On the Visual History of the Illithid

How does the Dungeons and Dragons Monster depiction change through time? There was some question about this recently and it seemed like a quite interesting subject. I'm no art critic, though I do have a Bachelor's Degree in Art, so I'm not completely out of my wheelhouse. Imma just gonna give my opinions. You got different ones? Share 'em! Let's take a look.

Mind Flayer (Illithid)

First image of a Mind Flayer

Monster Manual (1977)
Here we see a number of interesting features, a large head with very wide eyes containing pupils, a high collar rich looking robe, with a skull hanging from the harness.

It's important to note that artistically, everything we're going to be looking at is fundamentally illustrative. These images are designed as tools, rather then their point being a work of art.

Not that they can't be both.





This creature was inspired by the cover of the paperback edition of The Burrowers Beneath by Brian Lumley, a Cthulhu Mythos story. so from the book image below, we get the creature illustrated to the above. 

I find the use of an irregular octogon surrounding the Mind Flayer to be an interesting artifact.  Although several creatures in the monster manual have boarders, most are square. Only two other creatures, the Bugbear and Type V demons have Octogonal borders and both of their borders are more regular. Each pane of the Mind Flayer Border is of a different length, no two matching.

Also, that robe is hella-baggy. Apparently fashion shows in the underdark have the burlap sack-dress as the height of fashion. This explains why drow women usually eschew the dress and just wear the harness.

Rogues Gallery, Erol Otus
This picture from the Rogues Gallery, a book of pre-generated Non-Player Characters contains this image of a mind flayer being attacked by a druid's insect swarm. This image by Otus is uncharacteristically constrained and filled with detailed line-work. One also notes that the pupils have disappeared from the eyes of the mind flayer and the face has taken on a much stronger octopus like feel. It retains the long clawed fingers and the characteristic high collared robe with decorative hems. This book also contains an image of a furry baby umber hulk, as well as statistics (honest un-inflated ones from play) of many classic characters.

This image of a mind flayer from S2, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks Illustration book 1980, continues the pupil-less eyes. This is missing the characteristic high collared robe, trading it in for "futuristic space clothing". Here we see the first definition of the body of the mind flayer, which appears to be a very fit, very thin man who spends a lot of time at the gym doing squats to look good in his spandex future-clothes.

Dragon Magazine #72
D1 Descent into the Depths
This image on the left from 1983 in Dragon Magazine is really interesting because it clearly portrays the mind flayer as having backwards knees like a bird or hoofed creature. The Illithid retains the pupil-less eyes and wears no robe, though still is wearing the skull covered harness. This one also has arcane symbols and spikes on the shoulders as some sort of proto-dungeon punk. The creature is thin, almost skeletal.


Monster Compendium

Second Edition

Once Second Edition is released, there's a bizarre divide in the depiction of the Mind Flayer. With the release of the new monster compendium, there's a depiction of a mind flayer with a beggars robe and some dapper hat with a red tassel. A beak is visible in the middle of his spread tentacles and his eyes appear as round hook like objects. Also, his robe is over a striped dress and he is wearing a pair of zori.

On the other hand, the same year that image was released, Dragon Magazine ran an article on the home world of the mind flayers, called the sunset world. This presents a radically different image of mind flayers then had been previously seen. These creatures look like they are wearing gas mask helmets, and their head and collar resembles some sort of elephantine beast. They lack the requisite skull dangling from the neck, but in spite of all the plants on their homeworld being black, they somehow manage to make those stylish tweed robes.

Illithids at this point become both more common and more "cool" due to a certain scimitar wielding elf and his connection with the underdark, and images of these creatures exploded in popularity, from settings such as Spelljammer (1989) to the Illithiad (1998) late in the section edition run. As is common in the second edition run, the fantasy became more "grounded" in the fantastic realism phase of fantasy art, driven primarily from the influence of Elmore's consummate work near the start of the period, Dragonslayers and Proud of it.
Some color, indicating a pale pink skin color.
They continue to have an obsession with garish fashion.

From the Illithiad.
Sweet pants bro.
Fred Fields Illithiad Cover
This piece by Fred Fields, TSR illustrator and Fine artist, is the cover of The Illithiad and keeps the robed aspect, but reinvisons them as Cephelopods hanging off the front of a giant brain. 

The whole composition says brain, from the halo around the brain to the fact that everyone is either pointing to the brain or looking at it. It's at the apex of the triangular composition.

MIND FLAYERS ARE ABOUT BRAINS.

It also makes them look like guys who got beat up in school, which I think is why immediately after you flip the cover they turn back into octopuses on really thin and fit scrawny bodies. (skinny guys fight till they're burger.)
At the point of this publication, there were an explosion of interpretations of illithids. Here's an example by James Crabtree of an expressionistic hulking beast, coming out of some whole to eat you. 

It's nice because both the body and the face appear to be threatening, as in some large hideous brain eating creature, instead of looking like something that's going to talk like the architect from the second matrix movie. This looks like it's going to rip your head off and not move like a bad special effect. The dissonant alien colors (yellow/blue) increase the feeling of unease, and in general form it resembles someone in a deep-see diving uniform, calling back to what an experience in the underdark should be like. 

That said, it isn't very mindflayerish.

This illustration on the left, also from the illithiad  found in a section called "Performance Eating" is lurid like spanking comics of the 20th century. It's roughly done, dehumanizing to the woman and emphasizing the horror and helplessness of some creature that feeds not just on your flesh, but also on your brain!
The illustration also implies the true horror of what the creature is doing, as not only is it sharing the experience of eating the brain with the faceless innumerable illithid audience behind him, but also the thralls who must not only watch but experience the horror of brain eating for themselves. 

Check out my sweet flute

3rd Edition

Moving on to the Dungeon-Punk aesthetic of third edition, we get our new mind flayer design in the Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 Monster Manual.

Apparently this mind flayer has some tailor thralls, because the clothing is starting to fit the actual form of the creature. In true Dungeon-Punk style, we get lots of chains, pointy bits, and bandages on the creature. 

It's at this point in the historical deception that the color blue and purple begins to be strongly associated with Mind Flayers. Compare above to the pinkish skin tones with the blueish-purple used in this picture and the ones following from books like Lords of Madness. 
Lords of Madness Cover and
Interior art by Wayne England
and Ed Cox 

Elder Brain


Note that although these illustrations have become all in full color and a lot more detailed then previous illustrations, there moving in the general form towards being more boring. 

