Featured Posts

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!


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 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.)

  • Sunscreen unguent
  • Fin harnesses or piercings (reducing swimming speed to 20 ft.)
  • 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!)


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.

  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.
  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.


"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.


"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.


"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. 


Monday, April 27, 2020

#Zendikar #DnD Take 2: designing it organically, starting from PCs

As you can see, Zendikar is again in my cross-hair, and I can't get it out, so expect me to ramble about it even more!

In particular, I was thinking about my previous post and how the mechanic for the Roil could need to be simpler. So I am actually postponing a final version of it, to think more about the Player Character's experience, starting from character creation, and how this can actually shape the mechanics of the settings.

In particular, these I think should be the "tenets" of the Zendikar D&D experience:

  • A focus on vertical exploration and combat, which means:
    • Most characters should be able to move vertically somehow.
    • Some characters should be able to provide vertical movement to those who can't.
  • Omnipresent Roil: the environment can always change, which implies:
    • Some characters can innately interact with the Roil (Merfolk, Surrakar, Goblin)
    • Any character can learn the right skills to interact with the Roil (Lullmage feat)
    • Some characters can specialize in the Roil (Roil Soul Sorcerers, Roil Mages, etc.)
    • The Roil affects any encounter as a localized force, or travel as a regional force.
  • A focus on small-scale adventuring, which means:
    • Equipment is particularly important, and some tools and supplies should be extra-important. This means that...
    • Environmental dangers, whether it's the Roil, traps, or hostile flora/fauna, sometimes damage/remove/eat equipment/supplies, making it important for characters to be careful when planning their expeditions' supplies.
  • Hedrons are an integral part of the experience and can be:
    • Equipment (pathway stones, hedron archives, hedron blades etc.)
    • The focal point of Roil phenomena (and in this case, interacting with the Roil is like interacting with the hedron, and vice-versa).
    • Having effects different from those of the Roil (and in this case, magic affecting the Roil can't affect the hedrons).
    • Part of the scenery (when it's giant and/or inactive hedrons). 
Considering the abilities to interact with the Roil that characters can have, I can also picture better what kind of mechanic we really want for it.

I was thinking to leave the Roil at a fixed d8, so that players know what to expect, but can't help thinking the d6 is also nice. What I don't like anymore in this perspective is the split to 2d4s, because from there players seem to lose control of it too much. It could be a nice mechanic to represent the mess that happens when you BREAK a hedron, which should be something low level characters could not do even if they wanted to.

Thinking more about player-side control means that every change to the Hedron/Roil die should mean something. Hence, I would go for a table with a bit more variability, such as:

d8   Roil effect
 1:   Change to d6 and roll.
 2:   Implosive Roil Storm
 3:   Implosive Roil
 4:   Negative Lull
 5:   Lull
 6:   Positive Lull
 7:   Explosive Roil
 8:   Explosive Roil Storm

This way, first of all we have symmetric effects, which will be easier to design, and then we also reduce the numbers that don't have any effect to just 1 (5). We also don't need to add caveats to the roll of the d6, because every roll of the d6 will be ok (no crazy split to 2d4s).
Here would be the d6:

d6   Roil effect
 1:   Change to d8 and roll.
 2:   Weird Implosive Roil Storm
 3:   Weird Negative Lull
 4:   Weird Lull
 5:   Weird Positive Lull
 6:   Weird Explosive Roil Storm

Here we have actually more desirable states in proportion, but no half measures, making the d6 a high-risk/high-reward one.

Now, I would like to leave the duration of each state a bit under DM control, with random options being very random, such as:

d8   Roil duration
 1:   1 round
 2:   2 rounds
 3:   3 minutes
 4:   40 minutes
 5:   5 hours
 6:   6 days
 7:   7 weeks
 8:   8 months

This might seem to escalate pretty quickly to semi-permanent effects, but since the duration of each new state would have to be re-rolled, a very long-lasting effect could disappear quickly with a small interaction.

Another easy option, if one wants the roil to last only rounds, but without having to do book-keeping, is to just put a die next to it and decrease it every round.

As a last resort, as I said, it can be fully under DM's control. The point is that players with ways to interact with the Roil should also know how much the Roil is meant to last. So even if the DM makes it arbitrary, there should always be a way for the players to know about the duration, so they can play around it/with it.

Now, Roil effects in the hands of players could be the following:

Roil Sense: as an action, you can make a Wisdom (Survival) or Intelligence (Arcana) check to learn more about ongoing Roil effects within your line of sight. 

Not many details on the ability: depending on the result, the type, duration, stage etc can be learned.
This would be one of the abilities granted by the Lull Mage feat, and possibly one of the Merfolk racial features.
Then there's the fun stuff:

Lull Magic: as an action you can make a Wisdom (Survival) or Intelligence (Arcana) check to change a Roil Die affecting an area within 30 ft. The DC is set by the DM. If you succeed, you can either increase or decrease the Roil Die number by one towards a Lull state, and you can't use this feature again until you finish a short or long rest.

