Monthly Archives: December 2016

Religions versus Cults

My players treat Cult as a bad word, which was interesting to me. My take was much more positive; a cult was a small group of worshippers whose practices weren’t cultural, and whose beliefs were secret. Theirs were more negative; a cult was a group of worshippers of unclean habits, whose deeds were dark. That led to a few miscommunications; the somewhat morally-grey Cult of Luth, the keeper of secrets, venemous insects, and scholarship is an enemy religion to them. But really, I intended them to be pretty adventurer-friendly! Alas, alas. But to me, this makes the most sense.

D&D is cultic, but for some reason the published content doesn’t recognize this.

Think about it: clerics have private access to spells, granted as they delve into the underworld and gain wealth and knowledge. That doesn’t sound to me like a parish parson or a church-sponsored exorcist: it sounds to me like a devotee of Bacchus or the Chosen of Anubis. The usual D&D milieu puts faith off to the side, because let’s be honest here, we’re just in it to game. Of the characters which are godbotherers (like clerics and paladins), their advancement isn’t related to their deity in any way save the nature of their powers.

Under this rubric, warlocks are not just taught or sponsored by their patrons, they are marked. Their powers refresh much more rapidly than those of other casters (save monks and certain high level characters of other classes). This matches the at-will and random refresh powers of other monsters. Clerics have something similar in their channel divinity, and lo and behold, it does a good job of making them less like other casters, less like other characters.

Reindeer Games

So, okay. D&Deities sponsor cults. What does that mean for us? For one thing, the nature of being a “divinity” isn’t a discontinuity in our NPCs. It’s perfectly okay to introduce “deities” as creatures beyond normal monster power levels, but being a deity and being worshipped have little to do with one another, and we can choose to do these things separately. This is great, because it frees us up to have philosophies alongside individually worshipped beings alongside pantheons for our set dressing without needing to worry about clerics.

Your fighter and your cleric both have the same interest in finding temples. Regardless of what the overall religions (, politics, trade guilds, …) in your campaign, a cult of Aphrodite and a temple to the gods are very different things! You should feel free to introduce continent-spanning power groups, but the existence of a character with spells doesn’t require that you replicate them in each town.

The central mystery of most cults should allow a character to befcome first level clerics (or warlocks, or maybe other classes like paladins or druids). That is, if your character drinks the Blood of the First from an invested priest of same, then they can become a first level cleric by sacrificing their latest level of fighter. Because they spread in this hands-on way from cultist to cultist (and not all cultists, by the way: think “followers”, name level at a minimum), they have geographic locality and specific NPC relationships.

And by the way, participating in this mystery doesn’t work for everyone. Some people just aren’t cut out to be the faithful.

Why Temples?

So let’s say we go with this. Deities have whatever powers we give them; clerics have whatever powers they discover on their own, and the relationship between the two is one of initial sponsorship and mentorship, but not an ongoing source of power except in rare cases (avatars, chosen, prophets: in-game statuses all). Temples which don’t actually empower their priests (“All of the olympians” instead of “The cult of Zeus”) exist for the same reason universities do. They function as a sort of trade guild and, like a trade guild, have a lot of officiants in positions of power who are not actually any good at the underlying guild’s business. Priests, in other words. They’re a sort of theoretical scientist in a world where you could be an engineer: cultic participants might be seen as dangerous zealots, short-sighted or mad, while priests are merely devout and wise.

This means that when you go into town and get spells cast at the temple, you’re likely interacting with a mercenary, not a townsfolk. This might be a town where a Hearth-tender of Hestia is doing her thing and keeping the temple, but it could also be a town with a well meaning parish priest — but also a priest of Hermes passing through on a frequent basis!

Similarly, a temple might be built in a holy place or a historic place. That holy feature might be more important than the shrine atop it, to adventuring characters. The townsfolk might go to temple services for community and to learn the theology and cosmology in which they’re set. But the heroes know to stop in the sepulcher and pay their respects to the bones of Saint Erasmus if they have a curse they need removed, or to travel two towns over to remove diseases at the Waters of Genesea.

Mono-, poly- and heno-theism

This agnostic stance on the relationship between religion and the Cleric class pays off in spades. Regardless of the theology of your campaign, all you need to do is introduce a division in the faithful which associates power with danger and self-determination (you know, PCs?) and let the rest unfurl. Maybe your church structure only elects Clerics to positions of power, that’s a fine choice. But maybe Clerics hide their powers (but not their faith!) because the Church is a loose association, and suppressing that factionality lets things work better.