Above, in first and second edition you have examples of strange alien like creatures, bug swarms, lazers and Illithids in space suits, some guy playing a bizzare musical instrument, an illithid in space being disarmed by a treasure carrying pirate.

Once we reach third edition, it's illithid standing and putting a brain in a jar. Illithid standing. Illitihid casting a spell. Here's another example of an "Exciting" fight.

So, there's an "off-kilter" and "exciting" composition in some "dramatic" duel. And by no means is this a critique of Wayne Renyolds—more power to any artist that influences the design of Role-Playing Games for years and becomes the face of the gaming juggernaut that is Pathfinder. 

But you can hear the camera shutter. It's just two dudes that don't like each other. It's not interesting in the sense that it makes me wonder what's happening in the picture and it's not interesting in the sense that I'm interested in the form and depiction of line and color. In the book it fills space and comes across as some sort of static noise. Even the exciting parts of the picture—the tail parts of the Illithid robe and the ponytails of the Gith seem static and uninteresting. 

If you'll indulge me, I'll link two pieces by my favorite illustrator Russ Nicholson to make my point. 
Interesting Combat Pose
Interesting Static Pose


In both of these pieces, there's tension and interest in every line. You can lose yourself in them a bit.

Back to the Mind Flayers.








4th Edition

These guys are starting a band—ARE YOU READY TO ROCK!
In 4th edition, the mind flayers go full purple with their skin color and become anime battlemasters. This pose, in my humble opinion, makes them less threatening than any of the above options, because they are looking to fight me—and I know I can win a fight.

I leave you with "The Virgin of Cthulupe"



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On Hamlets: Sodby

Brendan over at Necropraxis wrote a nice comment about how it's all dungeons and monsters and magic items, but what about towns and villages?

My primary concern with towns and villages aren't large centers, but the fact that there is some sort of small hamlet settlement every 4 miles or so in civilized lands, containing somewhere between 10-40 families.

Now I've done some work before on creating a settlement stat blog that is actually useful, so I'm going to continue to use that as a format.

Here is the village of Sodby (name courtesy of Jeff's Gameblog Hamlet Name Generator) in the Forgotten Realms. It lies on the southern Sword Coast, in the Western Heartlands. (Or, you know, wherever you want to put it).

Sodby

Description


Lawful Neutral (With evil tendencies)
Modest hamlet on a roadside, known for its swine. It is the birthplace of the mercenary tyrant Filthbeard, a halfling who rides his corrupted boar lover. The town has a large number of retired ex-military and ex-mercenary population.

"Focus Et Ventus": "Hearth and wind" is the motto printed on a weathered polished granite stone outside of town.

Demographics


Government: Ostensibly City Council, but really it's a "dictatorship" run by Tessa Hazlett, a human female level 2 fighter who is irreverent and rude.
Population: 12 human families (64 people), 2 halfling families (12 people), 1 Moon Elf, 1 Orc. Total population: 79 people, 7 cows, 18 dogs, 144 pigs, 1 donkey.
Languages Spoken: Common, Chondathan, Daraktan, Illuskan
Local Religions: There is a small shrine to Shaundakul, as well as a group of worshipers of Malar.
Worship of Shaundakul involves joyful meditation and feasting. 
Worship of Malar, involves practicing humility, and black robed prayer services in the nearby woods. Sometimes referred to locally as the bitter god.
Notable NPCs:
  • Tessa Hazlett, Captain of the guard. Irreverent, Rude defacto ruler (Hu/F/F2)
  • Halain Argenta, Deputy, second in command. Optimistic, doesn't make promises. Is missing teeth. (Hu/F/F4)
  • Kira Himelin, Eccentric wizard, cares for ailing mother. Repeats phrases, miserly, has startling grey hair. (Hu/F/W6)
  • Sapphira Ifft, Mayor, concerned primarily about her worm research, leaves Tessa to run the town. Distracted, distinctive jeweler.  (Hu/F/Arist 2)
  • Dafyn Defalvio, Smith. Stoic, kindly, well regarded in town. Balding on top with white hair and beard. 65 Years old. (Or/M/Expert 3)
  • Noch Jaffer, Cotton's Supply owner, slurs a bit, happy, helpful. Large store, quite well off. Looking for wife. Unattractive but Charisma 13. (Hu/M/Arist 1)
  • Lyn Fairwine, Lyn's Festhaus owner, interested in stories and tales from the road. Red hair. (Hf/F/Com 2)
  • Anneth Fairwine, Singer at Lyn's Festhaus, extremely attractive and nice (Ch 17) Asexual. Talented Singer. (Hf/F/Ex2)
  • Apper Gallo, Well-mannered owner of the tavern The Sign of the Grey Stump. Missing right arm above elbow.
  • Neanne Disk, Owner of The Wolf beggar. Taciturn, smirks, nice.
  • Grellyn Diantoni Priest of Malar, friendly, hirsute. (Hu/M/Clr1) 
  • Opal Tenwand, Priest of Shandakul, keeps up the shrine and provides services (Elf/M/Com2)

Districts


Shops:

  • Splendids: Splended smith's is a blacksmiths run by Dafyn Defalvio, an old Orcish Smith. He's over sixty winters and is training several of the young men to take over when he retires. 
  • Kira's: This shop (Kira's Fantasy Potion and Reagent Emporium) is run by Kira Himelin, and sells very minor potions, a handful of scrolls and local alchemical reagents. It is a small (12' x 8') shack, stuffed to the brim, and one of the door hinges is broken making it hard to open. She runs the shop officially two days a tenday, from mid-morning to early evening. 
  • Cotton's is a large, successful general store run by Noch Jaffer, who slurs a bit when he speaks. His father was Cotton, but is now dead. 