It's a bit limited being once per rest, but I envision actual Roil Mages and such using it more often by burning spell slots. A way to calculate the DC would be the assign value of severity to both Roil States and Durations: the more the effect is far from the average value, the more severe it is. That is: it should be more difficult to change a very short or very long state, and more difficult the more it's far from a lull state.

Em's Flight: if you are within a Positive or Explosive Roil's area of influence, you can spend an action to grant yourself and another creature within 10 ft. of you a flight speed of 30 ft. until the end of your next turn. After using this feature, you can't use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

This would be the main Merfolk feature, or perhaps the one for the Emeria Creed, although I don't like separating Merfolk into creeds at racial level, so it might also end up on a racial feat instead.

Now, speaking of Creeds, Cosi Tricksters could actually most probably manipulate the Roil too. But doing basically the exact opposite of Lull Mages. This could be a way of enabling Em's Flight, or Ula's Waters.

Cosi's Trick: as an action, you can spend a Hit Die and instead of regaining hit points, you can invert the state of a Roil's area of influence within 30 ft. of you. You can't use this feature if the Roil's state is Lull or Weird Lull.

And on to Ula's waters:

Ula's Waters: if you are within a Negative or Implosive Roil's area of influence, you can spend a reaction to attract water from below or above and give it a shape kept pressurized by the Roil. You can use it to propel yourself, and up to one creature within 10 ft of you, 20 ft in any direction, or grant you and the chosen creature three-quarters cover. After using this feature, you can't use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Goblins would use the Roil very differently from the Merfolk, and very differently depending on the tribe.

Grotag's Lullaby: when you are within a Roil's area of influence in any Lull state (including Positive and Negative), you can spend an action to make a Wisdom or Charisma (Animal Handling) check to charm a beast within 10 ft. of you. The DC is equal to 10 + the number of Hit Dice of the beast. If you succeed, the beast is charmed as if under the Animal Friendship spell. If you fail, the beast becomes hostile and the Roil state worsens by one step. After using this feature, you can't use it again until you finish a long rest.

This is a funny one... Of course the Grotag's expertise with beasts was never officially tied to the Roil, but since I tie it to Lull states (and careful: this still means you need Roil to use it...), it can be easy to miss how the Roil is involved. The Grotags are basically finding a way to make the Roil help them in taming beasts, without even knowing. The fact the Roil worsens when they fail means the Roil is also connected to living things nearby, and an animal getting enraged makes the Roil enraged. Very Zendikarian!

Also, this brings me to a nice terminology for the Roil: to worsen or improve.

A Roil's state can always worsen or improve. This means changing the Roil Die number so that it's respectively farther or closer to the Lull state, by a certain number.
For example if a d8 Roil Die is on 6 (Positive Lull), worsening by one gives a 7 (Explosive Roil) while Improving by one gives a 5 (Lull).
A Roil's state can't worsen more than the maximum or minimum of its die.

With this terminology set, Lull magic becomes easier to phrase:

Lull Magic: as an action you can make a Wisdom (Survival) or Intelligence (Arcana) check to improve a Roil state affecting an area within 30 ft. If you succeed, its Roil Die improves by 1, and you can't use this feature again until you finish a short or long rest.

Continuing on the wave of Goblins, I would love to redo the Tuktuk tribe's feature based on the Roil. This is actually tricky, because it used to be based on the usage of Daily Arcane spells, if I remember correctly, so not just any spell, but I think we could convert it to just any spell of 1st level or higher.

Tuktuk's Fortune: when you take damage from a spell or magical effect of 1st level or higher within the the area of influence of a Roil state, as a reaction the Roil state briefly changes to its maximum, but you fly right outside of its area of influence in a random direction (use a d10, with 1 being directly upwards, and 10 meaning diagonally upwards, needing another roll for the direction.)
If the spell had hit you with an attack roll, it misses you, and if it affected an area and you move outside of it, you are not affected.
If you flew up, you still take falling damage as normal, unless you prevent it somehow.

The Roil's state returns to its previous state at the start of your next turn.

A bit wordy, but a lot of fun! It enables tactics like having the Tuktuk attract enemies near a Roil's epicenter (that's another nice term to use!), and then targeting it with a spell on purpose, to provoke a Roil Storm and affect the enemies in the area. Too bad there is a 20% chance the Tuktuk will take some damage, and a 10% chance the poor devil will take a LOT of damage (flying directly above, meaning landing/crashing within the Roil Storm just created..!)
After all...

"Survival rule 883: Fire distracts the eye of danger and warms the heart of fortune."
—Zurdi, goblin shortcutter

Note that since the epicenter is basically a point, one could also rule you just go out of the area in a straight line out of the epicenter, meaning "up" only if you are standing on it. But this could also mean the feature would be useless many times, since the goblin could already be very close to the border of the area, and in that case nothing much would happen, while the random flight actually gives more chances of being moved far away.

Lavastep's Grit: you are immune to the effects of Red Roil. When within the area of influence of a Black, Green, or White Positive or Explosive Roil, you can use an action to briefly change the Roil color to Red in a radius of 10 ft centered on you. The change lasts until the end of your next turn.

