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Friday, March 27, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons - Laeral Silverhand's Explorer's Kit

You can buy this set right here.

Look what showed up in the mail! A new dice set, with all sorts of other stuff. Let's check it out.

Dice: I was initially wary of the dice, as they looked like that glossy kind that just keeps rolling forever. They're not, they roll just fine. If you hold these dice up to a light source, the light shines through. Very nice!

They actually went ahead and made the d20's bigger! Each one has a D&D ampersand in place of the number 20. These d20's aren't quite as big as my preferred giant gray d20, but these are very cool.

All in all, this is a really nice set of dice and I really appreciate some of the changes they made. I'd say if they make another set, the d20's should be even a little bigger. Or, perhaps make all of the dice in the set a larger size.

Dice Box: It's hard to describe this in a way that does it justice. The interior is lined with felt. The exterior has foil designs on it. I should note that even if you think the dice roll too far, you could roll them right in this box to eliminate the chance of your dice rolling right off the table (a phenomenon which I refer to as "sloppy dice").

I do wonder if the box might get scratched up if you threw it in a backpack with your D&D books? You probably need to be careful when transporting this thing if you want to keep it looking nice.

Map: A bit taller and wider than a regular sheet of paper, the map comes folded-up in the box. On one side, there is a map of the city of Waterdeep - handy if you are running Dragon Heist. It labels only the wards, gates, the market, and a few areas outside the city.

On the other side is a classic Mike Schley map of the Sword Coast, useful for running everything from Tyranny of Dragons to Descent into Avernus! It includes most of the Moonshae Isles and a portion of Icewind Dale.

Cards: The back of the box describes these: "Twenty illustrated, double-sided cards detailing Laeral's expert insights on key characters, locations, and lore from across the Forgotten Realms."

I really like the art by Shawn Wood on some of these cards, especially the Harper and Dagult Neverember. 

The cards have basic info on different NPCs, factions, and locations. Very handy for people trying to get familiar with the realms. There are cards on Drizzt, Halaster Blacksloak, The Xanathar, and more.

Candlekeep is the one that sticks out the most to me. I can remember, years ago, when I first took a stab at playing the Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition game, being really impressed with the whole idea of Candlekeep - a library that you only gain access to if you donate a tome not already present in the library's collection. It seems like you could do a lot of cool things with that.

Overall: So is this worth getting? I guess it depends on the price. I am seeing that it is $15.00 right now on amazon, which in my opinion is a great price. To me, that's a no-brainer.

Honestly, this set and the Avernus set are really cool products, right up there with some of the best ancillary D&D items released in the past like the old Orcus/mini and the tiny versions of the 1e handbooks.

An easy thumbs up from me!

Friday, March 20, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons - A Guide to the Gray Render

by Tom Baxa
Today I'm going to tackle another monster who seems to be a Monte Cook favorite - the Gray Render. We'll go through each edition, and take a look at some gray renders in actual adventures.

In my opinion, the most interesting content lies in a Dragon Magazine article that never actually got published! Details are at the bottom of this post.

3e Monster Manual

Here's the description: "This hulking biped has the mass of a giant. It has a stooped frame, a gray, hairless body, and broad shoulders. Its arms are long and sinewy, and its clawed hands scrape along the ground as it walks. Its sloped forehead bears six small, yellowish eyes. Its mouth is wide and powerful-looking, filled with black teeth."

  • 9 feet tall.
  • Can uproot trees with their jaws.
  • Do not travel in groups.
  • Asexual. They produce one offspring and carry it for a time in a pouch.
Protectors: They tend to bond with creatures native to their surroundings. The creatures could be wolves, horses, displacer beasts, even unicorns.

Whether accepted or not, the render keeps close, watches over them, and brings them offerings of meat each day.

Bite: The gray render can clamp down on enemies with their bite, effectively grabbing them. Then, they rend and tear the flesh.

Six Eyes: Their 6 eyes give them extraordinary sight.

City of the Spider Queen

Arachnoid Gray Render: This adventure features a drider/vampire named Jhorganni, who is building a vampire cult devoted to Kiaransalee. Her bodyguard is an "arachnoid gray render."

The render lurks in her nest.

Description: "...another hulking monstrosity, a multi-eyed thing with multiple arms and huge mandibles dripping with venom."

"The render is covered with chitinous plates, and coarse brown hair protrudes from between the plates. It has eight eyes instead of six, and six muscular arms instead of just two. Poisonous mandibles jut from its mouth."

The arachnoid gray render has stats somewhat similar to a normal gray render, except that it has a poison bite ans is immune to charm/illusion/etc.

Dungeon Magazine #84 - The Harrowing

In this adventure, the heroes must enter the Demonweb to battle Lolth's daughter. Along the way, they come upon an area guarded a gray render. The gray render serves Ullistrin (a drow vampire) and Vagdrioth (a drow mage).

Description: "...a tall, gray-skinned bipedal beast with long claws and terrible teeth stands ready to rend flesh and bone."

Demon God's Fane

This adventure features a special group of spellcasters called the Runewardens. Their leader is named Tyrestina, and she has a gray render protector.

Description: "Within a shimmering sphere stands a human woman with long black hair. Covered in tattoos and symbols, she holds a bright red wand and laughs maniacally. Three terrible, spine-covered, sulfur-breathing beasts stand outside the sphere, pawing at the ground, an a huge, hulking brute with gray leathery skin and six eyes crouches protectively next to it."

Tyrestina actually created the gray render with a spell called graven image.

4e Monster Manual 2
by Christopher Burdett
"Widely feared throughout the world, a gray render kills everything in its path. This creature feeds upon flesh and terror alike, working itself into a mindless rampage."

Uses You as a Weapon: In 4e, a gray render can use a grabbed target as a weapon. If they hit with it, the target takes damage and gets swatted 20 feet back, while the bitten victim takes half the damage as well.

Dismembering? Gray renders have a "dismembering Bite" that does a pile of damage.

Lore: Scholars believe that their roots can be traced back to the Elemental Chaos, where they gained their chaotic impulses.

Entropy is bound within the existence of gray renders, causing them to leave a path of wanton destruction in their wake. They are drawn to homesteads, where they unleash their destructive urges.

Wow. They got rid of the whole bonding/protector stuff, which to me was the most interesting thing about the monster!

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes

Oh good, they got their protector thing back. Right off the bat, we are told that gray renders want to bond with an intelligent creature and will, if necessary, give their lives to protect that creature.

New Reproduction Method: They reproduce by forming nodules on their bodies that break off to form young gray renders.

"As a side effect of its breeding. each gray render has an overpowering need to bond with an intelligent creature."

Singing: When a gray render finds and identifies a suitable potential master, it begins to sing, a weird warbling cry.

Chaotic: Gray Renders are chaotic and can cause problems for the masters. They sometimes follow despite being told to stay put, burrow holes, all sorts of stuff.

Quirks: We even get a chart of quirks! One result: "Likes to snuggle." Buries treasure that it finds. Chases birds.

Stats: The stat block is pretty basic. They can knock you prone, and get a reaction attack when they take damage.

Needs More Rending: The one thing I'd like to see more of with a gray render is actual "rending." I do like the idea of them being able to dismember people, though in D&D that can cause all kinds of problems.

There is an accompanying youtube video about gray renders.

In this video, Adam Lee discusses how some have said that the gray render was made from elemental chaos. Then he says: "A group of silver dragons were polymorphed into elves, so they created bodyguards." I think he is actually referring to the unpublished Dragon article which I discuss below.

Gray renders are tough, loyal, and destructive. They go from 0 to 100.

Adam says that a low-level character could get a gray render as a companion, and then the fun begins when it does something random and crazy. They're bizarre and alien. They're from a different kind of realm.

Unpublished Dragon Magazine Article

Sometimes Google gives you greatness! I found a post on ENWorld that contains an unpublished Dragon article about gray renders. The poster says:

"This is another of the fiction-and-footnote "Ecology" articles I had sitting on the Dragon editorial desk in 2000 when the new editor decided to scrap that format." The whole thing was purposely full of misspellings, but the assistant editor didn't like it."

This is one of those ecology articles done in a story format, with footnotes containing D&D stat stuff.

Vrak and Lizzie: The story goes like this. The main characters, Vrak and Lizzie, saw a gray render leading a herd of cattle to a river. They approached the render, but it chased them away.

