don’t stat out your dragon

You don’t hunt a dragon, or fight a dragon, or slay a dragon.  You invade a dragon.  Or depose one.  Or usurp one.  Or destabilize one.  But you don’t walk over and kill one.

Dragons just aren’t like other creatures. A dragon is more akin to a force of nature than a giant beast. What could an Alexander do if with a nigh-invulnerable physical form, personal spellcasting, and wings when the fastest man travels on horseback?  Oh, and about a thousand more years of life to accumulate, compound, sway, consolidate, learn?

The mistake is in thinking of dragons like any other creature, with a statline and a singular Monster Manual entry. Don’t think of a dragon as a creature, no matter how powerful. Think of a dragon as an institution.

It’s tempting to get this one wrong. We’re people and we think like people. Say you see a tribe, and you want to lead it. Maybe you go over and kick the shit out of the guy in charge, and now you lead the tribe. That makes sense, at the most basic level of human society. The biggest badass gets to be in charge; you kill the chief, you get to be the chief.

This only works because humans are within an order of magnitude of each other. You can be a tough motherfucker, but ten slightly-less-tough motherfuckers still win. A dragon is a different thing. A dragon is many orders of magnitude more powerful than a humanoid.

Even if you were standing next to a dragon, what are you going to do? Hit it with a sharp thing you’re carrying?

A landbound juvenile. Smack it with a sword and see what happens.

The point is, D&D is thinking at the wrong scale. A dragon isn’t just a big beast that you can chase down with enough men and pointy sticks, as though it were a particularly nasty mastodon. To issue forth to bring low a dragon is more akin to sitting in Ionia and plotting how you’re going to march to Susa and kill Darius. Or how you’re going to get to Seoul so you can find your way north and end the Kim Dynasty. In a very real way it doesn’t matter whether you could kill Darius in a swordfight—that isn’t the point.

The point is that you’re trying to bring down an institution, an organization controlling territory and an economy and a society, an institution that may have been successfully fending off interlopers since before your father’s father’s father’s . . . nix that, since before your race figured out the addition of tin to copper makes bronze. And by interlopers, not a plucky band of misfit rogues and swordsmen and magisters, but real interlopers: armies and climate change and pestilence, mana barrens and barbarians and forces bringing other empires low.

Any dragon past an adolescence has satrapies and vassals, an economy and a culture, death squads and intelligence cabals, a court and counsel. And it will have all of these things after the ones it has die off, and their sons and daughters pass from remembrance. Ultimately, institutions can and do fall; but they are rarely slain by cave-creeping good-for-nothings with glowing swords and stage-magician cantrips.


omg wtf leylines

I don’t know why I’m so captivated by the idea of leylines.

Too facile: “hey asshole, you played too much Rifts as a kid!”

Likely true: “hey asshole, you played too much Rifts as a kid!”

I think it’s probably because there’s always this feeling that magic has to come from somewhere. The idea that it’s just floating around like oxygen, freely available to anyone who wants to draw upon it, requiring little effort and no specialness, just a part of the world’s normalcy—that’s tough. Magic should be special. Last I saw, there’s nothing f-word about the world,1 and life doesn’t allocate a pool of ability points. Some people get to be brilliant and strong and gorgeous. And some people get to be stupid and ugly and unpleasant and poor and sick.

I like the idea of leylines because they are a resource to exploit. One way to think about them is like any other fixed-site resource, a port or a river or a vein of gold or patch of oil. That is, someone will come to exploit it, and in doing so exclude others from it.2 Magic is valuable—it can either do things doable in no other way, or can do mundane things in an easier way than is traditional, or both—and so now you have conflict. Someone has it and wants to keep it; someone doesn’t have it, and wants it. Conflict is storystuff.

I also like the idea that some places are just deeply weird. Two-headed goats get born; bloodsqualls fill trackfurrows; people forget who they are. Stones speak wisdom and rivers flow the other way. The sun winks at you—just you—and babies take up apple-knives. If there were some demon behind these things, some bloody-bone or hellwain, these things would suck, but at least make sense. There’s a motive, if only to fuck with you. Weirdness comes from the lack of conscious motive.

