Thursday, December 29, 2011

Plane shifting for the next weeks…

During the next weeks I’ll be busy helping my wife with the move to our new apartment (besides buying all those little things necessary for my daily well being, particularly Internet service). I hope to be back online approximately at the day 16 of January. Until then I’ll keep this Tower locked, but not abandoned.

I hope to see you next year and if you have any suggestions for new topics (like a creature from a book/game you like for the Bestiarum vocabulum), please, feel free to send a message to me at tzimiscedracul - at - gmail - dot - com.

Wishing a happy new year to you all!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

On Size and Gravity

Iron Kingdoms is one of my favorite fantasy settings and I’m probably one of the many who are very happy with Privateer Press’ news that a new edition is finally coming out (unfortunately “finally coming out” means 1-2 years I guess). While the original books were beautiful and refreshing (Iron Kingdom is its own genre – “Full Metal Fantasy”), the d20 rules always seen as odd and clunky (especially the mechanika part) for the setting. Even the new races had weird traits, like the Ogrun’s “additional” Hit Dice. Ogrun are the Iron Kingdom’s version of traditional ogres. Each Ogrun gains one “extra” 1d8 HD; however, this HD was used solely for granting HPs and didn’t count for things like BAB, character level and other progression. As I said, it was weird.

The funny (and ironic) thing about the information above is that today I quite like the Ogrun’s “bastard” Hit Dice. It’s a (clunky but viable) way of simulating an ogre’s toughness without resorting to racial Hit Dice or levels (which are in my opinion a yet clunker and unbalanced way of using powerful races). I’m totally in favor, as I comment from time to time, of player-friendly versions of exotic races – like giants, dragons, ents, demons, golems etc. Their “monster” versions are usually powerful and tailored specifically to face a party of adventurers (they’re rarely designed to mimic a specific legend or myth). Therefore, it seems logical that if you want to play a minotaur or a centaur, you don’t need (respectively) of 6 or 4 racial HDs. What you need – basically – is horns, strength and cunning (for minotaurs) and a horse’s speed and stamina (for centaurs). Both traits can be reasonably simulated by the power level of 1st-level characters. [Ok, we know that there’re players out there that want races like minotaurs to have the 6 f***ing HDs and the +9 Str bonus… I suggest that they stop playing Pathfinder/D&D and start thinking about Mutants & Masterminds.]

The traditional problem with “giant” races is that most players believe that they should be represented by insane racial bonuses to Strength and Constitution (besides those damn racial HDs). I think that, with some exceptions (creatures clearly beyond the power level of a typical Pathfinder party) most creatures desired by players can be used as 1st-level characters. While writing the Tharks, I came up with some racial traits for big guys. They’re variant mechanics to simulate with is usually represented by high Strength, Constitution, HDs, natural armor and tons of hit points:

Reach (Ex): This is usually given as the main balance problem with bigger races. If your Gamemaster uses attacks of opportunities (I know only two who does), then Reach indeed is a big deal. Otherwise, I wouldn’t worry about Large-sized races.
The best solution is to use Powerful Build, by now a famous trait that is a perfect example of the type of mechanic we’re looking for in this post.
However, even if your GM uses attacks of opportunity, Reach can be a balanced racial trait. First, remember that Large-sized creatures are big and will have trouble in moving and dealing with certain environments (and, most important, with equipment). Second, if a race has Reach then it should have some mechanical disadvantage or in other way be in some aspect weaker than a Reach 0 race. Using the Tharks as an example, note that their Ability Score net bonus is 0, not +2 (like most Pathfinder races).

Strength Checks/Encumbrance Bonus (Ex): This is the easier and most obvious way of simulating a strong race. Give to them a bonus to Strength checks (particularly when breaking things). To keep verisimilitude, it’s also recommended to grant a bonus to encumbrance and lifting/pushing capacities.

Damage Bonus (Ex): Give to your giant race a bonus to damage rolls. A +2 racial bonus is a good number for races like Ogres and Tharks.
Each +2 bonus to Strength gives a +1 bonus to damage, but also increases a character’s attack bonus, which can easily unbalance a race. It also creates bizarre things, like the Forgotten Realms subrace of small arctic dwarves who have a +6 bonus to Strength.
You can further customize your monster by limiting the damage bonus to certain types of attacks (like “only natural weapons” or “only within melee combat”). A radical option would be to give the new race a bigger bonus (like a +4), but inflict a penalty to the attack rolls or to limit it to things like “only when using the Power Attack feat/Charge/Full Attack”. Conditional modifiers are your friends here, because you don’t want your Large race to break the game – only the spine of your monsters.
Other option is to grant a “Hulk smash!”-like extraordinary ability.  For example, allow members of a giant race to, once per encounter, inflict maximum damage (not critical damage!) with a melee attack that successfully hits. Or allow them to roll damage twice and keep the best result. Both options will increase their damage output (even if only in dramatic moments).

Natural Armor, Vigor and Resilience (Ex): The best course here (without resorting to Constitution bonuses) is through bonus feats – Endurance, Diehard, Greater Fortitude and Toughness are good options.
The second option is to grant bonus hit points. If you like randomization, follow the Ogrun’s infamous racial trait and grant hit points by rolling dice (like 2d4 extra HPs). You could grant a fixed rate of extra hit points at 1st level and every X levels thereafter (careful with those). Maybe this bonus is based on the race’s Constitution modifier. Stealing an idea from Fantasy Craft, your ogre race could receive 1,5x their Con modifier in hit points at 1st level and every 3 levels thereafter.
Another way of simulating giant toughness or thickness of skin (without using natural armor bonus) is through extraordinary abilities. For example, give to your giants a special damage reduction, that convert lethal damage to nonlethal damage. An ogre-like race could have the ability to convert 1 point of lethal damage to nonlethal per attack. This rate would increase maybe every 3 or 4 levels, to a maximum equal to his Constitution modifier (minimum 1).
A more complex option would be a pool of “reserve hit points”, perhaps equal to the race’s Constitution Ability Score. This pool could be used to “heal” damage, as a full-round action. Each time the giant used this ability he would recover a number of HPs equal to his Constitution modifier +3 (or any other number). His pool would be depleted. Each time the giant was healed he could choose to “heal” either his pool or his HPs. Again, this is just a suggestion.

