Friday, December 27, 2019

The Cult of Crows

No one knows how long the corvid cult has existed for. Eons, likely, or at least as long as therianthropic cave paintings of men with wings and black birds were lit by firelight and painted with fear and reverence by men. It’s called many names, Raven Host, Murder of A Thousand Eyes, Corvus Occassus, The Crow Cult. Their totemic worship is answered in omens, signs, and whispered secrets in Thrush. 

The cult’s tenets are simple at first, consisting of only three core rules: deceive once a day, always take from the dead, and warn other siblings of danger before taking flight. The higher the echelons of worship, the more esoteric the laws: a feast of flesh, a sacrament of theft, a secret kept. 

Thus fledgelings are brought into The Great Wheel, the first and central circle of the Black Bird Gang. The make-up is similar across the world: thieves, grave-robbers, brigands and street toughs, the usual rabble. But something is different with them, something uncanny in its ability to unify them. Maybe it’s how there’s always a crow watching them outside, ubiquitous though they are in the world. Maybe it’s how they know where she hid the knife, like somebody whispered it to them. Maybe it’s the little colorful ribbons and coins they keep finding on their person, like gifts.

For all the blessings, the great bird-beast they worship has increasing demands. The Great Wheel encompasses all followers, but the Left Wheel follows stricter rules in preparation for the Filled Skies: that certain earthly members, in possession of certain treasures, must be plucked as gifts to their god. Assassins, the lot, murderers of finest skill, Rhyming Rooks, a penchant for poetry with every kill. They mimic voices and sounds without equal, and cling to the dark like black pinions. The Right Wheel finds harsher laws making way for the great all-scouring flock that will pick the earth clean of life: seek the secret sign, hoard the glimmer of glamour, and the gilded coin so greedily guarded by men and worse alike. Wizards, druids, and all manner of hedge-witch make up the arcane arm of the cult, Augers and Haruspex, Magus Magpies and Raven Mavens all to the man. They are the esoteric priests and diviners, giving orders to the other wheels as the omens see fit.

The Central Wheel is the deepest chamber of Their Thieving Trickster God, the truth apparent to their high-priests: The Raven Creature wishes to steal much, much more than arcane might and physical wealth. They divine on carrion, crawling through the wreckage and the aftermath of battles. Some follow armies like black-clad priests of the dead and dying, hearing the last words of warriors and victims like a profane version of confession. They never help. Where else would their brothers and sisters over head feed? Trophies they take: teeth, eyes. Sometimes ears, to better hear and see the cries from the Crystal Mountain filled with the Cold Sun that their god speaks from. 

For members of The Murder of A Thousand Eyes, life is but an illusion. In death, is truth found. For there lies beyond this world another, the Shadowed Realm. The actions they take are necessary, not as a tribute to their dark god, but in mimicry of them. For there will be a time of Filled Skies, when the Thrush speakers turn on the rest of the world, and All Eyes Will Be Blinded. From the Shadowed Realm a new world must be hatched, and the Corvus Occassus will be the darkling phoenix that rises from the ashes.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Starting The Game for Beginners

Thanks to my move across country, I’ve found myself much more firmly in the game-master seat than in previous years. This is both a blessing and a curse, and I definitely have some rust I need o shake off. What baffles me the most is that in the ten years since I have been gone from my current home, instead of being mocked and ridiculed for my game, I have about eighteen people asking me to either run them on the game or teach them the game. 

So, in the spirit of teaching newbies how to play D&D for the first time, here’s my spiel I give to people about to play D&D the first time, and some home-brew rules: 

So, we’re gonna play a game that is mostly cooperative storytelling. We’re all working to tell the story together, but you play the main characters and heroes, and I as the referee will handle all the other stuff, like setting and villains. There is no wrong way to play this game, and everybody plays differently and for different reasons. Some people play because they like to kick butt and be big action heroes, others play to solve puzzles and be challenged mentally. Others play to stretch their acting chops, while others prefer the numbers and math of the game. None of these ways are wrong, and you may find that one or more of these aspects suits you. 

Because we’re all playing with new friends and such, many of us don’t know what kinds of stories we all like, or what content is ok. Lots of people have things in their past which may greatly upset them. I’ve played with combat vets and struggling parents, both of which let me know certain content wasn’t ok with them in the game. So if anything another player or their character does upsets you, hold your hands in an “X” above your head. We’ll immediately end that scene, move to another player for a moment, and then take a break. You can then talk to me or another player you feel comfortable with about that scene, what upset you, and both I and all the other players will make sure it doesn’t ever come up again. Also, if you know ahead of time not to mention or include a particular subject, let me know and I will address it at the table. 

Now, if you’re gonna be playing a hero, you need to come up with one. So, if you don’t write or just make up people for fun, I would like you to just choose a character or two from a book or movie you like who’s the hero, and imagine them as the same person, or decide what you like about them or why you’d want to play them in a TV show. Give them a name of your choosing and figure out how they’d look in this setting. 

No matter who or what you’re playing, understand you’re playing an Adventurer: some one who, for whatever reason, has chosen to engage in a high risk, high reward career path that can lead to gold, glory, and fame, or death, destruction, or worse. Typically, most adventurers start this path, because they are flat broke and a very special combination of brave, stupid, or both. 

While the rules often say to choose your species or race first, I’m gonna actually ask you to pick a class, or a job, first. Mostly because it has a lot more effect on what you do as an adventurer, and how you interact with the game itself. As a matter of fact, I prefer it if you’d all be human, but I understand a lot of people just love elves and dwarves and want to play those things. So we can talk about that later, if you want, but choosing your job is tough enough (especially as their are so many of them in the latest version of the game!). If you feel overwhelmed, I suggest choosing from the four original jobs the game had: Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric.

Now for the numbers part, all players start with 16,14,12,10,8,6 assigned as they choose among their Ability Scores. From here you can calculate the rest of the math for the latest version, or any version, of the game using the rulebook. I know some of you have heard of “rolling” these numbers, but assigning an array like this keeps it fair among all players and prevents problems with powerful or weak characters.

From there, you can follow the book’s easy QuickStart guide to making a character. You don’t have to worry about backgrounds and such that the book lists, but do have an idea of your character’s past, and what has forced them into the adventuring life.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Opinion: Plot Hooks are Extraneous

So I’ve been doing some mixed reading lately and I’m trying desperately to find where I read it, but recently a blog I read stated that they’ve stepped away from writing reasons for the characters to be in said place. These are that list of adventure hooks that show up invariably at the beginning of certain modules. Recently also someone I know also mentioned they were having trouble with their own adventure hooks, which prompted me to think on this just a bit. 

