“A bard? How dare you? I’m don’t serve some puffed up peacock on a throne, telling him his own don’t stink for thirty in rhyming couplets, kissing my artistry and integrity on the cheek for thirty bits of silver. Call me not a bard, nor a skald, nor a scop. I am no minstrel, no troubadour, no jongleur. Nay! Call me gleeman, to rhyme with free man, for I work for a living and I love my art more than I love coin. Speaking of… five coppers for a song?”

D&D BardAh, the bard, the traveling singer, storyteller, and adventurer. The quintessential free-spirit. Beholden to no one. Master of his own fate. The bard is a D&D class you either love (like d20monkey who recently posted a preview of the new D&D 5E Bard class), or you hate (like any sane, rational person). Nobody is neutral about the bard. The trouble is, the bard in D&D isn’t really a bard at all. Neither is it a skald or a scop or a minstrel or a troubadour or a jongluer or a jester or a fool. Nor is it a druid.

Bards originated in the Celtic societies of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. Their first function was to compose and recite eulogies for dead rulers. According to one myth, if the bard was unsatisfied with his pay, he’d compose a satire instead to ridicule the cheapskate ruler and his cheapskate family. But that may be apocryphal. Over time, the bard’s role expanded. The ruling caste of Celtic society would retain bards to recount the histories of their families and their military conquests and just generally tell them how great they were. They were basically yes-men. Paid members of a ruler’s entourage.

And that’s where things get sort of complicated. See, there was actually a professional heriarchy in Celtic society and it varied a little from place to place. So, in some places, the word bard was used for an unemployed itinerant musician and a court poet was called a filidh, ollave, or derwyyd. This is further muddied by the fact that when Christianity spread into the Celtic lands, they may have purposely discredited bards because filidh became associated with the Faith. It also doesn’t help that the druids didn’t keep good written records, which is precisely why bards existed. In point of fact, the word derwydd (for a court poet) is the word that gave us the word druid. Bards were members of the druid hierarchy.

Although Records are Spotty from the Time, We're Fairly Sure Druids Did Not Have Horns

Although Records are Spotty from the Time, We’re Fairly Sure Druids Did Not Have Horns

The thing is, though, that the D&D depiction and the modern pop-culture understanding of the druid is a little off. The title “druid” simply referred to members of the educated, professional classes of Celtic society. It included Celtic priests, which is what we think of when we talk about druids, but it also included doctors, poets (like the bard), and Celtic lawyers. As a member of the druidic hierarchy and as bearer of news and a repository of knowledge, bards were protected under Celtic law. They could travel anywhere freely and say whatever they wished. Bards were also often experts in laws and customs and could be consulted on legal matters.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they were court poets paid by patrons to sing their praises.

Skalds and scops are the Viking and Germanic equivalents of the bard. Preservers of history, praisers of patrons, and sycophantic yes-men. Sorry about that. Interestingly though, they did have a very crude sense of humor and a quick wit as both societies were connoisseurs of crude, drunken humor. Skalds and scops would often be paid to mock a ruler’s enemies. It was said that the mockery of a skilled skald could cause boils to erupt on the face of their victims. From skald we get the word scold. And from scop, we get the word scoff. But still, they were basically just paid by rich kings to tell them how awesome they were and how much their enemies sucked.

Reason to Hate Bards #147: Listening to Ragnar the Red for the 4,000th F$&%ing Time!

Reason to Hate Bards #147: Listening to Ragnar the Red for the 4,000th F$&%ing Time!

What about a minstrel? Sorry. Minstrels were the late medieval French equivalent of bards, skalds, and scops. They were court entertainers, sometimes even retained as fools or jesters or jongleurs (which we call jugglers). All of them were tied down to wealthy, paying patrons. The word minstrel even comes from the same Latin root as minister and administration. No free spirits there.

Maybe the troubadour. Troubadours did indeed travel. But they weren’t entertainers so much as composers. But close enough, right? Well, sorry. While they DID travel from place to place, they often settled down for long periods of time and worked for… you guessed it… a wealthy patron, singing their praises and telling them how awesome they were.

