Category Archives: rpgs

Pointcrawling a Dungeons and Swamp?

This is a problem that has been bothering me for a week now.

A pointcrawl map is an excelent solution to dealing with navigation in two situations. When you want to go from one known point to another known point and there are only a few possible routes that make sense, and when there is only a limited number of possible paths you can take from your current location. Which is the majority of overland travel. However, while working on the first segment of my next sandbox campaign, I noticed that it’s really difficult to use this method for searching a hidden ruin in a swamp. You don’t know the destination and there are no preexisting paths. The original pointcrawl concept explicitly mentions that real wilderness travel is almosy never blindly going in one direction but always either following a path or heading for a landmark. And I agree with that, so that I have started to believe this is not the fault of the pointcrawl but the fault of the swamp. If I want to handle travel in my campaign as a hexcrawl, then I have to change my ideas of how the players get to the ruin in the swamp.

Another issue that’s even tougher is using pointcrawling inside a huge dungeon that is mostly empty and irrelevant rooms and tunnels. A pointcrawl seems like a good idea to only fully play out the interesting sections of the whole dungeon. The chapple, the lab, the monster pens, the gatehouse, and so on. In a somewhat open castle this is no problem. Players can see the keep, the chapple, the stables, and the gatehouse from afar and chose their destination as they leave one area. But in an underground dungeon that doesn’t work. You don’t know what’s behind a door or corner until you enter the new area. It’s a completely different way people are navigating such environments.

If players are in the gatehouse and have the options to go from there to either the stables or the barracks, then the players have to know that these are the two things they can pick from. Otherwise it’s just randomness that takes them to the next area, not a meaningful choice. In a sci-fi setting this could be easy. Just have signs on the walls that tell you where you can go from here and how you get there. In a cave network or ancient ruin, that’s not a feasable approach, though.

Solutions? I don’t have any. I am still working on it, but so far I’ve made little progress beyond identifying the prolem. But my efforts will continue and maybe I’ll come up with something smart one day.

Dark Sun Sandbox

No, this is not a pun.

I wrote about sandboxes and taking the idea of default goals from megadungeons on monday, and how it finally made sandbox campaigns click for me.

And it finally made me understand how I would properly run a Dark Sun campaign. A sandbox is a perfect match for it. One issue with the setting as described is that all the interesting possible oponents are fabulously powerful. If you want to engage in the current public affairs of Athas, you’re facing immortal sorcerer kings with limitless resources and whole armies of seriously dangerous minions. Yet doing regular bandit killing and caravan guarding would be just way too bland for a setting like this. Even being an ordinary adventurer looking for gold in dungeons would be kinda meh.

But as a sandbox it all makes so much more sense. The default action in a Dark Sun campaign is “don’t die”. When you’re in a city, then the templars of the sorcerer-kings are everywhere and looking to kill or enslave you for the slightest reason. If you’re not in a city, then it’s a constant fight to not be killed by the desert. Sitting around idle is never an option, you are always facing a threat. If you don’t have any specific goal for now, then simply staying alive and free will always keep you occupied. It’s a world that really comes to life through random encounters. Random encounters are not the hand GM nuding the players to do certain things. They are the setting itself being hostile to the players, which really is one of the big selling points of Dark Sun as a setting.

And going on more specific adventures with a defined goal can always be treated as a means to accomplishing the default goal of staying alive. Helping others is not something you do out of kindness, but because they will give you resources and assistance in return, which then can help you to survive the deserts and stay ahead of the templars for a little longer. And in the long term, the players can make allies and gain the friendship of slave tribes or bands of elves, or can call in a debt from thri-kreen. Or even somehow get the gratitude of a clan of halflings. Lunatic canibal halflings who live in the one forest in a desert world that everybody else stays way clear of. As they grow in personal power and gain allies, players can eventually get into a position where they can mean actual trouble for any of the sorcerer-kings. Whichever one of them the players decide to hate the most.

