Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Hiatus and Foes, Dangers, Hazards

This blog is going on hiatus. But before I hit the lights on my way out, here's the Colonial Ethersea book in free pdf form. Or if you like handling dead trees, you can purchase it here.

Below are some Foes, Dangers, & Hazards from the Colonial Ethersea book. If you like this sort of thing, there's more where that came from in the book:

The ashborn are a race of beings who inhabit one of the moons of Elsinore; they are a protean race able to assume a variety of forms—they are even capable of convincingly emulating specific individuals. Ashborn agents are considered to be the ultimate spies of the Ethersea. They are not, however, assassins; the ashborn refuse to kill, but they will incapacitate their foes if necessary.

Butcher Lizard
Butcher lizards are large, eight-legged lizards used as mounts by the lizardfolk, bullywugs, and troglodytes of Sycorax. Butcher lizards are difficult to tame, but once they have come to accept a rider they become psychically linked to their owner.

Devilfin are ether-bound fish-like creatures that have the appearance of a manta ray-great white shark hybrid. They avoid troubling larger ethercraft, but will certainly prey upon those lost adrift on the Ethersea.

Ether Leviathan
Ether leviathans are massive, squid-like beasts who roam the Ethersea. They have been known to attack ethercraft in order to eat the sentient beings within. Some ether leviathans are able to communicate their emotions telepathically, but their minds tend to project feelings of hatred and hunger almost exclusively; nevertheless, it is possible to convince an ether leviathan to fulfill a specific task as long as there is the promise of an enormous feast as a reward.

Faceless Men
The faceless men are homunculi created by a now-extinct ancient race to act as their stormtroopers. Even though their masters are deceased, the faceless men still fight an endless war against all other sentient creatures of the Ethersea. Faceless men are physically imposing; they are tall, muscular, and gray-skinned. They possess no facial features or apparent sensory apparatus. They do not communicate with those not of their kind; the only expression that can be expected of them is mindless violence.

Fungal Ferox
Fungal ferox are sentient, four-legged, mushroom-like creatures who live upon Kharm, one of the moons of Oberon. The fungal ferox hunt and consume mammalian lifeforms; they have hardened teeth-like protrusions that appear to be made of calcified yeast. Some Ethersea adventurers hunt the fungal ferox, despite the obvious risks in such a venture, because the “flesh” of these creatures acts as a powerful and prophetic hallucinogen.

Lightman's Company
Lightman's Company is a host of specters that haunts the Ethersea. In life, Lightman's Company was a regiment of colonial soldiers from Cathedra Glorium that led the charge in an ill-fated invasion of Hecate. In death, they exist to kill the living until their remains are recovered and given proper military honors; only that will remove the curse of undeath from them.

Mind Devourers
The mind devourers are a race of large psionic mollusks who scheme to conquer the other races of the Ethersea. They feed off of strong emotions, but particularly savor fear and depressed resignation. Their homeworld is unknown, but they sail the Ethersea aboard vessels that seem to be made of some sort of living coral-like substance.

Mournfield Locusts
The mournfield is a treacherous belt of asteroids located in an oft-avoided sector of the Ethersea. Within the asteroids of the mournfield live and breed a species of large, ether-faring locusts. Swarms of these mournfield locusts emerge from the asteroid belt, take flight on the Ethersea, and feed upon any animate or inanimate matter they encounter. The destruction wrought by mournfield locusts is legendary; all sane creatures flee before their devastating advance.

Sorrowsoul Cultists
The sorrowsoul are a race of Ethersea interlopers who have never actually been seen, though their influence has certainly been felt. The sorrowsoul employ brainwashed cultists of many species to collect the souls of their fellow sentient creatures within special gem-like devices known as sorrowsoul crystals. (See Recovered Devices for more information.)

Unbound Emanation
Though rare, the emanations of black energy that sometimes escape from black holes becomes self-aware. These rogue emanations resemble nothing so much as patch of moving darkness or clouds of utter voidspace. Their motivations are currently unknown, but they are not always immediately hostile to those who encounter them. They will, however, retaliate against those who attack them by pulling aggressors into their core of darkness, wherein their foes cease to exist.

War Golem

Left over from a war fought upon the Ethersea in ages long past, these titanic war machines could be an untold menace if they were to fall into the wrong hands. Legends say that some war golems “awaken” and act under their own power, but this has not yet been documented or verified.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Poe's Philosophy of Composition and Campaign Setting Delivery

art by James Carling
I've published three system-neutral setting books at this point: Planet Motherfucker, Ulverland, and Colonial Ethersea. Each one of those books is small; they're all trade paperback format and the longest is under sixty pages. They're calculated to fit within my personal preferences: concise over compendious, flavorful rather than all-encompassing, lots of "holes" to be filled in as you want instead of completely defined.

