Monthly Archives: August 2016

On souls and possession

I think that a kitchen-table game of D&D is not the battleground upon which the nature of the soul will be decided. Unfortunately for us all, D&D makes testable assumptions about the nature of free will, sentience, and so forth, which end up having effects on game mechanics.

Souls are the province of necromancy. I can think of two possession-type effects: the necromantic magic jar spell and the undead ghost‘s ability of the same name. They work more or less the same way once the effect gets going: charisma to remain in control of yourself, then use your stats with the possessor’s int, wis, and cha; they can use class features, but not yours. Another spell that mentions the soul is the planar-travel-in-safety astral projection, also necromancy. And of course the raising of the dead — though reincarnate does what it says on the tin, it’s transmutation (because of the new flesh); the others are all necromancy.

Souls are a discrete object, though intangible. They have a battlemap position, are the seat of the character’s conciousness (when magic jaring, the spirit is referred to as “you” while the discarded shell is “your body”). The effects that permit soul transfer are all-or-nothing: humanoids only, and you’re either in-and-in-control or failed, no “present but observer only”, no “as-though-it-were-a-grapple-struggling-egos”.

Souls that are generated via magic jar or resurrection are natural and permanent members of the plane (your type isn’t humanoid[resurrected]; your posession isn’t affected by the turn undead ability, you don’t ping detect good and evil or get hedged by magic circles). None of this is true for ghosts. So the special sauce that makes undead the baddies that they are isn’t inherent to being unfleshed spirit — and the effects that let you briefly wander as unfleshed spirit don’t change your type! So it would be a completely acceptable thing (ontologically speaking) to have an incorporeal humanoid spirit that wasn’t undead. Dreamwalkers, say. That we don’t implies some weakness in the natural types: their souls don’t know how to self-sustain without the shield of flesh.

In my campaign’s most recent session, a character got possessed by Lady Bethroine, an ancient Illyrian (I believe in a low power curve: while I’ve been too lazy to do full stats, “DC 15 or so” and “Challenge 16 or so” are in the back of my mind) who, during The Event, turned into a living song. While she no doubt could rage out and take over an opera house (something something conductor something something single-entendre), her altered view of time and desire to see what’s what means some joy-riding first.

I’m not doing it now, but I’m also thinking voodoo practicioners, or the 5e binder. The loa are definitely not ghosts, and are definitely called upon to possess. While riding, there’s a cooperative melded state going on: The being has qualities of both. Actually, I have the binder open in front of me now, and it’s a pretty good representation of that if you assume the are selfish: this deific spirit does these things while riding; it makes itself known in these ways, which since you are an adveturer we assume you do your best to suppress and minimize. Especially since the features are only available to binders, who are probably pretty good at the suppression and minimization, that makes sense.

The best match 5e has for this sort of give-and-take I need for Bethroine are sentient magic items. The precise mechanism by which they dominate their wielders (see Sentient Magic Item > Conflict) isn’t clear — is it an enchantment effect, a necromantic effect? Do they have souls to go along with their free will? The control is scalable: free rein, won a conflict, or after winning a conflict, full possession.

That final model is my ideal for Bethroine, because it lets me put a power level on her: being ridden by her is like having attunement to an intelligent item which you can’t put down.

Actually, thinking about it, so is the madstone, that little statuette Bippi picked up. Huh. Remove curse lets you sever the attunement, but since Bethroine would also require removing the unwelcome lodger, that’s going to get sticky.

Bethroine, the living song
Int +3 Wis +1 Cha +6 (Ego 17)
Communication: Verbal (1 language) but prefers emotive
Senses: Hearing out to 120 feet
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral
Special Purpose: Glory Seeker
During a conflict at low level she forces the ridden to sing about the current state of things so she can understand what’s going on. At high level, she assumes direct control.
Features (all save DCs 17, cast at the 16th level of ability):
Cast message (no boredom chance, see below) and vicious mockery at will.
Cast hideous laughter once per short rest.
Use an action to gain blindsense 30 (auditory) for 1 round.
Cast confusion once per long rest.
In all cases, the effect is song-based and somewhat infectious; the message is a snatch of music (no words, just emotion); the hideous laughter and confusion effects force their victims to sing their hearts out while performing a dance number, etc. There is a 5% chance on each ability use that Bethroine will select a new mount or become corporeal to participate herself — this is not a good thing.

