Thursday, December 22, 2016

Building the Bestiary #10: Devils

(This is the second of two columns for this week. I'm taking Christmas week off, so look for my next column in the new year!)
(L): Blista (Legends of Chima); (R): Lavaria (Nexo Knights) with Maleficent's horns (Disney Minifigures) and Cute Little Devil's tail (Minifigures Series 16).
My regular gaming group recently concluded the Pathfinder mini-campaign that my wife Erika ran for us. Going into the final adventure of Dungeon Interludes, we knew that the main villain was an evil conjurer known to summon devils, so I helped her prepare by building LEGO miniatures of a few varieties that had CRs appropriate to our level (11th). Because that easily covered most of the devils in the first Bestiary, it seemed only natural to make them the subject of my next "Building the Bestiary" column.

Most devils are Medium to Large in size and bipedal, which makes it possible to use minifigures for the base of most of them. Of course, many will require wings and/or tails, so I've tried to provide a few examples of how I add those limbs.

If your collection or budget is limited, some themes include minifigures that make good generic fiends. Nexo Knights sets are the easiest source for these right now, with their many demonic-looking, magma-themed villains, as are some of the recent collectible Minifigures series. If you have can track down characters from older themes, the minifigure-sized versions of the Barraki (Bionicle; see barbed devil photo below) are good examples of suitable "defaults" for devils and other fiendish monsters.

Lemures, the lowliest of devils, are shapeless masses of flesh that bear only a vague resemblance to humanoids. A zombie or a classic Castle ghost works well for a lemure, or you can build its crude form out of bricks.
Lemures (L-R): brick-built; zombie head on plain gray body; Castle ghost.

Imps are Tiny winged devils. The Cute Little Devil from Minifigures Series 16, with his small legs, horns, wings, and tail, is an obvious choice here, especially if you can substitute a scarier face. The Gargoyle (Series 14) is another good option, lacking only a tail. If you want a figure that is closer to Tiny scale, use a microfigure or see Building the Bestiary #5: Tiny Creatures.
Cute Little Devil (with imp head [Monster 4 game] and Kai's torso [Ninjago]) and Gargoyle (Minfigures Series 16 and 14)

Erinyes are fallen angels with black-feathered wings, cruel expressions, and fiery bows. Wings from the Legends of Chima theme are perfect for this; attach them using a breastplate from that theme, or the smaller, clear wing attachment from sets like Ultimate Lavaria (Nexo Knights). The erinyes shown here has Voldemort's face to suggest the disfiguring evil that mars her once beautiful form.

Bone devils (osyluths) are Large, skeletal outsiders with insectoid wings and long, stingered tails. A LEGO skeleton makes a suitable base. For mine (see photo), I used wings from the Geonosian Warrior Zombie (Star Wars) because they were tattered, insect-like, and wouldn't interfere with attaching a tail. The tail is attached with an L-shaped neck clip, and is made from hinged parts, a robot arm, and a large, hard rubber "fang" piece. The base is a 6x6 radar dish to show that it's a Large creature.

Bearded devils (barbazu) are distinctive for their spiky beards and saw-toothed glaives. Any beard and polearm will serve here, but the more demonic-looking the face and armor, the better. Mine use Garmadon and Stone Warrior minifigures (Ninjago) as a base. Their tails are built like the bone devil's, but are much shorter since they aren't weapons.

Barbed devils (hamatulas) are Medium humanoids covered in barbs, and attack with huge claws. Use spiked breastplates or shoulder plates to suggest the body spines, and long claws like those on the Werewolf (Monster Hunters) or Wolverine (Marvel Superheroes), or clawed gauntlets (Prince or Persia). Barbed devils have long tails, but I've left that off of the figures shown here, as the armor makes it hard to attach an L-clip, too.
Barbed devils (L-R): two Barraki (Bionicle); Yazneg with Werewolf claws (Hobbit, Monster Hunters); Gundabad Orc with clawed gauntlets (Hobbit, Prince of Persia) 

Ice devils (gelugons) are Large insectoid devils. The first example below simply takes a bug-like alien from the Galaxy Squad theme and gives it a weapon suggesting ice powers. The second example uses the same spear but the creature is built from Technic parts. (Note the handled plates I used to attach the second devil's feet to its base. He's a little top-heavy, so needed the extra stability.)

