Wizmos – Dark Matter by Mage Hand Press

The Feywild makes the leap to science fiction in Dark Matter, the sci-fi conversion of D&D 5E by Mage Hand Press, with the impish wizmos.

Dark Matter is a science fiction (or science fantasy) expansion for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition created by Mage Hand Press, and it has the peculiarly hopeful version of a random universe only a TTRPG player could write.

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Mike Holik: When you reach down to your holster to pull out your standard repeater you instead, pull out a banana. You’re not quite sure how it got there, but you hear this chittering robotic laughter come from somewhere behind you and you turn around and there’s nothing there.  Investigating a little bit closely. You come up to a cabin, open it up about a dozen inch-tall little robots that look like they’re made out of scrap and other random material fall out making this chittering noise and they’re carrying your, your repeater blaster and they run into the other room. Following in hot pursuit, you get smacked in the head with pail of water that’s been hung on a string and knocked to the floor. And by the time your vision is cleared and you and you open your eyes, the little scrap robots are standing on top of your chest – chittering and laughing and plotting their next prank.

8 Wizmos scavenge parts from a soda can.

Wizmos artwork from Dark Matter, courtesy of Mage Hand Press.

Lucas: Hello, and welcome to Making a Monster, where game designers show you their favorite monster and we discover how it works, why it works, and what it means. I’m Lucas Zellers.

Self-replicating robots, especially microscopic ones are a fascinating common thread in science fiction stories. You might recognize them in the replicators from the Stargate franchise, the replicators from the Star Trek franchise or the nanite bomb that levels Chicago in the opening of Square Enix’s Deus Ex: Invisible War.

In fact, the most common imagining of nanotechnology in science fiction leads to this so-called “gray goo” event, where out of control nanobots consume all of Earth’s biomass to replicate themselves – first posited by Eric Drexler in his influential 1989 book “Engines of Creation.” Rarely do you find microbots imagined in a way that isn’t interested in replication or destruction – unless, perhaps, you’re on my show.

Mike Holik: Have the monsters on the podcast leaned toward the funny end or more toward the serious end?

Lucas: By percentage, mostly serious.

Mike Holik: Okay then I’ll do the funny one. I wanted to talk about that one more anyway. I’ve got the Wizmos in the book right here. That’s what we’re doing today. Yeah. They’re capricious little scrap robots and I love ’em. I love ’em to death.

I’m Mike Holik. I’m the editor in chief of Mage Hand Press. We also run a blog called Middle Finger of Vecna. I’ve been making 5E stuff for D&D for going onDark Matter five years now, basically, as long as you can be doing that professionally.

But we’ve run two Kickstarters for a really cool, a sci-fi expansion to D&D 5E called Dark Matter. It’s D&D in space. Uh, we didn’t build a new system, we just built on top of 5E so if you want to play a normal barbarian or a normal wizard or a normal rogue, you can. This just sits on top of the core rules and expands it out.

So, you know, magic is very much a real thing. It kind of skews toward sci-fantasy, right? So we built this, this kind of compact little universe, only one new base class, three new skills. So very, very small additions to the overall palette, lots of new subclasses, lots of new monsters, blasters, ship combat, so now it’s this, you know, solid, robust little book.

And we just did now in, in the year of our Lord, 2020, another Kickstarter with a starter kit, very much like the D&D essentials kit that gives you a starter adventure and, you know, a DM screen and all of the other kinds of essentials. So we want to, we want to support this long-term, and we think people need that option in D&D because a, it can be really boring playing fantasy over and over again.

Sci-fantasy taverns abound in Dark Matter.

Sci-fantasy taverns abound in Dark Matter. Image courtesy Mage Hand Press.

Science-fantasy Monsters

Lucas: A good science-fantasy game needs good science-fantasy monsters. And Mike has subverted the “gray goo” pessimism for his version of microbots: the Wizmos.

