Tagged: D&D 3.5

3.5 Memories – The Cleric Archer

It’s by no means a secret that 3.5 D&D’s balance was off in some ways that made ‘good’ and ‘best’ categories of things a little unintuitive, like how the best stealth-based character was a wizard, or the best speed-based character was the wizard, or the best big, strong melee character who smacked things with a sword was a wizard.


If you ever got asked, houwever, about ‘best’ builds, there were always a handful of builds that stood apart because they had unique combination of effects. There was the Supermount, for example, or the Wildshape Ranger, builds that were renowned for having access to something that set them apart from things of their type. And, especially since Legolas was in the popular media at the time, there was often a question about how to make the best archer. There were plenty of archery feats, and it seemed for once, this was a challenge the fighter was perfectly suited to address – the excessive strength of the Barbarian’s rages wouldn’t necessarily apply, and sneak attack for a rogue was harder to get, so perhaps, perhaps, with a host of feats available, surely the best character to take them would finally be the Fighter?


It was the cleric.

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Eff it, sometimes I need one that’s a walk.

The way these posts tend to happen is I go into the garage where my physical D&D books are kept and I reach into the shelf and pull out a book I haven’t read lately, flip it open and see if what I see on the page reminds me of anything and this month we got the Complete Divine and the page I flipped to was the Rainbow Servant.

Good news, this class can do some beautiful bullshit, and it can do it while looking really gay.

What we’re going to deal with her is a lovely overlap of unintended consequence. See, D&D creation was ultimately fractal; when you made a new class or a new race, you could test it against other stuff but as more stuff happened, you would always find combinations of stuff interacting in ways you maybe didn’t intend. Sometimes this meant you could find two different spells in different supplements did identical things, but one was much stronger, and sometimes this meant that a character could take two identical feats for double the effect. The copy editors at Wizards of the Coast could keep on top of this most of the time, but not always.

What mostly happened, then, was things were tested against a core of ‘what was in the player’s handbook’ and the more sources you added, the more wild things could get. That was one of the ways the game got weird, too – the more of the exciting and interesting stuff you started to include, the more weird byproducts you got.

This time around, what we have is the collision between the Complete Divine and The Miniatures Handbook and repeated in the Complete Arcane. The two parts at work here are the Warmage (a class) and the Rainbow Servant (a Prestige Class).

Rainbow Servants are spellcasters that learn from and benefit from a relationship with couatls, a type of sorta-kinda-Aztec-y divine monster creatures that are snakes, that relate to rainbows, and yet, suspiciously, aren’t shown in rainbows in their default art. Must seem gay. Anyway, these couatls grant special gifts to arcane spellcasters, and those casters get to be Rainbow Servants.

As written, the Rainbow Servant is a prestige class for arcane spellcasters that want to add a bit of divine vibe to what they’re doing, in exchange for eating some spellcasting levels. Most of the time, this tradeoff isn’t worth it: spellcasters that give up spellcasting levels need to get something truly immense in exchange. The stuff you get out of the Rainbow Servant is domains (which add spells to your potential repertoire), beautiful rainbow wings, and then, eventually, the entire cleric spell list added to your spell list.

For a sorcerer or wizard, this represents more options, but not more choices. These classes still have to spend resources to know those spells. Wizards adding the entire cleric spell list to their spellbook is a lot of power, but you had to give up four levels of spells to get there, and that’s typically not a worthwhile tradeoff. Sorcerers need to spend their very limited spells known to get those spells, but you already don’t have enough spells.

So, Rainbow Servant is a bit weak, and you might pick it up if you really really wanted the rainbow wings, for example, or you had a strong concept for a divine-arcane mixed up spellcasters.

But then, let’s introduce to the conversation the Warmage.

The Warmage is a class designed for a kind of different form of D&D. It was originally made to be a boomspell platform for the miniatures game, which used D&D combat rules to resolve a tactical miniatures wargame. Noticing that for fast combat, choosing spell preparation is a pain in the ass but choosing the right spell for the job on the spot is hard enough, they created a spellcaster who just always had access to all their spells, and made that spell list limited.


If a warmage adds spells to their spell list – like with a domain – then suddenly, they can cast, spontaneously, every spell on the domain list that’s of a level they have access to. That’s pretty good. Then when they hit level 10, they have all the spells in the cleric list, available to cast spontaneously, and the existing warmage blast spells.

That’s really cool!

This build is also not especially strong, at least, not most of the time. You need to hit around level 16 before this happens, and at that point, you have a character who’s casting lots of different level 6 spells. You’ll never get access to 9th level spells (without some nonsense), but you’ll have enormous flexibility all the way up there – the best cleric spell for the job, all those lower level slots able to turn into useful buffs, and a bunch of handy special abilities to go with it.


This is clearly unintended consequence. The Rainbow Servant was not made to be a route to ‘late-game megacleric wizard.’ The Warmage was not created to turn into a support machine with the right level choices. These two elements were not created to interact with each other. One can argue that this interaction, being unintended, should be excluded. After all, if it wasn’t tested, it might have unforseen consequences. This is how a lot of MMOs behave: even things that are designed to replicate one another are often designed to not stack or interact, so as to prevent players from having too much of an effect. Check out how for a time, World of Warcraft had a standard list of ‘raid buffs’ (and may still have but I don’t care to check).

However, this is where TTRPGs have a freedom. You can look at how players engage with the game, and make those choices on the fly. You can decide if a player doing this stuff is eating up time. Hypothetically, you can even decide how in your game it’s okay for things to work out unfairly in one player’s favour, because that player may be less strategically minded, or not inclined to take advantage of the power, or bad at managing the information load. You might decide that it’s okay, because you can see other ways other things can be just as powerful that you are okay with. You can even decide to adjust this as the game goes on.

But don’t forget that sometimes, there are cool, odd interactions that some players may pick up just because they like the gay rainbow wings.

3.5 Memories: Okay, Fine, Let’s Talk About Zceryll

Back during August, I looked at the Tome of Magic, a 3.5 D&D book, which involved looking at the the Binder. The Binder was one of the classes presented in that book, where the basic idea was that the binder had these things, called Vestiges, that you could sort of cold-swap between to get different abilities based on your different needs; the task of swapping character mode was fast enough that you could do it between encounters, or on the far side of a dungeon door, or hurriedly while the guards are on their way, but it wasn’t something you could hot-plug in between combats. The Binder was a weak character class by default that could, with its variety of options, hot-swap into a form that was usually about as good as a rogue with most of the gear they want.

Note those italics.

When it comes to D&D content, Wizards put things in the books, but they also made a thing of web expansions – pdfs and website content that you could add to your game, stuff that came from the Official Source and was generally made to be safe enough to include in any game, and that is where we got the Vestige that on its own takes the Binder from ‘incredibly fair, even a bit weak’ to the upper tiers of power, brushing in the shadow of the wizard and cleric.

And bonus, that Vestige is spooky.

The actual text of the Vestige of Zceryll, from Wizards’ own web expansion, is pretty simple:

Zceryll was a mortal sorceress who communed with alien powers from the far realm. She became obsessed with immortality, seeking out the alien beings in the hopes of learning their eternal secrets. When she died, she became a hideously twisted vestige, forever seeking to re-enter the Realms via numerous artifacts she dispersed across the world. Zceryll grants you the ability to transform your body and mind into an alien form, granting you telepathy, resistance to effects related to insanity, the ability to summon pseudonatural creatures, and the power to unleash bolts of pure madness.

Okay, how is it broken? What’s it do that’s so good, power-wise? Normally when you talk about character power, you can usually point to something as a general rule – like you can point to the wizards’ spell list and that’ll explain itself. In Zceryll’s case, what you get when you channel this Vestige is:

Summon Alien: You can summon any creature from the summon monster list that a sorcerer of your level could summon. Any creature you summon with this ability gains the pseudonatural template. Thus, at 10th level you could summon any creature from the summon monster I-V list. When you reach 14th level, you can summon any creature from the summon monster I-VII list. You can only summon creatures that can be affected by the pseudonatural template. Once you have used this ability, you cannot do so again for 5 rounds.

Let’s simplify that: You can use Summon Monster (Half Your Level) every five turns at will. DMs may make you spend the action to do it, in out-of-combat ways, but at will summons is incredibly strong, not because you can flood the battlefield, but because summons are combat capable creatures that in many cases can cast spells. So every utility power available to any monster on the summon list is available to you, but in a spooky way. Need something big moved? Summon something big and stronk. Need to get out of a cage? Summon something that can move through walls. Need to wreck shop on the battlefield? Well at every tier, there’s a piece of cannonfodder you can dump on the battlefield and then not have to spend actions commanding. If your summon runs out of healing magic, you can just summon another one and get it to do the healing magic. If your summon is beat up, you can summon another one and get that to replace the other. It is one of the most startlingly effective spell families to have at-will access to, and the only real drawback for the Binder is that it’s a bit slow.

The actual theme of Zceryll is a weird one, and it bums me out a little that the Binder is a class ostensibly built around this variety of flavour choices, when every powerful Binder is going to be hard on Zceryll and the skills required to be good at managing Zceryll. It’s also frustrating because the name Zceryll is a person’s name first; the odd, hard to express mangled language of the name isn’t a language from outside reality – it’s someone’s name, a weird name, but it’s just… a weird name. It speaks of a culture that’s not common to you now, but Zceryll is still just a person, it’s not an extrusion of a reality where they don’t have vowel sounds.

I feel this is a dropped ball with Zceryll. At its root, it wants to be Lovecraftian; the powers are from the far realms, it’s about a refugee of our reality trying hard to get back in, it’s got this sort of lurking threat to it, and it shows you tearing reality open and letting in things that look like stuff you already know but which are definitely not, while you cast literal bolts of madness from your hand... and then disappointingly, it’s just… a wizard, like you, who drank of the outside.

My advice, if you’re going to use Zceryll in your game worlds? Soak in the eerie. Don’t say it was a wizard who started out researching the far realm. Make Zceryll something not someone.

3.5 Memories: Rokugan

Hold up.

I’m going to say some nice things about this book. I’m even going to praise some things this book does. I’m going to recommend you look to this book for examples of how to do a thing and I’m even going to talk about ways this game book set itself apart from an existing, flawed paradigm of D20 design for its period.

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3.5 Memories: Tome of Magic

Magic in D&D is…



Let’s try and be nice.

Magic in D&D, generally, is designed mechanics first. Spells are things that players do, and so, spells are designed to be player-facing, player-activated. They’re things that make sense when players have access to them, that follow predictable rules, and that players can coherently treat as game options. Sometimes those game options are a bit vague, with ideas like charm person that kind of try to dance around what they’re doing, and sometimes they’re extremely specific in terms of how much damage they’re doing and to what. There are tables.

In 2ed, there was a book called the Tome of Magic that wanted to present advanced spellcasting rules, and in 3.5, as part of the eternal experimentation in getting money out of players (but also because hey, throw stuff at the wall), they released a new version. Rather than just More Spells, though, the Tome of Magic tried to present three alternative magic systems for you to weave into your game. They were treated as old and mysterious magic systems, systems that were by definition, a mystery to the rest of the magical schools, something that didn’t exist already.

They were also bad.

They were in fact, abysmally bad.

Now, if you’re of the old-school 3.5 playing, dig-through-the-paperwork type, you’re probably thinking but Zceryll – and yes. Yes, that’s a thing, a web expansion to one class that makes one of them pretty strong once they hit level 10. Okay, cool. That’s not in this book.

And what’s in the book? There’s three types of magic presented, each with their own framing and page templates; Vestige magic, Shadow magic, and Truename magic. Vestige magic is kind of like picking a kit of abilities and turning them on each day, with a skill check to see if you get a convenient or inconvenient version. Shadow magic is a magical system that wants to try and capture more of the ‘just do it’ magical style, rather than the thinky-learny-study-y magic of a wizard. It’s a lot like the Warlock, but more goth. Then there’s Truename magic.

None of these systems are good; the Binder is capable of doing the job of a solid rogue-like character, who can maybe mode switch a few times a day from rogue-type to fighter type or pinch healer. It’s really quite neat, and if you’re playing in a game where Zceryll is allowed (because Zceryll is quite strong), you can probably get this one out there to hang in the big leagues, if you don’t mind being the kind of player who comes to the table with a stack of reference documents. Imagine a swiss army knife with forty five attachments. Shadow Magic, on the other hand, wants to turn spellcasting into a talent tree, and the character you get out of it is a very weak spellcaster who’s even more limited than a sorcerer. Basically, the Shadowcaster wants to be an alternate wizard, but it’s kind of more like a Bard for non-combatants, or a Warlock for people afraid of being overpowered.

And there’s the Truenamer.

The idea at the heart of Tome of Magic‘s three different magic systems is to introduce some form of magical system that relates to the existing skill system, something that had been attempted with melee weapons in other supplemental works. This is something to bear in mind as it relates to Magic Month – when you tie your magic system to a skill system, you imply that getting better at magic is a process of practicing. That’s something D&D tends to not do, accidentally or otherwise, because most of the time, you get better at magic by levelling up, which is pretty vague, and often means that you improve at casting Rope Trick by killing lots of goblins. There’s a disconnect.

Binders use a skill check to commune with their vestiges. Vestiges that are harder to commune with will exert influence over you, often imposing on you particularly difficult limitations, like limiting the number of rounds you can partake in combat, or making you obey characters who are prettier than you. Also you can possibly grow sick-ass rams horns and headbutt people while you swing your sword.

Shadowcasters don’t relate to skills much. They also try to make their magical powers the result of practice; as you level up, your easiest magic tricks get easier and easier, until they’re eventually supernatural abilities you can use at will, which would be nice, if they weren’t comparing poorly to a fighter’s bow. Still, that’s something.



Time to pull off the bandaid.

The Truenamer is an incomplete class.

The Truenamer has spells (“Utterances”) that are formatted inconsistantly, meaning that some of them seem to literally not work as printed. It’s designed so that the first spell you cast each day is the easiest, and therefore, every time you use spells after it, it gets harder. It works by rolling skill checks to use your spells, and your spells are weaker versions of things that the other classes get at earlier levels, and more conveniently. There’s a lot of talk about the Truenamer as ‘the worst class of 3rd edition’ and I personally think that’s valid when you take into account that a player who intuitively takes to this class and tries to make it work the way it looks like it wants to work is going to have a very hard time doing the things the class suggests you want to do.

This is a class for whom one of your top tier feats is skill focus. This is a class that at level 20 can turn your Truenamer into Batman provided the one trick Batman wanted to do is summon fifteen hundred solars. The character gets to be both Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit.

The Tome Of Magic is trying to do some interesting things. It even gets to stumble, ass-backwards, into doing some broken stuff. It’s definitely not a forgotten jewel of 3.5, and in a way, it shows that being three mini-books jammed into one skin, that experimentation is valuable, but so is proper practice.

3.5 Memories: Replacement Levels

Ever heard of this?

This mechanic, introduced in one of the Races Of books in 3.5, presented the idea that while the class structure worked in general for most of the game, there were more specific versions of classes for races that had a particular, peculiar affinity for that class. This meant that while halfling fighters and gnome fighters and dwarf fighters were generally all the same, a half-orc fighter might be different because of the way half-orcs did the job of ‘fighter.’

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Karmic Twin

Okay, I said I’d only do a few 3.5 posts a month, so this one’s going to be a quickie. Back in that day, there was a special crop of feats you could get that you could take at level 1, which were made to try and give a character a feeling of their ‘background.’ These feats were first trialled in Dragon magazine, then a few were tested in the Player’s Guide To Faerun (that horny setting I talked about earlier in the month), and one source that really went hard on them was the Oriental Adventures and Rokugan sourcebooks.

Now wait, hold up, let’s just mention something here because if I don’t bring it up, someone will huff their cheeks and go ahah, gottim. Look, Oriental Adventures is the label on a door behind which you can find yikes, yes, of course, obviously. Doesn’t have to be, we have room for potential here, I really like this setting and stuff, there’s lots to like, but let’s not get caught up there.

Because the really funny thing here is a player behaviour, based around a single ‘Background’ feat.

In Rokugan, a General Mish Mosh Of Asian Cultures setting, you had Ancestor feats instead of Background feats, and they tied to historical lore characters and that was kinda cool as a way to encourage players who wanted access to mechanics to be aware of the lore of the setting. Good idea, good move, do that in your settings.

Anyway, one of the Ancestor feats was a Scorpion clan background feat, Karmic Twin.

Karmic Twin is a feat that is pretty gonzo on the face of it; you get effectively 4 extra points of Charisma for most non-spellcaster purposes, you get the ability to track or find a single person without any help and oh yeah, if nobody else in the party is your karmic twin the party gets an NPC whose story is tied with yours.

Leadership was one of the most powerful feats you could get, because it’d give you an NPC that was basically 2 levels below you and that’s an enormous amount of utility. Power, maybe, but just having someone who could synergise with you under your control was really strong. Karmic Twin gave you the same thing at level 1. Sure, some DMs might use it to inflict a lifelong enemy on you (and if they did, the charisma boosts were probably reasonable as a trade!), but here’s the thing.

My players used Karmic Twin and its cousin feat Sons of Thunder a lot. And every time, what they used it for was not for power reasons – the players overwhelmingly didn’t care about the mechanics of the other character.

But they all used them to get hot boyfriends.