They continued to spy on the herd, and watched as a wyvern tried to snatch one of the cows. The gray render protected the cow, and tore at the wyvern's wing, forcing it to flee.

Yikes, this one is dark. Lizzie insists on trying to heal the render. It kills her in a most gruesome fashion. Once Vrak recovers from shock, he just slaughters the render with his axe.

Origin: Gray renders may have come from the planes or an alternate reality. No 'planet of the gray renders' has been discovered.

Motivation: Their most power driving force may be a feeling of isolation and loneliness.

Speculation: Others think that gray renders might be a created race. Wizards might have made them to look after various groups of animals, or to act as bodyguards.

True Origin: Gray renders were created by a small conclave of silver dragon wizards who spent most of their time in elven form. The renders were made as bodyguards, and their means of reproduction was designed so that the silver dragons wouldn't have to create new ones every few decades. "The gray render arranges for its own 'replacement' before it dies of old age."

The method of creating gray renders was passed to several elven communities, and then to wizards.

Eyes: The gray render's eyes detect even the tiniest movement.

Bony Plates: Gray renders have thick bony plates on their heads that form distinctive patterns. A newborn is a clone of the parent, and thus will have an identical pattern.

Walking: They walk similar to gorillas, "knuckle-walking" with their hands.

One Offspring: Once in a gray render's lifetime, it grows a bud which becomes an offspring, which develops in the render's pocket. The offspring nurses in the pouch for 6 months, and then goes off on its own.

Long Lifespan: They can live for several hundred years, and will look after generations of its adopted wards.

No Talking: Gray renders can understand spoken language, but cannot speak. They lack the necessary vocal apparatus to speak with.

That's it! Not too much on the gray Render out there. It seems like there's a lot of room to add your own details. Giving the group a gray render sidekick seems like it could be a lot of fun. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons - A Guide to the Hezrou

by Mike Schell
I am gearing up to run four classic Monte Cook adventures, all converted to 5th edition. As I prepare them, I have noticed that Monte uses certain monsters in every single module. I guess they're his favorites? The monsters: Retrievers, gray renders, and hezrous.

I have never liked hezrous, but I decided that I need to embrace them. If I'm running a series of awesome Monte Cook adventures, then I should try to deliver an authentic Monte Cook experience, right? It turns out that this experience apparently includes using hezrous.

Let's go through the core books of each edition, and then branch out into whatever I can find after that. I'm sure I missed hezrou appearances in all sorts of products, but the goal here is to figure out what their deal is and how they can be used.

If I missed any particularly cool hezrou appearances, please let me know.

AD&D 1st Edition Monster Manual

In 1st edition, demons were often referred to by "type". For example, a type I demon was a chasme. A type VI demon is a balor. Hezrous are a type II demon. Check it out:
  • Type I: Vrock
  • Type II: Hezrou
  • Type III: Glabrezu
  • Type IV: Nalfeshnee
  • Type V: Marilith
  • Type VI: Balor
Those are the core demons in D&D history! Weird, right? A nalfeshnee? So, here is what we learn about type II demons:
  • They resemble 7-foot-tall "gross toads" with arms in place of forelegs.
  • They can create magical darkness.
  • They can cause fear, levitate, detect invisible, use telekineses, and summon other type II demons (20% chance of success).
  • They will eat human flesh.
  • They do have psionic powers, of the 1st edition variety.
That's it! Short and sweet. I'm interested to see what kind of lore they come up with for these monsters in future editions.

AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium Outer Planes Appendix

by Tom Baxa

We get a pretty sweet piece of Baxa art. I was wondering if an artist would draw stink lines, but nope. Just splashy water. Quick note: In 2e, demons are referred to as "tanar'ri" due to the Satanic Panic. In 2e, we learn:
  • Hezrou serve the nalfeshnee.
  • They wander the Abyss and oversee the formation of armies.
  • They communicate with telepathy.
  • They like to bear hug and bite enemies.
  • Stench: Their skin emits a foul liquid. Anyone within 10 feet must save or be overcome by the stench, unable to attack, helpless on the ground, gagging and vomiting. Even if you make your save, you have -2 on most rolls!
  • They have a ton of spells, including animate object, blink, unholy word, and summon insects.
  • They take half damage from normal weapons.
  • "They are impossible to surprise." Huh. Why?
  • Hezrou are less advanced than other demons. They are not especially intelligent or intuitive.
The Dark Walk: "During certain times of a century, the hezrou are given the ability to plane shift at will." During these times, they make pacts with mortals. They will serve a mortal but exact a heavy toll - usually the eternal subservience of the mortal or someone close to them.

Their job is to walk the Abyss and enforce the directions of the higher true tanar'ri.

Blood War Role: Hezrou enforce the will of the tanar'ri.

AD&D 2nd Edition Planescape Monstrous Compendium I
by Tony DiTerlizzi

There are a few changes in here. Tanar'ri are now divided up a bit further, categorized according to how powerful they are:
  • Least: Dretch, manes, rutterkin.
  • Lesser: Alu-fiend, bar-lgura, cambion, succubus.
  • Greater: Babau, chasme, nabassu, "water lord."
  • True: Balor, glabrezu, hezrou, marilith, nalfeshness, vrock.
  • Guardian: Molydeus.
Hezrou are true tanar'ri! What does that mean? "These classifications actually mean little in their lives. They are merely broad estimates of destructive power."

OK. I have one other question. See the list of greater tanar'ri? What the hell is a water lord? I have no idea whatsoever. Flipping through the book, I see that a water lord is another name for a wastrilith! Mystery solved.

Dark Walk Note: The hezrou entry in this book is slightly different from the Outer Planes Appendix version. In this, those mortals who make pacts with a hezrou turn into demons known as manes.

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Monster Manual

Check it out! The hezrou now has weird metal plates embedded in it. I really love the way they look.

Their description is pretty much the same as in 2e, except that they're 8 feet tall now. They grew a foot in a single edition, not too shabby.

Their stench now nauseates foes. Even if you make the save, you are only sickened. That's it! No explanation of the metal. Man... nobody cares about the hezrou.

3e Book of Vile Darkness

In the entry of the demon lord Juiblex, it says that hezrous pay him fealty by bringing him victims for his slimy brood to hunt and feed on.

Juiblex has a black pudding servant named Darkness Given Hunger. "It was possessed by a hezrou demon at Juiblex's command..." The demon has become one with the pudding, and is now the main servant of Juiblex. It patrols Juiblex's layer, looking for food.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Monster Manual

by Sam Wood

I love the art on this one. They still have the metal plates, but I am not finding any explanation of what they are.

I'm actually starting to feel sorry for the hezrou. It's like nobody cares enough about them to give them any attention. In this, we get a very bare-bones rundown of what they are:
  • Obedient, loathsome, eager servants of powerful demons and summoners.
  • Their stench aura gives a -2 and if the hezrou is bloodied, the aura also weakens foes.
  • They can phase through difficult terrain.
  • Lore: They are numerous, expendable, powerful, and focus on simple tasks.
  • Hezrous are easy to please if there is abundant food they can kill.
That is it! Sheesh. They've been in D&D so long. Let's see if we can find any more hezrou stuff in other 4e books.

4e Manual of the Planes

The hezrou gets a nice big piece of art. It is credited to William O'Connor, but I think that is a mistake, as this looks nothing like his other work.

Again.. the hezrou with the metal looks really cool! I'm bummed to find that they only get two tiny little mentions in this book:
  1. Hezrous can be found in Demogorgon's screaming Jungle. 
  2. Sometimes, they serve Grazz't.
I figured there would be some hezrou stuff in Plane Below. Nope! Just a few mentions, nothing meaningful.

Nothing in the 4e Book of Vile Darkness, either. This is depressing.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual

The 5e redesign was by Christopher Burdett, but I can't figure out who did the official art.

What the?! They got rid of the metal plates!! I liked them! They looked cool. I can't take this hezrou abuse much longer. I mean, they're one of the original demons! Type II, dammit! That's gotta mean something, right?

