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Monday, December 14, 2020

The Swamp Was Expanding, In Fritburg - #Fiction

 

The swampland was expanding, from the rotten forest. Crawling closer to the farms with every moon.


It was in particular when the moon was gibbous, that a thick, dense haze would lift from the waterlogged soil, and the twisted vegetation of the marshlands would sprout vigorously from the ground. As if invisible hands were at work, but doing the exact opposite of what farmers would do.


Elshbeth was playing as usual with Emmet and Fred, her cousins that acted as brothers since she was left with her aunt while the parents were away on some trip.

She wanted to enjoy this rare measure of freedom, since there was so little to do in the fields that even that bitch of an aunt could not find some stupid job for her or the two boys.

She enjoyed playing with the boys much more than with the girls. Tesya, Ilsegard, and Amhilde were older and passed the time gossiping about the village and knitting, while the three younger ones she could not even remember the names of, were just playing nonsensical games, way too close to the adults. Elshbeth saw absolutely no fun in either of the two groups’ activities. She was just happy that, unlike her “selfish” parents, as they were defined by the relatives, aunt Brigit had made her eight siblings for her to choose playmates from. Only two among eight were fun to be with, but still better than the ghost of her dead brother, kept alive by the sad stories of her already old (40 years old) mother.


With Emmet and Fred, she was indeed doing interesting things. And scary too: she was hunting monsters. Because there were monsters, even if the adults were making fun of their claims, if not making them take back their stories one slap at a time.

Just the other day they saw a thing that looked like a lump of moss and fungus, moving on stumpy little feet like a caterpillar. They ran away scared as hell at first, and when they came back with stones and sharp sticks, the damned thing was gone, probably inside one of the many holes that even brave Fred would not dare to explore.


But at least that monster seemed harmless enough. Another evening instead, at the brink of that noisy hour before sunset in which all the invisible frogs were starting to ribbit like devils, the trio found something (or someone) much worse. Already chased by the moron of the family, uncle Mortz, the prepubescent youngsters went armed to the teeth with sticks, stones, and even a rudimentary sling, to the limit of the swamp.

There they were killing worms the size of snakes, when from the high canes, they heard some rustling and they started paying attention to the shadowy pattern of sticks and leaves. After some silence, they saw something that nearly scared them lifeless. All of a sudden, emerging from the shadows, a face like the one of a giant frog, but with big evil eyes in the front of the head instead of the sides, looking straight at them, and a wide mouth with four sharp teeth visible both from the lower and higher “lips”, if those could be called so. The color of the monster was a sick green, while purple was the tongue that seemed to fall out of its mouth as a dead piece of meat, before it moved as if having life of its own, flailing out jerkingly before being sucked back inside the mouth.

It was just a moment, but for the kids it felt like a full minute of horror, in which they could not move at all. They then started screaming, throwing the stones while running away, without even aiming, and reaching uncle Mortz. It was them dragging him to the house this time, for a change.


At the house, the kids were still shaking and even the bullyish aunt Brigit and uncle Uskar looked concerned, at least before the three could regain the ability to speak properly.

Then they told the story, and that’s when Uskar in particular got red with anger, and took out his belt while Brigit, understanding his intentions, took all three of them with her big arms, and held them. It was ass-whipping time, while the uncle screamed at them, two words each lashing: “There are no monsters, you blasphemous little demons! Take your sacrilegious words back, you little shits!” - The kids didn’t even try to rebel much this time, accepting the pain as a much nicer alternative to what they saw before.


Up in the barn’s loft where they were sleeping, next to the caged pigeons, the kids talked about the monster, voices still trembling.

“I think it was a giant frog!” - Said Emmet. - “No, that was no frog!” - “It looked like one, Elshbeth!” - Fred sided with his brother - “And we better fight that thing before it eats one of the little girls with that mouth!” - “But didn’t you see it had teeth? Frogs have no teeth!” - Continued the girl, who was one year wiser, and far more tutored than the two boys. - “Whatever, if we can’t kill it, we better scare it away!” - “And how do you scare a monster!?” - “We will kill his family!!” - “His family?” - “Yes, we will find other big frogs, but smaller than him, and show him we kill his kin!” - “I’m telling you they are not his kin, Fred!” - “Whatever, I think Fred is right anyway! At least we will show we can fight. If we don’t do anything like our parents, who knows how close that monster will come next time!” - Emmet was the most scared of the bunch, being the youngest, and he shared the concern of the brother: protecting the little girls, like Uskar and Mortz taught them since they were even younger.


The plan was decided. The three went to sleep, but Elshbeth could not stop thinking. That thing could even eat her one of these days. Mom and dad, old like they were, might have died of heartbreak knowing they lost their only remaining child, and she would have lived her life without ever trying… What it feels like to be a woman. She watched Brigit and Uskar sometimes, when waking up because of those weird noises they made. Their room was next to the barn, so she could even peek into their window sometimes. And what she saw made her feel a strange heat inside, and made her want to try the same.

Exactly while these guilty thoughts were swimming inside her head, provoking the same kind of heat, Fred appeared next to her, nearly scaring her, and making her exhale that hot breath she was keeping in, producing a faint moan in doing so. The cousin looked at her with different eyes. And before they knew any better, the two were kissing and touching each other, far more than what they used to do as younger kids, years before. Far more, and far better. Or was that worse? Elshbeth didn’t even want to think about it. She silenced her mind, and focused only on the sensations. She didn’t even know what exactly she was doing, but somehow the moves were coming naturally to both.

Only after Fred abruptly stopped, she felt dirty and uncomfortable. She shoved him away from her and heard him slither back under his blankets, while she was left with her guilt and sense of dirtiness. It felt good at first, but not at all at the end. After some time, she cried: something extremely rare of her. And then finally she fell asleep.


She dreamt that night. Maybe elaborating on that hot sensation of before, she dreamt of catching fire like a torch, and screaming. Fire would shoot out of her mouth, and light up shadowy figures in front of her, producing a macabre dance of burning silhouettes.


When she woke up the next day, she wanted to avoid Fred at all costs, but also couldn’t let the two brothers  go alone in the marsh to try and execute their plan by themselves. So she avoided Fred’s gazes as much as she could, and after their usual breakfast of stolen food from the kitchen, they set out running towards the northern reaches of the swamp.


There they stayed the whole day hunting for frogs. Every time they would find one, they would impale it on a stick, on a place that was as visible as possible from afar, and cut the belly to let the guts out. “This way they will see we are not scared!” - Fred proclaimed. Elshbeth was not particularly impressed by that, but she was helping them anyway, although far less active than usual, still thinking about what she did with her cousin, the fiery dream, and the face of the monster.