Let your players have hot boyfriends if they want ’em. It doesn’t hurt things and the stories are more fun with players getting things they like in them.

3.5 Memories: Soo-Nee

I’m trying to limit my writing about 3.5 D&D and 4e D&D to maybe once a month, because while I do love doing deep dives into subjects there, they’re time consuming and I’ve found a variety of different articles is the best thing I can do to keep my audience engaged. Plus, it’s a great kind of ‘content well’ where you can grab a book from the game in question, leaf through it, and find something to talk about – inevitably.

In this, Smooch Month, though, what content is there in 3.5 D&D to talk about that I haven’t gone over with a discussion of ‘roll to seduce?’ Lords knows we don’t want to talk about the way sex and romance are normally represented in D&D, because they’re mostly only ever brought up transgressively. We did the Book of Vile Darkness already!

Still, it’s smooch month and that means that while we may be talking about romance and relationships, there’s always with that aftertinge of ‘horny, maybe?‘ that I circle around and avoid, and when the time comes to talk about horny, maybe and D&D, there’s really no place to go but the Forgotten Realms.

If you’re not already aware, Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms setting is a place full of lots of different interesting countries (I’m trying to be nice) which are perhaps known for a pattern of having an elderly, cranky wizard in an important place that’s secretly guiding important political events and enabling adventurers. You might know it as a setting which has a large number of prominent women in positions of authority in some important, adventurer-centric places, meaning you may have a fond memory of being sent on an early quest by Aribeth.

It’s also perhaps a little less well known for being a setting where under the hood Ed Greenwood was fantastically horny and has definitely, definitely dedicated lots of time to thinking about the sex lives of those characters. Once you know about it, it just kind of lurks there like a fog at ankle-height, clinging to everything.

Now, something else about the Forgotten Realms is that Ed Greenwood started writing it in 1967 and pretty much has never stopped, filling the world with ever increasing levels of detail, conspiracies, political introgue, cities, townships, lodges, orders, empires, dragons, really racist drow stuff, and of course, gods. That brings us to the book I flipped open this month, Faiths & Pantheons.

If we’re talking about a love domain (and boy there’s a lot bound up in that conversation which I largely want to leave alone, but suffice to say fucking sigh) then why not look at the Forgotten Realms’ goddess of love, Sune?


Sune as a goddess is a bit standard. She’s a beautiful feminine woman, her descrpition includes how her lips are plump, how she dresses in ‘near transparent clothes,’ all that standard stuff. She’s a redhead, which I mean, you can make a case for any of those typical looks and what they encode, but the real basics is that Sune is a Hot Goddess of Hotness.

The descriptors of her goals, aims and dogma are all extremely in this vein, with a drop of how thanks to recent reforms in her church, women only outnumber men four to one. Her temples are described as public salons and bathhouses, with diaphanous robes and beautiful clergy and mirrors all over the place. Sune even communicates with you via mirrors, where you look into them, she changes your appearance, and then talks to you through your own, now hotter face.

Now, one thing in favour of this setting, and this character, is that Ed Greenwood has gone on record that Sune (and everyone good in the Forgotten Realms) says Trans Rights, so that’s something and that’s all we need to talk about there.

Sune’s a goddess of love, lust, pleasure and protection and it’s so weird that as represented, her faithful mostly seem to hang around taking care of people and not doing adventure stuff. They even talk about how commonly the Heartwarders are pacifists, and how this means that enemies often are reluctant to attack them, which let me tell you, that’s not how that tends to work.

What else has Sune got going for her? If you’re not getting sent on quests by the Goddess of Love to do things like smash tyrannical families that are keeping star-crossed lovers apart or destroying churches that are trying to control people’s expressions of love or pleasure, or even just building safe spaces and standing in the doorway with a sword, what else has she got going on, why worship Sune?

Girl Hot counts for a lot, right?

When you get a Player’s Handbook you may see the five or ten gods presented there and think that the power of a setting is built around gods of punching, fierceness, and maybe evil punching, and that’s certainly a place to start. As the pantheon of the Forgotten Realms built out, Ed expanded into things like racial pantheons, where elves have a bunch of their own gods, and maybe other races have whole bunches of other gods, and with that came the need for more things for gods to be about, represented by more domains.

Sune, therefore, required (?) the creation of the Lust Domain.

It’s not great.

I’m trying to avoid talking about the way you may frame enchantment spells or diplomacy checks in your game, but the good news is that you don’t need to worry about what the Lust domain does in any given 3.5 game, because it’s really bad and the Protection and Pride domains are right there. Okay, so she’s not setting the world on fire mechanically. What else is Sune bringing to the table?

Art by kiikii-sempai

Another mechanical space that these gods open up is the idea of prestige classes. This was a really good idea, because it served two possible purposes for player characters. If you liked Sune, you could look at her prestige class and get a feeling for the kind of mechanics she liked; if you liked the mechanics of that class, you could look at Sune and see if you liked that direction for your character’s personality.

Sune’s pretige class is the Heartwarders, which is a basket of yikes. This class increases your charisma (very rare to get like this, but not hard to get at all), gives you a ally buff power by kissing them (which also is so amazing a kiss it dazes them, meaning you can actually make them worse off), and lets you create holy water love potions by, um, crying. There’s a lot bound up right there in what a person sees as being beautiful or aesthetically resonant. The class is pretty broken, because it still lets your cleric be a cleric, but as far as stuff you can bolt onto an already-broken class goes, this one’s not worth what it gives you!

It’s a shame, because a rose-coloured knight of love and rage seems like a great character concept to defend the worshippers of a god of love. Someone should make a much better version of this idea.

And that’s Sune! A Goddess of love and lust in a subtly horny world. And if you’re like me, you were today years old when you learned this name is instead pronounced ‘Soo-nee.’

Bad Balance: Races of Destiny

I’ve made fun of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 a lot, and I do it because it’s easy, and fun, and it’s funny, and let’s do more of it.

There were two sets of the first wave of expansions for 3.5, the class style books, known as the Completes, and the race books, known as the Races of books. The Completes touched just a tiny bit on the early days of the class role system – with the first wave being Complete Warrior, Mage, Psionics, Divine and Scoundrel, but expanding into things like Adventurer and Champion. The Races Of books gave you a run down of three races at a time, linked by a common theme, and that was a theme that was routinely straining at the edges. Halflings got treated as a ‘race of the wild,’ and gnomes as a ‘race of stone,’ as opposed to their proper place they shared of ‘races of hobbits fans.’

No time for gnomes or halflings, me, I know.

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3.5 Memories: The Kaorti

Now, while I may be on the record saying that Dungeons & Dragons can do horror scenarios, doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with the way that the default books angled towards horror. One can point to the ‘mature’ Book of Vile Darkness (more like vile dorkness, boom, gottem) that tries to be shocking and edgy and it’s just kind of insulting and basic. But the BoVD wasn’t the only book of its type that tried to be creepy and horrifying, nor was it one that strived to be mature.

For example, the Fiend Folio is the only book I own with nipples.

Here, check it.

After this point I suppose it only bears to mention: Content warning, creepy monsters and horror imagery after this point.

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3.5 Memories: Psionics

Maaan, this system was cool.

Okay, so it’s twenty years old or something so I’m assuming you don’t really know what this was or how it worked. Psionics was one of those things that D&D 3.5 seemed to pick up because it was in 3rd edition and there was something similarly back in 2ed and then going back. It was never something the rules prominently featured, and was always meant to be its own little contained system that ‘couldn’t work the way that spells worked. The older systems, back in 2ed used ‘power points’ instead of ‘spell slots,’ you know, one of your rudimentary mana systems.

These required rules, coupled with the way they were sequestered meant that the Psionics systems got handed off into a small number of books, which were focus work by a small number of developers who not only really cared about them, but weren’t competing with anyone about it, like the core rules’ Druid, Cleric, Wizard and Sorcerer problems were.

The result is that the Psionics system is made up of a smaller number of powers that have to be flexible, because they just weren’t going to get a lot of different psionic powers the way that every different version of a fireball got to have its own fancy special effect.

It also meant the psionic powers had to be designed to scale much better than the spell system; rather than the tight restrictions of spell slots that force you to wind up collecting a large number of choices, and be aware of all of them as the best least tool for any job, you instead had the powers that you could do, and the choices were made at use. You could spend points to make your powers scale, and you could even choose the way they scaled.

That meant that yes, you still had fiddly spells, but you chose how fiddly they were, how fiddly they could get. You could pick your powers to get a wide variety of oddball stuff, or you could focus on a consistent theme, using your power choices to make one power you were absolutely great at, and small utility powers to go along with it.

