Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Different Dark Sun: Prefectures of the Radiant Desert

Over the years, there's been conjecture as to what exists outside of the Tyr Region, the "home base" of the Athasian campaign. A few official boxed sets and modules attempted to expound on this, with mixed results. Some, like the Last Sea region, are not held in particularly high regard by certain segments of the D&D community. Others, such as Eldaarich, were regarded as more of the same thing we experienced in the core rules region. You also had the tohr-kreen empire, far to the northwest of the Tyr Region, where psionic and scientifically-minded kreen held sway.

I was inspired by some banter on a board somewhere some years ago and it's been cooking in the back of my mind for a long time. I can't recall the source, but in the interest of full disclosure I can't say that this is 1000% my brainchild. Similarities to other attempts are unintentional.

I wanted to introduce culture and civilization that is different from the city-states of the Tyr Region. We aren't given much insight as to what else existed on Athas apart from very broad strokes about the halfling and human-dominated epochs. It has also been thousands and thousands of years since those times, and no one ventured far enough beyond the Tyr Region and returned to tell what existed beyond it.

Dark Sun is a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting with cultures based off of Sumerian (Urik, Tyr), Babylonian (Raam, I would hazard a comparison), Aztec (Draj), Harrapan (I feel like Nibenay was at least partially inspired by this, but it's kind of a pot-luck of a few ancient cultures), proto-Greek (Balic), and kind of a weird blend of West-Central African (Gulg) societies. It steers pointedly away from European fantasy tropes and cultures; the Tyr Region is in a perpetual late Bronze Age due to the limitations of natural resources.

Some of my historical comparisons may not be apt. My college-level ancient world history courses were a very long time ago and my brain is a leaky sieve when I'm not actively using a given knowledge. I would love to discuss/be corrected in the comments, as I am very interested in ancient cultures.

But there was a lot of stuff already going on in our world at the same time in our history. Enter the Radiant Desert, a society based off of post-apocalyptic Imperial China.

The Prefectures of the Radiant Desert

I never did see this movie, and heard it's pretty terrible. But it has some great inspirational imagery for an Athas-flavored culture based on Imperial China.

Far to the south of the Tyr Region, beyond the black desert of the Dead Lands, exists a quasi-imperial society known as the Prefectures of the Radiant Desert. Had Athas a true sea where the Sea of Silt now lies, it could be reached by naval travel down the Tyr Region's eastern coastline, but not even the most robust silt skimmers could survive the voyage while Borys of Ebe still lived. Those that tried usually ended up devoured by silt horrors or consumed in the Dragon's fire as he flew out to stop them from making contact with the distant land.

Why did Borys try to stop this contact? Because he knew he had a true rival in the south, not just his petty and subdued former comrades from the Cleansing Wars, and was not yet prepared to deal with her -- and best to keep her ignorant as to the society he kept in his thrall. Did he fear this upstart dragon? It is not known, and the truth went with him to his grave.

With the Dragon slain and numerous Tyr-storms spinning off from where his domain once lay, the way is once again open. The first of the storms to twist its way more south than west garnered the attention of this distant ruler, who used scrying magic and long-range flying scouts to seek the source of these storms.

The Crimson Empress

Guo Kang Ma is a comparatively young dragon king, completing her ascent some time after the decline of the world began and after Borys seized control of the north. With an iron claw, she rules over a dominion of small prefectures that spread across a few thousand square miles of territory beyond the Dead Lands. Like her counterparts in the north, she enacted a policy of enforced ignorance among the common folk of her realm. Literacy, magic, and owning weapons are banned to all but the merchant and noble castes of her society.

She is curious about the Tyr Region, but cognizant of the dangers that exposure to it will pose to her rule. If her subjects learn that the people to the north overthrew their own dragon, a seed of rebellion could germinate in her midst. Until then, enforced isolation is her policy, though conquest of the fractured city-states is something she also strongly considers.

Guo Kang Ma was not a contemporary of Rajaat's Champions, but rather a defiler who rose to great power through her own ambition and ruthlessness. When the myriad divided tribes of the south huddled together to survive in a dying world, she used the opportunity to unify them through terror and blood. Her warlords swept through the crumbling lands and subjugated the populace.

Her rule has not been without its benefits. As Athas withered, Guo Kang Ma knew that it was only a matter of time before her rule would become moot and she required the regular tribute of her citizens to maintain her magical power. She empowered mighty elemental priests to be the lords of her prefectures, but all give homage to the Crimson Empress. Agriculture and tending of the withered land is paramount, not only to sustain the fragile ecosystems and feed the populace, but also to provide the dragon and her exarchs with life to draw upon for their magic.

In the time since she learned of the Tyr Region, Guo Kang Ma began research into warriors that could make the long journey between the prefectures and the city-states without needing the support of supply lines or fear of the searing daylight. Soon, her dream may be realized -- the first of her Porcelain Guard already protect her palace alongside eunuch warriors, mass-produced golem-like soldiers that need neither water nor sleep.