After a while, they found a really enormous toad. It was jumping away from them in high and long leaps, and Emmet was afraid of it, but Elshbeth hit it with the sling she had built and a very sharp stone, exactly after it landed from a jump, opening a gashing wound next to its big head, and disorienting it: the amphibian started to roll, more than jumping, and soon Fred could catch it with its spear-stick, and kill it, after numerous hits.

This time even tough Elshbeth was grossed out about the killing, and she didn’t want to look when the boys impaled the lifeless body on a cane, and cracked open its belly with their wooden knives, making the intestines gush out.

The brothers instead were ecstatic: drenched in the blood and ichors of the animals, they shouted angrily at the monster (which meant in every direction, to them), that they were not afraid, and they would have killed all his family if he would have come closer to the farm.

Elshbeth just went after them keeping a distance, trying not to feel sick, and trying to hide all her worries and emotions that the killings could not extinguish.


A week passed, in which no monster showed up. Just a few more big worms and leeches, sometimes one of those “walking shits” as the brothers called that strange creature they saw before the monster, but in general nothing to worry about except the violence at home.

Uskar was growing more angry every day, saying that the farm was going to hell, and that the family should have worked hard on the fields, even if they were rotten and nothing was growing. “TOMORROW YOU WILL START WORKING, OR I WILL FREAKING BEAT ALL OF YOU LIKE NEVER BEFORE!” - He shouted, before throwing away his empty soup bowl and leaving the table. Silence didn’t last long. Uncle Mortz, stupid as he was, started laughing. At first it looked like he was laughing without any reason as usual. Then Elshbeth noticed he was staring at the same spot while laughing, for too long. She tried to follow his empty gaze through the dirty glass of the window, and then she felt petrified.

Fred, who never stopped looking at Elshbeth those days, to try and understand what the girl was thinking about him, noticed the horror on her face, and looked out as well. He shouted: “THE MONSTER!!” - “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, YOU STUPID WASTE OF A SON!” - Replied his mother, after delivering a noisy slap on the back of his head. Then the three young women of the house, Tesya, Ilsegard, and Amhilde started laughing as well like morons, like uncle Mortz, and aunt Brigit asked them what was wrong. Emmet could only shake on his chair and stutter a call for his father, while pissing his pants. Soon after, the little girls as well started to giggle like crazy: it was unclear if at the older brother who soiled his clothes, or the thing outside of the window, but what Elshbeth knew was that they were doomed, when scary uncle Uskar came back to the table and started laughing as well.


In that cacophony of stupid laughter, something came down the chimney and soaked the fire dead in a second. The big room went dark, and the only light illuminating the moronic faces of Elshbeth’s temporary family was that of the gibbous moon outside, behind milky clouds.

She never looked at those faces though: she was still looking at the bulbous yellow eyes outside of the window. They were grinning, just like the monstrous mouth below them.
After some time though, in that surreal moment of laughter and dread, the monster’s face disappeared, and Elshbeth instantly knew: it was inside the house. THEY were inside the house.


It was Mortz again spotting the first one in the nearly pitch darkness of that awful dining room. He pointed up, and Elshbeth and the brothers already knew what he was pointing at. Emmet didn’t even want to look, preferring to run under the table, while Fred had the strength of grabbing a knife, reaching for Elshbeth, and then look up with her: together they had the strength that they were lacking singularly.


It was anyway difficult to understand what they were looking at, at first. It looked like a black spot on the ceiling, next to the chandelier, which only now they realized was put off by something, similarly to the fireplace. Then the amorphous black spot moved slightly, and another two grinning, enormous eyes popped out from an indefinite, inhuman head.


A stinking cloud of haze came out of the thing, right after Fred hit it with the knife he threw at it. The thick fog moved all over the ceiling and then down the walls, as if crawling. The rest of the family was still laughing, and it quickly inhaled the fumes. Elshbeth took a napkin from the table and covered her mouth, while running away towards the stairs. Fred wanted to follow her, but he was busy throwing more knives at the thing, and trying to get Emmet from under the table. Elshbeth suddenly felt sorry. She didn’t even know about what, but she was sorry. What did she do to this family? That strange question managed to break the sense of horror and entrapment, even if for just a moment.


Then something even more incredible happened. The laughing family members started to swell. Their bellies in particular, inflated like bubbles. While still laughing, they started to soil themselves, with loud cracking noises. Their laughter, from moronic, became completely psychotic, and they started to grab their excrements with their hands from inside their skirts and pants, and throwing it at each other, making the whole place reek like the pigs’ den in a matter of seconds.

Elshbeth felt like her mind was about to snap when even Emmet started shitting himself, even if he was not laughing and he was just looking confused. Fred was trying to drag Elshbeth outside, when the door opened all of a sudden and a big dark figure occupied nearly the whole space of the open door. Tendrils  came out of it and grabbed the sides of the wall, trying to push the rest of its mass inside the house. Fred screamed at it, and the thing squirted a substance at him, making him instantly go silent and stand still like a statue.


The last remaining family member with a mind of her own, and absolutely no idea of what to do, Elshbeth tried to go up the stairs while not losing sight of the monsters that had invaded the house. From the floor above, though, undescribable squishy noises and strange flailing shadows were proof that there was just no way out of that freaky mess.

Holding the wooden railing of the stairs, the girl screamed at the top of her lungs, the only thing she felt she could do.


She blacked out for a split second, in which she couldn’t even hear her own screaming.
Then, flames erupted from her. The whole railing caught fire from her hand, which seemed to not feel the heat at all, and from her mouth, a tongue of flames came out and hit the monster at the entrance, where Fred stood before and now he wasn’t. Did she kill him? This question was the last conscious thought in her mind, before she just completely lost it.


She woke up outside, in the field, hearing a loud crash in the distance. She opened her eyes to see the farm’s celing collapse, engulfed in flames.


A group of neighboring farmers approached the place running, and only after a while noticed her, and came closer. “What happened here? We heard demonic screams! What sparked the fire!? Where are your uncles and cousins!?” - Elshbeth could not reply to anyone, to any question. She looked catatonic, although tears were jerking off her eyes without her noticing.


