Archive for December 2013

A Sundered World: Island Creation

UPDATE: You can check out the rules for island creation on Google Drive, and comment on any specific part you want.

To help get your creative juices going, as well as to make it easier when trying to create an island on the fly, here is the current draft for island creation guidelines from A Sundered World. Let me know if you think it is missing something or needs clarification.

Given that A Sundered World is the somewhat stabilized result of numerous collapsed planar realities and accompanying rules, the word island has changed to become a kind of catch-all term that includes—for starters—chunks of rock, metal, ice, or bone, a cluster of root-entangled trees or ships that have been tied together, a massive creature, the corpse of a massive creature or entity like a
god, primordial, the burnt out husk of an aberrant star, or a
combination of the above.

Similar to steadings, islands have tags that describe what they are, how big they are, what lives there, and what they have to offer (though these tags can also be applied to specific steadings). An island's tags can help inform you about the steadings, monsters, and dungeons that can be found on it.

The first step is to figure out what an island is made of. Islands can be made of virtually anything you want, though most are made of some kind of stone. Knowing what an island is made of can help determine how big it is, as well as what lives there or what resources it has to offer. Feel free to use multiple tags if, for example, an island is a bunch of ships lashed to a massive beast that swims through the astral sea, or miles of ice sheets surrounding the impaled corpse of an ice primordial.
  • Astral Beast: The Astral Sea is full of strange creatures, some so massive that settlements can be built upon their backs. Is the creature alive or dead? Is it a whale, turtle, or something else? If people live on it can they control or communicate with it, or are they just along for the ride?
  • Corpse Star: The island is the husk of a corpse star. Great if you are looking for cold iron, bad if you want to avoid eldritch horrors from beyond space and time, losing your sanity, star cults, being horribly mutated, and who knows what else. Corpse stars are thankfully usually located at the edges of known Astral space.
  • Dead God: The whole god, or just part of one? Is the god's domain known? If you know which god it was, it can help inform what goes on around it: a god of life might spontaneously give rise to life, empower healing magic, or even bring the dead back to life, while a god of war might have tribes constantly fighting each other and have weapons "growing" out of it (Resource: Weapons?). Usually dead gods are inhabited by angels, religious folk, or celestial animals, and are located near the Golden Road or Fading Heavens.
  • Essence: The dominions of gods were formed from the gathering of Astral essence, shaped by their wills. While it is difficult for lesser beings to even learn to temporarily craft simple weapons from it, it is possible for islands to be shaped out of it. Essence islands can be transformed at the whim of whoever made it, often appearing to be made out of something else. 
  • Ice: Is it an iceberg, a block of ice, sheets of ice, or some other shape? A block of ice could contain a creature imprisoned during the Dawn War, sheets of ice could be the result of an ever-bleeding primordial corpse, or it could have an ice vortex at its center. Ice elementals and other elemental creatures, and Winter Court fey can all be found.
  • Metal: What kind of metal? Is it forged into something? This could include something like the City of Brass, the weapon or shield of a god, a massive ingot, or just an iron cube.
  • Primordial: As with a dead god, is it the whole primordial, or just part of one? Most primordials are aligned to one or more elements, like a fire primordial, or a magma primordial (earth and fire). The cthon tend to settle on them, but elemental monsters are known to spawn from them.
  • Ships: How many? What kind? Do they still work?
  • Stone: Stone islands can be barren, but most can somehow support at least plant-life. Some formations near or from the Maelstrom are elementally charged (usually fire).
  • Wood: A huge chunk of wood, maybe a branch, maybe an entire tree, several trees fused together, or even one of the dryarks that travel along ley lines connecting the Wandering Wyld's gate cities. 
The Astral Sea is filled with plenty of small, useless chunks of stone and other debris, most of which are not worth mentioning. For the rest, here are some guidelines: small islands are usually not capable of supporting people on their own, and often lack any meaningful terrain features. Larger islands are more likely to have arable land, powerful spirits, or enough usable real estate to get a colony going. Keep in mind that these guidelines are for supporting a steading: if the steading is a trade city or fed through divine miracles, then it can exist on a smaller island.
  • Small: The island has enough space to harbor a small group of people, but probably not enough resources to sustain them without the help of magic or a spirit. They likely hunt or gather elsewhere, salvage ruined ships, or engage in piracy to survive. Dungeons could include abandoned towers, sealed vaults, portals, or extra-dimensional spaces.