One-time bonus to one or two Ability Scores Advancements (Ex): Instead of big bonuses to Strength at 1st level, allow members of the Large-sized race to gain a +2 bonus (or even +3) to Strength the first time they use an Ability Score Advancement. It’s easy to play with Ability Score Advancement.
These one-time bonuses are usually for Strength or Constitution. If you’re granting this type of benefit, think twice before giving high damage bonuses or additional hit points.

Large-sized races are also good candidates for some racial disadvantages. I mentioned earlier a lower Ability Score net modifier, but you could also inflict a -2 or -4 penalty to certain skills (like Acrobatic, Diplomacy, Escape Artist) or even forbid members of a particular race of gaining those skills as class skills (thus eliminating the +3 bonus). This last option should rarely be employed and the player should always have the option of spending a feat slot to negate the penalty. Here are other suggestions:

-> The race is naturally lumbering and awkward due to their size. Unless they buy Combat Reflexes, they don’t have 1 attack of opportunity per round;
-> The race is slower to react due to their bulk. They must roll twice on all Initiative rolls and take the lower result;
-> The race has a slow metabolism (perfect for dragons). They take twice to heal naturally and magical healing only is half effective;
-> The race requires lots of food and water to sustain them. Double (or triple) their nourishment needs (reducing by the same amount the required time to suffer damage due to hungry and thirsty);

I hope these wacky suggestions and ideas help you to approach race design with a different perspective.

Bonus Content: John Carter’s Gravity Rules

Well, Distant Worlds is on its way, but other day I was pondering how to simulate the effects of gravity on the player characters. Something akin to John Carter’s Barsoom.  The rules below assume that the PCs are aliens, not used to the local gravity.

I divided the possible worlds the PCs may visit in:

Light Gravity Worlds: All characters gain a +10 bonus to jump checks and treat all their jumps as if they had a running start. They ignore the first 30 ft. of fall of damaging purposes. Their speed increases by +10 ft. Their Strength is treated as 10 points higher for carrying/pushing effects. They are treated as one size larger for CMB rolls (especially grapples). They receive a +4 bonus to all Str-based damage rolls. They receive a +4 bonus to all Strength checks.
All characters also suffer a –2 penalty to all their Dexterity-based checks and attack rolls until they succeed at a Dexterity check DC 20 (can try once per day). They must make an Acrobatics check (DC 20) to avoid falling prone after each jump or tumble-like maneuver; this situation persists until their succeed at the “adaptation” check.

Heavy Gravity Worlds: All characters suffer a –10 penalty to jump checks and their Speed is reduced by half. They’re always considered to be carrying a medium load. All items carried weight double. After two consecutive physical Full Round or longer actions, a character must succeed at a Fortitude save (DC 20) or become fatigued. They suffer a -2 penalty to all physical actions (including attack rolls and damage rolls).

The categories above are subjective. Player characters on Barsoom would gain all the modifiers of “Light Gravity Worlds”, while Tharks on Earth/Oerth/Golarion/Whatever would suffer the modifiers of “Heavy Gravity Worlds”. I would allow Tharks to buy a feat that would eliminate the penalties for living on a world with heavier gravity. The penalties of living on a light gravity world are easily removed with a daily Dexterity check, as mentioned above. The Gamemaster can remove the need of a check if characters spend a few weeks dedicated to adapting to their new home.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bestiarum vocabulum – Tharks (New Race)

Reading Tarzan of the Apes (and Pirates of Venus a few months earlier) I understood that, while Burroughs’ pulp adventures are in general great, none have given to me more fun and ideas than his Barsoom tales.

 I’m not very good at reviewing or analyzing stories, but John Carter’s adventures (and those of other Barsoomian heroes) rings the right bells with me. They’re simple, naïve, archetypical, original, fun and even provide some food for thought (like Thuvia, Maid of Mars and Chessmen of Mars). Finally, these are the stories where Burroughs’ prejudices bother me less (both Tarzan’s recurrent racism and Pirates of Venus quick praise to KKK succeed in killing my mood).



The savage hordes of the Green Men, or Tharks, are the scourge of the wastelands. Driven only by their lust for battle and slaves, Tharks aren’t a greater menace to the civilized races because they spent most of their time fighting among themselves.

Physical: Tharks are savage green giants, around 15 feet tall, with tusks protruding from their mouths and with double torso, each with two sets of arms. Their ears are externals, standing at stalks that protuberate atop their hairless heads.

Tharks walk usually naked, except for special leather harnesses used to carry equipment, weapons, trophies and gems. They are oviparous and have an unknown life span (Green Men lives are so violent that it is rare to find one with 100 years or more).

Society: Tharks prize honor above everything. Unfortunately, for the common Green Men, honor is synonymous with brute strength. Tharks divide themselves in tribes and hordes, leading a nomadic life. Each tribe is ruled by a jed, while a horde is controlled by one of the mighty jeddaks. Tharks value strength and resistance, lacking any sense of mercy or empathy, even for their animals – savage beasts of battle that attack their own riders if given the chance.

The only salutary trait of the Tharks is their total hatred for thieves and brigands. A Green Men who is caught stealing is killed very very slowly, to the great delight of their tribe.

A few tribes of Tharks have more enlightened rulers, usually Green Men that have had contact with lawful and civilized races before been brutalized by their fellows. These rare clans reveal the true virtues of their race: true honor, courage and eternal friendship to those who are loyal.

Relations: Tharks doesn’t know trade or any kind of civilized exchange. If they need food or weapons, they plunder. If they require manufacturing experts or servants, they take slaves. Tharks only respect strength of arms, although a canny and brutal leader is capable of acquiring control over a tribe or maybe even a horde.

