Human Languages in a Chult/Ixilan Mash-Up

(This was originally posted to my Tumblr)

So here’s my issue. The D&D campaign setting I’m currently working on has a lot in common with Chult from Tomb of Annihilation, but I’m also incorporating some stuff (such as the Elder Dinosaurs) from the Ixalan setting from Magic the Gathering. This is mostly just a marriage of two awesome things, but there are some distinctions that need to be worked through. Most obviously, the Chult setting is is intended to be pseudo-African, whereas Ixalan is intended as more of pseudo-Mesoamerican. Something has to be done to reconcile this. I suppose I could just commit to one or the other, and change the other elements to match, but. Y’know. That would be too easy. So instead, I’m going to posit a pseudo-Mesoamerican culture with a matching language, and a pseudo-African culture with a matching language, and merge them. 

Which pseudo-African culture and language exactly?

The overview of Chult given in Tomb of Annihilation depicts the Chultan “tribal languages” as “a mix of inhaled and exhaled vowels, consonants, and tongue clicks”. At first this made me think of Xhosa, the (real-life) language that Marvel used as the language spoken by the people of Wakanda in the recent Marvel Black Panther film, but on reflection the setting of Chult (and the tropical/rainforest environment it involves) doesn’t seem to match western South Africa, where Xhosa is most commonly spoken.  (c.f. this map of environments on the continent):

image

A quick search of languages in Africa with click sounds gives us this map:

image

So we can see from

the two maps that languages with clicks don’t really match up with the rainforest environment one sees in Chult. I would hazard a theory, then, that the Chultan languages include the clicks because they are “cool”, or, put another way, for reasons of exoticism. Is this problematic? I’m not sure I’m in a position to make a judgement myself, but it gives me a pause. At very least I would wonder if it doesn’t represent the stereotypical tradition of lumping the entire African continent together and ignoring its breadth and diversity?  

So, what language would be better suited to our campaign? Well, perhaps having the language based on one spoken in the region matching the correct environment would be nice. And, as it happens, there is a language family in that area which is already (very loosely) associated with dinosaurs (which of course is one of the reason we’re using ToA to begin with) – namely the sauropod(?) cryptid Mokele-mbembe. Apparently its name means “one who stops the flow of waters” in the Lingala language. As a language Lingala is a little modern for our purposes, but we can trace it back to its predecessors as a Bantu language. (Xhosa is also a Bantu language, far removed, which has borrowed the click sounds from unrelated Khosian languages.)

For our purposes, I’ve gone all the way back to Proto-Bantu, a reconstructed ancestor language. My plan is to take the phonemes and the morphology and grammar notes from Proto-Bantu (as listed in the wikipedia article there), and feed them into the language generator over at Vulgar (a conlang generation app that I’ve been playing with recently – so far I recommend it), tweaked a little bit for simplicity (we’ll assume that our language is tonal but the tones don’t show up in the transliteration, for instance, and the noun categories have been very much reduced and switched around), and that will come up with our language. This should be, like the replicated tea from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, not entirely dissimilar to Proto-Bantu. Much like Tolkien’s Elvish language is not entirely dissimilar to Finnish (at a removal of Tolkien knew what he was doing). 

That would be sufficient for my purposes, I think, with the following small defect: because of the phonetic rules of Proto-Bantu, some of the important names from Tomb of Annihilation are not going to be work in our conlang. For lesser place names and NPCs, that’s not a huge issue; but I am (after a fashion) going to port Ubtao, the main Chultan deity, and the way words are constructed in Ubtao isn’t going to work (i.e., syllables can’t end in consonants. They just don’t.) The quickest solution is probably just to insert a sort of spaceholder vowel between the b and t: Ubutao, pron. “oo-boo-TAH-oh”. This seems to be in keeping with what happens in modern Bantu languages with loan words from other languages with different rules for consonant clusters.

