I don’t think liches are bad people because they have cheated death and subverted some kind of “natural order” of things or because Negative Energy has evil cooties. Eff all that.
Liches are shitty people because, to my mind and in the lore I have in my head, they have to destroy everything and everyone that they have ever loved in order to ritually gain immortality. They are the ultimate show of selfishness. They exemplify, my great work is more important than anyone. Liches believe that their minds and will can make the world better than every other person and so, after a while, they want only their minds and will to reign over a dead and decaying world.
A friend of mine said, “Maybe people who want all orcs to be evil just want to…ya know…punch Nazis.” How is the above post about liches different from All Orcs are Evil? I’ll tell ya. It is about nouns and verbs.
If people are evil because of what they are, because of a noun – you aren’t looking to punch fictional Nazis. You are looking to punch fictional Jews.*
*I don’t think the nouns and verbs idea is something I thought of. If I stole this line of thinking form you, please let me know and I’m sorry. Was it Mendez who said it? When I find it, I’ll cite it.
Liches aren’t assholes because their bones are showing or because their eyes shine with the lights of twin dead stars. Liches are evil because of verbs – because of the the things they do. The ritual to become a lich is filled with evil, selfish murderous acts. Verbs.
But it makes them great arcane villains. I love daring my friends to punch a lich right in their selfish, evil face.
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I spend time on the DM’s Academy Subreddit and lots of folks ask questions about how to start a game. This is very much inspired by the Situation model I learned through Burning Wheel and was also championed on the Alexandrian in his blog post, Don’t Prep Plots.
Here’s one take on it.
Tell the players what the game is going to be about.
You’ve all learned that the Iron Lich is trying to take over the world with their manufacturing tombs.
Ask them to make characters who are bound to that plot.
I was the apprentice of the Iron Lich when they were mortal.
I’m a paladin who is sworn to destroy all undead.
I’m an elf ranger sent by the queen so the Iron Lich’s manufacturing tombs don’t destroy the forest.
During character creation, ask questions. Make shit up together. Write down names. The DM role is important during character creation. Help the players flesh out their characters and use this as an opportunity to flesh out the world. I am very open to learning about the world at this point and want player ideas about the part of the world where their character comes from and how the Iron Lich damaged that community. Through character creation I want to grow the antagonist and the world the antagonist threatens. There will still be plenty of blank space on the map and mysteries to learn in play.
I’m not precious about timelines or vague ideas about the Iron Lich. I don’t want to get rid of the main concept, “Industrialized Undead Wizard,” and don’t want to play in a tone that doesn’t work for me. If a player makes a Halfling named Dildo Haggus, I’m going to speak up and say that joke characters don’t fit. But as above, if my ideas about the Iron Lich said that they became a Lich three thousand years ago, I’m going to re-think that because having a wizard who was the Iron Lich’s apprentice when they were mortal is just so damned cool. If the Iron Lich being three thousand years old is key to the concept, maybe talk to the player about having a character who had been tossed outside of time in a void prison and just got out.
Once the characters are made give them a few choices that seem interesting to you. I like to do this the week before we play, so I have time to prep and daydream.
Do you all want to look into the devil-lich’s mountain lair where the Iron Necromancer became the Iron Lich or scout out the manufacturing tombs where caravans have gone missing or look into the duke’s counselor who is said to be a necromancer?
There’s no WRONG answer but sure, clocks will be ticking and things will change based on their choices. Also, maybe they have another idea or the first adventure becomes very clear during character creation. That is cool. Give yourself some time to prep but don’t over-prep.
The examples above were written quickly but looking them over, they feel like different kinds of adventures. The Devil-Lich’s Lair feels like a dungeon crawl. The Manufacturing Tombs is more stealthy and sneaky but also a bit dungeon crawlish. The duke’s counselor is very political, rooting out spies and cultists in the duke’s court. Each one would mean fleshing out a different part of the world.
Nothing about any of this is original. I don’t get an eff about originality. The game will become something original once out friends interact with all this stuff when we come together at the table.
The Shadar Kai gave Helewynn a War Corvid, used by the Shadowfell’s elves to cross the shadow plane in appreciation of the tale of Strahd’s slaying and for her heroism. It is named Butters because the group tried to teach it the words, “Jusko is a butt,” as a gag because Jusko’s player was not able to attend. Butters the giant raven. See below for more on the War Corvid, using the stats for the Giant Eagle but with a better Intelligence.
A raven the size of a stag rushed onto the road.
I made a little sound in my throat without meaning to.
