Saturday, 25 August 2018

Groundlings (5e PC Race)

"Badger Knight", by Tyler Blake

@POCGamer has been documenting the various demihuman/humanoid creatures that D&D (particularly AD&D) has made up, in an effort to shake up the standard Forgotten Realms/Greyhawk "humanity ascendant" worldbuilding so prevalent in the game. In one twitter thread he discusses the groundlings, who are dwarf/badger hybrids (!?) created by the Zhentarim to be assassins (???)

Specifically, what have they been doing in the 100+ years following the destruction of Zhentil Keep?
As a side note, they appear in the following:
  • "The Family Business", Realms of Valor (1993), an anthology of short stories
  • Polyhedron #93 (1993), where they and other monsters from the above book receive stats
  • Monstrous Compendium Annual Vol IV (1998), reprints their stats
  • Monsters of Faerûn (2001), prints their 3.0 stats
And the only relevant in-universe dates that I can find are:
1261 DR, Manshoon founds the Zhentarim
1355 DR, Events of  "The Family Business"

1383 DR, Shadovar raze Zhentil Keep
1490+ DR, Present day

Why Is This Interesting?

Assuming their creation doesn't predate the Zhentarim, the oldest groundlings are still well within the dwarven lifespan of ~350 years. That's like if human/animal hybrids escaped Doctor Moreau's island in the 1950s. Or consider: here are Black Americans alive today whose grandparents were slaves in the South. Imagine what their society would be like if those grandparents were themselves still alive? Even if they reach physical maturity faster than humans (if they don't, it really begs the question of why the Zhentarim used dwarves as slave stock), that memory of recent enslavement is still extremely fresh.

The very existence of groundlings would probably be anathema to other dwarves. Oh, the LG and NG-aligned ones would take pity on them, but the discomfort and loss for words would be plain to see. As half-badgers, the groundlings can probably smell the disgust on anyone who understands what they are. I have a soft spot for Eberron's warforged, who must negotiate a world where they're technically free and equal, but who are very much an inconvenience for the society that created them, and a constant physical reminder of the atrocities of the Last War.

Being loosely connected to dwarves allows a groundling player to define their own relationship to culture. Are they desperate to reclaim the heritage that was suppressed by their (or their parents') Zhentarim masters? Or are they eager to forge an identity for themselves as far as possible from their dwarven ancestors?

I totally believe there was an underground railroad before the fall of Zhentil Keep, with groundling assassins faking their own deaths, undermining the Zhentarim throughout the region, sabotaging their defenses against the shadovar. In any case, as escapees from a wizard fortress, they would have a bunch of sweet looted arcane knowledge, probably piecemeal but which they have been refining and innovating upon to create their own unique wizarding tradition.

Obviously, since they're a player faction in DDAL, all the official hardcovers have plot hooks related to Zhentarim PCs and NPCs. What do groundling PCs do when the shady contact they meet is Zhentarim? Conversely, what do the PCs do when their lead is abducted or killed by groundling NPCs?

Groundling Traits

artist: Tony DiTerlizzi
Note that while groundlings are of dwarven origin, they do not have all the standard dwarven traits. For readability, instead of defining them as a subrace and listing what they don't inherit, the following lists all their traits, including all the broader dwarf traits they do inherit.

Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 2, and your Intelligence score increases by 1.

Age. Groundlings mature faster than humans, reaching physical adulthood after 10 years. Surviving members of the first generation are no older than 230, and their maximum lifespan is unknown.

Alignment. The Zhentarim suppressed the dwarven heritage of their creations as best they could, even their language. After a century of freedom, the groundlings still keep to themselves and have no ties to other dwarves. Groundlings tend toward no particular alignment, lawful or otherwise.

Size. Groundlings have the same height and weight as dwarves: between 4 and 5 feet tall and an average of 150 pounds. Your size is Medium.

Speed. Your base walking speed is 25 feet. Your speed is not reduced by wearing heavy armor.

