Homebrew: How to beat 5E’s CR and design better monsters

I’m running a Fifth Edition campaign (see “Nemesis Queens”), and we are having a lot of fun. But as the DM, I am struggling more and more to run combat. The players are all level 6 now, so they have extra attacks, and powerful spells, and a trunk full of magic items. And the big problem is that my players are all very creative and insightful people, meaning that they are very good at killing my monsters.

They say they are having fun, and I believe them. But a couple of things are starting to happen, and I think they are Bad Things. First, the combats are taking longer, which I think is somewhat boring if there isn’t much dialog or plot moving forward. Second, the players rarely get injured, much less killed. So while there is always a small danger of something bad happening to them… it never does. And third, the players are brilliant at neutralizing my monsters to prevent their Special Abilities from working… so “interesting” things rarely happen.

Now, I understand the action economy, and I’ve studied Colville’s Action Oriented Design, and I have been retooling my monsters to try to keep up with my players. But the math (and the dice) just aren’t going my way. So I need to do better math.

Analysis

I went over my players’ character sheets and figured out that together they can do an average of 100 points of damage to a creature with 18 AC per round. That’s without action surges and Haste and other powers that they have. So I need a challenging monster to have 20 or 22 AC to at least stay alive for a few rounds.

My PCs also have an average of 16 AC and 54 HP. So I need my monster’s attack rolls to be at least +6 to hit, and do around 21 (6d6) damage just to make the players flinch.

Also, the PC spellcasters have an average spell save DC of 16, so my generic monster needs a general saving throw of +6 to avoid being held or blinded or stunned.

Result

It would seem that, to fight my party of Level 6 heroes, my generic monster needs 22 AC, +6 to hit, 6d6 damage, and +6 to saves.

Notice all those sixes? That’s pretty convenient. Let’s make a table!

Level 1 | 12 AC | 10 HP | +1 to hit | 1d6 damage | +1 to save

Level 2 | 14 AC | 20 HP | +2 to hit | 2d6 damage | +2 to save

Level 3 | 16 AC | 30 HP | +3 to hit | 3d6 damage | +3 to save

Level 4 | 18 AC | 40 HP | +4 to hit | 4d6 damage | +4 to save

Level 5 | 20 AC | 50 HP | +5 to hit | 5d6 damage | +5 to save

Level 6 | 22 AC | 60 HP | +6 to hit | 6d6 damage | +6 to save

Level 7 | 24 AC | 70 HP | +7 to hit | 7d6 damage | +7 to save

Thoughts

Obviously, this system is only meant to work for a certain type of challenging monster. You probably wouldn’t be scaling up your normal goblins and skeletons with this. Also, this is a reflection of what’s happening in my current campaign. It’s based on what my particular players are capable of right now.

Combined with some interesting environments, Reactions, and minions, I think this approach will help me out. But I will report back on how it goes.

What tricks have you tried to better challenge your mid-level players?

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Fangs of Vulgoth: Session #10

The adventure continues! Last time, our heroes returned south, crossed a deadly stream of icy rocks, dug a medium hole, and fought a pitched battle against two deadly Apex Werewolves before discovering the ancient cave of the Wyld Altar, where Ward is about to go through some serious changes…

Play time: 4 hours

Heroes:

  • Asmund the Divine Soul Sorcerer (6)
  • Drew the Eldritch Knight (6)
  • Hugo the Time Wizard (5), Cleric (1)
  • Rainen the Beast Master Ranger (5), Druid (1)
  • Ward the Gloom Stalker Ranger (5), Rogue (1)

Where was Hugo?

After helping Asmund to kill the Oracle, Hugo had gone off alone into the woods. Now, as Rainen sat beside the waterfall with her wolves, she saw Hugo returning with a stranger in tow. Hugo rejoined the group, apparently no worse for wear, except that his left eye was now an arcane sphere of solid gold (the Oracle’s Eye of Truth). His companion was Miranda, the silversmith from Rukesti. She had blue skin from self-administered doses of liquid silver to protect herself from the vampires and shifters, following the death of her husband Orson seven years ago.

Hugo revealed that Miranda had described the destruction of Rukesti. At least one vampire knight on a dread wyvern had burned the town and turned many people into vampires. Also, Hugo admitted that he had also met another vampire knight the previous day, Lucien. This Lucien had created an army of Man-Bats and was looking for someone to teach the monsters how to fly. Hugo had suggested Rainen for the job. So, heads up! Lucien might be on his way!

Meanwhile, in the cave of the Wyld Altar…

As the animal spirit entered his body, Ward was hurled backward. He quickly doubled in size, tearing through his clothing, as his flesh was covered in dark blue scales. He was a were-wyvern! Hugo came running to fetch the boys, but Ward leapt off the cliff and drifted down to Rainen on his pseudo-wings. He scared the little ravenwolf puppy Bud, and the other wolves ran off to find the puppy. Just then, Rainen spotted the winged horror of a dread wyvern swooping down to land beside them.

The boys came running, but it would take them a few minutes to climb down the steep mountain path from the cave. Ward picked up Rainen and ran for cover in the trees.

Hallo, hallo, hallo!

The vampire knight Lucien made a dramatic landing on his dread wyvern, Sir Hiss. The portly gentleman fumbled and tumbled out of his saddle, hopped back to his feet, and called out to the hiding heroes. “You there! I am Lucien, the most handsome vampire you will ever see. And I’d like to offer you a job.”

