Saturday, February 9, 2019

Wrestling Rules and Wrestling Tournaments

Whenever people ask me how present authentic feeling steppe cultures in D&D settings I tell them they need 2 things: kumis and wrestling. While kumis is basically a universal across the Eurasian steppe (the Ghuzz Turks of Ibn Fadlan's time certainly drank it), wrestling is more of a Mongolian pastime. From what I've read, there is no evidence that there was any wrestling going on along the banks of the 10th century Volga river, but that should not be a barrier to putting Mongolian-style wrestling in the Meager Country or in any setting where nomads abound.

I've had great success running wrestling tournaments with the rules below. They're adapted (mostly verbatim) for 5e from Joseph Manola's Mongolian wrestling rules (read the whole post if you want to learn more about Mongolian wrestling). It's a great deal more interesting than resolving wrestling matches with contested athletics rolls and provides a fun minigame, a break from the drudgery of combat and negotiations.

Image result for mongolian wrestling art
A painting of the eriin gurvan naadam

Wrestling Rules

To resolve a wrestling bout, each wrestler rolls 1d6 and adds their Wrestling Rating.

-Your basic Wrestling Rating is equal to the sum of your Strength modifier, your Dexterity modifier, and your proficiency bonus if you're trained in athletics and/or acrobatics. 

-Trained wrestlers add an extra +1 to their Wrestling Rating. Being an expert wrestler increases this bonus to +2. Most natives of the steppe are trained wrestlers. 

-If you've studied the technique of your opponent, you may add your Wisdom modifier to your Wrestling Rating. To study an opponent's technique, you must wrestle with them once or watch them compete in two bouts. 

-If you are substantially larger and heavier than your opponent, add +1 to your Wrestling Rating.

-You are expected to have a Supporter (called a zasuul) to yell advice at you, offer encouragement, dispense all-purpose smack talk for the audience. If your Supporter has a positive Charisma or Wisdom modifier, you may add an extra +1 to your Wrestling Rating. If your Supporter is an expert wrestler, you may add an extra +1 to your Wrestling Rating. 

 If one wrestler beats the other's score by 3 or more, then they score a quick victory and their opponent goes down within minutes. 

If the wrestlers' scores differ by less than 3, the match goes long. When the match goes long, each wrestler rolls 1d6 again and adds a modified Wrestling Rating.

-Unless their scores are tied, the wrestler who scored the lowest in the first roll has their Wrestling Rating reduced by 1, to represent their dented confidence. 

-Each wrestler adds their Constitution modifier to their Wrestling Rating, to represent the importance of stamina in the long bout

In the long bout, the highest score wins and a tie indicates a draw, probably because someone bungled a throw and ended up hitting the ground at the same time as their opponent.

Rule Variant: The long, long bout (for those who want more attrition in their wrestling)
In the long bout, you must beat your opponent's score by 3 or more to win. Ties do not result in draws.
If nobody wins the first long bout, repeat the process until one wrestler is victorious.

-As per the first bout, unless the their scores are tied, the wrestler with the lowest score has their Wrestling Rating reduced by 1. This effect stacks

-In the long bout, draws only occur if the competing wrestlers have the same Wrestling Rating and their scores tie.

Tournament Rule Variants
From my limited research, I've gleaned that Mongolian wrestling matches are usually best of 1 affairs, but I find that it's more interesting for the whole party if they all can participate in winning the tournament. 

Teams: Wrestlers do not compete individually, but as part of teams, who take turns in best of 1 matches. The wrestlers who aren't in the match can watch the bouts of their competition to study their technique. If you decide to be one of your team's supporters, you cannot participate as a wrestler. (We may imagine that because the party is made of foreigners they're allowed to compete in a team as a crutch)

Best of 3: Matches consist of 3 bouts instead of 1. (This gives wise wrestler a chance to study their opponent's technique)

But why would you want to compete in a wrestling tournament? Here are some possibilities:

1. Loot. Some local khagan or war leader is offering the spoils of war, perhaps an item the party needs, as the grand prize in a wrestling tournament

2. Respect. The party may have the khagan on their side but they'll never win the trust of the whole community unless they compete in the upcoming wrestling tournament

3. Assassination. A notable person, a thorn in the party's side, is competing in a wrestling tournament. It would be so easy to snap their neck if you can just get a good pin.

Wrestling Titles
You should make sure there are some good titles up for grabs in your tournament. Roll 2d10, one for an adjective and one for a noun to generate a simple title. Let your players write it on their character sheet if they win it for themselves (maybe the opponent they got it from will come to win it back later).

1. Wide
2. Weighty
3. Brazen
4. Mighty
5. Stout
6. Steady
7. Hardy
8. Unstoppable
9. Firm
10. Raging

1. Elephant
2. Falcon
3. Lion
4. Bear
5. Horse
6. Champion
7. Hero
8. Bull
9. Wall
10. Yak

Further reading: Here's a clip from the reality tv show Last Man Standing, it shows what a Mongolian wrestling tournament looks like and what a bout between a trained wrestler and a novice looks like.

This post is dedicated to Borte, first empress of the world

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Meager Country Manifesto

Image result for ibn fadlan
Trade in the East Slavic Camp by Sergei Ivanov, 1913
An image that is always close in my mind when I imagine the Meager Country

As I prepare to run another Meager Country game, I’ve been refamiliarizing myself with the sources that originally inspired the setting. In particular, Ibn Fadlan’s account of his embassy to the Bulhgars as well as the other sources contained in the book “Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness.” Over the course of this exercise, I’ve been reminded of all the things the Meager Country is supposed to capture and all the different directions I could take it. To focus myself, I have written this: My Meager Country Manifesto.

Really, the goal of the Meager Country is to inspire in players a similar sense of danger, strangeness, disgust, fascination, and fear that Ibn Fadlan experienced while meeting the Turks, Bulhgars, Khazars, and especially the Rus. This mix of sensations and the desire to question that goes along with it, I feel, can form the compelling heart of a D&D game.

Of course, Ibn Fadlan is a very unique voice among the small body of documents we have which record the time period I’m interested in. Fadlan’s account is incredibly early (from 922) and he sees things which no other source mentions, like the now classic burning of a Rus leader with his ship.
When other Arabs find themselves in eastern Europe later, such as Abu Hamid al-Andulust al-Gharnati, who started his journey in 1117, almost 200 years after Fadlan, they find a very different world and had very different reactions to it.

Eastern Europe is like a second home to Abu Hamid. There are Muslims and Christians everywhere, the leaders want to learn from Abu Hamid and listen to his shitty poetry. There is nothing to provoke in him that complicated knot of reactions which Ibn Fadlan feels.

In short, I am interested in a time in history that’s as thin as a knife’s edge. The 10th, or maybe even 9th, century which contained a northern world where Islam and Christianity were just beginning to penetrate but had not had any major victories. It was a time when mountains of silver were flowing from Samanid mines onto the Volga to the city of Itil, to the Don river and up, up to Kiev, up to lake Lagoda, up to Birka. Trade was drawing the world together. Alliances between Slavs and Turks and Rus and Magyars with Rome or Constantinople or Baghdad were being formed and faith would cement those fledgling bonds. This is where we find Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, called by the Caliph to bring Islam and 4000 dirhams to Bulgaria.

But the things which moved Ibn Fadlan by their strangeness will not do the same in a modern D&D player. Pluck any person from 10th century Baghdad and show them a Rus merchant and they’ll be seeing something, someone, totally new and unfamiliar. Do the same with a modern RPG player and they’ll just say: “So is this like Vikings or what?”

So Meager Country v2 must be both more historically grounded and more divorced from historical reality. Its world must emulate the political and economic state of the 10th century Arab world, the state which made the journey of Ibn Fadlan to the Bulghars possible, but also be full of new wonders, aja’ib in Arabic, which arouse the same reactions which Ibn Fadlan felt but in the mind of a modern observer.