Inns:

  • Lyn's Festhaus: Fameous for herbed pork ribs. 4 rooms for rent. Run by Lyn Fairwine (Hf/F/Com2) Her husband and sons assist her in running the inn. Her daughter Anneth (Hf/F/Ex2) is a talented singer, and sings most nights. 
  • The Sign of the Grey Stump: This is where most of the older men and women who have spent time in combat come to drink. It is run by Alper Gallo, (Hu/M/War2) a well mannered man who is missing his right arm above the elbow.
  • The Wolf Beggar: This is a small tavern where many of the younger people drink. It's a bit louder, and more prone to fistfights and violence, though it's usually over minor things like women. It's run by Neanne Disk (Hu/F/Rog3) who's seen enough to keep it in line.

Features:

  • There are a lot of pigs, pig farms, areas for pigs, slop buckets, and pig signs and emblems around town. People are likely to snort, in good nature—but do so frequently without even realizing it. 
  • Matchless Garrison is a half-mile outside of town, and is covered in skulls and desiccated heads of enemies, criminals and other threats nearby.
  • The town, in spite of the large pig population has no horses and is in general very clean and well kept up, due to the prevalence of ex-military. 
  • Nearby lies Arunway Graves, a patch of bare grey earth. It is a mass grave of those who died in a fire in 1172 DR. 
  • Hartriding Statue is a statue of a pig riding a 28 point deer in the center of town, carved from granite

Resources: Animals (Pigs/boars); Climate: Temperate; Geography (rolling hills, light forest); Medicinal & Alchemical Plants and Herbs

Diversions


Obstacles: Insular, Corruption (Mercenary Populous), some Religious Zealotry
Adventure Seeds:

  • A pig follows the party and appears to be quite friendly and intelligent. It refuses to leave them alone. If they leave town it attempts to follow and they are accused of pig-napping.
  • Garrace Braganera (Hu/F/War2), a member of the town guard, died under mysterious circumstances recently.
  • Grellyn Diantoni (Hu/M/Clr1) Holds ceremonies for Malar outside of town and is (unsurprisingly perhaps) a wereboar, looking to find other fanatical people to convert. He has several prospects. He has cast the worship as being wild with the nature of pigs, and his services are peaceful and respectful. He is well thought of in town.

Names: Lander Stonar [Illuskan Human Male; FRCS]
Rhivaun Wyndael [Dambrathan Human Male; FRCS]
Kethra Brightwood [Illuskan Human Female; FRCS]
Rowan Greycastle [Chondathan Human Female; FRCS]
Helm Greycastle [Chondathan Human Male; FRCS]
Dorn Evenwood [Chondathan Human Male; FRCS]
Tessele Buckman [Chondathan Human Female; FRCS]

Hack & Slash 
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On Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode II Remix: Part II

Continuing our exploration of Episode II of Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

You know what the real problem with exploring the camp is?

Exploring the Camp

So, let's say you are at your day job. Assume that your day job is a lot more chaotic then it normally is and you see different people all the time. 

Who in your office is talking about the mission statement of the company? How likely are two random employees going to be having that conversation?

You know what you're talking about? That jerkface on floor three. How other people could do their job better. That person who keeps just forwarding e-mails without changing the request text. How HR isn't doing their job. That guy who broke up with his girlfriend and is sleeping his way through the employee roster. What the new boss is going to be like. Where you are getting a drink after work. That persons new haircut. Why that person got fired.

I'd go on, but someone from work might read this someday.

You are going to be talking about absolutely everything but what this list in the book gives you. 

So today, we are going to talk about factions in the camp, what they know, and what they are talking about. 

Kobolds

30 minute dragon-dog sketch by me.
The Dragon-Dogs travel in packs, and are disturbingly like snakes, crawling all over each other when they talk to someone as a group. 

They have poor boundaries of personal space.

Here is what the dragon-dogs talk about:
  • Fresh meat is delicious! 'Pink worm filth suitable only for food'—meat is delectable. Huge fatty sacks on the female 'pink worm filth suitable only for food' are the best!
  • Dragons are the best!
  • Everything is terrible but Tiamat is coming and we will be the favored people over all the people.
  • Tiamat is like the best god, because she's five awesome gods. HAIL TIAMAT!
  • No, no, every egg can be favored by a certain head based on birth order and surface color.
  • I like to take things apart. We all like to take things apart. We can put them back together to hurt people and that's the best!
  • If dragons breath on your eggs, your eggs will be blessed and grow to be strong like dragons.
  • Did you see how wonderful Lennithon was? I've never been near something so awesome.
  • How does it feel knowing that your kind will be flesh eating parts for us?
  • Dragons are far superior to 'pink worm filth suitable only for food'. How does that make you feel 'pink work filth only suitable for food'?

Red Dragon Cultists (The Red Hand of Tiamat)

  • Use the Cultist Generator
  • Are blue or white dragon cultists the worst cultists?
  • No, the blood of children tastes different, somehow more pure then the blood of adults.
  • Hey, recruit, come here! Have you be through your cutting? (Hazing, there is no cutting initiates have to go through, but the cultist will certainly cut the player character if they are allowed to).
  • How did you get stuck here working for Cyanwrath and these impure blues?
  • It's like some sort of energy builds up. Murdering all those people last night was a release, but it's not nearly enough you know? Like scalping someone and then watching them die. That's satisfying in a whole different way.
  • Blood is inside you and me and everyone. That's the crazy part about it! And it's such a great lubricant. It's like She thought of everything! HAIL TIAMAT!
  • It wouldn't be nearly as bad working with those blue freaks if there weren't all these damned mercenaries around. 
  • Why are we keeping that stupid monk alive? Rezmir should just flay him alive and let his screams lead Tiamat into this world.
  • Hey! You! Have you been marked yet? If you want to join the reds, I've got your opportunity right here! (Offers the characters an opportunity to torture and kill an innocent townsperson).
  • The hunters are just killing this food, you know? And if it doesn't die when they bring it down, they just cut the jugular, wasting the blood and killing it in seconds. I don't understand what's wrong with people, you know? It could suffer so much more before I turn it into shit—we could even be keeping it alive while we eat it. It's just, I don't understand! It doesn't make any sense to me.
  • I get that we're collecting treasure for the Dragon Queen, but why can't we have some to spend in the towns before we sack them?
  • I just think Awan is so brutal, you know. It kind of makes me wonder if he's showing off, or what?