  • Medium: The island can reasonably sustain a single steading, probably a village, town, or keep, but a city is also feasible, especially with assistance. There might be a mountain or two, small forest with a small animal population, lake, or other similarly-sized terrain feature.
  • Large: The island can easily sustain an entire city, or two smaller steadings. There might be several mountains, an expansive forest with animals, a large lake with a stream, or a combination of a few.
  • Huge: The island can easily sustain a couple cities, a city and another steading or two, or several smaller steadings. Mountains, forests, and streams are all possible.
Islands that have nothing of value are often uninhabited, except by things that want for nothing, have been bound there, or use it as a lair or waystation. For the rest you can represent what it does have to offer with some steading tags, like SafeResource, and Exotic, but there are some things to take into consideration with a few existing tags, as well as some new ones:
  • Cold Iron: This is a type of Resource or an Exotic good that is especially effective against arcane magic and fey. Corpse stars are the only source of cold iron; not only does this make it difficult to procure, but its psychic residue needs to be scrubbed to prevent it from causing nightmares and insanity.
  • Elemental Vortex: The island resonates one or more kinds of elemental energies, like fire, air, or lightning. The energy can be harnessed to power ritual magic, though exceptionally powerful weapons might need to be constructed on a vortex. A vortex can affect things that live there (leading to sorcerers and elemental animals), and also produce elementally-aligned crystals and metals.
  • Food: Despite a lack of sunlight and water plants can still grow, even on stone islands (but not always). Spirits and angels can cause food to grow, even where it would normally not.
  • Mobile: The island is not stationary. It could be a holy cathedral that drifts across the Golden Road, a giant beast swimming through the Astral Sea, located in a particularly turbulent region of the Astral Sea, an eladrin border city that fades from the Wandering Wyld to a ley line intersection (which might be more appropriate for a steading-level tag), or a kind of lost colony that drifted too close to a corpse star.
  • Souls: An Exotic tag. Usually devils deal in soul trafficking (or rather, abduction), though Mes-Atbaru has its share and even some corrupt angels have been known to deal with them in the name of the "greater good". Souls have a variety of uses, from darker magical applications to fueling anima reactors.
  • Transit: The island has access to an angel gate, teleportation circle, portal, or ley line, enabling quick, safe travel across the Astral Sea.
  • Water: Water can spring from islands even when it "should not". Also, like food spirits and angels can produce water, as can a water vortex.
Not every island is inhabited (at least not in the typical sense), but when it is, use these tags:
  • Mortals: This is a generic racial tag that applies to any mortal race, like dwarves, elves, halflings, tieflings, and the like. If there are one or more dominant races, you can add them as separate tags.
  • Spirits: While minor spirits can be found in almost any natural feature, this tag is for islands that have a meaningful spiritual presence, whether beneficial or malevolent. Spirits can produce food or water (regardless of the island's size), and protect or enslave the island's inhabitants.
  • Celestials: Angels, including corrupt angels and devas, are usually found on floating cathedrals, fading dominions, or god corpses. Such islands will often be found near the Golden Road and Fading Heavens, and steadings will often have the Divine tag.
  • Elementals: Base elementals, but also includes elemental beings like djinn, cthon, and dragons. Often there will be an Elemental Vortex and it will be located near the Maelstrom.
  • Fey: Elves, gnomes, hags, and other fey entities. The Wandering Wyld, border cities with gates linked to the Wandering Wyld, dryarks, and the like.
  • Aberrants: Do things lurk on the island that should not exist, like aboleths, star cults, beholders, and other denizens of the Outer Gods? Then it probably deserves this tag. Corpse stars are obvious candidates, but islands with a secret cult dedicated to Dagon, or a forest filled with the Black Goat's dark young are equally valid.
  • Devils: Asmodeus is the poster child of islands with this tag. Any island inhabited by devils or associated with them works. Typically these can be found in or near the Iron Circle. 
If an island has something of value, whether food, raw materials, location, and the like, then there is probably someone (or something) that is interested in it, or interesting about it in some capacity. It is also possible that something just lives there and helps or hinders its inhabitants (or those that would like to inhabit it). Use the answers and tags generated in previous steps to describe at least one thing worth mentioning.