Alignment and Religion: Most Tharks are chaotic neutral, devoting their lives to battle and the accumulation of slaves, weapons and trophies. A good portion of the race is chaotic evil, taking great delight in the suffering of other creatures – especially given the fact that Tharks doesn’t know mercy and see weakness as the ultimate sin. Public executions of maimed and week members of the tribe are probably their second greatest hobby, after war (even if the victims are family).

A rare type of Thark is true neutral. They are usually represented by tribes or groups pushed to the wasteland’s frontiers or living in isolation of other hordes. A few sages argue that the race’s latent psionics provokes a bizarre biofeedback effect, generating a racial barbaric and bloodlust behavior (maybe a pre-programmed psychic suggestion left by the race’s creator). This can explain why isolated Green Men are usually more pacific or cautious, while their hordes are made of cruel and savage beasts.

Most Tharks worship a dead deity known as Issus, Goddess of Life and Death. They have a strong taboo against divine spellcasters and are usually counseled by “seers” (traditionally psions). Ancient tribes have one or two of the rare Thark shamans (LINK), while those tribes living closer to other regions may have a druid or even an oracle (clerics been unknown), usually devoted to gods of battle and chaos.

Adventurers: Tharks adventurers are usually exiles or members of isolated or frontier tribes, although it is not uncommon for young Green Men to leave their horde to work as mercenaries. There are rumors of a human emperor protected by a "Viridian Guard" – an entire honor guard of Tharks.
For unknown reasons there never was (until now) a Green Man sorcerer. Most Tharks are barbarians, fighters, gunslingers (Green Men are famous for their marksmanship), psychic warriors and spell-less rangers. A few Thark Jeds and Jeddaks descend from ancient warrior traditions best represented by the samurai class.

Thark Names: Green Men names are made of one, two or three syllables, usually with the letters ‘a’, ‘o’ and ‘u’. Male Tharks usually possess composed names, while females have one-word names (although this isn't a rule).

Male Thark names: Tars Tarkas, Dotar Sojat, Sarkoja, Lorqas Ptomel, Tal Hajus, Sojat, Zad, Tokas, Sar Zoor, Arkas
Female Thark names: Aola, Kala, Katja, Nala, Taja, Sola, Zora

Warning: The stats were designed with the idea that Green Men should be an eligible 1st level race for Pathfinder. Because of that, certain liberties were taken (like creature type, racial hit dices and such).

Thark Racial Traits
+2 Constitution, –2 Intelligence
Large: Tharks are Large creatures and gain a –1 size penalty to their AC, a –1 size penalty on attack rolls, a +1 bonus to their Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense, and a –4 size penalty on Stealth checks. Tharks have a natural reach of 5 ft.
Speed: Tharks have a base speed of 40 feet.
Brute: Tharks are hulking monsters and gain a +2 racial bonus on melee damage rolls and Strength checks.
Cruel: Tharks are taught from a tender age to show cruelty and to revel in the misery of other intelligent beings. They receive a +2 racial bonus on Intimidate skill checks and a –2 racial penalty on Diplomacy, Handle Animal or Diplomacy skill checks (player’s choice). The chosen skill can never be a class skill for the Thark, unless he uses a feat slot to negate this racial trait.
Four Arms: Tharks possess four arms. While this doesn’t give them extra attacks or actions (they don’t have independent eye movement or enough synchrony to use the four arms simultaneously), it do allows a Thark to carry more weapons or items.
Far-Sighted: Tharks receive a +2 racial bonus on Perception skill checks based on sight. They also gain Far Shot as a racial bonus feat.
Wasteborn: Tharks receive a +2 racial bonus on Stealth and Survival skill checks on desert/arid regions. They also gain Endurance as a racial bonus feat.
[Optional, if using Psionics Unleashed] Naturally Psionic: Tharks receive Wild Talent as a bonus feat at 1st level. If a Thark takes levels in a psionic class, he instead gains the Psionic Talent feat.

Green Men Racial Feats suggestions
Monstrosity: The Thark gains the monstrous humanoid creature type. A second feat allows the Green Men to inflict the panicked condition on a target, once per day, with a successful Intimidate skill check.
Tusked: The Thark can use his tusks as a natural weapon (1d6 points of damage).
Savagery: This feat requires that Thark is using three or four weapons (or two two-handed weapons). It allows him to execute a flurry of chaotic and savage strikes against a single target within melee range.
The Thark suffers a –5 penalty on all his attack rolls until the beginning of his next turn. The first melee attack that hits successfully allows the Thark to roll twice the biggest weapon damage dice. The result is added together before any bonuses from Strength, weapon abilities, precision-based damage, and other damage bonuses. These extra weapon damage dice are not multiplied on a critical hit, but are added to the total.
For example: if a Thark armed with a longsword (1d8), a dagger (1d4) and a great axe (1d12) uses Savagery, his first successful melee attack in the round inflicts an additional 1d12 points of damage.
This feat must be used as part of a full-round action and, if the Thark has iterative attacks, all such attacks must be directed against the same target.

Telempathy: This feat allows a Thark to transmit emotions and one-words messages (like “Danger!”) to any other Thark or willing target (usually friends that know about this ability) within 100 ft. and with whom the Green Men has line of sight.

On Green Aliens and Multi-Limbed Heroes
We never see the Green Men of Barsoom utilizing all four arms in combat. In fact, it can be argued that in the novels their greatest advantage is their size and savagery. Because of these important points, I decided to use an effect-based mechanic with the Four Arms racial trait (let’s leave multi-armed combos to our beloved AD&D 2nd Thri-kreen).
Without racial feats, a Thark can use its arms basically to carry stuff. However, they also have two important exceptions: first, a Thark can use a shield and still have enough free hands to use a two-handed weapon; second, a Thark caster can cast using one or two free hand and still carry a shield or weapons (even a two-handed one). These two abilities are already very powerful in my opinion.