Blue Dragon Cultists (The Cobalt Claw of Tiamat)

  • Use the Cultist Generator
  • Yeah, you know, what brought me here is that I've never felt that what I am is represented by what I am, you know? I'm just driven by some force to make things the way I think they should be.
  • What's really frustrating is that you can't screw your way into a new form. If you want to crossbreed with someone you're already here, you know? You either got to mutate or, you know, wait till Tiamat gets back.
  • Frulam Mondath wears the purple, and she's the right one to do it. Anyone who can inspire the loyalty of Langedrosa Cyanwrath is someone I'm willing to follow, black wing of Tiamat or no.
  • This constant raiding communities suits the red and black, but what are they doing for us? How many creatures are we capturing to bring glory to tiamat? It's all piles of treasure. 
  • I don't think the reds really have their heart in the ritual chanting. It's the best part!
  • Working with Lennithon was a great honor.
  • I wouldn't say anything to Frulam, but I got the impression that Lennithon was less than enthusiastic to be helping.
  • Come sing with me! 
  • I'll tell you what. The best sex I ever had was with a doppleganger. This cult, what they are trying to do, it's a beautiful thing man.
  • There aren't enough prisoners any more to experiment on, even after Greenest. All the ones that are left we're just going to feed to the hatchlings. 

Black Dragon Cultists (The Black Wing of Tiamat)

  • Use the Cultist Generator
  • All hail the great work! HAIL TIAMAT!
  • Come, we must form the spiritual temple. (Rounds characters up to perform ritual)
  • Come, let us meditate on the coming terror and the heinous fate that will befall us once her majesties returns.
  • Don't let those guys know, but I'm only here because these guys are more laid back than those other ones. Want to come do some Dreammist?
  • We have the twelve Frost Giants of hate on our side. The ancient enemies of dragons have joined our holy cause! Can their be any doubt to our worth?
  • Rezmith leads us, as the black should. Though it has been months since he has been here. 
  • We should spend less time gathering the energies of suffering for the black temple, and more time recruiting these mercenaries to our cause! Every falcon we give them is one that slips from the claw of the queen.
  • Aye, the half-elf monk lives. It's by the order of Rezmir. She wants something from him, though I don't know what and I wouldn't want to be him.
  • Greenest was our most profitable venture yet! 

prisoners

  • *Weeping*
  • *lying dead*
  • Don't talk to me, you'll get me killed!
  • Don't hurt me sir!
  • They will work us till we die, and feed us to whatever monsters are in those caves. All the sooner if you keep speaking to me.
  • Take me from here! I'm a rich noble from Waterdeep! I'll pay you. *lashed by the guards*
  • *Interrupted by their attempt to talk by mercenaries assaulting the prisoners.*
  • Tell them I praise Tiamat. I want to join! It's not too late! Let me join!
  • The only way into that cave for me is as a corpse.

Hunters

  • *Quiet stare*
  • I don't want any part of your sick cult.
  • Uh, I'd be interested maybe in talking some more about your majesties? 
  • Nods
  • Points
  • Shakes head
  • Scowl
  • Taciturn answers

Mercenary companies

There are several different mercenary groups, including ones active in the area, such as the Blacktalons, The order of the Blue boar, and other less well known mercenary companies.

Blacktalons
The Blacktalons are a large and well armed group. They wear armor painted black, but badly battleworn, with a spalsh of white across the chest. 
  • I don't much care, as long as we get paid.
  • You with the Blue Boars?
  • There's no better way to make money!
  • The only thing that bothers me about this job is that we're making a name for that cult, not the Blacktalons.
  • They don't let anyone in the caves back there. Probably raising dragons or some non-sense. Who cares? It'll be a score of ten-years before they even become a problem.
  • I wouldn't recommend joining the cult. Not likely they'll be successful in their plan. Though the profit from the raid should be enough to pay for our services. 
Blue Boar
A group of veteran mercenaries that charge a high price for their services. Their badge is a grizzled razorback boar, rampant on a red, russet, or silver field. Their uniform is a dark blue shirt with gold buttons, stiff collar, dark blue trousers and black calf-high boots.
  • Why are you talking to me?!
  • You can't afford what it would cost for me to answer that question.
  • I hope your skill with arms is good enough to back up being stupid enough to bother me!
  • With what they took from the last raid, they should be able to afford us.
  • I don't care what they have in that cave and you shouldn't either. 

Leosin Erlanthar and Other Strangeness

There are other points of contention in Episode II. First, Leosin doesn't want to leave. The players are told to rescue him, and when they reach him he doesn't want to leave because, and I quote "He doesn't want to take the risk".

Do we want to present our non-player characters as idiots?

Now, doing an extraction of an unwilling target is a great plot hook. It's super fun in play. But only when it's something reasonable, e.g. I don't want to leave because Sader-Krupp is keeping my daughter alive from her degenerative bone disorder.

What possible reason does he have for staying? "Yes, I've learned everything I can, and any day I'm going to be tortured and killed, and I know I'm currently heavily wounded, exhausted, and crucified on this x-bar thing, but you know, I think I'm going to stay!"

The other problem with this is that he escapes regardless of player action. How heroic if the players can't get to him. He shows up anyway. What's weird really really weird, is that "He refuses to talk about it later." What? Why? I have thought about this, and can come up with no good reason he'd just be like "NOPE." when asked how he escaped.

It makes me think he had a really really interesting method of escape.

I think it's also important that if the character's don't rescue him that he dies. Why not? He doesn't seem important in the rest of the adventure and I doubt he'll be critical in the following book.

Unassailable Tent

The other point of contention is the unassailable tent.

The large ten (sic) at area 2 is set apart from the others by an open space. It is reserved for Rezmir, Frulam Mondath, and Langdedrosa Cyanwrath. An honor guard of four guards and four guard drakes. . . keeps watch around the tent day and night. They don't sleep at their posts, they don't fall for tricks, and they don't listen to stories and pleas. Their job is to keep everyone away from their leaders' tent, and they are fanatical about it. Only acolytes and adepts the guards know by sight and by voice are allowed to approach.

Right, I get it you know? But this leaves the impression that the characters can't get in the tent. Hogwash. Second (or third) level characters could come up with a plan, and science forbid your party be level 5 or 6.

Having this in the module is good backup when you call bullshit about the astounding competence the guards have, but it by no means the players shouldn't be able to get into the tent. The only question is what's in the tent?

