The little company with big shoes keeps growing! With two gold ENnie Awards in 2012, people are noticing the excellent work done by the Kobold crew in adventure design, how-to advice, and worldbuilding for the Midgard campaign setting.
Kara’s chest flared painfully with each breath. Next to her, Strass’s left arm hung uselessly at his side. Thick, muscular tentacles lay around them, writhing as if still controlled by their monstrous master. A few dozen feet before them, the kraken lay defeated, its great yellow eyes unmoving. Nearby, Azreal tended to the large gash running across Val’s chest. A whirlpool surged suddenly at the center of the strange ship graveyard, sucking everything into it. In an instant, the heroes were drawn into a black abyss.
Welcome to the table! This session marked the end of a campaign arc. The players had entered a new region, matched wits with a villainous uncle, and fought with horrific creatures of the abyss. Amid all of the adventures, one moment stood out during the final fight: the players were deeply unsettled because the monstrous aboleth was trying to be killed. Today, let’s talk about manipulating expectations.
Cliché & Expectation
In fantasy and science fiction, there are things that always seem to come up—Dragons, spaceships, a world-ending artifact, and villains hellbent on destruction make a short list of the clichés often found in these genres. In RPGs, players expect magical or unique items, fantastic worlds, and powerful foes. It is this last expectation that a GM can manipulate to really make players worry. When players come to expect horrifying, dangerous monsters, introducing monsters that are the opposite causes a break in that expectation and forces the players to question whether something else is happening.
“You’ve fought well… but all things come to an end. Give yourself over to Ruin.” The voice painfully filled Kara’s mind. Snapping her eyes open, Kara saw her friends close by, holding their heads and looking dazedly around. Turning her attention to the thing floating in front of her, Kara took in the hideous form of the aboleth. Tentacles twisted in on themselves, concealing a slime-covered body. Three blood-red eyes stared at her through the wriggling mass. Roaring in fear and anger, Kara raised her staff, hearing her allies do the same, and she struck the aboleth. “Yes! Come! Do your worst…” the voice called to her.
A Strong Final Foe
In our session, the characters had been working up to a final foe, an aboleth named Ruin. Over the course of the arc, the characters fought against hordes of aberrations and deadly beasts, nearly dying a number of times. When the final fight finally came, the characters were anxious to see what would happen and prepared for a wild battle. I tried not to disappoint, and after fighting both a kraken and the aboleth in a ship graveyard, the players managed to drive Ruin back into its lair—its former prison.
Often players assume that a final fight needs to be hard, dynamic, and full of epic moments. While these traits are important, when they are manipulated or when you provide the opposite, you force players to start looking for what is wrong. When the characters started fighting Ruin, they found the fight to be eerily easy. Ruin did little to stop the characters, and every time that the characters attacked, I emphasized that Ruin “leaned into the hit.” During Ruin’s turns, it would only attack once, never focusing on one target. In this moment, I watched the faces of the players grow worried. The focus of the fight started to shift, the players realizing, without me explicitly telling them, that there was something more happening at the table. One of the players even raised the question of whether Ruin wanted to die for some evil ritual. To make matters worse, at the start of the round, the players needed to successfully avoid a life-draining effect that would lower player’s hp by half, thus ensuring that the players would fail if the encounter was drawn out.
Azreal watched as the aboleth leaned into his attack, his sword cutting deep into the creature’s flesh. Years of fighting told him that something was wrong, that this should be harder. All the while, the voice in his head grew more excited, “Cut, slash, and hack. Yes… soon there will be nothing left of me here.” Lowering his blade, Azreal looked around the room, taking in a large viscous pool and massive rune-covered hooks that hung from chains secured to the pool’s edge.
Manipulating expectations can have mixed results. Over the years, I’ve watched players grow excited, confused, even angry when things don’t go the way they thought it should. When I was designing this encounter, I was careful to leave clues—shown in the environment, the monster’s actions, and my narration—to clue the players into other options available to them. As the players attacked Ruin, they grew more and more worried that they were doing something wrong. I intentionally started drawing the player’s attention to the hooks and chains that hung in the room, hoping that they would pick them up and use them to attack Ruin.
Cluing the players into available options should be a common practice for GMs, but it is particularly important when challenging players’ expectations. By indicating to the players that the hooks in the room were “old, tangled with portions of dried flesh, and covered in arcane runes”, the players could intuit that these could and would be helpful in fighting the aboleth. Eventually, Azreal decided to use one of the hooks as a weapon and discovered that they were both magical and built to harm Ruin.
Azreal took one of the hooks in his hands. It was impossibly light for its size. The runes that covered the hooks flared to life. Visions of a divine being, mighty and beautiful, filled Azreal’s mind. He knew this god—Pelor, lord of the sun—his patron and protector. The visions showed Pelor swinging the hook, piercing the aboleth’s flesh. As soon as the visions started, they stopped, and Azreal smiled, raising the hook above his head.
Patterns, Patterns, Patterns
Patterns, stereotypes, and clichés provide both familiarity and predictability to the game. Players come to rely on certain patterns because they are effective. Breaking those patterns with careful planning can result in players growing uncomfortable, which in turn can lead to amazing moments of inspiration at the table. During this session, the players were vocally and physically uncomfortable when the final villain was doing nothing to stop them. When the players finally picked up the hooks and the villain flinched with fear, the looks of excitement and accomplishment that radiated from the players was worth the work.
The first hook sank easily into the aboleth, and the voice inside Azreal’s head took on a panicked tone. The lethargic aboleth suddenly swelled with power, lunging out at everything around it. Azreal shouted to his friends to grab the other hooks and prayed, hoping that his god would bless the other hooks as he had done to the first one.
Let’s Sum Up
Noting the patterns your players fall into and the expectations they have can pay off in the long run. Keep a few notes about these patterns to remind you where you could change the game when needed.