Next post: Size doesn’t matter/break the game!
The mechanics for the Green Men of Mars were an attempt at addressing an old issue: giant races and player characters. Usually in D&D/Pathfinder, “giant” equals “high Str, high Con and tons of HDs” which is a sure way of breaking the balance of any game in regard to player character races. However, I believe that you don’t have to equate giant races with those three stats. Similar results can be accomplished with alternative mechanics. With the Tharks I tried to simulate “giant strength” with racial bonus to Strength checks and damage rolls. While undoubtedly a good trait, these bonus doesn’t affect the Green Men’s attack rolls (besides CMB and CMD), which lessen its impact.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What I’ve been reading - Part II

With Christmas this weekend and the réveillon fast approaching, plus things rushing at work and preparing to move out to a new house, it has been hard to find time for my leisure reading (at the moment Burroughs and Umberto Eco), and yet harder to find time to read RPGs.

All the topics below deserved each a full post (and reviews), but, given the circumstances, they’ll have to make with just a few comments.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role Playing

Lamentations of the Flame Princess will always be an incomplete product for me. I like the art and many of Raggi’s clever and practical house rules for the original D&D game; the problem is that LotFP sells itself as “Weird Fantasy” and it sorely lacks in this aspect. You pay for the weirdness but all you get is a retroclone. At least the first version of LotFP had Weird New Word and Tower of the Stargazer in it, but these are standalone products given as extras. I really wish Raggi had added one full adventure in the Grindhouse edition (which, mechanic-wise, I found an improvement over the first version), something like the awesome Random Esoteric Creature Generator and, finally, concrete examples in the Tutorial Book for playing “weird” (like this outstanding and free PDF).

However, while the core rule set has its disadvantages, I’m very happy with the products from Lamentations of the Flame Princess press. Raggi keeps raising its standards; the best examples so far are the amazing books by Geoffrey McKinney – Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown. I just can’t wait for The Monolith From Beyond Space and Time, with material from the non-Euclidian sage Kenneth Hite.

Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa
[These impressions are based on the PDF, as my book hasn’t arrived yet.]

For those of you that don’t know, Carcosa is a great blend of Sword & Sorcery, Science Fantasy and Cthulhu Mythos. It details a barbaric world populated by weird-colored human races living in the ruins of a Serpent Men empire, trying to survive the presence of eldritch Great Old Ones, ancient artifacts from Lovecraftian races and contact with technology-aligned Space Aliens (Greys). It’s an amazing mash-up, very in the spirit of OD&D, that creates one of the most unforgiving and dark campaign settings I’ve ever see and yet a perfect place for emulating famous pulp characters like Conan, Kane, Elric – all that with ancient Elder Things artifacts, mad robots, spawns of Shub-Niggurath and more.

Carcosa is (in)famous among the Internet because of its dark and violent details of its sorcery rituals. Geoffrey himself points that this isn’t something new giving as an example M.A.R. Barker’s Book of Ebon Bindings, for Tékumel. While I can understand the author’s reasons for the graphic descriptions of Sword & Sorcery magic (Carcosa is, as I said, a very grim and brutal setting), I find them neither offensive nor necessary for running a Carcosan campaign. A very important point in this regard is that the author doesn’t immaturely relish or highlight those descriptions.

The LotFP’s version of Carcosa is a beautiful, revised and expanded book. All the cool rules (like sorcerer class, the psionics and the tables for robots and Shub-Niggurath spawn) are still there. The Carcosa PDF is one of the most user-friendly products I have ever read – the maps have links to the various monsters living in that hex, while each creature has links for rituals relating to it (and vice-versa).

Geoffrey McKinney’s Isle of the Unknown
[These impressions are based on the PDF, as my book hasn’t arrived yet.]

Despite the fact that I was anxious to see the new look of Carcosa, the product that really grabbed me was this one. Why? Let me answer what sold me on Isle of the Unknown – this is the Ashton Clark Smith game!

Geoffrey McKinney took the Forgotten Bard’s amazing and weird fantasy tales – especially his Averoigne Cycle – and created an island populated by strange and unique monsters, besides eccentric spellcasters and mysterious happenstances. The Isle of the Unknown is a hex-based location for sandbox campaigns where EVERY monster meet is new. Not only that but also every hex on the map has an encounter – be it a creature, a NPC, a magical statue, a bizarre location etc. Yeah, it is that awesome!

Isle of the Unknown is also beautifully illustrated (as you can see by its cover), particularly the full-paged arts of some of the island’s spellcasters.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Ok, this is a very different product from those above. You can almost argue that it is entire different way of playing RPGs.

As some of you already know, the current Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, by Fantasy Flight Games, it the 3rd Edition of the game. Akin to D&D 4th Edition, WFRP 3rd is a complete divorce from its predecessors. It has been (wrongly) accused of turning the RPG into a boardgame (like D&D 4th did).

WFRP 3rd is a traditional RPG, played with different dynamics. Things that normally would be written in the character sheet or annotated by the Gamemasters are now represented by physical components or counters. However, WFRP 3rd truly innovates with its resolution system.

WFRP uses special dice to determine the success or failure of a player character’s or NPC’s actions. Basically, each die has a symbol representing success (a Hammer) or failure (Crossed Swords). Bonuses are represented by another type of die (white dice), while penalties are represented by another type (black dice). The system is very simple – you gather your dice pool, roll and cancel out Hammers with Swords. After this step, if you have at least one Hammer your action is successful.

The originality of the system comes from banes and boons. Banes are represented by Skulls on the die’s face and indicate a complication, while boons are indicated by Eagles and indicate good luck. Because of these, it is possible to succeed at an action and yet suffer some kind of complication (or to fail at an action and have the consequences lessened or somehow altered by boons). This removes the traditional binary limitation of Yes/No or Success/Failure, common to most RPGs. It’s a great tool and I found out that it increases the drama and the players’ input at the table – everyone offers advice about how a bane or boon should be read.

