Sunday, February 26, 2023

Let's Dig Into: Dragonstar

Thank you to Kyana for telling me about today's topic, Dragonstar! I was originally going to make this a 3E OdditE post before I decided the whole book merited going over.

(Also I've decided to change "Furt Digs Into" to "Let's Dig Into" because I feel like I spam my name enough around here and it's starting to feel a little self-involved. It's not like I have a brand to market- yet.)

Between TSR's discontinuation of Spelljammer and the launch of Pathfinder's soft sci-fi spinoff Starfinder, there was a proliferation of small science-fantasy settings for d20 and other systems, all trying to fill a niche that wasn't completely dominated by a triple-A publisher.

One of these was Dragonstar, published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2001. It ran for a few years before being quietly discontinued somewhere between 2007 and 2008, coinciding with the end of the 3rd edition that it was created for. The website still functions and you can purchase pretty much everything digitally these days, though I don't believe the dedicated forums exist anymore.


We are introduced to the world (actually galaxy) of Dragonstar by a long first-person exposition by one John Caspian, a shoutout-tastic exiled prince originally from a relatively ordinary world in the style of standardized western faux-medieval fantasy. He was a typical adventurer with hopes, dreams, and a kingdom to reclaim, until the day the sky split open and spaceships bombarded every major city on the planet into submission. The emperor was executed by the invaders, his daughter was installed as figurehead, and the entire planet was summarily turned into another province of the galactic Dragon Empire.

Caspian delivers this exposition to a rookie years later, as they now both serve in that same empire's Imperial Legions as conscripts. Their new lot in life is to bring that same overwhelming firepower and iron-fisted ultimatum to bear on other worlds. It's a bit like waking up one morning to find the Imperium of Man from Warhammer 40k at your doorstep ready to 'adopt' your world, but more cosmopolitan and with fewer alt-right memes. The legionnaires do this either voluntarily or at gunpoint, in exchange for the promises of citizenship, adventure, and other perks in a rather Roman twist.

Caspian laments much of what has been done and continues to be done, but it's evident that this is the new normal for him. His way of understanding the universe completely disintegrated when his world was conquered by offworlders he'd never fathomed the existence of before. His way of coping with it, of surviving, was the same as it is for so many others when their world gets blown wide open: accept it, try to survive, and maybe find a new place for yourself among the stars.

Assuming the DM introduces Dragonstar to your campaign by starting it off as a traditional fantasy world only to swerve into a sci-fi invasion, new PCs might do well to heed his advice. Or maybe they should reject it entirely and flee for the planetary or galactic fringes ASAP- the last thing we need is another gods-damned collaborator becoming a cog in this scaly, imperial machine.

The Empire

The Dragon Empire is exactly what it sounds like; an empire ruled by dragons.

As some of the most magically powerful creatures in the galaxy it was inevitable that they'd eventually take to the stars. (One piece of info omitted from Caspian's history lesson is that space flight was actually invented by a gnomish confederation long before dragons got in on it.) In doing so, they discovered that there are other dragons who are similarly powerful but out numbered on other planets. Eventually they began to band together, in interplanetary kingdoms that were divided (unsurprisingly) by subtype.

The metallic kingdom of Qesemet and the chromatic kingdom of Asamet ("golden kingdom" and "iron kingdom", respectively) soon came to blows over their apparently inborn differences and started a war that wiped out entire planets, with plenty of mortals getting caught in the middle. Billions died as little more than footnotes in the histories of these two expanding superpowers. After all, individual differences aside, both kingdoms were built on the idea of draconic supremacy.

Only the near-extinction of the neutral yellow dragons due to some unknown catastrophe convinced the others to hammer out a peace. Otherwise, they feared, dragons would all wipe themselves out. After a lot of bickering and politicking, the kingdoms merged together into a single Empire (no fancy draconic name for this one, I'm afraid) where sections of the galaxy are de facto controlled by various houses and other factions within the greater whole, all of them nominally on the same side.

Part of what glued the empire together to begin with was a power-sharing agreement between the different colors of dragon. Each dragon "house" was allowed to rule for 1,000 years with an elected leader acting as emperor, after which point they handed the reins over to the next color in the chain of succession. It's the first use of rotating monarchy I've seen in a fantasy world, to my memory.

The empire began with the gold dragons under the empire's founder, Khelorn. Then over the next 5,000 years it went to the silvers, bronzes, brasses, and coppers, before we reach the rulers of the modern day- red dragons, led by the ancient red wyrm Mezzenbone.

The non-dragon subjects of the empire were sold on the idea that they'd get 5,000 years of peace when it all started, and they did. But now their descendants have to suffer the consequences of that agreement- not that they would have been able to do all that much against their unified dragon overlords if they wanted to.

The transfer of power was peaceful, and Mezzenbone didn't immediately declare himself emperor for life, but problems quickly emerged under the reign of the first of the chromatic dragons. Mezzenbone is unrepentantly evil, but it remains to be seen whether he is "merely" a tyrant who promotes war abroad while curbing rights and liberties back home, or if he's dedicated to the destruction of every bit of peace and stability that has come to the galaxy in spite of the machinations of dragons. He adored the mayhem of the Dragon War, after all. He has been in power for less than 100 years so far, which means only 900+ more to go before we get a palate cleanser in the form of the blue dragons.

This is the era players are dropped into, as a millennia-long status quo crumbles away into a time of danger and uncertainty. The metallics and chromatics both knew something like this might happen when the empire was founded. But when you're so privileged and live for so many tens of thousands of years that just waiting a millennium for the guy you don't like to leave office is no big deal, it's easy to overlook countless generations of mortal life.

It's not all a Dune-esque tale of feudal space darkness, though. This is still D&D, usable with all of the genre contortions that you can fit it into. There are still wizards, halflings, and bards. There just also happen to be battleships, space marines, and all manner of other sci-fi trappings mixed in. It doesn't do retro swashbuckling like Spelljammer did because the technology is more advanced, but that opens up other avenues in turn. It can be rather space operatic at times.

Worldbuilding & Religion

One of the most interesting parts of Dragonstar to me is how it incorporates the sameyness of early 2000s fantasy settings into the world-building. It's another universe where no matter where you go, what planet you visit, you can find a civilization of dwarves that speak dwarvish, elves that speak elvish, humans who speak some mutually intelligible dialect of common, etc.- except in this universe, it confuses the hell out of scholars.

The implausibility of this seeming fact of life has been wondered at for a while, and people have tried to address it and provide several explanations for it over the centuries. Their current most popular answer? Deific panspermia.

According to the Unification Church (the dominant religion in the empire), there were once twelve incredibly powerful beings who traveled the cosmos, ordering planets and seeding them with prefab life that always seems to develop in roughly the same way. Each of these beings embodied different concepts that keen observers now see (or perhaps try to see) mixed and matched in every deity worshiped across the galaxy: every god is just a reflection of one or more of these primordial "Deitypes", as the church calls them. Naturally, dragons consider themselves the favored children of these gods, and claim to act in their name (when it is politically advantageous to do so).

Deitypes are essentially a fantasy reimagining of real-life methods of religious and cultural comparison like Interpretatio Graeca or Romana, whereby one society attempts to understand other societies by relating similar parts of their belief systems to their own- essentially translating their gods and myths into a more recognizable language.

Up to a certain point, this is religious syncretism (and/or multi-traditionalism) like you get whenever you put two or more cultures in direct contact with one another. But when the group applying this interpretation is also a massively powerful, hegemonic force, it also affects real one-way change upon the subject of interpretation. This is clearly visible in Dragonstar, where the vast majority of the empire's citizens follow the Unification Church and either worship the pantheon of the Twelve, or worship local gods that have long since been given the deitype treatment.

