Creatures under Leaf and Moon

I went into the creation of the Green Sun setting (which I think could get a proper name by now) deliberately avoiding any elements that are specific original creations of Dungeons & Dragons. And I still think that this was a really good idea. Dark Sun and Planscape are both my favorite D&D settings, and I am far from alone in that opinion. And they both have their own setting specific casts of monsters, many of which became quite iconic, that aren’t part of the regular D&D economy. Especially with Dark Sun, which has only unique creatures other than elves, dwarves, and halflings, but even with Planescape most of the famous monsters first appeared in that setting and where added to the regular monster manuals later.

Setting out to make a non-D&D world first and only later starting to think of how it would translate to D&D rules (which wasn’t even a given when I started the work) led to a very different outcome than if I had just sat down with a Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual and browsed for the classes and creatures that I want to use. But now that I decided to start the first campaign using the setting in D&D 5th Edition and a lot of my creatures can be done perfectly with reskins of existing creature stats, I don’t feel bad about picking other creatures that I find fitting for the setting from the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters as well.

Monsters

These are dangerous creatures of the wilderness that are not magical in nature but clearly more than normal animals.

  • Hydra (CR 8)
  • Wyvern (CR 6)
  • Umber Hulk (CR 5)
  • Chuul (CR 4)
  • Girallon (CR 4)
  • Manticore (CR 3)
  • Carrion Crawler (CR 2)
  • Ogre (CR 2)
  • Yuan-ti Broodguard (CR 2)
  • Harpy (CR 1)
  • Yuan-ti Pureblood (CR 1)
  • Gnoll (CR 1/2)
  • Kuo-toa (CR 1/4)

Spirits of Forest, Mountains, and Sea

This category consists of fey, as well as all plant creatures and most elementals. They are all detected by a detect good or evil spell and affected by similar magic.

  • Treant (CR 9)
  • Stone Giant (CR 7)
  • Yuan-ti Abomination (CR 7)
  • Air Elemental (CR 5)
  • Earth Elemental (CR 5)
  • Water Elemental (CR 5)
  • Lamia (CR 4)
  • Succubus (CR 4)
  • Yeth Hound (CR 4)
  • Doppelganger (CR 3)
  • Green Hag (CR 3)
  • Phase Spider (CR 3)
  • Will-o-wisp (CR 2)
  • Dryad (CR 1)
  • Deep Gnome (CR 1/2)
  • Myconids (CR 1/2)
  • Blights (CR 1/8 – 1/2)

Spirits of Beneath and Beyond

This category covers spirits that are native to the Realm Beneath, the subterranean wilderness that is inspired by Pandemonium and Gehenna, and also beings from the stars, though there aren’t any of those at this point. They are all either aberrations or fiends.

  • Devourer (CR 13)
  • Neothelid (CR 13)
  • Ultroloth (CR 13)
  • Arcanaloth (CR 12)
  • Aboleth (CR 10)
  • Nycaloth (CR 9)
  • Mind Flayer (CR 7)
  • Piscoloth (CR 7)
  • Fire Elemental (CR 5)
  • Mezzoloth (CR 5)
  • Canoloth (CR 4)
  • Helmed Horror (CR 4)
  • Choldrith (CR 3)
  • Howler (CR 3)
  • Dark Stalker (CR 2)
  • Grick (CR 2)
  • Meenlock (CR 2)
  • Chitine (CR 1/2)
  • Dark Creeper (CR 1/2)

Undead

Undead are limited to the very basics. Undead in the world are always the result of warlocks using powers gained from Spirits from Below and Beyond and never rise naturally.

  • Wraith (CR 5)
  • Wight (CR 3)
  • Ghast (CR 2)
  • Ghoul (CR 1)
  • Shadow (CR 1/2)
  • Skeleton (CR 1/4)

Beasts

This category covers all the natural animals that are enough of a threat to deserve getting stats.

