Thursday, May 21, 2015

Altellus, a swashbuckling fantasy world.

A dryadborn duelist
(Yes, they're basically elves.)
(No, I'm still not using Pathfinder.)

My Queen,

Infinite crystal spheres exist in the incomprehensible vastness of the Prime Material Plane. Some are big and hold entire universes; some are small and hold strange, singular worlds. Some are fueled by science and technology and some are filled with magic and wonder. Some are home to gods who walk the earth, meddling in the lives of their followers while some are home to religions that pray to emptiness that never answers. Some worlds are filled with dreariness and dread; some are home to adventure and delight.

In searching for a new home for your next transmigration, I have followed your instructions to limit my divinations to those spheres you have described as “swashbuckling” – by which I assume you mean roughly contemporaneous with our own sphere in technology and sartorial fashion. “Rapiers and ruffs,” as you said. I commend your majesty for your discernment, and I humbly submit that I have discovered several worlds that may please your next incarnation.

One of these crystal spheres is home to a world called Altellus. It stands at a strange midpoint in the extremes of the Prime Material Plane. The world of Altellus itself is the third major satellite of its sun, but Altellus’ sun is the only sun in its sphere. Gunpowder and gearworks exist happily alongside crystal balls and summoning circles. The gods are distant and unseen, yet no one doubts their presence in their lives.

Altellus itself is a modest-sized, blue-green world, resembling its cousin Earth in many ways. The continents are all placed more or less where we should would expect them, the weather works the way one would expect it to, and the flora and fauna are… largely familiar. Perhaps great dragons sleep beneath ancient hills, unicorns frolic in its forests, and the deeps of the seas are filled with leviathans and sea serpents, but it is certainly recognizably Earth-like.

Except that humanity is extinct.

This is not a fact recognized by the inhabitants of this world – they would, perhaps, laugh in my face if I dared suggest that humankind has ceased to be – but it is nevertheless a fact. Do not be alarmed, though, my queen, for it appears that humanity died a pleasant death. One might say that it passed in the arms of a tender and generous lover during a vigorous bout of lovemaking. Well, numerous lovers, actually…

Humanity has been replaced by its descendants: a cornucopia of interfertile species derived from mankind mixing its blood with the nature spirits and half-human creatures of classical myth. The continent of Erigone – Europe’s close cognate – is populated by hirstute satyr-blooded, long-lived dryadborn, bull-horned Minosians, feline sphinx-kin, and sundry others. Even the humblest of peasants can claim a minor godling in his past (even if the only sign of that is a stubby goat tail above his buttocks) while the highest-born noble (or, in truth, the luckiest of humble peasants) may just be a minor godling, for all intents and purposes.

As one might guess from the profusion of Greco-Roman demi-humans, the unseen but omnipresent gods who attend to Erigone are the Olympian pantheon. The gods have not remained fixed in their spheres, however, for Bacchus the Liberator overthrew the tyrant Jove (as Jove overthrew Saturn) and now rules the Dodekatheon. The church that has evolved in the wake of this cosmic revolution greatly resembles Christianity in form and function, if not perhaps entirely in ethos. Venus, Mars, Mercury, and all the rest are honored much like saints. There’s a Pontifex Maxima (yes, Maxima; the roles of the sexes are far more equal on Altellus than our Earth) in the ancient city of Rumen who heads the church. The amount of wine they drink when they commune with the god is rather greater than what we would see on Earth, but otherwise it is more familiar than not.

Admittedly, there is a strict injunction against slavery that has shaped the course of Erigonean history. Holding freedom as the highest ideal, the Erigoneans have not known the leadership of kings or emperors (except as aberrations that were fought and destroyed). The Tiberian Republic gained primacy over its les-advanced neighbors through diplomacy and trade, using its mighty legions only as a last resort. A Federation was formed as foreign nations allied themselves with the Tiberians, and – as the populace of Erigone grew too large for one Senate to rule – eventually an Alliance was formed as the federated states created Senates of their own.

At this moment, my queen, I fear that you are reading this missive and finding it wanting. “Where is the silk and swordplay, dear doctor?” you might ask. “This looks rather like sandals and pepla instead,” you might say. Have no concern, your majesty, for though political science seems to have been stunted during the Roman Republic, the world has still advanced.