Essentially, the kind of setting material I value fits into the theory of writing that Edgar Allan Poe outlines in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition." Although Poe was addressing what he valued in literature, it's a pretty good fit for explaining what I value in setting products. Poe's essay outlines three central tenets of literary composition:

As Poe states in "The Philosophy of Composition," "It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting — and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as 'Robinson Crusoe,' (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem." Clearly, Poe favors shorter literary works--works that can be consumed within "the limit of a single sitting." To Poe's mind, the immediacy of a short story trumped the expansiveness of a novel. (This is also evident when you consider the typical length of his own literary productions.)

For me, the best settings are ones that I can digest in a single sitting. I'm currently dipping into the Eberron campaign setting, and honestly there is no way I could read that hefty tome in one go. It also points to a matter of subjective taste: I prefer my settings sketchy, with room to improvise. A setting that takes more than one sitting to read through will always be too developed, or too large, to interest me fully.

Poe took issue with the artistic myth-making perpetrated by the Romantic poets. According to authors like Wordsworth and Coleridge, the archetypal Romantic was someone who would retreat into nature, become inspired by the natural world because of their rarefied aesthetic sensibilities, and experience a "spontaneous overflow of strong feelings" that would be recorded as poetry. This spontaneous overflow was supposedly the raw lyricism of the Romantic poet, unleashed from the confines of the rational mind; but Poe knew better. Although the Romantics captured their impressions as they occurred, they were also ruthless editors who produced draft after draft as they polished their work before presentation. The myth of the perfect first draft as the shining evidence of the poet's soul is just public relations.

Or, as Poe would have it, "Most writers — poets in especial — prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — an ecstatic intuition — and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought — at the true purposes seized only at the last moment — at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view — at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable — at the cautious selections and rejections — at the painful erasures and interpolations — in a word, at the wheels and pinions — the tackle for scene-shifting — the step-ladders and demon-traps — the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio." The value for campaign products is evident here as well: as much as I like seeing an explosion of inspiration, I want that inspiration to be tempered by well-chosen edits and a serious consideration of how all the setting elements cohere together.

Unity of Effect
Taking his poem "The Raven" as a paradigmatic example, Poe argues that all great literature should strive to express one feeling or atmosphere. Everything within the work--characters, tone, word choice, setting, symbolism, etc.--must work in orchestrated unity to produce a singular effect for the reader.

A good setting, in my estimation, does one thing only but does that one thing well. There's a reason why kitchen-sink settings are sometimes maligned; in attempting to be everything to everyone, they're often rendered bland in the process. My preference is for a setting that has one theme or feeling or aesthetic experience writ large.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Colonial Ethersea

“Over me, about me, closing in on me, embracing me ever nearer, was the Eternal, that which was before the beginning and that which triumphs over the end; that enormous void in which all light and life and being is but the thin and vanishing splendour of a falling star, the cold, the stillness, the silence, - the infinite and final Night of space.”
– H. G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon

Escape from the terrestrial realm was but an idle daydream for most, until an alien etherfleet crashed down upon the World Between, scattering unheralded bits of advanced technology among an unwitting populace. Although much of the alien technology remains mysterious, some bright coves from the various nations began to get the hang of how some of it worked and even managed to put the debris together in new and inventive ways. Several kingdoms (and even some secret societies) were able to reverse-engineer craft that were capable of traversing the Ethersea—what we might refer to as “outer space”—via phlogiston-powered engines. The largest of these craft were dubbed arkworlds, for they were big enough to house a population of travelers, explorers, and expatriates willing to take them into the furthest reaches of the unknown Ethersea in search of new worlds that could be colonized.

Currently, the arkworlds have converged at the Scapeworlds—a solar system in the Ethersea containing at least five inhabitable coreworlds. Each arkworld is attempting to claim the planets of the Scape for their own, but competition between the arkworlds' ethernauts and resistance from the planetary natives troubles the very notion of the imperial adventure. The Great Game is afoot!

What is it?
The Colonial Ethersea is a place of retro-futuristic sci-fantasy adventure.

What lies beneath?
The conventions of steampunk and Victorian science fiction: moustache twirling villains, impossible and antiquated technology, re-purposed Gothic tropes, imperial colonial adventure, and fighting for Queen and Country; encounters with mysterious alien races and exotic predators; delving into abandoned etherhulks and derelict orbital stations; salvage crews and bounty hunters, colonists and outlaws, swashbucklers and privateers; travel by ethercraft, hot air balloon, sky galleon, and dirigible; the influence of Miyazaki, 19th century imperialism, and “screampunk” mash-ups.

What does it feel like?