Horned devils (cornugons) and pit fiends both fit the archetypal bat-winged devil shape, and both are Large. Winged monsters such as Blista (Legends of Chima) and Lavaria (Nexo Knights) make excellent choices for these monsters when mounted on Large (6x6) bases (see the photo at the top of this column). If you want a larger boss figure, build one from bricks. (See the previous installments on Giants and Elementals for ideas.) The Burnzie character from Axl's Tower Carrier (Nexo Knights) would also make a lovely pit fiend, though he's at least Huge in size and lacks wings.

Appendix: Past "Building the Bestiary" Columns

#1: Humanoids
#2: Underwater Races
#3: Giants
#4: Undead
#5: Tiny Creatures
#6: Four-Legged Friends
#7: Oozes
#8: Spell Effects
#9: Elementals

Monday, December 19, 2016

Building the Bestiary #9: Elementals

(I will be out of town visiting family most of Christmas week, so I will be posting two columns this week instead. Here's the first one. Expect the other in a day or two.)
Rock Raiders monsters (left, center) and Ultimate Flama (Nexo Knights, right)
Elementals are most commonly encountered as the servants of a conjurer or in areas that have a connection to the elemental planes. These creatures are essentially spirits embodied within a mass of their own element--air, earth, fire, or water. In earlier editions of D&D, elementals of a given type all shared the same approximate shape, but in Pathfinder, their forms are not rigidly set. Elementals can appear in a variety of shapes, but share the same statistics within their element and size category.

The classic form for air elementals is a vortex of wind or smoke, but they also often appear in bird-like forms or as misty humanoids.

Earth elementals often appear as crude humanoids made of rock, soil, or crystal, but can also appear as terrestrial animals made out of those materials.

Fire elementals can be large upright flames or serpentine forms made of smoke and flame. Some prefer shapes that resemble humans, fire giants, or demons.

Water elementals typically adopt wave-like forms, sometimes with smaller waves as limbs, though some take the form of aquatic creatures made out of water.

In addition, elementals of mixed origins also exist: ice, lightning, magma, and mud. This column, however, will be focusing on the four basic types above.


"NRG" Zane, Cole, Kai, and Jay (Ninjago)
There are a number of minifigures available that can be used to represent mostly humanoid elementals:

  • Castle: Ghosts can serve as air elementals. 
  • Elves: These elemental-themed elves are suitable for the "planetouched" or "geniekin" races (ifrits, sylphs, etc.).
  • Legends of Chima: Phoenixes and other flame-empowered heroes make good fire elementals.
  • Minifigures: These collectible characters include two Genies (Series 6 and 12). The Gargoyle (Series 14) makes an excellent mephit or (minus wings) Small earth elemental. 
  • Nexo Knights: The lava-themed villains (Flama in particular) make good fire and magma elementals. 
  • Ninjago: The four main characters are perfectly color-coded to the four elements. (Jay is technically electricity and Zane ice, but their blue and white costumes work nicely for water and air, respectively--and Jay's thundercloud insignia looks a lot like an octopus.) I usually keep their "NRG" versions' minifigures, minus their ninja hoods, on hand as my default for Medium elementals.
  • Rock Raiders: This old theme included a number of monsters that make wonderful earth elementals, particularly the "big figure" Rock Monster.
  • Star Wars: Blue- and green-skinned characters (Aayla Secura, Cad Bane, Oola) can be used as water elementals or undines. 
  • Superheroes: Some characters (like Electro) have elemental powers, making them obvious choices for elementals of the matching type.