The Tyr Region is perfect for a sandbox, and not just because it’s full of sand. However, given that the setting was created for AD&D 2nd edition and that the really cool concept was quickly turned into garbage by a heavy handed metaplot that had NPCs do all the things that would have been cool for players to do, I very much doubt that this was the intention. But that’s clearly how I would run it.

Quicksand Sandbox: What are we going to do tonight, Brain?

One thing I am constantly struggling with as a GM is making up my mind what kind of game mode I actually want my campaigns to run in. The linear plotted adventure went out the window years ago, but since then it’s ben an endless back and forth between enthusiasm and disdain for sandboxes and dungeoncrawls, social games and exploration games, ongoing campaigns and episodic one-shots. Which I think ultimately comes down to a  disconnect between the kind of narratives I am dreaming of and the realities of running a game with other people. I want Conan, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones, but these are all tales written by a creator who controls the thoughts and actions of all the characters and has full control over the past, present, and future of every scene at the same time. You can not replicate a book or a movie exactly in an RPG. You can only work towards running a game that will look like just as great a story in hindsight.

Of the many possible open-ended game modes to chose from, the two I know I am not interested in are hexcrawls and megadungeons. Which happen to be by far the most popular, or at the very least the ones that have most been written about. But the discourse about these two modes has led to the articulation of a valuable and important concept: Default Goals and Default Actions.

In a game that has a group come together at regular or irregular intervals and ask the immortal question “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?”, there needs to be a default goal. If nobody has any special plan, then the whole group should be in agreement to default to one standard activity. Otherwise they just keep akwardly sitting around in confusion and are likely to start wrecking things to get any response to their presence from the game world. In the case of the hexcrawl and the megadungeon, these default actions are exploring new hexes and going to the dungeon respectively. Or simply “explore”. But as Matt Colville pointed out quite correctly I believe, “explore” is not a good goal. Exploration is walking around blindly and waiting for something interesting to fall into your path. It’s still waiting for the world and the GM to give them a task to deal with. Without understanding why, I think this is really the issue that always had me feel very uncomfortable about the thought of running a hexcrawl or megadungeon. It just doesn’t seem to have the potential for the kind of narratives I want my games to produce.

My work on the Ancient Lands setting began as an attempt to create a more realistic portrayal of tribal societies in a fantasy world that wasn’t as distorted as the nonsense you get about life in “warrior cultures” in movies and books. But while I think that it’s a fascinating subject and some elements of this will greatly help me making the Ancient Lands feel like an actual world, I have come to really appreciate minimizing exposition and player buy-in. Instead relying strongly on familiar archetypes to allow players to correctly guess what is what in this fictional world. However as part of it, I found one solution to letting PCs go on adventures and being indispensible for the survival of the clan, which was to define PCs as hunters for magical artifacts that can help defend the clan against their enemies and hostile spirits. Somehow this got stuck in my mind as the paradigm that all adventures in the Ancient Lands have to be treasure hunts and that all PCs have to be treasure hunters. After all, treasure hunting is what makes characters progress in B/X, so it seems to be a perfect match, right?

But in hindsight I really just handicapped myself with this approach. Without the addition of “return it to your clan to defend it against attacks”, the default goal of “find treasure” is just as hollow as “explore”. But while reading Kevin Crawford’s excellent Spears of the Dawn, I finally came to the realization that default goal does not have to be the only goal. It’s the goal that you can always go pursuing if you don’t have anything else planned right now. I believe the key to a successful sandbox campaign is to make it a hybrid campaign of exploration/treasure hunt and player-initiated story adventures. On their own, neither can stand by itself. At least not in a way that I want to run it. Pure exploration is aimless. And sending the players to do whatever they want in a world they know nothing about is a recipe for getting them stuck in the quicksand of unlimited options.

