Oct 23 2018

They’re Called Dungeon CRAWLS for a Reason

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Source: http://paratime.ca/cartography/bw_dungeons.html

This weekend, my drow bard Obsidian and her associates went through a scenario that was clearly a riff/parody on the classic old-school dungeon crawl– to the point where it was lampshaded by a plaque over the door that said, “Welcome to the funhouse!” 90% of the action took place on a sheet of graph paper and it involved going from room to room, attempting to bypass traps and searching for secret doors, with the occasional monster fight tossed in as a hazard.

Now for some context here, our party is very beefy, but not much in the way of finesse. Between six characters, there is one level of rogue– on the orc fighter. So, he has expertise with thieves’ tools, while Obsidian has proficiency with Investigation. Between the two of us, we make a functional rogue. >.>

However, against one locked door, we just plain got stuck; we both rolled absolute crap trying to get it open. At this point, Jamie (the DM) said something that was both brilliant, and pointed out a quirk in the game as it was being played: “The two of you eventually manage to get it open, but you waste ten minutes bickering about it.”

That’s a totally in-character thing for Obsidian and her orc bodyguard to do and it was a funny moment, but it also leads to the question, “If we were eventually going to get past the door either way, why even roll for it?”

Now this is a solved problem in the classic dungeon crawl: every ten minutes in the dungeon is another roll for wandering monsters– who have no treasure or valuables, they’re just there to eat your hit points and waste your spells. But this particular dungeon had no wandering monsters, as part of the story background. From a gameplay POV, there was no consequence to passing for failing the skill check other than how the description played out.

Ever since the session I’ve been thinking about how I would have handled that situation. The current prevailing wisdom is that if there is no consequence for failure and the PCs have a reasonable chance of succeeding (especially if they can just keep trying over and over), that the DM shouldn’t bother calling for a roll at all and just say “You pick the lock. In the room beyond you find…”

Which is expedient, yes, but boring. How could that be spiced up a bit?

I found some inspiration in a recent article about the Mouse Guard RPG, in which instead of a dead stop, a failed skill check may create a “twist.” The twist could be a wandering monster check as in the days of old, or it could be a condition imposed on one or more members of the group. This calls for a bit more thought on the DM’s part, but can be worked into the adventure with a little brainstorming during prep. Some example twists that jump to my mind around the task of picking a lock on a door include:

  • Wandering monster check
  • The Mouse Guard example: you have to hide from passing guards to avoid giving yourself away; Wisdom save (DC equal to the door check) or you become frightened by their cruel jokes about executing prisoners
  • You spend so long on the task that you must make a Constitution save to avoid a level of exhaustion
  • You damaged your lockpicks. Make a Dexterity save or suffer disadvantage with all of your future checks with them until you can get a new set.

Note that the assumption here is that, success or failure, the party does open the door. That part is assumed, similar to the way Gumshoe assumes that players always find the clues. The skill check isn’t “Do you succeed?” so much as “How tough is it to succeed?” You’d also have to figure out for each twist, what would be required to overcome the condition imposed, such as replacing damaged lockpicks, or possibly “until your next short rest.”

Of course, that leads to the question, “How do you keep the players from constantly taking short rests in a dungeon with no wandering monsters?” And I do have thoughts on that too, but that’s for another post. 😉

-The Gneech

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Oct 18 2018

D&D Weather

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Angband, by Angus Mcbride, or, A Million Gazillion Orcs

Sunny days and crisp weather have arrived here, and that always puts Dungeons and Dragons on my brain– because way back in 1983 a bunch of us would hang out behind our high school on days like this and play through a very freeform megadungeon game of my own creation. I particularly remember a moment I’ve written about before, where one of my players (who always wanted to run ahead on his own) opened a door, only to be informed that behind it was a massive chamber with 200 orcs… to which his response is “I slam the door and run away!” Fun times. XD

At the time, I didn’t use the D&D rules, partially because I had all of a Holmes Basic Set and an AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide to work from (making for an incomplete and often contradictory ruleset to begin with), but mostly because I didn’t have the patience to sit down and puzzle it all out.

What I did have the patience for, for whatever reason, was to create my own ridiculously kloodgey homebrew system that took bits of D&D and blended it with bits of Heritage’s Dungeon Dwellers series and then, at the table, was mostly ignored. This game system was called “Mid-Evil,” which I was very proud of at the time. >.>

Did I mention I was 13?

A year later, I tried to leverage this same mostly-nonsensical system into an espionage/modern action game called “I Spy,” which was just as nonsensical and took the inspiration for its one usable scenario from a segment of “The Bloodhound Gang” from 3-2-1 Contact.