In addition, any statue minifigure can be used as an earth elemental, and any minifigure that fits an element's color scheme--especially if the whole character is one color, like a ninja--can be pressed into service as that elemental type.

Brick-Built Elementals

Because elementals have mutable forms, and because they rarely have well-defined facial features, a brick-built model does not necessarily need a great amount of detail. In fact, the model's blockiness can help emphasize the fact that the elemental spirit is only temporarily inhabiting this crude form. In a pinch, a rough pile of bricks of an appropriate color and size will do just fine. I typically use white or light gray bricks for air elementals, red or orange for fire, brown or gray for earth, and blue for water. (See "Building the Bestiary #3: Giants" about size categories.)

The key to building an effective model is capturing the elemental's silhouette or motif: the wave of a water elemental, the flames of an fire elemental, the lumbering bulk of an earth elemental. For Medium elementals, a few bricks to show its size, and to suggest eyes and limbs, is usually enough. Sloped bricks are good for shaping waves or flames, or for suggesting that the figure is arising from a pool of its element.

Earth and water elementals are the easiest to build, as their forms are usually crude and chunky.

For an air elemental, use round pieces of differing diameters to suggest the form of a vortex or funnel cloud. 1x3 or 1x4 bricks can be used to build a cylinder, as shown below. For a larger whirlwind, use larger bricks to build a broader cylinder. The hexagonal model below is built solely with 1x2 and 2x4 bricks, which are among the most common sizes.


A very simple fire elemental can be built by mounting a flame brick on an appropriately-sized base. A standard torch-flame makes a good Small elemental, while larger flames can be used for Medium and Large elementals. A blue torch-flame can also be used for a Small water or air elemental.

 If you have enough transparent bricks of appropriate colors, you can build very striking air (clear or smoke), fire (red or orange) or water (blue) elementals. This is a good way to make us of large cockpit pieces, as shown in this column by Lego Game Master.

A Huge magma elemental,
from the "Gorilla Island" adventure
in my Freeport campaign
The Bionicle and Hero Factory themes are good sources of parts for building larger elementals. Some of the smaller sets can be used as-is, while others can be pared down to an appropriate size. (The Huge magma elemental shown at right was built using parts from a couple of Hero Factory sets.)

Mixels are also a good source for unusual elemental models. Some sets already have an elemental theme (Series 1 and 2 included fire, earth, electric, and frost "tribes"), and others provide appropriate palettes for other types.

Appendix: Past "Building the Bestiary" Columns

#1: Humanoids
#2: Underwater Races
#3: Giants
#4: Undead
#5: Tiny Creatures
#6: Four-Legged Friends
#7: Oozes
#8: Spell Effects

Thursday, December 15, 2016

TBT: My New Kentucky Home

My family put up and decorated our Christmas tree this past week, including the little blue horse shown here:

Three years ago, I wanted to find a new ornament to commemorate my family's first Christmas in Kentucky. I was unable to find one in stores or online that I was satisfied with, so decided to create my own. The city's mascot is a blue horse of the same name, so I painted a LEGO horse that color. Normally, I view altering LEGO bricks in any way as something bordering on blasphemy. This attitude is mostly due to the fact that once a piece is altered, damaged, or lost, I can't use it for its original purpose, and I've rarely had enough spare parts (or the cash to replace them) to justify the sacrifice. However, I have acquired a large number of LEGO horses over a lifetime of collecting LEGO, and never use more than a few of them at the same time, so made an exception to my own rule.

I also sacrificed a few of the oldest bricks I own (which are notably battered and yellowed after nearly 40 years) to build a stand to hold the horse while I painted it. After picking my parts, I used black spray primer, then used acrylic paint to give the horse a nice light blue coat.

The slot in the horse's back is usually filled with a 1x2 plate on top of a 1x2 brick, but I only added the 1x2 brick in order to leave room for a special brick later that would allow me to attach an ornament hook.

I then painted the classic LEGO horse's bridle and eyes back on, and made the mane and tail a darker shade of blue. I wrote "New KY. Home" on one side (a play on the song title "My Old Kentucky Home") and "Lexington 2013" on the other, first in red then again with narrower white lines. 