There are two exceptions to this rule. The first is barbarians. The barbarian class actually gets a whole new rule about how they never abandon their old gods or refer to them using generic Unification titles. Barbarians are also typed as backwater folks from the galactic fringes who are decidedly unusual for their steadfast dedication to the old ways. That shows how profoundly the church (and the empire that indirectly promotes it) has shaped religion and the way people conceive of it; it is epistemic violence on a nearly galactic scale, and it's getting a little bit closer to becoming absolute with every new planetary conquest.

The second exception is Dualists. They are the largest minority religion in the empire, who responded to the reductionism of Unification with an even more radical reductionism of their own. They developed a sort of Zarathustran dualism where everything in the cosmos is reflective of the conflict between the generative Creator (typed as good) and the destructive Adversary (evil). This "Dualist Heresy" is divided between those who side with one or the other, and the so-called purists who venerate the oppositional totality of things. I like to imagine the purists approach it in a manner similar to dharmic cyclical transformation or Daoist radical acceptance, rather than the erratically swinging pendulum flavor of True Neutral that druids were saddled with in the old days.


As hinted at above, all of the standard D&D species can be found across the Dragon Empire and beyond. Each gets a few additional features that interact with Dragonstar's unique skills or technologies, but otherwise they are unchanged from their base game forms in either mechanics or temperament. Dwarves are still miners, except nowadays they're likely to do it on asteroids, etc.

The core list was expanded for Dragonstar, adding a few more playable options to explore the vast expanse of space with- these include drow and orcs, the half-dragon template, and a brand new "race" called soulmechs.

Drow are still just as problematic as ever, except in the Dragonstar galaxy an appreciable number of them have traded in their spider silk lingerie for a black leather coat and a pair of jackboots. Drow comprise almost the entire Imperial Secret Police Directorate, and they serve Mezzenbone by rooting out perceived threats to the emperor like good little fascists. In this universe they still worship the Spider Goddess (Lolth with the serial number filed off), who is identified as a mixture of the Mother and Destroyer deitypes.

Orcs are, well... orcs. Still mostly chaotic evil, still mostly worshipers of war deities. They do get a little attention paid to their overall zest for life, however; drinking, dancing, feasting, and celebrating all their emotions, not just the violent and destructive ones, is how they live. Additionally, orc women are given a shred of interiority by flocking in growing numbers to more cosmopolitan areas of the empire because they won't live like borderline-chattel the way traditional orcish society expects them to.

Reading that part, I was remound of the sizeable population of orc and half-orc women that cropped up in Forgotten Realms' Phsant after some Zhentish orcs helped defeat the Tuigan Horde and got a taste for "civilization". Since Mezzenbone came to power, fringe orcs have started warmongering and invading neighboring planets that were previously considered more off-limits because of their membership in the empire. Mezzy boy is more than happy for that, because it gives the sensationalist media a bigger controversy to pay attention to, leaving him free to pursue his own authoritarian schemes.

... I don't like how accurate to real life that has become in the decades since Dragonstar was published.

Half-dragons here are as rough on a character's ECL as they are in base D&D, but they get some pretty big nonmechanical perks for living in the Dragon Empire. Even under the metallic dragons it was a highly stratified society, with dragons at the top and dragon-blooded creatures directly below them. Half-dragons enjoy a lot of social privilege compared to other humanoids, and more than a few of them are the spoiled illegitimate children of powerful dragon house members, unable to ever ascend to politics but free to tug at their parents' purse strings.

Soulmechs are Dragonstar's answer to the question of sentient AI. You cannot create a truly self-aware artificial intelligence using only technology- at least not yet. Instead, you can create a fully functional android body and then stuff a person's soul into it at the time of death to act as its pilot and guiding intelligence.

The process is expensive and time-consuming, but results in an effectively immortal body with almost all the abilities one had in the flesh. Unsurprisingly, a lot of rich people do this to cheat death. Some heinous crimes against humanoidity can also be committed on unwilling subjects of the soul transfer process. We're talking some real Black Mirror type stuff.

Soulmechs are notable, to me at least, for not falling into the whole "cybernetics eat your soul" trope. They suffer a -2 to Charisma from their new bodies, but they are still living things who are not prone to cold, calculated insanity or anything else that some sci-fi writers like to throw at the question of transhumanity. They're also pretty well-integrated into the empire at large, with only staunch traditionalist elves and drow seeming to have a problem with them- and even then, it's more a distaste for the unnatural ritual involved in the soulmech's creation, rather than the soulmech as an individual.

There are other species detailed in the supplement Galactic Races. Some them which are introductions of core species to the universe like centaurs, derro, and kobolds. Others are slight variations on common D&D species like the elems, who are like genasi except born from external planar influence instead of outsider ancestry. Others are more unique to Dragonstar, like the ith-kon mindflayer hybrids, living crystal tarn idoun, sapient ooze ulb, or the quasta, which I can only describe as hyper-inquisitive bird people crossed with one of the angels from the book of Ezekiel.

"Be not afrai- ooh, what does this button do?"

Oruks are another entry in that book that I want to give a bit of attention here. They're ogre-orc crossbreeds who have since become a viable and self-sustaining people. They're even worse pariahs than half-orcs, and either stay isolated on their "primitive" home worlds or go adventuring out of desperation. Instead of the usual no-downsides hybrid vigor or the creepy anti-miscegenation tropes that mixed groups get in a lot of D&D-derivative games, oruks get a mixed bag.

They are Large like their ogre ancestors, very strong and sturdy, and able to take feats to give themselves natural armor and higher strength checks. But their dense bone structure and thick skin cause them to suffer from poor lung capacity- they can't ever breathe quite enough to keep their massive bodies running smoothly. It's a very weird, very isolated instance of the writers nodding to the square-cube law as it applies to living things, in a game where giants and tarrasques regularly run around without collapsing under their own weight.


Core classes are mechanically unchanged, with the exception of small additions like skill lists or language on how new proficiencies work- fighters can take various gun-related feats as their bonus feats, for example. There are technological weapons and armor with a section dedicated to them, including high-tech versions of normal weapons, as well as vehicles and other devices that fall under the purview of two new classes; the pilot and mechanist.

Pilots are dedicated to, well, piloting the various vehicles and mechs that Dragonstar has to offer. I would have expected them to receive more than 4+Int skill points per level or to receive a class bonus to piloting, but no such luck- not that cheesing skills is hard in 3rd edition. Instead, their class abilities are dedicated to combat bonuses while piloting vehicles; dodge AC, to-hit, increased critical threat range with guns, speed, x/day damage reducing dodge actions, and bonus feats for more piloting tricks and bonuses.

Aside from the limited-use dodge maneuvers, the features are extremely passive numerical buffs. That's probably fine since vehicles themselves have a whole dedicated rules system to make up for any lack of depth and choice that the class offers, but by itself the pilot feels like a beefier NPC class than one intended for PCs. Outside of their machines, they get almost nothing- d6 HD, light armor, martial weapons, 3/4ths BAB, and bad/good/bad saves.

Mechanists are Dragonstar's glorified mechanics, but they are not quite as narrow in usefulness as Pilots. They get skills and trapfinding like a rogue, bonus feats, can specialize in types of technology like a ranger can terrains, two different abilities to jury-rig or temporarily unjam technological devices out in the field, an offensive sabotage ability, and can provide +1 through to +5 upgrades to any piece of tech at no cost. Upgraded tech is more prone to failure and harder to repair, but mechanists can make that all go away with a Repair check, and again, it's not hard to get skill modifiers crazy-high in 3E. As with pilots, mechanists like fish out of water when not specifically doing their respective machine thing- Tier 4, both of them, if I was to give a preliminary ranking.