Mike Holik: Energetic and capricious, Wizmos are little constructs manufactured by a Fey lord to spread disorder and whimsy throughout the mortal realm. Each Wizmo is utterly unique, but all the Wizmos love to get into trouble, conduct elaborate pranks, annoy polite company, and cause minor property damage. Moreover, they do all of these things best when assembled into a little mob. So they are our fun-loving little minions. The tallest Wizmo is a little about half of a can of soda high, and the rest of them were about half that size. So we’re talking an inch, maybe an inch and a half, and they all have different constructions. Some of them have wheels. Some of them have, some of them have feet. Some of them have one eye, two eyes, little robotic spider legs. They’re cobbled together from kind of whatever.

And they all have their own little personalities. And you can always tell they’re nearby cause they’re making this chittering racket. They kind of have a hive mind that just kind of comes from them, shouting back and forth at one another.

The Wizmos bring something to Dark Matter that I think is really important for D&D in general. Too often I think we want to make fantasy and D&D this self-serious grim-dark thing. And that utterly ignores the fact that you play it around a table with your friends, people you like to have fun with and laugh with and have a good time with. So it’s important that your, your fantasy and your science fiction doesn’t have too much of an edge. You want to have fun with the game.

And the Wizmos are just us trying to distill some fun into a package so that you can just disrupt whatever the players were doing. So the, the Wizmos come with two statistics: a regular Wizmo and a Wizmo mob. A regular Wizmo has the trait “Scram,” which allows it to get out of opportunity attacks, and “Hi-jinks,” which allows it to pull a prank.

The mob also is a swarm, but we don’t call it a swarm because it also gets the ability to become a super Wizmo, which is where they all stand on their shoulders and make a little, a little small size, tiny one. So now you have this little robot construct, the robots holding on each other’s shoulders and ankles, because they’re a cartoon and they’re fantastic.

Oh, they can also just swipe something from you. They can just steal stuff off you because they’re, you know, just nonsense.

One Wizmo is like an inch tall, like microbot and then a mob is like challenge 4, because there’s a swarm and they can, they can, you know, especially if they make a super Wizmo they can kind of actually pack a punch

Three robots in a trench coat

Mike Holik: Actually let me talk about another aspect of the Wizmos that’s extremely, extremely fun. The wizmos imprint on somebody. So they go, “That guy’s my master,” and they just follow somebody around and cause havoc around them.

So you’re not supposed to just throw these into the game as a one-off encounter. You’re really supposed to weave these into either someone’s story or make them a companion that does not follow any of their rules when I’ve played, tested them. In the past, I have this big dumb D 100 ball and I give them that and say, this is your whimsy die. When, when you roll high enough, good things happen when you roll low enough, bad things happen.

And I never had any hard and fast rules on this, but the character was followed around by a Wizmo mob. So just things occur and I “DM” around that. And it’s extremely, extremely fun. It expands a character in that sort of way. And I go out of my way to have like, you know, specific, you know, it’s like, Oh, maybe it’s so that they can persistently annoy one person or maybe it’s because they were made by a Fey lord and they have this connection – none of that matters. It’s because it’s fun.

It allows me to like throw them into, into the setting in a more concrete way. And it’s important that your monsters aren’t just throw away a one-off dungeon encounters, right. That you can really weave them into stories. When I, when I introduced the Wizmos, it is usually a sort of standard plot hook thing that makes the players think that something else is happening because normally the wisdom, those are just causing havoc.

So you think your ship is going down because something is wrong with the dark matter engine where reality, it’s just, all the plugs have been rearranged. And later they realized that this is all just a series of elaborate pranks. And then the wizmo will latch on to one player. Normally I try to make it the wackiest player around so that we can kind of expand that out and make them more of an element of the game than an element of that one player’s personality, maybe the attached to the most serious player. At the table and it kind of acts as a familiar or a minion, but one that’s more under my control or more under the control of total randomness, which, which really, really, really take what’s the right way to say this.

