Posts Tagged ‘drow’

NOTE: The werespider previously featured here is now part of my Pay What You Want DMs Guild product Arachnids, Wraiths, & Zombies.

Sometimes you just want to shake things up. You need to spice up combat and add a few hazards to keep players on their toes. Sometimes you want to go further and do something really crazy. In keeping with Sam Van Der Wall of RPG Alchemy‘s Blog Carnival theme, “The Combat Experience,” I’m going to show off one of my favorite encounters. One where I turned the battle mat on its side. Keep reading. You’ll see what I mean.

Mario and Luigi

When we play Dungeons and Dragons with a battle mat and miniatures we are usually dealing with two dimensions, just like most old Nintendo games. Often in D&D those two dimensions are an overhead or bird’s eye view like in The Legend of Zelda.

We see Link and octoroks as if we were above looking down on them.

Yet many other Nintendo games had a side view like Double Dragon.

We see Billy Lee kicking some butt as if we were standing to the side.

I began to imagine what a battle in a side view might look like on a battle mat. In order to get the most out of the map, I’d need the battle to have a lot of vertical levels, otherwise the encounter wouldn’t be very dynamic and all of the non-flying creatures would just hangout at the bottom of the grid. I also wanted the encounter to be contained on the battle mat. When flipping things from bird’s eye to side view, it becomes very easy to run out of map space as creatures move around. The map doesn’t follow you like a camera in a video game.

There might be a few of you who remember the old Mario Bros. game. I’m talking arcade style before the Marios were going into castles to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser. I’m talking two dudes facing off in the sewers trying to kick over as many koopa shells as possible to get some points to win a game. If Mario ran off one side of the screen, he appeared on the other (which solves my running off the map problem). It looked like this…

I’m sure the older gamers among us remember.

Well that game inspired an encounter with my players that I designed and we throughly enjoyed.

The Ladder of Insanity

The PCs had to make their way to the Underdark via a massive column known as The Ladder of Insanity. The huge column plunged miles underground and its face was marked with crumbling 5-foot wide ledges and stairs, which are just wide enough for a creatures to travel single file.

The characters found the further down The Ladder of Insanity they got, the more ruin and disrepair became obstacles. Whole sections of ledges and staircases were missing or ready to plunge into the darkness. As the PCs negotiated these hazards, a crew of drow bandits lead by a werespider appeared and attacked. The battle mat looked something like this…

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 5.44.45 PM

Behold! The Ladder of Insanity!

Now I made that map in Roll20 and used digital tokens for the PCs instead of their beautiful array of bird’s eye view digital miniatures.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 5.25.35 PM

Miniature on the left, token on the right.

I recommend using tokens instead of minis in a side view encounter. You could use miniatures, but they are made specifically for bird’s eye view encounters. It is going to be more difficult for your players to wrap their minds around a side view encounter with miniatures unless you place them on their sides, but that could damage some more delicate minis.

After the map was created I wrote down a few quick mechanics for the battle.

  • The map wraps around the column. So if PCs ran off one side of the map they would appear on the other. It works just like Mario Brothers of Pac Man.
  • The column is curved. A creature is granted half cover from attacks made by any creature more than 20 feet away, three-quarters cover from any creature more than 30 feet away, and total cover from any creature more than 40 feet away.
  • Climbing the walls at half speed requires a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check. Creatures who fail this check by 5 or more fall onto the platform directly below their space and land prone, taking fall damage as normal.
  • Jumping up and grabbing a higher platform works as normal. In order to pull itself up to the new level a creature must succeed on a DC 10 Strength (Athletics) check or end its movement in the first space it entered on the new, higher level.
  • At the end of a creature’s turn if it is on one of the platforms it must roll a d20. On a roll of 1, the ground beneath its feet crumbles. The creature must make a DC 10 Reflex saving throw to jump to an adjacent unoccupied space of its choice. If it fails it falls, landing prone and taking fall damage as normal. Wherever the creature ends up after rolling a 1 it must roll another d20 to see if the new ground beneath its feet crumbles and repeat the saving throw if it gets another 1. This continues until the creature rolls a number other than 1.

Bam! There you have it. The mat is flipped and a fun encounter is had by all.

