially. These terrains are never difficult to it. Every 10 feet of movement cost it only 5 feet of speed. Its travel over the surface of water leaves frozen ice in its wake to a depth of 1 foot.

Ice Form. A creature that touches the elemental or hits it with a melee attack while within 5 feet of it takes 5 (1d10) cold damage and has its speed reduced by 10 feet until the end of its next turn.

Actions

Multiattack. The elemental makes two slam attacks.

Slam. Melee Weapon Attack: +8 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 12 (2d6 + 5) bludgeoning damage and 5 (1d10) cold damage, and the target has their speed reduced by 10 feet until the end of their next turn.

Fire Elemental Variants

Star Elemental

Made of the stuff of strange stars, the forms of these elementals hurt to look upon, appearing as a sickly green glow. Their conjuration requires a ten foot cube of the energy these stars give off, created either through complex optical arrays, masses of purified sickstone, or components harvested from aberrations.

They use the statistics of fire elementals except as noted.

All references to “fire” as a damage type become “poison”.

All references to “catches fire” as an effect (with associated mechanics) are instead “must make a DC 15 constitution saving throw or become poisoned (save ends); while poisoned, the creature takes 5 (1d10) poison damage at the start of each of its turns”.

The creature loses the Water Susceptibility feature. It gains:

Alchemical Weakness. It treats 1 pound of salt as acid. If takes acid damage or damage from a lead weapon, it has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks until the end of its next turn.

Water Elemental Variants

Ether Elemental

Mysterious beings made of arcane energy and mist, the ether elementals are theorized by many to be a “fifth type” of elemental. Summoning them requires a 10 foot cube of this “ether energy”, often provided through a persistent spell effect area of any non-elemental sort that covers the appropriate scale, such as illusion or abjuration effects.

They use the statistics of water elementals except as noted.

They lose acid resistance.

They lose all traits. Instead they gain:

Ethereal Sight. The elemental can see 60 ft. into the Ethereal Plane when it is on the Material Plane, and vice versa.

Incorporeal Form. The elemental can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. The elemental can enter a hostile creature’s space and stop there. It takes 5 (1d10) force damage if it ends its turn inside an object.

Actions

Multiattack. The elemental makes two slam attacks.

Slam. Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 11 (2d6+4) bludgeoning damage.

Ethereal Jaunt. As a bonus action, the elemental and any creature in contact with it enters the Ethereal Plane from the Material Plane, or vice versa. They are visible on the Material Plane while they are in the Border Ethereal, and vice versa, yet they can’t affect or be affected by anything on the other plane. A creature losing contact with the elemental returns to its original plane.

Whelm (Recharge 4-6). Each creature in the elemental’s space must make a DC 15 Strength saving throw. On a failure, the target takes 11 (2d6+4) bludgeoning damage. If it is Large or smaller, it is also grappled (escape DC 14). If the saving throw is successful, the target is pushed out of the elemental’s space.

The elemental can grapple one Large creature or up to two Medium or smaller creatures at one time. At the start of each of the elemental’s turns, each target grappled by it takes 11 (2d6+4) bludgeoning damage.


Alphabetical Monster Manual

I’m going to go through the SRD (reference copy: here) alphabetically by monster name and provide some sort of game widget for each. Or maybe low-effort commentary. Either way, I’m going to skip humanoids and beasts, and also I’m going to start with “E” so I don’t get bogged down at the very start in D&D’s expansive Demon, Devil, and Dragon section.

Probably 3-5 monsters, depending on energy level.

What can I say, I like monsters.


On Decks (Illusory; Many Thinged)

I’ve been interested in decks of cards for a while now.

And by the by, I’m likely to go back and edit this post; it’s just enough silly work that I’m going to post it while I workshop it. But anyway, fair warning given…

I guess I like the idea of the structure and symbolism contained in a standard deck of Tarot cards, and their close cousin the standard deck of playing cards. But then I think about D&D’s famous two magical decks, Of Many Things and Of Illusions, and wonder what else might have been.

First, know this: all decks of cards were playing cards first, and acquired mystical associations second. The trumps (“major arcana”) in a tarot deck are literally the playing card trump suit (imagine that for poker — “Major arcana wild!” — or perhaps card games which more closely intend that behavior!).

With that in mind, when we discuss decks of cards in the western tradition, we really don’t have that much major variation. Four suits (whether Wands, Coins, Swords and Cups as in tarot, Flowers, Bells, Acorns and Leaves in Swiss decks, or the classic French Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts and Spades). Some number of pip and court cards (numbers, aces; pages, knights, jacks, queens and kings). Maybe a joker or two. And of course, the D&D Decks were built with homeomorphisms to standard playing card decks, so that you could actually use them at the table, which means that there are built-in associations right there — but they’re not necessarily the best, because it’s been two editions and anyway, they weren’t trying to build a deck.