A much more appealing approach to sandboxes is “come for the plunder, stay for the people”. The treasure hunt is a device to get players to start interacting with the world in an easy to grasp and straightforward way so that they get opportunities to form connections with the setting and the NPCs and get dragged into local conflicts. The platonic ideal for player initiated adventures always seems to me best represented by the classic Kurosawa movie Yojimbo. There is no quest giver and barely even a hook to get the hero into this adventure. He is just passing through a village when he sees that local gangs are making trouble. Even though the locals tell him to just be on his way, he is intrigued and stays to see what happens next. At this point he has no plan and not even a clear goal and completely plays it by ear, but once he has established some connections to the village it very quickly grows into a complex web of cunning deception and daring swashbuckling that simply is a blast to behold. This is what I believe player-initiated adventures in a sandbox should be like.

But in an RPG, walking down the street until the players run into something that grabs their curiosity is not feasible. If they currently have nothing to do, they need a default goal to fall back on that will keep them entertained until they find something more interesting to do instead. Putting the limitation on character creation that all PCs have to have a drive to look for magical wonders in ancient places seems like a perfect solution for a wilderness sandbox.

Idea Looting: John Carter

Yesterday I was watching John Carter again and it really is a corny B-movie with an awful script and badly acted protagonists. But that’s the case with pretty much all fantasy movies except for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings (which often are corny blockbusters with an awful script and badly acted protagonists). And while I think that it could be argued that it’s a bad movie, it certainly is a really nice looking movie with a lot of cool ideas. Basically the ideas that are taken directly from A Princess of Mars and are not new additions for the movie. You know, the ideas  that Star Wars ripped off to huge success.

And some of them I think I really want to grab myself:

White Apes kick ass! They eat puny rancors for breakfast.

That Petrified Giant Tree Thingy Shrine. The only problem I have with this design for a dungeon is that it’s not nearly big enough in the movie. It needs to be ten times bigger and then it totally has to be an adventure site for my campaign.

Helium looks awesome. It just needs a thick forest in the canyon below the cliff and can go straight into the Ancient Lands. (As a Tree Weaver castle, I would say.)

Those meddling sorcerers. Don’t really have a clue how, but I like the idea. And I really like that their powers are mostly illusions and mind control but that they absolutely suck when having to fight themselves, which makes them much more interesting as actual antagonists. big open question is what they would try to accomplish in the Ancient Lands.

And since we’re at them, the Warhoon tribe is really gnarly looking. I said I need some better ideas for the raksha. I think this could be it.

Not appearing in the movie, but I really like this design for Banths. I think this is what I’ll make my arags look like instead. (My original inspiration were varren from Mass Effect, which really look remarkably similar to this, just more fishy.)

Here I am still really conflicted. Airships are totally awesome! But I feel like they would be a huge change to the setting as a whole. The concept for the world is one of wilderness adventures in a somewhat more primitive world and having the ability to fly over the forests instead of slowly crawling through the underbrush and paddling along rivers would be a drastic departure from that.

But they are really, really cool.

And they would not actually be a radically new idea for B/X-BECMI. Elves and Halflings have been given the ability to make airships very much like these in the Companion Set way back in 1983.

And it’s really, really cool…

I guess what would be needed is to make these things incredibly rare and put some severe limitations on how far and long they can fly before requiring a stop to resupply. But I guess that’s worth a whole post in itself.

Forest Moon 2: Knights of the Frozen Throne

About a year ago I’ve sat down and wrote a list of elements that would evoke the atmosphere and style that was really at the heart of my inspiration for the Ancient Lands, which over the many years of working on it had regularly strayed off into other, more generic direction. Writing these ideas down as Project Forest Moon started probably the most productive phase of my whole work on the setting and in hindsight feels like a second moment of the settings inception. When I looked back at the original first outline I made, pretty much all the important elements were already there and the following five years were spend on toying around with various mechanics and researching background information on society and technology. Much of which ended up being discarded as irrelevant and uninteresting for campaigns. Figuring out what doesn’t work and why is a major and important learning experience, but It was only in the last year when I finally learned how much atmosphere is actually much more important than lots of methodical detail.

