Merry AKA Uncle Shellworth

My character for our new campaign is a tortle monk named Merry, also known as Uncle Shellworth.

DB Munro ordered a dragon turtle egg for his circus. It was going to be the talk of every town they came to – they could raise it from the egg, tame it and teach it tricks. The circus would grow as the turtle grew. That was the plan, anyway.

The egg arrived, all the way across the Dead Fields, and DB Munro believed it would make him rich and famous.

When Merry cracked his way out of the egg, all of DB Munro’s dreams came crashing down around him. He kept Merry, the tortle, and raised him as a member of the circus. He never missed a chance to crack on his shell with a stick or shout insults – which Merry seemed to absorb with a plodding aplomb.

Merry grew swiftly, and was surprisingly strong after only a few years. He was trained as a strongman and sideshow performer. By the time he seemed fully grown (after about 7 or 8 years – no one has ever seen another tortle) he was enormously strong. Another performer, an alcoholic named Idren Bloodhand took him under his wing. Long ago, before he was disgraced, Idren was trained as a monk. He began training Merry as a lark, watching the huge turtle-man go through the motions of kata. Turns out, Merry had a talent for it, and absorbed everything Idren had to teach, including a love of alcohol and other intoxicants.

No one is sure why, but intoxicants of all kinds affect him differently from the way they affect mammals. It is hard for him to resist experimenting.

One night, Nix, another performer, came to Merry with a plan. She was going to escape the cruel hand of DB Munro, but she needed the help of someone enormously strong and hard to hurt. After some convincing, Merry agreed, eager to see more of the wide world and, though he remained quiet about it, quite uncomfortable with the ongoing verbal and physical abuse.

They escaped, and only barely crossed the Dead Fields with their lives, Merry carrying Nix for the last couple of days as her life nearly left her. At last they made it, half-dead, to Avalon’s Crossing, a village that serves as home for many cast-offs and folks who don’t fit elsewhere.

Nix made her way, using her skills to get by. Merry had never lived anywhere but DB Munro’s circus. He had no skills for dealing with regular folk. Fortunately, the Woodhall family of halflings took pity on him, and eventually adopted the six-foot-tall turtle into their family. The kids call him Uncle Shellworth.

Merry’s strength and quick mind was of great use to the Woodhalls, and in return they taught him carpentry – the family trade. They helped him build a nice little hut next to a pond, where he was most comfortable. Around 2 years passed, and Merry grew even larger and stronger. His shell toughened, and he learned to cook, because his new family of halflings love to eat. Every morning and every evening, he practices what he learned from Idren Bloodhand.

Backgrounds as 0-Level Classes

Image result for zero level characters

Image credit:

In AD&D 2nd edition as well as 3E, there were rules for characters who were lower than 1st level. These “0-level” characters were like pre-adventurers, meant to symbolize children or apprentices. I’ve played in a couple of games that began with us playing zero-level characters who would then develop into 1st level characters. For my taste, 1st level characters are already incredibly weak, famously vulnerable to the attack of a house cat in some editions.

But I was thinking of a way to address some of that vulnerability. In 5E, of course, every character chooses a background which grants them proficiencies, equipment, and often some kind of story-based ability. I realized that it would be a logical step to let the background also provide a hit die.

Most of the sample basic NPCs in the MM have two or three hit dice, making them slightly tougher than some first level player-characters. And the impression I’ve always had of D&D is that characters aren’t really adults until around 3rd level. This is reinforced by the fact that in 5E, you usually don’t choose an archetype until 3rd level.

One option here is to just let each background grant the d8 hit die that medium-sized creatures get, or a d6 in the case of a small-sized PC. I kind of like the idea that the d10 is reserved for mighty heroes, fighter-types, and that the d12 is the boss die. Possibly even bawss. But, if you don’t want to just use a d8, here are suggestions ranging from d4 to d8, based on how tough I think a given background would make you.

Acolyte: d4

Charlatan: d6

Criminal: d6

Entertainer: d4

Folk Hero: d8

Guild Artisan: d6

Hermit: d6

Noble: d4

Outlander: d8

Sage: d4

Sailor: d6

Soldier: d8

Urchin: d6

These hit dice, whether variable or d8s, should function the same way that normal hit dice do. As to whether you roll them, or take the average, or take the maximum, just do what you’d normally do. If you want PCs to have lots of hit points at the beginning, take the maximum. Otherwise, roll or average as usual.