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Four underground mega-cities make-up the nation of Quatus. Drow, duergar, and svirfneblin work together to fight a threat pressing upon their gates and looming large in the tunnels outside their cities. Constant stress and violence has taught Quatus’ citizens to be alert, proactive, and ready to strike. That same stress has also brought the citizens of Quatus together like nowhere else. No group of humanoids is more loyal to one another than the citizens of Quatus. They embody patriotism.

The Aberrant Threat

You never want to be this close to a mind flayer if you can avoid it.

Years ago, the aberrants of West Canus were driven deep underground by chromatic dragons and shardminds. Weakened and small in number, the aberrants hid and licked their wounds, growing their ranks and preparing to once again take Canus for themselves. During this time they took note of the ten glorious Underdark cities of the drow, duergar, and svirfneblin. These aberrants decide the surface world was no longer the place to make a home and instead set their sights on The Underdark. For thousands of years the rested and then struck with a fury against the ill prepared cities.

After years of war and struggle, and the loss of half their population when many war-weary drow and svirfneblin headed to the surface, the Underdark humanoids only have four fortified cities that have not fallen to the aberrants. The citizens of these cities know well the danger lurking just outside the gates.

Each city has only a few heavily guarded entry points. The only way to get to these points is via narrow tunnels with gates every fifty feet. The narrow tunnels and checkpoints bottleneck traffic into the cities. If an aberrant attack occurs the gates are slammed down isolating the incident. The folk trapped inside with the beasts are left to fend for themselves until crossbow wielding guards make an appearance and shoot at the monsters through the bars of the gate. Needless to say, waiting in line to get into a city is a tense experience.

Inside of a Quatus city, every citizen is armed. Though it is a rare occurrence, the aberrants will sometimes burrow through the floor, walls, or ceiling of a city and attack. Since all drow, duergar, and svirfneblin spend a decade or more in the military after coming of age, the populous is an accomplished army, ready for action. The people of Quatus are fiercely loyal to one another since they are all brothers and sisters in arms. The people of Quatus have more enemies than just the aberrants against whom to rally.

The Elf Punishment

Don’t mess with the drow. They have pets.

If fighting the aberrants is about survival, than fighting the elves is about vengeance. When the elves left the drow millennia ago an incurable divide formed between the two groups. Since then the drow have performed many violent surgical strikes against critical elf targets. The most infamous of these strikes being The Arachna War.

The Arachna War was a period of time which came after Quantian spies placed giant spider eggs all over Taliana. Eventually these eggs hatched releasing an army of huge vermin that terrorized Taliana’s population. Eventually, these spiders were mostly defeated with the help of The Arcane College, but some of these beasts still stalk Taliana’s forests.

Today, the tactics of the Quantians concerning the elves is to strike when they are least expected. Sometimes they strike large groups of elves at a joyous public gathering. Other times they may steal an object of importance or deface a monument. Sometimes they may assassinate an important target. They may poison wells or spread disease or hatch another scheme. Their goal concerning the elves is to make their existence on the surface so unbearable that they return to their brethren of The Underdark.


Each of Quatus four cities is run by an all-powerful General King. Martial law is the only law in Quatus. The General Kings have officers answerable to them and communicate with the leaders of other cities daily through crystal balls and in-person meetings via teleportation circle. All General Kings are drow. Any major decisions involving Quatus they make together. They will only enact policy with a unanimous vote, so their talk and debates can take a long time.

For the most part the General Kings leave the day-to-day running of their cities to their officers and focus in the big picture – the war with the aberrants and the war with the elves.

Officers treat all non-military citizens as privates. They give orders which must be obeyed for security and survival. Very little is private in Quatus. The military has access to any documents, information, and history for which it asks its citizens. Those who do not comply are tortured and threatened as necessary. This is not often though, for the people of Quatus are Exploration Age’s most patriotic and are willing to give up privacy for security in a moment’s notice.

Life in Quatus

At least the view is decent!

Life in Quatus is full of extreme highs and lows. The drow believe every second they are alive is a moment to have joy and so they push those boundaries by partying hard and enjoying the fruits of life while they can. Duergar take tremendous pleasure in their work and crafts while deep gnomes get joy from time spent with family and friends. Still on any given day, a friend may fall in the tunnels or on a mission to the surface. Funerals are quick and constant in Quatus.

The folk of Quatus usually enjoy simple, hearty meals made up of various mushrooms, root vegetables, and underground varieties of pork or beef. Their art and architecture has a classical feel – beautiful marble statues, paintings, mosaics, monuments, and buildings stand as testaments to great heroes and those who have fallen in battle.