You can dig 5-foot-wide tunnels in loose or packed earth, but not through stone, at a rate equal to 25 feet every 10 minutes. The Zhentarim used to magically enhance their slaves' burrowing skills, and this magic lies dormant within you. As a bonus action, you, or a spellcaster able to touch you, can sacrifice a spell slot to give you a burrow speed of 10 feet × the spell slot's level, for 1 minute. This magical effect can be dispelled but does not require concentration to maintain.

Dwarven Resilience. You have advantage on saving throws against poison, and you have resistance against poison damage.

Natural Attacks. Your bite and claws are natural melee weapons with which you are proficient. Your bite deals 1d8 piercing damage, and your claws deal 1d6 slashing damage. Your claws have the light and finesse properties.

Nosewise. You have advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on smell. If you find an object recently worn or handled by a creature and which has been minimally handled by other creatures since then, you can pick up its scent as an action. For as long as you have that creature's scent, you have advantage on Wisdom (Survival) checks to track it. You can hold a number of scents in your mind equal to your Wisdom modifier (minimum 1); picking up additional scents requires you to forget a previous one.

Sunlight Sensitivity. You have disadvantage on attack rolls and on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight when you, the target of your attack, or whatever you are trying to perceive is in direct sunlight

Tracking Skills. Choose one of the following: Athletics, Investigation, Perception, Stealth, Survival. You gain proficiency in the chosen skill.

Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common, and comprehend spoken Dwarvish. Your speech is likely physically impeded by your badger-like jaw.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Adapting Troika!'s initiative system to 5e D&D

Troika! is a neat little game that is very loosely derived from the system behind the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. The rules are easy to digest & teach, the setting is a weird, sometimes silly, sometimes poignant mix of Warhammer Fantasy and Spelljammer, characters' stats & background are randomly generated but they can learn new skills in play. You have no control over who you were, but you decide what you will become.

If I were to become even more of a cliche by starting an actual-play podcast, Troika! would be one of the few games I'd consider running.

It currently has a Kickstarter for a revised "Numinous" edition with better print quality, and there's a free no-art version of the current edition.

But seriously, check out the art :O

from the revised edition, art by Sam Mameli

Troika! Initiative Rules

Here are the rules verbatim from the no-art version:
5.1 Assemble the bag. During combat or at other times where it is important who goes first you will need to assemble the initiative bag. To do this get a container and a selection of coloured dice or other convenient markers. Each player will be assigned two dice of a single colour, all enemies will share one colour of the number specified by their entry or the GMs whim, and a final single token of a distinct colour will be added to mark the end of a round when drawn (5.3).

5.2 Using the bag. The GM will remove a token from the bag at random, the colour of which will determine who holds the initiative and takes a turn.

5.3 End of round. If the end of round token is drawn then all tokens, including the end of round token, are put back in the bag. Resolve any per round or end of round activities such as magic effects, fire, poison or bleeding out, then draw another token and carry on.

5.4 Henchmen. If you have any hired help that are willing to fight for you treat them as their own character that only gets 1 initiative die in the bag.

5.5 Rationale. The random turn length adds a degree of uncertainty where you never know how much time you have left. When actions are not taking place it represents hesitation, panic or other incidental delays that can happen in a tense encounter where every second counts. The goblins have few dice because they are cowardly, not because they are slow; the dragon has many because it knows exactly what it wants, not because it is fast.