This is a bit cheesy and probably more at home with Roil Soul Sorcerers or Roil Mages, but it could be funny for these fiery goblins to actually bring the fire where they go. Blue Roil, being so elementally opposite, would be immune. And even Green honestly seems like a stretch. But changing White and Black Roil to Red seems really cool. I just wouldn't exactly know how would that "look" and "work" thanks to the Lavastep's "grit" mineral.
A possible solution could be making the Tuktuk feature belong to Lavastep (with the addition of immunity to Red Roil), and coming up with something more tame for the Tuktuk. Needs some thought.

By the way, this brings me to an easy write-up of the three Goblin tribes.

The basic race would be the official one from Volo's Guide to Monsters, but I would eliminate the Fury of the Small feature and include instead the following:

- Proficiency in Animal Handling
- Grotag's Lullaby

- Proficiency in Survival
- Tuktuk's Fortune

- Proficiency in Arcana
- Resistance to fire damage
- Lavastep Grit

Note that Lavastep would get resistance to fire also because I see their feature as more situational and less universally useful than the others'. In addition, for another Goblin to gain such resistance would be easy: just eat as much grit as the Lavastep.

Also, if you're thinking power-creep, remember that all these features are very situational, since they depend on the Roil. Zendikar races are meant to be slightly better and have the extra power be tied to the Roil exactly because the Roil adds difficulty to the game: you lose some and you get some. Plus, the race becomes or remains useful enough in other settings only if these features are mostly on top of regular racial features, and not in substitution.

That's all for now! We have a more or less final general rule for the Roil, a nearly complete feat, cool features for Merfolk or Merfolk feats, and the Goblins.
Next I should complete the Merfolk!

Friday, April 24, 2020

#Zendikar #DnD Take 2: new mechanics for a new edition

All right, I got distracted with some Ikoria, before that I passed through some tough D&D 4e nostalgia, but who am I fooling: "fixing" D&D is a titanic task that I can't hope to do by myself (at least not unless they hire me at WotC heheh...) What I CAN do is finally get Zendikar back to the present form of D&D!

In this blog you find tons of material that is marked as for 13th Age (I passed that phase too), but honestly it's perfectly fine for D&D. Icons and relations with icons can first of all not require additional mechanics, and then they can just be implemented with 13th Age mechanics within D&D, no tools required.

What I never properly converted to the new system are the things that need conversion, like races, subclasses, feats, backgrounds etc.
You could say: "Hey Lord, excuse the informal register, but WotC did that already, it's called Planeshift: Zendikar, and it's a free PDF!". And, "Well" - I'd reply - "I believe that document is one of the worst adaptations they could do!" - Because come on, Zendikar is widely different from other settings, and the mechanics have to show it.

When I praised recent design coming out of WotC was few days ago, when they came out with mechanics for Psionics that FINALLY made a good job conveying the flavor of the theme.
This is what I firmly believe: you can have fantastic narrative, world-building, and ideas, but if the mechanics are always the same, the playing experience will be always similar.
A brave new world requires brave new mechanics.

Speaking of this, the first mechanic that I would introduce is actually an add-in, something of a thin layer covering all or most of Zendikar D&D gaming. The ROIL.

Zendikar without the Roil is like Ravenloft without the Mists, or the Forgotten Realms without Drizzt and Elminster. You just can't. And although some types could say that you could easily reskin spells and environmental effects to "represent" the Roil, I don't want to just represent it: I want it to be an integral part of the experience. Something the players will have to think about. Possibly even something to build characters around.

The Roil mechanic I have in mind borrows again from 13th Age, and in particular from its Escalation Die. But only on the surface.
It's meant to be a die that can add randomness, but also some kind of "track". And it's not meant to be just a unified "this is how we do the Roil" thing either: the Roil is a force that manifests differently in every continent, and many times differently within each continent of Zendikar, as I briefly mentioned at the end of my previous post.

So each time there is Roil (spoiler alert - there's ALWAYS Roil on Zendikar, everywhere. It's just not always something visible. Or at least this is my plan for it) there is a particular die that can have different colors, and a different table, depending on the continent it comes from, and the mana involved.

Taking a page from the Psionic Die, this die can change in size, but the typical size is the Zendikarian size per-excellence: the d8, shaped (a bit) like Zendikarian hedrons!
This die is for "real roil", which can escalate to something terrible.
In "lull" conditions, the die is a d4. While in certain specific conditions, the die is a d6 (like the cube hedrons, and this may or may not be related...)

The idea is to have roil specifically tied to hedrons (although this is not canon, but it could be if you know the story) and the shape of hedrons being an indication of particular roil configurations.
This could mean two different scenarios: each die works in its own way (but that's three tables for each of five continents and each with five color variations, might be too much), or they follow the same "track", with the d4 obviously never reaching the "bad" levels of a d6 or the "terrible" levels of a d8.

What I came to prefer, though, is the exact contrary, and this is kind of supported by Rise Of The Eldrazi art: when Hedrons are Octahedrons, things are okay-ish. It's when they reconfigure in cubes that the Roil hits the fan... So it could be cool to have the three tables just for the system to go backwards in size, with the d8 being the most controllable (abilities and effects changing its value by 1 would not be as drastic on a scale of 1 to 8 as on a scale of 1 to 4, obviously), and the d8 would figure more prominently, which could kind of be the signature of the setting. The d4 could actually be 2d4, and symbolize the mess that happens when a hedron gets broken: worse effects, less controllable, and now you have two of them.