Breaking expectations can yield amazing moments at the table but should be done carefully. Without support and proper clues, the players may flounder and grow angry or frustrated.
Not every final villain needs to be powerful, but the encounters they are in should be dynamic and fun. You can accomplish this by weaving social and environmental encounters into a combat situation.
Supernatural boons might take the form of blessings or charms, providing worthy characters with some small benefit—the equivalents of wondrous items and potions. Such gifts are great fodder for quests and provide a venue both to make a character feel special and to circumvent attunement limits in a minor way. Supernatural gifts make the magic of a world feel more real with a quantifiable and concrete approach.
Stories and legends, however, are filled with magic not quite so benign. Whether the hexes of a hag, the wrath of a titan, or the decree of a vengeful devil, minor maladies that plague or hinder characters can provide a source of tension and even a comedic foil.
Presented below are some such malign alternatives to those gifts. Some operate like cursed magic items, and some operate like spell effects. Use them to harangue, harass, and humble your heroes!
Blights are sinister magicks that have long-term negative effects on a character. A character might be subjected to a blight after defiling a profane temple, crossing a powerful fey or fiend, or turning against a baleful patron. Simply defeating an evil creature or minion is unlikely to garner a blight, but single-handedly thwarting the long-term plans of a demon, causing a massive setback to a lich’s plan to unleash hordes of undead upon the kingdom, or bringing restoration to a long-cursed land may well result in one.
Example blights are listed below. The text of a blight addresses its user. A remove curse spell cannot remove a blight, and detect magic will not reveal the presence of a blight. Unless otherwise indicated, the DC is 16 to cancel a blight using dispel magic or a similar effect.
Blight of Ailment. One of your ability scores decreases by 2 to a minimum of 6.
Blight of Infestation. Your body is covered with tiny biting creatures that cause you to itch constantly. While taking a long or short rest, you must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution or Wisdom saving throw or gain no benefit from that rest.
Blight of Mind Broaching. You have disadvantage against magic that allows other creatures to read your thoughts, determine whether you are lying, know your alignment, or know your creature type. You cannot prevent creatures from communicating with you telepathically if they have that ability.
Blight of Respiration. You have disadvantage on saving throws made against harmful gases and vapors (such as cloudkill and stinking cloud effects, inhaled poisons, and the breath weapons of some dragons).
Blight of Vengeance. You must succeed on a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw whenever you take damage in combat. On a failed save, you must attack the creature that damaged you until you drop to 0 hp or it does or until you can’t reach the creature to make a melee attack against it.
Blight of Vulnerability. You suffer a +1 penalty to AC and saving throws.
Blight of Winter’s Chill. You have vulnerability to cold damage.
Blight of Wound Aggravation. You have disadvantage on death saving throws. In addition, whenever you roll Hit Dice to regain hit points, subtract 1 from the number of hit points it restores (each die still restores a minimum of 1 hit point).
Banes are minor, inconvenient effects less drastic than blights. A jealous noble might inflict a bane upon a character in retaliation for the character assisting the noble’s relative, or a hostile hedge magician might visit a blight upon characters to dissuade them from solving a local murder in which the magician was involved. Banes also work as minor curses; something a warlock might contract after foolishly poring through a tome of forbidden knowledge or a rogue might attract after daring to prize a precious gemstone from the eye socket of an evil god’s effigy. Though not powerful, a bane triggered at the right (or wrong!) time can have a major impact.
A bane can’t be removed from a creature by anything short of divine intervention or a wish spell.
Bane of Bewilderment. This bane triggers when you attempt to identify a magical item during a short rest. You are unable to identify items in this manner for 24 hours.
Bane of Gibberish. This bane triggers when you attempt to speak in an important situation. For 1 hour, your spoken and written words are unintelligible.
Bane of Hobbles. This bane triggers when you attempt to jump. For the next hour, divide your Strength score in half when calculating how far or how high you can jump.
Bane of Leaden Tongue. This bane triggers when you attempt to convince a creature of something. For 1 hour, you have disadvantage on Charisma checks and Wisdom (Insight) checks.
Bane of Putrescence. This bane triggers when you attempt to have a meal or consume food. All nonmagical food and drink within a 15-foot-radius sphere centered on you spoils. Any creature eating or drinking this food must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or be infected with sewer plague.
Bane of Tortuous Pace. This bane triggers when you attempt to use the Dash action. For 1 hour, you cannot use the Dash action.
Magic is the lifeblood of fantasy. Arguably the dividing line between fantasy and other types of fiction, magic can be strange, mysterious, frightening, comical, or anything in between. And if you’re looking to explore the applications of magic in a fantasy roleplaying campaign, you want to visit the Sorcery Stop!
The Expanding Codex series fleshes out monsters from the Creature Codex, giving GMs ways to modify the existing monsters to surprise well-prepared players or to introduce monsters to a campaign.
Alternate Traits and Actions
The following changes allow GMs to alter an arcanaphage without modifying its challenge rating.
Diviniphage. A diviniphage feeds solely on divine magic but still interacts with all types of magic. It is immune to damage from divine spells. It has advantage on saving throws against other spells and magical effects. Its Hunger trait regains hp equal to three times the level of the spell and increases its Feed score by 2 each time it feeds in combat. Additionally, when it applies its Ingest Magic trait or uses its Voracious reaction, it can only feed on divine spells it ends or counters. Finally, when it dies and applies its Arcane Discharge trait, the force damage dealt by this trait is replaced with either radiant or necrotic damage.
The diviniphage loses the arcanaphage’s Magic Immunity trait, and other traits and reactions are modified as indicated above.
Magic Sight. The arcanaphage senses magic within 90 feet of it at will. This trait otherwise works like the detect magic spell but isn’t itself magical.
The arcanaphage’s blindsight is reduced to 30 ft.