Let's see what they have for us in 5e.
  • They have magic resistance.
  • Their stench now poisons people who are within 10 feet.
  • Hezrous are foot soldiers in the demonic hordes of the Abyss.
  • They are weak-minded and can be duped into sacrificing themselves for more powerful demons.
Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus

They did something real interesting in this adventure. They redesigned the demons who served Yeenoghu, demon god of gnolls, so that they looked more like him! This is what Yeenoghu's hezrou look like:
by Max Dunbar
How about that for a wild idea?! And, just in case you're interested, this is what a Yeenoghu balor looks like:

by Max Dunbar

I really like the idea that demons linked to a particular demon lord look similar to that demon lord. In this case, it's a bit weird. The hezrou's entire deal is that it stinks and looks like a toad. As presented here, the hezrou is a mangy hyena. Unrecognizable as a hezrou!

I think the problem lies in the fact that the hezrou has so few identifiable traits. All it has is body odor and toad-y goodness. 

Anyway... on page 142 of this adventure, the heroes defend a place called Idyllglen from Yeenoghu's demons, who come in waves. Among the rampaging demons is a hezrou, who might kill a mastiff and force open some temple doors.

Also, I want to mention again how much I love the Descent Into Avernus dice set. It's got a map and all the concept art... the box is lined with felt.. it's great IMO.

That's it! I find myself rooting for the hezrou. They've been around far too long to be this neglected.

Let's go through these Monte Cook adventures and see how they are used.

Dungeon Magazine #84 - The Harrowing

This adventure is about Lolth's daughter. She's got an evil scheme, and the adventurers need to go into the Demonweb Pits to stop her.

As they are exploring the Demonweb, the adventurers come upon a room with a pool of water in it. 4 vrocks swoop down and try to throw the heroes into the pool. A hezrou lurks beneath the water.

Later, the group comes across a sailing ship that was pulled into the Demonweb. In one area of the ship, two hezrous are rummaging through crates and sacks, looking for food.

There are more hezrous in the actual Demonweb Pits (which lie below the demonweb, collecting anything that falls from it). The sides of the pits are made from "impenetrable darkness". Hezrous actually "swim" in this darkness.

Demon God's Fane

OK, so this is not an 'official' D&D product, but it's made by Monte Cook for 3rd edition (and he's one of the designers of 3rd edition!).

Demon God's Fane is about a massive statue in a lake. The statue is of a demon lord named Ochremeshk, and it has a dungeon inside of it! A hezrou named Lasteresh has escaped the dungeon and is exploring the village that is right next to the lake.

His lair inside the statue has a water tank with red runes on it.  The runes say, in Abyssal, "The drowning screams that come from the murders in this pool are yours, oh mighty Ochremeshk."

A Paladin in Hell

This is an epic adventure in which the group must sail a demon boat into hell, bust into a hell-fortress and rescue a paladin.

On the demon boat, there are a number of rooms. One holds a 20-foot-tall statue of a froglike, scaly demon and a waterfall (this is a magic boat, obviously). In the murky water are 2 hezrou and... a water lord! Also known as a wastrilith.

One hezrou has a bracer of watery fire: It allows fire spells to do full damage under water.

The submerged hezrou lair is nearby. In it, 6 skeletal corpses hang from chains. They were former intruders who were hung on the wall and eventually drowned when their water breathing spells ran out. "Now they serve as decor."

OK... I am still not satisfied with what I've dug up on the hezrou. I see that the forgotten realms wikia has a great entry on the hezrou. Apparently, these monsters have appeared in quite a few novels. The wikia says that there's a hezrou mention here:

Dungeon Magazine #359 - Demonomicon of Iggwilv: Apocrypha

In this article, there is a claim that Demogorgon spontaneously came into being when the first evil mortal soul arrived at the Abyss. This contradicts previous claims that the Queen of Chaos created Demogorgon before she discarded him and created Miska the Wolf-Spider.

It says that the first tanar'ri had few, if any, humanoid aspects. "Other tanar'ri bear the mark of sibriex alterations and have an almost mechanical aspect to parts of the bodies (such as the hezrou and goristro and glabrezu, both of which have half-organic armor plating under their flesh)."

The sibriex! That's cool.

The forgotten realms wikia reminds me to check one of my favorite sourcebooks of all time:

Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss
by Tom Baxa
Wow. Lots of tidbits!

There is a discussion of roles demons can play. Hezrous are described as effective "brutes." When discussing "overlords", the book says: "The ultimate demon Overlord has always been the balor, but adventurers are more likely to encounter a number of hezrou demons acting as Abyssal sergeants before they ever confront one of those nightmarish beings. A hezrou knows how to organize underlings. On the Material Plane, it often uses its above-average intellect and impressive size to recruit less intelligent mortal followers, such as hill giants, trolls, and ogres."

Hezrou Rubric: A rubric is a collection of loose pages containing the names of specific kinds of fiends. "Greenish-gray in color, this page is a piece of leathery parchment that is always coated in a film of slime." The possessor can cast gaseous form 3 times per day.

Pazunia Encounter: Pazunia (the first layer of the Abyss, also known as the Plain of 1,000 Portals) gets a whole chart of encounters! One of them involves two hezrou taskmasters leading a group of chained human and halfling slaves. They would rather cut a deal than fight.

Demonweb Encounter: 3 hezrous unexpectedly burst from a doorway, mindlessly defending the Demonweb under the psychic suggestion of Lolth.

Twelvetrees Encounter: Four robed hezrou pilgrims wander from a Pazunia gate to an appropriate place to worship. Twelvetrees is a place where twelve devas were sacrificed, and it has permanently altered the layer.

Expedition to the Demonweb Pits

by James Zhang
That Pazunia encounter reminded me that there's a hezrou encounter in this adventure! It's got art and everything.

Grazz't rules three Abyssal layers, collectively known as the Triple Realm of Azzagrat. On one layer, hezrous own mansions in a place called Fogtown. They also work on the docks near the River of Salt.

Side Quest: A succubus wants to hire someone to kill off her hezrou master.

The Frogfaced Slaver: When the group gets near Grazz't's city of Zelatar, they have an encounter. A hezrou is leading a long line of slaves. "A fat, froglike demon walks along this line of bleeding, dazed demons, slapping each of the creatures and putting shackles on those who show signs of resistance." The hezrou sees the group and immediately tries to enslave them.

Living Greyhawk - Every Passing Breeze

Teos Abadia was nice enough to point out this adventure, written by Greg Marks. Teos apparently played through this and ended up with his character being permanently altered by Bazhon, the hezrou in this adventure.

In this scenario, the heroes might end up meeting Bazhon, a hezrou. whoserves Rzasanet, the Master of the Blood-Drenched Sky, a vrock who works for a powerful demon lord. Rzasanet lives in the Castle of Foul Breezes.

Bazhon, the hezrou, is a torturer/interrogator. "He is fascinated by mortals, and studies them as he goes. In the end, he looks at himself as an artist..."

Bazhon tortures each of the heroes individually. "At all times during the torture sessions, there is a float quill that records the questions and responses upon a stack of parchment."

Bazhon has a gem that he can use to make a copy of a character's mind.

The tortures are listed in an appendix in the back of the document. There are 6 types of torture, and each one is crazier than the last:
  1. Fish: Electric shocks/eat raw fish.
  2. Box: Placed in a box where the temperature can be regulated.
  3. Blood Replacement Therapy: All of the character's blood is removed and replaced with black ichor! The character must save or become charmed by Bazhon."This effect is permanent and applies to all demons the PC meets until he/she is healed by heal, regenerate, or similar magic."
  4. Arm Rejuvenation: The character is strapped to a chair. Their arm is amputated, and replaced with a demon arm!The character loses a point of dexterity and is plagued by dreams of being strangled by the arm.
  5. Impalement: The character is impaled on a spike and... it just gets worse from there. These are just getting crazier and crazier.
  6. MOLTEN LEAD: Pouring molten lead on the character.
OK, I am somewhat satisfied. Let me know if you think there's anything I should add.


Hezrou Stats on Roll20
ENWorld Discussion on re-making the hezrou
Reduced-Threat Hezrou Stats

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons - Explorer's Guide to Wildemount Review

You can buy this book right here.

Wildemount is the setting created by Matthew Mercer for the second season of Critical Role.

OK people, here's what we're going to do. We'll go through this thing chapter-by-chapter and take a gander at all the stuff inside. I don't want to spoil the whole thing, so I'll just pull out some of the ideas that I think are the most interesting. I'll also subject you to my D&D thoughts as we go.