Once all of that dried, I sprayed it with matte fixative. I then just needed to attach a brick with a hole for attaching the ornament hook, and little Lexington was ready for the tree! 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Unearthed Arcana and Freeport, Part 3 (Class Options, Part 1)

Back in March 2016, I reviewed the first year or so of "Unearthed Arcana" columns on the D&D website with an eye for how to use them in a Fifth Edition Freeport: The City of Adventure campaign. I covered the April through August 2016 installments in a later column.

Starting in November, the column started appearing weekly rather than monthly in order to present a slew of new options for each class. This week's "Studded Plate" reviews the first five installments of that series--and the couple columns preceeding them--with the Freeport setting in mind.

The Ranger, Revised (9/12/2016): This piece builds on previous "Unearthed Arcana" articles about modifying the ranger class, which many players have found frustratingly underpowered. This latest iteration includes three archetypes (or conclaves), reworking the two presented in the Player's Handbook as well as the Deep Stalker from "Light, Dark, Underdark!" (11/2/2015). As with previous variants, this ranger could be found in Freeport, either alone or co-existing with the original--with the DM's permission, as always.

Encounter Building (10/10/2016): This column is a DM tool more than a content article. It presents an alternative system to building encounters from that in the Dungeon Master's Guide, but uses the same underlying assumptions and math.

Barbarian Primal Paths (11/7/2016): Freeport sees a diverse mix of barbarians pass through its waters, so these three new primal paths could prove quite useful in making each barbarian culture distinct. For example, The Path of the Ancestral Guardian would be suitable for many primitive islander tribes. Druzhdin barbarians are frequently berserkers or totem warriors, but the cold version of the Path of the Storm Herald also fits their homeland quite nicely. Azhar barbarians are a natural fit for the desert version of that path. Savage humanoids with a strong war-god cult (like the orc god Krom) could be drawn to the Path of the Zealot as easily as to that of the berserker.

Bard: Bard Colleges (11/14/2016): This column introduces two new archetypes for bards. The College of Glamour is designed for bards with ties to the Feywild, and is a natural fit for the elves of Rolland. The College of Whispers focuses on infiltration and leveraging secrets, and is thus perfectly suited for the intrigue-riddled streets of Freeport.

Cleric: Divine Domains (11/21/2016): This installment presents three new divine domains. The Forge domain is appropriate for dwarven gods, as well as fire-based religions like Kizmir's Eternal Flame. The Grave is designed for death-oriented gods who oppose undead, and is thus an excellent choice for the Church of Retribution and its Inquisition. The Protection domain is appropriate for a wide variety of deities, from gods of knowledge to gods of war. (In Pathfinder terms, these domains would roughly correspond to Artifice and/or Fire, Repose, and Protection, respectively.)

Druid Circles and Wild Shape (11/28/2016): Druids are almost always outsiders in Freeport, and usually feel more at home in the jungles of the Serpent's Teeth than in the city. Circle of Dreams is a good fit for wood elves from Rolland, while the Circle of the Shepherd would be a good choice for any druid who wants to protect the islands' native creatures. The Circle of Twilight, on the other hand, are devoted to hunting undead, and will find plenty to keep them busy in the streets and sewers of Freeport itself. (The Circle of Twilight would make a good foil for Inquisition witch-hunters--both seek to exterminate the threat of necromancy, but their training, beliefs, and methods would put them at odds with each other, too.)

Fighter: Martial Archetypes (12/5/2016): The Arcane Archer and Sharpshooter are both good choices for a fighter who specializes in ranged attacks; use the former for a magically-empowered mystic warrior, the latter for a more mundane sniper or scout. The Knight fills a role very similar to the Cavalier archetype ("Kits of Old," 1/4/2016), but is less focused on mounted combat, making it a better fit for Freeport. Buccaneers of Freeport introduced an Asian-flavored Eastern Empire to the World of Freeport, which gives Samurai a place in the setting, too. (The Kodath half-orcs from True20 Freeport: The Lost Island should also be considered samurai.)


