It is once again the time of year where there’s snow on the ground and a nip in the air. It is also the time of year where I start making more and more of my classic characters. Well, that was a lie. I just happened to think about the cold and how hard it was for one of my players to build a cold-based Druid in 5e and I got thinking about the rather lacking representation of elemental based spells these days. So, here’s me thinking of ways to not just add more spells to the game based around elemental magics, but also ways to convey the raw power and beautiful nature of these potent forces in your games.
1) More Spells
The obvious answer. Want to make the world have more elemental magic in your game? Add more elemental magic in your games. There are hundreds if not thousands of homebrew spells out there on the internet. Sure you’ll likely have to sift through a great deal of underpowered and overpowered material. Some of it will be so specific that you’ll know it was meant for just one character out there. But I have found some genuinely interesting and creative elemental spells out there.
However, if that’s not your speed, I came up with a creative - if not obvious - solution to this awhile ago. Just swap the damage types and descriptions of certain spells. Take Scorching Ray and make Shocking Ray and Frosty Ray. Make them their own spells (just to clarify, I mean if you know Scorching Ray, you can’t just go and cast Shocking Ray instead.) They’re their own separate spells with similar mechanics and different damage types. Sure, it’s a little boring and on the head, but it makes it easy and it makes sure it’s balanced.
Another idea that I will always stand beside is ripping someone off. In this particular instance, video games. RPG’s have a large variety of spells. Obviously. Some of them are classics we’ll all know such as a fireball. However, the Dragon Quest series has a great deal of elemental spells to look at. Crack (as well as its more powerful variants Crackle and Kacrackle) are an excellent example. In short, the spell shoots a massive icicle up from the ground to stab an enemy (or group of enemies). It’s cool. It’s simple. It’s easy to understand. And there’s a whole lotta room to do something interesting with it.
2) Elemental Creatures
Now, let me explain. I don’t just mean making/adding more elemental creatures to the game. I mean making them interact with everything more often. Elementals working docks in cities, or forges, or as the winds that push sails forward. Small elementals that exist to create random acts of nature, that you would never guess weren’t natural, like stepping into a puddle or the wind blowing away an important document. Hell, even consider that perhaps normal animals that get shunted off into an elemental plane could come back with strange mutations. Like an elk with antlers made of solid stone.
I’m of the opinion that the themes created by elemental imagery of terrible storms, volcanos, tsunamis and the likes are harsh renditions of elementals as portrayed in many TTRPG’s. I think there should be more benevolent elemental creatures. The only ones I can really think of off the top of my head are Djinni and kind of the Azer.
Gentle fire elementals that come close to campfires and warm people in the cold winter nights. Shy earth elementals that gift small gems and other nick nacks they find underground to people who are suffering. I understand that in essence Elementals are raw representations of the energies that exist in our world, but while our world is violent and untameable, there are places of serene beauty, and I feel elementals should reflect that.
3) Influence in Your World
A massive open field with an ocean of grass and a single fifty-foot area of blackened grass, permanently scorched by the very essence of fire. A village with random and steep elevations, some of the buildings are ruined, others are simply raised up into the air by massive pillars of displaced stone. A river that occasionally floats up above the old riverbed, flowing through the air enchanted by an old water elemental who was simply enjoying itself.
The elements are frightening, fascinating and fantastic all at once. But above all - in most TTRPG’s they’re inherently magical. Their influence in your world can be shown in a hundred thousand different ways. Some less subtle than others. Everything from the ground your players walk on to their air they breathe, to the fire they cook with are all things that can be controlled or influenced by random elemental forces. Show the connections the things we do every day have with the elements.
Another, perhaps less subtle route to giving elemental forces some influence in your world would be putting powerful elementals into the world. Have a kingdom that was recently usurped by a genie suddenly cease all violent actions against other kingdoms, arousing simultaneous relief and suspicion. Maybe there was a city that has nearly been completely devoured by Xorns or some other rock-eating creature. The obvious followup question, after situations like these, have been handled is “where did they come from?” This paragraph presents ideas very similar to the last bullet on this list but please understand that I have been creatively bankrupt since I was born.