Project Forest Moon turned out to be an astonishing success for myself which lead me to declare the setting as basically complete three months ago. Well, at least so far as having reached the beta stage. And to focus my efforts on the final push to smoothen out the remaining rough edges I made another list with the elements that still are not as prominent as they should be and the ways I want to deal with them.

  • That’s no Planet. It’s a Moon! Forest Moon was really just a name referring to one of my major inspirations for the style of the setting. But the idea has grown on me and I totally like the idea of switching the primary moon of the Ancient Lands to be the larger companion of the system. It changes absolutely nothing for the people living in the Ancient Lands, but it adds a little bit to reinforce the notion of it being an alien work very much unlike Earth in many ways. And I also just love the oldschool pulpy vibe that you get from works like the Barsoom series and obviously Star Wars.
  • Points of Light: While it comes from the development process of the most controversial edition that was widely seen as a major step in the totally wrong direction for D&D, Points of Light is a very fascinating paradigm for desiging settings, that is actually extremely oldschool but had to my knowledge never been put into words that well. The whole, and really pretty simple idea, is that the campaign world is a mostly untamed world without any real centralized power or organization and overall generally hostile to the mortal races. They have carved out their small islands of relative safety and stability that are only loosely connected by barely maintained roads, but around them these small villages and towns are completely surrounded by monster infested wilderness.  I’ve been working under these assumptions from the very beginning, but I feel that I’ve continuously drifted back towards something more conventional. One way to accomplish this is to completely banish the idea of countries from the setting. Geographic areas are defined by having a consistent landscape, like a mountain range, island group, or wetland. But there are no more cultural regions that give the inhabitants some kind of shared identity. Now every island of mortal inhabitation is reduced to being its own unique entity.
  • No More Cities: As a consequence of the stronger Points of Light approach I am ditching the concept of city states. These have always been problematic for me as they are meant to not be visited by PCs but always ended up being the focus areas of the worldbuilding process. I will keep the handful that I have, but they are reconceptualized as strongholds of particularly powerful warlords. They are fortified towns under a single leader. No longer a common space for a regional aristocracy.
  • Level 0 World: One paradigm I’ve commited myself to some time ago is that every NPC that is not considered important enough to be given a name and individual personality is automatically a level 0 character with no class. NPCs that are fleshed out as individuals only get classes and levels if they have extraordinary fighting prowess or skills or possess magical powers. If their power and influence is purely social then they are still only level 0 NPCs, even if they are very high ranking individuals.
  • More Focus on Journeys: I already had boat travel on rivers and coasts on the list the last time but have not actually done much to make this a more prominent feature of the setting. With a setting like this, the trip between town and dungeon is not enough to cover the wilderness aspects of a campaign. The journey between towns should be an adventure in itself. This is one aspect where I have to put some more thoughts into mechanics and it’s less of a worldbuilding issue. However, the connections to the river and overland path network is one important element in the description of settlements. This also includes creating some more river monsters.
  • More really big Beasts: Part of the concept is that the wilderness is dangerous and terrifying. With a more open ended, site-based approach to adventures and the ability to retreat from encounters or avoid them, I think I can get away with populating the world with more beasts that will be too tough to fight head on for most parties. More dragons and rancors.
  • The Fey Folk: There are three races of humanoid fey in the Ancient Lands. Naga, shie, and racksha. The naga already have a very prominent role in many aspects of the setting, but the other two are still mostly concept that exist more or less in isolation and are not really connected to anything yet. The shie are the creators of the Tower Builder and Tree Weaver types of ruins, but the raksha are more of a character design than a setting element so far.
  • Rituals: The Ancient Lands is conceptualized as an animistic world but so far there is little specific about how this element can be included in actual play. The consultation of shamans and witches and the use of elaborate warding and divination rituals needs to become more fleshed out. Given that divinations in the Ancient World work by predicting the crossing of paths of people with intersecting or conflicting goals rather than stating predetermined outcomes, I see a lot of potential here.
  • Sites of Power: I need to put a lot more thought into magical glades and springs that work as powerful stationary magic items.
  • Druids as Monks rather than Templars: My idea of the Druids was as an organization of shamans that work together to fight the spread of demons and sorcery but I realized that this actually makes them not very interesting as NPCs. If they are the best at fighting sorcery, why would they have to work together with player characters? It’s basically the old Jedi Problem, where one character type is the hero by default and everyone else really only gets in the way and should try to stay out of harm. Instead I want to reconceptualize druids as scholars who have the knowledge to fight sorcery but require warriors to actually do the heavy lifting and clear a path for them.
  • No Lizardmen: I already had lizardmen scrapped once but got them back as part of the setting some time in the last year. But now I realize that all my cool ideas for a lizard race have already been incorporarted in jungle elves and the naga slaves serpentmen. While a neat idea, the lack of a decent concept means the setting will probably be better of for the time being. Not having mortal lizardmen actually frees up a spot for an idea I have for lizard spirit-ogres as a fourth race of the fey folk.