People of the Radiant Desert

The Radiant Desert folk are sandy-skinned, stout folk with dark hair and eyes. Though humans make up most of the populace, there are also small communities of dwarves that live among the prefectures. This also allows a small number of muls to thrive as well, but most muls are immediately given unto the Empress's enforcers to serve as eunuch bodyguards. Dray, elves, half-giants, and halflings are unknown in the Radiant Desert.

There are thri-kreen in the Radiant Desert -- as all deserts are the dominion of the mantis warriors -- and their differences are negligible to their kin in the north. Should a Radiant Desert kreen pack encounter a Hinterlands kreen pack, neither would recognize anything other than a geographical preference. As thri-kreen are not welcome in the prefectures, there was little chance for any knowledge of the Tyr Region to proliferate before recent times.

So what's this place for, Marsupialmancer? Get to it.

The Radiant Desert is a potential high-level play antagonist for characters in the Tyr Region. It also serves as a cultural touchstone for people who want to play something different -- an exiled wanderer or lost scout from the Crimson Empress's vanguard could be viable character concepts. Certain archetypes could also come from here, along with all of their wild fantastical variants (tattooed monks, eunuch sorcerers, sohei, etc.).

Obviously there's a lot more to this culture and I've only scratched the surface of its possibilities in my homebrew version of Athas. Since it is relegated in my mind to an end-game concern, I've only developed that which might be immediately relevant in a character's mind -- though it could just as easily serve as a completely different place to run a campaign!

What's next, then?

Good question. I have some thoughts on defiling and preserving, but they need to cook some more and I have all the holiday vacation week to do that. I could also dip into some new archetypes that fit the setting (possibly some of the aforementioned ones) to add some variety. As I write that, I think that's what I'll opt for, unless I get a eureka moment with defiling/preserving rules.

Friday, December 23, 2016

And Another! Birthright Fancy PDF

Takes forever to move them over to Homebrewery, but the results are much more palatable. Enjoy.

Get me here.

Edit: Some minor formatting errors were pointed out, which have been fixed. Feedback is welcome!

Edit 2: Dec. 26th, reformatted the languages section, added more flavor text. I'm taking liberties with the linguistic constructs of Cerilia, because I can.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Interlude: Fancy-fying Council of Wyrms Documentation

I've finally gotten around to making this look like I actually care about it! Enjoy a lovely new fancy PDF with a small number of rules corrections (mostly with my funky monster stat boxes) and columnar formatting.

Get it here for free!

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Different Dark Sun: Hilariously Overpowered Dragons

Disclaimer: As always, first draft, etc. This one, though, is my inner egregious munchkin coming out. Have fun with it, as I did.

Borys of Ebe, a.k.a. the Dragon of Tyr

The current edition has no official rules for character advancement beyond 20th level (though at least one person has created something for the DM's Guild; I don't own it and can't speak to its quality, but figured it's worth pointing out). Even carefully-curated 5E core starts to have some balance breakdown issues past 14th level or so, and by the time some classes are reaching 17th level they push the boundaries of what DMs can challenge them with in a reasonably-crafted encounter.

(Hell, even now in my Sunday game, the 13th level party has some gross alpha-strike capabilities. I have to make sure they burn many of their resources throughout a given dungeon so they don't one-round the villain. Also, plenty of mooks.)

When a campaign reaches that point -- which frankly, most just don't these days -- it's time to put the characters into retirement one way or another. In old Dark Sun though, it was the start of a crazy leap to ludicrous levels of power. There is a sourcebook called Dragon Kings that is all about this part of the player experience.

There was very little that is balanced about this book, but it really wasn't meant to be balanced. Not even against other components of the sourcebook -- there is no way an advanced fighter or gladiator is going to stand his ground against an ascendant dragon.

But that was kind of the point in Dark Sun. The dragons were the peak of mortal potential, only challenged by their good-aligned opposites, the avangions.

In second edition, the dragon ascension was pretty convoluted. You had to be a dual-classed wizard/psionicist with 20 levels in each class (a 40th level character!), accrue a ludicrous level of power and wealth, and only then could you scratch the surface of this ascension. You had to start learning 10th level spells. You had to research psionic enchantments. You had to make an obsidian sphere to power your rituals. Some stages of the ascension could force you to lose control of your character entirely as you give in to bestial rage.

There was a lot that went into this. Fourth edition's update of Dark Sun turned dragon kings into an epic destiny, but in the process of making it uniform to the system conceits, they substantially de-powered it and took out a lot of the flavor. It wasn't so much a badass character advancement path so much as it was an option you selected once you hit 20th level, like hitting a specialization button in a video game.

(For the record, I generally liked 4E, but I absolutely recognize its not-insignificant flaws. It was onerous to actually play.)

All of the rulers of the city-states in base Dark Sun are dragon kings somewhere along the advancement track. To the people of their realms, they were akin to gods; already possessing mammoth levels of magical and psychic power, who could think to stand against them? Well, as was evident in a few books and later material, high-level adventuring parties and a bit of deus ex machina could, but that's not the point.

Apparently the way to kill King Kalak of Tyr was to chuck a magic stick into his old man spleen.