Int -1 Wis -1 Cha -1
Communication: Emotive
Senses: vision 30 feet normal
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral
Special Purpose: Increase Excitement
The madstone is a wand of wonder which seeks to create chaos. Each time it is used, the wielder must make a DC 12 charisma save to avoid acquiring a short term insanity. Once per long rest, it may extract this cost itself by winning an ego contest (same DC).

Magic Items Rot

My game does a pretty good job of stretching out time — it’s been a year in-game since the campaign started, and while the characters are hitting 9th level, they’re doing so at a much more sedate pace than usual… 52 weeks, 9 levels: seems fair to me.

Where one area doesn’t stress out my verisimilitude, however, another does: I have blown WAY past the DMG limits on magic items. They’re just suggestestions, but I’ve ignored ’em roundly. There’s a headband of intellect in play, a +1 spear, detects drow, a dagger of venomgloves of climbing and swimming, a half-strung Canaith mandolin (… maybe. I don’t remember which one it was. It doesn’t have any of its high level spells yet anyway, needing a skilled luthier (ich ben ein mandolinner?) first), a stone of madness (wand of wonder powered by insanity effects, curse: it sometimes discharges itself), an amulet of vengeful spell turning (just the spell turning, not the magic resistance).

It’s weird: My party misplaced 25 scrolls from, oh, six months ago real-time. Just plumb lost ’em. I might even be forgetting some minor dits and dots they’ve got: I know they got a wand of detect magic, but I think they never found the corpse of its owner; I know they’re holding a greataxe of giantkind (per belt of dwarvenkind but with the types switched) that they’re just trying to figure out how to grow to huge size to take advantage of.


The problem is that the good items are just so interesting. I want flaming swords, and even though flame tongue is rare, it’s also awesome.

The problem is that the good items stay with you until you outgrow them. I want wands of fireball, but it fundamentally changes the game to have fireball on tap, 24/7/52.

The problem is that a sword is a sword: once you’ve picked it up, you expect to swing it around for a while.

Of course, there’s no reason the sword does have to stick around. Link’s Master Sword often gets de-powered between adventures, requiring a dungeon or two to beef it back up. Excalibur went back to the Lady of the Lake. Beowulf’s Sword of Grendel’s Mother Slaying disintegrated. Even D&D flirted with this: the weapons of the drow fade quickly, removed from the faerzress of their home. Videogamey though it might be, let’s talk Magic Item as Power Up.


I guess the idea is simple: Give out twice as many “permanent magical items”, but they come with significant restrictions on use. This cloak of elvenkind functions only in a forest — okay, that’s normal — but also requires weekly blessing by the unicorn guardian of that specific forest. Dies after 100 miles or 1 week, whichever comes first. This sword of sharpness functions because of the runes sketched upon its side: exposure to the sun, or one week of time, causes it to fade in either case.

These items are the same rarity as the by-the-book permanent ones, but you should treat them as consumable in terms of availability. They more or less are.

The ability to repeatedly dispense these items is an item of approximately the book rarity: you can sketch the rune of sharpness at will, but only power one at a time. It’s better in a lot of ways: you can use new weapons if your old one gets rust monstered (okay, bad example because they can’t do that — disintegrated, I guess), you can loan them out but never have them be stolen. But none of those add up to me to more than the strict ability to manufacture it in the first place. In that way, they really do become a part of your character in a way which a permanent magical item can’t (“in your hands, all weapons are swords of sharpness“). The story of how you acquire this talent doesn’t work the same as the story of how you acquire a physical object, which is why this isn’t the standard trick.

Garrotes and choking in combat

There’s a few effects which can murderize you via asphyxiation — the darkmantle, the water wierd, the water elemental, the animated rug — but there really aren’t rules for asphyxiation.

By the book, it’s a minute per point of con bonus before you care, and then a round per point of con mod, and then you are unconscious and dying.

By my rules, you acquire 2 temporary levels of exhaustion at the end of each minute, DC 15 constitution saving throw for half.

Both are unsatisfying to the player who has just been nobbled by a large ‘gator.

So: Normally, the “holding your breath” rules are a minute by minute thing. Any effect which would break concentration can break your breath, pushing you immediately down to a round-by-round basis (which on the normal rules gives you 1 round per point of constitution bonus before you fall unconscious, and on my rules puts you in a death spiral where you’re making constitution saves and acquiring levels of exhaustion).

