Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Tiered Combat

There's no crying in battle!
D&D 5e is broken into four tiers of play. That's not an opinion, that's a fact that's built into the rules and mechanics of the game. If you've ever read the Song of the Lioness series, each book more or less embodies a tier of the system.

Tier one encompasses level 1 to level 4 characters. Characters are apprentices. Everybody gets one attack on their turn. Spells are basic damage-dealing effects or things that only affect one character at a time. According to the Player's Handbook, they deal with threats that endanger farmsteads or villages. The genre is generally considered "Sword and Sorcery" and a lot of OSR games specifically go for this tier due to the constant threat of death. In Alanna: The First Adventure, the heroine spends a majority of the book training and facing small challenges. At the end of the book, she defeats an enemy that threatened a city, with the help of a powerful magic item.

Tier two encompasses level 5 to 10. At this point, the characters are competent adventurers. Nearly all of the martial classes gain a second attack, magic users gain access to much more potent spells, and the party can deal with dangers that threaten cities or even regions. This is the most flexible tier in terms of genre, but a traditional D&D game will fall into "Heroic Fantasy." When most people think of D&D, this is the level of play they think of. In In the Hand of the Goddess, the heroine is recognized as a skilled fighter among all the knights in the kingdom, and disposes of an evil sorcerer with plans to take over the throne.

Tier three covers levels 11 to 16. The characters are now head and shoulders above the common rabble. Spells create devastating effects, or effects that can cover large groups of enemies. Fighters become capable of dishing out massive damage while taking a huge beating themselves. At this point, the presence of high-level magic means that this genre will nearly always be "High Fantasy". The characters are at Lord of the Rings levels - able to take on armies and legendary evils. In The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, the heroine deals with multiple crazed wizards, cursed swords, travels long distances overland, and fights in wars that determine the fate of countries.

Finally, we get to Tier four, levels 17-20. The heroes are now legends. They can take on horrifyingly deadly challenges and can use their might or magic to change the whole world. At this level, "Epic Fantasy" only barely suffices - the characters could hold the entire multiverse in the balance. In Lioness Rampant, the heroine fights alongside a legendary martial arts master and a warrior king, defeats an immortal mountain God, and finishes off an undead wizard (basically Lich-level) with plans to rule the world via horrible disease.

The art goes perfectly with the tiers as well
Now, each of these tiers provide different playstyles and different challenges. Not only does the feel, or genre, change, but the type of enemies changes as well. This isn't just an increase in CR, it's a literal effect of the mechanics of the game.

At tier one, each PC gets one attack. That means if you put a villain in front of the group, they have to be able to take 4-6 hits a round. That's a lot. And the math only gets worse at higher tiers.

Also, what happens when your Bard gets Hypnotic Pattern at tier two? Suddenly your boss monster is incapacitated. There goes a round of damage on your PCs. What about Fireball? Goodbye, room full of minions.

Essentially, each tier doesn't just necessitate a new genre of play. It means a whole new set of encounter design rules, and different styles of combat. If you run a tier three combat the same way you'd run a tier one combat, you're in for a long, painful session.

At each tier, I'm going to go over how you should use:
  1. Initiative/turn order
  2. Strategy
  3. Terrain
  4. Combat Descriptions
  5. Enemy Identification
  6. PC Allies
  7. Ending the Combat

Before we get into this, I do want to point out that this system of running combat is built into how I play D&D: a focus on story, with generally one or two big combats a session. My players nearly always have the chance to take a short/long rest between combats, and as a result the combat encounters are nearly always "deadly" by DMG standards (pg. 82)

Tier One Combat: Threats Everywhere
Every blow matters!
At this point, characters will be challenged by a small number of weak monsters. I find this tier allows for "danger" in the wilderness, as a few wolves can take down the entire party. At this tier, you can play up the party traveling through dangerous woods, and make it clear that the world has threats that would eliminate most common folk.

If you want to run a boss fight at this tier, the best option is to use a mid-level monster with a weak monster as their ally. Despite magic being weak at this tier, spells like Hold Person and Blindness/Deafness can muck up the encounter if the PCs are only facing one enemy.

Alternatively, you can make a single monster who is a paragon (essentially, two or more monsters built into a single enemy). This can be particularly effective if you want to make a Goblin Boss that doesn't suck (unlike MM pg. 166) or a more powerful Kobold. Just stack them on top of each other!

As for running this tier in a combat, you can use a "traditional" combat approach.
  1. Roll initiative for each monster.
  2. For strategy, use the most unique monster ability first. These are the "signature" abilities that make a monster stand out. Nobody is going to use a mimic as just another ooze! Put the PCs in a position to show off the monster's abilities!
  3. Terrain should be varied, so the players have things to move around and interact with. Teach them the rules of cover, improvised weapons, chokepoints, height advantage, etc.
  4. On each turn of combat (monster and PC alike), describe the attacker's position, how they attack, and how their target defends (or how much they injure their target). This is really important: it's how you give a low-level combat "impact"!
  5. Every monster needs a personality. Even if it's "the wolf with white stripes on its head" or "the bandit with a scar over his left eye", the players should be connecting with every villain they face. There are no faceless goons in this tier.
  6. If the PCs happen to have gained any allies (unlikely, but possible), they should be given their own spot in the initiative. Treat them as another PC - give them full descriptions and personality - but don't let the PCs run them quite yet.
  7. Fight to the very last hit point. If you want to end the combat with a chase scene, you can have the monster flee, but most players won't take kindly to that.

At this tier, combat should be visceral and dangerous. A lot of people fall in love with this feeling and try to make their entire campaign world feel like this. If you're into that, an OSR system like Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Dungeon Crawl Classic would provide the right experience.

Tier Two Combat: Bigger Fish to Fry
Commonly heard at this tier: "holy crap, we don't suck!"
Now that the characters are more experienced and less likely to die every combat, you can start throwing bigger threats at them. I'm serious - at level 5 a party of PCs have all the resources they need to take on nearly any threat, with the proper preparation. You have to step up your game.

The players can now face a full horde of weak monsters, even taking them all out in one shot if the wizard gets a lucky Fireball off. At this point, every major mass combat needs to have potential reinforcements. If the characters blast away your group of hobgoblin soldiers, that might be okay. But if this is supposed to be the elite guard of Hobgoblin City, you'll want them to have backup.

A side effect of this is that the players won't feel endangered by the wilderness anymore. So, instead of running every little encounter the PCs would come across, give them the highlights: "you cross through the forest of evil, fending off attacks from packs of wolves and bands of orcs". Then, if they find a suitably dangerous encounter, run it normally: "on the third day, you come across the tracks of a Hill Giant, still fresh".

Your best best is to run the group against a party of mid-level monsters, the ones that would have been bosses in tier one. They can soak up some damage, make saves against debilitating effects, and still dish out a beating. Since each of these monsters is powerful enough to be the boss of a group of weaker monsters (as they were in tier one), you can still make the combat feel like it matters. Just have the angry pitchfork mob take care of the Goblins while your PCs go after their troll bosses.

Finally, if you want to run a boss fight, you'll need to throw in a group of weaker allies to make it feel suitably epic. Don't go too weak - otherwise they'll go down in the first round. But a higher-level monster with some mid-level allies is fairly epic. Again, Paragon monsters are a good way to make a single enemy more durable and menacing.