Dragon kings were obscenely powerful. And you wouldn't be a very good murderhobo if you didn't see that such power existed and asked yourself, "What does it take to topple it?" or the even darker, "How can I be that mighty?"

I wanted to have something in my back pocket in case a Dark Sun game I run gets to that point, but I don't seriously expect them to. That's a whole helluva lot of game time; even now my Sunday game group is only nearing 14th level, and I've been running that campaign for about four years now.

But it was a fun design exercise. It's not balanced, it's gratuitous, and I like to think it's in keeping with 2E's original themes without bathing in complexity or vague wording.

Advanced paths, as I see them, start at 20th level and involve the accrual of boons through adventuring and roleplay. The proposed Path of the Dragon here, and the boons listed beneath, provide a discreet avenue that a player can work toward, but just how they get those boons is up to the DM.

Path of the Dragon

Prerequisites: Must be a sorcerer, warlock, or wizard of 20th level with no multiclassing. Minimum Intelligence score of 20 and Wisdom score of 18.

The dragon is the most terrifying incarnation of terrestrial power on Athas. Living engines of destruction, they are born of the ambition of powerful arcanists who also set about mastering the secrets of psionic power. All recorded attempts at achieving the status of dragon were accomplished by defilers; however, there is nothing that specifically prevents a preserving arcanist from attempting to become a dragon.

To begin, the nascent dragon must achieve 20th level and find a powerful psionic instructor. This can be another character of 20th level that belongs to the mystic class, or a similarly potent creature or monster that is bargained with (or enslaved) to provide the necessary instruction. The arcanist then begins their ascent.

First, the aspiring dragon must craft a sphere of perfectly smooth obsidian no less than a foot in diameter to act as the focus for their dark energy. This sphere is impervious to non-magical harm and possesses 100 hit points. The sphere also stores a portion of the dragon’s own life force, and if it is destroyed, the dragon immediately suffers three levels of exhaustion until a new sphere can be crafted; they cannot continue their ascension until a new sphere is made.

To achieve new ranks of the Path of the Dragon, the character must continue to complete challenges worthy of their existing mastery, vanquish powerful foes, accrue power and status, and research forgotten secrets. The accrual of a boon satisfies the criteria of a new rank, and the dragon must earn the following ten boons to complete their ascent along the path.

  1. Tree of Life
  2. Reflexive Concentration
  3. Iron Skin
  4. Obsidian Constitution
  5. Heightened Intellect
  6. Matter Manipulation
  7. Guarded Thoughts
  8. Alchemical Alteration (Dragon)
  9. Elemental Adaptation (Fire)
  10. Gift of Doom

At each rank of the Path of the Dragon, the spellcaster gains the powers and class abilities of a mystic as though they were continuing to advance in level. Thus, a 6th rank dragon is a 20th level member of their original class, plus a 6th level mystic. They do not gain additional proficiency bonus or hit dice as they advance in rank.. They select an Order as though they were trained by a given psionic tradition, usually in keeping with the one with which their instructor is most proficient.

The accrual of boons involves a process known as psionic enchantment, or the blending of arcane spells with psionic power to catalyze a process within the ascending dragon. Discovering how to even earn a boon is akin to unlocking the secrets of ancient magic, requiring extensive research, the harvesting of rare reagents, and hours of quiet study.

The point at which an ascending dragon achieves a new rank is marked by a period of intense agony and burgeoning madness. When the transformation occurs, the character must succeed on a DC 20 Wisdom saving throw every day for a period of one week or fall into a temporary state of madness and pain. This period lasts for one month during which the dragon has lost control and cannot be contained unless forcefully subdued or placed in some manner of imprisonment. A dragon in this state will use all of the powers and cunning at their disposal to wreak havoc and destruction everywhere they go.

As each rank is attained, the ascendant dragon appears more and more like a twisted draconic humanoid. At early levels of the ascension, they may seem taller or have fierce, elongated features. Between the fourth and seventh ranks, they might be mistaken for a dray (dragonborn) at a distance, but any dray will know that the ascendant dragon is certainly not one of them. At eighth rank and higher, the twisted humanoid form makes them a horror to behold, and most dragons use simple magic such as alter self to mask their appearance.

A character who achieves the tenth rank of the Path of the Dragon violently polymorphs over the period of an hour into a full-blooded dragon, equivalent statistically to an ancient red dragon. Once the transformation is complete, it is permanent. The dragon may use all of their learned class abilities, spells, and powers in this new form.


Alchemical Alteration

By creating an alchemical draught of expensive and deadly ingredients, a character can change their creature type. The process involves completing a dangerous research project and the collection of rare and lethal components worth at least 10,000 gold pieces. Proficiency in alchemical equipment is a requirement; this is not the sort of project you assign to a lesser minion.

At the completion of this research project, which takes no less than one month of constant, uninterrupted attention, you may quaff the draught and permanently change your type to that of the creature involved in the research project. This may render you immune to certain spell effects (as you are no longer humanoid) while rendering you vulnerable to others.

