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  • New Game Round-up: Stack Rocks in Tuki, Escape Lava in Red Peak, and Claim Land in Iwari

    by W. Eric Martin

    • Canadian publisher Next Move Games has previously challenged you to arrange ceramic tiles, coral reef, and stained glass, and now it asks: How do you feel about rocks?

    Next Move's next release will be Tuki by designer Grzegorz Rejchtman, best known for the Ubongo game series. Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game that will debut at the 2019 Origins Game Fair in June:

    In the Inuit language, "tukilik" is used to define an object that carries a message, and the northern landscapes are densely populated with such objects. The most well known of these are the inukshuk, that is, structures of rough stones traditionally used by Inuit people as a landmark or commemorative sign, with the stones often being stacked in the form of a human figure.

    During each turn in Tuki, you attempt to construct an inukshuk based on the die face rolled using your stones and blocks of snow. Players have only a limited number of pieces with which to construct the inukshuk, so you'll need to be creative and use the three-dimensional pieces in multiple ways, such as to counterbalance other pieces or even build on top of existing pieces. A solution always exists — you just need to discover it!

    You can choose from two levels of difficulty when playing Tuki to level the playing ground between newcomers and experts. Be swift, yet precise, and transform your stones into messengers of the north...

    Red Peak is a Carlo A. Rossi design due out from Ravensburger in the first half of 2019, and while I have only a brief overview of the game for now, it's enough to get you grounded on this 2-6 player that features a Vincent Dutrait cover of all things. Strange seeing his work on a non-French, non-Korean box! Here's that summary:

    In Red Peak, the players are daring adventurers who have discovered a new volcanic island — but then "Red Peak" on the north of the island decides to live up to its name and starts rumbling. An eruption seems imminent! Salvation is possibly only by returning to the beach as quickly as possible where — fingers crossed — a boat awaits the group. Players will be fighting using every means possible to make their way through the jungle, with the lava ready to spill onto their necks at any moment. Who will reach the boat in time before lava engulfs their camp on the beach?

    • Another early 2019 release from Ravensburger is the Leo Colovini card game Heul doch! Mau Mau, with the title meaning something like "Go Cry! Mau Mau", with Mau Mau being the German equivalent of Crazy Eights. The rules are available for this 3-6 player game, and I'm a sucker for both Colovini and card games, so here it is in detail:

    Game play in Heul doch! Mau Mau is simple, but it may bring you to tears all the same when you give points away to other players.

    The game consists of 98 cards, with 1-7 each appearing twice in seven colors. Each player starts with a random card face up in front of them as a personal discard pile as well as a hand of four cards. On a turn, you must play one card from your hand following the familiar game play rules of matching the color or number. Ideally you want to play on your own pile, but if the card you would play matches the top card of your left- or right-hand neighbor's discard pile, then you must play it there instead!

    Maybe you can choose a card in hand that matches only your top card? If you have no valid play or don't want to give points away to someone else, you can play the card face down on your stack, showing the weepy onion on the card back. On your next turn, you can play any card you like on your pile — except if it matches a neighbor's top card, of course, in which case you must give it away. (You can't play on a neighbor's onion card.)

    Once all the cards have been played, everyone scores for the cards in their pile — but first they must count the number of onion cards in their pile. However many onions they have, they must remove all matching number cards prior to scoring. If you have four onions, for example, you must discard all 4s — and this is bad since all cards score points equal to their value. If you have ten onions, then you first discard all 7s, then all 3s. Whoever has the most points wins!

    The game includes four types of special action cards you can shuffle into the deck to make gameplay more dynamic.

    ThunderGryph Games puts a lush look on most of its game releases, and the just-announced Iwari from Michael Schacht continues this pattern.

    Iwari is a revised version of Schacht's classic game Web of Power, which was previously remade as China, then briefly appeared as Han. All the games feature the same basic gameplay: A landscape is divided into regions; these regions have lines throughout them with various building points, as well as more than a dozen connection points between regions. On a turn, you can play cards to place up to two pieces in one region. The color of the cards must match the region in which you're playing, although you can use a pair of cards as a joker.

    You're trying to achieve majorities in a region and in the connection points, but the trick is that you want to expend as few of your own resources to win as possible. (I imagine this is also true of Iwari, but I haven't seen the rules of that game yet.) When you have majority in a region, then you score based on the number of units that all players have in that region; when you place second in a region, then you score based on the number of units that the winner has in that region.

    Thus, if a region has five spaces and you control four of them, then you score 5 points and the second-place person scores 4. Hmm, you did more work and used more resources, but you barely scored more than they did! Better to win that region with only three pieces while still scoring 5 points, yet if you wait too long to dominate a region someone else might carry it instead. Scoring for the connection points between regions works similarly.