There are some clear, and some not-so-clear, associations between the Decks of Things and Decks of Illusions. One interesting one is that if you take the associations to playing cards and then directly associate Thing to Illusion, you get some funny results (Vizier to Beholder; Fates to Dragon, Key to Succubus…) — it’s just random. But there are some clear associations to be drawn (Euryale to Medusa, Knight to Knight, Archmage to Vizier…), so I just sat down and made some by fiat at random.

When you do that, you can kind of start scraping some suits together — but you wind up with a huge number of funny-shaped cards that don’t fit anywhere. This is my synthesis, but it’s like draft 0 — I suspect it needs a lot more work!

  • Stars
    • 0: Druid
    • 1: Sun/Fire Giant
    • 2: Moon/Frost Giant
    • 3: Star/Cloud Giant
    • 4: Comet*/Ogre Mage
    • 5: Vizier*/Archmage
  • Thrones
  • he
    • 0: Veteran
    • 1: Throne/Iron Golem
    • 2: Key
    • 3: Knight/Knight
    • 4: Gem*
    • 5: The Fates*/Night Hag
  • Flames
    • 0: Berserker
    • 1: The Void
    • 2: Flames/Succubus
    • 3: Skull/Lich
    • 4: Idiot*/Ettin
    • 5: Talons*/Dragon
  • Ruins
    • 0: Assassin
    • 1: Ruin/Erinyes
    • 2: Euryale/Medusa
    • 3: Rogue/Bandit
    • 4: Balance*/Priest
    • 5: Donjon*/Beholder
  • Spears
    • 0: Kobold
    • 0: Kobold
    • 0: Goblin
    • 0: Goblin
    • 1: Hobgoblin
    • 1: Orc
    • 1: Gnoll
    • 2: Bugbear
    • 2: Ogre
    • 3: Hill Giant
  • Unsuited
    • 0: Fool*/You
    • 0: Jester/You (opposite gender)
    • 0: Troll

Some more text.


Recurse of Strahd

There’s a ton to like about Curse of Strahd as it stands, but I have a slightly different plan.

It has a well-known hook: you get a letter from the Burgomaster, begging you to come and help. You go, crossing a misty boundary, and enter Strahd’s domain. Then you’re trapped until Strahd lets you go, and the DM just terrorizes you. Attempts to leave are met with billowing clouds of mist, which knocks you out. We don’t need that, though.

Here’s my counterproposal:

Groundhog Day.

The boundaries of Ravenloft are not geographical; the Dark Powers have pent your party in time, not space. You travel across the gate, make your way to Strahd’s Castle, maybe get brutally murdered… and then repeat, again and again and again, a loop extending two or three days until Strahd’s anniversary or the first party death, whichever comes first. The trick to this adventure is not “how do we kill Strahd” (he’ll reset), nor even “how do we escape” (you CAN walk out, but you will always reset, and the woods are filled with woods). It’s “how do we break the loop”, which is of course the most interesting thing in the place.

You show up, you learn a little bit more each loop about the abysmal lives of these people, and then they forget you because everything resets.

Most characters don’t remember things from session to session — just the PCs and a few other rare characters.

How do loop?

The players show up in Barovia — it’s a five hour journey. The storm starts as they go, and breaks just as they enter Barovia. This moment — when the skies open up and the first startling burst of lightning — is the beginning of the loop. It is the first night: storms.

The first morning is peaceful if damp: dirt roads and wilds are quite impassible, but stone roads work.

The second night is clear, with a brilliant full moon. The woods are filled with wolves.

The second day is threatening again, but dry.

The third night is tense and filled with summer lightning: electric and oppressive heat, and the stars seem to wink out one by one through the haze.

The third dawn is blood red, and at noon, the world ends in a wild hurricane.

The players awaken in their carriage, rain pouring from the sky and lightning jolting the characters awake: it is the first night, and they have just entered Barovia.

That which ends

Any non-time traveler begins each loop in the same state they ended the last one, regardless of what terrible thing happened to them. The non-loopers mostly make the same choices, but small changes can cause different conditions, which causes different choices.

Natives of Barovia — which always includes undead and lycanthrope — are not time travelers. They begin each loop in the same state. Natives who become undead during a loop shed that state (otherwise Barovia would already be overrun!). Visitors sadly become natives after they become undead — they die, ending the loop immediately; the loop begins with them in their new undead state, and

For time travelers, however, anything that mucks with your soul or your memory sticks with you at the start of the next loop. Anything with an intelligence, wisdom or charisma saving throw has its effects remain.

The states of undeath and lycanthropy make you an NPC with that condition from the beginning of the next loop, no longer a time looper. This means that every session begins with a grisly momento mori.

The worst, however, are death effects. Those kill you permanently; you begin each session as a corpse.

Within a loop, when any of the time travelers die, the third-day storm immediately begins, and within an hour, the loop resets. The same occurs when anyone tries to leave Barovia.

