Saturday, Slavic Day

We’ve finally reached the end of the Happy Days theme song, I mean, the week!

Saturday is another difficult day. So far, I’ve given each day to a member of Vladimir’s pantheon, so you might think for Saturday I’d go with the last from the list above, Simargl. Simargl is interesting, and probably worth exploring in another blog post some day, but when we get right down to it, we’re not really sure if Simargl was even a real deity! The best guess at an etymology is that it’s a corruption of the Persian Simurgh, and the historian Boris Rybakov followed this vein to suggest Simargl was a wolf-eagle hybrid and lord over seed and vegetation, but this is pretty speculative. Another theory holds that Simargl is actually an accidental conflation of two separate beings Sem and Rgel, which may or may not also be vegetative deities. Even more so than the enigmatic Khors (who at least gets mention in the Tale of Igor’s Campaign), we really know nothing about Simargl beyond the name, which may actually be two names, and everything else is speculative linguistics.

stylized motif that kind og looks like a dog with bird wings
Simargl, maybe?

If we instead try to extrapolate Saturday from the role of the syncretic deities, the task is still difficult. In Mesopotamian astronomy, the planet Saturn was associated with the deity Ninurta, a god of agriculture and healing. Why? Possibly because Saturn is the slowest planet, and there was a myth about Ninurta and a turtle. [see below] When the Greeks were translating the planets, they focused on the fact that he was the son of Enlil (the Sumerian equivalent of the later Babylonian Marduk), but rather than choosing one of Zeus’ many sons, they chose his father, Cronus. Cronus has some agricultural connotations, either because he ruled over a prosperous golden age, or because he traditionally held a sickle (which he used to castrate his father, Uranus). The Romans equated Cronus with Saturn, an agricultural deity and father of Jupiter, and also the quintessential father time. The time domain may actually come from confusion between Greek Cronus and Chronus, but it also has some amount of sense, what with the passing of the seasons. By the time we get to the Norse, there is apparently no good equivalent, and thus ‘Saturday’ is the only English day with a Latin rather than Germanic root.

So, this leaves us with slowness, agriculture, seasons, time, or just throwing up our hands and sticking with Latin Saturn. Simargl, if he existed, is actually not unreasonable given the possible connection to sowing of seeds. However, I think I’ll go in a different direction and choose Marzanna, alias Morena. Marzanna is a Western Slavic deity, not attested in any writings, but still encountered in modern folk traditions. The story goes that she was married to the god of spring, Jarilo, but slew him for his infidelities. Still, she felt remorse, and wasted away into despair. Her actions and demise are played out again year after year, creating the seasons in a sort of take on the Persophone myth. She is associated with death and winter, and her effigy is burnt in the spring to mark winter’s passing. Her close connection with time and the seasons make her, I think, a decent fit for Saturn, plus I think her myth is one of the most interesting of the Slavic tales.

black and white illustration of a woman suckling two babies, surrounded by various types of weather, and her dress looks to be made of roots or branches
Marzanna, Mother of Poland, by Marek Hapon

(An aside, I never really got into the why of associating planets with deities in Mesopotamia. There’s some guesswork here, but each planet has certain attributes that separate it from the others. Mars is visibly red, like blood or rusted iron, so war seems logical. Mercury twinkles, and this seems to lead to an association with magic. Jupiter is the highest in the night sky, and so gets heavenly connotations, with either ruling, thunder, or both. Venus appears with the sun at dawn, and from there is associated with birth and fertility. Saturn moves most slowly in the sky.)

I hope you enjoyed this little foray into history, mythology, and language!


Khyberia SRD

Back in January, the (admittedly small) world of TTRPG writers and designers was rocked by the news that Wizards of the Coast had plans to revoke the Open Gaming License, the foundation for much of the hobby’s smaller creators for the past two decades. WotC eventually relented (you can read Lin Codega’s reporting for the details), not only promising they wouldn’t revoke the OGL, but also releasing the core D&D rules, the 5th edition System Reference Document (or SRD) under a Creative Commons (CC-BY) license.

Pardon the acronym soup, but it’s essential for the point I’m getting to (and let’s be honest, if you’re reading this blog, you probably knew those already).

While I love that the 5e rules are now available under Creative Commons, some of my favorite monsters are not part of the SRD (or even available using the OGL, for that matter). Having already spent plenty of time in the past few years making my own lore about chaotic frog folk, I wanted to keep writing about them regardless of where I want to publish or under which license. So, I went about creating my own stat blocks, and that snowballed into what I’m calling the Khyberia SRD.