There was something to the aesthetic of it, too. Rather than your typical wizards and robes and swirling lights, Psionics played in a realm that was more purple and crystals, with a sort of Cthuluhoid Lovecraftian horror to the enemies. Rather than drawing on the idea of old lore and ancient history, of things written in books, the storytelling of the psionic character was more tied into really primal knowledge, things that were born out by doing rather than learning.

This still put the books in some odd places, of course; mechanically, there still needed to be wands and scrolls, because those were considered essential parts of balancing the needs of a flexible spellcaster, so there are Dorjes and Power Stones (or ‘sticks and stones’ as they were known). There were psionic dragons, because of course you need dragons, and their gimmick was, well, they’re dragons, but they’re psychic.

Yet when I think back on this system, a thing that really sticks with me is how in 3.5, there were just so many builds you could make for psionic characters that weren’t constrained the way that wizards and clerics were. You could afford to lose a caster level or two, you could pick up other effects to build on what you had. You could share spellcasting skills between different psionic classes, and there were interesting, oddball prestige classes that gave you a niche, interesting way to craft your character.

Normally when I think back on 3.5, there’s a pretty clear hierarchy system that kicks in. Fighters form a sort of basement where everything that’s worse than it is seen as really hosed. Then there’s the crew of weird classes that aren’t bad for any specific reason, but because they have a niche that usually can be replaced by a spell from a wizard. Then there’s the really good renewable resource types, the powerful melee hitters, the prestige class complex builds, and then there’s the spellcasters, and then just at the bottom end of the spellcasters there’s the rogue and some gish, I guess. It’s a complex space and most of them, the best thing you can do is one thing.

But when it came to psionics – classes that mostly sacrificed variety of effects for flexibility of application – there were just so many different ways to build, just based on the powers you took.

Kinda preceded the Book of Nine Swords, too, and formed the foundation for the way 4ed worked.


Funny that.

3.5 D&D Heroes of Horror

When you sit down to play a game with your friends, you are ultimately looking to have an experience. That experience can be built around so many feelings, so many ideas, and it is just as valid an experience to seek out the tension and catharsis of a horror scenario as any other. The horror campaign, the macabre fantasy, the tangle of feelings you get when you find yourself pressed in the thorns and consider how much you’d give to just escape, even if it means leaving behind a little of your soul – this is absolutely something you can do in tabletop games.

It’s not even at odds with Dungeons & Dragons’ vision of heroic fantasy, which we can argue about, or wait, no, we can’t argue about it, because I find having to define the narrative parameters of a heroic fantasy or really deal with people who want to try and define the ‘genre’ of a game that’s as broad and flexible as D&D to be a task more akin to pulling teeth than having fun. Accept then that it is entirely possible to run a horror game using Dungeons & Dragons, because even if it’s not to your standards of horror doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to wear the genre label.

And Wizards of The Coast recognised it too, releasing the 2005 supplement for D&D3.5, Heroes Of Horror.

This book is, let’s say it reaches the lofty purchase of fine, I guess. I’m not wild about the content it offers (in no small part because my players have been horrified by things I made without any such guidance), but I’m also not against what it’s doing for the most part. Particularly nice is that the book contains an attempt to discuss player boundaries and emotional needs, even if it’s a very surface, a very 2005 discussion of those boundaries. I was going to give this book a treatment, only to find I already did a thread on it, and then saw how that thread kind of cooked away into just making fun of one thing in the book.

Even while the book is a thorough examination of a theme space, it’s not all one way of looking at it. There’s talk about player options, about how to handle ideas of tainted powers, kind of a Moorecocky thing. There’s some monsters meant to be more horrifying, there’s some discussion about the use of the inexorable, about the notion of the destruction or opposition of hope itself as component of horror. There’s also some horror scenarios, which I’ll admit I don’t find very engaging because they start at ‘murder clown mind-controlling orphans,’ and I don’t really need any kind of special rules to treat clowns as kill-on-sight targets in games. They’re up there with viziers.

Nonetheless, this is a 3.5 book and what that means is at least somewhere, you’re going to find a big list. In this, the list is a gigantic, 100 entry list of what it calls Creepy Effects. These are meant to be things you can dot into the game to give players a feeling of something unsettling being afoot.

There are three problems with this list. The first is the kinda fucked-up time issue; some of the list’s things can be singular moments, abrupt and dramatic arrests in the vision they have of normal – all the wildlife in an area falling silent to no effect, for example. Some of them are long-term problems, like fiding a persistent object you were sure you disposed of. These events aren’t really comparable – one is best when it comes out of nowhere, the other requires regular poking and prodding to make a repeated effect.

The second problem with the list is how many of these ‘creepy’ things are in fact very ordinary. One creepy happening is meeting a person who has a voice like an adult, but are as tall as a child. That is to say, meeting somone short. Another is a player hears something that none of the other players hear, which is a really common real-world experience, not to mention hearing voices or smelling smells nobody else notices. I get it, it’s horrifying to experience those things if you’ve never had to deal with doubting your own perceptions, but for people who have experienced that, it’s just kinda a reminder of how precious the writer must be. There’s also a bonus point here: in a world where there are Sending spells and Psionics, how is it weird to hear a voice? The real trick is trying to work out who sent the messages.

Finally, the third problem is this table ends on the entry: One Word: Fog, which made me laugh so hard it broke all chance this game had to ever act like it was going to lead to spooky games ever again.

3.5 Memories – The Dragon Girlfriend

Time to time I’ll talk about things in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 about the fairness or brokenness of various things like I’m some kind of specialist scientist with a really niche interest and people around me are reasonably familiar with what I’m talking about but don’t actually understand the magnitude of what I’m talking about. It is, I imagine, the kind of blank look that civic engineers get when they start describing ‘tolerances’ to city planners, or a nuclear physicist trying to explain control rods to a Wendy’s drive-through, just with stakes that are infinitely lower.

Here’s a thing, then, that’s just there, in the rules, and it’s really powerful and it’s silly and it’s invisible. It’s invisible because it relies on a dice roll and the game rules work at it, and the rules as written just seem to stop, like someone didn’t consider that anyone might actually use this ability.

Clerics could get domains. These were things that’d make your character feel more different, more distinct from anyone else. Hypothetically, this meant that a cleric of Time and Elf would look different to a cleric of Fire and Law, except what usually that meant is you got a lot of clerics of Luck and Time and Elf and Glory, and if the player was just a well-meaning scrub attracted to some good looking keywords, maybe even Strength.

Anyway, mixed in amongst this there were the innocuous-seeming Fire, Water, Earth and Air domaints, which gave you the ability to, as in th example of the Water Domain: Turn or destroy fire creatures as a good cleric turns undead. Rebuke, command, or bolster water creatures as an evil cleric rebukes undead. And that sentence sat in the player’s handbook like a god damn rat trap.

Because what does that mean? What does a ‘water’ creature mean. Well, a water creature is any creature with the water subtype. Which obviously means things like a water elemental, and that’s not such a big deal, right? Those creatures tended to be kinda basic; single special ability, a bunch of immunities that won’t protect them from much, but they would come along and maybe a cleric could have a fun time with their new pet. No problem, right?

Here’s the thing: The rules don’t put a duration on controlling undead. Controlled undead, in all the situations you see them, operate at the order of their controller, but act on their own initiatives. And that’s something you have to dig for: A player character with controlled undead will generally be allowed to boss them around freely because 3.5 was not a place that had a good handle on what we call ‘an action economy.’ Okay, so a Commanded elemental creature is great because it’s free actions, right? That’s a problem right there.

The other thing is, though, ‘water’ type creatures aren’t just ‘things made of water.’ It’s a whole galaxy of critters that have the Water subtype. And that means that suddenly the entire Monster manual opens up, and it doesn’t specify nonintelligent water creatures and that takes, if you start from the top down, into the home of the dragons.


Two dragons – Black and Bronze – are ‘water’ creatures.

You get a lot of bang for your buck out of a dragon. A level 5 cleric can command, with a reasonably good roll, 9 hit dice of Dragon, or a Medium Bronze dragon, which has six attacks at +11, an AC of 18, 76 hit points and a breath weapon. A level 8 cleric with a pair of baby bronze dragons flapping around them would be a cute thing to see, and in terms of sheer bulk you can put on the battlefield, it’s pretty stunning – a level 8 cleric is looking at having something like 45 HP, and those dragons would have the same, so this one class feature with a good roll can triple the amount of meat you put on the table.

What’s more, this is without any weird stuff. This isn’t pushing the limits on what your domain can do. This isn’t using magical items to improve your turning (and you absolutely can) or feats to improve your turning (and you absolutely can) and this is without involving the other types of elemental domain (and red dragons have the fire subtype), or even taking both and getting to command your hit dice + 4 of water creatures and your hit dice +4 of fire creatures!

Did I ever see anyone do this? No.

Nobody bothered. I mean, clerics were broken enough without it.

You could ignore a class feature that let you control dragons because… eh.