Right before some of the men could grab the girl, angry due to her silence, a big man showed up, head covered in what looked like bandages, which also covered his enormous arms. The villagers spread out to let the towering man pass, and he crouched down next to Elshbeth, opening his hands as if welcoming her in his embrace. She sprung up and slammed into him, crying. “Don’t be scared, little one: there’s always hope. You will see…”

He smelled of something she couldn’t quite identify, something woody and spicy. Nice. She couldn’t think of anything, but she did feel sad when he gently pushed her away.

Soldiers were approaching on horse. Inquisitors.

The man caressed Elshbeth with a heavy, big hand, that felt hard but at the same time caring, and then went away quickly, although with the gait of someone who was either injured or cripplied, surrounded by the hostile grumbling of the farmers that he had scared away before.


Before she lost sight of him, Elshbeth shouted in his direction: “MY NAME IS ELSHBETH, IT WAS NICE TO MEET YOU!!” - The man smiled behind the bandages, like he hadn’t done for years. But kept going. He would have not been able to help her if the inquisitors would have gotten a hold of him.


Thus, the knights came, dispersed the crowd, and after bringing Elshbeth to the contsable, where they told her what had happened at the farm (according to them), they brought her to another farm, where another family lived. She stayed there terrorized for another week, before her parents came back, apparently rushing their trip. Her life had changed forever.

And the farms of Fritburg with it.


Monday, September 14, 2020

#Zendikar #DnD Take 2: Mana in D&D!

 

Previously very excited about the new Zendikar Rising set in Magic: The Gathering, I was starting to write my update on Zendikar's geography, but I now see it all a bit moot, considering the little lore that came out about Zendikar, whether within the cards or as stories/articles.

I am now of the opinion that if following the original lore, I will just end up with many contradictions, geographical inaccuracies/holes, and personal disappointment, due to how little the interest from the creators seems compared to mine.

So I am taking a break from sticking to the source, and doing something else: a mechanic for D&D characters to use the five colors of mana in-game!

I was previously very contrary to this, when adapting the setting for 4e D&D. But 4e was a difficult beast to home-brew rules for: while incredibly fun IMO, it was like a complex piece of machinery: difficult to take apart piece by piece and improve on.

So I had this rule of thumb: role-playing in Zendikar should not use any concept from Magic: The Gathering. Only the setting should be used, and for the rest we are looking at regular D&D.

The Roil was still possible to implement following this line (it would have been just an environmental hazard like many others, if a tad more extreme), but thinking again about it, mana is really central to Zendikar as a concept. The point of Zendikar is its lands producing very potent mana. And this would have fallen flat in RPG campaigns excluding the concept of mana entirely, or relegating it to plot-device only.

This thought, combined with the fact that 5e D&D is much easier to customize, led me to think how mana would work, and I think I got the right idea now.


Monday, September 7, 2020

First impressions of #MtGZNR #Zendikar Rising - a #DnD perspective!

 

Hello Zendikari fans! The long wait for spoilers of Zendikar Rising is over, as it's the first week of them!

Although it might be too soon to review everything from a gaming perspective, as you might know here we care mostly about story and setting, for the purpose of playing D&D in the marvelous world of Zendikar.

As such, this will be a "Vorthos" perspective: in Magic jargon, it's the type of player that cares mostly about the flavor of the cards, and the lore surrounding them.

So let's start from the beginning!

Back to Zendikar, without Eldrazi

As if the designers would have listened to me specifically (which they didn't, which means the majority fo the fans are like me) they got rid of the Eldrazi not only as a physical threat (not even small drones or spawn remain, apparently! YAY!), but even in their lasting effects: we haven't seen a single land art for Zendikar Rising depicting the awful effect of the passage of Ulamog or Kozilek (the latter being less awful and more interesting, admittedly).
It might be too soon, but look how green Bala Ged seems to be:


Granted, this is a "sanctuary", but I suspect even the "recovery" was meant, originally at least, as the land recovering from Eldrazi influence, thanks to the Khalni Heart planted by Nissa during the Battle for Zendikar / Oath of The Gatewatch arc.
The flavor text and the art imply another meaning for recovery, but at least are quoted from a Bala Ged guide, meaning there are indeed still people from there, and going there. YAY!

About Bala Ged, one small/big complaint: this would be their depcition of its Tangled Vales?


If not for the hedrons, I couldn't think of a single place on Zendikar tame enough to have such a tame woodland. And on Bala Ged even less!

THIS is in my opinion the perfect depiction of the Tangled Vales, the home of the Joraga elves:


Beautiful, and already my go-to illustration for this verdant side of dark Bala Ged, which is the closest place to Central Africa or the Amazon in Zendikar.

We even have Sejiri depicted without the crazy bismuth-like formations left by Kozilek:


Beautiful art, although in Sejiri, for once, I am hoping they will keep some Eldrazi corruption, since it was mentioned (in the art book with writing by James Wyatt) that the excavation of the landscape by the Kozilek brood revealed more ancient ruins there... (And I think I know which... See next point)

Now, what else changed with the Eldrazi gone? My main concern was: how do we get an "enemy" or new adventuring sites in Zendikar? Do we just get to explore new secrets in the old sites? Do we just get new sites? Who will oppose adventurers? Just traps? And who built those old ruins, now that we know the Eldrazi for sure never built anything and were never a civilization to begin with?
It would have been a bit underwhelming to have them just repeat the feeling of the first Zendikar, because it's impossible to keep it fresh: it's a classic that just works as it is, and about which a few key points (the origin of hedrons and the ruins) have been retconned.

To be honest, I would have not been able to come up with such an elegant solution as they did...

Enter the Skyclaves

Turns out it was the Kor who built many of the now-ruins which show very high degrees of civilizations.
And we know now, because even Emeria, The Sky Ruin itself, turns out to be Kor, and not just a castle or something that flies due to Zendikar's Roil... But an actual flying city of sorts (hello, Miyazaki), which was always kept hidden from newer generations by Iona guarding it... But that since Iona abandoned guarding duties to battle the Eldrazi, adventurers have explored and tampered with... Activating no less than ONE PER CONTINENT, that laid dormant for a thousand of years or more, hidden by the impenetrable nature of Zendikar..!

These are the Skclaves: flying fortresses/cities through which the Kor, from their ancient capital of Makindi (always thought they were from there...) used to rule Zendikar with an iron (or stone, actually) fist..!