So, yeah, “ambitious, but not sophisticated,” about sums me up in those days.

But as dorky and sophomoric as all these things were, they had fire and a pure love of the game that still makes me grin to remember. As I began to develop more sophistication I moved on to MERP and from there to the HERO System, becoming ever more enamored of “realism” and “maturity”– mostly because I was still young and insecure about such things.

A lot of my games from this second period were very sophisticated by comparison– I had a “street-level superheroes” campaign that delved into dark topics and psychology and presaged things like The Killing Joke by a matter of years. But at the same time, a lot of my gaming sessions felt like work– we were trying so hard to Make Art out of the game, that we would lose sight of the fact that we were a bunch of nerds sitting around a table rolling dice to control the fate of fictional characters.

These days, I’d like to think I can have the best of both worlds. I have primarily returned to D&D (using the actual rules, even), but I work with the players to integrate their characters’ personalities and background into the campaign. There are random encounter tables, but they are built with an eye toward reinforcing the theme or environment of the adventure instead of being a giant kitchen sink of weirdness. There are serious NPC allies, enemies, or wildcards, but there are also moments of pure goofiness.

But most importantly, I remember these days why I fell in love with the game in the first place– those crazy moments of shared story that we were all creating together, where the stuff on the paper was there if we wanted it, but also didn’t matter if it didn’t actually make things more fun. And I’m always grateful for D&D weather, because that’s what it reminds me of.

-The Gneech

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Oct 10 2018

Be the Sandbox You Want to See In the World

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…Yeah, okay, that title doesn’t make much sense. >.> But we’ll roll with it!

My Storm King’s Thunder campaign is rolling along nicely, going on something like two years now. SKT was hailed in reviews as being a terrific sandboxey adventure, which it kinda-sorta is, and kinda-sorta isn’t [1], but we are now in the “post Eye-Of-the-All-Father” stage of the campaign, which very much isn’t a sandbox, as written. I want to avoid spoilers, but I will say that if you’re familiar with SKT, you will probably know what I mean when I say that from Chapter Five forward, it’s pretty much a railroady race to the end, with scripted cutscenes for NPCs to have big moments baked in and everything.

Which, y’know, makes a certain amount of sense. You can’t really write “a campaign in a book” like this and have the ending make any kind of sense, if you don’t collapse all the probability waveforms down into a single cohesive storyline. But running a railroad game is fundamentally opposed to my Gamemastering credo, specifically items #7 and #9. So how to resolve this?

Actually, the answer is also in the Credo, specifically item #11. I’m tossing in a bunch of potential side-quests of my own design, most if not all of which are optional. The most recent sessions involved the characters happening upon a derelict cloud giant skycastle that by the machinations of fate was tied in to one of the PCs’ backstories– none of which is in the adventure-as-written. This particular side-quest kinda floated in the liminal space between sandbox and railroad, in that I was pretty confident that when confronted with an unexpected floating island, the PCs would want to check it out… but they also had the option, and the story would not have been broken, if they just shrugged and said, “Meh, the Oracle told us to go to Ironslag, let’s keep going to Ironslag.”

The scenario ended with them in something of a quandary about what to do next: they’ve still got the task at Ironslag waiting for them, but I can see at least three other directions they might want to go from here, and none of them would be “wrong answers.” One of those is even still on the Storm King’s Thunder script! Another one involves stopping at a town where they’ve never been and– guess what– that town is also a mini-quest-hub that has at least three side-quests going on as well.

I don’t expect the players to do all these side-quests, and honestly I wouldn’t want them to– it would probably feel tediously grindy to go on every monster-hunt they happened across, and you could play an MMO for that. But having the quests there gives the players “breathing space” around the main plot, in order to pursue their own agendas, which is what sandbox play is really all about at the heart of it.

It’s entirely possible that the players will look at the side-quests, say “Screw that noise!” and carry on racing towards the end of Storm King’s Thunder instead. That’s fine, too! It’s entirely consistent with my GM credo to let the players buy their tickets and get on the plot railroad, if that’s what they have chosen to do.

[1] Actually, very few D&D games are actually “sandboxes.” What they may be is “open world,” but that’s another discussion all together. My experience is that most of the time, when people describe a D&D adventure as a sandbox, what they mean is “not a railroad.” ;P

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Mar 25 2018

This One Goes to Twenty (#DnD)

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Fire giants. They're just bad.
Fire giants. They’re just bad.

It’s been a year and a half since the campaign started at the Keep on the Borderlands; the characters have reached 7th level and finally, after much meandering, gotten to the Eye of the All-Father in Storm King’s Thunder. If we assume that KotB was the prologue, and snuffing out (so to speak) the fire giants’ hopes of reviving the Vonindod was Act One, we are now at the beginning of Act Two.