Chapter 1: Story of Wildemount

The main story here seems to be about a war between the Dwendalian Empire (full of rival factions) and the Kryn Dynasty (surface-dwelling drow!).

There is a bit of discussion about running a war campaign, which is something I've always wanted to do. They suggest avoiding mass battles, and point out that characters don't like to be told what to do and don't make good soldiers.

Black Powder: "Dwendalian scientists in Hupperdook" and others have created black powder, which allows for cannons, mobile war engines, pistols and muskets to be used in the game.

Seems pretty cool so far. I like that they kept things very brief in the beginning, as I don't do well with walls of text. I'd say the thing that I like the most is the Kryn Dynasty. I'm also very interested in reading about the gods, as I think they've grabbed deities from many different sources.

So, reading further, the origin of this place involves a variation on the 4e Dawn War story! When mortals began building cities, the Primordials attacked. Some of the gods joined with the Primordials (and became known as the Betrayer Gods). The other gods gave the mortals magic. With magic, the mortals banished the traitor gods to prison-planes, and actually destroyed the Primordials.

We get details on each god. They've got some of my favorites in here! A holy day for each is listed, too, which is a fantastic idea.

Bahamut: "When not wandering the Outer Planes, Bahamut resides within his magnificent, glittering palace of gold, platinum, and mithril hidden among the winds of the Seven Heavens of Celestia."

Corellon: Corellon is still an elven god of magic, "...considered the Mother and Father of all elves." I like the nickname: "The Arch Heart."

Ioun: Now we're getting into some of that sweet 4e stuff. In this setting, she was grievously wounded by the Chained Oblivion, and her followers are now hunted by agents of her ancient foes as she recovers. Awesome.

"Ioun sits among the infinite library that fills the hidden realm of the Endless Athenaeum, her celestial servants cataloguing all known things as she inspires those who pray for her insight and guidance."

I love the idea of a wounded god! Their followers are trying to find ways to heal them. Very, very cool concept.

The Raven Queen: What's the universal rule in D&D? Everyone loves the Raven Queen. The Raven Queen underwent some changes in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. I'm interested to see what RQ is like in Wildemount.

OK, wow, this is the 4e Raven Queen. "Her rise instantly obliterated the previous now-forgotten god of death..." That's slightly different, I think. I'm pretty sure it was mentioned in 4th edition that she married and then killed Nerull, the god of death, supplanting him. Her holiday is called the Night of Ascension, a day to celebrate her apotheosis.

We get a list of the Betrayer Gods, which includes the D&D heavy hitters: Asmodeus, Gruumsh, Lolth, Tharizdun, Tiamat, Vecna... and Torog?!?! Torog is a 4e primordial, I think. Let's see...

Torog: Yeah, he's the guy who crawls around in the Underdark. Here, he is "...banished within an unknown sliver of the Far Realm that now borders on the deepest pits of the Underdark..."

Each Betrayer God has a champion who wields a unique magic item, which are really cool. Each of these items has the life force of a fiend (balor, pit fiend, etc.) bound to it.

Chapter 2: Factions and Societies

The faction that I am most interested in is the Kryn Dynasty. What we learn about them:
  • The dark elves turned away from Lolth and worship an entity known as the Luxon.
  • The drow can can endure periods of sunlight.
  • "Their cities are shaded by by umbral magic during daylight hours."
  • Their armor is made of chitin and emits cricket-type sounds.
  • Luxon Beacon: Souls can be bonded to these devices. If a bound person dies within 100 miles of a beacon, their soul is reborn in a child within the vicinity.
  • There are 4 known beacons. "It is believed that once all the beacons are brought together, the Luxon will be summoned from their slumber to ask their children the great question and impart the truth."
There's a lot more to it, but that's the general idea. I think the Kryn Dynasty and their beacons are my favorite thing from this whole book.

In this chapter, we start to see that some of the art in this book is in a more cartoon-y style. It is good, but a little jarring for me. The cover itself is a bit more comic book-y than normal D&D art as well.

Library of the Cobalt Soul: The library isn't a physical place. It's a term to describe Ioun's teachings.
  • Archives: Temples of Ioun full of information and artifacts.
  • Expositors: Covert agents. "These enlightened infiltrators extract information that others would keepsecret and use their newfound knowledge to better the world."
I really like Ioun and I love the possibilities of her connection to Ioun stones.

Chapter 3: Wildemount Gazetteer

This chapter is absolutely massive. It gives me flashbacks to a similar chapter in Storm King's Thunder, which I struggled with mightily. Each area on the map is given a paragraph or two, along with adventure hooks and ideas.

Skyships: We get stats and information on skyships, which are powered by enchanted crystals known as brumestones. Air travel is "for the wealthy elite."

A place called Kamordah is "constructed over the prismatic mud from the Bromkiln Hills." There are Rainbow Vineyards, where wines are made. I will add these to my Great List of Food and Drinks before I forget.

I think I found my favorite piece of art in the book. It's a depiction of a floating outpost called Vurmas. It's so weird to me that, in the last 6 years or so, the best D&D art is of landscapes and places, not people. I don't understand why that is.

I can't seem to find this art online, so check out page 131 if you can to see what I'm talking about.

Hugeness: Taking in the enormity of this chapter, it makes me wonder how many people are going to sit down and absorb all of this, and then put it to use in their game. There are a TON of cool ideas in here - healing fruit (a trope I've always loved), moorbounders (special beasts of burden), a swath of land warped by the Calamity that now contains "electric wind," gravity funnels, and etherial rifts...

Generally, I think DMs prefer to make their own worlds. They'll cherry-pick stuff from books like this to use in their homebrew game.

But then, I forget that Critical Role is extremely popular and that there are a lot of people who are well-acquainted with some of this stuff. They've probably been dying to get their hands on this information. They can now set their own game in this world with their friends who might also watch the show.

So, for me, this book might feel a bit daunting, but for the hordes of Critical Role enthusiasts, this might be something they are already familiar with and are ready to fully embrace.

Found another great piece of art on page 153 - the Cauldron Sea: "A perpetual storm chokes the stony shores of this dark and brackish expanse, where aspects of the Elemental Plane of Water and the Abyss collide in constant entropic turmoil."

Chapter 4: Character Options

I am guessing that this is the chapter that most people will be interested in. Heck, the Dragon+ previews got me interested in this, and I'm not usually into player stuff.

The opening pages discuss how the different races fit in to the world. I am seeing a ton of re-used art from previous products here. I guess it's not a big deal, but I generally don't like that.

Hollow One: Beings whose souls have left for the afterlife, yet whose bodies still retain a fragment of their former selves.
  • They are indistinguishable from other creatures, " for the faint stench of necromancy that lingers about them."
  • Cling to Life: "When you make a death saving throw and roll 16 or higher, you regain 1 hit point."
  • Hollow Ones don't age.
  • They have an aura that can cause creatures to have disadvantage on a save once per day.
The Hollow One feels very relevant to our times. I guess that's depressing, but it rings true to me.

Dunamis and Dunamancy: An "...arcane force that helps shape the multiverse and might very well be what holds it together, like an infinite web of unseen tethers."

Echo Knight: A fighter subclass that utilizes Dunamancy. They can create echoes of themselves that can do all sorts of things - teleport, attack, see and hear through it, take a hit for an ally, all sorts of stuff. I really love this.

Chronurgy Magic: An Arcane Tradition for wizards. They can force re-rolls, put enemies in stasis for a round, place spells into a grey bead for an hour (!), and even peer through possible futures.

Graviturgy Magic: Another Arcane Tradition for wizards. They can manipulate gravity, allowing them to alter the weight of things, move things around, increase the velocity of attacks, create gravitational fields that reduce speeds to 0... all sorts of stuff. I am really loving all of this stuff.

Dunamancy Spells: We get a bunch of new spells that do everything from give a bonus to initiative rolls to aging someone to the point that they only have 30 days to live!

Heroic Chronicle: Piles of charts to help you create a backstory for your character. I am somewhat astonished to see 4 separate lists of food!

