Fixing Alignment in D&D

Image result for batman as every D&D alignment

It isn’t so much that alignment is broken, but that I’m not sure alignment as it is expressed in the 5E Player’s Handbook is all that helpful. It is an element of D&D that has always, and still, provokes a lot of discussion and disagreement, as well as podcast episodes and blog posts trying to explain it and account for it.

The original idea for alignment came, according to Gary Gygax, from the stories of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson – in the first case, a self-conscious reaction to what was seen as the good and evil binary presented by writers like Tolkien. There were only three alignments: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. The good/evil axis was added later in 1977’s Basic Set, went back and forth a bit, but has remained consistent pretty much since then.

The problem that I encounter is that this alignment system is, in brief, that it is too vague. Does “evil” mean finger-steepling, sinister and malicious intent at all times? What about a well-meaning villain? What about the idea that most villains see themselves as heroic, if not outright good? Look at Thanos – is he evil because he plans on killing trillions, or is he lawful because he wants to do so in the most fair way possible, or good because he is willing to make personal sacrifices for what he sees as the greater good, or chaotic because his plans would cause the collapse of civilizations, at least temporarily, or perhaps neutral because he seeks balance in the universe (or says he does)?

The fix for alignment, in my view, is to literally “fix” the ideas of an alignment system to more specific terms so that they are clear and can also be flexible by culture. I ran into this challenge planning for a Ragnarok campaign, called Twilight of the Gods, set in mythic dark ages Scandinavia. The Norse clearly had moral ideas, but they aren’t my moral ideas – “good” for a Norse person is quite different from “good” from my point of view and the likely points of view for the players. Killing someone because you want their silver is not “evil” for the Norse, unless you kill them through treachery or poison.

What I did for Twilight of the Gods I described in a previous post, but I’ve since taken this same idea and applied it to Dragonblade, my medieval Asia setting, and Alaam, my elemental setting inspired by Islam and Zoroastrianism. I think the best way to explain my thinking is to show where I ended up – and I’m now quite convinced that more specific alignment terms are the way to go.

Twilight of the Gods (Mythic Dark Ages/Norse)

Rather than good or evil, characters are honest or treacherous. This reflects the fact that violence was not seen as evil – the greatest moral failings included deceit and cowardice for the Norse. Honesty implies keeping promises, including promises of vengeance or oaths of support, and reinforces the idea of boasting being motivation for great deeds in order to fulfill one’s own words.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are civilized or wild. This follows pretty closely to the idea of law and chaos in original D&D, but lets me highlight a theme of the setting and campaign, which was between the old gods, who are closer to the land, and independent life that is bound to the cycles of nature, compared to the Christianizing/urbanizing influence coming up from the south. It also takes the “Chaotic Asshole” alignment off the table, where players choose to be Chaotic Neutral because they want to be assholes and behave randomly. Both civilization and wilderness imply a strong set of values, both of which are rational and interesting.

Dragonblade (Heroic Medieval China/South-East Asia)

Rather than good or evil, characters are benevolent or selfish. These ideas align relatively well with my own idea of good and evil, which I think is widely shared in my culture, but are drawn more directly from the philosophies that were influential during the medieval period in China – Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Mohism and so on. The highest good is often seen as being entirely self-giving and self-negating, and the deepest evil is often seen as arising from a focus on the self above all else. This also gives roleplaying clues that are more clear, I think, than “good” or “evil.” What concerns characters in this setting is a particular kind of good or evil.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are legalistic or free (committed to freedom). Like the take on good and evil above, this is similar to what is described in the Player’s Handbook, but actually quite different from what was in original D&D’s Law and Chaos. Again, these ideas are drawn directly from the philosophies in China at the time, in particular those of Laozi (Daoism) and Confucius.

Another way of looking at this alignment system is that the good/evil axis is rooted in Buddhism, and the law/chaos axis is rooted in Confucianism and Daoism. Since those are three of the most powerful influences on Chinese culture, I thought it was a pretty good fit. I also felt that whatever replaced “law” and “chaos” had to be two positive choices with a moral underpinning. I realize that boiling down Confucianism to “legalism” and Daoism to “freedom” is stupidly reductive, but hopefully the idea comes across. I’m actually not entirely satisfied with the term “legalism”, but it’s the best I have for the moment.