So what do you want if you want to play a free-spirited chaotic-good adventuring entertainer, living by quick wits, a silver tongue, and whatever loot you can earn with your lute? Well, you sir or madam, are looking at the lowly cantabank or gleeman.

That's Right: These Guys Outranked Your Bard PC

That’s Right: These Guys Outranked Your Bard PC

Cantabank comes from the Latin meaning “to sing from a bench,” because that was often the best they could afford. Gleemen, cantabanks, circlers, or itinerant minstrels, were the lowest class of composer, singer, storyteller, and entertainer. They were even below professional fools and jesters. Why? Because they didn’t steady work. They wandered from place to place struggling to earn two coins to rub together.

And so, those are really your choices for your new bard. Are you a sellout, a nobleman’s lapdog, paid to tell your boss how awesome he is in iambic pentameter day after day? Or are you an unemployed medieval busker, wandering from town to town, looked down upon by the people who would someday invent the pie-in-the-face gag?

D&D Plot Idea: Jesters Twisted by Far Realm Aberrant Go on Rampage

D&D Plot Idea: Jesters Twisted by Far Realm Aberrant Go on Rampage


"You blog like a dairy farmer!"

“You blog like a dairy farmer!”

All right, instead of my usual schtick of giving a descriptive piece of flavor text that uses the word in context, let’s start with a quiz.

If your DM tells you that you see a bunch of hardies, are you most likely hanging out with (a) Captain Jack Sparrow or (b) Will Turner. Tricky, eh? What if I remind you that Will “Legolas” Turner worked for a blacksmith before he pulled a Threepwood and became a mighty pirate? That piece of information should be a dead giveaway. Because, while you might hang out with your hearties on the deck of a pirate ship (or any ship, for that matter), if you’re looking over a set of hardies, you’re visiting a blacksmith.

"Not that Tempest. We don't talk about THAT Tempest."

“Not that Tempest. We don’t talk about THAT Tempest.”

Hearties is, of course, a slang term for shipmates. More generally, it refers to comrades or friends. It comes from the word “hearty” which means: full of heart. Spirited, loyal, brave, trustworthy, friendly, and courageous. It is tough to determine when “hearty” became associated with sailors and shipmates. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation dates back to the mid 1,800s. But, in the Tempest by William Shakespeare, a character on a ship gives orders to his shipmates, who he calls his “hearts.” Given how many phrases Shakespeare coined, it is not impossible that he’s the reason you call your friends “yer hearties” on Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Meanwhile, “hardies” comes from the word hardy. Which means tough, strong, and enduring. In game terms, hardy is about constitution. Hearty is about charisma. Or wisdom. It’s kind of tough to separate the two. But you’ve probably never heard the word “hardies” unless you misspelled your pirate-themed e-mail. In fact, my spell checker absolutely hates the word “hardies.” And if you’ve never heard the word “hardies,” that’s because don’t realize that an anvil is more than just a table made of iron for hitting things on.

"Not Labeled: The Base (AKA: The Coyote Squisher)

“Not Labeled: The Base (AKA: The Coyote Squisher)

Sure, an anvil includes a flat surface so that you can whack pieces of orange-hot iron (because red-hot isn’t quite hot enough most of the time) with a heavy hammer without breaking or scorching your work surface. But there’s a more to it than that. Like a cutting edge, a recessed edge where you can snap off a piece of metal. And like hardy holes. Where you stick your hardies.

Hardies are shaping tools. You mount them on your anvil (sticking them in the hardy hole) so that, when you beat a piece of hot metal over them, they shape the metal. For example, you’ve got your bicks, which are rounded pieces used to give the metal a curve or bend. You’ve got your swages, which force the metal into certain shapes like squares or triangles. And you’ve got your fullers, which dig grooves into the metal.

Hardies: They Really are a Thing

Hardies: They Really are a Thing

One of the most likely bits of metal that will have a groove in it is the blade of a sword. They often have one (or more) grooves running down the middle of the blade and these grooves are called fullers after the tool that is used to dig them. There’s a lot of reasons why blades have fullers, and almost all of them are wrong. Some people say they are there to provide a channel for blood and gore to flow out of stabbing wounds. Others think they prevent the blade from getting stuck inside a person by preventing suction or something.

