E: 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

On Retirement (and stealing from my betters)

It’s been a long time since I made a post (well, technically it’s been a very short time indeed, but ye ken well what I mean). And I want to keep writing, but I just haven’t had the inspiration (work, life, balance). But! Arnold K. makes a post (http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2017/04/death-trauma-and-retirement-im-gettin.html), and I riff on it, since it’s on a theme near-and-dear.

I want something that fits into 5e seamlessly, but retains Arnold’s “characters suffer until they wig out”.  So, rules changes:

  1. You make your first death save on being reduced to 0 hp (not upon starting your turn at 0 hp), and on this and any other death save, a critical failure rolls incurs a lingering injury (DMG 272). A very process oriented GM might roll on that anyway to narrate which type of injury was stuck (for consistency) and limit one lingering injury per doleful blow, but we’re all smart people here, we’ll figure it out.
  2. While death saves do clear as soon as you stand up, record the number of failed death saves (“doom”) anyway — each time you fail a death save, acquire 1 temporary doom point.
  3. Whenever you fail a death save, you may choose to succeed by making the doom point you took a permanent, instead of temporary, doom point. This includes negating a critical failure leading to permanent injury.
  4. Once per session when you take a long rest, make a death saving throw against a DC of your doom points. If you fail by more than 5, you retire; if you otherwise fail, you gain 1 permanent doom point. In either case, your temporary doom points clear. Be generous with advantage and disadvantage on this saving throw — on a quest, advantage! In an area which your character would regard as idyllic? Perhaps you stay.
  5. In any case, you may ignore a failure on #4 if you have  fewer doom points than your proficiency bonus, and you can clear one permanent doom point as a personal quest reward (re-committing to the cause). Things like the geas or atonement spells are probably implicated.

Character replacement: Characters begin at the “campaign set point”, then level every session until they’re back to equal. The set point is a kind of arbitrary number, but “the bottom of the current campaign tier” isn’t a crazy rule of thumb.

However, when you retire, your (old) character’s wealth that they take with them determines 1) what kind of story you get to tell about their circumstances and 2) your new character’s placement in life.

Your new character gets xp equal to the campaign set point + 1 xp per gp exfiltrated in this way, to a maximum of the current party level. The old character retires with the given amount of cash, and lives an appropriate lifestyle — divide the taken cash by 5000, figure out what cost of living that can support, and that’s what they’re doing. Even if they don’t keep it themselves (perhaps they become a hermit or a monk?), the act of removing that cash from the economy helps to figure out their long-term results. As a rule of thumb, a score on this lower than their proficiency bonus (as a cost of living) results in them looking back on their time as an adventurer with distaste.

Dead characters’ cash feeds forward into the next character’s XP in exactly the same fashion.

TBD: Penalty for dead character’s cash-for-XP?

Traps, Tricks, Treats.

The latest UA was on traps. I’m broadly in favor — traps make the geography bite back, and so long as they’re signposted, they encourage interacting with the world. In particular, they punish you for not taking a place seriously and for being too optimistic. They can also eat up enormous time and quickly become capricious or subject to a standard procedure. That’s the worst: “As with every door, I check for traps [using  the following well-understood protocol], then listen at it, then pick it”. Awful.


Thou Shalt Not Randomly Generate Traps

Traps are contextual. They should ALWAYS teach you something about the area: there’s a hunter nearby, this place was contested battleground, these people believed objects interred with corpses conferred power on those corpses or the wizard who constructed this place was insane or whatever.

Traps with a Riddle or Puzzle In Them Are Better

You know how you’re not supposed to block the party at a riddle — it’s supposed to be optional and off to the side, guarding a treasure or something. Well… if the downside for flubbing the riddle is a  trap, and the trap is harmful but survivable, it seems totally okay to me to put that puzzle in the mainline of the adventure. The party can absolutely brute force it at that point, triggering the trap as the penalty they pay to continue. They won’t be happy about it, but when their stress levels get too high, they can just address it themselves and eat a few poisoned darts.

