New 4e item: The Looking Glass of the Ixenos

While reviewing some old campaign files, I happened across the following description of a magic item I invented for a 4e campaign a few years ago. The item has more of an old-school feel; it doesn’t really qualify as a 4e trap or hazard, but isn’t a magic item or relic a character can take or use, either, so I’m calling it a “4e item,” for lack of a better term.

The Looking Glass of the Ixenos

Although its original name has been lost to history, the enchanted item now known as The Looking Glass of the Ixenos carries its name from having caused the downfall of the Ixenos family, a human clan of Nurite descent that came to live in Varos, serving the empire as regional exarchs in an outlying province. The family dabbled in the study of and pacts with infernal entities and, influenced by the visions and powers granted by the looking glass, eventually became tieflings. When the family’s infernal nature was discovered, the local church of Pelor led the peasantry and local military in revolt; most family members were slain outright and burned on consecrated ground, but a handful fled to the family’s mausoleum at the edge of their villa, where they were entombed alive with the Looking Glass. The villa and adjacent settlement were considered cursed, and were abandoned to ruin even before the Rising of the Scourge.

The relic is essentially a hemisphere, carved from a reddish crystal of indeterminate origin. The hemisphere is situated with the flat surface facing upward, and set upon a plain onyx pedestal some three feet in height. Abyssal runes are carved along the edges of the flat surface; a DC 15 arcana or religion check allows them to be read as, “The blood makes one more himself than he already is.” The only other disturbance in the mirror-smooth top of the relic is a peculiar depression, perhaps an inch deep and a handspan across, with a needle-sharp spire of the reddish crystal, about three inches high, protruding from its center. A narrow channel has been carved into the spire, starting at the point and spiraling downward into the depression.

When any sentient creatures, excepting tieflings, approach, the Looking Glass sends a telepathic message in the creatures’ native tongues. Common messages include, “Come to me, and you will realize your untapped power,” “Touch the spire and see your true self,” and, “You do not know the power in your own heart; touch the spire and you will see.”

Anyone hearing the message and touching the spire releases a drop of blood, that glows softly as it flows through the channel into the depression. The glow then spreads across the smooth surface of the Looking Glass, shimmering and expanding into a mirror-like surface. The Looking Glass is anything but an ordinary mirror, however; it reflects only the evil present in the viewer. Thus, any imperfect, prime material being will be greeted with a twisted, infernal visage embodying all that is evil and sinful in their hearts, which they instinctively know is absolutely true.

Being suddenly confronted with the unmitigated image of one’s dark side can be overwhelming. In game terms, this mental shock is treated as an attack at +10 upon the viewer’s Will Defense.If the attack misses, the viewer can tear his eyes away without permanent consequence, although experiencing recurring nightmares during the next several weeks is probable. If the attack hits, the viewer has effectively sealed a pact in his own blood with an infernal entity: the benefits of this pact are immediately apparent, but the consequences are not.

The power gained is the permanent ability to re-use an expended encounter power once per day. Unfortunately, every time this ability is used, it causes a change to the viewer’s appearance, in the following sequence:

First instance: the character’s tongue becomes forked. This change is easily concealed, apart from the character having a slight, serpentine lisp for a few days as he grows accustomed to his new anatomy.

Second instance: the character’s canine teeth – both upper and lower – elongate in much the same way as a vampire’s or wolf’s. Again, this can be concealed, although the character may look a bit fuller in the face.

Third instance: the character’s fingernails itch for a few days; after an extended rest, the character awakens to find that his fingernails have transformed into discolored claws. Only gloves or gauntlets can cover this deformity.

Fourth instance: the character’s ears become enlarged, and slope to a point. A hood or helmet must be worn to conceal this change.

Fifth instance: sharp horns, about an inch high, emerge from the character’s head.

Sixth instance: a sulphurous smell wafts about the character at all times, and no amount of bathing can remove it.

Seventh instance: The character’s eyes develop a reddish glow; while he can still see normally, he instinctively knows that further changes will radically alter his physical form, and that he may lose control of his own mind, as well.

Eighth instance: the character’s feet become cloven hooves.

Ninth instance: the character sprouts a slender, pointed tail, measuring about four feet in length.

Tenth instance: the character’s skin is replaced with reddish scales, and the character is surrendered to the Dungeon Master, to be used as a non-player character henceforth.


Game Night Blog Carnival: Scallywags

Pictured above is an “inactive” priate, which counts toward a total needed to sail. The pirate also contains the Monkey card, which allows the player to draw an extra card each turn.

Scallywags is a card game for two to four players ages 12 and older, published by Bent Castle Workshops. As the name implies, the game has a pirate flavor; the object of the game is to be the first to assemble a pirate crew from dozens of interchangeable pirate parts; the number pirates required for victory varies with the number of players.

The Scallywags deck contains 120 cards. Ninety of them are, for lack of a better description, pirate parts; 30 heads, 30 torsos, and 30 sets of legs. The remaining 30 “event cards” allow players to make it easier to assemble pirates or more difficult for opponents to do the same.

Each player gets a hand of 10 cards to start with, and nine cards are laid face-up in the center of the table. These nine cards, collectively called “the commons,” may be taken by players during their turn by discarding and exchanging cards from their hands during their turns. Players attempt to build pirates by using cards in their hands, cards drawn at the start of their turns and swapping unwanted cards from their hands with more appealing cards from the commons.