Selective Eater. The arcanaphage is predominantly exposed to one school of magic (abjuration, conjuration, and so on), so it has adapted its feeding to better consume such magic. It is immune to spells and magical effects from its chosen school and has advantage on saving throws against other spells and magical effects. Its Hunger trait regains hp equal to four times the level of the spell and increases its Feed score by 2 for the selected school, but it regains hp equal to the level of the spell and increases its Feed score by 1/2 for all other schools. For purposes of its Arcane Discharge trait, ignore fractional values. Additionally, when its Ingest Magic trait applies, a creature maintaining concentration on a spell from the arcanaphage’s selected school has disadvantage on its Constitution saving throw. Finally, when the arcanaphage uses its Voracious reaction, it has advantage on its spellcasting ability check when countering a spell from its chosen school.
The arcanaphage loses its Magic Immunity trait, and other traits and reactions are modified as indicated above.
True Arcanaphage. A true arcanaphage feeds solely on arcane magic but still interacts with all types of magic. It is immune to damage from arcane spells. It has advantage on saving throws against other spells and magical effects. Its Hunger trait regains hp equal to three times the level of the spell and increases its Feed score by 2 each time it feeds in combat. Additionally, when it applies its Ingest Magic trait or uses its Voracious reaction, it can only feed on arcane spells it ends or counters. Finally, its Arcane Discharge trait deals 4 (1d8) force damage per Feed score to a creature that fails its Dexterity saving throw and deals 9 (2d8) force damage to a creature that starts its turn in the affected area.
The true arcanaphage loses the arcanaphage’s Magic Immunity trait, and other traits and reactions are modified as indicated above.
New Magic Items and Spells
The following magic item and spell are inspired by abilities possessed by an arcanaphage.
Wondrous item, rare (requires attunement)
This smooth rock serves a similar function as rocks found in a bird’s gizzard and helps the arcanaphage digest magic. While you hold or wear the stone, you have advantage on saving throws against spells.
Additionally, you can use a reaction to counter a spell cast within 30 feet of you as if you cast counterspell. Unlike the spell, you must always make a spellcasting ability check (using Charisma as your spellcasting ability if you do not have one), no matter the spell level. If you successfully counter the spell, the stone increases its Absorption score by 1. Its Absorption score cannot exceed 8. Once you have used the stone to counter a spell, it can’t be used in this way until the next dawn.
Finally, you can use an action to throw the stone up to 60 feet away to unleash its stored magic. When it reaches its target, it explodes, and each creature within 5 feet per Absorption score must make a DC 14 Dexterity saving throw, taking 1d6 force damage per Absorption score on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. This destroys the stone.
5th-level abjuration (sorcerer, wizard) Casting Time: 1 action Range: Self Components: V, S, M (a tentacle from an arcanaphage) Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
After casting this spell, you can take a reaction when you are the target of or in the area of a spell or magical effect that allows a saving throw. When you take the reaction, you have advantage on your saving throw. If you succeed on your saving throw, the spell or magical effect has no effect on you, and you regain a number of hit points equal to the spell’s level.
Arcanaphage Adventure Hooks
A wizard asks the PCs to capture a live arcanaphage specimen in a lead-lined jar she provides. She pays well for their trouble and ensures they are aware of the threat posed by the creature. She refuses to tell the PCs she plans to release the arcanaphage in a rival’s laboratory.
A collective of arcanaphages has devoured all magic in the dimension they inhabit. The creatures wriggle their way, one per day, through a rift leading from their home dimension to a large city. The city’s leaders ask the PCs to close the rift before the arcanaphages can wreak havoc on the city.
If you have any requests for monsters from the Creature Codex for future installments, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll make sure to add them to the queue.
Remember when the Kobolds brought you nearly 400 brand new monsters last year with the release of the Creature Codex? Those were great times. (I wonder how many battles that book launched? How much shiny loot it gave out to victorious parties? How many characters it put into the grave?)
Congrats to the authors—Wolfgang Baur, Dan Dillon, Richard Green, James Haeck, Jeremy Hochhalter, James Introcaso, Jon Sawatsky, Chris Harris— and the artists and everyone who had a hand in its creation. You did a great job!
DM: “A mysterious figure in a cloak approaches you in the tavern…”
PALADIN: “Aha! This must be a wizard with a map to a dungeon!”
DM: “…and he’s ticking.”
Whether you need scuttling dungeon denizens, alien horrors, or sentient avatars of the World Tree, the Creature Codex has you covered! Nearly 400 new foes for your 5th Edition game—everything from acid ants and grave behemoths to void giants and zombie lords.
The 424 PAGES OF THE CREATURE CODEX INCLUDE:
A dozen new demons and five new angels
Wasteland dragons and dinosaurs
All-new golems, including the altar flame golem, doom golem, and keg golem
Elemental lords and animal lords to challenge powerful parties
Chieftains and other leaders for ratfolk, centaurs, goblins, trollkin, and more
New undead, including a heirophant lich to menace lower-level characters
…and much more! Use them in your favorite published setting, or populate the dungeons in a world of your own creation. Pick up Creature Codex and surprise your players with monsters they won’t be expecting!
COMPATIBLE WITH THE 5TH EDITION OF THE WORLD’S FIRST ROLEPLAYING GAME!
Encounters have consequences. Every slain bandit has friends who will want revenge, and every devil banished back to the Eleven Hells reports its failure to its dark lord. What happens when the PCs’ daring deeds come back to bite them?
The Wandering Roads of Dornig
The following encounter chains are more than just random conflicts. Each event flows organically into the next, sometimes without giving PCs the chance to catch their collective breath. Each link in the chain subsequently ups the stakes and the complexities of an encounter, thereby giving characters a sense of… out of the frying pan, into the fire!