At this tier, you can use similar combat techniques, with a few truncations:
  1. Roll initiative for monster bosses, then divide the rest of the monsters up by type (all goblins, all skeletons, all goblin skeletons), or just divide the minions into their own groups.
  2. Monsters start getting smarter at this stage. Think about what the monster would do, based on their ability scores (especially their mental ability scores!). This site is a good reference.
  3. Terrain can shift over the course of the battle, and should be able to damage the characters. Lay traps. Fight near lava or spiked pits. Surprise the players.
  4. For the PCs, describe their attacks and positioning, as well as narrating the effect their attacks have on the monsters. Do the same for monster bosses, but skimp on the minions - a simple tally of damage will suffice.
  5. Give monster bosses personality, but for the rest you can use "group mentality" as your description: the goblins are murderous, the zombies are lurching relentlessly forward.
  6. Treat PC allies the same as in tier one - give them their own initiative and descriptions. However, you might consider letting the PCs control them at this point. Many martial classes at this level can become bored when they are just making attacks (while the wizard picks a new spell each round), so giving them an additional responsibility in combat can ease that boredom.
  7. When the enemy has been reduced to one or two minions, end the combat. You can roll to see if the monster escapes or is killed, but unless you want to start a chase scene, assume they die. If they are captured, they'll need a personality and name, so don't be surprised when your players ask!

This is, honestly, the style of combat that D&D is best at. You can really get a feel for the life-and-death nature of the combat while fighting for causes that matter at a local level. Whereas tier one was focused on survival and victory, this tier can encompass larger concepts within the framework of a combat. Make things morally grey, since your players will actually have the time to think about it rather than focusing on pure self-defense.

Tier Three Combat: Saving the World
100 vs 4? No chance - bet on the 4.
Welcome to the big leagues. Your little PCs are all grown up, worthy of the titles of heroes. If they haven't earned the respect of royalty by now, they could do so fairly easily.

The party can take on large groups of mid-level monsters and even multiple higher-level monsters. That isn't a statement to be taken lightly: if every goblin horde is run by a troll, and the heroes can take on the entire troll community, they can scatter an entire army. These are heroes that leave the rank-and-file soldiers to their allies and go right for the generals.

Additionally, spells at this tier make the world easily traversable for the party. Wilderness travel? No worries, the Wizard knows Teleportation. Even if they do hoof it, they will be taking down pretty much everything they come across.

That does mean, however, that they'll attract the attention of the truly dangerous wilderness monsters. Giants and Dragons are going to come to visit them and consider them a real threat.

Also at this tier, mass combat becomes a real possibility. A well-equipped PC can face down a squadron of guards or low-level undead. If you don't have a solid rules system to deal with huge groups of enemies, I'd suggest this brilliant essay on building mass combat units, or use the AoE and Mob combat rules in the DMG (pg. 249-250).

Finally, to run a boss battle at this level, you need to make it a staged battle. That is, the battle has to occur in stages. Run the boss's minions first, then their minibosses, then the boss themselves. No resting in between.

Why do we need to do this?

Well, D&D, at its core, is a game of resource management. If you use your 6th level spell slot on Mass Suggestion, that means you don't get to use it for Otto's Irresistable Dance. In a normal D&D game, the players would be running through 2-3 combats between rests, or 5-6 combats between long rests. That's plenty of opportunities to whittle down the PC's resources before the final, epic fight.

However, in a session with only one major combat, we need to simulate that resource use within one fight. That's why paragon monsters are so useful: since they essentially reset between HP pools, they simulate fighting multiple combats. If Hold Person wears off twice during the battle, it's the same as if it were cast twice earlier that day.

Thus, final boss fights at this tier need to be done in stages, and paragons/multi-stage bosses are basically a requirement.

At this tier, combat becomes a whole new situation. If you want to run a combat that has any modicum of urgency, you'll need to change the way you run quite a bit.
  1. Divide monsters into units. Bosses are their own unit. Roll initiative for each unit (similar to the last tier).
  2. Monsters at this level are nearly always smart. They aren't beasts or thugs. Prepare a strategy for the monsters and figure out a backup plan if things go awry.
  3. Terrain should shift drastically over the course of the battle. Force players to move! Make pillars fall and the ground crack open! There's a reason monsters at this tier start gaining lair actions. Use them!
  4. Reduce your descriptions to basic position and attack information ("You rush forward and unleash a flurry of slashes with your longsword") rather than spelling out each attack. Do this for both monsters and PCs. Then, pick a few attacks per combat to fully describe (big spells, killing blows, etc)
  5. Enemies should have the same level of personality as the previous tier: bosses get personas, minions don't. Minibosses can have simple personalities (Boris the Smasher and Doris the Basher).
  6. At this point, allies fall into two categories: mass units and named allies.
    • For mass units, you can either assign an enemy unit to fight them and take them out of the order, or you can treat them as a single entity as described in the mass combat essay above.
    • For named allies, you can give them their own position in the initiative if they are powerful enough, or you can simply have a PC gain some temporary hit points or extra damage as a result of fighting alongside their ally.
  7. Combat ends when the boss is killed, or when 90% of the minions are dead. Assume that the PCs then finish off the rest of the enemies, since they likely won't need to spend any major resources doing so. You'll nearly always have to deal with captured enemies at this stage.

This level of combat is more difficult to pull off in vanilla D&D. That's why we start pulling in alternate rule sets and expanded strategies. However, it can be done - but if done poorly, you'll end up with a 3 to 4 hour combat on your hands. Speaking from personal experience: ain't nobody got time for that.

Tier Four Combat: The Fate of Existence
Time to fight God's Armies? Must be Tuesday...
We're finally at the top, epic level combat. There's no holds barred here: every PC is now a legend of superhero power level. A PC can take out an army, stand toe-to-toe with angels and demons, and call on the Gods if they need to.

At this level, the party could fight 350 city watchmen without breaking a sweat. They can take out the biggest, baddest monsters of all time, all the way up to the CR 30 Tarrasque.

This means that major villains are going to team up against them. A Lich is easy prey - the undead wizard is going to bring along their pet Dracolich and a squad of Iron Golems for good measure. However, a better approach would simply be to not fight the PCs. At this level, nearly everything would rather save its own hide - even an Ancient Dragon will negotiate rather than face the choice of death or flee.

Of course, you need some high-level combat, not just high-level negotiations. That's why so many of the high-level monsters are irredeemably evil (liches, fiends, dragons, krakens, etc). They will fight the PCs without hesitation. But it isn't quite that simple.

At this point, every monster is smart and informed. The PCs are legendary, there's nobody who they want to fight who isn't going to hear about them coming. The enemy will have a strategy that is specific to the PCs in the party. If a PC can cast 9th level spells, the enemy will prepare 9th-level Counterspells. If a PC has great stealth or perception, the enemy will try to avoid being surprised or not bother trying to cause surprise. They will pull out all the stops.

There comes a problem at this tier: things just aren't strong enough to take on the PCs. Remember, the game is designed to be a battle of attrition. The PCs are supposed to use up their resources before the final battle. At 17th level, the PCs are expected to have already fought 4-5 battles worth 15,600 experience each before they hit the boss fight. Yes, that really does mean they need to fight 4 or 5 Iron Golems before they face off against the Evil Wizard.

And here's the kicker: the Evil Wizard knows that. That's why he built those Iron Golems. So he could fight the PCs when they weren't at their best! So he could stand a chance of winning against four legendary heroes. That's the mentality you have to go into for these battles.

So if you're making a "final showdown", you have a few options:
  1. Do it as above: actually play the game of attrition and have a series of minibosses before the final boss.
  2. Use traps, counters, or terrain effects to hamstring the PCs for the final fight, since the boss would know their weaknesses. Make sure you give the PCs a way to break free of the traps.
  3. Make the boss a paragon monster. Have each "stage" of the boss become progressively more difficult to simulate multiple battles.
  4. Use a beefed up version of the monster with plenty of Legendary Actions and tons of extra HP to absorb the PC's effects. Also, limited magic immunity. I'm not joking. It's not fun when God goes down to Tasha's Hideous Laughter.

