Sep 23 2019

The DM’s Second-Best Friend: A Well-Stocked Encounter Table

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Friggin' orcs, man.


Friggin’ orcs, man.

My pal Inkblitz started a new D&D campaign on Saturday; it’s his second attempt, intended to be a series of standalone pick-up games for when the regular DMs aren’t ready to go. Naturally, we bombarded him with characters and backstories and enough potential intra-party conflict to make at least five Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In the days leading up to the first session, he confessed to being a bit nervous, and particularly with the crazy disaster of a party we came up with I don’t blame him. (Our collective alignment for this game is “chaotic dumbass”.)

My suggestion to him, based on four decades of DMing experience (holy crap) was to put together a handful of generic encounters to have ready no matter what we did, throw some juicy hooks for the main event at us, and then sit back and let us wreck the place.

In short: don’t start your game without a well-stocked encounter table! That way, nothing the players ever do could possibly be “wrong.” You expect them to go explore the Temple of Elemental Evil and instead they decide to go sailing off to the Tomb of Annihilation—which you don’t even own? No problem! Because on their way to the docks, they’re (rolls) waylaid by a press gang! Or possibly once they get on the ship, they (roll) get attacked by manticores!

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the virtues of random encounter tables in making a world feel “lived in,” etc., but their biggest value here is creating a “catchall” scenario that can save a game session that’s about to fall apart because the DM is caught flat-footed. By having a solid chunk of stuff that might happen, but doesn’t have to, you open up possibilities. The scenario may have gone off the rails… but it’s still within the field of play.

Note that I’m not advocating for a Quantum Ogre here—if anything, the exact opposite. A Quantum Ogre appears when it doesn’t matter if the party goes left or right, they meet the same ogre down either pathway, and while I can see the corner-cutting appeal of including such a beast in your prep, I would advise against it for reasons well-argued elsewhere. The very nature of the Quantum Ogre is that it is inescapable, and the players’ choice is all an illusion. In the case of Schrödinger’s Manticore (as I will now hereby dub any and all Emergency Backup Encounters), he wouldn’t even appear if the players hadn’t made the choice to go somewhere you hadn’t otherwise prepared for them to go. It is precisely the players exercising their freedom of choice that calls Schrödinger’s Manticore into existence.

“But why should I waste time prepping material that may never actually get used?” I hear some of you asking. First, because players are a perverse and ornery lot. I would wager that once you start building scenarios this way and loosening up on the reins of “plot,” you’ll find you end up using a lot more of your backup encounters than you expect. And second, because nothing ever is really wasted if you are savvy about it.

Thanks to the wonders of 5E’s Bounded Accuracy, on-level foes start to take on the properties of 4E’s minions as you out-level them. Sure, the press gang of Thugs that was a problem for the players at level one isn’t going to be any more than a speed bump at level four, but add a Bandit Captain or a Veteran and two more Thugs to that same encounter and change nothing else, and your players will still have something to chew on. The trio of ship-attacking manticores that were a good fight at level five, are still a good fight at level seven when they’ve been browbeat into the service of a chimera.

It’s true that the lifespan of an encounter isn’t infinite—even a press gang of Gladiators would be hard, er, pressed, to bother a twelfth level party, for instance. But y’know… your current campaign probably isn’t going to last forever. At some point, you’ll have a new party, who’ll be swanning off to adventures you haven’t prepped for yet in their own campaign. The manticores whose encounter never comes up this time around, could become an epic moment in that future game.

And for the record, Inkblitz’s game was just fine. When we did indeed wander off the map, he handled it with aplomb—and a backup scenario standing by. 😉

May 25 2019

Dovakhin, Dovakhin, Where the Heck Have You Been?

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Dovakhin, Dovakhin
Where the heck have you been?
Dovakhin, Dovakhin
What were you stepping in?

Don’t mess with those daedra
You never can win!

You are green, Dovakhin
And there’s pox on your skin

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Feb 06 2019

Shady and the Wizard

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A story fragment that popped into my head last night, starring my tabaxi rogue. Enjoy!

Shade-of-the-Candle slid the final stretch of the ramp in a low crouch, dropping forward onto one hand from her momentum when she hit the bottom. The torch she’d been carrying clattered across the floor, extinguished, but to her surprise, she didn’t need it.

She’d been deposited into a large, round chamber with concentric pillars that were covered with writhing hieroglyphs. The middle of the ceiling was dominated by a cluster of dimly-luminous indigo crystals; sitting cross-legged on a dais under the crystals, was the robed figure of a man.

Or… not? There were too many arms, for starters, and the skin visible on the man’s forearms and hands was a dusky blue-gray, but that may have been a trick of the light. The fact that each of the four hands had two thumbs, one on either side, also did not inspire confidence. The man’s face, if indeed he had one, was completely obscured by his cowl, but Shady had no doubt that he was aware of her.

