dnd


More Like This Please: DMs Guild Titles - Part 4

On April 27th, OneBookShelf, in conjunction with Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Grounds, and White Wolf, announced a Play It Forward Event, running from May 4th (Star Wars Day) until May 17th. During the event, community-created products on those companies will forgo their royalties on products sold on DMs Guild and Story Vault and instead, the creators of the content will get 100% of all revenue. This is intended to help the creators, many of who are struggling due to Covid-19.

In addition to this change of revenue sharing, the sites will be having a 20% sale on titles at least 30 days old and temporarily suspending the affiliate program.

Perhaps you, like me, are wondering about some titles to invest in and explore during this event. I did some exploring and would like to recommend the following:

Triple Murder Most Fowl

Cover of Triple Murder Most Fowl

It is Highharvesttide and your character (along with two to four 10th-12th level characters) is invited to dinner. Soon after arrival, however, the characters learn that they don't have a Clue about what is going on. The matriarch was found dead, just that morning! And now they must figure out who did it, how, and where!

Reading through the adventure, I sense a lot of chances for jokes and just fun role play opportunities. I also wonder if it would be a good adventure if you have folks who want to participate in a D&D game by playing an NPC. It's exactly the sort of adventure I'd love to play.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

Eat the Rich | Volume 1

Cover of Eat the Rich | Volume 1

Eat the Rich, the anti-tyranny adventure anthology, contains 17 adventures for tiers 1-4. Like many of the adventures I've spotlighted, these attempt to explore real world topics through the guise of fantasy; allowing us to see the world around us in new ways. As such, some of the adventures deal with heavy topics like exploitation of workers, marginalized folks, and more.

Also, the pdf is gorgeous. I love the use of monotype and the art is decadent. The visual callbacks to zines fill me with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

UNBRIDLED

Cover of UNBRIDLED /></p>
<p>Are. You. F*ing. Kidding. Me.</p>
<p>Yes, I love the above title, Eat the Rich. But, like, I want to know why no one told me about UNBRIDLED. I get it, it dropped while many of us were stuck at home and dealing with some heavy stuff, but seriously. Next time just <a href=@ me, ok?

Where to start?

Boring voice: Unbridled is a collection of 19 adventures for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons featuring hags and…unicorns?

Yes, folks, let's take the most of iconic of D&D monsters, hags and unicorns, and mix them up all over the place. Let's make it bizarre. Let's throw a bunch of stuff into a jar, add some glitter and water, and shake that sh*t up and play through whatever happens. That is what this book is all about. And if you think the cover art is catchy, wait until you see the unicorn on page 16. That's ok. I'll wait. Go have a look.

Ok, time to get back on topic. Another book where the art is gorgeous and on point and where the energy is amazing.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

More Like This Please: DMs Guild Titles - Part 3

On April 27th, OneBookShelf, in conjunction with Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Grounds, and White Wolf, announced a Play It Forward Event, running from May 4th (Star Wars Day) until May 17th. During the event, community-created products on those companies will forgo their royalties on products sold on DMs Guild and Story Vault and instead, the creators of the content will get 100% of all revenue. This is intended to help the creators, many of who are struggling due to Covid-19.

In addition to this change of revenue sharing, the sites will be having a 20% sale on titles at least 30 days old and temporarily suspending the affiliate program.

Perhaps you, like me, are wondering about some titles to invest in and explore during this event. I did some exploring and would like to recommend the following:

The Corruption of Skyhorn Lighthouse

Cover of The Corruption of Skyhorn Lighthouse

The Corruption of Skyhorn Lighthouse is an adventure for 8th-level characters expected to take about 5-7 hours. It may be run as a follow up adventure to The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse, a 5th-level adventure that is available for free.

There's a lot to talk about with this adventure, specifically that it takes a bit of a different approach than most of the ones I've seen. Encounters by and large are kept to one page (with hyperlinks or printables to help cut down on page flipping). Embellishments and details are kept to a minimum. The idea is to allow a dungeon master to "run at a glance with minimal preparation and a natural delivery." To further aid with this, there is a short video walkthrough of the adventure.