For my campaign, at any given moment there's a 50% chance of each of the important people to be in the tent, as well as treasure, maps, notes, documents and more. Good luck surviving that fight. I'd assume basic precautions, such as an alarm spell, prepared defenses against invisibility (flour, dispel magic, etc.) and other normal preventative tricks. At night crossing the boundary will set off an audible alarm, as the spell.

Not that the players can't defeat those defenses also. . .

Nursery

The other other point of contention is the nursery.

Again. It's off limits. It's got guards. What player character in the world is going to be stopped by this? If they approach they get turned away. If they fight the guards, there's like 100 dudes around. If they kill them stealthly or sneak in, there's a timer before the camp is on high alert.

Let the players enter the nursery if they can. Flip right to chapter three and start exploring, keeping in mind that there's guards all over the place. If they can get in and get some treasure out, more power to them.

Summary

The part I don't understand is the need to make people do things or present things in such a way that makes a Dungeon Master interpret it as an excuse to say no. 

Doing the things the adventure tells you you can't do (i.e. get into the tent, nursery, etc.) are stupid. There are literally hundreds of guards around. There is no way an adventuring group can fight that many people. 

If you let the players know that there's risk, and the players know that they can die and there isn't any kind of plot armor protecting them, then there is no reason not to attempt or let them do stupid things. Who knows? Maybe they have a good plan and can pull it off. A few paragraphs added describing how to handle those situations when (not if) the players attempt them, would go a long way towards people feeling like this adventure was more free rather than such a series on rails. 

Hack & Slash 
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On Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode II Remix: Part I

The Mystery

The central idea behind Horde of the Dragon Queen is that it's a mystery why these raid occur, and the factions have a vested interest in finding out why.

Steve Winters says:

"Episode 2 is structured entirely differently. Characters are given a long-range reconnaissance mission where they’ll be on their own for days in enemy territory. No friendly NPC is standing by in this episode to tell the characters what to do. The situation is fraught with danger, but it’s all up to the players to decide how much of that danger they tackle. If they simply watch from a distance for a few days and then report, they’ll fulfill the minimum requirements of their mission. But how many players can resist the urge to take a closer look inside the enemy camp? This episode is all about learning how D&D lets players assess risk, solve problems, and interact with complex situations, possibly without ever needing to unsheathe a sword or roll a damage die."

Some of the most enjoyable sessions for players are those that involve them making a plan to infiltrate a place. This is a good idea!

The problem is, that for the structure of the 'episodic' adventure it requires that the characters restrict themselves to the primary mission. The characters want to sneak in and kill Cyanwrath? Too bad. Want to steal back the treasure? Nope.

The pressures on the design side of this are huge. Everyone has to have the same experience. These bullet points have to occur for the adventure to continue. The players have to have a good time.

How do you solve this as a designer? Let's take a look.

Introduction

Questman (Governor Nighthill) wants to pay 250 gold apiece for the players to accomplish these goals.

  • Where is the camp
  • How many raiders are there
  • Who their leaders are
  • Why are they attacking
  • Where is their next target
    • Also, recover treasures
Then we get two paragraphs of boxed text to get you to go after Leosin Erianthar, a monk who is some sort of dragon expert. 

There are a ton of real world logistical issues in a home campaign from this. In an Encounters session, everyone shows up fully ready and takes the quest. 

In a home game, the raid ended about 5 am. An hour or two (short rest) later, Nighthill is asking you to track down the bandits. If you start this adventure at first level, there is no question that the characters are going to need a long rest. Does that mean they are tracking the bandits in the late afternoon? Why can't they heal the monk to come with them? As a Dungeon Master; don't many of those goals explicitly ask them to do things they can't actually accomplish in Chapter 2? 

It's not that these questions are particularly difficult. It's that they come up as issue while reading the adventure. Set loose a group of real world players on the situation and there's no telling what kind of ideas they will have. I haven't run this part yet, so I actually don't know. 

My personal answers to the questions is when the characters reach level 2, they feel tremendously refreshed and don't need a long rest, that the monk has several (3+) levels of fatigue, and needs more time to recover then the players can wait, and finally, that we'll burn those particular bridges when we come to them. 

Tracking the Raiders 

There are no issues with this! Good use of skill checks and informing the Dungeon Master of how to handle the upcoming information. The layout isn't designed for reference during play, but for a read through it's great. 

Stragglers
The straggler encounter is fine. Players have the option to avoid, engage, etc. They may also end up with more prisoners which creates a bit of a logistics/moral issue. This isn't a bad thing, making these kinds of choices is what Dungeons and Dragons is about. As noted later, if the characters arrive after Sundown, it becomes more difficult to enter the camp. 

Rearguard
The rearguard encounter is really good! The best solution is to not engage the group. They have an ambush plan. It uses terrain to good effect. It takes into account player knowledge. 

For my personal campaign, it's important to note that these cultists are from the Black Wing of Tiamat, concerned with darkness, night, travel, and temples of worship.

The Camp

The biggest issue with the camp is that the confusion the cultists have over who's a cultist and who isn't a cultist isn't communicated very clearly by the text. The cultists have hired mercenaries, who have no association with the cult and yet move around the camp free. 

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Most players will spend a lot of time debating over what to do, which is made much more difficult being that the players don't have your insight into the setup and reactions to the cultists. I'd directly say something like this:

"From what you can see, the camp appears disorganized and chaotic. Morale seems high and security lax. If you wanted, you could probably just walk into the camp and nobody would bother you. If you did that there's a risk someone might remember you from the fighting in Greenest. You could also wait till nightfall and try to enter the camp then, but if you're spotted that will be even harder to explain."

The other thing I'd be sure to mention is this.

"The camp has a lot of people in it. If you are discovered or captured, you are free to fight against those overwhelming odds. Your best chance if that happens is trying to escape after they capture you before they execute you."

See, when a player approaches this problem, It is safe to assume the player thinks several things. 
  1. There's no way for me walk into camp.
  2. You'll never take me alive!
The gameplay is in the camp. Bypass the part where the players have confusion over what the situation in the camp is, and get back to the interesting choices.
  1. Walk right in with a (very low) chance of being recognized.
  2. Sneak in at night with a chance of getting caught.
  3. Understanding that if you're caught, you'll have to escape, not fight. 
As always, letting these choices be explicit doesn't limit any other options they come up with, nor does it guarantee success. Player skill can still be used in full force ("We use disguise to alter our appearance!" or "We surveil the entire camp so we know where things are!")


