Sunday, Monday, Slavic Days

My interest in Slavic mythology got kickstarted because I didn’t like the Slavic names for the days of the week.

I should back up. In English, the days of the week have a hidden meaning. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are actually named for the Germanic deities Tiwes (equivalent to Norse Tyr), Wotan (Odin), Thor, Frigg (or Freya), and the Latin Saturn. The days have similar meanings in German and Romance languages, though of course Tiwes, Wotan, Thor, and Frigg were only standing in for their Roman mythology counterparts Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus. We can trace their history all the way back to Mesopotamian astronomy and its association of the five visible planets (plus the sun and moon) with specific deities that somehow mirrored those planets’ characteristics. Thus, the English days of the week offer a microcosm of syncretic mythology from Mesopotamia through Greece to Rome and the furthest reaches of its empire.

In Slavic languages (I’m using Polish for my reference), the days of the week starting with Monday roughly translate as “After Sunday,” “Second,” “Middle,” “Fourth,” “Fifth,” “Sabbath,” and “No Work.” OK, I do admit that having a day called no work (Niedziela) is pretty awesome, but the rest are pretty lacking in creativity. Slavic months, on the other hand, are incredibly poetic, cataloging such events as the blooming of flowers, of the linden tree, the falling of leaves, and even the season of the red cochineal (an insect used to make red dye) throughout the seasons. I thus wondered, could one not simply look at comparative mythology to make English or Romance-style names for the days of the week in the Slavic languages?

Unfortunately, I found that it was not such an easy project. Unlike the mythologies of Europe and the Near East, Slavic mythology was never recorded in written form by its practitioners. The only solid written evidence we have about Slavic mythology was written by church chroniclers who were mainly interested in pointing out its folly rather than making a thorough accounting. Some folklore that survived into the Christian era seems to contain kernels from a half remembered mythology, and some stories can be guessed at due to a common linguistic source in Proto-Indo European religion, but any such anthropological or linguistic reconstruction is going to involve some amount of guesswork. This is all to say that we can’t hope to create a fully accurate reconstruction of the pre-Christian Slavic pantheon, but we can make some educated guesses.

Since a rereading of ‘American Gods’ got the project on my mind again, I thought it might be fun to run through my take on what the Big Seven Slavic deities might look like to rub shoulders with the Norse, Greeks, and Babylonians.

The clearest attestation of a Slavic pantheon comes from the Primary Chronicle. Here, we’re told that Grand Prince Vladimir I of Kyiv erected together idols to the deities Perun, Khors, Dazhbog, Stribog, Mokosh, and Simargl, and in a separate part of the city an idol to Volos or Veles. While this is the closest we come to a full fledged pantheon ion a primary source, we can also find primary sources that refer to other pan-Slavic deities (like Svarog and Svaorovich), deities worshiped in a more limited area (like Svantevit or Chernobog), and deities preserved in songs and ceremonies (like Zorya, Marzanna, and Jarillo), though some of these may not even be full fledged deities. There are a lot of suppositions and possibilities in this subject, so to make the clearest narrative I can, I’m just going to take the days of the week one at a time and give my top contender or two for the role.

The Celebration of Svantovit by Alphonse Mucha

For Sunday, our top contender is Dazhbog. ‘Bog’ is the word for god in various Slavic languages, and most scholars believe the ‘dazh-’ root comes from the root of the word ‘to give’ (in Polish, ‘I give’ is ‘daję’). This would make Dazhbog the giving god, a distributor of life and good fortune, a proper role for a solar deity. Dazhbog’s biggest pedigree, though, is that his name is used as a gloss in another text for an Egyptian solar deity and compared to Greek Apollo (his father, Svarog, is meanwhile compared to Hephaestus).

The other possible solar god of the Slavs is Khors. Other than the name, we know precious little of Khors. The long prevailing theory was that Khors was a transplanted Iranian deity (since Iranian people like the Sarmatians made up a significant minority in Kyiv) with Khors being derived from an Iranian word for the sun. This theory is sometimes furthered by suggesting that there is actually a single deity Khors-Dazhbog, with Daszbog being a descriptive epithet (essentially “Khors the giving god”). However, a newer argument by scholars including Michał Łuczyński posits Khors as a moon god, its name derived from a word for “emaciated” and referring to the waning moon (moon in Polish is ‘księżyc’). There’s also some evidence in the Tale of Igor’s Campaign (a mythic history of the Eastern Slavs comparable to the Illiad or the Odyssey) such as a journey which seems to take place at night cutting the path of Khors. Considering the next most likely name for a lunar deity, Jutrobog, has little reliable documentary evidence, I’m willing to give Monday to Khors.

Next time, we’ll tackle the dreaded Tuesday, and more!