I like how mundane the alignments become. Chaotic Evil sounds like a lot to live up to – you have to go full Joker and watch the whole world burn. In Dragonblade, this would be Selfish Freedom, which seems a lot more common and easy to understand. Someone committed to Selfish Freedom could even be part of an adventuring party without a lot of trouble, in contrast to someone who was Chaotic Evil.

Alaam (Inspired by Arabian Nights/Islam/Zoroastrianism)

Instead of good or evil, characters are kind or cruel. Here I went with a simple, direct moral description of how one treats other people, rather than the inner morality that is more of a focus for Dragonblade above. These descriptors also fit well with the almost-fairy-tale sense I wanted to evoke of 1001 Arabian Nights. At the very least, it avoids the “But what is evil, really?” kind of question that plagues conversations about D&D’s standard alignment. (Thanos, to take my example from the beginning of this post, is clearly cruel.)

Instead of lawful or chaotic, characters are obedient or rebellious. In this case, I am drawing more from Islam, where obedience is a very high virtue. The Middle-East is also a part of the world that has had strong central authorities for a very long time – thousands of years in the real world. This alignment axis assumes that the law, that authority, makes demands on you, and you have to respond one way or another. This fits with a strong theme for Alaam, which is that of the authority of the genies who created the world, and how characters respond to that authority.

Specific Is Best

My advice to other writers and designers in the area of alignment is almost always to make it more specific. Root your alignment system in the questions you want to ask in your campaign. Fix the alignment axes to the strong themes of your setting. Alignment is often the source of disagreement, but it has a great potential to highlight aspects of a setting right from the beginning. If you want to play a Lawful Good paladin, I think that it is a distinct experience to create a character who is Honest and Civilized, or Benevolent and Legalistic, or Kind and Obedient. Those are all, to me, much more interesting than Lawful Good.

To pick another crappy alignment trope – I am of course suspicious of any player who wants to play a Chaotic Evil character. But what about Treacherous and Wild? That’s at least really interesting. Or Selfish and Free – that’s not even necessarily “evil” in the villainous sense. (Heck, that could be a Libertarian) Or Cruel and Rebellious – the option most similar to Chaotic Evil, perhaps, but still easier to understand and portray. It clearly states a relationship to other people and to whatever authorities exist in your world, and that’s a big step ahead of Chaotic Evil in my book. Or, in my games at least.

What do you think about this take on alignment? What do you think the alignment could be for your favorite setting: Middle-Earth, Westeros, Krynn, etc? 

5th Edition D&D: Dragonblade! Folklore On Demand

Here are some write-ups and stat blocks for Japanese mythological and folkloric creatures, as requested by almarianknight on the Dungeon Master’s Block forum. My apologies for the format of each stat block being a bit different – this is a rough draft. Anyway, presenting the Akateko, Basan, Futakuchi-onna and Kuchisake-onna:

Akateko, or Creepy Baby Arm

A long-nailed infant’s hand, stripped of its skin, dangles from a tree. It is up to the DM wither the hand is attached to anything, but in this case, I am treating it like a trap. The first person to see the hand triggers the trap, which deals 3d10 psychic damage, with a Wisdom save DC 15 for half damage.

If a character appraching the hand is being watchful for threats, she can make a DC 15 Perception check to notice the hand and make the proper sign to ward off evil before it takes effect. If successful, she is able to disarm the trap by performing the appropriate rite to send a mutilated infant into the her next life. This requires a DC 15 Religion check to do successfully.

Unless the area is purified by a priest, the hand will impose the frightened condition on anyone able to see it, even if it has been “disarmed.”

Basan, or Fire Chicken

Almarianknight’s image here is for a military mount, for elite shock troops or something similar I’m assuming. I’m thinking light cavalry without a lot of endurance – hop on your sprinting fire-chicken mount, harry the enemy and breathe fire on them, fade back into the main force, etc. I also like the idea of the basan (or basen) as a low-level monster to encounter, like the chakora from a previous post, or cockatrice from the Monster Manual.