I Have Nothing Witty to Say Here. Sorry.

I Have Nothing Witty to Say Here. Sorry.

But those folks are grog-addled landlubbers who wouldn’t know a gaff from a handspike. The reason fullers exist is because they strengthen the blade while making it lighter in exactly the same way an I-beam provides strength but is lighter than a solid hunk of iron.

So, we’ve covered fullers, hardies, swages, bicks, anvils, hearties, and I’ve mentioned three iconic pirates from two different bits of modern pop culture. I think that’s enough for one day. It’s just a shame I couldn’t do the pirate trifecta and work this fine fella in…

Johnny Depp's Got Nothing on The Original Pirate King

Johnny Depp’s Got Nothing on The Original Pirate King


“The magistrate calls for silence. He clears his throat and speaks. ‘From what has been said, I cannot determine the truth of this matter. Therefore, either you may plead guilty and accept just punishment, or you will be consigned to a cleric of Saint Cuthbert for a Trial by Ordeal. And may the gods spare you if you are innocent.'”

Economists: The BEST Source for D&D Ideas

Economists: The BEST Source for D&D Ideas

So this week’s word has an odd story behind it. I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts about economics and the word came up and I found myself wondering why the word never actually made its way into D&D. Specifically, why it never made its way onto clerics’ spell lists.

The word is ordeal. When we hear the word ordeal, we usually think of a terrible, harrowing experience. But ordeal actually has Germanic roots and it comes from the word “to judge” or “to give what is deserved.” An ordeal was actually a form of divine judgment. And it goes back a long way. Early legal codes like the Code of Hammurabi included the ordeal as a way of determining guilt. So, what was an ordeal?

Well, let’s jump ahead to European law in the Middle Ages. When the guilt or innocence of a person accused of a crime could not be determined, they could either settle the case (by pleading guilty and making compensation or suffering the punishment) or they could opt for a Trial by Ordeal. They would undertake some sort of injurous act and if they were unharmed or if their injuries showed signs of healing normally and not festering, they were found innocent. The idea was that G-d knew if you were guilty or innocent and would protect you if you were innocent.

Different ordeals existed at different points in history and in different parts of the world. Some of the most common included plunging your hand into boiling water, walking across hot irons, grasping a hot iron, consuming poison, and so on. There were a lot of creative trials by ordeal all over the world.

(That facial expression is less "I'm gripping a red hot iron bar" and more "I'm having a very difficult time pooping and should consider eating more fiber.")

(That facial expression is less “I’m gripping a red hot iron bar” and more “I’m having a very difficult time pooping and should consider eating more fiber.”)

Now, interestingly, an economist named Peter Leeson discovered some records from Hungary which indicated that some two-thirds of people who underwent trials by ordeal involving grasping searing hot iron bars were found innocent. And he explains that the trials were probably rigged in those cases. Once the defendant agreed to the trial, Leeson reasoned, rather than simply settling or pleading guilty, that told the priests that the defendant truly believed in his or her own innocence and that G-d would deliver them from harm. The act of accepting the ordeal and potentially having your arm or legs boiled or dying from poison or whatever was a sign of innocence, so the priests would rig the trial to exonerate you. Is that true? Who knows. But you can read about it in his book, Anarchy Unbound or listen a really nifty episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast about this and other ways of getting the guilty and innocent to reveal themselves without knowing it.

Side Note: That is NOT a Werehog! Were Means MAN, Dammit!

Side Note: That is NOT a Werehog! Were Means MAN, Dammit!

Early Germanic law was actually quite fascinating. In addition to Trials by Ordeal, it also included Trails by Combat, in which the accuser and the defendant would duel to determine guilt or innocence (again on the assumption that some divine power would intervene to protect the innocent). More interestingly, though, it actually had some very neat ideas about compensation and damages and lawsuits. Some Germanic laws included the concept of a weregeld (literally: the cost of a person). If harm was done to a person or their property, they had to be compensated whether that damage was intentional or accidental. The base price was the weregeld and it was multiplied based on the social status of the individual. People with families were worth more than loners. Nobles were higher than commoners. Professionals higher than laborers and so on. If you couldn’t pay the compensation, you were declared an outlaw which meant you no longer enjoyed the protection of the law. That meant anything anyone did to you was nice and legal. It was usually a death sentence.