Contemporary Erigone may even be somewhat technologically superior to our own sphere; their ships are sleeker, their swords are slimmer, and the firearms are more reliable (the flintlock mechanisms they use being a vast improvement on our matchlocks and wheellocks). I must confess that the spectacles I acquired there are much improved upon my old pair.

Magically, Altellus as a whole is far more advanced than Earth. The schools of abjuration, divination, enchantment, and transmutation are practiced by scholars of the highest order, transforming the daily life of its people. In sharp contrast to many of the other worlds I have viewed and visited, there is a surprising de-emphasis of conjuration and evocation. Indeed, the offensive applications of magic are largely unknown, and spells such as the fireballs and blasts known on other worlds seem to be taboo on Altellus.

(I have several theories about this, but they are all mere conjecture. It is possible that these forms of magic – so closely resembling the thunderbolt of Jove – are merely repugnant on a moral level to Erigoneans. It is possible that the higher concentrations of phlogiston found in the Altellian sphere make such magic impractical. It is also possible that just don’t consider it sporting.)

Despite the emphasis on freedom found in the Bacchanal Church, human (or demi-human) nature seems to be the same throughout the Prime Material Plane. Power is still the ultimate aphrodisiac, and an aristocracy descended from the patricians and knights of ancient Rumen hold most of that power. While matters of state are debated in the Senates (rather than being decided by strong-willed monarchs such as yourself), self-interest still leads to intrigue and limited resources leads to war. It is, admittedly, far easier for a talented and driven commoner to climb from poverty to the highest ranks – perhaps even be declared a princeps – but there are still ranks to climb. Freedom does not equate to equality.

As confusing as the concept might be when the church worships a god of hedonism and personal freedom, there is also still heresy and religious war. Jove is not forgotten, and there are conspiracies to reinstate his primacy even after all the centuries he has been deposed. Worshippers of Pan agitate that Bacchus has ruled too long and now his son in turn should lead the gods. There are even disputes between those who prefer “Bacchus” and those who prefer “Dionysus.”

And yes, there are ruffs and there are rapiers, my queen. There are dashing musketeers and daring highwaymen. There are pirates and the sea dogs you love so much. There are witty playwrights and desperate thieves. There are rebellious ladies and untamable lords. There are ripped bodices and breathless escapes. There is swashbuckling.

(It’s just that the gentlemen may have the horns of a goat or the tails of horses, and the ladies may have the claws of cats or rather delightful pointed ears.)

And, as I somewhat glossed over earlier, women may swash their bucklers as freely as men.

There are other worlds I might recommend to you. Some few are equal to Altellus in beauty and opportunity, but none surpass it. Whether you transfer your spirit to the seed of a cobbler or a senator, you will have the opportunity to indulge in a life of freedom and adventure. You may pursue ambition and rise to rule a nation (more or less) or simply breeze through life laughing and fighting and making love. I will be happy to write more of other worlds, but I will also happily instruct you in the intricacies of Altellus.

Your friend,

Friday, May 15, 2015

Eponiad (D&D 5e creature)

No. Appearing: 1 - 15 (2d8-1)

Mysterious creatures that blur the line between fey and elementals, eponiads are wondrous horses made of living stone and metal. They mix freely with pegasi and unicorns in sylvan settings, sharing a common empathy born from their equine nature. On the Elemental Plane of Earth, they are sometimes enslaved by dao (though the dao insist they are merely “domesticated”), while on the Prime Material Plane eponiads occasionally befriend hill dwarves and gnomes.

Eponiads appear as powerful, muscular draft horses and ponies formed from stone and metal. They show as much variety in composition as normal horses do in coat and markings; one eponiad might be uniformly made of pink granite with eyes of turquoise while another might be bronze with a jade blaze on its forehead. Regardless of their apparent composition, all eponiads display similar durability and strength.

Large elemental, chaotic good

Armor Class: 18 (natural armor)
Hit Points: 73 (7d10 + 35)
Speed: 50 ft., burrow 50 ft.