Young basan are unruly and hard to manage for obvious reasons, and to be a basan handler is a position of both danger and prestige. When they reach sexual maturity at about 2 years of age, basan are able to spout flames from their mouths, but only if they have been feeding on a steady diet of bombardier beetles. Otherwise, they breathe their natural ghost-fire, which functions like a faerie fire spell that can be used once per short rest.

As military mounts, basan aren’t strong enough to handle any kind of barding or heavy burdens, and are likely best paired with small-sized riders (like koropokuru in the Dragonblade! setting).

Basan, medium magical beast, unaligned
AC 12
HP 24 (4d10 +4)
Speed 50’
Str +2, Dex +2, Con +1, Int -4, Wis +0, Cha -1
Passive DC 10
Challenge 1/2
Claw +4 1d10 +2 slashing
Wild or untrained basan can breathe ghost-fire once per short rest. This functions exactly like a faerie fire spell.
Trained basan can breathe a 30’ line of fire which recharges on a 5 or 6, dealing 2d10 fire damage, Dexterity save DC 12 for half.


Futakuchi-onna, or Two-Mouthed Woman

The two-mouthed woman is a monster that is cousin to a hungry ghost in many ways. It is said that a woman can be transformed into such a creature by a wound to the back of the head that never heals, by suffering under a miserly husband, or even letting a child starve. In stories of two-mouthed women, the common theme is hunger.

Initially, a two-mouthed woman is much like any other woman, except that she has a fully formed mouth on the back of her head covered by her hair. This mouth might mumble obscene things or demand food, but generally the disfigurement can be hidden. When it fully manifests, however, driven by ever-increasing hunger, the woman’s hair splits into prehensile tentacle-like forms which grasp food for her ravenous second mouth. After this supernatural transformation, the woman’s type changes to outsider (native) and she becomes quicker, stronger, and hungrier yet.

Futakuchi-onna, medium fiend (native), chaotic evil
(loosely based on the Bearded Devil)
AC 12 (unarmored)
HP 8d8 +16 (52)
Speed 30’
Str +1, Dex +2, Con +2, Int +0, Wis -2, Cha -2
Saves: Str +2, Con +4, Wis +0
Resistances: bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons that aren’t blessed by a priest (or the setting equivalent of silvered)
Immune: fire and poison, poisoned
Darkvision 120’, passive DC 8
Challenge 3
Unholy: the Futakuchi-onna is driven by demonic power, and has advantage on any saves against divine spells.
Tentacle-Hair: Each turn the Futakuchi-onna can make up to two melee attacks with her tentacles of hair: +5 to hit, 10’, 1d10+2 damage. Anyone hit must make a Strength save DC 12 or be grappled. On the Futakuchi-onna’s subsequent turn, if still grappled, the victim must make another Strength save or be dragged to her second mouth and bitten. The bite attack automatically hits, and deals 1d6 +2 piercing damage. The hair-tentacles are surprisingly strong, with 10hp and ignoring the first 10 damage they take each round.
Screech: when hungry, the second mouth can screech horribly, causing the woman and anyone nearby agony. Once per short rest the second mouth can screech, and all within 30’ take 2d10 psychic damage with a DC 12 Constitution save for half.

 

Kuchisake-onna, or Mutliated Woman

Another in the theme of wronged women, the Kuchisake-onna is a mutilated woman made to appear something like the Joker in the Dark Knight film. As the stories go, this woman goes around in a mask, and is often seen as a threat to children in particular. If you meet her, she will ask whether she is pretty. If you say no, she attacks with a pair of shears she carries. If you say yes, then she takes off the mask, revealing her mouth ripped open from ear to ear, and asks again. If you say no this time, she tries to cut you in half. If yes, then she slits your mouth just like hers.

Once the mutilated woman is within 5′ of an intended victim, they cannot escape except by tricking her, defeating her, or being mutilated. Each round on her turn she can, as a bonus action, teleport to within 5′ of her victim, and often trying to run will provoke her into attacking. She is only semi-intelligent, however, and sometimes easy to confuse. If given an unusual answer to her questions, or redirected cleverly, her victim is able to make a Charisma save against a DC of 15. Of successful, it is possible to escape, and she cannot teleport as normal for a full minute.

