Showing posts tagged dungeons & dragons

Books of Magic: The Voyage of the “Princess Ark”


(Images by Jim Holloway and Thomas Baxa come from PDF scans of Dragon Magazine, are © Wizards of the Coast or their respective copyright holders, and are used for review purposes.)

Previous installments in my “Books of Magic” series were, weirdly enough, about books.

This time, I want to tell you about a series: Bruce A. Heard’s “The Voyage of the Princess Ark,” which turns 30 years old this very month.

TVotPA ran in the pages of TSR’s Dragon Magazine nearly every month from January 1990 (Dragon #153) through December 1992 (Dragon #188). A serialized travelogue and adventure story told in 35 installments over three years, TVotPA was part Master and Commander, part Star Trek, and part The Adventures of Asterix澳门英皇娱乐 (the last two of which Heard explicitly cited as inspiration in his letters columns). It follows the saga of Prince Haldemar of Haaken, an Alphatian wizard who recommissions an old skyskip and sets out to explore the lesser known regions of the Dungeons & Dragons game’s Known World, which would soon come to be known as Mystara.

Some background might be necessary for those of you who aren’t familiar with the chaos that was D&D at the time. In the 1980s and 1990s, Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons were two different games. I’m simplifying the chronology here, but basically in the late ’70s D&D was meant to serve as a simplified gateway to introduce fans to fantasy role-playing before guiding them on to AD&D. But in the 1980s, thanks to the release of the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert Sets, and then the five Mentzer box sets (the ones with Larry Elmore dragons on the cover, now referred to as BECMI D&D—for the Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortals Rules box sets), D&D had become a viable game in its own right, with its own world, referred to only as the Known World.

The Known World—particularly as it was showcased in the Expert Rules—was a mess: more than a dozen nations slammed together in the corner of a continent to illustrate for young DMs the various forms of government you might find in D&D beyond kings and queens. Along the way, these nations also served as analogues for real-world societies ranging from Western European countries to Native American nations to the Mongolian khanate. But it was a glorious mess, thanks to a series of excellent Gazetteer supplements that had rounded out and mapped these nations in great detail, capped off by a box set, Dawn of the Emperors澳门英皇娱乐, that described the Known World’s pseudo-Rome, Thyatis, and its rival empire Alphatia, a nation of wizards across the sea.

By the end of 1989, then, D&D was at a crossroads. It was clearly the unloved child, seen as “basic,” best for beginners. Its setting did not have the novel support of Dragonlance or the energy of the surging and more thoughtfully conceived Forgotten Realms, then only two years old. The Gazetteer series had covered nearly all the known nations (two more would come later thanks to popular demand). And even Dragon Magazine rarely carried D&D material—a fact that was excruciating澳门英皇娱乐 to me when I started picking up issues in late 1988 as a 5th grader.

Into this void stepped Bruce Heard. He’d been the architect of the Gazetteer series, had written some of its best installments, and was the overmind behind the D&D line at the time. If I’m remembering my history correctly, he approached the editor of Dragon, the amazing Roger Moore, about supplying a column that would provide regular D&D content for that starved segment of Dragon’s audience. In his editorials and answers to reader letters, Moore had made several mentions of needing more D&D content for the magazine, so he was a receptive audience. Heard got the green light, and “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” was born.

I still remember where I was when I realized this was happening. I missed the series launch—with my tiny allowance, I could only justify buying Dragon issues that really interested me, and Dragon #153 hadn’t leapt of the shelf at me. (Not having the Masters Rules box at the time, I didn’t realize the illustration of a continental map plastered with “WRONG WRONG WRONG” was referring to the D&D world.) I did have Dragon #155 (still one of my favorite issues of all time), but somehow I skipped past TVotPA Part 3—I wasn’t reading issues cover to cover yet and somehow didn’t grasp what was going on.

Then came issue #158. I was away for a week at Boy Scout summer camp, and I’d brought the June issue of Dragon澳门英皇娱乐 with me. Having torn through the articles about dragons (June’s theme was always dragons), I turned to an article illustrated with a wizard and an ogre/elf cross riding pelicans. Better yet, they article had stats for playing these ogre-elves as PCs.

D&D stats.


And it was part of a SERIES!!!

With some effort, I tracked down the issues I’d missed—no easy task for a just-finished-6th-grader—and soon was buying Dragon every month. Moore and Heard’s plan had worked. I was hooked on both TVotPA and Dragon from then on. (The next time I missed an issue, I’d be a college freshman and the industry was on the verge of collapse.)

Most installments of TVotPA followed a simple template: The Princess Ark would fly to some new spot on the map, the crew would get into some trouble (usually brought down on them by the actions of Captain Haldemar himself), and then more or less get out again, either due to a last-minute save by Haldemar or some surprising turn of events. All this played out in the form of log entries—originally by Haldemar, then supplemented by other crewmembers as the cast expanded—that allowed Heard to deliver both in-world descriptions and rollicking action at the same time. The article would then offer back matter containing rules content or setting write-ups, and sometimes conclude with a letters column of readers reacting to the setting or seeking clarification on some arcane point of D&D rules and lore.