STR 20 (+5), DEX 10 (+0), CON 20 (+5), INT 10 (+0), WIS 15 (+2), CHA 13 (+1)

Damage Vulnerabilities: acid, thunder
Damage Resistances: bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons
Damage Immunities: poison
Condition Immunities: exhaustion, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, unconscious
Senses: darkvision 60 ft., tremorsense 60 ft., passive Perception 12
Languages: Understands Celestial, Sylvan, and Terran but can’t speak in a manner intelligible to humanoids. Some rare eponiads understand Gnomish.
Challenge: 3 (700 XP)

Earth Glide. The eponiad can burrow through nonmagical, unworked earth and stone. While doing so, the eponiad doesn’t disturb the material it moves through. The eponiad can willingly extend its earth glide ability to a single rider.

Hooves. Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 12 (2d6 + 5) bludgeoning damage.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Armor Class in a D&D 5e Swashbuckling Setting

Watch out! It's the pernicious influence of The Princess Bride!

This has been nagging at me for a couple of days, so I need to surgically remove it from my brain. 

We all know that one of the challenges of changing the setting of D&D from a quasi-medieval world to a quasi-early modern world is Armor Class. In D&D proper, how hard it is for your foes to hit a character (one’s Armor Class or AC) is determined almost entirely by what armor the character is wearing. Characters prancing around in silk shirts or even leather jerkins are at a severe disadvantage compared to characters in plate mail. Heavy armor, however, just doesn’t fit the aesthetic of sword-and-cape adventure, so how does one incentivize the swashbuckling style in D&D?

The most obvious incentive is also the historical one: firearms. If firearms are plentiful – and if they pierce armor as they do in real life – then players and characters will value the un-pierceable AC bonuses from high Dexterity scores, leading them to choose light armor that does not interfere with those bonuses over the dubious protection of heavy armor that negates Dex bonuses. I do not believe that firearms as presented in the 5e DMG have any armor-piercing rules, but this would be an easy fix.

This is still going to lead to relatively low Armor Classes, making even high-level characters vulnerable to low-level mooks. One way of handling this would be to include more magical protection items as the campaign progresses, allowing characters to accumulate magical amulets, bracers, rings, and silk shirts that increase their AC. This might be the simplest option for the outright fantasy swashbuckling world I proposed in my last post, but it’s less useful for low-magic or historical settings.

For those more realistic settings, I have two ideas: add characters’ proficiency bonuses to their Armor Classes (a significant change to the rules) or make the Parry action implicit in the Defensive Duelist feat and several NPC statistics into a combat action available to everyone (a much less significant rule change). Adding the proficiency bonus to AC has the advantages of being easy to track (it modifies the base AC in all situations) and not requiring an action to use (thereby not changing the basic action economy of the game). The Parry option, on the other hand, just feels cooler.

For those without access to the optional feats listed in the Players Handbook, let’s unpack the Parry action from the Knight statistics on p. 54 of the DM’s Basic Rules:

Parry. The knight adds 2 to its AC against one melee attack that would hit it. To do so, the knight must see the attacker and be wielding a melee weapon.

That “2 to its AC” is equal to the knight’s proficiency bonus, so in other words (and trying not to duplicate the wording of the PHB text):

Parry. You can attempt to parry when a hostile creature scores an attack against you. To make the parry, you use your reaction to add your proficiency bonus to your AC, possibly turning aside the hit. To perform a parry, you must be able to see the attacker and be wielding a melee weapon.

I like this idea because it invokes the cut-and-thrust seesaw of swashbuckling fencing without over-complicating combat or changing the rules too far from normal D&D 5e. It strikes a good balance between the static Parry score of Savage Worlds and the complex choreography of Honor + Intrigue.

Anyway, that’s just something I needed to get out of my head. Does anyone else have any ideas for Armor Class in the context of a D&D 5e swashbuckling campaign?

Friday, May 8, 2015

My Next Campaign Setting

Jirelle, Pathfinder iconic Swashbuckler
(I definitely won't be using Pathfinder, whatever I do.)
I should be furiously typing away at Steamscapes, but I desperately need to drain the overflowing brain juices that are clogging my writing-pipes. The thing that's inconveniently obsessing me at the moment is the idea of a broad-based classic fantasy swashbuckler setting.