4) Natural vs Elemental Magic
This is less of a way to add elemental influence and more of a food for thought section. But I’m going to type this out anyway. I’ve always thought that (in D&D in particular) a lot of games draw a strange line between “Nature” and “Elements.” I suppose you could argue that nature as we see it is an intermingling of all the elements and from this intermingling, there is a delicate equilibrium created between the raw chaos of the basic elements and the more gentle chaos of the wild and natural world. Counterpoint: that’s stupid.
Nature magic and Elemental magic (at least from my perspective) should be far closer together in their use. After all, people favoured by nature, like druids, are already able to control the elements. Surely, you could find spaces where earth elementals and Ents are living together in quiet harmony. Really, the only blatantly destructive elementals are fire elementals. At least in the way where they simply stand still and completely destroy a house. Elementals have a place in the natural world is really what I’m trying to get at, and keeping that in mind opens up a pretty big world of opportunity in regards to adding them to your games.
Yes, they’re overpowered. Yes, they’re overused. Yes, it’s a little underwhelming from a storytelling perspective. But I’ll be damned if having some silly MacGuffin that legally makes you the King of the elemental plane of fire kicking around somewhere in your world isn’t a novel concept.
Creating artifacts is a good way to get your homebrew and world-building juices flowing. Partially because there are so many questions to ask yourself during the process. Partially because being creative opens up the door to continue being creative. Mostly because making interesting and earthshattering objects of power that your players may only ever get the chance to use once is just incredibly fun.
A hammer made by an Azer for an Efreeti Noble that has the power to instantly melt steel, lob giant balls of molten metal and force magma up from the earth, but it can only be used by someone pure of heart and devoted to the God of the Sun. It’s an interesting thought. Why these powers? Why did the smith make it but make it so the one who commissioned it couldn’t use it? Where is it now? What has it been used for before? All important questions.
Our world is full of places that seem extreme. Extremely hot, extremely dirty, extremely deep, extremely isolated. And if there’s one place you’re going to find adventurers, it’s in some of the most extreme places in the world. As such, when it comes to adding elementals and their influence into your game, I think it’s best to go to the extremes.
And while we’re on the topic of elemental effects of your setting, I’ll take this opportunity to mention Snowhaven. The new setting we at High Level Games have published. I actually did a little bit of work on this setting, and I know everyone at High Level Games would appreciate it if you just even took the time to look at the preview.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Blood In The Banquet Hall- An Interview With Banana Chan And Sen-Foong Lim (Game And A Curry And Wet Ink Games)
When the opportunity to speak to Banana Chan (Flatline, Terror Below, Warp’s Edge, and Betrayal at Mystery Mansion) and Sen-Foong Lim (Kids on Bikes, Never Going Home, Gears of Defiance, and The North Sea Epilogues) about their latest tabletop roleplaying game, Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall, I jumped at the chance. They share details about the game, what elements from board games they pulled into this project, and how all gamers can come together at the gaming table regardless of race.
EGG EMBRY (EGG): I’ve reviewed projects you’ve freelanced for, talked to your publishing partner, Wet Ink Games, at various points (here, here, and here), and planned to attend MomoCon 2020 with them before it was cancelled. We’ve been Facebook friends for some time and I’ve wanted to talk to each of you about your design philosophy. Your latest project, Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall, checks all of my boxes. What’s the pitch for this Kickstarter?
SEN-FOONG LIM (SEN): Players take on roles in an intergenerational family unit running a Chinese restaurant in the post gold-rush era. Their struggle to survive in a land that doesn’t want them is only made worse by the nightly Jiangshi attacks! The family must keep their restaurant in good repair, serve their customers, and fight of the chi-sucking undead - all while trying to live out their hopes and dreams in Gam Saan (“Gold Mountain” - what the Chinese called California and British Columbia).
BANANA CHAN (BANANA): Yes! Players can also turn into Jiangshi as they take on stress or physical damage, slowly losing themselves. When they take damage, they take a card that covers up a portion of their character sheet. In this game, the Jiangshi act like a physical manifestation of all the pressures that they face as immigrants. The game uses an original system of a communal pool of d8s. If a 4 gets rolled, it cancels out the highest die roll (the number 4 is bad luck in Chinese culture). Each day, a d8 gets taken away from the pool, making it even harder for them to succeed.
EGG: “[A]t night, hopping vampires (jiangshi) come out and attack.” For those that don’t know, what are jiangshi? Why choose them as the big bad?