Backgrounds: We get a few backgrounds:
  • Grinner: A member of a secret organization that spreads freedom and inspires hope. They know a number of coded folk songs, which are detailed in the entry.
  • Volstrucker Agent: A clandestine organization of arcane agents who silence dissidents who would undermine the will of King Dwendal. Wow.
Chapter 5: Adventures in Wildemount

We get a few short adventures. Each is meant to introduce a group to one of the 4 regions of Wildemount.
  • Tides of Retribution (lvls 1-3): Deals with sahuagin, ship stuff.
  • Dangerous Designs (lvls 1-3): The heroes are hired to capture a goliath who just broke out of prison, and stumble onto a plot involving a war machine. I really love the art on page 218. Female goliaths look really cool.
  • Frozen Sick (lvls 1-3): People are turning into ice statues, the group needs to figure out what's going on. This involves an item with a tremendous name: The Vial of Frozen Woe.
  • Unwelcome Spirits (lvls 1-3): A warlock has gone missing.. don't want to spoil much else.
I'm a little thrown that all four adventures in the book are for levels 1-3. I mean, I get it... groups are launched into that quarter of the setting.

Chapter 6: Wildemount Treasures

Well now, here we go. 14 pages of magic items! And we start off with an item linked to one of my favorite planes - the Acheron Blade! +1 to hit, gives temp HP once per day, and it can give an enemy disadvantage on a save once per day.

I want to give some highlights, but the very next item has captured my attention. An Amulet of the Drunkard!! It smells of old, ale-stained wood. While wearing it, you regain HP when you drink ale/mead/wine. Tremendous.

The one after that is an Arcane Cannon. Amazing! It can shoot acid, fire, frost, lightning, and even poison.This can be plopped right onto the spelljammer ships in my Dungeon Academy game.

What's this? A food-related item?! Dust of Deliciousness! Ohh it comes with a drawback.I guess I shouldn't spoil it. It makes food more delicious.

Ah, the Luxon beacon has an entry. I mean.. it's on the cover of this book! Let's check it out. "This dodecahedron if faintly glowing crystal is heavier than it appears." You can use it to summon a "Fragment of Possibility", a little thing that follows you around. You can expend it to get a re-roll.

"If a follower of the Luxon who has undergone a ritual of consecution dies within 100 miles of a Luxon beacon, their soul is ensnared by it. This soul will be reincarnated within the body of a random humanoid baby developing within 100 miles of the beacon."

Reincarnation Dust! Sprinkle it on a dead body and it returns to life with a new body.

We get stats for the special magic items linked to the gods. I love the art for the grimoire infinitus (on page 272). These items have different states that must be unlocked. The states: Dormant, Awakened, Exalted. Each state unlocks different powers.

Infiltrator's Key: A mithral skeleton key. It can turn into a magic daggers, and can cast invisibility, altar self, etc. Once in exalted state, it can be used to create openings in walls/ceilings/floors and cast dimension door

Chapter 7: Wildemount Bestiary

by Andrew Mar
Monsters! About 30 pages of them.Here's some of my favorites:

Frost Giant Zombie: I'm on a big zombie kick right now, so this has my interest. An unstable artifact turned a bunch of frost giants into zombies! "Within the giants' glacial hearts, glowing and unbeating..." They have an aura that slows and possess a "freezing stare" that paralyzes and does cold damage.

Gloomstalker: These are basically wyverns from the Shadowfell. "Gloomstalkers were employed by arcanists and the followers of the Betrayer Gods as mounts in the ancient battles of the Calamity." They can teleport, they can snatch people, and they can emit a paralyzing shriek.

Husk Zombie: Fast zombies! "A humanoid slain by a melee attack from the zombie revives as a husk zombie on its next turn."

Sea Fury: When sea hag covens implode and the hags kill each other, the survivor sometimes becomes a sea fury - a mad, lonely, mega-hag. It has a death glare that can drop frightened enemies to 0 hit points! They have legendary actions  and everything.


This is one of those products that isn't really aimed at me. I don't watch Critical Role, and I have a backlog of D&D things I want to run (Al Qadim, Spelljammer, a pirate thing, maybe the Extinction Curse). All I'm really looking for out of this product is stuff that I can pull out and drop in to my current games.

There are a lot of things in here that I want to use in some fashion - the Echo Knight, the magic items, some of the monsters, and more. The magic items alone are tremendous, and many of them not in any way world-specific.

The whole idea of Dunamancy is well done. I think it could have gone horribly wrong. Gravity and time manipulation in D&D? That's really walking a sci-fi tightrope. But they totally pulled it off, in my opinion. It's fun and it's magic.

That's the thing I like the most about this book - it's something new. There has been an awful lot of retreading familiar ground in 5th edition. While I like the idea of keeping those old ideas alive, I feel a bit starved for new content. I want them to take those old ideas and walk forward with them.

Or, in this case, just put out something completely new. A new setting. New items, new monsters, new magic. It's fun, and I think it is done really well.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Ptolus Live with Chris Perkins as Special Guest

I am quite excited to check this out! The above video contains a discussion of an influential D&D campaign run by my favorite RPG guy: Monte Cook.

I am going to go through this and peel out all of the relevant information about the campaigns. It's a little tricky because the discussion jumps from one campaign to another, and at times it's not clear which group they're talking about.

There are a number of real life D&D campaigns that I think had a huge effect on the game as a whole. Off the top of my head:
  • Castle Blackmoor by Dave Arneson - The very first RPG campaign ever?
  • Castle Greyhawk by Gary Gygax - The campaign that playtested and formulated the D&D rules.
  • Forgotten Realms by Ed Greenwood - The campaign that has actually become the base setting of 5th edition.
  • Ptolus by Monte Cook - The campaign that ushered in the mega-popular 3rd edition of D&D.
  • Acquisitions Incorporated by Chris Perkins - The campaign that popularized the idea of podcasting/streaming D&D.
  • Critical Role by Matt Mercer - The campaign that was so popular that it boosted D&D 5th edition and proved that watching someone else play is a viable form of entertainment.
Looking at that list, I am somewhat amazed to think that Ed's Forgotten Realms campaign is still going! How long has he been running it? 30 years? I bet there's been a lot of amazing moments in that campaign.

I have written about Monte's real life campaigns before. I scoured the internet and found quite a bit of info about his Praemal campaign. You might want to read through that first. This discussion adds a lot of info about Praemal, as well as Ptolus.

Participating in this discussion:
  • Monte Cook
  • Sean Reynolds
  • Bruce Cordell
  • Chris Perkins
This stream is linked to the new kickstarter of Ptolus converted to 5th edition and the Cypher System.

All 4 of these people were working on D&D at the time they began playing together. When they began work on 3rd edition, Monte decided to take the campaign he had been running - Praemal - and advance the timeline 5,000 years to run a new campaign.

Ptolus was a city that had dungeons underneath it. The dungeons had been newly discovered, so there was a sort of gold rush.

Ptolus has an impossibly tall spire with an evil fortress at the top. The idea there was that the characters could be walking around the city and look up and see where they were going when they hit 20th level.

They played upstairs in Monte's house. Monte had piles of dwarven forge products, and sometimes he'd build massive set-pieces.

Monte actually had two groups playing in Ptolus - a Monday night group and a Thursday night group. They would sometimes have a session where both groups would come together to fight waves and waves of miniatures. Monte had to keep close track of things, because one group might hear about what the other was doing. Sometimes characters jumped from one group to another.

Chris points out that the Monday group pursued things linked to a single character, while the Thursday group operated as a mob (until they ran into the dark elves and began dying).

It is interesting to note that while the Monday group did a lot of epic things, most of the discussion revolves around the antics of the Thursday group.

The Monday Group: The Monday group were champions of good. They killed Moloch, the Ordainer of the Galchutt. Unlike the Thursday group, the Monday group never had a TPK, although Shurran did die and became a wraith. Sue used turn undead to kill him and then raised him back to life.

The Thursday Group: The Thursday night group was the Company of the Black Lantern. The Company of the Black Lantern got its name when the group was hit with a fireball and their lantern got scorched.

They were all "haughty elves", and they were always getting involved in shady things. At one point, the entire group became vampires (except for Chris).

One memorable incident was when a crime lord put together a play called "The Boy who Could Sing" for his nephew to star in. The group felt bad for the kid, and protected him from a rival gang's assassins.