Kuchisake-onna, medium fey, lawful evil
(loosely based on the Sea Hag)
AC 12 (unarmored)
HP 7d8 +7 (38)
Speed 30’
Str +3, Dex +1, Con +1, Int -2, Wis +0, Cha -2
Darkvision 60’, passive DC 10
Challenge 2
(Could also be a fiend. If a fiend, add fiend resistances and immunities, increase darkvision to 120’, and raise the challenge to 3)
Horrific Appearance: when the Kuchisake-onna removes her mask, the closest intelligent creature must make a DC 12 Wisdom save or be frightened for 1 minute. This save can be repeated each turn, but with disadvantage if the Kuchisake-onna is visible.
Shears (multiattack): the Kuchisake-onna can make two melee attacks per turn with her shears. Melee attack +5, 2d4 +3 (7) slashing damage.
Rage: once she has removed her mask and has been damaged, the Kuchisake-onna enters into a blind rage. Her melee attacks deal +2 damage (9) and she has advantage on any Strength check. The rage lasts for 1 minute, after which she takes one level of exhaustion and normally flees.
Teleport: unless confused (Charisma save described above) each round as a bonus action the Kuchisake-onna can teleport to a point adjacent to her intended victim

5th Edition D&D: Dragonblade! Rise of the Oni

In place of orcs and goblins in other settings, and in place of Draconians specifically in the Dragonlance setting of Krynn, I am using Oni. Because of the shared cultural referents in the cultures of east and southeast Asia (not universal, but Hinduism and Buddhism influence all of them to varying degrees), I thought that I demons could provide the equivalent of a Bad Monster Race. There is also the added bonus that they are not a race, but rather corrupted forms of all races, which is a small step farther from the implied racism of most fantasy settings where ‘races’ are actually often species, and where species have generalized moral alignments.

The term Oni is of course from Japanese mythology, essentially meaning “demon”, but unlike more Western demons who are always from another plane of existence, Hindu and Buddhist demons can be corrupted people, or animals, or even corrupted gods. There are even good demons, which terrify people, or serve as powerful guardians, for good ends rather than evil. I liked the moral gray area, and I liked the concept that anything, in theory, can become demonic. And rather than magic or gods twisting them, they are twisted from within. Here I’m diverging into my own worldbuilding, but I wanted the concept to be recognizable.

In keeping with the five-element, five-color metaphysics of Dragonblade!, I divided the Oni into five broad categories. For those who don’t want to click on a link and re-read: red/fire, yellow/earth, white/metal, black/water, green/wood. I also kept with the inspiration of Dragonlance and gave each Oni a problematic death-effect, just like our friends the Draconians.

Red Oni

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First, the stat block for a basic red or fire Oni

 

 

 

Large monstrous humanoid, selfish freedom
AC 13 (hides)
7d10 HD +14
Move 30’
Str +3, Dex -1, Con +2, Int -2, Wis -3, Cha +1
Resistances: fire
Vulnerabilities: cold, halts regeneration
Advantage versus slowing or calming effects
Regeneration 1hp/HD
Death effect: 3d6 fire damage 10’ radius, Dex DC 12 save
Spellcasting
2 cantrips
2 1st level spells, 2 spell slots

Fire Oni are spawned by an over-abundance of passion of various kinds. Some core sins that lead to red-oni corruption might include impatience or arrogance or lust. They are resistant to fire but not immune, and not only are they vulnerable to cold damage but cold damage also halts their regeneration effect (in this way, I borrow that scary element of D&D trolls for each type of Oni). Their death effect is a fireball of course.

Yellow Oni

Yellow Oni

This stat block is a bit less developed, but is pretty close 

Large monstrous humanoid, pure selfishness
AC 13 (natural)
HD 8d10 +24
Speed 30
Str +3, Dex -1, Con +3, Int -3, Wis +0, Cha -2
Resistances: acid and poison
Immunities: poisoned condition
Vulnerabilities: force and thunder, halts regeneration
Advantage versus fear effects
Regeneration 1hp/HD
Death effect: turns to stone and traps the last piercing or slashing weapon to strike it; Dex save DC 12 to retain weapon

Yellow oni are enormous, hideous demons tied to earth qi. Stories about them abound in folklore and mythology – their spittle and blood are poison; their bones are made of stone; when they die, or just sleep, they look just like rocky mounds. Like any oni, they are invariably sinister, violent and cruel.

