The Nifty Gaming Blog is mostly about Dungeons & Dragons, plus general high fantasy and RPG nonsense. It is the half-baked brainchild of Patrick McCarty, who also does serious, grown-up writing over at Cracked.

Friday, September 20, 2013

4E Forever Fanzine

So I meant to link this when it came out but forgot--if you don't already know about this, you should check out 4E Forever, a promising new fanzine for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I'm a huge 4E fan, and once I started playing it I felt like it was the D&D game I had always wanted. I like Next too and I'm excited for what's to come, but it's nice to see that people still care about 4E.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Let's Build a World: The Empire of Dragons--What is a Dragon?

A quick post, because I realize there’s something I’ve been doing with The Empire of Dragons that I’m not sure I’ve ever explained. See, there’s dragons, and then there’s Dragons.

In the Empire, the word for “Dragon” is the same as the word for “citizen” and “person.” With very few exceptions, if you’re a dragon then you’re a citizen of the Empire and considered a full person in the eyes of its laws and society. You’re a capital-D Dragon.

However, you don’t have to be a dragon to be a Dragon. Originally, this was because of dragons’ well-documented propensity to mate with humanoids. There were people who didn’t at all look like dragons claiming direct descent from an actual Dragon—so where do you draw the line? Dragons often wanted their children—even ones they had with humanoids—to be citizens. But what about their children? And their children (and so on)? Quickly, the rule was established: whether or not you were a dragon, you were a Dragon if any Dragon said you were.

On the other hand, certain crimes can get you stripped of your citizenship, and while it’s forbidden to kill a Dragon, killing a non-Dragon is okay, even if they’re a dragon. Lowercase-d dragons, who lost their citizenship for whatever reason, generally go into exile and live solitary existences with their meager hoards, thus giving player characters plenty of classic boss-monster dragons they can slay with impunity if that’s the sort of campaign you want.


Incidentally, this practice is the more likely explanation for the origin of the name of the Mountains of Exile—disgraced former Dragons risked death by staying in the Empire, so they braved long flight over the mountains to the north to find a secluded cave in the more peaceful Orclands beyond.

Let's Build a World: The Empire of Dragons - Beyond the Empire


For now, the Empire of Dragons setting focuses on the titular empire—but what else shares its world? What powers can possibly compete with the might of the Dragons?

The Dwarves

Many a Dragon makes their home in the cavernous ruins of the old dwarven kingdoms. Within the Empire’s borders, the dwarves have long since been chased out of their former homes underground. Now, the few dwarves that live in the Empire dwell on the surface alongside the more abundant humanoids. There are rumors of long-forgotten dwarf kingdoms, deep beneath  the Empire, waiting for the right moment to return and reclaim their ancestral halls, but most consider this to be nothing more than legend.

The last great kingdom of mountain dwarves lies in the rugged mountains north of the Empire. In Draconic they are called the Mountains of Exile. The dwarves who live there call them the King’s Halls. The dwarves here are reclusive, jealously guarding the treasure of the mountains. They have almost no contact with the Empire of Dragons, and little more with the other powers in the world.

Occasionally, a Dragon will try to carve out a little fiefdom for themselves on the southern slopes of the Mountains of Exile. They tend  to disappear, and whatever followers they had managed to gather up in their ill-fated endeavor quickly abandon the mountains after that.

No one is sure how the dwarves protect their homeland. Some claim they are merely servants of the mountains themselves, while others say they survive by making bargains with strange, terrible creatures that live far beneath the earth. Other legends say that the god of the dwarves, called the All-Father (perhaps an aspect or a creation of Tiamat the Artificer) was imprisoned by Io deep beneath the Mountains of Exile, giving them their name. There is power in the All-Father yet, but only within those mountains. The dwarves have worked tirelessly for generations, digging their tunnels ever deeper in order to free him and take revenge on the Dragon God.

The Orcs

To the north of the Mountains of Exile is a vast territory consisting mostly of temperate forest and grassland. Stretching all the way to the frozen tundra of the north, the Dragons call this country Orcland. In truth, much of this land is also claimed by the dwarves, whose tunnels run far north of their mountain home. But the orcs do not mine for the treasures of the earth, and so they are considered welcome guests, free to hunt and farm on the surface of the dwarven land.