While this template was simple, it was never boring. The episodic nature of the series let Heard play in a variety of tones and genres: lost-world pulp, courtly drama, horror, farce, even a Western—heck, he slipped in an homage to the Dark Crystal (which at the time I didn’t get, not having seen it) as early as Part 5 (Dragon #157). As well (without getting into too spoilery territory), various overarching antagonists and plot threads—including a threatening order of knights, a devious dragon, two major status quo changes, and divine machinations—kept things simmering in the background from episode to episode. The characters likewise became more developed as Heard’s writing grew in confidence and ambition, and reader affection grew for side characters like Talasar, Xerdon, Myojo, and the rest. Once the series was up and running at full speed, it was a sure bet that if you didn’t like that month’s story, you’d dig the rules write-up, or vice versa. And when the story, setting, characters, and rules all came together, such as in Dragon #177, an episode would just sing.

Once again, I can’t tell you how thrilling this series was to 6th–9th-grade me. First of all, it came along at the perfect澳门英皇娱乐 time. Heard’s writing literally matured just as my reading did, so the series and I literally grew up together. 6th grade was also the year I discovered comics, so this was also the era of my life when I was falling in love with serialized storytelling. Similarly, it was my first time really embracing the epistolary form.

Perhaps most significantly for this blog and my freelance career, the column was also an early primer for me on game design. Watching Heard tweak D&D’s simple rules to evoke a more complex world, especially when looked at in concert with D&D’s Gazetteer and Hollow Word supplements, gave me the courage to think about tweaking/inventing lore and systems myself. Heard also made a habit of pilfering monsters from the Creature Catalogue, seeing potential in them no one else had, and then suggesting entire cultures for them. (If that doesn’t sound like someone you know…what blog have you been reading?) He made creating a world seem easy, because he did it month after month after month.

Finally, TVotPA was thrilling because it was clear proof that someone took “basic” BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia-era D&D seriously. And that meant someone took us, the fanbase, seriously too. Back then, I couldn’t afford AD&D. Even if I could, I didn’t want to mess with all the complexity. Plus, I loved the Known World. I loved the Gazetteer books and the Aaron Allston box sets. By writing and publishing TVotPA, Bruce Heard and Roger Moore made me feel like they cared about and for fans like me. I didn’t have Raistlin, I didn’t have Elminster…but I didn’t need them, because I had Prince Haldemar of Haaken and his magical Princess Ark.

In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that falling under the spell of Dragon and TVotPA澳门英皇娱乐 were some of the most magical and mind expanding moments of my middle school years.


But what does this mean for you, the current Pathfinder or D&D fan? Should you read “The Voyage of the Princess Ark”?

澳门英皇娱乐Obviously I’m going to say yes, for all the reasons I’ve listed above. If you like maritime adventures, steampunk, or pulp adventures, this is obviously the series for you. If you like Pathfinder/D&D where a wizard is as likely to throw a punch as he is to go for his wand, this is the series for you. If you like on-the-fly worldbuilding, this is the series for you. If you like setting, story, and rules expansion all mixed together every month, this is the series for you.

TVotPA has never been collected in its entirely (more on that later), but there are PDF scans of all that era’s Dragon issues online. Start at Dragon #153 and keep reading. I’ll warn you that the first installments are a little slow, but I’d be surprised if you aren’t pulled in by the end of Part 8 (Dragon #161). If you’re the sort of reader who wants to sample a series running on all four cylinders before committing, I recommend Part 18 (Dragon #171), set in the pseudo-Balkan nation of Slagovich, or Part 24 (Dragon #177), when the crew encounters the Celtic-influenced druidic knights of Robrenn, as great places to get a strong first impression.

To my eye, “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” consists of four major arcs, plus a smattering of follow-up material that owes a debt to the series. If you do decide to dive in, here’s a quick reading guide:

Arc 1 / Parts 1–10 / Dragon #153–163 / This arc launches the series and introduces us to several major antagonists. The first few installments are slow going, but by Part 6 (Dragon #158) or 7 (Dragon澳门英皇娱乐 #160) we see signs of the series as it will be in its prime.

(Dragon #158 also looks at D&D’s immortal dragon rulers; some of this info will later get superseded by a more canonical article in Dragon #170 a year later. Don’t sleep on Dragon #159—though it doesn’t have an installment of TVotPA, there is some fun Spelljammer content in that issue. Speaking of Spelljammer, Dragon #160 also has a companion article entitled “Up, Away & Beyond,” that serves up rudimentary rules for space travel in D&D in tandem with the action in that month’s TVotPA.)

澳门英皇娱乐As you have probably just gleaned, this arc also takes the Princess Ark briefly into space and introduces D&D’s second, secret setting, the Hollow World, which was being launched at that time .

Arc 2 / Parts 11–15 / Dragon #164–168 / This short arc deals with the ramifications of a major status quo-altering event at the end of the previous arc. As the crew comes to terms with their new circumstances, Haldemar learns more about the ship itself and the magics behind her. The arc ends with yet another status quo shakeup and detailed maps of the Princess Ark.