Monte remembers that the group got angry at a dark elf and raised an army to go after a dark elf fortress. One ally was a dwarf riding an ankylosaurus. The whole raid failed and the party was killed. They got raised , and died again. Monte points out that this took place over the course of many sessions.

The Company of the Black Lantern also got killed by a lich, and it brought them back to life. Keith Strohm was brought back with his sword in his chest. The sword sang a song that mocked his god.

The Cow: Monte remembers that the Thursday night group ran into a dragon early on. It was going to kill them, but the group negotiated with it and the group promised it a cow. They had an entire game session where they had to get a cow through a dungeon and down to the dragon.

Characters: Chris actually had a character in each group. I'm sure I'm going to mess up the spelling of the character names, so bear with me.

Chris ran elf twins - Serrai (a wizard) and Sercean (a fighter/rogue/wizard). Chris loved the idea of the twins jumping from one group to the other without anyone knowing. Monte points out that only he and Chris often know who Chris was actually playing.

Serrai was convinced he was going to become a great wizard and he would sometimes ditch the party. Chris was sure he would die, and would sometimes push further and further just to see how far he could get before dying.

Chris says that when Serrai got high enough level, he bought some property in the nobles' quarter that the group used a base. When working on Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, he put Trollskull Manor in there as a base because of his experience in Ptolus.

Sercean was captured by the dark elves and was secretly replaced by a dark elf magically disguised as him. So, for a time, Chris was secretly playing three characters. The dark elf imposter eventually got banished into the sun.

Bruce had a number of characters. One of them was an elf archer named Chantaclair. This character used a prestige class that Bruce made that ended up being a bit "broken", so dropped that character and made an undead-hunting paladin named Farooq.

Bruce eventually jumped to the Monday group due to scheduling issues. His character in that group was Canabulum, a minotaur who multi-classed.

Sean Reynolds played Shurran, a rogue/fighter/cleric. He would write spell scrolls with calligraphy and he fell in love with many female NPCs. He was in love with a front desk-person of a tavern, but she had a policy of not dating adventurers because they died. When Shurran retired, they became a couple.

Sean played in the Thursday group for about 2 months. He was an elf named Akoru who didn't speak common very well. His battle cry was: "I have red pants". This is because Monte was very into painting minis at the time. He painted everyone's minis and Akoru ended up with red pants.

Erik Mona played an obnoxious character named Barbatos. Everyone in the group had punched him at one point. He ended up bluffing his way through a game of chess.

Praemal: In Praemal, Sean once used a frying pan tied to a rope to pull a flying creature down to the ground.

Using Magic Items: Monte was generally very stingy when it came to handing out magic items. Monte was shocked when Chris got a potion of strength and immediately drank it. Monte soon after embraced the idea of actually using your cool stuff rather than hoarding it.

Chris says that in general, if he gets a magic item, he uses it. If it just sits on his character sheet it's no good to anybody. Monte points out that a lot of times you scour your character sheet and see items that you forgot you even had.

Going to the Moon: The group once went to the moon - the Vallis moon. The group broke off a piece of the moon and rode it back to earth.

Why did the group go to the moon? On Praemal, a rift to the land of the dead had opened up. The only way to shut it down was to go to the source of all magic in Praemal - the moon. They had to deal with the 7 solars who protected it. Then they used a wish spell to break off a piece of the moon and fly it into the rift.

Bruce asked if they created the rift. No. Monte points out that the Praemal world was new and there were no undead until that rift opened.

There was a big black dragon named Father Claw that the group fought while they were on a comet.

Ptolumeus: John Ratcliffe had to leave the Praemal campaign due to real life reasons. His character was named Ptolumeus. He said "I guess my character founds a city or something." That became the city of Ptolus.

More Ptolus: After the two Ptolus campaigns were done, the heroes had hit 16th level and the storylines wrapped up. Monte decided he was going to run another Ptolus game with just one group.

The timeline advanced one year and the players made new characters. The heroes ended up in a cavern with elevated walkways. They encountered steampunk bad guys called the Shuul who rode mechanical dragonflies. Chris tried to jump on one.

Chris spent 3 hero points just to avoid dying. Chris points out that the hero points were good because Monte's games were lethal.

Sean's character, Shurran, was able to get a critical hit on a 12 or higher. The heroes were in the insane asylum in Ptolus, which is full of wizards. One of the wardens was a beholder.

Erik Mona was playing a paladin named Zophus Adarr. In the insane asylum fight, Zophus was fighting a beholder. He kept making his saving throws against the beholder's eye beams, but he knew he was in trouble. Sean's character came over to help. He rolled a critical, killed the beholder in one hit and then went back to what he was doing.

Favorite NPCs: The players name their favorite NPCS:
  • Lord Delmothian: He ran a house of dragon-touched people.
  • Jebbakanor: She had a magical glass arm that Sean's character really liked.
  • Prince Ironheart: He had a heart that glowed through his chest.
Chris's favorite enemies were the Vai, because they were incompetent. They were an assassin's guild. Monte always rolled bad when he used them.

Monte mentions that he tried to give the NPCs special traits because there were so many that he was worried the group couldn't tell them apart.

Final Thoughts: Really fun stuff! This show actually gives out some great ideas. I LOVE some of the NPCs, and the idea of leading a cow through a dungeon seems like a fantastic idea. An escort quest through a deadly dungeon? That's really great.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Wrapping Up Hell's Rebels

We're just about done with the Hell's Rebels adventure path! The heroes are now in the very final section of Book 6 and are making their way through a tower of bone that is situated in the eighth level of Hell.

Mission Accomplished: For me, finishing a big campaign is sort of like gaining a level in real life. To be able to say you've run a published campaign, from beginning to end, from 1st level to whatever, is a big deal. So here we are, about to check Hell's Rebels off the list and move forward.

We'll be jumping back to our Tomb of Annihilation characters, and will be playing through four classic Monte Cook adventures converted to 5th edition. I've already converted two of them - The Harrowing and Labyrinth of Madness. I just busted out my notes for it and I'm gearing up to finally, after so many years, run these adventures to the best of my ability.

As I was converting them, I noticed that Monte has certain monsters that he likes to use in his high level stuff. He uses gray renders and hezrous. My first instinct was to swap them out, but when I realized that they were seemingly a Monte Cook trope, I decided that I should lean into them rather than throw them into the garbage. Up until now, I've always disregarded hezrous as to me, there's just too many frog-person monsters in D&D and it can get confusing.

The Soul Anchor: For this session, the heroes needed to deal with the Soul Anchor - a magic ball of light that, if touched, allows you to retain your memories in the afterlife. Usually, in D&D, when you die, you are reborn as a planar entity with no memory of your former life.

In addition, there is a beating heart in the Soul Anchor. That's the heart of the villain, Barzillai Thrune. The group learned in this session that they needed to get the heart, go to Barzillai in Hell, put the heart back in his body, and destroy him for good. If they don't do this, The land around their city will be possessed by his spirit and.. well, they're screwed.

The heroes tore through the guardian of the soul anchor, which was a nemesis devil. They messed with the heart for a bit, and realized that it can't be destroyed. They recruited the witchfire (a sort of undead had-thing with cool art) to contact an infernal entity, who gave the group the info they needed.

Barzillai is in Hell: Then they used their Melancholic Talisman to summon a devil worm that took them to Cania! The only way to get to Barzillai, who is suffering eternal torment, is to go through the 9 rooms of this tower. Each room is linked to a sin that Barzillai committed in life. So the group was about to learn all his weird, creepy secrets.

I am not a fan of graphic torture in D&D, so I change it to jokey stuff. I know that's not for everyone, but that's how I roll. The group came upon a few chain devils "torturing" some of Barzillai's damned servants with unflattering sketches and caricatures. The heroes gave them their comeuppance.

Stat Stuff: I'm doing a bit of an experiment in this place. I am basically throwing every type of devil from the Monster Manual at the group, and seeing how it works out. According to kobold fight club, these two chain devils should have been a medium challenge, but they really weren't.

The group has a metric ton of magic items, and that has definitely affected their power level to a degree. Right now, they own a white robe of the archmage, but none of them can wear it. They've been trying to "dye it grey", which is a funny idea but hey, even I am not that lenient. It is a funny idea. I suppose they should visit the slaad lord Renbuu if they really want to change its color.

