Queen Of The Minor Key (2020)

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The Plane of Ash: We Are Not Shadows


This post is part of the "Atlas of the Planes" Project. Come and stop by our announcement page here to view the full list of planes, the sign up sheet, and links to other posts of the project.

“Wrath is a natural reaction. It commands ‘change’ in roaring defiance of that which time hath delivered.”
Death, as herself

“Ash is the antithesis to Art.All tablets, arches, scrolls, scribbles, and stages fear the flames. Of that soot-tipped eraser. The greedy flames had a tendency to eat , you see, not only words and deeds, but those who would remember both.Perhaps this is why literature and other art forms shy from depiction and description of Ash. Sure, they embrace the fire, an analogy for will, or love, or knowledge; but to grip the hard truth of a handful of soot? The after ashes destined for an urn, or a scattering unto the wind? This is a greater talisman of the taboo. Search the libraries, the galleries, the temples, and you will see many vehicles of stories centered round the fire, the furnaces, the fuel, the soldiers… but to the Ash, the soot, the cinders left behind? ‘Tis a rare recognition, indeed.The dragon in the room boils down to one’s belief, which one carries at will or at heart, and it is this: do you consider Ash to only ever be a symbol of death? Of nothingness? The end of a great blaze, the last rotten chunks of skin to a carbon skeleton, adrift in the wind?Or…Do embers remain, perhaps even still lit and floating in the air?”
  • Essay on Ash, by Warlock Hiros’ma Nagasi

Table of Contents

This post was made using Google Docs. As the post currently exceeds the Reddit character limit (59,841k / 40k), it is recommended to view this content via the link here.

Exposition [Textbook, AKA The Only Floating Star Wars Text] 5
Cast: 6
Flora Table 9
Sports 11
Cannon Monster Table 11
Fauna Rebrew, Monster Manual Table 12
Fauna Rebrew — An Ecosystem of Smoke based Prey 13
NPCs Combat Encounters 14
Factions 22
City-States, Towns, and Villages 23
Sports Rivalries 30
Agendas, NPC Table of Personality Traits 34
Prominent Locations 39
Generic, frequent locations 41
Planar Escapes 42
Flight — Four Final Defog-mations 42
Additional Notes 44
Artifacts 44
Relics 46
Homebrew Class Paths 47
Druid — Circle of Smoky Horizons 47
Ranger — Scorched Earth Archer 49
Rogue — Harbinger of Arson 51
Fin — Dedication and Thanks 53


“When an adventuring party wipes, who's to say the BBEG didn’t whip out a molotov cocktail or Fireball spell at the last minute?”
Death, tapping her nose, or lack thereof
Exposition [Textbook, AKA The Only Floating Star Wars Text]
  • Except for Archmage Zythor’s Compendium of the Planes
The place of Ash borders the Planes of Radiance, Dust, Ice, Magma, and indirectly, the Plane of Fire. While this plane is not an eternal resting place, it does transition the souls of the burnt to their next plane of existence. Reaching this plane can be achieved semi-permanently through death by fire, either through arson, cremation, civilian war crimes, natural disaster, or martyrdom, be it holy or a witch-hunt. Travel can be temporarily reached during the vigil and process of cremation, as well as a variety of botched attempts to travel to Elysium.
Objects and beings are not born on the plane of Ash. Instead, they are smoky reflections of what once existed on the Prime Material World. Permanent structures are uncommon throughout the grey wasteland, though settlements and ruins exist, usually through the replication and reconstruction of former buildings reforged with blocks of cinder ash, or cinderblocks. Additionally, many objects such as books, furniture, and relics destroyed by fire are found to have approximate mirrored replications within the Plane of Ash.
When speaking of structures, it is vital to discuss the layers of the Plane of Ash. The foundation of the plane rests on a bed of either ever-burning, smoldering, and / or dormant embers. While rarely in close enough proximity to the surface to provide light or heat, persistent shovelers may easily uncover the ore of living fire — even finding embers the size of boulders, mammoths, or giants. This is the UMBERLAND, the under-embers, and footsteps echo like soft crunches in the snow, as footwear treads on the scorched and fragmented remains of old tree rings.
The middle layer is a swirling vortex of smoke and soot, named ASPHYXIC. Wielders of higher intellects and temperaments are able to fly at will to, from, and within this layer, without flap or engine, simply by pointing their gaze in the direction they wish to persist. While largely free of structures, travelers must beware the sudden spire, cliff-face, or scorched husk and trunk of towering redwoods. Some regions have also reported strange black wires in the sky, though these legends of some sort of steampunk or spectral sky-spider are largely considered ridiculous by scholars. The weather of this layer remains plagued by updrafts, downdrafts, tornados, and oceanless-hurricanes, though never with precipitation. A unique bio-arcane lifeform in this layer, whose association thus far escapes explanation to scholars, is the appearance of sharks in the ashen sky, prowling between the smoke clouds.
The uppermost layer is mostly theoretical. Loss of direction is common in the layer of Asphysic, and external guidance is required to reach the horizon above the smoke. Portrayed as serene and filled with the dim glow of stars at twilight, the layer is conjectured to border a higher plane. Suggestions include Mount Celeste, a likely contender; the plane of dust, a realistic probability; the planes of steam or lightning, according to the world axis of light and heat as proposed by the Sorcerer Dejo Lee; and as an underdog theory, perhaps the intoxicating plane of Elysium. This layer is referred to as SHO ’ EL.


“Hey, hey, easy. You must be dead, for you to be crying out loud, carrying about like this. What did you expect, orientation? Get a hold of yourself. Take a walk. You might find another fallout spirit willing to listen for a spell. But really now, I must be going. As you can hear, someone else has just burnt to a crisp.”
Death, as herself
“Thank the Moon for Darkvision, that’s a start. The spells GoodBerry, Light, and Daylight saw immediate use. Once, we came upon a traveling warlock, whose daemon companion possessed true sight. Pandjed saw this as ingenious, and pursued study of the spell.”
Damakos, Tief. Druid
“Breathing was difficult, even through my helmet’s visor. We tore some cloth from our spare clothes, and fastened them around our mouths and faces. I had to take off my helmet, and in the two minutes it was off, my face was covered in grime, and I felt the layer coat my skin like plaque against my tongue along the metal. The air tasted like a dirty piece.”
Naeris Nailo, half-elf Paladin
“We mistranslated the word apocalypse. It is not the end of the world or plane. It is a great unveiling, a revelation. The world continues.”
Seraphina Hilltopple, halfling translator
“In Brave New Colony, there were many abandoned shops and houses. As we reached closer to the center, we began to see other people among the falling ash. Their very skin seemed made of ash, though they maintained their race and complexion from whence they originated. Some neon graffiti could be seen in the alleyways. One of them spelt “FREE HK,” and it was flanked by two animated suits of scorched armor. I asked a shopkeep about it. Apparently baffled by my ignorance, the racist, he explained they were the initials of the Ashman, that he was imprisoned, and would say no more.
Therai, Teif. Rogue
“COULDN’T SEE A [censored] THING!”
Pandjed, Db Bard

Flora Table

Name Region Abundance (1 low - 5 high) Use
Awakened Redwood RF 2 Sages of Lore, Forest Guardians, Mildly acidic / poisonous bark
Fallout Fern RF, SD 4 Bioluminescent, including underwater
Creeping Spaniard Ivy SD, SB 3 Used in high quality rope, as well as quipo accounting systems
White Ash Cyprus DV 3 It’s bark is said to prolong life among mortals, as well as produce a calming buzz to entities of ash
Conifers of Cinder SC, W 5 Lumber, durable
Black Pine SD 5 Lumber, brittle
Singed Elm SD, SB 3 Makes durable bows, sacred drums, and remains the de facto lumber used in airship construction
Anleaf Bush G, SD, W 4 A long burning wood favored in incense production, highly insect and disease resistant. Mild acidity yields a light pesticide, often dissolved with body fat to produce caulking.
Scorched Shrub SC, DV, W 4 It’s berries come in several spice varieties, and are used as paint. Subspecies include caffeine, cocoa, nutmeg, and hazelnut.
Hollow Oak G, W 2 Acidic to livestock, favored in fences guarding gardens. Makes durable weapon hilts and bows. Favored wood for storing alcohol.
Withered Willow SD, RF 2 Painkiller Bark, Prevent Soil Erosion
Ash Rose SB 1 A rare herb used in many jealously guarded alchemical recipes. It’s use is underplayed to the uninitiated.
Twilight Coral (3-5 sub-species) G, DV 3 A general herb used in alchemy, often as a bonding agent, especially key when combined with acidic ingredients.
Fallen Leaves (mutated flora-insectoid hybrids) G, W 5 Pests of mild nutritional value. Flavors are surprisingly varied, and are a favorite of culinary experts.
Whitecap W, RF 2 A mushroom capable of bio-degrading calcium. It’s known in alchemy to increase one’s resistance to Ice and cold.
Bark-Clingers RF, SD 5 A mushroom mostly used for its edible flavor and nutrition. Many specimens grow to be quite large, some growing as long as forearms.
Snowshroom G 4 A mushroom containing many anti-oxidants. Used in alchemy to soothe nausea, reduce headaches, cramping, muscle bruising and tension. Mild hallucigan.
Needleshroom SD, SC, W 3 Extreme Hallucigan. Mildly toxic to many races. Used in Alchemy for manic insight. Also used by some local religions.
Blackcap DV, SB 1 A mushroom capable of boring through chitan. An extreme pesticide. It is known in alchemy to increase one’s resistance to Fire and Heat.
“What do you mean, there isn't any vegetation on the Plane of Ash? Have you seen all the things we smoke and burn?”