Encounter 1: Villains and Vintages
Recommended Levels: 1–3
The rolling hinterlands of Dornig tumble northward, shouldering their way between the vast expanses of the Arbonesse and Tomierran Forests before rising into the Tonder Alps. Here, many older, more westerly roads and byways weave through or skirt the fringes of the Arbonesse, stretching for leagues through the dappled shade of its enormous, overreaching eaves.
Despite proximity to that enchanted, arboreal realm, the highways and cartways of this region are known for lack of robbery or “incident” (fey mischief) and for the frequency of patrols. This is particularly true of the holdings of Sir Roth Cerreck of House Aunun, the elf-marked Knight-Bachelor of the Silver Branch whose boundaries and precincts the PCs now approach.
No sooner than you close conversation on Lord Roth Cerreck’s steadfast reputation, you’re startled by commotion ahead. Rounding a wooded bend, you’re confronted by a bizarre sight. A teamster’s wagon sits mid-road, its horse team broken free. Scores of flowering vines and tendrils sprout from the road, entangling its wheels and axle. Stranger still is the peculiar, circus-like spectacle of highway robbery unfolding before you.
Ahead 120 feet (GM’s discretion), a man-at-arms dies, struggling weakly, his own warhorse savagely trouncing him into the dirt. Nearby a second man-at-arms lay dead between two sword-slain horses, having killed his killers. Aboard the wagon, a woodwose (see Creature Codex) grapples the wagon master while its pet wolpertinger (see Creature Codex) circles above. Close by, a pack of four blink dogs finish off a third hireling while behind them an ornately carved coffer drifts past, floating away as if by magic into the forest.
PCs can’t be surprised; the “highwaymen” can. For stronger groups, GMs might replace the woodwose and wolpertinger with a kitsune and wind weasel (see Creature Codex) or replace the blink dogs with dire wolves.
Developments. The wolpertinger, blink dogs, and warhorse attack immediately. The woodwose will incapacitate the wagon master, 1d4 rounds later, and attempt escape, leading PCs eastward. The chest is moving west, carried by the far darrig Scaga and a pombero (see Tome of Beasts), both using invisibility. Scaga and the chest continue to Encounter 2 while the pombero readies an ambush for PCs attempting to pursue.
PCs questioning a revived wagon master hear the following: “The wagon just lurched to a stop… those vines. Then the horses turned on us. Those damnable fey folk, they just… appeared.”
The ransacked wagon’s loaded with upset wine casks and crates of bottled wine. The wagon master reveals he and his men were also (secretly) delivering a special collection of vintages from Keep Aunun to Caias Gruffkin, a satyr noble and a royal vintner to the River Court. Now it seems that the chest of commemorative wines has been stolen by the River King’s own subjects.
PCs should recognize this excellent opportunity to garner acclaim and connections with both the Court of the River King and their neighbors the noble House Aunun. The wagon master offers significant monetary reward and hints at more “exotic” reimbursement for the immediate retrieval of the vintage wine.
Encounter 2: Vanities and Vigilantes
Adventurers giving chase will encounter the pombero lying in wait once three PCs cross at least 30 feet beyond the treeline. If the pombero (which flees once below 30 hp) is defeated, PCs will have little trouble tracking Scaga’s drag marks through the underbrush. After 200 yards (GM’s discretion), the PCs approach a clearing where a small, fey herdsman with an antlered cowl and a glaive of elkhorn (Scaga) argues pleadingly with a beautiful, gnome-like fairy, a korrigan (see Creature Codex) named Bellinia, begging her to forget the coffer laying nearby and flee with him into the forest.
Developments. If PCs don’t immediately attack, diplomacy may win out. The two fey lovers, knowing their plan is quickly unraveling, willingly negotiate. They explain the wagon master has deceived the PCs, and woe to any comrades they’ve left behind.
“We’ve not stolen but re-stolen. It was shadow fey that hijacked Lord Aunun’s yearly gift to the River King, murdering Aunun’s escorts and placing their own agents before moving ahead to make ‘preparations.’ The four you encountered are mortal lackeys, “mules,” nothing more. And we had them! Then you came.”
Recently un-welcomed at the River Court, Bellinia seeks to “rescue” King Ulorian’s stolen wines and regain favor at court. If PCs agree to “look away,” she offers them Scaga’s ring of invisibility and a +1 dagger in return. If PCs play hardball, a DC 13 Charisma (Persuasion) check convinces the lovers to accompany the PCs back for comrades if necessary before traveling together to return the River King’s wine.
Scaga reminds everyone that as night comes the shadow fey will soon investigate their overdue contraband.
If PCs insist on bloodshed, Scaga will fight until dead as Bellinia (and coffer) flee northwest. Meanwhile, the shadow fey draw nearer.
Encounter 3: Astringent Endnotes
Stealthy PCs returning to the wagon might surprise the group of shadowy figures in the twilight. Preparing to enter the forest, they move away from the wagon, revealing the wagon master’s headless body in the road, his blood pooling in the muddy wine. The shadow fey brigands consist of two each of the following: vile barbers, shadow fey guardians (see Tome of Beasts), and shadow goblins (see Creature Codex). PCs are immediately attacked once detected.
Developments. PCs who win the night find evidence among the shadow fey, proving much of Bellinia’s tale, including instructions in Umbral from one Malaedius Ebonbrook, along with the location of the murdered House Aunun couriers but no sensible motive. Perhaps someone at Keep Aunun or the River Court will know more.
The air crackles and lights flicker in the ruins. In a whirl of colorful robes, the drifter materializes from the unfathomable maelstroms of time. His eyes scan the hall in panic, anticipating the terrible revelations of yet another era.
Adrift in Time. Not much is known about the time traveling eonic drifters other than that they left a dying civilization to look for help not available in their own age. To their misfortune, returning to their own time proved much more difficult than leaving it, so the eonic drifters found themselves adrift in the river of time. As the decades passed, their chance of returning home withered, along with the flesh of their bodies. They have been become mummified by the passing ages.