Mostly, the orcs are peaceful, living in small agrarian villages or subsisting as nomadic hunter-gatherers. They have a few cities, mostly on the coasts or near the entrances to the dwarven kingdom, where they sell food and textiles in exchange for baubles from the dwarves’ mines. They mingle freely with the humans and elves in their land.

The Orcland is home to the Orc King, a warrior so powerful he was blessed with immortality and sovereignty over his people (or so it is said). He claims to rule over all orcs, even those outside their ancestral homeland, and nearly all orcs—even those living within the Empire—pledge loyalty to the Orc King.

It is generally believed that, were the Mountains of Exile not in the way, the Orclands could be easily conquered by the Empire of Dragons—however, even within the Empire, the Orc King is spoken of with respect. He remains hidden away in his fortress in the far north, ruling only through his viziers. Legends tell of him felling an entire army singlehandedly, or calling on legions of ancestor-spirits to fight at his side. And even if the orcs could be conquered, there is little that would be gained from taking their land, since the dwarves lay claim to the valuable resources beneath it.

The Elves

The elves are a scattered, seafaring people, living in a loose alliance of islands, protected by powerful magic. The Empire covets these islands, as they hold untold magical secrets in libraries older than the Empire. The few remaining doorways to Faerie are also hidden in the elvish islands.

Barring the few ill-fated attempts on the dwarven homeland, the past few centuries’ worth of military history in the Empire of Dragons has consisted of slowly conquering these scattered islands. The conquered elves usually assimilate into the Empire fairly easily. A Dragon is appointed to rule over their island, but life goes on as normal provided the elves allow the Dragons free access to their magical libraries.

It is a source of constant frustration to the Empire that not all of the elves’ secrets are contained in their libraries. Many of the islands rely on the magic of the land itself, and when the land’s protection fails and the Dragons conquer it, the island dies. Try as they might, the Dragons have been unable to access the elves’ nature magic.

The Goblins

There is another continent, across the ocean. Called the Western Land by the Dragons, it is home to the Goblin Empire. The Goblins and the Dragons have thus far avoided total war, and for most of their history have been content with a long and uneasy peace. The Goblins are masters of arcane magic, which they use in the service of their rigidly hierarchical, militaristic society. Reports from their clashes with the Dragons tell of huge airships that blast magical energy at their foes, and foot soldiers clad in indestructible armor that is lighter than silk. The Goblins’ army is said to have terrible monsters in its ranks, created by transforming prisoners into unthinking, unstoppable killing machines.

Like the Dragons, the Goblin Empire craves the magical knowledge that the elves hide. When the two great empires battle, it is usually over these islands. When the Goblins conquer an elvish island, however, they raid them for anything usable and then demolish everything that is left. The inhabitants are shipped to secret bases on the mainland. Those with magical knowledge are put to work developing new superweapons for the war effort. Everyone else is “processed”—transformed into monstrous soldiers for use in their next campaign.

Many of its subjects despise the brutality of the Goblin Empire, and they often flee to the shores of the elvish isles, the Orclands, and the Empire of Dragons. They find welcome enough in the Orclands—though few manage to reach those far northern shores. Most goblin refugees eke out a meager existence in elf and Dragon territory, where they come under immediate suspicion of being spies. A goblin can bargain for their freedom in exchange for secrets from their homeland, although even then they are rarely trusted, and must eke out a meager existence as servants and laborers.

From these refugees, the Dragon Empire knows that the Goblins have been gearing up for an all-out attack on the Dragons for generations. Conquest unites the goblins, and as long as they have a common enemy, their empire will remain intact.

Others

There are secondhand reports from the mountain dwarves that the long-forgotten drow are returning to the world, from doorways to Faerie hidden deep underground. Some say they are  coming at the behest of their brethren, the elves who, trapped between two unstoppable empires, must turn to their old enemies for aid.