A hot blast of steam amid the chill of the endless ether, the taste of whiskey and dust in your mouth, the sound of whirring machinery as you are carried along to the uncharted places of the Scapeworlds.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Some Ideas for Magic in a Weird West Setting

The Tennessee Curse - Until cured, the victim of this curse will receive no joy or pleasure from imbibing alcoholic drinks. They will, however, wake up with a raging hangover if they indulge anyway.

Agave Revenge - Casting this spell allows you to animate one cactus you can see. The cactus will uproot itself and assume a somewhat man-like shape. It will fight for you if you command it to do so.

Hoyle's Minor Illusion - This spell will allow you to change the back design of any deck of cards you have on your person. This comes in mighty handy when you need the ace up your sleeve to match the cards on the table.

Curse of the Boot Viper - If you obtain a lock of your enemy's hair, you can cast this curse upon them overnight. This spell conjures a poisonous viper within the confines of their left boot.

Ring of Fire - This spell causes a number of tumbleweed to encircle the caster and then erupt into flames. The protective and warding ring of fire created by this spell travels with the caster until the end of its duration.

Lembas Jerky - When cast upon ordinary preserved meat, this spell gives each piece of trail jerky the power to ward off hunger and sustain a man through his labors for an entire day.

Howl of the Ugly Coyote - This spell causes a foe's campsite to be plagued by the howling of phantom coyotes. Sleep will be impossible due to this spell.

Sense the Black Worm's Tremors - After casting this spell, the mage will be aware of any imminent cave-ins for the rest of the day while he or she is underground.

Wild Horses Will Drag You Away - Any horse that this spell is cast upon immediately becomes wild, unbroken, and untamed. This is mighty inconvenient for anyone who happens to be riding the horse at the time it is ensorcelled.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Breeding a Better Shifter

I took on the Unearthed Arcana version of the warforged here (needs another revision, I think); now I'm taking on the shifter from the same doc.

Some notes at the outset: I'm only focusing on two subraces; the long list of them in the article seems a bit excessive. The two I'm focusing on ate some of the stuff from the others. Also, I increased the number of shifts before you need a rest since I've keyed the majority of their special abilities to shifting.

Shifter Traits
Shifters are descended from humans and lycanthropes. Although they cannot fully change to animal form, they can take on animalistic features by a process they call shifting.
As a shifter, you have the following racial traits.
Ability Score Increase. Your Wisdom score increases by 1.
Size. Shifters are about the same size as humans. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Bestial Senses. You have advantage on any Wisdom (Perception) checks.
Darkvision. Your lycanthropic heritage grants you the ability to see in dark conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Shifting. On your turn, you can shift as a bonus action. Shifting lasts for 1 minute or until you end it on your turn as a bonus action. While shifting, you gain temporary hit points equal to your level + your Constitution bonus (minimum of 1). 
You also gain features that depends on your shifter subrace, described below.
You may shift twice without needing to finish a short or long rest before you can shift again.
Subrace. Several subraces of shifter exist, each with its own animalistic features. Choose one of the options below.

As a longtooth shifter, you are a ferocious combatant.
Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2.
Bestial Hide. While shifting you get a +1 bonus to Armor Class.
Ferocious Bite. While shifting, you can make a bite attack as an action. This is a melee weapon attack that uses Strength for its attack roll and damage bonus and deals 1d6 piercing damage. If this attack hits a target that is your size or smaller, the target is also grappled.
Wildhunt Tenacity. While shifting, you gain advantage on all Wisdom saving throws.

As a razorclaw shifter, you make swift, slashing strikes in battle.
Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2.
Furious Claws. While shifting, you can make an unarmed strike as a bonus action. You can use your Dexterity for its attack roll and damage bonus, and this attack deals slashing damage.
Bounding Speed. While shifting, you can use the Dash action as a bonus action.
Wildhunt Reflexes. While shifting, you gain advantage on all Dexterity saving throws.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Magic Summary for Beyond the Wall

I found myself wishing there was a summary of all the cantrips, spells, and 1st level rituals in Beyond the Wall (with governing attributes for cantrips and rituals, no less), so I made one for myself. Maybe this will be helpful to you too.



  • Beast Ken – speak with animals (Wis)
  • Blessing – gives a bonus to rolls for a specific task (Wis)
  • Conjure Sound – create illusory sounds (Int)
  • Druid's Touch – make plants grow (Wis)
  • Hexing – gives a penalty to rolls for a specific task (Wis)
  • Glamour Weaving – create silent images (Int)
  • Mage Light – create light (Int)
  • Second Sight – see spirits and command them if you know their true name (Int)