Shady blinked at him. He didn’t move. The tomb was supposed to have been lost. It was definitely trapped. She’d had a tough scrabble to get this far, only to find this oddity sitting in what she had expected to be the treasure chamber. Either way, she wasn’t about to go home empty-handed now. Her tail flicked back and forth involuntarily, as she rose to a standing position and slowly drew her cutlasses.

The hood dipped slightly. A deep bass rumble assaulted Shady’s ears and crushed her skull, nearly knocking her back off her feet, but then it passed as quickly as it had come. Across from her, the figure gave a quiet and dismissive snort.

Shady blinked at it. “What kind of hellspawn are you?” she asked.

“I am no kind of hellspawn, you superstitious creature,” the figure replied. The voice was male, more of a deep buzzing than anything else, and spoke in the clipped tones of a noble.

“Then what are–“

“There’s no point in telling you what I am,” he said. “It wouldn’t mean anything to you. And even if I could explain it, it would just blast your already dangerously-limited mind into even smaller fragments.”

The corner of Shady’s mouth rose in a smirk. “So you’re a wizard,” she said, moving slowly into the ring of pillars.

“Fine. Yes. I’m a wizard. It’s less wrong than anything else you might come up with.”

“You’re pretty rude,” said Shady.

“I am intensely rude,” said the wizard. “And I intend to remain that way. What will you do, now that you’ve come to that brilliant conclusion?”

Shady stepped forward again, pointing at his cowl with the tip of one of her swords. “I’ve heard it said, that the best thing to do when you come upon a wizard, is to kill it.”

The creature didn’t move. “So why don’t you, then?”

She gave him a long, appraising look. “Because…” she finally said, “you don’t seem particularly afraid that I might.”

Two of the wizard’s four arms retreated under robes. He used the other two to shift into a more attentive position. “The creature has some sense after all!” he said. “This may turn out to be interesting.”

“What are you doing, squatting in an ancient tomb?”

“What are you doing, crawling around in it?”

“I’m a thief,” said Shady.

“Of course you are.”

“But you didn’t answer my question. The tomb was sealed. What are you doing here?”

“I am playing a game of strategy,” said the wizard. “A game that spans eons, made up of the most infinitesimally small moves imaginable.”

“A game?” said Shady. “There’s no board. There are no pieces.”

“I’m looking at one right now,” said the wizard.

Shady rolled her eyes. “Okay, this conversation is pointless,” she said. “Where’s the Red King’s treasure chamber? Where’s the Red King’s treasure?”

“Oh, it’s here,” said the wizard. “Right where he buried it. Every few hundred years another would-be robber comes blundering in, and not one has managed to take it way yet. One or two did manage to get away richer than they came, of course. You may be one of the lucky ones.”

“Any objections if I try my luck?” said Shady, gesturing with her sword again.

“None whatsoever,” said the wizard. “I have no interest in baubles. There’s another passage, behind me. You may find what you’re looking for that way.”

“Fine,” said Shady, sheathing her swords. “Go back to your game then, wizard, and stay out of my way.” She collected the torch from where she’d dropped it and reignited it.

“Another pawn moves into play,” said the wizard. Shady glared at the back of his cowl, and plunged down the passage.

Jan 16 2019

Shade-of-the-Candle and Her Swords (Personal Art)

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Shady considers combat something of a failure state– making wisecracks at somebody who’s dead isn’t half as much fun– but if she has to fight, she’ll straight up murder you. >.>

She employs an acrobatic, free-wheeling dual-cutlass combat style that emphasizes wild leaps and flashy, unpredictable moves… you’re never quite sure if she’s attacking, she’s running away, or you’ve just bled to death from a million tiny cuts.

(Can’t believe I forgot to post this here! My online presence needs a cleanup, I think…)

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Dec 26 2018

Shade-Of-the-Candle

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A very Shady lady.

Christmas presents are on Shady this year.

…Also, the kobold king called, he wants Santa to put her on the “Naughty” list.

So yeah, this is Shade-Of-the-Candle, or “Shady” to her friends. I had already been noodling around with this idea for my next D&D character, and Catra from the new She-Ra series inspired me to go ahead and flesh her out some. She’s a chaotic neutral swashbuckler, an adrenalin junkie with no fucks to give, whose motivation basically boils down to doing all the things people keep telling her not to. (Of course, I am not a jerk player, so her CN alignment etc. are not excuses to wreck the game, merely descriptors.)

I love my little problem child. <3

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Oct 30 2018

Once the Storm King Has Thundered, Then What?