White Oni

White Oni

And another rough stat-block

Large monstrous humanoid, legalistic selfishness
AC 14 (metallic body)
7d10 HD +14 (49hp)
30’
Str +4, Dex -1, Con +2, Int -1, Wis -3, Cha -1
Resistances: lightening
Vulnerabilities: fire, halts regeneration
Advantage on saves vs. rage effects and confusion effects
Regeneration 1hp/HD
Death effect: metal bones shatter and explode from inside the body, dealing 3d6 slashing damage in a 10’ radius, Dex DC 12 save for half. This damage is also dealt to any equipment the oni carried, and only metal is likely to survive.

White, or metal oni are some of the more intelligent of oni-kind. They are comfortable with machinery, and tend to live in cold, dry regions when they have a choice in the matter.

Black Oni

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Large monstrous humanoid, selfish freedom
AC 15 (hide armor)
7d10 HD
Move 30’ Swim 20’
Str +3, Dex +1, Con +2, Int -3, Wis -1, Cha -2
Resistances: cold
Vulnerabilities: acid and poison, halts regeneration
Regeneration 1hp/HD
Advantage versus charm effects
Death effect: the body suddenly decomposes into a pool of acid which splashes all adjacent creatures and objects for 1d6 acid and deals 2d6 acid to any who are in the pool, which remains for 1d6 minutes. If they die in the water, they decompose into a 20′ cube cloud of acide that deals 2d6 damage to any inside and remains for 1d6 rounds.

Black oni are amphibious and take distinct pleasure in terrorizing and torturing their victims – some say they literally feed off of others’ fear.

Green Oni

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Large monstrous humanoid, neutral evil
AC 13 (hide)
7d10 HD
30’
Str +4, Dex -1, Con +2, Int -3, Wis -3, Cha -2
Resistances: thunder and force
Vulnerabilities: lightening, halts regeneration
Fast regeneration: 2hp/HD
Advantage versus sleep effects
Death effect: unlike other oni, death does not end a green oni’s regeneration. A severed head keeps gurgling insults and trying to bite (+2 1d6 +3 piercing), severed limbs crawl around looking for prey, entrails twist like snakes and grasp at foes. Lightening damage can end this, and one can also burn the body, or at least cauterize the wounds, in which case the body simply starves over the course of a few days.

Green oni are the strongest of oni-kind, and also regenerate very swiftly. They are fueled by unbridled wrath and are a terror to face in battle.

The Making of an Oni

Each element is associated with all aspects of life, including the emotional. When this qi becomes radically unbalanced, especially in an area where the natural flows of qi are similarly corrupted, beings can begin to be twisted into oni. The process is gradual, with a sudden change at the end. Sages disagree on what brings the final moment about – the intervention of an evil deity, or a free choice of the person or creature for evil, or the accumulated karma of their past lives and current actions. Either way, the thinking goes that every oni can be traced back to an uncorrupted creature of some kind in the distant past, making them all the more tragic.

5E D&D: Dragonblade! Raptor-Cupid and Two Military Mounts

This time I’m featuring three more signature creatures of the Dragonblade! setting. The first is the chakora, sort of like a South Asian version of the cockatrice. The second two are two of the replacements I have for more familiar domesticated animals like horses. I wanted this setting to have a bit more of a primordial feel, so I went through legendary creatures with an eye toward animals from the Pleistocene (which have surprising potential overlap, but that’s a post for another day). What I came up with are the nian, based on a legendary creature said to be part tiger, part bear, and prone to carrying off village children in the night, and the suzaku-bird, a kind of Japanese phoenix that I thought would be cool as a prehistoric flightless bird. I also liked the image of cavalry wielding lances from the backs of 9 foot tall birds, or lunging armored tiger-bears. Enjoy.