Elemental Adaptation

A boon gifted by (or stolen from) a powerful elemental prince, this trait adapts a character to a given element and bestows a small number of traits accordingly.

Air: You become immune to lightning damage. You gain a fly speed of 60 feet and cannot be moved by strong winds or unnatural air currents. You can speak the Auran dialect of the Primordial language (provided you do not already possess the ability).

Earth: You become immune to acid damage. You gain a burrow speed of 30 feet and are immune to the prone and restrained conditions. You can speak the Terran dialect of the Primordial language (provided you do not already possess the ability).

Fire: You become immune to fire damage. You can walk on the surface of lava without falling through or suffering ill effects, and you learn to speak the Ignan dialect of the Primordial language (provided you do not already possess the ability).

Water: You become immune to cold damage. You gain a swim speed of 60 feet and can breathe underwater, as well as becoming immune to crushing pressures. You learn to speak the Aquan dialect of the Primordial language (provided you do not already possess the ability).

Gift of Doom

As the tormenting agony of ascension wracks your body, you gain insight through pain. All life turns to death, and that entropy can take many forms. Those forms are now mutable to you. You may convert any damage you deal, through spell or weapon or natural attack, into necrotic damage.

Guarded Thoughts

Your mind becomes inscrutable and labyrinthine in its musings. Spells that attempt to read your thoughts automatically fail and individuals that attempt unwarranted telepathic contact of any kind must succeed at a Wisdom save (use your spellcasting DC) or suffer 4d6 psychic damage.

Heightened Intellect

Through intense study and no small amount of magical assistance, you surpass the boundaries of mortal cognition. Your Intelligence score increases by 4 points, and your ability score maximum for Intelligence increases to 24.

Iron Skin

Your flesh becomes tough, scaly, or rock-like depending on the source of this boon. When not wearing armor or polymorphed into a form with a greater AC, your AC is 16 plus your Dexterity modifier. You cannot benefit from the use of armor that grants an AC of 16 or lower.

Matter Manipulation

Using subtle psionic influence, you can rapidly coax the shape or makeup of objects into more desirable forms. You may use your action to cast the fabricate or stone shape spells, reducing the casting time or the former accordingly.

Obsidian Constitution

Weapons of mere wood, bone, and metal are only a meager danger to you. You gain resistance to non-magical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.

Reflexive Concentration

You gain advantage on all Constitution checks made to preserve concentration on a spell. If you fail a concentration check, you may reroll it a number of times equal to your Constitution modifier. All of these uses are regained upon completing a short or long rest.

Tree of Life

Upon gaining this boon, the character learns how to cultivate a powerful artifact known as a tree of life. The tree takes no less than one year to reach full size, during which time it must not be subjected to any defiling magic or the tree is destroyed. It is supremely vulnerable in its sapling stages.

During the sapling stage, the tree of life can be used to store the life force of its master. After completing a long rest within 30 feet of the tree, the character may elect to store up to 5 of their hit dice within the tree. Any time the character casts a spell from the cleric, druid, sorcerer, warlock, or wizard spell list, they may immediately expend any number of those hit dice to recover lost hit points.

Once the tree reaches full size, the amount of hit dice it can store is increased to 20.

Avangions and world spirits use the tree as a locus for their rituals and gathering places for their most devout students. Dragons hoard the tree as though it were valuable treasure, leeching off of its life force to sustain themselves in brutal combat.

I came here for the homebrew setting, not your infantile dragon power fantasies, Marsupialmancer! How does this relate to your version if Borys of Ebe is dead?

Gosh, inner voice, I know! I'm getting to it. 

Well, a lot happens on a world in a few thousand years. And we've only seen a tiny aspect of Athas, in a section no larger than New York state.

I ask this question in my setting document draft:

What survived out in the wastelands for millennia while the Dragon and the sorcerer-kings dominated the known world?

What indeed. Perhaps Borys was not the only dragon. As seas dried up and cultures became marooned, could other pockets of life have survived? In my homebrew, that answer is yes. And its ruler is the isolationist dragon king, Crimson Empress Guo Kang Ma of the Radiant Desert.

But more on her next time.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Different Dark Sun: Races, Part Two

It's been very rewarding reading through old Dark Sun books again. They are, in general, quite well done for the era in which they were designed, an era not always defined by what we would consider good and balanced gaming. But of course, that's part of the fun, isn't it? Sometimes you find that race/class combo that makes your character stand above expectations. I don't think this is strictly a bad thing.

Other times though, you get the 2E thri-kreen. And I'll get to that lovely confluence of madness near the end of today's entry.

First up, though...

The Athasian Dwarf

The dwarves of Athas, like most of the other non-human races, suffered terribly at the hands of those who would later become the sorcerer-kings. A vicious war of genocide claimed many of Athas's races in distant, forgotten epochs -- the dwarves nearly counted among them.

Athasian dwarves are cagey and quite different from their counterparts in other setting worlds, adapted to their environment in some harsh ways. You won't generally find dwarves on Athas with huge beards and faux-Scottish accents. Rather, many dwarves shave both face and scalp to deal with the searing daytime temperatures, frequently trading with the people of the city-states without a true culture to call their own. There is no dwarven homeland, no ancient underground citadel to which they might return.