I was struck by how open-ended the sabotage ability is. There's no daily limit, it's presumably only a standard action, and the DC to use it is a flat 20 no matter what you want. As long as you are in touch range and can make the check, you can disable one function of a device. Make it so a rifle can't fire, stop a hovertank in its (lack of) tracks, or deal scaling damage to a soulmech. Granted, you have to be in melee range and an enemy mechanist can undo your sabotage with a quick repair, but with surprise and/or planning you can absolutely cripple enemy machines or spread mayhem.

(One quick aside related to technology, since we're on the topic:

When I got to the weapons, power armor, and vehicles, I was shocked to find that there was no malfunction system like you'd get in later d20 games like Pathfinder. Things just do the things they're built to do without fear of catastrophic failure or explosions, barring the work of saboteurs or Plot. It simplifies things in a way that I don't dislike, especially in a game with a mechanist class. Because if the majority of the party's gear can break, it will break, and that would both make the mechanist absolutely necessary for a tolerable pace of play, and make it a very boring class to play. All they'd do every encounter is hotfix guns jammed by yet another full-auto attack.)

For the Prestige

The handbook also adds a few prestige classes, as any 3rd party splat worth its salt (and many that are not) does. These are the Gundancer, Negotiator, and Technomancer, all of them 10 levels long.

Gundancers are warrior-monks who have embraced the way of shooting people in the face. They even get a 1st-level class feature called Gun-Fu that makes them harder to disarm, as well as immune to AoOs while wielding light firearms in threatened spaces. They also get abilities to shoot better (surprise surprise), disarm enemies and shoot them in the faces with their own guns, steady their aim, become affected by haste 1/day, unleash a barrage of shots at everything in range 1/day, and absorb (and inexplicably heal from) a shot from an energy weapon 1/day.

The limited-use abilities are flavorful but too limiting, as is almost always the case. The concept of a Gun-Fu monk is redeemingly hilarious though. It's one of the parts of this book that dips into the pink mohawk style of Shadowrun tropes, and I'm kind of into it. Play this class if you want to be like the gun-kata guy from Equilibrium- the movie, not the German power metal band.

Negotiators are diplomancers who can be equally professional or sleazy, depending on player action. They get a mess of abilities to speak any given language when it's needed, alter people's reactions to them, detect lies, scrying, and surveillance, use the power of suggestion, and eventually read people's minds while being resistant to the same.

But most importantly, they gain the ability to Take 10 on bluff, diplomacy, intimidate, and sense motive checks at 1st level. This is the ultimate dip for anyone looking to push their charisma to the next level in a Dragonstar campaign. Just have a contingency plan for when the DM wizens up and starts throwing robots and other social-immune foes at you.

Technomancers merge the Dragon Empire's "twin pillars" of magic and machine, as the book puts it. Dragons are natural sorcerers and massive nerds both, so this makes sense. Technomancers are mechanists who have enough arcane magical talent to empower their tools and let them mess with the properties of nearby technology.

This ranges from changing the energy type of a weapon, to confusing and dominating robots, to turning themselves into code and hijacking a nearby vehicle. They also get some energy- and utility-themed half-casting. It doesn't stack with whatever class they got 1st-level arcane spells from for the requirements though, so this PrC is far better for a mechanist than for a wizard.

They are also the most Shadowrun-ass thing I've ever seen, if this art is anything to go by.

"I'm in."

There are a few other books in the Dragonstar line that I might look into later if I've missed something juicy, but I'm pretty content with this delve, and I hope you liked it too.


I can't believe I neglected to mention the part where wizards have datapads instead of spellbooks, and they can wirelessly transfer or download them off of the internet. Scrolls are basically magical PDFs that self-destruct when you cast them. Rogues and mechanists can hack a spellbook if its malware protection isn't up to snuff. It's goofy and I love it.

That is all.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The One Where Furt Gets Pedantic and Trashes A Beloved Fantasy Illustration

Dragonslayers & Proud Of It
Larry Elmore, 1989

Note, this is no slight against Elmore's style or the people who like his art. His Dragonlance work still shapes how I imagine that world, and I'm also fond of his work for Everquest, even if his stuff isn't as iconic to the franchise as Keith Parkinson's. I just happen to have developed a sudden and inexplicably intense dislike for this picture in particular.

Dragonslayers & Proud Of It is the first piece of art one sees after cracking open a copy of the non-revised edition of the AD&D 2E Player's Handbook, excluding the Jeff Easley knight on the cover. It depicts a party of adventurers--two fighters, a magic-user, a cleric, and some sort of elf archer (perhaps a thief?)-- who have just become the illustration's namesakes. The adventurers display their kill, each one posing around the dead dragon as it hangs from a tree in some scenic wilderness. Some of the adventurers gaze at the trophy while others look at the viewer, almost as if they are staging a portrait or photo for the occasion.

The piece was instantly iconic, partly because of how effectively it communicates a goal for any new players to strive for. These are low- to middling-level adventurers with no obvious magic items or ridiculous plate armor, which makes them only a few steps above what a brand new party begins at. But they are a successful party with bruises and rewards to show for it; models for an eager newbie to aspire to to be like. 'With grit, teamwork, and a lot of dice luck,' the piece seems to boast, 'you too could survive long enough to kill a dragon and take its stuff!'

It just doesn't do it for me, though. And here's why.

I'll be talking about it a lot more down below, but for now I'll say there's something scrawny and pathetic about the dragon that just doesn't inspire a sense of wonder in me. It's tiny, as far as dragons go, and savaged by the party's collective injuries to it.

Similarly puny is the "hoard" that your eye is drawn to see after passing down over the dragon's carcass. And I mean, look at this thing.

I see a corroded old crown with missing jewels, something that might have once been a goblet or maybe an emblem of some sort, and then a bunch of silver and (if I'm being generous with the color) gold coins. It all fits in a box the size of one of those vintage tomato crates you still sometimes find in rural stores, which only serves to highlight how small it is. Unless they were on a quest to find that crown for a wealthy heir, I think this box barely contains enough treasure to buy a set of banded mail for one of the fighters.

And I don't want to seem like I'm deliberately avoiding the alternate interpretation that the contents of this piece are deliberately humble, to contrast with the reactions of the party and make the title ironic. Modest accomplishment met with wide-eyed enthusiasm by novice, green-behind-the-ears heroes is a great subject for an illustration. But I don't think that's what's happening here either.

Because not even the party seems all that impressed by their achievement.

The cleric and one of the fighters are playing things up to be more visually striking than they really are, either holding the head up with a look of grim vindication or gawking at it in faux-surprise, respectively. But they try to sell it a little too hard.

The elf and the magic-user seem incredulous or slightly uncomfortable, like they have an inkling of what this might look like as they pose with their little kill strung up like wild game.

"Are we really doing this...?"     "We're really doing this..."

About the only one who looks sincerely and thoroughly satisfied with the situation is the other fighter who's busy Jeremiah Johnson'ing up there, although even he has a bit of a smug edge to him. I bet it was his idea to do this.

That post-murder afterglow, yo.

I think there's a good reason why the party seems so iffy on the whole thing, and to answer that I'm going to have to get even more pedantic- let's bring up some 2E Monster Manual stats.

I think it's reasonable to assume that this greenish dragon was an actual Green Dragon. They're fond of sub-tropical and temperate forests, much like the backdrop here, so we'll be using that entry.

Dragons of all types in 2E are divided by age category, which determines things like hit dice, breath weapon, magic abilities, etc. And because TSR was as devoted to statistical minutia as Gygax or Arneson ever were, we are provided with exact body and tail lengths for each age category in each species of dragon.