  • Abjuration – banish a spirit
  • Banish Undead – make undead creatures flee
  • Bar the Way – magically lock a door or gate
  • Blight of Loneliness – victim fails all Charisma checks
  • Brave the Flames – gain immunity to fire
  • Burning Hands – flames leap from your hands
  • Call the Swarm – summon a swarm of small animals
  • Commanding Word – force the victim to obey an order
  • Clear Eyes – you can see through all illusions
  • Conjure Darkness – creates impenetrable darkness
  • Entanglement – the victim is held fast
  • Evade the Dead – you are invisible to the undead
  • False Friend – bend the victim to your will
  • Feather Fall – save the recipient from a dangerous fall
  • Flame Charm – control fire
  • Flash of Brilliance – blind everyone nearby
  • Forgetful Mind – cause the victim to forget almost everything of importance
  • Friend's Call – alert your allies to your location
  • From the Brink – stabilizes a dying creature
  • Great Endurance – fill your companions with vigor; ignore fatigue and poison
  • Greater Illusion – create audio and visual illusions
  • Healing Touch – heal wounds
  • The Howling – create a deafening cacophony
  • Inspiration – give allies a bonus to attacks and saving throws
  • Magic Missile – cause damage at a distance
  • Masked Image – appear as someone else, but not a specific individual
  • Mystical Shield – gain a bonus to your armor class
  • Obscurement – become hazy and difficult to see
  • Opening Touch – open an ordinary door or lock
  • Pass Without Trace – leave no tracks that can be followed
  • Petrifying Gaze – freeze the target in place
  • Phantom Skill – grant the recipient a skill for a limited time
  • Reanimation – create skeletons and zombies from corpses
  • Sanctuary of Peace – make it difficult for others to attack
  • Sense Nature – sense supernatural influence and general disposition
  • Silence – create an area of utter silence
  • Smuggler's Luck – one item in your possession becomes undetectable
  • Spider Climb – the target can scale surfaces
  • Swift Step – gain unnatural speed and grace
  • Terrifying Presence – cause fear in your enemies
  • Tinker's Gift – mend a broken object
  • True Strike – gain a bonus on your next attack roll
  • Veil of Sleep – put the target to sleep
  • Web – fill an area with sticky webbing
  • Whispering Wind – send a message to another person
  • Wild Call – summon animals
  • Wind Ward – make an area immune to missile attacks and flying creatures
  • Witch Laugh – cause the target to be distracted and incapacitated by laughter
  • Word of Courage – you and your allies immune to fear


  • Arcane Experiment – determine the properties of a magical item (Int)
  • Bind Familiar – summon a familiar spirit (Int)
  • Circle of Protection – create a barrier against supernatural creatures (Int)
  • Gather Mists – fill an area with blinding mist (Int)
  • Goodberry – create berries that heal when eaten (Wis)
  • Mage Armor – grant yourself magical protection from damage (Int)
  • Staff of Might – enchant a weapon (Wis)
  • Steed of the Sorcerer – summon a ghostly steed (Int)
  • Unseen Servant – summon an invisible spirit to perform tasks (Int)
  • Witch's Watchman – create a warding alarm against ambush (Int)
  • Wizard's Mark – inscribe a permanent rune on a surface (Int)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Building a Better Warforged

The first Unearthed Arcana freebie has rolled out, and it's got material for the Eberron setting. Unfortunately, the content in the pdf seems like it belongs to an earlier draft of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. 

Ironically, the warning that "These game mechanics are in draft form, usable in your campaign but not fully tempered by playtests and design iterations. They are highly volatile and might be unstable; if you use them, be ready to rule on any issues that come up" makes it sound like it's going to be potentially over-powered and game-wrecking. In fact, it's the opposite that's true: the races that the pdf presents are underwhelming in comparison to their Player's Handbook-dwelling counterparts.

But hey, we can use them as the basis to make something better, right? Here's my take on the warforged:

As a warforged, you have the following racial traits.
Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 2.
Size. Warforged are generally broader and heavier than humans. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Composite Plating. Your construction incorporates wood and metal, granting you a +1 bonus to Armor Class.
Living Construct. Even though you were constructed, you are a living creature. You are immune to disease. You do not need to eat or breathe, but you can ingest food and drink if you wish. 
Power Down. Instead of sleeping, you enter an inactive state for 4 hours each day. You do not dream in this state; you are fully aware of your surroundings and notice approaching enemies and other events as normal.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and one other language of your choice.
Subrace. Warforged were created to fulfill specific war-time tasks. Two of the most common variants are Juggernauts and Scouts.

Warforged Juggernaut
Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 1.
Juggernaut Weapon Protocol. You have proficiency with four martial weapons of your choice.
Reinforced Plating. You gain a further +1 bonus to Armor Class.
Unstoppable Machine. You have advantage on Strength saving throws to escape a grapple or being moved against your will.

Warforged Scout
Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 1.
Advanced Recon. Your have proficiency with the Stealth skill.
Darkvision. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can't discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Enhanced Speed. Your walking speed increases by 5 feet.

I dunno, what do you think?

And should I take a stab at shifters next?