It’s always tough being the new kid in class, particularly if you’re coming from someplace far away. You look different, you sound funny, and the lunch your mom packed is as far from PB&J as one could imagine.
You, my friend are a wilden. Or a shardmind. You are an alien in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and it’s up to you to make the best of it. What we’re going to discuss today is some roleplaying spins, tragic implications, and fun tricks you can pull off using some of the newest races available—which have quite a lot in common besides their freshness date.
For starters, both races exist solely (or originally) to fight aberrations/thwart the approach of the Far Realm. You see, in the rock-paper-scissors game between “Aberration Horrors” and “Reality” it would seem that psychic rock/plant beats tentacle. Go figure.
Both races also have a positively alien outlook, which is sometimes hard to pull off. We’ll work on that much the same way we spoke out against the deva’s façade of piety. Playing a character that’s descended from angels is one thing, but crystals and leaves? That’s a whole different ballpark.
Finally, both races have tragic flaws to overcome that are unique to their experiences, and—I won’t lie—are fun to cash in on. Alien and deeply flawed? Let’s begin.
It’s Hard Being a Shard
Before we get started, it’s important to recount the backstory of the shardmind race. Unlike other races, the narrative fluff here is kind of vital (similar to how a Smurf can’t get away without having an opinion on socialism). On topic:
Once upon a time, there was a magical land called the Astral Sea. Below, the gods and naughty giants were having a big party. Mister Far Realm, filled with tentacles and gibbering horrors, wanted to join all the fun.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the gate to open to the other kids’ yard. The Living Gate said, “You’re not invited, Mister Far Realm, we don’t want your kind here. This is a good place. Relatively speaking.”
Mister Far Realm thought about what the Gate had said long and hard. Then, taking a large hammer, he smashed the holy crap out of the Living Gate and walked inside, where he promptly helped himself to a slice of birthday cake.
That’s more or less how it happened. The shardminds are fragments of the Living Gate that held back mindflayers, beholders, foulspawn, and all other sorts of nasties from the real world. This backstory is important because, according to the Player’s Handbook 3, every shardmind has an opinion on the matter. And why wouldn’t they? Each and every shardmind was born to fight aberrations. This knowledge, their backstory and the fact that there are other shardminds out there, all naturally occurred to a shardmind a priori at some point in their early lives. They can’t escape it. Well, they can’t escape knowing about it, which is an important distinction.
Most shardminds officially fall into one of three schools of thought. Here they are:
Shardmind Philosophy #1: Thought Builder
This is the philosophy that it’s your job, as a piece of the old Living Gate, to create a new Living Gate. Find more shardminds, study hard, and start building a barrier between worlds. Not exactly the best thing for an adventurer, but what’s interesting is that there’s some confusion about whether every shardmind will lose their life energy (die)—or “need to sacrifice themselves”—to complete the new barrier.
Even if it’s the purpose of your birth, I can still imagine free will causing an interesting hiccup. Maybe you’re not willing to sacrifice your life, time, and soul to become part of a sentient barricade. That’s the fun part about shardminds. Not only is it unclear what the right thing to do is, no two shardminds will agree on what should be done exactly. Figuring out your stance on this bit of controversy is ultimately what defines a Thought Builder.
(An interesting footnote here is that according to the lore of 4th Edition, psionics came into being when the first Living Gate broke, letting in creatures from the Far Realm. If the Gate is reconstructed, would psionics fade from the world? That’s an interesting proposition to any psionic character who might not agree with the Thought Builders’ particular philosophy and want to hold onto their mental powers.)
Shardmind Philosophy #2: The God Shard
You? You’re awesome. The Living Gate isn’t dead, it lives on through you! The divine fragment giving you life is the power of the Living Gate, and it’s your job to gather as much power as possible. It’s your birthright! You don’t believe you need to rebuild the Gate, because you and your people are doing the job down on the street (or the forest/dungeon/battlemap/etc.).