It’s nice to make nice aesthetic plans but putting them into action, turning them into content is another thing entirely. So what will I do? What will give Meager Country v2 the qualities described above?

1.       Incorporate more Arab beliefs about the far north.
One of the most enduring beliefs about the north in the Arab world was that it was home to Alexander’s Wall, a massive iron gate constructed by Alexander the Great to prevent two races of giants, Gog and Magog, from destroying the world. Such a thing could easily be a ruin left by some fallen civilization, in true OSR style, but it could also be run as a legendary location whose existence is up for debate. I think many of the more eccentric ideas about the north which make their way into Arab sources could be turned into a rumor table and add a layer of doubt to the game.

2.       Add odder folk and folk ways.
I like all the weird kinds of people I wrote for the Meager Country, however I don’t think I emphasized their odd customs enough. I want to get to a point where there’s a sense of culture shock, though I think that might an impossible goal. I should focus more on the strangeness of the different peoples. There should be more odd food, weird rituals players are asked to partake in, more opportunities for faux pas, and I should put players more often in the role of cultural teachers. The Silent Trade will have to mentioned more.

3.       Make travel more dangerous and make stumbling on points of interest more likely.
Though some parts of travel should feel vast and trackless, I want some portions of the game to feature difficult journeys, maybe using wilderness dungeons, or by making use of a deadlier random encounter table. I’d also like to have a high density of interesting locations, maybe by using a few wilderness location tables or just by writing a dense hex map. I could also use some rules for fording rivers.

4.       Focus more on getting from the Empire to the Meager Country
It took Ibn Fadlan a while to just to get to the lands of the Samanids and he visited many cities along the way, he even had to lay low at a little bit. It could be interesting to experiment with starting the campaign as a game about getting the right letters securing passage and greasing the right palms to contrast with the hexcrawling that follows.

5.       Modify what is found in historical sources to create new and evocative content
Just taking things from history is not enough, these ideas must be modified, amended with the fantastic, to strike the tone I want the Meager Country to have. I think that even the fantastic and mythological elements found originally in history should be altered so that some part of them is still unexpected, still unique to the Meager Country.

Now I have a much better idea of what Meager Country v2 should feel like as well as how it will play. It should be a much more player driven game, where there’s less a mission from an imperial authority but just a direction. I think I’ve already been applying some of the above principles, especially #5, but having them written down and codified will help me keep focused on what I want the Meager Country to be as I go forward.

As always, thank you for reading the most idle, content deprived of my musings.

This post is dedicated to Thomas Noonan, who counted coins

Friday, January 25, 2019

Farewell to the River: Meager Country Post Mortem

The first thing my players read about the Meager Country campaign was this:

"Her eminent majesty, the Sultan of the Bronze City has little interest in this cold and poor land. The people it houses are many and barbarous, valuable only so long as they respect the empire and as suppliers of fine furs, strong slaves, and amber. However, Her greatness has made certain investments up the river. To the people of Orusk she has given a small fortune of silver. This debt she needs reclaimed and given to the Koto Kete so that they may build a fortress to protect themselves from the vicious Kazan, whose budding domain will surely threaten the empire if none can stand against them. And to you, a ragtag group of scholars, civil servants, and mercenaries the Sultan has promised a single favor, if only you do her bidding. Sell your silk robes and put on your fur coat, it’s time to head up the river, to the Meager Country."

Just last week we finished up the campaign. We started playing last June and were able to meet almost every week. Everything went well, the party delivered the 5000 gp, taken from tombs and from lakebeds and from the spoils of war bands and from the coffers of cannibal priests, into the wide lap of Khan Sarnai. The Sultan had given them 5 Besharan months to complete their mission and return to the palace, which boiled down to 105 days once the time it would take to cross and recross the Sea of Pearls was accounted for. They managed to do it in 102, a fine performance if you ask me. We ended the campaign with a quick epilogue which went over what each of the characters did with the favor offered to them by the Sultan. One had a more democratic university constructed which his adopted daughter, formerly a slave in the Meager Country, attended when she was of age. One won back his family's misspent fortune. One requested a bow made by finest Wizard-Artificers and became a mercenary. The last found her way back to the Meager Country on a new expedition to discover the origin of Glass Women.

I'm really happy with the way the campaign turned out overall. I got to test out a bunch of new mechanics and character options. I got to explore the Meager Country for the first time, which lead to the creation of this blog. We got to end the campaign with a strong conclusion, instead of letting it sputter into extinction. And all along the way there were lots of great moments and encounters which I think my players will remember for a long time. But I've also learned a lot from this campaign and realized I need to improve in many different areas. So, gentle reader, let's dissect the Meager Country.

The New Rules and Character Options

I added a lot of rules to 5e with the goal of achieving a more OSR/DIY style of play. I used a wound system with a drop dice table and an encumbrance system cribbed from the GLOG. I also put more restrictions on spell casting with my religion system, which sees most of the classes required to perform rituals to maintain their supernatural powers. I also added extra restrictions to wizards (though nobody played one). I sent around a survey to my players to ask them how they felt these rules impacted the game and we seemed to be in agreement: all these rules didn't feel like they made a huge impact on the game. People felt like most wounds could be ignored (they only needed to rest to get rid of wounds once), and completing rituals wasn't a great hindrance. I think this was in part due to the style of the campaign, it became more about negotiating and role playing rather than combat. The party's material resources were never put under the kind of long term pressure which is required for people to really notice the effects of wounds piling up and the time needed to perform rituals drying up. It might have been a better idea just to use the gritty healing rules provided in 5e so that the resources the party had felt more valuable and had to be managed over a greater length of time.

We also had new people to play as and new backgrounds. For the new people, I also took a more DIY approach, no stat bonuses and no dark vision. Not all of them got tested, but I think Bronze Folk and the Tamani definitely need something more to make them feel more unique and the Clay People's whole ivory eating thing never seemed like it got enough use and should be replaced. I'm proud of the Glass Women though. My only complaint is that they might be too powerful and dwarf the other peoples in sheer coolness. Generally, I think all the people could be better focused around 1 or 2 major bonuses. 

As for the backgrounds, only one was used (the imperial bureaucrat) and I think I bungled the job pretty badly. I neglected to fill out the bond, flaw, ideal tables and now that I've played more 5e myself I understand their utility a lot more. 

Things I learned

-You don't need a lot to have fun. Some of the most engaging sessions we played were just based on rough sketches of wilderness environments the players were charged with exploring. 

-Even failure can be engaging. The party attempted to resurrect a dead fire goddess and failed. I thought it would be really demoralizing but many of the players looked back on the moment fondly. 

-Having a campaign centered on a single mission is efficient. It provides a reason for all the characters to be working together and sets reasonable expectations for what the game will be about and when it will end. 

-Burnout is real. It was incredibly hard to prep a session from almost scratch every week and I felt pressured to produce a lot of unique material for a unique setting. I think this pressure really hurt the campaign and led to many parts of the game feeling a little underdeveloped. 

Things I need to improve on

-I really need to do traveling across the steppe and having encounters there correct. It often felt like we were traveling across just expanses of nothing but grass. In general, travel felt a little too vague, like there wasn't much room for player choice. 

-I need to get better at incorporating NPCs into the game. The party picked up a lot characters who traveled with them but I feel like they didn't have much of an impact on the game. 

-I need to get better at running a political game. There was lots of interacting with different factions but I felt like I could do a lot more to make this an interesting focus of the game. 