Chakora

Title: The Last Dinosaur Artist: Daniel Eskridge Medium: Digital Art - Digital Description: Archaeopteryx is a creature that seems to be half bird, half dinosaur. He is featured in this latest of my paleo art series. It lived in the Late Jurassic Period around 150 million years ago and it seems to represent the transition from dinosaur to bird. As a result I've called this image The Last Dinosaur.:

Chakora, small monstrosity, chaotic neutral
AC 13 (natural armor)
HP 27 (6d6+6)
Speed 40’ Fly 20’
Str -2, Dex +1, Con +1, Int -4, Wis +1, Cha -3
Darkvision 60’, passive perception DC 11
Challenge 1/2
Bite +3 1d4 +1 piercing plus DC 11 Con save or become charmed with regard to the first humanoid they see (DM’s discretion based on circumstances) for the next 24 hours. When they come within 5 feet of their new love, they must make a DC 11 Charisma save or become incapacitated. This save can be repeated once each minute.

Nian

Nian, large best, unaligned
AC 14 (natural armor) or 16 (armored)
HP 32 (4d10 +8)
Speed 40’
Str +4, Dex +2, Con +2, Int -4, Wis +1, Cha -1
Darkvision 60’, passive DC 13
Challenge 1
Keen Smell: advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on smell
Pounce: when a nian can move 20’ or more before an attack it can pounce, making a claw attack. If the claw attack hits, their target must make a DC 14 Strength save or be knocked prone.
Bite +6 1d10 +4 piercing
Claw +6 1d8 +4 slashing

Suzaku-bird

Suzaku-bird, large beast, unaligned
AC 12
HP 24 (4d10 +4)
Speed 50’
Str +2, Dex +2, Con +1, Int -4, Wis +0, Cha -1
Passive DC 10
Challenge 1/2
Multiattack: two attacks, one beak and one claw, both of which must be against the same target.
Beak +4 1d8 +2 piercing
Claw +4 1d10 +2 slashing

5E D&D: Dragonblade! Flesh Demons, River Dragons and Shapechangers

I’ve been working on hacking various south and east Asian mythological creatures and monsters for use in my 5th Edition Dragonblade! game, and I’ll continue posting them up once they’re finished – or finished enough to put up on Obsidian Portal, anyway.

Suushi_Nuppeppo

Nuppepo (medium fiend, lawful evil)

AC 10 (natural armor)
HP (6d8 +6) 36
15’
Str +1, Dex -2, Con +1, Int -5, Wis +0, Cha -4
Resistances: cold, necrotic
Immunities: poison damage; charmed, frightened, poisoned, sickened
Darkvision 120’, passive perception DC 10
Languages: Common (Yamata), Abyssal
Devil’s sight: the nuppepo can see even through magical darkness
Fist +4 1d4 +1 bludgeoning
CR 1

Nuppepo are vaguely humanoid mounds of rotting flesh, most often encountered in abandoned tombs and cemeteries.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Phaya Naga, or River Dragon (large dragon, any alignment)

AC 18
HP 142 (15d10 +60)
40’/40’ swim
Str +5, Dex +0, Con +4, Int +2, Wis +1, Cha +3
Saves: Dex +3, Con +7, Int +4, Cha +6
Immunities: thunder and force
Vulnerabilities: lightening
Senses: blindsight 30’, darkvision 120’, passive perception DC 17
Languages: Common (Lao), Primordial (water or wood)
Multiattack: two claws, one bite
Bite: +8 2d10 +5 piercing
Claws: +8 2d6 +5 slashing

Some river dragons are spellcasters, and if so, they use their Charisma as their spellcasting ability, know three spells up to level 3, and have 3 spell slots. Spell attack +6, spell save DC 14.

tsukumogami Hyakki-Yagyo-Emaki_Tsukumogami_1

Tsukumogami (Small or medium object or humanoid, unaligned)

AC 12 (natural armor)
HP 58 (9d8 +18)
15’
Str +3, Dex +1, Con +2, Int -2, Wis +1, Cha -1
Stealth +5
Immunities: acid, polymorph
Darkvision 60’, Passive perception DC 11
Languages: Common (Yamata)
Shapechanger: able to polymorph into any small or medium object or humanoid creature. When the Tsukumogami polymorphs into a humanoid the form includes clothing appropriate to its former (or current) owners.
False appearance: a DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check is required to see that anything is out of the ordinary when a tsukumogami is encountered.
Grappler: the tsukumogami has advantage on all grappling-related rolls
Pseudopod or fist: +5 1d8 +3 bludgeoning, and the tsukumogami can grapple whether in humanoid or object form
Bite: +5 1d8 +3 piercing and 1d8 acid damage

Tsukumogami are an idea that exists in both Japanese and Korean folklore. The idea is that an object, once it is 100 years old or more, might wake up and became animated and sentient. It makes sense that objects left in dungeons, for example, would wake up a bit more often than others, since they would lay around forgotten in treacherous caverns for years on end. Just the kinds of places PCs end up.