It's not that there aren't fantasy swashbuckler (or sword-and-cape) settings. I can think of Lace & Steel, 7th Sea, 50 Fathoms, and Freeport off the top of my head (and that's not even counting pseudo-real world settings like Honor + Intrigue and Pirates of the Spanish Main). The problem is that each of these settings is rather narrowly focused on either musketeers or pirates, but not really both. (Yes, there are pirates in Lace & Steel and 7th Sea, but both settings explicitly do not have Western Hemispheres, so they don't really do proper pirates.) 

The slightly broader-based settings (Lace & Steel and 7th Sea again) aren't classic fantasy either. There's no elves or dwarves or hobbits in either setting (though Lace & Steel does have centaurs and satyrs). Honestly, I like multi-species settings and so do most RPG gamers. 

Basically, I don't know of any Age of Sail equivalents to the Forgotten Realms or Golarion. 

(Yes, I'm fully aware that both settings -- Golarion and its iconic swashbuckler and gunslinger especially -- verge on being swashbuckling settings, but neither one is explicitly a sword-and-cape setting. I want a setting where chainmail and plate armor are completely passé.)

Here's what I want from my next campaign world:
  • Swordfights - specifically graceful duels of skill vs. skill, not brutal cleaving
  • Repartee - smack talk and speechifying should be in the heroes' arsenals
  • Acrobatics - swinging from falling chandeliers and leaping out windows
  • Panache - duh
  • Sex-positivism - 'cause I like sex
  • Multiple sentient species - 'cause I like inter-species sex
  • Democracy - 'cause I hate kings; maybe a Rome-like republican empire?
  • Gunpowder - explosions are cool and guns level the battlefield
  • Exploration - you have to have remote islands if you're going to have a pirate republic
  • Intrigue - for which you need established, competing governments
  • Upward mobility - PCs should be able to rise to rule nations, which would be easier to believe with a merchant nobility or meritocracy

I don't specifically feel the need for any emphasis on magic; despite being a wimpy nerd, I've always identified more with swordsmen than sorcerers. I really don't want any Lovecraftian twists; I'm completely over sucker-punching PCs.

I don't necessarily need classic D&D-style races, but I definitely want a range of humanoid species. Riffing off of Lace & Steel's half-horses and satyrs, I've been considering the idea of a world where the Greek and Roman inhuman races interbred with humanity, resulting in crossbreeds somewhat like tieflings and aasimar. They're distinctly not purely human, but more human-like than not. There might be bull-horned minotaur-born, elf-like dryad-born, omnisexual satyr-born, and cat-like sphinx-born. Heck, maybe there aren't any pureblood humans in the setting (or all the pure humans are the "primitive" natives of "Africa" and the "Americas").

I'm mainly thinking of this in preparation for my next duet campaign with Robin, but a stupid, stupid part of me almost wants to suggest abandoning A Gleam of Silver for this concept. You could easily run a magic-lite swashbuckling game in D&D 5e using only fighters (champions and battle-masters) and rogues (assassins, swashbucklers, and thieves) with maybe berserker barbarians and Way of the Open Hand monks (and maybe the Unearthed Arcana magic-less ranger). It might be fun to do a straight high-fantasy sword-and-cape setting, too,

A really, really stupidly stupid part of my brain wants to test-run several different game rules to figure out which one handles swashbuckling best. Savage Worlds is fast and furious, but the duels are almost too fast. D&D 5e looks like it could handle sword-and-cape -- especially with some of teh alternate rules in the DMG -- but it's an unproven commodity. Honor + Intrigue is built for swashbuckling, but previous experience showed the combat rules were almost too detailed. And despite being an early backer, I've never even attempted playtesting The Queen's Cavaliers. Alternating systems from week-to-week, though, would probably mean sticking with a more humanocentric setting, H+I and TQC don't have rules for non-humans.