Like it’s really under the control of randomness. So it takes a little bit out of everyone’s control and just hands it to the whims of – it hands, the reins of the story to procedural generation, I guess. It’s hard to describe; it’s the reason we roll the dice, right? Like it, it makes the story much crazier in that way, just making it random.

Agents of Chaos and the Role of Randomness in RPGs

Lucas: What do you think about the wizmo’s, in particular, makes them effective at filling that role?

Mike Holik: I, I like to be entertaining when I DM as much as I possibly can. I don’t just want to tell a serious straight face store and you can probably get that from, you know, my entire thing. I put a cantrip in this book called finger guns, if that gives you a sense of what wavelength them on. It’s pretty good. So I like having the ability to inject them levity whenever I want. And also to pull small swerves on the players. I’m not like pulling away their entire, their entire deal to, to, you know, railroad them down a particular track. But sometimes I like to be able to say, yeah, you don’t have a firearm because of the wisdoms replaced it with the banana.

That can be fun or the bad guy he’s coming after you. And the reason he doesn’t catch you is because, you know, he slips on an entire hallway that has been covered in oil because of Wizmos. My Discord likes to joke that if something in the universe doesn’t make sense, it’s probably because the wizmos, I guess?

Mike Holik: It gives you a really good, you know, it gives you a lot of fuzzy room as a DM to play with stuff and to just have fun with that and to not have everything be, you know, deep lore and factions and serious NPCs with motivations.

Lucas: Yeah. Why do you think players enjoy that in the game?

Mike Holik: That goes back to why we play D&D, right? We want to hang out and have fun. And if you’ve got somebody at the table who is, you know, going to be constantly cracking jokes – they’re like that sort of person, right? – it makes sense to bring elements into the game that magnify that. If you’ve got a character that is, you know, very serious and very plotting, like they play their character like a strategist, it makes sense to give them, you know, allies, cohorts that they can, they can command around. Games are good at magnifying what we bring to them. Role-playing games have a real magic for that. So, so this is an element that we’ve put in the game to magnify levity, and, you know, every element we put into the game – players, monsters, whatever they all, they all work together for this tapestry that kind of – multiplies what we put in.

I think that’s the fun of role-playing games and the front of board games as well. Right. You’re putting in the work to make fun. And it’s what you put in that, that comes out. So, so some of these elements are just like, “Oh, this does one specific thing, but it does it really, really well.”

And that’s, that’s important. It’s important to recognize that you need all of those elements. You can’t just have an entire setting. That’s. Boring. You can’t have an entire setting. That’s comedic. You need all of the elements to make something that’s really special.

How Gygax Influenced Monster Studies

Lucas: We’ve talked about them being a sort of embodiment of chaos, a tool for levity, and lighthearted. There’s no malice there, but they’re not necessarily helpful. What does that tell us about the world we live in?

Mike Holik: The wizmos are most definitely a reflection of things just being chaotic sometimes. I think in the year 2020, I don’t have to elaborate on that, not to date your show too much, but. Yeah.

When things aren’t under your control, like, you know, people have created “fey” creatures and, and boogeymen, and, and, you know, actual folklore to explain when things are just wild and they, they don’t correspond to the way things go usually day to day. So the wizmos are really, really this tacit endorsement that things just happen in the background and you don’t have control over specific elements of your world.

Like certain things might just act up and always be chaotic. You might always have to tend to them, or they’ll just sweep in every couple of days and do something. And you know, whether that is a storm or one person you work with that, that isn’t, isn’t predictable at all. Or, you know, you know, a wolf coming in and stealing a sheep. I guess the wizmos are an endorsement that chaos is like a fundamental part of dealing with life.

I guess they’re also, they’re also in a way of integrating that in a way that is palatable. Because if you just go, “This is a chaos beast and then it causes bad things,” then you know, it’s something to be defeated. It’s something to be conquered, but it’s not something to live with. And you don’t conquer chaos. You don’t conquer unpredictability, you live with it and you try to find comedy and levity in it because part of the human condition. So there’s a reason we find, you know, impish pranksters in our histories and in our legends. It’s it’s because we try to find those things funny rather than fundamentally harmful.