Misty Smite for OGL 1.0a

Here’s a Paladin spell I wrote a while back for a project that didn’t end up seeing the light of day. I’m releasing it now under the Open Gaming License for no particular reason AT ALL. But if you were looking to release your own small project under the OGL 1.0a, just so you could always claim that you had published under this version, you know, in case some corporation ever tried to revoke older versions of the license *cough* well, I found this template over at the Gamer’s Tavern incredibly helpful. So without further ado:

Misty Smite

3rd-level conjuration

Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: Self
Components: V
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

“The shadow fey emerged from the mists to plague our people, so we dove into the mists to strike back.”

— Arbitus de Rathe Paladin of Light

Briefly surrounded by silvery mist, you teleport up to 30 feet to an unoccupied space that you can see. Additionally, the next time you hit a creature with a weapon attack before this spell ends, your weapon exudes the same silvery mist, and the attack deals an extra 3d6 psychic damage to the target.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the extra damage increases by 1d6 for each slot level above 3rd.

Open Content: All text of the spell “Misty Smite” is designated Open Gaming Content with the exception of content specifically designated Product Identity.

Product Identity: The character of “Arbitus de Rathe” is designated Product Identity and Copyright 2023 Nick Stefanski, all rights reserved.


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Strixhaven: Winter Break

Time to revisit Strixhaven again! In the first post, I talked about how I was inspired to create a Strixhaven adventure based on what we can learn in the real world from RPGs, starting with my favorite subject of history. Then, I looked at math and communication, which have fairly straightforward applications. Now let’s tackle the final subjects, science and art.

The fourth pub, the Sleeping Toad, goes with Witherbloom campus, focused particularly on the life sciences. Looking at lessons from RPGs, this was the most puzzling for me. I know that there is a large overlap between science nerds and RPG enthusiasts, but can we really learn science from a roleplaying game? Logic, sure, because the game world always has some sort of internal working that you can analyze, but real world science?

Then I started to think about Dungeon ecology: the idea that, even in a fictional, magical world, there should be a logic to how it would work as a real world. This is why some weird monsters like gelatinous cubes and carrion crawlers exist, as thought experiments for how lifecycles would play out in a fantastic megadungeon environment. For the challenge, then, the players end up tracing a food chain in the D&D cosmos, from the lowliest kobold to a fearsome dragon, and it also gave me a change to include some (optional) combat in an otherwise combat-lite adventure.

A large crocodilian creature lunges out of the water to eat several smaller spined creatures.
‘Spined Karok’ by Filip Burburan via, copyright Wizards of the Coast

Lastly, the Beauty’s Mirror is there for art and the Prismari college. For this one, the lesson was obvious to me, because it is one that I developed a lot over the past few years, first as a DM and then as publisher on DMs Guild: to create! One of the revolutionary things about RPGs vs other types of games is that they involve the players in creating the game, whether a single character or an entire world or somewhere in between. In a world where problems often defy the established ideas, creativity is perhaps the most important thing we can teach, and possibly the hardest.

A wizard student creates an artistic swirl of pink and orange color.
‘Sudden Breakthrough’ by Colin Boyer via, copyright Wizards of the Coast

As with the challenge in the Beauty’s Dreamer, I wanted this one to be accessible to all skill levels, because the message here is similar: anyone can create, and the importance is not in the technical detail, but what you can express.

This project was borne out of an idea that I hold close to my heart, as someone who works in education, who loves RPGs, and who has my own kids that I want to share the hobby with: that we can learn from games! Whether is is formal education, like math, or something more nebulous, like communication or creativity, I am always looking for ways to find these lessons in the games I love.

You can find The Pub that Crawls on DMs Guild.

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Dice & Bricks

I always love it when two of my interests converge, so I was incredibly excited when Lego announced they’d be releasing a D&D set to coincide with the game’s 50th anniversary. Lots of folks have dreamed of such a pairing of these two nerd hobbies, and fans have created countless unofficial builds; there’s even a Lego D&D subreddit! But an official product was always hampered by the fact that D&D’s current corporate owner, Hasbro, has its own modular construction toy in the form of Kre-O, whose D&D tie in sets never seemed to get into the mainstream. Apparently, the big profits that Hasbro got from D&D (and Magic: the Gathering) since the pandemic convinced them to partner with their sometimes rival, though, leading to an official contest on the Lego Ideas site.

Dungeons & Dragons KRE-O Dark Elf

Lego is not a stranger to partnering with big brands (most of their sets seem to leverage some IP or another these days…) They even branched into the world of gaming, with a whole Lego Games theme released for a few years in the early 2010s. The theme did not catch on, but it did produce a series of adventure games called Heroica. Not really D&D, these were more like the HeroQuest boardgame, where you would choose a character like a mage or barbarian with a set special and explore a map filled with monsters and treasure. Being Lego, though, the “board” were infinitely customizable; not only could you mix and combine the different Heroica games, you could bring in the rest of your Lego collection, only limited by your number of jumpered base plates! I bought a few of the sets when they came out, but due to their complex set up, I was only able to play them a few times with my adult friends.