So, here’s my postulation: Good Adventurers don’t need adventure hooks. Creative players and referees don’t either. 

Crazy as it may sound, I have the firm belief that an Adventurer both should and will seek adventure. They are snoops and scallywags of the highest order. An adventurer who does not go looking for trouble is not an adventurer, rather they are a reluctant hero, and while that works in fiction, at the table that is going to get old very, very quickly. To that end, the Baggins are not Adventurers, despite having had one or two. A better example from modern cinema of an adventurer is Captain Jack Sparrow, who’s constantly after... something, anything. Indiana Jones is an excellent example for us older folks. I suppose that’s my opinion at the end: that those who claim to perform an action for a living should seek it.

That’s not to say that you can’t have good Characters who require some extraneous motivation. But frankly if I as a referee open a game where you’re in front of a dungeon as a player and you ask me “but what’s my motivaaaatioooon???” I will physically throw something at you. Nobody likes a needy actor.

More so, I feel like making a character should include some base motivations, and I mean that as both foundational and of low moral value: Morg Skulltaker didn’t get that last name by not coveting skulls, and your class’s name is always a great thing to want. A fighter should want to fight, a thief to steal, a wizard arcane power, and a cleric to convert or proselytize. Further, unless your basically playing in an attempt to be a moral paragon (*cough*paladin*cough*), having a vice adds a little human element that I think does Adventurers well for role-play and storytelling. 

I also think a crafty referee can rope any character into heavily armed underground death-trap spelunking and exploration with a little application of ingenuity. Yes, that includes stubborn ones made by players who’s whole character concept is antithetical to the game, such as reclusive home-bodies who suffer agoraphobia and won’t leave their locked home. One must go out for groceries sometime, and sinkholes and meteors swallow highways and strike homes, why not theirs? Still, this may often feel like pulling teeth or bathing a cat- both are a painful process and often leave one feeling exhausted and a little empty when the work is done.

Certainly I don’t think it’s bad idea to have rumors of the dungeon or the adventure or whatnot that players might know, but by no means are they necessary. Especially if you have a mentally tired player or someone who is unfamiliar with the game, or maybe someone who struggles with writing, prefab suggestions and ideas can help. Especially since they’re quite ready (and intentionally designed) to be used right out the box. Still, I’d rather suggested plot hooks act as springboards for my players’ own imaginations rather than railroading them in to a single or multiple prefabricated hooks. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Incoherent Rambling about Old school play and Death Saves

I was discussing some old school tenets with my brother the other day, when I explained my dilemma with Old School Save vs Death (too harsh) and 5e Death Saving throws (too lenient), and my inability to find a happy medium, my workaround, and the thoughts behind the feelings that have arisen to such. 

My biggest thoughts mostly deal with danger, expectations, and storytelling, and the media we consume in our modern world. Moreso, I think it related heavily to our Videogames we play as well. 

I’m of the opinion that the game itself, and perhaps the entire genre of fantasy gaming, has been hijacked initially by Tolkienic Fantasy and then again afterwards by Blockbuster Videogames and Movies. Televised electronic media is ever prevalent and all consuming, and this in turn has had a heavy hand in the guiding of our fiction, both literary and private. More-so, our games-industry increasingly attempts to deliver a cinematic experience rather than a challenge of skill, and that’s where the crux of my ambiguity lies: I, as a narrativist, want to tell a good tale. But I, as a gamer and referee, wish to challenge my players (and be challenged as a player) fairly and have my skills tested/test the skills of my players. Not that there aren’t outliers to this, Dark Souls, Sekrio, Darkest Dungeon, anything by Altus, and other electronic games pride themselves on their levels of depth and difficulty. But right now I’m running the risk of making a blog commenting on Videogames rather than RPGs, which is what this blog is supposed to be about. 

The roots of the hobby lie not in the games of today, but rather in napoleonic wargaming. A hobby long since given over to Warhammer’s science-fantasy realm and legions of rabid fanboys. Anyone who’s played such a game can certainly attest, all the troops don’t make it home from the board even if you win. Even older videogames returned you to the beginning of the game if you struck out three or more times. A rousing game of Contra or Castlevania should serve as an excellent education in the price of defeat. Brutal, to lose all progress. But back then, it was considered fair. Some still consider it such. 

Couple this with the increasing extravagance of cinema’s and the videogame industry’s fantasy worlds, one where all too often the heroes single handedly trounce monstrously giant opponents, god-like in their might, the audience never doubting for a moment that the heroes would lose, as they slug their way through hundreds of foes. This is intentional: the victory is important, not the journey, or the hundred would-be heroes who have come before. In electronic games, a loss or failure often merely delays the story’s completion, it does not erase it. Falling from a cliff or being ran-through by a demon’s blade is but a trifling setback. This is also intentional: the challenge is not the focus, the story is. 

And this is the scenario we’re accustomed to: that the heroes will win, and that losses will be negligible, only delaying time (which will not be of the essence), and we’ll get a good tale out of it. Not that the danger is a ruse in most all forms of media we take in, but rather the consistent focus doesn’t let us see the deepest of travails, merely the triumphs, and we have become desensitized to total-loss (which death is for characters).

Granted, this is all half-fact and a lot of theorizing and generalizing on my end of things. So frankly I’m talking out my ass about this. I’m not a sociologist or a media analyst. I’m a dude who’s listening to ‘80s deathmetal and painting little plastic monsters while daydreaming about cave-divers with swords. Speculation does not reality make.

Now you may think, “Oh but I have worked hard on this character, spent hours playing them. To lose them to a poor roll is frankly dumb!” And I agree. Poor luck of the die is hardly a good reason to end a burgeoning or advanced career in delving, despite its realism. It makes for an unsatisfying end to the tale, and smacks of the simulationism that Gygax warned against in the AD&D DMG. 

Neither do I think that 5e’s current death saves are fair. Best 3 out of 5 rolls? That eats time, and is there to allow your compatriots to make it to you before the clock runs out. It’s supposed to be the bleed-out of first person shooters where everyone drops their stuff and runs to help. Except only the cleric or designated person with a potion moves. The fighters keep fighting and 5 rounds (two to three, at the fastest) is a leisurely walk in the park at the table. We once had a fighter pinged with Healing Word alternatively by a cleric and bard for ten rounds at the table. We joked he was doing burpees, coming up to attack and then down again. Granted, the ready availability of healing is... another topic for another day. But it is... difficult to die in the most modern edition of the game. Absurdly so. 