Dungeons & Dragons & The Enneagram

Image result for the enneagram institute

Facebook friend and Christian anarchist Mark Van Steenwyk posted that he would love it if someone took the time to map D&D classes to Enneagram types, including all of the wings. I happen to be an Enneagram nerd and a D&D nerd as well as a little bit obsessive – the end result was that I did precisely that. Nine base Enneagram types with archetypes as wings. The Ranger was left out, because someone had to be out of 10 classes, and, you know…5E Rangers.

Enneagram Type D&D 5E Class Notes
1w9 Way of the Four Elements Monk with the focus on balancing extremes
1 Monk Rightness, self-discipline
1w2 Way of the Open Hand Some self-healing
2w1 Life Domain Warm, embodied
2 Cleric The caregiver, in most groups
2w3 Trickery Domain Giver, but status-seeking
3w2 Arcane Trickster Charming, ambitious
3 Rogue Achievement-oriented, highly skilled
3w4 Thief Individualistic achiever
4w3 College of War Imperfect 1:1, but some originality
4 Bard The artist!
4w5 College of Lore Cerebral creative
5w4 School of Enchantment Creative and provocative
5 Wizard All the books! All the lore! Thinking solves all!
5w6 School of Abjuration Protect friends
6w5 Oath of Devotion The guardian, idealist
6 (counter-phobic) Paladin Charge with me! Auras for allies, smite foes
6w7 Oath of the Ancients Guardian of joy, ‘fun’ paladin
7w6 Draconic Bloodline Another imperfect 1:1
7 Sorcerer Flexibility in all spells, zany bloodlines
7w8 Wild Magic Excitement! Impatience!
8w7 Path of the Berserker Power-seeking, smash the system!
8 Barbarian “Not afraid to be direct”
8w9 Path of the Totem Warrior Some delegation here; imperfect 1:1
9w8 Circle of the Moon Fighty druids
9 Druid Because balance
9w1 Circle of the Land Independent, philosophical, stubborn

Final Note on Rangers

Clearly, rangers are left out of this table, as some class had to be. But in discussion, I thought that rangers would make sense as the more phobic version of the 6, since the classic ranger response to conflict is to back up and shoot from range, so to speak, compared to the paladin’s charge.

What do you think? What would you change? 

5E D&D: Dragonblade! Classes and Races

I thought I would start where the Player’s Handbook starts. I knew that for a homebrew setting, had to get the races right in particular, as that would be the first bit of color and system that the players would interact with, and would continue to be what the players interacted with the world through. I this case, I looked back at Oriental Adventures and L5R and the decisions that the designers made for those games, mostly because both are relatively familiar to me and OA was cheap as a PDF on DriveThru.

I also did some research on folkloric and mythological humanoids from east and south Asia. I looked at these various options through the lens of what would be fun to play and what would be easy to explain? Something more interesting than ‘dwarves, but taller’ and yet also a race or species that I could explain in a sentence or two at most. The final list of races, which I’ll expand upon turned out to be: garuda, half-oni, koropokuru, kumiho (kitsune), naga, nezumi, ren (humans), tengu, vanara, yaksha and yashini.

With regard to classes, in thinking about it, all of the classes could be worked to fit into an Asian setting. Really, it’s just a matter of color. You chant ancient sutras rather than arcane spells. Your spell components change a bit in form but not in function. A paladin’s oath looks like a samurai oath and so on. I did decide to keep the setup from the Dragonlance Chronicles – specifically, that the previously known gods were forgotten, and that their worship had ended generations ago. Fortunately, I also had a robust tradition, in Confucianism and Daoism, or philosophy and ethics that weren’t rooted in the decrees of specific deities. I left the door open for bards, druids, paladins and rangers, just not clerics. Yet.


Garuda is a name for a great bird-like creature in Hinduism. This creature, a deity in its own right, is also depicted as humanoid and winged, somewhat like an angel. A similar being is named the kinnari in Japanese lore or kinnaree in parts of southeast Asia. They are always fierce, warlike and beautiful. They are always depicted as committed to the gods, and there are many stories of their wars with the Naga. Sounds like a rich field to start with.