But if weirdness happens everywhere, is diffuse, no work gets done. Weird shit happens when you get close to a leyline, but those who seek power have never learned from moths or flames.

Where else does magic come from? It infuses everything and you need some mystical beardy wisdom to know that we really are just all one? Bleh. I’ll take Carrie any day.3 Extremes of emotion work what look like miracles. Or hellfire.

Maybe necromancy isn’t a thing, it’s the thing. In a world where gods are indisputably, Zeus-fucked-my-hot-sister, everyone’s seen one for realsies, completely real, calling down and using a portion of their powers isn’t much of a reach. But maybe actual magic only comes from pacts with the dead, and necromancy isn’t necromancy because necromancy is just magic.

Maybe there’s only so much magic in the world, and when it’s used up it’s gone. Of course, all those assholes in that “golden age” so long ago made it golden by using up all the easily available stuff, leaving you to scrabble about trying to pluck up the remnants, or seek far-off wildernesses where it just wasn’t economical to extract.

In a pinch, I’ll even take “there is magic, some weirdo three counties over can do it, but you never will.” Maybe the gift is really just that rare, and no, the PCs will only ever see the stabby flamey I’m-dead-now side of it.

1 “Fair.”
2 “Hey, c’mon everyone, let’s all go sustainably utilize this valuable resource in an equitable, communal manner!” said no one ever.
3 Believe it or not, hella was once a teenager. Of course teenager overwraughtness makes magic happen. In other news, The Rage: Carrie 2 wasn’t that bad.


The winesap tree is a curious thing. It grows in a twirl, as though winding around a pole that has since been removed. More curious, when cut it bleeds.

No, not really, it’s just sap. But the sap is a deep port red, and someone far lost to time discovered that the sap bears more than just a resemblance to wine, if much thicker and stickier: it has similar effects. The eponymous winesap produces a pleasant disorientation, euphoria, and reduced decision-making skills. Not high, not drunk, somewhere in between.

But it must be fresh. Cutting down the tree and transporting it won’t do: the sticky winesap hardens solid, will shatter, and be all bitterness with no fun. Collecting it like from a maple or a rubber tree likewise usually fails, as it loses potency almost immediately. What to be done? Well, lick the damn tree.

Many have discovered—and been discovered—slicing long slits in the winesap bark, standing as it wells up, and licking it straightaway. This is the only (common) form of consumption.

But that shit is addictive. So you end up standing out in the woods, ignoring all the shit you’re supposed to be doing, licking a goofy-ass spirally tree. And if it’s out in a grove of them, all your buddies are standing there doing it too.

The old folks will tell you that in their younger days everyone knew that you only licked the saplings, or the suckers growing up around them, but not the old trees, the gnarled ones. That’s how the old folks managed to become old folks. See, the older the tree gets, the more potent the winesap. Licking old trees gets you fucked up, and if you keep at it, gets you done. Done and gone and slowly fertilizing the base of the tree.

So the question becomes, just how fucked up do you want to get?

a wizard did not do it

It is of frequent comment that if D&D had any sort of verisimilitude, there would be no dungeons. (Less commented: no dragons, either.) And if we’re talking about about endless warrens of perfectly dressed stone corridors, an incredible megainvestment left fallow for occupation by grubby little goblins shitting in their middens, those commenters are probably right.

Imagine the cost of something like building a Krak des Chevaliers, only you have to dig out all the space before you can even begin to build, and then backfill over it. Or tunnel every bit of it out, then maneuver all the materials inside. And then . . . abandon it? Invade it and extirpate the inhabitants and not make it the fortress center of your own empire?

Silly, sure. But we need the D in our D&D. (Did you really mean to say that, hella? Probably not.)

So we need other reasons to have massive underground complexes with all sorts of cool shit inside, rather than shivering half-starved refugees and the occasional eyeless lizard. What can we come up with?