Unfortunately, Ward was overwhelmed by his new animal spirit, which hated the undead. Unable to control himself, Ward rushed out to attack the vampire and his mount.

A really, really long fight

With Ward a rampaging were-wyvern, the team had little choice but to leap into battle. Again!

Ward’s huge claws did massive damage to Lucien, but the vampire knight healed rapidly. Lucien summoned swarms of bats, and his dread wyvern could hurl half the party across the field with a wave of a wing. Sir Hiss spewed long curtains of acid over the heroes, and things were looking bleak.

But then Drew cast Fear on the dread wyvern, weakening its ability to attack. Hugo used the Bitter End sword to freeze the enemy, further weakening their attacks. And then Rainen summoned her two spectral ravenwolves to carry her up onto the back of Sir Hiss!

Drew dealt huge damage with his eldritch spear, Asmund unleashed holy spells from a safe distance, and Hugo used the Wand of Screams to make Lucien wail in terror.

Then Hugo blinded Lucien, and the miserable screaming vampire finally tried to escape on his dread wyvern. But Rainen blasted him back onto his backside, and then Ward tore the vampire knight to pieces! Freed of his master, Sir Hiss leapt into the sky with Rainen clinging to the saddle. He spewed more acid onto the battlefield as Rainen pleaded with him to become their ally. The wyvern landed on a rocky cliff face, grabbed Rainen’s leg, and hurled her away. She landed safely and watched the monster fly off into the mountains.

Over the river and through the woods

Resolved to defeat the dark queen Lerazia and possibly recruit the shifters to fight the vampires, the team crossed behind the waterfall to the eastern shore. Miranda refused to join them, and wandered off into the western woods. Asmund’s third persona, Vogna, also spoke for the first time, creeping everyone out. Also, Hugo found Lucien’s (pink gold and chocolate diamond) engagement ring for Nicoletta, which allows the wearer to control bat-type creatures.

On the far side of the River Moroz, Ward followed a thin trail down into the pines. There they discovered two bodies, an old man and woman with silver hair, naked, stabbed three times in the chest. Suspecting that these were the Apex Werewolves from last night, and that they were killed by Lerazia, the team buried the bodies.

Farther on, they found a clearing containing four rotting cabins covered in moss and saplings. Inside, they found rough natural bedding and a few old blankets. And the body of a young man, naked, stabbed three times through the chest.

Fearing that they might be too late to stop Lerazia, the team resolved to continue east in the hopes of saving the shifters.

And that’s where we ended!

DM Notes

This session was a lot of fun, although it felt uneven to me. Ward’s transformation into a were-wyvern went well, and I think I wrote up some solid abilities and weaknesses for that new feature. I love playing Lucien. He was loud and pompous and silly. Combat started a little sooner than I had hoped. For a moment, I thought I had actually given the team a challenge, but then Fifth Edition smacked my hopes back down.

I made a bunch of technical errors. The wyvern didn’t retry its saving throws, so it stayed a-Feared too long. The bat swarms did not attack at first. And I forgot to adjust damage properly per Lucien’s resistances. Etcetera.

Part of the problem, I feel, is that high-level creatures simply have too many features. Too many abilities, too many actions, too many resistances and saving throws and blah blah blah. I could certainly have slowed down and re-read the stat block every turn to make sure I was doing everything possible, but that isn’t fun for anyone. A computer could easily manage it all, but I can’t. Clearly I need to continue to try to refine my stat blocks to be more effective during play (I thought I had made them pretty simple already, but oh well). More and more, I wish we were running a more narrative and less simulationist combat system. Food for thought!

Actually, now that I think about it, I’m a little grumpy. I was trying very hard to “run the 5E combat simulation” so I felt trapped in that box of rules. But when one player tried to start a conversation with Lucien in mid-combat, I only let a few words be exchanged because the turn has to fit in 6 seconds of action, right? But I also wanted Lucien to talk. So we both wanted to have a conversation, but I let my interpretation of the rules squash that. That’s not good. Hm.

It was still a fun session, and I’m looking forward to the confrontations with the shifters and Lerazia. Now that Ward has graduated from an impulsive human to an out-of-control shifter, I assume there is more chaos in our future!

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Quest for the Forest Gems: Session #1

My youngest daughter loves to play one-on-one D&D with me (she also likes playing with the rest of the family, but we do that less often). This week we started a mini campaign together. She wanted to try playing a druid, and I welded together a bunch of Disney princesses movies and fairy tales for her campaign story. 

This was our first session.

Play time: 1 hour

Characters: Rose the Druid (2)

Call to Action!

Rose awoke to a scratch at the door. It was her friend, Mittens the jaguar. Mittens told Rose that there was a problem in the forest and led her to the Heart Grove where she showed her that the five Forest Gems had been stolen. Mittens said there were five suspicious places to investigate and Rose chose the Gem Mines.

Fairy Tale Shenanigans

As she headed east to the mines, Rose discovered a huge bean stalk in a clearing. She climbed up into the sky and found a giant angry goose paddling through the clouds. Rose observed the goose for a while, and then carefully started a conversation. She learned that Hank the goose had been attacked by some mean dwarves who lived in the Gem Mines. They threw gold nuggets at him to steal his giant eggs (I guess boy geese can lay eggs in this world?). Rose healed Hank’s wing and got a gold nugget from the wound, and then Hank agreed to fly her to the mines.

