Saturday, April 25, 2015

Birds, bats, bees, pteranodons. Two spells.

This post will eventually have something to do with RPGs. Probably.

To the best of our knowledge, true flight has only evolved a few times on Earth. Bats, birds, now-extinct pterosaurs, and flying insects have all filled similar evolutionary niches, and it's likely they all got there in similar ways.

We understand the evolution of birds the best of those four groups (or at least think we do), due to well-documented fossil evidence uncovered in the 20th century. Tiny cousins of Velociraptor started climbing trees and ambushing whatever walked underneath. The ones who could jump farther from their hiding spots were less likely to starve and more likely to reproduce, so scales gradually grew into longer and softer feathers that produced a gliding effect. All the climbing made forelimbs longer and stronger, until they became capable of making the transition to true wings.

Bats followed a similar evolutionary pattern, starting with a tiny tree-dwelling mammal, and making the transition from climber, to glider, to flier. A minority of biologists believes, based on similarities in the brain structure of Megachiroptera (flying foxes) to that found in primates (and no other mammals), that these giant fruit bats might be more closely related to us than to the brown bats we have throughout North America. It's a bit of an odd hypothesis, but if it turned out to be true, it would mean that the traits necessary for flight evolved twice within the class mammalia, through an identical series of adaptations, arriving at close to the same result. These separate lineages would also explain why Megachiroptera are the only bats that don't use echolocation.

Flying squirrels aren't closely related to bats, but could they be on their way to becoming bats?

Pterosaurs presumably evolved from tiny lizards under similar environmental pressures, but paleontologists can't come to an agreement on which tiny lizards they evolved from.

The first animals to master flight on this planet were the arthropods that would later become flying insects. Insect wings were once thought to have developed from gills like those found in mayflies, but a general consensus is forming that the first flying insects descended from the trees in a similar progression to those of birds and bats.

Flying squirrels aren't the only animals currently at the gliding stage of this process. Flying snakes are well documented in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, (where the tallest trees are less densely packed than the ones in South America, an environment which seems to favor prehensile tails and other climbing adaptations over gliding adaptations) and have the ability to flatten themselves by sucking in their abdomens and spreading out their ribs, allowing them to slither absurd distances through the sky like flexible, elongated frisbees. They're able to produce lift and even change direction slightly, in a way that the Department of Defense is spending money to try and understand. If their descendants ever work out how to turn around in mid-air, actual flying vipers will suddenly be a thing. Their scales may even soften and elongate like theropod scales did, eventually becoming feathers.

I want to know how obvious the ability to fly would be to a biologist looking at a flying snake's bones. I want to know if this adaptation once existed elsewhere, among other snake species in similar environments, and paleontologists just haven't caught on yet. I want to know if there was a time when the tree canopy in South and Central America was much thinner than it is today. I want to know if ancient Olmecs were used to looking up to watch feathered serpents trace strange paths through the sky.

Archaeologists don't agree on how important the feathered serpent concept was to the Olmecs. The Mayan version, a deity known as Kukulkan to the Yucatec Maya and as Q'uq'umatz to the K'iche Maya, doesn't appear to have reached its eventual level of importance until the Post-Classic era. The Aztecs called it Quetzalcoatl, this time one of the three or four most important beings in their religion.

Think about a telephone game that goes on for more than two thousand years, starting with sightings of what looks a lot like a mysterious kingdom of magic flying snakes (which are eventually outcompeted by their much larger climbing cousins and go extinct). Written language exists for at least part of that history, but knowledge is tightly controlled and mystified by the religious class.

At some point, other serpent deities showed up. All of them could fly. Vision serpents were said to dwell in the topmost branches of the Maya version of the world tree, and acted as conduits between the physical world and the spirit realms. Lots of Maya rituals involved getting the attention of vision serpents by bleeding all over specially prepared paper, which was then burnt. The bleeding man or woman (probably experiencing drug and endorphin induced hallucinations) would then watch the smoke from the offering form a serpent, and either a god or an ancestor would pop his or her head out of its mouth to tell the bleeder something crucially important.

There's also the fire serpents, or Xiuhcouatl. The Aztecs saw them partly as weapons of Huitzilopochtli, their patron god of war and the sun. Fire serpents were also revered by Post-Classic Maya warrior cults, who also depicted them as weapons of the sun. Two really obvious ways to use fire serpents in a D&D game would be to reskin salamanders as Xiuhcouatl and/or the spell meteor swarm as rain of serpents or something like that.

