Design Diary: The Aberration Hunter’s Handbook


I’ve been spending a lot of time the last month or so developing a suite of rules for what I like to call “The Aberration Hunter’s Handbook” – essentially, an update of a lot of 3e-era prestige classes from Lords of Madness. I think it’s worth sharing some of the things I learned in working on this.

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Design Diary: Monster Conversions


So, this year hasn’t been nearly as productive for DM’s Guild as last year for me. The main reason for this is because I became a dad, de-railing any previous plans I may have had. That said, naps and nannies have let me publish two releases recently that I’m excited about, as they build up my “DM’s Side of the Table” library.

They’re both monster conversions: Foulspawn and Creatures of Air. Both have taught me some interesting lessons about D&D monster design, and about constraints.

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Design Diary: Angels & Aberrations – The Cherubim

My next DM’s Guild product is likely to be a monster compendium of astral creatures (as my previous design diary may have suggested). Initially, I wanted to do every creature that is “from the Astral Plane” in 5e style, but there’s a lot of 1e-era creatures that mention spending a lot of time on the Astral Plane that maybe make more sense in other capacities in 5e. So I’ve cut the Shedu form it, as well as some more “campaign specific” astral creatures.

One category of creatures that this winds up cutting that I’m a big fan of (and might just splinter into a separate compendium) are the Weird Celestials. These creatures are super-interesting – benevolent, chimeric beasts, often based on Near Eastern or Asian creatures, sometimes given psionic powers for…some reason…. This includes monsters like…

  • Shedu
  • Lammasu
  • Baku
  • Foo Dogs / Foo Lions
  • Dragon Horses
  • Hollyphants
  • Moon Dogs
  • Opicinus
  • Phoenix
  • Couatl
  • Ki-rin

In general, these creatures struggle a bit with their particular place in the multiverse. I’ve often thought that you could crib notes from various angel mythologies for this. This suite of benevolent beasts could easily be the “cherubim” to the deva’s “seraphim,” though that would be taking many of the actual mythological creatures out of their native mythologies (not necessarily a bad thing, but you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater when re-starting a narrative).


I was tempted to put many of them in Angels & Aberrations, using the cherubim motif, but found that they were largely described as “travelling” the Astral Plane rather than of or from the Astral Plane. Thinking about their narratives a bit, I think generally they’re more interesting if they’re from isolated areas of the Material Plane, rather than sitting on some other plane. DM’s are more encouraged to use these creatures if they’re part and parcel of the world rather than off somewhere else and needing to be summoned.

Maybe I’ll go back on that at some point.

For now, I think I’ve got plenty of Astral Critters for the doc. These include…

  • Astral Dreadnought (the poster child for planar monstrosities since 1e!)
  • Astral Hulk (an umber hulk taken to eating astral matter)
  • Astral Render (a powerful god-created ooze that tears the planes asunder to teleport enemies around)
  • Astral Searcher (a ghostly shell of raw emotion that seeks to possess material form)
  • Astral Stalker (a tribe of god-created hunters that, in my new narrative, specifically hunt blasphemers and turncoats like the Athar)
  • Astral Vermin (a re-named 3e Astral Kraken – a behemoth squid-spider that cocoons astral travelers)
  • Astral Warwing (god-created constructs that defend the sites of powerful relics)
  • Aoa (a silvery ooze that reflects magic)
  • Berbalang (a fiendish creature that lives most of its life astrally projected)
  • Brain Collector (good ol’ Far Realm weirdness! These horrors are very knowledgeable about the anatomy of creatures over here…
  • Couatl Variants (including the 4e Cloud Court couatls, Couatl Redeemers who associate with Mithral Dragons, and the Discord Incarnate, created in an ancient clash of good and evil that hasn’t exactly stopped…)
  • Devete (humanoid wanderers that mimic the emotional state of those they come across)
  • Dhour (Intelligent psionic oozes from the Far Realm)
  • Mithral Dragons (agents of prophecy and the gods – who, in my writing, often predict apocalypses)
  • Garmorm (Far Realm horrors that are basically worms covered in singing mouths. New mouths appear when they eat your friends – and those new mouths have your friends’ voice!)
  • Astral Giants (outcast from the ordning, these giants serve the gods of civilization)
  • Inevitables (judges and enforces of multiversal order)
  • Maledictions (lightning-thunder-necrotic-psychic elementals that are the result of a dead god)
  • Psurlons (flesh-warping worm-psions of the Far Realm)
  • Quom (fanatical humanoids who travel on comet-ships to retrieve the specks of dust that are the remnants of their god)
  • Astral Deva (like a regular deva, but with a stunning attack, and a blade barrier)
  • Astral Streaker (basically, songbirds that serve as messengers)
  • Astral Whale (great, nigh-immortal beasts of deep intelligence who roam the planes)
  • Cerebral Parasites (essentially a disease that afflicts psionic people)
  • Void Kraken (A Kraken….from the FAR REALM. Woah.)