Into the Mines

Rose struck a torch and headed into the dark mines, the walls sparkling with gems. When she came to a fork, she turned right and discovered a pair of giant moles. They said the dwarves were using the power of the Forest Gem to make them dig tunnels and mine gems for them, so Rose left them alone and headed back.

Returning to the fork, she took the left tunnel and found the dark cavern home of the evil dwarves: Merry, Pippin, and Sam! Rose hid herself in a cloud of fog and stole the Forest Gem right out of Sam’s hand. While the dwarves argued about who lost the gem, Rose discovered a woman sleeping in a glass box. It was her school friend, Neve! 

The Big Escape

Just then, Rose’s fog spell ended and the dwarves spotted her. The chase was on! Rose picked up the sleeping Neve and ran through the mines. When she got outside, Rose used her powers to make a landslide cover the entrance and seal the dwarves inside.

Finally, Rose used the Forest Gem to break the curse and wake Neve, who agreed to return the gem to the Heart Grove while Rose went to find the next gem. 

And that’s where we ended!

DM Notes

Playing with young kids is a mixed bag. On the one hand, they have already consumed a lot of media and can quickly recognize some tropes, like a giant bean stalk, and know how to interact with them. On the other hand, they can sometimes be overwhelmed by an open-ended question like, “What do you do next?” 

I try to talk my daughter through these situations to give her a general sense of her options, like sneaking versus talking, or being friendly versus being bossy, without explicitly telling her to choose from three specific courses of action. As always, I was very proud of the moments when my daughter explained her analysis of a situation and made a thoughtful choice. 

We played for about an hour and had a great time, and she is looking forward to the next game when she gets to look for the next Forest Gem! 

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Welcome to the new site

It probably looks a lot like the old site. But it will change eventually. For right now, I’ve moved all the posts over from the old site, so everything is here.

Why the change? Because it’s time for some spring cleaning in my little publishing operation. I’m clearing out a bunch of silly and messy things that a Younger Joe put in his books and websites, trying to be clever and cool. I want to make everything simple and clean for both of us. So, new URL, new start, same stories.

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Fangs of Vulgoth: Session #9

The adventure continues! Last time, our heroes journeyed north, defeated a tentacle monster, met with the fabled Oracle, and received visions of their future and places of power…

Play time: 4 hours

Heroes:

  • Drew the Eldritch Knight (6)
  • Ward the Gloom Stalker Ranger (5), Rogue (1)
  • Rainen the Beast Master Ranger (5), Druid (1)
  • Asmund the Divine Soul Sorcerer (6)

Rough Morning

Rainen dreamed of a wounded tiger bleeding out across the winter snow. Drew dreamed of being tormented by the dead witch Baba Kruska. And Rainen saw strange fires to the southwest on her watch. But in the morning, the strangest sight was that Hugo was missing.

Asmund revealed that he and Hugo had gone back to the Oracle. After a confusing discussion of good and evil, they killed the Oracle and hurried back to camp. Asmund felt this was a good outcome because the Oracle revealed that she worshipped Shernavoth (the eldritch horror) and Asmund’s holy hand was able to incinerate her. But then Hugo had gone off into the woods to study his book alone.

Drew revealed that the Dark Queen Lerazia was killing Shifters on the east side of the river, though he did not explain how he had learned this.

The team had been planning to return to the town of Rukesti, which had clearly been attacked by wyvern-riding vampires during the night. But they quickly changed their minds. Instead they would hurry south to find the Wyld Altar. They would try to ally with the Shifters on the east side of the river, and save them from the Dark Queen Lerazia. Hopefully the Shifters would help them defeat the vampires!

Cold Creek Crossing

The party followed the river south. They passed the site of their battle with the tentacle monster, and passed the ruins of the bridge to Castle Dalca. As night fell, they came to a creek blocking their path. A new part of the same creek that almost wiped them out several days ago. Their old nemesis, Little Fang Creek!

Drew waded out into the freezing waters and almost lost his balance, but then he teleported to the far bank. Ward also made the crossing, getting cold and soaked in the process. So he stripped down and tried to get dry and warm before his clothing froze solid.

Then Rainen used her feathered cloak to summon a pair of ravenwolves from the forest and commanded them to carry Asmund across the river. The monsters ran shoulder-to-shoulder and carried the sorcerer across the water, leaping and gliding from rock to rock, and dumped him safely on the south side.

Lastly, Rainen rode Sasha across the creek, but the dire wolf was swept away! Drew leapt into action and used a magic whip to yank Sasha onto solid ground. The team was across!

Shovel Knight

Soon after, the party made camp for the night. Drew took out his gleaming shovel to dig a quick shelter, but the shovel instantly dug a massive pit for them. It was the Master Shovel! A magical tool that could cast the Mold Earth cantrip.

Fanged Fury

During Ward’s watch, he spied seven creatures crossing over from the east bank to the west bank by climbing the rock wall behind a huge waterfall. Then he saw two larger creatures tearing the smaller creatures apart. Not sure what any of them were, Ward chose to shoot the large creatures. He landed a massive critical sharpshooter flaming arrow on one of them, and discovered that he had just attacked a pair of Apex werewolves. The werewolves finished killing the vampire wretches and then came running to kill Ward!

Rainen roused the team to come to Ward’s aid, just as the first werewolf arrived. It was twelve feet tall, all in silver fur, and started tearing Ward to pieces. Ward tried to throw down his bow and apologize for attacking them, but the enraged hunters were not interested in his pleas.