Encounters are set up to resolve a dramatic question. Sometimes the expectation is that this will be around combat but often it includes a non-combat way to resolve the question. Once it is resolved, the idea is to move forward to the transition, which helps wrap up the current scene and kickstart the next. This is my first introduction to this approach and I rather like it.

If this interests you but you'd love to learn more before purchasing, the free 5th-level adventure follows a similar format.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

Exit Pursued by Owlbear

Cover of Exit Pursued by Owlbear

Exit Pursued by Owlbear is an anthology of five adventures all inspired by the bard, Shakespeare. The Rose of the Fair State is inspired by Hamlet and is for a party of four 5th-level characters.

A Shrew’s Vengeance is for a party of four 3rd-5th level characters (with an average party level of 4) and is inspired by The Taming of the Shrew.

If We Shadows Have Offended explores A Midsummer Night’s Dream through a game.

Much Ado About Cookies takes its inspiration from Much Ado About Nothing and is for a party of four to six 3rd-level characters.

Finally, Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble delves into the world of Macbeth and is for a party of four 5th-level characters.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

Budding Baba's Growing Hut

Cover of Budding Baba's Growing Hut

Have you ever wanted to have your own wandering hut like Baba Yaga's? If so, this is the title for you (and if you read this blog, I hope the answer is yes for you and your character!) This product contains rules for growing a hut including advancements, quirks, personality traits, some special abilities (like the ability to kick out unwanted guests!). I absolutely adore this one.
To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

More Like This Please: DMs Guild Titles - Part 2

On April 27th, OneBookShelf, in conjunction with Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Grounds, and White Wolf, announced a Play It Forward Event, running from May 4th (Star Wars Day) until May 17th. During the event, community-created products on those companies will forgo their royalties on products sold on DMs Guild and Story Vault and instead, the creators of the content will get 100% of all revenue. This is intended to help the creators, many of who are struggling due to Covid-19.

In addition to this change of revenue sharing, the sites will be having a 20% sale on titles at least 30 days old and temporarily suspending the affiliate program.

Perhaps you, like me, are wondering about some titles to invest in and explore during this event. I did some exploring and would like to recommend the following:

Wanted: Dead or Alive - A Collection of Dastardly Criminals for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons

Cover of Wanted: Dead or Alive

Wanted: Dead or Alive is a book of NPCs, presented as a series of wanted posters. In addition to the poster, we get some background of each character including their "crimes" and background on their life, special items they may have, plot hooks, tactics, and a stat block. The book includes 18 characters. There are content warnings where appropriate. In addition, each character has the name of its author, helping readers to track down other works written by their favorites.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

The Princess Project

Cover of The Princess Project

The Princess Project is an anthology of adventures. Each focuses on fairy tale and mythological princesses, aiming and subverting tropes and the patriarchy. The title includes magic items, spells, and more.

I particularly enjoyed "Tying the Knot," especially the list of items that need to be collected before the wedding as well as the locations. I may steal some of them for my own games as well.

In addition to the adventures, there are several random tables in the appendix, including trinkets and wild magic, as well as themed items and spells.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

i've been

Cover of i've been

i've been is an adventure for four 3rd-level characters that explores themes around mental health, particularly "depression, self-loathing, and isolation." As a person who has faced depression and anxiety and has had a number of friends and others in my life who have done the same, I super appreciate this adventure. In particular, I liked the metaphor for what it's like for some to have depression and similar. Like a number of the titles I'm featuring, creating this module helps the designer (and also potentially us) to explore these issues. At the end there are resources for safety tools to use if you decide to run the adventure as well as a number of crisis lines for the US.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

College of Acapella

Cover of College of Acapella

College of Acapella contains player options for bards including a bard college along with some spells and feats. In particular, I love the concept of the chorus of harmony, which gives your character a number of duplicates (allowing you to be a one-person acapella group!).

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

More Like This Please: DMs Guild Titles - Part 1

On April 27th, OneBookShelf, in conjunction with Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Grounds, and White Wolf, announced a Play It Forward Event, running from May 4th (Star Wars Day) until May 17th. During the event, community-created products on those companies will forgo their royalties on products sold on DMs Guild and Story Vault and instead, the creators of the content will get 100% of all revenue. This is intended to help the creators, many of who are struggling due to Covid-19.