Adapting for 5e D&D

  • Disregard Initiative modifiers. Dex is already too much of a god-stat anyway.
  • Characters with a class feature or feat that would give a bonus to Initiative get an extra token in the bag each round, but only act on the first two tokens drawn. Multiple "improved initiative" features don't stack. A non-exhaustive list of such features:
    • Alert -- feat
    • Feral Instinct -- Barbarian 7
    • Remarkable Athlete -- Fighter (Champion)
    • Dead Ambusher -- Ranger (Gloom Stalker) 3
    • Ambush Master -- Rogue (Scout) 13
    • Rakish Audacity -- Rogue (Swashbuckler) 3
    • Tactical Wit -- Wizard (War Magic) 2

    Exceptions can be made for very high-level or situational abilities. e.g. a 17th level Rogue (Thief) gets an extra two tokens in the bag on the first combat round, and acts on the first four drawn.
    Note that as no d20 roll is made, the following don't grant an additional initiative token:
    • Enhance Ability -- spell
    • Bardic Inspiration -- Bard
    • Portent -- Wizard (Diviner) 2

  • Beast Master rangers don't have to spend their action to command their animal companion to attack. Either give their companion one token in the bag, as with NPC henchmen, or let the animal companion act on the ranger's first token drawn each round.
  • Since everyone gets up to 2 turns each round, I'm not sure how to handle spell durations that specify "1 round, until the end of your next turn". For now, I'll treat it as "until the end of your next turn", regardless of when your next token is drawn.
  • Similarly, I'm not sure whether spellcasters are restricted to one non-cantrip per turn, or per round. For now, it's per turn.
  • Instead of the suggested DMG method of representing a mob of monsters by cross-referencing number remaining, attack bonus, and player AC to see how many auto-hit, do the following:
    • Multiply a monster's HP by about half of however many there are? You can multiply it by the full number if using a Morale rule.
    • Give them one or two extra Initiative tokens, and advantage on all attacks. They can't all get good positioning to attack at once, some might be cowardly or willing to let others be the vanguard, but they can all assist whoever's attacking.
    • Single-target attacks deal all their damage as though it were one big monster, i.e. if your greatsword hits for 15 damage against a mob of 5 hp hyenas, you cleave through three of them, not just one
    • Area attacks may deal double or even triple damage.
That's all that occurs to me for now. It'll probably be a while before I get to playtest these changes (my current 5e game deliberately has almost no houserules to keep it accessible to drop-in players), but I'm keen to switch up the rather... clockwork nature of modern D&D initiative for something a bit more exciting and scary.

If there's any glaring issues I've missed, let me know in the comments :-)

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Vedalken (BX Class)

A followup from my last post detailing Vedalken for 5e.

This is my first completed attempt at a BX race-class, please don't hate on it too much ;-)


Requirements: Minimum CON 9
Prime Requisite:
Hit Dice: 1d4
Maximum Level: 10
Allowed Armour: Leather, no shields
Allowed Weapons: Any
Languages: Alignment language, Common
Attacks as: Cleric/Thief
Saves as: Magic-User

Vedalken are four-armed demi-humans with slight amphibian features. They stand taller than humans at 6 to 6½ feet, but are typically slender weighing no more than 200 pounds. They require the use of special breathing helmets to walk on land for extended periods. Gifted at magic-use, they are ruthless and dispassionate in their quest for knowledge and perfection.

(click to enlarge)


Combat: Vedalken are used to cumbersome breathing apparatus and may wear light armour. They possess some aptitude for swordplay.

Spell Casting: Vedalken cast arcane spells memorised from a spell book, as a magic-user. They have the spells per day of a magic-user and can learn spells from the magic-user list, with the exception of spells that directly damage or kill a creature. See below for a suggested list of disallowed spells.
Countermagic: Once per combat round, in addition to their regular action, a vedalken can attempt a counterspell. To do this the vedalken must not be surprised, and must be aware of the spell being cast. The vedalken must then expend prepared spells of a total spell level equal-or-greater-than the spell they wish to counter. If the referee is keeping the enemy's spell a secret, they may either require the player to ante prepared spells until they reach the unknown spell's level, or simply inform the player of the spell's level, at their discretion.
Once sufficient spell energy has been expended on the counterspell, the vedalken then rolls 1d6. Beginning vedalkens have a 2-in-6 chance of a successful counterspell. This increases to 3-in-6 at 4th level, 4-in-6 at 7th level, and 5-in-6 at 10th level.