Captured!

I'm very happy with this section. There's no shenanigans. Frulam Mondath will sentence some people to execution, which might actually happen. No Deux Ex, no fancy contortions to keep the players alive. The biggest gift here is a single hidden knife if all other plans fail. The players are stripped of all their gear and sentenced to die.

There should be plenty of opportunities for real failure and here is one. They have to be both smart and lucky to escape with their lives. 

Check back tomorrow when we talk about exploring the camp and wrap up chapter two.

Hack & Slash 
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On a Fast Generator Method of Characters, Applicable to 5th Edition

What takes too long?

Character creation. Let's speed it up.

Method I (old school)

Roll 6 individual d6 and 1d10.

Subtract three from each of the D6. Assign these down the line of statistics as modifiers. Divide the d10 result by 2 and round up. This is your number of odd ability scores. There are no re-rolls in this method.

Example: 1,6,4,4,5,6 — 5/2 = 2
Scores are
Strength: 6 (-2)
Dexterity: 16 (+3)
Constitution: 12 (+1)
Intelligence: 12 (+1)
Wisdom: 14 (+2)
Charisma: 16 (+3)

Then you can select any two of those numbers to make odd, based on your roll of the d10. You choose Strength and Dexterity, making them 7 and 17.

Then you use the first three d6 results and the d10 roll to determine your background selections randomly. If you're using the Hack & Slash Compendium I with the d30 random background table in the back, use the last d6 roll and the d10 roll to act as a d30 in order to randomly select your background. In the example above, you get background 25; Sailor, from the Player's Handbook.

Method II (Second edition)

Roll 6 individual d6 and 1d10.
Subtract three from each of the d6. Assign these modifiers as desired. Divide the d10 result by 2. This is your number of odd ability scores. Use the first three d6 results and the d10 roll to determine your background and background selections randomly.

Method III (Modern)

Roll 6 individual d6 and 1d10.
Subtract two from each of the d6. Assign these modifiers as desired. Divide the d10 result by 2. This is your number of odd ability scores. Use the first three d6 results and the d10 roll to determine your background and background selections randomly.

Reroll all dice if you have total positive modifiers over +15 or under +5.

Method IV (Heroic)

As Method 3 with no upper limit on the positive modifier.

Method V (Point buy)

Roll 3d6 and 1d10. These are your total bonuses. Assign them to stats to a maximum of +3.

Example: 2, 5, and 1. 3 on the d10.
Your total bonuses are +8. You are playing a fighter so you assign 3 to Strength, 3 to Constitution and 1 to Dexterity and Wisdom (for medium armor and perception). You pick 2 of those scores to be odd, Strength and Wisdom.
Strength: 17 (+3)
Dexterity: 12 (+1)
Constitution: 16 (+3)
Intelligence: 10 (+0)
Wisdom: 13 (+1)
Charisma: 10 (+0)

For further variants, Check out my post On Ability Auctions.

Other tips to increase speed.
To get started playing as quickly as possible, write down only:
Race, Class, Stats, The three choices of starting equipment, background name and the four background trait numbers. Then, during the inevitable lull in play, you can start listing out the background traits on the sheet, what's in the equipment list, etc.

Hack & Slash 
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This post made possible by the support of readers like Mark Knights, a blogger himself over at RPG Knights, author of the recent article "How to Write an Adventure" that caused a bit of a stir! He's one of my supporters, improving the community in multiple ways: Writing, supporting people on Patreon and most importantly gaming! His support matters.

On Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode I Remix: Part III

Continued from Parts I and II.

Dragon Attack

Picture of Lennithon
The Adult Blue Dragon Lennithon, as far as I can tell, has no pre-existing history in the realms. Here is everything we know about him:
  • He is not an enthusiastic participant in the raid.
  • He doesn't want to fight adventurers.
This encounter showcases bounded accuracy and enemies that are much more powerful than you. 

There's a wall, see? The players don't know what's in the module. When they reach this encounter, they will assume that if they engage the creature, they will all die. The only way to not think that is to have some sort of meta-knowledge about the game. So what's this choice like as a player, hm?

Either run and hide or die.

So that's frustrating. 

The solution, or at least the only one I can see, is to be forthright about the situation.
"The (insert dramatic description of) dragon is (insert graphic depiction of) murdering guards on the parapets. You feel waves of fear come over you (make DC 17 wisdom saves). Those of you not terrified can act. Watching, you can tell that the dragon is only reluctantly attacking the towers and can likely be driven off with a good hit or two, unwilling to risk his own skin. However, any successful attack that doesn't drive him off is likely to focus his quite lethal attention on you. Driving him off now would save hundreds of lives and the surviving guards would make life that much more difficult for the cultists. What do you want to do?
Then track 1 minute of real world time, having a round pass if no one takes an action, with the dragon killing more guards.

Prisoners

Providing a bonus for capturing cultists (and only cultists) means that there's a choice between more difficult movement for a reward. For new players, this also teaches them that they can choose to knock out opponents with melee attacks instead of killing them. 

The information on other ways to leave the keep is also buried here, inside the text. 

Save the Mill

Charisma (Performance)? Well, whatever. 

This encounter straddles the line of character skill and player skill on the wrong side. If the player's take the time to stop and look, they still are likely to fail to determine that it's a trap. 

In addition to the "go save the mill" speech given, I'd give clues in the description of the scene. "A cultist looks around into the night waving his torch back and forth, cackling evilly as Dragon-Dogs stack kindling up against the door. He moves towards it for a second, and then back, waving his torch around! What do you do?"

Then, I'd grant the mechanical check in either case. The DC should be higher if they don't stop to look or ask questions (DC 20). Being suspicious and stopping to look should either grant advantage (at DC 15) or lower the DC (to 10). The players can ask questions about the description until they make up their own mind to attack. Obviously they won't set it on fire with the force inside, so after enough time it should become obvious it's a trap with no roll needed.

Sanctuary

No complaints. No changes necessary. Well done. 

I'd like to call out the "let the players make their own plan" and "pressure the players based on your group makeup" as excellent techniques and it's awesome to see them in published materials. 