Crystal Belts. A drifter carries an odd assembly of gear gathered in countless centuries, proof of its tragic journey. The more eclectic the collection, the more jumps it has performed on its odyssey.
Belts of crystals around its body store the energy that fuels a drifter’s travels. After each large jump through time, the reservoirs are exhausted and can be used only for very short jumps.
Jittery and Paranoid. Visiting countless eras in which mankind has all but forgotten this once-great civilization has robbed most eonic drifters of their sanity. Their greatest fear is being robbed of their crystal belts. They plead or fight for them as if their lives depended on them—which, in a sense, they do.
Adventurers who convince a drifter of their good intentions may be asked for aid. In exchange, a drifter can offer long-lost artifacts gathered from many forays through time.
Drifters can appear at any time or place, but they often frequent the sites of their people’s past (or future) cities. There they are comforted by knowing that they’re at least in the right place, if not the right time.
Medium humanoid (human), chaotic neutral Armor Class 13 (leather armor) Hit Points 65 (10d8 + 20) Speed 30 ft.
Skills Arcana +6, History +6 Senses passive Perception 10 Languages Common, Eonic, Giant, Sylvan Challenge 1 (200 XP)
Multiattack. The eonic drifter can either use Drift Backward or make two attacks with its time warping staff. The eonic drifter’s future self (if present) can only use Drift Forward.
Time Warping Staff. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d10 + 2) bludgeoning damage.
Drift Backward (1/Day). A future self of the eonic drifter materializes in an unoccupied space within 30 feet of the drifter. The future self has the eonic drifter’s stats and its full hit points, and it takes its turn immediately after its present self. Killing the original eonic drifter makes its future self disappear. If the present self sees its future self die, the eonic drifter must make a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw. There is no effect if the save succeeds. If the saving throw fails, roll 1d6 to determine the effect on the eonic drifter: 1 = frightened, 2 = incapacitated, 3 = paralyzed, 4 = unconscious, 5 or 6 = has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks. These effects last 1d4 rounds.
Drift Forward (2/Day). The future self makes a time warping staff attack against a target. If the attack hits, instead of causing bludgeoning damage, both the target and the attacker jump forward through time, effectively ceasing to exist in the present time. They reappear in the same locations 1d4 rounds later, at the end of the present self’s turn. Creatures occupying those locations at that moment are pushed 5 feet in a direction of their own choosing. The target of the drift (but not the future self) must then make a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw, with effects identical to those for the eonic drifter witnessing the death of its future self (see Drift Backward). The future self doesn’t reappear after using this ability the second time; only the target of the drift reappears from the second use. This does not trigger a saving throw for the present self.
Every minotaur whispers its name, senses its presence, wonders at its complexity, its enigma, its beauty—the First Labyrinth.
To them, the Plane of the Great Labyrinth is just one facet of all mazes, and all mazes are one. Their darkest secrets, their greatest treasures, their deadliest dangers, all may be found beyond the next turn or through the next portal.
The Darkest Vaults of the Great Maze
The First Labyrinth—maze of the world, cradle of convolution, and insanity of endless complexity—is one of the great mazes of the world. Or maybe it’s one aspect of all mazes given form in Midgard. For now, the First Labyrinth may be the most unstill of all mazes. Through the Plane of the Great Labyrinth, the Great Maze touches every maze in existence, senses kinship and reaches out: touches, sometimes binds, absorbs, embraces, often fleeting, occasionally forever.
The First Labyrinth is in the Southlands city of Roshgazi but exists everywhere. The city decays on the shores of the Middle Sea, her towers torn by dragons 300 years ago, her soul fractured like that of her guardian and ward, the enigmatic and shattered Heart of the First Labyrinth. The Heart reaches into the dreams of minotaurs, haunts them, teases them, guides them, yet it is insane. One face of the Heart is called the Poet: wise and benevolent, it seeks to bring aid to repair its fractured home. The dark face is called Broken, which still believes the war with dragons goes on in the city streets above and reaches out, claws outward to draw aid into the First Labyrinth for the battle that rages only inside its mind. And to its fractured mind, that aid can take so many different forms.
The madness is spreading. Yearning for aid, it stumbles blindly around every corner of every maze searching.
Mazuli Sul (the Heart’s name in the native tongue of minotaurs) thus gropes outward, ever searching for help, opening portals into mazes that should be left undisturbed and unknown. Mazes grow into mazes, ways become confused, complex, unpredictable. The greatest maze-conjuring minotaur priests have an inkling of the dangers this holds—accidents in their own summonings have taught them that no maze is ever truly tamed—and they whisper tales of dread but also tales of vaults groaning with secrets, magic, and treasure. These vaults may be encountered around any turn in the most mundane dungeon or simplest maze. There is therefore an endless vigil, watching alert for what the Heart has drawn to its bosom to aid the minotaurs and thus potentially reap their destruction through desperation. They call these vaults the Dark Vaults of the Great Maze.
The Plane of the Great Labyrinth is endless and so is the potential for these dark corners. A few are listed below, but in truth, when maze links maze, there is no knowing what may lurk beyond the next turn…
Do archdevils dream?
In their endless plotting and hate, do thoughts come unbidden to them? Paranoid, powerful, hungry, what crooked wants lurks behind those demented minds? Is there any doubt? Is there any fear?
Belphegor once had a dream—or more correctly a nightmare. In his nightmare, Belphegor (see Creature Codex) was stripped of his beloved Prime, his steed and citadel and love, and cast back to the terrible pit from which he crawled an eternity ago. In that pit, his fears were laid bare: his terror, his desires, his misery. And that suffering was given flesh, a wretched, pitiful wan thing that sobbed as it dragged its flaccid wings behind its emaciated form.