Shardmind Philosophy #3: The Shard Slayer
How many backgrounds in the Player’s Handbook recommend a player become evil and worship Vecna, the god of losing pieces of himself? That’s exactly what the PHB3 does. What horrible philosophy could these shardminds possess to push them into the arms of unholy evil? To quote:
You believe that when a shardmind dies, its animating life force returns to the site of The Living Gate, where it shores up the universe’s defenses against the Far Realm’s intrusion. Thus, you seek to kill as many shardminds as possible… You also seek out fragments of the Living Gate that have not yet awakened to sentience, and you destroy them as well, hoping to reduce the number of shardminds that will exist in the Future.
Oh my lord. You’re Highlander.
Now here we get into some shaky philosophic ground: Why is this philosophy more evil than the others—perhaps because it tells you to kill shardminds to help cleanse the universe of evil in the form of aberrations? But wait, that’s a pretty noble purpose! Is there any different than your average adventurer murdering a horde of orcs to save the town from obliteration?
If every time a mindflayer flayed a brain or a beholder death rayed someone, it was the fault of shardminds (or the Living Gate) for not being there, I could see that affecting them after a while. In fact, the only reason the shardminds exist is because the Living Gate failed. Who’s to say the touch of madness from the Far Realm isn’t what gave shardminds their fractured (forgive the pun) philosophies?
A Shard Slayer (i.e., Highlander) isn’t any different from someone playing the Drizzt card: Whether they mean to or not, shardminds are helping the Far Realm simply by being alive. Note: If you do decide to play the Shard Slayer—which I propose is not inherently evil—just make sure your DM knows. Since they’re a new race, shardminds don’t exactly show up as a random bartender in adventure modules (yet), but your DM should be warned that you’ve got a vendetta against your own, exceedingly rare kind.
And just to spin this around: Even if you’re a member of another philosophy, it would still be smart to hunt down all the other Shard Slayers before they got you first. Which, oddly enough, would be exactly what the Shard Slayer would want, since it would still mean less shardminds. Hey, no one said shardmind philosophy was simple.
You might also notice that several of the shardmind philosophies have a little bit of “religious guilt” built into them. Your birth means the Living Gate died for you… and you have a responsibility to live up to the Gate’s sacrifice.
Oh man, let’s move on before this gets to heavy.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Shardmind?
Looking deeper, shardminds don’t wake up in a community. They spend years—according to Playing Shardminds—just working up the strength to become basic Level 1 Adventurers. That’s a lot of time to ponder that a priori knowledge mentioned before without another shardmind’s guidance.
When they finally do meet another shardmind, what if it’s a Shard Slayer who tries to kill them?
Taking into account that shardminds are completely logical (only eventually learning emotions/passions) to the almost Vulcan-like extreme, you have to wonder what they’d walk away with from that experience. All in all, it’s an interesting roleplaying experience. You’re playing a race that exists because of the successful invasion of mindflayers and the like. You’re logical and filled with energy, and if you worked with your own kind maybe you could fix things… except maybe if you and your kind died everything would be fixed.
Of course the inherent flaw here is that the Living Gate didn’t work last time, so why should it again? It’s a fool’s game, something only the God Shard faction seems to embody. Really, do you want to embrace a philosophy that says, “I’m willing to die to prove I’ve learned nothing from the past?”
One question you don’t see asked is also the most obvious: Is mankind (well, humanoid-kind) worth protecting? As bad as aberrations are, an observant shardmind probably can’t help looking around the world and noticing evil everywhere, perpetuated by all manner of beings not from the Far Realm. Where are the gatekeepers against greedy men, corrupting devils, and hordes of goblinoids?
That’s not even to mention the other rumor behind what destroyed the Living Gate: The Gods. Apparently Io, Pelor, and “a god no one can remember/had his name removed from the backstory” jinxed the Living Gate by some sources. A lore-heavy shardmind might want to find out why the gods let in the Far Realm, lest they simply do so again once a new Gate’s in place. And thus, a shardmind might also campaign against the immortals of the heavens as much as the aberrations, depending on how they squint at their own back story.
