Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tales from the Yawning Portal

Tales from the Yawning Portal is a new collection of classic D&D adventures updated to the Fifth Edition rules. The seven adventures include:
  • The Sunless Citadel and The Forge of Fury, originally written for Third Edition; 
  • The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, White Plume Mountain, Against the Giants, and Tomb of Horrors, originally written for first edition AD&D; and 
  • Dead in Thay, a mega-dungeon written during the development of the Fifth Edition rules.
These adventures are not linked in any way except for the first two (The Sunless Citadel and The Forge of Fury), and that only tenuously. They are also chosen from multiple D&D worlds: the first edition adventures default to Greyhawk, while Dead in Thay is steeped in the Forgotten Realms. However, they were chosen in part because they provide a range of levels of play, from 1st to 11th and beyond, and thus can be run in order as a campaign if the DM wishes to do so.

I bought this book because I intend to run more 5E for my kids (who are 13 and 11). Our Phandelver game has been on hold for a while due to scheduling issues. We intend to resume that sometime in the near future, but I've been looking for something to run when we can't get that group together. I'm already running a full-time campaign with a homebrewed setting ("Time of the Tarrasque," using Pathfinder), so don't have the time and energy to craft my own adventures for a second such game. That's where a book of canned adventures is invaluable. This collection promises to provide us with enough material to keep my kids busy for the next couple years or more.

The adventures seem to be solid, if a bit grueling in places--Dead in Thay has over 100 numbered encounter areas, and uses something on the order of a third of the Monster Manual, plus much of the book's appendix of new creatures. I haven't played or run a ton of 5E yet, and I want to keep my kids continually excited and surprised as they play, so that kind of variety is just what I'm looking for.

I only have one real beef with Tales from the Yawning Portal at this time: the maps are too darn small. Some of them (like the first level of The Sunless Citadel, below) should have been given a full page, but weren't. And others (most notably Dead in Thay) cover so too much territory that even a full page isn't enough space. When a 5-foot square is only a millimeter across, there's no way a DM can read that during play without serious eye strain! Also, some of the older adventures retain their original map scale of one square equals 10 feet, despite the fact that 5-foot squares have been the standard since Third Edition. To mitigate both issues, I have been copying the maps onto graph paper in order to have copies that I can reference during play. This is also giving me the opportunity to simplify the maps somewhat so that I can more easily reproduce them on the battle map during game. Some of these maps would be absolutely gorgeous if presented at a more reasonable size, but in many cases that just makes them harder to render on a battle grid.

I have just today finished reading the last couple of adventures (Against the Giants and The Tomb of Horrors). But my wife and kids have already created their new 1st-level characters and are raring to go. We hope to start The Sunless Citadel sometime within the next few weeks.

Our heroes (L-R): Raven Flare, tiefling rogue; Sir Dain, dwarf paladin (NPC); Xuri, dragonkin sorcerer; and Kalitni, human ranger.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Time of the Tarrasque #7: Zombie Dogs

Every few decades, that dreaded abomination, the Tarrasque, reawakens from its long slumber. At such a time, the world's greatest heroes must defend the world from its nigh-insatiable appetite. Sometimes these heroes fail, and civilizations fall. And even when they succeed, the lands in the Tarrasque's wake are changed forever.

Previous Sessions: 

The party staked out the Temple of the Sun's cemetery to watch for graverobbers. Jumari, the inquisitor, hid behind a marker near the grave that had been disturbed during the criminals' last visit. The wizard/cleric Fatou and monk Lucretia watched from the shadows around the nearest mausoleum. The bard Edel hid among a small copse of trees just outside the bit of damaged wall that the intruders had used to climb into the grounds. The rogue Jubair and cavalier ZhaZha patrolled just inside the wall. 