In addition to this change of revenue sharing, the sites will be having a 20% sale on titles at least 30 days old and temporarily suspending the affiliate program.

Perhaps you, like me, are wondering about some titles to invest in and explore during this event. I did some exploring and would like to recommend the following:

The Adventurer's Domestic Handbook

Cover of the adventurers domestic handbook

The Adventurer's Domestic Handbook is a supplement for all things hearth and home including love, marriage, children, household upkeep, divorce, and more. The book has 153 pages and includes new subclasses, stat blocks, marriage ceremonies, vehicles and upgrades, feats, and backgrounds. In addition, it has a whole section full of romanceable NPCs.

I haven't had a chance to read it in depth enough for a full review but one of the things that really stuck out to me is the care taken in terms of language and presentation. For example, multiple times gender is left out of pregnancy, preferring the wording of pregnant person. Likewise the book makes no assumptions on who might be rearing the child or children.

The apprenticing section also looks interesting, with slightly different mechanics depending on how old the character becoming an apprentice is. Likewise, the romanceable NPCs section provides a lot of inspiration for how to approach character design in a way that enables or enhances that direction of play. The non-romanceable NPCs are also interesting. For instance the idea of engagement tracks for employees seems useful for a dungeon master.

Finally, I really enjoyed reading through the marriage ceremonies section, especially since it's a great way to do world building and add variance to the world. And a number of the magic items made me smile, especially the Bassinet of Following (hello, Mandolorian).

Preview: Google Docs

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

Tales of Thelanis, Vol 1: "The Child and the Guardian"

Cover of Tales of Thelanis, Vol 1

"The Child and the Guardian" is the first volume in the series Tales of Thelanis, which explores areas within the Faerie Court in Eberron. Each volume in the series is expected to "explor[e] different story-themed domains in Thelanis and their archfey" with this one covering the Burning Grove and the Green Giant. In addition, it adds a new race and two subclasses.

I really enjoyed how the story weaved throughout the entire 12 pages. In particular, I loved the lair actions and regional effects that are tied to the archfey as well as the important figures for the area.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

Harps and Harpies

Cover of Harps and Harpies

Harps and Harpies is an adventure for 3-5 level 4 characters (tier 1) with an expected playtime of about 5 hours. It concentrates on the story of Stonetide, "a coastal town with a harpy problem." One of the townsfolk, Aegis Roulade, wants to learn what happened to his great-aunt, a person who used to keep the harpies at bay, and to return to his family her legendary harp.

I don't want to give away too much about the adventure, but, of course, there is more to the story than appears. The story promotes a large amount of exploration of a nearby island and includes aquatic-themed encounters and skill challenges. Finally, it asks us what family means.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

A Dire Dalliance

Cover of A Dire Dalliance

In "A Dire Dalliance," a local noble woman asks the group to help her uncover the secret of a pair of guests at her recent balls. Both times, the guest left the party before answering her questions about their identity. Inspired by the story of Cinderella, the adventure unveils the truth behind their hurried escapes.

The adventure is designed for 4 characters of levels 3-5 and is intended as a short adventure. As with the above adventure, Harps and Harpies, it explores a number of themes including "love, identity, and breaking free from poisonous family ties." It carries a content warning of transphobia.

To purchase: DMs Guild affiliate non-affiliate

Thoughts on the Love Domain Cleric

As I looked through a bunch of the discussion around the Love Domain cleric, it became clear that the criticism of some of the powers removing consent wasn't clear, especially concerning the criticism made that it could be referred to as the "'roofie' domain."

I appreciate that discussion was fast and often furious and folks might not want to discuss the details anymore. Having a full-time job and a three-year-old makes it hard to participate in the conversation in a more timely manner, but I'd like to give the conversation a try.

First, I want to say it's clear that through some of the design that thought was put in, especially in the area of the bonds. My gut tells me some portion of the folks involved in the design were going for an Aphrodite/Eros/Cupid vibe and particularly their tendency to use mind control and those folks either weren't aware or chose to ignore the problematic aspects to those stories.

I don't say that to shame or otherwise assign blame. Just that we live in a culture that tends to minimize the importance of consent and sometimes make excuses for stories that involve in removing the ability to willingly and enthusiastically consent.