Now, I could talk about my recent D&D campaign in a society that followed a legal system heavily inspired by Germanic law traditions and a group of outsider adventurers who were stunned by some of the seemingly barbaric practices, but it was that ordeal thing that stuck with me. Trials by Ordeal were common, not just in the western world, but in many different cultures. There were all sorts of divine or magical ways to seperate the guilty from the innocent. And, if you believe in divine intervention, it just makes sense that stuff would be possible. So where, in this fantasy world where the gods are objectively real and grant magical powers, is the ordeal spell? You’ve got the Zone of Truth and you’ve got the Detect Evil and you’ve got the Atonement. But where is Ordeal. Where is a blessing that will protect the innocent heart from some harmful trial but not the guilty? How did this get overlooked?!

More to the point, what is the deal with the law in your D&D game? Every DM eventually does that game where the PCs are on trial or they have to investigate a crime or prove someone innocent of something, but the trials and the investigations are always filled with these modern ideas of evidence and forensics and fact-finding. And all of that completely ignores the fact that D&D includes an objective alignment system, a set of deities that really exist and really grant magic to help the faithful, and wizards and divination and mystical truth-telling skulls. Why is the law in D&D so f$&%ing boring?! Where are the Trials by Ordeal? The Trials by Combat?

And while we’re on the subject, why aren’t divine spells more selective in who they will work on and who they won’t? Why won’t cure spells just fail on people of the wrong alignments or people with two many checkmarks in the sin column? That’d turn every clerical spell into a trial by ordeal, right? Imagine this for a trail. The defendant is scorched with a hot iron and then a cure spell is cast. If the spell fails, the dude is guilty. The end.

Also a Valid Basis for a Legal System

Also a Valid Basis for a Legal System


“As the spell takes hold, you feel your physical sensations drop away from you. The world goes silent. There is no sense of touch or temperature. You are surrounded by a gray, featureless void. As your magical senses adjust, you begin to notice some variation in the gray, though. Like a fog, thicker in some places, thinner in others, and distant dark shadows drift at unknowable distances away from you. You are in the ethereal plane.” 

Duracell-Powered Luchador Not Available, But This Drummer Gorilla Showed Up In The Google Image Search, So Here It Is (I Have No Idea)

Duracell-Powered Luchador Not Available, But This Drummer Gorilla Showed Up In The Google Image Search, So Here It Is (I Have No Idea)

The word ether – actually, let’s give it the correct (Greek) spelling since the pronunciation is the same: aether. Yes, I said the same. Sorry to disappoint, kids. EE-ther. Not AY-ther. Not AYE-eth-er. Not AYIEEA..umm…ther. EE-ther.

The word aether (or ether) is an enduring word. It has the staying power of a Duracell-powered luchadore. It just keeps cropping up. In D&D, we refer to ethereal beings and the ethereal plane. But we also talk about radio and wi-fi and even space signals as “coming from the ether” and remember how we used to call computer networks “the ethernet?” Aether is something intangible and otherworldly. But it is transitive. It fills the space between. Shocking as this is for a nerd word, that’s pretty close to the original meaning.

Ancient Greek Elemental Theory... See? Makes Perfect Sense

Classical Elemental Theory… See? Makes Perfect Sense

Once upon a time, people like Aristotle posited that the world was made of four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. Right? Nothing you haven’t heard before. But, just like in a certain awesome movie with Bruce WIllis and Milla Jovovich (MEE-la YO-vo-vich, not AYIE-ther), there was actually a fifth element. The terrestrial (Earth-bound) elements only existed below the moon. Above the moon, the heavens were filled with something and that something was aether. See, the Greeks (like most people, as we’ll see) hated the idea that there might ever be nothing. There has to be something. And once you get up into the celestial spheres (and the spaces in between), you have to have a celestial element: ether.