Examples: Dwarf thane, high priest, guardian angel (or angels), exceptionally powerful spirits, one or more fey lords, a dragon that regularly demands tribute, star cult leader, infamous monster, orc chieftain, djinn emir, rakshasa imprisoned in a secret vault, an ancient artifact, ruin, or spell, place of power, one of Autokrython's machines.
December 29, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Thunderspire Labyrinth in Dungeon World

For awhile I wanted to take a shot at "rebuilding" 4th Edition's published adventures so that they were more fun (or, actually fun). I got through Keep on the Shadowfell, but then 5th Edition was announced so I decided to start over and covert them to that. This required a lot more work because I had to deal with a system in flux; I had gotten about two-thirds of the way done with Thunderspire Labyrinth before I decided that 5th Edition, to put it nicely, was probably not something I was going to enjoy.

On the plus side, my first foray into running Dungeons & Dragons adventures using Dungeon World proved exceedingly popular, as was my quick conversion for Keep on the Shadowfell. Given that I already put a lot of work in rebuilding Thunderspire Labyrinth, I figured I might as well take the plot and layout changes I made and present them with a game I do enjoy.

December 26, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

A Sundered World: Astral Swimmer Compendium Class

The Astral Sea is a major facet of A Sundered World, containing the remnants of every other world that was. Most of the time when the players have to deal with it, it will be while traveling, but they can also exploit its subjective gravity during, say, ship combat, while exploring ruins, or even just wandering around a city.

If you are not familiar with the Astral Sea, in Dungeons & Dragons you could walk on any solid surface as if it were the ground. You could also kick off and fly around, though you generally moved slower than usual (4th Edition made it a clumsy fly speed, while 3rd Edition based it on your
Intelligence modifier).

December 21, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: Worlds Collide

I played a lot of Planescape back in the day, and one of my earliest 3rd Edition campaigns was a plane-hopping all-drow game (by demand I swear), but I do not think I really started enjoying the planes until 4th Edition. Partially it was because its cosmology had more of a mythological resonance than the Great Wheel, partially because it was more conducive to actual adventuring. Of course given that it is 4th Edition I am not surprised that it is the only cosmology that does not get mentioned.

December 19, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Legends & Lore: I Am Just Not Feeling It

Last week Mearls talked about "feel", stating that good feel leads to player immersion. As with design elegance a few weeks ago he gave some examples that by his definition lacked good feel, but then clarified that it did not matter anyway because it is much more important that they just keep doing what Dungeons & Dragons did before. So, as with design elegance it makes me question why he even brings it up in the first place if all he was going to do is set the bar exactly where he needs it to be in order to justify his decisions.

December 17, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Wandering Monsters: Mapping the World (Also Q&A)

Looks like we get maps instead of monsters, this week. Though I am not exactly a fan of hex maps it is still a decently informative article that helps put various map scales into perspective. I do question the proposed ratio of 1:10:50; why not go with something like 2:10:50 so that it scales consistently? Also at the end of the article it mentions a "traditional" dungeon map scale of 10 feet to a square. I hope that that will not become the default unit of measurement, as any group that wants to break out the minis (which groups did use pre-4th Edition) will need to do some extra work translating the map to a grid.

Returning to the Mines of Madness

Years ago I ran an Eberron campaign steeped in Lovecraftian horror. Not only did adventure titles play off of one of Lovecraft's stories—At the Mines of Madness, The Shadows Under Greyshore, etc—but they featured people twisted by alien energies, phasic denizens from another dimension, strange, alien ruins, tentacled horrors, and cultists that worshipping god-like, thankfully imprisoned ancient ones.

