Monthly Archives: October 2016

Three Cults

Cult of the Black Hand

Concept: The Assassins of Alamut if they were licentious spies instead of political murderers

The Hand serves the will of a quasi-deific Father, sometimes called the Old Man of Azzagarat, in the world. From their remote castles, they whisper in the ears of princes and priests, deciding the fates of nations. They form the basis of thieves’ guilds, blackmailers rings, slavers’ societies and poisoners’ laboratories.

The Garden at Bethsabbath is the best known of their citadels, though its precise location is a closely guarded secret. The valley in which is sits is surrounded on every side by more than a day’s ride of dry and dusty wasteland. An unprepared traveler reaching the seeming sanctum of the Garden is doomed, however: if they should drink a single sip of the garden’s wine, eat a morsel of its food, rest in the scented soaking baths for a moment, or kiss the eager and willing companions, they are lost. Everything; the oils, the fruits, the scented incense, it is all impregnated with a potent opiate, and the entire site carefully constructed as a lure for the unwary. Once a traveler leaves, they must make a Wisdom saving throw against a DC of 5 plus 1 for each day spent in the Garden. On a failed saving throw, they become afflicted with a yearning to return. As long as the effect persists, they have disadvantage on ability checks. At the end of each long rest, they can repeat the saving throw, ending the effect on a success. A calm emotions spell ends the effect.

A more secretive center of their power is the Seminary of the Fulghian Sisters, openly a finishing school for the cosmopolitan youth of La Republica. The Headmistress — it’s not clear if this is actually the severe Dama La Cusey or merely a nickname for some other figure — recruits likely candidates from the highly-bred students. They intermix their studies in ancient languages and diplomacy with dark initiations and burglary. When they graduate, highly placed and darkly connected young ladies write letters and send funding back to their alma mater, and the Headmistress’ control grows. Many wives, courtesans and mothers in La Republica have come up through the program, and the Black Slander — the claim that this hidden sisterhood has placed them where they can manipulate events for the Hand — is a constantly brewing scandal.

The remote town of Ponte Claracastra is a peaceful and somewhat prosperous town, difficult to reach by land. The village leader, Celephaïs Palus, is a respected healer and spiritual leader to the humble fisherfolk. However, the wealth of the city comes from practicing the Prima Noctem, the ritualistic visiting upon the daughters of the town the Dark Father on the nights of their weddings. Accordingly, the people of the town have a common dark cast to their features, unusual coloring to their sclera, and frequently the Mark on their hands of six fingers. Visitors during one of these celebrations are forewarned that the presence of the Father often leads the townsfolk into a mad revelry; bar your doors.

The Black Hand’s theology is simple. Their founder, a mysterious figure known as the Daughter of Nezira, taught each of her disciples the credo “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted”, as taught to her by her Father, the Black Hand himself. Through political skullduggery, the nascent Black Hand claimed towns and valleys for itself and left sleeper agents in their wake. The cultists of the Black Hand are inclined towards zealotry; a compromised agent will often become feebleminded or mad when exposed, severing any link to her cell. The Father is said to visit disciples and nominate them as His Chosen if invited, giving them great powers and dark secrets. Upon the hundredth birthday of the Daughter, she was carried to the Father’s right hand, to continue guiding the faithful; the high commander of the cult continues to use the title of Daughter in her honor.

Who are the patrons of the Black Hand?

The demonic Ebon Lord Graz’zt makes an obvious Father. The Black Hand refers to his six fingered obsidian hand; the handsome Prince has many, many byblows, and the Daugher is but a favored one of his alu-fiend daughters; perhaps Rhyxali (sister-daughter, who charges her vassals to spy) or Thraxxia (a personal assassin, though in this imagining she’d be somewhat elevated).

If so, the Cult would tend to be a weapon against other cults of Demogorgon and Orcus, and against all of heaven; its use in temporal matters would be limited to undercutting churches.

The Mother of Demons Pale Night makes an interesting Father and Daughter. As an obyrith (a creature older than every demon), Pale Night’s true form is beyond mortal ken, so she works through indirection and the creation of fiends. Father and Daughter would be temporary, fleshy masks; the purpose of the surviving Black Hand the control of noble bloodlines from each nation. Black Hands attempt to breed the Vasharan, a creature which is to humanity as drow are to elves.

The Queen of Succubi Malcanthet makes a straightforward Daughter, though presents interest as a Father. Her title of Queen has been hard-won and changed hands more than once, so it seems likely that some predecessor created the Hand, and she is merely portraying that predecessor who was herself portraying the Father! Malcanthet’s interests are entwined and opposed to those of Graz’zt; it’s possible she’s even seized control of the Hand from him. Regardless, helmed by Malcanthet the Hand serves as a sort of earthly finishing school for succubi. Their temporal actions serve for the student as a test and for onlookers as advertisements about the power and status available to one who gives in to her unearthly pleasures.