Late that night, the moonlight allowed Edel to see a group of figures moving towards the rough spot in the wall. A halfling-sized figure led the way, followed by a half dozen or more human-sized folk. When the gang reached the wall, one of the the larger men boosted the halfling to the top to look over. This small scout didn't see any trouble, so dropped down on the other side and moved to take cover by a gravestone. ZhaZha caught sight of him then--and he noticed both her and Jubair, but not in time to warn his allies before ZhaZha impaled his head upon her pick. 

Edel could hear the sickening thud from his hiding place, so moved closer and cast grease upon the ground under the rear members of the gang, spilling them to the ground. This drew the attention of the gang's leader, a half-orc woman in dark robes, who moved his way but failed to frighten him with the spell she cast. 

ZhaZha easily climbed over the wall and clobbered the nearest human before most of the graverobbers could react. Most of them appeared to be simple human townsfolk equipped for digging and carrying but not for a fight. More fell prey to a second grease spell from Edel, but one was made of sterner stuff: a male half-orc who engaged ZhaZha with a spiked chain. 

Edel managed to trip the leader, and Jubair, who had just crossed the wall, quickly took her out of the fight despite her use of a mirror image spell. 

Lucretia and Fatou arrived on the scene, having run here from the mausoleum. The half-dozen human gang members had started to flee by this point--those who could get out of the greased areas, at least. Lucretia climbed atop the wall and started shooting at the fleeing men. Fatou climbed over and did the same with her force darts. The luckier runners had enough distance by now to make this a bit challenging. Two successfully fled far enough into the city to be lost to sight.

Fatou and Lucretia arrive on the scene (left rear). The gang's leader is down (far right), the other half-orc is surrounded (center), and the minions are fleeing or still trapped by grease (front and left).

Jumari had trouble climbing the wall, but eventually managed to cross and help ZhaZha fight her foe. The chain-wielding half-orc held out long enough to strike Edel when he came to assist his friends, but then fell to ZhaZha's pick. The cavalier and bard started tying up the unconscious half-orcs, while the inquisitor started stabilizing the prisoners (numbering six in total). 

The party stripped the would-be graverobbers of their weapons and other gear, and tied them up the rest of them. The spellcaster bore no obvious holy symbol or spell component pouch, but did carry a small bag around her neck which contained humanoid finger bones. Between this and the contents of a few scrolls on her person, Fatou concluded she must be some kind of adept rather than a cleric or sorcerer. 

Lucretia went ahead to inform the temple guards of their encounter, while the others dragged the prisoners to the temple. (ZhaZha's camel, tethered nearby, proved invaluable for this task.) The monk was told to bring the prisoners to the infirmary, and the castellan, Kasim, would join them there.

At the infirmary, they were met by Lubna, the temple's halfling apothecary, and a lay healer. She directed them to a room apart from the more welcome patients. Kasim arrived on the scene while Lubna started tending to the captives' wounds. He asked for a report, which Edel gave with occasional supporting comments from his companions. He omitted mentioning most of the gear that the party had seized, but did produce the bag of bones as evidence. Kasim concluded that the leader must be some kind of hedge-witch involved in the death cult, which confirmed the PCs' suspicions. 

The castellan asked the party if they wished to be present when he interrogated the prisoners. Jubair asked if he was going to kill them, and Kasim replied calmly, "Not without a trial." Kasim ordered temple guards to replace their rope bindings with manacles, and Lubna healed them enough to rouse them to consciousness. With some help from Jumari's incredibly intimidating presence, the castellan extracted quite a bit of information from the gang's leader, who went by the name "Spooky." (The PCs didn't find her very scary, but her minions clearly did.) She told them that her gang stole bodies to sell to Azul, a human man in town, and she provided the location of the leather goods shop where they delivered the remains. She knew little about Azul himself, but suspects him of belonging to Asmolon's cult. She had worked with him in the hope of learning more of that god's forbidden magic. 

Spooky also revealed that Azul was only in his shop after dark, and would be expecting her gang there sometime tonight. The party decided to pay a visit to Azul's shop that very night, and wrapped up the dead halfling's body in case they needed to bluff their way in. Edel feared that the two escaped graverobbers would have alerted Azul by now, which gave their proposed raid some added urgency.