Four-armed: Vedalken have four slender arms that can hold and manipulate objects, or be used to cast spells. This does not grant extra attacks.

Gills: Vedalken breathe water, and cannot breathe air. They can hold their breath for up to one hour (six turns) at a time.

Goofy Helmet: Vedalken begin play with a glass helmet that lets them breathe as though in water. When wearing it, they are immune to inhaled poisons, and their Reaction Adjustment is treated as two steps closer to (but not past) "None", as both potential friends and foes perceive them as less threatening or impressive. For example, a vedalken with CHA 18 has only +1 to reaction rolls when wearing the helmet, while one with CHA 6 would have +0 to reaction rolls.
Civilised areas with a significant vedalken population sell replacement helmets for 100 gp. Helmets may be more expensive or unavailable elsewhere. Crafting a helmet requires 50 gp in supplies and access to a furnace.

Technician: A vedalken can pick locks and remove traps as a thief of their level. However, they do not share the thief's aptitude for finding traps. The standard BX thief skills are reproduced in the table above, though the referee may prefer a different method of resolving thief skill rolls.

Magical Research and Using Magic Items: A vedalken of any level may spend time and money to research new spells to add to their spellbook.
At the referee's discretion, the scope of the vedalken spell list may be expanded with illusionist spells or water/air-themed elementalist spells. A vedalken who has reached 9th level may create magic items and research other effects. A vedalken can use scrolls and other magic items as a magic-user, except for items which duplicate spells they may not cast.

Reaching 9th Level

A vedalken can establish a research institution upon reaching 9th level, attracting other vedalken, magic-users, various specialists such as alchemists, physicians and sages; and an assortment of students and other lackeys. The other researchers share a common interest in the prestige of the research institution, but otherwise owe no loyalty to the founding vedalken, and are likely to jockey for position and establish their own petty fiefdoms.

Verboten Vedalken Spells

1st magic missile
3rd fire ball, lightning bolt
4th wall of fire
5th cloudkill
6th death spell, disintegrate

(vedalken do not receive 6th-level spells unless the referee chooses to extend the level cap)

edit: some thoughts about the above:

  • Balancing countermagic: I really wanted counterspelling to be a reaction, so the low odds of success is a way to balance that. High level enemy spellcasters can also outlast the vedalken in a spell duel, or hide before casting a spell. Ideas for tweaking:
    • Instead of a d6 roll, the enemy spellcaster must make a save vs spells, losing the spell if they fail. This means counterspelling gets worse as enemies have more Hit Dice, instead of improving with PC level.
    • A single spell of equal-or-greater level has to be expended, instead of making up the total spell level with "loose change".
    • Instead of expending spells, the vedalken must make a save vs. spells. Success indicates a successful counterspell. Failure means the vedalken takes backlash damage = 1d6 x spell level. If desired, you could have a "success at a cost" range of rolls where both happen.

  • I'm considering a more customised spell list for these bois that really gets across "blue magic", drawing upon Labyrinth Lord AEC, Theorems & Thaumaturgy, and maybe some homebrew spells. If so, perhaps the counterspelling mechanic will simply become a spell. In any case I like that this is 100% playable with vanilla BX.
  • Designing within the un-houseruled confines of BX was an interesting challenge. If I ever GMed an OSR game with vedalken the Goofy Helmet would function as the 5e version (disadvantage on rolls to intimidate) but I wouldn't have come up with the "adjust Reaction towards zero" idea if I'd allowed myself that freedom when writing the class.
  • I also really love writing kinda handwavy mechanics with the expectation that the GM will make rulings they feel are appropriate. It certainly makes a change from when I used to homebrew stuff for 3.5 and Pathfinder. Parts of this class are still walls of text and up for revision to be terser.

Mirran Vedalken (5e PC Race)

So WotC dropped an Unearthed Arcana with some playtest material for their upcoming Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica campaign setting book, and one of the races detailed are the vedalken.