The diabolic pairs Glasya/Asmodeus and Fierna/Belial are indistinguishable as Daughter and Father. The Fierna/Belial pairing is somewhat more likely: they are the more established active pair, and work together on many projects, while Glasya has only recently ascended to power and Asmodeus doesn’t seem likely to shop His power around through a mouthpiece. A diabolic patron would use the Hand in the service of the Iron City, but would conceal their control of the Hand. It is difficult to tell, then, whether the famously harsh discipline of the Iron City is the reason the Cult has been unable to gain a foothold there…

Finally, it is just possible that an actual human father/daughter pairing, the khufic sorcerer Hassangrazir and daughter Ngrazira were descended from powerful bloodlines and could have been in the right places at the right times. It’s possible that they discovered some trick of immortality (lichdom, ghosts) through study or some private patron, and continue to guide the Black Hand from beyond the grave. This is perhaps the most interesting conclusion; it renders the long-lasting damage done by the Hand due entirely to the designs of iron-age goatherders and their intellectual descendants.


Cult of Luth

Concept: The black web, the deep web; WikiLeaks.

The secretive serpent, Luth is the deity of whispers, masks, and manipulation. The innermost secret of the cult is the true name of Luth; it’s obvious to all that the goddess of secrets wouldn’t travel openly under Her name. Her cults are made up of sages, alchemists and philosophers, who meet under the banner of Luth to discuss their art behind masks, keeping secret only their names. The groups are small and keep to a rigid order of business, where each member (“Inquisitator”) submits anonymously and in aggregate their “Confession”, learned facts. This corpus is then scattered and encoded by the cult leader (a Legator) and sent in parts from one cell to the others via a Peregrinator, a traveling member. The recipients then (by holy duty) store, still encoded, the contents of these missives. The contents are far ranging: blackmail encrypted steganographically in a new recipe for wine; a clockwork toy which could also be a bomb timer; a recording of crop information for its own sake; an order to murder concealing a new poem; the complete correspondence of some private entity. Each Legator thus becomes warden of a vast storehouse of odd knowledge, without context; while it is an accursed act to intercept their exchanges, an unscrupulous Legator may be coopted, bribed, or cajoled into revealing otherwise secret information.

Father Giostephios (“Zstefano”, also a not-so-famous demon’s name) is the Legator of a circle which includes several clerics of the celestial church in La Republica. Their Confessions are frequently the literal confessions of their parishioners from that crime-ridden city, and so Zstefano is the patron of the Furies, who punish those crimes known only the Cult. Unfortunately, an Inquisitator of his cult, “Umber Hulk” is by day an agent of one such corrupt citizen, seeking the informant behind the Furies by feeding the group false information, causing chaos.

The Order Argent is a circle made entirely of Legators who rotate on a monthly basis in an attempt to overcome the strictures of Luth, learning without exposing themselves. They therefore consume vastly more correspondence than they produce, and subvert the cell system as they know many more of their co-conspirator’s names than a standard Luthian cell. This mechanism has not yet become known outside of their halls, and they are quite pleased; they are however torn between stagnation and disaster, as each new member carries the risk of total destruction. Tambrian Laren (“Roland”) is suspected to be the submitter of the Confession “One of the Order Argent serves Demogorgon”, though she has since disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

The Weaver’s Guild of Waterdeep is said to hold their Confessionals under the clacking of the auto-looms in their Autofactury, via the tapestries they weave and the way they strum the weft. The product is observed closely for artistic choices and missed stitches, though as yet the pattern has not been cracked. It is reported however that the Lector of the guild stands ready to declare the key to reading the tapestries, now distributed widely, and uses this power to pressure the Masked Lords; their names and those of Lord’s Alliance and Harper agents are reportedly fibrously encoded, awaiting only the decoding step. Her demands are thus far simple.

Who is the patron of the Cult of Luth?

The simplest option is that there is some being, not-quite-named Luth but also not really any other being. She is a secretive and reclusive goddess who wants to ensure information is neither entirely public nor entirely forgotten. Her domain is secrets, lies, and scholasticism, her favored animal is the many-legged centipede (or, sometimes, a snake). She would therefore be an ascended mortal (as all lesser gods are in my setting), presumably a Khufic sorceress-queen; perhaps Lemuria or Thule.

Alternatively, Luth could be a cover-identity for Lolth (also known as Lloth; Demon-Queen of Spiders). The Weaver would make an excellent secret identity here if we ignore her Drow contingent; while I acknowledge most of what we know about Lolth comes from the drow, her place as a shadowy manipulator makes the cults of Lolth a fascinating example of the World Wide Web of Lies.

