Behind the Screen12/24/2004

Solution by Substitution
Building a Campaign Story Arc, Part 8

Welcome to Part 8 of our Behind the Screen workshop on building campaign story arcs. Our fictional DM, Eddie, is building a theme around an ancient race of frog-folk called sivs, and we're using his process as a model for creating your own unique campaigns.

"They will absolutely kill me if I do this," Eddie said. "But how can I not? It's just so perfect!"

"Yeah, Eddie," replied Vince. "It is perfect . . . and they will kill you."

"But I love puns!" Eddie protested.

"Of course you do, but having a frog-creature cast a spell called 'power word croak' that makes your character die is way past the point of funny."

"Party pooper." Eddie sulked. "Still, it's all about presentation. I don't have time to make up a zillion new spells and stuff, but I can create the illusion that I'm clever and creative. A little flavor text goes a long way!"

"It is a heck of a time-saver, I'll admit. Maybe you're more clever and creative than you think. Sleet storm in the jungle? I just about snorted Coke out my nose when you dropped that one on me."


Amphibian Domain

Deities: Wastri (bullywugs and sivs, the Vast Swamp in World of Greyhawk)

Granted Power: You can rebuke or command amphibians (including ba'traa creatures) as an evil cleric rebukes or commands undead. This ability is usable a number of times per day equal to 3 + your Charisma modifier.

Add Swim to your list of cleric class skills.

Domain Spells: Equivalent:

1 Jump (standard spell)
2 Croaking Curse (as Tasha's hideous laughter)
3 Summon Amphibian Ally (as summon nature's ally III; see list below)
4 Croak of Doom (as shout)
5 Baleful Polymorph (amphibians only)
6 Amphibian Shapes (as animal shapes, amphibians only)
7 Hopping Horror (as creeping doom)
8 Greater Croak of Doom (as greater shout)
9 Summon Monster IX (slaad or hezrou demon only)

"Repackaged" creatures for summon amphibian ally:

1st level:

Carnivorous tree frog (monkey)
Monstrous frog (wolf)
Monstrous toad (dire rat)
Poisonous toad (small viper)

2nd level:

Dire salamander (crocodile)
Dire tadpole (medium shark)
Frog swarm (spider swarm)
Giant killer frog (wolverine)

3rd level:

Dire toad (Monster Manual II)
Giant vampire frog (dire weasel)
Toad swarm (rat swarm)

Is Eddie out of his mind? That's what Vince thought initially. How on earth could sleet storm fit into a cleric domain focused on the jungle? It's really quite simple, and it's all about the flavor text.

For every element of the game, you have what it actually does or says in the rules, and you have what it looks like from an in-the-game perspective. Sleet storm obscures vision, hampers movement, makes everything slippery, and quenches fires in the area. That is exactly what you would expect from a spell that generates a torrential downpour of rain, like you'd get in the jungle. Eddie could very easily add a "new" spell to the Jungle domain list, calling it monsoon and using the identical game mechanics of sleet storm. He could then insert this spell into the Jungle domain, probably in place of poison at 3rd level. When the siv priest Inder Vath drops a monsoon on Rashean and company, Eddie describes it as driving sheets of blinding rain that create standing puddles of water slicking the rocks and that turn the ground into sodden, treacherous mud. Presto! Instant new spell, perfectly appropriate to the new theme, and Eddie didn't need to change a single thing about the spell or make up anything new except the name. It flows very naturally from his thinking about how to present and describe aspects of the game. If you're already into the mindset of your theme, it is simplicity itself to find ways of adapting existing material to fit what you want.

Taking this idea further, consider the most obvious cleric domain concept for the sivs and their amphibian master-race complex: the Amphibian domain! Using free-association again, what do amphibians do? Slither. Hop. Swim. They are slimy and bug-eyed. And, since frogs and toads are the iconic amphibians, how about croaking? Let's look again at the Player's Handbook, not creating any new rules but applying some creativity and thinking of new ways to describe things.

One obvious use of the croak idea is to adapt the shout and greater shout spells -- no need to change a thing! What in other places would be an amplified vocalization here becomes a croak of doom and greater croak of doom. Of course, a sick sense of humor leads Eddie to also think about spells that would make other people croak. Setting aside the obvious horrible pun (get it . . . make 'em croak?) and the temptation to include a renamed slay living as an Amphibian spell, look again and see whether a spell exists that might make people literally croak against their will. Actually, there is: Tasha's hideous laughter. Again, no need to change a thing; instead of causing laugher, the renamed spell croaking curse compels affected creatures to make loud croaking noises. Everything about the spell works as written; only the flavor text changes.

In some cases, even these minimal changes aren't necessary because a game element already has the appropriate flavor. For example, Eddie can use, as-is, existing spells such as jump and baleful polymorph (turning victims into frogs or toads, of course). The 9th-level sorcerer/wizard spell summon monster IX works if he restricts it to summoning a slaad or hezrou demon -- yeah, they're not really amphibians, but they are froglike -- they look the part and that's what counts! (In fact, slaad appear at several different levels on the summon monster spell list, which gives the spellcaster the option of choosing weaker monsters in larger numbers. For example the caster could summon a single green slaad, 1d3 blue slaad, or 1d4+1 red slaad.) Animal shapes could be very appropriate, but again we'd be limiting the effect to changing into amphibians. That's great flavorwise, but it really limits the power of the spell, since much of its utility is in its versatility, and you just can't get all that versatile when you're stuck with amphibians. If we put in an amphibian shapes spell, it should probably be of lower level than the normal animal shapes spell. But other than that, it (and all the other spells noted here) can work exactly as described in the book (or within an amphibian-only stipulation).