  • Axe Beak
  • Brontosaurus
  • Crocodiles
  • Giant Badger
  • Giant Boar
  • Giant Centipede
  • Giant Crab
  • Giant Hyena
  • Giant Octopus
  • Giant Rat
  • Giant Wasp
  • Hadrosaurus
  • Plesiosaur
  • Pteranodon
  • Sharks
  • Snakes

There are a handful of additional creatures that I want to incorporate, but for those I have to write stats first. When I have them, I will share them here with descriptions.

I didn’t plan that eight of the Top 10 biggest critters are all underworld monsters, but that’s actually a pretty cool outcome.

Making the most out of combat encounters

Working myself into the deeper layers of 5th Edition, I noticed that defeating enemies in battle gives the PC massive amounts of experience points. If a party of four PCs were to only fight opponents with a CR equal to their current party level, it would take only 6 such encounters to get to 2nd and 3rd level, and after that 11 encounters for any further level. Though I have been told that in most cases, a single opponent of equal CR is a pretty easy fight.

Now at this point I want to repeat that I don’t believe in setting up encounters tailored to the current party size and level. While megadungeons and hexcrawls are leaving me completely cold, I feel like non-linear, open-world environments make the most interesting stories and experiences. When there are no places the party has to get to, and paths they have to take to get there, then there are no grounds to assume that the GM will take steps to ensure that the party will overcome any given obstacle. As players, you have no assurance that an obstacle can be overcome reliably by the party at their current strength, or that there any paths to their destination that they can take safely at their current strength. This puts it into the hands of the players to judge what dangers they are willing to risk, and when to try trickery or diplomacy over direct confrontation. Of course, to make this work, it is necessary to make it possible for players to judge the dangers ahead of them, and to attempt a retreat from a fight that turns bad on them. Otherwise the GM is just forcing random fights at the players, without giving them the agency to choose the level of risk they are willing to take. In practice, this primarily means not setting up ambushes by hard hitting opponents, and not cutting off the party’s only escape route.

Another thing is that I don’t believe the math to calculate CR being in any way reliable. But for the topic at hand, let’s continue with the assumption that challenge ratings and the encounter building guidelines were actually precise.

Under hypothetical ideal circumstances, a party of four characters fighting only single opponents with a CR matching their own level would, according to the tables, get a new level in six and a half days of adventure after roughly 10 fights. On first and second level even faster than that. This is of course ridiculous, and the designers did acknowledge that. Fighting only single opponents makes it very easy on the players. If multiple opponents attack all at once, the party will be able to fight significantly less of them on a day before they require rest to regain their strength. So if you want to fit more fights into a campaign that goes up to only 10th level for example, you could make opponents usually appear in groups of 5 to 10. Going with the hypothetical tables, that gets you only half the amount of XP before you statistically run out of power. Or 13 days of adventure with 20 fights. And when you think about it, for lots of common opponents it makes perfect sense to fight in groups. From the perspective of bandits or monsters, they want to win fights and survive, not put up a good fight before being defeated. And in a world where there is always a bigger beast, those at the lower end have every reason to band together for their safety. Just like PCs do.

But that’s still for the assumption of fights taking place in open fields. If you want to get the most out of your monsters, make them make their stands in places that are to their advantage. And frankly, fighting with the environment instead of just ignoring it makes every encounter at least twice as interesting and fun. Why would you ever not want to do that? Eyeballing the tables, I would say that if you make your opponents fight as teams and using the terrain to their advantage, it could probably take the party up to 30 “level appropriate encounters” to make it to the next level. This really isn’t insanely fast anymore. It actually seems pretty slow to me.

Though on the other hand, you sometimes really want to have big bad boss monsters. But I don’t think these really need to be that common. Most of the time it makes lots of sense for them to surround themselves with plenty of minions. After all, they also want to stay alive and should know that they are at a big disadvantage when they are outnumbered.

All in all, I think my initial suspicion that characters are gaining new levels way too fast in 5th edition doesn’t really stand up to looking at the tables. Now, of course I don’t trust the tables and I don’t plan on actually using them beyond the first couple of starting locations to get a first feel for the system. But still, I don’t think I will have to worry about making adjustments for how many XP characters will get for defeated opponents.