On The Passage of Time

In the real world, calendars and holidays are super important (as I write from a house filled with friends and food). In our games, in the words of E. Gary Gygax from AD&D, “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” So time should matter. It makes the world feel more real.

And yet, we play our games to focus on the exciting and the escapist. The much derided Papers and Paychecks reduces our RPGs to spreadsheets and actuarial tables. The idea of a time-spanning game has always appealed to me, but having successfully run a somewhat anticipatory campaign, I’m not sure it mattered much. Alek suggested a really good idea of a cultural game (where each character is the exemplar of their people, and the game follows their evolution). Unfortunately for the idea, the average D&D game hits twenty levels in twenty days. Fighting that tendency is hard.

One way a DM can make time matter is to provide time-based quests. Examples include:

  • It takes 2 weeks to get to the town nearest the quest location
  • It takes 2 weeks to get from the nearest town to the quest location
  • The quest-hook is provided during a festival or other celebration
  • The quest location is only available during a festival or astronomical event
  • The quest involves a moving location (a ship, a marching army) before it reaches a goal
  • The rewards for the quest are on a sliding scale, depending on how quickly it’s completed
  • The rewards for the quest are on a sliding scale, depending on how long they can be invested before harvesting them
  • The rewards for the quest are more valuable at a specific time or place
  • A prophecy involving an NPC (or PC!) aging (becoming an adult, becoming married, having a child, dying)

These options make time matter and reward keeping a busy social calendar.


    Happy new year!

    One-punch Monk

    While struggling with my “waterbender” monk (I’m still not really happy with it. Whatever.) I spent a lot of time looking at the monk chassis. Here are some of those thoughts.

    I really, really like the monk as a general purpose mystic warrior. In particular the shadow monk plays to this role really well. The monk’s assumed-disciplined background plays well against the paladin, barbarian, and rogue; they represent a more spiritual nature than the pally, a more logical one than the barb, and a more highminded one than the rogue. My time playing Assassin’s Creed has convinced me that the main characters there are, in fact, monks.

    But D&D stuck the assassin under the rogue (… and the ninja under the way-of-shadow monk). The really important detail for me is the assassin’s one-hit-kill, a death strike which the existing Open Hand monk retains as a capstone ability. If I want something in between, I’m rather out of luck.

    The biggest thing missing is a focus on a leading attack. Rogues tend towards single large hits: while they might want multiple attacks, they only get to sneak attack once per turn, so they dual wield to increase their chances of landing the single blow that counts. That’s perfect for the assassin rogue, who drills down to a single large hit as the first move in the combat, maximizing their damage against a foe which fails a perception check (surprise) and a dexterity check (initiative) both. There’s no real equivalent for the assassin monk. Until now.

    So: Way of the Assassin.

    At 3rd level, you have advantage on attack rolls against  any creature that hasn’t taken a turn in the combat yet, and any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit. You also gain proficiency with “assassin weapons” (blowgun, if you’ve got rules for ’em, garotte), and the poisoner’s kit.

    At 6th level, you can use a bonus action on your turn to give yourself a rogue’s sneak attack progression equal to your monk level until the end of your turn. This ability still requires a finesse weapon (not unarmed, quarterstaff, spear, etc; daggers, short swords, daggers etc fine) and the conditions which trigger a sneak attack are still required (advantage or an adjacent ally). Reasoning: I want to give you sneak attack like a rogue, but you have Flurry of Blows and Martial Arts to contend with. I feel no shame about Flurry of Blows — it costs a ki point, after all — so let’s consider Martial Arts. That bonus action is, say, 75% likely to deal one more hit’s worth of damage — a roguelike sneak attack progression, starting at 3d6, seems about right. Over time, it gets better and better, until it reduces Flurry to a mook takedown maneuver, or until you’re not able to get in position to trigger sneak attacks. Since you lack the rogue’s cunning action, that seems pretty common; since you lack a bonus action, you won’t be dual wielding your sneak attack mechanism. Hurrah!

    At 11th level, you gain the Way of Shadow monk’s Cloak of Shadows. In addition, your unarmed strikes gain the “finesse” property. Reasoning: Hello, unarmed sneak attacks.

    At 17th level, you gain the Open Hand monk’s Quivering Palm.