WFRP 3rd has more to it than the short description above (like the Reckless/Conservative stance, the party sheet, the Chaos Star/Twin Comet dice etc). I just wanted to comment on the whole Bane/Boon aspect. Like Dragon Age’s Stunt mechanics or FATE’s Aspects, it is such a great idea that I’m at times tempted to implement in other games.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Gnomish History

While writing my last variant on Gnomes I took the opportunity to revisit the race’s history. Gnomes are truly D&D’s forgotten (or bastard) siblings. Differently from elves and dwarves, Gnomes never got a literally “remake” or “consolidation” – the closer to that was Dragonlance, with a concept that many still find unplayable, uninteresting or just plain silly.

D&D’s first entry on gnomes – from Monsters & Treasures – reads: Slightly smaller than Dwarves, and with longer beards, these creatures usually inhabit the hills and lowland burrows as opposed to the mountainous homes which Dwarves choose. They are more reclusive than their cousins, but in all other respects resemble Dwarves.

You can go further back, to Chainmail, where Dwarves and Gnomes share the same entry: Because of their natural habitat deep under the ground, these stout folk operate equally well day or night. Although they’re no threat to larger creatures, Trolls, Ogres, and Giants find them hard to catch because of their small size, so count only one-half normal kills when Dwarves and Gnomes fight with them, for either attacks upon Dwarves and Gnomes or returns should the Dwarves be the attackers. Goblins and Kobolds are their natural (and most hated) enemies, an Dwarves (Gnomes) will attack Goblins (Kobolds) before any other enemy in sight, regardless of orders to the contrary. (…)

 AD&D 1st Edition’s Monster Manual kept this thread, adding little to the core gnome race, besides details on clans, martial organization, basic skills and other racial knacks (like the ability to speak with burrowing animals). They could be fighters, illusionists, thieves or assassins (but not clerics, odd). Gnomes are still a dwarven subrace – which might have been a good place to have let them.

Let me explain: Gnomes as a dwarven subrace make a little more sense for me (after all they’re just eccentric dwarves!); because they share enough traits with their more traditional cousins to be known and understood by most players, besides having unique differences which may create funny and interesting roleplay scenes (they’re jolly, like magic and animals… dwarves might “accuse” them of being “elf-friends” while elves might think that gnomes are “dwarves with better tastes”). This strange blend of both worlds is commonly noted by players and DMs – I once knew a Forgotten Realms DM who stipulated that Gnomes were actually the offspring of elves and dwarves, a forbidding and shameful event from the past that both races would like to forget.

AD&D 2nd Edition didn’t change Gnomes much: it just expanded their allowed classes. Neither did Forgotten Realms added a different view on the race. However, between the 1st and 2nd Editions we got Dragonlance and Tinker Gnomes – an entire race of curious, obsessive, mad Da Vincis. While the concept in itself isn’t bad (quite the contrary in my opinion), the design of an entire race that is limited to only one archetype gets boring very fast (especially for players). What's more, the “mad inventor” character is probably one of the hardest to design mechanically in any RPG – off the top of my head I can remember of Warcraft d20’s tinker class, which seemed playable, but hardly balanced without a lot of GM’s interventions (the same can be said of Deadlands’ mad inventor, another great character but with mechanics that require GM’s handling). Actually, as far as I know, inventor-types work in a balanced fashion only on effect-based rules systems (like Mutants & Masterminds or Wild Talents); and we know that D&D never was an effect-based system (ok, maybe D&D 4th took a 5ft. step in that direction).

After Dragonlance, I just can’t remember any other original approach to the race. Ironically, by calling his gnomes the “Forgotten Race”, Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realm hit the right spot. Even unique or innovative settings like Dark Sun and Birthright didn’t include gnomes as a core race (however, they did have original halflings). I believe that this last evidence really shows the “underdog” status of Gnomes in D&D.

D&D 3rd Edition didn’t changed gnomes, at first, besides giving to them a more ‘slim’ visual (which halflings also got). Gnomes’ favored class was the only “subclass” of D&D 3.0 – illusionists. With the 3.5 revision we got a small re-made of Gnomes; now as D&D’s foremost bards. While the change was a good one, it wasn’t followed by changes in the flavor of the race – they added a new illustration and a new favored class.

The best reconstructions of the Gnome race came from third party publishers. I’ll mention here the two that I remember most and which I believe influenced quite a bit how we see these little fellows today. The first was in Fantasy Flight Games’ awesome Midnight Campaign Setting – in this world Gnomes are a charismatic river-folk, famous for their trading acumen and infamous for allying with the setting’s Dark Lord. Yeah, they were strongly linked to the setting, but also were the first full implementation of Gnomes as a race of clever and charismatic small humanoids.

Interestingly, the second most original use of Gnomes was also from a Fantasy Flight Games’ product – the Dawnforge Campaign Setting. In that “1st Age” fantasy world Gnomes are creatures from an alien otherworld (the classical fairy realm), more fey than mortal. One of their cooler abilities was the power to “phase out” of the Material Plane for brief moments. Dawnforge’s Gnomes too were tricksters and humorous creatures.

It is easy to see how this last concept was incorporated (conscious or no) in both D&D 4th Edition (Feywild) and Pathfinder (Gnomes as a race of fey creatures).

When writing the Chronicles of the 7th Moon Campaign Setting, I was in charge of adapting D&D 3.5 core races to the moon of Isaldar. At the time (influenced by the Bard favored class and, probably, by the Midnight approach) I decided to heighten the Gnomes’ concept as the “social race”. Isaldarian Gnomes are everyone’s best friend; renowned for the diplomatic, artistic, academic and – most important – entertainer skills. A gnome bard is almost a pleonasm for the inhabitants of Isaldar and Gnomes have a freedom of movement among most countries and regions of the 7th Moon; including monstrous (but intelligent) and barbaric races, like Orcs, Goblins, Giants and Lizardmen. Finally I created for them a mythology built around an elusive Creator that made the entire world with language and music (hardly original, but perfect for creatures whose favored class is a song-based spellcaster) and, consequently, the belief that words and written knowledge are the utmost virtues.