Credit Where it's Due

I often wonder about how much material from blogs finds its way into real games. I'd certainly like to hear about it when somebody is so kind as to sue something I've made. So I'd like to take a moment to thank Joseph Manola for all the great stuff he posts on Against the Wicked City. I made great use of his rules for wrestling, improvised a fun encounter involving a Shurale, and ran a really great dungeon inspired by these two posts of his.

What's next for the Meager Country?

I think I'm done with the Meager Country and the Besharan Empire for now, though I'll certainly return to them soon. I'd like to play more, run different systems, get some more breadth in my DMing portfolio. I'm so excited to start new games and continue the long process of getting better at running the game.

When I do come back to the Meager Country it will be quite different, new wallpaper put up for new guests.  For one, I've got to move it beyond just being the bastard child of the Wicked City, Centerra, and Ibn Fadlan's encounter with the Rus.

 Beyond that, I'm not sure what direction I'll go in with the Meager Country. It might not be in 5e anymore, it might take the perspective of the natives of the Meager Country, it might take place in the future where the Besharan faith spread across the world before promptly self destructing. I'll still post about the Meager Country though, as I retcon and renovate, though it will probably be mostly lore and background stuff scattered with the few encounters and dungeons which are fit for being edited and put on here.

I'd just like to say thanks to everybody who has supported this blog or enjoyed what I do here. I look forward to entertaining you more and, hopefully, contributing useful content to your games. 

This post is dedicated to Sallam the Interpreter, who spoke 30 languages 

Friday, January 4, 2019

Light, World, Glory: A Review of the Lukomorye Player's Guide

Time to dip my toes into the huge and murky world of pedantic RPG reviews.

I became aware of Boris Stremlin when I stumbled across his blog, Bardiches and Bathhouses, on Google+ and was shocked by how similar our projects are. We both write for 5th edition, both have OSR/DIY influences, and we both play in settings based off of historical eastern Europe. I feel a bit beaten to the punch honestly. The most recent flowering of Boris' work is the latest draft of the Lukomorye Player's Guide, which he made public on google drive a few months ago. Though some of the art and layout seems yet to be finalized and the text could use another edit for typos, the content of the book is complete. It's a fascinating project with a broad scope, as befits a book which begins with a history of the tabletop RPG starting from traditions of oral storytelling.

Lukomorye is Boris' Russian fantasy setting. It draws on both Russian fairy tales and folklore as well the historical context of 14th century Russia to built an impression of the land of Nor, the setting's Russia analogue, which feels both historical and mythological. The guide does not just introduce new character options for playing world of Lukomorye but recontextualizes these elements and brings wide ranging changes to the rules of 5e. This review will not just evaluate what is in the Lukomorye Player's Guide but also comment on the, perhaps unstated, ethos of the book and finally describe how I would run a game in Lukomorye.

General Remarks: Art and Layout

Though work is still being done to the visual elements of the book, I should still comment on them. Honestly, the layout is the most disappointing aspect of the book. The guide goes with the same presentation as the Wizards of the Coast books, faux parchment paper and all. I'm not very fond of this look and I wish the book did more to differentiate itself from the Wizards' products. It's not all bad though, the first page of the guide is a lovely poem by Pushkin framed by a floral border, almost like something Ivan Bilibin would illustrate. This is the most beautiful page in the book and I wish the others also reflected the aesthetics we associate with Russian fairy tales. On the other hand, the art choice is mostly great. All the best Russian fairy tale illustrators and Romantic painters are here, though sometimes in a grainy resolution. Here, I would only ask that the paintings be better credited and better placed. This issue is more pronounced in the appendixes, where some of the illustrations break the flow of the text too much and Viktor Vastetsov's iconic Knight at the Crossroads is shrunk to the size of a thumb.

This is an image which deserves space!

New Player Options 

Let's get into the content. Lukomorye makes a few changes to the character creation process with the addition of 2 setting specific new skills: consumption (one's ability to eat and drink in excess) and literacy (one's ability to read and write, characters without this skill are illiterate). I love these two skills, I can easily imagine great banquet challenges and I like that being able to read is a specialized skill in itself, as it has been for most of history. Lukomorye also forgoes alignment, replacing it with two competing ideals: Pravda and Krivda, which are roughly equivalent to good and evil. Players get points of Pravda or Krivda for acting in accordance with either ethos, which is a great departure from the mostly static alignment system. Lastly, there are just 2 things which I think are missing from this section. Firstly, I'd like to see a Russian pronunciation guide somewhere in the introduction which covers the words written in the Latin and Cyrillic script. I'd like to know if the two 'o's in 'Lukomorye' make the same sound. Second, I'd like clearer rules for gaining xp. The book suggests that xp will be awarded for gaining information and treasure, a fascinating proposition, but doesn't offer concrete rules to make such awards.

Lukomorye also doesn't have races, backgrounds, or classes. Instead, it calls these categories Kinds, Stations, and Callings and offers both new and altered options in all these areas. First off, the kinds consists of humans, half-human and half spirit changelings, animal shapeshifters, giant Volots, animalistic Psoglavs, and secretive Chudys. There are a lot of options here, with 9 different changeling types and shapeshifter varieties for 9 animal species. Though humans are unchanged from vanilla 5e, the book provides a great selection of nations and ethnicities which gives a sense of diversity and ubiquity which could not be conveyed with a single page of information. The descriptions of all the spirit and shapeshifter varieties is similarly impressive in depth, but the Kind mechanics are not particularly interesting. Changelings get resistance to necrotic damage, a few stat bonuses or proficiencies, and maybe a cantrip or two. There's a few more exciting abilities, like the speaking with water animals which the Half-Vodyanois get. The shapeshifters are better, they gain more powerful animal abilities as they level up but the other Kinds are marked by a similar lack of inspiration. The Chudy, for instance, get a hodgepodge of extra proficiencies and spells, as well as increased darkvision, sunlight sensitivity, and the ability to talk to small animals. Though all of these abilities fit the Chudy's description, which paints them as chthonic but good-natured guardians of knowledge from before the Great Flood devastated the world, none of them really make me want to play as one. Think about the Dwarf and Elf of vanilla 5e. Though each has a mess of different little bonuses, but each also posses a really unique ability, the Dwarf's resistance to all poison and the Elf's Trance, which come to mind instantly when I think about them. The Chudy has no such definitive trait, like starting with knowledge of a great secret or the ability to control subterranean animals. The Psoglavs and Volots fair little better, though the complications arising from the Volot's size and the Psoglav's Rampage are more in the vein of what I'd like to see. I love the concept of all these Kinds and the attention payed to the folklore they're drawn from but I just wish the execution offered more unique mechanics. Personally, I'd like to see the design of races in 5e abandon these boring bonuses entirely and only use unique active or passive abilities. I also think an opportunity to change how humans work was missed. I would have liked to see more encouragement for an all or mostly human party, as the vast number of options here seem to encourage a mostly non-human party in a setting where humans vastly outnumber the other Kinds.

Now, for the Stations. In Lukomorye there are 10 new stations and 11 from the core books which have been renamed, recontextualized, and given new starting equipment to conform with the revised equipment list found later in the book. Stations are also connected to Estates, which determine the social class of your character and their starting wealth. I'm very pleased with the new Stations. They're all deeply rooted in the Lukomorye setting, show great attention to the history the setting is based on, and many of them provide more than the usual personality trait/bond/ideal/flaw tables. For instance, the Peasant Station has a table of suggestions for why your peasant might stand out and choose the adventuring life. I'm also fond of the few tables in the back of the section for determining what family members characters have, which make choosing something more interesting than being an orphan only a dice roll away.