Incidentally, the Romans called aether “quintessence” which roughly means fifth element (LEE-loo DAL-lass MUL-tee-PASS).

Thing was, this celestial element was found in trace amounts among the terrestrial elements, especially the base metals like lead, iron, tin, copper, and so on. And one of the primary pursuits of the ancient pseudoscience of alchemy was the isolation of quintessence. It was believed if you could get a hold of some of that divine element, you could cure diseases, transmute metals, and even live for a very long time. I could bring up the philosopher’s stone here, but that would just lead to a slew of Harry Potter jokes.

Hermes Trismestigus: Also Invented Whistling and Wrote Sweet Georgia Brown

Hermes Trismestigus: Also Invented Whistling and Wrote Sweet Georgia Brown

This was all spelled out by alchemists many ages ago. Perhaps most famously in the writings of someone named Hermes Trismegistus (which literally means Hermes is three kinds of awesome… I s$&% you not, look it up). Thing is, no one is quite sure who Hermes T. actually was. People claimed that he was actually part Hermes, Greek deity of wisdom and magic, and part Thoth, Egyptian deity of wisdom and magic (TOTE, like a tote bag). See, the neat thing about the Greeks and the Romans who adopted their religious views was that they accepted their deities didn’t have an exclusivity thing going. They noted similarities between their deities and other culture’s deities and just assumed that they were the same deities with a different name and symbolism. So Hermes was Thoth and Mercury too. Of course, the writings of Mr. T. (Hermes T., no relation) are real, whereas Hermes and Thoth appear not to have been (but who knows?). So that leaves a big gaping question about who wrote what.

Meanwhile, the idea of aether stuck around filling voids. See, physicists ran into a problem when they discovered that light and electricity and magnetism and heat are all the same thing and that they are a wave. Basically just a vibration. Well, light and stuff has no trouble moving through space which begs the question: just what IS vibrating. Until two physicists in 1887 (Al Michelson and Ed Morely) disproved it, scientists figured that there had to be something in the universe for light to vibrate. And they called that something “the lumoniferous ether.”

Left: Hermes, Right: Thoth, Obviously the Same Dude

Left: Hermes, Right: Thoth, Obviously the Same Dude

Other imaginary mediums have also been named ether to explain how gravity moves through space, as a metaphor for the cloud of particles that spontaneously spring into existence in empty space continuously according to quantum physics, as an alternative name for the mysterious dark energy that seems to fill the universe even though we can’t see or detect it.

So, if there is one thing the history of science has taught us, it is that we refuse to believe in nothing. Everywhere we see nothing, we try to imagine there is something. And that something is aether.

And how does this help your game? There’s actually a lot of meat here. Obviously, the idea of aether as “filling the void” is a neat world-building element. Actually, it is so neat that D&D often feels the need to do with twice with both an Ethereal and an Astral Plan (future Word of the Week: Astral?). And the idea of aether/quintessence as the ultimate goal of alchemy could give you some great fuel for a powerful artifact. Heck, you could probably build a neat, cerebral campaign around an “arms race” of alchemists and alchemical guilds to unlock the secrets of the quintessence. And the writings of a dude like Hermes Trismestigus could serve as the MacGuffin that touches off that adventure or campaign. And finally, you have the neat idea of cultures accepting that they all worship the same deities with different names and symbols. Actually, I want to give a shoutout to Keith Baker’s Eberron campaign setting here because this was one of the defining aspects of the Sovereign Host religion. At least, in 3.5 era Eberron. But I don’t give a crap about steampunk psychic dinosaur halfling pulp adventure, so I didn’t follow it for long after that. If you do, more power to you.

And if all of that fails, just rip off The Fifth Element. It was a good movie.