Soon the second Apex werewolf arrived, and they summoned four more common wolves. Rainen ran to Ward and shielded him with the Silver Staff of Korvilus, which can cast an immovable “panic bubble” shield. Drew used his powers to frighten one Apex, and Rainen used her powers to Suggest that the second Apex “run home”. Despite a few rounds of terrible damage, the two huge werewolves turned to leave.

Drew killed one of the regular wolves and Rainen told the others to leave. But she befriended the last one, which was hungry and eager for affection.

The group moved camp and then rested late into the morning.

Wyld Altar

By the weak light of day, the team approached the waterfall and found an ancient stone stair leading up to a cave. Drew raced up the climb, with Ward and Asmund trailing. Rainen stayed below to keep watch with her three pack-mates: Sasha the direwolf, Bud the ravenwolf pup, and the nameless wild wolf.

In the cave, the boys found an ancient stone altar with a stone spike on top. The whole thing was covered in layers of old dry blood. Ward placed his hand on the spike and a strange wind began to blow as his blood ran down onto the altar. Then he shoved his hand down, spilling blood across the stone, and a whirl wind of animal ghosts surrounded him. Ward rolled the dice, and one of the spirits entered his body, knocking him away from the altar.

Ward felt his blood boiling as his senses grew sharper and the wound on his hand closed before his eyes.

And that’s where we ended!

DM Notes

This was a wonderful session. So much fun! It started off a little slow as the players described their side-session adventures with the Oracle. And then there was a solid debate about what to do next. I had assumed they would go back to town and experience the effects of their attacks on the vampires, but instead they decided to focus on the Shifters and Lerazia. So we dumped all the encounters and locations that I had prepped and leapfrogged to another part of the map!

This was fine, I also had these encounters and locations written, they were just much farther down in my notes. We got to battle the evil power of Little Fang Creek again (the true villain of the campaign) and then discovered the wonders of the Master Shovel. I think the magical shovel is now everyone’s favorite item. There were many Shovel Knight jokes, it was excellent. Rainen also got to use a bunch of her cool new powers, including summoning ravenwolves.

And then there was Ward. I like how Ward’s enthusiasm for the moment overwhelms his other thoughts and instincts. So we got a very exciting battle with two Apex werewolves, which could have easily turned into a TPK if not for some good spellcraft and good rolls. But the team survived! And we got to the Wyld Altar, and Ward decided to go full furry! I’m extremely excited to see how this unfolds next time. Although I do have to update and rearrange my notes a lot!

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Homebrew Monster: Solar Zombie

Introduction

Ever since first reading Dune (long, long ago), one of my favorite fantasy settings has been the desert. It’s a hostile landscape that can physically shift beneath your feet, while also hiding life-saving oases or lost cities or giant burrowing worms. 

When I first created the Dungeon Age world of Harth, I started in a desert region and began filling it with fantastical versions of vipers, scorpions, and lions. But my favorite fantasy monsters tend to be either aberrations or undead, and my deserts absolutely needed some undead. Certainly some mummy lords and warriors, but what about the common folk? What do they become in the undead desert? Solar Zombies.

Appearances

Lore

As the sun has aged, darkened, and bloated in the skies above Harth, the land has withered…and changed. Infused with the horrific energies of the dying sun, human corpses have emerged from the Great Sand Sea and begun to roam the shifting dunes. Powered by the heat of the sun, these solar zombies shuffle about the deserts in small mindless groups from dawn to dusk, and then collapse on the cold sand, too weak to move by the feeble light of the ancient stars. 

Travelers know of these solar zombies and simply give them a wide berth during the day, knowing they are slow and stupid, and harmless at night. The greatest danger would be to make camp in the darkness and then discover in the morning that you are surrounded by flaming corpses!

Physical Description

Desiccated human bodies crusted over with fragile chunks of coal-like material. During the day, they resemble people armored in lumpy black rock, burning with bright red and yellow flames as thin channels of red magma pulse under their charred flesh. During the night, they resemble black and gray charcoal lying in human-like shapes, smoking faintly and smelling of scorched wood and bone.

Tactics

Solar zombies are utterly mindless. They wander the pathless desert without purpose. Their only instinct is to approach cold objects or creatures and attempt to heat them up with their flaming embrace. Unfortunately, tents and camels and people all seem cold to the burning solar zombies.

Stat Block (5E)

SOLAR ZOMBIE – 50 XP

  • A corpse covered in charcoal and flame. Animated by sunlight. Lies helpless in the dark. Mindless.
  • Medium undead, neutral
  • AC 10, HP 10, MOVE 20 ft.
STRDEXCONINTWISCHA
12 (+1)6 (-2)14 (+2)2 (-4)2 (-4)4 (-3)
  • IMMUNITY. Fire.
  • COLLIDE. Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (2d6) fire damage.
  • OVERLOAD. When the zombie is struck by multiple light sources, it overheats and explodes. All creatures within 5 ft. take 3 (1d6) fire damage.
  • FREEZE. When the zombie is in darkness, it falls prone and cannot move or act.

Stat Block (Old School)

Solar Zombie. HD 1. HP 3. AC unarmored. Move 20. Immune to fire. Attack 1. Collide +3, 3 (1d6) fire. Explode in bright light, 5 ft, 3 (1d6) fire. Freeze and fall prone in darkness.