    For Iwari, Schacht and ThunderGryph have moved to a new setting and added twists to the gameplay:

    Evermore have they walked the world of Iwari. Evermore have they embodied its spirit and shaped its lands. They are stewards of the earth. Five Titans that make the cosmos breath. On Iwari, there are no teeming masses, no continent-wide civilizations. Humanity is in its infancy, living in scattered tribes in forest, tundra, and desert. Now we have left our ancestral homelands to explore the vast uncharted regions, encountering other fellow tribes and exchanging knowledge, culture and wisdom. In our journey, we all live in harmony with the Titans, and though distant to us, they decide our fate. And yet only we don't know if they created us, or we created them.

    Iwari is an abstract-like Eurogame in which players represent different tribes looking for their identity by traveling around far lands and expanding their settlements into five different regions on the board.

    During the game, players can complete missions that grant small perks and score points by having the majority of tents in each territory after the end of the first card cycle. At game end, the majority of tents will be scored again, along with the majorities of nature totems in two adjacent regions and settlements that players have created (i.e., four or more tents in an uninterrupted sequence along one of the roads on the board).

    Iwari reimagines the earlier games in this series by adding new layers of strategy, tribe player boards, different maps with their own set of rules, modules that can be added to the game, and unique co-operative and solo modes.

    Schacht and ThunderGryph previously collaborated on a Kickstarter project for Spirits of the Forest, a remaking of his earlier game Richelieu, and during that crowdfunding project many extras were added to the game. I imagine the bling will be flying as well for Iwari as well once that project hits KS...

    Read more »
  • New Game Round-up: Travel Through Middle-earth Again Before Racing Animals in China

    by W. Eric Martin

    • Nearly two decades after Reiner Knizia's co-operative game Lord of the Rings debuted, with a Fantasy Flight Games version of that design hitting the market in 2001, FFG is now taking another crack at a co-operative game set in J.R.R. Tolkien's greatest creation with the announcement of The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth, a 1-5 player game from Nathan I. Hajek and Grace Holdinghaus. Here's an overview of the game:

    Embark on your own adventures in J.R.R. Tolkien's iconic world with The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth, a fully co-operative, app-supported board game. You'll battle villainous foes, make courageous choices, and strike a blow against the evil that threatens the land — all as part of a thrilling campaign that leads you across the storied hills and dales of Middle-earth.

    Each individual game of Journeys in Middle-earth is a single adventure in a larger campaign. You'll explore the vast and dynamic landscapes of Middle-earth, using your skills to survive the challenges that you encounter on these perilous quests. As you and your fellow heroes explore the wilderness and battle the dark forces arrayed against you, the game's companion app guides you to reveal the looming forests, quiet clearings, and ancient halls of Middle-earth, while also controlling the enemies you encounter. Whether you're venturing into the wild on your own or with close companions by your side, you can write your own legend in the history of Middle-earth.

    The game includes six heroes in its "Core Set", a term that shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with FFG's publishing model, and each hero has a unique skill deck that they use to pass skill tests or play from to provide themselves with permanent special abilities, although at the risk of failing skill tests since those cards are now removed from their deck. In each adventure, a hero takes on one of six roles, such as hunter or pathfinder, giving players the chance to put their skills to use in different ways based on what they expect to find — although the app promises wide variety in the make-up of the landscape, the foes you'll face, and more.

    The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth retails for $100, and according to FFG's most recent press releases, it's due out in April 2019.

    • Designer Richard Breese of R&D Games has noted on Facebook that he's working on a Keyper expansion — Keyper at Sea — for release at SPIEL '19 in October. Writes Breese, "The game has two scenarios, 'shallow water' for those new to Keyper and 'deep water' for the Keyper experts!" If you can get yourself to HandyCon in Maidenhead, UK on Jan. 18-20, 2019, then maybe you can dive in for a first look.

    • In June 2018, Capstone Games announced a licensing deal with designers Christina Ng Zhen Wei and Yeo Keng Leong for Race for the Chinese Zodiac, and now Capstone has announced that the game will be released through its Simply Complex brand and the designers own Starting Player brand, with a Kickstarter campaign to fund the title starting in late January 2019 ahead of a November 2019 retail release. Another title for the SPIEL '19 Preview!

    Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay:

    Legend has it that a long time ago, mankind was ignorant to the extent of not knowing how to count or tell the years apart. The ever-benevolent Jade Emperor wanted to help mankind out. From there, the idea of a twelve-year cycle and the naming of each year in the cycle after an animal was born.

    But how should the Jade Emperor choose twelve animals from among so many animals in the living world, while remaining impartial? To resolve this equitably, the Jade Emperor decided to hold a race involving all animals on his birthday. The first twelve animals to cross the river and reach the Heavenly Palace will have a year named after them, in the order of how they finished the race. The race became known as The Great Race and the twelve-year cycle was named the Chinese Zodiac.