Leaving Kasim to deal with the prisoners, the party went to Azul's shop, which was a simple rectangular structure with a door at one end. It also had a side door located inside a small fenced lot that contained a wagon. There were no obvious lights or other signs of activity, so Jubair and Jumari went to the side door while the others gathered by the front door. The rogue and inquisitor thought to check the wagon, and Jumari saw marks that looked like old bloodstains. (However, at a leatherworker's shop, such traces were hardly out of place.) Both doors were locked, but Jumari could see a glimmer of light through cracks between boards. When she looked in, she could see a pair of dogs standing within. Jubair unlocked the door--and discovered that the dogs were zombies! These attacked Jumari as Jubair ran to the front door to let their friends in. 

While trying to fend off the dogs, Jumari heard spellcasting from a back room, and warned the others. Edel headed that way to deal with anyone joining the fight from that direction, and heard more spellcasting for himself (a shield spell; the unseen caster was obviously taking time to cast buff spells). The zombie dogs badly mauled Jumari, but Fatou's channeled energy revived her as the others destroyed the undead. 

Edel opened the door to the back room, and saw the caster: a scruffy-looking human in light armor, holding a dagger. The man flung open a window and jumped out, but the bard cast grease on the spot where he landed. This slowed the man down enough for the rest of the party to either rush into this room or run outside in pursuit. ZhaZha tried to attack Azul, but was unable to due to one of his protective spells [sanctuary]. The man stood up, taking a couple hits from PCs who resisted his ward. Cursing, he channeled negative energy at the party. He took a blow from ZhaZha, so attempted to cast ghoul touch on her, but the cavalier resisted. A bleeding touch from Jumari and an arrow from Lucretia dropped him. Fatou then stabilized him before he bled to death. 

While tying him up, ZhaZha and Jumari discovered that Azul's appearance was an illusion--he was actually a halfling! Searching him produced a platinum ring decorated with Javanian iconography (marking it as a wedding band), an ebony ring with one of Asmolon's titles inscribed inside the band (likely a disguised unholy symbol), some onyx gems (suitable for use in animating undead), and a few potions.

After Azul's illusion wore off a few minutes later, Jubair recognized him as Jibral, a local alchemist who operated a popular shop in a nearby neighborhood. 

(Due to time constraints, we had to do the fight's aftermath over email. The players are currently discussing what to do next with Jibral. That will determine where we pick up next session.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Building the Bestiary #13: Non-OGL Monsters

Verboten!: Yuan-ti, beholder, and mind flayer
One of the most important innovations of the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons was the Open Game License, which allowed third party publishers to use "Open Game Content" in their own d20 products--and their creations in turn would be available for other companies to use. However, Wizards of the Coast never released the entirety of the core rules as Open Game Content (and only very limited content outside of the three core rulebooks). Most notably, some iconic D&D monsters like the beholder and mind flayer remained off-limits.

Paizo's Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, a variant of the d20 rules, is one of the greatest success stories of the OGL. When Wizards released D&D Fourth Edition, support for the previous rules set (v.3.5) ended, both from Wizards and from any third-party publishers who still wanted to make money off of D&D. Pathfinder provided a home for gamers who preferred v.3.5, because its rules were backwards-compatible with that edition, and because Paizo never stopped producing new material for their lucrative house system.

I continued playing and running v.3.5 throughout the 4E era, eventually switching over to Pathfinder only a few years ago. Because of this, I have tried to make this "Building the Bestiary" series useful to both D&D and Pathfinder GMs, and have been using the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary as my default reference. But now that I have an even dozen of these articles under my belt and am growing more interested in running D&D Fifth Edition, I have decided to devote lucky column #13 to some of these D&D-only monsters.