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Fangs of Vulgoth: Session #8

The adventure continues! Last time, our heroes delved to the bottom of the catacombs under Castle Dalca, battling the undead, completing bizarre angelic rituals, discovering pillaged tombs, and collecting powerful relics and weapons…

Play time: 4 hours

Heroes:

  • Drew the Eldritch Knight – Level 5
  • Ward the Gloom Stalker – Level 5
  • Rainen the Beast Master – Level 5
  • Hugo the Knowledge Cleric/Time Wizard – Level 1/4
  • Tiodhloc (Asmund) the Divine Soul Sorcerer – Level 5

Abridged Interlude

From the safety of the west end of the bridge, Drew summoned the silver staff to his hand. A moment later, the ruins of Castle Dalca collapsed into the catacombs beneath it. A huge cloud of ash and dust billowed into the sky and over the castle walls.

Meanwhile, the young ranger Gavril jogged up. He was glad to see the party was still alive, and pleased as punch to meet the famous Yakov Vanator. After a quick chat, Gavril and Yakov decided to head home to Rukesti while the party went north to find the mysterious Oracle.

But then a figure emerged from the dust cloud, a corpse dragging a sword on the cobblestones, yelling out threats… it was Irina the Inescapable, yet again! But just as the revenant templar shambled out onto the bridge, a second figure appeared. A woman in black strode up and tore Irina’s head off and hurled the corpse into the river below.

The party recognized the now-living corpse of Dark Queen Lerazia Dalca, who had vanished from her tomb. She thanked the party for destroying the undead in the catacombs. Then she told the party to stay on the western side of the river, and that she would protect the eastern side from evil. Then she smashed the bridge, and vanished into the mist.

Tentacle Time

The party headed north, following the River Moroz in search of the tower of the Oracle. Along the way, Ward spotted a strange mass of tentacles on the river bank, digging into the earth and eating vermin and fish. He told the group, and Drew went to see for himself, making no effort to hide himself. The monster sensed him, and attacked!

Hugo and Drew took point, trying to beat the tentacles into submission, but they only managed to slice off a few of the hundred tendrils. The monster tried repeated to shove a tentacle into Hugo’s mouth, but the wizard used his time magic to escape.

Then Rainen used her magic helmet to connect with the creature and sense its thoughts: “Feed. Enter. Control.” This got the monster’s attention and it raced toward her, plunged a tentacle into her mouth and into her direwolf Sasha’s mouth. They both instantly lost control of their bodies, and the monster puppeted them around to attack Drew.

Now the whole team ran up to encircle the beast. Asmund tried countless times to grab the tentacles away from his friends, but couldn’t connect. When Ward dealt some vicious damage, the monster freed Rainen and took control of him instead, using his Crone’s Claw to magically wound Asmund.

Drew jumped into the creature to free Ward, and then Hugo plunged in to free Drew. Hugo whirled his holy chain-sickle and finally cut the abomination to pieces. Rainen quickly cauterized Asmund’s wound before it could fester and kill him.

Everyone was disgusted. But alive!

Rolling on the River

As night fell, the team found the island and saw the Oracle’s tower. Drew swam the river and tied a rope for the others to use. Ward and Asmund sat on a log and pulled themselves across. Hugo used his new Bitter End sword to freeze a path for him and Rainen, though Sasha had to repeatedly save the wizard from slipping off.

On the far shore, they were greeted by several tall tree-people, the Knights Timber. They demanded the party leave their weapons, and the party agreed. At the top of the hill they entered the twisted white tower.

Vision for a Price

Inside, they met the oracle Dreymondi, a gold-skinned woman with tentacle hair and tentacle fingers. She commanded thousands of floating mirror shards and offered visions of power, for a price.

Hugo accepted the price, and she placed a small wriggling creature in his bellybutton. Then she showed him a special mirror that revealed visions of his own past and future. Hugo exchanged notes with his older self and learned that Old Hugo had failed to find “her” and that the solution to their personal mystery was something “older”, not found in any book.

Drew also accepted the price, got a bug shoved in his tummy, and saw a vision of “justice”. He saw the Crossroads, where ghostly wraiths clawed at a large circular stone beneath a frayed noose.

During this exchange, Asmund left the tower.

Rainen and Ward had a thoughtful discussion with Dreymondi about power and faith, Chaos and Law, and the difference between the angels they serve and the creature Shernavoth that the oracle serves.

Heading Out

Hugo returned to the riverside and had one of the Knights Timber hurl him over the river, where he landed gently and resumed studying his book to better understand his meeting with his older self.

Meanwhile, the Knights Timber offered Drew his pick of the weapons they had collected over the years, and he got himself a shiny shovel and a smith’s hammer for Rainen.

Then the rest of the team spent two hours assembling a rickety sled. Drew used the Bitter End sword to freeze the river and Ward guided Sasha to push the sled across the ice. They slipped and slid at terrifying speed, and crashed safely on the far shore.

And that’s where we ended!

DM Notes

This was a great session. We got a quick cameo from Irina, and then met the undead queen Lerazia. What’s her deal? The combat with the tentacle monster was dynamic and crazy, and I think it was one of my better designed solo monsters. Crossing the river was fun shenanigans, and then the meeting with the Oracle brought in some fantastic roleplaying from the whole group. Exciting choices, interesting insights, strange possibilities.

And then we wrapped up with more river-related shenanigans. I wouldn’t change a thing. Hopefully some of my players will want to use the upcoming Long Rest as a chance for a little solo-questing, or perhaps a return to talk more with the Oracle. We shall see!

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New fantasy novel: Wayward Magicians!