I once had a player complain when I held up a timer for some time limited event, crying out "It's not fair!" This is something players in a pressure situation who don't deal well with pressure (or who might think they can remove the pressure through argument or discussions) might do. I said to that player "You are absolutely right, it isn't fair." and then just waited. Acknowledging when players complain that things aren't going their way goes a long way to having them accept that sometimes bad things happen in games. 

Half-Dragon Champion

You know, I have no real major problem with this section, except for this statement:
"If by some mischance Cyanwrath is killed or captured, his place in the dragon hatchery is taken by another half-dragon."
No. No it isn't.

Other quibbles have to do with presentation. Do characters know how much more powerful than them this creature is? Is that presented in a way that the player can get that information? The answer is no. It needs to be.

The whole "fair fight" thing is also ridiculous. The replacement of "I'll execute one townsperson I've got every minute until someone comes to face me or I run out of townspeople" is a much better solution. Tell them he wants to fight a single opponent. If they all come out, let them all fight the 15 dragon dogs, Cyanwrath, and a half dozen cultists. Let them fight him one on one. Let them try to cheat and plan. Let them do whatever they want.

If they do kill him, then they should kill him. He won't be in episode 3 or any other episode, because he will be a corpse.

Conversion

Why have Cyanwrath kill (or almost kill) a party member at all? 

The idea is to take something from the players. Not just have something bad for them as characters, but for them to become invested as players in seeing this person go down.

In Phandelver, I achieved conversion when I had Yeemick jump down and say "You'll never catch me!". Suddenly my players were very interested in catching Yeemick. Not their characters—the players. 

They weren't bothered or as invested in his unsurprising and ultimately inevitable betrayal. But telling them they couldn't catch him, had the 9 hit point party wizard jump down 20' off a ledge (taking 2d6 damage) and run outside to hunt him down by himself, alone.

Conversion. 

The problem is that what's printed in the module doesn't cause that. Just fighting a dude you can't beat and one that knocks you down doesn't do that. It's the way in which he kills you that's important. 

If you fight this dude, he will kill you. If you don't he will kill these women and children. This is Sophie's choice—it just makes players feel bad and is unfun. 

However, if he toys with the players and they see the encounter is winnable (even if ridiculously difficult) and he taunts them and gets away with it, then he'll be hated by the players. 

This isn't a mechanical thing. It's a personal thing, which means that it requires the Dungeon Master to be skilled at pushing buttons. You can't just write this encounter without calling this out, because a bunch of the people running it are going to make it frustrating for the players, and not something that makes them, personally, as players, hate your opponent.

Hack & Slash 
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On Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode I Remix: Part II

Investment.

The only rational action when seeing a dragon destroying a city is to NOPE yourself somewhere else as quickly as possible.

The best way to start the campaign is to ask the players this question.

"Are you a bad enough dude to kill Tiamat?"

If the answer to that question is no, play a different campaign. If the answer is yes, then you've invested the players.

Investing the characters is easier. There are good backgrounds in the back of the book. Any of the Dragon Features would let them know that the Cult of the Dragon is either about bringing back Tiamat or have the world toil under the wrath of Dracoliches. Either way, the world is the place where the characters keep all their stuff. Also, there's a Hoard. Or there will be one by the time we're done.

In any case, the players are free to make whatever choices they wish. If they want to steal all the treasure for themselves or join the cultists, very little needs to change. At some point, when they realize that the arrival of Tiamat will result in the destruction of the entire world, they can fight the cult, or you know, not.

My characters will be between 4th and 6th level, and I'll be adjusting the difficulty towards that end. I have to change very little, the players will just end up more capable. Spoilers, obviously. Both for Hoard of the Dragon Queen and for my home group.

Entering the town

Several changes need to be made directly to support a freer, more open exploration of the town. The original structure of "Do this, go here." is explicitly called out by the writers as providing guidance for new players and Dungeon Masters.
  • Instead of having an abstract mechanic for encounters, have a more specific one.
    • Currently the module calls for two failed stealth checks to equal an encounter.
    • Replace with make stealth checks as a group to move 50 feet on the map. On two failures, have an encounter, per the table in Part I.
  • Sneaking and bluffing are at advantage when the party is moving through town, unless they are escorting townsfolk to the keep. If the party is travelling with townsfolk, captured cultists, or other encumbrances, sneaking and bluffing are at disadvantage.
    • A party that is first level or less experienced should grant advantage on all checks. 
The first encounter is Seek the Keep with the family.

Having my kobold replacement, the winged Dragon-Dog (see Remix: Part I) land on and kill the man by ripping out his throat and the woman turn to defend her children is a good opener (as suggested by +Bryce Lynch).

The players are free to skip the encounter and take any actions they want. If they head to a different fortified area (such as the mill or the church) run that encounter and have a priest or a miller have taken command of the local forces, and have that person give quests to the characters. (again as suggested by +Bryce Lynch).

There is a mechanic designed to give the players experience if they run from encounters, involving townsfolk. This is a very fourth edition type mechanic, trying to ensure that the players are at the "correct" experience point level. I'm keeping it, but adding difficult in exchange for the extra experience.

After making it to the keep, (or church or mill), the Cobalt Cultists surround it, jamming lightning rods into the ground and surrounding it with troops.

There is some question as to why players would bring townsfolk to the place that is being attacked by the dragon. The best answer to this is to make a note that the keep (church/mill) are defensible structures. The worst the dragon can do is some damage to the walls and currently he's loose flying around town trying to kill people.

Assigning Missions:
Upon reaching the keep/church/mill, the characters are brought to the general/priest/miller. The characters reach the town at 2100. They have until 0400 to run missions. That's seven hours for missions and resting. Reaching the keep takes the first hour, leaving six more hours to complete missions. There are six missions. Assuming the characters rest, some missions will have to be missed. What isn't listed in the book is what the consequences for failing each mission is.

Three of the missions (Sally Port, Dragon Attack, and Half-Dragon Champion) happen at/to the keep. The others involve leaving the keep.

Though presented as being able to complete missions in any order, realistically, you must complete the Old Tunnel first and the Half-Dragon Champion last. Of the remaining five, two of them happen at the keep.