Which one is best for a particular situation? Well, it depends. An Evil Overlord will probably use minions to wear the party down, a Mad Wizard will almost certainly use traps to hamstring the party. A God is likely to just use a massive stat block, paragon or beefy.

At this level, the PCs will breeze through "normal boss" monsters and their armies. It's almost not worth it to run anything less than a full-on epic boss battle. However, you can have them roll some skill checks or attack rolls if you want them to take out an army at some point.

From "I cast Magic Missile!" to "I alter the fabric of reality for fun!"
Writing combats at this level is a whole new ballgame. Not to mention running them. You'll need some new tactics.
  1. In mass combat, have the monsters all go at once. Enact their strategies as a kind of push/pull flow of combat: the players go, the enemies respond. If there are few enough enemies to actually have names, give them their own initiative spot. Also, reserve initiative count 20 and/or 10 for terrain effects, lair effects, or traps.
  2. Prepare a strategy your monsters follow. Nearly everything at this level is smart, so know ahead of time what will happen on each round of combat and how the monster reacts to certain things. Tailor your strategy to your PCs! Think about how this monster would squelch their go-to actions. Don't let them use their archetype.
  3. The battle should shift between multiple types of terrain - keep things moving in new directions. Perhaps the villain takes to the sea or sky, perhaps you are teleported to a new locale, perhaps traps start springing or the villain flees through areas already explored. It helps to have minions/paragon stages, as this gives you an easy indicator of when the battle needs to shift.
  4. Final Bosses and named second-in-commands get personality. Everyone else is just a faceless minion. However, you can give certain squads a "group personality", like having the "executioner squad" or an "arrow unit" among the minions. Just remember: they don't get anything more than that!
  5. Allies might be named or full army units.
    • If they have full armies, you can handwave combat between them and the foe's minions, counting up casualties after the battle. Or, you can build Mass Combat Units and grant them initiative.
    • For named units, you can create minibosses for them to fight in the same manner. Or you can treat them as a Mass Combat Unit as well. Perhaps Jerrard the Knight now has an order of knights under his command.
    • For either one, you can grant the ally to a player and give them a big bonus. If a PC has a following of assassins, they could gain a big bonus to damage on their hits, or if a PC is joined by their lifelong knight ally, he could grant an AC or HP bonus.
  6. Similar to the last tier, combat ends when the boss is killed, or when 90% of the minions are dead. Assume that the PCs then finish off the rest of the enemies, since they likely won't need to spend any major resources doing so. You'll nearly always have to deal with captured enemies at this stage.

This is a very difficult tier to pull off in combat, and there are some systems that do it better than D&D. However, the strength of D&D 5e is that it's a robust system that can put up with a lot of homebrew changes. So I think 5e is fine for doing this, workable but not the best.

In summary, running combat in D&D isn't as straightforward as the books suggest. If you want to run impactful, efficient combats at every level of play, you'll need to adjust your strategies.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Monday Recap: City in Chaos
It's a magical world, old buddy
It's time for another rip-roaring installment of chaos quest! This game was the first game I ran using exclusively an excel spreadsheet. I think it worked because we didn't really have any major combats. I want this group to think laterally about how to solve their problems, and boy did they. Chaos quest is coming into its own.

One other announcement: we had a smaller-than-expected game this session. One of the players had to unfortunately drop due to scheduling conflicts, and another ended up being on vacation longer than expected. I find that making game that aren't based around combat allows me to be flexible in my prep: I'm not worried my final boss fight will be too powerful.

This story is part 3 of a series. The campaign is complete.
Previous Campaign | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 |

Campaign of Chaos: City in Chaos

Cast of Characters
Jon: Dungeon Master
Shannon: Cressen Juhl, Fallen Aasimar Trickery Cleric of Ralishaz, hates their dad Pholtus
Cody: Mist, Tabaxi Rogue, likes the shiny and shoots the arrows
Quinn: Jakky, Darkling Shadow Monk, sneaks into places to do a murder
Wade: Agne, Kobold Warlock of the Great Old Ones, killed his family for creepy powers
NPC: Artorius, Void Dragon Wyrmling, hangs out with Agne

Alternate title: It's Just a Prank, Bro!

Our chaotic crew had just finished ransacking the mage's guild and taking the Palace of Infinite Illusions, which could create endless rooms and monsters for them to fight. They explored its rooms for a few days, until Mr. Lizard unceremoniously turned the palace sideways and dumped them out of it.

They were in a small stone room, and he explained that he had some things to take care of in the city of Auraglow. Auraglow was a city built around a holy site of Boccob, the God of Magic. Since its inception, it had always been a place where magic users could go for training, buying goods, and even learning forbidden magics. It got its name from a massive glowing sphere that illuminated the city day and night, however, the sphere recently disappeared and has been the subject of recent speculation and theory.

Mr. Lizard opened the door of the stone room and light flooded in. They realized that they were in a mausoleum, in the middle of a park-like graveyard outside the city walls of Auraglow. Mr. Lizard told them to go have fun, cause a bit of chaos, and make sure to bring any new recruits back for chaotic conversion. His task would take a few days.

The first day, they wandered around, bumping into random people and finding those who would be willing to convert. They found a young student named Mackey who was interested in magic, and a hedge wizard named Jinn who needed help stealing the bones of a saint to resurrect his dog. The crew pulled a mission-impossible style heist to get the bones, complete with Cressen lowering Mist down on a rope while Jakky and Agne killed a guard and took his place. They even made the other guards believe their ally had been raptured away, since they left his clothes behind and created an illusion of him floating into the sky.
They also ran into a Dragonborn cleric who looked extremely similar to Mr. Lizard, down to the monocle. Unfortunately for the cleric, their unfamiliarity with Dragonborn lead them to be very suspicious of him, and they ended up stealing his bag of potions. When they asked Mr. Lizard if he knew the cleric, their patron had no idea what they were talking about. He was more than happy to convert Mackey and Jinn, though.

On the second day, the group found out that this Dragonborn cleric, Martin, had a brother named Partin. Cressen disguised himself as Martin and "made amends" with Partin, but then Jakky decided to assassinate Partin via decapitation. It was then the group decided to leave a small card on the body stating "Whoopsie Doodle", which was the beginning of the notorious "Whoopsie Doodle Killer". Later that day, Martin himself showed up, and Cressen disguised himself as Partin to douse his concerns. The crew lead him to an alleyway and killed him as well, leaving another Whoopsie Doodle card. The legend had begun.

They wandered around a bit more. Mist had heard there was a powerful magic item here: an Oathbow. He had Cressen use Locate Object to try to find it, but without luck. Meanwhile, the group saw a patrol of battlemages pass by, and convinced a small child to join their crew because Mr. Lizard requested it. However, he sent the child back after realizing he had made a mistake.

On the third day, the group befriended a hippie-like Bard named Jessie, converted him to chaos, and helped him "prank" an uptight diplomat from the big city of Garton. But instead of pranking him they actually kidnapped him. Then, they knocked him out and left him in an abandoned house with a number of "Whoopsie Doodle" cards, pinning the murders on him. Jessie gave them a cloak in return, a Cloak of Many Fashions that could change its appearance. Jakky put it on over his other cloaks.
The Whoopsie Doodle Killer strikes again!
That night, they decided to look into a mysterious wedding that was happening soon. The bones of the saint were apparently for the ceremony, and the temple had brought in a powerful Priest of Pelor to conduct the marriage. The crew thought of a great prank, involving Agne appearing to the Priest as the ghost of his dead mother and getting him to quit the ceremony. However, the priest got suspicious and started questioning the ghostly form of Agne, which made Mist jump in and try to help, claiming to be "his dead father from a universe where everyone is cat people and also your father died."