You had better stuff to do with your time.

I always wanted to give it a shot, and make a character who used it to have a water dragon girlfriend that followed them around? But any DM would look at it, despite the way the rules said it worked, assume it didn’t really do that, and then the whole idea got vetoed. Which really, it should.

And this is just one feature of one domain from one class that’s so broken it can ignore this.

3.5 Memories – Vileness

You know it’d be pretty easy to draw the conclusion, based on the way I talk about it, that I didn’t like 3.5 D&D. This couldn’t be further from the truth – I haven’t played the game in ten years and yet I still have all my books, still have character sheets and build articles and all sorts of interesting work I did. I wouldn’t write these articles about 3rd edition books and mechanics where I reminisce about how the things I did – silly as they were – were still cool. I liked 3.5.

But gosh did it make it hard.

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Owlbear Traps

In the past I have remarked upon the idea of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition’s quality as it being a game that lacked ‘bear traps.’ This is just a basic metaphor, you know, comparisons between a thing that could hurt you hiding in an undergrowth, that you might never realise was there until after it hurt you? It wasn’t ever meant to be a genuine game design term, not something I’d use in serious discussions.

Yeah except now I’m using it and I need to nail down that to make sure people might know what I mean, and I’m going to be very specific here. I’m talking about Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition as examples of game design, and I’m talking about the overall philosophy of the game.

Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition did not mind or care if you had a bad time that was the game’s fault.

I’ve spoken in the past about the sorcerer and the wizard; the tension that lay between two classes that were very similar, with one just being markedly worse than the other, and the competitive design mindset between them. I’ve also spoken in the past about how there’s this class, the Druid, where they have a class feature that’s about 80% of everything that a Fighter is, and how over time, that class feature improves faster than the fighter, resulting in overtaking in the mid-game.

The big issue of 3.5 class balance is that melee combat was, just in general, not as good as magic. Ranged combat wasn’t that good either, but it could be made to compete with magic, mostly through the use of magic. The best archers in the game were inevitably spellcasters using magic to compensate for what the fighters and rangers were given, and still had their spellcasting besides.

This is something of the philosophy of this game, where it wants it to be possible to mess up building or playing your character. It’s a way to represent ‘being good’ at Dungeons and Dragons. Which is an interesting idea, and one that I kind of want to support, on one level. I think games are better when they’re made as sequences of interesting decisions; deck-building in Magic: The Gathering is an interesting decision, and that doesn’t make the game play experience of it that different. Heck, you could view a draft, then a deck build, then the matches of Magic: The Gathering as multiple different games, with all sorts of interesting decisions along the way.


The problem is that an evening of drafting for Magic: The Gathering is maybe four hours and you’re done while building a Dungeons and Dragons character in 3.5 required an enormous investment in time because you could only level them up as the game progressed.

It’s also gatekeeping: The game wants to give you the means to screw up at it, because the idea is that doing well or making smart choices is more satisfying and rewarding. Except your character, their feats and their powers are not a small choice; they grow over time based on your experience playing a game and may take months or years to come to fruition. You might need to read dozens of books to get a handle on how a character really works – the full breadth of a character may be dozens of books, some of which are totally unrelated.

This game presented you with choices of varying difficulty, but you needed enormous context to know how those choices worked. And you had to master the system to ever appreciate how bad some of the choices were.

And thus we have an owlbear trap: A way in which Dungeons and Dragons 3.5’s design philosophy prioritised servicing an enfranchised, qualified group of players in order to make it tangibly more desireable to do the things those players liked. Or to simplify: An owlbear trap is when you make it possible for new players to fail, just because they’re new.

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 4: The Everywhere Else

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.

Alright, so previous bandaids were about my decisions that were thoughtless and badly thought out, like ‘Kyngdom’ as a name, or barely scrubbing the name of Cimmura. The thing is, Dal Raeda, the Eresh Protectorate, and Amenti represent what are some of the best designed pieces of the setting, the places where I had good, fundamentally usable ideas.

The rest of things is where it all gets a bit soft, and also where I did some things that are uncomfortable, and now with the benefit of experience, I realise are pretty damn racist.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 3: Framing Spaces

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.

The standard D&D place write-up is bad.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 2: Knightly Orders

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.

I mentioned last time that I like giving players handles. In the country now known as Dal Raeda, this took the form of different provinces, with different cultures, but since a game set in Dal Raeda meant I’d be dealing with the lead-in to a potential civil war or players subverting or delaying that civil war (and that seems a big setting piece to deal with in my first game or two), I immediately relocated my focus to the nation next door.

I have said this before to new DMs, and I want to repeat it here: Steal things. The first campaign I ran took the plot from Quest For Glory 1 and as my playgroup matured and adjusted and I learned, I was able to build in the space that structure gave me. Some things from the games happened as-is, some things happened in very different ways, and some things never happened, but I always knew where I could look for the ‘now what’ thanks to having that game history on hand. And the next nation over, where I went for the next game, I stole the plot of David Eddings’ Elenium and Tamuli books, as best I could just-barely remember them.

The thing that appealed to me about these books and that I wanted to use is Eddings’ idea of having knightly orders with different styles and characterisation. In his setting, they were the Pandions, Alcione, Genidian and Cyrinic orders, and they were differentiated from one another mostly by dint of having different names. You got to meet these Knightly Orders in the characters of Sparhawk, and Sparhawk’s Five Interchangeable Friends, who were all different kind of knights and if you haven’t read the books this month you probably can’t remember who was in what order and what makes those orders different.

Now, I enjoyed these books when I first read them, but I first read them when they were almost all the fantasy novels I’d ever read. They were not good books, they’re kind of creepy and misogynist in Eddings’ way where all women are kind of interchangeable nags. D&D also had this handy way to divide up approaches to the world, with the alignment system, so I cut these four orders down to three, and then in an attempt to seem less like I was just stealing names, I renamed some of them a little bit. This gave me three orders, the Pandions (Lawful Good), the Lethinites (Neutral Good), and the Cyrinists (Chaotic Good).

Armed with that basic characterisation I filled in a bunch of other details and they’ve since grown and built around the way the players play and a fourth, hidden order sprang up as well, the Chardunists.

These knightly orders belong in a country known in my world as Symeira, which attentive readers will probably guess I derived from Cimmura, from the Sparhawk books, but also Conan’s Cimmeria. I thought merging two extremely similar looking words would create something wildly different.

I like this country and these orders, and I like who they’ve become to fit with the three campaigns (each of which ran for a year-plus) I’ve run using them. They are a good narrative tool, and they give players an organisation to belong to that’s also free enough that they can stake out their own space in it. They can be a good knight or a bad knight or they have a story of how they came to be a knight. This is good stuff, and players tend to like it.

Now, there are three reasons to want to rename these orders, or to at least make the names a little different. First of all, there’s just basic reference reasons. I don’t want players who know the Eddings novels to think I mean those Pandions, I mean my Pandions. My Pandions aren’t going to have creepy marriages to beautiful princesses they raised and did I mention those books are bad?

Ownership over the terms is another thing; it’s one thing to use terms from another source, and I could easily argue ‘Pandion’ is not a term that Eddings owns exclusively. There were a bunch of Greek kings with that name, and the term is in the Osprey’s species name. Still, why have the argument? The word isn’t so incredibly great I want to keep using it.

The third reason is identity within the culture. See, remember, this stuff comes from a country that’s next to the country now known as Dal Raeda – but if you heard those names were for things within Dal Raeda, would they fit alongside words like ‘Glotharen’ and ‘Delan’? Would they feel different?

The culture currently-and-soon-formerly known as Symeira fills a large space in my setting. It’s a nation made entirely of city-states and small protectorates, spread across the spaces occupied by other countries, with a highway system connecting them. These cities are old, and mostly known for their infrastructure, and don’t have an adversarial relationship with the nations they’re in.

Now, sometimes this is because the nation whose space the city is in doesn’t really have a conventional ‘government’ as we consider it (like the vast, disconnected non-human cultures of the Corrindale woods), the nation’s government arrived after the city was built (think a bit like London), or the land the city is on was purchased or separated for political reasons (like Vatican City). To maintain trade between these cities, the central city financed the construction of a highway system, which stretches across most non-Dal Raedan nations, and other countries accept the presence because the highways are useful, and the cities are great for trade (and also getting rid of them would be hard).

Now, because these cities are jutted all over the place, they can have names and language that relates more to the country they’re in rather than ‘Symeira.’ The history of what-will-not-be-named-Symeira-much-longer is loose at this point, but I see it as being a nation that came together once the cities were established, rather than necessarily the result of a conventional nation-formation mechanism like a revolution.

