I decided that what the world needed was a 5e Dungeons & Dragons background based on Joan Clayton--the cut-wife of Ballantrae Moor--from Penny Dreadful. Fair warning: this background is for "mature audiences," deals with a delicate topic, and definitely won't have a place in every game or at every table. A pdf of the cut-wife background can be had here.
A strange confluence of influences: I've been thinking about the Lord of the Rings D&D that's coming out (and the odd lack of information about it), I watched the last Hobbit movie recently, I've been listening to Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse a lot lately, and I've been having recurring dreams about the Nazgul. All of this got my thinking about how I would run a game set in Middle-Earth, but with a bit of a "blackened" miasma clinging to the setting like a cloak of despair. Some basic guiding principles:
set the game between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, emphasizing the rise of Shadow and the darkening of Arda
clear the board of the major protagonists from Tolkien's novels; make room for a different fellowship to do the heavy lifting
Gravelord Nito † Emperor - Into the Infinity of Thoughts † Satyricon - Nemesis Divina † Summoning - Nightshade Forests † Darkthrone - Under a Funeral Moon † Burzum - Black Spell of Destruction † Mayhem - From the Dark Past † Scorpioness Najka
"Natural Language" So, your fist isn't a weapon but when you attack with your fist it is a weapon attack. You can make a weapon attack with something that isn't a weapon. Okay. * * *
Inspiration Inspiration is a really interesting addition to Dungeons & Dragons. Finally, the world's premier roleplaying game has actual rules and mechanisms for roleplay! Except there are some problems in execution here:
There aren't a lot of guidelines about when the DM is supposed to award Inspiration to the players, but what is there on paper states that you should award Inspiration when a player roleplays in a way that is connected to their character's personality, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Which sounds good, but in practice this means that the DM will need to keep track of five traits per character and be on the lookout for them in play. The DM already has enough stuff to keep track of.
Spending Inspiration give you advantage on a roll, but it's a bit hamstrung by the fact that it has to be spent prior to making a roll. Both dice might show successful results, which seems like a waste of a precious commodity. (You can only have one "point" of Inspiration at a time.) In this case, it would make more sense if spending Inspiration got you a re-roll or advantage on a roll.
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Take a look at the ranger's capstone 20th level special ability, then compare it against any other late-level ability from the other classes. Foe Slayer is so bad that you can roll it into the ranger's 1st level Favored Enemy ability and it in no way unbalances the game. If a ranger in any of my games made it to 20th level, we'd definitely be coming up with a replacement ability.
Now that he possesses the key to Hell, Morpheus finds his dream kingdom visited by gods, angels, faerie, demons, and abstract concepts who wish to possess Lucifer's recently-abandoned domain. (Thor and Loki come calling and there isn't a damned thing Marvel can do about it! Thor is especially played for laughs as a drunken lout.) Of course, this cohort of spiritual powers is itself a kind of Hell, especially for the archly isolated Morpheus. Making matters worse is the fact that accepting the bribe or acquiescing to the threats of one party interested in taking over Hell means alienating and angering the others--therein lies Lucifer's trap. Everyone has something to offer Dream in return for the key to Hell, but the demons bring the most leverage: they would trade Choronzon (a demon Morpheus once had to duel) to torture as he sees fit, and more importantly they offer him Nada (and threaten to devour her soul if their bargain is refused). Ultimately, though, Dream grants the key to the angels, who expressly do not want it but have been commanded by their Creator to oversee Hell in Lucifer's absence. It makes sense: no one who wants Hell for themselves is fit to tend it. This also discloses some very interesting truths about the duality of existence in Gaiman's fiction: for Heaven (err, "The Silver City") to exist, its antithesis must also exist. Since Heaven and Hell are reflections of each other, both are needed and thus Hell must be opened for business once more. Ponder the fate of the angels assigned to Hell's governance; it's fascinating that Heaven must manufacture its own rebels, embittered by the task given them, for its own maintenance. Of course, Morpheus eventually does battle Azazel for Nada's return--and win. His reunion with Nada--after what has to be the world's weakest apology for condemning her to ten-thousand years of Hell--is brief and bittersweet: he rejects her offer of becoming mortal to be with her, she rejects his offer to make her a goddess, and she decides upon being reborn as an infant in Hong Kong. Loki manages to trickster his way out of returning to his Asgardian punishment, and Lucifer learns to love life on the beach. Oh, and along the way Gaiman drops a piece of canonical lore that will become the fulcrum of the saga: the current Endless are but aspects of what they represent. They can die, and can abdicate responsibility for their realms as Lucifer did, but there will always be another aspect to replace them. The choices made on the path of destiny have consequences, even for the Endless.
The candlemen are the degenerate descendants of engineers who were imprisoned deep below the earth in disused train tunnels. They are supplied food and candles from a mysterious benefactor (or jailer?) above. The candlemen keep thousands of candles burning at all times within their lair; indeed, the lair itself is coated with lairs of cooled, lumpen wax. The constant exposure to intense candlelight has rendered the candlemen blind, and the light within their lairs makes it difficult for non-candlemen to see as well. While their blindness renders them relatively harmless on an individual level, they tend to attack in great swarms of broken-bodied madness.
* * * I posted the above on this blog about two years ago. The "candlemen" were inspired by a particularly vivid chapter of Jay Lake's novel Mainspring. Somehow, Lake found the post and linked to it on his blog; he really seemed to get a kick out of how I adapted his idea for a game. I definitely got a kick out of him enjoying my post. Jay Lake died later in 2014. I didn't know him, never met him, but it still felt like a loss. Of course, the best way to celebrate the life of an author is to read their works, so I'm making a point of delving into Green and Trial of Flowers this year, at the very least.