For my money, the Callings are probably the best part of the book. Like the Stations, the Callings include both whole new classes and sub-classes as well ones from the base game which are adjusted and justified for the setting. All the classes have revised starting equipment and proficiencies as well as new tables for determining Calling-specific traits like what kind of fighting company your fighter hails from or who mentors your druid in the ways of the Old Faith. I like that being part of a Calling implies specific things about your character and their contacts, rather than referring vaguely to a set of skills. Before I get into the new content, I'd like to mention how well the classes, even the ones who don't get any new archetypes or rules changes, are integrated into Lukomorye. The descriptions of each Calling are studded with exemplars from the literature which inspires Lukomorye and it really feels like you're not reading about the fighter or bard but about Voin and Boian who might be mechanically similar to the classes of 5e but partake of a wholly different and glorious tradition.

 The land of Nor is home to 2 new classes: the Fool, an idiot savant who can bend reality; and the Bogatyr, the Russian equivalent of a knight errant. The Fool is great, she gets an interesting set of powers (including seeing the future and animating objects) and feels perfectly suited for a fairy tale style game. The Bogatyr seems a bit muddier, like a mix of fighter, barbarian, and bard (if you choose the Cossack path) but he still has enough distinctive traits to feel unique. The Cleric has also been reworked into the Priest, who plays like a 'full spellcaster' variant of the traditionally martial Cleric. I love how the Priest leans hard into the already Christian flavor of the Cleric to portray a kind of holy man who is native to history but usually absent in D&D. You even get to perform baptisms, it's perfect. The Priest also comes with an expanded spell list, full of more explicitly biblical miracles to perform. Of the subclasses, the ones for Druids, Warlocks, and Sorcerers are all similarly great. They perfectly tap into the world of European folklore and superstition which isn't common to see in D&D and leads to a roster of casters with powers of hexing and prophesying and shape shifting. It all feels much more authentic to Lukomorye's inspirations than all the flavors of lightning and fire D&D magic users often employ. I'm also a fan of the changes Boris has made to the Warlock and Ranger classes. Warlocks have a coven who they must borrow their extra spell slots from and are subject to inter-coven politicking and the more absolute abilities of the Ranger (like her immunity to becoming lost) are made subject to the possibility of failure. I do, however, have concerns about the Cost of Magic rule which punishes the casting of spells which hurt others with points of Krivda. The description of the rule notes that it is mostly applicable to Sorcerers and Warlocks but also that any casters who don't derive their power from a divine source may suffer from it. This is an important, game changing rule which just needs better clarifying. For instance, does the Ranger have risk accumulating Krivda by casting her spells? Though a DM could make a ruling on this simply, a clearer list of who this rule applies to would be much appreciated.

 Lukomorye also provides options for playing characters who hail from beyond the land of Nor in other 14th century inspired realms. The Callings foreign to Nor (Paladins, Wizards, Mystics and Monks) are fleshed out and other foreign subclasses are presented (the Djin-wielding Saahir Warlock is quite good). Again, there are 2 new classes provided: Shamans and Magistrates. I'm really impressed by the scope of these options and the dedication shown to fleshing out the world beyond Nor, the little nod to the continuing practice of Manichaeism in Buddhist institutions is particularly impressive. The Shaman class is good, it feels like a very different kind of magic user with access to a number of animal spirits and information gathering powers. However, I'm lukewarm on the Magistrate. I love the idea of the Magistrate Calling. The figure of the Islamic bureaucrat, lawyer, scientist, theologian, and politician all rolled into one is one of the driving inspirations of my own Meager Country but I'm not sure he fits into the combat oriented world of 5e. Boris has tried very hard to make the Magistrate fit, but his signature ability, quoting scripture to interrupt enemy actions, feels contrived. Similarly, his ability to make legal rulings which he acquires at higher levels doesn't seem applicable to Fantasy Russia. The Priest's powers seem drawn directly from the divine, whereas the Magistrate's skill set is so grounded in a number of political, educational, and religious institutions that he doesn't make sense outside of that context. There's also a new list of feats, or special talents, many of which are class specific. I'm not a big fan of feats in general but many of these, especially the warlock feats, are great because they add on interesting complications to getting the benefit from the feat (like having to construct a phylactery or bathe in a river).

Related image
The Black Horseman by Ivan Bilibin, 1900
New Rules

Lukomorye adds a lot of new rules, many of which are welcome additions and many of which seem unnecessary. There's a new equipment list, a wound system, changes to combat rules, downtime activities, an overhauled rest system, and a whole host of new adventuring rules. There's also a few more old school additions, like morale rules and encounter distance tables. I like the overhauled equipment and item list as well as the accompanying market rules. There's an impressive list of items to buy and services to pay for, which speak to a deep engagement with history on the part of the author. If you could find it in a 14th century Russian market, you can find it in this book. Armor has received the most changes, heavy armor as a category no longer exists and is replaced by accessories such as helmets and greaves. There's also a quite clever set of rules for determining what's in stock which is simple and seems easy to apply even to items not covered in the sprawling lists provided.

There's also a lot of changes made to combat through the wound system and other rule additions. Generally, the changes made make for a grittier game where combat is not exactly more lethal but more impactful, more risky to limb and to equipment. The wound, or impactful hit, system checks a couple of important boxes for me, it's clear when you need to roll on it and offers specific descriptions of wounds, but determining what kind of wound is garnered and what it does is an extremely complicated process. I can imagine using this system but I can't imagine it being intuitive. As for the other rules, they seem good if a little bit too fiddly at times but add a healthy helping of realism. I'm a fan of the Fighting Against Multiple Opponents rule and the penalties for firing missile weapons into melee, but the rules for determining if bow strings snap seem a bit much for me. I'd recommend that a DM should take a good look at all these rules before deciding which they'd like to use. In regards to the morale rules, I'd say I'm conflicted. I think having this type of rule system in 5e is a good idea but the solutions Lukomorye provides seem like blunt instruments. In the text, there's no suggestion that some creatures might not make morale checks at all (e.g the undead) or that player actions beyond presenting a more significant force might be able to shake enemy morale. In the hands of a DM familiar with using morale rules I think Lukomorye's are good, especially in how they give enemy leaders options for boosting morale, but most 5e DMs aren't familiar with such systems and better guidelines for using  both the morale and pursuit rules would be a great help. As for the new rest system, I can take it or leave it, it's interesting in how it makes hitdice and the accommodation the party is resting in more relevant, but it might be easier just to stick with the gritty healing rules found in the DMG.

The rest of the rules for exploration, social encounters, physical feats, and downtime activities are a mixed bag. There's a lot of tables with difficulty classes for tasks associated with different skills and while they seem like good guidelines they often give DCs to things which players should just be able to do, like tie a knot, or notice the smell of a rotting corpse. I take similar issue with the complicated rules for catching thrown objects and other physical feats. Other sets of rules, like the perception check rules which invent the term 'perception champion' to be more clear, feel over complicated. It seems like these rules are trying to do the job of a competent DM, who should be able to feasibly determine what actions a player can accomplish without a check by their own intuition. Nonetheless, some of the rules here, like the table for encounter distance in different terrain types, and the reaction roll rules found in this book are all great additions to 5e and useful tools for the DM to use. Also, I will give Boris a great deal of credit though for noting that the rules I complained about above are to be used at the discretion of the DM. Finally, the downtime activities. I'm generally positive about these, some of them are a bit overwritten but all of them have interesting complications and I can easily imagine my players being interested in all of them.

Notes on the Appendixes

In addition to the content I've already discussed, there are a few appendixes to the player's guide which provide information on the realms, religions, and calendar of Lukomorye. These are all good sections. They do a wonderful job of navigating the gulf between mythology and history. I really appreciate how the organization of the realms, which all have a great fairy-tale vibe, is treated as a debated subject, as opposed to the objective organization of the planes of vanilla D&D. I'm also impressed by how seriously both the pseudo-Christianity of Lukomorye's True Confession and the pagan-inspired Old-Faith are taken. The perspectives of both religions are considered and a clear picture is painted both of how they see themselves and each other. It's also nice to have the calendar included in the book, though I'd like to get a calendar with the holidays marked that I could print out.

