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? 

Dystopian Gods in RPG Settings

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Who Accumulates Power?

What kind of person accumulates power, generally speaking? A good person or an evil person? In the current context of rising inequality as well as the resurgence of vile ideologies from the recent past, we see demagogues holding onto power despite movements like the Arab Spring and rising to greater power in Europe and the United States. And while inspiring to many, movements like Occupy have done little to slow the accumulation of wealth among fewer and fewer oligarchs; similarly Black Lives Matter has yet to see significant victories as they continue the fight for Civil Rights.

It’s been said that the last person who should have power is the kind of person who seeks power out, and we can see how our political systems reward wrongdoing and make doing what’s right all the more costly and difficult. How much more so might this be true of gods, and how they gather power to themselves?

I think that in many ‘standard’ D&D campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms and Eberron, the good-aligned gods are too powerful. There is this sense that there should be a balance of alignments in the world, most explicitly in a setting like Krynn, and so you often have good gods facing off against their opposite number while neutral gods move back and forth in allegiance, or go off and seek their own ends.

The problem is that the balance offers too much hope. I understand, it is fantasy after all, but for me a more compelling story can often be found when the protagonists are underdogs, fighting against overwhelming odds. Add that to what seems to be true about the nature of power in the world we know, and I think that our game settings should feature more overwhelmingly powerful evil deities.

Example: Midnight

In the Midnight setting, published in a first and second edition by Fantasy Flight Games, first for D&D 3E and then for D&D 3.5, there is only one god – the Dark Lord Izrador. All other deities have been shunted out of the material plane entirely, leaving only the occasional nature spirit and no good-aligned outsiders at all. The only deity available for clerics (or their Midnight equivalent, Wisdom-oriented channelers) is a god of evil, and it is a genuinely scary thing in a game to have what is usually the most over-powered class, the cleric (especially in D&D 3.x), as exclusively antagonists. Your enemies will have supernatural healing available to them, and waves of undead at their command.

Midnight is a superb setting to explore issues of resistance against a dystopia that is not only political but metaphysical as well. Is there any hope at all against overwhelming odds? If not, what meaning can you find? Where are the places for heroism? Midnight forces these questions on players precisely because the power of the evil deity is overwhelming.

Idea to steal: the setting is monotheistic, and that deity is evil. 

Example: Call of Cthulhu

The obvious flagship setting for overpowering, terrifying deities is clearly the Cthulhu Mythos. (Even though in the original story, Cthulhu is taken out by being rammed by a ship) For the most part, there are no gods of good – they are illusions, or impotent when compared to the seething cosmic horrors gazing hungrily at Earth and its inhabitants.

The Mythos can be an example of this idea taken too far, however, because so often one of the core themes of a Mythos-based setting is helplessness. And I don’t want to go that far. I don’t think movements for justice in our world are hopeless – it’s just that they are perpetually outgunned.

Idea to steal: there are gods, but they are overwhelmed by all-powerful cosmic horrors. 

Classic Example: Middle-Earth

For almost all of Middle-Earth’s history, including its mythic history, the Valar, equivalent to the benevolent gods of a pantheon, are at worst balanced out by Melkor in influence, and if anything, Melkor has a far greater influence on how history unfolds. Similarly in the Third Age, Sauron has a much greater influence than any of the Valar, and those who resist him are always doing so as underdogs, or in secret, or as part of a desperate ploy.

Unlike the other Valar, Melkor takes up residence in Middle-Earth itself in Utumno, guarded by Angband, the Hell of Iron. The same is true of Sauron in Mordor of course (well Mordor, then Dol Guldur, then Mordor again). The caricature of Middle-Earth is that it coddles its protagonists (to which we get responses like Moorcock and Martin), but it is hard to describe a setting where the deity of evil has a physical address anything but frightening.

Idea to steal: the most powerful of the various deities is an evil deity, and s/he rules a physical realm in the world while the deities of good are distant and can only intervene indirectly. 

Un-Balance Your Gods

I think that the gods of good in a fantasy setting should be overwhelmed, limited, and in a word, scrappy. They should face overwhelming odds, always feel like they are outclassed and fighting from behind, and sometimes have to fall back on luck to survive.