The Portals: This place doesn't have normal doors. Each floor has about three portals that lead to some of the 9 rooms. Each portal is linked to a sin. In order to use a portal, one hero must experience a misdeed of Barzillai's and lessen his burden. Barzillai has a thing for his own sister, so it's a little weird. I definitely softened some of these, again, to make them more jokey.

The heroes came to a room where a nereid was being held prisoner because she greatly resembled Barzillai's sister. Mephistopheles was using her to taunt Barzillai.

In here is an awesome magic item - a harp that, when you play the Song of Silver on it, casts both haste and heal. Pretty sweet!

That's where we stopped. I'm not too sure how many sessions we have left. Three? Something like that. I'm digging in to all my old Monte Cook stuff now to get that all ready to go!

This campaign has been good. It's definitely one of the best campaign/adventure path products ever made, in my opinion. I'm not really thrilled at all with my performance in running it, honestly. I did the best I could.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Seventh Piece of the Rod of Seven Parts

Right now, I have a group that is one the verge of pulling off something I've wanted to do for decades. They have obtained all seven pieces of the rod of seven parts, a legendary D&D artifact. They have played through what I think is the coolest way to do it - each piece was in a different D&D setting!

They've gone to Eberron, Waterdeep, Barovia, Sigil, you name it! One setting I had thought about using in this campaign was Al-Qadim, but frankly that would take quite a bit of work. I decided to set it aside because I know that when I finally use it, I want to do it justice. I love Al Qadim, and I hope someday to run a huge 5e campaign in that setting.

This is the fourth time I have tried to run the Rod of Seven Parts. The other three times ended in failure.

Attempt #1: I ran this in high school for my group at the time. We tried playing through the boxed set adventures. The first adventure, "At the Golden Cockatrice" went fine. But then I tried to run the adventure with the fire giants, and the group got frustrated because they were too low level to deal with it head-on, so they abandoned the whole thing.

Attempt #2: I had bought The Lost City of Gaxmoor, the 3e adventure by Gary Gygax's kids. I thought it would be cool if the pieces were spread out in the Gaxmoor. I tried to run this in a old school, lethal way, where death at low levels was likely. The group hated this idea, and we only played for one session.

I have never had a problem with my character dying, so I was a bit surprised at how much the group hated the idea of a high lethality game. I learned not to try to force a group to play in a style they aren't into.

Attempt #3: In 4th edition, I had three players each make a high level character. Each could choose one artifact to have. One took the Eye of Vecna, and another took the Hand of Vecna. They began searching for the pieces of the Rod of Seven Parts and successfully obtained the first two pieces, but when they tried to merge them without following the proper procedures, the pieces scattered. They gave up the quest after that.

So.. all previous attempts had ended in miserable failure. But this 5e group has persevered, and now are in the plane of Pandemonium, playing through the final encounters in the old 2e boxed set.

I should note that I've been writing about the rod for a long time, all in preparation to run this thing again.
Army of NPCs: The group has an army of NPCs with them. I guess I could have had all these NPCs present in the final battle with Miska the Wolf-Spider, but I don't know how I could make that interesting.

I whipped up a special room with 6 doors, each of which could only be opened with a corresponding segment of the rod. Each door issued forth a magical effect linked to the power of a particular segment of the rod.

The 6th piece has hold monster as its special power - so it activated a trap that held all everyone int he room. The group only had moments to get out of the trap themselves and get into Miska's final area before the doors sealed again. It worked out just fine, but I feel like there's probably a better way to handle the "army of NPCs" in a better, more organic way.

Miska Stats: I based Miska's stats on the stat block in the DMs Guild Rod of Seven Parts 5e product. I double-checked the numbers, using kobold fight club to see what monsters are a suitable challenge for the group. Monsters from Volo's Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes seem to be a bit more powerful/effective, so I borrowed from them.

I was worried about the final encounter being an anti-climax. Way back when I ran The Shackled City (converted from 3e to 4e, which is a whole story in itself), my final bad guy was way, way too weak and I didn't want to repeat the mistake.

There's a lot of ways the final battle can go. After all, the group's goal is to get the seventh piece - not necessarily to kill Miska.

As it has played out, the group is indeed in a battle with Miska. I think some of them forgot about his poison blood. The ranger actually shot him with an arrow point blank and his blood almost hit her. His blood is what shattered the rod of law in the first place! His blood, if it touches you, will drop you to 0 hit points if you fail a DEX save!

We had to stop in the middle of the battle, but right now the group actually has the fully-assembled rod of seven parts and is fighting Miska the Wolf-Spider.

Whatever happens, I'm beyond pleased to have finally run this all the way through with such a great group. It's so hard to find just the right players. I got really lucky this time around, and I'm definitely looking forward to the next session!

The Wyrmwraith

I've been running the Hell's Rebels adventure path for over a year now, and we're right at the final section now. I always feel especially good when we get to this point in a published adventure. Not many groups make it all the way to the end!

It's kind of funny... all of the coolest stuff is at the very end of these books, and yet most people won't get to experience it. That's why I think the fist chapter of an adventure is the most important - if it's boring or uninspired, there's very little chance that a group is going to get the momentum they need to play all the way through. If anything, the very first encounter should be one of the best, most exciting things of the entire adventure.

That's one of the reasons I love this path. The very beginning takes place during a riot! That's something I have never seen in D&D before. This path starts off very strong and, IMO, the first 4 books are all stellar.

Last time we played, the group made a detour to the pirate islands known as the Shackles, and in this latest session we got back to the business at hand: A very cool dungeon known as the Soulbound Fane. Here's the deal with this dungeon:
  • The entrance involves a magical lift. The group has to figure out how to activate it.
  • There's a "wyrmwraith" - a dragon/wraith.
  • A bridge over a chasm is guarded by shadow golems.
  • There's a mysterious room with magical powers.
  • A witchfire (undead witch/hag/thing) can give the group some info.
  • The Soul Anchor - a magic device that's been causing trouble with the city.
I always opt for SPEED MODE when I convert these things. If I want the group to get through the majority of this in a 2-hour session, I need to streamline it and, most importantly, I need all of the necessary information right in front of me.

One thing I've noticed with these Pathfinder paths is that they're a bit dense and wordy. Also, information is split up into multiple sections, sometimes. It's not something I could run from the book.

I sit down and make myself cheat sheets with all of the relevant info i need and stats right on a single sheet of paper, if it fits. The timing of when I do this is very important. I'd made most of these sheets months ago, but I need to read them over and adjust them either the night before, or, if possible, the day of the game. Otherwise I can't remember anything and it's a bit of a fiasco.

On this particular occasion, the preparation went very smoothly. I  had decided to be real loose with the shadow golem and allow them to use clever/funny ideas to bypass the encounter. We only have two hours, and if they fight the wyrmwraith, we can't really squeeze in the golems.

I was thinking that they'll probably just push these golems off of the bridge so they plunge into the chasm below. But, as always, the players took me by surprise. They blindfolded the golems and rotated them to face a wall. That way, they wouldn't "activate" when the group passed by.

The wyrmwraith fight went fine, but I wasn't happy with my half-assed conversion of it to 5e. I wanted to sit down and read up on 5e wraiths and then apply those ideas to the 5e dragon, but I didn't quite have the time. Basically, I had an undead dragon that could cast finger of death three times per day. It was fine, but could have been much cooler with a bit more time and energy put into it.

The adventurers go to the Soul Anchor - which is a ball of energy that has special powers. Floating in it is the still-beating heart of the campaign's villain, who the group thought they had killed for good!

The anchor is protected by a nemesis devil, a Pathfinder monster which is a devil who was once worshiped as a god. The heroes were just about to handle this monster, but we were out of time.

Once this is done, we go into the final section of the whole path! It is really awesome, and has tremendous maps. Really looking forward to the these final sessions!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Dungeons & Dragons - A Guide to the Sorrowsworn

by Dave Allsop
Today I want to look at a monster who has a somewhat unique situation in D&D. The sorrowsworn of 4th edition bears almost no resemblance to the sorrowsworn presented in 5th edition. Why the change? I don't know.
  • 4e Sorrowsworn: Twisted shadow angels that serve the Raven Queen.
  • 5e Sorrowsworn: Shadowfell creatures who embody specific negative emotions.
Then we'll look at one of my favorite NPCs in D&D history - Vorkhesis, Exarch of Fate, and first of the sorrowsworn.