What about sub-mega dungeons?

When I started doing research about good dungeon design, I made an interesting observation. Pretty much everyone who is writing about the design of dungeons is talking specifically of the rather special case of megadungeons. I can understand the fascination with these massive places that can remain not fully explored even after multiple campaigns set inside of them. But when you start looking into the details of what people are writing about the design, you find a lot of recommendations that I don’t think carry over well into games of exploring multiple different dungeons over 1 to 4 sessions each.

The whole logistics are really quite different and the journey to and from the dungeon takes up a much bigger role in the campaign when the party constantly has to relocate their base camp. Like most advice that is around for worldbuilding, megadungeon advice mostly concerns itself with the really big pictures. But what seemingly gets overlooked is the small scale design of encounters and individual rooms. These are problems that a lot more GMs are having to deal with, yet it seems that nobody really has anything smart to say about this element. As a GM poorly experienced in running dungeon crawls, I’ve been doing a lot of searching for such information, but it appears to be curiously absent.

The Ancient Builders

Ruins play obviously a great part in the Ancient Lands and someone has to have build them in the first place. While I don’t want to have a generic post-apocalyptic world I decided to keep things simple and focused and have the majority of ruins be from an ancient time and build by fey races instead of being build by past humanoid civilizations. Ruined castles can have signs of past inhabitation by people, but people-build ruins are going to be almost all abandoned villages. Mortals just don’t have the ability to build castles like spirits can, and never did. It’s not that mortals lost knowledge and abilities they had in the past, but simply that spirits are just much more powerful in every way. Fortunately for mortals, most fey castles have long been abandoned and only few of them are currently inhabited. The fey races are not particularly attached to stability and leave lots of stuff behind when they are done with them, but these tend to remain around for a very long time after that and over thousands of years those abandoned castles add up.


Of all the old builders, the naga are the ones that still have a strong presence on the material world and inhabit and maintain many of their ancient castles, particularly in the southern lands. Around the Inner Sea and the northern lands these are all long abandoned, though. Naga ruins often consists of steep, tower-like ziggurats surrounded by smaller buildings with flat stone roofa that housed vast numbers of elven slaves. They can easily be identified by their lack of stairs, with levels being connected by ramps. They are also generally found near coasts.

Tower Builders

The tower builders were a civilization of shie that built a large number of citadels throughout the northern parts of the Ancient Lands. All their castles have a square base and smooth walls that slighty narrow inwards until reaching a flat top. These towers are build from huge stone blocks that are very accurately fitted together and each have a completely unique shape. Inside, the ceilings are held up by massive supports that start close to the walls and lean sharply inwards to form a kind of trapezoid arch and provide a lot of cover and hiding spaces.