But when Belphegor awoke, the nightmare did not go. The given flesh and form and pain lay humble and broken before him. So quite naturally, the archdevil tore it to pieces and wondered in its dark heart who had caused it. They would suffer as only an enemy of an archdevil can.
Alas, it returned to his dreams and grew flesh anew, and each time the archdevil tore the thing apart, it came back stronger, slowly taking pieces of the archdevil with it—memories, desires, hungers. Strength. His twin, his alter ego, grew, and Belphegor knew he would never be free of it.
Belphegor spoke to his beloved Prime, anger of toil—the thing of bones and metal and hate—and Prime whispered a plan. Build again, it impeached. Build a prison about your shadow that it can never escape from and where nothing can ever find it to use against you.
It called the prison Belphegor’s Penance.
The Penance is alive, alive with wickedness in its cat’s cradle of gears and gates and traps and structures, a maze with a dark secret. Shambling constructs roam its endless levels: crooked gorgons with too many heads, pale golems made of the flesh of things that have never cast a shadow. In mockery of his own crooked shadow, his unwanted twin, Belphegor flensed his skin and gave it life, gave it hunger and lidless eyes that never tire of their watch. And there within, in a tower within a maze within a citadel, lurks the true Penance of Belphegor, his alter ego, his intimate, his shame, a thing that calls itself the Shadow of Belphegor—a wretched sickly thing that embroils all the terrors and paranoia of an archdevil. And in its terror, it wears the skin to keep it safe, crooked limbs to fend off foes and bloated eyes that forever seek escape from its vile guardians.
And one night, the dream of Belphegor entered the dream of Broken.
Broken sensed the awful power at the other end of that vision, a twisted kinship in the constructed maze with a dark brooding purpose and anger. And one day, Broken reached out, and the First Labyrinth touched the Penance…
Now fronds of its demented limbs caress the First Labyrinth, grope in the darkness, the great mazes somehow sensing kin, wanting to embrace. For now, such couplings have been rare—a scent upon the air of maze walkers of oil and flesh and torment, confinement beyond counting in mortal time. Screams made with mouths that have never seen the sun. Tales from demented things that lurk in the deepest parts of the Plane of the Great Labyrinth tell of something out there in the dark that is a prison, but for what?
And alas, for Belphegor also senses this and fears a joining, fears that his Penance will be breached, violated. And that cannot happen. He sends his own crooked creations into the aspects of the Great Labyrinth to seek, to cut these ties, to break these limbs, and to destroy the thing that seeks to embrace his misery—Broken itself…
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Magic is the lifeblood of fantasy. Arguably the dividing line between fantasy and other types of fiction, magic can be strange, mysterious, frightening, comical, or anything in between. And if you’re looking to explore the applications of magic in a fantasy roleplaying campaign, you want to visit the Sorcery Stop!
Playing fantasy RPGs, we tend to simply accept as given many minor magical effects that to a commoner would seem truly incredible. Considering that even a cantrip is well beyond the capability of most people, many items heroes take for granted or simply discard, such as a ring of sustenance, a periapt of health, or even a bag of beans would seem downright miraculous to commoners.
Of course, such items are likely beyond the skill of most hedge wizards and shamans to create, but that isn’t to say such folk can’t create simpler, more practical items. Below is a collection of flavorful, useful minor magic items that, while perhaps not the greatest use to an adventurer, could absolutely make or break a peasant’s livelihood. Such items might be crafted by a village healer, a local witch doctor, a hedge wizard, or even a local priest. All of these items are categorized as Common or Uncommon per the normal treasure distribution system, but keep in mind that to most ordinary people these pieces represent near-priceless artifacts.
Buying, Selling, and the Importance of Minor Magicks
Some players might be interested in purchasing items from the local medium or thaumaturge or in supplying townsfolk with similar baubles. Keep in mind that most commoners, and especially most people in rural areas, carry very little cash or items of value and are likely to barter for any goods they need and can’t make themselves. It is highly unlikely that such people can afford even the most basic of standard items. Additionally, any magic item a commoner owns is probably a treasured family heirloom and the only magic that character has ever directly encountered.
Given their relative lack of power, the items below are more broadly useful as window dressing and to give a measure of distinction to an important commoner NPC without running the risk of introducing more substantial or powerful magic items to your campaign. A character who wields any of the items below is probably well known in the surrounding community and just as probably not well liked or trusted. Especially when it comes to the wand and staff that cast actual cantrips, the magic in these items is enough to make non-adventurers cross the road, make a sign to ward off evil, and give the owners a wide berth.
Dust of Spring’s Bounty
Wondrous item, uncommon
This small packet contains 1d6 + 4 pinches of dust. You can use an action to sprinkle a pinch of it over a tilled plot of land; a single pinch can affect up to one full acre. Any seeds planted within the affected area are resistant to disease and famine and grow more robustly than usual; increase the crop’s yield by 20%.
If you apply it to a plant creature, that creature gains 109 temporary hit points and advantage on saving throws to resist disease for 1 minute.
Wondrous item, common
This figure is carved from wood or stone. When you place it in a location of prominence within your house, it creates a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on the figure. All creatures that finish a long rest within the radius awaken refreshed and in good spirits.
Pebble of Well-Being
Wondrous item, uncommon
This magical stone is normally worn as a pendant on a leather thong and is crafted by physicians to help ward off illness. A character wearing a pebble of well-being gains advantage on their next saving throw to resist disease or poison. A pebble of well-being can be used in this manner only once and then loses its power.
Provinder of Delayed Passing
Wondrous item, uncommon
This hard piece of unleavened bread can be placed under the tongue of a living creature that has 0 hit points. Once placed, the bread dissolves, and the creature becomes stable. This item has no effect on undead or constructs.
Wondrous item, uncommon
This sticky paste comes in a hollowed-out gourd or clay jar, which holds 1d6 + 2 doses. The paste is made from herbs, sugar, and honey, and healers pack fresh wounds with it to ward off infection. A character treated by a dose of the salve can reroll one Hit Die the next time they take a short rest. An applied dose of the salve loses its potency after 24 hours if not used.