So in our darkmantle encounter, let’s say the victim — er, player character — is a level 5 fighter with 50 hit points and a +3 constitution bonus. The darkmantle uses crush (whose text indicates the target cannot breathe), and hits. The unable-to-breathe fighter is now holding breath; by the book, no effects for 3 minutes, by my rules no effects for 1 minute. They try to escape at the top of their round and fail, that’s fine. The darkmantle uses crush and hits (it had advantage this time) — this triggers the fighter to make a concentration check — if the darkmantle crushed for 6 damage, the DC would be 10 (as concentration check’s DC are 10 or half damage). Fighter passes and they still have their breath; if they’d failed, they’d lose their breath and enter into (by the book) 3 rounds before unconsciousness, or by my rules, 3-6 rounds of increasing levels of exhaustion.

Garrotes, by the way, allow a humanoid to take advantage of this: they are used as a nonproficient finesse weapon attack against a grappled target against whom you have advantage (prone, restrained, blinded, …). While that target is grappled, it cannot breathe.

They explicitly target AC to allow things like a gorget to count.

Musings on spells coda

I was contemplating my novel blindness/deadfness/mute and wondering “why wouldn’t I just cast hold person, targeted save notwithstanding” when I realized: holy hell, blindness/deafness/mute doesn’t require concentration. As a spellcaster shutdown, that seems enormously potent.

And yet, it lets them run away (to be fair, current silence does and hold person does not)… and grants them a save each round (as silence does not and hold person does) and lacks the ritual tag (silence has it, hold person doesn’t) and is targeted (silence isn’t, hold person is)… I still feel pretty good about this swap, but man, that’s a strong spell.

Musings on spells

Enough monsters. Back to magic. But just kind of a rambling set of thoughts about the senses.

I have a beef with two second level spells: silence for the bard and cleric (okay yes ranger also); darkness for the sorcerer/warlock/wizard.

Silence is weird. In OD&D, the text isn’t specific (or so I’ve been told) about how it interacts with spellcaster’s spell components. These days, I think it’d be hard to switch it from the wizard-shutdown it is, because so many other mechanics-first aspects have used it in that sense. It’s odd to have that rider effect in the first place; in 5e we loosened the restrictions on somatic gestures and grappling (pun intended; somatic gestures require a “free hand” but even restrained doesn’t explicitly remove that, so I’m pretty sure it’s intended to keep somaticking away). It’s philosophically weird, too: it’s an illusion effect that somehow prevents the universe from hearing your verbal components.

Darkness is weirder. It offends my physical intuition. D&D5e has a fiction that it has 3 light levels (bright, dim, and dark), but I count at least two more: sunlight and magical darkness. Most creatures collapse the first three categories into the first category, because of the ubiquity of darkvision. Devils have this whole rigamarole around devil’s sight being able to pierce magical darkness, but there are only 2 effects which cause magical darkness, as far as I  can tell: darkness and the aura of a darkmantle. Okay, yes, hunger of hadar covers its area with magical blackness, but it also blinds targets completely within the area: it’s splitting the difference. Darkness is an evocation effect (like light, the effect it has on the magical equivalent of photons is real). Comparing it with the same-level invisibility and blur and the lower-level fog cloud is instructive. The first two are both personal illusion spells which hide objects (the first completely but the target can lose it easily, the second much less so, but with no ability to break it). The last has the same real effects as fog cloud, but it’s bigger, a level lower, and is described as fog instead of darkness, so its spell interactions are a bit dissimilar. Oh, and fog cloud is immobile, while darkness follows objects. 

In both cases, the darkness and silence spells are sneaky-sneak spells that get (very quickly) repurposed to be combatty-combat spells, and which prove so much better at that latter use that I think we forget this history. Compare with the 2nd level abjuration pass without trace (druid, ranger): pure sneaky-sneaky with its +10 to Dexterity (Stealth), and some outdoorsy mostly cosmetic riders. That’s what I want these to be: any combat potential it has derives strictly from its stealth. And by the by, when did abjuration take on the responsibility for shadows and quiet?

Silence should absolutely be broken in half: Firstly, an additional option on blindness/deafnessmute, which robs its victim of speech and the ability to make noise (no signal bells, no banging on doors), which shuts down spellcasting but permits a saving throw every round. Secondly silence, which dampens sound and permits stealth in its current wide area, granting resistance to thunder damage and a large bonus to stealth to creatures in the area when the effect is created, but same restrictions on its target as invisbility (so, super easy to break, and therefore no offensive uses).

