Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Creating Pantheons for "Time of the Tarrasque"

Matt Colville has started streaming some brainstorming sessions for his upcoming D&D campaign. The format is far longer and more rambling than his "Running the Game" videos, so they might not appeal to anyone who isn't already a Colville fan and interested in experiencing his thought processes. I doubt I'll watch all of them, but I did listen to the first two, Creating a Pantheon, Part One: Culture First and Worldbuilding II, Gods and Culture.  It prompted me to think about my own methods for creating a pantheon of gods for my campaigns.

One of Colville's main points was that the gods should be tied into the culture and values of the people who worship them, so these two videos involved at least as much discussion of the culture of the campaign's setting as it did about the god themselves. I've found this to be true in my own world-building. I've often started with a sense of needing gods for various portfolios (to cover all the existing alignments and domains, for example), but the best results come from considering the history of the world and tailoring the gods to better fit the specific people who worship them.

When creating my "Time of the Tarrasque" campaign, I started with gods ruling over the seasons, the elements, various celestial bodies, and dragons. I didn't want to have to create a separate, full pantheon for every race (as has been done in most "official" D&D worlds), so I initially kept my list of gods very short. As I added details to the various subsets of gods, I realized that some would appeal to certain races more than others, so the list slowly morphed into several small, distinct pantheons of a handful of gods each, which appealed to different races but weren't necessarily exclusive to one.

Then I focused for a while on working out the broad strokes of the history of the world. Each of the core races has an origin story that involves an exodus from another continent (humans and halflings), from under the earth (dwarves and orcs), or from another world (gnomes and elves). These migrations suggested further refinements to the gods and their relationships to each other, and pointed out places where I needed to invent more gods to fill in some gaps. I ended up with the following groupings of gods:

Dragon Goddesses: The chromatic and metallic dragons each have a parthenogenic patron goddess. Their one and only mating was a disaster, spawning the abomination called the Tarrasque (which is revered as a god by races that prize raw strength, like orcs). Beyond this dubious legacy, the Adamantine Dragon has been adopted as a patron by some paladin orders, and at least one minor island nation, while the Prismatic Dragon has recently gained much more influence through the conquests of a dragon-ruled kobold nation.

Dwarven Gods: This was the only pantheon that I borrowed from another source (Green Ronin's Hammer & Helm: A Guidebook to Dwarves), because it consisted of an elegant, minimalist trio of gods--Smith, Hammer, and Anvil.

Faerie Sovereigns: These deities of the four seasons are worshiped primarily by the elves and gnomes, who claim to have come from a primeval faerie realm parallel to this world. These gods change gender and partners with the turn of the seasons, which results in far less rigid definitions of gender and sexuality among their followers than among other races. Druids of these and other races often revere the Faerie Sovereigns and other nature spirits.

Celestial Gods: The sun god and moon goddess, and their child, the sexually ambiguous god of shadows, were first worshiped among the halflings. This holy family is opposed by the Void and its death cult, who are responsible for the catastrophe that drove the halflings out of their homeland to the far south. (Distressingly, the Void cult has apparently infiltrated a number of Underdark races as well.)

Elemental Gods: These four gods were originally worshiped by the ancient giant races' civilization that predated the arrival of the smaller races on the continents of Iath and Hemut. Few if any giants worship all four gods anymore, and the evil giant races follow corrupted versions of their favored elements' gods.

Human Gods: The first true human empire was a matriarchy, with a pantheon ruled by goddesses of justice, crafts, and war. A war with evil titans destroyed the empire, and the survivors sought a new home across the sea to the east. This pantheon is also the largest, mostly because I wanted some of the feel of the Roman Empire, which was one of the primary inspirations for ancient Prothonia and its descendants.

Because of this past conflict with the titans, most humans still fear and hate giants of any kind. However, during their long exodus, some humans abandoned their ancient gods, and turned to the worship of the four elemental gods, whose ruined temples they discovered in their new-found home. These reconstructed cults are anathema to the Prothonians, because they are derived from giantish traditions. Centuries later, this religious conflict still plays a major part in the politics of the modern human nations.