Limiting summoning-type spells (which should be natural additions to this domain) to amphibians does produce a problem: There are simply not very many amphibians in the official rules. You have the dire toad in the Monster Manual II, toad in the Monster Manual, and (looking hard) the dire frog in Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil and the apocalypse frog swarm in Book of Exalted Deeds. That's pretty thin, and depending on the theme you have chosen for your own campaign, you could find yourself in similar straits. But how to enhance your options? In Eddie's case, he would love to create swarm types for frogs, toads, etc., but has not had time. He could still work them in, however, by changing the flavor text on other swarm types. For example, he could just replace the "spider swarm" in a summon swarm spell (or in an encounter) with a swarm of poisonous frogs with identical statistics, or a rat swarm with disease-bringing toads. (Toads give you warts, right?) Toxic frogs could replace swarms of poisonous centipedes, as called up by creeping doom. He might swap out the climb speed of a typical swarm with a swim speed, or keep it as is and just assume they're tree frogs. Statistics stay the same, so he doesn't have to change a thing except the description to instantly get a new spell: hopping horror!

Eddie would still like a lower-level summoning spell, but doesn't merely want summon swarm. He would like a summon nature's ally spell to call actual amphibian monsters, but how can he fill out the list? He can start with the dire toad. Given its challenge rating, and the ratings of comparable creatures in the summon nature's ally lists, the dire toad should be a 3rd-level creature, so he decides the spell is equivalent to summon nature's ally III. The rest of the official amphibious monsters mentioned above are too obscure (from an adventure and an optional rulebook) or too useless (An ordinary toad? Please!) to bother with.

From this point on, creative substitution is your friend! Look at the creatures already on the list, and imagine them in forms applicable to your campaign theme. The process may sound strange at first, but go with it. Eddie, in devising 1st-level amphibians, might dream up a carnivorous tree frog (statistics of a monkey) or a poisonous toad (stats of a small viper)? If those seem too wimpy, he can try a monstrous toad (stats of a dire rat -- the toad's reputation for diseases fits with the rat's infectious bite) or monstrous frog (stats of a wolf -- the frog's tongue wraps around creatures it bites, which is how it performs its free trip attack). For 2nd-level creatures, he might substitute a dire salamander (stats of a crocodile) or giant killer frog (stats of a wolverine). To be really twisted, he could have a dire tadpole (stats of a medium shark). Hey, all these freakish amphibians must have a ferocious larval stage, right? At 3rd level, he already has the dire toad, but maybe he could also use a giant vampire frog (stats of a dire weasel). He might include a toad swarm (stats of a rat swarm, 3rd-level based on their challenge rating) or frog swarm (stats of a 2nd-level spider swarm), even though they're not on the usual summon nature's ally lists.

Every creature just mentioned is already on the summon nature's ally lists (except for the dire toad and the swarms). Eddie hasn't had to change a thing about how the spell works; he has just creatively repackaged the creatures the spell brings. Just like that, he has an ample list of monsters that characters can call with a summon amphibian ally spell, or that he can sprinkle liberally throughout the festering jungles, and every one has ready-made game statistics in the official books. Nothing new to think up except for a clever name and a new description, and he has an instant supply of new and unexpected adversaries. (Plus he gives Melantha a place to ply her Knowledge [nature] skill!)

Your new domain does still need a granted power. In Eddie's case, he has numerous ideas: resistance to poison or disease (or immunity to those carried by amphibians), bonuses to Escape Artist, Jump, or Swim, or the ability to communicate with amphibians. An obvious power would be one that enhances swim speed, or that improves air- or water-breathing, though most creatures taking this domain are probably already amphibious.

Using entries in the Player's Guide to Faerûn as a model, you'll see that the standard granted power for creature-type domains (e.g., Scalykind, Slime, Spider) is a rebuke/command ability for that type. For Eddie, that creates difficulties: There are few amphibian monsters out there, and "amphibious" is a special quality (not a subtype), so amphibious creatures aren't indexed as such in the monster books, making them hard to find. He could use the aquatic type as a proxy (like bullywugs and sivs themselves, who by the rules are aquatic but not amphibious), but that includes deep-sea monsters that don't really fit. He also must distinguish between creatures similar to real-world amphibians and other kinds of amphibious creatures.

It's not an unsolvable problem, and for Eddie the rebuke/command power (synergized nicely with the ba'traa template's siv subservience quality) is too perfect to resist. But his amphibian theme does bring up an interesting problem that you might face in developing your own campaign theme: how to craft the rules around something that isn't very well represented or integrated in the standard game. This dilemma becomes an even greater issue when you're making up something new or working with new categories or classifications of things, especially spells and magic items. We will take a further look at this in a future installment, after we finish up next time with how to go beyond cleric domains to enhance the element of divine magic in your campaign.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He writes freelance D&D articles but pays the bills as a medical transcriptionist while finishing his Ph.D. in social and cultural foundations of education. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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