    Race for the Chinese Zodiac is a board game that recreates The Great Race. Each player has a hand of eight action cards (numbered 1-8) as well as energy cards of different values and karma tokens. Each player selects one animal token and takes the corresponding animal card, which grants the player advantages during the race. All players place their animal token on the start space of the racetrack. Players assemble the dual-layered and double-sided action wheel that's used to determine the effectiveness of each action and place it in the center of the table.

    On a turn, all players select an action card and an energy card from their hand, then they reveal these cards simultaneously. If the action card selected is one value lower than the player's previously played action card, the player must spend one karma token; if two or more values lower, they must spend two karma tokens. Players then resolve all played actions based on the orientation of the wheel, ideally gaining movement, new energy cards, and karma. Everyone places their played cards face up in front of themselves, then rotate the wheel clockwise by one space and start a new turn.

    The first animal to complete the race earns the coveted right of having the first year of the Chinese Zodiac named after it!

    Read more »
    - Newest Items

  • Oakwood Garrison
    Oakwood GarrisonPublisher: Northern Cartography
    This map pack includes:

    - High Resolution (4200 x 4900 pixels) map, with grid
    - High Resolution (4200 x 4900 pixels) map, with no grid

    Both .png and .jpg file formats.
    Price: $1.00 Read more »
  • Seaside Shrine
    Seaside ShrinePublisher: Northern Cartography
    This map pack includes:

    - High Resolution (3500 x 3500 pixels) map, with grid
    - High Resolution (3500 x 3500 pixels) map, with no grid

    Both .png and .jpg file formats.
    Price: $1.00 Read more »

    Gnome Stew

  • A Solution For Drop-Ins, Casuals, And Other Sans Character Players
    The one legged cheetah man? Or the Bindlestiff? Hmmm......

    I, like I suspect many GMs, have a “player” that I have difficulty actually getting into a game. There are many reasons for this, but the one I want to focus on is a specific type. They want to play. They like to play, BUT:

    • Read a rulebook?
    • Fill out a character sheet?
    • Come up with a concept that plays well with others and fits your game?

    To that you get a resounding: “No THANK you.”

    So what’s the solution other than telling the player: “Well, guess you don’t really want to play that much. Bugger off then.” Assuming for some reason that’s not the answer you WANT to give? In this case, the answer is: Pregens.

    These can be new whole cloth characters, OR you could grab likely NPCs that you didn’t really flesh out for game play: Jondo the overeager town guard from last session, that genius whiz-kid inventor the PCs had to save from his own creation, that sort of thing.

    O.K. Article over. Go make a bunch of pregens so that your one player who’s kind of non-committal can play one, or on the off chance you get a drop in. Shoo!

    Oh. Still here? So depending on system, making a bunch of pregens can be a pain in the rump, and maintaining them over time to be a good match for your party can be yet more work. Every time your party advances a bit you have to go and update all those pregens. And while it’s fine if you don’t mind the work, I’ve never been much of a “Do a bunch of work on the off chance you need it” kind of guy.

    So from here, there are a couple options:

    1. Steal them: So you could find a set of already made characters appropriate to your game and just steal them. Depending on your game that could be easier or harder to find. If you’re lucky you can even find a variety of levels so that you don’t have to do advancement either. You can just grab the selection that fits. Some systems even have entire books dedicated to pregens.
    2. Bribe your players to do the heavy lifting for you: Not everyone is into lonely fun anymore, but chances are you have a player or two that would love to crank out a few basic pregen characters and/or update a few from the stable you already have. Just toss them a few xp, hero points, or heck, let them choose the pizza toppings next session and you’re good to go.
    3. Some mix of the above: Steal some and update them yourself, Have a player make them and you update them, You make them and let a player update them, etc… Whatever matches your bandwidth.

    O.K. Article really over. Standard closing questions: Have you used pregens at your table? What’s a new and clever way to apply this that I didn’t think of? And as always, anything you want a gnome to wax philosophical about? We’ll write about pretty much anything if it keeps us out of the stewpot.

    Read more »
  • Create Your Own Games on Demand
    Create Your Own Games on Demand


    Do you have too many games just collecting dust on your bookshelves?

    Is it a struggle to get your players to try something new?

    Are you just too busy to finish reading that new tome of a game book?


    You are not alone.

    As Convention Coordinator for the Indie Game Developer Network and as a self-published game designer, I travel to monthly conventions to sell and run role-playing games. I’m always asking what games people are playing, running, and are interested in. And, let me tell you, there are plenty of others who feel the same as you. They face the same challenges, the same struggles.

    You don’t have to go it alone. 

    Together, I think we can build/borrow a system to help solve all of our (current) problems. It won’t cure them overnight, but it will treat the problems and help to create a foundation for other like-minded locals. Together, we can unite to build more than a gaming group. We can create a movement! One to tackle the difficulties of having too many unplayed games, of luring players to try something different, or the reoccurring learning curve of each new game.  First things first, we start by building a community. To meetup and game together, we’ll need a pool of potential players and Game Masters. Thanks to social media, this is surprisingly easy to start, however, difficult to master.