Back in May I posted an idea I had about translating the Star Wars universe into more a more...traditional fantasy setting, also with Lovecraftian elements. It garnered quite a bit of traffic, but Josh and I were—and still are—busy with A Sundered World (which has its own bits of Lovecraftian influence).

Legends & Lore: Tell Us How You Really Feel

For the past few weeks Mearls has been talking about design elegance, citing criteria that 5th Edition does not meet in order to I guess help justify his decisions and direction (or at least sway us into thinking that he is doing the right thing), instead of taking the best mechanics from previous editions and building upon them, and perhaps even looking to other games to help innovate something better.

This week he moves the goalposts from elegance to the "ever-elusive feel". According to him the feel is correct when it matches your actions, thoughts, and decisions to that of your character. In other words it is good when the mechanics help immerse you in the game, and bad when it reminds you that you are just playing a game and causes you to think purely in terms of mechanics.

December 10, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Five Things I Like About 5th Edition

A criticism that I have heard more than once in the past few months is that I hate 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The two main reasons seem to be that it is different or not like 4th Edition, I guess because while drawing comparisons to other games like Dungeon World and Numenera I also mention 4th Edition in the mix.

Since most of my 5th Edition talk is directed at whatever crops up in the Legends & Lore and Wandering Monsters columns, I figure that the best way to prove that I do not hate anything and everything about it is to just make a list of at least five things because, you know, 5th Edition, five. Anyway, here is the possibly inconclusive list.

December 07, 2013
Posted by David Guyll

Keep on the Shadowfell in Dungeon World

I have run Keep on the Shadowfell numerous times. The first time was before 4th Edition "officially" came out, and it was such a horrible experience that subsequent runs essentially only retained the idea that there was a ruined castle somewhere around Winterhaven, and that a death cult was going to open a portal underneath it. I have since extensively modded the original version, and even converted it for D&D Next.

My posts on running Expedition to Castle Ravenloft in Dungeon World were pretty popular (though that was back when I was still largely learning the game, and if I ever run it again I would do it way differently), so I figured that given all my experience with Keep on the Shadowfell and a few other adventures under my belt, it should be a snap to write up a post converting it into a rough adventure front for Dungeon World.

Adventure History
Some two-hundred years ago one of Orcus’s death priests constructed a planar portal that created a door to the Shadowfell, allowing a horde of undead to pour through and wreak havoc on the natural world. At the time the empire of Nerath was at its height, and dispatched an army to fight the threat.
     Ultimately they succeeded in destroying the portal, but the planar fabric had been greatly weakened. To prevent a further catastrophe an order of paladins built a fortress over the site, which served its purpose until Nerath collapsed and the fortress itself fell into ruin and was forgotten.
     Until recently.
     An ambitious priest of Orcus named Kalarel learned of the legend. He brought his death cult cell and a retinue of undead there, where they unearthed the collapsed passages and discovered the ruined portal. Not wanting to draw the attention of the locals, he purchased slaves from a group of hobgoblins known as the Bloodreavers, and used their blood to fuel fell rituals to weaken the holy seals placed long ago and reactivate the gate.
     Though the process has taken a long time, his plans are almost complete as he prepares to open the portal and allow the denizens of the Shadowfell to once again pour forth and kill in the name of Orcus.



  • Prosperity Poor
  • Population Shrinking
  • Defense Militia
  • Other Resource (food), History (Shadowfell Keep), Arcane, Blight (kobolds, undead)

The ruler of Winterhaven, Lord Padraig is looking for solutions to the recent problems with his village. Normally he is a just, collected ruler, but the severity of problems has caused him to become somewhat desperate and prone to bursts of rage.
     Winterhaven’s resident sage, Valthrun mostly keeps to himself and rarely leaves his tower. In fact, people normally come to him with questions and commissions, and he has quite a bit of information on record about the the history of Shadowfell Keep...if you can find it.
     Originally a hunter and guide, Ninarin was hired by Kalarel to capture other hunters to use as sacrifices, as well as keep tabs on Lord Padraig’s actions in Winterhaven.