Arc 3 / Parts 16–28 / Dragon #169–181 / Hex maps! One of the calling cards of the D&D Gazetteer series was its gloriously detailed full-color hex maps, so it was kind of a disappointment when TVotPA served up only rough sketches of coastlines and mountain ranges. Part 16 gave us what we’d wanted all along: glorious hex maps (detailing the India-inspired nation of Sind no less!). They weren’t always perfect—several issues in the #170s had the wrong colors for mountain ranges, or even seemed crudely painted with watercolors—but by Part 24 (Dragon澳门英皇娱乐 #177) we got the crisp, expertly designed nations we expected in our Known World.

Early in this arc, we also get a passing of the torch between artists. Parts 1–17 were illustrated by Jim Holloway, who I like for his action scenes, his expressive faces, and the classic stern captain’s look (complete with mustache) he gives Haldemar. (Holloway also does the best dwarves, gnomes, and halflings in the fantasy business.) Starting with Part 18 (Dragon #171), we are treated to the more angular, stylized look of Thomas Baxa, with Haldemar losing his mustache and gaining a silver-streaked ponytail. Terry Dykstra takes over in Part 25 (Dragon #178); his style is more cartoony (his Myojo really suffers from this), but he keeps Baxa’s character designs till the end of the series.

Now that I’ve totally buried the lede, let’s unearth it: This arc is, for my money, the series at its absolute prime. Action-packed stories. More characters in the spotlight. Meaty setting descriptions and rules content. New PC races and classes. Even heraldry for each nation! Heard also continued his habit of dredging up D&D creatures from the Creature Catalogue and loosely tying them to real-world cultures for great effect. I suspect many of you will love the French dogfolk of Renardy or the English catfolk of Bellayne, not to mention the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles澳门英皇娱乐 reference he sneaks in there.

(By the way, it should be noted that today in 2020 we’re more hesitant to do such A+B design. But remember, 1) 1990–1992 was a different time—by ’90s standards, Heard is engaged in pretty solid, multiculturalist worldbuilding, and 2) Heard grew up in Europe (France originally, I believe), so while some of the characterizations and comedy is broad, the settings are grounded in both on-the-ground familiarity and good research, and the humor is affectionate and of a piece with works like Asterix that any European reader would be familiar with. In other words, don’t stress it and just enjoy that the dog-dudes are shouting “Sacrebleu!澳门英皇娱乐” The one exception might be the depiction of Hule, an evil D&D nation that has always been hung with vaguely Persian or Arabian trappings…but again 1) Heard was working within the established canon, and 2) the Known World setting more than balances that out with the Emirates of Ylaruam, an Arabian/Persian-inspired nation that was depicted with lots of sensitivity and care by Ken Rolston and others, to be followed by the amazing Al-Qadim setting for AD&D. So I don’t think there’s much in here that should raise alarms from a cultural sensitivity perspective, but if something does strike you discordantly, remember we’re talking about works that are 30 years old and make allowances as you feel you can.)

Along the way, you’ll also get a sneak peek at what would become AD&D’s Red Steel setting and the Savage Baronies box set—including some of the first Spanish and Moorish-inspired nations you’ll find in fantasy RPGs of this era—learn a bit about the Known World’s afterlife and undead, and even get an honest-to-Ixion cowboy shootout, as well as lots of PC options and deck plans for the evil knights’ flying warbirds, which put the Klingons’ warbirds to shame. (Oh, and while you’re reading, don’t skip the two articles about the Known World’s dragons in #170 and #171!)

Arc 4 / Parts 29–35 / Dragon #182–188 / Dragon #158–181 is among the best two-year-runs Dragon Magazine ever had, and TVotPA is a large part of the reason. But a lackluster issue #182 was a first quiet sign of a long slow downturn to come. The fact that that issue’s TVotPA entry was only a letter column portended even more dire things. In fact, three of the seven installments in this arc were purely letters columns, which was a huge disappointment at the time: We’d waited a whole month and got…just letters?!?

By this point, I think we knew the Wrath of the Immortals box set was coming—one of those world-shattering setting updates that was being pitched as a relaunch of the setting, but which could also serve as its climax. My hope at the time was that Wrath of the Immortals would kick things into a new, higher gear for both the Known World (which by then we knew as Mystara) and TVotPA, especially since the D&D Rules Cyclopedia澳门英皇娱乐 had only come out the year before. But alas, it wasn’t to be.

Thanks to the three letters-only entries, the writing was on the wall. In Part 35 (Dragon #188), TVotPA wound its way to a close that felt appropriate but not properly climactic. God, what I wouldn’t have given to have traded those three letters columns for one last showdown with a certain dragon, those dastardly knights, or any other more suspenseful end! The end we got was nice and tidy enough (and took us to fantasy Louisiana, Australia, and Endor), but it wasn’t the end we wanted…in part because we didn’t want it to end, ever.