There are those who say that the other doorways to Faerie, the ones hidden throughout the world, never really disappeared as most believe they did. It is whispered that the elves await the opening of these gateways, when their fey allies will swarm into the mortal world and destroy the two empires that have plagued them for years.


Some speak of other foes, strange alien creatures that hide in the depths of the earth and long to conquer it. They are hideous beings wrought of pure madness, and though they are few in number and hidden far from the surface, they are infinitely patient. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

LGBTD&D: His Beloved

Did James Wyatt and Matt Sernet quietly make D&D history?

There’s a new Wandering Monsters today from James Wyatt, about origin stories for D&D monsters. It’s quite good, and worth a read even if you don’t care about D&D Next, if only because you might find something in there worth plundering for your own campaign. There’s a lot in there to talk about, but what I’m going to focus on is pretty much irrelevant to the actual topic of the article.

I’m going to start with some short, disjointed quotes from the second story, which Wyatt credits to Matt Sernet. They’re not supposed to make sense, I’m doing this to point something out:

“This one tells of a young man whose beloved, a sailor, was lost at sea…the young man went to the shore and called upon the gods of the sea and all other powers to return his beloved to him. In answer, or so it seemed, a withered crone emerged from the water…she spoke to him, offering to return his beloved if he agreed to perform a task for her…

The young man demanded the return of his beloved first, and the hag agreed…
The young man ran to the boat to greet his beloved, and a pair of rotting arms rose up to embrace him. His beloved was dead, drowned and nibbled by the fishes, risen by the sea hag’s magic into a horrible zombie. The young man fled.


But the young man’s mind was all but gone. His memories of his life before this hideous transformation were vague at best, and he had no memory whatsoever of the beloved who had driven him to his fateful bargain.”
Quick, what is the gender of the ill-fated young man’s beloved? How do you know? Read the whole article if you think I’ve pulled some trickery with the ellipses—the story goes out of its way to avoid giving the beloved a gender.

I assumed the character was male. Partly because the story conspicuously avoids a gender, partly because that’s what I immediately thought  when the story referred to a sailor. Which is evidence of bias on my part, obviously—although in my defense, D&D’s “default” is a sort of medieval-Renaissance high fantasy pastiche, and in the real middle ages a sailor was probably going to be a man. But this isn’t the real middle ages, and it’s a generally accepted convention that the D&D world has at least something approaching gender equality. If nothing else, DMs don’t give female PCs a tough time for being female, although in-universe you could say that NPCs are as sexist as anyone in the middle ages, but  not in front of an obviously-powerful female wizard/cleric/rogue/fighter/etc.

But in the egalitarian world of D&D, a female sailor wouldn’t be remarkable. There wouldn’t be any controversy—certainly not for the story’s real-world audience—if the story definitively identified the sailor as a woman.

So I still read the sailor as a man, which makes me wonder if this is as close as we’ll see to representation of gender and sexual minorities in official D&D content. And while I applaud James Wyatt, Matt Sernett, and Wizards for being inclusive at all, I’m disappointed that they feel like gay characters are only possible if they sneak them in by way of gender ambiguous zombie sailors. Still, baby steps I guess.

I did a little looking around online after I read the article. I’m not really hip to the D&D tie-in fiction world and I’ve only seen a small fraction of the published adventures out there, so there’s a ton of official content that I’m not aware of. From what I found, though, it doesn’t look like there are many gay characters, even implied gay characters like our friend the ambiguous sailor.

But, it turns out Pathfinder is ahead of the game in this regard. I ran across this forum post from James Jacobs: “GLBT characters exist in Golarion, so make sure they're included.

As long as Paizo continues to have GLBT employees, we'll continue to put GLBT characters into our products. In fact, even if the employee thing changes, we'll still put GLBT characters into our products. As long as I have anything to say about it at least. There's a gay couple in the next adventure, in fact, so the inclusiveness isn't stopping with Anevia and Irabeth in this AP.

Furthermore, I'm gonna keep doing this in our APs until it's no longer an issue and folks just talk about the adventure without really pausing to discuss whether any one NPC is a sorcerer or wizard. And at that point I'll keep doing it.”