Whew! I think I got all of that out of my system. Once Steamscapes is done, I owe it to all the hard work Robin and I have already put into it to get back to work on The King is Dead. If this fantasy swashbuckler thing continues to prey on my brain, I might turn it into the focus of future blog posts (I can't just keep giving away all the TKiD stuff, after all) -- but I also have to admit to a temptation to return to Regency/Gothic. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is coming out next February... 

Updated to fix the name of this danged game.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Breaking News: I Hate Math

The Anti-Party
Because nothing's more dangerous than the PC's dark mirror.
I’ve been enjoying the heck out of D&D 5e, but yesterday I got a very strong reminder about what’s so great about Savage Worlds.
The PCs in A Gleam of Silver are absurdly overpowered. This is entirely my fault and I accept the consequences. Basically, I didn’t trust the system. Because I perceived the game as flawed, I gave the players a bunch of bonuses – an over-generous starting attribute spread, max hit points every level, feats and attribute increases simultaneously – to make their characters more powerful. It’s made the game pretty fun, but sometimes victory comes way too easily for a bunch of 5th level characters.
Because of this, I decided their next challenge was going to be a bunch of higher-level characters. This 10th level “anti-party” is intended more as a roleplaying challenge (they’re good- and lawful-aligned characters that have sworn an oath to prevent anyone entering the place the PCs want to get into) but I need combat stats just in case. The 5e Monster Manual has a bunch of NPC stat blocks, but few of these actually use the playable classes – meaning they’re really underpowered compared to PCs.
Which in turn means that I need to stat this anti-party out.
It took me an hour* to stat up two of the needed six NPCs – and those were the characters for which I have the strongest concepts. I already knew the antagonist fighter was a specialist in both dual-wielding and two-handed weapons (and had a pair of magical swords that could combine into one greatsword); I basically already had her attribute scores and feats mapped out in my brain. I already knew that the anti-party’s druid was Circle of the Moon to contrast the PC’s Circle of the Land druid. It was still a chore to assign attributes, choose skills, and work out the proper advances they gained as they leveled up.
I suppose I could have simply assigned things however I wanted, but that would feel like cheating. D&D has always been pretty math-centric; it has to be if players are going to be able to make educated choices about expending their resources. As much as I want my players to know better than to get into a fight with these dudes, I don’t want to win a fight by DM fiat. I want the math to be fair.
You know what doesn’t give a crap about math? Savage Worlds.
Some weird, fastidious, anal-retentive part of my brain is appalled by the idea of cheating with D&D NPCs, but has no problem accepting Savage Worlds’ whole “just give ‘em whatever the hell you want” ethos for NPCs. Hell, the rule books take this approach and run with it. One of my few concrete observations from Lankhmar: City of Thieves is that while Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are built as proper player heroes in their “beginning of their career” stats, by the time they’re in their prime they have so many advances to Attributes, Skills, and Edges that they must be several hundred experience points past Legendary. The wonky exploding dice and severely limited resilience threshold of Savage Worlds characters means that this doesn’t even break the system.
Despite this, I’m not going to try to talk the group into returning to Savage Worlds. I love it – and I love writing for it – but everyone is having a great time with 5e and I don’t want to screw up the momentum this campaign has going. I’ll just have to figure out a way to streamline making D&D NPCs… Or have an anti-party of nothing but fighters and druids.
*I could only give myself an hour because I'm very, very busy on Steamscapes: Asia.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Savage Insider Vol. 3, Issue 1 released!

"An Abundance of Gods" -- my article in the latest Savage Insider -- is a weird experiment for me. Basically, it's an examination of the Shinto religion from a gameplay perspective, statting up Shinto archetypes and extrapolating ways to use the religion and its philosophies in RPGs. I would like it to be the first in a trilogy of articles examining Japanese religion (the others would concentrate on Buddhism and syncretism), but I realize it's a bit of an oddball angle for gaming articles. Let me know what you think of it and whether you would like the series to continue.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Pre-Lankhmar: City of Thieves post

I hear Pinnacle's Lankhmar: City of Thieves has stats for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser at different levels of their development. Since I didn't receive a review copy (*glower*), I'll have to wait until tonight to buy my PDF + preorder. In the meantime, I wonder how much their versions look like mine?
(Yes, they skipped right from Seasoned to Legendary. It's in the books!)