Just like the heroes.

What is Magic?

I recently posted about the intersection between magic and technology, riffing off of the well-known Arthur C. Clarke quote, and then applying my thinking to various kinds of speculative fiction. But this of course begs questions – what is technology, is one question, but I think that we have a good sense of this, living in a technological society. What is magic, though?

I’m not going to get anywhere a definitive answer. Magic always has an imaginative definition because, as far as I understand the world we all share, magic is imaginary. Or, at best, metaphorical perhaps. We create the meaning of magic, through art and culture – we also create the meaning of technology, of course, but through distinct means because our activity in the world and understanding of it is mediated through technology. (It’s something to think about and explore, though – to imagine how the world would appear if our activity in it and understanding of it was entirely mediated through magic. But that’s another question for another time)

First I’ll talk about what I think magic is, and then I’ll talk a bit about what I think magic should be in order to be compelling and meaningful.

Magic is Minority Religion

This is always my starting point with  magic, because it is where magic comes from in our own world. If you think about it – druidism, kabbalah, hermetic magic traditions, secret societies and so on, where we get our magical traditions in our world, are all just minority religion. Imagine the pre-industrial world: a priest chants a prayer to a god, expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s religion. A wizard chants a spell to the spirits of the world, or in the Old Tongue, etc., expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s magic. Sorcerers and djinns in Islamic stories are similarly holdovers from the pre-Muslim belief systems and animism that existed in the regions that Islam conquered. “Medicine men” and “witch doctors” are just practitioners of religious that existed before the currently dominant ones came to power.

Magic is Intrinsic (Arises from Character, Situation, Place)

Technology differs from magic in that technology is always instrumental. Anyone can pick up a smartphone and, theoretically, use it to do the same things. Not so with magic. Magic arises from a person’s identity, or from a particular situation, or from a specific place, in a way that technology does not. In the classic example, a person often must be born with the ability to use magic – like Harry Potter compared to a Muggle. Often this is literally genetic, with magically gifted bloodlines, or is because of someone having elves in their ancestry, or dragons, or demons. A person might be changed by contact with magic, or by a trip to the Perilous Realm, and when they return, they are attuned in a new way to the supernatural.

Magic might also arise from a particular situation, or confluence of events – the Night of the Eye on Krynn, or Tarmon Gai’don in the Wheel of Time, or an astrologically auspicious day in Chinese legend. This could be as simple as when the shards of the magical sword are reforged, or as complex as the interweaving of deceptive prophecies in the Mistborn trilogy.

Magic can be intrinsic to a place. The One Ring can only be unmade in Mount Doom where it was forged. The True King can only come from Avalon when the time is right. Sun Wu Ying is born on the top of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit and nowhere else. This place might be a place in the world, or a place that is in itself magical, like the classic Faerie, or Shangri-La, or Atlantis.

Magic Arises from Story

Magic is always an element from a story. One does not need a story to understand the functioning of an internal combustion engine, but one does need a story to understand the functioning of magic. This is true whether it is the magic intrinsic to a person, a situation, or a place. In some situations, like the Neverending Story, it is the story itself that is magical. Otherwise, the magic will only function in, and make sense as part of, a story. Even in the coloquial meaning of “magical”, referring to something that was especially interesting or unexpected or moving in our lives, we will have to tell a story to make sense of it to ourselves and to others. And sometimes, “you just had to be there.”

Magic is Numinous

In this case I am using numinous in its philosophic sense – the sense of an encounter with Other, sometimes seen as a divine or supernatural or otherworldly presence or truth. As much as magic can be intrinsic to character, story, situation and place, magic is also an intrusion into the everyday world. To be in the presence of magic is to be in the presence of Other, of something that is outside of our normal experience. Magic an have its own rules, different from the rules of everyday life. There is a sense of joy, or wonder, or fear, or even alienation in the experience of magic. This is why in our descriptions of events, we might describe an experience as “magical” because it stands out from the rest of our lives.

So, then, what is thoroughly imagined magic, that makes for compelling stories and games?