My JOESKY TAX is a pair of spells or rituals related to vision serpents:

Call Vision Serpent (Level 1)
This ritual is performed whenever some needs to contact the dead or divine for advice in some dilemma or other. The spellcaster prepares a pile of papers with arcane diagrams and secret names, as well as the name of the spirit or deity being summoned. Whoever wishes to commune with the spirits must offer up the majority of their blood, allowing themselves to be drugged, and then piercing and cutting themselves in the most painful ways availabl, allowing their blood to pour onto the papers. The visionary must save or die from blood loss during this process (okay if you wanna be a big softy about it, drop 1d20 from their maximum HP instead; this still might kill them or nerf them forever, but this ritual isn't meant to be performed lightly). Even if this save succeeds, the bloodletting process reduces the character's current HP to 1.

The papers are gathered into a bowl when it looks like the visionary is getting ready to pass out from blood loss (and drugs), and lit. The plume of smoke takes the shape of a serpent, visible only to the recipient. The serpent, having fed on the blood of the recipient, calls forth the spirit or deity that was specifically asked for. This entity will patiently listen to the dilemma of the vision's recipient, then respond in one of the following ways (referee's choice or random):
>the entity will share the location of an object or NPC that will be crucial in solving the problem.
>the entity will reveal hidden information about what's going on behind the scenes.
>the entity will directly advise the recipient to make a particular decision (usually good advice).
>the entity will reveal one or more secret weaknesses in the recipient's enemy.
>the entity will angrily accuse the recipient of wasting their time, and vanish without helping at all. This only happens if the entity feels it is being called upon to address something below its station (a king to settle a gambling debt) or outside of its divine portfolio.

Serpent Road (Level 1)
Spellcasters are also able to convince the vision serpent to act as a planar gateway for the subject of a nearly identical ritual, though a fresh human heart from a willing donor must be added to the sacrifice. Assuming the aspiring planar traveller makes their save during the bloodletting, they are devoured by the serpent, which appears to them as a vast smoke-walled tunnel. To observers, a plume of smoke appears to completely envelop the traveller and then disappear, taking the traveler with it. The serpent then spits out the traveler (along with any possessions being carried) in whichever supernatural realm was named in the blood-soaked ritual papers. The subject will be weakened (1 HP) and somewhat disoriented from the ritual, but the experience is sobering enough that the character won't be too high to function.

This ritual is a two-way ticket, and the vision serpent will facilitate the subject's return as soon as some condition, predetermined by the spellcaster preparing the ritual papers, is met. It's worth noting that the diagrams and names on the papers are incredibly complicated, and that it would generally be pretty easy for the the spellcaster to lie to the traveller about either the destination or the return condition.

The spell can also be used to provide simultaneous travel for a group, by providing one sacrificial heart for each traveller. All group members must perform the bloodletting portion of the ritual, including the saving throw and HP loss.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


When the Shattered Isles appeared in the world of the gremlins, these bat-like creatures were in the middle of a war that prevented them from forming an effective defense against the saurian raiders. Many gremlins were taken as slaves, and others made their way to the Isles on their own, seeking to rescue or avenge their own.

Centuries later, there are almost as many gremlins living deep in the jungle in their tree-towns, as there are enslaved in the saurian cities. Skilled trades are considered to be as honorable as the arts of trickery in their culture, and these towns often include blacksmiths, alchemists, and other specialists.

Gremlins favor a weapon called a hook-chain, consisting of a miner’s pick attached by a 15’ chain to a heavy steel claw that doubles as a grappling hook (yeah I know but I don't think it counts as a kusari gama unless it has a solid weight at the end where the claw is on these). Sometimes, when stealth is required, the chain links are individually wrapped in leather; an industrious gremlin can accomplish this task in a single night. These elaborate weapons are justifiably prized by gremlin heroes and adventurers.

Gremlins are some of the most individualistic people on the Isles, possibly resulting from their relatively short lifespans. They feel that life is literally a test, and those who find a way to prosper are said to be One With the Shadow. Throughout their history, gremlin cultures have worshipped the Shadow in the same way that human cultures have worshipped the Sun. It’s the Shadow that protects them and keeps them hidden from predator and prey alike, and judges the lives of gremlins upon their deaths. Those who are found worthy, are permitted to spend eternity in the shadow’s embrace.

They make daily devotions to their shadow deity at sunset, which usually begins the day for those free gremlins who aren’t making accommodations for vision-dependent companions. Slaves, of course, are forced to keep the same sleep cycle as their saurian masters.