I don’t play Pathfinder. LGBT inclusiveness isn’t enough to get me to pick up a game system I don’t like. But I applaud Jacobs’ sentiment, and I wish Wizards would follow Paizo’s lead on this.


I wish I could see people like me in official D&D content. I wish I didn’t have to make a big deal out of a gender-ambiguous sailor in an article about monsters, because I wish that wasn’t the best representation gay people could hope to get in an official D&D product.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Place-Names

I've always struggled naming places in campaign worlds. This sometimes happens when I'm a player - I've had DMs have us make up locations for our character backgrounds, which they then incorporate into the geography of their campaign world (or they ignore them and we assume that they're off the map/too obscure to warrant inclusion, and that's fine too). I can rattle off a serviceable backstory easily enough, especially since background has never been all that important in our games. What matters is what happens at the table, after all. But coming up with a place for my character to be from can leave me paralyzed for minutes on end.

But however bad that can be, it's way worse when I'm DMing and I try to create stuff out of whole cloth. I originally used the Nentir Vale map for 4E, keeping the locations but freely reinterpreting them for the purposes of my own campaign. But as time went on and the lore for the setting grew, I got more and more paranoid about contradicting something established.

But you can just ignore the established lore, say the straw-man voices in my head. Maybe you can, I reply. I can't. Not easily, and not without needless hand-wringing.

I don't have this problem with naming characters. Names can be recycled. I can name my evil wizard Arthur, it doesn't matter that, in another  universe, there's a legendary king named Arthur, it's just a name.

But places have names that are supposed to be unique. Sure there's fifty Springfields, but I can't have my players climbing Mount-Everest-No-Not-The-Real-One. But anytime I try to come up with a sufficiently "fantasy"-ish name I feel like I sound ridiculous. I can't send my players to the Lost Caverns of Mimsy-shriftenbibble. Other fantasy works can have nonsense-word names without issue, but I can't hack it.

The reason I bring this up now, incidentally, is because I was sitting on a train platform in New Jersey, thinking about how many place-names in the U.S. (particularly the east coast) are recycled. If they're not named after people, they just stuck "New" before some town from England for which they presumably felt homesick (or, possibly, wanted to thumb their nose at). I thought, it must have been nice to have a whole country's worth of place-names all ready to go when you discover a whole new continent steal someone else's land and put a country on it.

But then I remembered my summer in London, and how I will never stop thinking "Cockfosters" is effing hilarious. If I came up with that on my own for a D&D campaign I'd never hear the end of it, but it exists in real life and I guess everyone in London manages to keep a straight face about it.

Anyway, my solution for the place-name problem is usually to just use descriptive English words, possibly mashed together: "The Stone Hills." "The Grey Mountains." "Bluestone Hollow." "Greenbridge Village." But I worry that that's getting old--how many "[Color] Mountains" does your average fantasy world need anyway? So how do you handle place-names in your campaign? English words? String syllables together and hope for the best? Create entire fictitious languages?

Let’s Build a World: The Empire of Dragons – Mythology



Io and the Artificer

Listen, hatchling, to another tale of the making of the world. This one is whispered by the Not-Dragons, in their cities and around the campfires. They hide it from us, from Dragonkind. That is why you must learn it, because stories have power.

Long, long ago, Io made the world and made Dragons to rule over it. You know this already, yes. What you do not know is that, in this first age of the world, there were only the Dragons that Io made with Io’s own breath. They did not die, and no new Dragons were born of them. Nor did they fight, for all Dragons knew without question which portion of the world was theirs, knew who was greater and lesser than them.

The world was beautiful, and Io loved it. But it was unchanging, and Io grew dissatisfied. So Io created the animals, creatures of change. They would create new animals and then grow old and die and their offspring would grow and create and age and die in their turn. So change came into the world, and Io saw the way the animals lived out their short lives, and the world was beautiful, and Io loved it.

But Io wanted more. All Dragons, even Io, want more. Remember that it is good to want more, but remember also that this can destroy us.