The timeline happens below
2100: Characters reach town
2200: Characters are in the keep/church/mill and are given the Old Tunnel Quest
2300: Once the old tunnel is open, the characters may choose any hour to rest or leave the keep to rescue townsfolk or capture prisoners.
0000: Dragon Attack
0100: Invasion of the Sally Port
0200: Save the Mill
0300: Sanctuary
0400: Half-Dragon Champion

For the events between midnight and three in the morning, if the characters are resting, they will have the request for help occur just after they begin their rest. They then have the option of taking on the activity or finishing the rest. If they have sallied forth, they become aware of the activity while out in the town and can continue to the site of the activity.

Theory: Why am I doing this? Because if the players can accomplish all the encounters they are not being forced to make any meaningful choices. I'm also going to add consequences for failed missions, meaning that they will feel responsible for not being able to stop the actions of the Dragon Cult. This is conversion, which I'll talk about later. There is no way they can string all these encounters together without a short rest. I certainly believe this is the intent with the setup in the module—a first level party certainly needs a short rest between some of these. The penalty of "not getting experience", isn't really.

Consequences

Each of the missions will have consequences for failure or bonuses for success. They are listed below. Changes, theory, and issues with the actual missions are listed following that.

  • Old Tunnel: Failing to open the old tunnel will not allow the players to leave the keep. +200 survivors if opened.
  • Invasion of the Sally Port: The two level 3 clerics in the keep (which I just added) die, and can no longer heal the party. +60 survivors.
  • Dragon Attack: Succeeding in driving off the dragon before 10 defenders are killed, causes Langdedrosa Cyanwrath to have 10 fewer hit points. Driving him off after 10 guards are killed does nothing. Skipping the encounter grants Langdedrosa Cyanwrath +10 temporary hit points. +200 survivors minus guards killed.
  • Save the Mill: Successfully taking out the raiders removes 5 hit points from Langdedrosa Cyanwrath. Recognizing the trap grants the character who fights him +10 temporary hit points in the champion fight. +30 survivors
  • Prisoners: In addition to the bonus experience, every prisoner successfully returned alive and interrogated grants any character in the party one automatic success on a future social interaction roll with the cult during this adventure path.
  • Sanctuary: Successfully rescuing the temple with less than 10 people dying allows Eadyan Falconmoon to return to the keep as a level 5 cleric to cast Protection From Energy (Electricity) against a character in the final fight, in addition to his services as a level 5 cleric. Having more than 5 townspeople die provides no extra bonus or penalty. Ignoring the church grants Langdedrosa Cyanwrath +10 temporary hit points. +50 survivors.
  • Half-Dragon Champion: In addition to the listed bonuses, winning this fight grants an extra share of experience to the person fighting it. (He's worth 1,100. If defeated, the party gets 275, and the person killing him gets 550.) -1 survivor per execution.
Thus, if the players are successful at the missions, the final fight and success at the rest of the adventure becomes more likely. Failing a lot of the missions just returns you to the default state of auto-losing the final battle. This way, players can affect their fates. 

Casualties

Greenrest, being a small town, has a population of between 901-2,000. The map provided shows about 100 houses. You can assume an equal amount to that in the surrounding area. Being a fairly wealthy area, we can estimate between 5-7 people on average, per household, for a total of about 1,200 people. With no intervention 1,000 die. Each cultist/kobold/mercenary killed saves 5 people, each ambush drake/urd/dragonclaw killed saves 10 people, each mission saves the amount listed above. Each townsfolk rescued saves another person. Grant an additional 1 experience at the end for every one of the 1,000 dead that is saved by the party to each player character. It is totally possible to save the entire town if the party is heroic & violent enough!


Old Tunnel

The major issue is opening the gate. If the DC to unlock it fails, unlocking it can become impossible. Here is a check with a consequence. This is a non-trivial chance. You need a DC 10 Dexterity check to open it with the key, and even with an 18 Dexterity, that still means a 5% chance of permanently ruining the lock by failing by more than 5. All that is fine. 

After that only a successful DC 15 Strength check can open the door. Either the check can be retried (ad infinitum) in which case why make the players roll the check. Or the intent is, once the check is failed, too bad, you can't leave the keep by this route, completely eliminating all the external quest options, then you are playing "roll X or higher to play the game". In a path, this is terrible. In a home game, it can be a nightmarish consequence.

Note that if a strength check is made at all, the raiders notice the players, eliminating that as a possible consequence to succeeding at the first try versus retrying. Is this nitpicking? I paid 30 bucks for a hardcover adventure that was designed for use. I do not believe that the intent was to eliminate the ability to exit the keep. I welcome an explanation or defense of this requested Strength check. If my group fails their Strength check to open the gate, then the gate will not open. Taking steps to aid and provide advantage on this check is probably a good idea.

They can leave through the front gate, in which case they are attacked by 2 hostile forces in the encounter table, and encounters are rolled from there as normal. Other stealthy options for leaving are noted in the Prisoner section, with their own caveats. 

The other parts of this encounter are nice: The characters or cultists automatically noticing the other based on player choice, the chances to be detected moving in and out of the tunnel.

The Sally Port

An attack in the keep, during the night. The characters are requested to repair the breach and face a combat with reinforcements.

The biggest issue with this is that it's a boring combat. Let's address that.
  • Round 1: The characters enter and see a Acolyte and two Dragon-Dogs.
  • Round 2: The Acolyte says, "RELEASE THE DRACO-GOD SPAWN!!". The other two Dragon-Dogs bring in the Ambush Drake
  • Round 3-6: Nothing. If the players win combat, ask them what they are doing. Barricading the door can prevent the second ambush. Allow them to take 1 substantial action per round they end the combat early (i.e. don't enforce-six second rounds).
  • Round 7: Reinforcements arrive. If the opening is blocked off, they can't get through.
  • Round 8: The parapets shake and debris falls in the room.
    • If the characters are in combat in the room with cultists, have everyone make a DC 10 Dexterity Check or take 2d6 damage. The sally port can then be sealed after the combat.
    • If the Cultists are outside the door, have the sally port collapse on them, killing them instantly and smashing the door, closing off the tunnel entrance.
Isn't that more exciting, random, and deadly?

Note that I make the consequences of choices explicit (but not specific) before the players make them. 

Continued in Part III

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