Look, You Knew This Picture Was Coming... At Least I Didn't Make a Joke About The Fifth Element and "Heavenly Bodies"

Look, You Knew This Picture Was Coming… At Least I Didn’t Make a Joke About The Fifth Element and “Heavenly Bodies”

Morning Star

If you’re a D&D fan and you’re at all keyed in to the news coming out of the Origins gaming convention, you’ve been hearing the word morningstar a lot this week. If you haven’t, but you’re interested, check out or follow @dndmorningstar on Twitter. Since it is tough for me to keep coming up with new and interesting words every f$&%ing week, I’m not going to turn it down when someone lobs a nice, slow pitch right across the plate. So: morningstar. Or, more correctly: morning star (take note, guys).

A Morningstar

A Morningstar

Firstly, let’s talk about the morgenstern – the morning star – a weapon that is often confused or conflated with the mace and the flail. A morningstar is a big, iron head mounted on a wooden shaft. The head is covered in spikes and often has one particularly long spike right at the top. And it was a versatile sucker. It would crush bone, crumple and puncture armor, and you could even thrust with the prominent point if an enemy got too close and you couldn’t get a good swing. Or against a downed opponent. And it came in large and small varieties for the footman and the horseman respectively.

A Mace

A Mace

Contrast this with the mace, which was smaller and lighter (though it came in footman’s and horseman’s varieties). The head of a mace could be solid, but it evolved into a flanged head over time. Additionally, as time went on, the mace became an all metal weapon: shaft and head alike were made of solid iron.

Finally, you have the flail. The flail was an articulated weapon. It began life as a farming implement: two short shafts connected by a ring used for threshing grain (seperating the wheat from the chaff). Over time, flails became more and more varied. The ring was replaced with a chain. The head became heavier. Sometimes it included spikes. The biggest, two handed flails had bigged spiked balls at the end and were sometimes called morgensterns, or morning stars, which just adds to the confusion, doesn’t it? Flails were great for getting around a shield and because they were easy to come by (at least the modified agricultural ones). But, they are imprecise, very difficult to use, especially in close combat, and couldn’t be used in organized military ranks because tended to be a danger to everyone within swinging distance of you.

A Flail

A Flail

But morning stars are not just weapons. Hell, the reason for the name is that the spikey ball looks like a shining star. Sort of. If you squint. And the most famous morning star is the planet Venus. It is so named because it glows so brightly that it can often be seen after sunrise, even after the bright sun has rendered all of the other stars invisible. Actually, in ancient times, Venus was known as two different objects: the morning star and the evening star. Until the Greeks figured out Venus was one thing, they thought it was two seperate planets: Phosphorus and Hesperus. The Romans had a different name for Venus, though. They called it “Lucifer” or “light bringer.”

Where's Venus?

Where’s Venus?

Which brings us to another morning star. The Morning Star, the Light Bringer, Lucifer, AKA Satan, the Devil. Well, maybe. See, the pop culture version is there was this angel named Lucifer or Satan in Judeo-Christian traditions who rebelled against his Creator and tried to seize the throne of Heaven. When they failed, they were cast down into a lake of fire and brimstone and became the rulers of Hell. Satan/Lucifer/The Devil now tempts mortal humans to evil because that’s what he does.

But the story is actually far more complicated and unclear. There have been so many translations and interpretations and so much ancient and medieval pop-culture was inspired by these stories, that it is now very difficult for scholars to disentangle. At one time, Satan (whose name in Hebrew means “accuser” or “adversary”) may have been a sort of prosecutor of humanity, such as in the Book of Job where he entices the Lord to visit misfortune on Job to prove Job was only faithful because he had such a good life (spoiler alert: Satan was kind of right in the end). Of course, most of the modern beliefs in the Devil and Hell come from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy (including The Inferno) by Dante Aligheri.

From Paradise Lost: Lucifer Inciting Rebellion

From Paradise Lost: Lucifer Inciting Rebellion

Of course, another great pop-culture version of the story is the tale of the Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition deity Asmodeus who, in ancient times, was an angel in the service of an unknown deity who led a rebellion. Asmodeus succeeded in ascending to deity status and the other deities were so terrified that they locked him and his followers (the devils) away in the ruins of the realm they had conquered: the Nine Hells. I’ve always found this story particularly compelling when you consider other bits of D&D 4E mythology. For example, the history of the tieflings as corrupted humans who pledged themselves to Asmodeus and the fact that humans seem to be the only sentient race in the D&D cosmos that don’t have a single patron or progenitor deity. I’ve often wondered if all of those things are interconnected. Did Asmodeus slay the deity that created humanity (and also who created Asmodeus, the angel)? Is that why humanity is so prone to ambition and corruption? Is that why an entire human empire was willing to give itself over to Asmodeus in return for power?