Second, while it's important at some point to discuss the role of consent when it comes to sex (especially with regards to a Love Domain), for the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to keep the conversation more centered on the idea of what it means to remove consent and how some types of drugs make that easier. I won't talk about instances of sexual assault or rape but will use the story of someone who was drugged but didn't have anything additionally negative happen to them.

With all that said, let's dig in, shall we?

Understanding Roofies

One of the first things that stood out to me reflecting on the response is that a lot of folks don't understand the group of drugs called "date rape drugs" or "roofies." For instance, I recently had a conversation with someone under the impression that roofies knocked the victim out, rendering them unconscious. That was because the expected usage is to help people unable to fall asleep do so.

However, when these drugs are used in an off-label way (often on unknowing or unwilling participants), it's the combination of the following reactions that the administrators of the drug are looking for: reduce inhibitions, sedate folks, and cause memory loss. It's also important to note here that while "roofies" are often used to facilitate sexual assault and rape (along with other substances such as alcohol), there have actually been many cases of people just adding these substances to people's drink for what they consider to be fun.

Because people are sometimes unwittingly drugged by an unconnected third party, we have situations where reliable third parties are present during the episode. For instance, I found this description in an article by Jordan Kisner, describing what happened when she was drugged while at a bar with her then-boyfriend, John.

Twelve hours after being drugged, I woke up shaking in John’s bed, fully clothed, and on top of the covers. My knowledge of the interim is pieced together mostly from what he told me. Apparently, I’d grown radiantly happy and then quickly, dramatically incapacitated. I’d stopped talking, and then walking. I ran into walls. He took me back to his apartment to put me to bed, but I managed to lock myself in his bathroom for 30 minutes and either wouldn’t or couldn’t respond to his attempts to coax me out. When I finally emerged, he suggested I sit down, and I sat. He told me I should drink water, and I wordlessly accepted the cup. This was what unnerved him the most in the retelling: how pliable I had been. “You would do things, but you weren’t there,” he said.

https://www.thecut.com/2014/10/what-you-might-not-know-about-getting-roo...

What we can get from this description is that for at least some folks, the response is not to turn into an unconscious log but rather someone who clearly has an altered mental state and may become more "pliable" or compliant. It's important to keep that in mind as we look at the components of the domain.

Comparison to Charm Person

Now let's quickly look at Charm Person and Charmed.

Charm Person
You attempt to charm a humanoid you can see within range. It must make a Wisdom saving throw, and does so with advantage if you or your companions are fighting it. If it fails the saving throw, it is charmed by you until the spell ends or until you or your companions do anything harmful to it. The charmed creature regards you as a friendly acquaintance. When the spell ends, the creature knows it was charmed by you.

Charmed
A charmed creature can’t Attack the charmer or target the charmer with harmful Abilities or magical Effects.
The charmer has advantage on any ability check to interact socially with the creature.

Right away I see a few things here that line up with the criticism. Charm person can take someone who is hostile to you and make them a friendly acquaintance. It doesn't say it here, but I think it's common knowledge that the reason why this spell exists and used is to make the target more agreeable to the person. This could be relatively benign, for instance a character could use it to counter someone who is under a different mind control spell. Or it could be more malicious, make someone more likely to do something that is in the caster's favor at the expense of the person who would have benefited from the target's free will.

Most importantly, this sort of modification, typically for the benefit of the administrator of the substance, of a person's mental state is the purpose of these drugs. And yes, there are additional protections here that don't apply in real life, the caster and their companions can't do anything that the DM would rule as harm to the target and amnesia isn't part of the spell. But I hope that folks can at least see where this criticism is still valid. The intent of both is to alter someone's mental state and make them more likely to do things they wouldn't otherwise do.

Comparison of Hypnotic Pattern, Confusion, and Hold Monster

Hypnotic pattern
You create a twisting pattern of colors that weaves through the air inside a 30-foot cube within range. The pattern appears for a moment and vanishes. Each creature in the area who sees the pattern must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, the creature becomes charmed for the duration. While charmed by this spell, the creature is incapacitated and has a speed of 0.
The spell ends for an affected creature if it takes any damage or if someone else uses an action to shake the creature out of its stupor.

I hope by now, this is an easy one to see the comparisons. As with charm person, the creature becomes charmed, making the target more pliable. And now, we've added incapacitation which can be an outcome of many of the date rape drugs.

Confusion
This spell assaults and twists creatures' minds, spawning delusions and provoking uncontrolled action. Each creature in a 10-foot-radius sphere centered on a point you choose within range must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw when you cast this spell or be affected by it.

More mind control, this one honestly feels eerily similar to what happens with some abusers.

Hold monster
Choose a creature that you can see within range. The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be paralyzed for the duration. This spell has no effect on undead. At the end of each of its turns, the target can make another Wisdom saving throw. On a success, the spell ends on the target.

Another incapacitation outcome.

Comparison to Channel Divinity: Impulsive Infatuation

You can use your Channel Divinity to overwhelm a creature with a flash of short-lived but intense admiration for you, driving them to rash action in your defense. As an action, you present your holy symbol and choose one creature you can see within 30 feet of you. That creature must make a Wisdom saving throw; a creature can choose to fail this saving throw if it wishes. On a success, the creature is unaffected. On a failure, the creature is charmed by you until the start of your next turn, and it must immediately use its reaction to make a weapon attack against a target you designate. If there are no valid targets, it uses its reaction to admire you.

Here again, we are overriding a creature's free-will and consent in hopes of influencing the outcome of an event and making that part of a "love domain." It's a bit harder here because the issues are only implicit in the text. By and large, the reason this class feature exists is to force a creature to do something it would not do such as attack one of its allies or something in the environment that would be helpful to hostile enemies.

Not only do the same critiques of charm person apply, but not only are we engaging in removing consent, it's a domain feature. Unlike charm person, which is just part of the game (not saying there aren't issues there, just the issues get highly magnified when packaging with the Love domain), this domain feature should, in part, be key to telling us what this domain is about. This should be iconoclastic. And what we end up getting is tightly tying the domain to removing consent.

Thoughts

Do I think this is easy to forget when designing something? Abso-f*ing-lutely. Especially when combined with all of the other criticism of the game, right? I mean, the bond powers are nice, but a lot of folks have been upset when clerics don't get enough damage dealing powers, right? And we definitely want to be careful of that with the love domain because it often gets thought of as feminine, right? Add into that a healthy serving of stories where this makes sense (looking at you Aphrodite/Eros/Cupid) and I totally get how someone gets to this place in writing.

But moving from there to publishing is super hard. We know the time we live in. Where we're still in the position of having to say "Cosplay is not consent" and even trying to get the public at large to live by the fact that consent can be withdrawn at any time. We live in a time of #MeToo. To put this as a domain feature of the love domain is, well, it's hard to process and feels, from the outside, like a failure somewhere in the chain.

What are your pronouns?

Maybe you have seen them in someone’s social media profile. Or on a ribbon someone had attached to their badge at a recent convention. Displaying one’s pronouns is getting rather common and for good reason, it subtly reinforces that we might not want to always assume that we know a person’s gender just from what we (think we) perceive.

Why are so many folks doing it? Part of it is that if only trans folks make their pronouns clear, it subtly (or not so subtly) signals that they are different, because they are being asked to do something that cis folks don’t generally need to do. It also reinforces a general lack of care about pronouns and may even reinforce a belief that folks will always be able to tell gender by appearances.

And so folks of all genders (or no gender at all) began publishing their pronouns in their bios and wearing them proudly with ribbons.

This general acceptance (although by no means universal) got me thinking recently, however, as I was reading through an adventure. I was struck by how odd it felt to read "female human commoner" in regard to an NPC. Clearly this is not the first time I had come across such a phrase because it is a very common way to denote NPCs. But it made a thought start to scratch at the back of my brain and a few different thoughts started to form.

I can understand why the term female is used there, but it seems sort of clinical and makes my skin crawl. On one hand, pointing out gender is super important, especially for folks used to a society a defaults to men in many cases. On the other, it reminds me of TERFs and discussions of gender versus sex and other things that can have harmful implications, especially for folks who aren’t cis.

And this super reminds me of a time during the development of 5e when they were trying to figure out how to make it clear that the D&D world isn’t just full of white folks, without making it similarly clinical and about skin tones. What they decided to do was to make cultures of the D&D world have different skin tones and suggest through the cultural name what people looked like. This lead to the development of a world bible that demonstrated the differences between groups, including skin tone.

Which leads me to wonder if it wouldn’t help to put in pronouns, either in addition to or instead of gender. So human commoner (she/her). Or halfling rogue (they/them). Granted, pronouns aren’t the same as gender. For instance, some folks who are non-binary may still prefer pronouns that are often coded as gendered. But using a range of pronouns would reinforce the diversity of the world (which I would contend is the main use for using male/female). It would further normalize stating one’s pronouns. And it would also allow for a greater range of genders since we wouldn’t be limited to just female/male.

Also, if this post got you thinking about pronouns and, in particular, pronoun ribbons and you want to know more, I highly suggest visiting http://www.pronounribbons.org/.

Steal This: Roman Transport of Live Fish?

A vivarium is an area intended to keep and raise animals or plants in a seminatural state. A common example of a modern vivarium is an aquarium or a terrarium but there are notable examples of aquatic vivaria extending back thousands of years. A number of societies have been known for fish keeping including the Chinese, Egyptians, Hawaiians, Romans, Japanese, and medieval Europeans.

For some, the primary reason for fish keeping was to keep fish fresh for dietary consumption while also showing off one’s wealth. For others, they were able to breed and raise fish. And some kept them for ornamental reasons or for their ability to help process waste.

Most ornamental displays involved fish ponds or opaque tanks in the ground which had to be continuously supplied with fresh or running water. They didn’t know it at the time, but this addition of new water helped keep the oxygen and other gas levels in a healthy range for keeping fish and likely also helped get rid of waste products such as ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. While they didn’t understand the reasons why adding new water helped, they knew it was important.

Which brings us to an interesting discovery made at the Grado Roman shipwreck site. Researchers found a lead pipe in the shipwreck with holes in it that could have been connected to a pump. This could have brought fresh seawater via the pump into an aquarium within the vessel and keep the fish therein supplied with fresh seawater.

What’s more, contemporary writers report that live fish were in fact moved during this period including a report by Pliny the Elder of live parrotfish being moved around. Now, there is no evidence of the proposed pump or of an aquarium on board.

So, how are some ways we could use this in our games?

  • During a voyage on a vessel, particularly a fishing or merchant vessel, the pump or other element breaks and the crew faces the possibility of a complete loss of inventory.
  • During a voyage, the crew lose a few too many people and there aren’t enough folks to sail the ship and keep the pump going. Can an artificer or tinkerer find a way to keep the pump going without a person to hand pump?
  • A rich noble, wizened wizard, or even one of the PCs wants to bring back a interesting and exotic aquatic specimen and wants a way to keep it alive in transport. Bonus points if this specimen requires a diving deep into the unknown and may be connected to the Old Ones.
  • The PCs catch a ride on a ship that, unbeknownst to them, is transporting a danger creature in its onboard aquarium.

Some further reading:

Image from the book Aquatic Life by Joseph E Bausman and uploaded to Flickr by Internet Archive Book Images.

Aquarium Death Spiral

One of the more obvious crossovers between fishkeeping and tabletop role playing games has to do with the death spiral. While some games embrace the death spiral, I know lots of folks try to avoid it happening.

Aquarium - ShrimpAquarium - Shrimp

I couldn't find an exact definition anywhere but the way I'm accustomed to the term being used is that when seemingly small events lead one towards an almost inescapable catastrophic conclusion. Small failures can compound on each other and, if not handled well, lead to game play that is unsatisfying and counter to the desires of the folks playing.

With aquariums, the death spiral is quite literal and can be difficult to overcome, especially in smaller tanks. Often, but not always, the cause is an uncontrolled ammonia spike. This could be the result of old age, a sudden removal of a large portion of either of the two beneficial bacteria pools, etc. Suddenly the system has more ammonia or nitrites than it can handle, which then causes one or more livestock to die, which in turn adds to the ammonia, and pretty soon an entire tank can be wiped out.

In other words, tanks, especially small tanks, can be swingy. :)

What's even worse is that attempting to fix the tank can also accelerate the death spiral. While many different species have different levels of various tank parameters that typically are the best for them, they value consistency even more. So if you notice that nitrite levels are higher than desired and decide to do an aggressive water change, the resulting fluctuations can cause more damage than if you had kept them at the undesired levels and worked more slowly to change them.