These are 5e compatible rules and stat blocks I’m releasing under a CC-BY license, so you are free to use these in whatever project you like, free or commercial, all I’m asking for is credit and a link back here. I plan to add to this document over time, so if you like what’s there so far, you can check back for further updates.

Special thanks to the Level Up: Advanced 5E project by EN Publishing, who are not only releasing their core content under a CC-BY license, but put together a handy guide on using Creative Commons for RPG projects, which I referenced extensively.

Khyberia SRD


Tuesday, Wednesday, Slavic Days

See part 1 here

Tuesday is perhaps the most problematic day; while there are a plethora of Slavic war deities, none of them feel like a very good fit for one reason or another. There’s seven-headed Svetivit or Svantovit, a war god of the Polabian Slavs on the isle of Rugen, but he was probably likely a local deity unknown to the greater Slavic world or else possibly a hypostasis of another god like Perun (or maybe even multiple gods, hence the seven heads). There is Jarilo, whose name is derived from a Slavic folk festival, who is sometimes identified as a war god but is on the whole a more Dionysian figure of spring. There’s Chernobog, the “black god,” primarily a figure of personified bad luck, but might be the same as the war and victory god ‘Tjarnaglofi’ mentioned in the Danish Knytlinga Saga (but probably nott). 1see Gorbachov – What Do We Know about *Čьrnobogъ Even Dazhbog, as a sky god and ancestral figure, is in some ways equivalent to the Germanic Tiwes, but lacks a martial character in any source.

photographs depicting four sides of a tall, stone idol, each with a different face and depicted holding various instruments
The Zbruch idol, possibly depicting the deity Svantovit

This leads me to Stribog. Stribog is generally accepted as a god of wind, first and foremost. His only real association with war is an allusion to how the wind carries the arrows of an adversary, which while nothing, is admittedly not strong evidence. Tatischev associated Stribog with the Latin Mars, but never really justified why, and possibly was trying to overfit his model to match other pantheons. In order for me to justify Stribog, I had to dig a bit deeper into the whole process of how the different deities were associated with days of the week. As I mentioned, the whole process started in Mesopotamia, and the deity associated with the planet Mars was Nergal, a god of war but also of death and disease. When it came time for the Greeks to adapt the Babylonian system, there was not generally an exact match between deities in the two cultures, so they had to choose which particular aspects to emphasize. Now, Stribog is not a god of disease or death either, but of all the elements in Russian folklore, the wind seems to be primarily malevolent, spreading disease and misfortune (see Elizabeth Warner’s Russian Myth). This, together with the seeming importance of wind in Slavic mythology (there is possibly another West Slavic deity called Poxvist or Pozvizd, and many fantastic creatures associated with the whirlwind in South Slavic folklore), convinced me to promote Stribog for Tuesday.

There are a couple options for Wednesday… Stribog could be a vague fit, given the connection of wind with Mercury’s fleetness, but it seems a bit of a stretch for me. Svarog, a sky deity and ancestor of some other deities seems to me to have some parallels to the Norse Odin, but he’s elsewhere compared to Hephaestus, and also seems a closer parallel to Uranus. The best fit, then, is Veles or Volos. Veles is one of the deities we know the most about, both from written sources, surviving idols, and his later association with Saint Blaise in Russia. Veles is a chthonic deity, with parallels to Pluto, and as the god of cattle he also became associated with wealth. It is significant that his idol in Kyiv seems to have been located in the merchant’s quarter, and trade was Mercury’s domain as well. Veles also seems to have been associated with magic, which connects him not only to Mercury and Hermes but also Odin and Mesopotamian Nabu.

Thursday goes to Perun. Perun was a thunder god, much like Thor or Jupiter, and like Jupiter or Mesopotamian Marduk he was usually in the role as chief of the pantheon. Like Veles, Perun left a large trace on Slavic customs, often being conflated with Saint Elijah. Finally, in my research I found that Perun was was actually historically associated with Thursday, or Perundan, in the language of the Polabian Slavs! The same can’t be said for any other deities.

The obvious choice for Friday is probably Mokosh. As the patron of moist mother earth, she was a fertility deity like Freyja, Venus, Aphrodite, and Ishtar, and her presence among Vladimir’s idols marks her as an important deity, albeit there is less trace of her than either Perun or Veles. Another runner up might be the Zorya, twin (or triplet) deities associated with the dawn star and the evening star, that is, the planet Venus. I’d go with Mokosh over the Zorya though because, despite their recent popularity thanks to Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods,’ we’re not sure to the extent that the Zorya were major deities or more like pseudo-deities, as there aren’t surviving written records of them, only in customs and songs.

To be concluded…


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.