They are quite stubborn however, so they have that in common with other dwarves, at least. Dwarves on Athas frequently devote themselves to a single goal, a focus, that they pursue with single-minded fanaticism. Once a dwarf focuses on something, it's easier to extract ore from rock with one's bare hands than it is to change that dwarf's mind.

The dwarves of Athas are identical to the mountain dwarf of the Player's Handbook, but I will be replacing their armor proficiency with the following:

Focused Mind. You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed by spells and effects.

I can already feel angry glares through the Internet. You nerfed the best combat-focused race from the Player's Handbook ever-so-slightly! How dare you! Tear up your books and flush your dice! All fun is binary!

Frankly, I don't see it come up much and I've been running this edition since its inception. If you're playing a mountain dwarf, chances are high you're already picking a class proficient in light and medium armor anyway. While I have fond memories of my breastplate-wearing mountain dwarf rogue, heavier armor types are hard to come by on Athas -- and owning a suit of metal armor just paints a huge target on your back.

I wanted to play up the dwarf's focus attribute without forcing a vague mechanic into it. Arguments around a table regarding whether a situation is related to one's focus to get a special buff just don't sound like fun to me. Focuses are best left to the dwarf's roleplaying and decisions rather than some wishy-washy system.

The Athasian Halfling

One of the first things Dark Sun aficionados say to folks who ask them about the setting is, "Dude, they have freakin' cannibal halflings."

And that is true. But not all halflings from the setting are like that, and it shouldn't be their defining trait. At the same time though, there's some lore from Dark Sun that is kind of weird regarding everyone's favorite diminutive race (unless you're one of those people who like gnomes*), and I alluded to it in the previous entry.

*My dislike of gnomes is legendary. PC races that are historically used for disruptive "trickster" behavior in my gaming past don't rate very high on my list. But on Dark Sun, they are all dead, so I merely steeple my fingers and make quiet "mmyes" noises. If you like gnomes, I don't judge you. Much.

What all modern-day Athasian halflings do have in common, though, is an aptitude for surviving the rigors of the world and a savagery that belies their stature. Halflings were touted as the only race that might eat a thri-kreen -- the other notable cannibal of the setting -- and that alone was enough to make the mantis warriors uneasy.

They also have a rich culture of art, storytelling, and reverence for the natural world (such as it is). Their racial bonuses should reflect that. To wit, they get this in addition to the base halfling stuff:

Ability Score Increase. Your Wisdom score increases by 1.
Nature Tender. You know the druidcraft cantrip.
Tribal Knowledge. You choose to be proficient in one of the following skills: History, Nature, Performance, Survival.

It lacks the super-stealthiness of the Lightfoot halfling, but has more of a tribal shaman vibe. I thought at first to give them any druid cantrip, but I feel like that would come down to only two "real" options; produce flame or shillelagh. The inclusion of druidcraft gives them a folksy sort of mysticism that reinforces the halfling character without just giving them a flat combat power buff.

The Athasian Dragonborn

There actually isn't anything to change here, as I see it. The dragonborn-as-PC-race on Athas only came about in 4E, and they were a re-skin of an existing Athasian race, the dray. It was the backstory of the dragonborn, in fact, that saw the most change. Stock dragonborn (at least, as inferred in their flavor text) tend towards goodness and virtue, while Athas's dray are pragmatic and devious.

The dray are the spawn of a sorcerer-king that was betrayed by his fellows. They are powerful and sly draconic humanoids twisted by dark magic into their new forms. Dray PCs in my conversion will belong to the Wayward Clans -- dragonborn cast out of the ruined city of Giustenal during an uprising. Statistically, there isn't much that needs to change from the dragonborn of the Player's Handbook, though I'd probably encourage all of them to be fire-based for consistency.

Some homebrew lore that will only make sense to people who know the setting:
"In year 36 of the calendar of Free Tyr, the city of Giustenal erupted in a storm of psychic energy invisible to all but the most accomplished students of the psionic arts. Several days after the event, packs of the mysterious creatures known as the dray poured from the shattered ruins of the city in apparent flight from an unseen danger.
"The truth of the event became known when small clans of these dray sought asylum in the city states of Nibenay and Gulg. Their fallen creator, the undead dragon king Dregoth, attempted and failed to bind a heinous psionic entity in the ruins of the city. The fallout from the event shook the faith of even his most ardent worshipers, and a rebellion erupted within the tunnels beneath the devastated landmark.
"The losers of this struggle, the Wayward Clans, were forced to flee from the city or risk destruction by their master and his loyal servants. With them came the terrible truth -- the dragon king, long thought destroyed by his contemporaries, lived still.
"With the Dragon of Tyr and several of the sorcerer-kings slain by a reawakened Rajaat, the remaining monarchs stayed their hand at a second attempt to destroy Dregoth. Were they fearful that the dragon king had achieved the mightiest stage of their terrible transformations and thus was beyond their ability to destroy? Or was it that they sought to make amends for their betrayal and gain a new ally in the struggle against the other city-states?
"The truth is not yet clear, but what is known is that Giustenal lives still, and both Dregoth and the psionic entity with which he fought make any forays into the ruins the most absolute of follies.
"The Wayward Clans that now wander the Tyr Region make their living as traders and mercenaries to the people of the city-states. Distinct subcultures have arisen within the clans, who sometimes feud with one another over territory and contracts. They keep their distance from most other races, however, due to their monstrous draconic appearance."