My work around (which, admittedly I’m not super happy with either), is to rule it as this: Save vs Death Means Save Vs Death Saves. If a spell would kill a character flat on a failed roll, they instead must roll three Constitution Saving Throws against the DC of the spell/trap, not ten (otherwise merely flip a coin). Best two of three determines their fate. Going to Zero in Combat results in the same, with successful saves indicating your character lives, but with a nasty physical or mental scar that the player must decide upon. That feels fairer than that one-roll death and less padded for those old hats like me who don’t mind if a character dies.

Friday, August 9, 2019

I’m Changing The Sound of the Games I Run

As I’ve driven across my country, an old and perplexing problem has vexed me in ways most sinister:

What are the prevalent “moods” of Dungeons and Dragons? That is to say, what are the general atmospheres/scenes we convey in game for players? 

I know this is likely different per game, as like, the genre shifts per every storyteller, right? 

I’m thinking that for me it’s: 

- Exploration/Open World

- Dungeons/Underground

- Steath/Intrigue

- Combat/Violent Conflict 

- Rest In Civilization/Rest the Wilderness

The reason I’m asking this is because I’m rethinking how I approach soundtracking my own games, and I’m thinking that rather than like, doing it with just a few albums in the background, I should do it via a series of playlists that add to the atmosphere of the world I’m building. Especially since I have so much fantasy music, it’d be easy for me to have a folder on my iPod to play randomized stuff in each category.

Previously I had a separate playlists for like, every possible setting. Taverns, Temples, Dwarven Places, Elven Places, Pie-Eating Contests, Treant golfing tournaments, etc, etc. and I think this is, frankly, a hassle and a half. I largely think this is inspired by/comes from our familiarity with movie soundtracks, where the film is made, then scored, so that the music has arise and fall with the action of the story and narrative and sonic crescendos occur simultaneously. Think of Hitchcock’s use of strings in “Psycho,” or any blockbuster Fantasy’s repeated movements. Now remove that score from that scene you’re thinking of and instead pair those stabbing violins with a joyous wedding vow, or “Imperial March” to ordering a sandwich at a fast food place and awkwardly counting exact change. Doesn’t fit quite right, does it? 

Table top RPGs are live-action in a sense, and a better way to handle this is more akin to video-games, which indeed have iconic music (more on that in a bit), but much more importantly have music that 1) enhances the atmosphere of the scene and 2) can and does change as the scenes change. Think of the first underground level of Mario, when the bright, cheery main theme shifts to those deep bass notes, with the swift skittering of anxiety laden jumbled notes to follow them, and the briefest hint of an unnatural silent pause before repeating. Or the dreaded epic movements inside a castle, lava and certain death around every corner. Think of the difference between the haunting and teeth grinding underground music that plays while avoiding degenerate Falmer in Skyrim, now compare that to the wondrous and airy tunes played while wandering under the ethereal Northern Lights on a wintry mountain. The Witcher’s action music has fantastic, bombastic openings and percussion kicks off at a horse’s pace, and then when left alone in the rain switches to lighter acoustic tones and gentle, lonely lines of string accompaniment; only then it turns to creeping, pacing tones riddled with tension for political intrigue and stealth. 

So we have decent examples of how to score our games, but the dilemma still stands as to with what to score our games? This is... a tricky answer for me. I’ve had a lot of great games soundtracked many different ways, and I have done a lot of games in a modern setting which is suuuuper easy ‘cause you can use modern music. I also love, love, love “modern” music. Not that one couldn’t run a fantasy game set to 1970s punk or 1990s industrial, but I’m looking to make utilitarian lists, things anyone and everyone can pick up and use, and a lot of players find lyrics (especially in a language they understand) distracting. Also death metal and hardcore aren’t for everyone. So, that limits our genres. 

An older Dragon magazine article from the early 2000s wrote on this, and honestly gave some advice that I feel doesn’t stand (“One Winged Angel”? Star Wars? Yuck. Though Uematsu and Williams are geniuses and deserve full credit as such). The problem with that advice is that it relies upon iconic songs. And movie and video game composers are always, always, always trying to create iconic songs. Iconic songs are good, they get stuck in your head. You hum them and sing along with the notes with your friends on car rides. Think of the main theme to the Legend of Zelda games or the Jurassic Park movies. You know them instantly. The music, the beautiful, glorious music is what helps sell the game or show. It works wonders. And it comes with its own associations that are hard pressed to be shaken, and can jar the verisimilitude of the game. So, for me, main themes and anything instantly recognizable are out. Despite my love of them. This is also a two fold problem: I may not immediately recognize every song on this album, but you as a player might. And it is you and your game I am considering here. 

So what and where do we pull our selections from? For me, I tend to lean towards the lesser known tracks of fantasy video games, and towards action and horror movies who’s scores I remember, but get picky with it. I’m not afraid to slice out iconic songs left and right and to only choose a song or two from an album. Also, the lesser known the album, the better. I also nix any song that varies too wildly in sound from the established moods, as such, things like Epic Score tend to be removed as they will start slow and tense and then be a rollicking orchestra of Armageddon prophets by the end of that three-minute track. I also dabble in some dark ambient, especially the stuff from Cryo Chamber. A lot of people are hopped up on Dungeon Synth for their games, and I’m very picky with that genre. A lot of the genre has some retro eighties synth sounds I feel are better kept to cyberpunk games where retrowave would be better suited. I also caution listeners, as I know some underground artists that get lumped by association into that genre (due to its roots in black metal) have hate-culture associations, and there’s no space for Nazi garbage in my hobby. Do a google, know what your buying. 

So we know what we’re using, we know how to soundtrack it, the next step is to do the actual work: you have to listen, actively, to each individual song out of the library of music you have selected and determine which songs go in what playlist. This is the hardest part, as it is time consuming, and for me, I want to be doing something active when I’m listening to music, actively or not. It’s also, for me, very tempting to move that slider to fast-forward and not listen to a track I know I’ve heard a million times before, but if I do that I know I’m gonna miss a chunk of spoken word poetry in the midst of a wonderful acoustic track, or the one moment of action hero guitar in an otherwise tense track of brooding cellos and violas. Don’t. Just listen all the way, choose to keep or chuck it, and if you keep it, know which playlist it has a home in. If you can’t choose a playlist, move to the next song and come back later. 

After likely a few too-many hours’ worth of work, you should have your own playlists set, and be ready to have background music for your adventure up and running.

And now the last question: why? Why do all this awful work when you could just as easily buy one of the dozens of apps for your computer or phone that has ambient music and sounds and all kinds of fun gadgetry that solves all this hard work for you? Well, because 1) I’ve bought this music, I might as well use it, 2) I like making playlists, 3) I think there’s something incredible about music, a kind of sonic indelible ink that tattoos itself into our blood and doesn’t ever let us go, and I know from all the movies and games I cited above that it can enhance a story, and 4) playlists are a one click solution to ambience and I don’t need anymore apps or gadgets in my game, or items cluttering my table/DMing Area. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The World is Filled With Horrible Cannibal People Also I Am Moving Across My Continent

But why? 