So, let’s end there, where we began, with Dungeons and Dragons. And a compelling question to use in your campaigns: why don’t humans attribute a single deity (or a small subset of the deities) as their personal deity? What does that mean? Is that why humans are so varied and adaptable compared to other races? Do they lack divine guidance? How else has that shaped human culture and society? What sort of stories can you build from these questions?

Some Pop Culture Depictions of Satan Emphasize Other Aspects... Thanks EA and Visceral Games

Some Pop Culture Depictions of Satan Emphasize Other Aspects… Thanks EA and Visceral Games

Sink Hole

“… and all that remains of Castle Irondoom is a massive sink hole, a bleak crater a thousand feet across and deep and dark as a moonless, starless midnight.” 

A Sink Hole

A Sink Hole

A sink hole is a gaping hole in the ground that suddenly opens up and swallows whatever happens to be above it? I can give a more clinical definition, but honestly, why would I want to? The ground suddenly opening a rocky maw and swallowing people, things, and places? That’s just awesome. Well, from an adventure perspective, anyway. From the perspective of a hapless Floridian coming home to discover his house has a brand new basement and that the rest of the house is currenly inside said basement? Not so cool.

Seriously though: a sink hole occurs when some of the underground disappears and the surface collapses into it as a result. The underground can disappear for artifical reasons, such as someone digging a tunnel through it (like dwarves). But it can also occur naturally as part of the process of erosion. As the ground absorbs water, the water erodes certain types of stone, like limestone or dolomite, leaving a big open space. And eventually, the surface collapses into it. Sink holes can be as small as 3 feet across (1 m) and as large as 2,000 feet (600 m). They can be a few feet deep or thousands of feet.

Devil's Sinkhole Not Pictured: SO MUCH BAT CRAP!

Devil’s Sinkhole
Not Pictured: SO MUCH BAT CRAP!

One pretty famous sinkhole is the Devil’s Sinkole in texas, which is about 50 feet across and 400 feet deep and is home to a MASSIVE population of bats. In fact, it is most well known not for the massive sphincter where the ground decided to swallow itself, but for the nightly summer bat flights.

Natural sinkholes occur most commonly in karst landscapes. These are places with a mixture of soluable rocks (rocks that can dissolve in water) and insoluable rocks (rocks that don’t dissolve in water). Karst landscapes are great places for adventurers to hang out because the natural erosion creates caves and tunnels and shafts and sinkholes.

Karst Landscape: Rife with Underground Adventure

Karst Landscape: Rife with Underground Adventure

There are lots of karst landscapes in the United States and in Europe. One notable karst area is the state of Kentucky, which is, as a result, home to the largest cave network in the world: Mammoth Cave (so named because it is a cave). Mammoth Cave is comprised of more than 400 miles of explored underground cave (and who knows how much more is unexplored). Honestly, I want to post pictures, but I can’t choose between all of the amazing pictures. Instead, I’ll tell you do to do a Google image search for Mammoth Cave and marvel.

Those 400 Miles of Yellow Squiggles? That's All Mammoth Cave

Those 400 Miles of Yellow Squiggles? That’s All Mammoth Cave

Caves and karst landscapes make great adventuring sites. You can have hundreds of caves and cave networks in a very small area and every one of them can be home to something or someone. Ancient peoples often used caves for shelter, storage, and burial and they are a boon to campers and travelers as well. So you never know what you will find.

Sink holes are excellent natural disasters, often exposing completely unknown cave networks. Imagine how it would change a city if a sinkhole suddenly swallowed up a portion of the city. Apart from the disaster itself, the long term consequences of having a massive unexplored cave network belching out evil denizens of the dark into the heart of the city could fuel an entire campaign by itself.