Quatus’ biggest export to the nations of the surface are precious gemstones. These are valuable because they are often components for vehicles and equipment that run on magic. Of course mining has its dangers in the tunnels, but for every miner there are two soldiers within the tunnels, ever vigilant for the aberrant threat. The gems are expensive, because trips to the surface are fraught with perils.

Likewise, travelers do make their way to Quatus, though not often. The citizens are naturally suspicious of outsiders and the journey from the surface is dangerous. Only the richest merchants can hire enough well-trained guards or afford the teleport to make it to Quatus alive. The military leaders of Quatus know some secret tunnels that can get them to surface quickly for performing raids on Taliana but they do not share them with anyone they don’t trust, as those tunnels could be used against them.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcast on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I’ve already mentioned that the religions of Exploration Age don’t have gods who intervene. They exist in the minds and hearts of the people, and perhaps even have a form somewhere beyond the multiverse. Something divine is granting spells to the clerics, so in some ways there is proof of their existence. However, just because these gods do not show their faces, does not mean the people of Canus do not act in their names, which certainly lends to the real world feel of Exploration Age.

There Were Only Drow

Until a little over ten thousand years ago, there were no elves on Canus. The time of the drow goes back more than half a million years. The elves have existed for a fraction of the time drow have been in Canus.

The drow worship two sister goddesses. Meliko is goddess of light, nature, healing, and arts. Fana is the goddess of dark, civilization, science, and war. To drow, light and dark do not have the connotations that they might to us modern-day real world folk. Darkness is good, it provides stealth and protection from their enemies who cannot see through its piercing blackness the way the dark elves can.

The drow believe Meliko and Fana work hand in hand. Meliko provides the spores and Fana provides the darkness so their mushrooms might grow. Fana leads the soldiers to war and Meliko binds their wounds. The drow believe they give both of these goddess equal footing.

Then The Division happened. Aberrants, driven below ground by dragons, regrouped and began multiplying in The Underdark. They overwhelmed the drow, destroying many of their kingdoms. But the drow eventually regrouped and fortified their remaining lands. Some of the drow hatched a plan to take back their lands in what was sure to be a violent and risky struggle. Other drow did not want to further risk the lives of their people and headed to the surface world, where eventually, their skin lightened, their eyes grew accustomed to the sun and they became the elves Canus knows today.

Religious Justification

The drow who left for the surface world to become the elves had their reasons for leaving their brethren behind. Many simply wanted to avoid a violent struggle, which is ironic because their struggle with their own kin continues to today. The drow who left begged their kin to follow. The drow who remained claimed that by running, their brethren were not honoring Fana in turning their backs on the war to reclaim their homeland.

The drow who left, upon hearing that argument, claimed that their left-behind kin were not properly worshipping Meliko by staying underground and in the dark, rather than living on the surface world, where the day/night cycle honored both goddess equally. Furious with one another for the accusations of defying The Sister Goddesses’ will, a war between the two camps of drow broke out that continues even today. The elves vehemently believe the drow are wrongfully worshipping The Sister Creators and showing Fana too much favor. They believe Meliko and Fana have given them a mission to bring all their brethren to the surface world and that their elf form is the one they were always intended to have. Meanwhile, the drow, who still have not liberated their stolen kingdoms from the aberrants, believe the elves are cowardly, traitorous, tradition defiers who do The Sister Creators ill and must die for those crimes.

Much like in the real-world, religion in Exploration Age is sometimes the catalyst for an event and sometimes it serves to complicate a problem which already exists. Either way, the goddesses themselves are not directly involved, and two groups with the same religion have a slightly different idea of how one should worship and that has lead to bloodshed and war. This happens all the time in the real world.

Just for fun, here’s a more slightly more fleshed out description of Meliko and Fana I’m working right now.

The Sister Creators

Meliko and Fana are the goddesses worshipped mainly by the elves and drow of Findalay. Though these races share the same goddesses they honor them in slightly different ways, which is part of the reason the two races are in a violent struggle. Other races on Findalay may worship The Sister Creators, particularly the duergar, deep gnomes, and halflings who live amongst the drow and elves.

Clerics of The Sister Creators often dress in a bright color and dark color to show their appreciation of both goddess and carry two holy symbols or create one that is a combination of both sisters’ symbols. Services in honor of The Sister Creators are elaborate in The Underdark, often involving weekly two-hour long prayer sessions and displays of divine magic. On the surface world, The Sister Creators are honored in smaller, less public ways, usually at home shrines where individuals or families will pray twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening for a few minutes.