Staff of the Sibyl
Staff, uncommon (requires attunement)
This staff has 3 charges and regains 1d3 expended charges daily at dawn.
Druidcraft. While holding the staff, you can use an action to expend 1 charge and create a minor magical effect as with the druidcraft spell.
Wondrous item, common
This magical sewing needle seems to guide the hand of anyone using it to mend or stitch fabrics and skins. A character with tailor’s blessing has advantage on any tool proficiency skill checks made when using leatherworker’s tools or a sewing kit.
Wand of Legerdemain
Wand, common (requires attunement)
This wand has 7 charges for the following properties. It regains 1d6 + 1 expended charges daily at dawn. If you expend the wand’s last charge, roll a d20. On a 1, the wand crumbles into ashes and is destroyed.
Prestidigitation. While holding the wand, you can use an action to expend 1 charge and create a minor magical effect as with the prestidigitation spell.
The Plain is filled with human nomads who call themselves Khazzaki. They are followers of Svarog and Khors and Perun and Sweet Golden Lada, though Svarog is their patron. Their cities are built of tents and flesh and rope and the people are often driven from their chosen site before the wind, but they are no less formidable for that. Their master, the Khan of the Khazzaki, rules from the City of Wheels. His nation stretches wherever hoof beats thunder, from the Cloudwall to Far Cathay.
The riders, tribes, and khans of the Khazzaki are a mixed lot: adventurers and raiders, nomads and centaurs. Anyone who swears fealty to the khan is welcome in their tents, and guests are honored for a night even in deepest winter. They ride to war over frozen fields, their ponies small but fast and incredibly tough, like their riders. Indeed, the horses of the Khazzaki are never shod except when they must leave the Plain, and they rarely do.
KHAN OF THE KHAZZAKI
The current Khan of the Khazzaki is Bodhan Zenody, an archer, a rider, a scholar, and a man of infinite cunning and artful compromise who has ruled for almost 20 years. He is now ready to consider a great toss of the dice, a run at looting one of the great nations such as Cathay or Khandiria in the east, the Mharoti in the south, or the rabble of Niemheim or the Magdar in the west. He commands an army, his generals are tested and loyal, and the shamans and outriders tell him that the Khazzaki are perhaps a bit lazy, in need of a test.
Bodhan Zenody does not rest easy. If he gambles and fails, one of his three sons will surely take the title of Khan of Khans. The adventurous life of the Khazzaki is a sword dance away from complete collapse, and yet his people trust him to lead them to glory.
DOMAINS OF THE KHAZZAKI
The chief inhabitants of the Plain are the Khazzak Brotherhoods, nomads descended from an unlikely mix of Northern raiders, ancient steppe dwellers, and Kariv nomads. They have no cities and live as roving horse and ox herders, and occasionally as farmers. They are free wanderers and adventurers, unlike the serfs and slaves of Reth-Saal or Vidim.
To the north are the Plains of Rhos Khurgan, land of the red mounds, burial sites of an ancient race. The Khazzaki roam these rolling hills and grasslands east of the Nieder Straits, though their range extends south to the Ruby Sea. Here wild horse clans pour libations of blood and wine over ancient barrows, honoring dead heroes and Svarog the Rider, their patron god.
The southernmost section of the Rothenian Plain is a larger region where the Khazzaki travel to get away from the “settled” region of Rhos Khurgan. The open lands of the Khanate include a few small taiga forests, many rolling hills and gently sweeping rivers, and an endless supply of grass. They end to the south at the foothills of the Dragoncoil Mountains, where the Mharoti city of Kaa’nesh is a home of ogres and dragonkin who despise the free-riding Khazzaki bands.
The khan has repeatedly tried to capture the city, and repeatedly failed. The Mharoti have sent one army out into the grasslands against the Khazzaki. The tribesfolk consider it a point of pride that Kharalang the Wind Dragon slew the army’s drakes, and the Khazzaki riders harried the Mharoti infantry all the way back to Kaa’nesh, shooting the last few retreating edjet within sight of the city walls.
No second army has yet been assembled to tread upon the Khanate’s tall grass.
Red Mounds of Rhos Khurgan
For each stone cup of wine they drank, they poured two atop the nearest mound. The dissonant horns and strings of their victory song echoed over the silent burial sites—whose stones were as red as blood, even in the moonlight.
Tucked away in the northern territory of the Khanate, near the banks of the Tanais River, are the red mounds of Rhos Khurgan. The mounds total 31, though a single similar mound stands a dozen miles east of the larger site—this outlier mound is built on the shores of a small lake and fouls the air for a half-mile around it. The Khazzaki stay away from the 32nd mound entirely, believing it to be cursed.
Each mound consists of compacted earth and red shale stones arranged to form a dome roughly 15 feet in diameter. The mounds appear to have had an entrance on their southern edge, but these passageways collapsed years ago. Though their components are entirely natural (rock, earth, grasses), they have stood up well against the elements. They also resist magic that would disturb them. The mounds are burial sites to a lost and forgotten race. Protected by the Khazzaki, the mounds have never been excavated, though some recovered bones suggest the buried were tall humanoids.
The Khanate considers the red mounds to be a sacred site, visited only after a successful raid or campaign. The Khazzaki celebrate their victories among the mounds, drinking, singing, and thanking their ancestors. It is considered customary to offer the mounds drink during these celebrations, and casks of wine are often emptied into the parched soil of the mounds. Refusing to offer the mounds a drink is one of the greatest offenses one can make against the Khazzaki, and those who deny the mounds their portion are buried alive nearby.
Divine magic is warped and changed in the region where the mounds are built. Clerics, paladins, and other spellcasters who derive their magic from the gods find it difficult to choose spells while resting within a mile of a mound. Despite their most ardent prayers, these casters find their spells chosen for them—a selection intended to offer only defense.