It’s an unforgettable thing, seeing your first war corvid. Especially if it’s not on your side. It plucked Spear’s foot out from under her, spilling her on her face, then began shredding her back with its hardened beak. I woke myself out of just watching it and thought I should probably nock another arrow, but the corvid was already moving at Axe, whose name was actually Jarril. I tell you this not because you’ll know him long but because what happened to him was so awful I feel bad just calling him Axe.
Black Tongued Thief by Christopher Buehlman
They were getting their shit together, asking questions to the Dread Bridge’s stable hands about the car and feeding of a War Corvid and Kuru’s player said, “I want some kind of a wrinkle. Maybe Kuru got someone pregnant back in Barovia or there’s a child in his Vistani cart, a stowaway Vistani child looking for adventure and a way out of Barovia.
Brinne was born. She is a 16 year old girl who said, “You got my elder sister pregnant, Kuru; getting me out of Barovia was really the least you could do.” She asked Bugwump if she could be his apprentice because she wants to be a Wizard. I made her 16 because Bugwump’s player has a daughter in real life and I wanted Brinne to be a different age than her.
Mobs are cool monsters. It was a fun encounter – a little slow but getting around the 300 zombies, who had eaten their naive necromancer who had not understood the power of the Shadowfell, took the entire session.
When they tried to split the zombies up, a cold wind blew and Failed Soldier realized that some fell power was controlling them – not some necromancer in a tree but some kind of Undead Power that made its home in the Shadowfell.
Helewynn wanted to give Butters something to eat, so she swooped down to grab an outlying zombie. I asked for a DC 12 Animal Handling and when that was failed the zombies grabbed both steed and rider. Failed Soldier and Kuru, on pterodactyl, swooped in to help and things got rough. Only through Failed Soldier’s healing, giving it the hit points it needed to rise again, and Kuru’s turning it invisible, giving it advantage on its roll to escape the zombies’ clutches, did they stop a pterodactyl from perishing under the weight of the mob.
While Helewynn, Kuru and Failed Soldier took flight to scout out the mob, Trundle, Bugwump and Brinne forded a river. I asked for a DC 10 Survival check and Trundle failed the roll. I decided that meant Trundle didn’t see zombies under the river’s mud lying in ambush. It was less of a failure and more of a complication due to a failed roll. Trundle and Bugwump made quick work of the zombies before they could ever attack. Bugwump’s spell seemed to create some kind of localized black hole (what was that spell?).
In the end, they would land just ahead of the zombies, leading the mob away and sending their carts in another direction. The folk on flying steeds would catch up once the carts were through the valley. When the mob was too far to catch the carts, the Sigil Sixers on flying steed could see some kind of odd movement among the zombies as they passed along a goat corpse.
A zombie with its head down as if in prayer brought forward a goat head; its eyes glows red as it spoke, “You have evaded my toys on your way through this dead valley. But the Eyes of Orcus are upon you…”
As the Sigil Six ended the Curse of Strahd, they decided to take the long way home. Or as Trundle said, “We’ve done enough work for the Lady of Pain; let’s walk through the Planes a while and take our time getting back to Sigil.”
The city of Gloomwrought came up a few times when the players discussed and researched ways out of Ravenloft. Trundle, the party’s Dwarven Ranger, became a Mistwalker while in the Amber Tomb, so off they go into the Mists, hoping to navigate their way through them and through the Shadowfell, to the City of Midnight.
I purchased the old 4e Gloomwrought supplement, made up a 2d6 + d6 encounter table and even drew up a map of a valley where 3 human siblings settled into the Shadowfell, hoping to bring their light religion to these shadowed lands. SPOILER: It didn’t go well for them.
It is going to take them a little while to get to Gloomwrought, more fleshing out that city and making it our own in another blog post, very much inspired by Blades in the Dark. For now, I’m thinking about the trip through the Shadowfell. I’ve got an Inspirational Encounter Table, the Ygoni Valley Map, and my Shadowfell Factions d6 Table. More on all of those below.
Inspirational Encounter Table
Inspired by this blog post, I always put a Dragon at 12 and something cool at 2, usually a Wizard but in this case, thinking of a post-Ravenloft Shadowfell vibe, I made an exception. Yup, Lord Soth could show up, the Knight of the Black Rose himself. The encounter is inspired by my favorite pic of the legendary Death Knight, Lord Soth’s Charge by Keith Parkinson.
Wrote this up while daydreaming, looking through monster manuals, the Gloomwrought supplement and the Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. Sometimes I’ll roll and see what fate brings and other times I’ll pick, like from a menu. These aren’t necessarily fights. The players will decide how they deal with them and I’ve made it very clear that they are not balanced in any way, shape or form.