Today, although Gnomes have changed and became a more interesting race, they’re still the last choice of most players (and the first race to be erased in any GM’s home settings). The true irony is that – if I remember right – Tolkien once thought about calling his elves (or at least his Noldo high elves) of “Gnomes” (in a sense “Wise Ones”). That would have, without any doubt, changed a lot of things in fantasy RPGs. After all, before Tolkien most people believed elves to be…

Bonus Content: Gnomi (Yet Another Variant Gnome)

I’m a firm believer that, when in doubt, go must go read the classics. Instead of creating a new fantasy race called Carachi or whatever, I’m much more inclined to “steal” a myth or legend and reinterpret it my games***. Its lend “weight” to the new class, helps to legitimate it. So, if I wanted to recreate Gnomes or make them more interested my first instinct would be dig a few Gnomes’ legends.

Gnomes, like Goblins, encompass a lot of different legends and myths and can easily be signify the same creature. However (and according to Wikipedia), one of the first reference to Gnomes comes from Paracelsus, linking them with earth-dwellers and alchemy. It’s a perfect start for me.

We could write Gnomi (singular Gnomus) as race of reclusive, gruff and ancient sages and alchemists, who prize very much their isolation (besides the occasional oddball adventuring Gnomus). They would be small, gnarly and stubby creatures, with old features and earth-tone skins. The origin would be as a class of homunculi that gained not only full consciousness but starting with time to breed in vats new Gnomi. Obsessed with the goals of mot alchemists, Gnomi quickly became references for wizards, sages and greedy opportunists hunting after things like transmutation of lead to gold, the Philosopher Stone and immortality.

Gnomi are natural underground creatures and have a slight agoraphobia. Their chambers and enclaves are usually below cities (where ingredients can be found) or closer to rare and exotic locations – like caverns of rare fungi and crystal-rich chasms. Gnomi are natural aligned to the Depths and share many of its secrets, keeping constant contact with other underground races and serving as messengers and go-betweens between them and surface-dwellers. Gnomi are usually of Neutral alignments and despise aerial creatures, especially intelligent ones.

Gnomi Racial Traits
+2 Intelligence, +2 Constitution, –2 Charisma
Small: Gnomi are Small creatures and gain a +1 size bonus to their AC, a +1 size bonus on attack rolls, a –1 penalty to their Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense, and a +4 size bonus on Stealth checks.
Slow Speed: Gnomi have a base speed of 20 feet.
Darkvision: Gnomi can see in the dark up to 60 feet.
Acid Tolerance: Gnomi suffer nonlethal damage from acid.
Light Sensitivity: Abrupt exposure to bright light dazzles Gnomi for 5 rounds.
High Homunculi: Gnomi were created to be aligned with earth spirits and constructs. Earth elementals and constructs will usually ignore a Gnomus. Unless the Gnomus attack or a specific command is given, these creatures will not strike against him. Gnomi also have a +2 racial bonus on Diplomacy checks with Earth subtype creatures.
Golem’s Sleep: Gnomi can hibernate. While in this state they don’t need air, water or food. They must set a trigger to awaken (like touch, a word, damage etc.). If a trigger is not set, the Gnomus is reactivated by anything that would awake a sleeping creature. A Craft (Alchemy) (DC 25), Heal (DC 30) or Knowledge (Arcane) (DC 25) allows the character to identify a hibernating Gnomus. This is an extraordinary ability.
Keen Senses: Gnomi receive a +2 racial bonus on Perception skill checks.
Obsessive: Gnomi receive a +2 racial bonus on a Craft or Knowledge skill of their choice.
Vatborn: Gnomi were created as special homunculi in unique vats and possess some of their resistances associated with constructs. Gnomi get a +2 racial saving throw bonus against mind-affecting effects, diseases, poison and negative effects from potions. However, Gnomi suffer damage from any item or effect the target only constructs.
Alchemical Blood: Gnomi can store magical effects in their blood. When targeted by any supernatural, spell-like or magical effect the Gnomus can store it in their blood stream. Only one effect can be thus stored. Later, as 1 round action, the Gnomi can activate it. A second option is to “bleed” the effect in a vial or otherwise feed it directly to other creature; this creature is now the target of the effect. This special bleeding causes 2 points of damage/character level to the Gnomus. While “holding” an effect, the Gnomus is sensed by abilities like detect magic and a dispel magic can dissipate the effect. This is a supernatural ability.
Favored Class: Alchemist.

[Variant racial trait]
High Homunculi: If you don’t like this trait’s mechanics, I propose two alternatives.
First, give to the Gnomus the spell-like ability to become invisible against earth elementals and constructs. Treat it as hide from undead, but affecting the types above.
Or, as second alternative, allows Gnomi to roll social checks (Diplomacy, Intimidate and such) against constructs. Gnomi’s origins as homunculi allows them to establish contact with the elemental spirits within constructs. Treat all unintelligent constructs as having a Charisma bonus of 0.
Both alternatives keep the Gnomus’ +2 bonus on Diplomacy (in fact, I suggest that, If using the second option, extend this bonus also to constructs).

***In case you’re curious the “Carachi” example is a true one. My editor wanted a new race for Chronicles of the Seventh Moon and suggested that one in a first draft. Because at the time we needed a new race with a slight oriental flavor, I did some research, give my “Carachis” a strong Indian flavor and renamed them Yakshas – stolen from a class of spirits (I’ll post Yakshas here in another opportunity).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Chronicles of the Seventh Moon, Session 11

Day 7, Solar Month, 757 years since the Fall of the Gods, early summer

Returning from the noble djinn’s demesne at the Elemental Courts , the Hammers of the Dawn felt defeated. Of his three allies, kidnapped by the half-elf sorcerer Mask, only one was saved – the Road Marshal Garamus. The Warbard Mellius and the half-orc Karanuk still were prisoners of Shzamias’ Wall of Living Statues.

Back to Eye of the West – the fortified lighthouse over the eastern borders of the Mountains of Eternal Fire – the Hammers were rewarded by Garamus and dismissed to rest and recover from their last ordeals. Hilguen in particular didn’t accepted Karanuk’s loss; the aasimar paladin vowed to find a way to save his friend.

