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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Daughters & Dragons - A surprisingly deep emoji-based RPG!


Image obviously created with OpenAI's Dall-E...

As a father of a 3 and a half years old girl, I should be quite far still from glorious RPG sessions with her and the like, but it turns out she is fascinated by dice of any kind, which of course she found plenty of, among my things.

This of course doesn't mean she is ready to play D&D, and in addition, as I made clear in my latest post, I came to really dislike the current edition of D&D, finding that it took the magic out of the game, by putting magic everywhere in it, other than adhering to game design principles I absolutely despise.

So I set out on a quest that used to be quite common for my young self, but hadn't done in a good while: creating an RPG!

My objectives were many, and often at odds with each other:

  • A very accessible game, that can be understood by a 4 year old or so.
  • A game that is more immersive and can simulate realistic situation better than D&D 5e: "gamist" abstractions will still be there, but should make a lot of logical sense.
  • A game that is more fun to play than D&D 5e: rolls should be with many dice, and randomness should play a role, but not as much as in D&D.
For the first point, I decided early on that I would have replaced basically any written word with emojis: I've been using emojis in game design and even in coding for a long time, and I quickly found out that entire rulings can be written with 4 emojis, making them understandable to kids (she understands the icons associated to actions in videogames already, and those are basically custom emojis.)

But obviously the second objective is at odds with the rest, and I admit it was mainly my pet peeve, more than anything.
But since I'd have to play this with my daughter, I'd like something a bit educational while we're at it, and gamist abstractions are not educational at all.
Characters should get tired, and should have limits to what they can do that depend on their characteristics, not arbitrary numbers.
The game should teach that if you want to do more things of a certain kind, you should train to do so, and training to do so might mean not training to do something else.

Anyways, here is how I proceeded in this weird quest.

From Legend Of The 5 Rings, to a Legend of 4 Animals

I made no mystery in the past of my fascination with this game, and in particular its latest edition.

It's the only game that did away with physical abilities, in favor of abstract "rings" that determine very different aspects of characters, physical, social, mystical, and mental, by thematically grouping them together.

Now, if you paid attention to my remarks about "gamist VS simulationist" systems above, you will think this should stay far away from my new game, to make it simulationist and educational... And I agree: as it is, it's too abstract to be understood by kids, and has very little connection to the real world.

But what it does well, is to give a certain "spirit" to characters, and a way to "modulate" rolls, so one can do the same action with different approaches, and sometimes overcome physical or mental limitations, thanks to what comes down to character/personality, which I think is quite a good depiction of what happens in the real world.

So here is my solution to have this nice feature and at the same time staying grounded to a simulation of the real world that can make sense:
  • Have the 6 ability scores, still, although modified to be more identifiable by a kid.
  • Have 4 (5 is too many) "spirits" that can intersect with abilities to add nuance to the resulting actions.
This could create 24 intersections of abilities and spirits, but I didn't want things to be so needlessly symmetrical and clear-cut, because then if you miss the right ability or the right spirit, you can't do anything in some situations.

So here comes the next adaptation to solve this.

Rolling two abilities at a time is more fun, so let's couple them up!

Coupling abilities is something I've seen in a couple of little-known RPGs, and I always loved.

If every possible action always involves two abilities, it's first of all more probable that characters will be able to attempt everything without feeling it's a plain coin toss, and in addition it sets the system up for a lot of dice tricks: use only the best ability of two, the worst, do something when numbers match, do something when you "crit" with both, crit with one, and so on.

Still, I didn't want all abilities to couple up with all the rest: it's a ton of couplings.

So I resorted to a system that couples only what makes sense in the game world.

In addition, some couples determine not only rolls, but the energy pools associated to those roles, and instead of numbers associated to abilities, we get dice, so it's more immediate for a kid than a bonus to be added to another die.

Here is what I came up with:

The geometrical symbols correspond to the type of dice, and the "Energies" in the middle are shared by the abilities to their left and right, and calculated with admittedly slightly complex formulas, although very easy to put in emojis: "🔝🅱️" (which if you're not on Windows might appear different than in the pic, but it's the formula for Stamina) means the top value of the worst dice of the couple. So Vitality, 6.
In Spirit we just sum them all. And Focus instead is half of the best die, which in this case doesn't make any difference, and is just 2.

You might think this is way too complicated, but if you noticed, Energy is symbolized by coins, and that's how we play this with my daughter: she gets coins of different colors, and spends them. No need to count basically, as the totals are to be counted only once and stay like that until the abilities change.

The ability couples

Without further ado, here is how abilities are coupled to determine skills and more. I called them Aspects, but it's not a final definition, and it doesn't even really matter, since these are nearly never used directly.

As you can see, Wisdom became the coupling of Mind and Senses, and is separate from Awareness, which is Charisma and Senses. The former is more intellectual, the second more social/spiritual.

If you noticed, they are color-coded both in their title, and in the background of the emojis.

This ties them to the types of energy needed to perform (hefty) tasks with each, although it's not perfect, since I didn't want to use too many colors.