Green dragons of age category 1 are 2-7 feet long with 2-5 foot long tails. Since the specimen above is shorter than the (admittedly rather tall) male human fighter even when stretched to full length, and the tail is about as long again, it definitely looks like an Age 1 or Hatchling dragon to me.

That puts the dragon's age at time of death somewhere in the range of 0-5 years. That looks bad even in the frame of human years, where at best the dragon was little more than a toddler. But for a species that regularly lives for hundreds, if not thousands of years, this is essentially a newborn, and one of the weakest examples of dragonkind presented in the book.

"But Furt," you may say as you spontaneously animate out of a bale of straw to serve my argument, "even young dragons can still be a challenge for low-level parties." And that's true! This hypothetical infant dragon still has an average of 31 HP, AC 3, and a breath weapon for 2d6+1 damage, even if it's completely lacking in the fear, magic, and magic resistance departments. This hatchling could have easily caused a party wipe- except it clearly didn't.

The party is barely injured in the picture. The elf still has a nearly full quiver of arrows, and no one has any serious battle damage on their gear, with the exception of a pair of pants: of the five members, only the two fighters show any sign of injury, and those only take the form of relatively minor claw marks on the legs. Neither of them look worse for wear, though. You can get nastier scrapes on a hike. Heck, I've bled more than both of them combined after eating slightly spicy food and sniffling myself into a nosebleed.

On the topic of blood, the overwhelming majority of stains in this picture seem to be from the dragon's blood. It smears almost everyone's armor and boots, like they had to struggle with the corpse to drag it out of its lair and string it up- at least I hope it was dead before they hanged it. Blood also seeps in drying trails from the dozen or more wounds across all sides of its body. It even wells up from its nostrils and streams down its face, perhaps squeezed out by the pressure of the noose. The battle was one-sided, and its death was not quick. This was less of an epic confrontation, more of an unlucky schoolyard beat-down.

Let's return to the general and green dragon entries one last time:

"During the early part of a dragon's young adult stage it leaves its parents, greed driving it on to start a lair of its own." (Emphasis mine.)

"The majority of green dragons encountered will be alone. However, when a mated pair of dragons and their young are encountered, the female will leap to the attack. The male will take the young to a place of safety before joining the fight. The parents are extremely protective of their young, despite their evil nature, and will sacrifice their own lives to save their offspring."

We've already established that this dragon was way too small to have been young adult (over 80' long from nose to tail for a green dragon), so we can assume that this one was not only a hatchling, but also an orphan. Maybe it got forced out by stresses at the family lair, or maybe some band of higher-level adventurers already merc'd mom and dad in that order; whatever the cause, our heroes killed a dragon that should not have been alone under normal circumstances.

Hell, maybe that tiny crate is all the hatchling had to remember its slaughtered family by.

... Okay, that one's a bit of a stretch, even for me.

All told, a party of professional murderers mildly inconvenienced itself to kill an abandoned child and steal its paltry collection of trinkets, then decided to brag about it. To me they're less like role models to aspire to, and more like those retired cops who drive up here from the Boroughs every hunting season looking to act tough, but all they really do is spend an entire weekend getting drunk in a deer stand before accidentally shooting a fawn and taking a selfie with it anyway.

I'm coming down on this piece so hard partly because Elmore already accomplished this same goal years earlier. He did that with his cover art for the 1983 D&D Basic set, popularly known as the Red Box. (Side note, it takes a lot for me to willingly compliment BECMI. It's by far my least favorite edition/continuum of editions.)

That piece, which depicts a lone fighter battling a very alive red dragon in its far more opulent hoard, feels like a more effective inspiration for new players. The fighter is obviously either a higher level than the AD&D party (or just suicidally brave), but it still hits on all the same points in order to grip and inspire a new player: there's danger to be surmounted, treasure to be claimed, and yes, there is a dragon inside a dungeon.

The way some of the edges bleed out past the frame also just looks quite nice. The dragon reaching out helps to include the observer in the artwork, as if the scene might be from the perspective of one of the fighter's party members, standing behind him for protection. Or perhaps the fighter is stepping into the scene directly out of the observer's imagination?

At this point I've pretty much tapped every last drag of that one art class I half-remember, so I'll just leave it at that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Species & GLOG Class: The Trilobite-Knight (Veins of the Earth)

I am not a fan of Lamentations of the Flame Princess or any of its supplements that I know of, with the exception of Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess.

For those unfamiliar with it, Veins is basically a toolbox and implied setting for spelunking deep beneath the earth. It's far grittier and more claustrophobic than your average Underdark campaign, with a lot of attention paid to starvation, hypothermia, lack of light, mental stress, and the challenges of navigating a world that actively rejects surface-dwellers like you. The denizens of the veins are also stranger than most; the creatures are outlandish without being tentacular Lovecraft fodder, and many of the more humanoid cultures down there have deeply alien senses and mindsets which reflect the fact that it is a very different world you're setting foot in.

The disjointed, evocative nature of its writing combines with the sketchy, chaotic artwork of the book to create a reading experience that actually feels to me like the act of traveling through its tunnels: vague suggestions of shape and scope beyond the fitful reach of your lantern, occasionally broken up by spectacular, oftentimes terrible glimpses of what's really there, rearing up in full color, front-and-center. But even those moments of revelation are small and separate parts of a much greater whole, flashing without context before vanishing back into the dark just as suddenly.

I think it's neat stuff, and that's coming from someone who hates horror on multiple levels. It reminds me that for all of the hole-dwelling I do, I am as much a creature of the surface world as you humans. My domain of topsoil and sedimentary rock is a far cry from the world of deep darkness and deeper time beneath our feet. We are both blessed and ignorant not to know it.

Veins is also more subdued than a lot of other LotFP material. There's dark content like insanity, enslavement, and children being harmed a few different ways (I hate the trogloraptor so gods-damned much), but none of it is lurid or perverse in its attentions like certain other publications are.

This post isn't for me to wax poetic about darknesses, though. This is about trilobites!

Trilobite-knights are my favorite part of the book by far. They, alongside the tiny, philosophical presentist Gnonmen, are like unexpected pinpoints of light amid all the drear and fear.

Trilobite-knights are 5 foot-tall humanoid arthropods covered in clattering plate armor of their body's own making, equipped with dazzling compound eyes and a code of ethics weirdly similar to chivalry, hence the appellation "knight". They don't call themselves that, though. They don't even seem to have names, and they rarely speak. But their sign language is eloquent and beautiful to watch.

They are leftovers from an era hundreds of millions of years ago when an ill-defined but malevolent extinction event wiped out 94% of all life on the planet. They seem to remember those days, and are traumatized by the evil they survived. But they bide their time, knowing that it will be back, and that life will need them again. Until then, they wander like knights errant through the darkness, finding worthy opponents to challenge to contests, defending the weak, and generally being cool little buggos.

The knights remind me so much of the characters from Hollow Knight. Which is funny, because the original blog post for Trilobite-knights over on False Machine was published in January of 2013. That was a good seven months before the 27th Ludum Dare game jam that produced Hungry Knight, the precursor to Hollow Knight.

Sketches of different trilobites appear throughout the book, often accompanying the quotes that mark the beginning of each chapter. They're like the reader's guides through the veins, helping to keep you oriented. You tend to learn your way around after 250 million years.

The book mostly limits trilobite-knights to a few lonesome, random encounters while adventuring in the deep, but as the title you clicked on suggests, I want to do more with them than that. So here's another trifecta of GLOG/Troika!/D&D material.