    Build a Community?

    We need a place for people to gather in order to build interest in our idea—our movement. With the utility of social media, we can easily recruit, message, and share ideas (posts) at times that are convenient for one another. A community can be fostered in something as simple as a Facebook Group. You could start today. Add the people you game with, the people that you know game locally, and the Game Masters that run events at local stores or gaming hangouts. Most game stores have their event schedules posted on a website or community board in their store. Take advantage of these to help you find where people are gaming and who is facilitating these games. Talk to your local game store owners about what you’re working on and who else they think you should talk to. Don’t assume that every game played will be publicly posted. Also, dig around for other local gaming groups on Facebook. Search the name of local game stores for  groups that share their name. Search for groups that prominently state your city, town, or region’s name with the keywords RPG, Tabletop, Geek, or D&D. You may be surprised to find how much is already going on right under your nose.


    How Will This Solve My Problems?

    A model that I’ve adopted in Northwest Indiana is that of Games on Demand. You may have heard of their work or participated in a game with them at Gencon, Origins, or Pax. Their model consists of several Game Masters, each offering up two or more different games per time slot. Players that attend the event(s), pick from the games offered in a first come, first served basis. They generally select from table tents that give a blurb of each game with a picture. As games are selected, the choices begin to narrow, and focus shifts to filling the games selected.

     To solve your problems, you need to foster an environment that builds demand for new games and that attracts players who want to be involved in those games. 
    To solve your problems, you need to foster an environment that builds demand for new games and that attracts players who want to be involved in those games. The Games on Demand model is attractive to players and Game Masters looking to play and run new games. It has an easy to understand structure that clearly defines what a Game Master needs to prepare for (two different games, two different one shot sessions, expect new players). Not to mention, with other Game Masters sharing games, you can learn more of them without having to read or research them one at a time.

    What Do I Need for This to Work?

    • Game Masters: With the help of another Game Master or two, you could offer up to six different games for a game night. Each Game Master already has games they know how to run and games on their shelf they are just dying to put to good use. Creating a community with game nights and a Games on Demand model provides the opportunity you’ve all been waiting for. Give yourself and other Game Masters the opportunity to share all of the cool games you’ve been collecting.
    • Public Places to Play: Potential players need to feel safe before they will join you for a game. Playing with strangers can be very intimidating, especially if it is at a private home where you don’t know anyone. Reach out to your local game stores or anywhere else people are gaming in your area (coffee shops, tabletop friendly bars, churches, the local library) and schedule a time for 2-3 free tables. You may be asked to institute a rule that everyone buy their drinks and snacks from the establishment. That’s only fair, besides, you want the opportunity for there to be foot traffic. Shopping customers and regulars can be recruited to play and invited to future events. They may even have friends…
    • Game Day Events or Meetups: What good is the community if we have nothing to rally around? Create events to attract people in your local area. Ask your friends to share the events with their friends and families. Spread the word on Facebook in your local groups with similar interests. If you have the skills to make a flyer, put some up in your local school and game store bulletin boards. It takes time for people to understand what you’re doing and also to carve out time to attend. Don’t be discouraged! Some people will need time to find themselves in a situation where they are also looking for new people to game with or new games to play. I have had more than one Game Master tell me, “I’ll be there when I’m no longer running two games a week.” That’s fair!

    Tales of the 219

    My local contingent is called the Tales of the 219. Yep, that’s our area code! Northwest Indiana Story Gamers just didn’t win over the hearts and minds of our founding members.

    On January 31st, we mark our one year anniversary of running events at local game stores on a monthly (and more) schedule. Setting out, I found other Game Masters interested in diversifying the games that they play and struggling to find players for their games not named D&D or Pathfinder. Sharing my vision for a more vibrant, inclusive, and variety rich gaming community, I reached out to local game stores. To their surprise, we didn’t want money or to sell attendees something physical. We just wanted to grow the community of role-players in Northwest Indiana, to bridge RPG enthusiasts beyond their favorite game store, gaming group, or routine game of choice.

    I remember speaking to Matt and Jared, two of my friends and early adopters of our vision.

    “This (Tales of the 219) is probably going to be like four of us running games for each other for a year or two. But, one day, there will be others, and they’ll talk fondly about how they found the Tales of the 219. We’ll be like forefathers that paved the way to make a more vibrant and diverse role-playing game community possible. This will work. We just need to be persistent and deal with the inevitable trying times that will come with the occasional successes.”

    I’m happy to inform you that it never did end up being just the four of us playing each others’ games. We’ve hosted events at six different game stores and one local convention for a total of fifteen events in 2018. Attendance varies from 5-15 individuals with an average of 8-9 folks attending per gathering. At our local convention Arcticon, we held eight games seating over 40 players! It’s a good feeling to not only play more games but to help others experience brilliant games they never knew existed. 