Specifically, I will cover the ten monsters from the Third Edition Monster Manual that were never released as Open Game Content: the beholder, carrion crawler, displacer beast, githyanki, githzerai, kuo-toa, mind flayer, slaad, umber hulk, and yuan-ti. (I've referred to illustrations in the Fifth Edition Monster Manual for some of these models, but the 3E version established this list.)

The Humanoids (or Nearly So)

Half of these creatures are more or less humanoid in appearance, so are easy to represent using existing LEGO minifigures.

For githyanki or githzerai, look for characters that look gaunt and/or have unusual skin tones to help distinguish them from the common humanoid races. The photo to the right shows two Gundabad orcs equipped similarly to the gith entries in the Fifth Edition Monster Manual. Don't forget to give those high-level githyanki fighters their signature silver greatswords!

Kuo-toa can be represented by a variety of underwater monster races, such as the Swamp Monster (Monster Hunters) and various fish-men from the Atlantis theme. (See Underwater Races for more ideas.)

(L-R): Gungan (Star Wars) with an Alien Conquest head; Swamp Monster (Monster Hunters); Portal Emperor (Atlantis)

The Alien Trooper from Minifigures Series 13 makes a perfect mind flayer, even down to its tentacle count. Some of the aliens from the Space Police and Alien Conquest themes are also suitable. You can also build a decent mind flayer by replacing a minifigure's head with a travis brick (a 1x1 brick with studs on all four sides). Add 1x1 round plates for eyes and a 1x1 plate with a clip to suggest the tentacles.

The serpent tribes from Ninjago provide a wide variety of choices for yuan-ti miniatures. Use a character with a snake's lower body for an abomination (which conveniently fits its Large size), and one with legs for a malison (which were called "halfbloods" before 4E). For purebloods, use regular humans if they are posing as such, or overtly snake-themed characters like the Anaconcrai cultists (from Ninjago Season 4) if they are operating openly. (See the Humanoids column for more ideas for building reptilian races.)

Back to Basic Beasts

For a carrion crawler, see the notes on centipedes from my last installment (Vermin). The model above shows a rearing carrion crawler, with tentacles provided by clip-plates (as with the mind flayer, above, but on all four sides of the travis brick).

For a displacer beast, see my discussion of Four-Legged Friends about how to build a monster with multiple pairs of legs. The model shown here uses three sets of minifigure legs inserted into a 2x4 brick. Two whips are attached with clips to provide the tentacles.

Beholders (and their kin)

The main challenge in building a beholder is attaching enough eyestalks to a model small enough to serve as a miniature. The tan beholder below is my earliest attempt at a LEGO beholder (from several years ago), while the smaller gray beholder is a Medium-sized gauth. In both models, levers were used to provide eyestalks.

The next photo shows two versions of a spectator, a four-stalked beholderkin from the Fifth Edition Monster Manual, which is Medium in size. The larger figure is a bit oversized, but with a few more eyestalks added could serve as a regular Large beholder. The smaller figure uses an Alien Clinger (from the Alien Conquest theme) on top of a Mixels eyeball minifigure head.

Finally, here is another view of my most recent beholder model (below left). This model makes heavy use of sideways building techniques (using "studs not on top," or "SNOT," bricks) and a variety of attachment points for the eyestalks (which are trunk and tail parts).  A clear brick suspends it above a Large-sized (6x6) base.

On the right is a death tyrant, an undead beholder from the Fifth Edition Monster Manual. This creature is essentially a cyclopean skull with glowing motes of light where the eyes used to be; its flesh (including the eyestalks) has long since rotted away. I've used small clear plates to attach a number of trans-yellow plates to "float" about the head, and a trans-yellow minifigure head for the central eye.


The most powerful slaadi are Medium-sized, so can be represented with minifigures. The gray slaad shown here is an Exo-Force robot with a horn and claws added. The black death slaad uses a piece of armor (and a cheese slope) to suggest its numerous body spikes.