“When a soul incarnated in ash dies, it disintegrates in a cloud of ash. It reincarnates near a token of its identity on the plane, such as it’s home base of operations, it’s most prized possession, or it’s most treasured loved one. An important distinction to make, in understanding this reincarnation, is that the Plane of Ash seems to be a transitional plane from a minor afterlife to a greater afterlife, perhaps only accessible through passing the barrier of Sho’El.”
  • Conrad Ungin, wizard of the bio-arcane
Please refer to P / R / F / C for sporting rivalries and descriptions.
  1. Ballcourt (PMW Meso-Americana)
  2. Ash Polo (Sludge Water Polo)
  3. Aerial Lacrosse (held in ASPHYXIC layer)
  4. Improv Bowl (Intellectual, Artists)
  5. Cinder Disc Golf
Cannon Monster Table (see doc).
Fauna Rebrew, Monster Manual Table (see doc)
Fauna Rebrew — An Ecosystem of Smoke based Prey Table (see doc) (covers Appendix A, pg. 317-341)
NPCs Combat Encounters -- Table (see doc)
For a table on Locations*, see Travel. Some of these locations are given expanded descriptions in this section.*
Disclaimer: No Ash was harmed in the making of this text. Much, however, was produced in the process of.
Key: (Q): Quest; (E) Explore; (SQ) Sidequest

  1. Black Pyramid (SQ)
“It’s full splendor stays veiled behind smoke clouds. Hints of it’s dark majesty are mirrored in the interior, though even the spirits of the dead dare not study it, for in the near infinite dungeon like depths, that which eternal lies, and it is said that some abominations can not truly die, even by the cosmic inferno that set this plane asunder. What remains of the victims of these abominations is only the anti-matter of the void, conveniently beyond my own jurisdiction.”
  • Death
  1. Grey Lake (E)
“It is a dead sea. A truly, truly, intentionally dead body of water. Oxygen and light do not penetrate it’s depths. And freed of thirst, the beings of ash will find little incentive for either venture or adventure along it’s shores. This is perhaps less true in the present, with the recent discovery of the Grey Lake Scrolls, and the book of San Waking.”
  • Seraphina Hilltopple

  1. The Tarred River (E)
“Here you will find no Charon, no ferry. One might say it is a pale reminder of what water was, is, could be, were it not for the singed sentiments polluting it’s purity. Such a reclamation would require legions of druids. And those — thankfully, I suppose — are rare indeed on this plane. For now.”
  • Damakos

  1. Sheldon Theater (Q)
“The fiery hearts of actors — I’ve stopped saying actresses — are often found in unlikely places. Most of us are actors, in our own way, behaving according to how our ancestors wrote the lines of the great cosmic play we find ourselves in. This theater itself is in the middle of nowhere, and yet it somehow draws a full house for every show, even though both the audience and actors are a bunch of perceived hill-billies, nomads, and vagabonds. How spectacular; and how tragic, in its fall to the flames of bigotry and hate.”
  • Pandjed, Db Bard

  1. Throne of the Second Wind (Q)
“It was here that San Waking (San’Wa King), lord of the monkeys, was pinned under a mountain for five hundred years by the Jade Emperor. Following his pilgrimage of redemption with a mortal monk in his Journey to the West, the immortal ape returns to the plane of Ash to judge wanderers he deems commendable. He has been rumored to advise the living on how to return to the Prime Material Plane.”

  • Tsenu Odiwun

  1. Burnout Dugout (SQ or E)
“Some monks and clerics perpetuate that it is faith before action that guides one’s path to the Light. If that’s true, these addicts are some of the most holy do-nothings in all the planes. Light it up, I guess, in our so-called den of hippies and thieves.”
  • Therai

  1. Silverwing Bat Colony (E)
“The tribal shaman kindly requests that nothing be burned in the cavern, so as not to disturb their neighbors on the ceiling. Their guano turns rather fiery when they’re annoyed. Best leave the sleeping bats lie.”
  • Eagin Sungarain, meteorologist

  1. The Library of Lex Andrea (Q)
“Little is known of the Lex Andrea Empire, other than their hieroglyphic depictions of the Clockwork Gate, contact with the Netherese, and the Plane of Steam. The Empire fell midway through the second age to an apocalyptic catastrophe, which turned their lands to blackened swamps and radiated deserts. At least, that is what is known to Prime Material Worlders. The location of this legendary library is not yet known, but accounting for the historical records, and the laws governing the plane, its existence is all but confirmed.”
  • Conrad Ungin, wizard of the bio-arcane

  1. Dragon Graveyard (SQ)
“Leave sleeping Dragons lie. This goes double for a Dracolich.”
  • various

  1. Monastery of Ash (E or Q)
“As the cavalry of conquerors crossed the western sea, the ninjas of Torii looked to their grandmaster for guidance. The monastery had heard the news of these wars in years past, and of their exponential, disproportionate violence. Grandmaster Lee brandished a torch, and held it to the walls of his own domain, he said ‘they have not burned their own ships, yet they will not hesitate to burn our own homes — and so we must outdo their determination.’ As the blaze spread, it is known that some monks chose to reenter, and perish among the flames. So began the Great Conqueror's War to maintain our newfound appreciation of independence.”
  • Therai

  1. Circle of the Witch-Hunt (SQ)
“Led by the cries of ‘It’s all just a witch hunt, It’s all just a witch hunt,’ cults of inquisitors form around many a demagogue. At first glance, it’s perhaps ironic that they too fall to the flames. But you must remember, the plane of Ash is not a refuge for the moral or informed, that is, enlightened, but for all who burn. At best, it’s a timeless refuge where one may still attain these traits. At worst, it is akin to Carceri, or Tartarus, where a riot has broken the peace between guard and detainee. On this hilltop, their political ring of stones is occasionally assaulted by specters of these hags derived from their own personal, psionic paranoia.”
  • Seraphina Hilltopple

  1. Coven of the Wyrd Sisters (SQ) (Terry Pratchet, full animated video available online for free.)
“The Wise Woman Ny’alana Moore taught me several lessons, a few of which I even remember. The first was that the older one got, the less magic they tended to use. The second lesson was that there comes a point where rules must be broken. And that there was a kind of spell that triumphed over magic in a different way, and that was the way of words. She also divined the location of my teenage journal reincarnated on the plane of ash, which my mother the dragon-queen Tethis burned in my youth.”
  • Pandjed

  1. Vaporized Facades of Wrath (VFW) Post 451 (E)
“If only laying the dead to rest /was as easy as cremation.”“If only peace could replace this battle fatigue /my only sacrifice -- a single burnt offering /Charred bones spread among the ash /Could they, would they, if only, reignite”
  • Panjed

  1. Slaughterhouse Six — (E)
“Near an abandoned city lies this building within a meat shipping center. Notable spirits have been disappearing around here for weeks, and unless there’s been some sort of second wave of religion I don’t know about, I don’t think they’ve ascended. I passed a wandering Pilgrim raving about the Cult of the Djinni. Can’t say I’ve heard of them”
  • Damakos

  1. Brave New Colony (E or Q)
“BNC is the main hub of the Ashen wasteland — both the Geechago Central School and Sheldon Theater are landmarks there. As far as landmarks can go in a plane of smoke. The citizens there are largely of a decent alignment, with notable outliers. A small faction broke away to form the New Richmond suburb, though recent reports indicate that it’s been pretty much destroyed.”
  • Tsenu Odiwun

  1. Redwood Maze (E)
Vermin is a broad term. Many imagine them as only rodents, but it encompasses almost all wild animals, including insects, worms, and parasites. In many societies, the term may refer to people.”
Seraphina Hilltopple

  1. New Richmond Town Hall (SQ)
“They called us what? Dead? Honey, not only has that ship sailed, it was burned by savages on another world. Sure we’re dead, but the jury’s still out on where we’re at.”
  • A reply to Therai

  1. Dridma Royal Palace (E)
“No señor cook, you don’t quit, you’re fired! What’s that? The Chief of Staff resigned? But that’s the tenth one in three years! Well get an acting employee to fill the position for now. What’s that? A crystal ball call for me? Oh, hey [REDACTED]. Hey, you had my back with that testimony, right? Oh yeah? Well [bleep] you too, you [bleep] Sonderland!”
  • Anonymous Noble

  1. Geechago Central School (E)
“‘Who conceived of the attack?’ I bellowed, my bow’s length pinning him to the wall outside. ‘No, fuck that. Who said to torch the place?’ And the little twit had the nerve to roll his eyes. ‘You cannot judge us,’ he self-righteously replied, before looking skywards and somehow slipping from my grasp, as he rapidly launched upwards. With hardly a twitch of effort, he ascended with such speed and precision, on such a straight trajectory, the likes of which I'd never witnessed before.”
  • Naeris Nailo

  1. Ocean Avenue (E or Q)
“Bartender, another round. Bard, another song. Friends, another hug. Tonight, we feast like it’s Valhalla.”
  • Veteran


Professional and Belief-Oriented Factions
Materialist’s Haven
  1. Cinderblock Concrete Alchemists
  2. Artifact Accountants
  3. Newground Engineers
  4. Big D Construction
  5. Bull Market Stock Trade Guild
Academy of Manifests
  1. Circle of Many Pantheons
  2. Alt-left Archaeologists
  3. Theater Troupe Union
  4. Cinderblock Artists of Inscription
  5. Word of Mouth Writer’s Guild
Governing Bodies
(KS) Keepers of the Soot (imperial bureaucrats)
(GD) Grey Deji (grey jedi)
(MCC) Mushroom Cloud Confederacy (indegenous)
(RBC) Raiders of the Burnout Crusade (pastoral nomadic pirates)
City-States, Towns, and Villages Table (see doc)
Sports Rivalries

  • Ballcourt (PMW Meso-Americana)
    • One Hoop in center of the ballcourt, fixated 15 feet from ground along wall
    • Special cinder block flooring for ground stability
    • Foam-like mats along the walls to prevent injury, slows down ball movement
    • Very difficult to bounce the heavily weighted ball, esp. off of mat rebounds
    • Universally favored sport across the plane
    • Relevant Stats: STR, DEX, CON

  • Ash Polo (Sludge Water Polo)
    • Central Net across playing field
    • Primarily held in towns and villages boasting docks
    • Some locations boast artificial urban “pools” in landlocked regions
    • Primarily favorite sport of mid or upper socio-economic class
    • Relevant Stats: CON, DEX, STR, as well as capital investment

  • Aerial Lacrosse (held in ASPHYXIC layer)
    • J.K Rowling wasn’t that original — no broomsticks needed
    • Favorite sports of races bearing a short stature (gnomes, halflings, dwarves)
    • Arenas are filled with boiler-powered fans to defog field of view
    • Beams of light mark hoops, upper and lower limits, and horizontal out-of-bounds
    • Relevant Stats: INT, CON, STR

  • Improv Bowl (Intellectual, Artists)
    • Trivia games (history, theory)
    • Favorite sport of academics and performers
    • Timed rounds, generally 3 teams per round, up to 18 teams in a gauntlet (9 standard)
    • Known as Knowledge Bowl in PMW
    • Relevant Stats: INT, WIS, CHA

  • Cinder Disc Golf
    • Calling the sport “Frolf” will result in lifetime ban in many settlements and courses
    • Favorite sport of the impoverished classes, despite mild investment and equipment turnover (losing discs)
    • A highly scenic sport, with spectators welcome to view in the ASPHYXIC layer with minimal exhaustion
    • One of the more weather prone sports, with allowances of gusts and debris to impede “athletes”
    • Relevant Stats: WIS, STR, DEX (tee off)

Rivalry Table (see doc)
“Riots fill the streets. Arson be the smoke signals of the mobs' parades. The Playoffs must be over. Now, once more, the Plane of Ash is filled with Fire — Walk with Me.”
- Therai, Harbinger of Arson Rogue subclass (homebrew)

Agendas), NPC Table of Personality Traits (see doc)

Inspired by Sid Meyer’s Civilization 6, and DLCs
The geography of the plane resembles a crossroads. A misconception of the plane is that the place remains incarnated as pure ash, pure darkness. Not even death wishes life as so easily snuffed out. Are not the planes of lightning and steam at their darkest a dim grey?
As such, the travelers and inhabitants either live a nomadic,diasporic lifestyle, or live subterranean lives akin to hibernation below the smoldering ruins of once great cities. The four regions are as follows:
  1. (U) Umberlands — Default, including four subregions, as follows:
  • (U-RF) Redwood Forest (leafless)
  • (U-SB) Sediment Basin
  • (U-W)) The Whitecaps, a mountain range
  • (U-SD) Sludge Delta, where the Tarred River forms an Ashen Marshland
  1. (SC) Sunset Canyon — Borders Plane of Radiance
  2. (G) Greywaste — Borders Plane of Ice
  3. (DV) Duerma Volcana, aka, Ridge of Craters — Borders Plane of Magma
Prominent Locations Table (see doc)
Generic, frequent locations Table
Name Location Category: RPG, Dungeon
Scorched Towers of Lore all both
Razed Theaters SD, SB, RF, G Dungeons, small
Blackstone Amphitheaters DV, W, SB RPG, events, encounters
Netherese Greenhouses SB, G, DV, SC RPG
Firewatch Towers (Stations) (shelters) SB, W, RF, G both
Watchtowers SB, RF, G, DV Dungeons, small
Whitepaint Mineshafts SC, W Dungeons
Ruined Temples all both
Toppled Steeples all both
Singed Sepulchers all both
Ghost Town all Dungeon, surface
Mostly Abandoned City all both

Planar Escapes

“Regardless of how the information is gleaned, there are four logical directions of escape from the Plane of Ash: through the three planar border regions of Sunset Canyon (Radiance), Greywaste (Ice), and Duerma Volcana (Magma); a fourth is thought to exist about the Whitecaps, in the upper atmospheric layer of Sho’El. Of these routes, only two seem survivable to living entities existing on the Plane: travel to the Greywaste by means of expedition, and travel to the Sunset Canyon in hopes of divine intervention. The puzzle of it boils down to one’s thermal resistance to ice and fire. Travel to the Plane of Fire or Magma usually leads to one’s incineration, unless in a spectral form or under powerful Magiks. And travel to the Plane of Ice is often as equally deadly. If there is a fourth escape above the Whitecaps, it seems reserved for the dead.”
  • Conrad Ungin

“The only escape we knew was through the Greywaste.”
  • Therai, Damakos, Naeris Nailo, and Panjed

Flight — Four Final Defog-mations

Exhaustion: “All living and spectral entities suffer 1 level of exhaustion for every ten miles they travel this way, refreshing upon a long rest.” [Hardmode: refreshing only 1 level of exhaustion per day.]
Conrad Ungin
Skill Check: “...Comparable to those required to cast Fly. I.e. 5th level wizard, 6th level sorcerer, 13th level rogue, 9th Ranger, etc. Note: fly does not require specific classes to access on this plane. Only “Wielders of higher intellects and temperaments are able to fly at will,” eg. spellcasting modifier (CHA, WIS, INT). Specialists of the modifiers STR, DEX, and CON may still cast flight with approximately a +2 modifier. Final homebrew ruling.”
Eagin Sungerain
Survival: “The largest threats to the living include atmospheric inhalation and encounters. Those, and sudden cliffs or towers. Pay attention, and don’t daydream.”
Encounters: “By the sound of those screams, it seems that little runaway twit forgot about the Ash Sharks and Sky Spiders.”
Naeris Nailo

Additional Notes

Cannon materials from the 5e DMG and Player’s Handbook, with their currently rumored resting spots.
Artifacts (Table) (see doc)
Relics (Table) (see doc)

Homebrew Class Paths (3) Druid, Ranger, Rogue

Druid — Circle of Smoky Horizons

Druids of the Circle of the Smoky Horizon are active conservationists. While other circles may favor a certain environment, or bend to the whims and needs of a species or apex predator, this circle actively attempts to preserve all ecosystems as they are, despite the inevitable change brought by cycles of the natural order. In doing so, they strive for harmony and negotiation before all other recourses.
Not all attempts at pacification are successful — in combat, a CotSH druid prevents environmental harm and sacrifices healing utility in order to end a conflict swiftly. They may invoke spells to repair the landscape and their party outside of combat, though while in the thick of it, they create temporary spectral mutations to their original or wild shape form. They may still wish to cast earth, magma, or root-based spellcasting, though their mutations lend aid to their desires of self-harm before external harm.
DISCLAIMER: This homebrew attempts to compete with the Circle of the Moon and Circle of the Shepherd in terms of tier list rankings covered by Youtubers “Dungeon Dudes.” [citation: youtube.]
Peace Pipe: At the 2nd level — as your party and opposing humanoids roll for combat, you attempt to renegotiate, passing a peace pipe of tobacco to all members of the encounter. You gain a bonus of +5 to your initiative roll, and all non-undead entities within a 120ft radius sheathe their weapons upon a lower initiative roll than your own. Opposing enemies may likewise attempt to coerce their aggressive allies into compliance, or choose to exit the encounter individually. Shapeshifters, such as metallic dragons, may attempt to revert to their humanoid form, based on the DM’s interpretation of compliance.
Spectral Claws: At the 2nd level, you learn to mutate your forearms to replace your fingernails or similar appendage to grow spectral claws, adding 1d5 damage die to successful melee attack rolls. You gain 1d6 die at the 6th, 10th, and 14th level. Spectral claws are only considered magical by DM discretion.
Thick Skin: Beginning at the 6th level, you gain the passive ability to mutate your skin with a scaly, earthly (mud, rock), or crystalline substance. You gain an AC rating of +3. Additionally, surprise attacks against you are made with disadvantage.
Horns: Beginning at the 10th level, you learn to mutate your head with ashen horns or tusks, which vanish outside of combat. You gain 2d12 damage die, which you make seperate attack rolls for, as an additional double-swipe free melee attack. These horns are considered magical weapons.
Wings: Beginning at the 14th level, you learn how to mutate wings, which are granted 20 temporary hit points and can only be targeted with magical weapons. As a bonus action, you may attempt to grapple a target, lifting them up between 5 to 25 feet. Grappled targets may only be subject to successful attempts on targets equal to or smaller than your original or wild shape form.
Circle of Land Update — Table
Environment: Volcanic (Umberlands)
Druid Level Circle Spells
3rd Gust of Wind, Feign Death
5th Scorching Ray, Gaseous Form
7th Dominate Beast, Polymorph
9th Counter Spell, Leomund’s Tiny Hut

Ranger — Scorched Earth Archer

Description: The Scorched Earth Archer hears the sacred drums of war and shoulder their spears, javelins, and polearms to answer the call. These rangers have a predisposition against mages, save for druids and clerics, often seeking justice or vengeance against a sorcerer, warlock, or wizard for a past spellcast gone wrong. As such, they are sometimes nicknamed “mage hunters” by the common folk of the PMW.
In combat, a scorched earth ranger utilizes their proficiencies with long handled ranged weapons, as well as drawing their blade tipped staves as melee weapons. Polearms may become a necessity in situations where a mage successfully calls a barrier or ward to discourage their missiled shots. While refusing to cast direct damage spells, a ranger may still cast spells of utility from the Driudiac schools of magic to gain an advantage. This subclass of ranger additionally draws upon Psionic energies in their secular crusade against harmful magics, though perhaps guided by — or swearing fealty to — a deity of the wild or natural order.
Psionic Missile: At the 3rd level, rangers gain a variant of the Magic Missile spell, retyped as Psionic energy. In opposition to gaining additional darts per expended spell slots, an additional dart is added at the 7th, 9th, 13th, and 17th levels. The number of times a SE ranger may cast Psionic Missile is congruent to the number of 1st level spell slots they currently have available at their level, per long rest.
Psionic Enchantments: Beginning at the 7th level, your non-magical weapons may be imbued with the choice of 1 out of 4 augmentations, which you may switch upon a long rest, requiring a 1 hour ritual. Your spears, javelins, and polearms are now considered magical weapons once they are enchanted in this way. Alternatively, you may choose to retype this damage as a sacred fire, causing fire damage against non-magical creatures and humanoids.
  • Binding Stake: Your ranged or melee attack forgoes damage in an attempt to mimic the spell Hold Person. The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be pinned in place for the duration. At the end of each of its turns, the target can make another Wisdom saving throw. On a success, the target breaks free of the stake pinning them or their clothing to the ground. The ranger may continue to make other attacks on rounds while the target is successfully staked in place, with the target remaining under the effect of the Restrained condition. Usable twice per short rest.
  • Psionic Rain: Your next 3 shots are made as wisdom saving throws in place of attack rolls. On a successful target of origin, a damage roll of 2d6 is made against enemies in a 10 feet radius. Upgrades to 2d8 at the 11th level and 2d12 at the 15th level. May trigger kinetic releases of energy on explodable or flammable environmental targets within range (i.e. gunpowder, HoA Rogue’s Flame Javelins). Usable twice per short rest.
  • Psionic Spears: The damage of the Psionic Missile ability is doubled to (x)d8s.
  • Concussive Shot: Rapidly fire 3 shots of blunted point tips against the target’s head as one action. Each shot has its own attack roll, and requires an additional +2 to succeed against a smaller subtarget of accuracy (e.g. you are no longer going for body shots). Each successful shot adds one level of exhaustion to the target, mimicking the effect of a concussion, up to a maximum exhaustion level of 4. Usable twice per short rest.
Spell Evader: Beginning at the 11th level, gain a passive bonus of +5 to all spellcasting based saving throws, but not against a creature’s legendary actions.
Conjure Shield Guardian: At the 15th level, once per long rest, gain the ability to conjure a shield guardian made of psionic energies, lasting for 5 rounds before dissipating.

Rogue — Harbinger of Arson

Description: The harbinger of Arson rogue specializes in civilian rioting, whether through the instigation, suppression, or prevention of said mob rule. The HoA rogue is not necessarily an anarchist, but rather a political or religious extremist. The leave negotiations to others as a whole, while still utilizing their charisma to recruit the like-minded to their cause. Assuming them to be a one-man army with or against a melee mob would be erroneous, as many policing forces deploy HoA rogues to assassinate the key targets of an embroiled riot, often attacking at a range in the shadows before leaping in to secure the mission.
In combat, HoA rogues observe from the shadowy outskirts and vantage points before announcing their attack with a Spear Banner, perhaps following after a decisive sneak attack. These banners rally or provoke a mob outbreak by the banner’s predetermined coat of arms, inciting others to join in on their political or religious cause. They may continue their attack from a distance or elevation with the Flame javelins, or leap into the battle fray relying on their dexterity. Additionally, they may use their flame javelins to mark or light flammable environmental hazards and boundaries, augmenting their encounter to their favor by means of zoning, smoke signals, direct or collateral damage through a successful arson spread.
Spear Banner: Beginning at the 3rd level, the rogue plants a banner as a bonus action, or launches it from a range of up to 60 feet. While in it’s range, this banner adds 3d6 die to the rogue, which may be expended as a bonus to landing attack rolls. These die are treated similarly to the superiority die of the Fighter Battle Master’s subclass, where a rogue regains these die after a short rest.
Flame Javelin: Beginning at the 3rd level, gain 3 charges of a fire-typed ranged attack of javelins, causing 2d12 damage on successful attack rolls. Alternatively, you may attempt to use your javelins to hold a target in place, replacing your attack roll with a dexterity saving throw and forgoing damage to non-cloth AC ratings (leather, mail, scale, plate). Regain your charges of the flame javelin ability upon a short rest.
Riot Paver: At the 9th level, you ignore all melee attacks of opportunity by tiny, small, and medium humanoids, as well as domesticated creatures (DM’s discretion on the latter).
Mob Maker: Beginning at the 13th level, your Spear Banner forces all onlookers and bystanders within a 120ft. radius to make a wisdom saving throw against joining the fray with bloodlust. Targets of bloodlust gain a +5 bonus to their initiative rolls, and act as conjured minions for the purpose of control by the rogue. After 3 rounds, the minions make another wisdom saving throw, whereby they may break free of the rogue’s commands of control (and go off looting), choosing to flee, or continue to fight of their own volition. Usable once per long rest.
Fireball Finisher: At the 17th level, you may cast the spell Fireball as if you have 2 spell slots of the appropriate level, regaining these charges upon a long rest.

Fin — Dedication and Thanks

Thank you all so very, very much for reading. May we all play together some time in another life.
submitted by foen7 to DnDBehindTheScreen


New York Times - The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far)

The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far)
Chameleons or beauties, star turns or character roles these are the performers who have outshone all others on the big screen in the last 20 years.
By Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott Nov. 25, 2020
We are in a golden age of acting — make that platinum — as we realized when we decided to select our favorite film performers of the past 20 years. There’s no formula for choosing the best (just squabbling), and this list is both necessarily subjective and possibly scandalous in its omissions. Some of these performers are new to the scene; others have been around for decades. In making our choices, we have focused on this century and looked beyond Hollywood. And while there are certainly stars in the mix and even a smattering of Oscar winners, there are also character actors and chameleons, action heroes and art-house darlings. They’re 25 reasons we still love movies, maybe more than ever.
25. Gael García Bernal
MANOHLA DARGIS When Alejandro González Iñárritu’s thriller “Amores Perros” and Alfonso Cuarón’s road movie “Y Tu Mamá También” were released in American art houses a year apart, the shocks were seismic. Their directors were soon racing toward international renown and so was Gael García Bernal, their shared star. He was gifted, held the screen and had a face you kept looking at, partly because — with his doe eyes and lantern jaw — it seamlessly fused ideals of feminine and masculine beauty.
This contrast wasn’t especially obvious in “Amores Perros” (2001), but it helps enrich the warmer “Y Tu Mamá También” (2002), a soulful coming-of-age story that opens with a whoop and ends on a sigh. García Bernal plays Julio, a working-class teenager on a journey of discovery (of the self, of others). Along with his best friend (played by Diego Luna), Julio tumbles through life heedlessly until he doesn’t. As the story’s raucousness quiets, Julio’s adolescent machismo fades, replaced by pensiveness that the actor makes so physical, you see the character retreating inside himself.
By 2004, García Bernal had appeared in Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” as the young Che Guevara and played a duplicitous chameleon in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Bad Education.” Almodóvar put the actor in heels to play a noirish femme fatale, a role that García Bernal apparently didn’t much like doing so but that deepened his persona with a smear of lipstick and a psychological coldness that created new shocks.
A. O. SCOTT In Pablo Larraín’s “No” (2013), García Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a hotshot young advertising creative in 1980s Chile, with his usual charm. He’s cool but not intimidatingly so; good-looking in the same measure; funny but not to the point of obnoxiousness; self-confident but not a jerk. At first, it’s easy to underestimate both Rene and García Bernal, to mistake their casual, unassuming naturalness for a lack of gravitas or craft. Rene is enlisted by a group of opposition political parties to produce television spots supporting a “no” vote on a referendum extending the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Rene’s job is to sell rejection as an upbeat choice, to acknowledge the brutality of Pinochet’s regime while focusing on the happy future without him. Though Rene believes in the cause, he also views it as a marketing challenge, and there is a bit of a “Mad Men” vibe to his wrangling with clients, colleagues and rivals.
It’s up to García Bernal to provide the dramatic link between the banalities of the media business and the terror of political repression, and he does it almost entirely with his eyes. One night, the apartment he shares with his young son is vandalized while they sleep, and in that moment Rene’s chipper resolve liquefies into pure fear. The next day he is back at work, and both he and the audience have a new and profound understanding of what the work means.
24. Sônia Braga
MANOHLA DARGIS I just recently rewatched “Aquarius” (2016) for our ode to Sônia Braga. For those who haven’t seen it: Braga stars as Clara, a writer whose apartment faces the Atlantic. Most of the story follows Clara just living her life while swatting away her landlord. Braga fits seamlessly into the director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s wonderful, unfussy realism. This time while viewing the movie, though — partly prompted by, ahem, a chapter title called “Clara’s Hair” — I noticed how Braga kept rearranging her opulent curtain of hair. And, as she swept it up and let it down, I realized that Mendonça wasn’t just presenting a character but also the legend playing her.
A. O. SCOTT It’s a reminder — subliminal and brazen at the same time — that Braga was a big deal in Brazil and beyond in the 1970s and ’80s, her nation’s answer to Sophia Loren. Her films with Mendonça (“Bacurau” this year as well “Aquarius”) draw on that history and exploit her old-school charisma. But they aren’t just late-career star turns. Clara isn’t Sonia Braga: She’s a highly specific woman with her own history of achievements, love affairs and regrets. But only a performer with Braga’s utter self-assurance, her heroic indifference to what anyone else thinks of her, could bring Clara to life.
DARGIS Yet what I found fascinating about “Aquarius” this time is that Clara is alsoBraga, in the sense that the character’s meaning is partly shaped by everything that Braga brings whenever she’s onscreen, including her history in Brazilian cinema as a woman of mixed ancestry as well as her adventures in Hollywood. There’s something fantastically liberating watching Braga play this majestic woman, who has visible wrinkles and never had breast reconstruction after her mastectomy. That’s especially true given how Braga was once slavered over as a sex star. “There is nothing else to call her,” a male critic once wrote — well, you could call her an actress.
SCOTT Her skill manifests itself in a totally different way in “Bacurau” this year, a crazily fantastical (and violent) science-fictionish allegory of Brazil in crisis that departs from the realism of Mendonça’s other films without abandoning their political passion or their humanism. Braga, part of a sprawling ensemble that includes nonprofessional actors, is essential to this. She plays Domingas, a small-town doctor with a drinking problem and a sometimes abrasive personality — a deglamorized, comical role that no one else could have managed with such depth and grace. Or as Mendonça put it, “In a symphony, she’d be the piano.”
23. Mahershala Ali
A. O. SCOTT Mahershala Ali has one of the great faces in modern movies — those sculpted cheekbones, that high, contemplative brow, those eyes tinged with melancholy. His presence on camera is magnetic, but also watchful and sly. His characters tend toward reticence, guardedness, but their reserve is its own form of eloquence, their whispers more resonant than any shout.
Ali has won two Oscars for best supporting actor. The first was for “Moonlight” (2016), in which he quietly demolished a durable Hollywood stereotype. Juan is a drug dealer, a figure of community destruction and implicit violence. What defines him, though, is his gentleness, the unconditional kindness he bestows on Chiron, the young protagonist. Juan listens to the boy; he answers his questions; in one of the film’s most moving scenes, he teaches him to swim.
And then, between the first and second acts, he vanishes. But Ali haunts the film even after his departure. He’s both its tragic, nurturing image of manhood and the first man worthy of Chiron’s love.
MANOHLA DARGIS Ali first got my attention in the Netflix series “House of Cards.” He played Remy Danton, a Washington lawyer whose knowing little smile could flicker like a warning, signaling the danger in his world. Remy entered in the second episode in a scene at a restaurant, where the lead character, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), is eating with two other power brokers. Remy doesn’t stand over the seated men, he looms. You know Underwood is bad news, but when the director David Fincher cuts to Remy’s face, Ali abruptly changes the temperature by dropping his affable facade for skin-prickling wariness, making it clear that he isn’t talking to a man but to a predator.
I was so accustomed to seeing Ali in a bespoke suit (and sometimes out) that I didn’t recognize him at first in “Moonlight.” It wasn’t simply the different wardrobes, but the precise bearing that Ali gave each man, variations in bodies, yes, but also in how those bodies move and signify. In “House of Cards,” Remy flows and there were moments when I thought I was looking at the next James Bond. In “Moonlight,” Ali creates a titanic character whose force, even after he disappears from the movie, continues to resonate. The actor creates a very dissimilar character in “Green Book” (2018, his second Oscar winner), this time with a performance — as the musician Don Shirley, whom Ali plays as a man and a defended fortress — that surpasses the movie.
SCOTT I would almost say that the performance is the opposite of the movie. Ali is graceful, witty and self-aware while “Green Book” is clumsy, jokey and blind to its own insensitivities. I’m not sure any other actor could have handled the notorious fried chicken scene with such sly dignity. That “Green Book” and “Moonlight” were both best picture winners speaks to the contradictions of our cultural moment, but it’s proof of Ali’s talent that his subtle craft and unshakable charisma can anchor two such divergent films.
22. Melissa McCarthy
MANOHLA DARGIS When critics anatomize comic performers like Melissa McCarthy, we often touch on familiar qualities like timing, grace and elastic physiognomy. But we’re also talking about acting. Since making the transition from TV to movies, McCarthy has repeatedly demonstrated her range and exhilaratingly helped demolish regressive ideas about who gets to be a film star. No movie has served her better than “Spy”(2015) in which she plays Susan, a timid C.I.A. analyst who’s sent on an outlandish mission that allows McCarthy to mince and then delightfully swagger.
Essential to the subversive fun of “Spy” is how it deploys genre conventions to showcase McCarthy’s talents while also blowing up stereotypes. Susan contains multitudes, first as self-protection (she dampens her fire) and later as an expression of her humanity. In the field, she unhappily assumes several frumpy, tragically bewigged disguises — variations on how others see her — before transforming into a sexy, trash-talking fantasy of her own design. As Susan lets down her hair and inhibitions, McCarthy cuts loose. Her voice booms, her fluttery hands ball into fists, her Kewpie-doll face goes full-on Medusa. McCarthy isn’t playing one woman — she’s all of us, with a vengeance.
A. O. SCOTT Lee Israel is funny. She shares a fast and furiously aggressive verbal wit with some of McCarthy’s other creations, like Tammy in “Tammy” (2014) and Mullins in “The Heat” (2013). But Lee was a real person, and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”(2018) isn’t exactly a comedy. It’s not quite a biopic either, but rather a highly specific slice of late-20th-century New York queer and literary life threaded through a misfit buddy picture and twisted into a caper film.
Lee is not easy to like or root for. She’s abrasive, self-absorbed and self-sabotaging. She alienates friends and maintains as tenuous a grip on ethics as on sobriety. McCarthy resists turning her story — which involves trading a faltering career as a writer for a lucrative stint as a forger of famous writers’ letters — into a parable of recovery or redemption.
It’s about how Lee and her sidekick (the wonderful Richard E. Grant) gamble on survival, rebelling against the fate that an indifferent world has prepared for them. The movie’s title poses an honest question. Maybe you can’t forgive Lee for her lapses and lies, her lack of consideration for other people’s words and feelings. But there’s no way you can forget her.
21. Catherine Deneuve
In a lengthy career working with a who’s who of auteurs, Deneuve has stood for a certain kind of elegant Frenchwoman whether she’s playing an ordinary wife, a down-on-her-luck bistro owner or even an Iranian mother. For that last role, in the animated “Persepolis”(2007). Deneuve voiced a character based on Marjane Satrapi’s mom. We asked Satrapi, who directed the film with Vincent Paronnaud, to explain why she sought out Deneuve.
If you live in France, Catherine Deneuve is the symbol. When I was growing up, she was the dream. She always made choices that were too advanced for her time, more anarchist than bourgeois. She has always looked like a very bourgeois Parisian woman, which is absolutely not true. She is a rebel who looks like a grande dame.
The first time I met Catherine Deneuve was like meeting God in person. I was so impressed. And yet, I had to direct her, and I didn’t dare tell her a thing. The first two hours, I was completely paralyzed, and she calmed me down. She told me, because she’s a very generous woman: “You’re the director and I’m your actress. Tell me what to do and I will do it.” She didn’t do it in front of other people. She said, “Let’s go have a cigarette,” and she said it to me privately.
For the character of the mother, I needed to have someone who is not this eternal mother who is very lovely, because this is not my mom. My mom is a very lovely person but she is like: “You do this. You do that.” I needed somebody who had the power of a woman that wants her daughter to [make her life] better and be more emancipated. Catherine Deneuve has this way of talking that is not playful, because she doesn’t try to be likable. She’s very frank. When she talks to you, she looks straight into your eyes.
She doesn’t try to be likable. She’s very frank.
There is this scene when I come home and my mom starts yelling at me: “You know what they do with young girls in Iran? You have to get out of this country.” I remember when she played it, she was a little bit off. She tried to contain herself as she normally does. I was like, “No, Catherine, you’re really out of your mind.” She did it and she actually cried. That was extremely moving.
And still, after all these years, each time I see her, I have the heartbeat. She is like a lion. She is not loud, she does not make gestures. But even if she is behind you and you don’t see her, you feel that a feline is in the room. It feels at the same time very exciting and very dangerous. She is ferocious and she is fearless, and I love that about her. — Interview by Kathryn Shattuck
20. Rob Morgan
A. O. SCOTT The great character actors are masters of paradox, at once indelible and invisible. You don’t necessarily recognize them from one role to the next, but they leave their stamp on every film, enhancing the whole even in small parts.
If you saw “Mudbound,” “Monsters and Men,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”and “Just Mercy” — four movies released between 2017 and 2019 — you are aware of Rob Morgan, whether or not you know his name.
As a death row prisoner in “Just Mercy,” he is a notably undramatic presence, a quiet man haunted by remorse, helplessness and fear whose plight encapsulates the film’s humanist argument.
In each of the other movies, he plays a father, in the Jim Crow South and the modern urban North — a man who knows more than he chooses to say. The sons in those movies do most of the talking, but Morgan gives eloquent expression to experiences that lie outside the main story even as they ground it in a larger history. In “Last Black Man” he appears in a handful of scenes and utters just a few lines, but everything that movie is about — the pleasures and disappointments of life at the margins of an idiosyncratic, rapidly changing city — is written in his face. He listens, he chews sunflower seeds, he plays a few chords on an old pipe organ, and after a few minutes in his presence you understand exactly what you need to know.
MANOHLA DARGIS Every so often, a small movie gives an actor a chance to go bigger and hold the center, which is what Morgan does in Annie Silverstein’s “Bull” (2020). He plays Abe, a former rodeo bull rider with stiff joints, blood in his urine and a fragilely held together life. His bull riding days over, he now works on the ground as a bullfighter, helping protect fallen riders. The role of Abe, mercifully, isn’t overwritten, which allows Morgan to define the character with a persuasively embodied performance, one whose head tilts, sideways looks and withdrawn presence expresses a bruising past and the self-protecting instincts of a man in emotional retreat.
“Bull” should be only about Abe, but it instead focuses on his relationship with a white, rootless 14-year-old neighbor, Kris (Amber Havard). Their fates sourly cross after she’s caught trashing his house, and is shaped by the unearned optimism that’s foundational to American cinema. In other words, Abe and Kris save each other. What saves the movie, though, is the window Morgan opens onto the Black cowboy and how the performance complicates America’s favorite myths, including the figure of the hard, stoic loner. Abe doesn’t ride in from John Wayne territory; Abe rides in from an entirely different land that Morgan makes visceral, haunted and wholly alive.
19. Wes Studi
Wes Studi has one of the screen’s most arresting faces — jutting and creased and anchored with the kind of penetrating eyes that insist you match their gaze. Lesser directors like to use his face as a blunt symbol of the Native American experience, as a mask of nobility, of suffering, of pain that’s unknowable only because no one has asked the man wearing it. In the right movie, though, Studi doesn’t just play with a character’s facade; he peels its layers. A master of expressive opacity, he shows you the mask and what lies beneath, both the thinking and the feeling.
He shows you the mask and what lies beneath.
Studi vaulted into cinematic consciousness as the vengeful Huron warrior in Michael Mann’s epic “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), a character the actor conveys with powerful physicality and intensities of contempt, impatience, resentment, fury. Doing a lot with a little has been a constant in Studi’s movie career, which includes signifying roles in “The New World” (2005) and “Avatar” (2009). Like many actors, he has done his share of forgettable work, made exploitation flicks and TV fodder. Often specifically cast as a Native American, he has played Geronimo and Cochise; he might right more film wrongs if westerns were still popular. And if the industry were adventurous, he might also play more types like the supervisor of a homeless shelter in “Being Flynn” (2012), a man who doesn’t wear what Studi calls “leathers and feathers.”
Instructively, he wears neither in Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” (2017), about life and death in late-19th-century America. Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk, a dying Cheyenne prisoner whom the federal government has agreed to return to his ancestral lands. The movie is largely interested in his escort, a war-ruined Indian hater played by Christian Bale, the star. Once again, Studi delivers a supporting turn that complements the leading performance — his character’s indifference to the escort’s rage is a wall that can’t be breached — and helps equalize the story’s balance. Yellow Hawk has survived long enough to die on his terms, survival that Studi makes a final act of self-possession.
18. Willem Dafoe
The actor has been a vital presence in movies as different as “Shadow of the Vampire”(2000) and “The Florida Project” (2017), for which he received Oscar nominations. He was also nominated for playing van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s biopic, “At Eternity’s Gate” (2018). We asked Schnabel why he turned to Dafoe.
Willem and I met more than 30 years ago. He has always lived in the neighborhood, and we had a lot of friends in common. Oliver Stone was shooting “The Doors” in New York, and we were standing around the set one night and that was the first time we really started to talk.
One thing that’s super-important is he’s a very generous actor. He cares about other people’s performances and about helping them by being available in whatever he is doing. He’s very, very loyal and very, very smart. If you’ve got somebody who’s smart, they can make it better.
He’s a very generous actor. He cares about other people’s performances.
[For “At Eternity’s Gate”] I needed somebody that would have the depth of character to play van Gogh. And it wasn’t about just looking like him. It was somebody that could have enough life experience to be that guy. People thought, well, Willem is 60 years old, van Gogh was 37 when he died. That was irrelevant to me. You just have to have a hunch about trusting somebody and thinking that they can do something. I trust Willem implicitly. And that level of trust goes both ways.
There’s stuff we shot in Arles after he arrived that we couldn’t use. He was wearing the same clothes, had the same hairdo, but he wasn’t the guy yet. Then there was a certain moment when all of a sudden he was. He was transformed, transfigured. He was somebody else.
One of my favorite scenes is where he’s talking to the young Dr. Rey, who is seeing him after he’s cut his ear off and he is guaranteeing him that he’s going to get to paint when he’s in the institution. That interaction is extraordinary, what Willem does there. He’s basically sitting at a table and there’s not a whole hell of a lot of room for movement. But what goes on in his face in his response to what the young doctor is saying to him — and also in response to whatever other thoughts seem to be traveling through his mind at that time — is a landscape of events and an interior life like foam coming to the top of a vanilla egg cream. — Interview by Kathryn Shattuck
17. Alfre Woodard
In a just world, there would be a bursting roster of great performances to fill this entry, a collection of matriarchs, romantic heroines, divas and villains to reflect the full range of Alfre Woodard’s gifts. Such roles are always in short supply for Black women, but even in small parts in minor movies or television series, Woodard is an unforgettable presence, at once regal and utterly real.
The two films that have given her the most room — Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”(2013) and Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency”(2019) — both place the question of justice front and center. In each, Woodard must assert her character’s dignity and ethical integrity in the face of impossibly cruel circumstances. Bernadine Williams, the prison warden in “Clemency” whose job includes supervising executions, finds her professionalism increasingly at odds with her humanity. In “12 Years,” Mistress Shaw, an enslaved woman whose relationship with a plantation owner has brought her a measure of privilege, has bargained with a system built on her dehumanization.
Woodard’s art, her commitment to truth, is what you see.
The contradictions that Bernadine and Mistress Shaw contend with are larger than any individual. What Woodard does is make them personal. Self-control is a matter of survival, and Woodard sets her face into a picture of proper decorum, impersonating the genteel Southern lady or the efficient bureaucrat that the situation requires. She doesn’t so much let the masks slip — except perhaps in the devastating final scenes of “Clemency” — as show the cost and care that go into wearing them. The characters are also performing, playing their roles for mortal stakes, and Woodard’s art, her commitment to truth, is what you see in the space between how they seem and who they are.
16. Kim Min-hee
In Hong Sang-soo’s “Right Now, Wrong Then” (2016), a woman and man meet. They drink and drink some more and testily part ways only to meet in the movie’s second half as if for the very first time, a setup that evokes “Groundhog Day.” Once again, they go to a cafe, a studio, a restaurant. Yet while their actions generally remain the same, as does the overall arc of the evening, enough has changed — how they look at each other, the inflections in their voices — to turn this second encounter into something different.
Kim Min-hee’s exquisitely nuanced performance is at the center of the movie, and the actress herself has been at the heart of Hong’s work ever since, appearing in most of his ensuing movies. An established art-house auteur, Hong tells modestly scaled stories that are formally playful, sensitive to human imperfection and drenched in soju. Familiar things happen, sometimes unfamiliarly. Repetition is often a narrative focus, one that is grounded in life and beautifully served by Kim’s lucid expressivity.
In Hong’s minimalist canon, life is condensed in everyday moments, in conversations and the way bodies lean toward one another. The differences in the two halves of “Right Now, Wrong Then” reveal new facets of the characters and create new tensions between them. They also give free rein to Kim’s range, allowing her to play with intonation, gestures, flickering looks. Yet while the movie’s two sections feel like variations of the same story, her performance feels more like it’s coalescing as — smile by smile, with deflected and fixed gazes — Kim gathers the character into a whole.
She goes big and small, veers from monstrous to mousy.
She went for baroque in Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” (2016), her best-known movie. In this outlandish, often perversely funny drama set in Korea in the 1930s, she plays a Japanese noble who’s saved from her deviant uncle by her wiles and by another woman. The story’s flamboyant excesses and narrative twists allow Kim to use every tool in her workbox. She goes big and small, veers from monstrous to mousy, and alternately hides her character’s feelings and lets them run amok. Her body rocks and her face distorts as fear and pain give way to ecstasy and release. The character is a mystery that the movie teases but that Kim deliriously unlocks.
15. Michael B. Jordan
Michael B. Jordan has played lawyers, athletes and superheroes, but even before his range became clear, the director Ryan Coogler wanted to work with him. Coogler has made three features (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed” and “Black Panther”) and Jordan stars or co-stars in all of them. We asked the director to explain just what it is about the actor that draws us in.
I met Mike in 2012 when I was doing research and working on the script for “Fruitvale.” He was who I decided would be best for the role before I met him, based on the other work that I’d seen him do — a couple of movies that year, “Red Tails” and “Chronicle,” and a bunch of stuff in the TV space. But I thought that he could play Oscar. He looked like him, but also what I saw was this ability to make you empathize with him. Not all actors have this thing, when you immediately care about somebody right offhand and that triggers an empathetic reaction. He had that. He also has a very advanced tool kit as an actor.
What I saw was this ability to make you empathize with him.
He’s been in all the feature films I’ve done. And I keep casting him because he’s the best person for the job. “Creed” [2015] had another character I thought he could play well. Before Mike was an actor, he was an athlete, back in elementary school and high school. He had played athletes on TV, the most famous being on “Friday Night Lights,” so some of the things we knew his character would have to do in “Creed,” Mike felt right for it. It was a part of him that wasn’t a big reach.
And [in] “Black Panther” [2018], with him and Chadwick facing off and going toe to toe, it felt like an event. Their stars were rising. They were both leading men by the time we shot that movie.
Now, what’s exciting about us getting older in the industry is getting to work together in different capacities. He’s doing a lot of stuff behind the camera now. And we have some opportunities to work together beyond actor and director.
He’s very ambitious in a way that’s endearing. He always wants to push and challenge himself further. And that comes across in his performances, but also in the business sense. That ambition keeps him open-minded. He watches everything and doesn’t want to cut himself off from certain genres or opportunities. So I think the sky’s the limit for him and his career. — Interview by Mekado Murphy
14. Oscar Isaac
A. O. SCOTT While I can take or leave the recent “Star Wars” movies, I do have a fondness for some of the characters, in particular Poe Dameron, the resistance flyboy who is the third trilogy’s designated charmer. As Poe, Oscar Isaac is an appealing, easygoing presence in those movies, a guy who seems to know what he’s doing.
His characters aren’t always as lucky, or as sure of themselves, but the man himself operates with the precision of someone who is confident enough in his skills to push himself into risky new territory. The summer before “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) was released, Joel and Ethan Coen told us that they had originally wanted to cast a well-known musician in the title role. Instead, they found Isaac, who told them (according to Joel) that “most actors, if you ask them if they play guitar, they’ll say they played guitar for 20 years, but what they really mean is they’ve owned a guitar for 20 years.” Isaac could actually play. When I think about what makes him so credible as an actor, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Not because it’s such a big deal to play guitar, but because whatever Isaac is pretending to do onscreen — selling heating oil (in the underrated “A Most Violent Year,” (2014); inventing sexy robots (in “Ex Machina”); flying X-wing fighters — I always believe that he really knows how to do it, and that I’m watching some kind of authentic mastery in action.
MANOHLA DARGIS When actors make a profound first impression, they sometimes get bound up with your ideas about what they can do. After “Llewyn Davis,” I associated Isaac with soulful defeat, with an undercurrent of grudging resentment. A few other roles shored up this idea of his innate mournfulness, including his performance as a besieged mayor in the HBO series “Show Me a Hero” (2015). This partly has to do with his broody, romantic looks and how his brows frame his luxuriously lashed eyes. And then there’s his voice, its pretty sound but also how its resonance creates intimacy. Even when he puts nasal in it, his voice retains a quality of closeness, one reason it often feels, sounds, like Llewyn is singing more for himself than the audience. Isaac’s voice also softens his beauty, drawing you in. Sometimes, though, as in “Ex Machina,” he uses that intimacy for something insinuating, sinister.
Isaac has a supporting role in “Ex Machina” (2015), but he’s vital to its vibe and power. He plays Nathan, a Dr. Frankenstein-like tech billionaire involved in artificial intelligence who’s building (and destroying) beautiful female androids. A savagely critical stand-in for today’s masters of the digital universe, Nathan could easily have dominated the movie. Isaac instead keeps his own charm in check, letting the character’s creepiness poison the air. Nathan’s mercurial moods and surprising looks — his shaved head and full beard, eyeglasses and cut muscles — make it difficult to get a bead on him. But when he suddenly boogies down, executing an amazing dance, Isaac lays bare all you need to know about Nathan in the geometric precision of his choreographed moves and the madness in his eyes. It’s 30 seconds of pure genius.
13. Tilda Swinton
MANOHLA DARGIS The woman of a thousand otherworldly faces, Tilda Swinton has created enough personas — with untold wigs, costumes and accents — to have become a roster of one. She’s a star, a character actor, a performance artist, an extraterrestrial, a trickster. Her pale, sharply planed face is an ideal canvas for paint and prosthetics, and capable of unnerving stillness. You want to read her but can’t. That helps make her a terrific villain, whether she’s playing a demon, a queen or a corporate lawyer. In “Julia” (2009), she drops that wall to play an out-of-control alcoholic and child-snatcher, giving a full-throttled performance that is so visceral and transparent that you can see the character’s thoughts furiously at work, like little parasites moving under the skin.
A. O. SCOTT We like to praise actors for “range,” but that’s an almost laughably inadequate word for the radical shape-shifting that Swinton accomplishes. Just look at one strand of her career: her work with Luca Guadagnino, a filmmaker who shares her delight in self-reinvention. In “I Am Love” (2010) she played the Russian wife of an Italian aristocratic, giving a performance in two languages and in the key of pure melodramatic heartbreak. In “A Bigger Splash” (2016) she had barely any language at all: She decided that it would be interesting if her glam-rock diva character had been struck mute by throat surgery. In “Suspiria” (2018) she executed one of her many self-doublings, appearing as a member of a balletomaniac coven of witches and also as an elderly male Holocaust survivor.
DARGIS That doubling shapes her most androgynous performances, where she effortlessly blurs gender, confirming (yet again) the inadequacy of categories like “man” and “woman.” She’s both; she’s neither. A different doubling happens when she plays twins, in the 2016 “Hail, Caesar!”(as rival gossip columnists) and in “Okja”the next year (as visually distinct very cruel captains of industry). In each, Swinton shows us two sides of the same person, much as she does in “Michael Clayton” (2007) when her lawyer rehearses a duplicitous spiel in front of a mirror. As the lawyer talks, pauses and drops her smile, you see her desperately trying to control a reflection that is already cracking.
SCOTT Those roles can be theatrical, but they almost never feel gimmicky. Swinton has roots in an avant-garde tradition — earlier in her career, she worked with Derek Jarman and Sally Potter — that emphasizes the mutability of identity and the blurred boundaries between artifice and authenticity. Over the past 20 years she has brought some of the intellectual rigor and conceptual daring of that work to Hollywood and beyond. She’s not only a uniquely exciting performer, but also one of the great living theorists of performance.
12. Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix has appeared in four of the director James Gray’s movies, starting with “The Yards” in 2000 and including “We Own the Night” (2007), “Two Lovers” (2009) and “The Immigrant” (2014). We asked Gray to explain how the actor has expanded — and improved — on his own vision.
When I saw “To Die For,” I said, “That actor” — I didn’t even know his name yet — “is unbelievably good at conveying his internal life without dialogue.” That’s a really important thing in cinema, because the camera reveals everything. Here was an actor who had so much going on and you could tell. I thought, “That’s a very interesting actor. I’d love to meet him.” And I did.
We were on the same wavelength, instantly. We liked the same things. We thought about things the same way. And I just immediately liked him. He had that dimensionality to him. The first film we did together [“The Yards”], I’m sure that I pissed him off a lot. I have a very direct way. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s not so good. I’m better at it now. Let’s just say that I wasn’t always willing to say, “Yeah, that’s interesting, but let’s try this.” I was more into, “Joaq, what are you doing? That sucks, try another one.” And I know I would frustrate him because his talent was so vast.
He has a limitless ability to surprise you in the best ways and inspire you to move in a direction that you haven’t thought of originally, better than what you have in mind, and expands the idea. He’s extremely inventive. He’s always thinking and actually has gotten more so over the years. I’ve never said, “I want my vision on the screen.” I want something better than that. You want to lay down the parameters of what it is you have in mind, and then surround yourself with people who will make it all more beautiful. Not different, necessarily, but more intense, more vivid.
He has a limitless ability to surprise you in the best ways.
You want the actor to surprise you, and to do so in a way that seems consistent with the character but also very interesting. Joaquin was absolutely fantastic at that. That’s inspiring. You don’t know what to expect in the best sense. Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. If I have any regret at all, it would be that he’s not in every single movie I made. — Interview by Candice Frederick
11. Julianne Moore
A. O. SCOTT The unhappy American housewife — smiling to keep up appearances in the face of domestic tragedy and inner turmoil — is a durable movie archetype. It’s one that Julianne Moore has both explored and exploded, in “The Hours” (2002) and especially in her collaborations with Todd Haynes like “Far From Heaven” (2002).
That film is set in Connecticut in the 1950s, but it’s a pointedly stylized landscape, evocative of the Hollywood melodramas of that period. Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Moore and Dennis Quaid) are each pulled away from their stifling marriage by forbidden desires: Frank for other men, Cathy for Raymond Deagan, a Black landscaper (Dennis Haysbert). These transgressions aren’t symmetrical or intersectional. In their heartbreak, humiliation and longing, Frank and Cathy have no consolation to offer each other.
Moore could have placed Cathy’s anguish in quotation marks, evoking the suffering divas of ’50s cinema while winking at a modern audience contemplating the bad old days from a safe aesthetic distance. Instead, she goes all the way in, staring out from the soul of a woman who is rooted in her time and absolutely modern, trapped by rules and appearances and also — terrifyingly and thrillingly — free.
MANOHLA DARGIS Unhappy or not, wives can be dead ends for actresses and for too many there comes that time when they’ve been forever banished to the kitchen. Moore has played plenty of wives and mothers, but hers are sometimes more complex and surprising than her movies, an index of her sensitivities and talent. One reason she lifts her characters out of stereotype is that she plays with codes of realism, whether she’s delivering a naturalistic performance (“Still Alice,” the 2014 melodrama about a professor with Alzheimer’s) or a hyperbolic one (David Cronenberg’s 2015 satire “Maps to the Stars,” where she’s a Hollywood hyena). Moore can externalize a character’s interior state beautifully, so you see feelings surface on her skin. But she’s an artist of extremes, and she and Cronenberg have fun playing with her gargoyle faces.
For the most part, her work in “Gloria Bell”(2019) is in a realist key. She plays the title character, a generous-hearted divorced insurance worker with two adult children, an ex she doesn’t hate and an achingly lonely apartment. The movie itself is modest, intimate, thoughtful and rich in human detail. Gloria starts an affair with a man. It goes badly, they break up. Not much happens in ordinary movie terms, yet everything happens because Gloria loves and is loved in turn. It’s a story that could have led to buckets of snot and empty showboating. But Moore and the director Sebastián Lelio transcend obviousness. They don’t merely create a story about a woman’s feelings — and being — as she falls in love; they create a landscape of emotions, the texture and shape of a sensibility. Moore’s Gloria doesn’t cry and laugh; she shows you what love looks like from the inside. It’s a miracle of a performance.
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