For the culture of this nation there’s only one other existing meaningful name, and that’s the name of the Holy City, Olifar. I like Olifar as a name, because it’s both got some air in it, which makes it feel ‘uppity,’ and it’s also lacking in hard edges, suggesting the place isn’t tough. It has an ethereal kind of quality to it, which I like for a city that is primarily the home of a church. Olifar doesn’t have a lot of industry – it’s where the church’s largest and most politically important cathedrals rest, and where the church politics all happen.

Before I go on, I’d like to talk about why I want this kind of culture in my game world.

This society lets me have something reasonably similar to a typical European Fantasy, where characters are sent from some central location by someone with a generally positive disposition (you know, a decent, if not perfect leader), then travel away from their central location, have their smaller adventure, then return to their source and report on what happened. Travel time gives you a lot of good stuff for conflict and adventure design, and the delay it imposes is also really valuable. It means players spend time moving, dealing with potential ‘wandering’ encounters, having meals, breaking camp, learning how they do the basics of living without the purposelessness of just giving them time to idle around one another.

Now, one of the easy ways to do this is to mimic the British Empire and have people meet the Queen, then get sent to the colonies to deal with things, but that, perhaps to the surprise of a typical gamer, is super colonialist and that’s not good. I don’t want to tell my players to have adventures in this game space, they’re going to have to be complicit in colonialism in the most obvious way.

(Oh, and yes, I know there are some well-actuallying people who’d argue that any game that represents a hierarchy is inherently anti-leftist and therefore capitalist, yes, I’m very impressed, the exits are there, there, and there.)

This nation gives players a generally neutral, not-pointedly-awful place to exist. There are some state-wide institutions, there’s a watch service that isn’t directly comparable to the police, there’s knightly orders doing things like preserving knowledge, copying books and maintaining libraries and creating jobs. There’s still some trappings of feudalism but it’s all Not-Actually-Feudalism, where you have ‘lords’ but they’re appointed and mostly the bad ones exist so players have someone to righteously stab in the face and the reasonable organisation around them can respond to that.

Originally, I learned the idea for this kind of coalition of city-states connected by highways exists, and it’s known as a confederacy, but we’re not going to use that term because I don’t want players to associate this flexible setting piece with, you know, slave-keeping assholes.

I did a lot of testing of these names, and eventually I went to a randomiser and punched in some syllables, then sorted through the results for a bit. The main thing I did here was exclude names; the names of the original settings, the names of the orders I couldn’t use, and also syllables that felt like they belong to Dal Raeda (so less focus on ‘B’ and ‘Nd’ sounds).  I also rejected a lot of names that felt strongly like they belonged to a specific culture in the real world – a number of names that turns out were common-ish Iraqi names, for example.

First of all, we’re going to rename ‘Symeira’ and ‘Symeiran.’ They’re now Ereshan and the city is Eresh. The group of cities is called the Eresh Protectorate, which I like because it both implies the origin of the coalition, and makes it clear that there’s some degree of protection offered from the center. Eresh also stands apart from Dal Raeda, and they have some similar sound to them (the R and E) but they don’t necessarily feel like they’re just variants on the same basic language. Ironically, these two nations share a language now (because trade), but that’s not how they started.

Eresh the city, by the way, is right next door to the province of Danube

That’s the place they come from, now let’s talk about the Knightly Orders and how they differ from one another.

First, our Lawful Good cavalry knights, the former Pandions are now the Tzarumite order. I like how this name has a hesitation at the start; you pause slightly to say it, because the Tz sound isn’t very quick or natural in English. You know there’s going to be people in-universe who call them Zarumites, and it’s probably seen as kinda dickish.

The Tzarumites are our regimented, well-off order; the ones who have the most inherited property and land, the most overseers, and the one with a deliberate integration with the Watch in Eresh cities. They’re also the order known for cavalry troops and an infamous shocking charge. If you pay a Tzarumite, you probably have access to some money, or grew up working around people who had money, and were being sponsored, adopted, or somehow helped along by people who wanted you in the order.

The Tzarumite colours are black and purple, and their common weapons are longsword and lance.

Since I made the Lethinite order pretty much up out of whole cloth, they just stay as they are. They’re the academics, and they’re the ones who interface the most with Church laws and libraries. They’re basically your nerd knights, doing things like transporting valuable books to places so they can be restored, or sealing away dangerous tomes that have powerful spells in them. Lethinites are also known for information-based warfare – they scout, they make tactical decisions or strategic plans, and they’re the ones who make the best impromptu fortifications.

The Lethinite colours are silver and rose, and their common weapons are the longbow and longspear.

The rowdy Cyrinist order are almost completely unchanged, they’re just now called the Raguzans. Raguzan knights are the least likely to have landed titles; they’re often ‘knights of convenience,’ or people who distinguished themselves in battle heroically or in a militia situation, given a knighthood that they can’t pass on to their children and given just enough authority to run around as dangerous free agents on the battlefield. Raguzan knights tend to have other jobs, they tend to be working class, and the Raguzans are known for their skill in animal-keeping. If you see a warhound, battle boars, or war dire ferrets on the battlefield, they’re with the Raguzans. Raguzans make decisions quickly and decisively. They’re also the experts in demolitions and breaking sieges , which naturally is a point of tension with Lethinites.

The Raguzan colours are blue and gold, and their common weapons are two-handed axes, hammers, and swords.

Chardunists are the final order, and since I made up this name myself years ago, I don’t feel it needs to change. I like it as a sort of semi-Babylonian feel, which fits their origin. Chardunists started as the Olifar Inquisition, whose duty was to root out psychics in the church territories. Psionics was regarded as a ‘soul sickness’ and the Chardunists became students of it, then experts on it, until eventually, Chardunists who were psychic became influential enough to change the direction of the order. Chardunists have over time slipped into the shadows and become a lesser-known fourth order of knights, who mostly do covert operations, which they use to scoop up psychic individuals and hide them from the remaining inquisition arms of the church.

The Chardunist colours are grey and jade, and their common weapons are daggers, brass knuckles, bottles and someone else’s fists.

This was a long walk! But there was a lot of thought put into making these setting elements engaging and fun while also having distinct names that don’t directly overlap with one another. If you say any of these names aloud, you’re not likely to mix up which of them you’re saying, which is a good test of a decent name.

Also, hopefully, players are thinking of how they’d want to fit into these knightly orders, or not.

All these images are from the VGA Remake of Quest For Glory I, a game that heavily influenced the creation of this setting, even if I let almost none of the Cole’s taste for Whacky Humour infiltrate my game.


Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 1: Names in the Kingdom

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.

First of all, let’s talk about just some basic work of names.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil

When I was nineteen, I started running Dungeons and Dragons. The history of my time with this game isn’t important, but what is important is that when I started, I had access to the setting books of the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk settings, and seeing this veritable library of game rules and information about mechanical identity and culture, I immediately said No, I don’t want that.

I wanted to tell stories with this game, but there were two reasons I wanted to avoid an established setting:

  1. I was brand new to the game, and didn’t want people to feel they could ‘beat me’ about the world by bringing up a book
  2. I didn’t want to have to read a dozen books to get started

Instead, I invented a world in a weekend and then spent years bolting on new things, editing, re-editing, retconning and then, around the time 4th Edition became a thing, I quietly put the world away and worked on other stuff. I still ran the occasional D&D game in this world, but the world wasn’t important to the games.

This is a huge trove of lore and game mechanical information. I made classes and races and feats and just a ton of stuff, some of which I recently dusted off and looked at, and you know, some of it was bad, but some of it surprised me. Particularly, a thing that surprised me was how many of the basic ideas in it I liked, and wanted another chance to do better.

Plus, I know there’s an interest in worldbuilding as a skill, and I’m friends with some people who are really good at it, and they’ve had some really interesting stuff to say about it. But I don’t just want to make good things and show you the final product; instead, I want you to see that every good thing you like was worked on and refined and changed, and for that reason I figured I’d put down these setting revision notes here, in a series.

This is going to introduce you to the setting, both how I’d explain it to a player, and how I’d put it into a book. I’m going to examine my ideas, and then examine how I think players might engage with them as play spaces.

Going back over old writing is going to reveal some ugly stuff, and some really basic stuff. I imagine there’s going to be some implicit racism and cissexism, some unconscious misogyny and I know at least once I use a slur as a game term, which isn’t good. A content warning then, going forward.

The image is from the VGA Remake of Quest For Glory I, a game that heavily influenced the creation of this setting, even if I let almost none of the Cole’s taste for Whacky Humour infiltrate my game.

3.5 Memories – Singh Rager

Sometimes playing Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition was like playing a game under a Mexican standoff. Part of it was our maturity as players and part of it was a very programmatic view of the game rules. There was a fairly widespread, commonly seen vision that there was a correct way to play the game, and you could use precedent and rules and various senior authorities to make your position the correct one. The thing is, these arguments weren’t fun and they’d eat all day and you’d get sick of them, so you wanted to avoid them.