More than Content

So that's the Lukomorye Player's Guide. Though DMs may choose what they choose to use in it, I think it's all been put together for a purpose which goes beyond what is stated in the book's text. The introduction to the guide outlines the sources of inspiration for Lukomorye and gives the impression that the goal of this book is to provide rules substitutions and new character options which evoke both Russian fairy tales and 14th century Russia. However, many of the rules substitutions do not further this goal. The morale system, for example, doesn't strike me as particularly Russian. This is not to say that these rules have no place in this book, rather I'd like to suggest that the rules presented here are working at dual purposes. 

On one hand this book is developing a set of rules for the Lukomorye setting and on the other hand its rules work to encourage a certain style of game, a style we should have a clear idea of if we want to use this book effectively. I think this style of play can be understood best if we consider Lukomorye in the context of Boris' other writings, particularly his essays: 'Far-From-Equilibrium 5e', 'The Sociology of the Murderhobo' and 'Putting More Class In Your Setting'. These essays all express a dissatisfaction with 5e and put forth new ways of approaching D&D, usually with the help of examples from history. We can see evidence of the influence of all these essays on the Lukomorye Player's Guide.The influence of 'Far-From-Equilibrium 5e', which offers concrete mechanical suggestions for moving 5e toward a less 'balanced' style of play, is most obvious. Almost everything the essay suggests, from the coven rules for Warlocks to the wound system, make their way into Lukomorye. Even the more theoretical essays influence the book. The impact of 'Putting More Class In Your Setting', with its arguments for imagining class as representative of "concrete social groups", can be seen in the Priest's deep connection to the institutions of the Church and the tables included for each Calling which associate them automatically with different companies and covens and mentors. Similarly, 'The Sociology of the Murderhobo' also suggests a view of adventurers as people who are deeply involved in society, or who adventure to make social gains. The essay's focus on the 14th century as a time which provided the perfect conditions for adventures to operate is reflected in Lukomorye's choice of the 14th century to ground its historical aspects.

All these essays taken together with the rules in the Lukomorye Player's Guide paint a picture of a rather gritty sort of game, one whose PCs are deeply embedded in society or have numerous social obligations, one whose PCs are liable to die ignominiously in pursuit of power, a game of brutal but subtle politicking among the opportunistic factions of Nor, of heroes who claw with bloody hands from the anonymity of history to take their places as kings or prophets or revolutionaries. However, I think this style of game might conflict with the fairy-tale aspirations of Lukomorye. The protagonists of fairy tales do not start off at level 1, they are born heroes, they don't have to worry about getting frostbite or having their bow strings snap at an inopportune time. Yet Lukomorye paints such a compelling picture of a fairy tale adventure too, with its Pushkin poetics and romantic paintings, before the sense of heroism is drowned in rules for getting arsenic poisoning and shooting your friends in the back by accident. I'm skeptical that you can have a game that checks both boxes, that can be full of fairy tale heroics and gritty historical drama. I think how well running a game in Nor goes may depend on which side of this dichotomy you want to lean on. I'm still not sure that these two tones can't be combined but if I were to attempt this feat I'd want to play a game about fairy tale antiheroes who might be capable of great heroics but are dogged by their own flaws. I'm reminded of Kullervo, the tragic hero from the Finnish Kalevala, who was born with magic and ignored his family's warnings to pursue revenge. He's a character who I can imagine performing deeds of valor one day and starving to death under the high pines the next, one who might provide a model for a game as historical as it is mythological.

Repentant Kullervo by Aski Gallen-Kallela, 1918

Final Thoughts

The Lukomorye Player's Guide is a fascinating project which blends Russian legend and history to propose a direction for 5e that I don't think it's been taken before. Sometimes the strength of the mechanics it uses to describe its world are not as strong as its vision but its deep attention to grounding itself in the sources which inspire it is consistently impressive and gives the impression of a believable and compelling setting. So read Lukomorye. If you want to run 5e with more staple rules of OSR games like morale and reaction rolls read Lukomorye. If you want your combat to be messier and grittier read Lukomorye. If you have been desperate to see a Russian D&D world which feels authentically Russian in a way which goes beyond cliche read Lukomorye.

You can download the latest draft of the Lukomorye Player's Guide for free here 

Update: Boris has written a response to my review, which you can read here

This post is dedicated to St. Cyril and St. Methodius

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Clear River Jellies

I wanted to write a monster that played with the information available to PCs. So I wrote this, the Clear River Jelly.

Image result for clear jelly
Look at these dangerous fellows.

The marshes of the lower river Sargal are home to carnivorous, gelatinous creatures called Clear Jellies, River Jellies, or sometimes Glass Jellies by foreigners who know what glass is. They start out tiny, just eating insects and algae, but once they grow in size they become a threat. The jellies aren't fast but they've developed a few adaptions which help them hunt. One, they're clear, even large ones can barely be seen floating down the river. Two, their bodies are full of a numbing agent which dulls the sensation of them digesting you. Fish often swim through River Jellies and don't realize they've being eaten until its too late, same thing happens to unlucky swimmers. Large river jellies are pretty brave and pretty clever. They'll wait by the river's edge to snatch prey, they'll bust holes in the hulls of boats and drag them into the water.

River Jelly
Large ooze, unaligned
Armor Class: 8
Hit points: 45 (6d10 +12)
Speed: 10ft., swim 15ft., climb 10ft.
 Str 16 (+3) Dex 6 (-2) Con 15 (+2) Int 4 (-3) Wis 6 (-2) Cha 1 (-5)
Damage Resistances: acid, fire
Condition Immunities: blinded, charmed, deafened, exaustion, frightened, prone
Senses: blindsight 60ft (blind beyond this radius)
Languages --
Challenge: 2 (450 XP)

Amorphous. The jelly can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch wide without squeezing

Invisible in Water. The jelly is invisible while fully immersed in water.

Anaesthetic body. Any creature which takes acid damage from the jelly must make a DC 13 constitution saving throw. If it fails, a feeling of numbness fill its body and it cannot tell how many hitpoints it has. This effect lasts for an hour. If a player character is effected by this trait, the DM records their HP for them. If a creature suffering from this effect takes acid damage from the jelly again, it must attempt the saving throw again. If it fails, it is paralyzed until the end of its next turn.

Pseudopod. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5ft., one target. Hit: 9 (2d6 +2) bludgeoning damage plus 3 (1d6) acid damage.

River Jelly can be made into a potent pain killer if a pound of it is boiled for half a day and then strained through a piece of cloth. A creature who drinks the resulting clear-ish sludge may ignore one of their minor wounds and must make a DC 14 constitution saving throw. If they fail their save, the jelly is too effective and they become numb and are unable to tell how many hitpoints they have. Both of these effects last a day.

Most people who live along the river know how to properly process River Jelly and will show the PCs the procedure if they manage to catch or collect a River Jelly.

Related image
I want you to imagine aggressive ballistic jelly. Now that's good D&D.

This post is dedicated to Hannah Glasse

Saturday, November 10, 2018

One Who Walks Again

When death comes, when the five part self is undone, the will is the last thing to be scattered. It’s spent its whole life constrained, scheming, tearing out its feathers. It might not want to go. Especially if its mighty or stubborn or oafish. Especially if it has an ax to grind. Especially if it's disappointed in its progeny. Especially if death comes when you're at home with your eyes open.

These people are called Again Walkers. When they stand up in their graves they look as they did in life. Their flesh is blue as hell and the stench of the barrow is upon them. Their eyes are full of the light of the next world.