Now that's some great world-building. I don't know how much of this was supposed to be part of the original Zendikar history, as envisioned in 2008...
It's possible that they indeed have plans of whole flying cities and stuff, but made by "Eldrazi", when they had to retcon everything to make the cosmic horrors appear within Zendikar instead of in their own or different setting.
In this case, all they had to do is think who else could have built the things, and since Sea Gate itself seems to be made with advanced stone-forging magic, used by Nahiri to build the hedrons according to canon, well... Must have been the Kor, of the old times when Nahiri was born (how come she is immortal by the way..? Whatever)

In any case, here is their laying out of the Skyclaves within Zendikar, with my comments within bracketss:
  • The Roil swallowed the Guul Draz outpost and drowned it in a swamp.
[I am betting the Hagra Cistern will be retconned or revealed to at have been at least part of this Skyclave, but no clue on this yet... Prediction made!]
  • The elves of Bala Ged, led by a pre-spirit Obuun, revolted against their kor rulers and toppled their Skyclave.
[No major ruin site in Bala Ged seems to fit the bill of a clue for this, although I have two possible bets in mind: the Enatu Temple, never revealed to be in Bala Ged, or the Carnage Altar, which is not a unique thing, but I used it as a possible Bala Ged ruin in my "Zendikar Atlas" project... In any case, in Bala Ged vegetation is so dense that the Skyclave might have been rendered completely invisible by it. Or perhaps it sunk in Bojuka Bay, and in this case, having a bastion there looking like Sea Gate, as I have imagined in my old 13th Age adaptation might be fitting! Although it would be repetitive to have another Skyclave underwater because...]
  • An enormous sea monster—perhaps an ancestor of Lorthos, the Tidemaker, or maybe Lorthos itself—dragged the Murasa Skyclave into the sea.
[Beautiful! Very fitting. And they say somewhere else or in the same article, that now floating over Murasa, the Skyclave has been instantly covered by Murasa's especially powerful plant growth. Green-Blue/Green for the win!]
  • Then civil war tore the empire in half; the Ondu Skyclave turned against the capital at Makindi. The city was destroyed (and its lands transformed into the trenches), and the Skyclave fell onto Jwar Isle.
[Standing ovation for whoever came up with this!! First of all, Jwar Isle really needed a big secret thing like this, being called the Island of Secrets for no particularly fitting reason otherwise... And then, the story of the Makindi VS Skyclave conflict sets up a history of different factions within the Kor which could be interesting even if old.]
  • As the Empire crumbled, the Kargan tribes mastered the dragons of Akoum and rode them to victory against the kor, shattering the Akoum Skyclave.
[More importance for the Kargan tribes, and another secret in Akoum, which could have been hidden within the Teeth of Akoum, as many others, or maybe wherever the Tal Terig tower is, with it being perhaps part of the fortress!]
  • The archangel Iona destroyed the Tazeem Skyclave, creating the Sky Ruin of Emeria.
[So she didn't just guard it from later discovery, she was the one responsible for its destruction, too! Nice.]
  • The last Skyclave to fall was the one over Sejiri. When Sorin, Nahiri, and Ugin lured the Eldrazi to Zendikar to trap them, one of the Eldrazi titans appeared in Sejiri and destroyed the Skyclave with a thoughtless flick of a tentacle. The shattered sphere was encased in polar ice.
[And in this case, the Ikiral Ourpost might have been part of it. I was considering it gone after Kozilek's passage, but I guess we will know soon...]

______________

So now we have the places for adventurers to explore: inexplicably or not, they are full of working traps and live guardians which seem to have mutated in the meantime, like this one:



So adventure is served...

But as some of you may know, what I am really obsessed by is Zendikar's geography: although Zendikar's thing is the Roil, which has the landscape in an ever-changing mode, I retain that the continents and the key locations should have a more clear location, or at least be fully-acknowledged by the canon, instead of being just vaguely waved at, like during the Battle for Zendikar block.

Well, it seems like designers again heard a lot of feedback like mine, about this...

Zendikar Geo-Goodness Incoming!


First of all, a ton of lands depicting the iconic places are coming in the Modal Double-Faced Cards, already referred to as MDFCs...

The land side is underwhelming first of all because it's, as of now, always mono-colored (while I envision many of these places as dual-colored), and then because the land itself is just a normal mana-producing land. It gets some cool effect if you don't play it as a land, but as whatever it is on the other side.

As said, I am not really interested in the gaming aspect (although I will be sad if ZNR will go down in history as one of the least powerful sets ever, as it's starting to look like), but I am very hungry for geographical and geological details about the world... And I can confirm these people are basically producing an atlas like I am!

They included many obscure places, such as Blackbloom Lake (although just quoted in a land called Blackbloom Bog, admittedly fitting since they said the lake was marshy, in the original guide), and the Singing City, or the Silundi Islands, which were just theorized by me before, but evidently in a good call based on the lore...


   


All of this makes me happy, even if what would have made me even more happy would have been some minor effect on the land side, especially considering it enters tapped.

Other great things in no particular order:

  • Sejiri confirmed to be the North sub-polar continent, instead of being just ambiguously sub-polar.
  • In the same card that confirms this, also confirmed that Benthridix, the polar underwater Merfolk city, was pre-Eldrazi, or at least pre-worhsip of Eldrazi!



  • The Roil (thankfully) didn't stop with the Eldrazi going out of the picture! Good because half of my ideas for Zendikar D&D depend on it!




  • Valakut is indeed inhabited and not devoid of building either, hurray! (I put it as a possible background for characters in my Zednikar Atlas... Will have to point it's ideal for Kor other than Goblins, now!)


  • Sea Gate is rebuilt, although they kept the videogamey look of Battle for Zendikar, with the ridiculous, Hollywood-style light beam shooting into the sky... (At least some old-skool Gnarlids are posing in the foreground...)


  • There's some crazy, and crazily-named legendary elementals out and about, which I don't particularly care for, but I guess can add some threats for adventurers, and the fact they are Legendary means they most probably also have some degree of intelligence.


  • Archons are bad guys, confirmed! (Really not liking the griffins I have seen until now...)


And that's it for the random trivia for now.

What I can conclude with is a general happy feeling for the respect towards the established geography, and on the logical expansion on it, but also a cautious disappointment in the art direction: some places are depicted in ways that don't match the flavor (Tangled Vale... I am looking at you...) and in general everything seems more in line with the cartoonish style of Battle for Zendikar (and most other sets nowadays, save perhaps for gorgeous Dominaria), rather than the epic but gritty style of the first Zendikar block.
I am cautious about this because anyway some of the cards are indeed beautiful and fitting. Silundi Isle is now my absolute favorite, not only thanks to great and very-Zendikar art styld, but because it opens my whole once-theoretical campaign idea of isles beyond the known ones!