What’s more, the game was so big that it wasn’t very easy for a DM to be sure about what their players could do, and it was often very awkward to roll with it when a player did something unexpected. If you were particularly strict about things, you’d sometimes watch as the game juddered to an almighty halt as you nerfed a player in-action, putting your foot down at the right moment to make a player feel bad. Especially bad when players had common goals, but you had to reign one in while leaving the other unrestrained. Rightness of it notwithstanding, it felt bad.

It wasn’t like the design didn’t encourage this kind of mindset, too – there were all sorts of monsters which were made explicitly to shut off particular abilities of player characters. Golems often were immune to magic in all but extremely specific ways, many monsters had totally unreasonable damage reduction or really weak saves in one category, and that was meant to represent a way that the players could prey on weak points, or, that you could punish players for their failings. DMs knew they had ‘the nasty stuff’ they could bust out, and it was stuff that almost never had any meaningful reason to be the way it was. You didn’t need to put Gricks anywhere, Gricks didn’t have powerful resonance. You didn’t need a Golem, representing a wizard’s hubris, you could just use all the other more interesting things wizards could do. Wizard players would never flipping bother with making a golem, too.

DMs stayed away from these things unless the players got uppity, and the players, in order to avoid arguments, tried to avoid getting uppity. One of the easiest ways to get uppity was to show off that you could exceed the challenges presented by the DM – which really, in hindsight, is such a silly thing. If a fight’s over fast, just implement that knowledge for next time.


What this meant is that if you wanted to min-max, you kind of wanted to min max within boundaries of what the DM could handle. Combat was a good place to stay, because even the nuttiest combat build still tended to be limited by where it could physically stand and how many actions you got in a turn. Wizards could sidestep entire combats with utility spells, or scry-and-die boss monsters. Clerics could make armies and take over dragons, and druids were all that on rocket skates. The Artificer and Archivist waited nervously in the wings, hoping nobody would notice them, because they were somehow more busted than the other spellcasters.

If you wanted to min-max a melee combat type, though?

Well, boy, you could go buck. wild. there and it wouldn’t really matter too much. The most broken melee combatant in the game you could make was probably a wizard or cleric, after all, so if you got there without doing any of that nonsense, you were usually seen as ‘playing fair.’

So let’s talk about the Singh Rager, a 3.0 orphan that got nerfed by 3.5, and was good enough even after the nerf.

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Game Pile: Lords Of Madness

I rarely hold up Dungeons and Dragons books as being good books for general gaming purposes. They’re all very much books about Dungeons and Dragons, and even Elder Evils, last weeks’ offering for campaign-ending threats, was a book jammed full of systems for explaining weather, big dungeon designs and complex fight mechanics. When you bought a book for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, you were often getting a book that was some 30%-50% system information, information that’s dead weight if you’re not using that system. Some of my favourite books from that time, like The Tome of Battle and Races of Eberron are absolutely steeped in mechanical information, and if you’re not using it, you really aren’t getting enough book for your investment to be worth your time.

But let me show you a book that I want to recommend to anyone making or playing with horror even if you don’t want to use D&D or even fantasy settings, that also has the on-theme matter of being a spooky book about spooky stuff. I don’t mean Heroes of Horror, which devotes a lot of its space to trying to systemitise horrifying things, no. I want to talk to you about a book about putting things in your world that are horrible.

I want to talk about Lords of Madness.

That said, I would issue a content warning, beyond the typical this is a book about spooky stuff. This book has a lot of humans being eaten, brain parasites, descriptions of people being seen as prey, but all that stuff is very passe for D&D monsters. Here be tentacles, goop, puppeteering and meat.

The other content warning is that if you’re Dissociative or plural or have DID or any of the related fields of mindset complication, Lords of Madness attempts to write numerous ‘alien’ psychologies that may look familiar to you, imagined as alien othered.

I’m personally reluctant to use the term ‘saneism’ because I don’t feel qualified to make that call, but there’s a lot of language in this book that assumes a very simple mental health binary and puts things like plurality or low-empathy living in the ‘bad’ bucket. Note that this doesn’t really take into account that most D&D adventuring parties are composed of homeless murderers.

Continue reading

3rd Ed D&D – The Whale Monk

We talk a good game about how weird balance was back in Dungeons and Dragons but sometimes it just made a kind of sense. Druids were really good because they could shapeshift into animals and also cast spells. Fighters were bad because they had to stand in one spot and whale on something to get the most of their abilities, and no amount of hit point damage compared to ‘dead on the spot from having your soul ripped out.’

There are however, some odd places that the balance of the game just blind-spotted. It’s a bit of a canard, back in 3rd edition that every book had a broken thing in it, and the more stuff in the book, the more chance you’d find something that slipped up and had more broken stuff in it. Almost every splatbook in 3rd edition featured a class that was busted weak and another that was busted strong, and another that just didn’t work properly. Yet nonetheless, it was in a published book, and that means that it has some reality to it, some unvirtuality that leaves the creative mind of the DM fit to examine the option and decide if it’s okay, or not.

Let me show you something extremely silly and extremely powerful that a reasonable DM might give you a funny look over.

Continue reading

Bad Balance: Incarnum And Cognitive Load

One of D&D 3.5’s biggest problems was its magical system, which was by default bonkers and broken. Despite that, though, there was an almost constant attempt to expand the magic system, to fulfill every specific small variant visions of magic. The Expanded Psionics Handbook, the Tome of Magic, the Artificer and the Archivist, wings of spells in The Book of Vile Darkness and The Book of Exalted Deeds – there was a near-constant effort to expand the magic systems to do different things in different ways.

You can approach design from either a strong mechanical position, or a strong theme and Incarnum was a power idea that came hard out of a mechanical interaction. Magic of Incarnum brought its own system, called the Incarnum system.

The Incarnum system, as simple as I can explain it, is that you could create virtual items in your item slots, and then invest a small pool of points into these items to make them better. This could give you special abilities that got better, from turn to turn, and you could rearrange all these points every turn. When you needed lots of defence, you could sink those points into defenses. When you needed to kill something fast, you could put those points into offense. This system was pretty interesting and cool! You could really customise a character in a lot of ways, and there was this balancing act of choosing where your points were by default.

Incarnum however, was a really bad system, not because it was bad, but because as a player, you had to spend the bulk of your time juggling a small list of points for a small advantage. None of the Incarnum values were particularly large, and the niche utility of some of the shifting was as much a matter of pooling skill bonuses into your armour at the right moment at the right time, rather than really changing what you did. The system was designed to be careful enough as to not get out of hand like the existing spell system (which was broken), but still be an alternative worth playing (which was pretty hard, when the spell system was broken).

The real thing though that kills Incarnum is cognitive load.

Cognitive load is the concept in psychology that describes the amount of active memory you have to track to keep a task executed. It’s how you concentrate on something, it’s the work required in your brain to manage the information presented to you organised. Incarnum was a system that started with cognitive load problems, and it got worse as you levelled up.

You might sometimes hear a player describe a game as ‘smooth’ or hear a designer say something is ‘frictionless.’ Mostly, that feeling is attained by making sure your design does little to demand cognitive load without a reason. It’s one thing to concentrate on a complicated turn or a crucial strategy, but you don’t want the everyday operations of play to require you to make a lot of complex planning and contend with juggling information.

There’s a reason designers preach the idea of simplicity. It’s not for its own sake, it’s because you want to make it as easy as possible for the players to make decisions about what they want to do in your game, rather than have to do math on working out how what they want to do can work.

Bad Balance: The Problem With The Tome Of Battle (Which Isn’t What You Think)

Right at the tail end of 3.5 D&D, there was a book released that ruled.

There’s a lot of critical talk about the Book of Nine Swords. There were comparisons to Anime, as if that was inherently a dismissal point, as if Anime wasn’t regularly cribbing from D&D in the first place.

The Tome of Battle presented a solution to the problem of melee combatants in 3.5. As you levelled up, melee combat just didn’t keep pace with the kind of things spells could do. Spellcasters even in the early game had an edge on the melee characters, and increasingly, the game became about countering spellcasters rather than countering melee characters. You can view late-game combat as about trying to shut down the Wizard long enough that the Paladin could get some licks in.

But in Tome of Battle, melee weapon-wielders and armour-wearers got to stab things in the face real good. They touched on the core idea of 4ed, which is time spent in a turn is actually more valuable than hypothetical infinite options. It was a great book, created great characters, had a wonderfully varied lore you could use a little or a lot from, and mostly didn’t have total turkey prestige classes (as most books did).

Yet at the same time I am comfortable and confident declaring that Tome Of Battle is, as it stands, a mistake. Not because of anything the game did intrinsically, but because the book was released into a world with poor Tordek here. 