After a mere 18 months of projects, procrastinations, and pandemics, I have finished a new fantasy novel! Heavily inspired by the Dying Earth stories by Jack Vance, as well as Moorcock’s Elric, Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Howard’s Conan, Smith’s Zothique, and countless other fantasy works from the early-to-mid 20th century, I proudly present:

Wayward Magicians

The ancient world of Harth withers beneath a dying sun…but it’s not dead yet. Ravenous demons threaten the last cities, their streets choked with starving refugees. Desperate to save their homeland, a possessed cleric and a fugitive wizard delve into the lost lands buried beneath their feet. In the dark caverns, they discover dead cities and antique societies, travelers from distant lands and times, gleaming metal angels gone mad, cosmic horrors and the fanatics who worship them, undead pilgrims, dreaming aristocrats, and of course, giant flame-belching snails.

[ $0.99 | amazon ]

About the book

It’s a short book, a fast read. Many of the chapters are written as (nearly) standalone short stories. But it is still very much a novel. I wanted it to feel more like the classic fantasy novels of the 1950s-1970s, similar to the “fix-ups” that were basically short story collections.

The story picks up with two characters from Beneath the Dying Land, so it is a sequel in the general sense, but Wayward Magicians is its own story and you don’t need to read anything else to understand or enjoy it.

What’s it actually about? Well, it’s about two people who aren’t terribly heroic on a journey into strange places, and encountering strange people. And giant flame-belching snails. It’s about discovering things that are wondrous and awful, and then making a mess of things and running away. You know, real life. Plus magic wands.

I tried my best to follow Elmore Leonard’s advice to “leave out the parts that people skip”. Most of the editing I did was deleting. I’m sure with a little more time and thought, I could have deleted a lot more.

If you’re a fan of this blog (and statistically speaking, you’re probably not), then you may recognize a handful of these chapters as short stories I posted a while back.

Selfish demands

If you like Wayward Magicians, then please post a rating/review on Amazon, and tweet about it, and blog about it, and tell all your friends in real life. Especially rich, good-looking friends with lots of followers. You know, the ones who like weird, dark homages to mid-20th century fantasy stories.

And if you don’t like it, thanks anyway.

Future books?

If you like Wayward Magicians, then there is good news. I am planning to write at least two more books in the same style, each focusing on new characters and new mysterious corners of the world of Harth.

If you like Wayward Magicians AND table-top roleplaying games, then there is even more good news. I have been very busy publishing RPG adventures in the world of Harth, which you can find as Dungeon Age Adventures on DriveThruRPG.

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Fangs of Vulgoth: Session #7

The adventure continues! Last time, our heroes befriended the were-bear / vampire hunter Rosette Vanator, met the young ranger Gavril, encountered a forest angel, found the lost Yakov Vanator, and entered the catacombs of Castle Dalca…

Play time: 5 hours

Heroes:

  • Drew the Eldritch Knight – Level 5
  • Ward the Gloom Stalker – Level 5
  • Rainen the Beast Master – Level 5
  • Hugo the Knowledge Cleric/Time Wizard – Level 1/4
  • Tiodhloc (Asmund) the Divine Soul Sorcerer – Level 5

Zombie Time

Ward poked into the next chamber of the catacombs and found it defended by eight undead warriors. The team charged into the room, leapt onto the sarcophagi, and plunged into battle. They were assaulted by four zombie knights and their four zombie squires. The fast-undead did some heavy damage with their long swords and crossbows, and when they died, their corpses exploded to poison anyone nearby.

Ward unleashed his flaming arrows to great effect, and Drew speared away in mighty fashion. Hugo tanked in the middle of the room, drawing fire and protecting his friends. Tiodhloc and Rainen ran support, healing the team as needed. And Yakov Vanator had some really bad luck, throwing his wooden stakes all over the room and pounding on the armored zombies to little effect.

With the zombie warriors defeated, the team found the iron crown of Iron King Dorinel Dalca and a mighty dragon-slaying greatsword, the Dread Cleaver!

Yakov identified the zombie knights as the things that bit him, so the team took a short rest while Tiodhloc studied the zombie slime and created a medicinal treatment for the bite. It was intensely painful, but seemed effective!

Ghastly Faith

In the next room, Ward reported that there were two priests and a nun standing around an altar by a statue of the angel Virune. Tiodhloc was greatly concerned by this display of piety/blasphemy and charged in to investigate. He quickly discovered that the priests were decaying corpses, and flooded the room with daylight. The priests were only briefly confused, and then shambled forward to seize the faithful sorcerer and suck the life out of his blood.

The team ran into the room and quickly dispatched the ghastly priests and nun before they could do much damage. Hugo detected magic in the altar and the statue, while Tiodhloc discovered the horrific flesh and eyes of Shernavoth pressed up through the cracks in the floor. But the monster retreated before anyone could do anything.

This was all too much for poor Tiodhloc, and in a blast of radiant light he reverted to his other form of Asmund.

Hugo swept off the altar and found it was actually the sarcophagus of the Dark Queen Lerazia Dalca. Inside he found her corpse dressed in black, with two scrolls, a silver crown, a silver ring, and a silver rapier. Hugo took the scrolls, Yakov took the sword, and Ward and Drew took the jewels.

Meanwhile, Rainen and Asmund prayed on whether they should break open the statue of Virune to remove the item inside it. The angel signaled that the statue was unimportant, so they proceeded to carefully break the cracked plaster figure apart. Inside, they found a corpse bound in iron wires and bands. The magic item was in its chest. Asmund used telekinesis to rip the object out, and snatched a hard black lump from the air, the Heretic’s Heart.