BANANA: Jiangshi are hopping vampires! There are different versions of the mythology behind them, but one of the backstories (that I personally really like) is when a monk was too lazy to transport dead bodies to their place of burial, so they enchanted the bodies with paper talismans, making them hop… Unfortunately, the paper talismans fell off and… Well… That’s how Jiangshi were born. I think the idea of hopping vampires is kind of ridiculous, so they work well with sillier games (with a tone similar to Bob’s Burgers), but the mythology surrounding Jiangshi in general is pretty loose—as they get more powerful from stealing qi from living creatures, they do get creepier, working well with scarier games! We liked the idea of letting players choose what kind of tone they want to play with.
SEN: We know that zombies are cool. We know vampires are cool, too. But Zombie Vampires? They’re the coolest!
EGG: While this is a tabletop RPG, it has board game elements. Will it include a straight up game board? Will the character sheets be boards like many RPG-esque board games?
SEN: Not really - they’re more like traditional character sheets but the cards interact with them to cover up areas that cannot be accessed until the card is removed through roleplaying.
BANANA: There is also a board representing the Restaurant that has powers that the players can use, but again, it doesn’t implement the same mechanics that you’d see in a board game.
EGG: What will the cards add to the game?
BANANA: There are three types of cards! For the Jiangshi cards, they cover up parts of a player’s character sheet, rendering their abilities useless, replacing them with a side effect. The Restaurant cards act as tasks that the family has to complete during the Morning, which set up the scene for the day. If at any time they cannot complete a task, it covers up one of the Restaurant’s powers. When all the Restaurant’s powers are covered up, it ends the game and the Restaurant goes into decay. Finally, the Mung cards are nightmares that the characters have the night before that also cover up their character sheet.
SEN: There’s some amazingly simple yet evocative artwork that helps the players roleplay the nightmare they may have had due to the proximity of the psychic leeches.
EGG: Design-wise, why incorporate board game elements into your RPG? What does it improve about the experience?
SEN: I think the board gives us something to mentally anchor our experiences. The board and cards provide a visual/tactile method for tracking the various elements in the game, like the state of the family’s restaurant and all of the bonuses it gives you (or doesn’t as it falls into disrepair).
BANANA: Agreed! I think it’s interesting seeing parts of a character being covered up or rendered useless.
EGG: What are some of the cooler stretch goals for this campaign?
BANANA: Even more writers! I’m so excited to get more scenarios into the game. Though this game is initially written for the Chinese immigrant experience (and we have several other writers who have added their own experiences as people of color already as a part of the main book), we’re inviting even more writers!
EGG: If Gen Con 2020 hadn’t been canceled, this crowdfunding campaign would have run during the in-person event. If Gen Con had happened, did you have any promotion planned for this project?
SEN: I would have loved to GM the game for people at Gen Con!
BANANA: We’ve actually talked with a few Chinese restaurants to host livestreams as well, but that might have to wait until 2021!
EGG: During Gen Con’s virtual convention, do you plan to run any demos or participate in panels to promote the game?
BANANA: We’ll probably be on some panels! (We’re a bit behind in getting panels in to be honest!)
SEN: I’ll be joining in with Banana if needed. I have another panel planned about inclusion in gaming.
EGG: When I first read the pitch, this line stood out, “Chinese family running a restaurant in 1920's Chinatown.” That timeframe orbits near-pinnacle anti-Asian racism in the United States. How is the era’s racism addressed in Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall?
SEN: We use the Jiangshi as a stand-in for overt racism in many ways; they are the oppressive force that weigh down on the family at night. While white customers at the restaurant may be casually racist during the day and while the GM may wish to bring in overt racism (with the players’ consent, of course), the Jiangshi represent that soul-crushing, life-draining experience of being hated for merely trying to exist. Through consultation with James Mendez, we included a section in the rules to discuss what constitutes casual racism. We also have other sections that discuss the anti-Chinese racism that permeated the Americas at the time. This is stuff that actually happened and just doesn’t get talked about at all. In one of the short adventures, for example, I wrote about the Chinese head tax and the need for characters to have their documents on them at all times.
BANANA: It was such a pleasure working with Mendez. We added in safety tools and a guide on setting expectations before running the game, as well as a guide on how to be an antagonizing character, avoiding anything that could hurt the table—the players are always more important than the game.