The Thri-Kreen

Hoo boy, here we go.

I love the thri-kreen. I also hate the thri-kreen. They are one of the most unique things about Athas and their inclusion as a player race was, and is, a wonderful idea. I would call you an excuse-making liar (I mean, politely and in good humor, of course) if you tried to make a case to me that they were at all balanced against the other player character races at the time they showed up as a PC race in 2E.

Compared to a starting player of any other race and class, thri-kreen had a host of powerful advantages, and they grew in power as they went. Most outstanding and abused was the fact that they have four arms, each capable of holding an object. Before sanity took hold in later editions, this led to anyone with a modicum of rules knowledge to begin coming up with any justification, rules-supported or otherwise, to become a quad-weapon-wielding murder blender.

They were also crazy-fast. And have chitin that was the equivalent of chain mail (AC 5, in 2E terms) in a world with extremely-rare metal armor. And they got paralyzing bites and absurd leaping capabilities as they went up in levels. And could make their own equipment with some sand and a gob of their own toxic spit. And they don't sleep. And can dodge missiles.

Oh sure, they had "disadvantages" if you want to call them that. Can't wear armor? Who cares, your Dexterity score probably gives you plate-level AC.

They were not balanced. But holy crap were they fun to play and came with a host of extremely enjoyable roleplaying hooks and quirks. You see, thri-kreen have a physiological compunction to bond with groups. There are two terms they use to describe this mentality.

First is the tokchak, or "clutch mind" in the thri-kreen language. Kreen bond in two types of groups, packs and clutches. Packs are large groups of multiple clutches, kind of like a human's extended family, though these packs aren't always biologically related. Clutches are small groups, immediate family or close allies. Kreen that don't bond in these ways are considered "broken" in a way; it is anathema for a thri-kreen to want to wander alone.

The tokchak is an instant roleplaying hook to get a thri-kreen to join an adventuring party. Kreen actively seek groups to which they belong, even if those groups are not themselves thri-kreen. There's no stigma to having a non-kreen adventuring companion; so long as the companion is useful and pulls their weight, they are as worthy as any thri-kreen. There's that whole sleeping thing though...

Second is the tikchak, or "hunter mind" being the translation. Thri-kreen are pack hunters, and have an intrinsic need to move around and sustain themselves. Packs wander the wastelands of Athas, hunting and taking what they need to survive in a world to which they are supremely adapted. The tikchak also drives them to work together with their clutch to accomplish goals and ensure all are cared for equally. This isn't (always) just altruism -- a clutch is only as strong as its weakest member, so it makes sense to share with all who are pulling their weight. If someone isn't pulling their weight, the thri-kreen makes efforts to help them improve. If they cannot, they are no longer fit to be in the clutch.

Sounds like the perfect adventuring companion, right? Loyal, won't actively try to screw you over, shares their treasure equally, and is a sleepless night-shift-watchbug with a stomach to rival any hungry halfling? Hmm. Hungry hungry halflings should be a party game.

So as great as these thri-kreen are, they also have to be brought down a peg. Their incarnation in 4E did just that, but at the expense of a bit of their flavor. They also endured a substantial change to their basic physiology -- 2E thri-kreen, like 2E half-giants, would be Large creatures in today's terms. They were physically similar to gigantic mantises, complete with a large abdomen and upright thorax. Now they're a lot more "humanoid" in appearance, though still very much inhuman.

Compare and contrast the 2E (left) with the 4E/5E thri-kreen:

This isn't all bad. Old 2E thri-kreen outright couldn't wear armor or many of the things that PCs find in their travels. Their shift to a slightly more familiar shape opens up some possibilities.

So I want to take a crack at them. Some people are very protective of their thri-kreen, so I expect divisiveness. That's okay. There's plenty of other homebrewed/DM's Guild variants out there. I just didn't like 'em much, personally.

Ability Score Adjustments. Your Dexterity score increases by 2. You may choose to increase either your Strength or Wisdom score by 1.
Age. Thri-kreen mature quickly and are able adults by the time they are 7 years old. They rarely live longer than 30 years.
Size. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base speed is 40 feet.
Carapace. Your base AC is 13 plus your Dexterity modifier. You cannot benefit from the protection of any armor that grants you an AC of 13 or lower. Due to the shape of your body, armor must be custom-made for your form and costs twice as much.
Desert Adaptation. You require only a half gallon of water each day to avoid exhaustion from dehydration. You do not sleep, and can gain the benefits of a long rest while performing only four hours of light activity.
Powerful Leap. You can perform a running leap to travel a number of feet straight forward equal to three times your Strength score. You can perform a standing vertical jump up to your Strength score in feet.
Multiple Limbs. You possess a second set of arms below your primary limbs. These limbs can hold objects and weapons, but cannot be used to perform more attacks than you normally have at your disposal based on your class and your fighting styles.
Natural Weaponry. You possess sharp claws and a painful bite. In lieu of any other attack you make, you can substitute a claw or bite attack to inflict 1d4 points of slashing (with claw) or piercing (with bite) damage.
Languages. Thri-kreen know their own language and the Common tongue of the Tyr Region.