Then, I had children.

It all started one blustery summer day when the family was huddled in the basement on account of a tornado warning, a not uncommon occurrence in the Midwest. Sitting around, waiting for the storm to pass, we were right next to our big shelf of boardgames (which every nerd household has, I assume). My oldest son, not quite 4, had just gotten a few easy-to-build Lego sets, his first “little Legos” after mastering Duplo bricks. Well, when he saw that there was a Lego game that HE HIMSELF could build, well, he was hooked.

San Diego Comic-Con 2011 - Lego Heroica game diorama
Giant Lego mountain not included

As I’ve wrote about elsewhere, I’ve tried a number of different RPG and RPG-adjacent games with my kids, but I hadn’t thought of Heroica until then. MY son likes boardgames, but any RPG games that focused on grid-combat seemed a bit much for a young attention span, so I’d stuck with games that focused more on story: a StoryGuider hack, Amazing Tales, and the Cypher system game No Thank You Evil! All of these games are great, by the way, and I highly recommend them. Heroica added something to the mix. Instead of just lines on a paper, here were spaces and paths, a real easy way to get into the miniature aspects of roleplaying games. Awesome!

Now, I have also written at length about some of the educational aspects of roleplaying games, from literacy to math skills, but for my own quite young kids, what I love the most is how it fires imaginations and flexes those creative muscles. I found that the story heavy games worked best when kids have an input into the larger world and its story. And for a tactical game, Heroica offered that too. As much as we have played the game, we have spent much more time just making different maps.

I do wish that Lego had rebooted Heroica for the D&D tie in; but my idea didn’t quite make the second round. Still, I find the contest an interesting look at what makes the essence of D&D, in order to make an official D&D Lego set. Part of it is the “official” IP monsters, like Beholders and Mimics, of which there are many. Part is the actual stuff of play, from the books themselves to DM screens or dice towers. But for many of the submissions, the theme was: modularity! The ability to remix, infinitely, is perhaps the greatest commonality between Lego and D&D.

A Lego diorama featuring a beholder threatening a ranger and a wizard casting the Bigby's Hand spell

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It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

The User Experience of the retro video game manual

I’ve been playing the game Tunic quite a bit since it came out on the Switch earlier this month. The retro style adventure game is not just an homage to the original Legend of Zelda, but to old Nintendo manuals. I’d like to quote the developer, Andrew Shouldice, from an interview:

“I used to go to my next-door neighbour’s house, and they had the Metroid II Game Boy manual there… My friend would be playing the game while I leafed through the booklet. I was extremely young and didn’t understand a lot of the things it was talking about. But the magic of pursuing this document and soaking in all these illustrations and maps and tips, I think the intention is that it helps along that feeling of really puzzling through a mystery. Of finding true secrets.”

Andrew Shouldice, via RockPaperShotgun

Now, that spoke to me. Maybe this presaged my journey into UX design, but I loved those manuals. I distinctly remember as a kid making my own manuals with lists of made up bad guys in the style of Zelda or Super Mario 2. I would spend hours, just looking through the manuals, sucking up lore about the strange club that included Shy Guys and Snifits or detachable demonic dragon heads.

Japanese and American manuals for the Legend of Zelda
The Zelda manual from Japan and the US

I think about those old manuals a lot now because of how modern products eschew them. Part of this is connected to the rise of digital downloads (no box, no paper manuals), but I think it also owes a lot to modern design thinking, especially as pioneered by Apple products. The iPhone or iPad, when you take it out of the box, is supposed to just work, to do what you expect, and to not need a manual.

And I’m not trying to attack this, this is good UX! You want your product, software or otherwise, to act in predictable ways. One of the main user experience bibles, Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” basically says it all in the title: the user should be able to reach their goal without having to think about it or get confused in the search. Perhaps the most relatable metaphor for non-UXey folks would be a visit to a grocery store for a specific item: if I want sugar, I should be able to guess which aisle it is in, and if I need to search more than two or three locations, or even go as far as asking for help, then it is a failure of the store’s “Information Architecture” in UX jargon.

The fact that the old games had manuals does NOT mean they lacked UX though. For instance, in the original Super Mario Brothers, the goomba was actually added late in the game so there could be a more basic enemy on which Mario could learn the basics: for bad guys, jump over or jump on. The design of goomba may be confusingly close to that of the super mushroom though, so the first such mushroom is placed in an area where it bounces back at you, and then comes at you under some blocks, so that its hard to avoid; thus, after you learn to avoid the goomba, you’re forced in a situation where you can’t avoid the super mushroom, so you can learn that it’s good for you.