Needless to say, that didn't go over great. The Priest summoned a wall of spinning blades and chased the crew from his home. However, they had learned a few things: the wedding would take place tomorrow, and it was between the Headmistress of a local bardic college/orphanage and the new leader of the king's spy network, the Cobblestones. It was sure to be a high-profile wedding, and a perfect place for some serious pranking.

The next day, the group ran into Jessie the Bard again. Jessie lead them to his secret hideout and revealed he was actually an influential Warlock in Auraglow named Elliot Weston, Lord of the Slums. He wanted to know more about this strange chaos power he'd been given, which had caused his clothing to turn to porcelain that morning.

The Chaos crew were quite amenable to Elliot, especially after he told them they would likely be able to find the Oathbow at the home of Humphrey Stempleburgess. He did want to do a little more research on Mr. Lizard before he threw his hat in the ring of chaos, and the party agreed - they were still a little suspicious of their sudden employer as well.

They still had some time before the wedding, so the group decided to scope out the Stempleburgess manor. There was a small gala happening, so they put disguises on. Cressen appeared as a matronly magic item collector, Agne used magic to disguise himself as her halfling servant, and Jakky used the Cloak of Many Fashions to look like a sad little dog. They called him "Blanket". Meanwhile, Mist used his stealthiness to snag some invitations.
Agne as Halfling. Disguise self isn't perfect!
Cressen and Agne staged a small distraction at the front gate while Mist lifted the invitations. However, they both did so well that they felt Chaos magic spark within them, and the gate guard suddenly had their clothes frayed and covered in soot like they had been struck by lightning. They were fine, for now - Cressen knew that his chaos surge had caused the guard to be a lightning rod for the next 11 days. Hopefully there wouldn't be any storms soon.

The crew explored the manor a bit, distracting Humphrey while Mist made off with a music-producing Wand of Conducting. Once he gave Agne the signal, Cressen made an excuse for the group and they left before the theft could be discovered. They resolved to come back the next day and take the Oathbow, since Mr. Lizard had told them they might not have much more time in town.

That night, they went to the Temple of Boccob, where the wedding of the Headmistress and the Spymaster was to take place. Jakky snuck in and disguised himself as the alter rug, right where the priest of Pelor would stand. Mist and Agne infiltrated the side room where the food and gifts were kept, and Cressen sent his illusory double in to mingle with the crowd while disguised as Humphrey Stempleburgess.

Just as the ceremony was completing, they sprung their plan. Jakky pulled the rug out from under the priest, Agne spiked the punch with a Potion of Fire Breath and unleashed a cloud of insects on the food, and he and Mist shoved the entire gift table into their portable hole. Cressen's double lifted the Wand of Conducting and started blasting inappropriate music. The place devolved into chaos!
Come on, grab the presents and run!

The Spymaster of the Cobblestones, a female Tiefling in a big poofy white dress and purple hair, ripped the bottom of her dress off to reveal a dozen blades, and glared around menacingly for the culprits. Her partner, the Headmistress of the Bardic College, however, cast True Seeing and looked around. Having ascertained the situation, she smiled and just said, "Nice!" She then calmed down her murderous bride.

The crew made a dash for it, fleeing the party in an awesome still-frame chase scene with wedding guards tailing them. They made it all the way back to Mr. Lizard, who was finishing up his plan. He said their ride was coming soon, so they should be ready to go at a moment's notice. The group agreed - they were used to having a chaotic escape plan. Mist found a cool Sickle of Poison among the wedding gifts and gave it to Jakky.

The next day, they went to Humphrey Stempleburgess's new gala. Since his gala yesterday had been ruined by the disappearance of the Wand of Conducting, and people were suspicious of his "appearance" at the wedding, he was throwing one of his infamous all-day galas, this time with two magic items: a Cloak of Billowing and a secret surprise item. Mist assumed this must be the Oathbow.

The group donned their disguises and joined the party once again. They loitered around the same ballroom, but this time the magic items were under better care: they were out in the open and under guard, so Mist couldn't simply steal them. The group needed to find a way to get them out of the public eye.

Cressen and Agne came up with a plan: put on a show that would distract the crowd away from the items. Jakky, skilled at acrobatics, would be "Blanket the Wonder Dog" and do flips for the audience's amusement. Meanwhile, Agne could orate the performance. Cressen, using his magic item collector disguise, set up the performance.
Simply beautiful
The performance was wonderful, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house as Blanket the Wonder Dog performed his tricks. Meanwhile, Mist killed the item guard and searched the Oathbow's box: empty! It was just for show! Frustrated, he grabbed the Cloak of Billowing and made off with it in a dramatic fashion.

Agne and Cressen looked aghast as Mist dashed away. He ducked down hallways and through rooms, crashed out a window, and climbed to the roof, but he just couldn't shake the guards. Finally, he leapt from the roof into the topiary surrounding the manor, and managed to hide from the guards. He had the cloak, but now he was pinned down in the shrubbery.

Meanwhile, the gala resumed. Humphrey was nervous, and after a light luncheon he pulled out his trump card to ensure the gala's success: the Oathbow! It was black and covered in skulls and flames, obviously a drow design. From the window, Mist was salivating.

Cressen used his illusory double and his disguise skills to make it look like Mist had returned to the party and ran out into the center of the room. Meanwhile, the real Mist snuck in, grabbed the bow, and left under cover of locust swarm a la Agne. The heist complete, the rest of the crew excused themselves.

The group decided to take one last walk around the city, knowing they would be leaving soon. As they did, someone called out "It's them! The ruffians that kidnapped me and pinned those murders on me!" It was the diplomat from Garton!

Suddenly people started coming forward! Humphrey was there, fuming. The guards of the saint's bones and the Priest of Pelor, the city watch, even the elite guards: the Battlemages! The crew was surrounded! Agne was more surprised that this hadn't happened before now.

Suddenly, a small hooded figure holding a basket of flowers motioned to them: this way! Agne released a swarm of insects from his staff, and the group fled down an alleyway with the figure.

When they were finally safe, the hooded figure revealed herself to be a young tiefling girl. She said her name was Pity. (This is a beloved NPC from our previous campaign! I was pretty sure the crew wouldn't harm her) She said she hated to see people get hurt and had somehow knew she needed to help. The crew was thankful, and took a couple flowers she offered them.
Do not hurt the Pity
Their mission complete, the crew headed back to Mr. Lizard's mausoleum base, though he wasn't there at the moment. Mist and Jakky tried out their cool new weapons, Agne watched a storm rolling in (particularly noting the lightning strikes hitting one spot over and over), and Cressen used the Cloak of Billowing and the Wand of Conducting to take his brooding to a whole new level.

Suddenly, Mr. Lizard came running back to the group, with Magic Man and Ilsa in tow. "Time to go!!" He had with him a pitch-black sphere being controlled by a talisman that featured a grinning devil face.

He pointed out over the city and the group could see these thin black ropes reaching down from the clouds to the ground. "That's our ride!" The group looked mortified. It was raining heavily, and lightning still cracked through the sky.

Mr. Lizard and the crew rushed into the city. As they did, wizards and spellcasters of all stripes were pouring out of their homes and schools to defend themselves against some unknown threat. Also, three people were pursuing them: a half-orc fighter, a half-elf wizard, and a young human thief. Mr. Lizard shot a blast back that obliterated the young thief, and the crew managed to shake their pursuers.

Up close, the crew realized that those black ropes were actually massive chains, with links as big as Agne. Mr. Lizard told them to climb up, and as they did, they saw the apparent destruction that had covered the city. The Dragonborn Embassy, the Stempleburgess Manor, and the Temple of Boccob were all in ruins. From their vantage point, they saw the dark outlines of the creatures responsible: massive, centaur-ian monsters whose thick grey hides were briefly illuminated by the flash of spell light the wizards were using to fight them.