Magic Should Have a Cost

Hopefully this is something more than the “cost” of studying and learning magic, which almost always happens off-screen (though Rothfuss does a fantastic job of showing us the cost of learning magic as a real thing by I think, as does LeGuin in a very different way). In your classic fantasy game setting, you create a wizard character who already has spells, and who will continue to advance and learn more magic, and it would make a boring game if every time she learned another spell she had to go to school for a semester. The study that made her a wizard in the first place happened before your story begins. This means that it isn’t really a cost at all.

And this is something more than the mere opportunity cost of having to use one kind of magic rather than another – cast this spell now instead of that one, etc. Because every action has that same cost. I’m saying that magic should cost something as magic, per se. Whether this is sacrifice, or a limited supply of cosmic energy, or the need to grow in wisdom before you can control it, magic should have a cost beyond opportunity cost, and this cost should be exacted as part of the story.

Magic Should Have Rules

“Because it’s magic” is not a sufficient explanation for anything. It might be a stop-gap, like saying “the spaceship moves at the speed of plot”, but it’s hardly satisfying, and basically closes the door on ways to leverage magic in a story or game. When magic has rules, those rules can be enforced in interesting ways (as it is for Harry Dresden), or they can be hacked and manipulated to achieve surprising things (in every Brandon Sanderson story), or they can be used to raise the stakes and further the story (as with Earthsea).

The need for magic to have rules is basic if this magic is part of a game, but is also important for stories. If there are no rules to magic, you can’t create expectations and then break them, or set up foreshadowing, or provide a meaningful surprise. Magic without rules is just the arbitrary whim of the creator or storyteller, and quickly reduces to boring, or a succession of Deus Ex Magica.

Magic Should Serve the Story

As I said above, magic comes from story, and to that end, magic should serve story. Magic should be driven by what is ironic, or dramatic, or moral and immoral. Magic should have an emotional impact on the creator and audience, like any good artwork. As Brandon Sanderson advised on his podcast Writing Excuses (and doubtless others have elsewhere), magic should be both surprising and inevitable. It should elicit responses of “I can’t believe it!” and “Of course!” simultaneously, just like any good twist in any good story.

This is of course hard to do, but what worthwhile magic is ever easy?

Magic and Technology

A few weeks ago, I made the claim that Arthur C. Clarke was wrong about magic and technology when he said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But then this begs the question – how do magic and technology, particularly in imaginative fiction, interact? I thought I would talk about this by using some examples and characterizing how various creators use these two non-opposing, non-complimentary (in my view) concepts.

Dungeons & Dragons

Magic is technology and technology is technology. Magic functions according to defined rules, is highly limited in its effects, etc. This is partly necessitated by D&D being a game, and partly comes from the source material used in creating it, including Vancian magic and tabletop wargames.

Harry Potter

Magic is technology, and sometimes true magic (which is moral and dynamic) intrudes. The example I think of is the magic that protected Harry Potter himself, which was the magic of his parents love and self-sacrifice. There are other examples, but for the most part, magic is technological in the Potterverse. Say certain words with certain gestures and it happens. You just have to know the trick and execute the trick skillfully. The only thing that is magical about magic, really, is that it is innate to a person rather than accessible to anyone. But that’s just like having an ID card that lets you access the magic.

Mage: the Ascension

Magic is magic and technology is magic. In Mage: the Ascension, it is more like what Jason Godesky once said to me – any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.  Once magical procedures become defined and widely used, they become technology. There is even a world-spanning conspiracy organization, the Technocracy, whose goal is to reify magic into technology to keep the world safe from magic’s volatility.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys

Magic is magic and technology is banal, lesser magic. Neil Gaiman has a fantastic ‘feel’ for magic, in my own view, that comes from wide reading in comic books and fairy tales and other speculative fiction. In his stories, the magic arises from the story in ways that seem both surprising and inevitable, which is the sweet spot for me. But in the American Gods universe, technology’s new gods are just arrogant, vapid newcomers, compared to the gods, who are deep and complex but also neglected and increasingly forgotten.

China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council

Magic and technology share space and bleed both ways. Magic is minority technology (the crisis engine), minority culture (the grindylow), and cosmic invasion (Ghosthead Empire, the Scar), but that magic is often manipulated through technological means. Magic seems to arise from people with outsider status, generally speaking, with authoritarians depending more on what we’d commonly see as technology – horrors like New Crobuzon’s punishment factories.

Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

Magic is magic, and morally driven, and technology is banal, and immorally driven. Tolkien’s clear – just ask the elves. What do you mean by magic? Magic is just the way that the world works. Technology is the way the world is broken, exploited, and corrupted by those who are insatiable for power over others.

Brandon Sanderson

Magic is superpowers and technology is technology. Magic isn’t quite technology because it is often innate, or at least subjective, but not always. But I’ve argued that Brandon Sanderson’s magic systems in his books, which are usually fascinating and very skillfully used as part of the plot, are actually more like superpowers than magic. The difference is one that it would take a whole other post to parse out, I think, but think about the differences between Superman and Gandalf. On the surface, many similarities – they are from another world, sent to Earth (Middle- or otherwise) to inspire people, fight evil, and try to make things right. But the how, and the why, are quite different.

LeGuin’s Earthsea

Magic is magic. It arises from the nature of the world, and dragons, and true names, and wisdom, and self-understanding. It is bound up in the world, and the plot, and the characters. LeGuin is a master.

Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear

So far magic is technology, but it is thought through in much more detail than normal for magic, so it is at least very cool technology. We’re kind of back to a D&D style, where magic is technology, but very complex and interconnected technology. You have players, who will lift the hood and poke at the workings of whatever game you put in front of them, and for Rothfuss, you have a main character and protagonist who is highly intelligent and curious, and pretty fearless about experimenting with the world around him to better understand and control it. That is the technocratic drive, right there.

What other examples would you add? Do you think I’m missing the point, or leaving important things out? 


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
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)
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
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.

Archipelago: A Setting

This past weekend I attended GASPCon 16, the annual gaming convention of the Gaming Association of Southwestern Pennsylvania, or GASP, with a few friends. One of the games I played via the Games On Demand table was Archipelago. I don’t know a lot about the game, except that I had heard about it before the convention a few times, and wanted to play it. For me, it fell into a similar category of a game like Microscope. Unfortunately, because of a raging headache, I was only able to play the first third of a game of Microscope, so I can’t make an intelligent comparison between the two. What I did want to do is to post the setting we developed using Archipelago, because I think it’s a cool setting, and leave it at that for now.

The Setting

In the center of the Elemental Plane of Fire lies the City of Adamant, the single fixed point in the ever-changing landscape of superheated rock, magma, and ash. To the west of Adamant lies the Cinder Tempest, an unending storm that few enter. To the east of Adamant lies the Caldera Sea, a vast inland sea of magma, plied with junks carved of pumice with mica sheets set as lateen sails. To the south lies the source of wealth in the region – the inert body of a fertility goddess, continually mined for magical and mundane resources.

Fire giants dominate the police and military forces of Adamant, led by a huge individual named Surt (my character). Efreet share dominate the administrative leadership of the city, and are likely more populous than the fire giants. There is currently an efreet-led insurgency against the authorities in Adamant, led by Khalid and his lieutenant Jabril (played by Marc, the guy introducing us to the game).

Salamanders focus on trade and economics, and it is their ships that most often ply the Caldera Sea, trading with distant settlements in the Plane of Fire. Saalix (played by my friend Dave) is a powerful member of their trade cartel. The Azer run the mining guilds in the north that bore into the body of the fertility goddess and extract valuable resources. Cessily (played by my friend Pete) is an independent miner working in that same body, though with misgivings.

Dragons (presumably brass, red and gold) are used for transport, and quiet but intelligent specimens are wrangled and trained to be used for industrial and military purposes, as well as mounts for the wealth – something like private jets. In exchange they are fed their preferred food: melted precious metals.

Then there are the Invaders. Through the Hole in the Sky, appearing like the moment a strip of film begins to bubble and melt away on-screen during a malfunction, lies their vast, plant-based ship, hovering in the Astral Sea. Periodically they send huge seed-pods falling through the Hole which land and crack open to reveal treants and elite scouts and shock troops. They wield plant-based technology, including rifles that store energy photosynthetically and then discharge it in laser form.

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