Scrap Princess, again

Trilobite (GLOG)

Reroll: CON
Bonus: +2 Defense. Can eat detritus as Rations.
Weakness: Can't wear armor or clothing (except cloaks). Must Save when knocked down or lay uselessly on your back like a turtle for 1 round.
Silent, chivalrous survivors of the day that almost killed the world.

Trilobite-Knight Class

Starting Equipment: chitin repair kit, personal heraldic crest.
Starting Skills: Climbing and Chivalry. Also, roll on the adjacent table.

A: Protaspis
B: Meraspis
C: Holaspis
D: Paladin mucronatus

You gain +1 Defense for each Trilobite-Knight template you possess.

A: Protaspis
You are barely more than an upright larva, but you already grasp the fundamentals of survival in the veins of the earth. You decorate your carapace with trophies and mementos of things that didn't kill you- reminders of life's endurance in the face of adversity. Each time you survive damage from something (arrows, a fall, etc.) a total of 10 times, you become more familiar with and resistant to that danger. Once per day per danger, you can reduce incoming damage by 1d12 points.

B: Meraspis
Your first molt has come, and after much fitful squirming you have risen stronger and more confident for it. You gain +2 to Save vs Fear, and can reroll Save vs Fear once per day as you seize on the inspiring feats of past trilobite-knights. You can also use your chitinous body as a Light weapon.

C: Holaspis
Another molt, and you have come into your own, replete with clattering plates and bristling spines. Successful melee attackers must Save vs Dex or be disarmed as they lodge their weapon between your plates. You can also curl up into a ball and roll at 2x Movement for 1 minute per hour. You can roll up to escape being stuck on your back without making a Save.

D: Paladin mucronatus
Your terminal molt. It is a slow (or sudden) decline from here. You fully internalize the code of the trilobite-knight. Your reputation precedes you through the long, winding dark. You gain +2 to Reaction Rolls against the weak, the righteous, and those who have surrendered. You may Challenge enemies, as the Knight template.


Trilobite-Knight Skills


You hail from the shores of the subterranean Nightmare Sea. It is a far cry from the warm oceans that were stolen from you, but it still left you wistful. Start with the “Swimming” skill and a whalebone trinket.


You met a dying Olm who instructed you in the finer points of their people’s customs for the dead. Gain 3 rations.


You had a grizzled mentor, once. They gave you much, and then the dark took them. Start with the “Wilderness” skill and their old spine-pennant.


You arrived too late to save a village from raiders. Start with 1 Camp Follower (Orphan) and a vendetta.


You were tapped on the shoulder by a blackfoot gigaferret, once. Once. Start with the “Light Sleeper” skill and a scrap of fur worth 5sp.


You once befriended an honorable surface dweller- a rare thing. Rarer still, now that they have fallen in battle. You speak 1 extra language, and carry scraps of their armor to return home.

Trilobite-Knight (Troika!)

  • Chitinous Exoskeleton (Heavily Armoured).
  • Salt-Encrusted Weapon of your choice.
  • A Tattered Old Bug-Banner.
Advanced Skills
3 Etiquette
3 Fighting in your Salt-Encrusted Weapon
2 Climbing
1 Awareness
1 Strength

You may curl up into a tight ball of armored plates and spines and roll out of (or into) danger at twice your normal speed. You can't do anything else while rolling.

Trilobite-Knight (5E)

Ability Score Increase. Your Constitution score increases by 2, and your Strength score increases by 1.

Age. Trilobite-Knights go through life stages marked by molting. They are considered adult once they grow their last body segments, after which they molt progressively slower and slower. Since the trilobites tend to live deep below ground with minimal contact and nothing like a solar calendar, no one knows how quickly they mature, or if they even die of old age. The eldest ones seem quite old, however.

Alignment. Trilobite-Knights seem to follow a code remarkably similar to the human myth of chivalry, without all the sexist or hierarchical bits that make no sense to a bunch of primordial invertebrates. Some will deviate from this code, whether out of necessity or disillusionment. Most are lawful good.

Size. Trilobite-Knights stand about 5 feet tall and weigh over 200 pounds from the weight of their chitinous shells. Your size is Medium.

Speed. Your base walking speed is 25 feet.

Superior Darkvision. Epochs spent in the bowels of the earth has not dulled the strength of your people's calcite-hive eyes, but they have lent them a strange luster. Your darkvision has a range of 120 feet.

Clatter & Clamber. Your kind forsook the boiling seas in desperation and shame long ago, but the gentle undulation of your many little legs lends itself almost as well to crawling and climbing as they did swimming. You gain proficiency in the Athletics skill.

Natural Armor. Your exoskeleton is covered in articulated plates of armor and protruding spines of chitin, giving you a measure of protection from a world that has forgotten you. You have a base AC of 17 (your Dexterity modifier doesn't affect this number). You gain no benefit from wearing armor, but if you are using a shield, you can apply the shield's bonus as normal.

Roll Out. You can curl up into a tight ball so that your chitinous plates protect you on all sides. Until you unroll, you gain a +2 bonus to AC, and you have advantage on Constitution saving throws. While rolled up, your speed is 50, you can't take reactions, and the only action you can take is a free action to unroll.

Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common, and communicate in the silent speech of the trilobites.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Heartseeker Houserules & Homebrew

I did not think I had enough content for a post on this topic until I realized I could get another alliterative title out of it.

I've expressed fondness for several Trollish Delver products over the years, including larger books like Tequendria and smaller products like the USR system and In Darkest Warrens. It's not any one particular thing that draws me to them, and it's kind of funny coincidence that they pop up so much in my posts- I'm just kinda down with them.

Most recently, I've gotten one of Scott Malthouse's sveltest works yet, Heartseeker.

It's a two-page document (not including cover and character sheet) dedicated to "Being a traditional fantasy adventure game" as the subtitle proclaims. It takes streamlined bits and pieces from The RPG Not To Be Described, as well as other OSR titles. I most clearly saw some Black Hack DNA in the form of class hit dice = damage dice, though I'm sure there are other influences I didn't pick up on.

There were some rules tweaks published for Heartseeker in its dedicated up until last year, though I don't think they reflect all of the version updates to the game overall- it references a universal d6 damage for all weapons that appears nowhere in my copy, for example.

But browsing it inspired me to come up with a few changes or additions I'd maybe make if I was playing this game, so I will. The game encourages you to hack it, after all!


Warriors only get d10 HD, a bonus attack vs weaker opponents, and the ability to wear all armor. This takes up the same amount of page space as allotted to other classes, which maintains the tightness of the writing that I like in this book. But it also leaves warriors feeling slightly lacking in features to me.

I would remedy this by giving them advantage on physical saves. Or, if that makes them a little too strong out the gate, give them advantage when lifting, breaking objects or commanding followers. This option is in keeping with the thematic ability check benefits that thieves and pathfinders get.

New Classes

Occultist: HD d6, can prepare spells and prayers equal to half class level-1 (round up). Advantage when researching, recollecting lore, or identifying magic. Can only wear cloth and leather armour.

Packrat: HD d8, can carry an extra 10 items. Advantage when balancing, haggling or repairing items. Get one free action to take out or put away an item when surprising. Cannot wear plate or banded mail armour.


I personally love that the only thing separating one group from another is language as opposed to ability, and that several default bloodlines are traditional "monster" types, like kobolds or my relatives. Adding new bloodlines requires nothing other than coming up with a name. I wouldn't change a thing about this (except maybe go with a term like lineage or background; "bloodline" feels a little V:tM to me for some reason).

But if I did decide to add a crumbly little layer of differentiating crunch on top, I'd assign each bloodline an ability (physical, mental, aura) and let the player reroll one of the d6s that they rolled in the 3d6 set for that stat, keeping the higher result.