The Undying Lord Vecna (“The Arch-Lich”, “Chained God”, “Maimed God”, “Master of the Spider Throne”, “Whispered One”, “Dying King”, “Lord of the Rotted Tower”, “Undying King” — many named!) is a second obvious choice. Loves secrets, loves manipulation, and famously learned magic from a mysterious tutor: the Serpent. This would be pretty bad. It gives the cult of Luth an agenda: to record everything for the lord of secrets for his personal use.

Asmodeus is said to have a second form. The dapper being we all know and “love” is but of a  projection of a dark being trapped inside the ravines of Nessus, where He fell during the celestial revolt. The humanoid form is a hologram, and the serpent calls the shots. In this view, the secrets that pass from Lector to Lector pass ultimately through to the Iron City. In fact, it also operates the other way; purportedly truthful Confessions can be intermixed with damaging (but only partially true) ones, in the service of the Iron City.

Tiamat is the many-headed Queen of Dragons. Any similarity between this cult and the Hydra attack on peer to peer networks seems straightforwardly obvious. Tiamat is the Queen of Greed, of Hoards, of Jealousy. Thus, these secrets sit in her hoard, glittering jewels; Hail Hydra.

Demogorgon (Prince of Demons) is a long-range planner and schemer, with a pair of serpentine heads turned against themselves. The cell-structure of the Cult of Luth is due, in part, to the self-conflicted nature of the cult’s bestial patron; each cell works against the designs of each other one, but on the whole, the Prince of Demons establishes a madman’s view of the world, and uses the pattern of events to pass deeply connected clues from cell to cell.

Nothing. It is possible that there is no power behind the mask, and that the cult of Luth is effectively a cult of hermetic rationalists with no central principle and no goal. It acts as the aggregate of its members, with all the horror and potential which that represents. It is difficult to distinguish this possibility from the world in which Luth is Demogorgon.


The Circle of Thorns

Concept: Isolationist neoreactionary ecoterrorists.

Formed from a group of druids and witches whose reverence of nature was warped by the introduction of intercessory fey spirits, the members of the Circle seek a return to the old ways of nature, and a replacement of the kings of men with the Gentry of the fair folk. This is out of a respect for the natural order of things; the laws of men elevate the weak, dishonest, and disconnected from the land, and set low the workers and the honest toilers. Members are witches, and each of the circles worships a local (or opportunistic immigrant) court of fey, the Gentry. Witches have their own reasons for serving the Gentry; in contested borders, hatred of the current regime; in human heartlands, hatred of rapacious nobles or priests; at the edges of the wilds, a shelter from famine or plague. However, there are also those witches who serve out of madness or misdirection; a village whose wise ones are Thorns will tend to breed fey-blooded children, which tend to be skilled in the Art. How fortunate, then, that Granny Wizenfloot is a witch, and will train them? The true tragedy is that the druids and witches and wise ones of isolated villages bring learning and hope to a brave and hard-working people ill equipped to validate the wise one’s wisdom. For each secretive witch of the Circle serving an inhuman Gentry, an Inquisitor will likely find some innocent druid or witch with a much healthier attitude towards the Fair Folk.

There are many sponsors, because the unifying theme of the Circle of Thorns is a general turning away from human laws and towards an older, wilder order. Several demon lords make excellent fey impersonators; Yeenoghu, Baphomet, and Demogorgon are extremely capable of impersonating fey. Lords of lies, like Beelzebul, Malcanthet, and Asmodeus might make interesting poseurs. But of course, our best bets are actual fey; hags and dryads and unseelie and such.

One such circle are the Thorns of the Wychwood, a twisted coven of hags which has for generations intermarried with the men along the borders of the woods; they call them out a-night and ride them, before returning them in the morning, bruised and sickened. Their boychildren are made into lost colonies of goblins, while the girlchildren with the Art are raised into their inheritance. The adults living on the borders find themselves unable to leave, knowing their half-children and broken families hang in the balance.

Another are the Sisters of Foxglove, a group of poisoners in a distant nunnery renowned for its healing. Women with child are sent to the nunnery from the nearby city, to resolve the problem quietly; a shame, then, that Foxglove extends her life through the consumption of innocence, and that she has a poisoned tongue to convince others to join her. Those women who dwell in the close, vulnerable, are often inducted into these horrific ways and driven mad; too often, they prove excellent new Sisters.

The Whitethorns are a group of warlocks who serve the Pale Lady, a fomorian duchess. They are each her paramours and servants, champions and knights. They serve at the court of an actual human duchess to whom their feudal obligations are owed, and yet they are corrupted and turned from their duty. Some say their numbers swell through foul magics, but others that the men merely have ideas above their station; the traitor knights are difficult to divide from the human duchess’ leal servants.