Arc 5 / Coda & Part 36 / Select issues of Dragon #189–200, Champions of Mystara, Dragon #237, #247 & #344 / In 1993, TVotPA was replaced with “The Known World Grimoire.” This was a grab bag of announcements, letters columns, nitty-gritty details on running dominions (Companion and Master-level D&D players got to have their own lands, castles, and even kingdoms if they so wished), and other sundries. Most of these are skippable. Four exceptions are four “Grimoire” entries which could practically be TVotPA installments: Dragon #192, which covers the manscorpions of Nimmur, Dragon #196, featuring the orcs of the Dark Jungle, an article on D&D heraldry in Dragon #199 (which is an edge case, but I’m including it here because the rules could be applied to the coats of arms of the various Savage Coast nations), and Dragon #200, which looked at the winged elves and winged minotaurs of the Arm of the Immortals. Coming out as it did in the giant-sized issue #200, this last article felt like what it was—a last goodbye to D&D’s Known World/Mystara as we knew it before Mystara’s relaunch as an AD&D line.

(Dragon #200 also had a nice article on making magic-users in D&D more distinctive. There was also “The Ecology of the Actaeon” in Dragon #190, one of the only D&D ecologies to be published in Dragon澳门英皇娱乐’s 2e AD&D era. Somewhere in this time we also got the news that the Known World would be relaunched as AD&D’s Mystara setting, whose products were famous for coming with audio CDs and not much else.)

Around this time TSR also published its TVotPA-inspired—and utterly maddeningChampions of Mystara澳门英皇娱乐 box set. I say “maddening” because, at least to me, it clearly felt like a “Sure, here fine, have your dang box set” product, a too-pricey production made because fans demanded it, but not out of real love from anyone at TSR but Bruce Heard himself and co-designer Ann Dupuis.

(Let me be clear: This is all speculation; I can’t confirm any of that; I’m just saying what it felt like.)

Among the reasons for my disappointment: There was no new content featuring Haldemar and his crew. One of the booklets reprinted most of TVotPA…but not the first 10 or so entries (so it wasn’t even the complete epic! *headdesk*) and none of the ancillary material, just the story logs. Another booklet was deep in the weeds of skyship construction—hell yeah, you could build your own skyship!—but gave little content to, say, inspire lots of fun skyship-to-skyship adventures in the vein of Spelljammer, such as tons of skyships from other nations. The box did contain eight standalone cards with other ship designs, but most of these were one-off constructions by solitary wizards and rajahs, not enough to really launch a campaign. My favorite booklet was the “Explorer’s Manual,” which gave us some new setting details we hadn’t seen before, including an amazing subterranean nation of elves and gnolls that I still think about to this day…but again, it was all too little, too late—for this fan, at least.

In other words, don’t try to buy the Champions of Mystara box set—at time of writing it’s crazy expensive and not worth it for anyone not actively playing BECMI D&D right this minute. If, after reading the entire series, you’ve fallen in love with TVotPA (which admittedly was my goal in writing this) and absolutely must have Champions澳门英皇娱乐 for that nation of elves and gnolls, get the PDF on DriveThruRPG.com.

Years later, as Dragon was limping through the late ’90s before its rejuvenation in 2000, Heard provided 2e AD&D rules for Mystara’s lupins and rakastas in Dragon #237 and #247, including writing up tons of subraces inspired by actual pet breeds. If you’ve ever wanted to play an anthropomorphic St. Bernard or Siamese, these are the articles for you.

Finally in 2006, when Paizo had taken over publishing Dragon, they invited Heard to deliver one last TVotPA entry in Dragon #344…giving us, if not a climax, definitely one last burst of palace intrigue and action to bridge the gap between the series proper and the events of Wrath of the Immortals. Over and above all the other coda material I’ve mentioned, this actually fits in the saga—it’s even labeled Part 36. If you want to ship out one last time with Haldemar and his crew, track it down.

Finally x2, there is the world of Calidar. After being thwarted for several years trying to get permission to write new TVotPA content, Bruce Heard has created his own game world filled with skyships and adventures. I own the books (which are rules-light so fans of any system can use them), but haven’t had time to read them yet; hopefully you will be a more determined fan. Keep an eye out for his various Kickstarters and definitely show your support.

Finally x3, if you think I am the only diehard Known World/Mystara fan out there…wow, no, not by a long shot. The Mystara fan community is one of the most dedicated in gaming. In addition to holding a torch for BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia-era D&D, they’ve taken it upon themselves to continue mapping and describing the remainder of Mystara as part of the fan community based out of the Vaults of Pandius website and the stunning fanzine Threshold. I’ve only skimmed Threshold a little, but it is stunning work on par with the Pathfinder fanzine Wayfinder澳门英皇娱乐 for the amount of effort the fans put in and the quality that comes out. Kudos to everyone involved!


“The Voyage of the Princess Ark” is a testament to the creative heights one writer could achieve in a fantasy world.

“The Voyage of the Princess Ark澳门英皇娱乐” deserves to be spoken of in the terms we use for Pathfinder’s Golarion; AD&D’s Dark Sun, Planescape, and Al-Qadim; and Vampire the Masquerade’s World of Darkness. And Bruce Heard deserves pride of place in the company of Greenwood, Grubb, Weis, Hickman, and others of his era.