Therefore, even if there is overlap, you can consider Endurance and Movement "Bodily", tied mainly to Stamina, Instinct and Technique more "Mindful", tied mainly to Focus, Wisdom and Brilliance more "Intellectual", tied to both Focus and Spirit, and finally Awareness and Power more deeply Spiritual/Primal.

As I said, there is no symmetry but that's ok. If you noticed, resources have widely different quantities, and that's for a reason: Focus is not something you ever actually run out of: it's just that when you don't have it, you have to invest some seconds into refocusing, meaning that it's mainly to avoid characters doing too many difficult things in a row. Spirit instead is plentiful, and it should be because it will replace Spell Slots, it's basically Mana. Requires sleeping to recover. Stamina is in-between, and requires short rests and food to replenish, unless it goes negative (something other resources can't do) and then it can require days to fully recover.

The second color-coding divides the Passive (green-blue) from Active (peach orange) Aspects, to continue showing what is more internal, and what external, like for Abilities.

Now, where do the 4 Animal Spirits figure in all this? Well, surprisingly or not, they modulate these 8 Aspects into what are basically skills, attacks, spellcasting, and almost everything else!

But let's talk the Animal Spirits.

A System 4 Animals

Early-on I started calling this whole system 4Animals, because indeed, as I think it's typical for kids, my daughter is quite used to play make-believe, impersonating animals of various kinds, and this system is aimed at her. :)

However, I wanted to stay very close to the Legend Of The 5 Rings system, when it comes to what these "elements" (traditionally Air, Fire, Water, and Earth, with the addition of Void, in that game) do and control.

After all, that's an already balanced system, so there was no need to change it too much.

The only thing I wanted to change was getting rid of the Void ring, which would have been very hard to represent with an animal, and basically distributing its stuff among others, giving them also more flesh.

Therefore, I came up with the following. (Never mind the weird shapes, they will make sense later.)

The Eagle stays very close to what the Air element does in L5R, which might be, surprisingly for who doesn't know that game, a lot of "bad" stuff, so much I'd have used a Crow, if the emoji existed. They are the finesse types, which means they are great at lying, tricking, and sneaking, but in a positive light they can be precise, detail-oriented, and elegant.
In D&D-style games, this would be the spirit animal of most Rogues/Experts, many Spellcasters, and even some Fighters.

The Lion stayed also very close to the original Fire element of L5R, being the most "aggressive", but I also made it the most "regal" of the bunch, being the one for natural leaders. It also associates Fire with Creation, so it's also one of the best spirits for crafters, especially tinkerers/inventors.
In D&D-style games, it's Paladins, Sorcerers, Barbarians, and Fighters.

The "Seahorse" (or Unicorn) is sea- because it obviously replaced the Water element of L5R (which would not be out of place for a Unicorn anyway) and it gained some stuff from the Void element as well, becoming one of the most mystical of the bunch. They can be fickle and shallow, or deep and powerful, like water. It's the most social of the 4, and is all about empathy and adaptability.
In D&D, it's Bards, but also some Wizards, Warlocks, Clerics, & Rogues.

The Dragon is the most different from the source element of Earth, because it's the one that got the most from the element of Void. It's even more mystical than the Seahorse/Unicorn, but also strangely more grounded/practical. It's the most static/passive of the bunch, controlling stuff like endurance, calculation, knowledge, and faith. A bit all over the place, but kind of representing a "hermit" spirit.
In D&D it's Druids, some Paladins, Rangers, Clerics, and Shamans.

As you can see, most classes could be dominated by more than one spirit animal, and this is by design: the spirit animal is not a way to classify things, but a way to modulate/modify them.

Now, if I would have to make a version of all Aspects for every Animal something with in-game meaning/use, that would be a ton of stuff: 32 "things" to be precise.
So I decided once again to avoid the temptation of symmetry at all costs, making sure that the 4 Animals would be associated with all the major groupings, but not all aspects.

This is what I came up with:

As you can see, there's many holes all over the place, but it's "a feature, not a bug", because at the end of the day, too many choices hurt the enjoyment of games, even if they can be nice for geeks like me.

There's many icons there that I didn't explain, and some of you might easily guess, but the important thing is that this actually is almost all you need to play!
Again, those with orangish backgrounds are active (Skills) and those with light-bluish background are passive (Traits) although there are special cases, in which this can change.

For example, each Spirit Animal has a so-called "Hybrid Skill", which is the "skill-ification" of a trait.
🦅 - 🔎 Attention -> 🔮 Interpret 
🦁 - ❤️‍🔥 Temper -> 👊 Rush
🦄 - 🤩 Insight -> 🥰 Charm
🐲 - 😇 Belief -> 🙏 Invoke

Yes, Traits are nouns, and Skills are verbs for no good reason other than being a cool difference...
And yes, many of these things are extremely tied to stuff like attacking and spell-casting, but never only that.
Basically the Bodily Traits and Skills are all related to Combat, but also Athletics, Movement, Resistance, etc, while all the Social & Spiritual are, as the name implies, both social and spiritual, able to generate magic, but also sway people, which is another parallel with the real-world I like...