     It’s a good feeling to not only play more games but to help others experience brilliant games they never knew existed. 


    Some things I’ve learned so far:

    • was an excellent tool for engaging and managing a growing role-playing game community. It isn’t anymore. Some Meetup accounts are doing very well and holding strong to the format, but they are mostly groups that have been around for years. All the action is on Facebook these days, even if respondents ARE flaky. If you aren’t familiar with people checking interested instead of going for your events, get used to it. Phone based Facebook users  really gotta dig to find the illusive going option. So, don’t be too hard on those that mark interested. Searching Meetup for other gaming groups in your area can be very useful, though. You can reach out to them and talk about consolidating efforts.
    • D&D can be a powerful tool for recruiting and finding new players to join your burgeoning RPG community. It can also lead to exactly what you may have been trying to avoid—people only interested in D&D(or Pathfinder). I’ve spoken to a few of the larger role-playing game Meetup leaders about using D&D as a gateway for players. It will inflate your community numbers but may not convert many people over to trying out new games. People like to like D&D in this day and age! Experiment at your own risk.
    • Going to where the people are is worth it. Finding your people takes good word of mouth, a little luck, or consistency. Hopefully, you can find two of the three! Sometimes, it takes several events at a location to find the people who will become a core part of your new community. Most of us have busy adult lives and might skip a few of these events until it fits nicely in our schedule.
    • A lot of role-players choose not to be on Facebook or social media in general. Form an email list to keep them in the loop. You may be stunned by how many people that is. I certainly was!
    • It’s a win-win for game stores, you attract RPG enthusiasts to different stores and show them new games to purchase and run for others. Don’t be afraid to approach them. Also, don’t be surprised at how many still want telephone calls to schedule or are bad at email conversations. I like reaching out with Facebook Messenger as that tool trains businesses to reply timely. It has been very effective, for the most part.
    • Giving prizes to first time attendees and Game Masters for running games has been far less of an incentive than I had hoped for attracting players. I’m always giving away full games to new players and it doesn’t seem to really sway whether they return or not. Convenience seems to be king.

    Building a Community…Online?

    Don’t have a game store nearby? Can’t find role-players locally? Have you thought about building an online community or joining something like the Gauntlet? An earlier conception of this idea, this movement, was to build a role-playing game group with a rotating Game Master dynamic. On G+, we called ourselves the Janus GM Project. The members would announce games they wanted to run for the next round of games (like 3 rounds a year) and then we would vote on our favorite titles per Game Master. Each Game Master then knew what game to start reading with months to prepare, read up, or research the game. We’d play each game every other week for a 3-5 session story arc. It was a ton of fun and very effective! We played over twenty-five new games in about two and a half years.

    What Are You Really Doing This For?

    Maybe, you’re a Game Master overloaded with games that just need to be played. Maybe, you’re a game designer and want to build an audience that will playtest and buy your game(s). Maybe, you are a new player looking for the game that is uniquely your fit, your niche.

    Don’t settle for the status quo. Build a Games on Demand community where you live! Grow the community YOU want to be a part of. Build something for the future players of your neighborhood.

    I’ll be there for you. Together, we can build a network that communicates and shares best practices. You just need to be persistent and share your love for RPGs with those near you. I believe you can do it, and this is a fun way to grow the hobby we love so dear.



    Special thanks to the crew at the Tales of the 219 (Sout, Matt, Jared, Adrienne, Pedro, Tom), my local game stores (By the Board Games & Entertainment, The Librarium Cafe, Galactic Greg’s, Tenth Planet), and the RPG enthusiasts of the region! Thank you for the added joy to my life!


    I want to know:

    How have you brought people together in your local area?

    How do you attract new players or sway your gaming group into trying something new?

    Where do you game and who else could you invite?

    Read more »

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    Sly Flourish

  • The Deadly Shift of Tomb of Annihilation

    Warning, this article contains spoilers for Tomb of Annihilation.

    Tomb of Annihilation is a fantastic D&D adventure. It's an adventure of high fantasy in an interesting environment (the jungles of Chult). It has awesome locations to explore, cool NPCs to meet, a powerhouse villain, and the deadliest dungeon published in the fifth edition hardback D&D adventures to date.

    Tomb of Annihilation isn't without its problems. For the most part, these problems are manageable. Let's take a moment to review two of these problems.

    First, as written, the death curse (the main driver of the adventure) has too much urgency tied to it. If this urgency isn't tweaked by the DM, the best course of action the characters can take is to run as fast as they can to the Tomb of the Nine Gods to stop the curse from quickly killing off oodles of rich and powerful people all over Faerun (hmmm). Luckily, this problem is easy to deal with. We discussed a few options for managing the death curse in the Urgency of the Death Curse by using it as an urgency dial instead of a fixed countdown timer. Simply forgo the hit point loss-per-day and describe the progression of the curse in a way that better fits the pacing of the game you want at the moment. If you want the characters to feel free to explore Chult, mention that the curse is little more than a concern at the moment. A rash, really. If you want them to laser in on Omu and the tomb beneath, explain how the powerful curse has escalated.