That which changes (Spoilers!)

Not everything resets: the PCs’ memories of course are retained from loop to loop, as are their levels.
Fiends, aberrations and celestials, as visitors, also persist memories across repetitions.

A spoiler-filled list of such visitors includes:

  • Rahadin’s Shadow Demon in K72
  • Morgantha, Bella and Offalia from the Old Bonegrinder
  • Crypt 34’s imp
  • Beucephalus from Crypt 39
  • Majesto the Imp from N4T
  • The Abbot from S13

Since the loop resets on the death of any of the loopers, killing these creatures resets the loop.

Anything made of amber also survives the loop: objects made of amber stay where they were at the end of the loop, changes to amber objects ditto.

What do we do in the loop?

Another way to ask it: what’s the point of this campaign? Obviously even more spoilers follow.

The first session is just Curse of Strahd. Cautious players will run the time out, but I suspect most get eaten by a vampiree.

The second session is probably a second run at Curse of Strahd. By this point, we’re definitely suffering a death.

The third session, though — some of the outsiders probably figure out that there’s visitors. They probably start infiltrating town to learn what’s going on — most likely Majesto is the first to investigate? Which means the fourth session starts with a visit to a different town. And then we’re off!

Obviously, exit from the loop depends upon the Dark Powers in some sense. Would it be so wrong to stick it in X42:West? Alternatively, it could be the Sergei:Ireena love pairing, which I think should hold a hint, but should not actually end the loop. Killing Strahd and reuniting the lovers seems like a worthy goal.


Survival

An (even shorter) version of the travel rules.

A journey should generally not result in death.

It could! You could get lost in the wilderness and die of thirst! You could get weakened by hunger and beset by wolves! You could fall down a cliff and break your leg, then stay stuck there and perish! But that shouldn’t exactly happen in a montage: we can montage along happily until things change, and then we gotta adventure for a bit, let the players die on their own merits.

Let rations be a generic measure of all the resources the party needs: the cost is covered by lifestyle expenses, but the weight has to be carried; consuming extra rations builds a cuhsion of defenses. You cannot hunt or glean for these resources; it’s assumed you’re doing it the whole time, and that’s what permits survival at 0 rations.

  • 5 pounds/day, check/10 days
  • 2 pounds/day, check/5 days
  • 1 pound/day, check/2 days
  • 0 pounds (if no rations are available), check 1/day and on a failure by 5 or more, ignore the terrain’s exhaustion cap.

The DC for survival checks to navigate, saving throws against exhaustion, and maximal “trail exhaustion” are set by the terrain type. Use the worst terrain type traveled through during a check period; the max exhaustion is the maximum level of exhaustion to which a failure can raise a traveler; a traveler already at that level of weariness can’t be further harmed simply by deprivation unless the situation really is dire.

  • Difficult (Arctic, Swamp, Mountain): DC 18, max 4 exhaustion
  • Moderate (Desert, Hill, Forest): DC 12, max 3 exhaustion
  • Easy (Coastal, Grassland, Urban; by ship or caravan): DC 8, max 2 exhaustion

There are a few special cases:

  • Arctic: Max 6 exhaustion; Exposure checks hourly if underprepared
  • Desert: Max 6 exhaustion; 16 pounds of water each day or additional exhaustion check each day 
  • Caught in a storm without shelter: Immediate check, but no change in maximum exhaustion levels.
  • Arrival at a destination forces an exhaustion check if there wasn’t already one on that day.
  • Large animals consume 4x the rate of rations, and huge ones 16x.

As an example: The Merry Bards of Bindsor want to travel 13 days by road in the hills around Bindsor. They’re not very wealthy or strong, and so elect to carry 21 pounds of rations each. Let’s see how this could play out!

  • If they left all their rations behind, they could consume 0 rations the whole way and live off of the land. They’d make a DC 12 exhaustion saving throw each day for 13 days, and saves failed by more than 5 ignore the terrain exhaustion cap, so they might die.
  • They could eat 1 lb of rations each day. They’d have to check every second day (6 saves) against a DC of 12, but the terrain’s cap of 3 exhaustion means that they’d arrive in reasonable shape. But remember, once they attain exhaustion 2 (no earlier than day 4), they’ll have their speed halved, leaving them at risk of taking not 13 days but 22 days! If that happened, on the very last day they might be starving!
  • They could eat 2 lbs of rations each day. They’d check every 5th day (3 checks at DC 12, max 3 exhaustion), but they’d run out of full rations on day 10, drop down to 1 ration on day 11, and then spend the remaining — 2 days wandering the woods starving and making additional checks daily (a total of 4 checks). This would also be a reasonable approach.
  • They could eat 5 lbs of rations each day. This would last them 4 days, at which point they’d spend the remaining 9 days making daily checks. Awful.

A creature in the company of a forraging ranger (the Natural Explorer trait) reduces ration consumption costs by 1.