Well largely because, while I like orcs, I want to stay away from them in my games and home brew settings. Because we use them as de-facto villain fodder too often. I’m a big fan of replacing orcs with humans. The general idea being that anytime you replace orcs with humans, players stop and think about what’s going on instead of immediately dashing into action. And players rationalize and talk to humans but just murderhobo orcs. And that makes for boring gameplay, because NPCs and even enemies should have motivations and yes, I think your players should know those so they can act tactically about them. 

So why include horrible cannibal men at all? Well, a two reasons. One is the horror aspect. This could be you, that somewhere deep within us we may cave to this act in desperation, and then find perverse pleasure in such. Donner Party Annual Family Reunion and Barbecue, etc, etc. 

The second is that, while I think having your players question the motivations and actions of villains and monstrous NPCs is good, the genre of fiction the game is based off of, and thus the heart of the game, is Pulp Fantasy. Pulp Fantasy has a lot of swashbuckling action and fights, and the game itself mechanically comes from war-games. Combat is, and should be, an inevitability. I really don’t think PCs should be able to talk their way out of everything; that’s lame. Hell, a whole gamer type is known as “The Buttkicker”. So obviously I want villains who are morally bankrupt and my players won’t think twice about engaging, as well as likely to start a rumble due to hunger, perverse desire, or whatever other reason they have to eat people.


So I’m gonna take a moment to mention to all three of you that read this that I’m moving across country, and across a whole continent as a result, from the South East to the far North West. It’s gonna be a long drive, and hopefully I’ll be able to write a good bit as I drive and ride across. This is part of why I’ve been quieter than usual and also why I may get quiet again as I transition into a new-old job, which should prove interesting. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Some Magic Items

The DM of a local campaign I play in asked us to invent some magic items, so I did. I’ve had no sleep. We’re currently playing the latest edition of the original game, which I personally have some qualms with but the last thing the world needs is another 5e complaint post, just like it doesn’t need another OSR blog, but I’m in a mood from exhaustion. Anyways, he thought they were all overpowered, and I’m inclined to disagree, but then again I also think if your players have a bag of holding with hundreds of shields that’s your own fault. As a matter of fact, I’m disinclined towards bags of holding, as a general thing. Mostly cause nobody gives a crap about inventories anyways when you’re doing high fantasy. Never once in the past five years has any GM ever made me calculate weight or count ammo. Anyways, enough irritable grognard spew, how ‘bout them items?

Ring of Sacrificial Shield
Characters who possess this iron ring while wielding a shield may use their reaction after being successfully struck by an attack to negate all damage from that attack, but destroying their shield in the process. 

Nemean Pelt
Characters who wear this enchanted Lion’s pelt have resistance to slashing and piercing damage, but also has vulnerability to strangulation.

Eyepatch of Blindsense
A character who is missing an eye that wears this leather eyepatch has blindsense within a ten foot radius around themselves. You must make a will save vs fear around the spell Pyrotechnics though, as you only have one eye left, and fireworks are dangerous. 

Perfume of Xymox
Characters who wear this exotic scent have advantage on saving throws to resist petrification, in addition to having increased (4 in 6) likelihood that Medusae, Gorgons, and Basilisks will treat them as friendly allies. The character must bathe off the scent within 24 hours, or else they will have to take a full rest without benefits as they completely shed their skin. 

Coin of Lupercal
Characters who posses this wolf-headed coin during a full moon may summon a dire she-wolf to nurse them, providing wolf’s milk and 2d8 healing from licked wounds, and a night of guards from her wolf-children. The next day, the characters must chase, drive out, or destroy an evil spirit or ghost or be unable to rest for three days as their dreams are haunted by nightmares of lupine terror. 

Chain Letter of Infinite Curses
Characters who possess this archaic scroll may elect to use their reaction to negate the effects of one spell from an evil aligned spellcaster. Afterwards, it mused be passed on to another character who has not previously owned it within 24 hours or effectively acts as Stone of Weight. Share this item with a friend in the next hour and you’ll have good dice rolls for your next game! Or don’t and fail at a critical moment.

Supremely Boring Chest
This plain 5x4x3 foot box is warded by powerful magics. Once per day the bearer may utter a command word that effectively hides the box in plain sight from everyone, even the user. It cannot he found until the effect wears off. You probably just misplaced it, you’ll find it again soon, it’s fine.

Fisherman’s Friend
This simple bracelet of marlin bears a small iron charm of an anchor. Once per day, the wearer May utter a command word and the anchor becomes a 500 pound steel anchor with several fathoms of thick mooring line attached and made off to the nearest safe fixing point. The item is recharged by a red sunset.

Amulet of Proof Against Insomnia
This small silver necklace has a charm on the end in the shape of a sheep, granting the bearer resistance against sleep spells and preventing the first level of exhaustion from an interrupted long rest. You snore something awful while wearing it, and your party members have a 1 in 10 chance of being kept awake by your log-sawing Zs, thus gaining a level of exhaustion. 

Bath Bomb
Lighting the fuse and throwing this ceramic grenade causes a fully sized luxury porcelain tub filled with hot water and expensive scented soaps and exfoliating brushes to appear and automatically begin bathing its target for a half hour. The victim of this assault may attempt a DC20 strength check to escape the tub, but soap is slippery and it smells nice. Honestly if they’re fighting this they likely need a bath anyways.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Three Traps

Trap Number One: 

“The walls, floors, and ceiling of this room suddenly shift from worked stone to flat metal plates, and a barely perceptible hum fills the room. Only one exit exists, directly across the room. It is guarded by a single near-naked barbarian wielding a nasty club decorated with a human skull.”

Any adventurer wearing armor or using metal weapons who enters into the metal areas will discover that the whole room is a series of electromagnets, with polarities shifting every other turn to the left/right/ceiling/floor (or roll a d4 for the side). 

The barbarian is just a combat threat to make the trap more dangerous, and can be replaced by any orc/ogre/naked and dangerous person not using metal.

How to Beat Trap One:

Might: Pass a hefty strength check to resist and move across the magnetic plates. Or strip and challenge the barbarian to unarmed combat, tying a rope to your gear and dragging it across afterwards. Try to lift one of the wall/floor plates so that the trap breaks/crushes itself under its own power.
Cunning: using ball-bearings, Chainmail rings, looted gear, etc, wait until the magnet activated on the ceiling and try to use sabatons or iron-shot boots to dash across to the door before it changes to the floor and bypass the enemy.
Skill: Try to get to know and/or persuade the barbarian into letting you pass. Try to deceive the barbarian to hold something metal just before the magnets switch polarities to another wall (“Catch!”). Try to dig quickly under a plate to disable the magnet by throwing coins/water into the spinny-bits/batteries.
Magic: Use any electrical spell to short circuit the electromagnet trap. Use Create Water to try and flood the room. Use Charm Person/Monster to get the barbarian to let you pass. 

Trap Number Two:

“A series of standing mirrors in this room are spaced at regular intervals, blocking the view of the room and corresponding to the points of an angular mandala. The room is lit by an eerie pink glow. “

In the center of this room sits a stone column marked by three rubies down two sides. One side has an open eye and the other a closed eye carved into the stone. The gems are shooting deadly lasers into the mirrors creating a geometric prison guarding the heart of the trap. The lasers are at the six, five, and two foot heights. The mirrors are bolted into the stone floor, and only are mirrored on one side. The lasers shoot out of the open eye and into the closed eye gems, perpetually charging itself. Arcane deduction should inform players that make it to the center that removing the closed eye gems first is safe, removing the open eye gems first will have explosive results. 

The exit to the room can be on any side, but is blocked from view by the mirrors.

How to Solve Trap Two:

Might: Tear a mirror from the floor and use it as a shield! Direct the lasers at the mirror’s unprotected backs and shatter them with the laser! Or use it as a shield and open doors for you and your party!
Cunning: Use a hand mirror to stop the lowest laser, letting you and your party crawl through the lowest level. Break a mirror and watch the lasers annihilate the other mirrors a chunk at a time as they shoot in fractal patterns.
Skill: Use acrobatic or athleticism to hurtle or gymnast your way through the lasers. Climb atop the bolted mirrors and step-stone your way across the room. 
Magic: Dispel the center of the room. Cast darkness on the center of the room. Use your familiar to fly or crawl to the central pillar and remove the gems. Overcharge the pillar using a fire or light spell. 

Trap Three:

“The long hall stretches in front of you, lit only by your own torches. The floor ahead abruptly ends in a yawning pit, but a metal trunk stretches to what appears to be more floor on the other side, and something low lying on the floor across the way. The trunk below shines with an oily sheen, and from somewhere above, fresh wind makes your torch flicker.”

This is a simple pit trap consisting of a fall to doom and a greased metal pole, complicated by some air ducts that push characters off as they cross. Canny players may ask about the ladder stashed on the opposite side used by the dungeon denizens to cross safely, but retracted when defending from marauding drunken slayers and brigands. 

How to Solve Trap Three:

There are a myriad of ways to pass this trap, but for this one, let your players figure out how they want to make their way across. How will they solve it? Ask them to describe how, not just roll a dice to figure it out. The game is always more fun when everyone participates!

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Your Puzzles Need a Bypass

So, traps, puzzles and other conundrums are a vital aspect to any dungeon, as they represent a variance of challenge in the dungeon by whatever mad or alien intelligence designed such a place.  This shows that they prepared not just slavering hordes of monsters for those weak of flesh and unskilled of blade, but also cunning and calculated enigmas to foil the Luddite and fuddle the ignorant.

But... what if I don’t care about your riddle, and my barbarian punches your Sphinx in the face? What if my barbarian is wearing a manticore pelt, and has the scars to prove himself in battle and the taste of Lion’s blood in his nose? 

Or... what if my wizard uses paradimensional calculus to lessen gravity’s hold on the Giant Boulder that is rolling towards us, thus allowing even one of my moderate physique to treat that trap as a child’s balloon? What if I just use Acheron’s Finite Sub-Atomic Reductor to disintegrate the trap on a molecular level?

Solving a puzzle directly is but one way of handling the scenario. A successful skill check by a thief and the party begins to loot the room. Nothing wrong with that, although a descriptor of how the puzzle is solved from the player whets my palate considerably more than just a mere number. But what if you don’t have a thief in your party? There quite literally has to be another way. 

Secondary options for traps and puzzles maximizes choice (which I firmly believe is a good thing), for a party with with or without appropriately skilled members. It’s the same concept that one could talk to those orcs in room 2C, or one could just stab the lost merchant king in room 16B, but likely won’t. The dilemma here is that frequency of players getting stuck on puzzles and traps seems to happen much more often in the games I DM and PC. 

At first glance, this thought that we should have multiple ways around a trap or puzzle seems counter intuitive. “But Crypt Thing,” I hear you say, “Shouldn’t my puzzles stop the PCs? Isn’t that the point of placing them in a dungeon by its creator?” Well, yes, but no. The in-character reason is yes, but the out-of-character reason is to challenge the PCs and make them think either outside the box or on the fly. Your goal should be to provide a reasonable challenge that the players can feel accomplished for having overcome as their characters. 

Now, why not stop them? Because stopping the flow of the story, the game, and the adventure kills the mood. I’m not suggesting that characters shouldn’t fail, as failure stops none of those, and in the story’s case adds narrative growth. They’re welcome to try again (later, Rest and a wandering monster check) or another path (because your dungeon should absolutely have other paths). But I am suggesting that nothing is worse than only being able to progress once a puzzle has been beaten and that puzzle has your players stumped, especially if there is only one way to solve it. Riddles are a frequent offender for this category. 

I would say that, a narrative and canny way to create a puzzle or series of puzzles is to merely make a problem and not invent a solution, rather let the players come up with the solution themselves, and have that solution work. 

Another, slightly more game-y way to handle things is to break down how characters interact with the world. Let’s say in this case, our players interact with the world with might, with cunning, with skill, and with magic. For said trap or puzzle, I would have four different ways to negate or solve it, one for each method of interaction. And of course, I would hope that my players would do more than just roll a die when asked and then ask what happens in return. The goal here is to get them to think, remember? Let them describe said victory, both as a reward but also as an exercise in describing their character during their spotlight. 

Which is another reason to vary the method by which puzzles or traps can be solved, as well as a reason to include them in your dungeon: it moves the spotlight around the room, and helps weave the whole party into the narrative as being capable Adventurers. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Steal This Idea: Run The Olympics

We’ve all had nights where we the plot has cooled and you’re looking for something to stretch time or give XP until the party is ready to fight the Next Boss or Dungeon. 

Or maybe you’re flying by the seat of your pants and you don’t know where to go next. They’re coming over in two or three hours and you gotta brainstorm up something quick!

So steal this Idea: Run The Olympics.

At its core the premise is simple, some skill or ability challenges that more physical characters (like fighters and barbarians) should excel at, with the odd bout presented as combat (like wrestling). I’m sure thieves and rogues will also appreciate archery, as well as discuss toss or another sport that could be more dexterity based. 

You could also run like, a magical variant, with chess or such. Or stranger still, magical sports with rules the equivalent of cricket mixed with curling that involves algebra. 

It’s also an apt opportunity to add some intrigue to your game. The party has to kidnap a famed reclusive mobster, but they’re only available in the crowded coliseum, during the height of the track event. One of the players is participating, and another nation accuses them of cheating. Who planted the paraphernalia or magical item in their locker? Better yet, does the party keep the item? 

Winning a medal is always nice, and characters can wear it for like, a +2 bonus to social clout with fans of that sport, or maybe intimidation (if it’s wrestling or javelin toss, maybe shot put, boxing). 

What happens when a manticore or chimera lands during the pole-vault? What happens when said malicious creature doesn’t want to feast upon the crowd, but just watch the games for entertainment? What happens when a contingent from the Undead Army of The Doom Wastes shows up, and demands the right to participate as sovereign citizens of their fallen Empire Beneath the Sands? Why are doppelgängers replacing top athletes? Is lycanthropy cheating? 

You could take this a step further and do the gladiator thing, twist of Spartacus. A whole dungeon could be made for the entertainment of some wealthy extra-planar entity, the demons watching two teams of adventurers race rat-like through symmetrical dungeon labyrinths with challenges and adventures. Those who win, live and keep the treasures they’ve earned. Those who lose... well, the monsters in the maze have to come from somewhere, right?

Friday, April 19, 2019

Languages Part Two

My friend Oliver at Graven Utterance was kind enough to give me a call back on their blog as well as shed some Linguistic Wisdom on me. If you haven’t yet, I really do recommend visiting their website and reading it, as both their depth and breadth of knowledge exceeds mine. I was especially happy with their much more positive outlooks on Common as a trade-language and lasting stamp of multicultural unity and strength. 

The following is a list of languages I started writing even before my last post, and is by no means complete. I’ve broken my own rules here (note that I have elf languages, yuck), but also some fun ones, including one contagious one. You can probably tell I googled “magic languages” at least once while working on these. I may revisit some later, as I’m operating on very little sleep currently.

Fantastic Languages:

Oneiric: Which is the language used in dreams. Anyone asleep speaks oneiric, so long as they are asleep and dreaming. It is also the language of the Fey.

Spore: Language that Myconids naturally speak. People can learn Spore via contracting it as “psychic lichenification” of the skin. If someone takes over 20 damage from fire, or receives “Cure Disease”, they forget how to speak Spore until it is recontracted.

Gorgonite: The common language of monsters, a kind of Lingua-Franca that grew to include terms useful for defending against intrepid explorers and adventurers. Most non-extraplanar monsters (and a few crafty adventurers) speak some Gorgonite.

Thieves’ Cant: An odd mix of slang, codified phrases, and a smattering of Dungeon Hobo only recognized by those who frequently find themselves either on the wrong side of the law or the right place at the right time. 

High-Lyric: language of the oldest elves, largely considered a dead language except in elven spell-casting, or major religious holidays. Shares some phonetic similarities with Oneiric, but elves don’t sleep, so how would they know?

New-Lyric: Modern, in-vogue constructed language of the younger elves. Has a frustrating focus on politeness, cleanliness, beauty, and euphemisms and metaphors to keep it that way. 

Thrush: Language of the Birds, occasionally known but never spoken aloud by witches and sorcerers, for to do so is a sin against the Queen of Aeries and the Hawklord, thus making you an enemy of all birds forever.

Zaumlang: Written language used to transcribe the six-tongue sounds wizards must make in order to cast their spells. It is a necessity to read or write state-sanctioned magic.  

Far-flung: Language of Eldritch things and alien abominations from beyond the stars. May be several languages, or psychically enhanced.

Lethe: Language of the tormented dead. Ghosts and other miserably damned forget their old languages and only speak Lethe.

Ephemeral Dictum: The language used to speak with spirits, especially familiars. Has no written form.

Regional Languages:

Aurelian: Language predominantly spoken within the kingdom of Aurelia. As Aurelia was founded relatively recently, the language is still referred to as “Yswil” sometimes. Guaranteed to be one language amongst players in my homebrew world. 

Gotherese: Language used within the broken Empire of Gotheria, especially among those loyal to or old-soldiers of their exiled Empress. A common belief is that she will live so long as it is spoken. 

Vellish: Language used by the people of Vell, a pidgin language consisting of Old Vell, Dorgen (Which was consumed by Vellish), and Vaeresian. Has a costal dialect that abandons the Old Vellish grammar in favor of Dorgenian.

Rusal: Language of the northern Rusalkin, common among cold-water sailors and explorers. Rumored to have been magically stolen somehow from other beings.

Vaeresian: Language common among the Vaerese Penninsula, written in top to bottom, left to right.  

Yurthic: Language common among taiga dairy farmers and steppe nations, has no unified written form, but a strong oral tradition. The introduction of the printing press has seen several communities adopt other alphabets or invent their own.

Reggrimi: Language family of the Reggrim Forest dwellers consisting of a familial language, a language for use in public, and one for hunting.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Pavism: The Religion of Roads

“It came to pass” was the first phrase uttered by Darius Unmuted. He said this at a cart with a broken wheel as the remnants of his town moved from their ruined hovels towards their neighbors.

He stopped, and fixed the wagon.

That night he slept under the stars for the first time, and attained true wisdom. The next morning he sold his belongings, and bought a shovel, and began to work.

Six hundred years later, and Pavism is now a major religion, one with adherents throughout working professions, that is especially popular with the mercantile class.

In no small part to Darius Unmuted’s teachings and the nature of the faith itself, Pavism is common throughout the world and is generally welcomed by authority groups and governments. And who wouldn’t: an entire faith and lifestyle dedicated to roads and travelers?

Although the tenets of their faith remain the same, within Pavism there are two major sects: Laborists and Wanderists. The predominate difference being how they interpret Darius’s teachings, and the individual actions they undertake to live out the nature of the religion.

Laborists are the oldest sect, and live the tenet of “Existence is Work” directly, giving the faith it’s name. Where they go, roads are built, paths are carved, and the way is paved. At least physically if not spiritually. It is here that the heart of the faith can still be found, and wisdom gleaned from the creeping camps’ priests as they speak in koans of sweat and moil.

Wanderists take a much different approach, instead prioritizing the tenet “Connection is about the Path, not The Destination.” Like their Laborist brethren, they too are perpetual nomads, but at a much more accelerated rate. Not all Wanderists are militant, but many do become guardians of those who travel with them, monks on a perpetual pilgrimage to The Horizon, or knights forever errant. Others become roving hostels and inns, setting up camp and leaving spare beds for those in need every few days.

Pavism’s core tenets are simple, but with open room to interpretation, which has led to the divide between its sects.

  • Existence is to Work.
  • We Work to find Connection
  • Connection can be but a Moment, or a Lifetime
  • Connection is about The Path, not the Destination
  • Where you go, Work towards Connection

Pavists insist that practice of daily manual labor, travel, mindfulness, and connection with different peoples and cultures can and will eventually free all peoples of suffering, but Work will always remain, as we are designed for such.

* * *

So, this post was inspired by a few things in particular. Number one being a dream I had, and the second most pertinent being that in most fantasy worlds, the “traveler” religion is invariably a cut-paste-rename of Odin the wanderer, and I didn’t want that. Hence instead we have blue-collar zen-construction workers-errant who are obsessed with roads.I'm also just generally keen on the idea of my fantasy world having religions that are fantastic themselves to what we know: de-centralized religions, or religions without gods, or ones who's gods currently walk the earth for whatever reason. It's not perfect, nor is it fully fleshed out, but it'll work for now.

Work has had me slammed the past week or so, but I'll be back to writing regularly this week.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Chthonic Entity: The Sea

The Sea replaces any aquatic nature gods in your world, because it is the ur-concept, the living embodiment of itself, because it is itself. 

It would be foolish to think of it as anything else, but men do. 

Some think of her as a treasure-keeper, a goddess of horizons because she alone can touch the distant sky, and she alone binds the earthen parts of the world, her flexible strength mightier than that of stone. Always with the promise of something new, something unseen, something unknown. Something precious, something dear. Promises, promises. But nothing is free.

Some think of her as a sister to the moon, their cycles of rising and falling, ebb and flow not synchronistic, but so very close, how could they be anything but related? Would that the Queen of Night step forth from her home, certainly her silver-lined hem would be made of sea-foam, whitecaps spun with starlight to gossamer fringes that sing of summer nights on the open sea, the heavens above revealed in all their glory while her glass-still reflection drinks deep of the sky like a mirror. And how she comes alive when the sun rises and sets, her own attire changing to match the tropical wine glows and gilded rays that burn like god-gold from the heavens. Certainly her beauty is incomparable to anyone else’s, and some chase that, fear spotting their eyes with tears as joy and peace takes their soul in a manner no human dress could.

Maybe the most apt comparison is to a bride, which is why sailors use female pronouns to describe her, and say that they are “married to The Sea”. Certainly, it would give credence to their belief, however wrong or right, that women are bad luck underway. Those forever tied to the sea would say that she is a jealous lover, and that any attention shown elsewhere in her presence would draw her ire. That thing they do fear, and speak of in hushed tones. 

They’ve seen her split a mast with a thunderbolt, and splinter a hull with a curl of her saltwater hands as effortlessly as a maid wringing a rag free of the dirt that plagues it. They’ve seen her mood change with a breeze, some little slight provoking her wrath, and prayed forgiveness and mercy from her horrors, only to return to her after the briefest stays ashore. They’ve seen the faces in slate-grey waters of freezing liquid iron, pale and ghastly staring back at them. Because what The Sea takes, she keeps. 

Those that sink below are not given the respite of paradise, nor are they doled out their just-desserts in the underworld, nor sent to moil in some purgatorial limbo. Theirs is a fate far worse than death, for they join the ranks of that morbid locker they call The Deep. For what purpose could she call them there? Why keep them at all? Sailors ask not, and wonder not, lest they go mad. 

Only fools would try to steal from such a thing as powerful, or as fickle. 

But some they say have. Or perhaps, more accurately, she has allowed. A young man weeps at the docks as his lover departs, his tears pure and meeting the sea. He will always return to him, even beyond the Veil. A young woman picks up a shell on the shore, an early dowry for her sailor son. A warrior rinses blood from his hands by the tiller, and the goddess below him drinks it like wine. He will never be defeated on board a ship, so long as he pays tribute. An old captain knows the waters around the rocks with preternatural grace, and years from now when his heart stops he will fall into the arms of his beloved one last time. They dressed in mens’ clothes to work the rigging, and fell in love with one another again under strange stars. Their love will leave a wake of blood and bodies overboard as they chase the gold promised on the map, never knowing who blessed them with it. 

There is no formal church to The Sea. No ritual worship. There are only sailors, and land-lovers. Those who have seen her beauty, danced on the waves, or tasted her sea-spray kiss and yearned for more. This is because The Sea is The Sea, and it is itself.

It has always been, and always will be.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Keeping Monsters Fresh

A topic I keep seeing brought up in some social media groups is one along the lines of letting players have access to the books filled with monsters, or dealing with players who know monster abilities/quirks and if their characters acting on this is meta-gaming. 

Most people playing Fantasy RPGs, especially the oldest game, know how monsters work (by the book anyways). Even if we aren’t familiar with the numbers, most players are keen enough on Hollywood creature features to know how to take down vampires and werewolves. If our characters encounter a troll, whether we want to or not, players start looking for acid or fire to combat the regeneration that trolls typically have. Whether our characters know this weakness or not is another matter entirely.

This meta-knowledge touches on a key aspect of older games and home-brew games that other games won’t or don’t have: monsters as puzzles, and a particular sense of discovery. 

There are basically two ways to handle this. The first is to let the players use their meta-knowledge in combat. The second would be to alter monsters in a way that feels natural, but don’t tell the players, letting them figure it out as they fight. I would suggest in either case maybe taking a nod from the GUMSHOE system in that, different characters should decipher different traits about different monsters, based off of class or background. A magical spy should know about doppelgängers, and an ice-age warrior know about dire wombats. A warrior-priest of The Warding Eye should recognize a basilisk’s dread gaze, and a ex-cultist thief a rudimentary understanding of altar-ghosts’ dirge chants.

The trick here is, in the latter case, to give them clues without revealing the solution. It also serves as an additional “what if” players must consider before engaging in combat. What if this mega-marsupial is not 100% like the book says? What if the DM has altered it?  What if it’s pouch is a bag of holding, filled with smaller, angrier wombats? 

Monsters once familiar lose some of their fright. It is why some of us research the things we’re scared of. Because if we understand it, we become less afraid. We learn that, should we encounter cube shaped poop in the outback, we are within the territories of our nightmares. 

What’s more, for a game with a sense of exploration and discovery, knowing all the details of the creatures there-in removes their alien aspect, especially for those which are meant to seem completely foreign, like aberrations. That, I feel, takes away a lot of the “aha!” element of being the first to set foot in uncharted territory, or defeat an as-yet-unknown megafauna. Which is what fantastic adventure gaming is about: the weird we haven’t seen yet, and the familiar cast through a scrambling lens. 