Rules-wise, I decided that garuda would get a +1 to Strength and a +2 to Charisma. They have advantage when performing music before an appreciative crowd, are medium-sized, have a speed of 30 and are warlike, giving them proficiency with one martial weapon of the player’s choice. (I’m not sure why, but most of the races I created do not have darkvision, but I could see the garuda having it. No players chose to play a garuda, so it dodn’t come up this time). They also have an optional racial Feat called Winged which would allow them to glide and have fully functional wings rather than the mostly-decorative ones the are depicted with in art. Garuda begin play speaking their own language, Garuda, as well as one regional language.


I needed a race that would be the orc-type – big, strong and scary. I decided on the half-oni because I already had ideas of oni playing a big part in the setting and the storyline for the campaign. I also liked them as a version of the Tiefling, their demonic origin making them hard to trust and accept.

As far as rules go, I decided half-oni would have +2 to Strength and +1 to Constitution. I wanted them to be big and brutal. Half oni are also cannibals – once per long rest, if they consume the flesh of a sentient being, they recover their level in hit points. (I might end up increasing this healing number, but I didn’t want to overly encourage players to eat people.) Oni are demonic, and have disadvantage on any social roll to apppear trustworthy or harmless. At the same time, they are automatically proficient with Charisma (Intimidation). Oni have an elemental trait, and are resistant to acid and poison, cold, lightening, fire, or force and thunder. (This ties into how I altered the relationships between the elements for this setting) Lastly, half-oni are fearsome, and once per long rest they can use the Fear spell on a single target. Upon reflection, they half-oni may have too many benefits. I usually try to avoid RP penalties in exchange for concrete bonuses, since they are ripe for abuse, but that’s sort of what I hope happens here. We have two out of four players who are playing half-oni, so we’ll see how it balances out. Half-Oni begin play with one regional language. If raised by oni, they might be able to speak abyssal or infernal.


I also needed at least one race that was the small, tricky type, and I chose the koropokuru. They’re a little bit obscure, but actually show up in Zelda games (they’re the ones who, according to the game’s lore, hide things in baskets and jars that Link goes around smashing) as well as some anime. They are little folkloric humanoids from Japan’s northern island, adapted from an Ainu word for people who  live under the butterbur plant’s leaves.

Koropokuru gain a +2 bonus to their Dexterity and a +1 bonus to their Wisdom, and they are long-lived compared to ren (humans). They are skilled in camoflage, and have advantage on any Dexterity (Stealth) rolls when they have time to prepare in a natural environment. As gift-givers, koropokuru (koro for short) have advantage on any Charisma (Persuade) check with a creature who has accepted a gift from them in the past. They have a speed of 20 and are small in stature. (As an aside, it entertains me that given the abilities I gave them, they would be amazing smugglers.) Koropokuru begin play knowing their own Koro language and one regional language.


More commonly known as kitsune, at least to Americans like me, kumiho is the Korean term for a similar shapechanging fox. Generally, the kumiho is seen as more sinister and threatening than the kitsune. Mostly I wanted to integrate at least one Korean creature, and this one made sense.

Kumiho receive a +2 bonus to Dexterity and a +1 bonus to Charisma. They are fox-faced, and have advantage on Charisma (Persuade) rolls on characters they have already worked on seducing. They are also shape-changers, and can use a move to shift into a supernatural fox form, given away to careful observers because of their multiple tails (approximately one for every two levels or so). They can carry up to about 10 pounds of gear with them when they change, and the rest just drops to the ground. (I originally had them unable to carry any gear, but thought after the first few times naked kumiho running around would lose its humor). Fox-form kumiho have advantage on Strength (Athletics) rolls to jump and Wisdom (Perception) rolls involving hearing or scent. They are small in fox form and medium in humanoid form. Their speed is 30 on two legs and 40 on four legs. Lastly, as tricksters, they are automatically proficient in Charisma (Deception). Kumiho being play with one regional language.


As mentioned above, the naga and garuda in Hindu mythology (both are singular beings as well as kinds of beings) hate each other, and I kept that for this setting. Long ago the naga ran everything. Maybe this was even prehistory. The garuda are the ones who fought the war to liberate other conscious beings. As it stands in the ‘present’ of the setting, the naga are an ancient and mysterious race who are powerful and also mistrusted.