    Back to more general notes: The monk uses wisdom (because of the monastic –> cleric) connection. Wisdom is a poorly defined ability. Given my druthers, I’d probably switch all spellcasters away from it — clerics cast off of charisma, druids off of intelligence — and switch the monk to intelligence too. And switch warlocks over to intelligence based casting while I’m at it. And give the cleric and the warlock (and the paladin) the same “schema” for casting; both use renewable slots or neither. The damage this does to the healing system is far secondary to the relief it offers to my OCD that things-that-work-similarly-in-fiction-work-similarly-in-rules-structure. Making druids mostly known-spells (instead of prepared-spells) would help too, guys.

    Er, anyway. Making monks intelligence based goes some ways towards making them easier to use in non-wuxia-like settings. High elves get a dexterity and intelligence boost, and should be monks with their focus on refinement and study. Their focus on concrete techniques shows a need for self-understanding, but not mystical communion with an external force, save perhaps Ki — there’s no reason Ki and (the Forgotten Realms’) the Weave aren’t very nearly the same thing. Intelligence-based monks would have reasons to have high stats in calligraphy, languages, history; all those things we want our monks to have. Bruisery-monks (more physical than mental) are all well and good, but they should be motivated by giving monks things separate from their casting stat; they already don’t work because they should be Dex-based, not Str-based!

    Oh, while we’re here, assassin weapons. I think we’re good with our poisoned daggers and blowgun needles. I think we need to add Garotte, a special martial weapon. You can only attack a target you have grappled with a garotte. The target becomes restrained while grappled and cannot speak or breathe while restrained in this way and the garotte gains the finesse quality, dealing 1d6 damage, against the restrained target.

    A pad soaked in ether: Similar to the garotte, this weapon can only be used against a grappled target. The first time each round it’s used as an attack, the target is exposed to the (presumably inhalant) poison in which it’s soaked, and cannot speak or breathe until the start of your next turn. That’s all.

    What are planes?

    Warning: written while sober.

    D&D’s interactions with planes are kind of funny. They’re the adventuring locations which you can’t just walk or even teleport to but instead have to go through the DM’s hoops, but also the land of the dead and the place where the angels come from.

    But I just don’t like the Great Wheel, because it substitutes a (bad) psychology textbook for a world map. I just don’t like the Astral Plane, because it’s empty space. And so forth. Which is kind of crazy, because the D&D cosmology has a lot of pretty neat stuff in it

    For instance: Is the ethereal plane a place (as it is in D&D) or a non-place? I kind of like the Ethereal as the wind between the worlds, the place you get when you take the place away. If it’s not a place, then of course it’s where the ghosts go, and of course it’s the empty place. Of course the thing that blocks off ethereal travel is stuff that makes a plane super thematic after itself: deep nature, ancient cities, political courts, monuments.

    I don’t love the elemental planes as a neopolitan ice cream box, but I do love the elemental chaos. I don’t love the “feywild” (as a name, but even as a concept), but do love fairies. The problems with both are kind of interrelated: both are anti-adventure, in that there isn’t a good story about why you’d go there. Think about it: “Hell” gets an A+ on this score because you go there to screw with Satan. “The Feywild” isn’t nearly as on-point: maybe you’re screwing with a fey lord, maybe you’re hunting displacer beasts, maybe you’re harvesting moon-flowers, and so forth. I mean, I could tell a similar story about Hell (“screwing with a diabolical duke, hunting hell hounds, harvesting larvae, and so forth”) but to me they really do feel different. I think it’s that fairy-land doesn’t have a single flavor. By mashing the two together, we give fairy-land a flavor (unpredictability and danger, a little body-horror, a little fear of insanity and corruption).

    But did I invent something new by saying that? To my mind, I didn’t really. Elemental Chaos + Feywild = Faerie, sure, but normal D&D calls that agglomeration Limbo. And you know, I’m totally okay with that? To say that my land of Faerie is a little slice of Limbo, that spells that would use the shadow roads to travel go through the twisting spaces of limbo, that shadow creation and illusion creation uses Limbo? All seems right to me.

    Then we get the new-age and atheistic land of the dead. Obviously D&D has the problem of too many death gods: are dead souls bound for a sort of ecumenical heaven, or the well-defined Hell, or Hades, or the Abyss, or what? So of course the only real answer is to define some sort of specific land of the dead, themed in a gothic and dead-lands style, say that that’s where they go, and cut the rest off. These days, we call that place the Shadowfell, but it used to be the negative energy plane — and even before that, it was Hades. So let’s just call it Hades again, perhaps.