Heard showed us that simple rules didn’t mean a less complex world. Heard showed us that a few lines of monster description could be blown out to fill entire nations. Heard showed us that the cultural diversity of our own world could inspire our fictional ones. Most importantly, he showed that if you put in the work month after month, you could achieve amazing things. And he did it for a neglected fanbase of underdogs and windmill-tilters. He championed an audience and a world when no one else would.

“The Voyage of the Princess Ark” is also why I spent nearly seven years serving up monster ideas for another underdog fanbase. And the inspiration and work ethic I took from it is a big part of why I’m lucky enough to occasionally be freelancing on a professional basis today.

Three years isn’t a long time in fantasy fandom. If Elminster and Drizzt are Star Trek, perennially chugging along, and Harry Potter is Star Wars, a brilliant core surrounded by progressively less compelling follow-ups, then “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” is Firefly, a ragged crew whose sojourn was cut short, but whose legacy far outstrips its impact at the time.

Or at least, that’s the way its legacy ought to be.

Give “The Voyage of the Princess Ark” a try.澳门英皇娱乐 Maybe I’m overselling it. Maybe years of nostalgia have painted a picture rosier than the original could ever live up to. Maybe, in an era where outstanding fantasy worlds and strong writing are almost commonplace, current readers can’t perceive the lightning-in-a-bottle magic that was this series.

Maybe. But I think there’s something more there, something perennial, something of value even when placed side by side with the embarrassment of riches that is Pathfinder 1e/2e and D&D 5e.

The only way you’ll know is if you book a berth on the Princess Ark and see for yourself.

澳门英皇娱乐Happy flying.


Planktas are odd. Bestiary 5 describes them as “stony creatures formed from the shattered remnants of ancient island civilizations devastated and inundated by natural or magical cataclysms”—okay, check, we got that—“and given life by unleashed magical energies and the anguished spirits of those lost in the tragedies.” Makes sense. Except…planktas do not remain creatures of unleashed energies and spirits—in other words, they are not outsiders or fey or even undead. Instead, they become aberrations—true mortal creatures, albeit alien ones.

澳门英皇娱乐Of course, becoming such a creature also means having the drive to procreate…and in the plankta’s case, that means destroying more island civilizations. It’s a grisly life cycle to say the least.

None of that will probably ever come into play at your game table, unless you’re really deeply exploring themes of climate change and island cultures. And even the choice to make them aberrations probably had to do more with behind the scenes math—“We need X number of aberrations in this book, and we only have Y, so get brainstorming.” But once the monster is in print, I find it super interesting to wrestle with the implications of what’s in the stat block.

澳门英皇娱乐One more thing about planktas: They are described as animate jumbles of buildings and rock, and the illustration makes them look vaguely hermit crab-like. But that’s by no means made explicit in the text, so their forms might be even more outlandish, depending on the nature of the cataclysm that formed them…

A band of adventures began its career 澳门英皇娱乐in the shadow of an exploding volcano, ferrying passengers out of the doomed city of Hestius. Now the Hestian Beast, a plankta born of Hestius’s destruction, threatens their adopted home of Sanctis. Now far more experienced and with a clear enemy in sight, this time they resolve to fight rather than ferry.

Ships have been disappearing澳门英皇娱乐 along Giant’s Foot Strait. A clan of deep merfolk has been blamed, but the truth is a plankta has been raining boulders (and its own discorporated rocky body) on the passing ships. Investigating the mystery may uncover the hitherto unknown sunken city whose destruction birthed the plankta, as well as unlock a runic alphabet that has had researches stumped for years.

The Ringwrack is a vast chain of archipelagos circling the Sea of Rage. Planktas are more common here than anywhere else in the world, thanks to the extreme level of volcanic activity in the region and the destructive procreation of the planktas themselves. Planktas that were fathered rather than arising spontaneously tend to resemble their sire. Those that resemble stony hermit crabs were born from Old Karg, those that resemble weeping whales made of marble were sired by the White Witch, and those that resemble massive iguanas seem to trace back to a mystery progenitor near the equatorial line.

Pathfinder Bestiary 5 195

I have feelings about 2019. I have feelings about the last decade. I’ll save them for another day, but suffice it to say I’m ready for 2020 in a big澳门英皇娱乐 way. Happy New Year, everyone.

Plague Giant


(Illustration by David Melvin comes from the artist’s DeviantArt page and is © Paizo Publishing.)

I’m on record as being very picky when it comes to certain kind of [noun] monsters. I want my [noun] giants to be from some kind of recognizable landscape or elemental force. (I grudgingly accept rune giants澳门英皇娱乐 because they are dope.) I want my [noun] golems to be from things you carve or mine—no web or stained glass golems, please. I’m basically done with [noun] dragons altogether, preferring more unique branches of the family tree.

Yet all that goes out the window when I hear the word “plague.” Plague golems? Sure. Plague dragons? BAD. ASS. Plague armadillos, plague puddings, plague leprechauns? Why the heck not—let’s make galarchauns a thing! (Somewhere I have an Irish reader who is wincing. Tá brón orm!)