Storm King’s Thunder is written in the weird meandery style for the first part, but then once you hit the Eye of the All-Father, it pretty much becomes a straightforward run to the end. There are some branching points, but they all lead to the same destination, somewhere around 10th or 11th level. So it’s still a bit away, but we are now at the point where I can see the end of Storm King’s Thunder looming on the horizon, and have been thinking about what the campaign would do next.

I had the idea of ending the campaign when we reached the end of SKT to start something new; I was particularly looking at doing a Spelljammer(-ish) campaign that brought in a lot of the flavor of the MCU cosmic stuff, inspired by Thor: Ragnarok. And I still like that idea, but as I was thinking about it, I had a very sudden and definite message from the subconscious:

No. I want this campaign to go to 20th level.

…Well okay then. O.o

There’s lots of reasons for this, not the least of which being we’ve never reached that kind of a level in any of our campaigns, and so it would be something completely new for us. Also, I just like this group of characters, and I’m not ready for their story to be over– and I suspect the players probably feel the same way. Finally, by all accounts (and our own experience so far), 5E is the system that, if you’re going to go to 20, you want to do it in.

(In Pathfinder we’d already be hearing creaks around the edges of the system by now. In 5E, at 7th level, the combats are taking a little longer than they did back in the KotB days just by virtue of having more complex characters and tougher opponents, but the action is still fast and furious. Out last session had a chase/combat against a behir in a cave maze (CR 11!) that was done 75% as “theater of the mind” and basically went like this:

For all the chasing around and getting in potshots at the monster (or FROM the monster) it all ran very smooth and quickly and led to a fingernail-biting climax where the barbarian NPC was one round away from being digested in the creature’s belly and saved by the players pulling out all the stops to save her. I can’t think of another system we’ve used that would have handled the situation half so well.

But having decided that I want the campaign to reach level 20, that leads to the question of what to do for the second half. There are some tweaks written into Storm King’s Thunder itself that provide ways it can be expanded on, and I’ll happily add those in, but even that isn’t likely to take the party past 12th or 13th.

So what I’ve decided to do was to pull out some of my still-unplayed higher level 3.x edition adventures, particularly from Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics line, and tie them together into an “adventure path.” Some of them involve giants and make for obvious “sequel” material, particularly if [SPOILER REDACTED] manage to escape rather than suffer Death By PC when their nefarious scheme to [SPOILER ALSO REDACTED] comes to light. I also found another one that could provide a kind of cool “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” side-trek as a change of pace from fighting giants all the dang time and that could possibly act as setup for Spelljammer later.

The ones I’ve found so far could take the game as far as 16th or 17th. Beyond that… I have no idea. That’s probably at least another year and a half away itself anyway, so I have time to work on it, and by then hopefully WotC will have gotten around to some of that “supporting higher-level play” they’ve been talking about. But it seems to me that once you get into that realm, where even the wizard has 80+ hit points, the barbarian becomes as strong as a giant and can rage indefinitely, and the cleric can literally resurrect people at will, the stories are going to have to look very different.

You don’t “dungeon crawl” at that kind of level. I don’t know what you do do… but you don’t dungeon crawl. Really that, more than anything, is going to be the challenge at that point.

-The Gneech

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Jan 21 2018

Drang and Sturm

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Brother Drang summons lightning against the cave leaper. It's SUPER EFFECTIVE.
Brother Drang summons lightning against the cave leaper. It’s SUPER EFFECTIVE.

An epic moment from last night’s D&D session. Wandering around the underdark because reasons, the party was attacked on a long and narrow span by “cave leapers” (a kind of bat-winged flying dire toad thing) and purple worm larvae, in an encounter literally named “The Gorge of Horrible Things.”

Hantamouse’s storm cleric (“Brother Drang”) was swallowed whole by a leaper, which then tried to fly off. The barbarian lassoed it, and SirFox’s rogue (an anthropomorphic flying squirrel) jumped on it, stabbing the thing with his rapier to make a handle. At this point Hanta, who had already cast summon lightning at the beginning of the fight, decided he had no fucks to give and blasted the thing from the inside out, failing the saving roll against his own spell and taking the full brunt of it as well.

Me: “The good news is, you killed the cave leaper! The bad news is, you’re now 20 feet in the air trapped inside a dead leaper. You take five more points of damage from the fall.”

Hanta: “No I don’t! I’m at zero already.”