They climbed and climbed, further from the destruction, until the city was no more than a distant garden below them, albeit a garden that was on fire. Finally, they reached the top of the chains, and poked their heads through a layer of thick clouds. Above them, the moon shone down through the clear night sky. In the distance, they saw a massive domed fortress with a golden antennae affixed to its peak.

Mr. Lizard smiled at them. "Auraglow was a good test run. See that fortress over there? Now that's where we really are going to spread some chaos!"
Hello, hello, welcome to my Skyfortress
We stopped there for the evening. This was a great session - the players were hilarious, and we came up with so many good jokes that I'm sure will be references later on. The guy who was struck by lightning a lot was probably my favorite.

Also, I want to again mention that one of my players, Shannon, put together some of the artwork I used for this article. I am planning on talking to her about some commissions for our games, particularly if I can get cool character art that's customized for the groups. Finding art online is fine, but getting exact character art is better!

Thanks for reading!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Lore of Ahneria: Magic
This is part of a series on the lore of my homebrew world, Ahneria. As I outlined here, much of this information will be pulled from existing D&D lore and tropes. At the end, I'll be including a section on how to use this sort of thing in your own games.

Magic is common in Ahneria. Magic is infused within common materials, it permeates objects and creates a variety of effects, and those objects are gathered by wizards and sold to the wealthy and adventurous. And, of course, monster parts can be crafted into magic objects.

But magic isn't just the domain of those with class levels. As I discussed recently, nearly all commoners have some latent magic ability. Your average commoner is able to cast a single spell tantamount to a cantrip, though not as often as a practiced magic user. They might be limited to once a day or even once a week.

This manifests in a variety of ways (similar to how different cultures might cast spells differently). A person might be able to cast a version of Blade Ward by appearing helpless and meek, forcing an opponent to pull their punches. Or they might have some heightened sense of danger, and effectively create a Blade Ward by dodging the full impact of an attack. And if the person lives a peaceful life, they may never even know they have such an ability.

The point is, it's rare that a creature in Ahneria is completely cut off from magic. If a creature wishes to put effort towards expanding their magical abilities, they already have a starting point. However, since they haven't trained in a class, for all intents and purposes, they aren't proficient in their magic yet.

This means that these magic abilities will rarely affect an enemy NPC's CR. A bandit who can cast Shocking Grasp (which, without proficiency, would be +0 to hit and deal 4 damage) would know from experience that their scimitar (+3 to hit, 4 damage) would be a better option. Even a ranged attack like Firebolt is outclassed by the Bandit's basic crossbow.

Now, let's get into the meat of this article: how is magic created in Ahneria?
In some way or another, it all comes back to divine shards and sparks. A divine shard is a powerful, reality-bending piece of divinity controlled by a fickle Immortal, but divine sparks are everywhere. They are the "units" of magic, that nestle in certain materials and objects, that spawn the monsters of the worlds, and that every living creature has some (limited) awareness of. If enough sparks were gathered in a single place, it might approximate the power of a shard, but only rarely does that occur - we'll discuss a common method later.

A spark has two properties, the first of which is its function. Wizards refer to this function as a "School of Magic", and a Detect Magic spell can identify the function of a spark.

However, most sparks that fill the multiverse are without function. Wizards refer to these by many names, such as "The Weave", "Ley Lines", or "Auras", but we'll refer to them by what the Immortals call them, which is "Free Sparks". A Free Spark is one without function, but it can be granted function by adding intent to its use. A mind using its power to shape the spark towards a certain goal is also called a "spell".

Thus, Detect Magic is designed to filter out Free Sparks and focus on Determined Sparks, or sparks that have a set function. Sparks retain their function for various amounts of time. Some return to being Free in an instant, others last as long as the mind continues directing them. If it is infused into an item, it can become permanently Determined, creating a magic item with a particular function.

The second property of a spark is alignment. All sparks have an alignment, just like all shards. In the Free Sparks, many different spark alignments intermingle, meaning a spell such as Detect Evil and Good must focus on a greater concentration of aligned sparks, such as an area of hallowed ground, where good sparks are in abundance.

The Detect Evil and Good spell can also identify creatures created by the power of sparks. Undead, Fey, Celestials, Fiends, Aberrations, and Elementals are such creatures, and thus are bound to a particular alignment. This causes them to appear to this spell.

Sparks naturally settle in certain objects, particularly precious minerals like silver and gold. This is why these metals retain economic value, despite being commonplace in Ahneria. Gold is a common standard, but its many magical uses means it is still sought after, despite its high availability.
Gold and Gems can store sparks indefinitely. That is why fine inks are required for copying spells into spellbooks and onto scrolls, why certain spells require a material of a certain value. Additionally, certain spells require more particular materials. A Chromatic Orb cannot be formed unless a diamond of sufficient size is used to channel the sparks.

Additionally, unless directed by a trained magic user, these materials tend to gather sparks slowly. As gold entered circulation, however, it was exposed to more and more mortal minds, giving it intent - saving, spending, or collecting. This means that civilized cultures tend to have more potent wizards, as they can use the power of gold that has been in circulation. Many cultures in Ahneria speak to "the magic of gold", though their understanding of the actual mechanics of this effect varies wildly.

I mentioned before that enough sparks in a single area can generate great magical power. Also, sparks can be infused into materials, if given intent. So, let's talk about dragons.

A dragon's power comes from its hoard. Its powerful resilience, breath weapons, ability to change shape, its effective immortality - all of this is greatly diminished if the value of its hoard is stolen of decreased. A dragon's defining magical ability is simply to gain the powers of the sparks they have collected, at any distance. Ancient Dragons with massive hoards have powers that rival the Immortals.