Mines.  We need a remunerative reason to go to the effort of scrabbling thousands of cubic yards of earth out of the ground. Defensive structures, at least at scale, isn’t enough: it costs about fourteen billionty times less to build structures atop the earth, and the defensive benefits of digging down just aren’t that great. Unless you’re defending against pitiless airborne firebeasts—and it takes a lot of dragons swirling the skies to makes it worthwhile to just not try and hide—a real fortress is almost as good and many times easier.

But there has always been at least one amazing reason to dig tunnels, and that’s where the digging is the purpose; the galleries and passages left behind, an afterthought. If the substrate is strong enough, or enough care put into shoring everything up, you’ve got a system of adits, drifts, and shafts that will last long after the ore is gone. In a dangerous world, a securable structure impermeable to the elements will always find itself reused.

Caverns. Yup, you already thought of this one, and Patrick Stuart already did it better. The key to it not being stupid is to think in three dimensions and remember that water carves out shapes that don’t give a shit about habitability.

Something else to remember is the weight of history in any easily accessible rockshelter. Something so easily found and used, out of the weather, will have been continuously inhabited—since time immemorial. Think middens forty feet deep. The psychic weight of thousands of generations feeding, fucking, and fighting all in this space. You ain’t the first adventurers burning this place down, and you won’t be the last.

Qanat. Over the longest term, what’s underground and worth more than ore? Water. And how do you get it from the depths onto the crops? Tunnels. You find where the water table rises in the hills. Tunnel sideways into that water table, and let gravity pull the water out along those tunnels to where it emerges into the plains. Shafts down allow you to pull water up along the way, cisterns hold water for when it’s needed, and side-canals widen the area watered.

When the water is flowing, such an underground complex is the single most valuable thing in the area. When the water dries up, then someone else moves in.

Paleoburrows. People didn’t make this. Megafauna did. Whether giant ground sloths clawed them out, or some even more fantastic beast clawed, chewed, or swam through the earth to make the tunnels—some enormous beast burrowed into the earth, making tunnels and chambers that remain long after the original inhabitants have gone.

Or, maybe they haven’t really gone. If that thing clawed through hundreds of meters of stone, you think your hauberk is going to stop it?

Rootspace. Something enormous used to draw its nutrients from the earth. Vast roots sunk deep, supporting an equally enormous plant above. Or maybe enormous rhizomes, the undergirding of innumerable shoots aboveground, lay hidden and hulking below. But it died, and rotted, and scavengers and water and time flushed out the organic material, leaving voids below the earth.

categorization compulsion: treant edition

I still don’t like that treants are all craggy oak trees.

Too much categorization, I know. But no one I know (so far) has made a game where treants are playable races, so we don’t have to worry too much about statting out different species of living trees—we can just handwave that. A treant is just an entry in the monster book, so when you make an apple treant, or an titanlike coast redwood treant, just wing it.

I blame the ents. The ents cemented the idea of what a normal treant is, and we haven’t ever gotten over it. But I look outside and I see this-that-and-every-other kind of tree standing about, and why the hell should it be only Merrie-England  good-old oaks that get to spark into life and conduct interminable negotiations over whether the party deserves to remain in the forest?

I want little spiky conifer treants and mopey dangling willow treants and enormous stomping baobob treants and quivering dopefiend aspen treants. Enormous douglas fir treants who never go dormant striding through the snow. Mangrove treants huddling in conspiracies of the brackish water, masses of lizardman corpses matting their roots. Jolly ashes bemused by these hyperactive creatures tilling up the land and chasing each other about. Ancient bristlecones in their windswept ancientnesses who have just seen too much of this shit, most alien of all.

Or the orchards full of treant cherries and pears and plums, almonds, domesticated treants—enslaved, tethered down with guy lines to keep them in squared plots—fat with fruit and whispering to each other when the orchardists are away, the young ones split live and a budstem cut from an older treant inserted and bound hard within, using the new roots to feed the unending perpetuation of the elders in continuing violations a flesh golem would weep for.

Christmas treants perversely bedecked with candles and forced to dance for the amusement of children. Living maypoles bound tight with ribbons by ringdancing burghers symbolizing the triumph of men over nature.