For example, I'd let an orc who rolled 1, 4, and 5 on their Physical reroll the 1 and keep a higher roll, potentially netting them a 14 or above and that sweet, sweet +1 bonus.

I suppose humans, the ever-adaptable cosmic favorites, each get to pick which die to reroll, if that's the world you play in.

Spells & Prayers

Past the mid-levels (where I realize the vast majority of games using any system tend to end), a Wizard or Cleric starts to have a good number of spell slots, but their spells don't improve at all. That's not really a problem, since everyone else is in a similar situation where dice numbers/sizes never grow.

But if it's something you want to fiddle with anyway, consider an alternative to the tiered spell levels used by The RPG Not To Be Described.

A Wizard or Cleric can choose to prepare a spell using 3 slots to cast an Enhanced version of that spell that doubles one of the spell's values of the caster's choice. Enhanced Mending Hands might heal d8 HP to 2 adjacent targets at once, Enhanced Arcane Shot might deal 2d6+2 to a single target, etc.

You're basically spending 3 spell slots to whip out what is effectively 2 spells instantly- it's inefficient, but useful when you really need something to pack a punch right now.

The spell value doubled is chosen during preparation and can't be changed later.

Obviously this doesn't work with certain utility spells, unless you're in range of multiple magic doors in need of unlocking at once.

New Prayer

Disillusion: Removes charm from an adjacent creature (or dispels a targeted illusion).

(The ability to remove charm felt like something that maybe should've been part of Remove Condition, so here it is alongside something else to half-justify its existence.)

New Monster

Zood: HD4, AC15, Atk blubbery smack +0 (d6),
SV P14 M9 A7, MV 20/60 (swimming). XP 40,
Special: Explodes if killed by fire damage. 30' burst.
Enemy save vs physical or takes 2d6 damage.

Friday, February 3, 2023

New System, New Face: Harping on about HARP

I should finished this post last year when I first built a character for the system. But after I fell off of the series somewhat, and now that most of my memories of the event have faded, I have decided to go back in for a refresher course. I hope this slightly less new system, not as new face is still an entertaining read- and I hope readers are buoyed by the fact that I have a climactic endpoint for this series in sight- just not yet.


High Adventure Roleplaying or HARP is another skill-based d100 system published by Iron Crown Enterprises, because I have a problem and need someone's help weening me off of this newfound drug. It was first published in late 2003, with a revised edition following soon after in 2004 to clean up a number of messy rules. There are two differently flavored rulesets for HARP; Fantasy and Science Fiction, or SF. Naturally, I went with fantasy.

HARP is to ICE's MERP what MERP was to original Rolemaster: the same core system, but considerably more streamlined than the last. HARP more-or-less replaced MERP after ICE lost the license to continue publishing Tolkien material, though I would have liked to see some sort of rework of the latter using the former. Maybe in an alternate timeline somewhere, there's a heartbreaker called MARP.

HARP also took some cues from the d20 system, since D&D 3.5E had just dropped earlier that year and the world was fast-approaching critical spinoff popularity mass. I'm sure there are grognards out there who can articulate the similarities exactly, but this influence was most evident to me in the ability to multiclass, as well as the Talent system, which is like a less limited Feat system from 3E. I also saw it in the way you can acquire a small pool of Fate Points that you can burn to provide bonuses to rolls in emergencies- D&D's Action or Hero Points, essentially.

Other than that, HARP is still very Rolemastery. You create a character from a combination of starting profession, species, childhood experiences, and cultural background. You build them up from there in a loosely guided, very granular manner using the Development Points you're rewarded on level-up. Pretty much everything you do is covered by skills which are in turn grouped under and governed by the eight statistics- Strength, Constitution, Agility, Quickness, Self Discipline, Reasoning, Insight, and Presence.

The HARP core rulebook provides everything you need to play, as well as some implied setting lore, mostly through species and cultures. But for a more explicit campaign setting (and the crunchy rules options that go along with it) we can look to the HARP products detailing Mithra--also called Gryphon World--and its main focus, the continent of Cyradon.


Cyradon is billed as having the key word "fun", according to its own overview and marketing blurbs. While the idea of being marketed as "fun" in detached quotes always manages to get a snicker out of me, I understand what they were getting at. It's meant to be a high fantasy, swashbuckling setting where even low-level characters (whom the first Cyradon book is designed around) can help reshape the world. There's big adventure to be had, and little narrative grimness to muck through despite the world having just survived another major cataclysm.

Humans went extinct on Cyradon long ago, and for centuries it was mostly barren and empty with few, unfriendly nations far apart. But all of that is changing as waves of refugees from other, more on-fire parts of the world arrive en masse through portals to the ruined city of Belynar, which just so happens to be under the care of a small gryphon community.

Mithra is also known as Gryphon World because of the major role that gryphons play in it. They're an ancient and wise people, second only to the dragons that have been around since the birth of the world. In the long background of Mithra, the winged and quadrupedal gryphons cast off enslavement and developed an advanced civilization that pops up time and again. You can actually play a gryphon in-game, helping to guide the newcomers and upstarts in Belynar and beyond.

Gryphons are playable alongside the other species that were either translated wholesale or tweaked and adapted from the base game. These include the brand-new human immigrants to Cyradon, the Sithi (elves), Mablung (dwarves), Rhona (gnomes), Arali (elves again except haughtier), Nagazi (lizardfolk), and the Gryx. You can also play a character of mixed heritage from any combination of the humanoid species above by purchasing Lesser or Greater Blood talents.

The Gryx are nomads who once hailed from the far eastern steppe of the supercontinent Anias. An unknown tragedy drove them from their ancestral home in great, migrating tribes that traveled or settled all across the world. Their attempted genocide at the hands of a xenophobic theocracy led to them being driven away again, and now many Gryx have wound up in Cyradon with all the other global refugees. Their autonym is G'Shul, meaning "the homeless" in their heavily glottal, clicking language of Taloc.

Gryx are basically the setting's stand-in for orcs, though with a far more peaceable temperament than most other turn-of-the-century depictions. They even lack the overtly martial warrior culture that other, more heroic orcs often have, in favor of being private, pastoral, perhaps a little dour, but above all wishing to avoid trouble.

Unfortunately for the Gryx, trouble tends to find them, in part because of their "monstrous" appearance. They are huge and musclebound as a rule, so much so that they have a racial penalty to swimming because of how dense and prone to sinking their bodies are. They are endowed with prominent brows, blotchy skin, tusks, flat noses, and everything else that orcs tend to get depicted with. Many of them also possess forehead ridges of protruding bone, giving them more than a passing resemblance to the Orsimer of later The Elder Scrolls installments, or particularly pointy Klingons.

Every step of the way out of their lost homeland, the G'Shul left totems planted in the ground. Each totem possesses a unique but fierce visage often likened to a monster or demon face by outsiders. They are all erected facing east, toward their ancient homeland. No one knows why they do this and the G'Shul don't speak of such things, but the most popular theory is that they raise them in defiance of whatever evil drove them out- or perhaps as an apotropaic ward to keep it from spreading.

This is 200% my jimmy-jams, so that's what I'm picking.

Streamlined, but not quite Svelte

Instead of MERP's 10-step character creation process that requires you to flip back and forth throughout the book, we get a slightly smoother and more straightforward 6.