It's a pretty big list of racial traits compared to most, but I think this fits without making them either sucky or overpowered. There's some things missing, though; what about that poison bite?

No bones about it, I love the idea of racial feats. I thought they were good when I first saw them in an Unearthed Arcana that included svirfneblin, and I like using them to add traits and powers to races. Here's one for thri-kreen who work to develop their poison glands.

Venomous Bite 
Prerequisites: You must be a thri-kreen.
Effect: Your bite attack becomes venomous. You inflict an additional 1d4 points of poison damage with your bite attack, and victims must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or be poisoned for one minute. The DC for this saving throw is equal to 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Constitution modifier. If a creature succeeds on their saving throw, they are immune to your poison for 24 hours.

I could make other racial feats for things like the missile dodging and such, but those are class abilities and I think it's verboten to trod on those. The race doesn't need to be any more powerful than this, though I don't promise that this is perfect. As always, these are the first drafts. I'd love to hear some feedback on it. It could suck royally and I'm too close to it to see.

Whew! Long entry. Hope this is of interest, as I'm having a blast writing and converting for Dark Sun. Next time I'll go over either some class bits or do a flat lore post about my homebrew version. Not sure which yet. Till then! 

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Different Dark Sun: Races, Part One

As I work on this homebrewed version of Dark Sun, I accrue much of its product run in the form of hard copies and PDFs available on the DM's Guild. Some of it, of course, I've had on my shelves for years. I never had the opportunity to run a Dark Sun game for any extended period of time back in its heyday, and a big portion of that had to do with the esoteric and often spastic design of the 2nd Edition psionics rules chasing away more traditional fantasy gamers.

Fortunately, I don't need to develop psionics for this edition, as Wizards is already doing that. It's not quite as weird as its predecessors -- I could write a half-dozen articles on the history of psionics alone, and Brandes over at Tribality has already done that.

I've made a list of the things I will need to re-examine and consider for my homebrew's use, but let's start with character races.

This is the first and probably the trickiest bit to get right. There are a lot of expectations from the Dark Sun character races, and even familiar ones are nothing at all like their counterparts from other settings. All are more savage, shaped by their environment over the course of a few thousand years of life on a blighted, arid world.

My homebrew is going to allow the use of the dragonborn (or dray as they are known on Athas, introduced as a playable race in 4th Edition), dwarves, elves, half-elves, half-giants (once their own race, reincarnated as goliaths in 4th edition), halflings, humans, muls, pterrans (think flightless pterodactyl people akin to lizardfolk), and thri-kreen. In some incarnations, aarakocra were also available as a player race, but I personally have reservations about giving players unfettered access to flight speeds.

The Athasian Elf

The standard subraces for many of those picks, specifically dwarves, elves, and halflings, don't really mesh with their Athasian counterparts. This is the place to do a subrace variant for the setting. Enter the Athasian elf for dissection (I'll do dwarf and halfling another time).

Ability Score Increase. Your Intelligence score increases by 1.
Size. You are taller than elves from other worlds, ranging anywhere between 6 and 7 feet in height with a wiry, athletic build. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 40 feet.
Elf Weapon Training. You are proficient with the longsword, shortsword, shortbow, and longbow.
Athletic. You are proficient in the Athletics skill.
Runner's Endurance. If you travel overland alone or with a group consisting only of elves, you can travel at twice the speed of a normal travel pace without incurring a penalty to Perception skill checks.

These are, of course, in addition to base traits of the elf race.

Athasian elves are regaled for their swiftness. Elven bands can travel extreme distances in the course of a day, bringing (or pillaging) goods far and wide. They are crafty (hence my opting for an Intelligence bonus in keeping with their 2E version), but have a regrettable reputation for being thieves and killers. Elven markets are tolerated in some city-states despite this reputation; rare and useful goods are still desired, and many are willing to overlook where they came from if the price is right.

Proficiency in Athletics is handy for anyone. It helps even weak characters who get grappled by someone (offsetting their ability score penalty, if any), and helps them sprint and jump and climb as befits the long-limbed and, well, athletic elves.

Runner's Endurance is somewhat more situational. If the party consists only of elves, or they send the elf character out as an advance scout, they can cover an insane amount of terrain. Athas's elves are repeatedly praised in source material as being tireless runners, jokingly inferring that their infants learn to run before they learn to walk. This ability might stand further scrutiny to give it a means of helping a party out though, as D&D is a cooperative game and all. Maybe it can provide a lesser general speed increase to a group? The less time spent wandering the desert heat, the better.