After 1640 days, 5th Edition started to look rather appealing

When the Basic Rules pdf for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition was released, I was not impressed by it. I had had high hopes for it when the playtests started, but it didn’t turn out as the game I was hoping it to be and I lost most interest in it. What I had been looking for at that time was an improved version of the ancient Basic/Expert rules, or at the very least a polished version of AD&D. Which is not what this game is. I was not impressed.

“We said: meh.”
“M-E-H. Meh.”

But now I find myself in a rather different position. As my apprenticeship, and accordingly my current living arangements, are coming to an end in a months, the stars will be right to get my new campaign off the ground. I created the setting deliberately avoiding making it a D&D world, inhabited by D&D races and D&D monsters, with the D&D classes making up the ranks of influential figures, and societies being build around the presence of D&D spells. I wanted it to be something that has its own identity first and gets rules applied to it later. I envisoned something very much like Dark Sun, which technically is AD&D, but with some tweaks to races and classes and serious reflavoring turned out into something distinctively different from Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or Dragonlance.

For the last week I have been playing a lot of Baldur’s Gate, the game that first introduced me to not just Dungeons & Dragons, but also RPGs, and made me see that fantasy is more than just The Lord of the Rings. And it got me interested in running D&D again. I had briefly flirted with Dungeon World, but that game is neither D&D, nor Apocalypse World; something less than the sum of its parts. I got excited again for actual D&D, with classes and levels. Which for me meant B/X. The game much simpler than 3rd Edition and much less messy than AD&D. But when talking with people with a general interest in playing a campaign in the forseeable future, I got to consider the possibility that there might be an overwhelming popular demand to play 5th Edition again. And I wanted to check if this is a game that I could be persuaded with sufficient force to run, or something that I would fight against with my dying breath.

This time I sat down with the actual Player’s Handbook. Not just the Basic Rules or the SRD with their limited coverage of all the class specializations. And as it turned out, it really has quite a bit to offer for a Green Sun campaign. While talking about systems, the conversation came to the big problems that made me regard 3rd Edition and Pathfinder as completely unplayable by now: Ever growing gaps between modifiers as levels go up, way too many small situational modifiers to remember during combat, skill points and feats slowing down character creation and especially creating NPCs and monsters, and spell slot preparation. And all of these have been adressed, quite successfully, in 5th Edition. The proficiency bonus and fixed saving throws keep modifiers from escalating, the advantage mechanic takes care of most situational modifiers, and skill points are gone and feats are much rarer and optional. Spell slots are still called spell slots, but they are actually a kind of spell points now. Regarding the mechanics, this is a game I can definitely run without any pain.

When it comes to character races and classes, I am still feeling somewhat ambiguous. Humans getting +1 to all ability scores still feels very wrong. Rogues getting 1d8 hit points per level still feels too much. Superiority Dice and Ki Points let characters do nonmagical things only a limited amount of times per day. And other things like that. But with some I can live, and when adapting the system to the setting, I am going to have to limit the options of classes and specializations anyway.

The first thing that really draw me to the system is the bard. Because I soon realized that the bard makes for an awesome shaman. If you say that the character does not use inspiring music but chants to the spirits for blessings and protection, you got yourself a solid shaman. The class has access to all the basic healing spells and the enchantments and illusions can be treated as spirits messing with the targets’ minds and perception. There are a few cleric and druid spells that would round out the spell list very nicely, but even with just the default bard spells, you can have a campaign setting that has only bards but no clrics, druids, and paladins.

That already had me intrigued, but what really got me excited was the warlock.

The warlock is just the thing that I need to represent the sorcerers of the Green Sun setting. The Fiery Spirits of the Realm Below from which the Sorcerer Lords of Ven Marhend gain their powers are perfectly matched by The Fiend. The Sorcerer Queen of Halva is an Archfey. And the Old One is just what the Dark Spirits of the Realm Beyond are meant to be. The warlock is a class that to my Baldur’s Gate defined sensibilities has always been inappropriate and out of place. But this is different now. I don’t want to run 90’s Forgotten Realms. I want to run Green Sun. And shaman bards and warlocks fit it perfectly.