Bed of Nails

Ward peeked into the next room and found it deserted. There was another altar and another statue, but only a few graves and no creatures. Hugo, Asmund, and Rainen were all struck by a powerful holy presence radiating from the altar.

The altar was topped with a bed of nails, and marked with runes reading Purity, Cleanse, and Sacrifice. Asmund felt compelled to use this holy site, and he reverted back to Tiodhloc to climb up and lie on the bed of nails. As his blood gushed out onto the altar and he plummeted to 1 HP, his spirit fled to a null space where he encountered a being of fire. The angel asked him if he would carry the purifying flame in his hand. He said yes, and took the flame.

Tiodhloc awoke in terrible pain. His hand was burning so intensely that it glowed like a beacon. Also, he was still on the bed of nails. The team lifted him off and healed his wounds, careful to avoid his glowing hand. They tried putting some pebbles in his hand, but nothing happened.

Meanwhile, Hugo found some healing potions at the feet of the statue.

Treasure Trap

The last chamber of the catacomb was smaller. The walls were earth and rough stone, supported by heavy timbers. But one timber had broken and the ceiling was collapsing. The only thing holding it up was a silver staff.

The group went around the room and inspected each sarcophagus, noting the names and contents of each one. They also found a lot of magic items:

  • The “Bitter End” longsword, which freezes everything it touches
  • A unicorn helmet, which communicates with plants and animals
  • A feathered cloak, which summons ravenwolves
  • A holy shield of strange metal
  • An amulet that can mimic voices
  • A grimoire of cosmic madness
  • Spiked gloves, which punch real good
  • And also a non-magical prosthetic leg with a secret compartment containing a ruby ring

The Getaway

Last but not least, they really wanted that silver staff. But how to yank it out and escape the inevitable collapse of the entire tomb? Several dangerous plans were suggested. Then Drew (the eldritch knight) suggested that he bond with the staff. Then they could simply leave the tomb and he could summon the staff to his hand when they were safely away.

And that’s exactly what they did.

On the walk back to the surface, Hugo noticed that the corpse of Dark Queen Lerazia was no longer in her tomb. Where could she be???

Back outside, the team crossed to the west end of the bridge, far from the ruins of Castle Dalca. There they took some time to divvy up their new magical loot. During this process, Tiodhloc considered taking the grimoire, but when he held it in his holy hand, the magic book was incinerated into tiny incandescent moths. He then tried holding Hugo’s holy chain-whip, which remained undamaged in his grip. Then Drew reached out and summoned the silver staff to his hand.

And that’s where we ended!

DM Notes

This was a great session. It ran long because I (and everyone else) wanted to wrap up this dungeon. The zombie fight was exciting but not too long. High stakes and interesting. I felt really good about the monster design in that room. My only note to self might be to remove one or two zombies to speed things up.

In the next room, I cut down the number of ghast priests and nuns to save time. But because the team lured the baddies to the door and then bum-rushed them, they didn’t get to do a lot of their cool stuff.

The discoveries in Lerazia’s tomb were great. There was some tension about desecrating a holy site, and confusion about what to do with the Heretic’s Heart (it’s immune to cleric and paladin magic).

In the next room, I removed all of the baddies because it felt like fighting would just be time-consuming, and the altar was way more interesting. So we went straight to the altar business, and Tiodhloc got his holy hand. But what does it do? And what is it doing to him???

In the last room, the team did a great job examining everything in detail and grabbing all the loot. Again I removed the fight from this location because I knew I could do that same fight elsewhere and I wanted the session to wrap up nicely. I was impressed with how quickly Drew produced a perfect solution to the silver staff puzzle that I had never considered. Genius!

Everyone seemed really happy with the session, even though it went long, it had a big payoff with all the loot, plus some new mysteries. What is Tiodhloc’s hand? Where is the Dark Queen Lerazia? I don’t think the night needed a climactic boss battle. But fear not, players, there are tons of battles waiting all around you now!

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Fangs of Vulgoth: Session #6

The adventure continues! Last time, our heroes rescued the people of Cherat from a vampire festival, hid in a cottage in the woods, discovered the missing vampire hunter Rosette Vanator, and defeated the Viers family of were-boars. But there is still one Vanator missing…

Play time: 4 hours

Heroes:

  • Drew the Eldritch Knight – Level 5
  • Ward the Gloom Stalker – Level 5
  • Rainen the Beast Master – Level 5
  • Hugo the Knowledge Cleric/Time Wizard – Level 1/4
  • Tiodhloc (Asmund) the Divine Soul Sorcerer – Level 5

Deadpool Baby Leg

With the were-boars defeated, the party tried to convince Rosette to let them rescue her. They started to annoy her, and she pushed herself up one her one leg to threaten them with her sword. Her blankets fell away, revealing that her severed leg was severed no longer! She was growing a new leg, which currently looked like a chubby toddler limb dangling from her thigh.

Rosette and Bianca made it clear that Rosette needed a little more time to heal, and then come to terms with her new life as a were-bear. But then she would go back home to see her father. Eventually.

Rosette was more concerned about her “idiot” brother Yakov, who had gone off to the ruins of Castle Dalca. He was obsessed with finding cool magic weapons. And while a great fighter, he tended to get himself into trouble and need rescuing. So go rescue him!