At that same day, Garet, who had lost his left hand to Kalikuja, the Three-Headed Crocodile, found a new one among the dwarven mercenaries of the Erased Rune. Garet bought a technomagic hand made from primordium with a technomage from that outfit. Heian, still trapped in goblin-form, sent a message back to the town of Baer’s Tower, asking for a arcanists able to lift the curse. To have the message delivered with urgency, Heian entered in a debt with a mysterious pale-skinned and tattooed human warrior, of name Kharj, owner of a black-feathered gryphon and capable of keeping communication with the lowlands.

Day 8, Solar Month, 757 years since the Fall of the Gods, early summer

With the Twin Suns still rising in east, Garamus called for a war council. After hearing the news from the scouting parties – adventurers from the Gotêintor’s Avengers and the Red Wolves parties – it was discovered that the only thing that kept the bulk of the goblinoid horde at the mountains above was a mysterious ice labyrinth far ahead. The Red Wolves informed that the eldritch place was apparently inhabited by a demon, which eagerly devoured any goblin or undead that ventured inside those cold walls. Garamus suspected that the entire ice construct was a creation of Zaram, from the Company of the Black Lantern. The maze gave the heroes and the army a few days to plot their next move against the unknown master of the goblinoids.

Another pertinent subject of the meeting was the fact that the goblinoids were employing illusions to create more troops and thus disturb the march to the lighthouse. There were too many humanoids surrounding the keep during the desperate run for the gate but, after the battle, slightly more than 50 bodies were found around the place. Garamus feared that the same kind of magic deception could be used to gain entrance to the Eye.

After much debate, it was decided to double all the patrols at the walls and to include at least one spellcaster in each; a secure line of communication with Baer’s Tower was also essential. Both the Daughters of the Unicorn and the Erased Rune – the mercenary companies – were placed at the walls. The Red Wolves, being the only vanyrian* group, were still the army’s first scouts.

One final issue of the council was about the location of the Knights of the Mug. The younger adventuring party was the only group that still hasn’t returned from scouting the closer trails.

With the general orders given, Garamus tasked the Hammers – now his most trusted group – to return to the Scales (the mountain trails) and find the goblinoid track used to cross the region. Garamus suspected of a secret passage, maybe inside one of the caves explored by the Hammers.

Repacking, the group went directly to the Middle Scales – those trails at the same altitude of the Eye of the West. Their first challenge was a sudden encounter with giant ants; which severely wounded Drícia and forced the Hammers to leave the region before the entire local anthill was upon them. Fleeing the antes, the group went down to a heath full of thorns and bizarre leafless plants. This time they were ambushed by a bugbear scouting party; however, they found out that these barbarians were enemies of the horde – an independent tribe for local caves. Following their tracks, the Hammers found their lair – a small cave complex where the bugbears worshiped a “fire god” (a small and clever fire mephit).

The elemental creature called himself Spark and told the group that he was bound in the bugbear’s lair as a punishment for “accidentally” burning his last master’s grimoire. This event was during the War of Dark Banners and Spark suspected that the old wizard may not have survived. Sometime after the bounding a goblin adept found him and was easily “converted” by the fire mephit (although the pitiable creature was incapable of releasing him).

The party decided to free Spark and to present the small spirit as a gift to Beltia, the beautiful female vanyrian ashen wizard from the Red Wolves. Before this, Spark eagerly volunteered to become a servant to either the sorcerer-monk Nogard or the elf Heian (a proposal which greatly infuriated his familiar Valquir).  

Talking with the mephit, the Hammers heard about a strange location ahead called the Stone Forest. Spark also speculated on the nature of the horde’s master. If the mephit could be trusted, the master of goblinoid was called Kiramaxus, a kundravian** name and most definitely a bad omen. The name also spelled ill memories, for both Hilguen and Drícia remember tales about a warlock with such name… and of his death at the War of Dark Banners.

Due to the dire news, Spark was sent back to lighthouse to deliver the same information to Ordo, the Daughters of the Unicorn’s male wizard. The Hammers began to climb again for the Middle and High Scales, still searching for the goblinoids’ secret passage.

*Vanyrians are a race of tall and pale humans from the cold wilderness of Vanidrad. They’re known for their survival skills, reckless fighting style (especially against giants), their branded ashen wizards and for being the only known atheist people in all 7th Moon (henceforth being also considered quite mad by most “civilized” countries).

**Kundravians are a race of humans from the Theocracy of Urkazon. Kundravians’ Witch Kings are famous warlocks, necromancers and summoners of entities from the netherworld of Farnax (demons and fallen celestials). They have dusky skin, are usually of gaunt features and somber aspect. In short words, kundravians are the 7th Moon’s stygians.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gnomes, Brownies and Boggarts (Pathfinder Variant Race)

The idea for this variant of the gnome race started in a communal effort from my old gaming group to create a shared Pathfinder campaign setting – each player would develop a region, with feedback from the others; finally, we would add everything together and rotate as Gamemasters in a future campaign. In theory it seemed perfect, but in the end just I and another player ever came to write anything.

I remember that one of the few things that were unanimous at the time was that everyone thought that gnomes were lame and shouldn’t be used (halfling were also out, bet let’s leave that for another day). I don’t know why, but that reaction annoyed me, so I said that “I’m gonna make gnomes not only cool but scary!” (Yeah, I was a little arrogant). The result follows below.

Please, bear in mind that this small recreation (or reskinning) is a pure mash-up of legends, other games and sources. The idea is to look at Gnomes differently.

Variant Gnome

Appearance: Nothing changes here; in fact, as this variant race is really descendent of chaotic denizens (synonymous of fey in my opinion), you can go full “Guillermo del Toro” – give them not only weird and strange hair and skin colors, but also add arcane and surreal traits; things like discreet runes and lines naturally drawn on the skins, leaves and thorns growing together with hair, cold (or feverish hot) skin etc. Get creative. These little imps are closer to Raksha than to D&D’s traditional hilly folk.