    The second problem comes with the many NPCs that can join the characters throughout the adventure. In most cases, these NPCs are just fine but in a few they can either overshadow the characters with their raw power (I'm looking at you Artus Cimber and Dragonbait) or they can end up steering the characters too far away and waste a lot of valuable time on errands that have nothing to do with the plot. We've discussed this problem in the article Handling Tag-Along NPCs. The best solution here is to be careful when introducing these NPCs, ensuring you have an exit plan for them, or skip them all together.

    Both of those problems are easily managed. There is a third problem, however, and one not so easily fixed. When the characters actually enter the Tomb of the Nine Gods, the whole atmosphere of the adventure changes. Instead of being a character-driven narrative story of exploration and intrigue, this adventure becomes a puzzle and deathtrap killfest. That's the problem we're going to talk about today.

    The Atmospheric Shift of the Tomb of the Nine Gods

    It surprises no one that this adventure's dungeon is actually deadly. We all knew it. It says so right in the beginning and if our players are paying attention at all, they'll know it's deadly too. But we say that a lot when it comes to challenges the characters face and most of the time they can pull out of the danger and survive anyway. If you're a soft DM like me, you can probably count on one hand the number of times characters have died in your D&D games. If you're harsher, actually killing characters often, and your players don't mind, maybe this isn't a problem for you.

    For some of us though this shift is a big problem. Here at Sly Flourish we take a "character first" approach to our D&D games. It's the first step in the preparation checklist in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. We follow the guidelines of Dungeon World and become fans of the characters. These characters have histories. They have arcs. We love them and we love watching them go on adventures. We don't love it when they get in a black box, a friend hits a button, and they're turned into dust. Literally. Well, I didn't love it.

    Death sometimes comes to characters in our character-driven games but often it's part of their character's arc. In this dungeon, though, their arcs can come crashing down with no warning at all. Again, maybe you're cool with this. Maybe so are your players. If that's the case, you need not change a thing.

    For many of us, though, it's a big change in the style of the game and one we need to manage.

    Telling Them Isn't Enough

    We might think that telling the players how deadly the dungeon is will be enough. We think they'll be ready for their characters to die. Sometimes this is the case. Sometimes they're even upset when they don't die. Often, however, the warning isn't enough. Hearing that a dungeon is deadly and actually watching your ninth level character get disintegrated are two very different things. Seeing a character actually die will feel very different to the player. Players might even say how much they love hard D&D adventures and love the threat of death—until it actually happens. At that point none of us know what to do.

    When I ran Tomb of Annihilation and my groups got to the Tomb of the Nine Gods, I had everyone roll up secondary characters whose backgrounds had brought them to the tomb over the past century. Making them former members of the Knights of the Yellow Banner gave them a connection to other dead Banner members throughout the adventure.

    Still, this wasn't enough. Even having secondary characters doesn't mean that shock and hurt will come when a beloved character gets cut in half by a giant grinning stone skull door.

    Many players just aren't prepared for a character's death. I know I'm not.

    Solution 1: Send in the B-Team

    One way to potentially fix this problem in the adventure is to send in two separate teams of characters. The first characters aren't given the job to stop the death curse, their job is to open the Tomb of the Nine Gods. When the tomb is open, it's up to another group of dungeon delvers to go inside. The nearby wreck of the Star Goddess could be one way that a bunch of dungeon delvers have come to the tomb. The Red Wizards might also have their own group of dungeon delvers ready to go into the tomb. Even Ras Nsi might send his own Yuan-ti Pureblood characters in there as part of a team intending to stop the death curse.

    These new dungeon delvers are the expendables. Our players know they might not last and that's ok. They've only had them since the beginning of the Tomb of the Nine Gods. If the die, they die.

    Still, it can be hard to put aside characters the players love. Opening the tomb doesn't feel like the end of the adventure. They want to stay with their main character and send them into the tomb. From a story perspective, why should the characters who traveled all this way send some other poor saps into the death trap? If they're heroic at all, sacrifice is part of that heroism. That won't matter to the player when their character is crushed under a big door but it makes sense and it would be disappointing to do it any other way. Thus, switching to new characters at the tomb's door isn't a perfect solution.

    Solution 2: Build the B-Team Switch In Early

    One way to ensure your players don't get stuck on the decision to send in their main characters or switch to an alt is to wire in that choice from the beginning. Instead of giving the characters the quest to seek the source of the death curse and end it. The quest can be to seek the Tomb of Annihilation and open it. Those who send the characters into the jungle will know that the heroes who find the tomb aren't the same ones who will enter the tomb. Those who enter the tomb are better suited for tomb-delving, not jungle explorations. The main characters can become patrons of these tomb-delvers instead of the tomb delvers themselves.