In particular, following this latest model which seems to me like the most iconic, the typical situation would be this:

Roil Die: 1d8
1 Reconfiguration to d6 (roll it, rerolling 1)
2 Negative Roil
3 Lull - something
4 Lull
5 Lull
6 Lull + something
7 Roil
8 Roil Storm

Roil Die: 1d6

1 Reconfiguration to 2d4s
2 Weird negative Roil
3 Lull - something weird
4 Lull + something weird
5 Weird Roil
6 Reconfiguration to d8, level 8

Roil Die: 1d4 (the two d4 act separately)

1 Negative Roil Storm
2 Very Negative Roil
3 Roil Storm
4 Dire Roil Storm

Yes, the d4 would  not reconfigure anymore, but they would also not last for long. Possibly a number of turns equal to the number. After which it would reconfigure to... d8 level 4: easy to remember (from d4 to d8 set on 4), and makes sense.

Now, what is positive or negative Roil? I picture it very simply: it can be explosive (positive) or implosive (negative). A sudden geyser, gravitational uplift, awakening water, or vegetation bloom are examples of positive Roil. A quicksand, gravitational pull, whirlpool, or vegetation encroaching are examples of negative Roil. Note that I didn't say vegetation withering: a withering is a Black effect, which would have both positive and negative variants, but it would work kind of counter-intuitively, with explosions being actual creation of ooze, sludge, and decay, and implosions working like anti-blooms: withering concentrically to the point of implosion.

And speaking of points of explosion and implosion, here's the cool thing: the die can be placed directly on the map, as the source of the roil. Note that it could represent a hedron, or not. I would say that having it tied to the hedron would give extra ways of dealing with it (and especially a clear clue on where to tread carefully), while if there is no hedron, the die should be only on the DM's map, revealing itself only when the effect makes it obvious (the lake suddenly balls up in a floating gravity-defying bubble of water: pretty sure that makes the point of origin at the center of the bubble! And it's Blue Negative, d8 set on 2!)

The d6 Roil is cool because it should completely change the way you deal with it. First of all it's more subtle (although it's at the tipping point to the crazy state of d4s), and then it should also be more useful: there's plenty of characters shown manipulating hedron cubes, and while we are talking Roil here and not Hedrons exactly (or necessarily), I think it would be cool if the d6 Roil could lend some power to those who know how to channel it, although it could backfire (Hexaroil now sounds like the best name for it!)
Example: a Black Hexaroil on negative numbers could make a character either cast Hex together with a "Black spell", or suffer it when casting it. On positive, it would probably just deal Necrotic damage straight up, either to the target of a spell and surrounding creatures or to the caster and surrounding creatures.

The continent variants would provide first of all the diversity of colors (according to what I found out, Zendikar's remaining five continents go from 1 to 5 colors, each), and then peculiar effects, especially on positive. A Roil Storm in Ondu (where Roil tends to be circular) would be something like a hurricane, with a very calm eye of the storm in the middle, while in Akoum, (where Roil comes from the earth), it would be lava geysers erupting everywhere with or without an associated vegetation bloom, depending on the presence of Green mana.

Lullmages, a very common mage in Zendikar, so much so that I would make it a feat accessible to everyone with Arcana proficiency, would have the power of stabilizing the Roil die, bringing it to middle values in case of d8s and d6s, or reducing the duration of whatever mess the d4s are.

Merfolk instead could ride the currents of some Roil settings gaining the ability to fly, and could possibly have the racial power of making the die go closer to those settings they prefer (possibly of mild to medium Roil, most probably positive.

An actual Roil Mage, a Wizard specialized in this stuff, or a Roil Soul Sorcerer, could instead be aiming at changing the d8s to d6s, so that they can use the Roil to power spells. This could of course result in a mess happening, before they manage, and even more probably after they manage.

I better stop here, because anyway I am not going to create all the tables here and now: this is just a pitch, and possibly a more complete take would be my Z post for the RPG Blog Carnival of my friend Gonzalo!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

#Ikoria and #Zendikar in #DnD: fanta-geo-ramblings

Hello folks!

I think I am finally regaining the will to continue this blog, and I must say the recent developments from D&D's design team were a big boost. But not the only one!

The thing I am most excited about is the return to the Zendikar setting, in  Magic: The Gathering. And not from the perspective of the game of Magic itself of course, but because of my usual fixation with role-playing in that marvelous world!

The fact they declared it will be Eldrazi-free (or at least not focused on them) and adventure-heavy is pure bliss! So I have been thinking about a few things.

Then there is Ikoria. 

While to me it feels like an "un-set" (an expansion of the game that is not playable at tournaments and is full of "joke cards"), it must be said I am judging like a thirty-something years old a product that probably was aimed at pre-teens (at least I think it must have been, with that trailer...)
But when I got to play with it I actually liked it, which speaks volumes about my maturity I guess..! :D

Again though, I am considering it mostly as a source of RPG inspiration, and I am totally in love with the characters and settings connected to my favorite cards: the blue-black flash crowd, and in particular the enabler of it all: Cunning Nightbonder!