It's hypothesized that if a dragon's hoard were stolen away from it, it would lose some or all of its powers. This is difficult to prove, however, as many dragons will guard their hoard to their last breath. Those with the cunning to flee before their demise often go into hiding, only emerging when a new hoard has been gathered. If a dragon's hoard is stolen but the dragon left alive, expect a rash of attacks among nearby small villages and farmsteads.
There are many ways a creature can manipulate sparks. Some common methods are listed below.
  • Wizards, Eldritch Knights, Arcane Tricksters, and any who practice magic via knowledge have, in some capacity, learned about the difference between Free and Determined sparks. Again, every culture and race will call it something different. But the power of a wizard comes through subjugation of sparks. A spell is a series of incantations, gestures, and objects that adds enough intent to a spark to make it into a spell. This requires intense mental stamina: a spell without proper intent could turn on the user, or worse. Thus, wizards are exhausted by the effort and constantly seek ways to work around their limitations: Spell Scrolls, Wands, Robes, Staffs, etc.
  • A Sorcerer or Mystic is someone with the ability to "speak" to sparks - to direct them instinctively. This might be due to their bloodline, random chance, or an event in their lives that granted them the ability. This is similar to the subjugation of wizards, in that sparks take effort to control, even if that control is more natural. A sorcerer or mystic requires training to learn their own limits, lest they cause their magic to backfire.
  • Across the multiverse, the Immortals try to keep the nature of shards hidden from mortals. They don't like the idea that their shard could be stolen from a mortal, and protect themselves accordingly. However, some beings shirk this duty. They share the power of their shards with mortals, setting odd conditions and unusual limits on the mortal's power. These mortals are called Warlocks. Archfey grant power to mortals in return for odd favors, Fiends usually request their Warolck's soul in return. And the beings that live beyond the stars, the Great Old Ones, occasionally leave a piece of their power to be found in the material plane, hoping that a mortal's mind will forsake all else and feed their endless hungers. No two warlocks are alike - each has unique benefits and strange limitations on their powers granted by their patrons.
  • Clerics and Paladins circumvent the requirements of mental fortitude required to subjugate sparks, and gain power via prayer: convincing a God to control the sparks for them. A cleric focuses on appeasing a single God, earning their favor and therefore their power. Low-level clerics are attended by small celestials who can grant basic powers, while high-level clerics gain the attention of their God's aspects or even their avatar. Paladins, rather than picking a single God, devote themselves to an oath that attends to the needs of many different Gods. Their magic is more constant, but less powerful than the devoted cleric's. However, the Immortals still fear a mortal gaining too much of their power, and place limits on the amount of magic they will grant to a Cleric or Paladin. A more trusted servant is granted greater powers.
  • Barbarians, Druids, and Rangers cast spells in a similar manner to Clerics, except they focus on Gods that control Nature domains exclusively. Unlike the Gods of Clerics, Gods of Nature formed a pact long ago, the Hollyhock Accord, that those who sought their aid could be assisted, for good or evil. They do not need persuading. However, the Gods of Nature tend to favor neutrality or chaos, seeing lawfulness as the domain of civilization. Therefore those who would try to dominate nature too much and bend it to their will are cut off from their power, at least until the next dawn.
  • Bardic magic is based on music, art, and emotion. Most magic users focus on the sparks to create magic - bards focus on the relationship between the sparks. The question is not of how a mortal mind can shape a spark, but how a mortal mind has been shaped by sparks up until this point in time. The sparks in the air, which carry the vibrations of sound and light, are all connected. These connections are the source of a bard's power. The ultimate lesson of bardic magic is that there is nothing that cannot be done, if you know how everything is linked together. However, like many kinds of magic, accessing these connections is exhausting. A Bard can only perform so much before they must recover.
  • Monks are unique among magic users in that they do not use free sparks. Instead, they work to build a "bridge" towards the planes of the multiverse within themselves. They then channel power from a particular plane into their techniques. The energy they use for this transfer is built within their own bodies, which means their "Ki" can be used to summon planar magic or enhance their physical combat prowess. Their magic is akin to teleporting the power of the planes into their bodies. The exact plane depends on the training the monk has received: the elemental planes and the shadowfell are common, as is the immortal battleground of Ysgard.
Finally, let's discuss a very special spell: Wish.

A Wish spell does not simply summon a spark to subjugate to the caster's will, but in fact summons a divine shard. The shard, capable of bending reality, is then subjugated to the user's will.

However, there is no such thing as a "Free Shard". Every shard is owned by an immortal, and when Wish is cast, the avatar or aspect of a God is summoned. Their domain will always reflect the nature of the Wish being cast. If a magic user makes a Wish that is too powerful, that threatens to create the next Raven Queen, the Immortal can choose to brand the magic user with a sigil visible only to those who hold shards. It is known as the Black Feather Brand.

Though the brand is granted based on the discretion of the Immortal, once a creature is branded, they will never be able to Wish again. Shards will never again answer their call, and when they die, their soul is obliterated - no Immortal or Plane will claim them.

This is why only Wizards, Sorcerers, and Bards can cast Wish. They are the only magic users who gain their powers without the assistance of the Immortals or the Planes.

Using This Material in Your Setting

  • Use your rules to define how persistent the magic in your world is
  • Define how common magic is in your setting (high-magic or low-magic)
  • Identify one or more sources of magic in your setting
  • How do material components interact with magic in your setting?
  • Figure out how detection spells like Detect Magic and Detect Evil and Good work
  • Think about the history of magic in your world. Who created the schools of magic? Is magic the same throughout the world? Are certain types of magic banned in certan cultures?
  • Define the relationship between spells and magic items, and define how magic items are created
  • Make creatures that have a unique relationship with magic, and make them important in your world
  • Based on the source of your magic and how common it is, figure out how the PC classes use magic, and why each class has certain limitations on their magic
  • Makes spells that use magic in unique ways, and make them powerful spells in your world

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Commoner Magic
When you wish upon a star...
Magic is everywhere in Ahneria! Literally. But also, it's integral to the people who live in the world as well.

First off, yes, most commoners can cast a cantrip. However, they are hampered a bit for two reasons: they aren't proficient with their cantrip, and they can't cast it at will. Rather, they can only cast it once per day or even once a week. This means most commoners will prefer to use weapons than magic.

Many people are barely aware they are casting magic. They just think they have a particularly biting wit, or they make friends fairly easily, or their prayers cause others to be brave or comforted. Also, they will access their cantrips in different ways. They don't use Verbal, Somatic, or Material components. Rather, it's like the Innate magic of Tieflings and Drow. They just do it.

In fact, races that can cast spells, like Tieflings, Elves, Tritons, and Yuan-Ti, are just cultures where people tend to have a certain type of innate magic, and thus the culture helps them train it in a particular way.

Unsurprisingly, if you have a particular cantrip as a commoner, you're well on your way to taking up a class that uses that cantrip when you become an adventurer. For spellcasting PCs in Ahneria, I assume that one of their cantrips is something they've been able to do since a young age.

For non-spellcasting PCs, I assume that the cantrip they used when they were young was either Blade Ward or True Strike. This has a dual effect - not only does it make sense that someone who could use that magic would become a martial class, but since these two cantrips are so bad in terms of action economy, it makes sense why a trained fighter would never actually use them in combat.
Don't mind me, just making some floating symbols.

However, it would be silly to limit commoner magic to just cantrips. Especially for VINPCs (very important non-player characters). For them, we can make spells that function as plot devices.

For example:
  1. A young girl can cast Unseen Servant at will, and causes trouble at her oppressive academy
  2. A matriarch who strikes fear into the hearts of those who disobey her and can cast Suggestion
  3. A local seer who can cast Clairvoyance and is sought out for wisdom and fortune-telling
  4. A boy who makes people lose their minds when they draw near him, as he unconciously radiates a Confusion spell
  5. A hypnotist working for the King who can cast Modify Memory, and is paid very handsomely
  6. A raving beggar who has lost his mind because he is constantly casting True Seeing
  7. A witch who can create demiplanes in doorways, similar to Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion. She keeps a few stocked with her potions and laboratories.
  8. A baby born giving off an Antimagic Field, immediately the target of political strife and kidnappings
  9. A woman with a Time Stop effect on herself, making her effectively immortal as she drains the time from things around her

As you can see, a commoner that can cast even a mid-level spell would be able to pass as a prophet, holy person, terrible wizard, or be the subject of awful rumors and legends. A commoner that can cast 9th-level spells would be thought of as a living God.

The next question is, how common are these high-level spellcasters?