    If this switch is wired in from the beginning, players will feel less like they're abandoning their characters halfway through an adventure and understand that a character switch is built into the story. They'll know their other characters will be stepping out of the spotlight.

    This too is not an ideal solution but it might be the best way to make the transition from a deep character-driven exploration adventure to a deathtrap dungeon.

    Solution 3: Shaving Off the Sharp Edges

    Here's a solution many DMs will hate: shave off the rough edges. Much of what makes the Tomb of the Nine Gods deadly are the situations where characters who drop to zero hit points are outright killed instead of simply rolling death saves and requiring a heal.

    We can likely shave off the rough edges in a few different parts of the tomb to keep the characters alive, at least a little bit more alive, than they might be otherwise. We can still run a dangerous adventure where the players must make hard choices to stay alive without the direct threat of the one-button deaths that can be found in a lot of these chambers. The four elemental chambers are known to be quite deadly but they can be a little less so if we make it easier for players to navigate the puzzels as the characters flounder about.

    Some of the more deadly rooms and traps to watch include:

    • The onyx chest in Wongo's Tomb (room 16). Consider removing the instant death from the onyx chest.
    • The elemental cells before Shagambi's Tomb (rooms 47A-D). Give plenty of clues about how to navigate the cells.
    • Belchorzh the beholder (room 44). Play him sub-optimally. He's more interested in tormenting the characters than killing them. Get rid of the instant-deaths on his finger-of-death ray and his disintegrate ray. He wants to have fun, not turn them to ash. Maybe have those spells inflict permanent injuries instead of outright deaths.
    • The gargoyle guardians (room 45). Give the characters a chance to flee from the room or lower the gargoyle's hit points. Like the beholder, play them sub-optimally.
    • Any of the "if this damage reduces a character to 0 hit points, they die" effects. Ignore that line or add a permanent injury instead.
    • The devil onslaught in the Hall of the Golden Mastodon (room 67). Put in fewer devils, lower their hit points, or play them sub-optimally. Embrace it when the characters cast save-or-suck spells on them. The deal the Erinyes offers doesn't have to kill a character outright. Instead, they could sign a contract for their soul when they die, after the threat of the tomb is defeated.

    Frankly, this is my recommended method. People just don't like to see their characters instantly killed in my games. Maybe some do, but I haven't seen them.

    Solution 4: Run As Intended and Come What May

    Finally, you can ignore all of this and run the adventure as it is. I've seen a lot of discussions from DMs who have run the Tomb of the Nine Gods and described the dramatic shift in lethality. They talked a lot about how it hurt peoples' enjoyment of the game. That was the case in the two groups I ran it for as well.

    Tomb of Annihilation is close to the best D&D hardback adventure Wizards has released. This tonal shift from fantasy exploration to deathtrap hurts it. Otherwise, this is a nearly perfect adventure. The exploration is awesome. The setting is fantastic. The story is solid. The tomb, setting aside its lethality, is incredibly well designed. This adventure hits the exact level of focus I love in published adventures. I can deal with the warts regarding the urgency of the death curse and the issues bringing in problematic NPCs but the deadly shift of the adventure can kill a lot of fun after months of play if we're not careful. That's a hard problem to get past. Hopefully this article has given you some ideas how to deal with this shift so you and your players can get the most out of this otherwise fantastic adventure.

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  • Facing Insurmountable Foes

    In the beginning of Hoard of the Dragon Queen the characters face off against Lennithon, an adult blue dragon, when the characters are likely level 1. It doesn't take any powerful encounter building to realize this isn't a fight the characters can win.

    The same thing occurs in Tomb of Annihilation when the characters come into contact with Valindra Shadowmantle, a lich in service to Szass Tam of the Red Wizards of Thay. The characters are likely around level six at this point.

    Putting the characters in the presence of powerful villains is common in a lot of adventures, published or not. Sometimes it's fun for the characters to actually face the true villain of the adventure early on, such as meeting Strahd in the beginning of Curse of Strahd. Other times, like when Demogorgon steps out of the Dark Lake in Out of the Abyss it serves as a powerful backdrop for the plot of the adventure.

    There's a big problem with scenes like this, though: facing insurmountable foes removes player agency.

    (Cover to Volo's Guide to Monsters by Tyler Jacobson)

    When our characters face off against foes they can't beat, we've removed one of their options—combat. For some players, this is simply unfair. D&D games shouldn't pit characters against foes they can't beat. Many DMs who focus more on the story of D&D than the balance of encounters know that yes, sometimes the characters will face foes they can't beat. It depends on how things go.

    However they got there, when the characters face these foes and combat is off the table, the players might find themselves limited in the options from which they can choose. Sure, they can negotiate, but how good is the negotiation when one side can completely obliterate the other? How well has it worked out for the goblin the characters captured after slaughtering fifteen of its friends? That goblin doesn't have a lot of options to choose from.