So Io created new creatures. He made them small and weak, and he gave them no names. We call them Not-Dragons. They made many names for themselves later, but that is another story.

The Dragons said to Io (for in those days Io lived among us undisguised), what is the purpose of these creatures? They are too weak to serve us.

And Io said This is their Purpose.  And with those words Io breathed over the creatures, and gave them souls. They were weaker than Dragons, yes, and duller, and their lives were short while ours are endless. But the Not-Dragons had souls, and so they began to change themselves. They created weapons and clothes, and stole magic from the air, the water, and the land. And they became like Dragons themselves. The Dragons called out to Io, demanded that Io set the world right and destroy these abominations. But Io said nothing. He merely waited, and watched.

It came to be that the greatest of the humans, a mighty emperor we now call the Artificer, believed he could challenge even great Io. So the Artificer created a pair of wings, and stole the best magic from the air, the water, and the land, and he flew up, up, up, beyond the moon and stars into the endless darkness beyond, higher than anyone, Dragon or Not-Dragon, has flown before or since. At last, he came to the crystal sphere that separates this world from Io’s palace (for as you know, all worlds are but glittering jewels in Io’s trove)—and he gathered his magic and broke through the wall.

Now, of course, this Not-Dragon was no match for Io. The god devoured the Artificer whole. But remember that all you eat becomes part of you. Remember, too, that all Dragons are part of Io. So when Io consumed the Not-Dragon, Io changed, and all the Dragons changed.

This is why, they say, Dragons warred against each other, why they mate and bear young, and why, now, they can die.

And this is why, they say, Io is now in two parts. The forms and the names would come later, in another story. For now it is enough that Io consumed the Artificer, and the Dragons were changed, and the god was divided.

This is why we do not eat the Not-Dragons. This is why, sometimes, Not-Dragons can become Dragons—because of Io and the Artificer.

Is it true, you ask? But this does not matter. Look into the eyes of a Not-Dragon. They have created names for themselves, they have made weapons, they have stolen magic from the air, the water, the land. You can see the story burning inside them like the white light of Io’s breath. That is the power of this story, and that is why you must know it.

After that the Dragons were scattered and divided, and the Not-Dragons ruled while the Dragons cowered and hid. We do not speak much of the age of Not-Dragons. There are some still alive who remember that time. Find one of them and ask nicely, hatchling, if you wish to know what happened next. Or perhaps I will tell you that story. But not tonight.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Refluffing the Dragonborn



This was originally going to be part of the campaign setting project, but I decided to give it its own post.

In my home campaign, I’ve never used the out-of-the-box, fourth-edition Dragonborn. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, I just think there’s a lot of other cool stuff you can do with the concept.

To start with, in my home campaign Dragonborn have completely absorbed the half-dragon concept. It was something I liked about 3.5, and I knew Dragonborn were the closest port-over we were going to get, so I ran with it.

In my campaigns, Dragonborn aren’t a distinct “race” the way that, say, Orcs and Eladrin are. They’re the result of Dragons’ well-documented habit of interbreeding (magically) with humanoid creatures. As such, characters with Dragonborn stats vary wildly in appearance. For one thing, they tend to more closely mirror the appearance and coloration of their draconic ancestor, as opposed to the universal reds, browns, and golds of the standard Dragonborn.

Also, Dragonborn don’t have to be precisely one-half Dragon. On the other hand, many people (often sorcerers) have dragon ancestry but aren’t considered Dragonborn. The guideline I give my players is that Dragonborn are draconic enough that people can tell at a glance (plus, you know, they have Dragonborn racial stats as opposed to another race’s). Essentially, Dragonborn exist on a spectrum from just-barely-humanoid to just-barely-draconic. On one end, you can have a creature that looks like a miniature, mostly-bipedal dragon, pushing the upper limit of the medium size and towering over their party members. On the other, you can have someone who looks almost human (or elf, or whatever) but for some little sign—golden, slitted eyes or a small patch of scales on the face, something to that effect (basically you can look however you want as long as you understand that people will be able to look at you and know you’re packing a breath weapon).