It’s much less common for enslaved gremlins to legally earn their freedom than their goliath peers, but those who do often find themselves too enamored with the luxuries of the big city (as well as disconnected from their people’s traditions) to join their jungle-dwelling kin. Others choose to operate out of the cities when working to liberate their brethren. These freedom fighters must maintain absolute secrecy or face public execution by torture, which has been known to last for days.

>average height/weight: 4’6”, 80 lbs
>adventuring age: 8-45
>4d6 AWR, 4d6 AGI, 2d6 END, 2d6 STR
>echolocation & supersonic speech
>sound-based attacks do double damage to gremlins
>extremely loud noises (explosions and whatnot) can cause paralyzing pain
>+1 bonus with chain weapons
>backstab as thief
>HP, combat, and skills advance as thief

Saturday, April 11, 2015


The saurians were the only intelligent life form on the Shattered Isles before the place became unstuck from its original universe. They call themselves the One True Race and dismissively refer to everyone not from the isles as ephemerals. The fact that several other races have immigrated to the isles and not disappeared along with their worlds annoys saurian philosophers to no end, but the rest of their society is quick to capitalize on the opportunities this represents whenever possible.

The first immigrants to the islands were the equally xenophobic insectoids, many of whom never meet anyone from outside their own massive tower-hives. While these powerful psychics aren’t trusted by the saurians (or anyone else for that matter), their chitin weapons, armor, and tools are highly valued in saurian culture, so the insectoids are left alone for the most part. 

In their original hives, the insectoids form a hive mind dominated by the queen of that tower-hive. The insectoid worldview is, if anything, even narrower than that of the saurians. Beyond the hive itself, there is nothing worth caring about except threats to and opportunities for that hive. No two hives have ever been known to work together against a common threat.

These beings are often sent by their queen to trade goods with the saurians for food and other useful items, but they’re hardly ever comfortable with the task, and are highly anxious to get back. Insectoid adventurers usually come in three varieties: those performing some function for their queen, those whose hives have been destroyed, and those who’ve been exiled for some truly heinous act (a fate much worse than death).

Note: This is intended for the type of ruleset that uses race as class. If you're using some other D&D that has half orc bards or whatever running around, you can either: 1. let this be the only racial class in your campaign or 2. just ignore the part about automatically advancing as a mage.
>Avg. height/weight: 6’/160 lbs
>Adventuring Age: 10 — 30
>Ability Scores: 4d6 INT, 2d6 END, 2d6 STR
>mantis-like forelimbs are natural weapons, flight at normal walking speed, natural armor as chain mail
>natural weapons act as scythes, or if you use damage-by-class, natural weapon attacks do fighter-level damage
>hit points, saving throws, and other mechanical stuff advances as a magic user (ignore the spells per day chart)
>psychic powers instead of vancian spells
>using powers requires a successful willpower saving throw (or save vs. magic or mind save or whatever); if the save fails the power still has its effect as normal, but costs 1d8 HP (1d2 in my house rules which use super low hit points in comparison to normal D&D)

Telepathy: Allows the insectoid to communicate without speaking at a distance up to 1 mile or to read surface thoughts of unwilling targets (they notice a tingling sensation). Once formed, the connection lasts for one hour. This ability can also be used to detect the presence, number, and relative location of intelligent and semi-intelligent beings in a 60’ radius.

Telekinesis: Allows insectoids to pick up objects weighing up to 50 lbs per level with their minds. These objects can be “thrown” to do 1d6 damage per 50 lbs, using INT for the attack roll. This ability can also be used to perform delicate operations like picking locks. This would probably require some sort of a skill check but every version of this game seems to have it's own version of that mechanic so every DM will probably have to figure out their own thing. If your game usually uses DEX for lockpicking, use INT instead. In my game you already use INT combined with something called cunning (advances kinda like a reflex save), so I have insectoids use insight (advances kinda like a will save) in conjunction with INT.

Psychic Shield: Protects the insectoid from hostile psychic powers and provides a +4 bonus to armor class. Lasts 10 minutes.

Hypnotism: A chosen victim must save or obey the insectoid’s every command. Victims are allowed another save once per day, and any time they are ordered to do something against their personal moral code. This only works on intelligent beings, and only one being can be hypnotized at a time.

Phantasm: The PC describes an illusion that fools all the senses of any creature, in normal range of those senses, that fails its save. If it seems reasonable that the targets would be scared off by the illusion, then they're saving to avoid running away in terror. The phantasm is under the control of the insectoid (who has no problem maintaining the illusion while fighting or even walking and chewing gum) for 10 minutes, at the end of which it dissolves into nothingness.