In thinking through this, I noticed that the suggestions for how to fix the swinginess and the death spiral in aquariums is similar to how folks limited these things in D&D, and that is by attempting to limit as much as possible the impact of any particular change. For aquariums, the suggestion is to start with a larger tank. One dead fish in a 5 gallon tank will have a different impact than a dead fish in a 55 gallon tank. Making smaller incremental changes leads to a more reliable and predictable tank and game.

That said, unlike fish, our lives aren't on the line. There are times when we can embrace the death spiral and other times when it's probably not what we want.

Fishkeeping and Thoughts of D&D

So over the past few months I got sucked into the rabbithole that is known as planted tanks (or planted aquariums) via YouTube and I took the plunge recently to start two small tanks of my own. As I've been working on them, a few things have struck me as being potentially relevant to gaming so I wanted to share some of what I learned here.

Introduction to Fishkeeping Concepts

One of the neat things about folks who are specifically into planted tanks is that they often are attempting to be world builders. That's because many of them are doing planted tanks as a way to reproduce a bunch of a natural cycle (sometimes in an effort to reduce the upkeep of an aquarium but often because they are super interested in the art and science of it).

To help understand, keeping an aquarium functioning is all about the nitrogen cycle. Animals get fed, they produce waste (ammonia), and ammonia is pretty toxic to the animals. Aquariums typically rely on two different types of bacteria to convert the ammonia to nitrites (which are also toxic) and then nitrites to nitrates (which are less toxic). Water changes often are a way of removing the nitrates from the system, but plants can also remove some of these from the water in addition to providing much needed oxygen for the fish.

In addition to this chemical balance, many attempt to create eye catching displays and sometimes even tell a story through their aquascapes. This in particular made me think of roleplaying games. First is the creation of zones in terms of the water column, usually dividing the vertical area of the tank into thirds. Some fish and other creatures are considered denizens of the bottom, some prefer the middle layer, and others like life at the top.

For plants, we often think in terms of carpeting (plants that cover the substrate like a carpet), foreground (typically shorter or slower growing plants that would be at the front of the tank), mid-ground (plants for the middle of the tank), background (taller and/or fast growing plants), and floating plants (plants that float in the water, especially at the top of the tank). Each of these have their uses and help tell the "story" of the tank.

Another interesting concept is that of the community tank. These are tanks where the species chosen are meant to work well together. So you might have some inhabitants who are meant to be cleaners (shrimp, snails, some types of catfish, etc) and where they might help keep the populations in check since some tank inhabitants can become prolific breeders in the right conditions. This reminds me of quite a few D&D modules including the Caves of Chaos.

Using in an Adventure

There can be a number of reasons why someone or something might be keeping an aquarium in D&D. A wizard or apothecary might find them to be incredibly useful for keeping creatures that produce vital components to spells or potions. A druid might work on creating one to save local creatures during a time of intense climate change. A noble might wish to display their wealth and worldliness by displaying creatures from far away lands.
People have kept fish for thousands of years in outdoor pools or indoors in ceramic vessels not to mention in ponds and the like. For something truly fantastical, imagine the existence of a force field that creates a large area of glass for displaying aquatic life. Perhaps a wizard created one in an underground cavern and stocked it with phosphorescent plants and creatures from the ocean deep.

Or perhaps long ago, a vibrant and verdant land began to turn to desert and thus an effort was made to save the local creatures, moving them into a cavern filled with sunstones that mimicked the passage of the sun. The keepers have all died but their world continues to live on.

What creatures would you stock these aquariums with? How would you tend to the needs of all of the livestock? How would you keep balance? How would the introduction of player characters affect this balance?

Female Representation in D&D Art

So I'm going to talk about some stuff and given the reaction to my attempts to convey my point of view in the past, I know this might ruffle some feathers. What I'd like to ask is that if you continue to read and find that your feathers are feeling a little ruffled, maybe take some time to think about why that is before putting me on Internet blast? And if you don't think that you are willing to do that, please feel free to enjoy some of the other absolutely wonderful content available to you on the Internet.