Naga gain a +2 to Intelligence and a +1 to Charisma. They keep their age and life-cycle secret from other creatures, but are thought to be incredibly long-lived. Naga respect, above all else, power, and this often means they lean toward evil in terms of alignment (later I’ll talk about how I adapted the alignment system for this setting). Naga are shapechangers, and can change shape once per long rest. They have a ren (humanoid) form, an amphibian humanoid form with a serpent’s lower half, or a huge sea-serpent with no limbs, fully aquatic. Naga in any form can unhinge their jaws and deliver a powerful bite, dealing 1d3 base damage and then 3d6 poison damage on the following turn. A Con save DC 8 + the naga’s Constitution modifier + proficiency bonus. Naga begin play with Naga as their language, and must learn a regional language at character creation or in-game.


One of our player-characters is a nezumi, and it’s already more fun than I anticipated. The nezumi are my answer to one of the comic-relief races in Dragonlance that so bother me – the Gully Dwarves. I wanted a spot for a tough, durable, small race that lived in the shadow of more ‘civilized’ societies, but without being obnoxiously stupid. I also liked the idea of an ‘unclean’ humanoid race in societies where cleanliness is so important. They’d be the ones to handle dead bodies, the equivalent of untouchables.

Nezumi receive a +1 Dexterity bonus and a +2 to Constitution. Compared to ren they are short-lived, living about half as long, or about 40 years at most. Nezumi are gritty realists who know they don’t fit into polite society so well, and so they tend toward the chaotic end of the spectrum. Unarmed, nezumi have a bite attack that deals 1d3 damage and they are small creatures. Their speed is 30 and they are vermin, meaning they have advantage on Wisdom (Survival) rolls to find food and water as well as advantage on saves against disease and poison. Nezumi begin play with one regional language.


For humans, I just took the Chinese word that means “person” as well as something very similar to the Confucian word for “humanity.” They are exactly as written in the PHB. I also wanted to avoid the trope of having “humans” and then “humanoids” or “metahumans.” It seems sort of species-ist. Ren begin play with one regional language.


The garuda are Hindu bird-people, and I decided to also use the tengu, Japanese bird-people (ignoring that they are sometimes dog-people and sometimes just big-nosed demons). Where the garuda are blunt and warlike, the tengu are warlike tricksters, and I liked the parallel between the Silvanesti and Qualinesti elves in Krynn. The garuda and tengu were of course once a single people, called the kinaree, but an ancient wrong split them into two, and the tengu left their ancestral homeland.

Tengu receive a +2 to their Wisdom score, and live about twice as long as ren. Tengu can be harsh, disciplined masters or somewhat sinister tricksters, and so they tend toward neutrality. They are more avian than the garuda, and retain the ability to communicate with all birds, enabling them to use Charisma checks with them. Their speed is 30, and they are sword-masters, and are automatically proficient with all swords. Tengu start play with a regional language (equivalent of Common), the Primordial dialect of Avian, and Tengu.


Already a race of beings in the Mahabharata, the vanara were an easy pick. Additionally, they’re kung-fu monkeys, and who doesn’t love that? Mythologically, vanara are described as courageous, playful and basically generous beings. Their homeland is in the vast forest at the base of the mountain where the garuda and tengu once lived together as kinaree. I like imagining their society as something bonobos would come up with after another million years or so of evolution.

Vanara receive a +2 to Strength and +1 to Wisdom, and they are medium-sized creatures even though they stand only around 4-5 feet tall and are significantly lighter than the average ren. Like apes, they have much more strength than their frames would indicate, and a different musculature and skeletal structure than ren. Alignment-wise they tend toward the good, and do not tend to be lawful. Their speed is 25 because of their proportionately short legs and feet unsuited to walking long distance, and they have a prehensile tail that is not a fine manipulator but can hold or carry around 5lbs.

Yaksha and Yashini

Yakasha and Yashini are the only species I have that has real sexual dimorphism. That was always something that bothered me about old-school D&D, that different genders had different ability score modifiers, minimums, maximums and so on. I do have a precedent in Hindu lore, however, of the yaksha, hulking people who steadily fatten as they age and are thought of as fierce and frightening, and the yashini, beautiful and volumptuous females who are more wise and alluring.

As of right now I haven’t decided on specific abilities yaksha and yashini. For yaksha I am using stats from goblinoids based on their size, and for yashini I am using slightly modified stats for female drow.

D&D 4th Edition – Character Creation + Hacks Part 2

Long ago, in ancient times, I posted about how I handled 4th Edition D&D character creation with my home group.  Since then, a fine gentleman created a document for the method that I described.  It is available for download here.

It’s a good document and the method worked, for me at least.