These are all in a first-draft-finished state, so once I get a chance to do some editing, they’ll likely be out.

Design Diary: Shedu


I’m whipping up a few astral creatures for the DM’s Guild, and I figured I’d document some of my thoughts while doing so. First up is the shedu.

What Does the She…du?

My first step for this critter was to look at its history in D&D as far as I could see it. It’s present in the 1e and 2e Monster Manuals, and the 3e Fiend Folio, but doesn’t make an appearance that I could see in 4e (that edition generally steered away from statblocks for things you weren’t meant to fight, so that makes some sense).

Stat-wise, we’re looking at a mid-to-high tier challenge in all editions, though in each case, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of power to back up that XP value or Challenge Rating. Offensively, each iteration of the shedu is a little underwhelming, with essentially two 1d6 hoof attacks. In 1e, this could have been augmented by powerful psionics, but in 2e it’s psionic load-out was distinctly utility-based, and in 3e this remains true (though it does gain a trample ability to augment its hooves). Defensively, the shedu does a little more respectably, but this is largely thanks to their ability to peace out of a fight entirely by traveling to another plane. In 2e, this ability was the weakest (astral projection does leave your body behind), but in 1e a shedu could travel the planes “at will,” and in 3e, it has an ethereal jaunt it can call upon.

Shedu are one of the more labor-intensive monsters to use as a DM in 1e and 2e, requiring you to pick some psionic abilities for them. This could shore up their defenses or offenses, but would rely on DM expertise with psionics to do this effectively.

So, we’re looking at a creature, encounter-wise, where if the party was to fight it, it would simply run away. More often, this creature was likely to be an ally to the party, perhaps for a few sessions (making sure the DM gets some mileage out of choosing their psionic powers), vanishing to another plane when things got too hot in combat. From a functional mechanical perspective, it’s a friendly NPC with some cool powers.

From a narrative perspective, we’ve got a fairly nebulously-defined agent of Good and Law. They travel the world doing good and helping others. 3e expands on this role a bit by making them advisors to clerics who summon them. This is still pretty bland, but 2e and 3e do like to talk about their head-gear. In 2e, it was emblematic of a heirarchy, and in 3e, it was a mysterious link to a perhaps-lost kingdom. They also are among the “random psionic powers” crowd in earlier editions, without much of a reason for why their spells were psionic and not just…spells…


The New Shedu

I didn’t have a whole lot of meat to work with, as you can see, but that’s OK – it gave me some room to breathe. In looking to spice up the story, I did some research on shedu in history (their original inspiration being the man/bull/eagle/lion creature that can be found with frequency in many cultures of the ancient middle east) and found a bit about them guarding a threshold. Combining that with the intended mechanical perspective gave me a bit of a hook: they’re creatures who serve communities, summoned by others to help them repel invaders. This presents one immediate scenario where they can be used in your game: to rise up in defense of an attacked location. They also worked well as a Celestial creature type, making them well-suited to conjure celestial.

I liked the oddness of the psionic powers. It is good grist for the story-mill (why do these creatures have psionic power? What is psionic power in your world? How do these celestials fit into it?) but by 3e, the shedu had gained a lot of cruft with their multiple powers and fifth leg. So I wanted to simplify.

I took the planar travel ability and made it a limited plane shift as part of the psionic suite, defining it and limiting it. It’s still a nice “adios, muchachos!” ability, but it’s no longer an evasiveness. Their inherent magic circle I also turned into a magic circle psionic ability. I took the telepathy devotions from 2e and reduced them to charm person, which seemed to mimic the function of those abilities well enough. I’ve also given them telepathy, which fulfills the “many tongues of mortals” camp. For ability scores, I cribbed the auroch’s physical stats (because they’re bulls!) and gave them 5e-ified stats based on the 3e numbers. 5e tends to have lower ability scores across the board, so I reduced each modifier by about 50% from their 3e numbers. I collapsed the 3e skill list down to two main skills (which could replicate the effects of all those 3e skills).

I’ve also left them weak. The current CR of the shedu is 2. This serves a few purposes, design-wise.