Background: Gnomes are not a true race but an entire group of wee fey folk, of which the most common type are Brownies (also known as Changelings or Lesser Gnomes) – little and agile chaotic humanoids with skin and hair of strong elemental colors. Their faces are usually exaggerated and with caricature-like features (many Brownies also have childish faces). They’re fidgety and curious, with a taste for trickery, riddles and puzzles. Brownies have a hard time understanding hierarchy – except when the orders come from their sinister fey lords of the Chaos Warrens.

Gnomes are actually a race of servants from the Chaos Warrens – dark and dangerous fey realms. Because of that they have a natural knack for arcane and druidic magic.

Brownies are created from humanoid children (usually human, but also dwarven or elven*) through a fey ritual. Like all Gnomes, they’re sterile and must use magic to reproduce (reenacting the original ritual). It’s because of this practice that Gnomes are reviled and feared through most lands – usually they’re tolerated only in big cities, magocracies and fey-ruled regions. This prejudice, together with the Gnomes’ knack for magic, led many of these half-fey to acts of vandalism and fey trickery – or to live their lives as paranoid loners. To make things worse, Brownies usually are fugitives from the fey lords.

Besides Brownies, a more dangerous type of Gnomes are the Boggarts, nasty and cruel creatures of dark disposition. They have yellow or green molten skin, shiny predatory eyes, sharp teeth, small claws and unnatural hair (that occasionally move on its own). A few Boggarts have tails, horn or cloven feet. Boggarts are clearly more aligned to the Chaos Warrens. They’re known among adventurers to pose as “Goblin Kings”, ruling entire tribes of that race. They also enjoy eating humanoids in general and painting their armor or clothes with their blood. What few people know is that Brownies can become Boggarts, sometimes permanently. This is one of their direst secrets (and fear). There also legends of the Gruagach or Deep Gnomes – self-exiled half-fey that love earth, stone and crystal; famous because of their magic smiths. If the tales are to be believed, they’re immortal and can be wounded (or even killed) by sunlight.

Finally, above Boggarts there are the True or High Gnomes – the fey lords from the Chaos Warrens that occasionally invade the Material Plane. Also known as Springans, they are great sorcerers, responsible for creating the first Brownies from humanoid children. Springans can change their size to gigantic proportions, breath underwater and work greater feats of magic. They’re always of horrendous form, unless when they kill a humanoid and take his skin. Some sages tell of arch-fey above the Springans, immortal and unique creatures called Fomoraíg, with the power equivalent to a demigod or half-deity.

*If elves are fey in your setting, disregard this.

Gnome (Brownie) Racial Traits

+2 Wisdom, +2 Charisma, –2 Strength
Small: Gnomes are Small creatures and gain a +1 size bonus to their AC, a +1 size bonus on attack rolls, a –1 penalty to their Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense, and a +4 size bonus on Stealth checks.
Slow Speed: Gnomes have a base speed of 20 feet.
Low-Light Vision: Gnomes can see twice as far as humans in conditions of dim light. See Chapter 7.
Fey Magic: Gnomes with a Charisma of 11 or higher also gain the following spell-like abilities: 1/day—dancing lights, ghost form (you become incorporeal for 1 round, but can’t ignore iron or any other metal, which immediately dispels it), ghost sound, invisibility (only lasts 5 rounds, can’t run and is also dispelled by metal), prestidigitation and speak with animals. The caster level for these effects is equal to the gnome’s level. The DC for these spells is equal to 10 + the spell’s level + the gnome’s Charisma modifier.
Keen Senses: Gnomes receive a +2 racial bonus on Perception skill checks.
Forest Ghosts: Gnomes receive a +2 racial bonus on Stealth skill checks in forest terrains.
Secrets of Staff and Thistle: Gnomes receive a +2 racial bonus on Knowledge (Nature or Arcane, pick one) checks (and are considered trained on it).
Fey Touched: Gnomes are not pure fey, having mortal blood. They are considered humanoid and also fey for spells and magic effects (this normally means that they’re vulnerable to effects that target fey and that they can use magic items usable only by fey).

Other suggested racial abilities:
These secondary racial abilities can be used either as pure flavor, or as character traits, or yet as benefits granted by racial feats. Suggestions are in [   ].

Gnome-Talk: Brownies can communicate on a more intuitive level with other Brownies. In game terms, a Brownies has a limited form of telepathy that requires eye contact and work only with other Brownies at 30 ft. [This ability can be used purely as flavor like a limited type of telempathy (only emotions); if really useful it may require a character trait. Otherwise, if it really is a type of racial telepathy, it requires a feat. A second feat expand it, allowing the Gnome to communicate with fey and druids]

Dream Devourers: Brownies only eat for pleasure. They require no food as substance, but dream stuff (or emotions, or even souls if you believe in certain legends). In game terms, a Brownie must sleep at least 10 feet from the “victim”. After a good night of sleep the Brownie eats party of the target’s dreams, dealing 1 point of Wisdom, Intelligence or Charisma temporary damage (normally healed by the target during that same sleep and thus not noted). Wicked or “hungry” Brownies (or Boggarts in general) prefer to taste stronger emotions and normally tie, scare and torture their victims, in a process called Harrowing. After 1d4 hours, the victim suffers 1d4 points of Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma temporary damage, plus another 1d4 points of Constitution temporary damage. The Brownie gain a +2 bonus to one ability of his choice and +10 temporary hit points. These bonuses last for 24 hours. Brownies that abuse of the Harrowing risk changing permanently to Boggarts in a very short time. [This ability, if used as written, definitely requires feats. The first feat lets the Brownie use “dream stuff” as food/water. The second feat leaves the Brownie immune to hungry and thirsty and allows him to cast dream once per day.]

Boggart Rage: When wounded or angered (Gamemaster’s discretion), the Brownie becomes a horrendous Boggart. This is best simulated by a level in the Barbarian class – the “transformation” is a reskinning of the rage class feature. [You could buy a feat to negate a Brownie’s racial -2 Strength modifier during a rage in “Boggart form”; or, maybe, buy it as exclusive rage power.]