Also: basic lands are true beauties, most of them, and the whole idea of Skyclaves is very welcome to me, although incredibly derivative. Thinking about it, Castle In The Sky by Miyazaki might have been a big inspiration even for original Zendikar, given that even the patterns on hedrons look like those on the anime's fortress of Laputa. So there's that: my favorite setting seems to be inspired by one of my favorite anime. 

In the next post you will see how crazy I got with my Zendikar Atlas now that we have this new info, and how crazy I am with it in general...
One tiny preview: there is now some crazy symmetry in the number of territories per continent, colors per continent, and color distribution... It was like an impossible Rubrik Cube solving, but I think I nailed it! I am just on the lookout for possible swaps, especially to take out a few "placer" territories in favor of more iconic ones.

Till next post, and comments are welcome as usual!


Monday, June 15, 2020

#Zendikar #DnD Take 2: An Atlas for Zendikar


I have had a post on Zendikari "geo-background" in drafts for a long time.

While writing it, I realized these should form a big part of what shapes the Zendikar-D&D experience, so I studied a way to make them more important, without overshadowing the regular D&D character background, but complementing them with situational, Zendiakr-only features.

This led me to classify all the possible locations from which characters can come from, and come up with pseudo-unique features for all.

I say "pseudo" because when I realized they would be around 20 or more, I understood it was not feasible to do something completely unique for each of them, and I also realized that possibly Magic's Mana colors could help me classify them, so that those with similar colors could have similar features, or something like that.

The result has been something crazy: a table of 5x5 Magic colors with background locations for all of them.



Mentally addicted by the "weirdly satisfying" feeling of having classified all of Zendikar's locations important to characters, I could not help creating the same table for Zendikar's iconic ruins and expedition sites.




















Realizing then that in Zendikar adventures are always a lot about getting to the place, other than just exploring the place itself, I also classified the dangerous locations that are too uninhabited or dangerous to be good for backgrounds, but are famous and/or represent interesting interludes for the typical adventuring expedition.



All these tables can be combined in one giant one, and I did so.
Note that the coloring of the "tiles" is to group contiguous or similar terrain/regions.
Do click for the full view!









Crazy, isn't it?

This whole process, to use a Magic analogy, kind of "ignited our sparks" again (mine and my friend-fratello Gonzalo's) and we decided to up the ante and embark on a project that for now we are calling Zendikar Atlas. It's going to mix geography, lore, story hooks, and adventures/mini-campaigns, to become a multi-volume gazetteer of sorts for Zendikar.

It's going to be published on Gonzalo's much more apt web project, Codex Anathema, as soon as we have the first volume ready, which will be for Tazeem.

Not much to say now, except more tiled goodness, showing you the group of tiles coming from Tazeem, in two different fashions: a conceptual map...

(The empty blue symbolizes the Halimar, bringing a physical map feature to the conceptual context..!)




















... And the source: a filtering of the above table, including only what is inside Tazeem:




















If you're wondering about the emojis' presence: I thought for someone who doesn't have a good knowledge of the plane, they would do a good job describing the places at a glance, although exactly in the case of Tazeem, I had to get a little too abstract, because there's only so many emojis out there.

If instead you do have some Zendikari geography knowledge but you think you never heard of some of these places, here is where the strange ones come from:

  • Tazeem's Calcite Flats: these are described mostly in Art of Magic: The Gathering: Zendikar, although briefly mentioned in the very first line of the original guide. It's what the island-continet is surroudned by, its beaches so to speak, although more of a tidal plain.
  • Wren Grotto: this is another place that was just quickly mentioned in the guide (quote by Ilori, merfolk falconer) as "the most beautiful place in all Zendikar", and expanded more in the art book. It's considered the place where merfolk breed and train giant falcons.
  • Tikal Harborage: this is absent in the original lore, but mentioned as the outpost of Thada Adel, The Acquisitor (a legendary merfolk thief) in the art book. Although there is no official illustration of it, I decided to associate it to what is probably my favorite illustration ever:



  • Ruins of Ysterid: these come from the original guide, although they are just mentioned by Piqua, of the Tazeem Expeditionary House, as a place at the bottom of a cave near Magosi Falls that will "poison you, boil you, and regurgitate your body up to the surface to be eaten by bloodbeaks." - Nice!
  • Lumbering Falls: these were admittedly just a filler, since I wanted to have a category for forests that were actually moving on their own ("living forests" is not the best way to describe them, since all forests are living..!). So it comes from the card with the same name, which although it could represent some place in Ondu or Murasa as well, I decided to attribute to Tazeem due to Blue and Green mana being the prevalent ones there. It could be a nice "trampoline" to get to Emeria's Sky Ruin, if you can get on top of it while it lumbers by.
    Here's the wonderful art:



  • The Jade Rooms: this is an even more obscure reference, probably the most obscure of all, since it comes from the forgotten one-pager guide to Zendikar, where a quote by Chadir the Navigator speaks of a Jade Room with capitals, from which he escaped, waking up on the shores of the Halimar. Due to the image conjured by jade being Green, I figured this could be a dungeon/ruin udner the Oran Rief (they also said there are such ruins under the forest, but never specified which, so this could be one of them), and made it plural to "rooms", to make it a more noteworthy location. It could also coincide with the dungeon that Gonzalo made me and a few other lucky players explore in his beautiful online Zendikar campaign, back int he days when we met in the official Wizards forum of old.
    I picture the place to be the one shown in the iconic and wonderful art of Summoning Trap:




And that's all for today, even if it's just one big teaser!
I hope you like where the project is going, and if you are another fan of Zendiakr lore and world, drop me a comment, and maybe you can even jump into the project yourself! There is surely a lot of stuff to write and figure out..!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

#Zendikar #DnD Take 2: beefier races - Merfolk!


Was nearly writing Mefolk, and it would have been appropriate: Merfolk and in particular Zendikari Merfolk are the race with which I identify the most!

This makes it very easy to incur in Mary Sue effects, so please be ruthless in your criticism about balance of this one.