Timeless advice from Brawl in the Family

In one sense, games are nothing BUT user experience design, in that they present obstacles in new configurations one at a time to teach mastery of new skills. You learn to walk before you learn to run, and you master the grassland before you try the ice world; or, back to Zelda, each dungeon introduces a new weapon or tool, then presents challenges to test their use. At the surface level, UX seems counter to game design, because UX is about removing obstacles while game design is about creating them, but if we think of games as systems for teaching (and here I’m drawing heavily on Raph Koster’s ‘Theory of Fun for Game Design’), then game design becomes designing tests to that end while removing obstacles to accessibility or immersion. Games are just the right amount of obstacle to find our flow, in Csikszentmihalyi’s terminology. This is also similar to my thoughts on UX for education: don’t make me think about the interface so I can just think about the material.

So I guess I’m interested in the manual as a physical artifact for the purposes it does serve, in this case, I guess you could call it worldbuilding. This was particularly important in old games because of the technological limitations: I guess I can tell what bats and skeletons are, but why am I fighting a lasagna? And if you think about it, the way Apple eschews the manual is also part of their “worldbuilding,” and their story is effortless technology.

Don’t tell me I’m the only one who sees it…

Elsewhere in the interview quoted above, Shouldice talks about the challenge level of the game, “Nintendo hard,” as a necessary requirement to create the intended feeling in the player, that of bravery for overcoming obstacles. This is also interesting in light of the other game I’ve been playing on Switch, Metroid: Dread, which uses the difficulty of escaping invincible adversaries for a different effect, horror. So, the same mechanics can be used to very different effects, and the pieces of worldbuilding help us to interpret the experience.

As I’ve seen my oldest kid play games, I’ve started to appreciate how they offer worlds for his imagination to roam, so much that he will ask to play Mario and Zelda “not on TV.” The manuals, with their menageries of villains, helped guide me into those sorts of imaginary worlds too, though I didn’t realize at the time.


Strixhaven: Back to School Edition

It’s back to school season in the US, so I wanted to revisit an old post about Strixhaven. To recap, when I wrote my Strixhaven adventure, The Pub that Crawls, I was inspired by thinking about how we can learn about different real world subjects from playing RPGs. Last time, I talked about how social sciences can help us appreciate the value of difference, by exploring otherness in time (history) and place (geography, anthropology). Now, I’ll look at some of the other subjects.

Math has a pretty obvious connection, since D&D and many other RPGs are very number heavy. When parents talk about the value of RPGs for kids, this is often the first point brought up. I don’t want to discount the importance of working with numbers for childhood development, but I think we can go deeper than math and think about logic, which is where I went with the inspiration for the second pub, the Frothing Flask.

A wizard making geometric patterns from water
Ingenious Mastery by Cristi Balanescu via

The puzzle here is directly inspired by a real world logic problem, the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, whose analysis by Euler set the stage for graph theory. In the real world, the puzzle is one that is simply impossible: you cannot walk all seven bridges in such a layout without retracing your steps. However, I’d encountered the problem in the past with addendums for how to complete the path by creating more bridges, so that is the solution I facilitated in the game. Granted, this is a world of magic, so to stop the solution from being too trivial, I added a few magical barriers as well.

The next pub, to go along with the Strixhaven theme, is associated with language arts and communications. One route here would have been to focus on the written word, as I know many people have developed their reading skills and vocabulary comprehension from poring over rulebooks or associated fantasy novels. However, Lorehold’s pub, the Tall Tale, was already pretty bookish, so I went in a different direction, towards theater and performance. There has always been a theater kid contingent in RPGs, grown markedly more visible now that professional voice actors make D&D podcasts! Though I was never really a theater kid myself, I did get involved with some school plays via friends who were into both that and RPGs, so I can appreciate them as an outlet for awkward kids.

A wizard showing off her prowess with magical ink
Promising Duskmage by Johan Grenier via

When I went about making a performance challenge for the Lucid Dreamer, I was not sure exactly how to proceed. Longtime readers will know that I’ve spent a lot of time[blog post] thinking[tweet] about how to handle the social pillar in D&D. Should it involve lots of skill challenges? Intense roleplay? When I returned to that inspiration, how RPGs can help us learn, I decided that the most important lesson for communication was helping shy and awkward kids open up, so that is what the challenge is about: putting on a performance, any performance, just to have fun. Therefore, while there are skill checks, I tried to avoid them being punitive; this has a game design reasoning as well, because you never want to throw too many dead ends in front of players, and I wanted there to be a good chance of success regardless of skill or comfort level.