For ease of reference, I've compiled a list of all my previous columns discussing running D&D Fifth Edition games set in Freeport.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Thumbs Up for Matthew Colville's "Running the Game"

Someone over at at The Piazza recently made me aware of "Running the Game," a YouTube series by game designer and SF writer Matthew Colville. It's an excellent introduction to what's involved in running a D&D game. Colville is very knowledgeable about the game and its history, and brings a lot of insight to why Dungeon Masters do the things they do. For example, in the first full episode, when he walks the viewer through creating a first adventure, he takes the time to explain each decision he makes. His dry wit and unabashed enthusiasm for the game are infectious, and will make you want to keep watching. I highly recommend this series to anyone who is curious about what goes on behind the DM's screen, as well as for DMs of all experience levels who just want some suggestions for new things they can try at their table--or just a better vocabulary to help explain to others what we've learned the hard way. I've been running games for over 30 years, and I'm finding plenty of ideas to use in my future games.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Advanced Rulebook Series

Back in 2005, Green Ronin published the Advanced Rulebook Series, a set of three books that gave new options for the d20 System. I mainly play Pathfinder these days instead of v.3.5, so have been rereading these books to determine how useful they would be for that system.

The Advanced Bestiary is a collection of creature templates designed to help GMs get more mileage out of their existing monster books. These templates range from very simple templates that can be added on the fly if necessary through complex templates that require a complete overhaul of the base creature's stats. (The book's most complicated template, the Amalgam, allows a GM to create a hybrid of any two monsters.) The Advanced Bestiary is easily my favorite Green Ronin title outside of the Freeport line, and of the three Advanced Rulebooks, it's the one I have used most often.

Green Ronin recently produced a new edition of the Advanced Bestiary for the Pathfinder RPG. All of the original book's templates have been updated (except for the handful that Paizo already published in their Bestiaries), and several new templates have been added. The new book is also in full color with all-new art, instead of black and white like the original. This is now one of my favorite Green Ronin books, period.

The Advanced Player's Manual covers a variety of topics: creating new races; six new classes; more uses for many skills; new alignment mechanics; mass combat rules, new spells; and an appendix with a new psychic class that uses skills and feats instead of spells. There are many good ideas in this book, but I have used very little material from it in my own games--just the planetouched template and a few spells.

The Pathfinder RPG has its own rules for some of these subjects. The Advanced Race Guide has detailed rules for modifying existing races and building new ones; Ultimate Campaign provides rules for mass combat; and Occult Adventures introduces "official" psychic classes for the system. (The Advanced Class Guide includes a warpriest class, but it is very different from the one found in the Advanced Players' Manual.)

Earlier this year, Green Ronin's "Pathfinder Short Cuts" PDF series included installments that converted some of the spells from the Advanced Player's Manual as well as the thanemage class. In a few cases, other spells already have obvious equivalents in Pathfinder (for example, water jet should be replaced by hydraulic push). But that still leaves a number of other classes and spells yet to mine.

The Advanced Gamemaster's Guide provides much advice for GMs on how to run their games, as well as a number of optional rules, complete with discussion about how those changes might affect the game. I've found the less system-specific sections to be a useful source of ideas (and reminders about how to be a better GM), but I have not used any of the new game mechanics in my own campaigns.

Much of this book's advice would be just as useful in Pathfinder, though it overlaps somewhat with similar chapters in the GameMaster's Guide and Ultimate Campaign. In addition, some of the variant rules already have equivalents in Pathfinder, such as Ultimate Campaign's rules for downtime and investments.

The list of "Forty Campaign Themes" has recently been expanded to fifty in the "Pathfinder Short Cuts" series. Other sections like this, which focus on adventure ideas and managing players, will always remain useful for Pathfinder, and pretty much any other fantasy RPG.