5E D&D: Hacking Mushrooms

It all started with me wanting to feature some myconids. I haven’t really used these before, as long as I’ve been playing and DMing D&D, but they’ve been there since the first few folios of the Monster Manual. (In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, myconids are Lawful Neutral mushroom-people who use spores to communicate, defend themselves, and procreate by taking over humanoid bodies)

I wasn’t sure how to use myconids for Dragonblade!, though, because I want to stick to the east and south Asian themes as strongly as I could, and I didn’t know if myconids existed in those cultures, or anything like them. The PCs are underground, though, and I want to creep them out with something that is threatening, alien, but not necessarily hostile. I desired humanoid mushrooms with a great desire.

Matango_1963_poster

My research started where you’d expect, with Toad from Super Mario Brothers, and led me to Matango, a Japenese film from the 60s about an island of mushroom people. Turns out, there is a healthy tradition of mushroom people in Japanese culture at least, just as there is a healthy appreciation for delicious mushrooms, and overall they have a similar MO to the myconids – vaguely creepy without being actively threatening, and the spores! Oh, the spores.

I figure out that the term in Japanese for mushroom-people roughly transliterates to kinoko-kozu, and my mushroom people are born. The myconids as written in the MM, though, are a bit boring, given a few things I know about fungi. The Sovereign as written is just a big walking mushroom with a couple extra spore abilities. I’d like something more.

Enter the slime mold. If you haven’t looked into the slime mold, it’s worth some googling. It is a vast colony of millions, or billions, of prokaryotic cells that function together as one organism and have this very complex life cycle. They can take various shapes, and the largest terrestrial organism is thought to be a slime mold. They show signs of emergent intelligence, and can basically expand their colony size without limits as long as they find nutrients and can replicate themselves safely.

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Clearly, the Sovereign of my kinoko-kozu colony needs to be a vast slime mold. I just added the slight tweak of greater emergent intelligence than a normal slime mold, and you have an intelligent, indefinitely replicating fungus that has created the kinoko-kozu to be its literal hands and feet, colonizing them and sending them out into the subterranean world.

The player-characters met the kinoko-kozu during our last session, and so far, they like them. The fact that they’ve breathed in tons of floating spores will definitely not cause interesting problems later in the story…

5E D&D: Dragonblade! OK, Now Some Blades

…and some other magical items.

The second part of the setting’s title, which actually has nothing to do with this kind of weird looking movie by a similar name, is the blades part. Every society that created swords created stories about supernatural swords, and they are part and parcel of the fantasy genre. Excalibur, Narsil/Anduril, Thorn, Longclaw, the Sword of Gryffindor, the Sword of Truth; but more appropriate to this setting are the Green Destiny, Honjo Masamune, Kusanagi, the Grass-cutting Sword, Gan Jiang and Mo Ye, and other legendary weapons from East Asian myth.

My touch-point for magical blades, though, is the Green Destiny as it appears in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

green destiny screenshot

An ancient, battered artifact that is nonetheless legendary and, in the hands of a skilled wielder, pretty much invincible. I love that the Green Destiny is more than just a MacGuffin, but it has it’s own history and legends that have accrued around it. I also liked how it drove the story – when taken and used by someone who lacked wisdom, it could do tremendous harm.

Obviously, my Dragonblade setting has a lot of fives – five elements, five main types of dragons, and yes, five legendary blades, each of them roughly corresponding to one of the elements. There are more than five magical blades in the whole world, of course, but there are five that will drive the story as it is now. How things turn out, for the player-characters and for the world around them, is bound up in the stories of these five blades.