Apart from the mechanic effect of the card, which I love, the character made me want to explore animal companions and such, which I seldom do.
In addition, she seems to me like she could be a psionic character as well!

For now, excluding Blood Hunter which is not official, I think she would be a weird Ranger/Warlock with Wild Talent focused on Wisdom and a pact with the Lurker in The Deep, reflavored as a Nightmare lord from Indatha, the land where these little mean beasties come from.
But enough with my character ideas, and let's talk about something more useful!

Roleplaying in Ikoria

While I don't doubt a Planeshift: Ikoria document will come out soon, with rules for bonded animals, mutating ones maybe, and interesting locations for adventuring, I wanted to speculate a bit about the latter.

First of all, there is a bit of a strange thing when it comes to the locations, its inhabitants, and the mana colors they are associated with. Although this shouldn't influencing the adventuring aspect, I wanted to point out that Indatha, the region (or "triome", in the setting's terminology to refer to a biome connected to three mana source) where the nightmare creatures are from, is White, Black, and Green. These are not the colors you find Nightmares in, at least not all of them: my favorite one, is Blue-Black.

Slitherwisp, by yigitkoroglu
Which is a combination of colors that fits much more the Zagoth triome, which is my favorite: Blue, Black, and Green.
I think they might have thought more about the function of the card and what colors would that be, as it's typical of such a technical game, but there is also another explanation: the two triomes share some land. Something confirmed in this tidbit from the guide:

"It is said that some of Indatha's lowlands were formed by a long trail of enormous footprints, leading from the forests of Zagoth in the south to Indatha's northwestern coast."

Now, this common swampy coast area between the two triomes, THAT's where I would like to have adventures set in!

So what is there?

  • Skysal, the airhip city: this actually rather Zendikarian locale is hovering Indatha in general, so it could be one of the safe havens from which to explore the swamps between Indatha and Zagoth. Admittedly though, having your base on airships when exploring swamps is kind of pointless, since you wouldn't be able to reach them just escaping on foot...

  • Zagoth's hunter camps: although a true settlement is not mentioned in the guide, these hunters of Zagoth must live somewhere, and the self-proclaimed leader (a certain Chevill) is said to "spend most of his time slogging through the wetlands like he owns them." So there's that!
I guess a bonder like the favorite of mine I mentioned wouldn't be very welcome among the hunters, so there could be this kind of rivalry dynamic, between bonders and hunters, with the beasts and nightmares preying on both when they're not careful enough.
Then there's the people of Skysail. The cards and guide picture them as very isolationist/defensive, so they would want to mind their business, but they would be sought from the afore-mentioned parties, whether for equipment, shelter, or as actual prey from the monsters' point of view, since many can be or become aerial in Ikoria, thanks to mutations.

The main ruin to explore would be that of Orn, the only settlement in Indatha that used to be rather big, the citizens of which were the ancestors of the poeple of Skysail.
I picture nightmare bonders as isolated survivors of that old tragedy, who found a way to coexist with nightmare creatures.

Not much else to say, except I see this as very similar to Zendikar adventures, due to the verticality involved in Skysail and aerial creatures, and the crazy monsters and landscape.
And speaking of landscapes...

Let's talk Zendikar geography!

One of the things I never liked of Zendikar, and I noticed online that many noticed the same, is how many discrepancies and subsequent ret-cons there have been from the source, when it comes to the setting and its history.

Most of this has to do with "Zendikar: In the Teeth of Akoum: A Magic: The Gathering Set Novel" (yes, that's the full title, and no, the novel itself doesn't fare better than it) being such a low quality book, with a lot of inaccuracies and mistakes.

But I also suspect the designers themselves simply didn't talk or agree enough, between the first sets and the "sequel" of Battle for Zendikar, which happened much later.

In fact, when the continents are described in the latter set, on the land cards, the descriptions are partial at best, especially since they tried to shoehorn entire continents into a description tied to two mana colors, which was not the original intent in the first Zendikar at all.
So I want to go through them, and "correct" them, by adding at least one more color, if not two, for each, explaining why I see this more accurate, according to the first sources.

MURASA: Canopy Vista

Now, the illustration is actually quite right to represent a part of Murasa: the forest of Jaddi trees that dominates Kazandu. Bust Kazandu is also described as "a mass of irregular canyons, twisting valleys, and high broken steppes, all dotted here and there by plateaus that tower above the landscape—surviving pillars of the previous ground level." If you ask me, this is pretty Red due to all of the mountainous/rocky features. And in fact the previous Kazandu Refuge card was Red-Green.

So to define Murasa, the "walled continent" with white and green is very reductive. It should at the very least have Red in it as well, without mentioning the not-so-minor Blue and Black sources, respectively Sunder Bay and the Root Caves, both of which rather attached to Green. 

