5E D&D: Dragonblade! Dragons, But Not Yet Blades

The setting is named Dragonblade! for Pete’s sake. I’d better talk about either dragons or blades here soon. I pick dragons.

Obviously, with the goal of having an East/South Asian mash-up fantasy setting, dragons are going to look, and feel, and behave differently when compared to your “standard” Western dragons inspired by the likes of the Dragon of Revelation, the nameless dragon St. George killed, the nameless dragon that mortally wounded Beowulf and was slain by Wiglaf, Fafnir, Ancalagon the Black, Smaug the Golden and so on. I hope you are already pretty familiar with those kinds of dragons – generally sinister, almost as greedy and narcissistic as Donald Trump, fire-breathing, etc.

Eastern dragons (broadly), by contrast, tend to be wise, relatively benevolent, and associated with rivers. They are more serpentine and often wingless, though still able to fly in many stories. They often have lion’s manes and clawed feet and long, flexible bodies. They often control the weather and sometimes, by extension, local fertility. They are, like their Occidental counterparts, associated with power and the supernatural, and do remain dangerous if crossed or aggravated. They’re more likely to have a treasure-store of wisdom than of gold and gems, however. Obviously, there is a great deal of variation in both categories.

For Dragonblade, I wanted to stick with the strong elemental theme, and so I decided very early on that there would be five main types of dragons coinciding with the five Daoist elements. By color, in classic D&D fashion, that would be Yellow, White, Black, Red and Green dragons, and I’ll describe them, but in a way to avoid spoilers for my players. You know, on the off-chance that they are some of the couple dozen people still periodically reading this blog.

Yellow Dragons, or Earth Dragons are on average the largest of dragonkind. In 5th Edition terms this means they will often have the largest hit dice compared to other dragons. This type of dragon was already covered briefly in my previous post about metaphysics in the setting.

White Dragons, or Metal Dragons, are able to glide at most. They have the highest AC of any of dragonkind, and have some capabilities that make them at home amongst undead. We know they will be strongly associated with lightening, and are likely to be vulnerable to fire in some way. In appearance, they are skeletal and have shiny scales that tarnish and rust with age. They are tireless and possibly even sleepless, and profoundly patient, even for dragons.

Black Dragons, or Water Dragons are flightless, though they have a stronger swim speed than usual for water sup-type dragons in the MM (like the Black Dragons listed there, or the Bronze Dragons). They are fully amphibious, at home in the water or on land, and are a lot like sea monsters sketched in to the oceans of old maps. We can already surmise that they will be strongly associated with cold, and will likely be vulnerable to acid and poison in some way. Black Dragons wield fear with incredible skill, and of all dragons have the most sinister reputation.

Azure or Green Dragons, or Wood Dragons, are the smallest and most flexible of dragonkind. They can fly, burrow and swim, though they are not fully amphibious like the Black Dragons and must simply hold their breath (which they can do for a long time). Green dragons are physically the strongest, especially for their size, and heal more quickly than other dragons. They are strongly associated with force and thunder, and vulnerable to fire. In appearance, they range from bright green to blue-green to sometimes even blue (sometimes this type of qi is referred to as green, and other times, as blue or blue-green). They are easily provoked to anger. In appearance they are the most “standard” Asian dragons, and of course, when they fly it is without the need for wings.

Red Dragons, or Fire Dragons, are able to fly but not burrow well, and certainly cannot swim. Whether they are able and simply hate it, or whether they drown easily none now know. They are the most affable and interested in lesser beings, and the most likely to genuinely care about ren and other races. They are passionate and value art and beauty very highly. Of course, they also breathe fire, and are in some way vulnerable to cold. In appearance, they can look less like dragons and more like huge phoenixes, or maybe like archaeopteryxes made of supernatural fire.

In addition to the five main types of dragons there are others. The ones I can’t really talk about are the vast, epic monsters, the primordial beings from which all lesser dragons are descended. Can’t spoil them here, though, sorry.

5E D&D: Dragonblade! Five-Element Metaphysics. And Dragons.

Every time I run my game, it makes me want to write about, so here you go you lucky internet folk.

Specific definitions of elemental damage types come and go in D&D, but from the very beginning it has been explicitly built on a four-element metaphysics, consistent with, broadly speaking, Western civilization as influenced by the Greeks and Romans. The four familiar elements are earth, air, fire and water, and they are familiar to us even from diverse sources like Final Fantasy, board games, our four suits we use in card games (by “our” I mean Americans and Europeans, D&D’s main audience).