Rock Carvers

Ruins of the Rock Carvers are mostly found in the area of the Inner Sea, particularly the Akai and Tavir Mountains, but also in various places in the steep rocky cliffs on the coast. Rock Carver ruins are often seemingly low and bulky constructions compared to the other styles of castles, but are mostly located underground, which hides their frequently massive proportions. Often the only parts visible above ground are a steep and extremely thick wall and an only slightly higher citadel that guard the main entrance to the rest of the stronghold. Often these have very few windows that are barely more than arrow slits, but castles in well defensible locations high up in the mountains sometimes have large numbers of great balconies and tarraces overlooking the landscape below. Smaller ruins are often completely invisible from the outside and appear only as easy to miss caves that reveal themselves to be spectacular underground castles. While the working of walls and tunnels is always extremely precise and without any irregularities, many ruins include large natural caverns that have remained entirely unworked and kept in their magnificent natural form.

The identity of the Rock Carvers is a complete mystery to everyone but they have often left behind many enchanted stones and gems.

Tree Weavers

The Tree Weavers were another group of shie who created numerous castles and palaces in the Ancient Lands. Their ruins are widely regarded as the most magnificent ones and appear to have been grown from gargantuan petrified trees and living rock rather than build by masons. Except for floors and stairs, which are covered in tiles of polished marble, there are no flat surfaces or straight angles to be found anywhere in these ruins, with all walls slightly bulging outwards and all ceilings being domed. Many ruins consist of tall towers that often have smaller side towers branching off from them in seemingly impossible angles like enormous stone trees. Other buildings have large marble roofs made from a single piece that look like the shells of colossals turtles.

Tree Weaver ruins are often home to a great amount of plant life, much of it being dangerous and even deadly to people getting too close.

Glass Makers

Ruins of the Glass Makers are the most mysterious ones and widely regarded to be by far the oldest. Many even believe that they were build by spirits that have long retreated into the eternal dark of the Underworld. Ruins of this type are made or a very hard dark material that greatly resembles glass an comes in various hues. Surfaces require a great deal of force to damage and tend to merely chip rather than fracturing. Rumor has it that at least in some ruins such damages slowly heal over the course of decades and centuries but they are so infrequently visited that nobody has ever really seen it happening so far.
The architecture of these steuctures, if it can even be called that, tends to be highly bizarre and often seems to serve no discernable purpose. However, they all share in common that they contain large underground sections of which generally much less information is available.

Glass ruins often have areas of high corruption and are sometimes haunted by trapped demons. Sorcerous relics can often be found in them and they are highly sought after by naga and sorcerers.

In the Land of Zero-Level NPCs a 4th Level Fighter is a Hero

One thing I really love about oldschool D&D, and which changing was a major flaw of the d20 system, is that nonplayer humanoids have fixed stats like monsters and don’t have levels like PCs. That’s not just orcs and gnolls, but also dwarves, bandits, and berserkers. Not only is this really convenient for GMs who have a lot less work to prepare for a session and can simply pull stats for any minor NPC out of the book if an unanticipated fight breaks out, it also brings with it a number of very interesting assumptions about the world and the position of PCs in it.

I have adopted the policy that every NPC too minor to get a name in advance is automatically a level zero NPC. Which means effectively all guards, soldiers, bandits, and civilians. Named NPCs have to be significantly more skilled in combat than the average soldier to become even 1st level fighters or amazing skills to have levels as scouts (fighter-thief) or specialists (thief). In such a setting a 1st level fighter is clearly a Veteran and a 4th level fighter a Hero. And of course that’s what Gygax and Moldvay intended when they put these titles next to these fighter levels. 1st level PCs are not raw recruits and 5th level characters not “low-level”.