Here is my current idea how the campaign in D&D 5th Edition could look like:

  • E10 style world: Without unlimited feats, actual E10 makes no sense, but both PCs and NPCs are capped at 10th level. Spells of 6th level or higher do not exist, though they might still appear as monster abilities.
  • Classes: Barbarian (Totem Warrior), Bard (Lore), Fighter (Champion), Ranger (Hunter), Rogue (Thief), Warlock (Archfey, Fiend, Old One), Wizard (Enchanter, Transmuter).
  • Spells: Only 1st to 5th level. No teleportation, matter creation, force barriers, extradimensional spaces, or light. No evocations and necromancies for wizards.
  • Armor: Leather scale (studded leather), lamellar (scale), heavy lamellar (chainmail), shields.
  • Weapons: No light hammer, crossbows, flail, greatsword, lance, morningstar, rapier, trident, warhammer, warpick. They are all not matching the tech level of the setting.
  • No Two-Weapon Fighting and no full healing on a long rest. Because I have the right to be pedantic about some things.

Planescape Finances

Whatever you do in Sigil, never do financial business with the factions.

Doomguard: “Short sell on everything!”

Dustmen: Always read the fine print on interest rates.

Fated: “Greed is good.”

Revolutionary League: “You can’t trust banks and governments. Invest everything in gold!”

Sensates: Could bancruptcy be a valuable enlightening experience?

Developing a Distinct Style

I’ve always been of the opinion that the main thing that makes a setting interesting and compelling is a distinctive style. You can have wonderful top notch stories set in the most generic settings with all the default elements, but in those cases it’s the plot and characters that are compelling, not the setting. It works, of course, but when your goal is to make a setting that is a fascinating and exciting place, then you really have to think about a distinct style. Planescape, Dark Sun, and Star Wars all being great examples.

I’ve been playing around with different campaigns and settings for years now, and over time I discovered a couple of stylistic elements that keep coming up again and again, and that just really work for me. With this new setting, I want to build them into the fabric of the world not just accidentally, but deliberately.

Towers

I don’t really remember where the idea originally came from, but several years back I had made the decision that in my fantasy, I want environments to be awesome. This means things that are huge, but in the modern world we are used to cities that stretch to the horizon and buildings with hundreds of rooms. But what still impresses us ars things that are really tall. And here I admit taking an idea directly from Tolkien. That guy put massive towers everywhere in Middle-Earth. Because giant towers are awesome. Why make a dungeon underground when you can have it in a tower?

Another thing that is thin and tall, and can get incredibly big, are trees. And this world is primarily a forest setting with just a bit of forest and the sea. I think associating towers with the tree motif is perfect for the setting.

Really not much deeper thoughts to that. I like steep spires, and I can not lie.

Masks

The idea of making masks a prominent stylistic feature of the setting wasn’t so much a decision but really a discovery. I get easily distracted by whatever cool things capture my intention and want to include them in what I am working on, but that only dilutes the strong initial premise and leads to a generic mush of random components. To counter that impulse, I regularly go back browsing through my image folder to remind me of the cool initial concept I had. I’ve shared a couple of them in previous posts about the setting to get my idea across. And at some point, a few weeks ago, I realized that of all the pictures of characters that represent the visual style of gear and clothing, a good majority of them were wearing mask, or some kind of heavy warpaint. And I quickly decided to take this purely visial element that I just thought looks cool, and turn it into an actual major component of the culture of the setting.

Masks are fascinating objects. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think simply of “mask”, is something that obscures the face. But specific masks also replace the wearer’s appearance with an alternative face. And in addition to that, many types of masks also serve to protect the face. They represent a barrier between the self and the outside world more than any other kind of armor does. In an antiquity, and to some extend medieval cultures, we encounter masks both with priests and shamans as part of rituals to contact the gods, and also with warriors as part of the helmet, the most critical piece of armor after the shield, often displaying a fearsome appearance to the enemy. I think everyone will immediately agree that masks are extremely complex cultural objects with deep and layered psychological meaning when you start thinking about them.