Trivia Time: While it’s not official, if you look closely at the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide under the Durpar Region, you’ll find an interesting tidbit about a pink crystal (called the Plangent Crystals) that a House is using. Now, I know shardminds come in a variety of colors, but that doesn’t change the fact that most of their art features them in a psychic-energy-is-pink-because-of-Professor-X hue. I only bring it up because “plangent” means (I had to look it up too) “expressing sorrow and woe”—which is exactly how I’d imagine a chunk of a shardmind it was being processed to become a weapon or new limb for an arena fighter.
Function over Form?
Remember that a shardmind is not a humanoid creature. You should be reminded of this whenever they use their shard swarm ability, which isn’t them concentrating to do a trick, but described as relaxing their concentration on being humanoid. Heck, when they fall unconscious they turn into piles of stones! They only mimic human form because that’s the thing they encounter most. Can they change this? If a shardmind rose near an ettin, wouldn’t he assume that two heads is normal? (Or, four legs good, two legs better?) Could a shardmind trying to be extra watchful suddenly grow an extra head? (Warning: I may have been playing too much Gamma World as of late.)
They adapt. Even their ability to choose any skill for a racial bonus illustrates their customizing their own form. So when playing a shardmind, remember to keep things fresh and don’t be tied down to the limitations of mortal creatures. If you take the “Eyes in the Back of Your Head” feat, then that’s exactly what you might have: your “eyes” are arbitrary crystals that you’ve chosen to look out of. Or why not use your headslot items on your elbow, where you keep your “seeing crystals?”
Remember that shardminds are just animated collections of crystals pretending to be in a humanoid shape… potentially just to put fellow adventurers (and players) at ease. Why couldn’t a shardmind rogue use Bluff to reshape himself into modern crystalline art if cornered in a gallery?
Similarly, talk to your DM about using the warforged components found in the Eberron Player’s Guide. Sure, they’re for that other “living construct” race, but the fluidity of the shardmind means they’re no less appropriate. The assumption here is, of course, that you’ll be using crystal as the raw material (which is legit, just look at the axe on the cover of PHB2) instead of steel and wood. A shardmind’s body is merely a temporary arrangement of crystal, easily broken apart and reassembled. Why not capitalize on it with a built-in crystalline arsenal?
Now, while shardminds may be a living construct, that doesn’t mean you should fall back on the warforged “cliché”. Warforged, as living golems, know why they were created. Shardminds? Not only are you only technically alive, you have no inherent link to humanity beyond a need to destroy anything with the aberrant keyword. I’m not suggesting that you become evil… I’m just suggesting that it’s criminal to simplify playing a shardmind down to “being a guy made up of psychic crystal”.
And now for something completely different….
We Am Wilden and We Don’t Use Personal Pronouns
Wilden are the new kids on the block. They’re literally the newest race to pop up in forests across the Feywild to battle the influence of the Far Realm. (Disclaimer: Sure, the wilden are actually from 3.5 Edition, but back then they were known as the “killoren”… and it’s hard to convince your DM that a new race with the name *KILL* in their title is a peaceful non-monstrous race. Good call on the name change, really.)
Problem is, at first glance, the wilden may seem one-note. They’re the embodiment of nature, being plant creatures whose appearance changes with the season. They don’t build cities but relentlessly protect the forests they call their home. They talk like the Borg, (not to make too many Star Trek reference when referring to “alien” races in D&D), refusing to use personal pronouns, and instead believing in the power of their community over being an individual.
Yet all that adds up to a cauldron of interesting story and character ideas if you know where to look.
First off, the wilden are invaders. Look at it this way: Imagine an eladrin noble has been ruling over a mystical forest, using it at his hunting preserve for centuries. If he’s suddenly approached by a tribe of shamanistic plant creatures who declare the forest as their own—how would he respond? Wilden don’t have an understanding of private property, and I can’t imagine an attempt to explain how one owns the forest would go over too well with them.