They won, in the end. 😉

-The Gneech

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Oct 05 2017

D&D Overland Travel Encounter Table Template

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My Storm King’s Thunder campaign has moved to the underdark for a bit, and as such I need a new random encounter table as the characters tromp miles and miles in the dark, instead of their usual tromping miles and miles over mountains or across the plains. 😉 But it seems to me this is as good a time as any to work up an encounter table “template” for making these tables easier to build in the future.

I’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from Adventures in Middle-earth and including such things as world events, interesting terrain bits, and even just “mood swings” in my encounter tables to give the journey more character than just “you fight owlbears/you fight orcs” etc. That also means there are “empty spaces” on the encounter table so the party doesn’t automatically have a hostile encounter every time they enter a new overland hex.

Feel free to use this template for your own games, if you like. I’m pretty pleased with the result in my own.

1d12+1d8 Encounter
2 Major Benevolent Power. Your party happens upon your campaign’s equivalent to Gandalf, a powerful metallic dragon, or something similar. This power may be traveling incognito– the party may entertain angels unawares. On Repeat: No encounter.
 
3 Easy Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No encounter.
 
4 Resources. Your party finds plentiful game, a grove of mushrooms, wild healing herbs, a valuable mineral deposit, or even a small buried treasure or cache of supplies left by previous wayfarers. On Repeat: Fair weather changes to rain, or vice versa.
 
5 Medium Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: Cloudy, windy conditions.
 
6 Fellow Travelers. Pilgrims, miners, friendly locals, wanderers. Will happily share news and maybe a meal. On Repeat: Fair weather changes to rain, or vice versa.
 
7 Help! Fellow travelers, as described above, being menaced by hostile creatures making up a medium or hard encounter. If rescued, the travelers will be grateful and provide aid or reward to the party. On Repeat: Medium Encounter.
 
8 Fair Roads and Favorable Conditions. Your party finds shortcuts, ample sources of clean and refreshing water or shade, and makes excellent time. Your travel speed is increased by 50% for four hours. On Repeat: Same encounter again once, “No Encounter” from then on.
 
9 Medium Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
10 A Skill Test. Fallen trees, a collapsed bridge over a swift river, or other something similar have blocked the road and the party must devise a way past it, or perhaps the party’s mounts are spooked by something and must be calmed down. Have each player describe their intended action in turn and resolve with a skill check or simply narrate likely results. If there are more successes than failures, the party moves on. If there are more failures than successes, the party loses four hours of progress. If all checks are failures, everyone in the party must make a DC 10 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
11 A Moment. The party comes upon a gorgeous vista, a mysterious ring of standing stones, crumbling statues from a fallen kingdom of old, a spectacular sunset, or other inspiring moment. Everyone in the party makes a Wisdom saving throw (DC 10-15 depending on the surroundings). If successful, they are filled with hope and gain Inspiration. If they fail, they simply shrug and keep marching. If they fail by 5 or more, they see only the fleeting nature of life and become morose, gaining a level of exhaustion. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
12 The Wearisome Toil of Many Leagues. Trails lead nowhere or dry up. Progress is hampered and rocks turn underfoot. The scout must succeed on a Survival check (DC 10-15 depending on terrain) or you lose 4 hours of progress. If this roll fails, everyone in the party must make a DC 10 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: Rainy conditions.
 
13 Hard Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain. On Repeat: No Encounter.
 
14 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
 
15 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
 
16 The Very World Seems Against Us. Your intended route is blocked by flooding, rockslide, enemy action, or an overwhelming hostile force. Lose 4 hours of progress. Everyone in the party must make a DC 15 Constitution save or gain one level of exhaustion. On Repeat: Stormy conditions.
 
17 Deadly Encounter. Random creatures appropriate to the terrain.
 
18 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Medium Encounter.”)
 
19 (Undefined. Default to “No Encounter” or “Hard Encounter.”)
 
20 Major Malignant Power. Your party happens upon your campaign’s equivalent to Saruman, a powerful chromatic dragon, or something similar. This power probably has minions and is up to no good, but may regard the characters as beneath their notice and move on unless the party starts something. On Repeat: Stormy conditions.
 

During Prep: Pre-populate encounters with appropriate creatures. Place regional-, campaign-, or adventure-specific encounters in the Undefined entries.

At the Table: Roll (or have the party scout roll) when characters enter a new overland hex, or once per 4-hour watch while camped. Travel speed is not a factor: difficult terrain slows down monsters just as much as it does player characters. Roll more often (at least once per four hours of travel) in dangerous or heavily-infested areas, such as cursed jungles teeming with monsters.

Variations: Roll 1d12+1 during daylight and 1d12+1d8 at night to create a “don’t travel in the dark” atmosphere.

I hope you find this useful! It’s the core engine I use for my overland travel adventures, and I find it works well.

-The Gneech

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