An Again Walker is all the worst parts of a person come back from the dead. Every grudge, every repression, every evil urge exaggerated and starved and let loose. The only things left are coldness and envy and malice.

An Again Walker is never just a walking corpse. An Again Walker is a wound which never healed. An Again Walker is the ghost of a family’s shame. An Again Walker is a circle reaching for a conclusion.

An Again Walker won't kill you. She'll ride your cattle until their backs crack in two. She'll tear your sheep into wooly chunks. She'll pull your hay out to soak in the rain. She'll sing her death songs so loud that you can't get a wink of sleep. And then she'll kick the head straight off your dog and nail him to your door. She'll leave you alone in the day, sure, but if she has a grudge she'll follow you to the ends of the earth and wait until you're destitute to finally snap your neck as she laughs her stinking laugh and stares with her endless eyes.

I never rested while living. Why do you think I'd languish in repose?
Grettir and Glámr by Didrik Jon Kristofersson, 1998

Again Walker
Medium Undead, Evil
Armor Class: 13 (Natural Armor)
Hitpoints: 70 (10d10+15)
Speed: 30ft
STR 18 (+4) DEX 16 (+3) CON 12 (+1) INT 10 (+0) WIS 12 (+1) CHA 6 (-2)
Damage Immunities: Poison, Necrotic
Condition Immunities: Poisoned, Exhaustion
Skills: Athletics + 7
Senses: Darkvision 60ft, Passive perception 11
Languages: The Languages It Knew In Life
Challenge: 4 (1100)

Eyes full of Ugly Light. The gaze of the Again Walker drains courage from the heart and strength from the body. Any creature who makes eye contact with the Again Walker at a distance of 10ft or less is struck with fear and trembling, they must succeed a DC 13 Wisdom Saving Throw or become frightened until the end of their turn. On a successful saving throw, the creature is immune to the Again Walker’s gaze for a day.

Cursed Flesh. After being reduced to 0 hp, the Again Walker will rise again from its grave with full hp in 1d10 days unless its body is burned to ash. Any animal who eats the Again Walker's flesh or ash will give birth to horribly deformed offspring. Any humanoid who eats the Again Walker's flesh or ash has a 3 in 6 chance of rising as an Again Walker after they die.

Multiattack. The Again Walker makes three Bash attacks.

Bash. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: (2d4+4) bludgeoning damage.

Each Again Walker possess an Uncanny Power. (roll 1d6) A more powerful one may have more powers.

1. Stone Walking. The Again Walker may turn to a greasy smoke as per the gaseous form spell 2 times per day for up to 10 minutes. While in this form the Again Walker may move through stone and earth as if it were air.

2. Death Curse. The Again Walker screams a terrible curse upon whoever deals the blow which reduces it to 0 hp. The target of this curse must succeed a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or suffer one of the effects below. (roll 1d4)
1.  A random ability score (roll a d6 1 is str, 2 is dex, ect) is reduced by 2d4 permanently
2. Maximum hit points decrease by 2d8 permanently
3. Whenever the cursed person regains hitpoints they regain half the usual amount
4. The cursed person only succeeds death saves on rolls of 15 or higher
The curse can be lifted by the Greater Restoration spell or by indulging the vice which the Again Walker possessed every 3 days. You can feel the vice curling around your heart. 

3. Skin Changing. The Again Walker may, as an action, assume the form of a horse with a broken back, a huge bloody bull, a headless seal, or a black cat. As a black cat, the Again Walker may sit on the chest of a medium sized creature and start becoming heavier. A creature which the Again Walker has been sitting on for more than a minute begins taking 2d4 bludgeoning damage every round (or use the suffocation rules) and is incapacitated. To wrench the cat off the trapped creature a creature other than the trapped one must attempt a DC 13 Strength check. The DC increases by 2 for each round beyond 1 minute which the cat has been sitting on the person.

4. Size Changing. The Again Walker may increase and decrease it’s size at will. When it does, it cannot move, take actions, or take reactions. For each round of growing, its strength increases by 2 (to a maximum of 24) and its AC increases by 1 (to a maximum of 16) as its flesh becomes dense and cold. At maximum growth, the Again Walker becomes a large creature. When the Again Walker shrinks, it loses the Strength and AC it gained from growing at same rate at which it gained them. Once it is its normal size (18 Str, 13 AC) the Again Walker can shrink again for a round, becoming a small creature and increasing its speed to 40 ft.

5. Unnerving Presence. Anybody who spends a minute within eyesight of the Again Walker begins to feel full of unceasing dread and takes a minus -1 to all rolls until they can take a short or long rest to calm their nerves and steel themselves. This effect stacks for every minute beyond the first which the person spends in the presence of the Again Walker.

6. Dream Walking. Once a day, the Again Walker may enter the dreams of a person sleeping within 3 miles of its grave. The targeted person is beset by evil visions and nightmares. If they are not awoken within an hour and continue their fitful slumber, then they do not gain the benefits of a long rest and make saves against the Again Walker's Eye full of Ugly Light trait at disadvantage.

Each Again Walker posses a Vice which haunted it in life but is made greater in death. (roll a d6)

1. Drunkenness. The Again Walker has a terrible thirst for drink, no matter the vintage or the origin. It takes pleasure in swallowing liquor and spitting it up as horrid poison.

2. Decadence. The Again Walker still desires all the goods it had in life. It takes pleasure in destroying beautiful objects and pieces of art.

3. Gluttony. The Again Walker is still hungry for all it ate in life. It takes pleasure in ripping the flesh off of animals with its teeth and eating grain until its belly swells. It will vomit up all the food it eats as black, stinking bile.

4. Spite. The Again Walker takes pleasure in seeing others suffer. It loves to spread disease, destroy homes, and cause famine. It has an awful laugh.

5. Rage. The Again Walker's temper is just as high as it was in life. It is easily insulted and throws terrible, destructive tantrums.

6. Pride. The Again Walker's ego is as huge and easily bruised as it was in life. It takes pleasure in seeing people bow before it and cannot refuse a challenge to a duel or a contest (it's also a born cheater).
Related image
Beowulf wrestling with Grendel by Lynd Ward, 1939
Burning an Again Walker’s body might not be the end of him. He might become something worse, something ghostly and huge, or his body might just come right back as if nothing happened. He might just need to rot of his own accord to be banished. Others can only be put to rest if a certain condition is met. 

What will put the dead to rest? (choose one or roll a d12)
1. It must face a blood enemy from its life in hand to hand combat
2. A close friend must stand watch by its grave for 3 nights 
3. Something it was promised in life must be rendered to it
4. A crime that it committed in life must be atoned for
5. A crime committed against it in life must be atoned for
6. It must fulfill an oath it made in life to an evil spirit 
7. It must protect its burial place and the lands surrounding it, when its cairn is destroyed so is it
8. It must torment a specific family member until they die 
9. Nothing can truly kill the Again Walker, it will always be here
10. Somebody the Again Walker wronged in life must stand up to it fearlessly
11. It must be guided to the river of death by a skilled shaman
12. It must be burned during a full moon, but it gains another Uncanny Power in the moonlight

This post is dedicated to the witch Gunnvor and the fiend Kolimkilli

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Beware the Nameless Dead

Last time I wrote about the self, how it is constructed, and how it can be broken. Here are some monsters who actually use those rules.

Who am I? I want to be you.

When a person dies their self breaks and flies across the dreaming world. All the parts are frightened, spinning and whirling, all except memory.  It knows where to go. It flies across the vast expanse of the dream, over the river of death, to that cold, quiet land from which none return. The other parts are less astute, they have other places to go, bodies of descendants to take root in, halls of ancestors to return to. If a shaman does not guide these parts to their proper home then they might return to their useless skin and try to make it move. Shuddering to half-life, cold, unwhole. This is how the Nameless Dead are born, usually.