A third group of humans made friendly contact with the halflings, and settled among the smaller race. These men eventually adopted the worship of the celestial gods, which led to the founding of a theocracy ruling over both races.

Outsiders: Finally, a number of outsiders of various alignments provide minor gods and demigods for races who don't follow any of the preceding pantheons. Some examples include the Lord of Kytons (hobgoblins), the Hag Queen (hags, orcs, bugbears), and the Prince of Vermin (drow).

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Book of the Righteous: Cults of Freeport

In an earlier column, I discussed how to use The Book of the Righteous (BotR) with the Freeport setting. The generic references to gods used in most Freeport titles makes it possible to use the detailed churches and mythology from BotR with that setting. Cults of Freeport represents a change from the product line's generic approach, providing more detailed information on eight secretive cults' religious practices and doctrines, plus profiles of their leaders in the City of Adventure. However, BotR can be used with these cults as well, as a source of Fifth Edition domains and subclasses.

(SPOILER WARNING: Current and potential players in Freeport campaigns--especially mine!--should consult with their GMs before reading further, as I will be discussing many of the secrets revealed in Cults of Freeport.)

Before I look at each cult individually, I'd like to discuss some common threads for the book as a whole.

One recurring theme in Freeport is the infiltration of temples by devotees of other gods. The Book of the Righteous provides an excellent rationale for how these schemes are allowed to continue without swift divine retribution. The gods' Compact (BotR, pp. 8 and 236) ended the terrible tragedies inflicted by the early wars between the gods by limiting their ability to interfere in the mortal realm. The Compact binds even Asmodeus, but permits devils, daemons, and demons to tempt mortals, as the price of allowing them to have free will. BotR gives examples of corrupted and heretical sects that continue to receive divine power--though it's possible that some receive that power from a source other than the original god. The book includes a detailed example of one church that has been taken over by an evil conspiracy secretly dedicated to another god. The gods may choose to send warnings about such threats, within strict limits, though some may have their own reasons not to interfere in such tests of their churches.

Encounters with the faiths detailed in Cults of Freeport pose serious threats to the heroes' sanity as well as their bodies. If you wish to use these cults in your 5E campaign, I strongly recommend using the madness rules from the DMG, and possibly even the Sanity score rules. Even if you don't use those rules during all adventures in your game, applying them during encounters with servants of these mad gods can greatly enhance the horrors that these cults worship and perpetuate.

Note that cult leaders are not necessarily clerics. Some will belong to other spellcasting classes, such as the wizards of the Esoteric Order of Starry Wisdom and the Obsidian Brotherhood. Others might be warlocks who have a direct personal relationship with their patron. The Archfiend patron is appropriate for Yarash and Abaddon, while the Unspeakable One, Yig, and the Crawling Chaos are obviously Great Old Ones. While Mordiggian is technically a Great Old One (being a later addition to the "Cthulhu Mythos"), the Undying patron (Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide) might be a better match for his promises of immortality.

GMs using both Cults and BoTR will find some free supplemental material on the Green Ronin website to be of interest. The first of these is The Tree of Life, an online support page for the original Third Edition Book of the Righteous, which can easily be used with the book's Fifth Edition update. This repository includes a couple of myths (written by Joe G. Kushner) that suggest possible links between the Great Church cosmology and two of the gods featured in Cults of Freeport:
  • "The Unspeakable One" posits that the Nameless One turned away from the creation in order to protect it from the ancient horrors that he discovered outside it. He remains distant and Nameless in order to avoid drawing those beings' attention to himself or his creation.
  • "The Source of Tinel's Sorrow" presents a heretical belief that Tinel and Yig are the same deity, and that Tinel's sorrow stems from his destruction of Valossa. This story gives two competing origins for the Unspeakable One: Either 1) it is an entity from outside the Great Sphere, whose followers corrupted other serpent people under the guise of Tinel worship, so that Tinel was forced to destroy his beloved Valossa, or 2) it is the manifestation of Tinel's own madness, and it was this aspect of Tinel that destroyed Valossa.
Finally, two free web enhancements for Cults of Freeport (written by Robert J. Schwalb and myself) provide True20 and Third Edition ("3rd Era") stat blocks for the NPCs described for each cult. The latter document also provide domains and favored weapons for deities not featured in the Gods of Freeport table in the 3rd Era Freeport Companion. While a full conversion is beyond the scope of the current column, some of that cleric-specific data has been adapted to Fifth Edition below.

The Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign

The Unspeakable One is chaotic evil, and its clerics gain the Madness domain. Oathbreaker paladins can be used to represent unholy warriors dedicated to the god.

In the "scales of Yig" cosmology described in this chapter, Yig is credited with creating the primordial world that evolved into the World of Freeport. Therefore Yig and the Unspeakable One predate the younger races' gods. As yet another alternative to the Tree of Life myth mentioned above, some scholars might interpret the primordial Yig as the serpent people's version of the Nameless One. (This would make the serpent people the only race ancient enough to preserve enough knowledge about that god to actively worship him.) In any case, Yig's collection of pieces from different worlds gives a handy explanation for the arrival of other gods, such as the Three Sisters and Three Brothers (as well as Lowyatar, discussed in her own chapter, below).

The Priesthood of Yig

Like Terak and Tinel in The Book of the Righteous, Yig has two aspects with different alignments. The Hitthkai Sect worships Yig's neutral aspect, which grants the Knowledge and Trickery domains. The Sskethvai Sect worships his neutral evil aspect, which has the Fire and War domains.

A champion such as K't'Kah would probably be best represented by a monk of the Way of Iron tradition. Bards of the college of lore would be well-suited to infiltrating sites of learning such as the Freeport Institute.

The Lost Souls of Yarash

Yarash is chaotic evil, and grants only the Death domain. Some oathbreaker paladins revere him, but any "unholy warriors" who serve him are more likely to be path of the zealot barbarians (Xanathar's Guide to Everything), or simply berserkers.

For even more information on Yarash's cult, see Black Sails Over Freeport. Most of the Cult History section of the Lost Souls chapter was distilled from that mega-adventure.

The Esoteric Order of Starry Wisdom

The Crawling Chaos is chaotic neutral. The Starry Wisdom cult in Freeport is composed exclusively of wizards, with no clerics. Where his cults do have priests, the god grants the Death and Madness domains, and possibly Arcana (from the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide). The cult's holy warriors are typically fighters (eldritch knights) like Lord Defender Thorgrim.

"The Crawling Chaos" is one of the chief epithets of the deity Nyarlathotep (from the works of H.P. Lovecraft), and the Esoteric Order of Starry Wisdom is named after one of that god's cults, but that name is never used here. Nyarlathotep has many forms and cults across a staggering number of cultures and worlds, both human and alien. Some of those aspects are more obviously malign, and should be considered chaotic evil.

Possible avatars of the Crawling Chaos in the World of Freeport include the Shrouded Savior mentioned in the background of True20 Freeport: The Lost Island, and the Dark Apostle who has appeared twice in Druzhdin history (Freeport: The City of Adventure). If the latter is an aspect of Nyarlathotep, then what is his motive for promoting the traditional worship of the God of Death?

Scions of the Destroyer

Freeport's Temple of the God of Warriors is a prime example of an enemy cult that has infiltrated and seized control of an established church. In terms of The Book of the Righteous, the Scions of the Destroyer might use the trappings of the Cult of the Bound Rod (the corrupted cult of the war god Terak) to deflect suspicion from their true god and purpose.

As a demon prince, Abaddon is chaotic evil. His clerics have the War domain. However, most "acolytes" belong to purely martial classes, such as fighter or barbarian, instead. The Destroyer's truly unholy warriors are oathbreaker paladins or oath of treachery paladins (Unearthed Arcana,"Paladin: Sacred Oaths").