Custom Moves
When you spend hours rummaging around the piles of books in Valthrun's tower, roll+INT. *On a 10+, gain 3 lore. *On a 7-9, gain 1 lore. Spend 1 lore at any time to ask the GM a question about Shadowfell Keep, undead, or Orcus's death cults.

Adventure Front
The main danger is the cult of Orcus, though the Venomfang kobolds are making life immediately difficult for the people of Winterhaven by ambushing travelers and attacking farms. If the players are not already aware that something bad is going on at Shadowfell Keep, then you will need to create an encounter or event that leads them there (see Notes).

Cult of Orcus (Ambitious Organization)
Impulse Reopen the shadow gate
Grim Portents
  • People mysteriously vanish.
  • The dead begin to rise.
  • The ritual is prepared.
  • The gate is opened.
Impending Doom: Pestilence

Venomtooth Kobolds (Hordes)
Impulse: To expand and claim Winterhaven
Grim Portents
  • The kobolds raid caravans passing through the region.
  • The kobolds attack the farms surrounding Winterhaven.
  • The kobolds attack Winterhaven.
Impending Doom: Tyranny

  • Can the kobolds be driven out before it is too late?
  • Will the villagers be rescued before they are sacrificed?
  • What will happen if the shadow gate is opened?

Tigyip is a kobold high wyrmpriest that advises Achualkoth on how to best lead the Venomfang kobolds.
     Achualkoth is a wyrmling green dragon that the kobolds discovered while traveling through Winterhaven's forests looking for a new home. They believe him to be a blessing from Tiamat.
     Kalarel is a high priest dedicated to the demon god Orcus. He is busy preparing a powerful ritual that will tear open the planar fabric, allowing him to summon and command legions of undead.


Venomtooth Lair
The kobolds have carved an extensive warren into the mountains south of Winterhaven. The winding, narrow, maze-like tunnels already make it easy for them to outmaneuver and dispatch intruders, but some are also trapped and underground streams make for precarious footing.

Custom Moves
When you are squeezing through a narrow passage, take -1 ongoing when trying to evade danger.

Dungeon Moves
  • A passage is too narrow to squeeze through.
  • The ground is slick with water.
  • Water douses an open flame.
  • You stumble into a kobold trap.
  • A kobold patrol approaches.
  • A weapon is coated in debilitating poison.
  • Kobolds flee into small tunnels (or use them to stage ambushes).

Achualkoth can be represented with a dragon whelp, just with a poisonous breath weapon.

Kobold Wyrmpriest     Solitary, Small, Stealthy, Intelligent, Magical
Poisonous orb (d10 damage)     6 HP     1 Armor
Near, Far
Special Qualities: Dragon connection, magic in the blood
Though kobolds are linked to dragons only a few possess any inherent magical powers. Over time they can refine their gifts, but a rare few manage to shortcut this process by ingesting the blood of dragons. These "wyrmpriests" are marked both by a physical change and magnified capabilities, making them easy to spot but much more dangerous. Instinct: To protect its draconic patron (and find a new one if it fails)
  • Lead from a safe distance
  • Weave magic into a poisonous spell
  • Escape if things go badly

Shadowfell Keep
The cultists try to foster the appearance of a haunted ruin: they do not post guards, instead stationing undead minions throughout the ruins and limit their activities to only a few buildings, which they use as a kind of "dummy lair". The rest of the cultists, gate, and ritual chambers are located in the catacombs underneath the ruins, which can be accessed using one of a few secret passages.
     Kalarel has spent several weeks clearing out the passages and reconstructing the gate. Since its completion, the dark energies of the Shadowfell have begun leaking through, causing the dead to rise and sometimes defy their masters. Shadows flit about unnaturally, the temperature drastically fluctuates, and many of the cultists dwelling in the halls have become paranoid, killed themselves, or been killed.
     On the plus side unless a cultist survives to tell him what is going on it is unlikely that he will become aware of any intruders.

Custom Moves
The threshold of death diminishes life. When you are healed, either magically or by resting, reduce the amount of hit points regained by 1d6. This can reduce the amount to 0, but not less.