The Half-Giant

We're also introduced to half-giants in Dark Sun, and they reappeared in both 3rd Edition as the same and 4th Edition as goliaths (even though late-3rd also released goliaths in Races of Stone, though I never owned it to compare). There are some key differences between its incarnations; 2nd Edition didn't really have a concept of size categories for player races in strict terms, though they did have height ranges. The half-giants of 2E would have unmistakably been Large creatures, as they were anywhere from 10 to 12 feet tall!

There are several important combat-related reasons why Wizards of the Coast made future versions of half-giants more sanely Medium sized. The combat advantages afforded to a Large player character race are many, including reach and what is likely a prodigious increase to their Strength score compared to other player character races.

In the interest of maintaining balance, at the cost of the continued retcon from 3E and 4E, I will likely continue to use the goliath as the base chassis for half-giants. To my benefit, Volo's Guide to Monsters recently released, and has an official version of the goliath for play!

It does have one racial trait (Mountain Born) that isn't really appropriate for Athas given the backstory of the half-giants. In brief, they were bred by the sorcerer-kings to be obedient slaves and soldiers that adapted quickly to new cultures and mindsets -- presumably as they were bought and sold, or given new jobs each day by mercurial masters. This manifested in 2E as the half-giant being able to change its alignment every morning, something that... eeeegh... I am not enthused about. Alignment is far less important of a mechanical tool these days.

Instead, I would replace Mountain Born with this:

Uncannily Observant. If you spend at least 1 minute observing a humanoid creature, you can mimic its behaviors and/or speech patterns (provided you've heard the creature talk and can understand its language), and can appear as though you are a member of its culture, social class, or colleagues provided the circumstances are sound. You have advantage on Insight checks made to determine a creature's mood and demeanor, and advantage on Deception checks made to convince someone that you belong to their group.

That's probably some vague wording in there, which can be tuned up, but it plays well into the half-giant's penchant for picking up new things by watching others. It has some great roleplaying potential to boot; if a group needs to sneak into a compound protected by observant templars, the half-giant can spend some time watching the guards from afar and then stride up to them and bill himself as one of the sorcerer-king's legbreakers bringing in a new set of prisoners (the rest of the party).

The Mul

Continuing, we have the mul. This half-human, half-dwarf, is a workhorse capable of performing feats of incredible endurance and remain awake and laboring for days at a time. I've seen a couple versions of this race in DM's Guild products and while I think they are serviceable, there are a few nitpicks I have about the proposed mechanics that make them unsuitable for my particular homebrew's needs.

As such, my mul looks something like this:

Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 2 and your Strength score increases by 1.
Age. Muls mature and age at the same rate as humans, though they rarely live longer than 90 years.
Size. Your body is tough, dense, and sinewy. You stand between 6 and 61/2 feet tall and weigh between 250 and 300 pounds. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Vigorous Body. You are proficient in Constitution saving throws. If your class is already proficient in Constitution saving throws, or if you later gain a feat that gives you proficiency, you have advantage on all Constitution saving throws against effects that apply disease, exhaustion, and poison.
Steadfast. You can fight, travel, and perform heavy labor for long periods of time without tiring and can ignore exhaustion from such endeavors. You can remain awake and active for up to 72 hours without requiring a long rest, after which time you begin to suffer at the same rate as other character races.
Languages. You can speak Common and Dwarvish.

So Vigorous Body is probably overpowered. There are a lot of Constitution saving throws in the game, and being proficient in them by default is nothing to sneeze at. It also avoids being redundant with certain classes and feats, becoming slightly stronger. Steadfast lets the mul perform extended feats of endurance and travel for days at a time before needing to rest.

The Pterran

Dark Sun sure does have quite the panoply of races, doesn't it? The pterrans are a flightless saurian race from distant parts of the setting map with a culture that worships an "Earth Mother" that is not defined as an actual divine entity. They are fairly primitive and reclusive. Druids seem like they would be common among such a species, and lo and behold there is a new race introduced in Volo's Guide to Monsters that is pretty much exactly what I'd need to use: the lizardfolk!

It's pretty much perfect. It's got tough scales. They can make equipment out of natural resources both quickly and efficiently (is this the first 5E race with a crafting racial? Brandes, look!), has tough scales, bonus skills to pick from, and a bite attack. It's pretty much all I'd need and with minor physical description changes, it works fantastically. Just one small problem. Well, two-ish.

Lizardfolk have a swim speed and a Hold Breath racial. As you might imagine, there's not much standing water on Athas. Pterodactyls weren't known for their ability to stay submerged.

So really, this ability and the swim speed would probably just come out. Lizardfolk have a lot going for them already, and I don't feel like those abilities would be missed given the setting. I would also be changing their racial language from Draconic to the newly-crowned "Sauric" and give them their own tongue as a result.

A Break!

A fair bit to chew on here, so I'll let this sit for now and work on the rest. I'll dig into the other subraces for dwarves and halflings next time, as well as what Athasian dragonborn are like. And maybe, if I'm feeling brave enough, I'll tackle thri-kreen. That's gonna be a doozy.