EGG: In an interview I did, Jerry D. Grayson said, “I know people that are uncomfortable playing a PoC but are perfectly fine playing an Elf or tentacled alien.” For your game, James Mendez Hodes is writing a section that you referred to, “How to play an Asian Character”. What can white gamers do to make gaming more inclusive?
BANANA: Inviting gamers that don’t look like them to the table, would be great! And when they do, they may wish to get comfortable with using safety tools and listening to the players’ experiences.
SEN: Yes! Safety tools can be used so everyone can have an enjoyable session. Playing with sensitivity to the culture their character is portraying is important. People should rely less on harmful tropes and more on normative characters, but with an understanding and an appreciation for the things that make us different. Also, there’s no need to use an accent or bow while playing this game. Ever. And if you as a player, of any ethnicity, get called out or called in about how your roleplaying negatively affected someone, use that as an opportunity to reflect and grow. Don’t double down on the bad things in life.
EGG: Beyond Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall, what other projects are you working on?
BANANA: Coincidentally, both Sen and I have Scooby-Doo games! Scooby-Doo: Betrayal at Mystery Mansion will be out soon (it was a pleasure working with Brian Neff, Noah Cohen and Rob Daviau). I’m working with Mabel Harper on a secret thing, and Jason Slingerland and I have a couple of games that we’re developing. I’m also working on a psychological horror paper dollhouse TTRPG called Nutshells (title pending), based on the Nutshell Studies by Frances Glessner Lee.
SEN: Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion, the first of the Coded Chronicles “escape-room-in-a-box” games, just released. That was designed by me and Jay Cromier and published by The Op. Kingdom Rush (designed by me, Jessey Wright, and Helana Hope; published by Lucky Duck Games) will be out soon and Mind MGMT (designed by me and Jay Cormier; published by Off The Page Games) will be out early next year. I’m working on the third game in the Code Chronicles series right now and I just signed a few contracts for some smaller card games. On the RPG side of things, I’m working on adventures for Jon Gilmour and Doug Levandowski’s Kids on Bikes system. Banana and I have another full RPG in the works, but it’s on the down low at the moment. We’ve always got something on the back burner. It just depends on how many podcasts I’ve listened to!
EGG: Thank you for talking with me. For fans interested in following your work, where can they go?
BANANA: You can find me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @bananachangames and you can find my company, Game and a Curry, on Twitter and Facebook @gameandacurry
SEN: People can always follow me on Twitter @senfoonglim or they can watch the weekly webcast that I host live about game design at Facebook.
Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall from Game and a Curry and Wet Ink Games
End Date: Thu, Aug 13, 2020
“An RPG of Chinese immigrants running the family restaurant by day, and dealing with the hauntings of Jiangshi by night!”
Special thanks to Beth Rimmels for arranging this interview.
Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.
Labyrinths and Leonin: 4 Reasons to Check Out Mythic Odysseys of Theros for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.
Following in the footsteps of 2019’s GuildMaster's guide to Ravinica, 2020’s Mythic Odysseys of Theros by Wizards of the Coast is another D&D adaptation of a Magic the Gathering setting and while there are more interesting magic setting that I would personally be more interested seeing adapted( Kamigawa and Mirrodin...hey they are so different from any other setting currently represented and... c’mon...Mirrodin has metal goblins.... METAL GOBLINS!!!!), Theors certainly delivers a healthy dose of fresh air and options for D&D.
1) It’s all Greek to me
Theros is a setting that is very Greek inspired while retaining the fantasy roots of most D&D settings. Familiar trapping of high fantasy and mythology existing in a pleasing tandem, which even at the surface level, will provide a new feel to many gaming tables. Another way this setting separates itself from other D&D settings such as the Forgotten Realms and Eberron, is the mythical importance of heroes and their relationship to the world’s deity's driving both the PC’s and the world itself which puts a different kind of energy in the game.
This new direction is well represented in the new Heroic Drive, Supernatural Gifts and Piety mechanics that set up players to directly serve the Gods of Theros and reap the benefits of their patronage all while infusing player creation with more lore from Theros. You cannot escape from the setting in Theros, which is unique from most D&D settings and honestly a welcome addition. Your tales have a heavier weight to the setting itself as the PC’s take the form of pawns in the god’s chessboard, or rail against the gods themselves and fight for their own ideals and aspirations. The gravity of the Theros setting is much more reminiscent of White Wolf games where you cannot really escape the setting narrative without breaking away from it almost entirely.