The red, blue, and green slaadi below are Large-sized, so require brick-built models. (See Giants for the basics of building characters at this scale.) The arms are built from hinges and plates, and attached to Technic half-pins inserted into the holes of special 1x2 bricks. The same kind of brick is used to attach the eyes (and for the death slaad's head, above). In the Fifth Edition Monster Manual, the green slaad is shown with more variation in skin tone than his lesser kin, and actually wears and carries some gear, so I've added those details to its model.

Umber Hulks

The umber hulk is Large and primarily insect-like in form. The model shown here makes use of the small ball-and-socket joints from the Mixels theme to attach its limbs, and click-hinges for other joints. The mandibles are Hero Factory parts clipped to L-shaped bars on 1x2 plates in the head.

Because this model is a bit top-heavy and just a little oversized for its creature, I have attached the feet to a 6x6 round plate to mark its 10-foot space on the map.

My next "Building the Bestiary" column will return to creatures found in both D&D and Pathfinder, but I haven't decided yet on which kinds of monsters to tackle next. If you have any special requests, please let me know in the comments!

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
#10: Devils
#11: Aquatic Animals
#12: Vermin

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Gazebo: "A little vocabulary is a dangerous thing."

Why does the mention of gazebos set off knowing chuckles among so many long-time Dungeons & Dragons players? Because it's one of the classic humorous stories of the role-playing hobby, a story about how players can completely overreact to mundane things when they don't take a moment to get even the most basic information.

I first came across the story in the form of "Lair of the Gazebo," an installment of the Knights of the Dinner table comic published in Dragon Magazine. (That link goes to a redrawn version of Jolly R. Blackburn's 1994 original. Go read that comic, then come back here. You'll thank me.)

That comic was inspired by an earlier account by Richard Aronson, "Eric and the Dread Gazebo." Between these two tales, the gazebo became an enduring in-joke among the RPG community. When the Munchkin card game, which satirized numerous Dungeons & Dragons tropes, was released in 2001, it naturally included a Gazebo monster card:

Displaying Bf9vxnt.png
Munchkin is copyright Steve Jackson Games

Over the years since, there have been a number of attempts at producing actual monster stats--as well as miniatures--for a gazebo, for use in D&D and other game systems. Perhaps the only one that could be considered "official" is the Gazebo entry in the d20-based Munchkin RPG's Monster Guide.

However, I haven't read that book and can't resist taking my own stab at the creature. My go-to system these days is Pathfinder, so I'll use that system. The simplest interpretation of a gazebo that actually poses a threat is an animated object (see Bestiary 14, with additional options from Ultimate Magic 111*).  Assuming a typical gazebo is 12-15 feet across, that makes it a Huge animated object. Spend its 4 Construction Points on augmented critical* (1 CP), improved attack* (1 CP), and trample (2 CP).

Displaying 20170118_110904.jpg
This rare Horned Gazebo lures in its prey by
posing as a Pokemon gym in my neighborhood.


XP 3,200
Huge animated object
N Huge construct
Init -; Senses darkvision 60 ft., low-light vision; Perception -5
AC 15, touch 6, flat-footed 15 (-2 Dex, +9 natural, -2 size)
hp 78 (7d10+40)
Fort +2, Ref +0, Will -3
Defensive Abilities hardness 5; Immune construct traits
Speed 30 ft.
Melee slam +15 (2d6+15/19-20)
Space 15 ft.; Reach 10 ft.
Special Attacks trample (2d6+15, DC 23)
Str 30, Dex 6, Con --, Int --, Wis 1, Cha 1
Base Atk +7; CMB +19; CMD 27
SQ construction points

This stat block can easily be altered by adding templates, from the obvious (advanced, fiendish, giant) to the frightening and absurd. Useful templates from Green Ronin's Advanced Bestiary include the transforming construct template to allow it to change into more versatile forms, the lifespark construct template to give it intelligence, and the amalgam template to combine it with any (and I mean any!) other creature your demented imagination desires.

More links of interest to gazebo scholars: