DnDtober the 31st: Tarrasque

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgThe tarrasque is meant to be a legendary destructive force in any campaign, a monster so terrible that it can’t be destroyed by mere mortal ability, even mortals as powerful as the adventurers. The characters must acquire something special to deal with this impending threat, whether divine (or infernal) intervention, artifact-level magic items, or simply finding the tarrasque’s favourite snuggy which will help it fall dormant once more. Even with this aid the creature often can’t be destroyed, simply forced back into dormancy until the time is right for it to wake again.

All of which sounds amazing, right? But too often the tarrasque is used as just another bag of hit points for the characters to face. Or worse, the DM throws it in as some sort of weird prize/punishment for reaching high character levels. But used properly, the tarrasque can be the lynch pin of your campaign. Here are three suggestions for including this awesome force of nature in your game.

1) Knowledge is Power – Decide how much information is available to the average person about the tarrasque. Will the party have to research in hidden libraries full of ancient tomes, or simply consult the latest edition of the Tarrasquenomicon? In most campaigns the tarrasque is a recurring threat, appearing over and over throughout history. Obviously it would be a big enough event for someone to write it down, but that doesn’t mean an unbroken string of information exists. Books molder or go missing, libraries can burn, and even if an ancient account survives to get in front of the characters, it may be damaged or just poorly written. Also keep in mind, the people best suited to comment on the tarrasque and its abilities are the people who fought it. More often than not, though, they aren’t around after the fight. This leaves the characters with second- and even third-hand accounts, with all the inaccuracies that implies.

Maybe this is the tarrasque’s first appearance in your campaign world, and there simply aren’t any historical accounts to pull from. This doesn’t mean there is no information about the creature. But it does mean the characters will have to go further afield for their knowledge, travelling to other planes or summoning planar allies for a study session.

2) Scary is in the Eye of the Beholder – The “classic” tarrasque is an enormous beast, all teeth, horns, and claws. But that doesn’t mean your tarrasque has to look that way. Maybe your tarrasque always takes a different form, depending on the circumstances of its summoning/wakening. You could borrow a page (film frame?) from Ghostbusters, and have the tarrasque appear in the first form someone thinks of as it appears. Imagine the scene: the party waits near the site of the tarrasque’s awakening, weapons at the ready. As the time draws near a voice barks a demand in the minds of the characters, “Choose the form of the Destroyer!” Without thinking, a character’s thoughts flash back to his youth, and the voice bellows, “DONE!”  In a flash of lightning and fire, the horrible creature appears…as a twelve-year-old boy. One of the characters instantly recognizes the boy as Genry, his bullying tormentor from school…

For that to work, of course, the final form of the tarrasque should have little to no effect on the creature’s abilities. Genry, for example, should hit just as hard as the stock tarrasque and be just as hard to damage. If you’re like me, the thought of taking the characters apart with a middle-schooler should fill you with warm fuzzy feelings.

3) Don’t Hold Back – There are times, as a dungeon master, when it is right and correct to adjust the encounter currently facing the players. We want to challenge our players, after all, without murdering them at every turn.

This is not one of those times.

The tarrasque is a terrible and epic threat in your campaign world. The players should have been given every opportunity to have their characters prepare for the tarrasque’s arrival and you should take the effect of those preparations into account. But once the creature is awake, it shouldn’t pull any punches. It needs to be just as scary as promised, if not scarier, or the players are going to feel cheated. They’ll feel doubly cheated if they actually catch you fudging things. So don’t do it. This should be the ultimate fight of their adventuring careers to this point. Characters may, and likely will, die. So be it. If you’ve done a good enough job of building toward the fight, the players should feel immensely satisfied if their victory results in character death. What better way for an adventurer to go, after all.

How do you run the tarrasque in your campaign? Let me know in the comments.

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DnDtober the 22nd: Rust Monster

prehistoricanimalssOne of the things I love about the early days of D&D are the stories about how creatures like the rust monster and the bulette were created. As the story goes, the early TSR crew had a bag of odd plastic toys, and they would snag one of these creatures and make up a monster to fit it (if you check out this video by Dorks of Yore you can hear Tim Kask talk about that and much more). That fits so well with my own early experience of D&D, where we made things up on the fly, or used things from sci-fi and fantasy culture as inspiration. Like most people who came to D&D in my generation, I certainly played a number of wizards named Gandalf and halfling thieves name Bilbo. And of course their associates, Gundalf and Balbo. I was super-creative when I was eleven years old, guys!

It’s one of the things I appreciate about the roll-out of 5e. They’ve kept things very simple and left a lot of the creation in the hands of the DMs and players. Looking at the long list of offerings available on Dungeon Master’s Guild, it seems many have taken the opportunity to do just that. I know my home-brew campaign setting of Cotterell wouldn’t have come about without 5e. Nothing in the books directly inspired my setting; instead, it was almost like the dearth of material for the game gave me permission to create some of my own. Of course no one needed to give me permission to create, and I could have made up material for any of the games I play. But when you have games with very well stocked setting material (Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, and so on), it can be difficult to overcome the inertia of those settings. I mean, I love Pathfinder’s Golarion setting. It has replaced the Forgotten Realms as my favourite published campaign world, and I wasn’t sure that would ever be possible. But aside from a bit of tweaking and adjusting to make the adventures better fit my players, there isn’t a lot for me to do to Golarion.

With D&D 5e, though, the field is wide open. While WotC has settled back in to the Forgotten Realms as their default setting, they seemed to have learned from the past and refrained from publishing a glut of Realms sourcebooks. So while it’s an option, it isn’t the overwhelming option. And for the first time in a long time I felt like I could maybe build something from scratch, put it in front of players, and see how that went. Cotterell is definitely a work in progress, but I’m very much enjoying the way it’s building itself out through player interaction. I feel like I get a chance to make my figurative rust monster again, and I like it.

DnDtober the 21st: Demons

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgIn my home-brew campaign setting of Cotterell, the barrier between it and the other planes and dimensions is severely weakened due to a magical cataclysm. In addition to the explosive influx of magic causing a sharp increase in aberrant monsters, there are now weak points scattered across the land which allow easier travel between the planes. Not all of these spontaneous gates lead somewhere dangerous or threatening. But enough of them do to cause most folk to stear well clear of them, when discovered.

Arguably worse than these are the places where the veil between worlds has worn thin, but not yet thin enough to allow a breach. All it will take, though, is something to push the veil to the breaking point to cause the worn spot to rupture. Powerful magic used indiscriminately, perhaps even a build-up of negative energy or emotion, and that point will rupture into another opening between the planes, often with horrible consequence. Unfortunately these weakened points are hard to detect. At least from our side of the barrier.

On the other side, the demons watch.

For whatever reason these weak points, all but invisible in the lands of Cotterell, are not only visible but stand out as dark flares across the abyssal realms. Demons are drawn to them, searching for ways to weaken them enough to gain entry to the world. If you pictured a demon or demons on the other side of a weak point, pacing back and forth like a tiger in a cage, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Luckily, most of a demon’s powers cannot cross into our world at these points, and so the demon’s influence has to be more subtle.

How much the demon can influence things on the other side depends on the size of the weak point itself. If the point is small, about the size of a dinner plate, the demon may only be able to affect an area about the size of a small home. Larger weak points, however, allow a demon or demons to influence things over larger areas; pity the village unknowingly settled in a lake-sized weak point.

So what can demons actually do through these weak points? First, their mere presence at the weak point for prolonged periods affects the emotions of whoever is within range on the other side. This can manifest in many ways, but is generally seen as an overall sense of hopelessness. Negative emotions become heightened and positive ones are diminished. Staying in the area for longer than a day will cause a character or NPC to take disadvantage on their Wisdom checks and saving throws. Second, while the demons cannot directly speak to a person when they are awake, they can whisper to that person’s subconscious while they sleep. These dark whispers make promises and try to push the recipient to fell deeds, all ultimately designed to weaken the veil enough to allow the demon to cross over.

It does take longer for the effects of this to take hold, however. A demon must whisper to a particular person for at least a week, continuously, before they can gain any influence at all. After a week of constant nightly dark whisperings, the person must make a DC 12 Wisdom saving throw (with disadvantage, of course) to avoid the demonic influence. If they succeed the influence is staved off temporarily. On subsequent nights, however, the subject must make more Wisdom saving throws, with the DC increasing by one each evening. Eventually the subject fails, and the demon is able to take hold in the victim’s mind. Now the demon can begin influencing the victim’s waking actions as well. These actions will vary, but generally work their bloody way toward the goal of opening the veil between worlds. The victim rarely survives this result.

That’s one example of demonic influence in my campaign. How do you handle it in yours? Let me know in the comments.

DNDtober the 18th: Mimics

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgThere’s a gaming joke making the rounds right now that goes something like this:

The tavern keeper asked why we always wore our weapons and armour in the tavern. “Mimics”, I told him. He laughed, we laughed, the table laughed. We killed the table and it was a good night.

Funny, right? But it also points up how I think mimics should really be used in a D&D campaign. Mimics are essentially ambush hunters; they camouflage themselves as something innocuous and wait for their prey to draw within striking distance. Great so far, but the “standard” mimic camouflage is a wooden chest. I get it, if you’re trying to catch adventurers you put out the adventurer bait. But this raises questions for me. Are there so many adventurers coming through the mimic’s lair that a chest is its go-to form? How many stupid adventurers has this mimic eaten, then? Because if I’m exploring a cave network, say, and I come across a chest sitting by itself in the middle of a cavern, that raises more red flags than the Kremlin on May Day. Which is the opposite response a camouflage hunter wants. Ideally they want their prey to want to come closer, but at the very least they want their prey oblivious to their impending entree status.

So here’s a few ideas which I think will make mimics a more interesting challenge to the players. In no particular order:

Anything But a Chest – Unless it’s a room full of chests. But seriously, if a mimic is smart enough to make itself look like a chest when it wants, it should be able to look around and pick a more appropriate item. So yes, maybe the mimic makes itself into the table, or a chair, or a bench. Can you imagine the look of terror on your player’s face when they sit down for a moment’s rest and you ask for an Athletics check at disadvantage (because who is expecting their chair to grapple and eat them?). Definitely brown trouser time.

One is the Hungriest Number – Just because camouflage hunters in our world are usually solo acts doesn’t mean mimics have to be. There is no reason why mimics in your game couldn’t operate as pack hunters, combining their talents to bring down larger groups of prey. Imagine this. Your party is exploring a room, which appears to be some kind of long-abandoned bedroom. The rogue is picking the lock on the wardrobe as the wizard explores the desk, and the fighter is prodding at the bed with her spear. Suddenly the desk grabs the wizard and tries to stuff him into its maw. The rogue turns around at the commotion, only to be engulfed in the jaws of the wardrobe. Frozen in indecision about who to help first, the fighter is attacked by each of the bedposts in turn. The cleric, who stepped down the hall to use the little boys garderobe, returns to find most of his party in the process of being eaten. Out of the corner of his eye the ornate picture frame on the wall begins to move…

Look What my Pet Can Do! – In the real world people train dangerous animals to follow commands all the time. Any animal you’ve seen in a movie that wasn’t a digital construct has been trained to follow commands and generally not eat the people around them. So why not mimics? I can imagine a mimic would make a great pet for wizard looking for a bit of special home protection. Rogues could definitely make use of the mimic’s unique skills; not only stealth, but for getting rid of those pesky leftover bodies at the end of a job. A ranger with a mimic animal companion would be all sorts of fun to play. Training would need to be handled perfectly, and there would almost certainly be some training mishaps as the pet learned who not to grapple and/or eat (“Has anyone seen the neighbor’s cat?”). But the occasional pet is a small price to pay for a cool and creepy animal companion.

How do you handle mimics in your campaign? Do you use them as pets, and if so, do you paper or litter train them? Let me know in the comments.

DnDtober the 17th: Dragon

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgThere is a plethora of dragon lore in D&D. I mean, dragon is in the name of the game, so you have to expect there would be plenty written about them over the years. Rather than try to add to that lore, I’m going to talk about how I’m currently using dragons in my campaigns.