Well, in Ahneria, probably more common than in lower-magic settings. And having more "magic" would certainly relate to being destined for greater things. Thus, the PCs will probably be justified in running into higher-level commoner casters, but it's also good to give some perspective on how special these casters really are.
  • 1st level caster: one in a village, a few in a town, a dozen in a city
    • Potential jobs: Shaman, Priest, Healer, Trusted Local, Minor Villain, Noble
  • 2nd level caster: one in a town, a few in a city, a dozen in a region
    • Potential jobs: Mayor, Notorious Criminal, Judge, Druid, Head of a Noble House
  • 3rd level caster: one in a city, a few in a region, a dozen in a biome
    • Potential jobs: City Mayor, Guild Leader, Cult Leader, Tribe Leader
  • 4th level caster: one in a region, a few in a biome, a dozen in a small country
    • Potential jobs: King, Criminal Mastermind, Notorious Hermit, Clan Leader
  • 5th level caster: one in a biome, a few in a small country, a dozen in a large country
    • Potential jobs: Prophet, Notorious Wizard, Mysterious Trickster
  • 6th level caster: one in a small country, a few in a large country, a dozen in a continent
    • Potential jobs: Rumored Monster in Disguise, Famous Hero, Supposed Demigod
  • 7th level caster: one in a large country, a few in a continent, a dozen in the world
    • Potential jobs: Legendary Prophet, Archwizard, Rumored Spirit in Disguise
  • 8th level caster: one in a continent, a few in the world, a dozen in a galaxy
    • Potential jobs: Rumored Fiend in Disguise, Legendary Hero, Supposed Aspect of a God
  • 9th level caster: one in a world, a few in a galaxy, a dozen in the universe
    • Potential jobs: Rumored God in Disguise

When the PCs meet a girl who can grant wishes, don't make her the little match girl. Make her the queen of the entire known world.
My hobby is painting flowers into existence. What's yours?
And just for fun, here's how I would use each 9th-level commoner spellcaster:
  • Astral Projection: Only has an astral body, all attacks and effects simply pass through him.
  • Foresight: Lives a few seconds in the future, unmatched duelist
  • Gate: Accidentally opened up a hellgate as a child, now in stasis under the care of a powerful wizard
  • Imprisonment: A living phylactery, fought over by liches
  • Mass Heal: Nobody can harm another or be harmed in their presence
  • Meteor Swarm: Kicks off an extinction event and dies
  • Power Word Heal: Her voice heals all who hear it
  • Power Word Kill: Her voice kills any who hear it
  • Shapechange: Turned into a dragon and never looked back
  • Storm of Vengeance: Storm from the X-men
  • Time Stop: A woman who has a Time Stop effect on herself, effectively immortal
  • True Polymorph: Molds reality to their whim
  • True Resurrection: Their touch restores life, they cannot die
  • Weird: Everyone sees their worst nightmare when they look at the girl
  • Wish: Totally normal guy, doesn't realize that everything he says comes true. Prefers a simple, quiet, peaceful life and that's exactly what he got

Thanks for reading!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Monday Recap: Mt. Draco

Still can't beat Skyrim for Dragons and Mountains.
Another month, another session of Dragonborn Quest! This ended up being one of my favorite sessions so far, not just for the campaign but for all the games I've run. I think I hit a lot of good emotional notes within the confines of a short but intense game.

It's exciting when you finish up a session and the players all start talking about their characters and what they want to do next session, instead of immediately switching to non-gaming conversation. Nothing wrong with taking a break from gaming, but I love it when I can get players invested in the game!

This story is part 7 of a series. The campaign was completed.
Previous Campaign | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 |

Dragonborn Quest: Mt. Draco

Cast of Characters
Jon: Dungeon Master
Will: Daardendrian Kreev, Red Dragonborn Bard, former prince, back to set things right
Megan: Daardendrian Zovira, Red Dragonborn Fighter, Kreev's aunt, champion of the clan
Bria: Druuga Faelynn, Silver Dragonborn Bard, avenged her sister, now to fix the isle...
Michelle: Nerithya Finzerwin, Half-Drow Rogue, ex-cultist looking for a new purpose to her life
Matt: Myastan Faerbor, White Dragonborn Fighter, Kreev's friend and owner of the legendary Axe of the Elders
NPC: Svihios Torrin, a clanless young Gold Dragonborn who is eager to go on adventures and become a hero
NPC: Oddmund, Nerithya's Shield Guardian, has a smiling face painted on his head
Other traveling companions: Tofras the Smiter (War Priest of Bahamut) Cheskapen the mysterious monk (???)

When we last left our heroes, they had defended a lizardfolk shamaness and a clutch of copper dragonborn eggs from the Dragonborn Death Knight Favnir. However, before they could slay him, he had cut down the leader of the Copper Dragonborn, Aquorel Drachedandion.

Two of their companions, Kreev's sister Dalyassa and Faelynn's friend Ariann, decided to stay behind and help the Copper Dragonborn escape the island. After all, even though Favnir was dead, the black Dragonborn clan of Z'ildroth was still hunting them.

The Lizardfolk Shamaness returned the favor by telling them that there was information they needed to know is a wizard's tower on Mt. Draco, and the legendary Dragon that guarded its peak was not there at the moment. In fact, they had met her - in the guise of a wandering monk named Chevnyl. Nerithya had traded stones with the friendly traveler, even as Faelynn suspected her true nature.

The party left the dark reaches of the swamplands and began to climb Mount Draco. As they climbed, they were able to see much of the island, including clan Delmirev's pirate ships and the mines where Kreev and Zovira's family was likely working.

One night, as they made their ascent, Faerbor was visited with a strange dream. He was at home, as a child, surrounded by his friends and family. However, there was one White Dragonborn who was out of place.
Let me Axe you a question
The stranger introduced himself as Cestovat, a champion of the clan from over 1000 years ago. Faerbor had finally surpassed his cousin Faergrax (the current clan champion) in strength, and thus was eligible to undergo the Trials of the Axe of the Elders. He had to attain three great victories, each with a penalty to his power. If he won, he would become the clan's champion. If he failed, he would die, and the Axe would return to Faergrax.

However, the most potent part of the Trial was that, if he succeeded, his soul would be bound to the Axe, just like Faergrax's already was. When Faergrax died, his soul would be absorbed into the Axe and increase its power. Faerbor realized that this was why his clan opposed raising old champions from the dead - not because it was dishonorable, but because they couldn't.

The first trial began immediately, despite Faerbor's hesitation. It was the Trial of Strength - forget all you know, and rely only upon your own power (in game terms, his proficiency bonus was reduced to 0). The next morning, he informed his companions of the trials (but not the soul-binding part).

As the group climbed, they discovered a stream of water running down from the mountain, and hundreds of small chunks of bone and flesh scattered everywhere. They suspected it might be the dragon's prey, until a frozen Blackwing soldier tumbled down from the mountain and shattered. Ice breath was a sign of a silver dragon - they were getting close.

The top of the mountain was shrouded in fog and clouds, so much so that they barely noticed the pure white stone castle before they walked into it. Nerithya, with her sharp eyes, was the only one who didn't actually hit the wall.

Moving to the entrance of the castle, they found dozens of frozen Blackwing soldiers, encased in ice except for their feet. Faelynn figured out that there must be some sort of Cone of Cold effect, since it looked like the ice was forming at an angle. In front of them stood a massive pure white door, flanked by two white stone dragon sculptures.

Don't worry, we'll get to the real dragon soon...
Zovira made a move to open the door, and the dragons turned to look at her. They spoke in turn. The right one said:
If you wish to pass
You mustn't think fast
Follow our lyrics, our wordplay
Do it right and you will win
Do it wrong and you will chill
Turn our madrigal upon us!
And the left one replied:
Test me, vexed nemeses!
Seek betterment, exert the self!
We behest thee, reflect me
Then free these speeches, else freeze!

The characters realized this was some sort of riddle, and got to work deciphering it. Zovira tried to say one head's message to the other, and was blasted with a Cone of Cold. Fortunately, her Ring of Warmth protected her from most of the damage.

Faerbor, used to spells and incantations, realized that the left head only used the vowel "e", and the right head never did. Kreev then put together that they had to get the heads to break their own rule while only saying words that followed the rule.

The right head was easy enough, they managed to get it to say "ice". But the left head proved more difficult, and they were very nearly blasted again before they managed to figure out a way to make it say "castle". Slowly, the great doors opened, revealing white stone corridors shrouded by fog.

Faelynn recognized this as a Guards and Wards spell, and they didn't have enough magic to dispel it. However, Nerithya was adept at sneaking around confusing places from her time in the magical Cult of Kam, and she guided them with little trouble to an area that was not warded.

The room was labeled "Gods of Dragonkind", and had three shrines: A large shrine to Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon God of Justice, a large shrine to Chronepsis, the Dragon God of Fate, and a small shrine to Tiamat, the Evil Dragon God. Tofras, a Cleric of Bahamut, knelt before the shrine.