A typical encampment of the Khazzaki includes 100 to 300 men, women, and children, with a family of friendly centaurs as allies and auxiliaries. These centaurs are called the kin ludi, or the horse friends, of the clan. The Khazzaki believe that Svarog creates centaurs out of his most deserving human followers. These camps are entirely mobile and rarely stay in one place long (even in winter, the steppes ponies can survive on forage from beneath the snows). They wander widely in the summer grazing and raiding season, and journeys of 100 or 300 miles are considered no great hardship, a matter of a few days’ ride.
At the end of summer, all Khazzaki camps send emissaries to pledge their fealty to the khan at Misto Kolis, and to prepare for winter and spring raids. Their ability to fight in the snows makes them extremely dangerous, and all the Khazzaki’s neighbors know better than to relax their watch at the first snowfall of winter.
Misto Kolis, the City of Wheels
Moving across the Plain on the back of creaking carts, the City of Wheels is the Khanate’s nominal capital and main trading center, as nomadic as the people it serves. Most of the city is made up of palatial orgoo (massive pavilions) and collapsible buildings of light wood that can be packed onto wagons or pack horses when the city roves.
Famed for its wrestlers, jugglers, jesters, and other entertainers, the city frequently appears to be one giant drunken party—although much trade and diplomacy goes on quietly amid the drink and games. Families come and go, but the city is heavily influenced by the Khanate’s Woolen Palace and by the Kariv Leanti family, ruled by Clan Mother Lumenita Leanti in the Kariv style, especially when the khan is raiding. There are more Kariv gathered here than anywhere else, although the city’s population fluctuates wildly.
The disease that is affecting the horses of Trombei and the centaur hordes of the Plain has also spread to the horse and pony herds of the Khanate. For now the khan has managed to keep the disease from wiping out his stock of horses, but the speed at which the disease spreads poses a challenge. Animals afflicted by the disease are slain and burned, their ashes buried deep under the wild flowers and sage brush.
The Grassweavers of Perun
Very recently, the khan has allied with a strange order of Perunian druids. These overly tall and spindly limbed humans shuffle across the Plain in suits of armor made from woven grasses. They gather in groups of seven, never less and never more—living in one communal grass hut built so low they must stoop to enter. They speak the Common tongue, but communicate among each other in a rustling, clicking language all their own. The identities of these druids are kept secret; their faces are hidden inside sinister masks made from sticks and grass. Everywhere they walk, the natural order slides sideways. Though their magic adds to the khan’s power, they hate the kin ludi centaurs, and the khan seeks a way to end this enmity. The khan hopes that the druids will offer a cure for the black strangles, the strange withering disease that threatens his prized pony herds.
None know their purpose or their origin. For now, they are content to heal the khan’s wounded and worship the ferocious electric storms that tear across the Plain…
But this is where we must stop for now, my friend. My mind, it wanders so at times. Do come see me again, though, for more of the wonders and surprises of Midgard. (OGL)
The Designing with Style series breaks down the official 5th Edition style guide to help designers create content that’s well-written, polished, and precise. Using consistent language for rules and mechanics makes it easier for new players to understand the game and helps to avoid confusion that slows play. For example, the range of hold person is 60 feet, but the spell text still specifies that the target must be “a humanoid you can see within range.” Those limitations are important to ensure that the spell is balanced (it would be far more powerful if you could target non-humanoids like giants and dragons), that it makes sense in the context of the world (you must be able to see the target), and that it it is mechanically clear (the target of the spell must be within the given range).
Understanding the style guide is the key to creating content that’s usable, elegant, and professional. If you want to write quality content for 5th Edition, then it needs to sound like 5th Edition. It’s important to let your own voice shine through, but you have to know the rules before you can break them; writing is an art, and like any art, it’s important to learn the style conventions of your genre as you develop your own style.
Using Thieves’ Tools
Now that we’ve covered the style for ability checks and saving throws, we’ll gain proficiency in the wording for a specialized check: using thieves’ tools. And speaking of proficiency, let’s take a minute to check the style guide for the correct language:
Here are the rules of thumb for using the right preposition with the words “proficient” and “proficiency”:
• You are proficient, or have proficiency, in a skill, language, or other activity that is learnable and repeatable.
• You are proficient, or have proficiency, with a tool, weapon, type of armor, or other object.
So you are proficient in Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) checks but proficient with thieves’ tools.
First of all, thieves’ tools (note the placement of the apostrophe) are never capitalized, except at the beginning of a sentence. Mechanically speaking, there is no such thing as a “lockpicking kit” or a “lockpicking check.” These synonyms are fine to use in play if you like but would be unnecessarily confusing in a published module.
The most common way to call for a check using thieves’ tools is:
Option 1. “The door can be unlocked with a successful DC 15 Dexterity check using thieves’ tools.”
Sometimes, this will be written as:
Option 2. “The door is locked, but it can be picked by a character who uses thieves’ tools and makes a successful DC 15 Dexterity check.”
Personally, I prefer the first option because it more clearly implies that you can add your proficiency bonus with thieves’ tools, if any. However, you can pick the option that sounds best in context.
Thieves’ Tools versus Sleight of Hand
It’s also important to note that a check with thieves’ tools is not the same thing as a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check. A rogue can choose to have expertise in Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) separately from expertise with thieves’ tools. As described above, Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) is a skill while thieves’ tools are—obviously—a tool.
Really, it makes sense for these to be separate abilities since all the sleight of hand in the world isn’t going to let you stick your fingers in a lock to massage the tumblers into place. And since they are separate abilities, do not write “a successful DC 15 Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check using thieves’ tools.”
Questions? Treasure chests that just won’t open? Style conventions that just don’t make sense? Leave a note in the comments and suggest topics for future posts!