If we look out East, we find other metaphysical models for the elements. In Hinduism, broadly speaking again, you can say there are zero elements, or one element, or five, or six. When looking at the five-element and six-element models, they were imagined as concentric circles, or as increasing complexity, which wasn’t what I knew I’d need for a D&D game.

I was already quite familiar with Daoist elements, and some of you reading this might be as well from such sources as acupuncture and feng-shui. In the Daoist model, there are five elements, and each flows into the next, and then each is vulnerable to one of the other ones, making this model look like a complicated five-pointed star with a circle drawn around it, like this:

Granted, this is a complicated version, but it gives an idea both of the broad strokes as well as the complexities in this model. I hope. As you can see, the five elements are (from the top) fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Remember that these are not necessarily limited to the literal element as it seems in English translation, but to a form of energy that is present in the human body, the progression of the seasons, the rise and fall of dynasties, and pretty much everything else.
There are two cycles of interaction (actually four, but we’re keeping it simple here). There is a cycle by which each element gives rise to the next, and also a cycle by which each element overcomes another. The generative cycle is the circle above, and the destructive cycle above is the star. One thing I like about it is that there is always a flow. It’s kind of like Rock, Scissors, Paper, Lizard, Spock. Each element overcomes another element, and each is overcome by yet another, and if you follow either cycle all the way, you return to where you started.
Example: fire gives rise to earth (in the form of ashes); earth gives rise to metal (deposits of ore); metal gives rise to water (ancient people observed water condensing on metal surfaces); water gives rise to wood (duh); wood gives rise to fire (also duh).

Adapting this to D&D took some doing, obviously. I had to think it through in light of the way that elemental damage works in 5E. Leaving out radiant (which I’m calling yang) and necrotic (which I’m calling yin), there are acid, poison, fire, cold, lightening, force, thunder and psychic. I also left off psychic for this system, since in the metaphysical model itself, all of the five elements have psychic/psychological elements.

Reading further in the area, I found some correlations that were consistent. Obviously, Fire coincides with fire. Similarly, Water coincides with cold. Metal, being a conductor, I decided would coincide with lightening. Wood is associated with storms and strong weather, so I decided it would cover thunder. Earth is associated with acids and chemistry, so I left that association in place. And since thunder and acid damage are relatively rare, I added force to thunder and I added poison to acid. So, in terms of the type of damage associated with each element, I got this:

Fire: fire; Earth: acid and poison; Metal: lightening; Water: cold; Wood: thunder and force. That’s in generative order. But each of the elements is also vulnerable to another. So, in thinking about supernatural creatures that are strongly rooted in one of the five elements – dragons, for example – I had to figure out what each one would be vulnerable to. This took a number of tries, but I ended up with :

Fire is vulnerable to cold; Earth is vulnerable to thunder and force; Metal is vulnerable to fire; Water is vulnerable to acid and poison; Wood is vulnerable to lightening (the least reasonable one at first glance, but necessary in the overall scheme).

This progression follows the overcoming/destructive cycle (the star above) exactly. Fire is extinguished by water. Earth is broken apart by wood (think of a tree root up the sidewalk). Metal is melted by fire. Water is broken up by earth (the sea hits the coast, the river held by the river bed, etc.).

An example of how this plays out is in the case of a Yellow Dragon or Earth Dragon. I reworked the Yellow Dragon to breathe either a line of acid or a cloud of poison. It is immune to acid and poison damage, and it is vulnerable to thunder and force damage. There are other changes too – no flying speed as it has no wings; +10′ to base burrowing speed; higher Constitution; swap scores for Intelligence and Wisdom, all justified by the general idea of the element of Earth and how it is understood.

Figuring this out took a lot of work, but I’m proud of the result.

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.

5th Edition D&D: Dragonblade! High Concept

Image credit: Mirror with coiling dragon, Tang Dynasty, Cleveland Museum of Art

We recently finished our third session (two sessions after character creation and a system intro) of Dragonblade!, and so far I think it is going well. If nothing else, as DM, I’m having a blast. We have a half-oni warlock who has pacted with the Elder Gods who dwell in the darkness behind the stars, another half-oni barbarian who worships the Arbiter of Souls in a world the gods have abandoned, a vanara monk who is good-hearted and only slightly more intelligent than an Ochre Jelly, and a nezumi sorceress who enjoys biting people so much she sometimes forgets she even has spells.