Sometimes when a hard fall is taken, when an arrow goes right past the heart, when you lose your breath for just a moment too long your whole self is thrown in disarray. Are we dead? Do we live? You might lay for days, in a shallow grave, not sure of anything. When your parts are all in order, when you rise again, you are missing something. You are not quiet yourself. Not alive. Not whole. Your memory has gone ahead to the land of death without the rest of you. You too are one of the Nameless Dead.

The Nameless Dead wander the world aimlessly. Their faces are all strangely blank, impossible to keep fixed in your mind. When war rages across the steppe or strikes through the forests of the upper river, they follow the war path like scavenging animals. They dig up the recently dead, feeling over the cold flesh, sucking up what dregs of vital energy remain. They wander through looted homesteads, basking in the ashes of extinguished fires. Their skin is like ice, to feel it is to have your life ripped from you, into them. They do not know they can do this. They just grab and grab, so amazed to feel warm again, to be touched again like this. Is that what it felt like? Before?

How soft you are
Love and Pain by Edvard Munch, 1895

They also scavenge for memories. They cannot remember, by definition, but the other parts of the self can still recall being whole. It’s an odd sensation. Each piece knows something different about the past, they cannot agree. They are desperate to feel like a self again, to be somebody instead of this nobody. They pick up trinkets and mementos. They tell themselves stories. This is my walking stick. It was my mother’s walking stick. Now it is mine. Me. I am me. These things become full of memories, heavy with connections and false recollections. One of the Nameless Dead could talk to you for hours about themselves, all their stories, all their friends, in all their objects so lovingly held. They like to hear about your memories too. They can see it, fluttering in you, making you who you are. Somewhere, deep inside themselves, they know they can pull it out of you, like hot air being sucked out of a tent when the flap is opened. It is an instinct not a choice. They must be whole again.

1 in 12 of the Nameless Dead are technically alive, just clutching to life. 

Nameless Dead
Medium Undead, Evil
Armor Class: 12
Hitpoints: 17 (4d8)
Speed: 30ft
STR 12 (+1) DEX 14 (+2) CON 10 INT 10 WIS 12 (+1) CHA 1 (-5)
Damage Immunities: Poison, Necrotic
Condition Immunities: Charmed, Exhaustion, Poisoned
Senses: Darkvision 60 Ft., passive Perception 11
Languages: Whatever it knew in life
Challenge Rating: 1 (200 XP)
Tell me your name. The Nameless Dead have advantage on all attack rolls against creatures whose name it knows. (A note on names: Any title which would cause your ears to perk up if you heard it counts as your name. Even a pseudonym may become a real name if its internalized.)
Still hanging on. All effects which detect the undead (such as Detect Good and Evil) have a 3 in 6 chance of failing to identify the Nameless Dead or of identifying them as living if possible.


Draining Touch. Melee Weapon Attack: +2 to hit, reach 5ft, Hit 2d4+2 necrotic damage. The Nameless Dead regains hitpoints equal to half the amount of damage dealt by this attack. Any physical contact a living creature makes with the Nameless Dead (such as grappling it or being grappled by it) causes this attack to automatically hit them. So long as contact is maintained, the living creature is hit by this attack at the start of their turn until contact ends.

Eat Memory. The Nameless Dead may attempt to steal the Memory of an unconscious humanoid it can touch and whose name it knows. The humanoid must succeed a DC 16 Charisma saving throw or lose their memory. Without a Memory:
Your proficiency bonus is -2
You lose all armor proficiencies
You forget everything you know and you cannot form new memories. You can only remember things by using objects and mementos to fix information in your unwhole mind.
All your acquaintances forget you. All your friends, family, enemies, and allies have a 4 in 6 chance of forgetting you. All your closest friends and any animal companions you have have a 2 in 6 chance of forgetting you. Even if you are remembered by a person, your face seems vague and indistinct.

If the Nameless Dead is killed, then the memory it has stolen escapes and is lost in the spirit world, a shaman can retrieve it in exchange for  10d20 gp in gifts and one favor, to be rendered at a later date. The Shaman will then enter a trance to find and return the missing piece, which takes 1d6 days.

 A shaman can also return the stolen memory to your self over the course of a few hours for half the cost if you can bring the Nameless Dead, stolen memory and all, to them. This ceremony will destroy the Nameless Dead. 

Something odd happens when a number of the Nameless Dead get together. They start talking to each other. They share false recollections, fake histories, and come up with a story to explain why they're all out here, missing something. They act the part, picking up or making the appropriate props and giving admittedly hammy performances. When they come upon the living, they try their best to seem normal but their hunger for a memory often overtakes them, especially if their guests refuse to play along or ask too many probing questions. They'll drop the act and fall upon you mercilessly, shouting "WHAT IS YOUR NAME YOUR NAMTELL ME YOUR NAME PLEASE."

If the party encounters a group of the Nameless Dead, roll a d10 on the table below to determine what delusion they abide by. Consider that it might at one point have been true. 

1. They raise tattered banners. They think they are warriors.
2. They wear the skulls of horses. They think they are shamans in a trance.
3. They drag loose reigns along the ground. They think they are lost horsemen.
4. They carry bags of stones and dry grass. They think they are merchants
5. One goes ahead of the rest in a tattered robe. They think they are a chieftain and their retinue
6. They wear wreaths of withered flowers. They think they are a wedding party, but nobody is sure who the bride and groom are
7. They all show off broken chains and burst ropes. They think they are escaped slaves
8. Each has a distinct marker of identity, a busted harp, a rusty sword, ect. They think they are heroes from an old story
9. They carry a bloated corpse (it might be a calf) wrapped in rags. They think they are children looking for a place to bury their mother.
10. They drag the dry carcasses of sheep and dogs behind them. They think they are shepherds.

I am me. Don't you remember?

Don’t be naïve. Having the wrong memory is worse than having none. There are scars vividly remembered which don’t appear on the skin. There are thoughts deeply known which the will cannot construct. There are ghosts of passions which the follower cannot understand. There is a terrible sensation. It’s hard to describe. You are you. You are not you, you are somebody else.

Once fitted with a stolen memory, the Nameless Dead wanders back to a home it never knew. It is remembered, connected to false relatives and friends. A beloved daughter returns from battle. A child taken in a raid finds his way back home. A lost farmhand stumbles out of the bush. A spurned lover comes crawling back. Were they this tall? Was he this thin, this pale? Did she talk like that? Was her skin always this cold? Does it really matter? We’re all safe, together again.

This is how a Name Eater is born. It grows fat off of siphoned life force and learns better how to control its growing powers. It is aware of its double nature, of the incongruity within its self. It knows it should be someone else. Here are all these freshly familiar faces. They look so happy. One of them must have the right piece. 

Name Eater
Medium Undead, Evil
Armor Class: 13 (natural armor)
Hitpoints: 52 (8d8+16)
Speed: 30ft
STR 14 (+2) DEX 16 (+3) CON 12 (+1) INT 10 WIS 14 (+2) CHA 8 (-1)
Damage Immunities: Poison, Necrotic
Condition Immunities: Charmed, Exhaustion, Poisoned
Senses: Darkvision 60 Ft., passive Perception 12
Languages: Whatever it knew in life
Challenge Rating: 4 (1100 XP)

Tell me your name. The Name Eater has advantage on all attack rolls against creatures whose name it knows.
Whole Enough. All effects which detect the undead fail to detect the Name Eater or identify them as living if possible
Vampiric Aura. Living humanoids who take a long rest within 200ft of the Name Eater lose 1 hitdice and cannot regain hitdice by any means while within the aura. The Name Eater gains all hit die lost this way and may spend them to use its other abilities. (whenever an action calls for an amount of hit dice, noted as hd, to be rolled, those dice are spent. xhd notes that any number of available hitdice of any size are to be rolled.)