So that’s what I have at the moment. Is it less sticky than the original description of Chultan in ToA? I don’t know that I’m the one to say, which is one reason I’m presenting my thought process here. Perhaps it’s an attempt to solve a problem that isn’t there. It seems like a way I can put a little more thought into the words and names of the human NPCs in my game; but there may be some pitfalls here that I’m not seeing. Any thoughts, readers? 

(And yes, after this conlang we’ll gather a pseudo-Mesoamerican conlang and then combine the two cultures and languages together.)

[DnD House Rules] Four Ability Scores

In my “ideal’ Dungeons & Dragons house rules, there are four ability scores. The value of each is generated randomly by rolling 3d6 (in order), and the player is given the option of “swapping” one score with another, once. If the average of the scores is 9 or less, the player can generate another list from scratch. The ability scores are:

  • Strength
  • Dexterity
  • Mind
  • Charisma

When converting from the standard D&D six ability scores/attributes, I take the highest of Strength or Constitution and the highest of Intelligence or Wisdom. I suppose you could take the average instead.

This has come about by influence of Into the Odd, which reduces the number to three — Strength, Dexterity, and Willpower. ItO’s minimalistic approach very much appeals to me, though I do cause to split that last entry — I believe in the newer version of the rules being playtested it’s changed to Charisma, and I don’t know that either Willpower or Charisma on its own is sufficient. It’s also influenced by a game of Crypts & Things that I ran a while back, and gauging new players’ confusion about the standard six attributes. Throughout the game, we kept adjusting the character sheet. We changed the names of some of the stats to make it easier for people to read and understand at a glance — Armor Class quickly became Defense, for example — and outright ditched some of the other bits (C&T’s sanity stat, for example, just didn’t fit the game we were playing and wasn’t being used). New players were often confused by the difference between Intelligence and Wisdom, and although I originally gave them the old “tomato” line about it, eventually I just quietly folded the two stats together into  Mind. This made even more sense considering that Clerics are not a core player-character class in the C&T rules. Thus emboldened, putting Constitution and Strength together was an easy next choice, since Constitution is famously used for Hit Points and not much else. The term of the remaining stat itself — Strength — I’m not as certain about. “Body” would seem to overlap with Dexterity, which I want to keep distinct, and while “Brawn” would perhaps be more to the point it isn’t as catchy for me. So, Strength it has remained for the time being.

The character sheet at the start of the campaign
The final version of the character sheet

I think that having the four ability scores makes sense because it retains the Mind/Body symmetry one sees in the original game, while simplifying things that could be potentially confusing or needlessly complex. 

This isn’t exactly a revolutionary change, of course: it’s just what makes the most sense to me for my game. 

(I should also note that I have not used this as a house rule for 5e, which I have not been able to run or play yet. The above is what I’ve done for more generic “D&D” games and OSR games. I’ll probably be playing some 5e after my current run of The One Ring, and will start out playing rules as written.)

The DM Bible

A few months ago someone by the username of 1dmmagic posted a series of photos to an imgur gallery showing a “DM Pocket Guide” or “DM Bible” that they’d made to streamline running their local game.  Take a look:

Dungeon Master Guide by 1dmmagic
So pretty!

Unfortunately, the author was unwilling to share or sell their file or work, as “It contains text from numerous copyrighted works, not to mention hundreds of dollars worth of Mike Schley’s amazing cartography.” Alas — understandable. But looking through the images was very inspiring — something like this would be extremely helpful, especially when playing D&D. It goes hand in hand with my first impressions of 5e, shared over on Google Plus:

Michael Harrel: Reading my new used copies of D&D5e, I do find that there is a pretty good version of D&D in here, and that I like most of the directions it has taken. That said, the good stuff is buried in unnecessarily wordy prose. 

I can forgive it somewhat because it has to be a gateway RPG, and so what I think may be overexplanation may for others be a fresh introduction to something, but the important information just never gets distilled to easily manageable chunks or summaries.

Like, I want to play it, but I want to have an printed SRD instead of the PHB around when I do.

This jumped back into my brain a couple days ago, reading a post on Questing Beast about “control panel layout” used by OSR publications, which “puts all of the relevant information from a single topic on a single page (or two page spread)…Visuals often take priority, with flowcharts and diagrams replacing traditional text, in order to facilitate faster absorption of the information.” 