Arsonist eucalypts, bending low to take up flame from campfires and lightningstrike, carrying flaming crowns to sprint across the scrublands, lighting the land aflame to melt resinseed and reproduce in the barrens there created.


every offended sense of completeness; or, why terriermen don’t work (no edit edition)

I remember TMNT & Other Strangeness and I liked it very much. I remember that iconic picture from Rifts with the four—differing breeds—Dog Boys with a Psi-Stalker pointing the way. If you’re going to have dogmen, you have to have different breeds with different stats and characteristics.

That’s the problem, though, and why I don’t have dogmen as playable races in my settings, is because doing so offends my sense of completeness. That is, if I have dogmen, why not catmen? And if I have dogmen and catmen, I have to have a full set of sub-breeds, for each, reflecting different characteristics. And if I have subraces for each major breed of dogmen, and each major breed of catmen, suddenly we’re not playing D&D, and down that way lies madness.

And that’s why I don’t do it, because the minnow will swallow the whale. Something very strange happens when you have a game with humans, elves, dwarves, and orcs . . . and nineteen races of dogs and cats. At that point, why have the humans and elves and dwarves and orcs?

I was always dissatisfied by the fact that D&D has gnolls—lazy vicious slavemasters—but no anthropomorphic dogs, a creature known for cheerfulness and loyalty and bravery. But now I know why there’s no place for it.

There’s a place for games with dogs and cats and mice and badgers, all being cute and plucky and heroic. But that’s not this game.

claustrophobiac and alone

They will cut cities from bare stone, tear up every vein, embellish every surface, then, when there is no unworked spot or unplanned gap, when every single piece and thing has become a channel for planned creation, when even the pebbles stare up from the floor with idly carved eyes, then they move on. — excerpt from treatise, Veins of the Earth, learned scholar unknown.

There are few surface-dwellers who know of the duergar. Of those who do, the vast many spend their days porne over manuscripts of the older, wiser days; missives from far-off places, passed hand-to-hand and never more than a sentence away from falsity; and indistinguishable from either, rankest fantasies penned the week before. The vanishing minority, those not scholars, bescarred and often as not staring into the middle distance, are those who have made their way through the earth and reemerged.

These people say that there is a race of work-obsessed dwarves, what used to be dwarves, which ply compulsive labors in the casket-black darkness of depths where dwarves find themselves claustrophobiac. Who touch every speck of the stone, who make all in their image, only moving on when all is complete. Who have been doing such since there have been dwarves. The men under the mountain, those who will speak of it—never to toplanders—make it clear that some dwarves go mad and go down, or whisper of a lost expedition sent to harvest a resource or fight a desperate sortie, or of darker things that bubbled up and drained down and took good dwarves to an unending fate.

That is so much bullshit.

Those who are invested in such stories don’t know they aren’t true, but do know—somewhere deep within—that it’s really, really important that people believe them. Everyone believes that those twisted creatures below are degenerate things, hunched by time and dark and compulsion, of being prey and predator, of bodeful energies and cannibal desperation. Good things went too far into the earth and became bad things.

All things come from the earth. Duergar are the dwarves, and the dwarves are duergar who fought compulsion and by slow prudence made mild a rugged people, and through soft degrees subdued them to the useful and the good. A dwarf is a driven creature, goals met and grudges held tight and lifeworks completed. Where does that—usually admirable—drive come from? The dogged follow-throughedness, to achieve, to complete?

From duergar compulsion. Dwarves have found how to work and not be consumed, to create and not (re-, re-, re-, re-) recreate, to set down hammer and tong and eat and drink and fellowship with other dwarves. Duergar do none of these things, but dwarves do. It isn’t dwarves who went, off—it was duergar who shook loose their defining aspect and opened themselves to something else.

To lose some to the Rapture, that some will end up wrong, this is the admitted risk of all who travel the shaftmines and squeezes and black cataracts of the land below. It is to be rued that you could degenerate to such a creature. But it is a shame so vast, incomprehensibly devastating, that the ancestry and ancient kings and received wisdom and such a painstaking genealogy could spring forth from the monomaniacal drive of the twisted toilers below, workmad and insensate.

Best not to spend too much time thinking on that.