One idea that I got quite early on was that priests and shamans are wearing masks because the spirits they are dealing with have extreme difficulties with distinguishing and recognizing mortal faces. A problem they don’t have with crafted masks. When dealing with spirits, a mask enables the spirit to recognize the shaman as an individual. This has to very interesting consequences. The first is that by switching between masks, one becomes completely unrecognizable to spirits. The other is that stealing someone elses masks is an absolutely foolproof disguise as spirits are concerned. I think this has great potential for very interesting things to happen in a game.

Annother idea for the setting is that in certain very specific situations, while wearing a specific type of special mask, you are allowed to get around certain social restrictions. Because by wearing the mask and putting on a different face, you are assuming a new identity. And it is enforced by cultural tradition that your actions can not be held against you once the mask is taken off. As society is concerned, you did nothing objectionable and it’s a grave social offense to not respect these ancient cultural traditions. I have not put much thought into specific social tabus for the setting, but as society is concerned, the wearing of certain masks in the right circumstances makes you a different individual.

And finally there’s of course the many fun things you can do with enchanted masks. Masks that do hide your identity with unfailing reliability. Masks that shield your mind from intrusions or protect against other harmful effects. And they make of course great identifying features for special NPCs, or iconic helmets for elite soldiers.

Lamps

Once I had noticed that I really love the look of masks on character images, I went back to see if there are other common motives in the reference pictures I had collected. And a less striking but still noticable pattern was the frequent appearance of unusually colored lamps. The use of striking lighting in visual arts has long fascinated made. Primarily in natural environments, but also the highly stylized urban environments of Cyberpunk and Neo-Noir in general. Over the last years I have frequently been thinking how neo-noir aesthetics and sensibilities could possibly be integrated into bronze age fantasy settings. But the neon lighting was something I had always dismissed as being obviously incompatible. But there is actually one important exception, which is the fantastic visual design of Morrowind. I’m not really a fan of The Elder Scrolls as games, but the worldbuilding and design of Morrowind is hands down the most amazing I have ever seen since Star Wars. And part of the visual design of Morrowind is the heavy use of colored lamps and luminescent mushrooms. And the result is neon lighting. I knew I had to have that in the setting!

The first time I encountered a magic lamp in fantasy was in Baldur’s Gate II, where you first have to find the magic lamp that shows you the secret path to reach the hidden elf city. In the game it was just a key item that lets you click on a new area transition, but I still found the idea fascinating and was always disapointed that I never found any other cool lamps in games or RPG books. But there’s actually a lot you can do with magic lamps once you free yourself from the d20 paradigm of magic items giving you special attacks or stat bonuses.

What I find particularly interesting about lamps is how they are a natural counterpart to masks. Masks hides faces from sight, while a lamp reveals things that are unseen. This realization was what really made me want to build certain iconic elements into the structure of the setting.

The obvious uses for special lamps is to reveal invisible supernatural things to the normal eye. Lamps that make spirits visible, reveal undead creatures, and dispel illusions. But as in the example I gave above, lamps can also be used to show the way to different certain things. A lamp can attract certain beings to it, but its light might also keep various creatures at bay. And though it dilutes the contrast with masks, lamps could also be used as a means to fool the eye and hide certain things in their glare or the shadows they cast.

Fungi

One of the various thing that made the world of Morrowind so amazing and exotic to me was the use of giant mushrooms that are growing side by sides with trees that are about the same size. That imagery has always stuck with me for all the years, and it’s something I often thought of as one part in making a wilderness setting feel exotic and alien.

The last two years I’ve been training as a gardener (soon to upgrade to studying horticulture at university), and fungi are a thing we constantly have to deal with. They are perhaps the most important type of pests plants have to deal with, but fungi are also an extremely critical component of the biosphere within the soil. Mushrooms are well enough known as a vegetable, but on a closer look, fungi are an utterly bizare form of life, completely different from plants or animals.

Unlike plants, fungi don’t use photosynthesis. Instead they get their energy to grow frm, the chemical energy released in the breaking down of organic compounds. They digest the remains from other living things just like animals do, which allows them to live in darkness, subsisting on organic material brought in by animals or wind and running water.

But what’s really bizare about them is that the mushrooms that grow from the ground on on trees are really just the flowers of much larger organisms that live in the soil or wood as huge networks of microscopic strands, often too fine to see with the eye. And the underground networks of fungi can be absolutely massive, covering many hectares of forest.