1dm’s pocket guide seems to fit this description very well; or at least its purpose would certainly go hand in hand with that design goal. Let’s examine a little closer to see what exactly 1dm has done.

The Tabs

So we have:

1.Red Section: Rules (mostly from the PHB and DMG)

  • Adventuring
  • Combat
  • Conditions
  • Afflictions
  • Obstacles
  • Chases (taken from here.)
  • Toolbox 

2. Green Section: NPCs

  • Names
  • Races
  • Characteristics
  • Professions (taken from here.)
  • Insults (taken from movies, books, &c, with an emphasis on Shakespeare)

3. Blue Section: Treasures

  • Currency (taken from here.)
  • Rewards (taken from the DMG.)
  • Relics (taken from here.)
  • Basic Trinkets (taken from the PHB.)
  • Story Trinkets (taken from here.)
  • Elemental Trinkets (taken from here.)
  • Lair Trinkets (taken from here.)
  • Giant’s Bag (taken from Storm King’s Thunder.)
  • Gemstones (taken from the DMG.)
  • Art Objects (taken from here.)

4. Purple Section: Adventures

  • Adventures (taken from the DMG.)
  • Villains (taken from the DMG.)
  • Mysteries
  • Quests (taken from here.)
  • Rumors (taken from here.)
  • Locations (taken from here.)
  • Settlements
  • Population 
  • Taverns (taken from Dragon Magazine #418)

5. Yellow Section: Organizations (all taken from here.)

  • Noble Houses
  • Guilds
  • Secret Societies
  • Cults
  • Outlaw Bands
  • Marketplace Vendors 

6. Dungeons

  • Chambers (taken from the DMG.)
  • Dressing (taken from the DMG.)
  • Hindrances (taken from the DMG.)
  • Books (taken from here.)
  • Riddles (taken from here.)

6. Maps (all purchased from https://prints.mikeschley.com)

  • Environs (Regional maps)
  • Communities (Town maps)
  • Buildings (Building maps)
  • Dungeons (Dungeon maps)
  • Weather 

1dm mentions that the cost of producing his guide was “about $128.” I’d estimate the following to break this down somewhat:

Were it me, I would likely cut costs on the map section: Mike’s digital maps are really not too expensive at $2, and he’s a very talented cartographer, but with tools available to easily create one’s own gorgeous maps (e.g. HexKit and Wonderdraft for larger-scale regional maps), not to mention the various tutorials for making your own maps in GIMP or Photoshop, I think that’s a cost that could easily be lowered. 

In Our Own Image

The BIG question, of course, is what would we do differently if we made our own DM Bible?

The main thing I can see that definitely seems to be missing is: Monsters. I would like to see a few spreads on monsters; perhaps a whole color section. Random encounter tables would be a good bet; I suppose you could slip in stat blocks for some of the more common monsters native to various environment types. Or you could use tables for random creature generation like the ones in The Perilous Wilds or The Random Esoteric Creature Generator

 One of the advantages of using a ring’d binder and making all the pages removable is that you can easily swap them in and out if the party moves to a new location or region. Your names list isn’t appropriate anymore because the PCs are traveling extensively in the Underdark or another Plane? Have your Planar names sheet ready and you can just swap it in until they return. Same with your encounter tables, or maps. 

And of course, there’s no reason this needs to be Dungeons and Dragons 5e. Swap out with your favorite edition, swap in13th Age or Shadow of the Demon Lord; swap in your favorite OSR ruleset, swap out for your own D&D house rules! Swap in Apocalypse World or (name your favorite RPG here). What would it look like?

Another bit to ponder: What would a player-facing version of this look like? One can envision a product that includes something like the above as the DMG, and then a PHB-version for each of the players. The aforementioned Apocalypse World does something like this, with its playbooks for the PCs being tri-fold pamphlets and the main rulebook being officially the MC Playbook.(Though it’s not exactly presented in the Control Panel Layout style.)