4e Monster Manual

Sorrowsworn are "...awful manifestations of the Shadowfell that feed on grief and are often tasked with slaying powerful mortals who have cheated death."

A few of them are agents of the Raven Queen, sent to claim the souls of those who have escaped her clutches. "These sorrowsworn torment their prey with whispers of impending doom or past failures, knowing instinctively what each victim holds dear or regrets."

A sorrowsworn's weapon turns to dust when the creature it is attacking dies.

Shadowraven Swarm: Shadowravens are epehemral black birds with razor-sharp talons. They pick at the bones of corpses left behind after great battles and foretell the arrival of their bleak masters with ominous caws and rustling wings.

Types of Sorrowsworn:
  • Sorrowsworn Soulripper: Teleport and claw.
  • Sorrowsworn Reaper: Wields "Sorrow's Scythe" which does psychic damage.
  • Sorrowsworn Deathlord: Has an aura of Mournful whispers, wields a dark scythe.
Sorrowsworn are neither undead nor demonic. They are fragments of death incarnate, and are drawn to locations where others have died in great numbers, such as battlefields.

Many serve the Raven Queen and are tasked with slaying powerful mortals who have cheated death.

They reside in bleak lairs - thorny pits and dank caves. Keep grisly trophies and remains of past victims. Shadowravens watch over them.

They protect the Raven Queen from the plots of independent nightwalkers and death giants.

"Heroes among the shadar-kai, and others who serve the Raven Queen without fail, can ascend to the ranks of the sorrowsworn. Doing so is one way mighty shadar-kai can acquire immortality..."

E1 Death's Reach

In this adventure, the group ends up in the Raven Queen's throne room. It is guarded by sorrowsworn fleshrippers and sorrowsworn doomguards.

The sorrowsworn are described: "Gaunt black-clad creatures stand in a line at the bottom of the stairs, their faces embodiments of bereavement. One spreads its dark wings and says in a deathlike voice, "What needs the Raven Queen with mortal agents when she has the likes of us?"

New Types:
  • Sorrowsworn Fleshrippers: Wear spiked gauntlets.
  • Sorrowsworn Doomguard: Wield scythes, can teleport.
E2 Kingdom of the Ghouls

This adventure features Doresain, King of the Ghouls, who is an agent of Orcus that lurks in the Shadowfell.

Doresain enjoys corrupting those who serve the Raven Queen. He has a crypt full of the dessicated remains of sorrowsworn that have been stolen from the Shadowfell.

There was a legendary sorrowsworn fought a hydra at "Black Blood Falls." His sorrowsong blade ended up lodged in the hydra.

Sorrowsong Blade: "This blade sings a mournful dirge of fear and despair as it slices through the air. Wielded by the chosen of the sorrowsworn and charged with psychic energy. Does psychic damage in addition to slashing. Once per day, can push a target up to 25 feet and makes them vulnerable to psychic damage for a short time.

Sorrowsworn Dread Wraith: The sorrowsworn knight who fought the hydra fell in battle and was buried in an ancestral crypt. Doresain turned him into a wraith and bound it to his service. "Now insane, the sorrowsworn dread wraith haunts his crypt, his coterie of shadowravens still under his command."

The wraith has a description: "A ghostly creature, far taller than a human, appears near you. It wears fine armor and carries an ephemeral version of the weapon that was embedded in the hydra at Black Blood Falls. The creature's visage is gaunt and demonic, and its eyes are large, soulless orbs. The light near it grows dark, seemingly swallowed by the creature's insubstantial form."

E3 Prince of Undeath

In this adventure, Orcus tries to kill the Raven Queen. There are a few sorrowsworn mentioned in one encounter, nothing much.

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes

by Cory Trego-Erdner
The artist did quite a bit of art for Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, which can be found at his artstation page here.

So! 5th edition rolls around and wow, the sorrowsworn are completely different!

These creatures embody the forms of suffering inherent in the Shadowfell.

They are emotion given form - manifestations of anger loneliness, despair and distress.

  • The Angry: A two-headed creature with hook hands.
  • The Lonely: Driven by a need for companionship, they use their harpoon arms to pull creatures close.
  • The Lost: Manifestations of anxiety that try to embrace any creature they can reach.
  • The Wretched: Travel in groups, drinking the life force of living creatures. 
Why the change? I poked around looking for videos and found this one. In it, D&D designer Adam Lee talks about the thinking that went into this. He doesn't explain why they decided to ditch the 4e version, but he does have some interesting things to say.

Adam Lee says that they either coalesce or they were people who were in The Shadowfell for so long that they slowly mutated.

What is the Shadowfell? It's a negative energy world. It is dark, filled with sorrow and sadness. What if, in the Shadowfell, what happens when hunger becomes an actual thing? The shadar-kai became a gloomy, morose people. When the Raven Queen fell, they fell with her. Whether she chose the Shadowfell or the Shadowfell chose her is up for debate.

Does the Shadowfell warp who you are? If you stay in a bad mood for too long, does it affect how you physically are? Taken to the extreme, you could turn into a sorrowsworn. The Shadowfell is a magical realm that has the potency to do that.

The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond

by Jesper Ejsing
This book details what some call the very first sorrowsworn: Vorkhesis. He is an exarch of the Raven Queen and the first of the sorrowsworn.

No Eyes, One Hand: Born without eyes, but has the ability to see far beyond himself and his surroundings. He has only one hand, in which he grips a black longspear.

I can't help but notice that he couldn't be more ready to wield the eye and hand of Vecna...

Keeper of Souls: When a powerful creature dies, the Raven Queen might choose to hold that person's soul in her realm, whether at the behest of another god or for her own reasons.

Vorkhesis guards these souls, and "...epic tier adventurers might need to fight him if they seek to rescue them."

Minions: If he is attacked, Vorkhesis utters a word that extinguishes the light in the Hall of Final fate, plunging it into utter darkness. Then he and his sorrowsworn attack.

King of Lonely: Vorkhesis knows the ultimate fate of every creature that has lived. He welcomes visitors and relishes the chance to share stories with them. He takes any chance to connect with the living and get a sense of what normal life is like.

He is sometimes referred to as the Son of the Raven Queen. Rumors persist that he is the son of Nerull.

Deathly Communion: Many pilgrims seek out Vorkhesis to speak to a long-dead relative. Vorkhesis can summon the spirit. Vorkhesis utters the words of the deceased in his own voice. 

Abilities and Traits:
  • Immune to fear and gaze effects
  • Aura of Bereavement: You have -2 to saving throws and any non-dying bloodied enemy that ends its turn in the aura must make a death saving throw.
  • Boon: When an enemy within 100 feet dies, Vorkhesis gains 30 temporary hit points.
  • Greatspear: Critical = target must make a death save. The spear returns to his hand if thrown.
  • Vanishing Strike: On a critical, any ongoing damage that the target takes goes up by 10 and Vorkhesis becomes invisible.
  • Alignment: Unaligned
  • Can fly
Guardian of the Raven Queen: To enter the Raven Queen's home of Farad Exitis, you must pass three tests to prove your devotion to the Raven Queen. Each test echoes one part of her portfolio.

Each test is spelled out in great detail in the boxed set. I don't want to spoil it, so here's the basic gist of each one:

Test 1 - The Challenge of Doom: This challenge plays on the feeling of powerlessness that can come with the knowledge of one's inevitable death. Travelers must overcome their despondency and forge onward, just as the Raven Queen would have them live boldly.

Test 2 - The Challenge of Eternity: You must reflect upon eternity and its effects on the mortal body. You must conquer and accept the fleeting nature of mortal existence.

Test 3 - The Challenge of Destiny: One must learn to navigate the complexity of life and to reach their goal before the flame of life is snuffed out forever.

Passing the challenges means that you gain access to the heart of Farad Exitis and meet its lord - Vorkhesis, exarch of fate.

The Hall of Final Fate: "A great audience chamber lined with statues and friezes of ravens appears around you.

Heroes can request a boon, which might be passage into Zvomarana, a quest to earn the Raven Queen's favor, or the answer to any question that the characters might wish to ask.


Sorrowsworn Tactics

More Types of Sorrowsworn

WebDM did a huge video on the sorrowsworn right here: