Who doesn’t love playable lizard-folk? Out of all the monster races, they’re the closest to humans. They’re like people, but with scales!
This particular sub-race (although I include some ideas about the base race at the end) is inspired by a race that appeared in Dragon Magazine: the T’Kel. There were a lot of things about the t’kel that were silly, like the constant wearing of masks, but the idea of a formerly brutal race trying to move into a more modern way of interacting with the world is a great one. It’s a conflict that mirrors some of the challenges that we face, in our own society, and I think it could make for some interesting role-playing. As always, I’ve included a set of bonds, a bit about the history, and some thoughts on hacking the race. In my effort to come up with fantasy names that don’t sound silly, I’ve gone with the scientific name for monitor lizard. I know that doesn’t make a ton of sense in a world that never had Latin, but it’s also a world where the Scottish kelpie exists alongside the Lovecraftian sahuagin and Mayan bird-people, so I should probably relax about that, a bit.
In the southern Summerlands, vast rainforests extend from the mountains to the coast, the domain of the varanus. Lizard-like humanoids who scale trees as easily as they walk on the ground, and who blend into their surroundings, varanus vakue speed and cunning, raising their young as warriors from the time they can walk. Their games and art have always centered around their martial dominance of the forests, but times are changing for the varanus. A social movement is sweeping away the old ways. The greatest conflict the varanus face, now, is from within.
For as long as there have been forests, there have been varanus. They began as a minor power, tribes of lizardfolk scattered throughout the rainforest, hunting and gathering in small, isolated areas. Because varanus have no system of writing, no one remembers the name of the varanus who united the tribes and began driving the other sentient races out of the rainforests. For generations, however, the lizard-people have been the only culture that matters. Some sea kin are allowed to fish along the coasts, as long as they pay tribute. Where there are swamps, there are grippli, and no one keeps tunder out, but there is no denying that the varanus are the masters and guardians of the southern forests. Even monstrous races, spider-people and snake-people, were wiped out, the giant statues that can be found throughout the forests the only trace that they ever existed. The varanus treat the statues as holy sites, now, and though the structures are large enough to explore, some hundreds of feet tall and almost as wide, only the most worthy are permitted inside. The forest itself is equally protected – to enter without permission of the forest guardians is to invite death.
The Coming of Sul’ha
For as long as the dragons can remember, the varanus were a vicious people, driving their enemies to extinction. While they had no interest in life beyond the forest, under its dark canopy, their brutal rule was absolute. So it would have remained, if not for the varanus who would come to be called Sul’ha, the Peacemaker. Sul’ha lived in the west, along the water, and her tribe oversaw sea kin fisheries, taking their tax and occasionally hunting the humans for sport. While she was alone on the beach, Sul’ha felt compelled to walk into the ocean, into the arms of a creature more beautiful than any she had ever seen. The kelpie would have drowned her there, had it not been for a pair of sea kin who drove it off with their arrows. They nursed Sul’ha back to health, and the kindness of their people changed her. When she returned to her tribe, she spoke of peace, of living to old age, of a live without bloodshed. It took time, but Sul’ha’s message found an audience, and she drew others to her, varanus willing to fight for peace.
The Great War
Over the past two generations, the conflict between the traditional varanus, ruling the forest with tooth and claw, and Sul’ha’s followers has escalated. While the Way of Sul’ha stresses harmony and peaceful resolution to conflict, it is not absolute. When attacked, the followers of Sul’ha fight back, but when they win, they heal their enemies, and with every battle their numbers grow. The varanus civil war rages on, neither side able to claim victory or complete domination. Many young varanus follow Sul’ha, now an ancient lizard who has survived many assassination attempts, and numbers are on her side. The traditionalists, however, are experienced warriors, some nearly a century old. While the battles rage on, the sides are at a stalemate. Sul’ha’s forces have one additional advantage: she learned the Ritual of Evolution from her sea kin allies, and uses it to both enhance her forces and convince other varanus of the rightness of her cause. It remains to be seen how long it will be before the traditional varanus acquire the means to perform the ritual, themselves.
Most adventuring varanus seek to leave the conflicts of their homeland behind, and strike out into the larger world. An adventuring varanus who follows the teachings of Sul’ha might seek to change outsiders’ perceptions her people, while a traditional varanus might seek nothing more complex than the opportunity sow chaos and destruction. As the war between the Sul’hites and traditional varanus rages on, followers of Sul’ha have begun to undertake diplomatic missions to the other major races of the Summerlands in the hopes both of enlisting their aid and demonstrating that the varanus are becoming something new. Traditional varanus never leave the forests for this reason – they do not believe that they need others to fight their battles.
Varanus are named for great deeds they have done, and varanus names become longer over the course of their life. A varanus’s first name is always “Bakara,” or “worthless,” followed by the name of their tribe. In the clawfoot tribe, an entire generation will be called Bakara Clawfoot, although family units have nicknames for their hatchlings. When a varanus performs his or her first great deed: a successful hunt, surviving a near-death experience, or some other defining moment, the first part of their name is earned, and they are no longer bakara. Make and female names are identical, and additive. Most varanus use only their first earned-name in casual conversation, saving their formal epithet for introductions or important events.
Names: Sikari, hunter-of-fey; Duraka, forest-runner; Tairaka, the water-snake.
Your varanus character possesses a number of traits that reflect your reptilian heritage, and your peoples’ adaptation to rainforest life.
Ability score increase. Your Dexterity increases by 2 and your Wisdom increases by 1.
Age. Lizardfolk can walk as soon as they hatch, and learn to fight not long after. They reach adulthood at the age of 10. Their lives are long, however, and a varanus who survives into old age can live to be more than 100.
Alignment. The preaching of Sul’ha changed the way varanus viewed themselves and the world. Traditional varanus tended towards chaotic and evil alignments, but with the coming of the great peacemaker, varanus alignments began to shift towards lawful and good. This transition, and the conflict it created, is still being felt in varanus society, so while varanus can be of any alignment, that alignment generally determines what side you are on in the great war.
Size. Varanus are short and tend to stand with deeply bent knees and curved backs, rarely reaching their full height of 4 to 5 feet. Your size is medium.
Speed. Your walking speed is 30 feet, and your climbing speed is 20 feet.
Darkvision. The varanus have adapted to the constant tree-cover of the rainforest, where little light even penetrates. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Rainforest Camouflage. You have advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks made to hide in rainforest terrain.
Forest Knowledge. You have advantage on Intelligence (Nature) checks related to the rainforest.
Natural Armor. Your scales offer you a degree of protection against attack. Your armor class is 11 + your Dexterity modifier, as long as you are wearing no armor.
Bite. You are never unarmed. You are proficient with your bite, which is a melee weapon that deals 1d6 piercing damage.
Speak with Lizards. You can communicate simple concepts to lizards when you speak in Draconic.
Warchild: Your people have been at war longer than you have been alive, and you were trained from birth to defend yourself. You gain proficiency in longbows and warhammers (a varanus warhammer is typically a club with sharpened pieces of metal or stone attached to it).
Languages. You can speak Common and Draconic. If you wish to read and write any language, you must use a language proficiency to learn it. Varanus do not have paper or a written language, although they create beautiful and long-lasting art on hillsides, in caves, and on their own scales.
When creating a varanus character form the Summerlands, you can use the following table of bonds to help flesh out your character. Use this table in addition to or in place of your background’s bond or a bond of your creation.
|1||I believe that the way forward for my people is through the teachings of Sul’ha. A better future lies in becoming a more noble people.|
|2||The old ways made our people the kings of the forest. Violence is the only way.|
|3||I will not fight against my own people. There must be someone better in the world that the violence of varanus against varanus.|
|4||The teachings of Sul’ha have inspired me to act as an emissary to another people. I will show them that varanus can interact with other races as equals.|
|5||The forest is the only thing that matters, and I will feed it on the blood of my enemies, and defend it with my life if I need to.|
|6||I want to understand how my people fit in to the greater tapestry of the Summerlands, and I left the rainforest behind to find answers in the wider world.|
Requirement: Varanus lizardfolk
You have undergone the Ritual of Evolution, gaining abilities that connect you to your lizardfolk heritage and abilities that will one day be common to all varanus. You gain the following abilities:
- You can cast animal friendship once per short rest, although you may only target lizards. Any lizard you cast this spell on is considered charmed by you for the duration of the spell.
- In forest environments, you can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without needing to make an ability check, as the spell spider climb.
- When you hit a target with your bite attack, it must make a Constitution saving throw with a DC equal to 10 + your level. On a failed save it is poisoned for 1 minute.
- You can hold your breath for a number of minutes equal to your Constitution score.
Differences between varanus and other lizardfolk
Varanus are a subrace of the lizardfolk, evolved for life in the Summerlands. Typical lizardfolk lack darkvision, have a swim speed equal to their walking speed, and possess the following traits:
Ability score increase. Your Strength increases by 2 and your Wisdom increases by 1.
Hold Breath. You can hold your breath a number of minutes equal to your Constitution score.
Tooth and Claw. You are never unarmed. You are proficient with your bite, which is a melee weapon that deals 1d6 piercing damage, and your claws, which are a melee attack that deal 1d4 slashing damage.
Natural Armor. Your scales offer you a degree of protection against attack. Your armor class is 13 + your Dexterity modifier, as long as you are wearing no armor.
Hacking the Varanus
I expect that I’ll have more lizardfolk subraces in the future, but this is a start. The history and internal conflict can be applied to any “savage” race: orcs, gnolls, even humans: a prophet comes and tries to save the species from its own base instincts. It’s a story as old as stories. The nice thing about playing with this story in fantasy role-playing is that we don’t know how it will end. Will the varanus who follow Sul’ha (an actual Punjabi word meaning “peacemaker,” for those of us who don’t like random glottal stops in our languages) win? Will there be any difference between the old ways and the varanus who follow the “Peacemaker,” who are, after all, waging war to bring peace? How will the other races in the world respond? How will the dragons? Do the reven really want the varanus to get it together enough to pose a threat? Will the dragons see Sul’ha as a powerful enough leader to destroy, or is her doctrine of peace enough to keep them from interfering, for now?
The other thing about the varanus, as a race, is that they’re very portable. Anywhere you have a forest, you might have lizard-people, and lizard-people who can climb and hide make a for a clear, tangible departure from those of the Monster Manual.
For their ritual of evolution, I wanted to pull from the base lizardfolk, but also extend the varanus traits a little. I’m concerned that it might be a little too powerful, but since they can’t get it until 4th level, at the earliest, it should be okay. I thought about making them larger, but 5e avoids large player races, so I’m saving that one for later, and the ritual of evolution is going to enlarge the grippli. I don’t want to use the same trick twice, if I can avoid it.