Meliko is one half of The Sister Creators. She is the goddess of light, nature, healing, and arts. Legend has it that Meliko created Canus. Her favored weapon is a longbow. She is often represented in drow art as a beautiful drow woman carrying a torch, and her holy symbol is a flaming torch wrapped in moss. In elvish depictions, she is an elf holding the sun in her hands and her holy symbol is an arrow who’s head is on fire.


Fana is one half of The Sister Creators. She is the goddess of darkness, civilization, science, and war. Legend has it that Fana created the drow, dragons, and aberrants. Her favored weapon is a long sword. She is often represented in drow art as a hooded drow woman carrying a scroll, and her holy symbol is an Underdark city skyline. In elvish depictions, she is a hooded elf holding a black orb in her hands and her holy symbol is a long sword with a pure black blade.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcast on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

This weekend I sat down to make the timeline of major events in Exploration Age that lead up to the time of play. I found that I still had a lot of thinking to do. Mainly, how did Canus and the folk of Exploration Age go from literally nothing to being what they are now?

I don’t necessarily have to describe how the world came to be, since medieval fantasy RPGs are somewhat based on our own world’s actual past. Back in the day those folks weren’t sure how our world came to be (though they did have theories, but that’s another post). However, I do need to describe how the beings that populate Canus came to be where they are now. History is very important. Big actions have big repercussions that are felt for long periods of time. For instance…

  • During prohibition of alcohol, the American gangsters are born and continue to operate even after it becomes legal to drink again.
  • During WWII Germany invades the Soviet Union. After WWII, Berlin is occupied by the Soviets until 1990.
  • The Americas are discovered and a whole bunch of countries rush to colonize.

You get the idea. My point is – the actions being taken that greatly affect the folk of Canus are those which deserve to be written down on the timeline. The players are not going to care to read every little detail of when a specific plant came into being or care when a local organization of farmhands was formed. I only put that kind of thing in if I know it’s going to be important to the plot. The rest of the stuff, can be big, broad strokes to give your players the idea of the history of a people or government or culture, etc. Most of the time, these will be actions taken by a specific group or individual. The only time pure nature makes it on the timeline is for something really crazy – like a meteor causing the end of the dinosaurs, an earthquake swallowing a city, or ice covering the planet.

Remember that, in general, you care more about the history of the world than your players do. “Why do the warforged hate the dwarves?” they might ask. “Because they kept them as slaves,” you reply. For some adventures and for most players that will more than suffice.

Starting the Timeline

Before I began the timeline, I had to figure out how old Canus is, or at least how far back its significant history begins. Since I want the world to be frame by the Findalayan point of view, I decided that it’s been 700 years since Findalay’s Founding (FF), when all nations of Findalay officially recognized each other. Before that, Aeranore, Bragonay, Marrial, and Taliana all came into existence, but they constantly at war with one another. For thousands of years! So when they decided to put down the sword and begin trading, that was a big enough event for them to begin counting the years. Now that’s not to say there haven’t been disputes and wars in those 700 years, but each nation is now officially recognized by the others.

However, more important than those 700 years are the years which came before. Those years, Before Findalay (BF) have had a huge influence on what happens in the world today. So I wanted to go back and in broad strokes think about the world and how each nation of people got its start. How each race came to be and what actions led to where they are. And of course, since this is a fantasy setting, I wanted to make sure there was plenty of magical flavor to all of it, since that’s what we love.

Before Dwarves, Elves, and Humans

So before our PC races made it onto the scene there were great forces walking the earth, just like in the real world there were dinosaurs before us. I wanted Canus to do something different for originality’s sake, so I decided the first beings to populate its surface were aberrant creatures. Beholders, illithids, umber hulks – all the bizarro creatures that normally live underground, well their ancestors lived on the surface of Canus.

Just some mind flayers hanging out, thinking about their ancestors.