Darkness needs a different fix. I have always loved the face-shrouded-in-shadow light-drinking-aura thing. To me, that sounds an awful lot like blur. If we give blur the additional text “if you are in the area of a light spell of 2nd level or lower, it is dispelled”, I think we’ve covered half our problem space. It’s not even the problem space of the darkness spell, just an interesting power most agents of night should have.

If I claim powers-of-night use illusions, devil’s sight would have to grant them some measure of immunity to blur (, mirror image, invisibility, … 🙂 ) Why not grant them limited truesight? Lying to a devil doesn’t seem to me to be a winning move. This also seems like a purely-reasonable change.

If you just want to shroud an area in blackness, use the fog (smoke, night airs, whatever) created by fog cloud. You can of course use a variety of illusion effects to declare an area night-shrouded instead, with interesting results. Silent image creates objects, creatures, and visible phenomena and can be moved: I would definitely permit night-shrouded as an effect. It even has the bonus that if you’re in on the joke, the illusion doesn’t block your sight. It’s a level lower. I’d definitely let you upcast silent image to grow the area.

If that’s what we expect darkness to do, our daylight spell should probably affect illusions of third level and lower within 30 feet, since I’ve repurposed “illusion” to mean “darkness”. It’s a third level spell being used for nothing more than a light radius, so even an invisibility purge-like effect doesn’t seem like overkill to me: illusions of 3rd level and lower are stripped and dispelled if they enter the aura. Done. Truesight, coming up in 2 levels, will really eat illusion’s lunch, so I don’t even mind.

That’s fine and dandy as such things go, assuming you’ve bought into my essential complaint that darkness is weird and broken.

But what if you do want negalight, a torch whose light is inverted? I really like the idea, but I fear that D&D’s light physics leave it out of our grasp, except for the way that 5e has already implemented it. You could treat areas within the torch’s 40 foot radius as a sort of visual difficult terrain — “each foot of distance in the aura counts as two feet of distance for vision”. I actually like that very much: it clearly affects torches and darkvision, and could be stretched to include missile weapons and spell ranges too if the DM wanted. But that’s so much work to go through for the relatively minor payoff: You spend a minute with a ruler figuring out precise distances, and then just give an attack disadvantage.

So much easier to declare that negalight blocks and is blocked by light. As the existing darkness spell does. That’s life, I guess.

Better Drow

Still on the topic of fey.

Drow are almost perfect. They’re creepy elf-types, the MM has a bunch of them, they’re on-theme.

Except I don’t love that theme. The theme is “can cast faerie fire, darkness, dancing lights, levitate (maybe), loves poison (especially sleep), webs, spiders, maybe demons”. Cool for what it is, of course! But not as my fey antagonists, or whatever the greek-rooted word for frenemy is.

I was thinking of some sort of lunar fey. Not the werewolf route (though, good idea!) but instead a sort of “elusive and magical by moonlight” dealie. Cold, remote, inhuman.

Fuin Warrior

Medium fey, chaotic neutral

Armor Class 15 (chain shirt)
Hit Points 13 (3d8)
Speed 30 ft.

10 (+0) 14 (+2) 10 (+0) 11 (+0) 11 (+0) 12 (+1)

Damage Resistances cold, radiant, thunder
Condition Immunities
 charmed, effects that would reduce speed, paralyzed, unconscious
Skills Perception +2, Stealth +4 (+6 in dim light or darkness)
Senses darkvision 120 ft., passive Perception 12
Languages Elvish, Sylvan
Challenge 1/8 (50 XP)

Deep Shadow: The fuin is surrounded by a 5 foot aura that dims light. Spaces within the aura are illuminated as though light sources were twice as far away as they are (or equivalently, light sources’ radii are halved). Darkvision that is affected by magical darkness has its radius halved as well. Sunlight is unaffected. This ability is suppressed until the end of the fuin’s next turn if it takes radiant damage or damage from an iron weapon.

Shadow Eyes: The fuin’s darkvision is unaffected by magical darkness, and it does not have disadvantage on its weapon attacks at long range.

Shadow Step: Once during its turn, the fuin may use 10 feet of movement to step into an area of darkness or dim light within its reach and emerge from another such area within 60 feet. Both spaces must be at least as large as the fuin’s space.

Sunlight Sensitivity: While in sunlight, the fuin has disadvantage on attack rolls, as well as on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.


ShortswordMelee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d6 + 2) piercing damage.