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Monster Manual fixes (werewolves and silver, ghouls, shadows and intellect devourers)

D&D gives us the werewolf (at Challenge 3, it’s a little wimpy frankly, but that’s not the point). It has immunity to non-silver non-magical weaponry, which frustrates me because of how quickly it will go out of style: statistics-wise this beastie is pretty nearly an ogre, so the damage immunity is supposed to be where its additional challenge comes from. By the time we’re hitting 9th, 10th level, the party has enough spells and magical items that they’re just non-performant.

Here’s how to make them a little bit better: Werewolves don’t have their current damage immunity. Instead, while in beast and hybrid form, they have:

Regeneration If the lycanthrope has at least 1 hp at the start of its turn, it regains 10 hit points (20 during the full moon; suppressed until end of next turn if it takes radiant damage, cold damage, or damage from a silvered weapon).

Rejuvenation A slain lycanthrope reincarnates in the body of an appropriate beast within 5 miles of its gravesite at the next full moon if it isn’t buried just right (mouthful of belladonna? Powdered silver sprinkled on the grave? Whatever.).

Friendly types (werebears, swanmays, maybe others) lack these two traits entirely, and just get to shift into animal forms.

Lycanthropes continue to expose bite victims to lycanthropy, but as they only regenerate in hybrid form, so too do accursed PCs — and the evil NPC personality comes out to play in hybrid form, so a PC is actively discouraged from wolfing out. But a near-dead character might transform in order to take advantage of regeneration, flee, and then charge back into battle after a few rounds of healing!

What I like about this rules change is that you literally do have to seek a silver bullet. While magical characters can still be effective, we’re emphasizing the wizard’s cone of cold and chill touch (uncommon, interesting, that latter good against undead too); the cleric’s sacred flame and druid’s moonbeam obviously come along for the ride. I gave it radiant for moonbeam, but cold gets to come along  because of its lunar associations.

This emphasizes the magical nature of the werewolf better than the existing rule, keeps them relevant for longer, and underscores that creatures with resistance and immunity to mundane damage are either impenetrable (like the gargoyle) or intangible (like the wraith); the werewolf instead is indefatiguable but still a living being (like a troll).

I’ve spoken about ghouls before too, and how little I understand their claws’ paralysis. Still true. Still confused. Grappling ghouls are fine, but can we hew closer to the book? We know that the ghoul‘s big sibling the ghast smells bad (presumably the rotting flesh and grave dirt); what if both creatures were powered by disease?

Ghoul Fever: DC 10 Constitution save or else gain this disease and the poisoned condition while diseased. Every 24 hours the victim must repeat the save; on a failure, reduce the victim’s maximum hit points by 4 (1d8), on a success, cure the disease. The hit point reduction lasts until the disease is cured. A humanoid that dies while infected rises as a ghoul the next night (or as a ghast if it lost more than 36 hit points to the disease).

This would be spread by the stench and claws of ghasts and ghouls (as appropriate); the existing stench and claw-paralysis abilities would just be transmission vectors. Elves are immune to the ghoul fever disease entirely by some quirk of their biology.

I really wanted to do keep the notion of paralysis as an effect of the disease: stunned when you take damage, for instance. But it becomes either super wordy or terrifyingly powerful; no thank you! The best I could do is something like the giant centipede’s poison: while poisoned in this way, if you are reduced to 0 hit points you are paralyzed, but that makes this ability pretty fiddly. You could also let the ghouls inflict stunning as a rider on their claws; again, quite dangerous.

Ditto, something that used filth fever’s exhaustion mechanism would be pleasing; elves don’t sleep, so there’s some teasing explanation hiding there. But unfortunately, that doesn’t work well for the ghoul’s in-combat use, and the other filth-beasts (otyugh, diseased giant rats) use a disease very similar to this one, so that’s that.

Vampires. Too large for this margin to contain.

Spirits. The big thing D&D5e has a problem with is the shadow (and the intellect devourer, maybe some others). The shadow first: it strength drains on its attacks and is nearly unique in doing so (specifically, it does 1d4 points of strength drain on each hit, lasting until the target takes a short rest). The thing that sucks about this is that it forces a few cascading effects, it’s a unique mechanism, we don’t know what stats affect what things for monsters, and we now have better mechanisms to track this anyway: exhaustion! Simply remove the strength drain from a shadow, and instead give it:

Strength drain: This is an attack. Target: 1 creature within 5 feet that breathes. The target must make a DC 12 Strength saving throw (with disadvantage if the shadow has advantage on attacks). On a failure, the target takes 9 (2d6+2) necrotic damage. Additionally, on a failure by 5 or more, the target gains one level of temporary exhaustion. Nonfatal levels of exhaustion gained in this way fade after a short or long rest. A non-evil humanoid killed by this attack spawns a shadow from their corpse after 1d4 hours.