The Fighter in 3.0 D&D was a really rough sell. The fighter at level 1 was already comparable to another class’ class features, and their design scaled up very linearly. The best levels of Fighter were 1 and 2, because the class was frontloaded enough to let you rush up to some sort of mid-tier trick slightly early (like Whirlwind Attack, the game’s idea of an ‘End Game’ Fighter Feat). The next best one was level 4, because at that point you had unlocked access to everything the Fighter could get access to and you only had to take one level that Didn’t Really Do Anything to get there.

There were a lot of things wrong with how they updated it for 3.5, one of which is the removal of the ‘Fighter’ subtype from the way they presented feats in the Players’ Handbook. Back in 3.0, feats that the Fighter could take with their bonus feats had the subtype [Fighter]. In 3.5, this was removed in favour of the new line

Special: A fighter may select [this feat name] as one of his fighter bonus feats.

This was in my mind a blatant mistake. They could have made it so that Fighter feats had riders or bonuses if they could check the number of Fighter feats you had, but only if Fighter feats had a subtype.

Anyway, the thing is, the fighter was pretty weak and attempts to fix the fighter had almost all missed, usually because they approached the problem in the totally wrong way – Fighters got better on a linear, additive scale, while spellcasters and things balanced against spellcasters got better on a quadratic scale. A level 20 fighter could do a decent bit of damage to a dragon in one full round of combat, assuming he could close – but the wizard could disintegrate the dragon or take over its will entirely.

But if you wanted to play a character in armour, with a weapon, whose primary interaction with enemies was hitting them with the weapon in increasingly skillful ways, though, the obvious look for most players was that the Fighter was your jam. And the fighter, as a character class, was made totally unnecessary by the Tome of Battle’s inclusion. In some cases laughably so – the Warblade got some bonus feats, got Weapon Specialisation (formerly a Fighter-only benefit) and got all those maneuvers that let the Warblade hang at the level of the Wizard.

The Tome of Battle classes didn’t wholesale replace all the fighter-style classes. Paladins and Crusaders compared to one another. The Sword Sage could do a lot of interesting tricks, but the Monk could still do other things the Sword Sage couldn’t.

But the poor Fighter?

The closest thing the Fighter could do is spend their bonus feats to buy Maneuvers. Once you had Warblades there really was no reason to play Fighters beyond their simplicity. They didn’t quite measure up to threats the game thought of as reasonable, but you could cover that with your party. They didn’t give you the kind of options they thought they did, but you might never notice that either.

But when the Warblade sat down next to you, did most of what you did, and a host of exciting, additional extremely extra things as well, it was hard to not notice.

3.5 Memories – The Illumian Swordmage

It could be possible to think that, given the ease with which I point out design and balance problems in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, you might think I hated this system, or hated its power level or had some sort of fundamental problems with the way the game worked. This is – well, it’s a half truth. I absolutely wish the game was better designed, a more elegantly crafted toolset for the stated aim.

But I loved making characters in 3.5 D&D. I loved playing them, and I loved the busted stuff I could make it do

So let’s talk about that stuff! Continue reading

Bad Balance: Why Balance?

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Why Balance?

Inevitably, in this kind of conversation, someone will sit back, stroke their chin and say Yes Well, But Why Do We Need Balance Anyway? and then deliver a smug, eye-raised look as if they’ve just next-levelled the entire conversation. And sure, they’re kind of right – you don’t need things to be fair. You don’t. Heck, you don’t even need a rules system, man.

Setting aside the obvious Let’s Take It Too Far And Show The Point Is Ridiculous, the question of balancing 3.5 D&D seems to always bring up someone who, weirdly, echoes the arguments of 2ed D&D before them. It usually comes down to it’s a cooperative game and there aren’t any winners or losers and therefore, balance is a phantom that need not be pursued, as if somehow, the game’s function is inhibited by balance, and that balanced things impose themselves between fun and the players.

Problem is, someone has to run the game.

Balanced characters aren’t balanced against one another to meet some arbitary philosophical goal. They’re balanced against one another so the person running the game has a reasonable, handleable piece of information about things they can present to the party. Big deal, the response comes: the DM can just tailor-make the experience for the party, every time. All they need to do is know what those characters can do, how good they are at it, how resistant they are, any rare abilities they might not use often, and how well they hit things, what they attack.

Which is to say: You don’t need balance. You don’t! Knock yourself out. You do you.

But there’s a virtue to having characters with roughly comparable ranges of power and utility, because it means that the people running the game aren’t faced with an enormous different task of challenge construction. That means that when someone wants to run a D&D game, they’re not presented with a cliff face of learning. It means that there are going to be fewer situations where the players try a thing they’re meant to succeed at and fail because it so happens that the enemy’s abilities fall into a venn diagram of specialised, obtuse weaknesses.

If you’re playing D&D 3.5, a game primarily designed around tactical movement and combat, and you think it doesn’t matter that it has a decent tactical movement and combat system that is reliably testable, provable, and functional, then maybe you want to play a different game? There are a lot of great games out there!

That’s the next lesson: Balance can be valuable for games, even cooperative ones, because it allows the person or people making the challenge to construct meaningful challenges.

Bad Balance: Your Part In Failure

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Your Failure

You’ll find if you listen to any given D&D 3.5 player, they’ll usually have some memories of the things I talk about being total bupkis. I know I played alongside a cleric who wasn’t overpowered, and we had one game where the runaway behemoth was a telepath. As your friendly neighborhood min-maxer I had the game squealing under the heel of a bard, once. More often than anything else we’d see on the newsgroups players wondering about how they could play clerics well, because they thought their only job was standing by and healing, leading to an unfulfilling game of whack-a-mole. What’s more there are a lot of games where the wizard player felt worthless and ran away from goblins a lot with a terrible armour class. Once I heard the artificer dismissed as trash because a player could simply not imagine how to make it work.

This is one of the many ways D&D3.5 was unbalanced: It was entirely possible to play overpowered characters badly. Most of the characters who were busted were busted because of spells or magic items and that stuff was overwhelmingly available…

If you took it.

You could absolutely play a weak wizard! You could pick up the twenty totally worthless spells at every level, you could sink into the swamp of crap. You could take a level of sorcerer and a level of wizard, and then maybe level them up side by side and maybe you’d balance your stats and oh good god noooo.

You could be handed a high-octane chainsaw laser hammer and it was entirely reasonable for a new player, a player who had no reason to expect they were being given something totally broken, to sit down and tap nails in with the wrong end.

Perry’s Lock

Hey, I can use this blog for any old bullheck I like, why not use it for this.

I ran this D&D campaign called All The King’s Men, when I was a younger man with different pets and worse hair. The premise of the game was that in the great City-State Coalition of the Symeiran Empire, there were three orders of church knights, each compliant with one of the three law-chaos alignment axes. Lawful knights, neutral knights, chaotic knights. In this party of six, three players were knights, and three of the other players were the direct contact and friend of one of the knights. Three adventuring pairs.

The lawful knight of this group, Kyrie, had her offsider, a luvable cawkney thief called Perry, short for Peregrine. Perry was chipper and playful and had a luverly accent and Perry was great. I loved Perry to bits. Great dynamic with the other players, and also, the player is a great min-maxer. Now this is 3.5 D&D with a lot of homebrew content, alongside people who love to optimise buuuut aren’t as good at it as Perry’s player was. Perry, rather than be a dick about it, therefore dedicated himself to find the things nobody in the party did and do it excellently.

In the first major arc of the campaign, a door was locked before them, and the party were losing time chasing the person who’d locked it behind them. Perry then popped his knuckles and said hold my beer, before sitting down and cracking that lock with a truly grotesque skill check in the fifties. Bear in mind this was at level six or so! He pops this DC 15 lock with a skill check enough to do it as a free action, stepped through, and once the party were in, locked it behind him to keep others from pursuing.


Fast forward a year and change and eleven levels, and the party have returned to this same site, to find it taken over by vampire nobility. The familiar zone they ran through at a dead run, chasing someone was now a sieged path they had to work through, a dungeon crawl, full of decadence and dangerous vampires. The party stopped at a door, and Perry, who by now is basically a Time Ninja or something, looked at it and said ‘well, I’ll check it.’

‘It’s locked.’

‘Oh, okay, like a magical lock?’

‘Not far as you can tell.’

‘Okay, I’ll just Open Locks on it-‘


‘I have a huge bonus, seriously?’

‘Yeah, there’s a chance you can fail.’

Perry’s player gives me a look, as he picks up his d20 and rolls poorly. A fairly low roll – a 4 or so. But he’s been so good at things so far that he’s convinced there’s no mundane lock that can actually impede him. A moment, – ‘Forty eight.’ I check the notes and…



‘I said nope.’

Who the fuck locked this door?


(He took ten and got the lock just fine, if you were worried.)