Nonlethal Trap Doesn’t Mean Grappling

There’s this puzzle/trap/thing in your dungeon. It has a trigger mechanism and everyone’s ready to engage with that. It has an effect when triggered, and you’re already cackling imagining the looks on the players’ faces. But it’s in the middle of a well-trafficked area; surely the setters of the trap would use a nonlethal one?

Surely. And so you are reduced to nets, cages, and alarms. Or are you? Dropping a portcullis (or rotating a wall) is a better move than a net, because players will cut through a net, but generally will not start prying apart the walls. In a dungeon of fish-men, flood a room. In the temple where everyone’s immune to fire, fill the room with molten brass. Teleporting someone elsewhere in the dungeon to sit a spell. Sending someone to sleep, or charming them, or even frightening them (and, by the way, combine “a frightening trap” with “this area is in disrepair and so running around frightened can land you in a pit that didn’t used to be there”). You got options, is my point.
And that’s just traps, which frankly are the least interesting dungeon dressing. Tricks and Treats are both woefully under-specced, and to my mind more interesting!

We have a very little detail on dungeon tricks in the DMG this time around. It’s enough to whet the appetite, at least. The problem with Tricks (and Treats — a trick is just a treat with a narrow applicability which you don’t quite understand yet) is that they don’t make mundane, logical sense in the way that a trap does. There’s a poisoned needle in the lock; clearly a trap, clearly something the rogue will work her way around. Easy. There’s a mirror which treats the color red as casting shadows. Very interesting, but also magical, and hard to interact with except in its own internal logic. Are you going to try to use thieves tools? I don’t see how. If you pry it free from its frame, what’s the DM supposed to do?

So for tricks (and therefore treats):

Embrace Noetic Tricks

Tricks and treats are boons beyond expectation. They’re an unlooked for piece of magic, a fragment of poetry in an area which is otherwise deadly and logical. Use them! Put one in every dungeon level, and as you get deeper in the dungeon, put more tricks and treats in the dungeon. As you delve into the earth, you’re leaving the sun (rigorous, logical) behind and entering a region where cthonic gods hold sway. Let that happen! There’s a machine which switches brains, and a tree which flowers  underground, and a mechanical swallow that knows your name.

Unlike (logical, well-placed) traps, tricks don’t have to follow from what’s around them. They might; they might tie into a legend of a place (or have legends told about themselves), but they might also just be, without rhyme or reason. They’re a good thing to tie into the deep history of your world: altars to strange gods, pieces of unbelievable history, that kind of thing.

Don’t Make Nonbenevolent Tricks Persistent

If there’s a fountain that increases the maximum hit points of anyone who drinks from it by 1, it’s okay if it’s permanent. If there’s a machine which switches brains around the party, you should probably let exposure to sunlight set things right, even if some of the characters prefer things the new way (the now-Charles-Atlas-endowed wizard…). It might be the priest back in town who can set things right, it might be a good night’s sleep in the wholesome air, but if you don’t make it temporary, you’ve changed the nature of your game forever.

Players should, to some degree, choose to alter the nature of their game forever. If something is a known consequence of their actions, it feels an awful lot more like a trap than a trick. You have to foreshadow it, which is enough to make it a trap, but it’s going to end up even further down that road because the outcome’s negative, and looks an awful lot like damage (or a penalty, or whatever).

Treats should tie into the story of a place

The whole point of the treat is that it’s a trick-but-good. And Traps have to make sense, so why to treats? Because they’re the bait. The outcome of a treat should be somewhat predictable — if it’s unpredictable, THAT should be predictable! If it isn’t, then it’s basically roulette for the players, and they don’t know what’s coming next. Choosing to accept treasure is a choice. You can hand them a locked chest and say “you can’t tell what’s inside”, that’s fine, but sooner or later they’re going to have to find out. An ambivalent treat-without-a-label is going to read a lot more like a trick than a reward, because from their point of view, they don’t know what they’re going to get.

And besides: wouldn’t you like to reward them for exploring, sometimes?