Clairvoyance: The insectoid can see and hear through solid objects at a distance of 60’. This ability is blocked by 2’ of solid stone or any thickness of lead. This ability is only active as long as the PC is actively concentrating on it, rather than moving or performing any other actions.

Precognition: The insectoid can see what would happen to it up to one minute in the future, as a direct consequence of performing a particular action. If the answer is unclear to the DM, so is the vision the insectoid receives.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


The elephant-headed goliaths make up one of several intelligent species found on the Shattered Isles. These eight-foot tall nomads are the accidental exiles of an ephemeral kingdom which actually tried to conquer the One True People. As laughable as that may seem, the islands were in danger of being overrun when the world of these giants, as well as the supply chain for their invasion, came to an abrupt end (from the point of view of the saurians, anyway). Now, most of the great-grandchildren of these warriors survive by hunting the largest dinosaurs on the island. While most goliaths prefer to follow the movements of their prey, rather than to build permanent homes for themselves, they are known to build elaborate underground shrines to their ancestors, which they return to on a regular basis.

Goliaths revere their living elders as well as the spirits of their departed ancestors, and both are often looked to for advice and protection. It’s unclear to outsiders whether or not any communication is actually happening, as the initiated tend to think of every dream and minor hallucination as a message from ever-watchful ancestors. The greatest tragedy imaginable, from their perspective, was the day their entire people was cut off from the generations of ancestral spirits that remain in their home world. Many goliaths have responded to this horror by replacing their traditional faith with messianic cults. These cults agree that a chosen one will arise or arrive one day, though their beliefs differ sharply in whether this savior will return them to their original world or deliver them from this living hell by bringing about the End of All Things.

Smaller groups of goliaths are sometimes overtaken by slaving parties, which sell them off for heavy labor or to fight as gladiators in saurian fighting pits. It’s not unheard of for goliaths to earn their freedom, at which point many decide to continue to work or fight in the cities, this time for a good deal of pay. 

While most goliaths detest slavery on principle, that doesn’t mean they’re above bullying smaller, weaker peoples into cooperation (for their own good, of course).

Note: This is intended for the type of ruleset that uses race as class (Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess spring to mind). If you're using some other D&D that has gnomish priests of Thor or whatever running around, you can either: 1. let this be the only racial class in your campaign or 2. just ignore everything after the natural weapon attacks.
>Avg. Height/Weight: 8’/400 lbs
>Ability scores: 4d6 STR, 4d6 END (PCs should only roll their attributes after choosing to play as goliaths)
>Adventuring Age: 20 — 90
>+1 to attacks with natural weapons (tusks & trunk)
>advantage to dirty fighting
>free attack on kill, up to a number of attacks equal to level.
>Use the stats for a fighter or a barbarian (if your game has barbarians) for mechanical stuff (hit dice, combat bonuses, etc). If you’re using weapon-based damage, tusk attacks do the same damage as a spear.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Raiders of the Shattered Isles

There is a chain of islands, near one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, that wasn’t there a few days ago. That isn’t how the chain’s inhabitants see it, though.

The way they see it, their islands are the only place in the world that’s more than a few days old. The entire planet is repeatedly destroyed and instantly replaced with a drastically different one, at seemingly random intervals that can only be predicted by the doomsayers of the Shattered Isles. It’s been this way for millennia, and the dark times before the priests learned to predict these apocalypses saw the extravagant funerals of many adventurous saurians (the dominant people of the Shattered Isles) who were out exploring new worlds when the stars changed. Now every expedition beyond the Isles brings at least one doomsayer with it, to watch for signs of the end, and explorers almost always return home in time.

What would you do if you found yourself trying to run a kingdom and amass wealth, and everything around the kingdom kept shifting? You’d be coming into contact with exotic civilizations all the time, but never developing lasting, profitable trade relationships with them. 

The saurians decided long ago to lie, cheat, and steal, looting and pillaging whenever the opportunity presents itself. Which is fine, because their victims would cease to exist in a year or two at the most, anyway. Which of course means that the murder of anyone not of what their priests call the One True Race doesn’t count.

There are a few exceptions, other intelligent species that managed to get a foothold on the islands despite a hostile lost-world environment, and establish themselves as permanent residents. The mere of existence of these descendants of what they refer to as “ephemerals” annoys the hell out of saurian philosophers. Even more offensively, all of these alien races necessarily have their own cultural worldviews, which are seen as foolish at best and blasphemous at worst.