I’ve started to get the impression that high-level characters (level 13+) were flawed pretty early in my 3rd edition days and I’ve recently seen people make good arguments that these have been tacked on later in a somewhat haphazardous way and were not part of the original design that quickly ran out after 9th level. But it’s something that is relatively easily ignored, at least until Forgotten Realms became the de facto official AD&D setting going into 2nd Edition. Forgotten Realms had this odd thing going on where high level NPCs are numerous and make their homes in quaint unassuming villages or go into semi-retirement to run a tavern. Which I can see as having some charm, but becomes a really bad influence when it’s taken as a precedent. If there are level 15 or 20 NPCs found in farming villages, what’s the point of 2nd or 6th level PCs other than being errand boys? 4th level is no longer heroic and 8th level most certainly not super-heroic.

So simultaneously you get monsters becoming stronger to compensate for 10th level being the new 5th, which leads to the really annoying consequence of players having to wait until they’ve run enough rat and goblin errands to get to the cool stuff of giants, dragons, and demons. Which in twelve years of playing 3rd Edition and Pathfinder never happened to me once. Aside from the one time we started with 14th level character’s I only encountered a beholder once (last session of that campaign) and not a single dragon or demon. So lame.

One common argument I come across for the need for high-level NPCs and mid-level town guards is the question of what would prevent the players from burning and looting villages. To which I have one really simple answer: Nothing!

So the players want to fight guards that can’t stop them and plunder the local stores for anything valuable? They want to become villains terrorizing the countryside? Let them. But that doesn’t mean you have to let them get away with it. Because what do villagers do when being under constant attacks by raiders with supernatural powers? The only thing that can defeat a Hero is another Hero! They call for heroes to save them. It doesn’t need to be Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. You can start with a party of 3rd and 4th level NPCs. If the players defeat them others will trie, until eventually they become infamous and feared enough that armies a send to deal with them and then 8th level parties consider them a worthy task for themselves. If the players keep defeating them, they are certainly going to have a blast with it. And everything is good.

Eldritch Lore: Elementals

Air Elemental by javi-ure

A while back I’ve seen someone describe elementals in Dungeons & Dragons as fundamentally boring. I think they are really cool, but what is it that they rally have going for themselves? When you look at their description in the Monster Manuals and Expert Sets, really all that you get is a description of how they look and their abilities in combat. And that’s really everything there is about them. What little there is about their role in the wider world makes them appear more like mindless temporary golems controlled by wizards than actual nature spirits. I have to agree. Elementals in Dungeons & Dragons are super lame.

Yeah, well… I’m gonna go build my own fantasy setting. With blackjack and cool elementals!


Earth Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals are the oldest and most numerous of the spirits inhabiting the Spiritworld. Even more so than the spirits of trees and animals, they are the spirits of the land, sea, rivers, and sky themselves. They have no shape or form of their own, but wherever the elements are present there are also elemental spirits inhabiting them in the Spiritworld.  Whenever they have a need to interact with the physical world around them they can manifest a body shaped from their element. Weapons can not damage water and fire and even when rock is crushed an earth elemental can maintain a body made from rubble. The only ways to deal any harm to an elemental spirit are magic and the elements themselves. Dousing fire with water or turning water into steam with extreme heat can overwhelm the power of an elemental spirit, causing it to lose its hold over its physical form and disappearing back into the environment to recover its strength. Like all spirits, elementals are hurt by iron as well, but bronze, wood, and stone have no effect on them whatsoever.

Fire Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals don’t have any needs as living creatures would understand them or even desires like the shie, naga, and raksha. They are eternal beings as old as the world itself, who will probably continue to exist until the end of time, long after all people, beasts, and other nature spirits will be gone. Yet they are not mindless forces of nature, nor completely devoid of emotions. The main priority pursued by elementals is to be left in peace. The one thing that drives them into furious rage are disturbances of their comfortable quiet. However what costitutes a disturbance to these enigmatic beings is never clear to tell. The presence of beasts large and small is a constant and regular occurence throughout all the world and most of the time elementals make no distinguishment between people and animals. The affairs of mortals are of no relevance to them and so they are generally ignored by elementals. However, their apparent peacefulness can very quickly turn into determined agression by causing a commotion in their vicinity or merely getting to close for their comfort.