    And of course, Heaven and Hell. Famously one can reach from Heaven to Hell via vertical movement; doesn’t that mean they’re the same plane? Well, I dunno. Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s go ahead and call them all different places for now. And I’ve loved the idea of the wormworld, a hellscape dominated by the aberrations and where the gith’s drama plays out; I stole Gehenna for its name. So that’s a different place too.

    Back to the “ethereal plane”. It links the worlds, and of course all the abyssal demon worlds — the ethereal plane is the same as the Abyss; it’s not a plane which is by its nature evil, so much as a region of space dominated by the demon lords.

    Okay, look, here’s the point. There’s a lot of wasted metaphysical space in D&D, and it’s overly structured. The Kingdom of Heaven can easily be a place you can walk to from the Despotry of Hell. It probably even should be, so that there can be places for flights of angels to get into battles with serried ranks of devils.

    So: what’s the point of the D&D planes? They’re described as one-note flavors, and so the evils planes are interesting and the good ones are boring. It’s important to me that the planes be generally good for conflict, so obviously the places of Heaven and Hell, even if they are separate planes, should be “near” each other. Obviously the devils that execute the Blood War need to reach the demons; since I put my demons in little half-realities hanging off of the ethereal, the place behind the world is filled with the execution of their war.

    So that’s kind of interesting: the ethereal plane is how you get from The World to all the ruined little demiworlds hanging off of it, and the Devils are hegemonizing as many of them as they can, in a process called the Blood War. D&D rationalized!

    On magical water warriors

    I’m not really happy with this, I’ve just been trying to write it for too long and wanted to get it over with 🙂

    I really want to make a waterbender type of character — Katara or Korra from the Avatar franchises, or to a lesser degree, Kaldur’ahm from Young Justice. The PHB’s Way of the Four Elements monk comes close, but is just slightly out of alignment with what I want, because it treats each technique as a special rules widget; the problem is that it doesn’t feel like you can manipulate the fluid element, because your techniques are too rigid. It’s egregious because the Way of Shadow monk works more or less the way I want, treating “shadow” as an element to be manipulated instead of a theme to drive powers. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the great community-provided patch for the Wot4E monk; it doesn’t fill my needs because it still themes powers by technique instead of just allowing direct manipulation of water. That said, for most purposes that’s probably good enough… Ah well!

    So: Way of Tides.

    Tidal Spells
    At 3rd level, you gain the ability to cast several spells using your ki. You can cast fog cloud, create or destroy water, and shape of the flowing river** at a base cost of 1 ki point. 
    Wave Walk
    Also at 3rd level, you are continuously subject to water walk unless you decide not to be or are incapacitated. Being underwater imposes no penalties to your movement or attacks.

    Tidal Action
    At 6th level, you can use water as a weapon.

    • At any time you are in contact with a gallon of water, you can create a water whip as a monk weapon as though drawing it from a container (reach +10 feet, deals slashing or bludgeoning damage).
    • When you are in contact with a volume of water, you can make shove attacks from any space within 30 feet that is in contact with the same body.
    • When you target a foe with stunning strike, they are coated in ice and restrained until they escape (the ice has AC 5 and 15 hit points, vulnerability bludgeoning and fire).

    Aerial Action
    At 11th level, you can use air as a lesser monk might use water. You can fly using your walking speed, treating vertical movement as difficult terrain, and falling if you do not end your turn on a stable surface. Your unarmed strikes can fling shards of ice or small objects (as though from a sling, 30/120, bludgeoning or cold) or lashes of air (select a point within 15 feet to attack from; reach +15 feet from that point). You can grapple and shove with lashes of air.

    Fluid Apotheosis
    When you use step of the wind, you gain a fly speed equal to your walk speed, hover, and immunity to normal missiles until you touch the ground. When you use patient defense while touching a volume of water, creatures which miss you while touching the same volume of water must make a strength saving throw or fall prone. When you use

    * And scimitar and trident. But those are equivalent to short swords and spears, and you already had those.
    ** Pretend it’s a spell; druid, sorcerer, wizard 1 (transmutation, ritual). Pretend further that each spell level invested beyond the first gives you a 5 ft. larger cube.