And the playtest rules are fine. But when I think of vedalken, I think of the goofy four-armed bois from their 2003 debut in the original Mirrodin set.

And yes, the Simic Hybrid race is also in the Unearthed Arcana document and it can get four arms, but "good at grappling" is not the feel I get from these dorks.

clockwise from top-left: Synod Artificer (Mark Zug), Vedalken Mastermind (Darrel Riche), Vigean Graftmage (Alan Pollack), Lumengrid Augur (rk post)

(see below the cut for 5e racial traits, a Blinkmoth Serum magic item, and discussion on how to canonically place Mirran vedalken in another setting, if you care at all about that sort of thing)

edit: here's a vedalken class for BX

Monday, 13 August 2018

Random BX Characters

Been tinkering more on the Python project mentioned in my last post. Now it'll roll up BX characters, including characters higher than 1st level.

My source for the BX rules is Necrotic Gnome's BX Essentials line, but it would be fairly straightforward to adapt this to a different game like AD&D or a close-ish retroclone like LotFP or Basic Fantasy.

I'm having issues with Gitlab right now so source code will have to wait, but example outputs are in my Drive folder


  • rolls 3d6 in order, then chooses a class that would allow the biggest XP bonus for high Prime Requisites. This was an interesting inversion from the 5e script that picked a random class and assigned scores to fit.
  • Override options for class & each ability score, if you want to quickly generate 100 magic-users for Mystaran Hogwarts.
  • Finds the correct THAC0, saving throws, thief skills etc for character level.
  • Determines max # of retainers, their morale, bonus languages known, literacy, optional initiative adjustment, etc, all according to BX rules.
  • Determines spells prepared, if applicable. BX being strictly Vancian, it chooses spells with replacement.
  • Class dictionary can be easily modified to include homebrew classes that use the shorthand of "save as dwarf, attack as magic-user, casts cleric spells with the spells/day of an elf" or whatever.
It doesn't do equipment, AC or to-hit adjustments yet, and I've just realised it doesn't properly handle reversible spells. A proper implementation would indicate clerics can reverse on-the-fly, while prepared MU/elf spells would be 'fixed' as either normal or reversed.

It also doesn't weight towards cure light wounds or other staples when selecting spells. If using this for pregen PCs, you might want to let clerics spontaneously convert prepared spells to cure spells, hand-edit some of them beforehand, or let your players choose to swap out some spells before the character begins play.

Nor does it produce pretty output. It would be trivial to get this script to output characters to a csv file, but coding the prettification script would take longer.

Again, hope someone gets some use out of this. :-)

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

A Python Script for Rolling Up Random Characters

I've been busy brushing up on basic Python programming skills, and for the past several days I've been working on a random generator for D&D characters.


Jaden Starhammer
Rock Gnome
Folk Hero, Rogue 1
Str 12, Dex 16, Con 14, Int 16, Wis 13, Cha 11
Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Athletics, Insight, Perception, Persuasion, Survival
Expertise: Animal Handling, thieves' tools
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral
Appearance: Towering
Physical Detail: Hoarse voice
Clothing: Blood-stained
Personality: Grumpy
Mannerism: Breathy
Currently it only supports 1st-level, though some of the infrastructure is there for higher level.
I'd also like to write a script for generating BX characters, perhaps other systems.

You can get the source code here:
and I've uploaded two files of 1000 characters to my Google Drive folder
One uses the standard array to generate each character, the other rolls 4d6 and drops the lowest.

The generator uses some resources from:
  • Ben Milton's Maze Rats 
  • Janelle Shane's list of neural-network-generated D&D character names , here
  • and this dictionary of medieval names from European sources
(naturally, adding lists of non-European names is high on my to-do list)
I had a lot of fun writing this. It was just the right level of difficulty for my depression-brain to get into a flow state. How I've missed that :-)

If you have any suggestions or bug reports, you can submit them via gitlab. You can also write a comment here, but it'll be easier to keep track of them there.