Loki in Norse mythology is a prankster, and a villain in most cases, but we find something charming about that. We find something fun about that. We don’t look at him and go, he is the arch enemy of all the Norse gods, because like he is in the lore, he’s actively working against them almost all the time. He was a prankster. We think that’s funny. We dig that. Yeah. If there’s something there’s some part of humanity that wants to go, “Yeah. We can live with chaos. It’s kind of funny. We’ll joke about it.”

Lucas: All right.

Mike Holik: We’re getting deep into philosophy. I don’t know how much this will take.

Lucas: I think that’s about the bottom, but that’s – that’s why I’m doing this show is because each monster gives us a handle to put on all of that baggage and a way to carry it around.

I’ve discovered since I started that there’s a whole field of literary analysis based on monster studies, which by the way, makes me feel incredibly under-qualified to be doing this.

Mike Holik: Oh, and D&D specifically has hijacked that entire field. It has taken so many monsters that have ingrained histories, like the kobold, a sprite of Germanic folklore, is now a dog-dragon, because Gygax said so.

And it’s changed forever, that’s like the dominant understanding of what a kobold is. And you’ll never regain that in the world, but it’s a way of, I mean, it’s the way things are. And humans like to take these things and adapt them and change them throughout time. I, this is going to be a really great podcast I can’t wait to listen through all of them.

Lucas: Thanks. Yeah, it’s a microcosm of all history that we’re, that we’re getting to actively participate in and see develop at this lightning speed.

Where to get Dark Matter by Mage Hand Press

My guest is Mike Holik, editor in chief of Mage Hand Press. His monster? The Wizmo. If you want to play D and D in space, here’s how.

Mike Holik: You can get Dark Matter – and the Wizmos inside that book – at Mage Hand press dot com and we just finished our Kickstarter, but you should be able to find a link to a pledge late or just download the PDF of the book is out there and you can play it right now, right away.

Lucas: Regular listeners to the show will know my guests often offer free downloads for the making of monster audience. And this week’s bonus content may be the most fun I’ve shared yet.

Mike Holik: I have a one-page RPG called Wizmo Havoc, because we love the Wizmos so much, we made a random one-page RPG, which I haven’t actually playtested yet, but it’s like, you know, these have such a clear mechanical thrust that we went and made a one-page RPG about rolling as many dice as you possibly can. You’re all playing a Wizmo and you’re trying to work together to create enough shenanigans to save the ship from a threat real or imagined.

Lucas: You can get Wizmo Havoc on the show’s website at scintilla.studio/monster that’s S C I N T I L L A dot studio slash monster. All you have to do is trust me with your email address. I won’t crowd your inbox, but you will get access to this and other subscriber incentives from Making a Monster guests.

Some great folktronica music by Wintergatan

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The music you’re hearing in this episode is called Starmachine2000 by Wintergatan. Bandleader Martin Molin is designing engineering and manufacturing and machine to play music with marbles from scratch. It’s an inspiring journey of creativity and perseverance in the age of social media. So check it out on YouTube or at Wintergatan.net. Martin released a pay-what-you-want license for his music because he believes music is for everyone. And it’s how I’m able to use this track, this perfect track for the show.

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Next Episode: The D’vati with creator Talon Dunning

The D’vati are a truly bonkers race option from an earlier edition of Dungeons & Dragons and the Planescape setting that allowed you to play two characters at once.

Talon Dunning: Okay. Go for it.

Lucas: Dvati appear elven due to their slight build, but the resemblance ends there. They have snow white skin, thick black hair that is rather difficult to cut, and solid blue eyes that seem to lack irises or peoples. Their noses are almost nonexistent, having only a pair of small slitted nostrils that protrude slightly from the face. Their shapely and graceful hands have, but three fingers and a thumb. Yup.

Mike Holik: It’s pretty wild, huh?

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