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Recruiting 101 for an RPG villain

The opportunity for training and experince provided by military service is a powerful recruitment motivator – both in the real world and in RPGs.

Many Dungeons & Dragons villains have entourages of evil humanoid followers, especially at low experience levels. That circumstance may not matter much in combat-heavy campaigns – knowing the humanoids are evil is generally considered sufficient cause to kill them and take their stuff in most hack/slash games -but knowing how a villain recruits and retains his retinue can take adventures in unexpected and unconventional directions.

So where do these villains get their humanoid sellswords? They do so in two ways: voluntary and involuntary.

Voluntary service can be obtained with the following arguments and / or inducements:

Patriotism. Although humanoid tribes seldom recognize themselves as nations in the modern sense, they may feel loyalty in similar fashion for fellow members of their race, outrage at heroic incursion into their lands, or even remembered outrage at being driven from more hospitable lands in the past. Defending one’s home is a powerful motivation, and if a villain can convince humanoid minions that they are doing that, morale and loyalty will be relatively high. Continue reading

Choosing a defensible camp site for your D&D party

General Sir William Heneker, whose writings contain practical advice for soldiers and gamers alike. Image courtesy

What follows was initially part of the Athenaeum’s recent post on bringing wandering monsters into the fourth-edition (4e) Dungeons & Dragons game; the discussion of choosing, preparing and defending a campsite to defend against overnight random encounters quickly became large enough to warrant its own posting, published below.

Heroes in the D&D game spend a great deal of time traveling through dangerous regions, and battles during such journeys are common. Most published fourth edition (4e) products have such battles taking place in broad daylight, when the heroes are rested with full equipment; players naturally prefer (and most 4e designers seem to be willing to provide) such circumstances, as they maximize their characters’ offensive and defensive capacities. But would all enemies choose to engage a powerful band of heroes in this fashion?

Excepting villains who abide by a code of honor requiring them to avoid attacking from advantage, most villains would answer no to that question. Would it not be more effective, and far less risky, to follow a group of heroes until they stop traveling and camp for the night? At that time, the heroes are literally stripped of much of their protection, as it is impossible to have any rejuvenating rest while wearing armor; most of them will likely be asleep; and villainous forces can ambush the comparably vulnerable heroes from cover of darkness.

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1e to 4e: Bringing wandering monsters back into D&D

Random monster encounters played an important role in character advancement in early editions of D&D and in many video RPGs, as this assortment of random monsters for Nintendo’s Dragon Warrior game illustrates. Image copyright

While perusing some old .pdfs of legacy edition Dungeons & Dragons modules, I was struck by how common random monster encounter tables were in the old adventures, and was reminded of the prominence of random encounters in the rules themselves. The first edition (1e) Dungeon Master’s Guide had an entire appendix devoted to such encounters, and the 1e Monster Manual II included an index that grouped creatures from three monster volumes by terrain and encounter frequency, to make generating one’s own encounter tables easier.

I was also struck by how such tables are absent in every fourth edition (4e) product I’ve thus far seen.

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Use downtime to level up your hero’s D&D combat skills

In the introduction to classic first edition Dungeons & Dragons module Against the Giants, author Gary Gygax cautions would-be players that the module wasn’t just designed for high-level characters; it was also designed for highly experienced players. The author explained that novice players who simply rolled up powerful characters wouldn’t have the tactical expertise necessary for those characters to survive the module. Gygax pointed to a widely ignored gaming truth: there is no instant replacement for months or years of player tactical cooperation.

It does indeed take a great deal of time for an adventuring party to learn all the nuances of working together. When a party actually does so – when a group of players actually obtains equipment, develops tactics, and chooses skills, feats and spells based on how they will contribute to group success – enjoyment of the game is exponentially higher.

In games that focus on the tactical elements of combat, the group can, if the players and dungeon master agree, use down time for players to practice directing their characters cooperatively in mock combat. Such an activity may be an option when one or more players cannot attend, and other campaign-related gaming activities aren’t as appealing. Of course, these fights never take place from a campaign or narrative standpoint; rather, they’re more of a metagaming experience where players test their heroes against monsters of the DM’s choosing.

There are several advantages in spending this time at practice:

  • Someone at the table can run characters for absent players without fear of anything happening to those characters;
  • Players can attempt combinations of field position, equipment, weapons, feats, powers, opportunity attacks, magic items and timing (through delaying actions and such) without fear of their characters dying in-game; as a result, players can and often do try outrageous  and/or convoluted plans. After all, there are no campaign consequences for success or failure. Particularly effective combinations should be documented for future reference, as described in the list-making section of this post;
  • The DM may choose to use monsters that he or she may have always wanted to use, but never had the opportunity;
  • These practice combats are a great way for the DM to practice skills for the other side of the screen, including seldom-used rules for weaponless, aerial or underwater combat;
  • There is very little preparation time required on the part of the DM or players for this activity; and
  • The players can also have a bit of good-natured metagaming fun by trying to see who can do the most damage to a single target, who can slay the most enemies, or how many ongoing conditions or effects the party can place on a single target.
  • Players may even want to take this opportunity to fight each other, just to see the result.

While using downtime for practice effectively turns D&D into a rather complicated skirmish game, the practice can be a useful exercise, especially for novice players or DMs.