  1. Choose a Profession
  2. Generate Statistics
  3. Choose a Race & Culture
  4. Buy Skills & Talents
  5. Purchasing Equipment
  6. Final Touches

There are a lot of professions to choose from in HARP, owing to their relative simplicity. Each profession is essentially a bundle of free skill ranks, a list of relevant skill categories you have to pay less to improve, and one unique ability. For example Fighters get a few free general and athletic skills, a bunch of physical and combat skills, cheaper future purchases in all four of those skill categories, and then finally a bonus to combat skill rolls that scales with level. As with previous skill-focused games, your starting profession does not set a hard limit on how you choose to build and grow your character.

I have been neglecting magic for my entire stay in d100 land thus far, so I think it's finally time to remedy that by picking a spell-caster. That doesn't narrow the list down as much as you might expect, though.

There are 9 professions in the core book, and of them 5 have native spellcasting- Cleric, Harper, Mage, Ranger, and Warrior Mage. Mage gets subdivided into 5 different specialties in the College of Magics supplement; the generalist Magician, Elementalist, Necromancer, Thaumaturge, and Vivamancer. There are also the Adventurer, Mystic, Shadowblade, and Druid presented in The Codex, each of which has a spell sphere. There's a scattering of another half-dozen professions across HARP's other publications, including the Harper's Bazaar series that ran from 2004 to 2008, some of which have been reprinted elsewhere in more official forms. There would be even more to choose from, but I don't have a copy of HARP's dedicated religion book, Beyond the Veil.

Professional Indecision

To help narrow things down, I need to hone my concept a little more. I personally like that a single idea can be mechanically executed in multiple ways, and would rather have that than the opposite problem, though I understand why some might find the redundancy undesirable in a system.

Gryx aren't very prominent magicians or priests in the lore of Mithra- none of the religious or magical orders described in the books are founded by or have a significant Gryx component. Paradoxically, they are noted as being very pious, sometimes superstitious people who venerate many deities- they were even instrumental in revitalizing worship of the so-called Shrine Gods of the Juras Mountains that they just sort of picked up and took with them during their flight from the steppes. The dispersed nature of the gryx tribes probably lends quite a bit of internal diversity and syncretism to their practices, though that's just my reasoning.

What does seem consistent about Gryxian religion across the board is that it is deeply animistic, and many of their gods such as the aforementioned mountain gods might actually be yazatas- powerful nature spirits that gryphon scholars hold to be different from deities. They might technically be correct, but that isn't a great concern for the Gryx who already venerate nature.

The Shaman from HARPer's Bazaar Issue 06 ends up looking like my best choice, as they directly interact with spirits and totems on a regular basis. Shocking for me to pick a shaman, I know. Just go ahead and ignore the time in this same series where I already made an orc shaman. It's totally different this time, I promise.

Now that I've settled on a profession, I need to choose the Mana source for my magic. I also need to choose a couple of Spell Focus Styles- the techniques or gestures you use during casting.

Mana, everybody's favorite misunderstood Polynesian concept, returns in HARP as the power source for all magic. It is latent in pretty much all things in the world, and comes in the flavors of Personal, Ambient, Granted, or Fixed Mana. Personal mana is what you've got in your own body, Ambient mana is plucked right out of the land and air around you, Granted mana is gifted to you by a higher power source like a god, and Fixed mana is sucked out of magically potent spell components like prepared herbs, gems, or animal parts. There's another type called Pure Mana, but that's only accessible around leylines when you're mucking about with big, dangerous High Magic stuff.

Each type of mana tapping has different advantages and disadvantages, and requires a talent to use. Fortunately every new character receives one tap talent for free.

Because I'm picking Shaman, the responsibility of building an entire Gryxian religious order with membership benefits, structure, and dogma is taken out of my hands- as is access to Granted mana, which is the cleric's whole schtick. Personal mana is the most common type of tap in the world, basically amounting to a personal magic bar that you can deplete. It has a secular connotation though, which I don't think fits my Gryx.

I'm left choosing between Ambient and Fixed mana, both of which feel equally valid for an animistic expression of magic. At first I was tempted to go with Fixed mana because my shaman would always try to have plenty of ingredients for traditional alchemy or charmcraft on hand- but then I got to thinking about it and decided that might be too much dependency on finite resources, and so opted to pick Ambient. There are mana-poor areas that make casting harder, but that's a tradeoff I'm more comfortable with than being caught with no means at all, especially at low and money-starved levels.

Now to decide on my two free Spell Focus Styles. Each Spell Focus dictates the way you weave magic sigils. When you use your technique properly, you get a small roll bonus; if you can't use it, you risk massive penalties and even fumbles. Not all magic needs to be cast using Somatic components in HARP, although that absolutely is one option.

Besides Somatic, there are Gestural (only need one hand but you don't get the potential bonus Somatic offers), Song/Music (a la bards and the like), Trance (monkly micro-meditations), Verbal (exactly what it sounds like), and various focus items like wands or a warrior mage's weapon. I will pick Gestural because it is the easiest requirement to meet on the fly, as well as Trance because while it may have been written with martial artists in mind, trances and other altered states of consciousness are often important in shamanic traditions.

And there we have it! Step 1 done in a paltry... 800 words. I promise it'll go quicker than this.

Generating Statistics

There are three ways to generate your 8 main stats: make percentile rolls until every result is at least 40 and assign as you like, use a 550 point-buy system where stat costs start to ramp up at 91, or use a 500 point-buy plus 10d10. After some consideration I decided to go with method 1 and roll everything. I thought it might inject some fun and interesting decisions into what would otherwise be a very safe, evenly spread array.

That's what I thought.

But then I started thinking that my interpretation of the rules-as-written might be a little off. In retrospect, I should have listened to that instinct. "Make 8 percentile rolls until all results are at least 40 or higher" reads to me like I'm supposed to throw the entire set out if a single result is 39 or below. This means each set of 8 has a 0.01917073 probability of being legal. I should have just quit and rolled individually until I had 8 qualifying rolls, but as evidenced by this series and the continued existence of this entire blog, I am committed to my bad ideas.

A few hours later, I finally came up with this:

Perfectly serviceable. Very slightly better on average than if I had taken the 550, and without any negative modifiers besides. Almost boring, in fact.

Unlike the casting professions from the core rulebook, the HARPer's Bazaar zines never actually stated what stats the Shaman uses to cast its spells- my guess is that was a bit of writer/editor oversight. But following convention of classes using a combination of Self Discipline and one other pertinent stat, I've gone ahead and picked Insight for the shaman- in many ways it is like Wisdom in a d20 system.

With that in mind, I will arrange my stats as follows: 50 Strength / 54 Constitution / 62 Agility / 67 Quickness / 95 Self Discipline / 69 Reasoning / 97 Insight / 68 Presence.

Converted into actual modifiers and then added to Gryxian adjustments, that array takes the shape of: +4 St / +4 Co / +3 Ag / +4 Qu / +11 SD / +4 Re / +10 In / +4 Pr.

Presence isn't really listed as an important stat for the Shaman, but I expect I'd want to be at least a little bit diplomatic with spirits or members of my Gryx's tribe whenever possible. Shamans have as much social responsibility as they do spiritual, and often the two are inextricably linked.

A gripe I had with MERP was that after rolling your stats and adjusting for your species modifiers, you pretty much never use the raw numbers ever again except in extremely rare circumstances, making them kind of pointless. I'm pleased to say that issue isn't in HARP, because you can continue to increase your stats (and thus your stat modifiers) throughout your character's career. I still think it's kind of an extra step that could be simplified by cutting them out and only bothering with modifiers, but that's the nature of the system I chose to play with.

A point in the system's favor is that they really streamlined this part in the revised edition of the game. Once upon a time, the number of Development Points (DPs) you'd get with every level-up was dependent upon each of your statistic scores, swinging wildly between zero or minimum point rewards and significant progress depending on how big the numbers are. But you can invest DPs into raising your statistics even higher, therefore getting even more DPs the next time you level up.