Based on this, I would say Green is dominant, with White and Red being both strong secondaries, making Murasa like Naya in Alara, suggesting that Zendikar is more about "allied" colors, rather than "enemy" colors. 
The Green dominance also matches the fact we are talking about a mostly Elven land, hosting both Tajuru and Kazandu elves, with Kor (White) and Orcs/Ogres (Red) being the strongest minorities in numbers.

ONDU: Prairie Stream

Ondu is tricky, because more than a continent it's an archipelago, although it is said to have a "mainland". Ondu proper, so to speak. So I will limit myself at this land.

And Ondu's mainland surely can't be reduced to White-Blue. It has a very strong Green component: we are talking about the birth place of Omnath, Locus of Mana: the greenest thing ever existed, except when it got "enraged", becoming Green-Red.
There is also quite a confusion between Ondu and Murasa I think, because plateaus and meandering rivers sound a lot like the Na Plateau and Raimunza and Vazi rivers of Murasa, while the sheer verticality of the landscape that should characterize Ondu, seems to have been assigned mostly to Murasa, lately.

All in all, I would say Ondu's mainland is like Bant of Alara, making it another three-allied-colors land, with White perhaps being the primary one. Minor sources of other colors would include Red for the Makindi Trenches/Cliffhavens, and Black for the Binding Circle's globular swamp and its Soul Stair.

AKOUM: Cinder Glade

This is one of the most accurate: it shows the life blooms of Akoum next to its rivers of magma and floating rocks. I would be even tempted to say it needs nothing more, with the previous land cycle of Refuges (Akoum Refuge) being the inaccurate one, since it was Red-Black, for no apparent reason, unless it referred to the selfishness of the people in such refuge, which include the tomb raiders of the League of Anowon.

Black is indeed tempting as an addition, to complete the Alara comaprison, but I really don't see it: there's nothing swampy anywhere in Akoum, and if anything one should say White or Blue could be secondary together with Green. So we are either looking at a more Naya combo like Murasa, with Red primary instead of Green, or at something in enemy colors like Tarkir's Temur clan lands or Ikoria's Ketria triome. But again, I think limiting it to Red with secondary Green should be enough, geography-wise. After all Glasspool and its Ior Ruins were said to be its only "reliable" source of Blue mana, and it's a simple lake, and the plains that would mean White are not mentioned anywhere, and are just implied as the few routes used by the Goma Fada Caravan.

TAZEEM: Sunken Hollow

This is probably the most inaccurate yet, because just as there is no Black in Akoum, there's extremely little of it in Tazeem too.
The exception would be perhaps the pit caves that possibly inspired this land, but they are described as sources of fresh water, so not swampy at all, and even sometimes as geysers, which would make them Red-Blue.

The true colors of Tazeem are again Blue-White-Green, or like Bant in Alara, and similar to the main ones of Ondu, with the difference that Tazeem, having an inner sea, would have Blue as primary, instead of White. Green is important because of the Vastwood, and White because of Emeria the Sky Ruin, and the city of Sea Gate itself (which is White-Blue by definition).

I don't see much in terms of tertiary sources, since Black is basically absent and Red would be only associated to the geysers, which anyway don't seem to define any region in particular.

GUUL DRAAZ: Smoldering Marsh

I said Tazeem was the most innacurate "YET", because I knew this was coming. If Tazeem has little to no Black, Guul Draaz has absolutely ZERO Red. There is no mention fo mountain, hills, rocky landscape, geysers, or geothermal anything in the guide.
Guul Draaz is the most monocolor of the continents, with Black being absolutely dominant, with perhaps traces of Blue and Green, making it if anything a triome like Zagoth and Sultai lands, which are in fact very similar in their description to Guul Draaz, but only if you stretch things: Guul Draaz is really just an immense swampland, with colorless features (Hagra Cistern, Helix of Zof) more common than other colors.

So what did we learn?

Strangely enough, I think if we count the five REMAINING continents of Zendikar (my beloved Bala Ged and Sejiri are no more... So sad!), the only symmetry I find is they all have different degrees of diversity when it comes to geography/mana sources.
I would in fact go as far as ordering by color diversity:
  1. Guul Draaz (Black)
  2. Akoum (Red/Green)
  3. Tazeem (Blue/Green/White)
  4. Murasa (Green/White/Red/Blue)
  5. Ondu (White/Blue/Green/Red/Black)
Which is for sure not intended, but still a nice way to look at them.

What the designers probably forgot about, is a nice coincidence-or-not with the gravitational Roil effects in each continent.
In fact, it seems like each continent has a general "direction" of the Roil, or preferred movement if you wish:

  • Guul Draaz: no direction/hanging (like its Hanging Swamp)
  • Akoum: from the ground (all the geothermal activity)
  • Tazeem: from the sky (Emeria the Sky Ruin)
  • Murasa: from the sides (hence the wall, the winds etc)
  • Ondu: circular (as seen in the disc-shaped geography of Agadeem, the Binding Circle, the Piston Mountains etc)
This is partly referred to in the Akoum guide ("Whereas the Roil on the continent of Tazeem seems to affect the land from above, the Roil seems to affect Akoum from below.") with possibly the only stretch being Murasa, where the Roil is just described "unpredictable". The wind is there though.("The interior of Murasa is a rugged landscape of steep, windy hills and precipitous jungle valleys.")