Tadaa! Now, because there’s a saving throw here, the strong are likely to last longer; because it’s relatively low, we can stack several shadows in an encounter without it being obviously and unfairly fatal. And they ignore armor now, which is great for us; I like the idea of shadows drawing strength through breath.

The intellect devourer is not exactly a halloween monster, but while we’re here, but its fix is along the same lines. Its devour intellect becomes:

Devour Intellect: This is an attack. Target: 1 creature it can see within 10 feet that has a brain. The target must make a DC 12 Intelligence saving throw. On a failure, they take 11 (2d10) psychic damage. Additionally, on a failure by 5 or more, the target’s intelligence and charisma scores become 1. They cannot cast spells, activate magic items, understand language, or communicate in any intelligible way. They can, however, identify their friends, follow them, and even protect them. This effect ends at the end of a long rest, or via a greater restoration, heal, or wish.

Thus, the intellect devourer has to brain drain someone into unconsciousness to actually make them a valid target for Body Thief and it’s not a slam dunk they’ll have been feebleminded by then. Now, feeblemind is still awful scary to inflict, but it’s at least comparable to a cockatrice‘s petrification.


Where wishes come from, part 2

… and in that last post, I completely neglected the point.

The point is that in these hierarchies of puissant beings, they end up using magical items the same way that mortals do. And as a result, they end up having spare magical items as surplus, as arms dealers, as cultural exchange tokens.

While it’s still a little hard for me to say that a mad wizard in the boonies has a “magic shop” where they have Excalibur hanging behind the counter, it doesn’t seem at all mad that the Caliph of Ash, Lord of Efreeti, has a scroll of cone of cold he’s not doing anything with.

So: when your characters start hitting max level and want to buy better magical gear, they absolutely should be seeking out the Three Great Cities, the City of Brass (Efreeti), the City of Iron (Devils), and the City of Silver (Angels).

They should find an elven prince and do them a great favor. They should find a druid hierophant. They should find a grandmaster of assassins. They have storehouses, and probably need allies: the gold is probably not the point for some of the more abstract entities, but instead the idea of wealth (especially Iron and Silver; Efreeti probably like metal for metal, but Devils just like knowing how much it’s worth to you).


Where wishes come from

I really like the idea of the Rod of Seven Parts, the ur-artifact from D&D’s past. It has so many good nouns! The rod-wrights, the Wind Dukes of Aaqa, and their surviving artefact, once-known as The Rod of Law. The victim of the rod, the lieutenant of the Queen of Air and Darkness, Miska the Wolf Spider.

But that’s not the only piece of world-shaking technology floating out there; there’s lots of other artifacts. What’s interesting about the Rod of Seven Parts is that it was purpose built as a weapon in an ancient war against a specific foe, and therefore it’s a cultural artifact. Yes, we can see the Wind Dukes as a semi-divine organization, but they’re still “only” djinni, they’re not, like, Empyreans or Solars or demigods or something. Arch-djinni, at the outside.

And Djinni, relative to our other creature types, are not all that organized! In my campaign, the giants are unified albeit city-state-y and not that magical, the efreeti are certainly a burgeoning economy; the elves are post-apocalyptic but had hit efreet-relative heights, the hebdomad of angels certainly has this on lockdown. And then there’s the command-economy of the Iron City.

My point: there’s a lot of creature types with access to the organization, magico-technology, and stability necessary to work on these long term projects. And to be clear, by this I mean crafting artifacts. And by crafting artifacts, I mean good ones; stockpiled rings of wishes, as many as possible.

***

Picture it. You’re the First Planetar of the Eastern Gate; you wield a radiant sword in the service of the Seven, keeping watch over the Paths of Flame. And you are the first to see a movement beyond the many-hued veil; the servants of the pit and prepare to storm the gates. You sound the horns of alarm, and ancient plans of defense are set into action. But we’re talking astral beings here; they don’t use catapaults loaded with stones or iron-barred gates. They can’t; their foes teleport and phase, fly and shrug off elemental energies. They need to store potential energy against they day they need it, but their armories aren’t mortal. Your duty sidearm is a shard of the holy presence itself, by the seven! No boiling oil for you; the fire wouldn’t do enough damage and the oil is so déclassé. Instead, holy water would make sense, and presumably the industrial-strength equivalent even more so. Maybe the whisky equivalent of holy water — water of life? — maybe the alchemist’s equivalent. And that’s only good against fiends and undead. What if they use giants as shock troops? Presumably Heaven is better prepared than just moistening the invader.

In a long-term war with a known enemy, each faction probably has its Rod-equivalent. Hell and Heaven have been at war for literally longer than humanity has had fire. They’ve got to have an upgrade by now.