I like the idea of picturing these creatures’ surface-dwelling ancestors. I like thinking about what their great civilizations might leave behind. This gives us a way to spread similar, but mysterious ruins all over Canus. It also gives the aberrants a reason to abhor surface dwellers once they are driven underground (more on that below). That’s my first beat on the timeline and it has a bunch of question marks next to it, because no one sure how far back the aberrant civilizations go.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my dragons are pretty important to me. They’re old and mystical and have been around almost since the beginning. More importantly to me, chromatic and metallic dragons are part of the material world. Think about it, dragons have all this magic at their disposal and for the most part they choose to stay in the material world. They must really like it there. I decided that on Canus, dragons are drawn to staying in the material plane because they are literally part of the world. The first dragons were incubated in Canus’ core and birthed out of the ground. For whatever reason, the metallic dragons ended up in Verda and the chromatic dragons ended up in Parian and Findalay.

So the aberrants are doing their thing when suddenly the first dragons hatch from beneath the ground. The dragons think to themselves, “It’s time for us, baby. These crazy-looking dudes got to go.” War that rages for years with neither side having a clear victory. So second timeline beat – dragons hatch from the earth and war begins. This is around 500,000 BF. Broad strokes.

You didn’t know I was down here, didja? DIDJA?

Now, when the dragons hatched from the ground, the spaces and tunnels their bodies made became The Underdark. The chromatic dragons bled for their efforts, lacking the finer scales of their metallic kin, and their blood became the drow race. This is also part of the second beat.

Third beat on the timeline comes when the dragons gain their advantage around 300,000 BF. The chromatic dragons create a new race to aid them – the giants. With the help of the giants they destroy many of the aberrants and drive the rest into The Underdark. Meanwhile in Verda, the metallics have a different plan and open a portal to the Nine Hells calling forth devils to kill the aberrants. This only half works, as some of the devils create alliances with the aberrants, creating a horrifying half-fiend, half-aberrant race who eventually become The Sleeping Ones. In the fourth beat on our timeline, around 100,000 BF the devils who remain on Verda and side with the metallic dragons eventually evolve into the tieflings.

The pattern here with the beats is that they get closer together and more specific as they continue. More significant history exists closer to the time of the game. In-game there would also be better historical records for more recent events.

The PC Races

So you can see above where tiefling and drow came from, but we still have a bunch of races to define here. I’ll give you the bullet points for each.

  • Eventually, the giants get tired of their chromatic dragon oppressors and create the dwarves and gnomes to help them rise up. Their bloody revolution is not so successful and dragons and giants, now few in number are scattered across Parian and Findalay. Some gnomes and dwarves retreat to The Underdark and become duergar and svirfneblin. Some stay on the surface and begin to found their own civilizations.
  • The aberrants regroup for thousands of years in The Underdark and then invade the kingdoms of the drow. After a few thousand years of war, some drow grow tired of the war and retreat to the surface. These drow evolve into elves, the drow left behind feel betrayed and the hatred begins.
  • When the elves retreat to the surface some of the svirfneblin come with them, who evolve yet again over the course of time into halflings. So halflings and gnomes are related in this campaign.
  • Metallic dragons create the dragonborn race to help populate Verda, but the their allies, the tieflings become jealous and so the dragonborn are sent away on ships and eventually come to land in present day Marrial.
  • In a cycle of slave creation learned from their masters, the dwarves create the warforged.

I’m a big fan of evolution apparently.

It’s obvious there are some races I’m choosing to leave out of this list. I think the only races that need a big explanation are the ones that have their heritage impacted by their creation and evolution. Orcs, minotaurs, etc. formed organically over time and scientific evolutionary processes. Or magic if you like. Or divine intervention. Their origins are not as important as their actions, which do end up on Exploration Age’s timeline.

Human might be the most obvious race missing from the list, but that’s because I think the big questions of why are we here and how did we get here are part of the human experience. I think it will make the humans of this world feel natural and relatable to sort of just appear without fanfare one day and through survival, suffering, and hard work build a civilization.


So once the races are established the timeline gets pretty interesting. The Bragonay dwarves have all of Findalay under their control and then the other races begin trying to take their land in a crazy struggle that has alliances forming and breaking everywhere. In the midst of it all, earthquakes, plagues, inventions, magic, and the like happen. Meanwhile on Verda the half-fiend, half-aberrant problem persists with a host of other failures and successes on the part of its people. There’s some big events that lead up to the time of play, like the discovery of Verda that I’m excited to share in the future.

Looks like the world is coming together! I’ll probably divide the timeline up into different ages such as Aberrant Age, Draconic Age, etc. and have the time period of play be known as… you guessed it. Exploration Age.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcast on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!