So this makes me think there might be some kind of connection between these forces, especially since we know the Roil is a form of rebellion of Zendikar to the Eldrazi imprisoned within it, and that the prison was located mostly in Akoum. One could for example imagine Akoum and Tazeem being at opposite longitudes, with Ondu and Murasa in-between, where the Roil would form currents of some kind, and Guul Draaz being the farthest from all the mess.
There are of course many many ways of looking at it, and the best is not to try to make much sense. 

But I am happy to see these peculiarities, because they might influence new mechanics to described the Roil in D&D, that I have in mind... And for that, we better write another post!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

My Prayers Listened!! New #Psionics in #DnD5e: a most welcome surprise!

After the last entries of crazy psionics subclasses, I was disheartened and disillusioned about the whole direction WotC took with D&D design.

I wrote lengthy feedback, stressing mainly the following:
  • Psionics has to be mechanically different compared to magic. Otherwise it's just Psychic magic and we already have it.
  • Psionics has to have unique mechanics not just to be different, but because the concept it should convey is that of something that is totally enclosed within the user, so it should be more flexible than magic, but at the same time more straining. Closer to martial abilities than spellcasting.
  • The concept of Psionic subclasses is ok in principle, but they can't all just add some psi-sounding features and call it a day: they have to draw from a common system/mechanics, showing that the mind's power has many forms, but is ultimately a unified power source.
  • A true Psionic class would still be nice.
Now, the last point hasn't been covered this time around, and maybe never will be, but on the other points, they delivered EXACTLY what I asked for!! And this after being called all sorts of names in forums, reddits etc. when I was exposing my point of view is proof that, as I thought, I am actually in a majority that may be less vocal on social media, but takes feedback to the designers seriously.

Because here's another point that I mentioned in the feedback, and was not well received in social media:
  • If you want to do Psionics right, you have to listen to people who are actually invested in the concept. If you ask the people who don't care, they will just want to avoid "messing" with the game, so they will say everything is good as long as it's bland and irrelevant, even if it's terrible at representing the concept.
I am not saying that hardcore fans of Psionics should be the only ones dictating how it goes of course, because there are indeed those that enjoy the concept only if it serves as a way to power-play. But I am convinced this is a minority: most fans of Psionics are actually happier with LESS power, as long as it conveys the concept as something truly unique.
And if before I was saying this just as the outcome of a personal "Insight check" on the community, seeing what they did after feedback I now see it's actually a good approximation of reality: they indeed listened to fans that, at the cost of a bit of added complexity (which is welcome I think, in a game that has become so simplified) asked for a unique mechanic that just FEELS PSIONIC.

This mechanic came under the guise of the extremely elegant "Psionic Talent die": a d6 at first, growing with levels, that simply dictates the maximum numerical bonus (or substitution of other die in some case) provided by the mind power, with a few important caveats:
  1. If you roll a maximum, you actually strain your mind and you will use a smaller die afterwards, which means initially a d4.
  2. If you roll a minimum, you can regain the larger die (but you will have probably botched the action you were trying to perform, not to mention it's irrelevant if you already have the largest die in use: a wonderful balance!)
  3. If you roll a maximum again when there is no smaller die available (so you roll 4 on a d4) you just lose the Psionic Talent die for the rest of the day.
I don't even know where to begin to praise this design, because I think it's one of the most elegant ideas coming out of the designers since EVER.
  1. The connection of a good roll with something bad (risking losing the power for the day) and of a bad roll with something good (regaining stamina, if you had lost some) is not only just balanced, but extremely good at conveying the Psionic flavor: the mind can overwork and get tired, or botch something but find new paths. It's PERFECT.
  2. This crazy thing of having a power function at-will or not at all is also SO PSIONIC! Typical in pop culture is in fact seeing these gifted people use their power with little to no limits for some time, and then at some point suffering some kind of outburst or drain, and just lose their powers for a long while.
    It's portrayed by the mechanics with incredible efficiency and style. This is what I meant with "mechanics that convey a concept"!
  3. It's a system that can be applied to so many things. In this playtest material we have it in three different subclasses, plus a feat that makes it available for everyone, even for characters already having Psionic subclasses! In fact you never have more than one die: you just grow it in size, and add more ways to use it, which also means more ways to lose it... 
  4. It adds a new layer of strategical thinking: do you use the Psionic Talent now, and risk not having it later? Is a bonus now better than more bonuses later? It really is a game inside the game, and this is awesome, and truly distinguishes a Psionic character, making you feel the weight of such power: it's basically a constant Russian Roulette!
Now, the material is not perfect either: the Sorcerer remains a poor way to represent a true "Psion" (although it's ten times better than that nonsense "Psionic School" Wizard we got before...) and the fact the designer still wanted to consider "psionic spells" a thing, and just call all of Divination and Enchantment such, is bad in my opinion. But all in all, the subclass is a nice try, and an original concept: this Sorcerer really conveys a mix of Magic AND Psionics, and does it well. Perhaps even too well, which brings me to what will be the most common criticism for sure...