Beyond the fun of playing is the necessary, for D&D, fun of planning and hacking my way through 5th Edition to make this homebrew setting. And this is what I’m going to be going through in these blog posts that probably no one reads. This blog is 10 years old – I started it back when blogging was a thing, and before WordPress was a thing. But I like throwing gaming-related stuff on here.

Dragonblade’s High Concept

The high-level idea I had for Dragonblade came out of, as I’ve mentioned, my re-reading of the Dragonlance Chronicles and my thinking over what those storylines, so tied to AD&D, would look like if re-envisioned through the lens of 5th Edition, not to mention the last 30 years of game design. I thought about how Krynn, like many AD&D settings, was its own flavor of fantasy European mash-up. In contrast to the 500 million European fantasy mash-up settings, there are few East Asian ones, and most of them are Oriental fetishism, usually specifically Japanese fetishism. How many times have I had to sit through two caucasian fans of L5R argue about what “real” magic-wielding samurais would be like? Too many times. In addition, I’m all too aware of the history of cultural appropriation and Orientalism that periodically pervades Western culture. The “exotic East” and all that.

And there is so much more to East Asian mythology than the Euro-American view of feudal Japan, including religion, folklore and fantasy of every kind. In the same way that authors have turned to not only Celtic and Anglo-Saxon mythologies but Teutonic, Scandinavian, Russian and Mediterranean, what would it look like if a setting took into account Mongolian, northern and southern Chinese, Thai, Aryan and Dravidic cultures and lore, and took them on their own terms, as much as possible for an outsider who is not a scholar in any of these things? And rather than try to recreate a colonial view of these cultures, mash them up into a fun fantasy setting for D&D?

Then I dropped the idea of Dragonlance and went with Dragonblade, because it sounds awesome. (There are still “dragon-lances”, which is actually one name used in medieval China for pole weapons that spat gunpowder and projectiles).

Having said all that, I still had to generalize and mash cultures together into big vague groups – the world is infinitely complicated, but this is D&D, and still a hobby after all. I decided there would be five main cultural groups: the Han (fantasy China), the Yamata (fantasy Japan and some Korea), the Lao (fantasy Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia), the Agama (fantasy northern India) and the Maluku Islands (fantasy Indonesia, Malaysia). I also have a few fringe regions with their own broad cultures: the Dry Lands (fantasy Australia and New Zealand), the Barrier Wastes (fantasy Mongolia, Syria and Silk Road cultures), and the North (fantasy tundra peoples, Siberians, etc.) which I don’t have a cool name for yet. Boreal Realm? I’ll think of something.

Of course a lot of this is stealing, drawing heavily on my dusty old Bachelor’s Degree in Religious Studies, and a lot of mixing and matching and mashing. One of the things I’m learning over again is how much interchange in culture and mythology there was between all of these cultures. Not surprising, just cool to find these connections.

Coming in future posts, I’m going to talk about: playable species, animals, monsters, the forgotten gods, philosophies (I’m focusing on Vedaism, Confucianism and Daoism, especially at first), the interaction of the elements (translating the five Daoist elements to D&D terms was a fun challenge), and the multiverse (a mix of Tibetan six-realm metaphysics, Confucian and Daoist beliefs). Also, of course, dragons and blades.


Image credit: http://www.annett-bank.co.uk/feng-shui-intro (currently unavailable)

A couple years ago I got the crazy idea to rewrite the Dragonlance War of the Lance saga. I loved the stories, but returning to them as an adult, some things in them stand out as…better than others. But the stories remained stuck in my mind, and I chewed over this idea for a few months, off and on.

What I came to was a complete re-imagining of the saga, and the things I thought were cool about it. The return of the true gods; dragons; love triangles. (Spoiler alert.) But looking into Krynn as a setting, it also has its weak points. Ansalon is a continent smaller than Texas, with ice in the south and jungles in the north. There are no fewer than three comic-relief races: the kender, tinker gnomes and gully dwarves. Those were just things I didn’t want to rework.

I ended up creating a mish-mash medieval Asian fantasy setting, in the way that Krynn is a mish-mash medieval European setting. I wanted to get away from the Japan-fetishism that is totally not part of a lot of “…of the East” books for various games. What I came up with was Dragonblade!. And yes, the exclamation is part of it.

Right now I’m working on a 5th Edition D&D campaign based in the Dragonblade! setting. The story will arise out of choices the players make, but it will involve the return of some gods, dragons, and there is already one love triangle. I got rid of the comic-relief races, and the world will be appropriately big.

This is the Obsidian Portal page for the campaign. I hope that running this campaign will force me to flesh out the world more.