ShortbowRanged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 320 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d6 + 2) piercing damage.

Okay, so then we work up the Elite, the Mage, the Priest, the monstrous version. I like this one for its shadow veil. I had another version which literally hardened shadow around itself — it had a different AC in darkness, dim light, and bright light, which isn’t that weird — the ankheg has the same thing while prone. The thing is, light is so easy to come by that it proved impossible to balance: it has an AC of 17… but 12 every time you really face it. It does 2d6 damage with its melee weapon attacks… but attacks unarmed in melee most of the time, because torches.

This version has some of the same flaws, but by halving light radii, it halves light efficiency, and therefore has more control over its fate.

Star Magic

My article on bralani and eladrin notwithstanding, I started thinking about light fey. Then about starlight fey. Then about the ring of shooting stars and how no fey in the monster manual can cast faerie fire. Then about how annoying it is that the fey-archetypal glowing globe monster bodytype is owned by the will o’wisp — undead, not fey.


Fey Lantern

Tiny fey, neutral

Armor Class 15

Hit Points 2 (1d4)

Speed 0 ft., fly 30 ft. (hover)

3 (-4) 14 (+2) 10 (+0) 6 (-2) 13 (+1) 11 (+0)

Senses passive Perception 11;

Languages Common, Elvish, Sylvan;

Challenge 1/8 (25 XP)

Ephemeral: The lantern can’t wear or carry anything.

Incorporeal Movement: The lantern can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. It takes 5 (1d10) force damage if it ends its turn inside an object.

Variable Illumination: The lantern sheds dim light of any hue in a 5- to 20-foot radius. The lantern can alter the radius as a bonus action.

Death Burst: When the lantern dies, it explodes in a cloud of sparks. Each creature within 5 feet of the lantern must succeed on a DC 12 Dexterity saving throw (disadvantage if the target is in metal armor) or take 4 (1d8) lightning damage and be unable to take reactions until the start of their next turns.


Shock: Melee Spell Attack: +4 to hit (advantage against foes in metal armor), reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 4 (1d8) lightning damage and the target can’t take reactions until the start of their next turn.

Invisibility: The lantern magically turns Invisible until it attacks or casts a spell, or until its concentration ends (as if concentrating on a spell).


The purpose of the Fey Lantern is firstly to give us some nice CR 1/8 gribblies for our next contender:


Medium fey, neutral

Armor Class 14 (natural armor)

Hit Points 22 (5d8)

Speed 30 ft.

10 (+0) 14 (+2) 10 (+0) 12 (+1) 14 (+2) 16 (+3)

Damage Resistances lightning; bludgeoning, slashing, and piercing from nonmagical weapons that aren’t silver

Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 11;

Languages Common, Elvish, Sylvan;

Challenge 1 (200 XP)

Magic Resistance The caladril has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Innate Spellcasting: The caladril’s innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 13). The caladril can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components:
At will: dancing lights, faerie fire, darkness

Light Stride: Once on its turn, the caladril can use 10 feet of movement to step magically into one magical light source it can see within reach and emerge from a second light source it can see within 60 feet, appearing in an unoccupied space within 5 feet of the second light source.


Light touch: Melee Spell Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d8+3) lightning damage and the target can’t take reactions until the start of their next turn. The caladril may make this attack from any magical light source it can see within 30 feet.

Animate Lights: The Caladril chooses up to 4 magical light effects within 60 feet that are due to a spell of 3rd level or lower and each of which fits in a 5 foot cube (a 5 foot patch of faerie fire counts). Eachmagical light source terminates, and a Fey Lantern (q.v.) appears in its place. A creature attending one of the light effects may make a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw to negate the effect for that effect. The caladril may control no more than 4 such Fey Lanterns at a time; dispelled lanterns are destroyed, triggering their death bursts. Otherwise, the effect is permanent.


Okay: so we have little zappy boomy fey lanterns, and a fey lantern herder. The herder in particular is _nasty_, since all lights serve them: they plunge the party into relative darkness, and it’s a relative darkness that tries to eat their face.  They need to shepherd their concentration, though: all 3 of their innate spells are concentration-based; their round 1 move is likely faerie fire followed by a round 2 move of animate lights. That kicks off the destruction of any allies they already had — dexterity saves all around! — and since the fey lanterns don’t themselves have lightning resistance or immunity, it can cascade.

Why not radiant? Because the ring of shooting stars isn’t radiant. That’s not a great reason, but it’s what I’ve got.