That will be a wrap for now, but I promise not to make you wait so long for the next installment about the last two subject areas, science and fine art! In the meantime, you can find the Pub that Crawls on DM’s Guild, and if you want to hear the latest on ttrpgs and education, please subscribe!


Domains of Delight

Although it is a horror setting, there is something rather silly about how the varied “Domains of Dread” in Ravenloft serve to recreate the entire Universal pictures horror franchise within the D&D cosmology. Still, there’s something endearing to me about creating a knock off mummy, wolfman, and Dr. Frankenstein to go along with the game’s own answer to Dracula.

Fifth edition made some changes to the setting, moving what was once a separate world like Oerth or Krynn into the entropic domain of the Shadowfell, which itself was added in the fourth edition as a soft of amalgamation of the old Plane of Shadow and the Negative Energy Plane. It was probably inevitable that the Shadowfell’s opposite, the Feywild, would eventually get a similar treatment, but I was still excited when the “Domans of Delight” where announced in conjunction with the release of the 2021 adventure “The Wild Beyond the Witchlight.” If the Shadowfell was a pop culture mirror of iconic horror films, what unifying principle could be applied to the Feywild?

Look no further than the Disney Princess franchise.

A Pantheon of Princesses

I’m writing about all this because this is the train of thought that led to the inspiration for Beauty’s Beast, my latest adventure on DMs Guild. I’m a sucker for worldbuilding, so the adventures I create have a habit of being an excuse to come up with wacky ideas to create meta plots in the D&D multiverse. In The Pub that Crawls, it was a thought experiment on how the Magic: the Gathering settings like Strixhaven could connect to the established D&D worlds in a way that fit with both games’ canon. This time, it was from thinking about how a network of Disney-esque princesses in the Feywild would work.

Because I knew I wouldn’t have the time or energy to create multiple princess-themed adventures, I wanted to choose one tale in particular that could serve as a hub domain to connect to others of its kind. Beauty and the Beast was already high on my list for being my wife’s favorite Disney movie, and because I’m familiar with several takes on the same tale. Then, my training in French history kicked in, and I thought, what if I did Beauty and the Beast meets the Republic of Letters?

Belles Lettres

The “Republic of Letters” is a term for the informal network of letter writers sharing philosophical and scientific ideas during the “Age of Enlightenment” in the century of the 1700s. Though centered in France, modern historians have studied the interchange of ideas on a global level. Enlightenment ideas were not just the province of Europeans, but resonated is places such as Haiti, with revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture; in India, under the anti-colonialist ruler Tipu Sultan; and in Japan, with the astronomer and translator Shizuki Tadao, to name a few. Though dominated by men, women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges also played a crucial part in the discourse.

Painting of a woman considering a manuscript with a compass
Émilie du Châtelet

In Beauty’s Beast, the domain’s archfey is based mostly on Émilie du Châtelet. She is most famous for her long relationship with the philosopher Voltaire, but she was a mathematician and physicist in her own right. She’s also, of course, an homage to the ‘Belle’ from Disney’s version of the story, also a bookworm. Through correspondence, though, I wanted to connect her to a diverse crowd of princesses in domains across the Feywild, just given a bit of flavor but hopefully enough for DMs to build off of if they desire. For this reason, the correspondences were an essential feature of the adventure in my mind, and I built much of the plot around that.

Other Inspirations

Early modern France gave me a theme to build the rest of the setting around. The exterior needed to have a beast’s garden where the story’s iconic rose could grow, and I also based it off the concept of French and English gardens that were popular in the 1700s. These landscape gardens tended to incorporate architectural elements like fake ruins and grottoes, giving the illusion of a wilderness in a planned setting. The interior I based off the typical French salon, the in person equivalent to the Republic of Letters, where poets and philosophers could debate lofty ideas (and do a bit of grandstanding for social prestige). This also inspired me to create debate mechanics, a fun little experiment of creating a magical social “combat.”

Garden fountains surrounded by embroidery-like patterns of hedges.
‘Parterres de broderie’ or ’embroidery flower beds’, a common feature in French landscape gardens

As I pointed out in a note in the adventure, two of the minor characters in the story are inspired by two participants in a famous debate from the period, Charles Perrault and Jean de La Fontaine. Quite apart from their debate, these men are famous for popularizing literary fairy tales and Aesop’s fables, respectively. Even though I used modern retellings as my jumping-off point, this was my way of acknowledging the deep history of fairy stories which are at the root of the Feywild setting. Just as the Universal horror movies are mostly modern takes on very ancient myths and legends, this was my attempt to make sense of the whole D&D cosmology in my own mind.


Liches and Witches

The Russkies are back in Stranger Things 4! In other times, I might have talked about the typecasting of Russians as villainous in American media, but given that Russia continues to commit atrocities in its imperialist war against Ukraine, I don’t really feel like that right now. So let’s talk about Vecna!