In game terms, each of these is a maxed-out +3 weapon, and the blades change shape depending on who is wielding them. The wielder can choose any bladed weapon from those in which they are proficient, and the Dragonblade will appear for them in that form. So if, for some reason, a wizard was wielding one of the Dragonblades, it would be a +3 dagger in her hands, but if a barbarian wanted to wield one of them, it could be a glaive for her.

I decided to roll randomly in the DMG for the blades major and minor traits, a flaw and quirk for each, and also something of their history. I’ll avoid spoiler territory for the most part, even given the fact that I doubt my players will read any of this (here, the spoilers would be how to find the blades, rather than what they do). Anyway, here is what I have for two of the Dragonblades in addition to being a +3 weapon:

The White Dragonblade is currently in the form of a mythological spear. It was originally forged by human civilization that is now lost. It is marked with archaic, barely-legible runes, and is highly ornamented. It is utterly unbreakable, even by other magical weapons or powerful spells. When it is attuned to you, your AC increases and you regenerate. When used, there is a loud sound like a huge gong being rung.

The Black Dragonblade is currently in the form of a huge flanged mace. It was made by tinkerers, and incorporates a lot of odd gears and functions, and it was wielded by a famous hero in the past named Vajra. When attuned it renders you immune to disease, and on a hit it deals an extra 1d6 damage. Also when you strike with it, you hear snatches of ancient song.

Other Magical Items

I plumbed the interwebs and found some interesting magical items that I look forward to adapting. I also went through the magic items list in the DMG and reskinned where I felt I needed to do so. Again, though, because I am drawing on mythology and legends that my players (and probably most American players) don’t already know about, I can steal more freely from the real world. If I say the Philosopher’s Stone, everyone knows that from Harry Potter. If I talk about the Cintamani Stone, though, fewer people will know what to expect.

There also some really interesting, even zany magical items, like the Monkey King’s Compliant Rod (Ruyi Jingu Bang).

Think about how you’d adapt this to 5th Edition D&D: according to legend, Ruyi Jingu Bang is able to change in size and mass, from 20 feet tall to the size of a toothpick, and it can weigh up to 17,550 pounds. I’m still not sure exactly how to represent this in-game, but it’ll probably just be the kind of magic item that is awesome if you can find clever uses for it (crossing chasms, carrying around behind your ear, as a huge lever, to pin someone to the ground beneath its weight, etc.) In addition, it is a +1 adamant staff, since legends say it is impossible to break. I also rolled randomly, and got that it tarnishes when in direct sunlight, and that it is decorated with a faint spider motif (monkeys would be too obvious). It is associated (in my setting at least) with an evil deed, and also with a named villain, but has since been put to heroic use. I’m thinking maybe someone cut down the World Tree and made the staff out of it, and then it was stolen…by a vanara who would later become king?

Potions

Alchemy is a huge deal in every culture touched by Daoism – medieval Daoism was deeply concerned with coming up with an elixir of immortality, and like in the West people drank all sorts of awful things, experienced heavy metal poisoning, and so on. But given the flexible nature of the metaphysics for this setting, I decided to simplify potions significantly. Healing potions are “restore balance potions“, as they balance the humors and qi-flows in one’s body. Yang qi potions are a combination of the DMG’s potions of climbing, potions of energy, and potions of jumping. Basically, you drink the potion and it responds to the situation – if you start climbing, it boosts that; if you have fatigue levels, it restores them; if you jump, it’ll boost your jumping, as in the DMG. Yin qi potions, on the other hand, combine darkvision, stealth, and swimming (as yin is associated with darkness and water). They are responsive to your situation in the same way.

Astras

Not wanting the setting to be entirely Confucian/Daoist, I decided to adapt an idea from Hinduism. Astras are weapons of the gods, given to heroes or avatars of those gods to wield in battle. One example from mythology would be Agni’s weapon, the Agneyastra fire-arrow. This arrow (or probably an endless quiver in game-terms) rains fire and death down on Agni’s foes. I thought it would be cool if each of the gods has an astra, sort of like an advanced form of a favored weapon – except that there is only one in the world.

Of course, at the moment, there are no gods…

Maybe that’ll change.