Then you also have the fact that many fungi are toxic to humans, some even deadly. In a fantasy world, the spores and secretions released by fungi could have almost limitless strange effects.

I actually can not remember ever having seen depictions or descriptions of real glowing mushrooms. But in popular perception they do exist, and I think are well enough established in fantasy. And exotic but believable light sources are something I can never have enough of. Bioluminescens is the perfect solution to get a nonmagical underwater light source for flooded caves and dungeons, though I am not going to tell this to my players.

Overall, I think there is massive potential to use fungi as both monsters and environmental effects.

Worms

This is another thing I noticed only after it had already become a pattern, though this one goes back a couple of years. But at some point I realized that the majority of monsters I have created in the past are some kinds of worms, both directly and in the most abstract sense.

As a fan of Robert Howard, I of course love big giant snakes. What for Lovecraft was his fish and for Tolkien is spiders, was for Howard his snakes. It’s impossible to imagine ancient fantasy or Sword & Sorcery without giant snakes. Snake men are also super cool. But then there’s also giant centipedes. And giant eels. Giant grubs and caterpilars, And on the mammal side, I think the coolest group of predators are weasels. Which also have a generally similar body shape. And then there are various river monsters around the world that occasionally have been interpreted by artists as giant monstrous otters. And damn, I do love carrion crawlers.

So if half of all the monsters I come up with are various forms of worms, so what? It’s not something you have to fight, so why not embrace it? I can always live happily with more wormy critters crawling through the setting.

There’s an OSR survey going on

Necropraxis and Questing Beast are doing a survey of what people associate with the label OSR.

I wrote about just that last month, and as someone who has taken classes on doing surveys of this kind, it makes a really good impression on me. It looks like they actually plan to do real statistical analysis on the data.

Somehow I only noticed it now, so its existence doesn’t seem to be much known. As someone who isn’t really an OSR creator (I don’t like D&D and not doing Artpunk material myself), posting it here might catch some people who are also not part of the inner circle. I think getting data from people on the sidelines also filling out the survey should be very valuable for an analysis of the phenomenon. Though if you never had any interest in OSR material, there’s probably not many answers to give.

Relevant to my Interests

It’s always a good idea to step back and consider what you’ve been doing all the time was really the way to go. I had started with Green Sun with the intention to fully leave behind all the Dark Fantasy and Weird Horror stuff and try to make a pure Bronze Age Dinosaur World setting that I had envisoned several times in the past, that also absolutely isn’t D&D in any way, shape, or form. But three months into this, I find myself noticing that I am really missing some great influences that greatly impacted me in the past and my perception of what makes meaningful stories and fantastic worlds. I simply can’t go on trying to keep out any influences from Dark Souls and The Witcher 2, and there’s actually lots of great stylistic elements in Baldur’s Gate II, even though it’s very much an urban setting.

Quoth the Pterodactly

“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
– Star Wars

“Great warrior? Wars not make one great.”
– The Empire Strikes Back

“What is in there?”
“Only what you take with you… Your weapons – you will not need them.”
– The Empire Strikes Back

“Will I still be myself?”
“Your desire to remain what you are is what ultimately limits you.”
– Ghost in the Shell

“Rudimentary creatures of flesh and bone. You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding. There is a realm of existance so far beyond your own you can not even imagine it.”
– Mass Effect

“You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.”
– Mass Effect

“He said it was dead. We trusted him. He was right. But even a dead god can dream. A god – a real god – is a verb. Not some old man with magic powers. It’s a force. It warps reality just by being there. It doesn’t have to want to. It doesn’t have to think about it. It just does.”
– Mass Effect 2

“I’m going to show you how to kill a god. A god of life and death. The trick is not to fear him.”
– Princess Mononoke

“Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.”
– The Addams Family

“You seek meaning? Then listen to the music, not the song.”
– Babylon 5

“You can not own a human being. Sooner or later, somebody is going to push back.”
– Fury Road

I know, shamelessly pretentious. I’ll never come up with anything like that during play. But it’s still good to have an ideal to strive for.