Yes, if you hadn’t heard, the main villain in the new season is Vecna! Not the actual Vecna from D&D, of course, but just like the “demogorgon” and “mind flayer” in seasons 1 and 2, the big bad from another dimension gets a catchy moniker from the kids based on a fantasy monster in order to make sense of these alien antagonists.

Wizards of the Coast released a “Vecna Dossier” on D&D Beyond to cover the (slightly retconned) in-game history of the villain, but I wanted to take a look at the publishing history of Vecna himself and his creature type, the lich, including some (probably!) Slavic folklore influence on the monster.


The lich came first in the 1975 Greyhawk supplement to the original D&D rules. Here, the lich was just an undead spellcaster without a lot of the flavor that has since been associated with them. The actual word, “lich,” is an archaic English word for a corpse, still seen in terms like “lichgate,” the covered entrance to a churchyard where a body was kept before burial. While there were many undead sorcerers in the pulp fantasy works of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and others who influenced D&D, Gygax himself stated that the direct inspiration for this monster came from Gardner Fox, who debuted the creature in his 1969 short story “The Sword of the Sorcerer.”

A skeletal figure wearing robes and a crown
The Lich from the 1977 Monster Manual

The name Vecna would pop up a year after the Lich in the 1976 Eldritch Wizardry supplement. Vecna, however, was only mentioned in the backstory in the two artifacts that bear his name: the hand and eye. These were written not by Gygax, but by Brian Blume, one of the controlling partners of TSR, the company Gygax had founded to print the D&D game. The name came about as an anagram of Jack Vance, another writer favored by Blume and Gygax and whose Dying Earth stories inspired D&D’s system of memorizing spells. Vecna was, according to the flavor text here, long dead, and we would not get much more information about him until his return in the 1990 adventure module “Vecna Lives!” (exclamation point included).

Meanwhile, the lich was developing more of its lore, including the “soul hidey place” more often known as a phylactery, though how it got this detail is a bit convoluted. The term is first mentioned in 1977’s AD&D Monster Manual: “The lich passes from a state of humanity to a non-human, nonliving existence through force of will. It retains this status by certain conjurations, enchantments, and a phylactery.” What is a phylactery? Well, the manual never tells us, but the greek term means a “protectant,” and was usually used for tefillin, small leather boxes used in Judaism. They contained verses from the Torah and could be strapped to the body, often on the arm or head, during prayer. How such an item would relate to lichdom is not explained, but it should be noted that 1979’s Dungeon Master’s Guide included three phylacteries as magic items. These were usable only by clerics, and were the Phylactery of Faithfulness, which helped a cleric retain their alignment; the cursed Phylactery of Monstrous Attention, which lured enemy monsters or even deities to attack; and the life prolonging Phylactery of Long Years. Even though it was published later, it seems probable that some notes on this sort of item existed and might have been the intention of the item mentioned in the lich’s write-up.

The idea that a lich’s soul resided outside its body was not put forward until a 1979 article in Dragon Magazine by another veteran game designer Len Lakofka, the original player of the character Leomund and his famous Tiny Hut. The article, “Blueprint for a Lich,” never mentions the term phylactery, but details how the lich uses an item enchanted with the Magic Jar spell to contain its soul and allow an escape should its body be destroyed. Eventually, the phylactery and the soul jar would become conflated, leading to the lich lore we know today.


The story of a creature that keeps its soul, life, or heart outside of its body is an old one. In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) index, it is type 302. It is an incredibly old tale, told all over the world; in fact, network analysis of the ATU story types found that this one is among the top 10 most central stories.1 Julien D’Huy, “Folk-Tale Networks: A Statistical Approach to Combinations of Tale Types,” Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2019), In these tales, some villain (often an ogre) keeps its life force outside its body, and the hero must go on a quest to find and destroy it in order to defeat the monster. Possibly the most famous version of this tale is the Slavic version, in which the antagonist, Koschei the Deathless, has hidden his soul in a needle in an egg in a duck in a rabbit in a chest buried beneath a tree on the mythical island of Buyan. Koschei is a sort of ogre, but his name probably derives from the proto-slavic word *kȍstь for bone, and in fact the villain is sometimes called “Old Boney” in English versions. Though not exactly undead, this skeletal figure of immortality seems a likely candidate for part of the origin of the lich, despite his lack of spellcasting.

A sickly, skinny old man with a long beard wielding a scimitar and riding a horse
Koschei the Deathless, by Ivan Bilibin

In the latest take on Vecna, the Vecna Dossier, the source of Vecna’s power is obscured as a mysterious voice that whispered to him. In older versions, this source was called the Serpent, though still shrouded in mystery. In my own personal head cannon, this can be none other than Baba Yaga; one possible etymology for “Yaga” is from the word for serpent, and it seems only fitting for me that the mother of all witches would have a hand in the creation of the first lich!