The Charnel Children

Mordiggian, the Charnel God, is chaotic evil. His clerics have the Death domain. His cult in Freeport has no unholy warriors, but he does count many necromancers among his servants.

For a quick and dirty conversion of the Cannibal Ritual, use the rules for the polymorph spell, but the celebrant assumes the form of a ghoul, retaining hands and speech. (The younger children will also remain Small in size.) More experienced cultists might assume the statistics of a ghast.

The Society of the Velvet Whip

Lowyatar is lawful evil. Her clerics gain the Trickery domain. (She also appears in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, as Loviatar, with the Death domain.)

The cult's leaders regularly summon fiends for various purposes. Use the infernal calling, summon greater demon, and summon lesser demons spells from Xanathar's Guide to Everything) for these rituals. Note that in 5E, succubi have been turned into fiends that are neither devil nor demon, but they should be allowed as options for either infernal calling or summon greater demon.

The Obsidian Brotherhood

The Wanderer's alignment is unknown. In his current shattered state, he has no clerics or holy warriors, only the obsessed wizards and scholars (and corrupted priests of other faiths) who serve Xyrades.

True20 Freeport: The Lost Island also features powerful, magical obsidian shards. That adventure's stones have no explicit connection to the Wanderer, but the similarity of the relics in both sources suggests one--and Xyrades would become very interested in Mokulilo if he learns of those other shards. If the two groups of stones are connected, then any theory about the Shrouded Savior being an avatar of the Crawling Chaos (see above) raises even more questions about the Wanderer's true nature: Is the Wanderer yet another avatar of the Crawling Chaos? Is Nyarlathotep the surviving sentient remnant of the Wanderer? Or is he its herald, as he is to Azathoth in Lovecraft's stories?


For my past columns about using D&D Fifth Edition sourcebooks with Freeport: The City of Adventure, see the Freeport 5E Index.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Regatta: An alternate scenario for "Pirate Dice"

Pirate Dice: Voyage on the Rolling Seas is a board game published by Gryphon Games. In the standard rules, the first ship to reach the "X" space on the Treasure Cove Map finds the treasure and wins the game. In the advanced game, you have to pick up the Treasure Token then carry it back to the "X" on the Starting Shoals Map--while everyone else tries to sink you and take it for themselves.

I recently suggested a new scenario for my family, which I dubbed "The Regatta." Instead of finding treasure, you race around a larger map, using all six map boards instead of just three (Starting Shoals, Treasure Cove, and one other). The object is to complete a circuit of the board and return to the "X" on the Starting Shoals Map. 

The Treasure Cove Map (the skull-like piece below) has one impassable side, which is placed in the center of the board to force the ships to pass through all six map sections. Place the Starting Shoals Map in one corner so that the lettered starting squares are on an edge; the ships must cross the opposite side to the next tile, then continue around the course back to that first tile. 

The photo above shows the map set-up for our first Regatta. The Treasure Cove Map forms a narrow strait that forces the ships into close proximity to each other. Next time, we will make sure that we don't have such a congested entry point into the Treasure Cove Map. In our first game, the island in the corner of the lower left tile forced everyone to cross a whirlpool (under the blue ship die), which caused a traffic jam between tiles. This resulted in the ships in the rear being stuck in place waiting for the leaders to move further ahead. By the time they were able to move ahead, the leader had won.

Moving the Starting Shoals Map so that it isn't adjacent to the Treasure Cove Map will help with that. The leader going into "Skull Strait" will still have another tile to cross after it, which should give the other players more opportunities to catch up via moving closer and/or sinking their opponent.

We're also considering requiring ships to tag the "X" on the Treasure Cove Map (ending a Bell on that square), so that ships can't just blow past that tile by hugging the edge. This change would make the Regatta more like the advanced game, just with a larger map--and also more like Robo-Rally, from which many of Pirate Dice's mechanics were derived. The main difference is that in the advanced game, once one pirate has picked up the treasure, you just need to sink them and end a Bell in the Treasure Token's new space to grab it for yourself.