But is it a genetic ability shared across the race? Is it issued to every footsoldier? There’s not a great reason to say that each and every Glabrezu can cast wish, but there’s every reason to say that each and every Glabrezu can put a summoner in a position to get a wish, if they are willing to sacrifice enough and lucky enough. Ditto efreeti. Ditto djinni. The societies of which they form a part has access to powers, and the members are an introduction to the movers and shakers.

***

Let’s talk efreeti. Like Rakshasa, they lair within the Burning Azoth, a formless place of energy, form and seeming. Creatures exposed to the azoth which survive are the spellburned, permanently changed by that exposure. It is said that in the moment of the spellburn, one speaks to Azoth Itself, the will of magic; one can, in that moment, achieve a wish. Efreeti, Rakshasa, and others often harvest azoth, storing fulminating casks or lyrium stones in their keeps. Exposure to these lesser forms often grants the effects of a variety of potions or a pearl of power that forces a wild magic surge. The occasional explosion is a low price to pay.

Devils are much more structured. Their mastery of nine worlds and colonies on another hundred, combined with their infrastructure and organization means that if you name it, it seems likely they can produce it from somewhere. They don’t live in the Burning Azoth; they live in their worlds and in the gateways between them. They have enormous libraries of forbidden knowledge, every spell they have ever managed to trade for, interrogate out, or create themselves. They have archives of creatures, imprisonmented; they have archives of objects, protected from theft and scrying, and they have gates aplenty. They also have several well-documented highly magical leaders; Asmodeus who is nearly a god, Mephistopheles, Glasya, the Hag Countess, Dispater, and no doubt others. I’m sure they’ve kept the souls of a thousand generations of archmages on tap, as well. As a result, there’s very little they can’t arrange to have happen.

The Djinni and Empyreans and Storm Giants and Elves, by comparison, are punters. I mean, cloud castles, bottled lightning, and so forth. But wish? Unlikely. A few legendaries, that’s it.

The angels… well, nobody knows. It is known that they have rings of wish, that the very terrain of the heavens is blessed. But it’s not clear what the upper limits are — and the devils claim it’s flummery, and that the angels are stretched quite thinly indeed.


Monstrous Angels

I was writing another article that I got bored with. Interlude!

It’s well accepted that angels are freaky. D&D’s couatl is a good start, psychic winged snake with spells, yes. But  more! More! When they appear, they tell us to FEAR NOT, because presumably otherwise we would.

Ezekiel gives us a pair of terrifying angelic beings; one with four faces, lion, ox, man, and eagle, and another which is an eye-covered interlocking chariot wheel. These latter are called Ophanim, and I am trying so hard not to just coidentify them with celestial-typed beholders, terrifying, round, and eye-studded. The former are a pretty good match for sphinxes if you let them face-shift a little; actual four-headed beasties are tricky for us. Maybe an Androsphinx; the lion, man and eagle come for free, give it a bull’s gore in place of one of its claws, with the same attack and damage (piercing) and a DC 20 Strength save or fall prone.

John repeats a theme but gently, giving us single-faced versions of lions, oxen, men, and eagles (triple-winged, each of which is eye-covered). I like these as masks or mantles, some sort of template — the lion-faced is a fear aura, the oxen face a slowing aura, the man-faced one of charm, the eagle faced one a self-hasting ability.

Cherubs, per biblical tradition, can look normal; so they’re probably fine to co-identify with deva. I’m starting to hang an awful lot on their shoulders, since they’re carrying my valkyrie also. I think I’m fine with that, but it’s something to keep an eye on. Seraphim are a pretty good match for our solar; I’ll let them take on a more radiant form with more wings, but it’s just cosmetic.

Then we have the insane ramblings of Dionysus the Christian; here come seven more. His seraphim are still solars, and by the way, maybe THIS is Asmodeus’ true race. His cherubs make pretty good planetars, since I have the piece available. His thrones/ophanim are, again, animate wheels-within-wheels, much more explicitly mechanical; I want them to be, like, structures as much as creatures. Dominions, virtues, powers, principalities; they’re all just deva: angels of various powers, but armed and armored, not freaky-shaped.

Jewish folklore gives us Yaltabaoth/Yaldabaoth, a lion-headed serpent ruling the archons (themselves ruled by the planetary archangels of the Hebdomad; no points awarded). Already used that (well, you know).

So, that’s cool. A new use for beholders and sphinxes, a few biblical aspects for other celestials; that’s cool.


Spells that are secretly class features

There’s a few spells which secretly unlock a class feature; that is, if you take this spell you are working the way that the system intends, and if you do not, you are not.