The main characteristics that should be part of Merfolk are the following:


  • Early flight: seems strange if you don't know the setting, but on Zendikar (and many other MtG worlds, Merfolk are able to acquire and even more often grant flight.
  • Connection with the Roil: although I don't want to go look for the obscure source where I got this info from, I don't even care much, because canon or not, we kind of need at least one race that can be "the Roil race". This can or even should be connected to the flight mechanic, since it's not like they would be able to fly or make others fly without the Roil.
  • Individualism and diversity: far more than because of their "creeds" (originally absent from their description, and kind of introduced later on with the problematic Battle For Zendikar), Merfolk should be a diverse lot because of their strong individualism. you could find a Merfolk more similar to just about any other race on Zendikar (save for Surrakar and Vampires) than to another Merfolk.
  • Water-related advantages: this seems to go without saying, but I want something of their aquatic nature to be usable even in non aquatic environments, and I think I have an idea, taken from a famous cult movie...
  • Some weaknesses: the usual "has to be in water for X hours" is a low-hanging fruit, and it's not something mentioned by the source material. If you analyze the original Zendikar articles, there are two other "needs" of Merfolk that are in my opinion more flavorful and less annoying: needing some protection against sun/heat, and needing to tie/pierce their fins if they don't want to be impeded by the difficult terrain of Zendikar.
I hope the features I found for this will explain by themselves how I thought of covering all the points!


MERFOLK TRAITS


Ability Score Increase. Your Wisdom and Intelligence scores both increase by 1, and any ability score of your choice increases by 1.

Age. Merfolk reach maturity early, around 12 years of age, and have human-like lifespans but less decrepitude, sometimes approaching 100 years still able to be independent, although dying of old age soon after.

Size. Merfolk are as tall as humans, but usually weight less, since they are very lean. Your size is Medium.

Alignment. On Zendikar, merfolk can be of any alignment, although usually far from extremes, and tending more towards neutrality.

Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 ft, and you have a swimming speed of 30 ft.

Amphibious. You can breathe air and water.

Solitary Learning. You gain one feat of your choice that grants an ability score increase, ignoring race requirements. You gain all its benefits except the ability score increase.

Twitch. When an attack misses you, you can use your reaction to move 5 ft. without provoking opportunity attacks.

Languages. You can speak read and write Common and Merfolk.

ROIL FEATURES:

Roil Sense. As an action, you can make a Wisdom (Survival) or Intelligence (Arcana) check to learn more about the presence, color, and state of any Roil within your line of sight.

Caller of Gales. Within the influence of Blue or White Roil, you can use an action to create an effect like that of a gust of wind spell, without requiring components, but with an instantaneous duration, and with the possibility to center it under yourself, so that you and other affected creatures can be propelled upwards by it. (Affected creatures can choose to fail the saving throw.)

NEEDS:
  • Sunscreen unguent
  • Fin harnesses or piercings (reducing swimming speed to 20 ft.)
OTHERWISE:
  • For every 4 hours under the sun you suffer 1 level of exhaustion.
  • Your walking speed is reduced by 5 ft. and difficult terrain costs an extra 5 ft. for you to pass.
_____________________

As you can see, there are no subraces: the bonus feat takes care of that, because racial feats will represent the "creeds", which in the WotC implementation were taken as subraces.
The word "creed" doesn't even appear in the original description of Merfolk, but I guess I must acknowledge it since it's published. Instead of making it define the Merfolk though, I think their solitary nature allows them to choose, if to actually follow a creed or not.

Note that the thing of stealing a racial feat from others might seem crazy, but considering many of the feats with an ability score increase are racial, and I really wanted the clause "except the ability score increase", this is needed to have at least a few decent options. I didn't want just a free feat because that's the Human thin, and I still wanted the ability scores to be slightly better than Human, with some variability but basically only Int or Wis having the big increase.

The flying feature is very limited, as you can guess. Requiring Blue or White roil is already a big condition (which might be too much, honestly, but it might change, just like Roil colors might disappear, or be substituted by terrain types), but most importantly, the gust of wind effect can only propel 15 ft. in any direction. This means very short flights, and that's why I left it at-will: at least in those moments when the stars align and you can use the feature, you can use it as much as needed. It does burn the action, after all.

An alternative, especially if ditching Roil Color completely, could be requiring positive Roil (difficult to fly when gravity or winds are pulling you towards one point!) This way, Merfolk would be encouraged to take the Lullmage feat, and use it to actually raise the Roil, like Noyan Dar does in Battle for Zendikar.



This would of course require the Lullmage feat to be a "lower or raise by 1", or "improve or worsen by 1" instead of just improve: I wonder if that's ok, but I think so.
Note that although Merfolk would be encouraged to take the Lullmage feat, they would get very little from it if they take it as their first feat, since they don't get the bump to ability score, and they already have Roil Sense.

Lastly, the Twitch feature, which I had devised in 4th edition for the same purpose (Zendikar D&D started in 4th edition) is basically only flavor, and is inspired by the way Abe Sapien fights (or better, avoids hits) in Hellboy 2. I think it represents this fish instinct of swimming away instinctively. Was considering making the move prone the character, but then it would really rarely be used, since it could mean more problems, unless we talk ranged attacks.
I am still puzzling on it: any suggestions? Of course in theory I could just drop it and the race would be still fine, but I thought they should have at least one common thing that doesn't depend on the Roil.

That's all for Merfolk, for now, and I think I will do one more race with Roil-based features, and then return to the Roil to really flesh it up and call it done!


Saturday, May 2, 2020

#Zendikar #DnD Take 2: beefier races (starting from vampires!)


While still puzzling on the "Backgrounds should matter more" issue, I couldn't help think about the same issue when it comes to Race choice.

Just as with Background, Race is something that seems to matter less and less while you progress in level, and given the fact they just provide some "nice to haves" and little else, it feels more like a cosmetic choice than anything else.

This is probably by design, since the philosophy behind D&D is you should play what appeals to you and not suffer for it. But Zendikar is a world where the adventurers suffer, and a lot..! And I think every race should have to suffer in a different way: the backgrounds of the races heavily imply this, and I think it should reflect on the game.

The best example for this is Zendikari Vampires.

Vampires from Zendikar are, first of all, not undead. They are capable of superhuman feats of strength, agility, and more, but they have very special needs, and vulnerabilities.
While they don't have sunlight vulnerability, they are cold-blooded. This means that they can't keep their metabolism working properly when temperatures are not hot, and when they don't feed on blood regularly (although in theory not as often as humans eat food).
They are known to wear elaborate and sometimes heavy clothes in the tropical humid climate of Guul Draaz, so imagine what they would need to wear in temperate climates or cold ones.

But simple vulnerabilities or diet prescriptions are not enough to make a race choice matter, although they help. The thing with vampires is they also lose powers if they don't.