Draining Touch: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5ft, Hit 3d6+2 necrotic damage. The Name Eater regains hitpoints equal to half the amount of damage dealt by this attack. If hit by this attack, the target must succeed a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or have a hit die stolen by the Name Eater.

Siphon Life (1 per day): The Name Eater attempts to pull the life from 1hd creatures who are up to 1hd x 5 feet away from it. Each creature must make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw. A target takes xhd necrotic damage on failed save and half as much on a successful one. The Name Eater regains hit points equal to the amount of damage done by this ability.

Revitalize: The Name Eater consumes some of the energy it has stolen to heal itself. The Name Eater regains xhd hitpoints.

Dislocate (1 per day): The Name Eater may break it's self into it's five parts, becoming a gust of wind with a fly speed of 40ft and dropping everything its wearing. After 4hd rounds it reforms. 

Twist Memory (3 per day): The Name Eater manipulates the memory of a humanoid within 20ft of it. Roll xhd, the Name Eater may alter the target's memory in one of the ways below depending on the result of its roll.

1-3. The Name Eater may alter a major detail in a memory (i.e who you were speaking too)
4-6. The Name Eater may erase a memory (i.e you forget the whole conversation)
7-10. The Name Eater may implant one of its own memories in the target
11-12. The Name Eater may implant a compulsion in the target (i.e a desire to visit the deep wood)
16+. The Name Eater may do all of the below to the target and change their name

 The target of this ability will not notice that it's memory has been changed, but the Name Eater can be seen doing something strange, as if its casting a spell.

Swap Memory (Recharge 5-6): The Name Eater swaps its memory with that of a humanoid it can touch unless they succeed a DC 16 Charisma saving throw. Unconscious creatures do not get a save. The Name Eater may use Swap Memory as a free action against any creature it reduces to 0 hit points. When two people swap memories they exchange:
-The contents of their memories
-All proficncies (skills, weapons, ect)
-Facial features, but eyes remain the same
-Identities and names (i.e if you have Gertrude's memory, you think you are her)
Acquaintances, friends, and enemies will recognize a person based on their whose memory they carry but strangers may notice incongruities (you look awful young for a woman whose says she's seen so many seasons). Don't think of a memory swap as the minds of two people being sorted into different bodies. Rather imagine it as if two new people who should not exist have been created out of old parts. Though identity and the associated memories remain stable, those parts of a person are forced to interact with a different personality. The follower and will of Donar the Barbarian may react differently to the mournful memories of Lord Debonair's lost lady love.What experiences may have caused Lord Debonair to become hopeless and limp may fill Lord Debonair in Donar's skin with brooding and rage.

The Kiss, 1897 by Edvard Munch
Each face is my own.
The Kiss by Edvard Much, 1897

A Name Eater is a jealous force, more like a shadow that moves through people than a person itself. All it wants is to say is "I am me" and know it is true. It constantly switches memories, sorting them into wrong bodies, causing others to suffer from the same anguish as itself. It can't fully comprehend what it's doing. It just does. It can only steal recollections, dim awareness that something is deeply wrong are borrowed and cycled through the same persons over and over again. The Name Eater does not know that each attempt to repair itself has failed. It sees the contentment it was starved for drain out of the faces of those it thinks are family. It loses track of which memory went where. These faces are all so marred now. Who are you? Are you me? Are you my mother, my friend, my brother? I'm so sorry. Let me fix you, let me try. Who are you?  Are you me?

Name Eaters know they can fight and how but they do not want to. If they can tell that someone is close to uncovering their horrible secret that they themselves don't fully understand they will try to isolate and neutralize them by altering their memory or stealing it. If they are threatened with violence they will be cautious about using their powers, they try to conserve hitdice. If out numbered or outgunned they will be quick to dislocate themselves and flee, usually picking up another memory somewhere else.

Notes on running a Name Eater: For each npc who might have their memory shoved into a player's character, write down a few formative memories, opinions, and important relationships to help with role playing as well as whatever proficiencies they have. A farmer or laborer might be trained in nature, animal handling, or survival. The monster manual states that commoners have 1d8 as hitdice but I think 2d4 works a bit better for the purposes of running a Name Eater.

To help keep track of how many hitdice a Name Eater has stolen, you can make a simple table with all the different dice sizes, like so:

Stolen Hitdice

Possible Scenarios/Adventure Seeds:
1. Simple, an isolated farmstead has a Name Eater in its midst. The residents have noticed the strange goings on, they think the farm is haunted by an evil spirit living in a nearby mound.
2. A group of soldiers is transporting one of the Nameless Dead which had stolen a companion's memory to a shaman. It became a Name Eater during the journey and now the party is tearing itself apart with paranoia. 
3. A Name Eater has stolen the memory of a shaman and understood what it is. It wants to get its true memory back from beyond the river of death. 
4. A string of murders, people are reported dead and then seen killing others. A Name Eater is behind the slaughter. 

A person is a question. Now answer me.

What cure is there?

Name Eaters leave wakes of agony and grief behind them. Memories which don't fit their other parts, scars of loss and distrust. Sure, life can go on with mismatched memories but nothing will ever be the same. A shaman can help, but most don't know how to break the self apart, only how to heal it. The Lapuans have shamans who would be willing to perform the correct rites and certain unscrupulous magicians, those who deal with evil spirits, also know how to crack the self and put it together again.

If none of these options are available, there is a more dangerous route. If two people with swapped memories each take near lethal damage at the same time then there is a chance that their memories will be knocked out of them and return to their correct owner. I'd say that chance is around 3 in 6, 4 in 6 if you manage to get both people unconscious at the exact same moment. 

Related image
Take care, my dearest
Mother and Son by Osip Braz, 1896
Not much can be done for the Nameless Dead. If their memory really is gone beyond the river, only a miracle could bring it back. A mother's lamentation can often do the trick, it's happened before. A great spirit would have to intervene though, One Eyed Chief, Mother Huldra, Sky Father.

But it's not always that bad. There's a 2 in 6 chance that the lost memory is caught in the fens and the stones around the river, or denied passage across the cold water. This chance rises to 5 in 6 if the Nameless Dead is technically still alive, just clinging to life.

It is dangerous to go that far through the dreaming world. A shaman will demand a great favor indeed and his journey will take 2d6 days. They'll return absolutely exhausted but warmth, life, will begin to return to whoever it is who has been made whole again. They'll spend 1d4+1 weeks in a coma but they can make a full recovery. There is a 4 in 6 chance that they've brought something back with them from the land of death, roll 1d4 on the table below, the item will found clutched in their left hand. 

1. A feather from Desires-to-Know. A large raven’s feather which glitters all colours in the moonlight. Hold it and you will remember everything perfectly. Burn it and inhale the smoke and you will learn one secret. Roll 1d4: 1. The location of a forgotten treasure 2. The secret weakness of a powerful monster 3. The name of an ancient ancestor 4. The greatest fear of a great leader

2. A stone from the bank of the River of Death. It is round, blue, cold as ice. If you clench it in your hand its chill flows through your body. The dead and the undead will recognize you as one of their own.

3. A swan feather. Long and white, running your finger through the barbs makes them crackle with cold electricity. Carry it on you and your self cannot be broken in the mortal world. However, death is closer to you. To succeed a death save you must roll a 13 or higher.

4. A piece of a hero. He was chopped up and thrown in the river a long time ago. This is a part of him, his viscera and his bone. Anybody who eats it is put into a coma forever. They do not age and cannot die. If a whole village and all its livestock mourn for the comatose person for a week they will wake. They will tell you death was the best sleep they've ever had.

This post is dedicated to my friends. You know who you are.