Within the catacombs shadows encroach upon the light, rendering any source of light only about half as effective.

When you stand before the shadow gate, roll+CON. *On a 10+, you stand resolute. *On a 7-9, take -1 ongoing any time you perform any feat that relies on strength, toughness, or agility.

Why you lay dying before the shadow gate, a 10+ for a Last Breath roll counts as a 7-9, and on a 6- your soul is immediately pulled through the gate.

Dungeon Moves
  • Noises echo through the halls: sobbing, groaning, clattering, chanting, etc.
  • The temperature rapidly drops to freezing levels.
  • An unprotected light source is extinguished by a sudden, strong gust of wind.
  • An agonizing scream is abruptly cut short.
  • You find the husk of a recently slain cultist.
  • You spot a glowing humanoid shape in the distance.
  • Undead sentries flank the entrance to a chamber.
  • You stumble across a room filled with ranks of motionless, seemingly oblivious undead.
  • Ghosts come out of the walls.

Ash Phantom     Solitary, Magical
Choking cloud (d10 damage, ignores armor)     12 HP     0 Armor
Special Qualities: Made of ashes
Usually when you think of the restless dead you imagine skeletons, shambling zombies, or something else relatively easy to dispatch. Unfortunately not all remains are exactly tangible, being a pile of ashes does little to inconvenience some spirits. Ash phantoms are normally shapeless clouds of ashes, though sometimes they take on more tangible shapes. Instinct: To surround someone with a choking cloud
  • Obscure vision
  • Flow through cracks

First Session
Determine if the characters are natives to Winterhaven, and if not why they have ventured all this way. They might have been hired by merchant guilds to retrieve stolen goods and put a stop to the kobolds responsible, be on a quest to defeat the death cult, seeking forbidden magic, or are looking for a loved one that was taken. Here are some questions to get the ball rolling:

  • Which one of you is a native that lost her home and family? What happened to them?
  • Which one of you knows the forests around Winterhaven like the back of their hand?
  • Which one of you explored the ruins of Shadowfell Keep when you were younger?
  • Who is descended from the paladins that originally drove back the darkness hundreds of years ago?
  • Who is searching for holy relics left behind by the paladins?
  • What have you been told about the dragon's grave?

I left some content out of the original adventure, namely the dragon's grave and Sir Keegan.

If you want to include the dragon's grave, the best way I found to get the players there is to have Ninarin offer to pay them if they manage to retrieve a sizable bone from it, as the death cult wants one to use as a ritual focus. The problem is that the kobolds view it as a holy ground and protect it at all times, and she is not equipped to handle them. Another way is to have them find it while looking for the Venomfang lair. They could even stumble upon members of the death cult fighting them.

If you do not want to use this at all, you can have the characters run into a group of Bloodreavers transporting "goods", cultists while exploring the forest, or even have the dead rise from a graveyard near Winterhaven: it should not take a 10+ Discern Realities check to deduce that Shadowfell Keep is linked in some way.

If you read my modded versions of the adventure, I placed Sir Keegan in an intact chapel within the ruins of Shadowfell Keep. The characters can fight him, but the assumption is that they talk to him, and if deemed worthy he gives one of them Aecris, a magical sword. In Dungeon World I would just make this a renamed Argo-Thaan. The chapel was also considered holy ground, making it a safe place to rest, and had a secondary entrance into the catacombs, allowing the characters to shortcut some of the dangers.

Finally, the shadow gate could potentially be used as a danger all on its own, specifically a Cursed Place.

Legends & Lore: Design Folly, Part Two

In last week's Legends & Lore column Mearls talked about his favorite solution of solving a problem by removing it entirely, and fixing many, smaller issues with a few major changes. Of course he demonstrates the former by barely even changing the problem, and in the latter he cites advantage/disadvantage, which not only has its share of problems but was apparently inspired by a mostly impossible and unlikely majority use of 4th Edition's action points, so...yeah.

This week wraps things up with the last two precepts of what he considers to be design finesse: rules that are invisible to players that do not need them, and going with the flow of the game.


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