They’re often easy to spot: only one class has access to them, they’re “better” than other spells at that level, they take a bonus action to cast (so that they can be combined with the “main action”), or have an all-day duration as a balancing factor.

The warlock is particularly guilty of this: eldritch blast is the best cantrip because it uniquely scales to multiple targets, does at-will damage of the single best type in the game, has a great range, does excellent damage, and is built into several invocations. And they’re the only ones who get it. Hex, too; it starts scaling past one hour and bam, you’re chaining short rests and keeping your concentration up, and note how well its “1d6 extra damage each time you hit” combines with “eldritch blast hits multiple times”. It’s a damage buff. I’m not saying you’d always cast hex; it has the opportunity cost of concentration after all. But I am saying you’d always choose to know hex. The warlock has many other unique-access spells; those don’t bother me nearly as much, because they do something that doesn’t feel like a mechanical contrivance.

The ranger’s equivalent to hex is hunter’s mark and, like hex, it feels like a class feature. They’ve got some other flavorful spells here and there, but only hunter’s mark has that same “would you like to do more damage or not?” aspect to it; I really like hail of thorns but it doesn’t feel like a secret class feature to me, because it’s not clearly intended to last all day (concentration willing) and doesn’t provide that little extra buff of damage. Especially for an archer ranger, the parallels are downright eerie.

The paladin’s find steed seems similar in a way. I’m really quite shocked we haven’t solved our ranger conundra with a find companion, given how similar the use cases are; in my campaign, the ranger has access to find steed and can absolutely use it to pull bears and mongooses (mongeese?) too. If your paladin wants a horse, you cast the spell and have a permanent magical friend-horse from a list that’s, frankly, not too shabby. Give it some spell level scaling and we’re in business. What’s interesting about this case is that the paladin is a prepared spell caster and, like the cleric, it pulls from the full list; there’s no opportunity cost to this feature unless you want to cast it in a weird situation.

Contrast this with the wizard’s find familiar and mage armor. Actually, given how easily spells come to wizards and the fact that find familiar is ritual-castable, that’s obviously a class feature with no downside to speak of. Mage armor‘s 8 hour duration makes it feels similar after a certain point, though a 1st level caster is so constrained and a caster’s place should be so far from the front that it’s not a gimmee.

 

The out of combat class features — find steed and familiar — rankle more than the in-combat ones. The in-combat ones feel like other character types should be able to gain access to them; they usually cost a resource (even if, like eldritch blast, it’s a tax), and they unlock a capability. By the time they start getting 24 hour durations, the need to concentrate becomes quite frustrating (last up to a day — and down to a single turn, depending on dice!). But all in all, I can see the need to make it a spell. But find a friend, what is WRONG with you?

 

Just a rant, nothing constructive.


The Wild Hunt

Per the wiki (and, to avoid spoilers, this article will mostly be riffs on that, so go read it and you needn’t come back unless you want to), it’s a ghostly or supernatural group of huntsmen passing in wild pursuit. It’s made of either elves or fairies or the dead; the leader is often a named figure associated with Woden, but also various kings, symbols of death, bibliccal figures, or an unidentified soul.

Seeing the hunt is thought to presage catastrophe, from individual death to four-horsemen territory, plus abduction into the underworld or fairy kingdom; people’s spirits could be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade.

There is of course a Welsh association with the Cwn Annwn, which is where I come in; from Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, I’ve got this association of Arawn (Lord of Annwn, more or less the arch-lich) as the vilest undead-typed evil, but these hounds aren’t skull beasts. They’re D&D’s yeth hounds; spooky and supernatural, but otherwise fleshy. Of course, ghosts work that way in myths an awful lot; transparency and incorporeality are traits ghosts may have, but not strictly necessary. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising got me, too; the hunt as choosing a quarry to harry to the ends of the earth has always been a note of mine. Too, the wild calling, fearsome and compelling.

The components of the hunt are variously monstrous; yeth hounds, black giants, riding-goats, giant birds, curses, fire, and calamity; at the head, death itself, or Odin, or Satan, or King Arthur. I think that’s some of the confusion between the land of the dead and the land of the fey; they’re sort of a parallel construction in most myths; the dead dwell with the gods, after all.

What this means is that for D&D-ables, we don’t have THE wild hunt — we have, at best, A wild hunt. It could be fiendish or undead, led by horrors, just like those monks recorded. It could be staffed by valkyries and Odin, leading the dead to their rightful rest (or, of course, manufacturing some dead). Giants. Fey. Heroes from their barrows. Sleepwalkers. Nightmares.