This system rewarded a "spiral" of continual reinvestment at the expense of every other dimension of character development, resulting in very boring designs, uneven group dynamics, and in the long-term, characters that have grossly swollen beyond intended game balance. On the other end of the spectrum, was even possible for someone to roll so poorly on character generation that they were incapable of earning DPs!

Nowadays, you get a flat number every level.

I'm glad I only spent a couple of hours spreadsheeting optimal stat cutoff points before I learned about the revised edition.

Race & Culture

Gryx and Nomad. Boom. Next question.

Skills & Talents

Here's another crunchy section. Pretty much the entire game is skill-driven, so this is where my character's rough outline gets sharpened into definition. I have several free skill ranks from my profession and culture, plus 100 DPs to spend at 1st level. Skills in my profession's favored categories (General, Mystical, Outdoors, and Physical) cost 2 points a rank, while everything else costs 4 points. Max ranks in a single skill are calculated using the formula (3 x Level) + 3. At level 1 the maximum is 6; at level 30 it rises to 93.

You can also receive a discount on skill ranks by purchasing a Training Package. Training Packages are almost like prestige classes in a way. Each represents a specialized role or membership in an in-universe organization that your character has to be a member of, or join over the course of a campaign. Each package is a bundle of skills that represent the experience your character has gained from serving that organization or guild.

For example, if you want to be an Arcurias Bowman, you have to be a Sithi elf or descended from one. The package gives you ranks in Armor, Stalk & Hide, Sniping, Bows and one other Weapon Skill for a ~25% discount depending on how the favored categories line up- just the sort of thing a defender of the Sithi homelands needs.

The Gryx of Mithra have a few nice, flavorful packages that I want to shout out, even though I won't be using them yet. The G'Shul Rover is a hunter and scout who keeps the G'Shul tribes and their herds safe and fed during the migrations, while the Osh'Tahl Herbalist is a traditional healer skilled in herblore. My Gryx might pick up Osh'Tahl Herbalist someday to represent his increased attention to alchemy, but for now he's starting with the Traditionalist Mage package.

The Traditionalist Mage is a healer, soothsayer, and/or wise one for isolated settlements and nomadic tribes- perfect for a Gryxian shaman. The package gives 20 ranks in Cantrips, Divination, Healing, Herbcraft, Fauna or Flora Lore, Perception, Power Point (PP) Development, and Spell Casting, with Cantrips/Healing/Spell Casting optionally replaceable for Alchemy and/or Charmcraft. My shaman is going to want literally all of these eventually, so I'll gladly take the early investment now.

As part of the Nomad culture, he also gets free ranks in Animal Handling, Armor, Endurance, Herbcraft, Local Region Lore, Navigation, Perception, Riding, Stalking & Hiding, Swimming, Tracking, and one Missile and one Melee Weapon.

After a lot of tabulation, my final skills look like this:

It helps a lot if you get a spreadsheet for all of this.
You can find one and a few other resources on the ICE forums.

My desire to always have one rank in every skill I could possibly want in order to get that initial bonus before focusing on building important ones up came through pretty strong here. Untrained skills receive a -25 penalty, and that can be pretty crushing at low levels.

I left a few DPs unspent for minor stat boosts- mostly to bump up stats that were already right on the edge of the next modifier increase. It's that same kind of compulsion that you might get from staring at a bunch of odd-numbered ability scores in d20.

I decided not to go for any talents, beyond what was given to me by default. Talents, which as I mentioned earlier act a little like d20 feats, cost anywhere from 5 to 50 DPs depending on power. They can give you a new profession, expand your spellcasting abilities, give you a stacking bonus to a skill or set of skills that is a little more efficient per DP spent than if you bought ranks outright, or radically improve your survivability or utility in other ways.

Purchasing Equipment

The standard fantasy RPG arrangement of 1 gold piece = 10 silver pieces = 100 copper pieces is in place in HARP. Unlike D&D, copper and silver pieces are the most common coins you'll be dealing in day-to-day, so most prices are listed in cp or sp. Even so, new adventurers in Cyradon begin with 10+1d10 gold pieces. I rolled a pretty lucky 9, giving my Gryx almost maximum funds to play around with.

The first thing I wanted to buy was a Gryxian war fork. They adapted these babies from simple pitchforks used to tend to their mounts and herd animals. It's basically a seven foot-tall, bladed bident with a knob on the butt that can be used with either the Staves or the Pole Arms weapon skill. It can also be used to deal a medium amount of slashing, crushing, or puncture damage without penalty. It's so versatile as to be a little busted early on, and I want one. I'll also get a shortbow and quiver of 20 arrows, mostly for hunting.

Next is armor, which I'll be far more austere about. The heavier the armor, the harder and more expensive it is to cast any magic. A full suit of soft leather armor offers some protection without too much of a drain, and feels most appropriate for someone whose culture probably makes extensive use of animal hide clothing.

The single biggest purchase he'll make is a mount to bear him across the steppes and beyond. Since he's already kind of heavy (well over 200 lbs. before equipment) I opted for a medium horse with a carrying capacity of up to 500 lbs. It should be able to carry any extra gear or maybe an ailing companion, while sacrificing no speed and only a little maneuverability- and it's not like my Gryx is about to pick up horse archery.

He'll call his mare Tlakhi. I've decided the "tl" is a palatal click consonant (not that I'm any good at pronouncing those).

After that comes an assortment of doses of Cyradon's native herbs to treat minor injuries and ailments out on the road. Orudin for helping fractures mend faster, sarpal for frostbite, halin to improve rest from a full night's sleep, and seras tea as an impromptu healing potion for emergencies.

Final Touches

I've sort of been doing this last step the entire time by adding little bits of characterization here and there, but there's still more to take care of! The book tells us to consider things like appearance, attitude, and motivation, to make this character more than a lifeless pile of stats.

Also, he probably needs a name. I feel like maybe I should have led with that. Let's go with R'Shoq. The ' represents a glottal stop, and the 'q' is voiced from somewhere down by the tonsils.

R'Shoq only has three rows of head flanges, unlike the usual four or five. As a result he has a fuller head of hair, but he lacks the "washboard" forehead that many of his people find conventionally attractive.

This is what peak G'Shul performance looks like.

R'Shoq wears his dark brown hair in several braids to keep it back while he's chanting or hunched over a pestle. He is of average height, and not as muscular as most Gryx- not that that's saying much. His eyes are brown, in defiance of the common trope of magic users having fancy or unusual eye colors- but they do always look like he's just seen a ghost.

Speaking of ghosts, he talks to them semi-regularly. The Gryx's gods know what's up with the homeland and why they had to flee, but due to some meddling by a malicious third party, they can only communicate with their people in the most obtuse, vague prophesies. R'Shoq is following one of those prophesies right now, trying to weave together some of the disparate threads that have been left to his people on their journey west.

His tribe was one of the most mobile at first, stopping the least often and pushing the edges of their known world. As a result he acquired a smattering of knowledge about other cultures that they passed by- but only a surface-level understanding of them. As a result, he can be a bit awkward in his dealings with outsiders. While trying to be affable with strangers, he might be hundreds of miles off on a turn of phrase he thinks they might relate to.

Wrapping Up

I think this is the first d100 system I'd want to play more than a one-off with. I feel like I have more freedom with it than I did MERP, and more of an illusion of safety and control than Warhammer permits. I don't know how the numbers break down for mid-to-high-level play or whether anything starts to fall apart at that point, but I could see a low-level romp being crunchy and satisfying. The world is detailed, but also light enough on metaplot that neither me nor my nomad would feel totally lost during play.