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Ragnarok and Roll, by HarryBuddhaPalm
Ragnarok and Roll, by HarryBuddhaPalm

My Storm King’s Thunder game has been waiting in the queue for the past several weeks while one of the other DMs in the group runs his game; but we are due to get back to it soon, and I’m starting to look with serious intent at what comes after the big finish.

Assuming the characters solve the mystery of the Storm King’s court, rescue all the peeps who need rescuing, defeat all the baddies who need defeating, and restore the Ordning among giant-kind, they will probably be somewhere in the 12th level range. At that point, it becomes more difficult to realistically look at the Silver Coast in terms of a sandbox/hexcrawl environment– and I am trying to resolve that with the tenets of my DM’s Credo.

Random, everyday hazards of a fantasy setting are not going to be a problem for these guys… the way I put it in conversation recently was, “The Avengers don’t wander around New York taking down muggers.” Once you’ve defeated Thanos, what’s next? And more importantly, how do you integrate a threat on that kind of scale in a way that doesn’t just shove them down the players’ throats? Having Galactus show up and threaten to eat the world is pretty darn railroadey. >.>

Another challenge for me in this particular area is that I just don’t natively think in “high level” style. The majority of my campaign world is fairly mundane: think Middle-earth instead of Asgard. At one point, while they were hunting down Svartjaw, one of my players mocked the Thane of Acholt by asking “What kind of lord doesn’t even have a magic weapon?”

Given the assumptions of D&D, it was a legit question. The answer was twofold: first, he didn’t have a magic weapon because mechanically he was a Knight from the back of the Monster Manual with his greatsword swapped out for a longsword and shield; and second, because my conception of the world is that magic items of any kind are super-rare. Does Theoden of Rohan have a magic sword? I mean, yeah, he might, but the text never mentions it. The moment of Theoden taking up his sword and all his men losing their shit about it is supposed to be because Theoden King is Awesome, not because he has a longsword of leadership.

But even with magic items being scaled back the way they are in 5E, it is absolutely not the case that magic items are super-rare in D&D, nor in the way I’ve structured the campaign. Everyone in the party has at least one and probably two or three pretty wifty items at this point, either awarded as treasure, or because to accommodate one of the players’ desired campaign style I created a “vaguely 3.x” subsystem to allow them to spend treasure on items.

In short, I’m still bringing low-magic thinking into an intrinsically high-magic framework and that also applies to my adventure design. On some level, my idea of a “high level conflict” is the characters being at the head of armies taking on a million bazillion orcs; but D&D‘s idea of a “high level conflict” is more like “one of Demogorgon’s heads declares war on the other and as a result the cosmos is being torn in half.”

I… just don’t think that way. O.o To lean on the MCU metaphor, I love-love-love the “ground level” threats of Captain America: The First Avenger and Spiderman: Homecoming, and I can even enjoy Thor: Ragnarok for a romp or two, but Infinity War kinda makes me check out. Crazy-big cosmic adventure is a foreign language to me.

Going back to the matter of high-level adventures and the sandbox/railroad dichotomy, the hugeness of high-level threats is part of what makes it hard to relate to them in a sandbox context. CR 15+ things don’t just wander around the world waiting for your players to bump into them. They are things like Cagarax the Red, the ancient dragon who claims the Silver Coast as his terrority, or Iuz the Old, cambion emperor of the realm who bears his name, or the Cult of Elemental Evil spilling out of their temple and marching across Veluna. The world is only stable enough for low-level sandbox play because these major powers are content to lurk in their lairs for now. When it comes time for high level adventures, these are the sources that trouble is going to come from, but the moment I decide “Iuz is going to go on the march,” that is me deciding what the adventure will be.

Now, my players might be totally fine with that; years or decades of “the DM creates the adventure and we show up for it” style play have pretty much made that the norm. And as long as everyone’s having fun, that’s hardly “wrong.” But I have been striving to change my approach to gaming, and if I am serious about making “player empowerment” a priority, I have to examine that facet of things. I mean, I can just decide “Iuz is going to go on the march” and then ask the players, “What do you want to do?” It’s entirely possible they might reply, “We buy popcorn and watch.” In that sense they’re perfectly empowered. But I suspect if I tell them Iuz is marching, what they will hear is “The adventure is over there, go get it.”

And if I tell them “Iuz is on the march, and Cagarax has decided to take the city of Argent as his new lair, and Elemental Evil is spilling out of its temple, what do you want to do?” they may very well just go, “Uhhhh….?” and vapor-lock. In a low-level sandbox, choosing not to take on the lizardfolk lair because you’re going to the barrow downs is not the end of the world.

Choosing not to mess with Galactus because you want to focus on Thanos? Just might be. >.> Where’s the “choice” in that?

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