So I like plague giants as they’re presented in Bestiary 6.  I mean, who doesn’t love the special ability Hurl Corpse (Su)? (And imagine the cinematics of a giant lair just having stacks of corpses piled around for ammo, or a giant pushing a massive corpse cart the size of a cottage through a blasted landscape.) And they cause a disease that withers limbs. And what kind of monsters do they summon? Vultures maybe? Rats? Nope—tick swarms! I don’t even know why I like that; I JUST DO.

Obviously, plague giants are the result of some curse or divine intervention or some other dire event…and what that event was might be something your PCs can discover in the course of the game, or it might be a mystery they never learn, as they’re too busy dodging rotted corpse missiles.

Adventurers are providing aid to a plague-stricken town when an unnatural mist rolls through town. Out of the fog comes a pair of plague giants pushing a massive cart, offering to collect the town’s dead. The offer is a sincere one, and removing the corpses will help stem the tide of infection. But then the plague giants make their way to the hospital, and begin collecting still-living victims with no regard to their prognosis.

After their service preventing diabolists from disturbing the Storm Moot—and enduring much anti-human prejudice and violence in the process—a band of adventurers are allowed the rare honor of sitting in on giant summit. The meeting is thrown into turmoil when a delegation of plague giants arrives. While not precisely banned from the Moot, the cursed giants have never attempts to attend before.  Most present wish to bar them entry, but they insist, particularly as they come bearing the corpse of the exiled fire giant jarl Vulsk with them.

One reason plagues aren’t more prevalent澳门英皇娱乐 is that the plague powers are a fractious, jealous bunch—a mix of demigods, daemons, demons, and divs jockeying for worshippers and warring over ownership of specific strains of infection. One sign a plague power is in ascendance is when it has the puissance to transform nearby giant tribes into plague giants, sending them out as earthly avatars to further the power’s ends.

Bestiary 6 134

Plagued Beast

Whenever demons or undead take over a country, or some horrible magical event happens in a region, there’s always the question of what life in a realm of death is actually like. Like, what happens to the animals? Do they flee? Do they remain, skittish and agitated? Do ghouls eat them all or do they find a way to persist? Or are they, too, morphed?

The plagued beast is the result of demon plague—in Golarion, yet another stain from the Worldwound. But in your game it can work for any necromantic or fiendish affliction, and is useful for giving your undead something to ride that’s sturdier than a skeletal steed.

The centaurs of the Iron Lands are in dire straights. Demon plague is racing through their herds, decimating the stock just before the yearly horse fair the centaurs depend on for buying winter stores. If they can’t cull the undead beasts and save their horses, they will have to rely in the Medichar Bank for a loan—an ill prospect, as Medichar law protects only humanoids from slavery if they default. Adventurers are needed to hunt down the plagued steeds (possibly hindered by Medichar Bank agents) and discover the root of the infection.

Loch Annis is famous for three things澳门英皇娱乐: a series of three sentry keeps, the hag (long slain) that gave the loch its name, and a serpentine beast, likely an elasmosaurus, that draws tourists and naturalists. But when some necromantic storm engulfs one of the keeps, the lake monster “Annie” becomes a plagued horror, terrorizing towns up and down the loch.

A traveling circus’s showstopper is covering one lucky farmer’s animal in gold. Crowds for miles around come to watch the Eeling & Sons Circus lead a horse, mule, or kite deer through a magic mirror, which it comes through dusted in real gold leaf the farmer can then curry out of the animal’s hide. But three months into the act, an alarming pattern is emerging: Every animal that has gone through the mirror comes down with demon plague. After a plagued deer terrorizes a halfling village, the sheriff wants the circus stopped—permanently.

The Worldwound 56 & Pathfinder Bestiary 5 194

Long time no see, huh? Happy holidays, everybody.

Looking for the piranha swarm? We’ll cover it when we cover the dunkleosteus.


The ram-horned, mantis-armed phasmadaemons personify death by fright. They also happen to cause death by fright (convenient, that!), courtesy of illusion spell-like abilities supercharged to be practically real, and they feed on fright, too—demonstrating, all in all, a horrifically efficient and thrifty biology.

Though phasmadaemons didn’t make it into the hardbound Bestiaries till number 6, they’ve been around since Horsemen of the Apocalypse, so GMs looking for a deep dive on their tactics, hunting habits and culture should look there澳门英皇娱乐. Two things in particular jump out at me, though. The first is how powerful (CR 17) phasmadaemons are—an indicator that causing death by fear alone somehow situates them closer to the daemonic ideal than, say, more base deaths such as drowning, being mauled, or exsanguination.

The second is that—though this isn’t really reflected in the rules, it’s a great story bit—phasmadaemons somehow also collect fearful imaginings and trade them with each other. I’m a big fan of the soul markets of the night hags, so the notion of even more quiddity-derived commodity trades excites me to no end.

Struck by an azata’s arrow, a thanadaemon goes mad as the celestial wound grows septic. No longer content to represent death by old age, it begins stalking the living, culling souls before their proper time—and in the process, disrupting a phasmadaemon’s carefully orchestrated hauntings. Offended, the phasmadaemon tricks mortal adventurers into hunting down the wayward thanadaemon, though all the while it also sends illusory torments to harry their progress and stoke their fear. Once the thanadaemon is slain, the phasmadaemon offers its thanks by revealing itself to the adventurers before attempting to murder them.

Fireworks, porcelain masks, and sinuous manticore puppets澳门英皇娱乐 are all hallmarks of the Yung New Year’s celebrations. But the court sorcerer made a deal with the daemonic Lord of the Wastes to win Yung’s last war against the northern barbarian tribes, and now daemons have begun slipping unchallenged into the empire. The rise in terror and deaths are largely felt only as a malaise that hangs over the city. But that changes during the New Year parade, when a porcelain-masked phasmadaemon erupts out from under the procession’s manticore puppet and sends illusionary horrors to torment citizens.

Bugbears that perfect the art of stalking and terrifying victims are sometimes visited by a phasmadaemon. The daemon stalks the chosen bugbear over the course of three days and nights, attacking at random, setting up ambushes, and never letting the goblinoid sleep. Though few bugbears could hope to defeat a daemon in combat, if the champion does not show fear throughout the entire ordeal, the phasmadaemon will grant the bugbear some boon. Often these boons include the gift of an intelligent magical weapon, magical prowess (treat as added class levels or the half-field template),a spell-like ability, transformation into a greater barghest, or some other dark blessing.

Horsemen of the Apocalypse 52–53 & Pathfinder Bestiary 6 74

Hi guys. Been a while since we did a monster. For my Blogger readers, here’s some of what’s been going on—including some fun with monster reading recommendations, some big news, and some bleak news. For my Tumblr readers, thank as always for sticking around and keeping me company.

Several times on this blog—particularly as my weekdaily posting schedule slackened in 2016 and 2017 and fell off to almost nothing in 2018 and 2019—I’ve mentioned changes to my life that have drawn me away from the computer: new radio show time...

澳门英皇娱乐Several times on this blog—particularly as my weekdaily posting schedule slackened in 2016 and 2017 and fell off to almost nothing in 2018 and 2019—I’ve mentioned changes to my life that have drawn me away from the computer: new radio show time slots, more work/life balance, more time at the gym, and even professional freelancing.

澳门英皇娱乐And somewhere in that list, you probably caught mentions of caregiving, and ambulance rides, and ERs, and long, long hospital stays.

I met —Katerina—at a radio station party in late spring of 2013. We were almost immediately inseparable, and spent that summer and fall going on road trips, playing games, and generally falling head over heels for each other.

And then one weekend in early 2014, she called me from Katsucon and told me she was having trouble walking and that she’d needed to borrow a hotel wheelchair.

This was our first brush with mitochondrial disease. I met her down at the convention and pushed her for the rest of the con. By the next week, she’d ordered her own wheelchair. And I spent the next five and a half years helping to take care of her and preserve her independence in the face of—once we’d gotten a diagnosis, which in itself took two or three years—a degenerative disease she knew would kill her.

Some people get a manageable version of mitochondrial disease. Kat got the version with gastroparesis, progressive organ failure, and profound muscle and nerve pain that left her in such daily agony she qualified for palliative care. None of which stopped her from loving life, traveling when she could, creating art, playing games, and making plans for a bright future.

Katerina passed away the morning of August 24. We laid her to rest in accordance with her Jewish faith on August 29.

澳门英皇娱乐She was this blog’s biggest fan. And I was—and still am—hers.

To support people still living with mitochondrial disease and to support disabled gamers in general, please consider a gift to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation and Able Gamers, two organizations Kat was devoted to. Thanks.

Name a D&D or Pathfinder Monster You Love. I’ll Recommend Something to Read.

Hey all! I’ve been away from the computer for a little while (work/vacation/caregiver stuff/podcasting/etc.) and/or my computer’s been away from me (loaned to loved one in the hospital). I want to get my mojo back and get posting again, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than by virtually hanging out with you! Plus it’s a great way to celebrate last weekend’s blockbuster Gen Con and the launch of Pathfinder 2e.

Those of you who were around last summer澳门英皇娱乐 know the drill: You name a monster you love, and I’ll point you to an article or a book or an adventure you might have missed. I’ll try to make it something you can check out for free or find cheap on the used shelf at your local game shop, Amazon, or DriveThruRPG.

Not into monsters?  Name a setting, a subrace, a character class/archetype/prestige class, a concept (like wizard schools), or any other game element, and I’ll see what I can do! 



Baltimore based artist and illustrator Justine Jones creates her vein of psychedelic fantasy horror drawings–filled with tiny black lines and an occasional pop of bright colors–which have been featured on the covers of Kobold Press and Warlock magazine. Using the hashtag #VisibleWomen to amplify the voices and portfolios of women comic artists, Justine has be able to do more illustrative work and character design. We’re excited to find out more about Justine’s artistic journey, her love of role-playing games, comics, art, her influences and much more…  Take the leap! 

Photography courtesy of the artist. 

Justine played in my Pathfinder group GMed by Ian Sayre!  I was actually playing with her when I started this blog.  Check out this interview and follow the links to the work she’s been doing for Kobold Press and Warlock.

(Reblogged from )

Anonymous asked: what unites the fey type in pathfinder? What makes a fey a fey?