Inspired by the 2nd edition Council of Wyrms box set, there is a continent in my home campaign which has been ruled by dragons for thousands of years. Because they’ve had a stable empire for millennia, the dragons are incredibly advanced in both magic and magic-based technology. Currently the dragon empire seems to be very isolationist, for reasons my players have not yet discovered (and may never discover). There is trade between the dragons and other nations, all funnelled through the single coastal city the dragons have opened to foreign contact. There are also embassies scattered across the world, but even those have limited contact with the countries in which they reside. There are reasons for this, which my players may discover in the course of their campaigns. For now, there are two aspects of dragons in my campaign which are common knowledge to the players.

First, a dragon’s alignment is not necessarily tied to their colour. While dragons of a particular colour will begin their lives the alignment listed in the Monster Manual, as they get older it is entirely possible for their alignments to shift. Dragons live incredibly long lives in relation to the other races, and in that time it is possible for their perspectives, desires, and attitudes to change. The younger a dragon is in my campaign, the more closely they are likely to fall within their “starting” alignment. But it is certainly possible to encounter metallic dragons who have slanted toward evil, and chromatic dragons who now tend toward neutrality and even good. For me, this makes dragons in my campaign more like inteligent, powerful NPCs, and less like monstrous sacks of XP who happen to get their name in the game’s title.

Second, the dragonborn in my campaign are a result of magical genetic manipulation developed by the dragon empire. While dragons are formidable in combat, it is still possible for them to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. And really, constantly patrolling and defending their empire’s borders is just so boring! Thus the dragonborn were created as the empire’s shock troops, general standing army, and even as a source of income for the empire, hired out as mercenary companies. Not everything went as smoothly with their creations, of course. Unexpectedly, the dragonborn began to breed true; slowly at first, but especially after the Cataclysm the dragonborn found themselves able to procreate without draconic intervention. This has led to two strains of dragonborn, the naturally born and the created. The two strains are virtually identical in all aspects except one: natural born dragonborn have tails, while the created are hatched without. This difference means little to many of the other races, but is becoming an increasing point of contention between the two types of dragonborn.

That’s a little peek at dragons in my campaign. Do you do anything special with your dragons? Let me know in the comments.

DnDtober the Ninth: Undead

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgI’m always careful with how much I use the undead in my campaigns. Don’t get me wrong, I love using them. But I believe that things like the undead should be used in such a way that it enhances the creep and/or terror factor of your campaign. Just dumping a bunch of skeletons or zombies into an encounter as throw-away bags of XP undermines how chilling it would really be to encounter something dead now walking around again. Nevermind several somethings.

I also feel that the undead are most effective when their exact origin and method of elimination are a bit of a mystery. In my D&D campaigns so far, reducing incorporeal undead to 0-hp causes them to fade away for anywhere from one to four days (d4 roll); corporeal undead can take a bit longer to pull themselves together, re-manifesting in one to eight days (d8 roll). But unless the characters can discover what is causing the undead to manifest in the first place and somehow deal with that, those particular undead are going to keep coming back.

In my current 5e homebrew campaign, I wanted a way to demonstrate that the land was still tainted by a magical cataclysm several hundred years previous. I used aberrations to partially demonstrate this; all aberrations in my campaign were born from that magical cataclysm, not existing before that point. But I wanted a way to show the land was still poisoned by this past event. So I came up with a type of undead to fit that theme. Many undead manifest from some horrible traumatic event while they still lived, or are created at the whim of a necromancer. Coffin Knockers are created purely by an accident of interment in a magically-tainted location.

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Coffin Knocker

Medium undead, chaotic neutral


Armor Class 13

Hit Points 16 (2d8 + 6)

Speed 30 ft.


STR 13 (+1)  DEX 8 (-1)  CON 16 (+3)  INT 8 (-1)  WIS 10 (0)  CHA 5 (-3)


Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, slashing

Damage Immunities poison, necrotic

Condition Immunities charmed, grappled, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, restrained

Senses Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 10

Languages understands the languages it knew in life but can’t speak

Challenge 2 (450 XP)


Partially Incorporeal The coffin knocker can move through an object or objects,  but not another creature. It may choose to end its movement inside another object.

Rejuvenation If the coffin knocker is destroyed, it regains all its hit points in 1-4 (d4) days unless its remains are sprinkled with holy water and re-interred in untainted ground. Alternatively, if the tainted ground is somehow cleansed the coffin knocker will fail to rejuvenate.