... And Not All Sinkholes are Naturally Formed

… And Not All Sinkholes are Naturally Formed


“The wizard closes his eyes and plants his feet firmly. Soon, he feels a spreading warmth rising from his feet flowing up his legs and filling his trunk. There, he focuses his mind on the growing reservoir of mana, willing it into the appropriate shape. Stretching his hand…” 

Every Gamer Knows Where Mana Comes From

Every Gamer Knows Where Mana Comes From

Mana. Every gamer knows what mana is. It’s magical electricity, right? It’s the stuff that powers magic. Thanks to video games, most people call MP “mana points” rather than “magic points” and every Magic: the Gathering player knows you tap land to draw out the mana and use it to fuel your spells. Mana is also present in fantasy literature, apparently first being mentioned by Larry Niven in his fantasy novels in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

So, where does the word come from? You might be tempted to think (given the associate with magic and miracles) that it comes from the Bible. In the Book of Exodus, after the Israelites had escaped Egypt and Moses had lead them into the desert, the people were starving. And the Lord responded by causing manna to fall from the sky. The light, flaky stuff is generally translated as bread and probably comes from the Egyptian word for food “menna.” But that probably isn’t where we get “mana” from.

"I'm glad we prayed for something soft and light."

“I’m glad we prayed for something soft and light.”

Mana is actually a word from several Polynesian and Pacific Islands languages for, get this, magical energy. Actually, some scholars theorize it comes from the name for lightning and thunder. Actually, the origin of the word is a bit more complicated than that and scholars are still debating the origins of the word and what it meant to various cultures across the Pacific. But the word is still a part of contemporary cultures. For some Hawaiians, for instance, mana refers to a spiritual life energy that people and places posesses and that can be built up with a life of purpose and harmony, as Charlotte Berney described in “Fundementals of Hawaiian Mysticism.” (That’s right, an actual reference).

Moai on Easter Island (Also Found on That One Level of Gradius)

Moai on Easter Island (Also Found on That One Level of Gradius)

But let’s go with a more ancient example of mana. Let’s head to Easter Island and talk about the moai. The moai are those giant, oblong head statues built by the Rapa Nui sometime between 800 CE and 1,200 CE. These 900 stone monoliths stand, on average, 13 ft (4 m) tall and weigh about 14 tons (12,700 kg). According to Rapa Nui legend, the stones were empowered with mana and commanded to walk into place. Which seemed like as good an explanation as any.

See, it was something of a mystery, how the Rapa Nui people moved those giant stone heads and put them in place. When explorers came to Easter Island in the late 1,700’s, they found the island completely devoid of trees. In theory, you could construct big rollers from the trees to help move those giant stones. But with no trees, that’s kind of tricky. Some theorized that huge groups of people used ropes to rock the statues back and forth, slowly walking them to their destination. More recently, archaeologists discovered pollen remnants in the soil that indicated that there had been plenty of trees on Easter Island and that the ecology had somehow collapsed, leaving a barren, soil-covered island behind.

"I thought one of the benefits of a pet rock was NOT having to walk it!"

“I thought one of the benefits of a pet rock was NOT having to walk it!”

Even with that mystery solved (or at least buried under mountains of circumstantial evidence, no one today knows why the Rapa Nui built the statues nor what they represent).

Meanwhile, mana, the force of energy that powers magic. In your fantasy game world, what is it? Where does it come from? Is it a natural force or was it created by the gods? Do wizards create it? Do they bottle it up? Or do they simply open themselves up and let it flow through them? What if, as some Hawaiians believe, mana is built up by living a the right kind of life and being in the right mental state? What sort of implications might that have? What if wizards had to keep themselves somehow spiritually pure to be a conduit for mana? There’s all these great world-building possibilities just waiting to be explored.

Of course, if you don’t feel like doing all that world-building crap, you can just beat your PCs to death with giant statues empowered by mana. That’s fun too.

"If you can't gather mana with a harmonious life, you can buy it for 50gp at the Item Shop. "

“If you can’t gather mana with a harmonious life, you can buy it for 50gp at the Item Shop. “