澳门英皇娱乐In Pathfinder—at least, Pathfinder’s default Golarion setting—that’s actually pretty easy.  Fey are supernatural creatures with ties to the First World, a sort of rough draft existence that predates the Material Plane.  In practice, that means they are mostly creatures of nature—in some cases, creatures who dwell in the wild places of the world; in other cases, outright nature spirits.  You are more likely to find them where the border between the Material Plane and the First World is thin, or in places that are similarly abundant with life energy, such as forests, but these are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.  Fey are liminal creatures by nature, and they defy categorization as often as they fall into it.  If it’s not quite a humanoid, not quite an outsider, and not quite anything else, it’s likely fey.

In other game worlds/systems…well that’s harder.  But the liminal nature seems to be a theme throughout, as does the sliding spectrum of slightly supernatural to outright conceptual.  Like certain undead or many outsiders, the more powerful a fey is, the more likely it is to represent or embody something beyond itself.  (A nixie lives in ponds, while a nereid leans toward being a representation of the beauty and danger of water, for instance.)  But it’s all a bit hard to pin down…which is exactly how fey like it.

Pharaonic Guardian

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a love/hate relationship with fantasy Egypt tropes.  Mummies are interesting undead, period, and when done thoughtfully, Egypt-inspired adventures can be some of the best around (see the excellent Mummy’s Mask Adventure Path).  On the other hand, it can be way too easy to just drop fantasy-Egypt wholesale into your Pathfinder/D&D campaign without a lot of forethought (even Forgotten Realms was guilty of this), leading to trite adventures involving pyramids, death traps, and the obligatory cameo appearance by Anubis.

The pharaonic guardian, at first glance, looks both useful (it’s the kind of monster you’d totally see in a Mummy movie but that there hasn’t exactly been stats for yet ) and pretty generic (oh great, it’s still an undead tomb guardian, no matter what kind of head it has).  

But it shines in the details: A judging gaze and soul-rending wings are just cool.  The fact that it can use (and even briefly hand over) a +3 ghost touch speed longsword and shield is a nice cinematic touch.  Even the alignment is flavorful—not a bland N or LN, but not your typical undead NE or CE either.  And why lawful evil?  Because pharaonic guardians “are the product of fear and sweat wrung from slaves and other servants”—in fact, they’re made from an amalgam of these servants’ souls!

So these are creatures born of atrocity.  And they probably will try to kill you.  But if on the rare chance you’re actually trying to preserve a pyramid rather than loot it…maybe you’ll get lucky.

But say you’re not down with Horus and Set.  It’s interesting to think of other reasons a culture might have animal-headed tomb guardians…

In the early stages of exploring a crypt, adventurers have an opportunity to step into magical mural of a garden, where they may ritually purify themselves and converse with the denizens therein.  One of these figments, a foul-tempered, warthog-headed armorer, will ask them to swear an oath not to disturb a certain burial chamber.  Should they do so (and keep their promise), he will come to their aid later in the depths, arriving bearing ghost touch-infused arms when the adventurers are set upon by the tomb’s more malevolent spirits.

Elves of Parnish have a taboo澳门英皇娱乐 against being represented in images after their death. Instead, they are depicted in carvings, paintings and tapestries bearing the heads of their totem animals.  To the Parnish’eya, it is an honor to have one’s soul be destined after death to become a tomb guardian.  But the elves’ strict religious and funereal obligations weigh upon the souls over the centuries, and most of these guardians grow cold and evil during the course of their endless watch.

A wise ruler puts some distance between his palace and his line’s necropolis.  The Captive King is a lesson why.  When Tarpin XII decided to shore up his faltering reign by building a palace atop the burial city of Omun-Ke, it did not occur to him the pharaonic guardians would see fit to judge the weak king according to the harsh standards of namesake.  Now Tarpin XII is naught but ash in an urn, and his son Tarpin XIII has spent 30 years a prisoner in his own palace.  Praying for a rescue that never comes, he appears in public only to pronounce draconian edicts dictated by his undead jailers, who are intent in restoring the faith and territory of the first Tarpin’s empire.

Osirion, Legacy of the Pharaohs 60 & Pathfinder Bestiary 5 191

I also like Mummy’s Mask because it’s one of the last APs I successfully read all of as it came out, rather than in desperate cram sessions after the fact.  My life got weird, y’all.

It’s been long enough now that I bet many of you have forgotten the truly messed-up elves of Eberron. No matter what system you play, you owe it to yourself to pick up either the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting, Player’s Guide to Eberron, or Races of Eberron.  At time of writing, used PGTEs are a steal at $16.50, and for value for money it’s still really hard to beat a used ECS at roughly $36.

Also, old-school (or at least, middle-school) D&D fans will remember the Dark Sun novels, specifically the Prism Pentad by Troy Denning.  The first three books were flat-out baller, but the fourth, The Obsidian Oracle, was a muddy, claustrophobic, and depressing read, even by Dark Sun standards.  But it featured some truly horrific bad guys—beast-headed giants that got those heads through magical manipulation that (if I’m recalling correctly—I haven’t re-read these books since, like, ’94) also doomed their children’s souls.  So there’s another source of animal-headed atrocities for you.