Playing Bridge

The party headed east to Castle Dalca and found the bridge over the River Moroz. But there were strange bodies lying on the bridge, each killed by an arrow. As they crept up to investigate, a shuffling humanoid began crossing the bridge toward them. An arrow flew from the trees and killed the stranger, taking its head clean off!

Ward called out to the unseen archer, who quickly climbed down to meet them. He was a polite young man named Gavril from Cherat. Handy with a bow, he liked to come here and shoot fungus zombies to keep them from getting close to his home. He walked them out onto the bridge to show them some of the re-animated corpses covered in bright orange fungal growths.

Yes, Deer

With the sun setting, Gavril headed down to his hammock under the bridge to hide from vampires, and the party proceeded toward the ruined castle. But then Ward spotted a large golden deer in the woods. He ran off to investigate, and followed the deer to the ruins of a cottage away from the castle. There, he saw the deer was actually a buzzing collection of bronze discs, whirling through the air in the shape of a deer. This being stomped its hoof to reveal a hole in the ground, and then flew away into the woods.

In the hole, Ward found an Amulet of the angel Kasimah, a being of the wild, who was worshipped in ancient times by woodsmen and hunters.

Inside the Ruins

With the sun setting, the party headed into the ruins of Castle Dalca. They found one tower intact, but the stairs were blocked by debris. They could also smell a heavy weasel-like musk nearby.

Then a new young man arrived, telling them to put out their lights and stop being so loud. It was Yakov Vanator, looking cold and shaky and manic. He led the group into the ruined keep where there was a safe room. Yakov was excited to have some backup, but worried the party might try to take all the magic loot for themselves. Earlier today, he had successfully found and blown up the entrance to the Dalca catacombs. Surely there was cool stuff in there!

The party was extremely suspicious of Yakov’s behavior. Drew tricked him into smoking Pyotr’s Pacifying Pipe, which put him to sleep. Tiodhloc and Rainen then examined him, and found Yakov had been bitten. The wound looked infected, with black veins around it. Vampire bite?

Ward slipped outside to look around and found a smoking crater on the side of the keep, revealing the entrance to the catacombs. A couple of unhealthy humanoids crawled nearby, sniffing. There was a quick debate about whether to wake Yakov and demand more answers, or to go into the tombs looking for a cure right now. They decided to wait for morning.

Long Rest

Hugo took first watch, but was totally engrossed in his reading. Still, he looked up just in time to swat a bird out of the air just before it dive-bombed him. It appeared to be a giant hummingbird, or a thrush with a needle-beak. Hugo healed the poor thing, and it promptly flew away.

Drew took the second watch. Soon he heard a vampire wretch creeping up the stairs. He hurled a flask of alchemist fire, setting the monster alight. The wretch leapt onto Drew’s chest and bite his neck, drinking his blood and healing while still on fire! Then Ward woke up and shot the wretch, incinerating it right in Drew’s face. Tiodhloc inspected the wound and declared it clean. Drew was not a vampire!

Ward took the third watch. Sitting on the roof, he watched the sun come up.

Shrine Time

In the morning, the team told Yakov that the bite on the back of his shoulder looked bad. He was majorly bummed. But he convinced the team to let him come with them into the catacombs. Hopefully they could find the source of his infection, and maybe a cure.

Outside in the courtyard, Tiodhloc spied an old forgotten shrine of Saint Eravo the Blessed. The stone statue held an offering bowl and a stone likeness of an Amulet of Virune. Tiodhloc placed his real amulet on the stone one, and made an offering of herbs to the bowl. The herbs incinerated themselves and his amulet glowed with the saint’s blessing. But what was the blessing???

Level One… Fight!

The team could already detect the undead moving about in the catacomb ahead. They entered the dark chamber, seeing dozens of dusty sarcophagi. And eighteen vampire wretches!

The battle was fast and furious. Hugo summoned clones and warped time. Ward shredded the air with burning arrows. Drew blasted the wretches with spear and fist. Rained exploded the undead with her hammer. Tiodhloc tore them apart with his spells. And Yakov Vanator leapt onto the sarcophagi in dramatic fashion, flinging his wooden stakes with (mostly) deadly accuracy.

They searched the chamber, finding it to be the 900-year-old resting place of Wise Queen Aurelia Dalca, and her family and retinue. There was little in the broken graves except a lone golden figurine of an owl.

The chamber sloped downward to another door, shattered and gaping, leading to another, deeper chamber.

And that’s where we ended!

DM Notes

Another solid session. We wrapped up the Rosette business pretty quickly, and I think everyone was satisfied with that part. Meeting Gavril at the bridge was fun, and Ward and Rainen seem keen to recruit him into their new ranger lodge. Ward also really liked his first encounter with the angel Kasimah, so I’m looking forward to developing that.

Meeting Yakov Vanator was also fun. It quickly raised a lot of questions about what had bitten him and whether they could save him. Tiodhloc waffled hard between trying to heal him and threatening to tie him up in the sunlight and leaving him to die.

The first battle in the catacomb went exactly as expected. The team cake-walked the wretches, which were basically minions. But they also took some damage and burned some spell slots. One keen-eyed player noted that he could see my thumbnails of the other four levels of the catacomb. I guess this made him nervous? Good!

Next session will be the rest of the catacomb, so a lot of dungeon delving and combat. My goal is to make the combats very intense without being very long. That usually means enemies who can do serious damage but don’t survive very long. We will see if that is the case next time!

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