©Wizards of the Coast©Wizards of the Coast

With that out of the way, I'd like to talk about a topic that is near and dear to me, and that is female representation in game art. I know I've had a lot of discussions about that in the past but there's something different about today versus then. That difference is some changes that were made by some companies (particularly Wizards of the Coast) in terms of how they approach art in official Dungeons & Dragons publications.

My position has always been that the art of female characters has been way too restricted and lacked diversity. There was an overabundance of female characters within a narrow body type and age window, often (but not always) sexualized, often with an appearance that the references used were from lingerie or porn. While some interpreted that as an argument against any representation that fit those categories, that has never been my intent or what I argued.

As I talked to folks about this, especially folks in the industry, a few reasons for this kept coming up again and again. I'd like to talk about those because I think they amplified together to create the situation we had.

© Wizards of the Coast© Wizards of the Coast

One of the first was that the reason for the characters being drawn with those references is that artists prefer to work from the naked form. In some ways, this is absolutely true. We know that many of the masters have worked from nude models. Knowing the physical structure of the subject of a work helps ensure that their back doesn't look awkward or broken. I get that.

But many of the masters used both male and female models. And while they did many works that involved their particular muse and often spent time on projects that pleased them, they produced many other works with a variety of subjects. But in the art at the time, it was clear from many of the male characters that no one was looking at nude or semi-nude references for them. No ads or photo shots of men in their boxers. Not really even swimmers or male ballet dancers. There was a noticeable imbalance in how many of the artists were approaching gender.

One way to approach adjusting that would be to try to increase the diversity of the artists that were hired, finding artists who were passionate about drawing men for instance, that could not be the only solution. The other most common reason I was told for why the art was the way it was is because that's what the artists thought art directors wanted. So, basically, the art director would give out assignments. They might even be explicit about what they were and were not looking for. But artists, being concerned about having artwork rejected, would give them what they thought they wanted, what they thought "fantasy art" meant.

So, instead of taking risks, they looked at what had already been created and did more of that. This often translated to folks as cheesecake art. Do to how the art process works, it wouldn't become clear to the art director that this was going to be the case until the final work was submitted, at which point it was too late to reject the work.

Why? Because initial "drafts" of the work are like outlines. The artist provides a thumbnail of the piece, more demonstrating the overall composition, the lines of movement, etc. Clothing, especially boob windows, and the like, wouldn't necessarily show up at that level. So the thumbnail gets approved and suddenly what one person might interpret as an older woman or a full cloak turns out differently in the final piece. And by then, so much work has been put in that it's hard to change.

The sad part about this particular reason is that it was a bit of a death spiral. With more and more work being put out in this style, it worked to further establish it as the style. And without taking a step back, everyone's reactions are understandable. The problem can be understood but not addressed.

So, what changed? Well 5e came out. And with the new edition came a new approach.

© Wizards of the Coast© Wizards of the Coast

While I've been talking about this in terms of female representation, it wasn't just gender that was unbalanced. Skin tones were another big area as well as getting just a consistent understanding of how characters looked in a fantasy world.

With 5e, Wizards of the Coast decided not to go with a generic fantasy world for the base world. They chose the Forgotten Realms which at least had something closer to gender equality and a variety of skin tones for human characters (among others). It also had a variety of cultures within the world, with different ways of dress and speech. They could now tell artists, draw a person from this defined culture, rather than asking for a character in the fantasy style.

And that's what they did. They created world bibles and worked directly with concept arts to develop and refine what various cultures should look like on the page. They did this not just for male and female representations, but what did a family look like? What about older people in the village or city? So on and so forth.

The result was a wide range of art to choose from and the ability to "show, not tell" artists what these various groups looked like. While they still run into some issues with artists who draw boob windows on female characters from a culture that wouldn't have them (some cultures would!), those issues are far less. I haven't asked, but my guess is that they still might accept those pieces and adjust how they work with that artist in the future, but that piece that say sexualizes the character would be balanced out by the rest of them.

From my point of view, this has been a great breath of fresh air into D&D. I love seeing the greater diversity in the art. Of course there are still things to discuss and, in my opinion, improvements that can be made, but I look forward to looking at the art now. And I've seen so many positive responses from other folks out there.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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