  1. Keeps them good for conjure celestial, to evoke their narrative better.
  2. I don’t need to arse about with a lot of new ways to power-up their defenses and (especially) offenses that might ring hollow with their history.
  3. They’re good allies, even for mid or low-ish level parties. They can actually see use before level 10.
  4. It makes it easier to use a herd of 8 or so of ’em in practice
  5. It leaves plenty of room for a “greater shedu,” if I were inclined to make it.

That’s a lot to gain! Their weakness isn’t an uncontroversial choice (this powerful being of celestial might is less mighty than…an owlbear?), but it’s one I’m happy with, and I imagine the existence of a Greater Shedu would do a lot to appease those looking for a bit more badass in their man-bulls.

The other semi-controversial choice I’ve made is to make them no longer just bearded middle-eastern dudes in their heads. The symbolic meaning of the king-with-a-big-beard head in the original art is as a representation of wisdom and authority. I kept the crowns, but ditched the gender-specificity, so now we can have wise, authoritative lady shedu, too, why not.

One Year on DM’s Guild


After a little less than one year selling products through the DM’s Guild, I figured this new year would be a good time to analyze some actual numbers. I’m probably on the smaller side in terms of sales on the platform (no bestsellers), but I’ve got consistent sales and well-reviewed products across a range of purchase models and product types, which gives me a lot of ways to slice and dice the limited amount of data I’ve got.

So here’s a few Interesting Things, if you’re into the data crunching. It’s a long post, but I am kind of a nerd about this stuff! Sneak Preview:

  • I made about 1/10th of what I’d make per word as an actual writer (or less!)
  • Pay What You Want might not be worth it from a creator’s standpoint
  • People don’t comment on products
  • Products linked to WotC Storylines lead to better sales overall

Want some more details? Okay!

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Designing the Vistani Race

My main focus for this site has been talking about stuff I’ve been playing, but I’ve also been producing in that time!

The main thing I’ve been producing for sale is D&D stuff for the DM’s Guild! Because it’s cheap and fast and there’s a (small) market for it! I can try out a LOT of ideas.

I think the design element I’m probably most happy with is my design of the Vistani race for the SUPER-SETTING-DOC.Though that doc isn’t my best-selling, the Vistani race represents a bit of a unique design problem. See, in the Ravenloft setting, the Vistani are a mysterious race of magical gypsy-folk. They are capable of weaving curses, seeing the future, and of even doing something that, in this setting, is akin to punching out Cthulu: they can leave domains. They are NPC’s who mostly exist to engage the PC’s and to keep the party mystified and curious – they’re not entirely altruistic, not entirely antagonistic, they tell your future and invite you to parties but spy on you for the big bad, they have their own questlines, etc.

When converting that into a PC race, there’s a gap to bridge: we can’t give the player all the powers of the Vistani NPC’s. If the race you chose could let you “win the game” by leaving the domain, or let you be a villain, or let you accurately foretell the future, a lot of the horror vibe of the setting would be wrecked. And yet the Vistani are so interesting and diverse that people have wanted to play as them for decades.

In 2e, this was partially solved with the half-Vistani race,. with all the culture and none of the all-powerful magic. While this race had a good anchoring in the setting, the “half-human, half…other…human…” vibe seemed off to me. Were the Vistani truly something beyond being human, such that someone who shared their blood would not be entirely human like a half-elf or a half-orc is not entirely human? Or was it more of a cultural/knowledge/lore thing that separated the caravans from the giorgios?

In my doc, I solved it with a full Vistani race that was, at its base, human. All those mystical powers? Perhaps they are capable of them, but not EVERY Vistani has these abilities. Just the elite, the leaders, the guides of the caravans. And for that, you need to be Special.

Curses, guiding Caravans through the Mists, telling the future – these were things only certain Vistani were capable of. Perhaps because they have feats/class levels/etc. Perhaps because they are simply NPC’s and that’s how they roll. Whatever. The point is, with this race, you can be a unique part of the setting without ruining the mood, and even with a certain secret…if everyone expects that you can travel through the mists at any time…why don’t you?

I think going forward I need to prod myself a bit into adventure design. It seems like a daunting task requiring maps and NPC pictures, but, hell, if I can put out $1 backgrounds without art that sell well, I can probably pump out a cheap adventure with some good writing, even if it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles.


Information Asymmetry and The Demon Head in Tomb of Horrors


I seem to be on about a lot of “difficult” challenges these days. This post keys off of my last one and also this post by veteran RPG designer John Wick, wherein he rants against the Tomb of Horrors, an old-school D&D module and infamous deathtrap dungeon.