While other races of Zendikar are not so extreme in their needs, and what they lose when they don't cater to them, I understood that both to make races matter, and to stay true to the "equipment matters" tenet of the setting, races of Zendikar should have a special section, where their needs are clearly listed, with drawbacks clearly stated when the needs are not met. For most races it's a matter of equipment/supplies (a special unguent/sunscreen for Merfolk, the "grit" mineral for Goblins etc.), while for Vampires it's of course also a matter of diet.

So here is the Vampire write-up which groups a lot of advantages under one, to make it easier to state what they lose when they don't feed on blood (and when speaking of the haughty Kalastria vampires, on HUMANOID blood!)

ZENDIKARI VAMPIRE


Ability Score Increase:
Your Dexterity score increases by 2.

Age: Zendikari vampires reach maturity late, around 20 years of age, but can live up to 200 years and more.

Size. Zendikari vampires are as tall as humans, but usually weight less, since they have no body fat. Your size is Medium.

Alignment. Zendikari vampires can be of any alignment, but those of Good alignments are rare and don't last for long among vampires, ending up preferring (or being forced to) live among other races.

Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 ft.

Vampire Metabolism. If you are well-fed (see NEEDS below), you gain the following benefits:
  • Your Strength score increases by 2.
  • Your base walking speed is 40 ft.
  • Your jumping distance is double.
  • You can use a reaction to reduce falling damage by an amount equal to 5 per level.
Darkvision. Being primarily a nocturnal predator, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.

Pulse Tracker. You have advantage on Perception checks to locate red-blooded creatures, and you know where to bite to drain blood without killing the victim (if the victim is at least of Medium size).

Bite. Your fanged maw is a natural weapon, which you can use to make unarmed strikes and feed. If you hit with it, you deal piercing damage equal to ld6 + your Strength modifier, instead of the bludgeoning damage normal for an unarmed strike. You can choose to make this nonlethal damage.

Families: Ancient divides among Zendikari vampires resulted in culturally distinct families, the main ones being Kalastria, Nirkana, and Ghet. Choose one of these families.


NEEDS:
  1. Blood (killing a Small creature, or leaving unconscious a Medium or Large creature) at least once every 24 hours.
  2. Heavier clothes in temperate and colder environments.
  3. Disguise.
OTHERWISE:
  1. You don't benefit from Vampire Metabolism, you suffer one level of exhaustion, and you can't spend Hit Dice to heal.
  2. You can't take reactions.
  3. You are recognized as a vampire and hunted down in civilized communities outside of Guul Draz.

Kalastria

"The Nirkana are cutthroats who run about the swamps like drooling animals. The Ghet are no better than gutter rats. The Emevera are so common they couldn't appreciate a fine meal if it died on their doorstep. The Urnaav are obsequious idiots who think we are too stupid to see their machinations. They would all be Kalastria if they could, and who could blame them?"
—Lyandis, family Kalastria

Kalastria Culture. You gain proficiency in the Intimidate skill.
Kalastria Superiority. If you fed on the blood of a sentient creature, Vampire metabolism increases your Charisma instead of Strength score, and you are immune to the charmed and frightened conditions for 24 hours.

Nirkana

"The pretentious Kalastria pretend that only human blood will satisfy them. Fattened weaklings. They never know how it feels to run through the jungles in pursuit of a bloodscent. The tang and pulse of feral blood has no equal."
—Nirkana Lacerator

Nirkana Culture. 
You gain proficiency in the Survival skill.
Nirkana Metabolism. For 8 hours after feeding, you don't need heavier clothes in temperate and colder environments, and you can climb as under the effect of the spider climb spell.

Ghet

"Family Ghet has been using their alliance to gain access to the inner decision-making apparatus of Nimana, and are actively converting influential members of the town to their cause. Their plan is to eventually seize outright control of the city and integrate the city into their holdings, raising their own prestige and power."
"The family Ghet suffered a major setback in political fighting that resulted in Emevera diverting water around their dykes and flooding Ghet. Ghet has built temporary dams, but the damage to their holdings was significant."

Ghet Culture. 
You gain proficiency in the Insight skill.
Ghet Reputation. You have advantage on Charisma checks against non-vampire humanoids, and disadvantage against vampires. You don't need to disguise as a human in most Zendikari settlements (Sea Gate is an exception).

___________________________________

As you can see, there's quite a lot of conditions, and the different families play on the restrictions, adding benefits if following more strict ones, or removing some needs under certain conditions.

It might seem like there's quite a lot here, but I think a player wanting to portray a vampire in Zendikar is more than ready to remember the benefits (which by the way are mostly physical, with the exception of Kalastria).

I didn't give vampires any Roil-related abilities, since even if I wanted races connected to each mana color with Roil interactions (and Vampires would have been perfect for Black Roil interaction), there was nothing in the official material suggesting such a link, so I will leave this to the Surrakar, that are also Black (although also Blue).

Note as well that this being a Zendikari race, it has means of vertical movement: a very high jump, protection from falls, and climb speed for the feral Nirkana vampires.

Next up: my favorite... The Merfolk!

Friday, May 1, 2020

#Zendikar #DnD Take 2: Zendikari backgrounds for Zendikari characters


I was hoping this could be my "Z is for Zendikar" post for the "To Boldly Go" Blog Carnival hosted by my friend Gonzalo, and in a way it will be, but again this will be more brainstorming then finished material, as usual.

This time though, I feel particularly inspired, and I think I have nailed my vision of the backgrounds of Zendikar and at the same time a fix to one of the issues I have with most editions of D&D: non-combat features mattering only as first level choices.

In my last post I noticed how the fact that Zendikar poses new challenges and mechanics by itself can be used to give Races something extra, without it really unbalancing things, since it will be consequential only within Zendikar and only within the influence of the Roil.

This made me think that we can apply this lesson to Backgrounds, but then I thought: what about the regular backgrounds from the Player's Handbook? You can add only so much Zendikari flavor to them, before making them all feel similar.

This made me think about Backgrounds more radically: many features I would like Backgrounds to give are the domain of Classes now, and I don't want Zendikar to just feel like "over the top D&D", offering just more without taking anything away.
So the main solution I have in mind is to actually nerf Backgrounds at first level, and then make them reach the usual features around 3rd level, with additional features kicking in at higher levels, when the power level of the character should eclipse buffs in the Background domain.
Plus, taking a hint from the "Custom Background" rules, they would actually offer choices, acting more like "curricula" than backgrounds. After all, there's already basically free choice when the skills of Background and Class overlap.

Basically, there should be a progression table, or "menu" for Backgrounds. Let's take one of the free ones: Criminal.