Actions

Slam Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 4 (1d6+1) bludgeoning damage

Tainted Mana Bolt Ranged Spell Attack: +1 to hit, range 30 ft., one target. Hit: 10 (3d6) necrotic damage

Coffin knockers appear much as they did when they were interred, though parts of their form can be seen to become incorporeal seemingly at random. While not possessing all the intelligence they did in life, coffin knockers are still more cunning than purely mindless undead, and are often able to act much as they did in life.

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I envision coffin knockers causing some terror in small villages in my world, as deceased friends come back for a visit simply because they were buried in a patch of magically-infected ground. Inhabitants would learn over time which spots were safe for burial and which weren’t, but that wouldn’t stop Aunt Edna from coming back every few days, until someone could deal with her permanently.

What sorts of special undead do you use in your campaign? Share them in the comments section.

DnDtober the 8th: Tieflings

cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgIn a previous post I talked about some of the changes I made to the races in my D&D campaign. At that time, most of the changes were fluff changes; I had adjusted how some of the races had come to be, without really touching their racial stats. But as I looked at tieflings in my campaign, I knew that I wanted to make some mechanical adjustments. Tieflings in my campaign world were born out of the world-spanning contamination from an explosion of dark magic, not from any sort of infernal source. And while the racial traits for tieflings as written were okay, I began to feel like I should have something a bit more in line with the source of a tiefling’s birth. Below is a draft of the racial traits for the “mana scorched”, or just “scorched”, which is what tieflings are most often called in my world.

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Mana Scorched Traits

The mana scorched share certain racial traits as a result of the common source of their contamination. They also gain different racial traits based on their parentage.

Parentage. Decide what race your parents were. This will affect certain other racial traits, below. Note, no scorched parents have successfully given birth to a child, and so scorched is not a racial choice for your parents.

Ability Score Increase. Your Intelligence and Charisma scores each increase by 2. As well, pick one attribute to which you would normally get a racial bonus. That attribute increases by 1. For example, if your scorched character was born to Hill Dwarf parents, you could increase your Constitution or Wisdom score by 1. Mana scorched born to human parents may choose one ability score other than Intelligence or Charisma to increase by 1.

Age. Scorched mature at a similar rate to others of their parent race. Because of the magic suffusing their bodies, they will tend to live several decades longer than is normal for their parent race. Roll a d10, that is how many extra decades of life the scorched will live.

Alignment. The mana scorched have no innate tendency toward any particular alignment. However, as they are often shunned as different or outsiders there is a good possibility a scorched character will tend toward chaos in their outlook. Occasionally, scorched characters will embrace lawful tendencies, as they seek to tightly control the magical taint inside.

Size. Mana scorched will take on the size and build of their parent race, with any attendant bonuses or penalties that incurs.

Speed. Your base walking speed is that of your parent race.

Darkvision. Thanks to the magic suffusing your body, your eyesight is enhanced. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were brightly lit, and can see in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern colour in darkness, only shades of grey.

Scorched Resistance. Pick one of the following damage types: acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder. You have resistance to that damage type. When a scorched character reaches 10th level, this resistance grows. The scorched character gains resistance to damage from any spell source, as well as the damage type originally chosen (from any source).

Born of Mana. You know the thaumaturgy cantrip. Once you reach 3rd level choose a 1st-level spell. You may cast this spell once per day as if it were using a 2nd-level spell slot. Once you reach 5th level, choose a 2nd-level spell. You may cast that spell once a day as well. Regardless of any other spellcasting abilities, Charisma is your spellcasting ability for these spells.

Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and the language of your parents. If human, choose any second language available in your campaign.

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As you can see, I gave the mana scorched in my campaign a slightly different feel from the rules-as-written tieflings. While tieflings tend to be born to human parents, the scorched in my campaign could be born to any race, and I wanted to reflect some of those potential differences in their racial traits. As well, their taint comes from magical, not infernal, sources, and I wanted that reflected in their traits. Playing the campaign will tell me if these racial traits are too powerful, but so far they seem to be on par with the other available races.

Have you made changes to any of the base races in 5e? What’s your take on the tiefling race? Let me know in the comments.