Water Elemental by javi-ure

While elementals usually don’t talk to other creatures they are capable of speech, speaking in the languages of spirits of the earth, water, and sky. They simply lack any desire to communicate with other beings. But when approached with care by a shaman they can be drawn into a conversation and reveal themselves to be quite intelligent creatures of great wisdom, though much of it has little meaning to the short lives of mortal beings. When interacting with people, elementals often take a vaguely humanoid shape but they can also assume forms resembling various great beasts or simply appear as rolling clouds or bulges of water. The minds of elementals are nearly as alien as those of the ancients that predate the formation of the world, but being a fundamental part of the natural world their presence has none of their warping and corrupting effects on the land and creatures around them.

Lesser Elemental

XP: 500
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 19
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 6 (27 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d6
Earth: Slam 1d8
Fire: Slam 1d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 12
Poison: 10
Breath: 13
Device: 11
Magic: 14
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Greater Elemental

XP: 1,200
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 21
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 8 (36 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d8
Earth: Slam 2d6
Fire: Slam 1d8 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 10
Poison: 8
Breath: 11
Device: 9
Magic: 12
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Elder Elemental

XP: 1,900
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 23
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 12 (54 hp)
Attack: Slam 2d6
Earth: Slam 2d8
Fire: Slam 2d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 8
Poison: 6
Breath: 9
Device: 7
Magic: 10
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

The greatest thing that D&D forgot

Now this is not going to be a big, or even any, revelation to many people who are reading sites like this, but over the last weeks I’ve been doing more research on great adventure location design, which led me many times into dead ends because of the same single preconception the people writing have about D&D as a roleplaying game. So here you have it from my mouth:

Early D&D* was an exploration game, not a combat game.

I think this is probably the single most important aspect that distinguishes oldschool roleplaying from “modern games”. With AD&D 2nd Edition it’s a bit muddy, but we can safely say that 3rd to 5th Edition and Pathfinder are all combat games first that have some additional rules for non-combat situation tacked on to them. But with oldschool games, the situation is really very different. Combat is something that can happen, but the whole game is build in a way that you really don’t want it to happen. Except if it is for dramatic reasons, of course. Stopping a major villain and slaying a terrible monster is great. But the rules as a whole are all set up to make combat a bad thing for the characters.

Combat provides very little XP, except when it opens the way to treasure that gives the party a lot of XP. Getting access to the treasure without combat is always preferable. Combat is the primary pressure put on players to not spend too much time in dungeons rooms and not simply dealing with obstacles by destroying them. Because both these things attact potential combat. Encumbrance exist to slow characters down, which means they take longer to explore the dungeon and are less capable of escaping from a fight. Encumbrance only is a bad thing if players don’t want to fight.

Combat also is deadly and gets characters killed, even if the party wins a fight. But combat also isn’t necessary. Any time the party encounters living things in a dungeon and there is no good reason why those creatures and NPCs are hostile, the rules have a reaction roll to determine how they react to the party. And the creatures attacking on sight is the least likely reaction. The next most unfriendly reaction in the Basic Set is “Hostile, possible attack”, which I regard as being most sensibly interpreted as “attacks if provoked by the party’s actions”. There is a chance that a monster actually reacts friendly and the next most positive result is that the monster leaves or considers offers. Because the monster does not want to risk a fight with likely dadly consequences either. And if a fight breaks out, there is also the Morale check, which is used to determine whether monsters who are taking casualties decide that they would rather abandon the fight than risk now even more possible looking death.

The whole game is set up so that combat hold almost all risk and no reward for the players and that even their oppponents prefer not to fight. Combat is what happens when an encounter ends in catastrophy.

D&D being a game of exploration instead of combat also explains the majority of traditional spells that keep getting carried on by each new addition even though they seem to be pretty much useless. They are useless in a combat game. But hold portal, levitate, and speak with animal all make so much sense in an exploration game.

* That is pre-Dragonlance, 1974-1984.