    Neither do the characters when facing an adult blue dragon at level 1.

    So we come to an easy high-level piece of advice for situations like this: give the players options when facing insurmountable foes. If the story has worked itself into a position where the characters face an insurmountable foe, it's up to us DMs to make the options clear. It's up to us to return agency to the characters so they can actually make some meaningful choices.

    Agency Returned

    What agency we can give depends on the story, as does the encounter in the first place. Perhaps the characters have some information the villains need but do not have. Perhaps the characters know where something is that the villains must have. For example, maybe the characters know of the location of a number of puzzle cubes in Tomb of Annihilation that the villains desire.

    Perhaps the villains have a weakness the characters are aware of. For example, what if the characters know about a lich's phylactery or a vampire's coffin. Maybe they even have control of it, putting the two opposing sides on more even ground.

    We can also expand the options for the characters in a few other ways. Maybe the characters learn of a traitor in the enemy's forces that they can exploit. Maybe they learn how they can steal what they want instead of needing to negotiate for it directly. Maybe they learn that, buried deep within that ancient black obelisk, is a nalfeshnee just waiting to burst forth. Should something go terribly wrong, a good crack on the obelisk will complicate things for the villains.

    Example Character Angles

    So what sort of angles might the characters have when facing an insurmountable foe? Here are some general examples:

    • The characters have information the villain needs.
    • The characters have possession of something the villain wants.
    • The characters are aware of a traitor or weakness in the villain's forces.
    • The characters have something vital to the villain's well being.
    • The characters have a weapon that greatly threatens the villain.
    • The characters have a powerful ally that the villain fears.
    • The characters can bring the house down on top of the villain.
    • Disrupting the characters or their actions would throw the villain's own plans in disarray.
    • The villain needs the characters to perform some task that no one else is capable of doing.
    • The villain has enemies worse than the characters and need their help to defeat it.
    • The characters are able to steal what they need from the villain.
    • The villain isn't aware of the characters' presence.
    • The characters discover a weakness of their insurmountable enemy.

    If a villain is on the horizon in our games; if we think they're going to come into play and there will be a stand-off between the insurmountable villain and the characters; it helps if we lay out perhaps three angles the characters can capitalize on when that confrontation occurs.

    Bending the Story to Our Will

    When we're building out a D&D game from the story that unfolds, sometimes these situations appear and we don't have a good or easy approach to give that agency back. If we're letting scenes unfold how they unfold, we might not have any options prepared ahead of time. It might turn out, as the course of events takes place, that the characters find themselves face to face with an insurmountable foe.

    In cases like these, we have to remember that fun comes first, even before staying true to the continuity of a story. Stephen King fully expected to kill off Paul Sheldon in Misery until he realized that no one wants to read a novel only to have the main character killed off at the end. He must not have read No Country for Old Men yet (spoilers!). In any case, when it comes to our D&D game, no one will care if you stay true to the direction of the story if it's not fun for the players.

    Therefore, moments like this give us license to alter the world. This is a good time to stop for a minute and think about how we can give agency back to the players when they face an insurmountable foe. We can manipulate the world to give them an edge. We can reveal a weakness. We can reveal a nearby doomsday device. We can have the villain realize that an ally of the characters is too important to anger. This is one of those times where tweaking the reality of the story is ok because we're doing it specifically to make the game more fun. Like adding hit points to a boss monster that's dying too fast we can bend space and time for the sake of the fun of the game.

    Giving Characters Fair Warning

    If we're used to previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons, particularly third and fourth editions; we're probably used to focusing on balanced combat encounters. It is hard for us to break away from clear encounter-focused D&D adventures and letting the story take us in directions we weren't used to. As we get used to letting the story go where it goes, situations like facing an insurmountable foe can become more likely.

    As hard as it is for us to change our thought process when running fifth edition D&D games, so to might it be hard for our players. When the characters end up facing an insurmountable foe, it's up to us to telegraph the danger. We have to let them know that we don't expect they'll go toe to toe with a villain like this and kill it. They might very well die if they try. It's possible, even likely, that players will think they're getting manipulated. They'll think that it isn't fair that they're facing such powerful monsters. If there isn't a good story reason why they're facing such a foe, they might be right. The adult blue dragon in the first chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen felt like this to me. Why would an adult dragon need to go poke around at a village? Why not leave that to the cultists?

    When the story does support a confrontation against an insurmountable foe, we have to make it clear to the players that the foe is indeed insurmountable and also telegraph the other options available to them. If they're a combat focused group of players, we may really need to make it clear what other angles they have available. If we took combat away as an option, what was that option replaced with? If the answer is nothing, we've probably railroaded the story too much. The characters really don't have a choice other than 100% capitulation. That's not our job. Our job is always to put fun choices in front of the players.

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