Any DM who is wanting to run a game in Theros, should read this book cover to cover and have an intimate knowledge of the setting before they attempt to run it. That may be my greatest critique of this book and my highest compliment. It’s a unique world that when told well, will feel different from any other game of D&D with its epic tales of heroes and their struggles. If not properly prepared, the story may very well fall flat with the DM and PC’s not grasping the world and the settings deep need for storytelling and the implications of the shiny new mechanics in character creation set up. Come to Theros prepared.
2) Boons from the Gods
The book comes with 2 new playable races; the Leonin and Satyr. Hot Blooded and confident, the Leonin are humanoid lion-men with interesting new options highlighting intimidation, while the Satyr are reveling fey folk who’s love of life shape not only who they are as a people, but their own personal ethic. They are far from the classical D&D satyr, these fey have depth and are by far my favorite race option in the book. Human, Centaur, Minotaur and Triton are also listed as playable race options and I do feel like they could have had a few more races represented.
The Bard and Paladin both have new subclasses, the Bard’s College of Eloquence and the Paladin’s Oath of Glory. The College of Eloquence feel very inspired by Odysseus with features that make your Bard able to talk anyone into anything. You can charm the pants off almost any creature at high enough level and at level 14 you gain Infectious Inspiration which any party will want to utilize in almost any situation with its ability to spread multiple Bardic Inspirations to multiple members of your party AT THE SAME DAMN TIME!!!!
The Paladin’s Oath of Glory feels very inspired by the tales of Hercules, with its devotion toward personal improvement and growth as heroes. Their spell pool is unique from many other Paladin subclasses as are their features. Inspiring Smite is a personal favorite new feature of mine and will provide some much-needed protection for other players in the deadly quagmire of early level combat. At level 20, Living Legend allows your Paladin to gain advantage on all Charisma checks and auto hit or reroll a failed saving throw acting as the hero finally ascending to almost Demi-god. Overall, as a Paladin player myself, I'm not upset and see the benefits of this new class option and while it's not the most powerful option for the class, is no slouch ether.
The new items and artifacts are all flavorful and feel right for the setting. I can't wait to have multiple Flying Chariots for my party and many items and artifacts directly correspond to the many gods of Theros adding to the narrative and storytelling options. Your Cleric who follows Klothys the God of Destiny may have found or been rewarded with a Helm of the Gods blessed by Klothys' rival god Heliod. What your Cleric does with such a wonderous item will have consequences as they don’t want to spurn their patron god or Heliod, utilizing items in a way such as this makes them more important and makes them relative to the narrative and Theros has this kind of depth in spades.
3) Medusa’s menagerie
The monsters featured in Theros are incredibly impressive, spotlighting new monsters and new takes on existing ones. The Nyxborn is a boost that you can give any creature that gives them new abilities and enhances its origin as divine as the gods themselves. This boost can make an ally or enemy creature more important to your story, deserving more storytelling and development.
Among the impressive array of new options, Chimera’s can be customized in many different forms which are just begging to be used in your games, along with new lore that takes the Chimera in new directions. Many new Demons and Fey are featured and along with flavorful new backgrounds, they feature new and interesting abilities that will confound players.
4) A world full of promise
Theros as a setting is more daunting than most other D&D settings, with good reason. To tell tales in this world requires a level of respect to the game's lore that many D&D DM’s and Players won't be used to, but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative. The depth of storytelling options built into the setting character creation sets the correct tempo that can be built upon built upon by a good DM. The amount of tales that can be told in Theros are unlimited and unique among D&D and I believe that if you have the right party and DM, you should get together and build your legends in the world of the Theros.
Michael Jacobson is a freelance writer and an Active Duty US Sailor. His work has been featured in products like Snowhaven 2nd Ed, Night Horrors: Shunned by the Moon and more coming thru the pipes. When he isn’t running games, running in general and drinking Dr.Pepper he can be found fanboying out about Dinosaurs, Star Wars and turtle of both normal and the Ninja Mutant variety.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games