So, how do we change monsters to make them different than what the book states, while keeping them familiar? A fresh remix, or a well-done cover song? 

The first way to do so is to steal directly or indirectly from other monsters, adding powers or body parts. An example would be, that in my home-brew world, dragons must be permanently killed in a ritualized occult manner, such as vampires being beheaded or having nails driven into them. It isn’t the exact same as the parent creatures, sunlight and holy water will provide no benefit, but it is terrible when they return years later full of fire and thirsting for their missing gold. When skeletons start having multiple heads and arms, none of which look grafted, we start asking ourselves as GMs and players “what did this belong to? How did something else defeat it initially?”

The second way would be to fixate on one aspect of the monster and add new abilities that make sense. A gorgon can freeze adventurers to stone, but what if we changed them to an ice-themed villain, making them like Sub-Zero, but also a great crystalline yak instead of a metallic bull. Or another example is that Beholders in my setting are literal Eye-Tyrants: if you see them, they see you. Across planes and planets, as they have given a command as the Kings of Eyes. Then we could even completely invert the powers of the monster: instead of an ooze that is a sentient blob of acid, it’s instead a sentient blob of sovereign glue, probably with a clingy ex-boyfriend personality and separation anxiety. Instead of taking your character apart molecule by molecule, perhaps it’s bonding them quite permanently to whatever else it was touching. 

I’m sure there are other ways and thought processes for refreshing monsters to jaded players, or adding new facets to them to keep them interesting. This is, of course, dancing around but not acting directly with just making your own creatures, then populating your world or dungeon with such. Why not? Because I am lazy sometimes, if not most of the time. Sometimes it’s ok to just go buck wild and make up something new or slap-together a critter or two, see how it works. But also sometimes it’s good to use what’s already been written, just tweaking or re-skinning it as appropriate, and trying to make an old story new. Especially when it’s man versus beast. 

Friday, March 22, 2019

Languages Are Also Complex

So, before I begin effectively putting my foot in my mouth, I should point out that I know at least one blogger, Graven Utterance, has a background involving linguistics. I barely have a high-school education. So I’ll defer to their wisdom when it comes to this subject. I’ve also not spoken to them at all about this idea.

When it comes to RPGs, languages are a large point of contention for me. It seems like, at least in modern interpretations of the oldest game, Race=Language, plus “Common” which is what everybody is speaking at the table. Also, everybody chooses to speak elvish and no monsters speak that. That’s anecdotal, I know.

But like... that isn’t how languages work in real life. And a lot of you may be groaning at that last sentence, especially as Gygax himself wrote that the game isn’t about simulating the real world in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. And sure, if you don’t want to ground your world in this level of realism, that’s ok. Nobody asks how Rocket Raccoon and Drax both talk to Starlord. You can effectively hand-wave that and still tell a good tale and have a good game. Hell, mere paragraphs before advocating that the game isn’t simulationist, Gygax basically says (paraphrased) “If it isn’t fun, get rid of the rule.”

Either breezing through or coming to a complete impasse is never fun. And making choices that have no impact is also not fun, which languages feel like. One of the tenets of Old-School dungeon design is “Maximize Impactful Decisions”, meaning that player choices matter, and I think languages are a fine place to re-vamp that. In my case, I’m making them both a little more realistic, and also, a little more... Weird.

First and foremost, “Common” is replaced by regional languages. The Swiss speak French and German, Canada speaks French and English, and Japan speaks Japanese, but Osaka has a regional dialect. Some nomadic peoples of Mongolia share some mutual intelligibility with Yupik and Inuit. My own language, English, is a horrifying Frankenstein of whatever it can get it’s hands on (“My bon-vivant friend gifted me a katana for Saturnalia last Thursday. YOLO.”). And this is just referencing speaking a language, let alone writing.

A halfling that grows up amongst a Dwarven mining camp that trades with local frog-men isn’t likely to use much Halfling-Language. A human that moves to a smoke-choked inner-city of automata is gonna know how to Beep-Boop her way to an Electrolyte Beverage at a Robo-Bar. Coastal Raiders will speak a different tongue than Kingdom sanctioned wizards.

This gets more interesting as you start thinking of other factors in your world: magic, monsters, and the influences they will have in language as a whole: Dragons have a language, but you don’t have a three-foot long face and a forked tongue combined with recycle breathing and sub-harmonic vocalizations to replicate the sounds. Your embouchure is off just a bit.

Or maybe they’re all psychic and communicate via telepathy. Maybe that’s why wolves hunt in packs the way they do, striking as one unit. Or maybe the owls and the ravens tell them where to strike, obeying ancient pacts and fulfilling promises your ears cannot hear. Maybe they can talk back, maybe they can’t.

How do elves, which live five-hundred-plus years deal with a language that changes as time goes on? With slang? My grandparents still call things “Neato!” instead of “cool” and people in the Ninties used the word “groovy” unironically for a while. I had to explain to someone what “Yeet” was the other day. Now extrapolate that by one-hundred times. It’s right poppycock I tell you! See how that last sentence sounded? 

So secondly, racial languages are out, unless there’s a decent reason, physically, culturally, magically, or otherwise. And if culture is a good reason to keep languages, then that means ones like Thieves’ Cant and Druidic are still in, as the language is part of the culture and thus likely evolves with it. I’m sure there are regional dialects in each (to say the least of parent languages for each of those), but I’m not stressing those right now. It could even just be something that a particular character notices. “He tries to mimic southern dockhand in his Cant, but he just can’t shake those Capital city terms for coded honorifics.” Something like that.

So what now? How do languages work? Well, you make up a bunch (I’m working on a few), and your players get to choose one for free (to replace “Common”) and then handle them in accordance with your version of the game, meaning let them choose more or have them make a check for it, or base it off of their Intelligence stat, or however.

Does this mean you could get a party where nobody speaks the same languages? Absolutely. Or even one party member that’s a little in the dark. Then again, that same player could feel completely left in the cold. I think that, unless the player wants that challenge, that it’s something to avoid. A best case scenario like that is a Rocket and Groot, where a player's character is translated for by a friend (with ample opportunity for bluff checks on either side). Or a “13th Warrior” scenario where they learn one language frequently spoken. The GM could also just “assign” a language to the party in place of Common, but keep it from being a ubiquitous language across the globe. That may help replicate the feel of travel in foreign cities, and gives a good excuse to pay a translator hireling. In any case, I think it’s important to have this discussed at the zero session among the players and the referee, as that will prevent any wild hiccups.