I talked in my last post about the goals of play, and how the Meat Circus in Psychonauts and the Tower of Sarek in Trine both suffer from suddenly changing the goals of play in the 11th hour. John Wick’s experience with the Tomb of Horrors shows a similar thing – a group not interested in Challenge play was forced to endure something focused around it, failed, and got angry, because that wasn’t what they signed up to play. Wick’s perspective on ToH being awful is muddied by not being able to appreciate different goals to play, and much of the internet commentary on the article shows that under a different set of goals, the adventure plays very well. You just have to presume, Super Meat Boy-like, that you will die, over and over again.

That’s all introduction, because what I really want to talk about is a small aspect of the ToH module, the one that killed John’s happy fun times the hardest, the demon head with the sphere of annihilation inside. I want to talk about what makes it a good trap, and what makes it a frustrating trap, and how both groups that John played with went awry with it (and why it was designed so that you would!)

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This Week in D&D: Power Rangers

rangerThis post is about the Unearthed Arcana playtest rules for the 5e D&D Ranger class. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out first! Also useful might be this article, about class customization, that tackles the idea of a ranger without spells.

To cut to the chase, the variant Ranger presented in the article doesn’t quite do what it needs to, in my mind. I think their diagnosis is pretty spot-on, but I can’t really get on board with the proposed solutions. So I made mah own. Analysis below the fold.

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This Week in D&D: LMoP Pt IV – Showing the Growth

LMoP - WECThe party today pursued the final bit of Lost Mine of Phandelver, going into Wave Echo Cave and beginning their assault on the Spider.

This session was relatively free of the bugaboos that haunted the most recent sessions. The party knows where they’re going, knows what to do, and has the tools to do their job, so the single point of failure isn’t a major concern, and the wandering encounters in the cave means there’s always a risk for rest.

A big win this time around was an aspect of 5e that is easy to overlook: how bounded accuracy plays into making the characters feel like they have come quite far.

This party had, before, encountered ghouls and stirges (“random” encounters when they had unfinished business in the goblin cave), and had struggled with them a bit, using cleverness and positioning to protect themselves, but still feeling that the encounters were dangerous. Some of this was the psychology of low-level PC’s (“My hit points are so tiny!”), but some of it was legit fear at the damage being dished out.

In their initial raid on Wave Echo Cave, they encountered these creatures again, with the benefit of an extra level or two under their belts, and they were much more confident. Still a little uneasy, but they handled the creatures admirably, demonstrating the power that they’ve gained in terms of depth and breadth of resources. The casters broke out powerful spells, and the warriors made good use of narrow areas to ensure ample crowd control.

I love that there’s no treadmill. 4e D&D, as well as some RPGs (like Final Fantasy VIII) get the sense that the goal is to provide a consistent challenge, but a consistent challenge is often grindy  and same-y in practice. As demonstrated here, 5e is much comfortable with variable encounter difficulty – of not meeting the expected challenge – and it’s something that contributes mightily to the looser, more open feel of 5e. That, and you never get the “trash mobs” of a videogame – you can skip over fights you are bound to win, Earthbound-style.

It’s frickin’ delightful, and something to keep in mind – players who can compare their ability against some metric that doesn’t move with them are players who feel accomplishment.

This Week in D&D: LMoP Pt III – Single Points of Failure

LMoP - CCaftermathThere is a common thread here, something that Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford, Rich Baker, and Chris Perkins seemed to do quite a bit in LMoP: single points of failure. It is also the source of this week’s bit of gameplay hiccup.

Determining that Gundren Rockseeker is held in Cragmaw Castle is one of those points. There’s plenty of opportunity for the party to ask about that, but little motivation for the party to ask about it, meaning that once they’ve cleared the Redbrands out of Phandalin, the dwarf might just be a big mystery. The motivation can come in the form of Sildar Hallwinter, an NPC the party may or may not save, but if he’s dead…then what?

Similarly, this week, they cleared out Cragmaw Castle and found Gundren, but couldn’t find his map – they had left Grol’s wolf alive (but hostile) and left the room, without searching it. So if they don’t find Gundren’s map…then what?

Eventually I sort of gave it to them, in both situations, but that’s exceptionally unsatisfying in play. I am not GameFAQs, this is not an easy-mode walkthrough, failure should be an option, and should have consequences.

Which leads me to the villain. It seems like one of the reasons failure isn’t an option here is because the villain of the adventure can’t achieve his goal – there’s monsters in the way. There’s no timetable for when or if he can ever overcome the other creatures, and what happens when he does. He’s not pursuing the Forge of Spells for any reason beyond a vague drow-ish evil. It’s classic Orcus on his Throne, which helps make the thing very….bland. It almost doesn’t matter if they rescue Gundren or defeat the Spider. Nobody cares. Nothing will happen. Oh well.

Not cool.