The wilden aren’t being invited in, they’re literally sprouting up like weeds depending on who you ask. Sure, they protect the forest, but they’re also new—which means they don’t have the lore or experience that a character from one of the standard races might have. They don’t know (per the Monster Manual 3) that they shouldn’t team up with fomorians because they’re evil. They can only assume lumberjacks to be nefarious creatures murdering the forest, because that’s what lies within their realm of experience.
As such, wilden make interesting enemies in a campaign. They’re passionate about their cause, which means they’re all the more dangerous when they’re mistaken or quick to judge. As the embodiment of nature, there’s nothing saying they can’t be as cruel, uncaring, or dangerous… these too are aspects of the wild. I’m sure the self-professed nobles of the Feywild, the eladrin, will be quick to point this out, particularly when you realize that (according to the books) wilden gather in the same Feywild/natural world thresholds where the eladrin prefer to build their mythical cities. One could even imagine an eladrin court taking offense to wilden being proclaimed “nature’s protectors”. After all, wasn’t that their role? Eladrin, unlike the wilden, have centuries of pride behind them and aren’t likely to hand over that title so quickly.
Aspects of the Wild
It’s important to point out now that all wilden are tri-polar, for lack of a better word. After every night cycle, or whatever sleep is for plants, a wilden chooses one Aspect of the Wild: Ancient, Destroyer, Hunter.
When they’re Ancient, they possess the secret lore of ages, making them thoughtful, cautious, and reserved. While embodying the Destroyer, they’re all rage and aggression. When possessed of the Hunter? They become sneaky. Well, that’s my word for it. The text says “secretive and withdrawn,” but you know what I mean.
The point is, these are just above moods and just below personalities in the realm of what makes up your character. While it’s assumed that NPCs often only embody one aspect, I could imagine negotiations going completely awry if the wilden in question exhibited a different aspect whenever they arrived. Not only does the aspect affect their mood and ability to control their temper, but it literally changes their appearance. White eyes and leaves one day, covered in thorns the next, and army camouflage on the third?
On the plus side, wilden are a lot easier to read than people. I can at least look at a wilden and gather whether they’re likely to bite my head off. (Hint: Thorns = Hot Coffee in the face if you’re late with the TPS reports.) The thing is that if you’re going to play a wilden, you really need to decide not only why you left the forest, but also how you feel about technology/civilization and how moody your Aspect of the Wild is going to make you. Remember though, you’re not just a plant. Those cat features are there to remind you that being a child of nature is as much fauna as it is flora. This comes as a surprise to many folks but honestly… did you think there was a kind of flower out there that embodied the Aspect of the Hunter (overlooking Little Shop of Horrors’ Audrey II)? A recent Winning Races article showed how wilden can synch up with the destructive aspect of Nature’s Storms… so when you play a wilden, you’re really half plant, half animal, and half force of nature. Sure that might make you one-and-a-half characters, but it’s an interesting concept to digest.
While the shardminds have a rich backstory heaped in lore and ethical dilemmas, wilden’s main attribute is “They’re New”. Being new, they don’t have an empire, a history, or a stereotype beyond “We’re here to fight the Far Realm and protect the forest”. What do they eat? Do they need some sunlight to survive? Do they send out adventurers into the world, knowing that when they die the seeds within their body will germinate, creating a new colony of wilden? That alone sounds like a hook for adventures… though if they die in a bar fight, that’s going to be a surreal tribe of new wilden.
Shardmind vs. Wilden
I’ll admit that I talked a lot more about shardminds than I did wilden. I think it has something to do with the shardminds having this aura about them that they’ll “never fit in,” and the wilden, given a few editions/years, would end up being pretty chummy with elves/other good critters of the Feywild. But again, those are the traps that it’s your job to overcome.
All I wanted to do here was to throw a few things out there you might not have noticed about the new kids in town. Sure they dress funny, but they’re pretty interesting if you give them a chance. And hey, both will help out if that mindflayer bully comes over asking for your lunch money. Or your brains.