The Wild Hunt of Hell is all ready to go. Hellhounds and nightmares, obviously. It’s a little less clear who the humanoid participants would be. I usually populate hell with the “dead and damned”, so wights and zombies, led by a wraith or bone devil or similar — all the way up to pit fiend if you’ve been naughty. We could use some of the linear-increase souped up creatures from the DMsGuild D&D 5e Monster Expansion, like the wight king or the dread wraith. Or get a few more proper fiendish members; maybe tiefling scouts or thugs or veterans; maybe the cambion; maybe DMsGuild The Codex Malevolence II Fearsome Fiends I (whew, say that five times fast), the yeth hound, the baron cambion. Or the DMsGuild Planar Bestiary, the cavalry devil, the legion devil, their version of a yeth hound.

Because of how myths work, the quarry of this gang is a little unclear. I think it’s basically supposed to be sinners (this is how the devil drags you down to hell), but that doesn’t work for this roster in D&D. They’re out for blood, and if this hunt comes-a-calling, just from sheer bulk of monster we’re looking at trouble. It could be a purely reclamatory force, here to find some unlicensed planewalking. It could be here to drag some errant warlock away. But honestly, regardless of stated intent they’re going to watch the world burn, with that firepower.

Getting caught up in this hunt gets you dead. Getting dead in the path of the hunt gets you dragged to Hell. Which gets you zombied or wighted. Welcome to the hunt. They open up the graves and arm the conscripts. I suspect one could ride with them at extreme risks to one’s soul.

The Wild Hunt of Odin is a less undeady matter. We don’t have a great and obvious Valkyrie yet (oh, there’s something of that name in Kobold Press’ Tome of Beasts, but it feels off to me at the table: I don’t want them legendary, I don’t want them crafting in combat, etc). We can use erinyes for them in part, swapping poison to psychic. But there’s an oddly off-label use I think works even better: we could just use deva stats straight. The Valkyrie as choosers of the slain in this reading are quite literal about what they’re doing, stealing bodies off the field and marching them away with none of this soul business. What heads this chooser-of-the-slain committee? The One-Eyed God hisself seems a bit out of our reach here, but we could put a hero at the head of our army, our Arthur or our Gwydion or whatever. I guess we could say a celestial-typed legendary-kitted-out knight or archmage with double hit points and +4 to everything, but I’m not really thrilled with it without more thought. In any case, then follow our knights and nobles and guards on phantom steeds for the riders and foot; for hounds, dire wolves or, oddly not as far off theme as you’d think, manticores. They’re only challenge 3, their flight lets them keep up, and their fearsome aspect is a good match for what we need here. Just think of the howls! Here’s where we get birds-as-soldiers, too — swarms of ravens, giant eagles, maybe aarakocra as rook-soldiers.

The choosers of the slain are here on a mission, and probably a pretty well known one: create a war, stop a war, make sure the right side wins a war, that sort of thing. They don’t set everything on fire with their passing, and their deva/archmage/phantom steeds give them quite a bit of mobility. Famously, the wild hunt targets wood-fey; this might be the one that does, preparing the way for humanity. They also get to be the cull that removes the undead; maybe they drive out an undead scourge. A service rendered to them will probably be blessed, but with something ambiguous; standing in their way probably gets you forcibly inducted.

There’s quite a few ways into this revel: deva-typed Valkyries pick you up and dust you off, give you a mount and away you go! Alternatively, maybe the master of the hunt turns you into one of the beasts — it’s a thing that happens. In either case, serving in the same interest as the hunt probably leaves you unharmed (or at least cleanly dead), while hindering it leaves you in bad shape. Laying prone in the middle of the road is the safest place to be, for their steeds’ legs don’t reach that low.

The Wild Hunt of the Fey is old and, well, wild. While my Seelie/Unseelie split calls itself Illyrian/Fomori, and my Illyrians are the green, wild, and woodsy fey, the wild hunt is somehow… wilder. It’s the raw stuff, the wild magic. I see this one as the call of the bacchanal, and the thing that makes fey creatures behave madly and in modes older than man. The hunt itself is made of the fey and fey-adjacent creatures. For instance, the elves, the gnomes, giant animals, the blink dogs for they could be called cu sidhe, and the displacer beast hellcats which might as well be cait sidhe). We know there are giants with striking eyes; perhaps use the Fomorian giant here. The leader is probably a drow priestess or drow mage, maybe a (read as fey) djinn since we don’t have ghaele stats — or do, if you check out the DMsGuild Planar Bestiary!

This wild hunt serves at the whim of its master; in general, I assume it’s some old elven grudge. Don’t be someone who an elf from a thousand years ago would hold a grudge against, I guess!

I see this one as the kidnap-you-away-to-fairyland one, the one that encourages you to join in and, once you do, you are a part of it until the hunt ends. Elves should be more vulnerable to it than most, but are resistant to charm, so it’s probably a fear effect. So there’s some spells or magic that they use.

So: At least three wild hunts.