Ygoni Valley Map
Looking through some D&D books, I ran across the Skull Lord and so came up with an idea for 3 sibling knights trying to settle a valley in the Shadowfell but becoming such a creature. The ruins in the Barrow Hills could be anything but I’m thinking that they’ll be a Hobgoblin Warlord’s tomb, where they were ritually killed when their mission to establish a fortress/beach-head for the Hobgoblin Imperial Army failed.
Shadowfell Factions d6 Table
Maybe I just need to know something fast, like who made a magic item or who left an ancient road marker or who is behind some evil shenanigans. I’ve got a table for that now. Minor Death will just mean some minor aspect of death or an obscure death deity. Raven Queen Heretics are those who follow extreme readings on her edicts. The takeaway – everything in the Shadowfell breaks down and is twisted into an undead shape eventually – even the philosophy of its death queens.
Listen here and come to know how Gentleman Bill Jaggard, the most polite pirate to ever sail the Summer Ocean, became a consort to a Storm Goddess, a pawn of the Mists and a wraith on the Dread Seas.
When he was living Gentleman Jaggard robbed the Summer Queen’s ships for the better part of a year from his ship, The Forbidden Folio. Her majesty put a price on his head, demanding that he be brought to her alive. The Queen wanted him alive as a courtesy for his mindful manners, as a method to enrage her jealous husband – the King, and as a centerpiece for one of her famous parties.
The King’s most leal captain was irate that he could not kill the pirate outright. Captain Robin “Puck” Goodfellow set a trap for Bill and captured him aboard the H.M.S. Merry Wanderer but could not kill him because of the Queen’s powerful magic. Instead, he took the captured pirate to a fell shrine honoring the Mother of Storms, a vicious stone statue of a mermaid as tall as a castle tower made of sharp stone and coral. The shrine was a finger of land only inhabited by vicious crabs and mocking seagulls. Captain Goodfellow put Bill in a crow’s cage hanging from the Storm Goddess’ trident. Puck spilled blood to the Mother, asking her to destroy any ships that approached to try and save the pirate.
And they tried. Pirates from every corner of the sea came to try and save Bill. Starving, dehydrated, hanging on the crow’s cage, Bill’s hope died as he watched familiar sails approach on the horizon and unnatural storms sink them one by one.
Finally, a young captain named Petra Quince, guiding his ship, the Roaring Lion, got closer than anyone had yet. Petra had been born on Bill’s ship and had come up through the pirate ranks and now had her own ship. When the Roaring Lion set anchor, an ugly laughter tried to escape Bill’s dry throat. The bloody laughter turned to agonizing sobs as a storm approached and smashed the rowboats into the Mother of Storm’s shrine, sinking the Roaring Lion under the waves.
As the crabs ate the last of his friends who had given their lives to try and save him, the Mists rolled in and Captain Jaggard’s Fleet was born. The Jaggard Fleet is made of the dead friends he watched sink trying to save him, now his undead armada.
They say he is not a gentleman no more. He likes to say that he is the Mother of Storm’s consort and often makes sacrifices to her, turning prisoners without use into chum.
There is no known way to kill Captain Jaggard or keep his fell fleet sunk. Since the Mists have adopted him he has been drawn and quartered, tossed into a Leviathan’s mouth, cut into pieces and fed to a Dragon Turtle and beheaded by a named Holy Avenger whose blade’s edge had been kissed by an angel. The only way to exorcise him and his fleet from the seas forever would be to capture him and bring him to the Queen of the Feywild.
But what crew could take and hold an undead pirate and what ship could survive the Mother of Storm’s wrath? It is said all of the elements of Jaggard’s bloody path to Ravenloft were captured by the Mists from the Mother of Storm’s fell shrine to the Puck’s Merry Wanderer. However the Summer Queen kept the Mists at Bay with her arcane might, despite her part in Jaggard’s rebirth. In order to exorcise the wraith pirate, he would have to be brought outside of Ravenloft to the Summer Court. No sailor has navigated the Domain of Dread’s seas (Sighs, Souls, Secrets, Storms, Shoals, Sorrows) into the outside world…not yet.
Until someone does, when mists roll in on ports and bloody laughter is heard by the City Watch, the Jaggard Fleet will follow, bringing death and devastation in their wake.
Captain Bill is a Wraith while his crew is a mix of Ghouls, Wights and Zombies.
Darklord: Captain Bill Jaggard
Hallmarks: Nautical Horror, Port and Island Domains
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