Suddenly, the group heard the massive white stone doors open again, and huge footsteps moving through the castle. Then, a small Silver Dragonborn monk head popped around the corner. It was Chevnyl!
Birds running into the walls is a real issue
The players were not at all worried to be facing down a legendary ancient dragon - she had already proved to be very friendly. However, they were hesitant to ask about the wizard's tower directly, worrying that there was a reason Chevnyl was guarding it so closely. So, as Chevnyl began to take them on a tour of her castle/museum, they began to work on convincing her to show them the truth.

(In order to facilitate this long-form discussion, I used the Angry GM's InterACTION! system. I made sure to use every trick he mentioned, even though a couple of them didn't come up. The players had a blast! Each "round" of debate was hotly discussed, and I got some of the best interaction role-playing I've seen in my games so far.)

The castle was divided up into various rooms containing history of the island and its people. They saw a magic heart of a Chaos sorcerer who had been born long ago on the island (not that one, though), historical information about the Dragonborn clans, their artifacts, and their leaders, and information on prominent locations and events in the island's history.

On the tour, they learned many important pieces of information. They learned about the dragons who the oldest Dragonborn clans were named after, and they saw the frozen corpse of Nemmonis Frowarum, a White clan leader who was purported to have the strength of a True White Dragon. They also saw his sword, a massive slab of stone named Mountaincrusher. They met Nimogglefer, a Kobold historian of the isle, learned more about the Castle of the Ruling Clan (including a secret passage in!), and learned about the history of the island before the Dragonborn arrived: it was infested by evil but cleared by paladins of Bahamut.

All the while, the characters pushed harder and harder for Chevnyl to tell them about the secrets she held here. They had to convince her that it wasn't just enough to record history, but she was duty-bound to use it to help save the people of the island. After several heartfelt speeches from Faelynn, Kreev, and even Zovira, Chevnyl relented, and lead them through a secret passage into the wizard's tower.

Chevnyl, ever the historian, gave them a guided tour of the tower. It once belonged to a wizard named Avubafarihm, who had been slain by the Paladins of Bahamut. Chevnyl had used a Gentle Repose-like spell to preserve the tower as she had found it.

The passed through the living quarters and down into Avubafarihm's trophy room. Here, they say pieces and parts of nearly every dragon that the oldest Dragonborn clans were named after. Avubafarihm had gained his riches by adventuring and hunting dragons, particularly young ones. Chevnyl was quite upset to talk about this, and the party hurried down deeper into the tower.
Also, tons of icky stuff.
On the next level, they found a library, most of the books burnt badly from the Paladin's attack. A few books were still preserved, though: a book of Ritual Spells, a book of Unusual Necromancy, and a book about using magic to brainwash and train an army. Chevnyl told them that Avubafarihm had been in the process of creating an army before he was killed. She also said there was one more level, but she refused to go down further - it was too painful. Chevnyl, Torrin, Tofras, and Cheskapen stayed above while the rest of the party ventured downwards.

The final level was a laboratory, with a large model skeleton of a humanoid with a dragon's head and wings. Lining the walls were sarcophagus-like containers built for creatures of the same shape and stature. There was a darkened room which contained hundreds of egg pedestals the right size for Dragonborn eggs, which had been broken out of from the inside. Finally, they found Avubafarihm's diary.

The diary told of his days as a wizard in Gwenland, a country long, long ago. He had a dream of combining Dragons and Humans into a single race, and began hunting dragons to obtain parts for them. He then fled to the then-unnamed island, atop Mt. Draco, and began building his army, which he called Draconians (yes, they're a race in Eberron. I'm adopting them into my campaign world!).

Fortunately for the world, one of his adventuring companions, a Paladin of Bahamut named Arrakas, realized what he was up to and built Fort Platinum, the castle which would eventually become the Castle of the Ruling Clan. There was a great battle, which ended with Avubafarihm being slain.

The diary gave a bit more insight than that, however. The characters learned some strange pieces of information:
  • He had something called the Sun Amulet, which gave him the power to give the Draconians wings and brainwash them. He noted that without it, he wouldn't be able to do either.
  • Avubafarihm had never obtained a Silver Dragon to make his Draconians with. However, by combining the essence of other Dragons, he was able to synthesize a Silver Draconian.
  • However, even though he had obtained a Gold Dragon, he was never able to create Gold Draconians. At least until right before his death - he had just created a young Gold Draconian and hadn't even had time to give it wings or brainwash it. (this was an easter egg for Will, since he played this exact Gold Draconian in my first Evil Campaign)
  • The Draconians could reproduce, grew to full size in a short time (like Dragonborn) and had been in the eggs in the Hatchery when Avubafarihm was attacked.

The group puzzled about the meaning of this information for a bit before realizing the truth of the situation, and why Chevnyl had been so hesitant to let them down here.

The Dragonborn, their entire race and clans, had been crafted by Avubafarihm.

Pictured: a lie, a fabrication
After his death, the eggs in his hatchery, which he had hidden from the paladins, hatched. Without the "Sun Amulet", they were wingless and free-willed, and had climbed to the surface. Along the way, they had found the dragon trophies of Avubafarihm, and named their clans after their fallen progenitors.

They also realized that Z'ildroth Salothzar, the totalitarian ruler of the island, during his travels, had come across this Sun Amulet, and was using it to gain power. As far as they knew, he had no idea it could be used to brainwash Dragonborn or give them wings. But he was certainly gaining power - the last time they had seen him, he had grown twice the size of a normal Dragonborn and had gained terrible powers.

The group realized they had to act before Salothzar realized what he was wielding. Not only that, but Chevnyl had informed them that the Dragonborn Death Knight Favnir would return from the grave within a week, at the location he died: right in the middle of the Dovuaka City Council room.

They rushed back upstairs to collect their companions, but nobody was anywhere to be found. They looked through the rooms, but didn't find anyone until they arrived back at the front gate, where Chevnyl stood in their way. Behind her, traveling down the mountain, was Torrin, Tofras, and Cheskapen.

The party was confused. Zovira was furious. Chevnyl explained as best she could: Cheskapen, their mysterious companions, was a Couatl, a messenger straight from Bahamut. He had told her to keep the heroes locked up in this castle, while he took Tofras and Torrin for some unknown purpose. The players tried to press Chevnyl to know what Cheskapen could have said to cause such a change of heart, but she refused to say. She transformed into her full Ancient Silver Dragon form, heartbroken but making it clear they couldn't leave.

Faelynn summoned all of her magical might and began to cast her most powerful spell: Teleport. Chevnyl cast a half-hearted Counterspell, but it was too late. The party slowly faded from existence, leaving the weeping Silver Dragon alone once more.

They reappeared in Faelynn's home, the Prisma School of the Arts. People seemed shocked to see them, but Faelynn's uncle realized what was happening. The group told him they had a lot to discuss, and he told everyone in the area that they should forget what they had seen.

The heroes began to plan their next move, hoping to stave of the destruction of their race before it was too late.
He's coming, he's coming, he's coming...
Whew! We stopped there for the night. I really enjoyed this game. I got to finally drop some revelations about Dragonborn in Ahneria that I've been sitting on for a while now. I actually like the idea that there's a campaign going on that just works to define a particular culture or race. I'm currently playing in one about the elves! Kinda. When we get back to it.

Also, it looks like December is going to be a tough month to schedule a game in, so I don't expect another Dragonborn Quest until 2018. However, I definitely will be working on playing a game every weekend that I can, so these Monday Recaps can keep going! Hopefully, I can even get a week or two ahead and make it all the way through the holidays.

Thanks for reading!