Do you have any optional scenarios or house rules that you use with this game? If so, I'd love to hear them! Please post in the comments below (or send me an email and I'll mention it in a future comment or blog post).

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Unearthed Arcana and Freeport, Part 7

Wizards of the Coast is currently releasing new "Unearthed Arcana" material on the second Monday of each month. Expect my Freeport-slanted reviews of UA to continue to appear about three times a year, covering 4-6 articles at a time. This time, I'm reviewing new offerings from October 2017 to February 2018. (There was no UA article for March, due to the developers focusing on promoting Mordenkainen's Book of Foes, which will be released in May.)

For my past columns about using D&D Fifth Edition sourcebooks with Freeport: The City of Adventure, see the Freeport 5E Index.

Fiendish Options (10/9/2017): This installment presents tiefling subraces based on ties to the Lords of the Nine Hells; these modify which ability scores get bonuses, and which spells the tiefling's heritage grants her. The article also provides information on the diabolical cults for each archdevil, as well as the cults of several demon lords. Each cult's entry summarizes the archfiend's goals, what kinds of monsters and followers are drawn to the cult, a list of signature spells that can be used to customize cult spellcasters, and new traits that the archdevil or demon lord's most favored followers might acquire. As with "That Old Black Magic" (12/5/2015; see my first UA review), this material is imminently suited to use in Freeport due to that city's long, sordid history of forbidden cult activity. The diabolical options would be especially useful in converting Hell in Freeport to 5E.

(Update: D&D Beyond's YouTube previews of Mordenkainen's Book of Foes have indicated that this fiendish material will appear in that book, with changes based on playtester feedback.)

Elf Subraces (11/13/2017): Four new subraces for elves are presented here--or, rather, updated from previous editions for the first time. Avariel are winged elves, and as such, would be exotic even in their homeland, wherever you choose to locate it. Grugach, or wild elves, are isolationists, and thus would be rare in civilized Rolland, but perfect for lost jungle islands. Shadar-kai are probably best introduced as fey connected to the unknown origins of Lord Bonewrack's court in the Plane of Shadow (Shadowfell).

In contrast, sea elves are widespread across the World of Freeport. They are the most common subrace in the coastal regions of Rolland. Because of this, they handle most of that nation's sea trade, and are a common sight in Freeport. This version of the subrace omits the water dependency that aquatic elves had in previous editions, which makes them a more viable choice for adventurers who explore both land and sea.

Three Subclasses (1/8/2018): This article includes new options for the druid, fighter, and wizard classes. The Circle of Spores druid is attuned to mold and decay, gaining poison attacks and eventually the ability to temporarily raise its victims as zombies. These druids might operate in the jungle of A'Val or in the sewers below Freeport. The Brute fighter learns to do extra damage with his attacks, and improve his own durability, making him a good choice for thugs and brawlers who eschew subtlety.

A wizard from the School of Invention tradition is in inveterate experimenter. Her improvisations can sometimes manifest two spells at once, and at higher levels, she can enhance her spells with raw magical power. Such reckless magicians would likely be scorned by members of the Wizards Guild, and such a rivalry could fuel the inventor's drive to prove the academics wrong.

Into the Wild (2/12/2018): This installment provides optional rules for determining how easily characters can navigate in the wilderness, as well as some ideas for highlighting the mood and terrain features of an area. A worked example is provided, based on the Nentir Vale setting (from D&D 4E). In a Freeport campaign, these rules can be used to provide more flavor while traveling across the islands of the Serpent's Teeth, as well as within wild areas on other islands and continents. The article does not explicitly address water travel, but the rules could be adapted to such; most navigation DCs at sea would be 10 (no path but in open terrain). By changing the time scale of travel from days to hours, these guidelines could also be adapted to navigating within any urban district that lacks straight roads, clear sight lines, and obvious signs or landmarks, such as the slums of Scurvytown or Drac's End.