If you want to try my short Glagolitic course, go to and either log in as a gueast or create a free account!

Glagolitic is a writing system devised in the 9th century by Saint Cyril, a missionary from Thessalonika, to translate scriptures and holy books into the slavonic language of Great Moravia, centered on modern Czechia and Slovakia. It was the earliest known writing system for Slavic languages, though it quickly went into decline; in Moravia and Western Christendom, its use was mostly banned in favor of Latin liturgy, while in the east, it was supplanted by the Cyrillic alphabet devised by Cyril’s students. It was used into the modern era in some parts of Croatia, but it is probably most famous for appearing in the Witcher games, which have a strong basis in Slavic folklore.

tablet featuring the Glagolitic script and Latin equivalents

Why learn Glagolitic? Well, it can be a ready made fantastic looking script much like Norse runes or the Irish Ogham script. If you’re learning a Slavic language like Polish or Ukrainian, it can also help teach you a bit about the sounds and grammar in those languages. Or, if you’ve always just had a desire to learn Old Church Slavonic (does this apply to anyone other than me?) then Glagolitic is one of the two scripts you can use for practice!

I’d originally put together flashcards for myself on Tinycards, a now defunct Duolingo spinoff. I was able to back up some of the data before that service was discontinued, and it recently occurred to me that I could put together some simple Moodle resources to test myself in the same way. Since I made this for myself first and foremost, I focused on what I needed to practice: flashcards! I focused on two types of quiz questions: first, short answer questions entering the Latin or Cyrillic character based on seeing the Glagolitic character, and second, multiple choice selecting the Glagolitic character based on the name/sound in Latin script.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been using Duolingo to learn some basic Ukrainian. I was already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, but I liked some of the exercises they used to reinforce the alphabet, specifically practice drawing letters and using vocabulary rather than single letters. The other level added by Duolingo, using audio files, is feasible, but adds additional work in creating the recordings, plus my pronunciation is probably atrocious, so I’m focusing on the others. Drawing letters would seem like a difficult feat to pull off, but Moodle actually has a plugin for a Freehand Drawing question type (albeit one with some bugs on mobile, but it’s something).

Using vocabulary is easy enough to set up, and I can even mimic Duolingo’s question style with various drag-and-drop question type plugins. Of course, one actually needs to know the vocabulary, which led me down another rabbit hole. Where could I find ready made Glagolitic text to use? Well, why not go to the oldest Glagolitic manuscript, the Codex Zographensis, which happens to be fully digitized and searchable? This led me to the ultimate nerdy idea of making a language 101 style course. After all, the gospel of John discusses introductions (“There came a man who was sent from God. His name was John.” -John 1:6) and vocabulary like “word,” “teacher,” and “student” (technically “disciple,” but I don’t believe Old Church Slavonic makes a distinction).

examples of drag-and-drop and drawing quiz questions

So, now that I’ve fairly memorized the Glagolitic script itself, in order to provide myself further practice, I find myself embarking on a self-study course in Old Church Slavonic. They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it, don’t they? Right now, I have a simple course with a lesson, some reference pages, and a repeatable quiz, but I plan to add more as I tinker along. And the course is open to anyone who’d like to come along for the ride! Feedback is, of course, welcome.


No Thank You, Bullywugs

For the past year, I’ve been trying different RPGs with my oldest son. Lately, one he really likes is No Thank You Evil! by Monte Cook Games. After we’d played through all of the adventures included in the box set, I ran for him the next adventure I had on hand, Frogs of the Feywild.

Frogs of the Feywild played into some fairy tale tropes, so the adventure seemed like a good fit to play for young kids. Of course, the adventure is written for 5e, so I had to do an on the fly conversion into the Cypher System that forms the core of No Thank You Evil! Besides that, the adventure consists mostly of combat encounters; this was the first adventure I published for sale, and combat was what I was most comfortable designing for at the time. I decided to alter some of the combats, both to better fit the No Thank You Evil! aesthetic, and because I felt better about presenting an adventure with more nonviolent options throughout.

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Note: I’m spoiling the whole plot of Frogs of the Feywild, you are warned.

No Thank You Evil! takes place in the world of Storia, with thematic regions that the protagonists can access from their homes. ‘Into the Closet’ is the vaguely Narnia-esque land of fairy tales and fantasy; ‘Under the Bed’ is the spooky realm of ghost stories; ‘Behind the Bookshelf’ is a diverse land for historical or mythological adventures; and ‘Out the Window’ leads to distant sci-fi worlds and high seas adventures. With the strong Feywild connection, Frogs of the Feywild seemed to fit best within ‘Into the Closet.’ I decided to nix the entire plot hook involving the dastardly Prince Jermyn, and instead used something direct for young kids: a wedding invitation! This got the characters to the venue quickly and also provided an excuse for them to have access to a map of the gardens. I noted that the wedding was for Princess Tania, but made no mention of her suitor.