Wherever you see the star ⭐, it means you could learn to do magic with them, and wherever you see the swords ⚔️, it means you could learn (or sometimes automatically know) how to fight with them.

I won't explain everything else, or the post will become a manual. :)

But now you might notice that the system for rolling is in place: every roll with involve two abilities (which you can see repeated here, on the left of the big skill icons), and a spirit animal, and each of these means one die from d4 to d12. (No d20s anymore for me!) The only exception is that at 1st level, usually no character should have all 4 spirit animals: it's ok to never have one for the whole game, and it's usually important to focus on 2, and have a backup third one, although of course having all 4 is a lot of versatility.

So the sample character shown before, with 💪💎, 🩸🔷, and 🦁💎 would roll a hefty 2d10 and 1d8 for attacks made with Rush 👊, which is kind of the go-to attack skill, consuming Stamina only. (the others all involve Focus, meaning you eventually have to refocus to use them).

Also note how this is roughly equivalent to 1d20+6, which is not far from what a 4th level D&D character can do, and was indeed the target for this sample character, which is 3rd level.

Speaking of levels though, that is something else I wanted to revolutionize, to finally have the concept of "separate pillars of characters growing in parallel".

Class levels are not enough

You may have guessed it: the idea is Race (or Species, whatever) and Background should matter more in games, and to do so, they can level up in parallel with the class!

This could seem to add complexity, but it actually takes it out, because it means each of these will need less than the canonical 20 levels to feel interesting, since you will have three different level-up experiences.

I don't have the full system in place, but the idea is the following:

Race: special abilities and the levelling up of actual abilities come from here. HPs, too!

Class: this controls mainly combat and magic, with a few extra skills and spirit animal connection thrown in for fun and differentiation.

Background: this is the realm of skills and social stuff, and you can think of the levelling of it a bit as a renown tracker. It eventually leads to having one's own property/stronghold, and sometimes can even grant some combat or magic to mix in with the class.

Basically characters would be always multiclass, with Race and Background being mini-classes associated to the main class.

At the moment, I aim at 5 levels of each system, which I'd eventually expand to 10, but nothing more, because it's already interesting to have 3x 5 levels to explore.

So how do classes look in this weird system?

Well, it's pretty simple, they are so easy to create too:

Yes, a bit simplistic, but remember it's supposed to be for small kids. It's actually quite complicated for the target audience, and definitely requires a more adult guidance.

But you might be able to interpret the meaning of all the "emoji formulas". Smite Evil for example, adds attack/damage (they are one and the same, you might see why in a later post) vs "monsters" or "evil ones", equal to the "Skill die" associated to Temper (something Paladins and Bards have.)
Bardic Inspiration is basically the same, but that die will be given to one ally. 

The emojis seem to portray this quite simply, IMO, but do comment if it's not clear to you: can't playtest this with many people!

Also, might not be clear but at 1st level you get the Skills, Traits, and Magic stuff, which will result in 7 Skills/Traits for Bards, and only 4/5 for Paladins, as expected.
Note that this means certain usages of skills/traits, not all: they are learned separately, so these numbers should more or less be halved compared to the skills of D&D, and this is compensated by Race and Background giving more of them.

More to come!

This is of course far from an overview of the whole system: I have a full-fledged magic system connected to this, which allows for nearly on-the-fly spell creation, and systems that add synergy bonuses depending on combinations of various things, allowing for each character to be widely different from any other, but hopefully without rules-bloating, since everything is always only a result of combinations of few elements, instead of addition of new ones.

It's incredibly satisfying to make this stuff, so you will surely see more.

In the meantime, leave comments without mercy. :)


Friday, August 19, 2022

#OneDnD size does *not* fit all...

Here I am, punctually after the announcement of D&D's new edition.
Punctual because for several reasons, I was waiting for this for a long time already.

  • I'm really, really tired of D&D 5e. There is no fun material coming out anymore, and the few interesting things that came out after Xanathar's Guide To Everything (the last book I liked) were marred by game design choices that I seriously disliked.

  • I'm a game design freak, but instead of enjoying the differences of the many systems out there (which I anyway read whenever I get a chance), I always want D&D to be good for every need. This is inside me to stay, like an incurable autoimmune disorder...

  • I strongly believe that I can't be the only one who disapproves of the direction the mechanics of the game took. Sure, most of the gamers I know are utterly in love with 5e, but I refuse to believe I alone see the defects. I'm not a contrarian hipster or grognard: I really want to feel part of the community, because (at least until some years ago) I really always liked it, for as long as 80% of my whole life.
Ok, I wanted to be concise and schematic with bullet points, but predictably wrote too much, so let's get into the "crunch", starting from what I've been teasing: what I don't like of 5e.

What D&D 5e was supposed to be, but never was.

The 5th edition of D&D started as a very ambitious project during its playtest "D&D Next" phase, but even before release, it had already lost a lot of features it was supposed to have.

Here are the first things that 5e "lost" early on, which I really wanted and never got again.

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..!