There are a few slightly overpowered things. But easy to fix!

Adding a d6 to an ability check, even limited to a single ability (speaking of the Wild Talent feat) is VERY powerful, even considering you have a chance of running out of this power.
It stacks with Expertise, meaning I KNOW I want a Rogue or Bard to be Psionic from now on, just to be able to add, potentially, +13 to a skill check at first level. It's a bit too much and could have been probably solved by making the bonus be half the die result, capping the total at a very good +10.

With damage it works perfectly, and in the feat it's even slightly under-powered, although it can be awesome if for some reason one uses small-die weapons (the double-scimitar from Eberron would be the optimal choice!), since it substitutes a die, instead of adding.

Which brings me to another possible fix for the skill bonus granted by the feat: leave it as it is, but make it substitute the Proficiency bonus, effectively becoming my beloved Skill Die which never saw the light of day after the old D&D Next public playtest phase. It would still mean adding on average a +1 and many times +2 or +3, up to +4, at first level. So still amazing. But interaction with Expertise would become harder to figure out. I guess for those cases, the best would be basically die and single Proficiency bonus: like it is now, basically.

Another feat offender is Tower of Iron Will: although it's supposed to be fairly high level for non-psionic characters, a Fighter might take this at 6th level and become basically a nightmare for the DM, since adding a whole d6 to saving throws, yours and others' means saving the day many times.
Again, if this would be instead of proficiency bonus, or half the die's result, it would probably be a bit more in-line with other bonuses.

When it comes to the subclasses, instead, as I mentioned the Sorcerer might be an offender.
I don't see any reason to play any other Sorcerer subclass after seeing this, and not just because I like it, on the contrary: the strength of the mechanics attracts me even if the flavor itself is the worst of the bunch for me personally. I really love the Psi Knight and the Soulknife (ten times better than their last incarnations, although it was a low bar...), but this Psionic Soul Sorcerer is just WOW: temporarily learn spells? Amazing. Avoid the spell components? At last! Telepathic Speech? Of course!

It's just a bit too much, and it gets crazier at higher levels, although all very thematic.

This I don't have many fixes for, honestly. Discovering spells is probably the most amazing feature, and I think it could be ok if it came later on, and/or if it would be limited to a selection of spells (like Cleric's domain spells), and not two entire schools, which by the way also forces one to find indexes of spells by school, which are weirdly not present in the manuals.

One more highlight:

The awesomeness of the new mechanic is shown in the cost of some powers of the Psi Knight and Soulknife, which is a great example of how the Psionic Talent die can be used for more powerful effects too:

"Once you use this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest, unless you decrease your Psionic Talent die by one die size to use this feature again."

See, this is a great way to control daily uses of powers, without even having to do book-keeping of slots and numbers: the player just keeps the Psionic Talent die close at hand, and instantly knows how many uses left, and how good or bad an idea it is to lower it. Plus, again, it makes you ponder your decisions much better, because all your other Psionic abilities will be affected by the decrease.
This is an example of drawback of Psionics compared to Magic that we fans actually LOVE TO SUFFER! Imagine if a Wizard would have all its spells weakened after using a Fireball: players would come down on the streets marching in protest, but for Psionic fans, this is actually cool!

One more fixable problem:

Wording. Although the mechanic is awesome, it takes a lot of space to be described. This is better fixed by designers than me, since I am notoriously verbose, but in general I think the worst offender is the Wild Talent feat: it's just too long, and while it's basically the same in the classes, one expects this length of stuff more in classes than in feats. My solution would be, once again, to actually nerf it, for example not giving out with it the Psi Replenishment feature, or even the scaling die size, although the latter would mean the ability would at some point become irrelevant, at least for damage.
The best solution would just be to really shorten the explanation in the whole Changing the Die's Size section: it perhaps states too many examples, and could be shortened a lot.

All in all, we don't want Psionics to be considered convoluted or difficult, at least not too much, otherwise the same usual vocal minority will have another excuse to complain it makes the game worse, just because they don't like it in general. Never mind the fact they would have not wanted to use it anyway, and they could just avoid it... It's like people wanting to ban a product that they would have all the rights of banning just from their houses! Which brings me to an appeal to the designers, to end this anti-rant...

Speaking of feedback which might be against this new development, I appeal to the rational mind of designers.
Don't miss opportunities just to please naysayers: create something liked by the ones who actually care, and then the naysayers can always choose not to use it. But us the fans, we can't really choose to use something if it doesn't exist, unless we home-brew it, which inevitably distances us from the game, like it was already happening to me...

So just continue on this path: balance things out, and have Psionics be really unique, really different. And if someone doesn't like it, nothing will happen to them: they can always ban it. If instead you will go back to avoiding new mechanics and lean heavily on spells to do everything psionic (which unfortunately is still being done here and there, like mage hand representing telekinesis...), you will just have created something that nobody complains about, but nobody really enjoys.
A complete waste of time!

So here is hope we are on the right path to a great comeback of Psionics, perhaps tied to Dark Sun or similar "psi-heavy" setting, and that perhaps we will even see a true psionic class, instead of only subclasses. A man can dream!