 Level   Feature
  1.    Feature: Criminal Contact, Thieves' Tools, One skill
  2.    Criminal Specialty, One tool
  3.    One skill
  4.    Feature: Specialty Mastery
  5.    Expertise in one skill
The skills could come from the whole Rogue list, with tools being much more limited

So the real power up here is an Expertise. How big is it? Well, it's basically like half a feat. At 4th level, potentially, Humans can get it through the Prodigy feat, so a Human Rogue could end up with a lot of Expertise. The use of a "Skill Die" could make everything more fun, so it could be considered even instead of proficiency, but this could add more complexity.

In general I think gaining an extra Expertise would not hurt at all, but I could see about making it situational.

What requires work is basically a second feature, making the Specialty matter more. This could actually mean choosing between 8 different mini-features (a lot of writing to do for just one background!) or possibly a free-form feature, where the DM just figures out the details with the player. A compromise could be a fixed feature, representing the mastery of the background in general, leaving the specialty as it is now: a role-playing cue without any noticeable in-game effect.

Other options I was considering:
  • Removing Thieves' Cant from the Rogue features, making it a Criminal Background feature, thus removing this BUG, where all Rogues are Thieves in the book.
  • Adding even some combat-related bonuses to the Background, as substituion features. The power level should be something akin to a 1st level spell slot. As a Rogue, for example, I think Expertise would count as 1 slot, and Sneak Attack as another slot. So basically gaining Sneak Attack could be a replacement of a 1st level slot, or Expertise (but it would not stack with the Rogue feature, so basically the Rogue would never take it), or Fighting Style from Fighter/Ranger/Paladin, etc.
    The problem is this feature=feature equivalence is broken: a Paladin would easily give away Divine Sense to gain Sneak Attack, while it's much more balanced with Lay on Hands. So a blacklist of un-swappable should be made, where Thieves' Cant, Divine Sense, Druidic language and such "flavor on top" features are taken out of the menu. 
  • The above "flavor on top" features are actually the ones I would remove from classes in general, and it could be a prerequisite of using these powered-up backgrounds: some classes lose something, which they can easily regain with the right Background.
Going this way, here is another rework of the Criminal Background:

Level   Feature
  1.    Thieves' Cant, Thieves' Tools, One skill - Feature swap: Sneak Attack
  2.    Criminal Contact, One tool
  3.    One skill - Feature swap: Sneak Attack
  4.    Feature: Specialty Mastery
  5.    Expertise in one skill
No Rogue would get Thieves' Cant without the Criminal Background. But no Rogue would use it to gain more Sneak Attack (since the feature is offered at the same levels they get it in). So you can either become a classical Thief Rogue, or if you select this as a Wizard, you can potentially be as good at Sneak Attacks as a 3rd level Rogue, if you let go of two 1st level Spell Slots.

At 5th level, a Criminal Wizard having swapped twice, would have only 2 first level spell slots, but would also have one Expertise and 2d6 Sneak Attack.

Conversely, the Sage background would act as a multiclass Wizard of sorts:

Level   Feature
  1.    Obscure Language, One skill - Feature swap: Spell Slot, Spell Known
  2.    Researcher, One language
  3.    One skill - Feature swap: Spell Slot, Spell Known
  4.    Feature: Specialty Mastery, One language
  5.    Expertise in one skill
The Soldier, not giving out a flavor class feature for free (because no martial class has one, unfortunately), would need a bit of a different progression, granting the feature before. To compensate, the Military Rank would be up-gradable.

Level   Feature
  1.    Military Rank, One skill - Feature swap: Fighting Style
  2.    One skill, One tool
  3.    Military Rank up - Feature swap: Maneuver, Superiority Die
  4.    Feature: Specialty Mastery, One vehicle
  5.    Expertise in one skill
And so on.

So what would an actual Zendikari background look like? A Lull Mage Apprentice could be represented.

Level   Feature
  1.    Academy Contact, One skill - Feature swap: Spell Slot, Spell Known
  2.    Minor Lull Magic, One tool
  3.    One skill - Feature swap: Spell Slot, Spell Known
  4.    Feature: Specialty Mastery, One language
  5.    Expertise in one skill
Minor Lull Magic could give a daily version of the Lull Mage feat, usable only once per day, unless you burn Spell Slots, which the Background conveniently provides. This would combine well with the feat, giving basically more uses, without providing any extras (the feat should raise Wisdom or Intelligence by 1).

Academy Contact sounds more like the regular Background features which I moved to second level in other cases, but in reality it's more like the Thieves' Cant: something situational, which comes up only with your own, since the Academy/ies in Zendikar don't have the widespread networks of criminals, or the more widely recognized ranks of military.

And now the most Zendikari of Zendikari backgrounds: Explorer!

Level   Feature
  1.    Expeditionary House, One skill - Feature swap: Natural Explorer
  2.    Treasure, One tool
  3.    One skill - Feature swap: Natural Explorer (2nd terrain)
  4.    Feature: Specialty Mastery, One language
  5.    Expertise in one skill
Again as per the Lull mage, we have the "social" feature, more limited than most, at first level, while the true feature would be something akin to the Hermit "Discovery", but represented by a material object: a unique hedron cube, or some arcane device of this kind, able to provide some out-of-combat help in the same way the feature of the Hermit would, but on a less "cosmic truth" level and a more practical, yet limited fashion.
Note that offering Natural Explorer at a faster rate than Ranger means that a Ranger Explorer would be more Explorer than a regular Ranger, if swapping one spell slot. For a Rogue it would mean swapping one Sneak Attack to be "as explorer" as a Ranger of the same level, or they could choose to be "even more explorers" than a Ranger of the same level by taking out all Sneak Attack till 3rd level included. Choices!

I realize these could feel more like Multiclass rules rather than Background rules, but again, the fact they provide class features in lieu of others of the same kind I think balances things a lot, just with the actual extra stuff being just a secondary background benefit and expertise in a single skill, coming at levels that usually don't make these bonuses very consequential, and more as "nice to haves".

Another possible way to make "beefy backgrounds" more applicable to any game, would be making them actual class levels, making you choose if to level up in background or class.
This would make them basically prestige classes of sorts, and slow down a lot the progression, making them contrary to my game design philosophy tenet of "combat and non-combat features not having to compete with each other". 

Considering this, I think a good optional rule to balance things out could be requiring specific quests to actually attain 4th and 5th level in a background: those features would basically be the rewards in treasure and XP of the quest, and would be instead of these. 

That'all!