The opening of the adventure remained fairly unchanged: the characters witnessed Bullywugs chasing guests out of the garden where the wedding was taking place. I decided the difficulty level for checks against these Bullywugs should be fairly low, a 2 or 3 at most. A ‘Smarts’ check allowed the characters to recall what they knew about Bullywugs; namely, that they could sometimes act like bullys, but like all bullys, were cowards at heart. (Is that too Dad of me? Oh well.) The wizard was able to use an illusion to scare off most of the Bullywugs with ease. Since my son still seemed to want to fight, I decided that the leader of the Bullywugs at the gate was unfazed an stayed to fight (in 5e, this was a Bullywug Croaker who also does not flee). However, this Bullywug did surrender when disarmed.

Gale the Gardener remained unchanged, giving the characters information about the current goings on and explaining the challenge of the Chaotic Maze. This challenge worked well; my son initially tried to just navigate it normally, regardless of the warning, but kept getting popped out. He figured that the Bullywugs had probably gotten through by jumping (they are frogs, after all), so he made some springs to jump over himself; I ruled that the magic vines were suitable for this task. As long as a character comes up with a way to get through, the difficulty should still be low at this point, 2 or 3.

In the section of the ruined party, my son got excited and grabbed a bunch of stuffed animals to play the lingering party guests. This led to a new NPC, Madame Elephante (a stuffed elephant), who was able to give more information about Tania and the events of the morning. I added a detail of a bright light and a swirling cloud emerging from the fountain when Tania dropped in the Golden Ball that summoned the Bullywugs. These two phenomena settled in either of the terraces, giving a clear choice for the two paths forward. My son chose the Summer Terrace to proceed.

rpg print out maps and materials with crayon colored on
The adventure got an art upgrade too!

Now, the Południca in the next section is sort of a wicked character from folklore, and here I decided to soften the encounter somewhat. I described how the terrace felt incredibly hot, like the hottest summer day, and how the characters felt overcome with sleepiness. This sort of mirrors the Południca from folklore, which personified sunstroke in the fields. Once the characters had their nap (they failed the 3 difficulty) and found the giggling Lady Midday, she told them how she and her sister, Lady Snow, were accidentally pulled into the garden from the Land of Faerie (rather than the Feywild), and how they’d very much like to go back. No combat, just an environmental challenge and some flavor. She was able to come along to the next stop, but then went off to find her sister. If the characters were to choose the other path, the Snegurochka could be played fairly similar.

At this point, I decided to simply skip the fight at the fountain with the Wodnik Watercrafter. This was actually for time reasons, more than anything: I was making dinner at the same time, and wanted to wrap the adventure before we ate. I do think the Wodnik would be a fun character to describe, turning into water as he does, but since there is another combat immediately following, I’d probably tilt this more towards non-combat like with the Południca. Maybe the Wodnik could play tricks on the characters, without actually fighting? The Wodnik would have had a medium difficulty of 3, maybe even 4.

The final battle with Dragomir and Tania I played as written, with one important difference. The original was a trick battle, where Tania’s antagonism towards the PCs was disguised as part of Dragomir’s action in order to throw off the characters a bit. In this version, I specifically called out the fact that whenever Tania spoke, that made the effect that made the characters want to run away (higher difficulty here, at least 4). My son had been wondering why Tania had dropped that Golden Ball into the fountain to begin with, so this caused him to flat out ask her: what’s going on? At this point, I immediately stopped the battle and gave Tania’s exposition which would normally come after Dragomir was defeated. In this version, though, Dragomir was always the intended groom, and it was always a misunderstanding that made the guests flee the Bullywugs, and the Bullywugs in turn act rudely towards the guests. Dragomir and his soldiers all apologized for their part in it, and Tania had the characters assist in a magic spell to send the fey magic back. Afterwards, the wedding proceeded as planned, with a heart shaped cake (my son’s idea 🙂).

This conversion is all completely unofficial, given the terms of DMs Guild’s licensing agreements; however, I do like how the story turned out with the ad hoc changes. As I mentioned, Frogs of the Feywild was the first adventure I wrote for sale, and since then I’ve developed more of a personal design philosophy which I’ve added in after the fact here. If you’re looking for a fun RPG to play with kids, I can’t recommend No Thank You Evil! enough, and if you want to try my adventure (with the above notes), since you’ve made it through the article, help yourself to a discount code to get it on DMs Guild.

Have you changed adventures to run with younger kids? Leave a comment below!